How to Change Your Mind

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
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Published: 5/17/2018
When LSD was first discovered in the 1940s, it seemed to researchers, scientists and doctors as if the world might be on the cusp of psychological revolution. It promised to shed light on the deep mysteries of consciousness, as well as offer relief to addicts and the mentally ill. But in the 1960s, with the vicious backlash against the counter-culture, all further research was banned.

Book Summary - How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Key Insights

The use of psychedelic drugs can have a positive effect on mental health. Many studies have shown that the use of LSD and magic mushrooms can help patients undergo a mystical experience that can break negative thought cycles, reduce depression and anxiety, and increase the quality of life.

Casual use of psychedelics did not become common in the United States until the 1960s. However, many therapists in North America employed the use of psychedelic therapy in the 1950s, and they believed these drugs had the potential to treat or cure many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and even alcoholism. However, in the 1960s, psychedelic drugs became associated with the counterculture movement in the public consciousness, which led to a drug crackdown on a federal level in the 1970s. LSD and magic mushrooms were made illegal, and all research on their potential health and therapeutic benefits were forced to stop.

In recent years, the scientific community has seen an increased interest in the therapeutic potential of these drugs. Starting around the mid-2000s, a small number of scientific studies using these drugs have been approved. These initial studies have yielded promising results regarding patients’ improved ability to cope with depression, addiction, and even a terminal cancer diagnosis. This has led to a slight shift in public perception regarding psychedelic drugs. However, while these initial results seem promising, there is still much that needs to be understood about how psychedelics affect the brain.

Key Points

Set and Setting

Psychedelic drugs are influenced by two important factors: set and setting. Hallucinogens amplify both the atmosphere of the environment where one is taking them, and the current mental state of the drug user. Therefore, bad trips are more likely to happen when the user is in a bad environment or in a negative state of mind. The probability of experiencing a good trip is increased with the aid of a guide or psychedelic therapists. They have experience with the drugs, and can help guide users to a positive experience in a controlled setting. Psychedelic therapists encourage users to have a good trip by setting an intention and ensuring they are in a safe, positive environment before consuming the drug.

Another drug that relies on set and setting is marajuana. Pollen believes that the marajuana’s reputation as a paranoia-inducing drug comes largely from its illegality. Marajuana users will be more paranoid when using it in a place where it is illegal, because of the potential legal risk. Paranoia is not necessarily a side-effect of the drug itself, but rather of the setting in which it is used.

Drug Classifications

LSD, along with psilocin and psilocybin, the active ingredients found in psychedelic mushrooms, are not addictive. To the contrary, users will become immune to the drugs’ effects if they are used too frequently. In fact, psilocybin mushrooms are organic and can naturally be found in the wild. These wild mushrooms have been used by humans and possibly even animals for transformative mystical experiences well before they entered the cultural consciousness. Synthetic psilocybin was not made in a lab until the late 1950s, but the drug has been naturally occurring in nature and used as a healing agent or spiritual aid for many years.

However, LSD, psilocin, and psilocybin are now classified as Schedule I drugs. According to the US government’s classifications, Schedule 1 drugs are substances that are dangerous, highly addictive, and have zero medicinal or therapeutic purposes. Marijuana is also classified as a Schedule 1 drug, despite the fact that there have never been any reported cases of marijuana overdose. In the 1970s, during the nation’s War on Drugs, marijuana was vilified as a “gateway drug,” that lawmakers believed would cause complacency and social deterioration. Marijuana use was higher in black and Hispanic communities, which also played a part in the negative stigma associated with it.

Despite recent attempts to change the classifications, marijuana, LSD, and magic mushrooms are still classified as more dangerous and addictive than potentially lethal drugs like meth, cocaine and fentanyl.

Therapeutic Potential, Mindfulness, and Mystical Experiences

The brain’s default mode network, or DMN, is the part of the mind that is active when a person thinks about the future or the past. It also helps with development of the ego, and activates when an individual thinks about themselves, and when they are not experiencing sufficient stimulation.

Scientists believe that those suffering from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety may have an overactive DMN. Psychedelic drugs help break cycles of negative thinking by decreasing activity in the DMN and increasing mindfulness. They can also help one’s ego dissolve, and feel their consciousness is connected to something greater than themselves. This depersonalization can help patients break out of negative habitual thought processes, and instead experience their thoughts in an open, unbiased way. When one engages in the practice of mindfulness, they are able to accept their thoughts and let them go in an objective, non-judgemental way, rather than dwell on repetitive negative thoughts. Mindfulness can help prevent constant negative thought patterns, and psychedelics may provide a starting point for individuals to interrupt negative thought cycles and jumpstart a mindfulness practice, which can help treat depression, anxiety, and even addiction. In 2009, a promising study conducted on psilocybin and smoking showed a 67 percent success rate in helping a sample of 15 smokers quit their habit after one year.

While psychedelics make it easier for individuals to tap into an alternate or elevated consciousness, the brain has the ability to undergo mystical experiences even without the aid of psychedelics. Meditation and breathing exercises can have a similar effect on the brain as psychedelic drugs.

