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

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

by Michael Pollan


Summary Notes

Reconnect with Nature and Expand Consciousness with Psychedelics

In 1943, Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, accidentally created a substance called lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and became the first person to experience its mind-altering effects. This discovery kickstarted the study of psychedelics and their potential impact on our understanding of consciousness and reality.

In 2006, the US Supreme Court gave permission to a religious group called the UDV to import ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic tea, for their religious ceremonies. This decision got scientists like Roland Griffiths intrigued.

Roland Griffiths, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, got inspired by the UDV case and decided to investigate the effects of another psychedelic compound called psilocybin, which is found in "magic mushrooms." He wanted to see if psilocybin could create deep and transformative experiences similar to mystical states of consciousness. To make sure his study was reliable, he used a method called a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Griffiths carefully observed and measured different psychological and subjective aspects of the participants' experiences during and after taking psilocybin. He published his findings in a respected scientific journal called Psychopharmacology, adding to the growing body of psychedelic research.

What researchers like Roland Griffiths have discovered is that psychedelic drugs have a unique ability to profoundly alter our subjective experience of consciousness. By temporarily changing how our brains work and inducing altered states of consciousness, these substances can provide us with incredible insights, feelings of unity, and a profound sense of awe and connection. These experiences challenge the idea that everything is just physical matter and encourage us to consider the more subjective and transcendent aspects of our lives.

The exploration of psychedelics isn't just about getting high, though. Through rigorous scientific investigation, researchers aim to understand how these substances work and how they can be used therapeutically to treat mental health conditions and promote personal growth and well-being. It's not just about expanding our understanding of the human mind but also about asking deep philosophical questions about reality and our place in it.

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Fungi Can Help Save the World

Paul Stamets is a mycologist from Washington State who has dedicated his life to demonstrating the potential of fungi. Fungi are essential for the planet's wellbeing, as they are capable of breaking down organic matter and creating soil. They can be used to clean up environmental pollution and industrial waste, and have been found to be beneficial for cancer patients and bees. Stamets himself has used a mutated Cordyceps-like fungus to get rid of carpenter ants in his home. He was also motivated by his brother's book, Altered States of Consciousness, to investigate the effects of psychedelic mushrooms. These mushrooms have had a significant impact on human culture and evolution, and have been linked to the development of human self-reflection and language.

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Psychedelic Therapy for Mental Illness

Psychedelic therapy is a form of treatment for mental illness that has been around since the 1950s. It was first proposed by Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer, who conducted experiments using a supply of LSD-25 obtained from Sandoz. They believed that a controlled LSD-induced delirium could help alcoholics stay sober, and tested this hypothesis on more than seven hundred alcoholics, with roughly half the cases reporting success.

In 1953, Maclean’s magazine published a story about a journalist’s experience on LSD, introducing the psychotomimetic model to the public. Osmond and Hoffer then shifted their focus to the power of the experience itself and whether the perceptual disturbances caused by the drug could provide therapeutic benefits. Al Hubbard also understood the importance of set and setting in influencing the psychedelic experience, and he brought pictures, music, flowers, and diamonds into the treatment room to prepare patients for a spiritual revelation or to help them if the journey became too overwhelming.

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Psychedelics Reduce Brain Activity in the DMN

In 2005, Robin Carhart-Harris was determined to study psychedelics and dreaming under David Nutt at Bristol, and Nutt was eventually impressed enough to offer him a PhD. In 2009, Carhart-Harris received approval to study the effect of psilocybin on the brain. His hypothesis was that their brains would show increased activity, particularly in the emotion centers. However, the initial data on blood flow showed decreases in blood flow, which was confirmed by a second measure that looked at changes in oxygen consumption. Carhart-Harris had discovered that psilocybin reduces brain activity, with the falloff concentrated in the default mode network (DMN).

The DMN was discovered in 2001 by Marcus Raichle. It is a hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper structures involved in memory and emotion. It is most active when people are engaged in higher-level processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions, moral reasoning, and "theory of mind". The DMN stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attentional networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands attention. It is responsible for the creation of mental constructs or projections, the most important of which is the construct referred to as the self, or ego.

Michael Pollan suggested that psychedelics can temporarily rewire the brain, allowing for new connections to form between far-flung brain regions that don't usually exchange much information. This can lead to synesthesia, hallucinations, and creative insights. It may also lead to a more open attitude towards authority and nature. The increased entropy in the brain allows for a variety of mental states to emerge, some of which may be bizarre and senseless, but some of them may be revelatory, imaginative, and potentially transformative. This is similar to evolutionary adaptation, where the more possibilities the mind has at its disposal, the more creative its solutions will be.

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Psychedelics Used to Treat Anxiety and Depression in Palliative Care

Michael Pollan suggested that psychedelic therapy could be used to help cancer patients reduce their anxiety and depression. At New York University, this therapy involves a single high dose of psilocybin in a room designed to look like a comfortable den. The goal of the trial is to see if this dose can help alleviate the mental health issues that often come with a cancer diagnosis.

Aldous Huxley first proposed the idea of giving a psychedelic drug to the dying in a letter to Humphry Osmond. He believed that our fear of death is caused by our egos, which make us feel separate from the world. He thought that psychedelics could help people escape this feeling of separateness and show that personal intactness is not necessary.

In December 2016, the New York Times reported on the results of the Johns Hopkins and NYU psilocybin cancer studies. These studies showed that 80% of cancer patients experienced a significant decrease in anxiety and depression that lasted for at least six months.

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