How to Use Psychedelic Drugs to Improve Mental Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

The his­to­ry of research on psy­che­del­ic drugs is so sen­sa­tion­al that more sober-mind­ed exper­i­ments (so to speak) often get obscured by the hip, the weird, and the nefar­i­ous, the lat­ter includ­ing secret CIA and Army test­ing of LSD and oth­er drugs as a means of psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare and “enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion.” These exper­i­ments inad­ver­tent­ly led to Ken Kesey’s infa­mous “Acid Tests” in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. On the oth­er side of the coun­try, Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Tim­o­thy Leary used ques­tion­able meth­ods in his psilo­cy­bin exper­i­ments with pris­on­ers and stu­dents, before get­ting fired and going on to expand the mind of the coun­ter­cul­ture, earn­ing the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing Richard Nixon call him “the most dan­ger­ous man in Amer­i­ca.”

Mean­while, work­ing in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty in very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances in the late 50s, a UC Irvine psy­chi­a­trist named Oscar Janiger brought vol­un­teer sub­jects, includ­ing sev­er­al dozen artists, to a house out­side L.A., where they were giv­en LSD and psy­chother­a­py. Janiger’s work has its sen­sa­tion­al side—a cousin of Allen Gins­berg, he report­ed­ly intro­duced Cary Grant, Anais Nin, Jack Nichol­son, and Aldous Hux­ley to acid. But his pri­ma­ry achieve­ment, in data that remained most­ly unpub­lished dur­ing his life­time, were his dis­cov­er­ies of the ther­a­peu­tic and cre­ative use of psy­che­del­ic drugs under con­trolled con­di­tions with sub­jects who were pre­pared for the expe­ri­ence and guid­ed through it by trained pro­fes­sion­als.

The exper­i­ments con­duct­ed by Janiger and oth­ers dif­fered marked­ly from the free­wheel­ing recre­ation­al drug use of the coun­ter­cul­ture and the weaponiza­tion of psy­che­delics by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. In recent years, sci­en­tists and psy­chol­o­gists have con­duct­ed sim­i­lar kinds of research under even more tight­ly con­trolled con­di­tions, sub­stan­ti­at­ing and expand­ing on the con­clu­sions of ear­ly exper­i­menters who found that psy­che­delics seem remark­ably effec­tive in treat­ing depres­sion, anx­i­ety, alco­holism, drug addic­tion, and oth­er stub­born­ly destruc­tive human ills. This research sup­ports with sound evi­dence LSD inven­tor Albert Hoff­man’s descrip­tion of his drug as “med­i­cine for the soul.”

While research orga­ni­za­tions like MAPS (Mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­che­del­ic Stud­ies) have cen­tral­ized and pro­mot­ed much of the cur­rent research, it’s now get­ting a huge pop­u­lar boost from none oth­er than food writer Michael Pol­lan, best­selling author of books like The Omnivore’s Dilem­ma and In Defense of Food. “A self-described ‘reluc­tant psy­cho­naut,’” writes NPR, Pol­lan sub­mit­ted him­self as a test sub­ject for exper­i­ments with “LSD, psilo­cy­bin and 5‑MeO-DMT, a sub­stance in the ven­om of the Sono­ran Desert toad.” He has described his expe­ri­ences and the work of the research com­mu­ni­ty in a new book titled How to Change Your Mind: What the New Sci­ence of Psy­che­delics Teach­es Us About Con­scious­ness, Dying, Addic­tion, Depres­sion, and Tran­scen­dence.

At the top of the post, see Pol­lan describe the book in a short video from Pen­guin. He dis­cuss­es such ancient ideas (as he has in past writ­ings) of psy­choac­tive drugs as “entheagens”—or chem­i­cal con­duits to the divine. “In the Dar­win­ian sense,” he says, the evo­lu­tion­ary pur­pose of psy­che­del­ic expe­ri­ences may be an increase in cog­ni­tive vari­ety and the stim­u­la­tion of “more metaphors, more insights.” In his Fresh Air inter­view above, Pol­lan fur­ther explains how this works ther­a­peu­ti­cal­ly. “One of the things our mind does is tell sto­ries about our­selves,” he says. “If you’re depressed, you’re being told a sto­ry per­haps that you’re worth­less, that no one could pos­si­bly love you… that life will not get bet­ter.”