Religious practices, like groups prayer and call and response hymns, share many traits with meditation, and can also bring about mystical experiences, including auditory and visual hallucinations. In religious contexts, these experiences are often interpreted as miracles or messages from the divine.

Profound, Simple Truths

Psychedelic drugs increase the interconnectedness of the brain. The brain is a collection of specialized sections, each dedicated to a certain function, and they typically operate mostly independent of each other. However, psychedelics rewire the brain so these separate areas of the brain become more integrated with each other. This is also what leads to experiencing synesthesia and hallucinations while on a trip. This feeling of interconnectedness can help treat people suffering from chronic depression by helping them feel a greater sense of connection to nature, other people, and the world around them. A 2016 study conducted in London showed 80 percent of people reported improvement in their depression after just one week of psilocybin treatments. However, in a follow-up study, only 30 percent of patients reporting their depression was gone after six months, so it may be that the benefits of psilocybin treatments do not last forever.

Individuals who use psychedelic drugs often report experiencing a profound, yet meaningful, understanding of life’s simple truths while on a drug trip. Although these truths may seem banal, while under the influence of psychedelics, individuals are able to connect with them on a meaningful emotional and spiritual level, which makes the revelations profound and important for them.

The scientist Carl Sagan has argued that these revelations should not be dismissed once the user is sober. Rather, the drug has revealed some profound wisdoms, which are only later muddied by the sober mind. These insights are valuable, and Sagan himself has had some important insights while under the influence of marijuana.

Psychedelic Drug Studies

In the 1960s and 1970s, most doctors who recommended psychedelic therapy to their patients had experimented with the drugs themselves. They believed it was more ethical to experiment on themselves before prescribing the drugs to patients. In some cases, doctors even took psychedelics along with their patients as part of their treatment.

Today, federal law mandates that all trials involving human test subjects must be approved by an institutional review board. However, self-experimentation falls into a gray area, and scientists must decide if they need to seek IRB approval for themselves. Self-experimentation can also raise questions about the objectivity of the study, as scientists may be biased towards their data or may fail to completely randomize subjects, which can make self-experimentation risky.

Drug studies rely on objectivity and repeatability to be valid. However, research on psychedelic drugs present unique challenges. One method to ensure objectivity is employing a double blind study, in which neither the patients nor the researchers know which subject has received the real drug and who has received the placebo. However, because psychedelics have a rapid and very noticeable effect on the subjects, it is almost impossible to conduct double blind studies with psychedelic drugs.

Psychedelic studies are also difficult to replicate, because the experience of a trip is highly specific to each individual and is heavily influenced by both set and setting. Individuals on psychedelics are also highly impressionable, so therapists have a larger influence on their patients’ experience than they would in other studies.

However, the replicability problem is not unique to psychedelic studies. Most modern scientific studies are difficult to replicate, but this is in large part due not to the studies themselves, but to the ways they are reported in scientific journals. Scientists are incentivized to exaggerate or otherwise embellish their findings in publiciations in order to get funding, but this makes the studies much more difficult to replicate. Some members of the scientific community believe that the key to improving replicability is to incentive nuance and incremental findings in studies, rather than promoting and encouraging dramatic and possibly exaggerated results.

Illegality Pushed Psychedelic Therapy Underground

While making psychedelics illegal may have deterred some scientists from studying the field, it did not completely end the use of psychedelic therapy. Nonstandard medical practices, including the use of hallucinogens, merely went underground.

Underground therapy is also common in certain immigrant communities. Some groups of people from Asia, South and Central America, and the Carribean employ the use of traditional herbal treatments that are not used in Western cultures. While some immigrants are distrustful of Westrn doctors, others may utilize both options, combining traditional and Western treatments. Many immigrants also lack easy access to health insurance, so they are more likely to use non-licensed practitioners than doctors. While most traditional therapies are harmless, there is a risk that comes with non-standardized treatments, or some unlicensed practitioners may miss warning signs of a more dangerous disease.

The Main Take-away

Psychedelics have been vilified since the drug crackdown in the 1970s associated the drugs with counterculture and rebellion. Psychedelics were made illegal and are still classified as Schedule 1 drugs, despite no solid evidence showing they are addictive or lethal. However, studies have shown that psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocin and psilocybin may have great potential to help treat mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and even addiction. They do this by interrupting negative thought cycles, dissolving the ego, and encouraging a sense of interconnectedness and a greater understanding of simple, profound truths. However, the user’s experience on psychedelic drugs relies heavily on the set and setting where the trip takes place. Some of the same benefits of psychedelics can be experienced even without the use of drugs, through using mindfulness techniques like breathing exercises, mantras, religious practices, and meditation.

About the Author

Michael Pollan is an American journalist, activist, and author of eight books, four of them bestsellers. He is a journalism professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer and Professor of Practice of Non-Fiction at Harvard University. He is also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and the former executive editor for Harper's Magazine.

Pollan is the recipient of the Washburn Award from the Boston Museum of Science and the James Beard Leadership award. He was educated at Bennington College and Oxford University, and received his master’s degree from Columbia University.

Pollan lives in the Bay Area with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer.

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