Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, tells the story of four common plants and the human impulses they satisfy: the apple (sweetness), the tulip (beauty), marijuana (intoxication), and the potato (control).
His new book is How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics (or even smoked pot), I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind. Pollan explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.
He also explores them firsthand, in two supervised experiences with LSD. He writes:
I’m struck by the fact there was nothing supernatural about my heightened perceptions that afternoon, nothing that I needed an idea of magic or a divinity to explain. No, all it took was another perceptual slant on the same old reality, a lens or mode of consciousness that invented nothing but merely (merely!) italicized the prose of ordinary experience, disclosing the wonder that is always there in a garden or wood, hidden in plain sight… Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities — call them spirits if you like — other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all, our kith and kin.
That division between the ego, the rest of human consciousness, and nature is fascinating, and something we so easily forget is constructed rather than inherent. Pollan writes how, basically, babies are tripping all the time, because their brains haven’t developed to the point of knowing the difference between the ego and the rest of existence. All is one with them, as their minds are constantly open and learning, without the well-worn neural pathways and rigid thinking of adult brains.
Sounds like hippy-dippy pabulum? You’re right. As Pollan writes about the power of ineffability in psychedelic experiences, that’s the point:
Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.
“Italicizing the prose of ordinary experience” and “glow with the force of revealed truth” or revelation are beautiful, vivid metaphors, and metaphors are all we really have when describing the ineffable. Just read the Old Testament for proof.
I’m still not planning on doing psychedelics—books and movies are still my go-to mind-expanding drugs—but I’m grateful for Pollan’s work on deepening our understanding of them.