From New York Times bestselling author and award-winning journalist Michael Pollan, How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence handles an otherwise charged topic with a reassuring balance of objective insight and appropriate subjectivity of personal experience.

What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

First published in 2018, it’s a curious, optimistic, and open-minded look at what’s been deemed a renaissance of psychedelics in psychology. In its 480 pages, Pollan provides an engaging overview of where psychedelic therapy came from, what it does, and the implications for the revival of the research today, while weaving in his own finds and challenged assumptions. Three compounds in particular are examined in the book: psilocybin, LSD, and 5-MeO-DMT, with most of the focus on psilocybin and LSD.

Being drawn deep into the psychedelic story, readers are led through the author’s point of view to new possibilities for mental health and perhaps society as a whole. Readers who know the story of psychedelics in the ‘60s can appreciate Pollan’s clever narrative style as he gives a charming introduction to the key players. By tracing their connections and illuminating their humanity – their passions, hunches, trepidation – he gives us a chance to get to know them a little better as part of a much more involved story than what’s usually told. Beyond the facts we get to see too inside Pollan’s inner thoughts a bit, with what he shares about his personal experiences with each of the psychedelic compounds examined.

The Science Behind LSD

While it’s pretty enjoyable to read about someone’s acid trip, it also makes you want to know more about how it all works. Then once you get into the science of it, there’s something to make sense of. Rather than theory on its own, you can reflect with the author on his experiences to apply what the science reveals about what’s happening in the brain under the effects of psychedelics. Given the subject matter, some subjectivity is to be expected. Still, Pollan acknowledges the difficulty of putting some things into words, but does a solid job of keeping us following along.

Pollan’s use of analogy to explain complicated or challenging concepts, like comparing neurotransmitters to words, breaks up the text and keeps it interesting and enjoyable, while helping to simplify or put into familiar terms some of the otherwise more challenging concepts. Readers can relate to the author’s uncertainty, and he guides carefully without talking down to or over anyone’s head, regardless of your level of direct experience with the subject. You don’t need to be a psychonaut, scientist, or skeptic to appreciate the perspectives Pollan shares. His curiosity is relatable to all of us – whether you’ve had your own psychedelic experience or not.

These compounds are so unique to say the least, and an element of mystery as we don’t yet have a complete understanding. But this is a good look at chronicling the efforts to find one. It helps to first have an understanding of the old science that led us here – alongside the issues that disrupted research for the past few decades.

The spiritual and scientific are tricky things to try and integrate, and it’s fascinating to see the ways that science is giving mystical realms some credibility in the consistency of the experiences people have on these substances. Even so, he does a thorough job of going through all the problems still being worked out. Things like the expectancy effect, or bias on the part of the researchers or therapists, and general challenges of implementing controlled studies.

The lessons learned from the past are made clear as the current research continues to ramp up. So far at least it seems those involved have learned the important lessons, specifically with respect to needing a guide. When working with something like acid, that really does dissolve just about everything – boundaries, distinctions, ego, and societal hierarchy – some kind of container, a process, remains important.

Things like the code of conduct and best practices shared by underground guides will be helpful to developing processes as sanctioned therapies become more available.

Going beyond – but staying mindful of – what the past can teach, modern technology offers incredible new insights into exactly how psychedelics produce the effects they’re known for. Even the early research already uncovered valuable insight about how LSD and psilocybin work. But now with things like fMRI available, researchers can get a more complete picture of how psychedelic compounds bring about changes in perception, enhanced creativity and cognition or problem solving, by allowing for disorganization and greater number of connections, opening up the neural network.

DMN Beyond Psychedelics

And uncovering more about the DMN – default mode network – and how it sort of runs the show in our brains is valuable far beyond psychedelics.

By seeing what psychedelics do in terms of deactivating the DMN, allowing access to buried memories and emotions as well as more information from the environment, we’re able to better understand consciousness on the whole. Besides being a thoroughly interesting account of what we’ve learned about psychedelics thus far, the applications already found for the compounds that Pollan finds are quite astounding.

A cancer patient on his deathbed feeling like the luckiest man on earth. Addicts that have lost interest entirely in their vice – overnight. People with a break in the clouds of their depression for the first time since childhood.

These stories shared by people who have already benefited from psychedelic therapy are inspiring and, more importantly, believable.

In light of the science already known about what happens in our brains when psychedelics are introduced, these incredible transformations can no longer be mistaken for anything like magic or coincidence. This might be the most exciting thing to come out of this book – an opportunity to clear the air around psychedelics’ bad rap and bring forth revolutionary insight and credible research that can help so many people who are struggling.

More than that, though it may be further off, the certainty shared by so many advocates of psychedelic treatment that it can truly help those who are well to expand their consciousness and worldview inspires hope that we’ll see such a thing in our lifetime.

Whatever your opinion on psychedelics – good, bad, or indifferent – this book can surely offer you a new perspective. And whether you’re interested in the science, the background, or the people involved with researching psychedelic compounds, you’ll come away with something valuable.