In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit at the outset that I ingested “psychedelics” in the form of LSD in the late 1960s and early 1970s, three or possibly four times (One effect that I remember well was the awe I felt from picking up from the dirt road we were walking on a common rock, and marveling at the deep, the cosmic significance of its striated structure.) But at that time, hardly anyone knew the full story of these drugs, how they were discovered (LSD-25 was first synthesized by a Swiss researcher named Albert Hofman in 1938), and how they have been used continually by researchers from then until now. This is the story that Michael Pollan tells us in his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Penguin: 2018. It is a fascinating tale that includes not only the history of the trials and experiments we knew nothing about, but also about Pollan’s own mind-changing experience with the three formal ‘trips’ he took, using different drugs each time: LSD, a psilocybin mushroom, and a strange drug (5-MeO-DMT) extracted from a desert toad. His descriptions of his own experiences are among the most fascinating in the book, partly because he had never used these drugs before, and partly because he was agnostic about the spiritual effects that he found.
But back to first things, the term ‘psychedelics.’ According to Pollan, the name came about because of a correspondence between the literary giant, Aldous Huxley (whose book, The Doors of Perception, encouraged legions of the curious to try LSD), and a Canadian researcher named Humphrey Osmond looking into the potential of mescaline to cure mental ailments like schizophrenia and alcoholism. Osmond visited Los Angeles in 1953 to administer mescaline to Huxley. In their subsequent 1956 correspondence, Huxley in a poetic couplet proposed the term “phanerothyme” (from the Greek words meaning “spirit manifesting”) for this class of drugs. Osmond’s responding couplet proposed the word “psychedelic,” also using Greek words meaning “mind manifesting.” Despite Huxley’s greater reputation, Osmond’s term stuck.
Of course, both Osmond and Huxley were overshadowed in the subsequent proselytizing for LSD by Timothy Leary, and its adoption en masse by the 1960s counterculture (especially after Allen Ginsberg took his trip in December 1960 at Leary’s home in Newton, MA, and hilariously announced that he would march naked through the streets to preach his new gospel: “We’re going to teach people to stop hating, start a peace and love movement” (p. 193). So were the many other researchers who worked in controlled settings to see if the new drugs (mainly LSD and psilocybin) had the potential to cure ailments like alcohol and heroin addiction, depression, and so on. It is this nearly hidden history that Pollan resurrects, and it alone is worth the price of the book. For what it shows is that the hysteria that eventually led to the jailing of Timothy Leary and the legislation that made all research with these drugs illegal was simply that: hysteria. And it was this hysteria that prevented, until very recently, the serious research with psychedelics that is now ongoing, and that, according to Pollan, shows such great promise in fixing, or at least ameliorating many of the mental ills of modern civilization. In this regard, the transfixing accounts that Pollan records via interviews with many of the people who have taken ‘trips’ under controlled conditions provide permanent evidence that psychedelic drugs—usually operating on the same receptors as the neurotransmitter serotonin—lead most participants into something like a mystical experience, or at minimum, a kind of re-programming of the brain.
This gets to what is, for me, the central conflict highlighted by Pollan’s account. As noted above, Pollan started out as a materialist, an atheist who believed exclusively in what can be scientifically demonstrated. But the interviews and accounts he records suggest that the LSD/psilocybin experience leads those who take these drugs into something very much like the experiences of history’s famous mystics. These mystical experiences include not just the apparent dissolution of the normal ego, or self. They also include some form of consciousness or awareness that exists outside the confines of the ego, something, indeed, that survives the dissolution of the ego, and therefore something that provides heretofore unavailable solace to those with fear and trembling before the imminence of death. The anxiety regarding death that most cancer patients suffer, that is, seems to be dissipated or minimized by this experiential knowledge that something, at least, survives the death of the ego, and therefore, death itself. The work of Roland Griffiths and Bill Richards of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center summarizes this idea. Richards suggests three conclusions of their research:
1) the experience of the sacred reported by mystics and by people on high-dose psychedelic journeys is the same experience and is “real”—that is, not just a figment of the imagination. “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered.” 2) whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion. 3) consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains (pp. 55-56).
