Last week’s column was about political conversions; the previous one was about a religious conversion. This week we will take on very different kinds of conversion experiences, ones involving the use of psychedelic drugs.
Michal Pollan has written a remarkable book titled “How to Change Your Mind.” Its subtitle is “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.”
He reminds us that in the ‘50s and early ‘60s there was a great deal of scientific research on the effects of these drugs. For a while there was also great excitement at using them therapeutically. Then came Timothy Leary.
Pollan notes that attitudes toward psychedelics have swung from irrational enthusiasm to moral panic and back again. Once the hippies started using the drugs outside staid clinical settings, horror stories circulated about the drugs’ terrible dangers.
Most of these stories were untrue but they led to a crackdown and an inability to do research. Now, it seems, research has begun anew. Attitudes have begun to change, and voters in Denver have recently voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms.
There is a fascinating section on those mushrooms. Fungi can take over the neural structures of insects in order to spread their spores. Pollan interviewed Paul Stamets, an expert on psilocybin mushrooms. He also ate some with him.
Like William James, who researched “experimental mysticism” at the turn of the 20th century, Pollan ingests several substances and reports on his experiences. He says that the drugs reconfigure the mind, allowing users to escape from the ego and to experience connections with the world, with others, and sometimes with one’s nonego self.
In one lyrical passage he writes, “The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more, and there was no one left to mourn its passing.… There was life after the death of the ego. This is big news.”
On the other hand, his smoking of dried toad venom pushes the envelope perhaps too far.
Spiritual traditions in many of the world’s religions identify the ego as a barrier to experience of the divine. Pollan also suggests that breaking up the ego allows one to abandon self-destructive habitual patterns.
He mentions addictions to tobacco and alcohol as habits that can be broken with one or two guided sessions with therapists in safe conditions.
You might think that psychedelic trips when you are dying would be ultimate bad trips. Pollan recounts a case study of a man facing death by cancer who after psychedelic sessions came to accept his remaining time with serenity.
There seem to be two separate approaches to these drugs. One is medical, with trained professionals guiding the patient and ready to apply sedatives in case of adverse reactions. These are the people who are trying to apply science to the investigation of these powerful substances.
The other approach is more individualistic, led by people who want to reconfigure their own lives, drawn by the promise of becoming more loving, more spiritual and renewed.
Psilocybin is a natural substance, and the patent on LSD has died, making them unlikely to be sponsored by Big Pharma. Likewise, therapies involving a few sessions are not appealing to the counseling profession.
These substances sometimes lead people to fundamental change. Pollan tends toward optimism.
Maybe irrational exuberance and moral panic are not the only attitudes. Maybe we can change our minds.