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Science + Tech

Hey Kids, Let’s Do Drugs!

New book by Michael Pollan makes a convincing case for the mind-opening power of psychedelics.

By Dorothy Woodend 17 Aug 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

I’ve known this ever since our fourth grade teacher Ms. Bereska decided to take our class astral-travelling one afternoon. She made us all lie down on the gym floor, turned out the lights, and asked us to picture our guardian angels. These entities would help us remember and revisit the people we’d been in our previous lives.

Almost unbidden a curly-haired laughing figure emerged, put me on its back, and off we went, flying over the landscape. I had an inclination to go to Egypt, to the time of the pyramids. The memory of what I was actually doing in Egypt circa 2600 BC is foggy now, but the idea that we could use our wee brains to somersault backwards through time and space was the greatest thing imaginable. About a billion times better than learning the multiplication tables, or grammar. (Now you know why I never learned math or the proper use of a semicolon.)

In mid-trip, I reached out to touch the hand of a boy named David Mason, a tow-headed chunk of a kid who I was passionately in love with. A spark leapt between our fingers. Whether it was just static electricity or something else, it quite literally shocked us both.

While the wisdom of inducing a trance state in an entire class of elementary school kids may seem debatable, a few lasting things resulted from this experience. Primarily, my understanding that the mind contains multitudes.

Reading Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, I found myself thinking about this early experience. At the time, I didn’t worry about how strange it was, or even question it much at all. As Pollan writes, the brains of young children actually resemble adults who are high on psychedelics.

Drugs are also wasted on the young, the author argues, explaining that they may be more useful to people approaching the middle or the end of their lives.

This is not news to me. A few years ago, the DOXA Documentary Film Festival screened Martin Witz’s film The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD. The film charts the discovery of the LSD molecule and includes several lengthy interviews with Hofmann conducted shortly before his death at 102. In one scene, Hofmann recounts the day in the Sandoz lab when he accidentally got some stuff on his finger, bicycled home, and ended up taking the world’s very first acid trip. Many of the architects of early LSD experimentation, including Timothy Leary and Stanislav Grof, are featured in the film, as well as startling footage of the U.S. government’s experiments with the drug. Initially the CIA thought there might be a way to weaponize LSD as a truth serum or a debilitating agent to be deployed against enemy soldiers.

The film gives Hofmann the final word on what he called his “problem child.” He is thoughtful, measured and astoundingly clear about LSD’s potential, as well as the effects it could unleash without due care and consideration.

The film is packed with fascinating stuff, but the section that most caught my attention was a series of interviews with terminal cancer patients who had participated in guided LSD trips to treat their severe depression and end-of-life anxiety (or fear of death). Each of them spoke openly about their experience, many with obvious, and often overwhelming, emotion. But it wasn’t grief or sadness they expressed, but rather gratitude, peace and an resounding sense of cosmic joy.

What was interesting about these interviews was not only the inadequacy of language to fully encapsulate the breadth and scope of the experience, but also a shared commonality of feeling. Hallmark sentiments like “Love is everything” and “We are all connected” figured large, as did things like being one with the universe. But what was also clear was that that the psychedelic experience had fundamentally altered these folk, made them happier, more grateful, more aware — essentially better people. A fact that Pollan also references in his work. When his wife voiced some misgivings about how taking drugs might change him, the author states that it did indeed change him, making him more patient, more empathetic, and less ego-driven. One of the lessons that he derived, “I am not my ego,” may sound facile, but the idea that there is a way to reconnect to the wonder of existence sounds like a pretty great thing.

Before we go too much further, let me state that I’ve also seen the dark side of drugs, from an early age, when you simply wanted the hippies to put their clothes back on, make dinner and stop being so annoying. I studiously, almost suspiciously, avoided all drugs, even the ubiquitous piles of pot that made up most of the economy in the Kootenays.

The taint of the hippies and the counterculture that was attached to LSD and other psychedelics has lingered for the better part of 40 years, derailing any kind of serious research.

But there is something of a revival of scientific and general interest. Pollan’s book is a key part of this, having spent weeks atop the bestsellers’ list and been featured in stories, podcasts and articles aplenty. There is something in the air, and some shroud of fear and shame has been cast off. My mother says the streets of Nelson, B.C., are thronged with crowds of elderly folk looking for CBD oil and different strains of cannabis to help with pain, sleeplessness and other ills. Drugs are cool again. And, the medical establishment has taken notice, with several major studies under way.

How to Change Your Mind examines a number of past studies, beginning with one of the very first at Johns Hopkins in 1998. Based on the infamous 1962 Good Friday Experiment, when a group of divinity students were dosed with LSD, the intent of the Hopkins’ work was to determine whether psychedelics could induce a transcendental experience.

Well, duh, some might say. But science likes to prove things with double-blind experiments and hard, indisputable, facts.

In going down this rabbit hole, Pollan is an excellent guide — curious, well-prepared and a bit of a chicken. (Hunter S. Thompson, he is not.) The man is a careful, almost exhaustive, researcher, approaching his subject trailing reams of data. But he also puts himself into his work, whether that means eating magic mushrooms or smoking a toad. Or, more correctly, inhaling the vaporized venom of a Sonoran Desert Toad.

But, before we get to the smoky toad part, the history of psychedelics must be laid down. After Hofmann’s initial discovery, the Sandoz Corporation did an odd thing, essentially handing out LSD to researchers and scientists around the globe and asking in return that they share what they discovered. So began the first golden age of LSD study, which Pollan carefully documents, tracing the route that it took from what would later be known as Silicon Valley to a remote corner of rural Saskatchewan.

There are a number of Canadian, and more specifically Vancouver, connections, including a man named Al Hubbard, also known as Captain Trips. Hubbard’s story was the subject of Todd Brendan Fahey’s essay, and he also plays a central role in Pollan’s work, popping up unexpectedly in places like the Vancouver Yacht Club, where he dined with Dr. Humphry Osmond, who coined the term psychedelics. A devout Catholic, Hubbard was prone to wearing paramilitary getups, proselytizing about his faith and name-dropping with wild abandon (he once claimed to be a friend of the Pope). But he was also instrumental in helping spread the gospel of LSD, along with the support of early adopters like actor Cary Grant, who detailed his trippy experiences in the pages of Good Housekeeping magazine.

All of this is news to Pollan, who stumbles into this little-known cache of history with gleeful abandon, following the trail of accident, serendipity and occasionally freakish coincidence that constitutes the history of psychedelics.

Canada plays a central part, with some of the earliest experiments taking place in Saskatchewan. The work of Osmond and Abram Hoffer in Weyburn, Sask., focused on using LSD to deal with addiction and alcoholism, attracting the attention of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The history of psychedelics — their discovery, proliferation and subsequent criminalization — is fascinating enough, but it is really only setting the scene the way for Pollan’s immersion in the land of psychedelia. In short, the man goes on a trip. Several actually, beginning at first with no drugs at all, using only the power of conscious breathing, a technique of hyperventilation that results in a powerful trance involving the author flailing about in a yurt, imagining that he is riding an enormous black horse. From breath work, Pollan moves on to a guided trip with LSD. Emboldened by this experience, he goes even deeper, taking magic mushrooms that bring on an encounter with mortality, helped along by a Bach cello suite and Yo-Yo Ma.

It’s only when the smoked toad arrives on the scene that things take an unexpected turn. Pollan’s immersion-style journalism has served him well throughout his career, but here it almost proves his undoing, as he describes the process of having his sense of self utterly obliterated.

“I watched the dimensions of reality collapse one by one until there was nothing left, not even being,” he writes. “Only the all-consuming roar. It was just horrible.”

Here is where it is critically important to have a guide who knows what they’re doing. In this aspect, I remembered Ms. Bereska. With her inky mane of dark hair, creative approach to facts, and easy defiance to all forms of authority, she was a dream guide. Needless to say, she did not last long at Wynndel Elementary School. But to this day I remember her vividly, as well as the lessons she provided.

To squish Pollan’s book into its simplest components takes away from the pleasure of its meandering narrative. While the first half is dedicated to just the facts, and the latter half is dominated by lived experience, the two things often commingle in a sparkling rush. Upon finishing How to Change Your Mind I was tempted to pick it up and reread it all over again for a deeper and more careful consideration of the many subjects covered, and for the pleasure of its more poetic passages.

One of the most effervescent of these takes place in the magically be-mushroomed world of psilocybin, courtesy of mycelium expert/evangelist Paul Stamets. Stamets pops up to lead Pollan down the garden path — actually it’s a mountain trail — in search of magic mushrooms. After his walk with Stamets, Pollan and his wife decide to make mushroom tea, and the writer ends up in his studio talking to the rhododendrons, who gaze benignly back, as if to say “Welcome to our world, sonny!”

Pollan’s firsthand experiences are shot through with shining threads of evangelical fervour. These electric sparks leap off the page, even as the author is careful not to posit drug use as a one-size-fits-all kind of solution.

Some of the most radical ideas slip in almost surreptitiously, like the notion that consciousness creates the human mind, tuning it in like a radio signal. Or the idea that LSD was so rigorously scrubbed out of scientific and medical research because it threatened the most dominant and profitable forces in contemporary culture. As Pollan asserts, if you drop acid and become one with the universe, you probably won’t be much interested in joining the army and killing people. Nor will endless bouts of shopping and consumerism be much of a motivating force.

In this aspect, the engine that fuels research, namely profit, doesn’t have much to do with the current re-examination of the drug’s potential. LSD is not of much interest to Big Pharma. Much of the current research into psychedelics is actually being funded by the tech sector.

Neuroscience also plays a central part in the latter half of story, with one of most fascinating sections detailing the structure and function of different parts of the brain. The Default Mode Network (home of the ego) comes in for especially close examination, in particular its role as the cop of the mind, policing what it thinks a person can handle, be it childhood trauma or anything that threatens our sense of identity. The idea of losing our individuality sounds terrifying, but as Pollan discovers, a complete dissolution of the self actually allows for a greater sense of unification with the rest of existence. He states: “One of the gifts of psychedelics is the way they reanimate the world, as if they were distributing the blessings of consciousness more widely and evenly over the landscape, in the process breaking the human monopoly on subjectivity that we moderns take as a given.”

But it is not a thing to be taken lightly, or undertaken without due caution and care. He argues that we have a lot to learn from traditional cultures, which recognized the power of these substances and enshrined them in ceremony and ritual.

So after all the smoking toads and tripping the light fantastic, what are the larger conclusions to be drawn?

Some are quite simple, obvious even, but as the author indicates, profundities like “Love is everything” may well be hiding in plain sight. What’s more interesting is whether the rediscovery of psychedelics can address the most intractable mental health problems, including spiralling rates of opiate addiction, a dramatic surge in suicide and the increasing inefficacy of antidepressants, which work at the same rate of placebos in some studies.

So much of human misery comes from a profound sense of disconnection from nature, from other people and from ourselves. As Pollan writes, the one thing that psychedelics can offer is the ability to see the innate goodness, rightness, and connection between all things. In this, the word sacred re-emerges with startling frequency.

The author holds himself in restraint about the possibilities incipient here, but his eagerness, joy and excitement are difficult to hide. The final ringing coda of the book isn’t quite a sermon, but hovers on the edge of tipping over into effusiveness. Mystical, religious and spiritual are all words that the book uses very carefully, but something cosmic sneaks through.

One of the first subjects to participate in the Good Friday Experiment, who went onto become a scholar of comparative religion, describes his experience and the first landmark study.

“The Johns Hopkins experiment shows — proves — that under controlled, experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In so doing, it offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defence against not soullessness but against religious fanaticism. And it does so in the very teeth of the unscientific prejudices built into our current drugs laws.”

In revisiting my early memories of astral travelling, I was shocked to remember details that I’d forgotten, or simply filed away. The smiling, laughing face of the entity that had born me aloft came floating back, as vivid as a photograph. As Pollan concludes: “Mysteries abide. But this I can say with certainty: the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began.”

The brain is indeed a strange place, and as How to Change Your Mind makes clear, we’ve only just begun to travel past its borders, and into the deep wild of the backcountry. It’s a trip alright, but one that looks increasingly worth taking.  [Tyee]

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