That last conclusion gets to the heart of the conflict, and it accords with the conclusion of numerous experiences that Pollan records. People who take high-dose ‘trips’ on LSD or psilocybin typically experience ego dissolution along with something like the survival of some observer awareness; and that convinces them of the existence and persistence of some form of consciousness outside of or beyond what the brain mediates.
On the other hand, the most cogent neuroscientific theory that Pollan describes in his book comes from the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, working in the University of Bristol (England) lab of David Nutt, to investigate the effect of psilocybin on the brain by using fMRI images. To his surprise, Carhart-Harris saw, in people on psilocybin, not an increase but a decreasein blood flow to key brain centers, especially those that had earlier been categorized as the “default mode network,” or DMN. The DMN includes several brain areas that link key parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper and older brain structures involved in memory and emotion. Briefly, this DMN is thought to act as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” responsible for managing and “holding the whole system together” (p. 303). Of greatest importance here, the DMN is key in creating the self, or ego, and is thought to be responsible for autobiographical memory, among other things. Therefore, in a 2012 paper, Carhart-Harris wrote that the steepest drops in DMN activity “correlated with his volunteers’ subjective experience of ‘ego dissolution.’” That is, the more the drop in blood flow and oxygen in the DMN, the more a psilocybin volunteer reported the loss of a sense of self (304-5). Judson Brewer, a researcher at Yale studying the brains of experienced meditators, then concluded from his scans that “the transcendence of self reported by expert meditators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the DMN” (305). In other words, meditation and psychedelics seem to have a similar effect on a brain, on the DMN. The conclusion, to put it over-simply, is that a brain can have too much order, and this can lead to rigidity, repression, and sometimes diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. About the effect of psychedelics, Carhart-Harris is quoted as saying, “Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizingbrain activity…It’s not that one system drops away, but that an older system emerges” (314). This older system is a more primary consciousness, one released when the normal ego looses its grip.
Here, then, is the other pole of the conflict mentioned above. Pollan writes that Carhart-Harris is strictly opposed to the romantic view noted above—that consciousness is “transpersonal,” a property of the universe rather than the human brain. Rather, everything that happens, whether under drugs like psilocybin or via meditative or other ‘spiritual’ experiences, is simply due to brain activity. As Carhart-Harris explains, “The brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens” (316). But the awareness experienced is not outside the brain, he insists, but simply the activity of parts of the brain that are normally kept in check by the DMN.
There is a great deal more to learn from this extraordinary piece of reporting, especially regarding statements like this from Katherine MacLean, a former Johns-Hopkins psychologist:
“A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice. You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process feels like dying.” And yet the experience brings the comforting news that there is somethingon the other side of that death…(346).
Often, in what Pollan reports, this “something on the other side” consists of some sort of universal love. As one of the volunteers in an NYU Cancer Center study using psychedelics to ease cancer anxiety, Patrick Mettes, put it, “From here on, love was the only consideration…It was and is the only purpose” (342). Several other accounts that Pollan provides us come to a very similar conclusion.
Yet, in the end, Pollan seems both convinced of the truth of these reports, and agnostic on whether we should take them literally. He is also agnostic about whether or not the objective awareness that manifests on psychedelics takes place inside or outside the brain. So, I would guess, are most of us, even those of us who have had earlier experience with psychedelics or meditative practices. But one thing seems incontrovertible: the controlled experiments with psychedelics that now appear to be ongoing and apparently increasing are bound to provide us all with new and critical information about who we are, how our brains operate, what mystical experiences really consist of, and, ultimately, how we fit into a universe that keeps revealing new and more spectacular aspects of its still-unplumbed mysteries.