Review by Jack Kittredge
This is an intriguing book. Of course that is not a remarkable thing to say about a work by Michael Pollan. He has established a reputation, at least among folks I know and respect, for thoughtful analysis of important questions. Prior books like “A Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” have secured a place for him as a person who asks the right questions and probes far enough below the surface to reach answers that truly satisfy.
Even so, this is a new direction for him. As an intellectual, he rightly prizes his mind, gravitates toward scientific explanations of phenomena, and readily admits he doesn’t think he has ever had a ‘spiritually significant’ experience. As he puts it: “My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens.”
So why is he investigating something that flies in the face of his background, training, and comfort zone?
He was drawn to this topic in 2010 when reading a NY Times front page story: “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again” detailing how researchers at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and New York University had all been giving large doses of psilocybin (a psychoactive compound found in some mushrooms) to terminally ill cancer patients. The results were striking. Many patients said they had ‘reconceived’ their cancer and the prospect of death, several said they lost their fear of death completely. The reasons given for this transformation were elusive but intriguing to Pollan. One researcher put it this way: “[Under psilocybin] Individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states…They return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.”
History, Literature, and Chemistry
As befits a topic as broad and challenging as psychoactive substances, Pollan deals thoughtfully with their history, literature, and chemistry. In addition he personally experiments with several of them, describing his “trips”, findings and theories from the experiences.
Certainly many cultures in history have adopted the use of natural substances that were hallucinogens. Whether for ceremonial, sacred or more immediate purposes (divination, healing), Central and South American people ingested psychoactive mushrooms and plants, often doing so with established rituals and protocols to protect against the “Dionysian” energies they might release in users.
Analysis of the literature (other than that of Christian missionaries and monks who describe Peruvian ayahuasca as “the work of the devil”) by Pollan includes extensive discussions of the thoughts of William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and Stanislav Grof (Realms of the Human Unconscious, 1975). He also has read and incorporates in his presentation dozens of scientific papers reporting on research into the self-described experiences of volunteers ingesting psychoactive substances under controlled conditions, often with the benefit of equipment able to track brain and physiological activity.
The chemistry involved, for Pollan, boils down to various ‘molecules’ which sometimes had natural origins in plants, sometimes not, but which, in miniscule amounts, could unleash symptoms ranging from mystical consciousness to psychosis. This discovery fundamentally altered the psychiatric establishment and inspired interest into the neurochemical basis of mental disorders.
In this book Pollan is talking primarily about:
• LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), first synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hofmann while working for the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz,
• Psilocybin, (called teonanácatl by the Aztecs) produced by a little brown mushroom and used for thousands of years by indigenous people of Mexico and Central America as a sacrament,
• 5-MeO-DMT (the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad Incilius alvarius) which is one of the most potent and fast acting pychotropic drugs discovered, and
• Ayahuasca (a tea brewed from two Amazonian plants, one a vine and one a leaf) central to some Peruvian shamanic traditions that creates physical discomfort when swallowed because of its viscous feel and acrid taste.
The Garden, Our Expulsion and Likely Return
During the nineteen fifties and sixties the role of neurotransmitters in the brain revolutionized brain science, and numerous efforts to treat disorders such as alcoholism, depression, and anxiety were started, often using psychoactive molecules. Most of these were easily available and many researchers considered them akin to miracle drugs. Despite encouraging results, however, the connection between psychotropic substances and a counterculture which used them for expanding consciousness became a major concern as stories of ‘bad trips’, flashbacks, psychotic breaks and suicide were pushed in the popular press.
By the end of the sixties psychedelic substances were outlawed and popular proponents such as Timothy Leary (of ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’ fame) at Harvard were called to testify before Congressional committees, dismissed from their jobs, and if they continued were given stiff prison terms for drug violations.
It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that psychedelic researchers began to resurrect the field, quietly, getting licenses to experimentally use these class one drugs at universities and hospitals. Part of Pollan’s book describes the remarkable progress made in this work treating addiction, depression, and terminal illness.
Toward the end of the book Pollan describes the 2001 discovery of the DMN (default mode network). This is the set of brain areas linking the cerebral cortex to deeper and older brain structures involved in memory and emotion. It was initially discovered by use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) equipment that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. It relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled.
When volunteers sit quietly at rest to establish a ‘baseline’ for neural activity, it is the DMN that lights up with activity. It seems to be the set of brain areas that work at a remove from processing sensory inputs, instead engaging in such ‘metacognitive’ processes as day dreaming, self-reflection, moral reasoning, and mental constructions. The DMN isn’t operational until late in a human child’s development and has been described as the brain’s ‘orchestra conductor’, charged with ‘holding the whole system together’ so that chaos is averted. Some see a strong resemblance here to Freud’s construct of an ‘ego’ whose responsibility is to maintain the boundaries of the conscious and unconscious mind, of the self and the other, the story of who we are.
At the time of these first fMRI/DMN experiments, the assumption was that brains would exhibit increased activity in the DMN areas, similar to dreaming. But when the data came in, it became clear that brain activity decreased in the DMN when hallucinogens were used. Could this be the mechanism by which ‘selfhood’ is minimized and union with a larger whole is felt?
Much of the rest of the book describes Pollan’s own interest in trying these ‘molecules’. The common experience that many users described on returning from a psychedelic experience was of a falling away of selfhood in favor of becoming part of a much larger unity. This is, of course, almost a classical description of a mystical experience. It also helps explain the therapeutic progress made by addicts, those with depression, and terminal patients. Somehow, to disempower the ego, so careful to insist that things be done a certain way, is to open up room for a more playful and unifying version of reality.
Pollan’s own experiences with the four drugs are quite descriptive, both of his inner thoughts and concerns, as well as the practical realities of ‘set and setting’ (Pollan’s term for the environment of the experience and the support systems and people – music, eyeshades, experienced ‘guides’ etc. – available should trouble arise.)
I will not try here to summarize his experiences and thoughts about them. Suffice it to say he stays in character and, despite worrying about his heartbeat and his sanity, is never at risk of losing either. Anyone who has taken psychedelic substances is, I submit, likely to have had similar trips.
It is wonderful to see someone like Michael Pollen, confident materialist and rational thinker that he is, recognizing the limitations our brains sometimes create for us, and exciting to read about the work being done to free us from those constructs when they become too strict. He has really chosen a very apt title for this book.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.