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Can Psychedelic Drugs Cure What Ails Us?

Michael Pollan's book argues that 'white-coat shamanism' and a little acid may help


Hey, man, wanna drop some acid?

If you’ve been around long enough and /or hung out in the parking lot before Grateful Dead shows back in the day, you might have been asked this question once or twice. But the next time you get asked, instead of hearing it from a tie-dye-wearing long-haired stranger, you might hear it from your therapist or maybe, someday, your doctor.

At least that’s one way to think about the new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan, which was published earlier this summer.

What Michael Pollan Thinks About Psychedelic Drugs

Most of us know Pollan from his New York Times articles and books on food — and especially, his now-famous advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food (2008)  have influenced millions of people in how they think about where their food comes from and what impact eating it has on the environment, not to mention on their bodies and culture as a whole. How to Change Your Mind uses the same approachable tone to writing about scientific research, cultural history and complicated ideas.

In his review in the New York Times, Tom Bissell wrote, “Pollan remains concerned with what we put into our bodies, but we’re not talking about arugula. At various points, our author ingests LSD, psilocybin and the crystallized venom of a Sonoran Desert toad. He writes, often remarkably, about what he experienced under the influence of these drugs.” Pollan (who has said in radio and podcast interviews that he had not previously tried psychedelic drugs even though he was in his teens and 20s at their height of popularity) provides extensive history and research about the drugs — especially LSD, which was labeled a Schedule 1 substance in 1970.

Although Pollan does not advocate for mass legalization and casual use of psychedelics, he convincingly argues that trained professionals who are trained should be allowed to administer psychedelic-aided therapy to people with terminal illness or suffering from addiction and depression. He says this “White-Coat Shamanism” and therapy has been shown to help many find peace in their suffering.

The Times’ review noted a 2016 study described in the book that found 80 percent of cancer patients responded positively to psychedelic treatment — “and the more intense their trip, the more positive and long-lasting the benefits.” One psychedelic researcher told Pollan: “If it gives them peace, I don’t care if it’s real or an illusion.”

How Do Psychedelics Change Our Mind?

As state marijuana laws change and allow for more medical treatments for people who are shown to benefit from it, it is easy to wonder if LSD, mushrooms, psilocybin and other drugs that induce hallucinations might become the next item people can acquire with a prescription. However, Pollan is attempting to get beyond simply the question of using psychedelics as treatment. He’s talking about what we can learn about the human mind — thus, that extremely long subtitle to the book.

Pollan feels that psychedelic experiences, or trips, can help better understand the role the ego plays in the way that people relate to the world and to one another. In a Rolling Stone interview about one of the trips he describes in How to Change Your Mind, Pollan said he “had this experience of seeing my sense of self or my ego spread out over the landscape like paint,” and it gave him a “kind of distance on my ego I hadn’t had before.”

“I think do a better job of realizing when my ego is doing its thing. That I don’t have to react the way he wants to react,” Pollan said in Rolling Stone. “People can attain that through 10 years of psychoanalysis, four days a week, probably, but I attained it in four hours and that was kind of amazing.”

By Shayla Thiel Stern
Shayla leads the editorial team and content strategy as the Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. She has spent a career in digital media journalism and digital strategy at organizations including washingtonpost.comEdmunds.comCars.com and Fast Horse, and worked as a consultant for several years. She also was a media professor at the University of Minnesota and DePaul University and  has a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. She can be reached at [email protected].@shayla_stern

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