What can we learn from the new science of psychedelics?
Brandon Sun, July 9, 2018 – David McConkeyMichael Pollan is an American writer and Harvard journalism professor. His books have been about rather mundane topics. (I reviewed his In Defence of Food here eight years ago.) So, I was surprised that Pollan’s newest book, How to Change Your Mind, is about psychedelic drugs. Pollan makes a book about food interesting. How could he not write an interesting book about psychedelics?
Pollan has written an encyclopedic review of the topic: the history, the science and the latest developments. Plus, he attempts to describe the indescribable: his own psychedelic drug trips.
But why the book at all? Aren’t these drugs classified by governments as dangerous with no redeeming qualities? Fifty years ago, there was widespread moral panic over psychedelics. Their use – both recreational and medicinal – was made illegal.
But Pollan gives us a fascinating, alternative perspective. And playing a major role: Weyburn, Saskatchewan!
“Psychedelic” comes from Greek words meaning “mind manifesting.” Three psychedelic drugs are perhaps the most well known. LSD is a synthetic compound, available since the 1940s. Mescaline was first found in the peyote cactus. Psilocybin was first found in “magic” mushrooms.
Pollan writes that “mind manifesting” substances have been used in various cultures for thousands of years. He describes a near universal quest among peoples to alter consciousness and to experience “the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.” Over the years such spiritual experiences have been referred to by mystics, poets and philosophers. These states can be arrived at by means other than drugs, like meditation.
In the 1950s, experiments with LSD were conducted in several places to learn about the brain and to treat alcohol addiction. One place was the psychiatric hospital at Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Humphry Osmond, a psychiatrist originally from the U.K., directed the program. Pollan writes that Osmond’s work at the Weyburn hospital was then “the world’s most important hub of research into psychedelics.”
In the early ‘50s, Osmond was contacted by the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Osmond travelled to Los Angeles and gave Huxley a dose of mescaline. Huxley’s book about that mescaline trip became the most exquisite description of the psychedelic experience, The Doors of Perception. A few years later, while corresponding with Huxley, Osmond – in Weyburn, Saskatchewan – coined the word “psychedelic.”
Osmond reported great success treating alcoholics. In the late 1950s, the government prescribed LSD as a standard treatment for alcohol addiction in Saskatchewan.
That LSD could treat alcoholism was no surprise to Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson – known as “Bill W.” in AA – credited his own sobriety to a session in the 1930s with the drug belladonna. Pollan writes that the “idea of a spiritual awakening leading one to surrender to a ‘higher power’ – a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous – can be traced to a psychedelic drug trip.”
Research into psychedelics was stopped in the late 1960s. But a quiet underground of people – many themselves had taken psychedelics – still thought of the drugs as beneficial. Psychedelics could be beneficial for learning about the brain and mind; for treating addiction, depression and other conditions; and for enhancing the minds of the well. As a bonus, psychedelics are among the safest of drugs. They are non-addictive, with practically no lethal dose nor harmful physiological effects.
“Today, after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance,” Pollan writes. Psychedelic drug tests have started again, with legal approval, at a couple of U.S. universities. Pollan points out the cautions. Medical screening is important: those at risk for schizophrenia or psychosis should not take the drugs. The drugs are administered in a controlled setting, under the supervision of a guide. The 1,000 subjects in these new drug experiments have had no serious adverse incidents.
With much trepidation, Pollan carefully embarked on his own trips. He took LSD, psilocybin and the obscure 5-MeO-DMT. (His doctor advised him not to take MDMA, or ecstasy, as Pollan has the heart condition atrial fibrillation.)
Pollan has penned a book that is too wide-ranging to properly survey here. That’s my only complaint: the book is too complete! I found it hard to keep track of all the names mentioned.
The scope of How to Change Your Mind is indicated by the sub-title: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
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