“These sto­ries,” Pol­lan says, “trap us in these rumi­na­tive loops that are very hard to get out of. They’re very destruc­tive pat­terns of thought.” Psy­che­del­ic drugs “dis­able for a peri­od of time the part of the brain where the self talks to itself. It’s called the default mode net­work, and it’s a group of struc­tures that con­nect parts of the cor­tex — the evo­lu­tion­ar­i­ly most recent part of the brain — to deep­er lev­els where emo­tion and mem­o­ry reside.” Dis­rupt­ing old nar­ra­tives helps peo­ple to write bet­ter, health­i­er sto­ries.

As Pol­lan says in the Time video above, psy­che­delics have been pop­u­lar­ly con­ceived as drugs that make you crazy—and in some cas­es, that hap­pens. But they are also “drugs that can make you sane, or more sane.”  One of the major dif­fer­ences between one out­come and the oth­er is the con­di­tions under which the drug is tak­en. When qual­i­ty and dosage of the drugs are con­trolled, and when sub­jects are pre­pared for “bad trips” with spe­cif­ic instruc­tions, even fright­en­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions can con­tribute to bet­ter men­tal health.

In his psilo­cy­bin exper­i­ment, for exam­ple, Pol­lan was accom­pa­nied by two “guides” and giv­en “a set of ‘flight instruc­tions,” includ­ing what to do if you see a mon­ster.

…don’t try to run away. Walk right up to it, plant your feet and say, “What do you have to teach me? What are you doing in my mind?” And if you do that, accord­ing to the flight instruc­tions, your fear will morph into some­thing much more pos­i­tive very quick­ly.

In anoth­er exam­ple, anoth­er psy­lo­cy­bin sub­ject, Alana, describes in the Vox video below her guid­ed expe­ri­ence with the drug dur­ing a smok­ing ces­sa­tion tri­al at Johns Hop­kins. “There were scary parts, fore­bod­ing parts,” she says, but thanks to con­trolled con­di­tions and the reas­sur­ing pres­ence of a guide, “I always knew there was joy and peace on the oth­er side of it. It was free­ing.”

Using psy­che­delics to con­front and con­quer fears goes back many thou­sands of years in tra­di­tion­al soci­eties. Mod­ern tech­no­log­i­cal cul­ture has large­ly turned to anti­de­pres­sants and oth­er phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals to reg­u­late anx­i­ety, but as Pol­lan points out, “Prozac doesn’t help when you’re con­fronting mor­tal­i­ty,” the deep­est, most uni­ver­sal fear of all. But psychedelics—as Aldous Hux­ley found when he took LSD on his deathbed—can “occa­sion an expe­ri­ence in people—a mys­ti­cal experience—that some­how makes it eas­i­er to let go.” Sure­ly, there are oth­er ways to do so. In any case, psy­che­del­ic drugs seem so ben­e­fi­cial to psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being that they can be, and hope­ful­ly will be in the future, used to pos­i­tive­ly (respon­si­bly) shift the con­scious­ness and cre­ative poten­tial of mil­lions of suf­fer­ing peo­ple.

For more on this sub­ject, read Pol­lan’s lat­est book–How to Change Your Mind: What the New Sci­ence of Psy­che­delics Teach­es Us About Con­scious­ness, Dying, Addic­tion, Depres­sion, and Tran­scen­dence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch The Bicy­cle Trip: An Ani­ma­tion of The World’s First LSD Trip Which Took Place on April 19, 1943

Rare Footage Shows US and British Sol­diers Get­ting Dosed with LSD in Gov­ern­ment-Spon­sored Tests (1958 + 1964)

Artist Draws 9 Por­traits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Exper­i­ments to Turn LSD into a “Cre­ativ­i­ty Pill”

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beau­ti­ful, LSD-Assist­ed Death: A Let­ter from His Wid­ow

Ken Kesey Talks About the Mean­ing of the Acid Tests

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Paula L Holberg says:

    I would love to try this method! I have tryed every anti depres­sant known to man!!!! The prob­lem is get­ting my hands on the prod­uct to try this method. Any sug­ges­tions on how to get it? Your input would be very appre­ci­at­ed!

  • Naeem says:

    If you’re inter­est­ed in learn­ing about Psy­che­del­ic and all their poten­tial appli­ca­tions — this is a must-lis­ten pod­cast for you! Joe and Kyle are excel­lent hosts and do a fan­tas­tic job lead­ing con­ver­sa­tions with thought lead­ers, sci­en­tists, and oth­er experts in the psy­che­delics space. They dive deep into all the lat­est research, leg­is­la­tion, and dis­cus­sion. High­ly rec­om­mend lis­ten­ing and sub­scrib­ing!

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