Tripping to Enlightenment? Science, Religion, and Psychedelics

Audrey Farley on Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Penguin Random House. 2019. pp 480. Paperback. $20.21

In 1855, while on an expedition of the interior of Africa, the British missionary and explorer David Livingstone came upon a sight unlike anything seen in England: “columns of vapor appropriately called ‘smoke,’ rising at a distance of four or six miles, exactly as when large tracts of grass are burned in Africa.” The scene, “so lovely [that it] must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” was the magnificent Victory Falls. Though this sight was familiar to the natives living in the region for centuries, Livingstone was celebrated around the world for discovering it. He named the falls after the ruling Queen Victoria.

Livingstone wasn’t the only Englishman who gained recognition for “discovering” a natural treasure in Africa. In 1901, members of the Zoological Society of London proudly displayed an exhibit of the legendary “African unicorn,” sent by Sir Harry Johnston, the British Governor of the colony of Uganda. The animal, which resembled a cross between a zebra and giraffe, had been known to the people of Central Africa for millennia as an “okapi.” But like the famous waterfall, it only became real when Europeans could see it. Writing about the okapi and other creatures and “lost cities” on the continent, historian Edward Guimont identifies an “insidious logic at work in nineteenth-century European colonial exploration,” according to which “the existence—or non-existence—of creatures in Africa could only be proven through European ‘discovery.’” Indigenous knowledge only had the potential to demonstrate possibility; it could never demonstrate actuality.

The very same logic underwrites the new science of psychedelics.  Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (2018) tells the story of LSD and psilocybin’s resurgence in clinical and popular discourse after decades of inactivity. Around the mid-century, psychedelic substances long central to indigenous communities attracted the attention of researchers in Europe and the United States seeking to improve treatment for patients with mental illness such as depression, trauma, addiction, and schizophrenia. After testing the substances themselves and having cosmic visions, many researchers came to believe that psychedelics had epistemological and social, and not just therapeutic, benefits. (Never mind that mushrooms had been consumed for centuries in regions like southern Mexico for their healing and divinatory properties.) Researchers declared that LSD and psilocybin promised to enrich scientific understanding of the minds of “healthy normals” and repair society by helping human beings feel connected to each other and to the universe.

Unfortunately for these researchers, psychedelics did not stay confined to the laboratory. On the streets (in the form of mushrooms, rather than the synthetic versions that researchers consumed), psychedelics swiftly developed counter-cultural baggage. Pollan primarily blames Timothy Leary for this occurrence. The Stanford professor encouraged broad recreational use and became a target of politicians like Richard Nixon, who associated psychedelics with hippies and draft dodgers. Research funding for projects involving psychedelics evaporated; and, without financial support, inquiries about LSD and psilocybin were largely abandoned. A few devoted souls never fully parted with their taboo objects of study, and it is these characters who primarily populate Pollan’s book.

While intriguing, these researchers’ enterprises are lacking for the same reason that nineteenth-century colonial enterprises were lacking: they claim an indigenous artifact as their own and disavow centuries of knowledge in the process. This makes it difficult to accept their (and Pollan’s) notion that psychedelics can greatly expand human consciousness and create a better world. The author is aware of his subjects’ efforts to distance mushrooms from “Native American shamanism, and perhaps nature itself.” But rather than rectifying this trend, he contributes to it. He attempts to supplant native wisdom with science and experiential evidence, even as he imagines a more harmonious world in which the boundaries between self and other are dissolved by the simple experience of tripping. As a result, How to Change Your Mind fails to achieve its ostensible goal: convincing readers of the wondrous social effects of psychedelics. Instead, the book demonstrates how psychedelics provide yet another occasion for those with power and privilege to project their realities onto others. Though, in the end, Pollan’s endeavor might, indeed, ask us to alter our thinking.

How to Change Your Mind is the “story of [a] renaissance” within scientific disciplines like natural history, psychology, and neuroscience. Pollan’s chapters move between these fields, bringing to life key psychedelic advocates within them through published works and personal interviews, and relating the author’s own insights gleaned from psychedelics. (He tested LSD, psilocybin, and “the toad,” a substance derived from Sonoran Desert toads, as part of his research.) This form is meant to convey the idea that there are multiple ways of knowing the world, a theme that Pollan stresses throughout the book. The author tells one anecdote after another about “hard atheists” who, after a single experience with psychedelics, firmly declare the reality of a spiritual realm that science simply can’t probe. In the words of one of his subjects, “Science can bring you to the big bang, but it can’t take you beyond that. You need a different kind of apparatus to peer into that.” Under the influence of psychedelics, readers are encouraged to believe, individuals shed their rigid, adult ways of knowing and see the world through the eyes of a child. This occurs because routine cognitive processes, neural “shortcuts” developed with age to more efficiently process the world, are suspended. The trouble is, Pollan’s anecdotes consistently demonstrate how unwilling we are to actually change our minds about the nature and extent of human knowledge.

One noteworthy example involves a former computer scientist and electrical engineer who claimed to witness the “birth of … everything” and proceeded to recount the formation of the universe in terms that closely resemble Western science. Pollan describes this man’s vision of “cosmic dust leading to the creation of the stars and then solar systems, followed by the emergence of life and from there the arrival of ‘what we call humans,’ then the acquisition of language and the unfolding of awareness” until, at last, seeing himself and the surrounding room. This vision of a linear creation is distinct from, say, the Aztecs’ Legend of the Suns, which describes the world’s various destructions and rebirths. Insofar as it rehearses the dominant scientific narrative with which the tripper is familiar, the vision is not particularly radical. Nor are psychedelic visions involving men and women in conventional roles, such as those the author reports. Pollan narrates one trip in which his woman guide, who is “so beautiful” that he has to look away, plays soft, delicate background music to facilitate his journey. Hearing the soft music, he is overcome with feelings for his mother and sisters, “each representing a different ideal of feminine strength [such as] gratitude; or compassion, especially for [his father].” When the music turns “more masculine or martial . . . sons and then fathers [fill his] mental field.”

With passages like these, it’s difficult to appreciate Pollan’s claim that LSD and psilocybin cultivate a sense of humility. The reader’s reservations grow when the author takes pains to substantiate the point with science. Pollan compares psychedelic trips to Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot,” which depicted the earth’s relative insignificance in the galaxy. Like Sagan’s viewers, individuals supposedly intuit that they are mere specks of dust in a vast universe, and this humility translates into a deeper love for others and the world—a “radical openness” that persists even after the drug wears off. Individuals embrace “Hallmark card” wisdom once thought to be cliché—“love is everything,” for instance. Knowing, finally, that love actually is everything, these individuals want nothing more than to share their wisdom with others. So they commit to spreading it through personal testimony, research, working as a guide, or, in Pollan’s case, writing a book. Why exactly do individuals, including the author, feel religious-like conviction regarding their experiences on psychedelics? Because, Pollan speculates, of what happens in the brain during a trip.

Under the influence of mind-altering drugs, individuals cannot distinguish between subjective experience and external objects. Even after the ego returns and normal cognitive processes resume, people have an unshakable belief in what they encountered in their altered cognitive state. This isn’t to say that psychedelic-users are deluded. To the contrary, Pollan suggests, they may have been granted access to hidden truths. Pollan invokes Aldous Huxley’s notion of a “mind at large” and philosopher Henri Bergson’s theory of distributed consciousness to explain this phenomenon. Both thinkers purported that the human brain does not singularly produce consciousness; rather the brain enables humans to “tune in” to certain frequencies like someone turning the dial of a radio. For Huxley and Pollan, psychedelics increase the number of stations available.

This philosophy raises important questions that Pollan doesn’t answer. For instance: do schizophrenics and others who experience hallucinations have greater access to hidden truths? Is it possible that these individuals are not “mad,” but instead clued in to facets of the universe not readily apparent to “healthy normals?” At one point in the book, Pollan poses these very questions. But as with indigenous histories of psychedelics, he does not pursue the line of inquiry. Nor does he engage the voices of those with mental illness—those whom LSD was supposed to help and whose psychic experiences the drug is believed to approximate. This is a shame, because such voices are greatly enriching understanding of the mind and the connections between the mind and political life. (Esmé Weijun Wang’s recent bestseller The Collected Schizophrenias is a noteworthy example.)

Reading How to Change Your Mind, one is reminded how thoroughly “scientism” has saturated modern thought. In a review essay on this topic, Marginalia’s Editor-in-Chief Samuel Loncar defines scientism as “the idea that science alone can answer all questions of importance.” Not only does such an idea assume a narrow view of science and its methods, Loncar explains, it rewrites history. In pretending that science has superceded myth as a form of knowing the world, scientism destroys the fundamental beliefs of people in a way that science never could. We need science alongside myth. Had Pollan integrated more indigenous practices and beliefs into his narrative, he might have made a stronger case for restricting access to mind-altering substances. For all of the book’s limitations, Pollan rightly recognizes the need for a shaman-like figure and a set of rituals governing LSD’s use. If psychedelics are to benefit human society, precautions must be taken to protect against the “Leary effect,” in which Americans get baked out of their minds without regard for self-knowledge or meaningful spiritual exploration.

Knowing that myth serves this purpose, indigenous communities tied psychedelic use to specific ceremonies and rituals. Algonquin tribes used psychedelics in puberty ceremonies (to help young men forget boyhood). Amazonians used them in military planning, and Peruvians used them to communicate with animals. Rites often incorporated origin stories, such as the belief among the Mazatec of Oaxaca that certain mushrooms rode to the earth on thunderbolts. And they relied upon different methods of preparation and administration: smoking, snuffing, swallowing, infusing, absorbing through the skin or wounds, or receiving as an enema. These facts evidence healers’ extraordinary chemical and botanical knowledge, while also suggesting their understanding that science and myth can be co-constitutive.

Pollan regrets that elders did not oversee the use of psychedelics in previous decades, primarily, because he believes scientific knowledge suffered as a result. On the need to adopt a shaman-like figure in Western circles, Pollan discusses the efforts of Al Hubbard (the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) to keep LSD among CEOs, innovators, and Bill Gates types. Hubbard reasoned that he could distribute LSD among the best and brightest and “let the new consciousness filter down to the masses, who might not be ready to absorb a shattering experience all at once.” If this man had succeeded, Pollan suggests, research on psychedelics would have continued to develop, and we would have a greater understanding of consciousness than we currently do.

But the problem with psychedelic usage in the 1960s was not who was using drugs, but how. By severing psychedelics from their natural and cultural roots, whether to “get high” or legitimate myth with empirical facts, both ordinary Americans and researchers inhibited the kind of knowledge that enriched native societies—communal knowledge about who humans are, how we came to be, and the nature of other animals and objects in the universe.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the story of psychedelics in America, it is that something is lost when we dislocate the drugs from nature and from sacred rituals. This does not mean that Americans wishing to use psychedelics today should appropriate the traditions of indigenous communities. Rather, it means that Americans should use psychedelics intentionally, as native communities did—to heal, process trauma, commune with others, or divine something about themselves or the universe. Only when we acknowledge the power of psychedelics to reveal collective truths, as well as scientific ones, can we use them to “change our minds” and our world.

Audrey Farley recently earned a PhD in English and now teaches history and literature at Mount St. Mary’s University. She is the Editor of Pens & Needles and is writing a historical novel about one of the first patients to receive insulin shortly after its discovery in 1921. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyCFarley.