Take drugs. Not many. Mostly psychedelics.

Martin McClellan

May 23, 2018

“Sock it to me?”

Richard Nixon appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1968, an abstract variety show filled with non-sequiturs and one-liners, and spoke those four words. They were the show’s already-popular catch-phrase, likely lifted from Aretha Franklin’s breathless triplet run during the climax of the song “Respect.”

Laugh-In was the Katamari Damacy of television, rolling down the cultural hill and picking up any reference that stuck to it. Some, like visual tricks straight out of Ernie Kovacs’ playbook (“Television is a medium, so called because it is neither rare nor well-done”), were big and broad: fast zooms in on dancing girls, guitar-based twangy upbeat music, prop walls that opened and slid to reveal actors and comics delivering sharp one-liners.

But the set decorations and styling were anodyne San Francisco day-glo Art Nouveau, and there was clear appropriation (or was it parody?) of the hippy aesthetic, replete with a bikini dancer (Goldie Hawn) covered in body paint.

Laugh-In was a massive hit, and it’s worth pausing here to think about just how much psychedelic culture had permeated America. What was once underground street style had become mainstream television.

So watered down from its original rebellion was the mass-media patterning, that a conservative presidential candidate knew it wouldn’t harm anything to appear. In fact, it may have helped him. Nobody before had accused Nixon of having a sense of humor.

Nixon later called Timothy Leary the most dangerous man in America, and Grace Slick plotted to dose Nixon with acid, thanks to her debutante upbringing offering her access to a White House social.

And two years after Nixon's appearance, LSD was made a Schedule I drug, illegal to manufacture, buy, possess, or distribute without a license from the DEA. Whatever cultural echo of rebellion and rejection of the mainstream was lifted for the set pieces on Laugh-In, they certainly carried none of the power of the original voices of the counterculture.

Michael Pollan has written an extraordinary history of psychedelics from the lens of using pharmacology to seek mental health. His new book, How to Change Your Mind, covers three aspects of this complex puzzle:

  1. The history, and mis-history, of psychedelics in popular culture, and their quite remarkable use for medical and psychological therapies.
  2. An exploration of the theories by which these drugs work, centered around a more modern understanding of the brain.
  3. A personal exploration of how to bring new language to an ineffable experience so difficult to describe that we fall back on easy, clichéd, already-tested language to do so.

Anybody who has read any of Pollan’s books knows that he is a cogent host to complex ideas. His clarity of thought, direct and unadorned expression, and lucid storytelling create a compelling, page-turning look at these amazing drugs and what they are capable of.

One way to experience this talent is to listen to him, like this engaging interview on The Ezra Klein Show. Hearing Pollan talk in complete sentences, with complex structured thoughts about difficult, thorny, and psychologically complex topics, is a testimony to the sharpness of his journalistic mind and understanding of his topic:

Psychedelics are often cast as a form of ancient spiritual wisdom, but in fact they're a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Chemist Albert Hofmann stumbled across lysergic acid diethylamide and subsequently had the first accidental acid trip in 1938. The word “psychedelic,” from the greek word psyche, of the mind, and delein, which means “to manifest,” was coined in 1956 by an English psychiatrist named Humphry Osmond.

Mushrooms, while used for centuries in Indigenous cultures, mostly quietly, only became known to Western culture in 1957, with a Time Magazine article called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” Hoffman isolated psilocybin, the active component in mushrooms, in 1957, and a marketable drug of the product was only released by the company he worked for, Sandoz, in 1960.

Sandoz, attempting to understand LSD, had offered free product to researchers who would investigate its use, in hopes of finding a market, an act which both worked for them — as serious clinical research began with LSD for uses in depression, bringing on mystical experiences, and helping with alcoholism — and came back to bite them, as some of these researchers (Pollan follows these threads well) become LSD evangelicals, turning many people on to the experience of the drug. Those few early pioneers quickly turned acolyte, spreading the story of the drug by word of mouth until it took root in the counterculture.

But what do psychedelics do, and why do they matter?

It looks like they disrupt what is called the “default mode network.” First noticed in 2001 by a researcher taking baseline samples during MRI testing and noticing activity, the default mode network is the “network of brain structures that light up with activity when there are no demands on our attention and we have no mental task to perform.”

Adult humans, it turns out, rarely interact directly with the world. We interact with the patterns we have learned and built. Some of those patterns can reinforce depressive — or other non-ideal — ways of thinking, and the older we get, the more calcified this becomes.

