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The Cosmic Wisdom of Michael Pollan

His latest work is a psychedelic voyage across California, the terror of the mind and the very depths of consciousness.

Dorothy Woodend 21 Jul

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

When NASA released a photograph of the deepest infrared image of the universe a few weeks ago, I thought of writer Michael Pollan.

The American journalist, currently working as the Knight professor of science and environmental journalism at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is most familiar to folk from his many non-fiction books about food culture. His most recent work, however, has taken something of a different tack.

Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence was released in 2018. The sequel, This Is Your Mind on Plants, came out in 2021.

Both take as their subject the connections between science, drugs, consciousness and transcendence.

So, what is the connection between Pollan’s writing and the photos of the universe? And why did the image of the deepest reaches of space feel so strangely exciting? Was it the cosmic beauty of it all, the mystery of consciousness, in inner and outer space, the joyful act of expanding one’s mind to contain new ideas about the very nature of existence?

All of the above and beyond, man!

There are some schools of thought that maintain the universe evolved to create a type of intelligence that was capable of perceiving the universe. But even more interesting is the theory of panpsychism, which argues everything in the universe already has consciousness — micro and macro, atoms and galaxies, people and planets. Once thought to be a little woo-woo, it has gained significant scientific ground in recent years.

Cosmopsychism is the theory that the universe itself also has consciousness. Which maybe explains why people lost their damn minds looking at the NASA image.

Which brings me to How to Change Your Mind, the new four-part Netflix documentary that visualizes much of Pollan’s recent work on exploring the social impact and healing potential of psychedelic drugs. The series explores a quartet of different substances: LSD, MDMA, psilocybin and mescaline.

Some of the ideas and interviewees will be familiar to readers of Pollan’s work, but there is a great deal that is new. More importantly, there is even more to be hopeful for, not only in terms of addressing mental health but in plumbing the very notion of consciousness itself. Some of the areas explored are so fascinating, they’re almost breathtaking in their ramifications.

Whereas the books dedicated a good portion to Pollan’s own empirical experience taking different substances, the documentary forefronts the scientists, researchers, therapists and patients who are exploring new therapies and creating new paradigms around the use of psychedelics.

Don’t be dissuaded by the somewhat goofy introduction, wherein Pollan snorts some tobacco and promptly falls over. Things get better after that.

‘I was born again’

The series kicks off with a deeply researched look at the life and times of the hallucinogen LSD, from its accidental discovery to its uptake by the hippies and its eventual designation as Schedule I drug in the U.S., meaning it has no medical use.

The origins of LSD are particularly curious. As Pollan explains, the molecule was initially thought to be something of a miracle, but its near total erasure from the history of science required some deep digging. So, dig he does.

In the 1950s, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz was using ergot, a fungus that grows on the rye plant, to develop a drug to prevent hemorrhaging after childbirth. A young chemist by the name of Albert Hofmann broke down the substance into its component elements. In an archival interview, Hofmann explains that five years after its initial synthesis, “A peculiar presentiment induced me to produce LSD-25.”

During the process, Hofmann accidentally got some on his fingers and when the drug was absorbed through his skin, something very interesting happened.

Hofmann undertook a psychedelic journey within his own mind that proved life-altering. After the experience, like any self-respecting researcher, the first thing he decided to do was take more LSD.

His subsequent trip was not quite as fun. “That was a terrible torturous experience,” Hofmann recounts in an interview. But as the more overwhelming aspects of the experience began to subside, things took a different turn. It proved profoundly transformative. When he awoke the next morning, Hofmann said it was as if “I was starting a new life. That I was born again.”

In order to better understand their new discovery, Sandoz sent the drug to labs around the world, starting what Pollan terms “an open-source research and development program.” A period of intensive research began in all kinds of places including rural Saskatchewan. Enter one Humphry Osmond, an English psychiatrist, who started by taking the drug himself to see if it might be helpful to people suffering from psychosis.

Osmond determined that the experience felt too good to be madness. What LSD might actually be useful for came about through Osmond’s correspondence with the writer Aldous Huxley, who wrote The Doors of Perception. As the two men wrote back and forth, Osmond came up with a rhyming little ditty that spawned the word “psychedelic,” which means “mind-manifesting.”

It wasn’t long before the drug began to filter out into the broader public, a process that was helped along by Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later to become Ram Dass). The pair began their research at the university but got the boot after their studies began to get sloppy.

That the hippies wrecked everything is the short version of the story, but it was more complicated than that. The CIA was also conducting experiments with LSD in the same period, trying to see if it could be weaponized in some fashion. One of the participants in the CIA study was a young writer named Ken Kesey.

Soon after, Kesey and his Merry Pranksters took to the road in their Electric Kool-Aid acid bus and Leary advocated for LSD to be put in the water system in order to bring about mass culture change. As Pollan says, much of the counterculture revolution that was the 1960s were coloured by psychedelics. But just when things were looking groovy, then-U.S. president Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, which is still being fought today.

And that is just the beginning of a very long and strange trip.

Even Bill Gates was doing it

The episodes of How to Change Your Mind devoted to MDMA (street names: Molly, ecstasy) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are as fascinating as those on LSD. But perhaps even more interesting than the content are the people profiled. Pollan himself is a pretty affable dude, but other folks like Dr. Bill Richards and his son are adorable in extremis.

So too, is Dr. James Fadiman who started at Stanford in the early 1960s, conducting experiments with microdosing with the tech community of what would come to be Silicon Valley. Fadiman’s argument that the West Coast computer culture grew out of the impact of LSD is supported by archival interviews with Bill Gates, Stewart Brand and biochemist Kary Mullis, who invented the polymerase chain reaction technique, a key part of duplicating DNA. Each person credits psychedelics for allowing them to conceive of the bigger picture and problem solve in new and unfettered fashion.

But it isn’t always the folks you might expect, like doctors and therapists, who are advocating for the benefits of psychedelics. There are also cops, ex-military personnel, and ordinary people who have spent decades battling mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction.

Of these folks, a young man named Ben who participated in a Yale University study that used psilocybin in the treatment of OCD is one of the most affecting. OCD had marked Ben’s life since childhood. As an adult, the obliterating fear and anxiety had leached his life of colour and joy. As he recounts, it was akin to being constantly bombarded with white-noise static, a state of constant internal panic that could only be appeased by constant ritual behaviours like checking the stove 10, 20, 30 times.

As he explains in an interview about living with OCD: “It makes you afraid of the things that you love the most.”

After trying conventional therapies for years with little effect, he enrolled in the Yale study. The footage of the treatment is fascinating stuff. As the medical professionals watch closely, Ben is given the drug and kitted up with a sleeping mask and an extra comfy bed. Off he goes on his trip.

As he recounts, the psychedelic journey involved not only his death as a human, but resurrection and subsequent life as a tree. As his tree self he watches his human self pass by his infant son, wife and dog. What ensues is a moment of joyous communion between these two different versions of Ben. As goofy as it may sound, written out in clunky old words, the experience was among the most overwhelming and profound of his life. Even the memory is enough to bring on explosive tears.

A spiral door

The quality of transcendence is reiterated by many different people, who cite their psychedelic journeys as some of the most transformative in their lives. But it’s also not something that can happen over and over again. Often, it takes only once or two treatments to experience significant healing.

One of the points that Pollan makes in How to Change Your Mind is that there was little financial incentive for the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research of psychedelics because people only had to take the drugs once or twice, as opposed to years with conventional prescriptions like anti-depressants.

But other factors contribute to why certain substances are initially legal and then become criminalized. MDMA is one.

As a party and rave culture drug, MDMA was actively embraced by the youth cultures of the ’80s and ’90s, much like LSD had been in the 1960s. The drug was legal until the mid-’80s, and during this time, researchers and therapists were actively exploring its possible uses in treating conditions like PTSD. Ann and Alexander Shulgin were some of the first.

The Shulgins’ home in San Francisco became a centre for people working with psychedelics. As a Jungian therapist, Shulgin used the drug to help treat patients suffering from PTSD. When legal research was abruptly halted, another victim of the U.S. war on drugs, it didn’t actually stop, it simply went underground. One of Shulgin’s patients, Rick Doblin, made it his personal mission to bring the drug back into the legitimate scientific arena.

That is another startling story in a series that is simply packed with them. I could go on, but really it’s better to just watch the series and then rewatch it.

Whether it is Albert Hofmann’s “peculiar presentiment” in creating LSD or American mycologists like Paul Stamets popularizing magic mushrooms, that the universe works in deeply mysterious ways is the ultimate takeaway. As the mind-forged manacles fall away, it is the singular phenomena of consciousness that hovers in the air, electric with beauty and wonder.

When Ann Shulgin passed away last week, her obituary included a passage from her seminal book PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story:

I saw something forming in the air, slightly above the level of my head. I thought that it was perhaps a few feet from me, then I realized I couldn’t actually locate it in space at all. It was a moving spiral opening, up there in the cool air, and I knew it was a doorway to the other side of existence, that I could step through it if I wished to be finished with this particular life I was living, and that there was nothing threatening or menacing about it; in fact, it was completely friendly. I also knew that I had no intention of stepping through it because there was still a great deal I wanted to do in my life, and I intended to live long enough to get it all done. The lovely spiral door didn’t beckon; it was just matter-of-factly there.

For me, this passage and its ideas provides a curious repository of happiness and joy, in the same tenor as the NASA photograph. In a moment when much of human experience feels excruciating and fraught, that all the cosmic connections might actually be connected is the most hopeful thing I can think of.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Film, Science + Tech

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