Book Review: How to Change Your Mind

By Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
by Michael Pollan
Penguin Random House, 2018

Long an icon of the sustainable food movement, Michael Pollan leaped into a different world with his newest book. How to Change Your Mind sets out to demystify psychedelics using history, science, and Pollan’s own personal experiences. His aim? Dismantle the public perception (or rather, the stigma) around psychedelics. And while this was not his explicit purpose, by scrutinizing what it is, exactly, about psychedelics’ mind-altering effects that allow for individual mental shifts, Pollan’s book reveals the practical steps that make changing your mind a little easier — and why it’s so hard to do now.

As Pollan explains, there’s a biological basis for our habitual stubbornness. Over time, our brains develop deep grooves that lock us into patterns. As these patterns grow increasingly entrenched, it also becomes harder to diverge from them. Sure, they streamline mental processes — but at what cost?

That’s where psychedelics can help. In an altered state of mind, individuals are granted the opportunity to shake the snow globe,” as Pollan writes, and break mental patterns of thought. Once freed from repetitive patterns, individuals can see the world in a different light. Psychedelics force people to be present. Like meditation, hallucinogens can provide a mental clarity that makes it possible to experience the world differently than one’s normal perception might allow. One is able to consider the world without skewing or judging those perceptions through the usual filters one customarily applies.

Pollan isn’t advocating for a universal acid trip. But the ability of psychedelics to get us out of those deep grooves explains why so many artists, intellectuals, and activists have been struck by their power. In the 1960s and 70s, an entire movement of psychonauts believed psychedelics could be the greatest scientific breakthrough in the field of mental health, and according to some, might even transform society. American psychologist Timothy Leary was so eager for transformation that he haphazardly provided LSD to his students at Harvard, in the hope that it would shift enough perspectives to create social change. Instead, Leary’s careless actions led governments to ban LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs.

This book comes at an appropriate time, given the deep political divisions of the current political moment. If changing your mind at an individual level is so difficult, achieving societal-level changes seems nearly impossible. But studying the mechanics that allow us to forge new mental pathways in an altered state of mind can give us clues as to how we might similarly forge new pathways toward better public discourse.

In the same way that hallucinogens disorient the mind, we might need to look for strategies that disorient the well-worn faultlines that define contemporary political disputes. Nuclear energy, hydropower, carbon capture, and replacing coal with natural gas are all, for instance, technologies that reduce emissions, but that environmentalists oppose and many climate skeptics support. Similarly, intensive agriculture, which Pollan himself has consistently criticized, brings substantial environmental benefits that most sustainable food advocates prefer to ignore. “Bringing an end to our ideological arms race,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argued in an early issue of this journal, “will ultimately require that we force partisans out of their comfort zone by redefining problems in ways to which partisans do not already know the answers.” In the same way that hallucinogens can help us see the world differently as individuals, identifying ways to achieve better environmental outcomes that unsettle both environmentalists and their opponents might just shake up our collective mental snow globe and create greater opportunities for environmental action across our current political divide.