Michael Pollan

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This is Your Mind on Plants

Pollan, Michael

Last Updated: Oct-21-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism


Michael Pollan is curious about human consciousness and how humans alter it using a variety of molecular compounds. This curiosity took him first to three mind-altering psychedelic drugs: psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and 5-MeO-DMT (“The Toad”). He reported his findings and personal experiences in a 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind. His curiosity yet untamed, Pollan expands his project to three mind-altering compounds found in plants: opium, caffeine, and mescaline in his latest book.

Pollan’s investigation is born of his vocation as a gardener “fascinated by our attraction to these powerful plants as well as by the equally powerful taboos and fraught feelings with which we surround them.” He’s further attracted to them for the way in which when “we take these plants into our bodies and let them change our minds, we are engaging with nature in one of the most profound ways possible” (p. 3). The sources he chooses are the opium poppy for opium; coffee and tea for caffeine; and peyote and San Pedro cacti for mescaline. 

Opium, caffeine, and mescaline represent the range of mind-altering properties available from plants of interest to Pollan. In opium he saw a sedative, in caffeine a stimulant, and in mescaline a hallucinogen, or as he characterizes them, the “downer, the upper, and the outer,” respectively (p. 4). Their effects on consciousness do not feature dissolution of the ego, as is the case with psychedelics, and indeed, they can solidify ego. Seemingly most important to his selection, however, was that,

Taken together, these three plant drugs cover much of the spectrum of the human experience of psychoactive substances, from the everyday use of caffeine, the most popular psychoactive drug on the planet; to the ceremonial use of mescaline by Indigenous peoples; to the age-old use of opiates to relieve pain. (p. 4)
The book comprises an introduction and a chapter each covering opium, caffeine, and mescaline. The introduction describes his dual interest in the ancient human drive to fool with consciousness, and in plants that produce mind-altering substances as evolutionary features. Pollan also touches on how civilizations, ancient and current, aid and combat the use of these substances, at times simultaneously. In the chapter on opium, Pollan updates his April, 1997 Harper’s Magazine article about his experience growing opium poppies as the war on drugs peaked in the mid-1990s; in this version he reconstitutes the section he left out for fear of arrest and conviction that has since abated. In the next two chapters, Pollan separately reports on how caffeine and mescaline affected his consciousness. Because he was already a heavy caffeine user, Pollan had to give up coffee and tea if he was to discern its mind-altering effects, but for mescaline’s mind-altering effects, he had to find a source, a setting, and a guide through the maze the Covid-19 pandemic created.

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Michael Pollan, a journalist who is known for his work on food, takes on mind-altering drugs, or more specifically, psychedelics. According to Pollan, “after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance” (p. 3). His aim is to tell “the story of this renaissance” (p. 4). 

Pollan pegs the beginning of the renaissance to three events in 2006. The first was the symposium surrounding the one–hundredth birthday celebration of Albert Hoffman, who is credited with discovering LSD (he was in attendance and lived for another two years). The symposium put a spotlight on a few studies of psychedelics that inspired other researchers and practitioners to enter or stay in the field. The second event was a U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting importation of a banned psychedelic substance for religious purposes, which effectively reanimated federal government recognition of psychedelic drugs. The third event was the publication of a well-received study showing the psychological effects of certain psychedelic drugs, and in so doing, conferred some credibility and encouragement for further study (and use). Psychedelics were beginning to inch their way from counterculture to mainstream culture.

Before Pollan picks up on what happens after the eventful year of 2006, he goes back to the early 1950s when psychedelics first attracted attention as treatment for “addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and end-of life anxiety” (p. 141). He quotes researcher Stephen Ross, who asserts that during this time, “there had been forty thousand research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers!…Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding” (pp. 142-143). The trajectory towards therapeutic uses would come to an end in the 1960s when “a moral panic about LSD engulfed America, and virtually all psychedelic research and therapy were either halted or driven underground” (p. 185). Pollan identifies several contributing factors to the precipitous reversal in the status of psychedelics. Among them were their associations with Timothy Leary (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”) and with counterculture movements that were seen as threats to mainstream society in general. The era ends in 1970 when psychedelics were made illegal in the U.S., after which they were largely forgotten. They began to reappear in the 1990s, which rekindled an interest in them that would reach an inflection point in 2006.

Bridging the mid-twentieth-century history Pollan provides and the era commencing in 2006 he describes in detail later, is a chapter reporting on his own experiences with psychedelics. Pollan arranged three separate “trips” with three individual psychedelics: psilocybin, LSD, and the little-known 5-MeO-DMT, or “The Toad.” He carefully chose a tour guide for each one. Pollan experienced what he interpreted as a dissolution of his ego, which made more room for his consciousness: “I was present to reality but as something other than my self” (p. 264). He also reported spiritual and mystical experiences, which surprised him because he is not religious in much of any way, and he found others who had similar experiences.  
Even the most secular among them come away from their journeys convinced there exists something that transcends a material understanding of reality: some sort of a ‘Beyond.’ (p. 85)  
The term “spiritual” for Pollan became “a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced” (p. 288). 

In another chapter bridging the past and the present, Pollan covers the neuroscience of psychedelics and the current understanding of how the brain works. The chapter will appeal mostly to neuroscientists, pharmacologists, and clinicians. It’s not required to appreciate what the book offers on the whole. 

Pollan devotes a chapter to ongoing investigations into clinical uses for psychedelics in near death, addiction, and depression. These investigations had moved into mainstream biomedical research institutions. Results were encouraging enough to generate additional studies, expand treatment programs, and motivate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to push researchers for more information on depression in particular. Pollan also reports that “dozens of medical schools have asked to participate in future trials, and funders have stepped forward to underwrite those trials” (p. 350). 

In the final chapter, Pollan recognizes that despite the momentum behind mainstream biomedicine interest in psychedelics, established clinical and regulatory frameworks pose daunting challenges for broad-based adoption anytime soon. That aside, Pollan argues for the use of psychedelics in situations that are not limited to health problems per se, but also for “the betterment of well people,” which was also an interest of early researchers. To Pollan, the betterment comes from the effect of psychedelics to expand consciousness. 
Most of the time, it is normal waking consciousness that best serves the interests of survival—and is not adaptive. But there are moments in the life of an individual or a community when the imaginative novelties proposed by altered states of consciousness introduce exactly the sort off variation that can send a life, or a culture, down a new path. (p. 407) 
His conclusion is that without the assistance of psychedelics, the vastness of the mind and the mysteries of the world can never be known. Psychedelics for everyone! 

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This book chronicles four meals, tracked from the production of the food through to the preparation and consumption of the meals themselves. The first is a fast food meal eaten in the car, the quintessential American meal consisting entirely of industrially farmed produce. Pollan then goes on to have an industrial-organic meal, an organic pasture-grown meal, and finally a meal containing only products that he foraged, hunted, and cultivated himself. Throughout, he looks closely at how economic and commercial values have supplanted ecological ones in the cultivation and production of the food we ingest. In addition to attending to the social and political dimensions of the American diet, Pollan also notes the effects of this diet on public health, from rising levels of obesity through to the antibiotic resistances developing in herds of cattle living in pens in their own manure.

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