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How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

By:
MICHAEL POLLAN
Rating:

High-Level Thoughts

A brilliant and brave investigation into the medical and scientific revolution taking place around psychedelic drugs--and the spellbinding story of his own life-changing psychedelic experiences.

Summary Notes

  • Set is the mind-set or expectation one brings to the experience, and setting is the environment in which it takes place. Compared with other drugs, psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice, because they tend to magnify whatever’s already going on both inside and outside one’s head.
  • Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an “experience of the numinous” to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.
  • In the spring of 2010, a front-page story appeared in the New York Times headlined “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.” It reported that researchers had been giving large doses of psilocybin—the active compound in magic mushrooms—to terminal cancer patients as a way to help them deal with their “existential distress” at the approach of death.
  • “Individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states,” one of the researchers was quoted as saying. They “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.”
  • LSD appears to disable such conventionalized, shorthand modes of perception and, by doing so, restores a childlike immediacy, and sense of wonder, to our experience of reality, as if we were seeing everything for the first time.
  • The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.
  • What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions—involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego—that may be the key to changing one’s mind.
  • IT WAS AT THIS POINT that the idea of “shaking the snow globe,” as one neuroscientist described the psychedelic experience, came to seem more attractive to me than frightening, though it was still that too.
  • The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing. We approach experience much as an artificial intelligence (AI) program does, with our brains continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future.
  • In 1986, Rick Doblin conducted a follow-up study of the Good Friday Experiment in which he tracked down and interviewed all but one of the divinity students who received psilocybin at Marsh Chapel. Most reported that the experience had reshaped their lives and work in profound and enduring ways. However, Doblin found serious flaws in Pahnke’s published account: Pahnke had failed to mention that several subjects had struggled with acute anxiety during their experience. One had to be restrained and given an injection of Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic, after he fled from the chapel and headed down Commonwealth Avenue, convinced he had been chosen to announce the news of the coming of the Messiah.
  • Was the suppression of psychedelic research inevitable? Many of the researchers I interviewed feel that it might have been avoided had the drugs not leaped the laboratory walls—a contingency that, fairly or not, most of them blame squarely on the “antics,” “misbehavior,” and “evangelism” of Timothy Leary.
  • The mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain’s default mode network. This can be achieved any number of ways: through psychedelics and meditation, as Robin Carhart-Harris and Judson Brewer have demonstrated, but perhaps also by means of certain breathing exercises (like holotropic breathwork), sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, and so on.
  • In both the NYU and the Hopkins trials, some 80 percent of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin session. In both trials, the intensity of the mystical experience volunteers reported closely correlated with the degree to which their symptoms subsided. Few if any psychiatric interventions of any kind have demonstrated such dramatic and sustained results.
  • Psychedelics open a window of mental flexibility in which people can let go of the mental models we use to organize reality."
  • The therapeutic value of psychedelics, in Carhart-Harris’s view, lies in their ability to temporarily elevate entropy in the inflexible brain, jolting the system out of its default patterns.
  • When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.
  • Buddhists believe that attachment is at the root of all forms of mental suffering; if the neuroscience is right, a lot of these attachments have their mooring in the PCC, where they are nurtured and sustained.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

By:
MICHAEL POLLAN
Rating:
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