[Researcher Robin] Carhart—Harris suggests that the 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 over-heated. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. Carhart—Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state of mind (sometimes called heavy self-consciousness or depressive realism) may be the result of a hyperactive default mode network, which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops of rumination that eventually close us off from the world outside...[He] believes that people suffering from a whole range of disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thought — including addiction, obsession, and eating disorders as well as depression — stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest.”

By disrupting this network, which is where the sense of self is formed and held, psychedelics have the effect of taking a person off of the rails they’ve so arduously laid during their life, and giving them the opportunity to assess them from the side.

One effect of this is a questioning that some find uncomfortable. Talking again to Robin Carhart—Harris, Pollan says "...a class of drugs with the power to overturn hierarchies in the mind and sponsor unconventional thinking has the potential to reshape users' attitudes towards authority of all kinds."

Carhart-Harris put it this way: "Was it that the hippies gravitated to psychedelics, or do psychedelics create hippies? Nixon thought it was the latter. He may have been right!"

When Nixon declared Leary the most dangerous man in America (Pollan calls him "a washed-up psychology professor"), it was a reaction to the refusal of young men to go fight in Vietnam. The youth were standing up for themselves, and this was unacceptable to the Nixon administration, who had a war to run.

But, Pollan points out that many researchers blame Leary's outrageousness for the drugs becoming classified in such a way that made research, at least at the time, impossible. Without Leary, the drugs may have had a chance in clinical settings without a johnny acid-seed convincing the impressionable youth — who often saw what they expected, as many people who take the drugs do — to turn on and drop out.

Leary because a poster boy not just for the drugs but for the idea that a crucial part of the counterculture’s DNA could be spelled out in the letters LSD. Beginning with Allen Ginsburg’s December 1960 psilocybin trip at his house in Newton, Leary forged a link between psychedelics and the counterculture that has never been broken and that is surely one of the reasons they came to be regarded as so threatening to the establishment.

Perhaps without Leary, the expectation of the drugs would have been different, and the moral panic might have been avoided. In either case, Pollan's eye-rolling at Leary is palpable, and, in fact, the closer one looks at Leary, the less-capable a guru he seems to have been. Instead, a hapless, bumbling, and charismatic figure appears. Someone without a plan, but with a lot of nerve and a decided lack of shame.

Part of Pollan’s job in talking about the psychedelic experience is to unpack what it is like to talk about the psychedelic experience.

If you have ever read Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, which was published in 1954, your own psychedelic experience has probably been influenced by the author’s mysticism and, specifically, the mysticism of the East to which Huxley was inclined. Indeed, even if you have never read Huxley, his construction of the experience has probably influenced your own, for that Eastern flavoring — think of the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows” — would come to characterize the LSD experience from 1954 on.

So when Pollan came to recording his own experiences, he was faced with the difficult task of recording in a new and vital way the things he was seeing. Instead of using a religious metaphor, or turning to flowery excess, Pollan understood that the only way through it was just to knock it on the head straight on.

Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their new-born nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.

Love is everything.

Okay, but what else did you learn?

No — you must not have heard me: it’s everything!

Is a platitude so deeply felt still just a platitude? No, I decided. A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To re-saturate that dried husk with feeling is to see it again for what it is: the loveliest and most deeply rooted of truths, hidden in plain sight. A spiritual insight? Maybe so. Or at least that’s how it appeared in the middle of my journey. Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious.

Pollan’s book has a heavy lift if he hopes to bring a cultural reconsidering of psychedelics. But, with his history of deeply engaging scientific journalism effectively and openly, like in Omnivore's Dilemna and The Botany of Desire, and doing it while moving truckloads of books, he's in a rare position to attempt such an undertaking.

If you are convinced that psychedelics are a kind of manna, and especially if they inhabit a sort of spiritual space for you, they you will likely be frustrated by Pollan's shyness around the religiousness of the drugs (although, he covers in depth the sense of a spiritual experience that comes from taking them).

But for those who are skeptical — or even against, but with an open mind — Pollan offers a precise, compelling argument for further research on these drugs. One might hope — given a different administration, alas — a clearer path forward. More research allowed.

Help with depression, alcoholism, fear of death when faced with dying — these are a few things where positive research has been shown remarkable results.

Rethinking these drugs as a tool of understanding and recasting the mind and the self, instead of an oppositional force to a steadfast authority, might benefit many people who, as of now, would never consider them therapeutically.

It all starts when therapists aren't afraid of getting arrested for offering this service to their clients. Before then, perhaps, you might be interested in reading a book about it?

Books in this review:
  • How to Change Your Mind
    by Michael Pollan
    May 15, 2018
    480 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound