How to Change Your Mind | Annotated Summary

How to Change Your Mind

by Michael Pollan

Prologue:  A New Door

Pollan begins with a brief history of LSD and psilocybin. In 1957, R. Gordon Wasson's wrote about his experiences with mushroom ceremonies in Life Magazine (reprinted here), and how the Catholic Church brutally suppressed the magic mushroom ceremonies after the Spanish conquest.

For most of the 1950 and early 1960s many in the psychiatric establishment regarded LSD as a miracle drug. By the end of the 60s, however, a moral panic arose following counter culture adoption of the drug.   Beginning in 1990, a small group of scientists and psychotherapists resolved to recover something precious that had been lost from both science and culture.

How to Change Your Mind is the story of the renaissance of LSD and psilocybin.

Pollan is not a child of the 60s.  He was raised in the era of condemnation of drug.  In his late 20s, he tried magic mushrooms two or three times.  Three data points caused him to revisit the topic:

In the spring of 2010, a front page story appeared in the New York Times headlined “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning in Again.” The story recounted a study on terminally ill patients who, after taking magic mushrooms, lost fear of death and came to peace with their illness.

At at dinner party in the San Francisco Bay Area he listened to a prominent psychologist talk about the positive effects of recent LSD trips on her professional work, and lead to her having deeper insights in her life. She also noted that she found the experience independently interesting intellectually.  

Finally, the peer-reviewed scientific article Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance found a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably occasion a mystical experience and ego dissolution.  Study participants ranked the experience among the most important of their lives, with two-thirds ranking it in the top five experiences, and one-third ranking it as the single most significant experience (above births of children or deaths of parents).

In preparing to write the book the author was intimidated, but soon learned that hallucinogens are far more frightening to people than they are dangerous to them. Neither LSD nor magic mushrooms are addictive and over-doses are nearly impossible.  It is possible to bring on psychosis, so people with a history of mental disease should avoid them.  But emergency room visits are exceedingly rare, and many turn out to be short-lived panic attacks.  People can do stupid things on the drugs and challenging trips are also real.  But in clinical settings since the 1990s nearly 1,000 volunteers have been dosed and not a single serious adverse event has been reported ("bad trips" have been reported, but without lasting negative consequences, and often with therapeutic value).  

This book is about psychedelics - LSD, DMT, psilocybin and a handful of others.  It does not discuss in depth MDMA, or other drugs that may have beneficial effects.  The term psychedelic, coined in 1956, literally means mind manifesting, which is precisely what these substances are able to do.

Chapter One:  A Renaissance

The modern renaissance of psychedelic research can be started many places, but 2006 is a good place.  It is Albert Hoffman's 100-year birthday, which is celebrated in Basel Switzerland.  At the ceremony he recounts the invention of LSD (also written about in his excellent book, LSD, My Problem Child).  The discovery is also well covered in this Atlantic article.

Second, the US Supreme court ruled in 2006 that UDV, a tiny religious sect that uses a hallucinogenic tea called ayahuasca, could import the drink to the USA for religious purposes.  Religious ceremonies have sprouted up, concentrated in San Francisco, Portland Oregon and Brooklyn New York.  The US government has apparently suspended enforcement of law against DMT, the active ingredient in the ceremony.

And finally, the article Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance was published.  Opening a new era of insight into the substances.  This study was the first double-blind study of its type in more than four decades.  Leading government figures, including those serving republican presidents, lauded it for its rigor and potential revelations about therapeutic value of psychedelic substances.  However, the paper actually focused on the impact of the drug on spirituality, not classic health benefits.  

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Ronald Griffiths.  The author of this paper, Ronald Griffiths, grew up in California and went to Occidental College.  While he started as a straight-laced scientist, he discovered, and became nearly obsessed with meditation.  Bored with science, he almost quit to delve deeper into meditation, but met Bob Jesse who encouraged him to  attend a conference on the spiritual and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs in Big Sur California.

Rick Dobin.  Rick Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1986.  His current focus is winning FDA approval for the medical use of psychedelics, but that is only a path to his greater goal of general acceptance of LSD and MDMA in society.  MAPS has been influential in getting research into MDMA approved in treated PTSD.  

Bob Jesse.  Bob Jessee now lives in Marin California, but started his career as an engineer on the east coast.  A gay man, he quietly worked corporate politics and his efforts helped lead AT&T to fly a rainbow flag during pride week and to send a delegation to march in the parade.  He moved to Oracle in the Bay area in 1990, early enough to receive a significant amount of stock.  Oracle later became one of the first fortune 500 companies to offer benefits to same-sex partners.  

One of Jesse's early psychedelic experiences was watching the birth of the universe on a high dose of LSD.  He struggles to describe the experience "Ineffability" (incapacity to describe in words) is of course a hallmark of mystical experience.  In the experience he questioned the nature of consciousness originating from one's brain.  The Dalai Lama noted that the idea that brains create consciousness "is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact."  

Why not chalk an experience like Jesse's up to a drug induced fantasy or dream?  Why give it greater significance?   Around 120 years ago William James gave a name to the conviction that mystical experience conveys a profound objective truth:  "the noetic quality".  Pollan notes that perhaps there is a revealed truth, however, because the experience is solely a personal one, it is not possible to scientifically verify this.  The second explanation, equally unsatisfying is that the noetic sense is the result of our personal sense of a subjective "I" disintegrates during a high-dose psychedelic experience (as well as in deep meditation), and it becomes impossible to distinguish between what is subjectively and objectively true.  When your "I" is gone, there is no one left to doubt the noetic quality.  

While on sabbatical from Oracle, Jesse established the Council on Spiritual Practices with the aim of making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.  Jesse began talking with the "elders" of psychedelics, including Sasha and Al Schulgin, and became interested in early research exploring the potential of psychedelics to contribute to "the betterment of well people."

Jesse was particularly interested in the "Good Friday" experiment.  Prior to the Good Friday service, graduate degree divinity student volunteers from the Boston area were randomly divided into two groups. In a double-blind experiment, half of the students received psilocybin, while a control group received a large dose of niacin. Niacin produces clear physiological changes and thus was used as an active placebo. In at least some cases, those who received the niacin initially believed they had received the psychoactive drug.  However, the feeling of face flushing (turning red, feeling hot and tingly) produced by niacin subsided over approximately an hour after receiving the dose. Meanwhile, the effects of the psilocybin intensified over the first few hours.

Almost all the members of the experimental group reported experiencing profound religious experiences, providing empirical support for the notion that psychedelic drugs can facilitate religious experiences. One of the participants in the experiment was religious scholar Huston Smith, who would become an author of several textbooks on comparative religion. He later described his experience as "the most powerful cosmic homecoming I have ever experienced". And noted that before the experiment he "had no personal encounter with God."

Jesse, while finding early research fascinating, also found the methodology to be flawed, and believed that repeating such experiments using improved scientific techniques would be valuable. 


Esalen, Big Sur, California.  Founded in 1962, Esalen Institute has been the center of gravity for the so-called human potential movement in the US -- the unofficial capital of the New Age.  In the early 70's, Stan Grof, a pioneer of LSD-assisted psychotherapy worked there, and many, if not most of the therapists and guides now doing work in this area underground studied under him.  The LSD studies are reported to have ceased when LSD was made illegal.  [The author of this summary can assure the dear readers, from first-hand experience, that this is not the case].  

In January 1994, Jesse was invited to attend a meeting at Esalen and learned that a meeting dedicated to restart scientific research was to occur at Esalen.  The political climate toward research was changing, with the head of the FDA noting that research into non-traditional chemicals would be evaluated on scientific merit like all other compounds.  A study on DMT was later approved, becoming the first federally approved research into a psychedelic compound.  A study into MDMA was also approved around the same time.

While Jesse attended the event, he found almost no focus on spiritual potential being discussed.  This led him to found the Council on Spiritual Practices.  In 1996, the CSP held its own meeting at Esalen.  In attendance was Charles "Bob" Schuster, the former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse on Presidents Reagan and Bush.  A conservative, with a jazz music background and a curious mind, he was an unlikely addition to the group.  He urged the group away from MDMA, which he believed to have toxicity and toward psilocybin over LSD, mainly because psilocybin did not have the political baggage of LSD.  The meeting ended with a series of goals, ranging from drafting a code of ethics (found here) to encouraging psychedelic research with no pretext of any clinical treatment, to extend beyond pure medicalization to focus on spiritual well-being.


Bill Richards.  Jesse was introduced to Bill Richards, a master clinician, and fortuitously a leader of psychedelic journeys in the 60s and 70s. Richards personal experience with psychedelics lead him to three conclusions.  1) that the experience of mystics and those on high doses of LSD are the same, and they are real; 2) that these type of experiences are the primal basis of religion; and 3) consciousness is the property of the universe, not of brains. After graduating, Richards began working at Spring Grove State Hospital, which was doing extensive research on psychedelics.  

In its early days, Spring Grove gained popular support, including a CBS News broadcast highlighting it.  However, the coming of the Nixon administration, popular backlash against Timothy Leary and the war between puritanical values and "the Dionysian element" lead to a shift in political temperature, and the institute and most other research was de-funded.  However, in 1998 Griffiths, Jesse and Richards began research again at Johns Hopkins.  This research continues today.  


A 1966 Documentary on the Promise of LSD, with a follow up on two patients years later.

Study participants would respond to an advertising in the local weekly papers looking for volunteers "Interested in the Spiritual Life".  After screening for medical issues and other factors the accepted volunteers would be given a psychedelic compound or a placebo and left in a room with a "sitter" (a volunteer) who was given instructions on how to mind the study participants and urge them on to having a deeper experience.  (These instructions were referred to as Flight Instructions, and can be found here.)  Participants often had deeply spiritual experiences, in part perhaps due to the design of the study which set the tone of spirituality throughout the study.


The mystical experience seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious.

William James' The Variety of Religious Experience offers four "marks" of a mystical experience:  

Ineffability - no adequate report of its contents can be given in words"; its quality must be directly experienced

Noetic quality —"Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time."  Pollan notes that many of the experiences and observation that people view as mystical appear obvious, if not banal. 

Transiency —"Mystical states cannot be sustained for long."

Passivity —"the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power."

Years after participating in the study, some participants noted the experience changed their lives on a daily basis, characterized by improved sense of well-being and long-term increases in the trait of "openness to experiences."  Few other experiences have produced systematic long-term changes in adults.

Not all are convinced that the mystical experience leads to insight.  Paul McHugh, a Hopkins psychiatrist writes in a review of a book about the Harvard Psilocybin Project:  

Doctors encounter this strange and colorful state of mind in patients suffering from advanced hepatic, renal, or pulmonary disease, in which toxic products accumulate in the body and do to the brain and mind just what LSD does. All the phenomena detailed in this book and celebrated by Leary and company as “the experience”—the vividness of color perception, the merging of physical sensations, the hallucinations, the disorientation and loss of a sense of time, the delusional joys and terrors that come and go evoking unpredictable feelings and behaviors—are sadly familiar symptoms doctors are called to treat in hospitals every day.

Roland Griffiths (the author of  Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance) and an architect of the Hopkins study admits they may be encountering a temporary psychosis.  However, notes that the patients McHugh describe are unlikely to report years later of their experience:  "Wow, that was one of the greatest and most meaningful experiences of my life".

Griffiths' decision to focus on investigating psychedelics and mystical experiences in 1998 has paid off. He has been awarded the Eddy Award from the College on the Problems of Drug Dependence, perhaps the most prestigious lifetime achievement prize in the field. As of 2015, some twenty people were working on various studies involving psychedelics at Hopkins.  Some studies have shown great promise,  A pilot study showed an 80 percent success rate in smoking cessation, which is unprecedented.   A pending study by Griffiths (not yet peer reviewed) reports striking results using psilocybin to treat the anxiety and depression of cancer patients;  the study found one of the largest treatment effects ever demonstrated for a psychiatric intervention.

And the lasting effects of the Johns Hopkins good Friday experiment continue.  One participant writes:

As I have argued at length in my book, Why Religion Matters, religion is humanity's greatest asset (after our needs for food and water are met), because it provides us with aspiration, hope, and courage. But our modem world, having succumbed to the delusion that science is the only reliable oracle of truth, is the most secular society history has ever known.

Onto this dismal scene CSP's work at Johns Hopkins shines like a beacon of light and hope. The Johns Hopkins Experiment shows - proves - that under controlled, experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity's secularism. In doing so, it offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism. And it does so in the very teeth of the unscientific prejudices built into our current drug laws.

Chapter Two:  Natural History


Paul Stamets.  Paul is a mycologist from Washington State who literally wrote the book on the genus Psilocybe.  He is not a scientist, has no graduate degree and funds most of his own research by his company Fungi Perfecti, which sells spores and medicinal mushroom supplies.  His 2008 TED talk, a mash-up of hard science and visionary speculation, has received over four million views.

Reading Stamets guide can be discouraging.  Differentiating poisonous LBMs (little brown mushrooms) from edible psilocybin producing mushrooms is far more challenging from differentiating some of the commonly eaten mushrooms.

However, Stamets provides the "Stametsian rule: for targeting psilocybin mushrooms:

"If a gilled mushroom has purplish brown to black spores, and the flesh bruises bluish, the mushroom in question is very likely a psilocybin producing species."

Stamets adds that he doesn't know of any exceptions to this rule.  But adds that there may be exceptions that he is unaware of...

Pollan visits Stamets in his home for a weekend, before the two are scheduled to head off to a campground at the mouth of the Columbia river. (Your dearest author assures you they were headed to Point Disappointment State Park, a prolific site of magic mushrooms, and a prolific source of law enforcement activity.)

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Stamets house is the house that mushrooms built.  A diploma from the original Electric Coolaid Acid Test is framed.  A painting by Albert Hoffman hangs over a large fireplace.  This painting by Alex Grey also hangs nearby depicting the Stoned Ape Theory

Pollan learns that a formative moment for Stamets was when he went off to Kenyon College and as a freshman had a profound psychedelic experience.  Stamets had a debilitating stutter. One day, not knowing better, he ate 10 grams of mushrooms, 2.5x a significant dose.  As the drug's effects were coming on he climbed a tree, and a storm rolled in.  Too high to climb down he wrapped his arms and legs around the tree and held on as the storm hit hard.  

Stamets realized that the tree is the tree of life anchoring him to the world.  He also realized lightening is beginning to strike nearby.  As he became increasingly connected to the universe he also became aware that he might die by lightning strike.  He decided that if he was to survive, his stutter, which had been holding him back, must end.  He repeated a mantra "Stop stuttering now".  The storm passed, and he went home and went to sleep.  His stutter all but disappeared.  


After a year Stamets left Kenyon College to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington.  There he, and three other students began to study magic mushrooms, with one student possessing a DEA license to do so.  The students' accomplishments included identifying three new species, improving techniques for growing indoors, and identifying methods to measure psychedelic compounds in mushrooms.  But perhaps the most important contribution was the shift in focus for mushrooms from the southwest to the pacific northwest, which became the center of gravity for magic mushrooms.

At Stamets' house he and Pollan watch a video tape of the conferences held at Evergreen State on magic mushrooms, and then review copies of the May 13, 1957 Life Magazine, which contained the now infamous article on magic mushrooms, Seeking the Magic Mushroom.

Seeking the Magic Mushroom was the first recorded use of the phrase “Magic Mushroom”; a phrase not coined by a hippie, but a Time-Life headline writer.

While Life Magazine publishing such an article may be a surprise, the owner of Time-Life, Henry Luce, along with his wife, had experienced of taking LSD under doctors orders.  Before 1965, Time-Life publications actively boosted psychedelics.  When Seeking the Magic Mushroom's author, R.Gordon Wasson knocked on Time-Life's door he found a receptive buyer, who gave him a significant fee, and generous creative control over the article, including its title and the wording of captions and headings. 

Wasson proceeds to tell the story of how he, a New York banker, ended up in a Mexican village taking mushrooms in a religious ceremony.  The story is a photo essay, which describes the trip in detail.  [Pollan describes the article in some detail, but your humble author suggests you peruse the article yourself, faithfully reproduced here.]

The use of magic mushrooms was widespread until the Spanish invasion and subsequent violent repression by the Spanish in the name of the Catholic church.  Wasson developed a theory that religion had sprung from early psychedelic experiences, and couched his article to support this theory.  However, by 1955 the Catholic tenants had been widely adopted in Mexico, and magic mushrooms were not used for worship.  They were used for medicinal purposes and for purposes such as locating a missing person or a missing valuable object.  Wasson gained access to the ceremony by requesting information about the well-being of his son and his son's location (and the information gained during the ceremony was eerily accurate.)


Wasson brought back with him mushrooms, which he used at parties he hosted, leading to other "trip reports" being published.  He also sent mushrooms to Albert Hoffman, who in 1958 isolated and named the two psychoactive compounds, psilocybin and psilocin, and developed the synthetic version of psilocybin used in current research. 


The woman featured in Wasson's article as administering the mushrooms, Maria Sabina, took Hoffman's synthetic pills and confirmed that they "did indeed contain the spirit of the mushroom".  Thousands of people, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Mick Jagger headed to Maria Sabina's home in Huautla Mexico.  The attention was ruinous for the small village, which became quickly commercialized.  In this 1970 New York Times op-ed Wasson held himself responsible for unleashing "a torrent of commercial exploitation of the vilest kind" on the small town. 


Pollan comments that Terence McKenna's stoned ape theory is best listened to explained by its creator.  So take a moment and listen for yourself. Or read this summary.

Stamets had become friends with McKenna before McKenna's death at age 53, and now carries the torch for the stoned ape theory.  What is it that causes people to have a prophetic mission in life about mushrooms... to bring the news of to the world?  From a mushroom's point of view, what might have started as a biochemical accident has turned into an ingenious strategy for enlarging the species' range and number, but winning the fervent devotion of humans.


Pollan and Stamets head to the park near the mouth of the Columbia river to hunt mushrooms.  At the end of the first day, they had found seven Psilocybe Azurescens (with Pollan having found one of the haul).  [Ed note:  As a side note, what Pollan and Stamets did was a felony, and one that is actively prosecuted at that particular park, which is a well-known mushroom gathering spot].  The next day Pollan found four on his own.  The type of mushroom, the "azzie", is almost too strong, Stamet reports.  And he adds that some people experience temporary paralysis.  Pollan's enthusiasm to try the mushrooms is dampened.


Why do magic mushrooms produce chemicals that lead to psychedelic effects?  What's in it for them?  It seems unlikely to be a defense mechanism.  They don't appear to harm those that consume them, and they don't appear in the mycelium--the part of the organism most likely to be well defended.  Animals and humans both consume these mushrooms. Dogs and horses have psychedelic experiences when they eat them (cows, by contrast, love them but probably do not psychedelic experiences).

Eaten in small doses, psychedelic mushrooms might well increase fitness in animals, by increasing sensory acuity and possibly focus as well.  Some tribes around the world feed hunting dogs these mushrooms to improve their hunting ability.  One theory (perhaps a stretch) suggests that during times of rapid environmental change or crisis, it might avail the survival of a group when a few of its members abandon accustomed conditioned responses and experiment with new behaviors; for many this would be disastrous and be discarded by natural selection.  But for a few, the novel behavior may be useful and help the individual, and possibly the group, adapt to the new situation.  


Coda.  The azzies they hunted were consumed in the middle of a summer week spent in the New England, where Pollan and his wife Judith Belzer had lived.   After consuming the via a tea, he and Judith went for a walk.  One mile out Judith reported negative effects and didn't want to walk any longer.  "We need to get home and feel safe" she said with some urgency.   Pollan remained unaffected by the mushrooms and they made the walk home.  

Judith wanted to remain indoors alone (now feeling better), while Pollan wanted to be outdoors.  He strolled through the garden and the word and sense of "poignant" flooded over him.  He headed to a building he had built years before to write in, and was moved by the beauty of a plant he had planted there.  He felt that he was directly communicating with the plant and seeing the world through their eyes.  Ego began to crumble away, but the sense of "I" still remained.  Pollan was an observer, but the doors and windows of perception had opened wide.  

Pollan observed two trees, one badly rotting and it dawned on him that they were obviously his parents. This lead him to having gratitude for his parents, and a sense of mortality. He also made a mental note to call an arborist in the morning to look at the rotting tree. He walked back to his house, seeing dragonflies as big as trees, which left contrails in the air as they flew. He ended the trip with the sense that "I am identical with nature"  

Pollan was left not knowing what to make of his experience.  In some ways it felt spiritual.  He felt the personhood of other beings in a way he hadn't done before.  But there was nothing supernatural about the heightened perceptions, nothing that needed an idea of magic or divinity to explain.  All it took was another perceptual slant on the same old reality. Maybe to be in a garden and feel awe or wonder in the presence of an astonishing mystery, is nothing more than a recovery of a misplaced perspective, perhaps the child's eye view; maybe we regain it by means of a neurochemical change that disables the filters that prevent us in ordinary hours from seeing what is.

Chapter Three:  History

The First Wave

Timmothy Leary.  Dr. Tim Leary played an important role in the modern history of psychedelics, but it's not at all the pioneering role he wrote for himself.  His success in shaping the popular narrative of psychedelics in the 1960s obscures as much as it reveals.  Many came before him, and those that did often see Leary's "antics" with dismay, as he ignited a public bonfire of all their hard-won knowledge and experience.  Therefore, Pollan puts Leary aside until covering the historical precedents that lead to the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

Stephen Ross.  Ross directed an NYU trial using psilocybin to treat the existential distress of cancer patients.  He then turned to the treatment of alcoholics with psychedelics.  Ross had learned that LSD had once been used to treat thousands of alcoholics in Canada and the United States, and that Bill Wilson, the founder of AA had sought to introduce LSD therapy into AA in the 50s.  There had been 40,000 research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers.  But after the psychiatric establishment turned against LSD in the mid-60s an entire body of knowledge was effectively lost.

Part i: The Promise


Humphry Osmond.  Born in Surrey England in 1917 Osmond probably contributed more to our understanding of psychedelic compounds and their therapeutic potential than any other single researcher.  After answering an advertisement, he was invited to move his family to Saskatchewan, forty-five miles north of the North Dakota border to join the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn.  This institution would soon become the world's most important hub of research into psychedelics.  Here Osmond's work included administering a single high dose of LSD to alcoholics, with strikingly positive results.  A key novel idea was that the experience on the drug, not the drug itself was viewed as the critical factor in therapy. The Saskatchewan provincial government helped develop policies making LSD therapy a standard treatment option for alcoholics in the province.

The results of Osmond's experiments with alcoholics were attempted to be replicated under more controlled settings. Study investigators were instructed not to interact with the participants.  And the participants were blindfolded, put in constraints or both. Osmond's results were not replicated, and many of the participants (hardly surprisingly) had negative experiences.

In the mid-50s Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, learned about Osmond's work with alcoholics.  Bill W. had credited his own sobriety to a mystical experience he had on belladonna, a plant-derived alkaloid with hallucinogenic properties.  Through Osmond he got in touch with Sidney Cohen, who had been experimenting with LSD since 1955.  Beginning in 1956 Bill W had several LSD sessions with Cohen and Betty Eisner, and he believed LSD could be a part of therapy in AA, but his colleagues on the board of fellowship strongly disagreed.

Sidney Cohen. Cohen's work as in internist at Brentwood VA Hospital, and later UCLA, led him to doubt the idea that LSD mimicked a psychotic state, which had been the prevailing view.  His personal experience with LSD took him by surprise, experiencing a profound transcendent sense of tranquility, and not a psychotic state. As the prior paradigm fell away, two new distinct theoretical models emerged:  the psycholytic and later the psychedelic model.  The two models were not fully at odds, but represented profoundly different approaches to understanding the psyche.

The Psycholytic paradigm viewed LSD as a mind loosening drug, which allowed patient's ego defenses to relax, allowing them to bring up and discuss difficult or repressed material with relative ease.  This view meshed neatly with prevailing modes of psychoanalysis.  In LA, Cohen, Eisner and Janiger began to incorporate LSD in their weekly therapeutic sessions, with positive results.

By the end of the 50s, psycholytic LSD therapy was routine practice in upscale areas of LA, and Hollywood celebrities openly talked of these sessions.  Cary Grant gave an interview in 1959 extolling the personal improvements he had experienced in his life as a result of LSD therapy.  This positive press and cultural shifts began to take LSD out of the formal therapy session and onto the streets and "group sessions" (which resembled parties).  

Cohen avoided this scene and began to have second thoughts about the drug, or at least about the way it was now being used and discussed.  He struggled with the tension between the spiritual import of the LSD experience and the ethos of science.  He also came to believe that "under LSD the fondest theories of the therapists are confirmed by his patient".  The expectancy effect (the outcome being that which was suggested by expectations) resulted in patients who had Freudian therapists returning with Freudian insights, for example.


The psychedelic model emerged from a 1956 exchange of letters between Humphry Osmond and Aldous Huxley.  Huxley had reached out to Humphry Osmond asking to try mescaline.  In the spring of 1953, Osmond met with Huxley and administered the mescaline, which lead to the published account "The Doors of Perception."

For Huxley, the drug gave him unmediated access to realms of existence usually known only to mystics and a handful of history's great visionary artists.

In a letter exchange for the new class of drugs, Huxley proposed:

To make this mundane world sublime;

Just half a gram of hanerothyme

Osmond responded:

To fall in hell or soar Angelic; You'll need a pinch of psychedelic

Osmond's neologism married two Greek words that together mean "mind manifesting".  


Al Hubbard is surely the most improbable, intriguing and elusive figure to grace the history of psychedelics.  He was born poor in the hills of Kentucky in either 1901 or 1902 and never got past the third grade.  As a teenager he invented something called the Hubbard Energy Transformer, a new type of battery of dubious scientific merit, which he sold a half interest in for $75,000.  He once went to prison for using sophisticated ship to shore communications to help bootleggers avoid the Coast Guard.  His life story is clouded, but somewhat documented in this well researched article.  By the age of 50, however, he was a millionaire.  He was an ardent Catholic, with a pronounced mystical bent.  His FBI file suggested connections to the CIA.


In 1951 Hubbard was successful, but unhappy, searching for meaning in life.  He shortly thereafter had a mystical vision that something important to the future of mankind was coming, and that he could have a role in it if he wanted.  But he was given no clue what that future might be.  However, a year later he read a scientific article on LSD, and Hubbard tracked down the researcher, obtained LSD, and had a life changing experience.  Given his business success, and his government connections, he convinced Sandoz labs to give him a liter bottle of it by one account, forty-three cases by another and six thousand vials by a third account.  He obtained an FDA investigational drug permit, and between 1951 and 1965 introduced six thousand people to LSD.

Hubbard's approach was a "top down" one; he introduced LSD to leaders of business, parliament and heads of the church.  By introducing the social elite to LSD, he believed he could change the course of human history.   Hubbard's meeting with Osborne lead to a change in the course of psychedelic research.  Hubbard convinced Osborne that a mystical experience caused by a single high dose of LSD could be used therapeutically and that the experience was more important than the chemical. He changed the treatment room from a sterile white room, to one adorned with mystical images.

Hubbard traveled across the US and Canada spreading the word of LSD and opening treatment centers for alcoholism.  He believed these endeavors should be not-for-profit, which put him at odds with professional treatment centers which were charging upwards of $500 per session for treatment.  Hubbard began to drain his own fortune spreading the word.

Hubbard became friends with Aldous Huxley and his wife in 1955, which put Huxley's mescaline trip in the shade.  Hubbard and Huxley both shifted their vision of LSD from treating individual mental illness to treating the illness of the world.  Both found the scientific method limiting, and in 1955 Hubbard sought to escape the scientific straitjacket and formalize his network of psychedelic researchers by establishing the Commission for the Study of Creative Imagination, consisting of Osmond, Abram Hoffer, Huxley and Sidney Cohen, as well as a half dozen other psychedelic researchers, a philosopher, Gerald Heard and a UN official.  It's not clear if this group ever did anything, but its existence signaled a deepening fissure between the medial and spiritual approach to psychedelics.


Silicon Valley and Myron Stolaroff.  Al Hubbard's far-flung psychedelic network included Silicon Valley, where the potential for LSD to foster "creative imagination" and thereby change the culture received its most thorough test to date.  Microdosing is a current rage in Silicon Valley today, and Steve Jobs often told people that his use of LSD had been one of his two or three most important life experiences.  

The Key figure in the marriage of Al Hubbard and Silicon Valley was Myron Stolaroff.  Stolaroff was the assistant to the president of strategic planning at Ampex, one of the first technology companies to set up shop in the area south of San Francisco that would become Silicon Valley.  Ampex was a pioneer in developing reel to reel tape for audio and data recording.  Born in 1920, Stolaroff studied engineering at Stanford and became one of Ampex's first employees, a fact that would make him a wealth man.

Stolaroff had a spiritual bent, which led him to Gerald Heard, the English philosopher and friend of Aldous Huxley. Stolaroff was so moved by Heard's description of his LSD experience with Hubbard that in March 1956 he traveled to Vancouver for a session with Hubard at his apartment; the experience was profound for Stolaroff, who decided "[LSD] is the greatest discovery man has ever made".  Stolaroff formed a small group of Ampex employees for a weekly meeting to discuss spiritual questions and the potential of LSD to help individuals--healthy individuals--realized their full potential.

In 1961 Stolaroff leff Ampex to dedicate himself to full-time psychedelic research.  With Willis Harman, he established the International Foundation for Advanced Study (IFAS) to explore the potential of LSD to enhance human personality and creativity.  The foundation secured a drug research permit from the FDA and a supply of LSD and mescaline from Hubbard.  Over the next six years 350 people would take LSD under the foundation's auspices.  

The foundation also conducted studies to see if LSD could enhance creativity.  It found artists, engineers, architects and scientists, all of whom were somehow "stuck" in their work.  They used "every manipulation of set and setting in the book...[telling subjects] they would be fascinated by their intellectual capacities and would solve problems as never before".  Subjects reported much greater fluidity in their thinking, as well as an enhanced ability to both visualize a problem and contextualize it.  The group disbanded in 1966.

Hubbard was recruited to return from semi-retirement in 1968 by Willis Harman, who had gone to work at the Stanford Research Institute, a think tank affiliated with Stanford University.  Hubbard, who by then was broke, was hired  as a part-time "special investigative agent" ostensibly to keep tabs on the use of drugs in the student movement.  Harman would later report that Hubbard "never did anything resembling security work...Al's job was to turn the special sessions for us."  (Hubbard hated the idea of street acid and the counterculture's use of it, and according to one source was involved in the arrest of LSD chemistry Owsley Stanley III.).

Peter Schwartz went to work for Harman at SRI 1973, taking Hubbard's office after his retirement.  Schwartz would become a leading futurist and is currently senior vice president for government relations and strategic planning at  After meeting Hubbard, and talking with Harman, Schwartz realized that "most of the people I was meeting who had interesting ideas had tripped with Hubbard....And all of them had been transformed by the experience."  Schwartz said that several of the early computer engineers relied on LSD in designing circuit chips, especially in the years before they could be designed on computers.  "You had to be able to visualize a staggering complexity in three dimensions, hold it all in your head.  They found that LSD could help."  More generally he reported "I have no doubt that all that Hubbard LSD all of us had taken had a big effect on the birth of Silicon Valley."

Stewart Brand received his own Hubbard LSD baptism in 1962 with James Fadiman presiding as his guide.  "The Whole Earth Network" Brand would subsequently gather together (which included Peter Schwartz, Esther Dyson, Devin Kelly and Howard Rheingold and John Perry Barlow) and play a key role in redefining what computers mean and did, helping to transform them from a top-down food of the military-industrial complex - into a tool of personal liberation and virtually connectivity, with a distinct counter cultural vibe.  Brand thinks LSD's value to this community was an instigator of creativity, one that first helped bring the power of networked computers to people via SRI computer visionaries.  

The first image of earth from space, 1968

The first image of earth from space, 1968

On one LSD trip Brand noticed that the streets of San Francisco were not quite parallel, a fact he ascribed to curvature of the earth.  The idea that the earth was round and finite, meant it had to be managed carefully.  He felt this was important to convey to the people, and a photo of the earth from space was a means to do this.  He lobbied Congress and NASA to photograph earth, which occurred two years later (who knows what impact Brand had on this effort).  Stewart Brand also launched the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968.

Part II:  The Crack-Up

Timothy Leary.   By the time Leary was hired by Harvard in 1959 he had a national reputation as a gifted personality researcher.  Even by that time Leary was becoming disenchanted with his field.  In 1960 Leary was introduced to psilocybin, poolside in Mexico, and his passion to understand the human mind was reignited.  "In four hours by the swimming pool in Cuernavaca I learned more about the mind, the brain and its structures than I did in the preceding fifteen as a diligent psychologist" he later wrote.  

Leary and Alpert

Leary and Alpert

Back at Harvard Leary recruited Richard Alpert, a promising assistant professor and heir to a railroad fortune and the two launched the Harvard Psilocybin Project and began to teach a class to graduate students on the "Experimental Expansion of Consciousness".  While the two did little original research, and ignored most of the research that had been done to date, they did some original work theorizing the idea of “set" and "setting”, deploying the words for the first time in the literature; set referring to a person's mindset entering a psychedelic experience and setting representing the environment of the experience.  

The faculty at Harvard became increasingly uncomfortable with Leary and Alpert's work, which appeared to them to lack scientific discipline, and moreover, it seemed that students were being pressured to participate in the drug taking -- those that did not were labeled "squares". And a cult following began to develop around the professors.  The faculty held a meeting, with faculty and students present to discuss the situation.  Matters appeared improved with Leary and Alpert agreeing to certain reasonable restrictions on their work.   However, the student paper ran a page one story on the meeting and the conflict, and the story was picked up by the Boston Herald, "Hallucination Drug Fought at Harvard--350 Students Take Pills"  Leary added his own choice quote:  "Psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them".  

Psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them.

By the end of the year, Leary and Alpert moved the research from Harvard to their own organization, called the International Federation for Internal Freedom and were making inflammatory statements about federal regulation as well as the academic establishment.  His plan was to introduce four million users by 1969 in America with the plan of "blowing the mind of the American society". 


The larger community of psychedelic researchers reacted to Leary's provocations with dismay and then alarm.  Osmond traveled to Cambridge to try to talk sense into him, worried that Leary's promotion of the drugs outside the context of clinical research threatened to provoke the government and upend their own research.   He also faulted Leary for working without a psychopharmacologist and for treated these "powerful chemicals [as] harmless toys".  Myron Stolaroff wrote a blunt letter to Leary describing the IFIF as "insane" and predicting it will "wreak havoc on all of us doing LSD work all over the nation..."  Al Hubbard went so far as to voice thoughts of shooting Leary.

Andy Weil MD on the LSD scandal that got Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert out of Harvard University.

By the Spring of 1963, Leary had announced his intention to leave Harvard, while Alpert had planned to stay on.  But then an explosive article by an undergraduate named Andrew Weil (who would later discover DMT) appeared in the Crimson got them both fired.  Weil had arrived at Harvard with a keen interest in psychedelic drugs.  

Leary refused to provide Weil drugs, but pointed him to a company in Texas where he could legally mail order them.  By the fall of 1962 Weil had heard of stories of Alpert providing other undergraduates drugs, and was livid.  Weil proposed doing a story in the Harvard Crimson on the situation.  One student came forward, on the condition of anonymity and admitted to receiving drugs from Alpert (adding "it was the most educational experience I've had at Harvard."  Alpert was fired, and Leary, who had already put in notice to quit, had his pay stopped before the end of his contract.  Weil later felt badly about the episode and requested forgiveness from both Leary and Alpert, which was eventually given by both.


After his departure from Harvard, and stops in Mexico and other places, the US government began a campaign of harassment against him, until finally arresting him in 1966 on charges of possessing a small amount of marijuana.  He was sent to prision, from which he escaped in 1970, and was spirited out of the country to Algeria into the arms of Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panter, who confiscated his passport.  Leary had to escape again, this time to Switerland, then to Vienna, Beirut and Kabul, where he was again seized by American agents.  And Leary became the poster boy for the idea that LSD was a crucial part of the counter-culture's DNA.  

Alpert would change his name to Ram Dass, and in 1971 author the classic Be Here Now.  


By 1963 leaders of the psychiatric profession had begun editorializing against psychedelic research. Researchers using LSD themselves seemed to bias potential findings. In addition, "bootleg" LSD was showing up on the streets, and people having bad experiences began to show up at emergency wards and psych wards. Urban legends about the harm of LSD began to spread, including an article in Science magazine linking LSD to chromosome damage (an article the magazine later discredited). An urban myth about LSD users starting at the sun was also born in a 1967 Newsweek issue; a pure fabrication by Dr, Norman Yoder, the Pennsylvania's state commissioner for the blind.  Some risks were real.  LSD can trigger a first psychotic episode in young people at risk for schizophrenia (any traumatic experience can serve as such a trigger).

Sidney Cohen attempted to systematically study the potential harm of psychedelics. Beginning in 1960 he published a series of articles. For his first study Cohen surveyed forty-four researchers working with psychedelics, collecting data on some five thousand subjects taking LSD or mescaline on a total of twenty-five thousand occasions. He found only two credible reports of suicide in this population (a low rate for a group of psychiatric patients), several transient panic reactions, but "no evidence of serious prolonged physical side effects" when these compounds were used in a clinical setting.  However, in 1962 Cohen also published a paper in JAMA reporting new and alarming developments; the casual use of LSD outside of the clinical setting, and in the hands of irresponsible therapists was leading to serious complications and occasional catastrophic reactions. Life magazine and others carried horror stories of the potential harm of LSD use.  

By 1966 Sandoz withdrew LSD-25 from circulation, turning over most of its remaining stock to the US government and leading to many of the seventy research programs then underway to shut down.  In May 1966 the Senate held hearings about the LSD problem.  Robert F. Kennedy, whose wife Ethel had reportedly been treated with LSD at one of Hubbard's outpost gave a sympathetic ear, asking FDA regulators "Why if [these projects] were worthwhile six months ago, why aren't they worthwhile now" and noted it would be a "loss to the nation" if psychedelics were banned from medicine because of illicit use.  In October 1966 some sixty psychedelic researchers scattered across the US receive a letter from the FDA ordering them to stop their work.

Some programs, including Spring Grove, were allowed to continue (it continued until 1976).  Spring Grove's center director, Albert Hurland, besides having a sterling reputation among federal officials, was exceptionally well-connected in Washington and used his connections to keep the lights on (including receiving LSD from the US Government).


In February 1979, virtually all the important figures in the first wave of American psychedelic research gathered for a reunion in the home of Oscal Janiger.  The meeting was videotaped, although of low quality.  A discussion of Leary's role is discussed, more conciliatory than one might anticipate.  The video has been on and off of YouTube, and is currently down.  If made available once again, it is well worth a viewing.

Chapter Four:  Travelogue

Journeying Underground

Pollen had intended to volunteer for a study, to have a guided psychedelic journey in the company of trained professionals close by a hospital emergency room.  However, the above ground researchers were no longer working with "healthy normals".  This meant any journey would have to take place underground -- to the network of trained therapists, who also work with psychedelic compounds.  Pollan interviewed fifteen of these guides and worked with five of them.  He found most of them to be unexpectedly open, generous and trusting.   While the authorities have shown no interest in going after these guides, their work is illegal. Many of the guides could connect their work back to Leary or one of his graduate students, or to Stanislav Grof, Al Hubbard or a Bay Area psychologist named Leo Zeff.


Leo Zeff.  Zeff, who died in 1988, was one of the earliest underground therapists, and the author of a posthumous account of his work, the Secret Chief (renamed the Secret Chief Revealed when Zeff's identity was tied to the book).  

Zeff began his work in the early 1960s, and found the effects so impactful that he decided to continue his work underground when the federal government put psychedelics on schedule 1 in 1970.  Zeff codified many of the protocols used by underground therapists, and developed many of the ceremonial touches, such as having participants take the medicine from a cup. He believed it was imperative that guides had personal experience with the drug and he came to believe that guides should not try to direct or manipulate the psychedelic journey, allowing it instead to find its own course.

The world of the underground guides are not entirely distinct from the world of the University researchers.  When designing research studies, Hopkins reached out to several underground guides to learn certain practices.  

Draft charters and manuals for guides and psychedelic voyagers have been published online.  Perhaps the most useful document online is the "Guidelines for Voyagers and Guides."  The guidelines represent a compendium of half a century's accumulated knowledge and wisdom about how best to approach the psychedelic journey, whether as a participant as a guide.  

Pollan's next task was to find a guide. After two false starts, he found Fritz, a German immigrant who had studied for several years under Stan Grof.  Fritz and his wife were both guides, and charged $900 for a three day experience.  Pollan signed up for a session.  

Trip One:  LSD

The first day consisted of breath work -- rapid breathing combined with powerful exhales.  The second day would be the LSD experience, followed by taking notes on the experience with the final day being a debrief on the experience, and a comparison of notes.

On the first day of breath work Pollan found the experience to be powerful; he had the sense of exhilaration until he began to picture himself on the back of a big black horse galloping down a path in a forest, and he lost his sense of time.  Fritz eventually stop the session and informed him he had been doing the breath work for 75 minutes.  Pollan felt buoyant and humbled by the mystery of the experience.  Then his heart went into an arrhythmic state, which it had done once before.  It remained in that state for two hours, causing him to question all night whether he should proceed with the LSD experience in the morning.  Eventually he decided to proceed, rationalizing that LSD is confined mainly to the brain, and does not have a notable impact on the heart.

Fritz and Pollan agreed to start with a modest dose - 100 micrograms, with a "booster" after an hour or two if Pollan wanted one.  Fritz sent him out on a walk to clear his head and focus his intentions while he readied a yurt for the journey.  Pollan returned with the intention to learn whatever the journey had to teach him about himself.  

Fritz coached Pollan on challenges he might face - paranoia, spooky places, feelings of losing ones mind or dying.  "It's like when you see a mountain lion...If you run it will chase you.  So you must stand your ground."

At 11 am he started to feel wobbly. Fritz suggested he lay down and put on eye shadow, while Fritz started music, which was Amazonian in flavor. And with that he was off traveling somewhere in his mind. In a fully realized forest landscape that the music had somehow summoned He guessed he was hallucinating, yet it was not what he expected. He had expected an overpowering sensation. Fritz had told him that the literal meaning of the word hallucination is to wander in one's mind, which is exactly what Pollan was doing. Wandering, with the same desultory indifference to agency the wanderer feels; yet he still had agency: He could change at will the contents of his thoughts. But in the dreamy state he was happy to let the terrain and the music dictate his path.

Hallucinations continued and Pollan saw meaning in them; a symbolic representation of his life with his wife and child, a connection with the rootscape of a forest, traversing the mycelial network.  A feeling of being emotionally wide open and undefended.  Admiration for his sisters and mother, gratitude for his parents.  Compassion for people long forgotten.  

The following day, during the debrief, Pollan found his words spoken during his trip to sound thin and banal.  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.  Platitudes that wouldn't seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.  

Love is everything.  

Is a platitude so deeply felt still just a platitude?  No, Pollan decided.  A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been strained of all emotion.  To re-saturate it with feeling is to see it again for what it is:  the loveliest and most deeply rooted of truths, hidden in plain sight.  Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious.  Because the LSD had not completely dissolved his ego, he never lost the ability to redirect his stream of consciousness.  The stream felt different -- less subject to will or outside interference.  

Reflecting upon the experience he was relieved that the experience have been so benign and grateful it had been productive.  However, in time he grew disappointed that the experience hadn't been more transformative.  And he decided it was time to venture farther out.

Trip Two:  Psilocybin

Pollan's second journey began before an alter in the middle of a second-story loft in a suburb of a small city on the Eastern Seaboard.  The altar was being prayed over by an attractive blond woman, Mary.  The altar was full of ceremonial items.  While the scene may sound hokey, the conviction Mary brought to the ceremony, the smells and sounds, and Pollan's own nervousness cast a spell that allowed him to suspend disbelief.

Mary's professionalism and intelligence impressed Pollan, including her detailed medical and biographical surveys that she had him fill out.  He was, however, skeptical whether he would be able to consume the mushroom being presented to him -- nearly five inches long, weighing two grams.   The plan was to consume more mushrooms during the experience, for a total of four grams, roughly the equivalent of three hundred micrograms of LSD -- Twice what he had taken.


Once the effect of the mushroom started being felt, Mary suggested Pollan put on eyeshades. He chose the Mindfold Relaxation Mask, which had been expressly designed for this purposes, but are now mass marketed.

As soon as Mary put on music, Pollan was propelled into a nighttime urban landscape that appeared to have been computer generated.  The place wasn't frightening, but Pollan hated being in it and wished to be somewhere else, but it went on seemingly forever with no way out.  Pollan requested different music and different fractal images appeared.  

This was not at all like previous trips, which had left him more or less the captain of his attention, able to direct it as he pleased.  This was like being strapped on the front car of a cosmic roller coaster.  Only removing the shades would allow him to return to reality or at least something loosely based on it.  

With shades off and sunlight flooding his senses, the world appeared jeweled with light.  The arc of water out of a bathroom faucet was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen - a waterfall of diamonds cascading into a pool, braking its surface into a billion clattering fractals of light.

Maria Sabina

Mary offered and Pollan accepted the booster mushroom.  As Mary squatted next to him, she saw her turn into Maria Sabina, the Mexican curandera who had given psilocybin to R Gordon Wasson sixty years ago in that dirt basement in Huautla de Jimenez.  Pollan saw Mary with black hair, dressed in a simple white peasant dress.  He accepted the mushrooms from the woman's wrinkled brown hand and looked away as he chewed.  Later Pollan learned that Maria was Mary's hero.



Before putting his mask back on Pollan wanted to try an experiment.  Loaded on his laptop was the image to the right, called the binocular depth inversion illusion.  The flipping of image that is seen is done by the mind, which assumes all faces to be convex.  The mind does not build a new perception from every batch of raw data, instead jumping to the most sensible conclusion based on experience combined with a tiny sample of new data.  Not all minds can do this.   Schizophrenics, for example, and very young children, do not do this.  Which raises the interesting question of whether these sets of people are actually, at least in certain instances, having more accurate perception.  And it is reported that people on high doses of psychedelics sometimes also see the mask image accurately.  In Pollan's case, however, the image still popped out as it rotated, albeit a bit more slowly.

Pollan put the eye shades back on to find, disappointingly, that the computer world had returned.  But this time he watched his familiar "self" start to fall away.  "I" now turned into a sheaf of little papers being scattered to the wind.  No desire to collect them existed.  Now he saw himself as a thin smear spread over the landscape like paint or butter, coating the world with a substance he recognized as himself.  But who was this "I"?  Here the limits of language become a problem.  He was observing himself, requiring a whole new first person pronoun.  The new I was unbounded by any body.  Its perspective was supremely indifferent, neutral on all questions of interpretation.  Everything that was "I" had been liquefied and dispersed over the scene.

He wondered if he was experiencing the "Mind At Large" that Huxley described during his mescaline trip in 1953.  Others have referred to this as a cosmic consciousness - something that exists outside of our brains as a property of the universe.  Nothing in Pollan's experience led him to believe that this novel form of consciousness originated outside of him; it seems just as plausible to assume it was a product of his brain, just like the ego it supplanted.  But this itself struck him as a remarkable gift:  that we can let go of so much -- the desires, fears and defenses of a lifetime.

Near the end of his trip, Pollan removed the shade to again go to the bathroom.  This time he looked in the mirror and saw a skull with a thin layer of skin stretched over it, which was both himself and his grandfather Bob.  He never felt much in common with Bob, who had a perpetually sunny disposition.  He then looked at Mary who looked young and strikingly beautiful, so much so that he had to look away.  Mary gave him a final small mushroom - gram number four, and a piece of chocolate to eat it with. 

He again attempted the rotating mask experiment, this time a complete bust because the mask dissolved into a gray jelly that slid down the screen of his laptop. With his mask back on he found himself in a cracked and parched desert landscape dense with artifacts and images of death.  The faces of the familiar dead passed before me, with a voice telling him that he had failed to properly mourn all of them.  It was true, he had not done so.  But he could do it here and now.  He looked hard at each face, with a pity that seemed bottomless but with no fear... except for one.  He watched in horror as his aunt's face transformed into his wife's Judith's face.  Both had been diagnosed with breast cancer at around the same time.  The cancer had killed his aunt, but his wife survived.  So what was Judith doing down here among the unmourned dead?  He wondered "Had I been defending myself against that possibility all this time?  Heart wide open, defenses melting, the tears began to flow."

Pollan reflects on one final element of the experience:  the soundtrack.  Before going back under for the last passage, he had asked Mary to play classical music.  They settled on the second of Bach's unaccompanied cello suites, performed by Yo-Yo Ma.  It is a mournful piece that he had heard many times before, including at funerals.  "Never had a piece of music pierced me as deeply as this one did now.  Though even to call it 'music' is to diminish what now began to flow, which was nothing less than the stream of human consciousness, something in which one might glean the very mean of life and, if you could bear it, read life's last chapter".  Pollan became one with the cello and mourned with it for the twenty or so minutes it took "for that piece to, well, change everything".

The trip report above came only after Pollan's next day "integration" session - a debrief with Mary about the experience.  Immediately after the trip only a jumble of disjointed images and shards of sense existed. To put words to an experience that was in fact ineffable at the time, and then to shape them into sentences and then a story, is inevitably to do it a kind of violence.  But the alternative is, literally, unthinkable.

Pollan had survived what he feared might be a terrifying experience.  He had watched he ego disappear, which was something to be grateful for, but twenty-four hours later, his old ego was back in uniform and on patrol.  So what long-term good was that beguiling glimpse of a loftier perspective?  Mary suggested that this glimpse of a different way might help keep the ego in check, perhaps in conjunction with meditation.  This is exactly the perspective that Pollan suspects has allowed so many of the volunteers Pollan had interviewed to overcome fears and anxieties or additions.  Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one's self-interest we get to experience an extreme version of Keats's "negative capability" -- the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty.  

Trip Three:  5-MeO-DMT


Rocio was known to be an expert in "the toad".  The toad is the Sonoran Desert Toad, which contains the 5-MeO-DMT molecule.  Rocio had read an online manual about the toad, which was native to her local desert in Mexico.  She learned how to catch them, which is not hard to do, since they freeze in the beam of a headlight.  Roughly the size of a man's hand they have a large gland on each side of their neck and smaller ones on their legs.  You gently squeeze the gland while holding a mirror in front of it to catch the spray.  The toad is released, unharmed, and overnight the liquid dries on the mirror, turning the color of brown sugar.

In the natural state DMT is toxic, but when the crystals are volatilized the toxins are destroyed.  During a DMT experience, Rocio holds a glass pipe and vaporizes the crystals while the recipient inhales.  Before you have a chance to exhale you are gone.  The experience is intense and short-lived - typically twenty or thirty minutes.

The Toad has been known to Western since only since 1992, when Andrew Weil and Wade Davis published "Identity of a New World Psychoactive Toad".  Trip reports were, however, plentiful, many of which were terrifying.  A friend of a friend told Pollan over lunch "this is the Everest of psychedelics", as she described a mystical experience she had.  

He met Rocio, with substantial nervousness, decided to try the experience.  Rocio asked him to give thanks to the toad and to think about his intention for the journey.  Rocio lit a butane flame underneath the premeasured crystals and instructed him to draw on the glass pipe in short sips of air as the white smoke swirled and then filled the glass.  "Then one big final draw that I want you to hold as long as you can."  

Pollan had no memory of exhaling or of being lowered onto a mattress and covered with a blanket.  He felt a tremendous rush of energy fill his head accompanied by a punishing roar.  Terror filled him and "I" was no more. There was no hallucination - which implies a reality and point of reference and an entity to have it.  None of those things remained.  The I disappeared but terror remained.  

Words fail Pollan to describe the experience.  His words are only metaphors he grabs at in the hope of forming some stable and shareable concept of what was unfolding in his mind.  Pollan describes metaphors of a rocket escaping the earth's atmosphere, on the brink of self-destruction with him clinging on.  And of the big bang, run in reverse.  

"It was horrible".

Then reality quickly began to return; the sense of self, the universe reassembling.  A sense of ecstasy, which was like the equal and opposite reaction to the terror he had just endured.  Less of a divine gift than the surge of pleasure that comes from the cessation of unendurable pain.  But a sense of relief so vast and deep as to be cosmic.

Then he experienced giving birth to his son Isaac. Tears of gratitude came for the very fact of being - that there is anything whatsoever.  Everyone gives thanks for being alive, but who stops to offer thanks for the bare-bones gerund that come before "alive".  He had just come from a place where "being" was no more, and now vowed never to forget what a gift and mystery it is.  Pollan came back from the experience vowing to do less "doing" and more "being".  To savor the moment, without trying to change it or even describe it. 

Months later Pollan still didn't know what to make of the experience.  It lacked the beginning, middle and end that his other psychedelic experiences had.  And the speed of the experience made it hard to extract much information or knowledge beyond the psychedelic platitude about the importance of being. A few days after his toad experience he found the following words in an email from James Fadiman:

I hope whatever you're doing;     you're stopping now and then;   and;    not doing it at all

To attempt to understand his experience, Pollan took the Revised Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ), a tool used by scientist in connection with the Hopkins and NYU studies, among others.  The survey was challenging for Pollan to complete and he struggled to assign ratings to a handful of items.  But at the end he had scored a sixty-one.  Sixty was the threshold for a "complete" mystical experience.  So according to the survey it was a mystical experience, but it was not what Pollan expected a mystical experience to be.  The MEQ was a poor net for capturing his encounter with the toad, and best tossed out.

There was no question that something novel and profound had happened, which Pollan calls spiritual...with an asterisk. He had always assumed that spirituality implied a belief or faith he never shared. But now he questioned whether that was indeed the case.  Could one see "God" as only the word big enough to express the form of grace experienced during a psychedelic experience?  He also struggled with the word "mystical", which reeks of the supernatural.  But with great minds spending literally thousands of years to find the words for this extraordinary human experience and make sense of it, it would be wrong to discard it.

According to scholars of mysticism, there is a striking commonality of descriptions, including: 

  • a vision of unity in which all things, including the self, are subsumed;

  • a sense of certainty about what one has perceived;

  • feelings of joy, blessedness and satisfaction;

  • a transcendence of the categories we rely on to organize the world, such as time and space or self and other;

  • a sense that whatever has been apprehended is somehow sacred and often paradoxical; and

  • the conviction that the experiences is ineffable - even as thousands of words are expended in the attempt to communicate its power.

Before his psychedelic experiences, words and phrases used to describe mysticism would leave Pollan cold, but now they paint a recognizable reality.  Similarly, mystical passages from literature can now be read by Pollan as a subspecies of journalism,  because he now understood exactly what those writers were talking about.  

Perhaps spiritual experience is simply what happens in the space that opens up in the mind when egotism vanishes.  Wonders and terrors we're ordinarily defended against flow into our awareness; the far ends of the sensor spectrum, normally invisible to us, our senses can suddenly admit.  While the ego sleeps, the mind plays, proposing unexpected patterns of thought.  The gulf between self and world closes down, and regardless of the name given to it, in the crucible of that merging death loses some of its sting.

Chapter Five:  The Neuroscience

Your Brain on Psychedelics


Even a casual glance at the psychedelic molecules indicates a resemblance to each other...and to Serotonin.  All four are tryptamine, a type of organic compound distinguished by the presence of two lined rings, one of them with six atoms and the other with five.  

Serotonin binds with a dozen or so receptors, found throughout the body including the digestive tract.  Depending on the type of receptor and its location, serotonin is liable to make very different things happen.... sometimes exciting a neuron to fire, other times inhibiting it.  Psychedelic compounds have a strong affinity with one type of serotonin receptor, called the 5-HT2A receptor.  The psychedelic compounds look sufficiently similar to serotonin to attach themselves to this receptor as to activate it to do various things.

But while we know what psychedelic compounds do, we do not know how they affect consciousness.  Consciousness itself is not understood by scientists, at least in the sense that we cannot explain how the subjective quality of experience for a person is correlated to the physical structures or chemistry of the brain. Scientists are using psychedelic compounds to better understand the links between our brains and our minds.

Perhaps the most ambitious neuroscientific expedition using psychedelics to map the terrain of human consciousness is taking place in West London in the labs of David Nutt (the author of the infamous Lancet article on the relative harm of various drugs and alcohol).  There volunteers are being injected with LSD and psilocybin and scanned with MRI and MEG to observe changes in their brains, giving us our first glimpses of what something like ego dissolution or hallucinations look like in the brain as it unfolds in the mind.


Robin Carhart-Harris course to David Nutt's labs began with a graduate course in psychoanalysis, a field not taken seriously by many neuroscientists, who view it as less of a science than a set of untestable beliefs.  In his studies a professor sent him to read Realms of the Human Unconscious by Stanislav Grof.  When Carhart-Harris approached Nutt about studying psychedelics and dreams, Nutt was dismissive, but Carhart-Harris was insistent and Nutt was impressed.  Nutt suggested he do his PhD with him, working on MDMA's effects on the serotonin system, relatively simple work compared to what Carhart-Harris was proposing.  Upon completion of his PhD, he obtained funding from a colorful character, Amanda Feilding.


Amanda Feilding is eccentric.  A student of comparative religion and mysticism, she believes LSD enhances cognitive function and facilitates higher states of consciousness by increasing cerebral circulation.  Another approach to do this, she believes, is via trepanation, which involves drilling a shallow hole in the skull to improve blood circulation, a process that appeared to be common in ancient times, and a process Feilding performed on herself in 1970.  For periods of her life she used LSD daily at a dose of 150 micrograms, which for most would be a full fledged trip, although drug tolerance does develop.  She has dedicated herself to work on both drug research and drug policy reform, which has been serious, strategic and productive.Carhartt-Harris's working hypothesis in the study was that brains on psilocybin would exhibit increases in activity, particularly in the emotion centers, which would be observable in a fMRI scanner. But when the first results came in, the results were the opposite - decreased in blood flow (a proxy for activity).  Psilocybin reduces brain activity, especially in one area:  the default mode network (or DMN).

The DMN was not known to brain science until 2001.  The DMN forms a critical and centrally located hub of brain activity that links part of the cerebral cortex to the deeper and older structures involved in memory and emotion.  This is the area that becomes active when the brain is not focused on other things; it's where the mind goes to wander, daydream, and worry.  It may be through these structures that the stream of our consciousness flows.  It is most active when we are engaged in higher-level "metacognitive" processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (such as the self or ego), moral reasoning and "theory of mind" - the ability to attribute mental states to others, as when we try to imagine "what it is like" to be someone else.

The brain is a hierarchical system, with the highest-level parts (developed late in evolution) typically located in the cortex.  Those systems exert an inhibitory influence on the older, lower-level parts.  The DMN exerts a top down influence on other parts of the brain, many of which communicate with each other through the hub.  It acts as an uber-conductor to ensure the cacophony of competing signals from one system do not interfere with those from another.  The DMN is where people construct the image of themselves - linking past experiences with what happens to us and with projections of our future goals.   There is also a link between self-reflection and many types of unhappiness, with there being a strong correlation between unhappiness and time spent in mind wandering, the principal activity of the default mode network.

In Carhart-Harris's first study, the steepest drops in DMN activity correlated with his volunteers' subjective experience of ego dissolution.  This is the same effect recorded when experienced mediators experienced transcendence.  The sense of merging into some larger totality is one of the hallmarks of the mystical experience.  The psychedelic experience of "non-duality" suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self.  Carhart-Harris suspects that the loss of a clear distinction between subject and object might help explain another feature of the mystical experience:  the fact that the insights it sponsors are felt to be objectively true.  The lack of the sense of self literally removes the sense of the subjective.

The mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain's default mode network.  This can be achieved not only by psychedelics and meditation, but perhaps also by means of breathing exercises, sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences and so on.


The DMN exerts an inhibitory influence on other parts of the brain.  This may explain why during a psychedelic experience repressed emotions and memories may come forth.  But the DMN also helps regulate what is let into consciousness from the outside world.  The brain is a prediction machine, taking as little sensory information as possible from the outside world as it needs to make an educated guess.  Our perceptions of the world offer us not a literal transcription of reality but rather a seamless illusion woven from both the data of our senses and the models in our memory.  Imagine how other creatures perceive the world, now that "reality" is less certain; an octopus is radically decentralized - with intelligence distributed across eight arms so that each of them can taste, touch and even make its own "decisions" without consulting headquarters.

Carhart-Harris recently published an ambitious paper titled "The Entropic Brain:  A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs".  The question at the heart of the study is whether we pay a price for the achievement of order and selfhood in the adult human mind.  By promoting realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies, the brain tends to constrain cognition and exerts a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.  In earlier development, the human brain relied upon "magical thinking" to make order of the unknown.  Later the default mode network developed, allowing for self-reflection and reason.  

The article offers an intriguing graphic, pictured to the left.  The spectrum of cognitive states range from high-entropy (psychedelic states, infant consciousness, early psychosis, magical thinking, and divergent or creative thinking) to low-entropy (rigid thinking, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anesthesia and coma).

He suggests that psychological disorders at the low-entropy end of the spectrum are not the result of a lack of order in the brain but rather stem from an excess of order.  When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing.  This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. He believes that excessively rigid patterns of thought can be improved by psychedelics, which disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior by disintegrating the patterns of neural activity upon which they rest.


In a high-entropy brain the specialized neural networks, such as the default mode network and the visual processing systems, become disintegrated, while the brain as a whole becomes more integrated as new connections spring up among regions that ordinarily kept mainly to themselves or were linked only via the central hub of the DMN.  The various networks of the brain become less distinct and specialized, communicating more openly.

A 2014 study produced a map of the brain's internal communications during normal waking consciousness and after an injection of psilocybin.  Under psilocybin, thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that don't normally exchange much information.

Placebo Psilocybin

Placebo Psilocybin

The increase in entropy allows a thousand mental states to bloom, many of them bizarre and senseless, but some number of them revelatory, imaginative and at least potentially transformative.  Science has not shown whether the new neural connections that psychedelics make possible endure in any way.  But the long term change in thinking that some studies have shown raises the possibility that some kind of learning takes place while the brain is rewired and that it might in some way persist.

In the days following a psychedelic experience, people are more able to identify their own state of consciousness, and the state becomes somewhat easier to manipulate.  The author notes his own ability to identify if he is in a "contracting" or "expanding" state of consciousness.  In the expanding state he is feeling more generous or grateful, open to feelings and people and nature, often accompanied by a diminution of ego and a falloff attention to the past or the future.  There is a sense of contraction when he's obsessing about things or feeling fearful, defensive, rushed worried and regretful.  The ego is more present, and thoughts about the past or future are more in the forefront.  


A young child has an entropic brain, and baby consciousness is so different from adult consciousness as to constitute a mental country all of its own.  The closest we may be able to come to visiting that foregin land may be a psychedelic journey.  A video of a discussion among Carhart-Harris and Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, can be seen on this YouTube video.

Gopnik draws a useful distinction between the "spotlight consciousness" of adults and the "lantern consciousness" of young children.  The first mode gives adults the ability to narrowly focus attention on a goal.  The child's attention is more widely diffused, allowing the child to take in information from virtually anywhere in the field of awareness, which is quite wide.  Gopnik believes that the child (under 5) and the adult on psychedelics rely more on novel thinking than on applying known information to processing sensory information.  This appoach may result in more errors and require more time and energy to process, but occasionally return answers of surpassing beauty and originality.  In some experiments young children are better at problem solving than adults, precisely because of the requirement for novel thinking.  In one experiment, she presented children with a toy box that lights up and plays music when a certain kind of block is placed on top of it.  When it's programmed to only work when two blocks are placed on it, four year olds figure it out much faster than adults.  Children test more "far-out" hypothesis than adults.

Both Gopnik and Carhart-Harris believe that the psychedelic experience, as they conceptualize it, can be helpful to help people who are sick and those that are not.  For the well, psychedelics, by introducing more noise or entropy into the brain, might shake people out of their usual patterns of thought in ways that might enhance well-bering, make us more open and boost creatiity.  It may help us acheive fluid thinking in a way that is second nature the children.  For the unwell, those patients suffering from mental disordered characterized by mental rigidity may be helped, including addcition, depression and obsession.  Each of these are associated with a narrow, ego-based focus.

Chapter Six:  The Trip Treatment

Psychedelics in Psychotherapy

One:  Dying

Traditional scientific methods do not translate well to psychedelic drug testing.  For one, in double blind studies, it's not very difficult for the patient or the scientist to realize who is on the placebo and who is on the psychedelic.  Moreover, set and setting seem to play an important role in the therapeutic value of psychedelics, while western medicine seeks to isolate a single factor, the compound being test, as having any causative effect.

Nonetheless, research into psychedelics comes along at a time when mental health treatment in the US is so "broken" (to use the word of Tom Insel, who until 2015 was the director of the National Institute of Health, that the fields willingness to entertain radical new approaches is perhaps greater than it has been for a generation.


In April 2010, Patrick Mettes read the article Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again, which briefly mentioned research at NYU where psilocybin was being tested to relieve existential distress in cancer patients.

The idea of giving a psychedelic drug to the dyning was first raised by Aldous Huxley in a letter to Humphry Osmond, proposing such a research project.  Huxley has his wife give him an injection of LSD when he was on his own deathbed, on November 22, 1963.  In 1965, Sidney Cohen wrote an essay for Harpers, LSD and the Anguish of Dying exploring the potential for LSD to alter the experience of dying.

Patrick started his experience in January 2011.  Within 30 minutes it was clear that he had not received a placebo.  Early in the journey Patrick encountered his brother's wife, who had died of cancer more than 20 years earlier.  Other aspects of this part of his journey contained strong feminine energy.  He felt the power of a mother's love and the realization that all mothers have love, and then experienced being re-birthed.

The experience was intense and at one point he asked to take a break.  He sat up and reported:  "I mentioned that everyone deserved to have this experience...that if everyone did, no one could ever do harm to another again... wars would be impossible to wage."  He voiced reluctance to "go back in" but eventually did.  From then on out, "love was the only consideration...It was and is the only purpose."  At 12:15 he say "OK, I get it!  You can all punch out now.  Our work is done."  But he continued, seeing the cancer in his lungs, and reported "I was being told (without words) not to worry about the's minor in the scheme of things... simply an imperfection of your humanity and that the more important matter... the real work to be done is before you.  Again, love."

At 3 p.m. it was over and he returned home.  His wife reported that Patrick "looked like he had run a race.  The color in his face was not good, he looked tired and sweaty, but he was on fire.  He was lit up with all the things he wanted to tell me and all the things he couldn't."  He told her he "had touched the face of God."

Two months later, slowly dying of cancer, Patrick "feels the happiest in his life" and reports "I am the luckiest man on earth."


How much should the authenticity of the experience concern us?  Researcher Tony Bossis shrugged "that's above my pay grade" when asked if the experiences of the patients were of real cosmic consciousness.  Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested we judge the mystical experiences not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by "its fruits".  And researcher David Nichols told Science magazine "If it gives [terminal patients] peace, if it helps people to die peacefully with their friends and their family at their side, I don;t care if it's real or an illusion."


In December 2016, a front-page story in the New York Times reported on the dramatic results of the Johns Hopkins and NYU psilocybin cancer studies. Some 80 percent of the cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin session. Few if any psychiatric interventions of any kind have demonstrated such dramatic and sustained results.  Patients with the strongest mystical experiences had the best outcomes. The trials were small -- 80 subjects in all -- but the results were promising enough to win the attention and cautious support of the mental health community. Dozens of medical schools have asked to participate in future trials and funders have stepped forward to underwrite these trials.  For a critique of the study and the media coverage, see here.

In a follow-up study to the NYU trial, "Patient Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy", Alexander Belser interviewed volunteers to better understand the psychological mechanism underlying the transformation they experienced.  A few key themes emerged:  All the patients described powerful feelings of connection to loved ones and a general shift to a feeling of interconnectedness.  In most cases there were also powerful emotions, with difficult passages of the journey typically followed by positive feelings of surrender and acceptance as fears fell away.  A co-author on the paper interprets what happens during the session in terms of the ergolytic effects... the drug's ability to either silence or at least muffle the voice of the ego.

Existential distress at the end of life may lead to a hyperactive default network, including obsessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deeping grooves of negative thinking.  The ego, faced with the prospect of its own extinction, turns inward and becomes hypervigilant.  But if one can leg go and surrender, powerful and usually powerful emotions flow in, along with formerly inaccessible meteors and sense impressions and meanings.  And for many people, there is an experience of a great flood of love.


After Patrick Mettes psilocybin session his life was filled with a great many unexpected satisfactions, alongside Patrick's dawning acceptance that he was going to die.  He spent much of the time walking New York City, trying new lunch spots and telling Lisa of his experiences.  But his good days got fewer and fewer, and in March 2012 he told Lisa he wanted to stop chemo.  "He didn't want to die," Lisa says, "bit I think he just decided this is not how he wanted to live."   He lived his last days in the hospital, and lived them with joy.  When he died, it "was a good death", Lisa told Pollan. She felt "indebted to [the NYU team] for what they allowed him to experience--the deep resources they allowed him to tap into.  These were his own deep resources.  That, I think, is what these mind-altering drugs do."

Two:  Addiction

Matthew Johnson directed a pilot study at Johns Hopkins on smoking cessation. Before the study commenced participants were required to have quit smoking (which was confirmed by carbon-monoxide monitoring in the blood). The study was tiny and not randomized, but the results were striking. Six months after the psychedelic sessions, 80 percent of the volunteers were confirmed as abstinent; at the one-year mark the figure had fallen to 67 percent, which is stila better rate of success than the best treatment now available.  Participants with the most complete mystical experience had the best outcomes.  Many of the participants Pollan interviewed reported typical mystical journeys, and ended with the conclusion that smoking was simply unimportant, irrelevant or counter productive.

Participants have insights, like others on psychedelics, that appear very obvious. They know smoking is unhealthy, expensive and unnecessary, but under the influence of psilocybin that knowing acquires a new weight, becomes something they feel in their gu... it becomes more compelling and stickier and harder to avoid thinking about. The session deprive the participants of the luxury of mindlessness, our default state, and one in which addictions flourish. It is also possible that psychedelics relax the brains inhibition on visualizing thoughts, allowing us to see them clearly, making them authoritative and memorable.

In 2012, a meta-analysis that combined data from the six best randomized controlled studies done in the 60s and 70s (involving more than 500 patients in all) found that indeed there had been a statistically robust and clinically "significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse" from a single dose of LSD, an effect that lasted up to six months.  "Given the evidence for a beneficial effect of LSD on alcoholism it is puzzling why this treatment has been largely overlooked" the authors concluded.

It may be odd to think about offering addicts drugs to treat their addictions.  One might think of the rat park experiment.  Rats in a cage given access to drugs of various kinds will quickly addict themselves, pressing the little levers for the drug on offer in preference to food, often to the point of death.  Less talked about, however, is the fact that if the cage is "enriched" with opportunities for play, interaction with other arts, and exposure to nature, the same rats will utterly ignore the drugs and so never become addicted.  The rat park experiments lend support to the idea that the propensity to addiction might have less to do with genes or chemistry than with one's personal history and environment.

Now comes a class of chemicals that may have the power to change how we experience our personal history and environment, no matter how impoverished or painful they may be.  "Do you see the world as a prison or a playground" is the key question one scientist takes away from the rat park experiments.  If addiction represents a narrowing of one's perspective, behavior and emotional repertoire, the psychedelic journey has the potential to reverse that constriction.   "People come out of these experiences seeing the world a little more like a playground."

Awe is common in psychedelic experiences.  And perhaps we can break addiction cycles.  Addiction is fundamentally selfish, with a consuming self-interest in pursuing the addiction.  Awe promotes a sense of the "small self" that directs our attention away for the individual to the group and the greater good.

Three: Depression

Something unexpected happened when, early in 2017, Roland Griffiths and Stephen Ross brought the results of their clinical trials to the FDA, hoping to win approval for a larger, phase 3 trial of psilocybin for cancer patients.  Impressed by their data, and seemingly undeterred by the unique challenges posed by psychedelic research, the FDA staff surprised the researchers by asking them to expand their focus and ambition:  to test whether psilocybin could be used to treat the larger and more pressing problem of depression in the general population.  A similar occurrence resulted when in 2016 researchers approached the European Medicines Agency seeking approval to use psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and depression in patients with life-hanging diagnoses.

In a series of interviews of people participating in psychedelic sessions for depression, Rosalind Watts found two "master" themes.  One, was that the volunteers depicted their depression foremost as a state of disconnection, whether from other people, their earlier selves, their senses and feelings, their core beliefs and spiritual values or nature.  Psychedelic experiences promoted re-connection.  The second theme was access to difficult emotions, emotions that depression often blunts or loses down completely.  This is especially true in cases of childhood trauma.  Psychedelic experiences allow people to become in touch with the emotions again. Unfortunately, for half of the volunteers in one study, depression returned, so it seems likely that psychedelic therapy for depression, should it prove useful and be approved, will not be a one time intervention.


Will psychedelic therapy ultimately have the benefits that are appearing in current studies.  Likely it will be less than initial indications show.  Early studies tend to overstate effects.  Researches can hand choose participants and give them significant attention.  And the placebo effect is most pronounced.  Larger studies will need to be completed to determine the ultimate impact of psychedelics on mental health.

And is it even possible for a single class of compounds to treat many different disorders.  Some say yes.  There is a continuum between disorders, which is not taken into account in DSM classifications.  For example, there are links between addiction and depression.  Depression and anxiety are related as well (depression is a response to past lost, anxiety is a response to future loss).

The default mode network is the work performed by the so-called atobiograpal or experiential self:  the mental operation responsible for the narrative that links our first person to the world.  Becoming overly attached to these narratives, taking them as fixed truths about ourselves rather than as stories subject to revision, contributes mighty to addiction, depression and anxiety.  Psychedelic therapy seems to weaken the grip of these narratives.

Aand then there is the ego, which is fundamentally conservative.  The ego "keeps us in our grooves".  For better or worse.  The ego can become tyrannical and turn its formidable powers on the rest of us.  Perhaps this is the link between the various forms of mental illness that psychedelic therapy seems to help most:  all involve a disordered ego -- overbearing, punishing or misdirected.


The usual antonym for the word spiritual is material.  But is a better and more useful antonym for spirtual “egotistical”?

Of all the phenomenological effects that people on psychedelics report, the dissolution of ego seems to me by far the most important and the most therapeutic.  The usual antonym for the word spiritual is material.  But is a better and more useful antonym for spiritual "egotistical"?  Self and spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum.  When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest.