In 2018, American journalist and author Michael Pollan published his book, How To Change Your Mind. His book presents evidence that psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and mescaline could be used to treat depression, anxiety, trauma and addiction as well as expand our notions of consciousness. Last year, the book was adapted into a Netflix series under the same name with four one-hour episodes. It features informational and moving interviews with neuroscientists, psychotherapists, indigenous medicine practitioners and many others.
The Netflix series also examines the advent of psychedelics in Western science in the 1950s, their unlikely but important role in the American public’s perception of the Vietnam war and the psychedelic ‘renaissance’ in recent decades. In the foreword to his book, Pollan explains the term “trip” is used to describe a psychedelic experience because of its potential to make users feel transported to an unfamiliar environment. Similar to traveling to a country where we don’t speak the native language and find our senses sharpened to sucessfully navigate our stay. Pollan also explains that he grew up suspicious of psychedelics but still felt pulled to investigate if there was more to psychedelics than just moral panic or frivolous excitement.
Pollan had heard of teams at New York University and UCLA working on using psychedelic drugs to help relieve emotional stress in terminally-ill patients. However, it was a research paper by a team at John Hopkins University that truly grabbed his attention.The paper titled Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance published in 2006, noted the results of a randomized controlled trial where 30 volunteers were either given doses of psilocybin or a placebo. Those in the former category reported having an experience of the “beyond” and rated it as one of the most significant experiences of life on par with the birth of a child or the loss of a loved one.
While he mentions some of the risks associated with psychedelics, he believes these findings challenge modern science, which is often dismissive of anything deemed too “spiritual”. This evidence also challenges our notions of consciousness, reality, and how humans deal with difficult and traumatic emotions. A self-proclaimed philosophical materialist, Pollan embarked on a well-intentioned journey to understand psychedelics and what they can do to the human mind.
Powerful Evidence for Psychedelic Healing
The Netflix series features several poignant examples supporting Pollan’s beliefs. A man in Switzerland, who took a high dose of LSD in a controlled study, reported experiencing the feeling of being in his mother’s womb as a baby with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He said he could experience the fear of death, the choice to push the cord away and the relief afterward. Experiencing these memories allowed him to discuss his feelings with his mother and held great meaning for him.
In another case, a woman who had lost her brother to a drug overdose and her mother to suicide, participated in a study about MDMA in an effort to process her memories and emotions connected to these two events which were otherwise blocked. The drug made it possible for her to confront these events that were so deeply painful and shocking for her conscious mind, they had been repressed in her subconscious. Finally giving voice to her fear, pain, and sadness, she was able to move on and build a new life for herself.
Another beneficial substance that shows promising healing benefits is Mescaline.This substance is acquired from a plant called Peyote Cacti and is typically used by Native American communities. The show details the story of a man who struggled with substance abuse for 15 years and had requested a formal ceremony to help him overcome his addiction. This involved ingesting the drug but in a more religious and ritualized manner. After the ceremony, he reported feeling more grounded and clear about himself and his life.
Using these real life examples illustrates that psychedelics can help people process their emotions and manifest more refined realities for themselves that they otherwise were unable to envision because of the limitations of their conscious mind. While there is promising evidence to the benefits of psychadelics, there are still questions to consider.
Opportunities and Questions to Explore
First, what does it really mean to change our mind? Is it merely the clearing of psychological pathways? Many people would argue that it is impossible to remove or edify certain imprints in our subconscious. Often, when we feel afraid or fearful, we recognize the feeling as a stomach ache or even shortness of breath. When we are happy and joyful, our body language becomes much more open and relaxed. Whatever our mind experiences subconsciously, our bodies experience it consciously and we are often aware of it. Working through emotions and recognizing our subconscious thoughts, in our minds and bodies, might require meditation and therapy and psychedelic studies should incorporate these measures in near future.
Additionally, can the majority of such experiences genuinely lead to a deeper meaning in life? Even though we may be able to game our way out of certain mental blocks through psychedelics, can we change the societal realities that persist around us? If anything, this has the potential to widen the conflict between the mystical insights of such experiences and the hard materialist worldview of Western societies. There has to be greater acceptance of the spiritual and mystical aspects of life rather than just psychedelic drugs in the West.
Finally, while it sounds exciting to expand our scientific understanding of consciousness, does a more democratized use of such substances have the potential to destabilize societal conventions? Ayahuasca ceremonies are now notoriously commercialized and there is the risk that an excessive use of such substances can lead to disastrous consequences which may lead to the barring of these ceremonies. In their original contexts, such practices are carried out with utmost secrecy and the knowledge is held by a select few. This approach prevents exploitation and irresponsible use of psychedelics.
How To Change Your Mind, the book and series, provide valuable insights on the future of psychedelics in mainstream healing and medicine. Although Pollan’s optimism about the use of substances to change the human mind is inspiring, it is important to balance these findings with curiosity and caution.
[Lane Gibson edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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