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How to change your mind: the new science of psychedelicsPsychedelics


I loved reading Michael Pollan’s book "Cooked", and watching the Netflix documentary series based on the book. He tackled an interesting subject in a multi-disciplinary manner and writes prose that carries you effortlessly along. Pollan’s interest has turned from food and its production, preparation and consumption to psychedelic drugs, and the renewal of scientific investigation of their effects. This is a fascinating story with a varied cast of extraordinary characters, told through Pollan’s mix of science writing, social history, journalism, and personal accounts of his own experiments (in this case, with psychedelics). The basic story of psychedelics that the book recounts is of the initial growth of a scientific programme of psychedelic research in the mid-twentieth century, followed by the infamy brought upon psychedelics by those (such as Timothy Leary) who wanted psychedelics out of the lab and in the brains of the general population, and the sooner the better. This led to the closure of the research programme and the scheduling of these drugs. However, there were those who worked quietly but determinedly for years to reopen the door that had been closed, and a generation later they have succeeded, so that today psychedelics are again being studied by doctors and neuroscientists. The hope is that on the one hand, psychedelics might give neuroscientists new tools for studying the brain and its operations so that consciousness, brain function, and their connection might be better understood. On the other hand, doctors and psychiatrists hope that psychedelics might prove effective in treatment of patients who face terminal disease, addictions or depression and anxiety. The book is a hopeful one that seeks to indicate the promise that these researchers are seeking to fulfill.

The book is also the story of some of the underground aspects of the history of psychedelics in the west.

The big thing about these non-lethal, non-addictive drugs is the power of the experience that people may have when taking them.

At its height, the psychedelic experience is equivalent to a full blown mystical experience, where people lose their sense of local and individuated ego in a larger, ineffable sense of self that is merged with the whole cosmos. Everything shines, and is full of beauty, meaning and joy; everything is one, and love is at the bottom of reality, and people come away from some psychedelic experiences deeply convinced that they have seen these things, and come to know them in a direct and undeniable way. The experience is so powerful that it cannot help but be undertood in spiritual terms. People often rate these experiences as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives. Many people, convinced of the power of psychedelics to give ordinary people a revelatory experience that leaves them filled with peace, openness and a sense of the meaningfulness of life, make it their business to keep the practice of guiding people on trips alive, whether or not such activities are legal. Some are wishing and waiting to see psychedelics become a much more mainstream way for people to have spiritual experiences that will benefit then in ordinary life. All acknowledge the unusual fact that any therapeutic potency of such drugs is not simply connected to its effect on the cells and systems of the body, so much as to the effect on the person that arises from their conscious experience of the trip, and the way they make sense of it. Hence the importance in the world of psychedelics of ‘set’—the attitude you take into the experience and the expectations you have of it—and ‘setting’—where you are, and who you are with, how they treat you and how safe and secure you feel. Bad trips are far more likely when people take psychedelics without attention being paid to set and setting by people who have some knowledge of these things.

You may be wondering why I am reviewing a book like this in Essentials.

Here are two reasons: first, the book is a testimony to the hunger human beings have for meaningful experiences, that is experiences that impress upon you the meaningfulness of the world about you and your belonging to that world of meaning. The conviction that love founds reality was mentioned in the book, but not discussed much by Pollan (whose longtime atheism was opened up to the possibility of something more through writing the book—the closing words are, “the mind is vaster, and the world is ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began”). The convictions people bring back from a highly mystical trip are a challenge to a hard core atheist view of the cosmos (although it is also easy to retort to the tripper that if you put a chemical in your brain that binds to your receptors, and suppresses your default mode network, why should you believe the experience that results is in any way a true insight?) But they are also something of a puzzle to Christians. Should we reinforce the convictions that may arise about a divinely made, meaningful cosmos with love at its foundation? Or should we repudiate any such convictions as having nothing to do with God and his truth? This leads to the second reason for bringing this book to readers’ attention: if in coming years psychedelics do become an accepted part of treatment of depression, addiction or end-of-life existential distress, how should Christians regard their use? As a pseudo-deliverance built on an illusion? As an alternative and therefore problematic claim to provide a revelation that is not the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? Or as a useful therapy that might be baptised by using a set and setting consistent with Christian conviction? This will not have to be settled anytime soon, but Pollan is a big name writer and this book will no doubt give the movement to rehabilitate and utilise psychedelics a big push along.