Reviews — From the June 2018 issue

Revolution in the Head

The uses and abuses of psychedelics

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Discussed in this essay:

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan. Penguin Press. 480 pages. $28. 

Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, by Tao Lin. Vintage. 320 pages. $16.

I took LSD for the first time in 1999, when I was fifteen, with half a dozen friends at a rave in a disused warehouse in West London. I was expecting something like a synesthetically enhanced Hendrix solo, melting clocks, waves of pineapple-tasting color—but it wasn’t like that. When the acid kicked in I was on the dance floor (bobbing to a hard-techno remix of “Storm,” by Storm, I remember clearly). Suddenly I heard a whisper in the music addressing me as “Chapalski” and instructing me to follow it outside. On leaving the warehouse, which now resembled a giant, pulsing washing machine, I found myself in a different world with no recollection of how I’d gotten there. Everything moved frame by frame, like film projected too slowly, and the first two bars of the “Itchy and Scratchy” theme from The Simpsons played on a loop. On a hill behind the warehouse (actually more of a mound, but I thought of it as a hill), I danced with gnomes and was anointed Chapalski, their king. The gnomes were not little men with conical hats but cackling knots of static.

Psychedelicatessen Owner, by Bruce Conner © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

On the other side of the hill was the motorway. I wondered, as I walked into the road and saw cars swerving to avoid me, whether I would die in the real world if I died in this one. Fortunately I didn’t die in either. I walked along the road until I came to Hoo Hing, a Chinese superstore with frontage styled like a red pagoda. Believing it to be the palace of the Imperial Lord, I knelt down at the entrance, prayed for a sign, and was instructed to find my destiny. From Hoo Hing I turned onto a residential street and walked up and down, bellowing through people’s mail slots: “Is my destiny in there?” No one answered me, though it was now daylight. As I walked back toward the motorway, I remembered something important, which was that I used to have “ambition” and had once believed that “ambition” would lead me to my “destiny.”

I felt I had it figured out now: following “ambition” would take me out of Chapalskiland and back to reality. I saw a phone box and realized I could call my parents to find out whether I had returned to their world yet. My mum picked up the phone. “Am I real?” I asked her. “Yes,” she replied, “where are you?” She told me that my dad was going to look for me in the car. I said okay, put the phone down, and walked out of the booth, immediately forgetting that the conversation had taken place. I hailed a taxi and told the driver my address, but I didn’t have any money to pay him, so when we got to my house I offered him my hat instead. As he didn’t accept hats we rang the doorbell and asked my mum to pay him money. She was very concerned and gave me soup and a blanket, but my soup looked alive, my dad’s hair kept turning into snakes, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I spent the next few hours watching the wall of my bedroom, onto which my mind projected a film of the Battle of Waterloo. How clever modern drugs are, I thought, to come preloaded with documentary films to watch at the tail end of a trip. Eventually I went to sleep.

Was this a “mystical experience”? In the view of Michael Pollan and many of the researchers he interviewed for his new book, How to Change Your Mind, psychedelics’ ability to induce mystical experiences is what makes them such potent medicine. The book was inspired by the renaissance of psychedelic-drug research that began after Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, published a paper titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” The paper documented the results of what Pollan describes as the first rigorous double-blind clinical study of psychedelics in decades. Volunteers were given psilocybin (the psychoactive chemical in magic mushrooms) along with eye masks and headphones playing relaxing music; two thirds of them reported having one of the “most spiritually significant” experiences of their lives.

Since Griffiths’s paper appeared, in 2006, various research projects investigating the medical applications of psychedelics have been approved. Experimental treatments for depression, addiction, and anxiety have been tested, with fairly high success rates. What’s unusual about these experiments is that the cure is caused by the side effects the drugs have on the mind, rather than by the direct healing action they have on the body. “The universe was so great and there were so many things you could do and see in it that killing yourself seemed like a dumb idea,” says one volunteer, who was persuaded to quit smoking by a psilocybin trip.

Mystical experience, as Pollan—the food writer, environmental activist, and former Harper’s Magazine editor—defines it, involves the dissolution of the sense of self, a merging of the ego with the universe. This feeling is one of the central characteristics of mystical experience noted by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, though he calls it “passivity.” Pollan follows James in defining mystical experience further as “ineffable” (impossible to fully explain in words) and “noetic” (you feel as though you’ve learned something, even if you can’t fully explain it). One scientist working on psychedelic treatment for cocaine addicts tells Pollan, “We now have a pharmacological intervention that can occasion truly profound experiences of awe.” Having a mystical experience breaks you out of habits of thought that place yourself at the center of the universe. It can make terminally ill people less afraid of death by showing them that everything is interconnected, that life does not stop when you die. Like many advocates for psychedelics, Pollan believes they can help healthy individuals too, by making them less selfish, more empathetic, and better able to see the validity of worldviews different from their own. “Mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism,” in the words of Rick Doblin, a pro-psychedelics campaigner.

Pollan begins the book “staunchly materialist,” an atheist who believes that consciousness is something that happens in the brain, not some pan-dimensional creative force. At one point he gives a neurological account of what occurs in the brain during a trip: the activity of its default mode network—the “orchestra conductor,” responsible for organizing all the other parts—diminishes. The network, which is most active when we’re not concentrating (hence “default”), is thought to be responsible for our sense of self. But Pollan also admits that his desire to have his materialist worldview challenged is one reason why he set out to examine psychedelic drugs in the first place, and he gamely takes LSD, mushrooms, and DMT with that aim in mind. Toward the end of the book he declares himself more agnostic about mystical matters than he was before he experimented on himself, though it’s not clear that the drugs have really given him grounds for changing his convictions. The great claims he makes for the benefits of mystical experience seem to be based more on the testimony of others than on his own peregrinations.

Pollan’s most powerful experience comes on psilocybin, under the direction of a professional psychedelic guide. Some way into the trip he instructs her to turn off her New Age music and put on a Bach cello suite instead:

I became first the strings, could feel on my skin the exquisite friction of the horsehair rubbing over me, and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument…. Then I passed down into the resonant black well of space inside the cello, the vibrating envelope of air formed by the curves of its spruce roof and maple walls.

This is a kind of ego death, insofar as Pollan doesn’t usually conceive of himself as a cello—but it’s not a fundamentalism-dislodging union with the cosmos. His experiences on 5-MeO-DMT, an extremely powerful psychedelic extracted from the poison glands of the Sonoran Desert toad, certainly meet the criteria of ego death and ineffability (“?‘I’ was no more, blasted to a confetti cloud by an explosive force I could no longer locate in my head”), but they fail on the count of noesis. The trip is simply too alien, too inexplicable, and doesn’t last long enough—only twenty minutes or so—to have an enduring effect on Pollan’s weltanschauung. “Its mind-bending velocity made it difficult to extract much information or knowledge from the journey, except for the (classic) psychedelic platitude about the importance of being.”

Untitled (detail), by Gean Moreno © The artist

Pollan gives a lively account of the rise, fall, and rise again of psychedelic research. LSD was first produced in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who was attempting to synthesize a molecule from the alkaloids produced by ergot, a fungus that infects grain. Midwives used ergot to induce labor and stanch bleeding, and the company that Hofmann worked for, Sandoz Laboratories, was hoping to get a marketable drug out of it. But ­LSD-25 (it was the twenty-fifth molecule in the series) didn’t appear to do much when tested on animals. It sat on the shelf until 1943, when Hofmann had a “peculiar presentiment” that it might be worth a second look. As he concocted another batch, he accidentally spilled some on his skin. Hofmann was lying on his sofa when he realized the chemical was beginning to make him feel strange and watched “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” But a few days later he took some more and had a bad experience: his furniture and other objects “assumed grotesque, threatening forms.” He believed that he had been possessed by a demon and was going to die. “My ego was suspended somewhere in space and I saw my body lying dead on the sofa.”

Sandoz offered to supply researchers with as much LSD as they needed for their experiments, free of charge. Initially, LSD was conceptualized as a psychotomimetic, a drug whose effects mimicked psychosis. Volunteers who took it reported symptoms of schizophrenia, including depersonalization, synesthesia, hallucinations, and paranoid delusions. One journalist, in a 1953 piece for Maclean’s titled “My 12 Hours as a Madman,” described seeing his friends’ faces “turn into fleshless skulls and the heads of menacing witches, pigs and weasels.” But researchers soon confirmed that the effect of the drug depended on the environment in which it was taken. With the right music, a comfy chair, perhaps a little incense, tripping could be highly pleasurable. Sidney Cohen, an influential psychiatrist in Los Angeles, found that on LSD “the problems and strivings, the worries and frustrations of everyday life vanished; in their place was a majestic, sunlit, heavenly inner quietude.” 

Cohen was one of the pioneers of the “psycholytic” approach, which used LSD to loosen up the mind as an aid to talk therapy. His practice became popular in the late Fifties among LA’s elite, including Anaïs Nin, Jack Nicholson, Stanley Kubrick, and Cary Grant, who declared that LSD made him more attractive to women than ever before. Later, Cohen would admit that analysts who put their patients on LSD merely confirmed their own “fondest theories”: Jungians got Jungian results, Freudians Freudian ones.

The discovery that LSD makes people highly suggestible led Humphry Osmond, an En­glish psychiatrist practicing in Canada, to discard the psychotomimetic label. “It will give that elixir a bad name,” his friend Aldous Huxley told him, “if it continues to be associated, in the public mind, with schizophrenia symptoms.” (It was Osmond who gave Huxley the mescaline that inspired The Doors of Perception.) People, he worried, “will think they’re going mad when in fact they are beginning, when they take it, to go sane.” Huxley and Osmond suggested new names for the drug in an exchange of couplets. “To make this mundane world sublime?/?Just half a gram of phanerothyme” was Huxley’s. “To fall in hell or soar Angelic?/?You’ll need a pinch of psychedelic,” Osmond wrote back, “psychedelic” being a compound from Greek meaning “mind manifesting.” (Huxley’s version also meant “mind manifesting,” using different Greek words: phaneros/thumos rather than psyche/delos.)

LSD’s transformation from pharmaceutical into something more like a sacrament was hastened by Al Hubbard, widely known as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD, who is thought to have given the drug to around six thousand people between 1951 and 1966. Hubbard was an independently wealthy former spy—he said he was “former,” at any rate—who considered it his mission to get the world high on acid. As Pollan puts it, Hubbard believed that LSD could be used “for breaking destructive patterns of thought and proposing new perspectives in their place.” He became the exclusive distributor of Sandoz LSD to researchers in Canada and obtained a permit from the FDA allowing him to perform his own LSD “research” in the United States. This consisted of feeding people acid, playing them music, presenting them with flowers, and showing them Salvador Dalí paintings. Hubbard wanted to change the world by expanding the minds of the elite, including business leaders and politicians, as well as the denizens of what would become Silicon Valley. Companies there held regular therapy sessions at which employees took LSD, believing the enlarged perspective it gave them assisted in problem-solving. One veteran engineer told Pollan, “I have no doubt that all that Hubbard LSD all of us had taken had a big effect on the birth of Silicon Valley.” Some tech workers apparently still swear by weekly “microdosing,” taking a small amount of LSD to boost their creativity.

In 1957, fourteen years after Hofmann discovered he’d discovered acid, magic mushrooms were introduced to the West by, of all people, the vice president of J. P. Morgan’s bank, R. Gordon Wasson. He had become interested in mushrooms, so he said, after noting the contrast between the attitudes of mycophobic Western Europeans like himself and mycophilic Eastern ones like his Russian wife. He concluded that the extremes of aversion or affection toward mushrooms were signs of the high regard in which they had once been held, and he began spending less time banking and more on mycology, eventually coming to believe that “our ancestors worshipped a divine mushroom.” In the early Fifties he learned about a psychoactive mushroom that had been used medicinally by indigenous Mesoamericans but suppressed by the conquistadors, and he traveled to the mountains of Oaxaca, in Mexico, where he persuaded a local curandera, or healer, named María Sabina to conduct a mushroom ceremony for him. The mushrooms gave Wasson visions of “harmonious” geometric patterns, which evolved into “palaces with courts, arcades, gardens—resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stone.” The experience backed up Wasson’s sacred-mushroom theory—“One is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted in primitive man the very idea of a God”—and when he got home he wrote it up for Life magazine, which at the time had a circulation of 5.7 million. Hundreds of hippies and beatniks read Wasson’s article and began to show up in Oaxaca. “From the moment the foreigners arrived,” an indignant María Sabina told a visitor, “the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them.”

One of those who discovered psychedelics through the Life article was Timothy Leary, a young psychologist who would soon become a lecturer at Harvard and whom many blame for the implosion of research on psychedelics. In 1960 Leary took mushrooms in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an episode he recounts in his autobiography, Flashbacks:

I learned that the brain is an under-utilized biocomputer…. I learned that normal consciousness is one drop in an ocean of intelligence. That consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded. That the brain can be reprogrammed.

He rushed back to Harvard to set up a psilocybin research project, recruited Richard Alpert, another young psychologist, and managed to persuade the university to let them work out of the Department of Social Relations. His course, Experimental Expansion of Consciousness, promised that the “basic elements of mystical experience” would be studied, and that “members of the seminar will participate in experience with consciousness expanding methods.” It turned out to be extremely popular.

Like Hubbard, Leary wanted to use psychedelics to save society. As Pollan puts it, “It was as though the chemicals themselves had hit upon a brilliant scheme for their own proliferation, by colonizing the brains of a certain type of charismatic and messianic human.” Leary fed psilocybin to Allen Ginsberg, who tried to run naked through the streets, believing himself to be God. Ginsberg told everyone he knew to take mushrooms, and they told their friends. But colleagues at Harvard worried about Leary’s methods. The faculty had a meeting at which they aired their concerns that the psilocybin project had turned into a cult. A student journalist who sneaked into the meeting reported on it for the Crimson, and his story appeared the following day. From there it went to the Boston Herald, where it was given the headline hallucination drug fought at harvard—350 students take pills. Soon afterward, Leary was forced to leave Harvard. He continued to spread the gospel of psychedelics through his International Federation for Internal Freedom, joining 25,000 hippies at the first San Francisco “be-in” and instructing them to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” until he was sent to prison for marijuana possession in 1966. A couple of years later, LSD and psilocybin were criminalized.

At this point in Pollan’s account, the psychedelic subculture disappears from view, though low-key research into psychedelic treatments for mental illness persisted through the Seventies. Its most articulate ambassador during this period was Terence ­McKenna, the figure at the center of Trip, a new book by Tao Lin. Lin credits both psychedelics and ­McKenna with lifting him out of the depressive funk in which he seemed to have been stuck since high school, teaching him that the world is “awe-inspiring and excitingly bizarre and complicatedly magical” and ending his addiction to—or at least compulsive use of—other, nonpsychedelic drugs.

Lin’s book is very different in tone from Pollan’s. Lin, a novelist in his thirties known for downbeat semiautobiographical fiction, tells us more about his past and his inner life, and affects an occasionally irritating but more often endearing naïveté. But both writers mix memoir and journalism, both conclude that psychedelic drugs are a net good and have been banned for nefarious reasons, and both enact a version of psychedelic therapy on themselves.

In the epilogue to Trip, Lin confesses to Kathleen Harrison, ­McKenna’s ex-wife, that one of the main reasons he wrote his book was to try and convert New York literary types to the psychedelic lifestyle. But the experiences that he recounts—like Pollan’s—are not great advertisements for the drugs. On mushrooms he first enjoys imagining that he is an alien temporarily inhabiting Tao Lin’s body, but later gets depressed, tweets that he is “leaving behind all this lit game shit,” deletes his website, and throws away his ­MacBook. He’s unable to remember any of his DMT trip and in its aftermath comes to believe that his friend is trying to frame him for a variety of crimes. On salvia—an herb in the same family as sage—he feels like rubble being scooped up by a bulldozer. These episodes are not nearly as exciting as his material on ­McKenna, the picaresque psychedelic adventurer without whose mediating influence it’s hard to imagine Lin would ever have become as keen on psychedelics as he is.

McKenna’s interest in psychedelics, like Leary’s, was initially piqued by Wasson’s article on magic mushrooms, which he read in 1957, when he was ten. In 1965 he went to the Tussman Experimental College at UC Berkeley, where students could set their own curricula and weren’t graded. He read widely in ecology, resource conservation, and shamanism; amassed an extensive library; and got high, turning his student digs into a psychedelic salon in which he would hold court for hours, ranting to an appreciative audience of highbrow stoners. He traveled widely, at first for fun, then to elude US Customs, which had intercepted a package of hash he’d attempted to ship from Bombay to Aspen, Colorado. In 1971, he and his brother traveled to La Chorrera, in the Colombian Amazon, with the aim of finding a DMT-containing plant. They found mushrooms instead—Psilocybe cubensis—and conducted an ambitious psychological “experiment” in which they consumed the mushrooms and used chanting, body movement, and “the principles of superconductivity and harmonic resonance” to “intercalate psychoactive compounds into the rungs of neural DNA in order to create the philosopher’s stone” (Lin’s words).

The experiment is documented in ­McKenna’s book, The Invisible Landscape, which is characterized by Kathleen Harrison in Trip as “unreadable.” It’s not that, but it does mirror the freewheeling, syncretic logic of an intense psychedelic experience in the way it joins the dots between technology, shamanism, and the I Ching to arrive at an abstruse theory of time: read high, it makes perfect sense. ­McKenna revisited the ideas raised by the La Chorrera experiment throughout his career, giving hundreds of talks, many of which are freely available on the internet. They are invariably entertaining, erudite in a puckish, unbuttoned sort of way, and often prophetic: another of his recurring themes was the power of the internet (long before it became obvious) and of the dissemination of memes to influence politics. He was always skeptical of the New Age movement, and of religion in general; Lin quotes ­McKenna’s view of himself as a “hardheaded rationalist.” ­McKenna’s skepticism extended to science, which had provided a theory of the universe he found absurd—the “limit case of credulity” was how he described the Big Bang theory—and stated that, despite his professed commitment to rationalism, he preferred to trust in the “felt presence of immediate experience.” As a result, he came to believe that mushrooms were, as a 1993 profile of McKenna put it, “the megaphone used by an alien, intergalactic Other to communicate with mankind.”

I’m wary of placing too much trust in psychedelic revelations. I worry that the woman Pollan mentions who decided to divorce her husband while tripping may come to regret it. Keen psychedelic hobbyists have adopted a phrase borrowed from the fifteenth-century writer Thomas Malory by the cult novelist Robert Anton Wilson, “Chapel Perilous,” to refer to the period immediately after a strong trip in which your mind, having been confronted by a quantity of sensory data that directly contradicts normal lived reality, tries to make sense of what has happened. Trips are high-intensity presentations of the eighteenth-century philosopher Bishop Berkeley’s argument for not trusting your senses: If changing your brain chemistry can replace the usual world with a different one, then how can you trust what you usually see? Am I real? Who is Chapalski? For months after my trip I worried that an alien was fabricating my thoughts and projecting them into my mind. My ego was dissolved, but for an uncomfortably long period and not helpfully. Wilson said you come out of Chapel Perilous “paranoid” or “agnostic” about most things, which is what happened to me; the other possibility is that you don’t come out at all, which is what happened to my friend Tom. He became convinced that he could travel through time using just the power of his mind. The ability to eject oneself from linear time, as ­McKenna explains in The Invisible Landscape, is one of the hallmarks of the shaman—but being unable to integrate this ability into ordinary life is a hallmark of the schizophrenic. Tom would stare at walls for hours, coursing through time, often—he told me—revisiting episodes from his childhood. He stopped going to school, began entertaining wilder and wilder conspiracy theories, and was eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he remains.

Both Pollan and Lin follow Leary and ­McKenna in believing that the dangers of psychedelics are almost nonexistent, and that the drugs were banned because they were “catalysts of intellectual dissent” (McKenna again). But the dangers are real. It’s also not clear that psychedelics weren’t a boon to the establishment. Both writers mention the CIA’s ­MK-Ultra experiments using psychedelic drugs for mind control but gloss over the possible connections between the early psychedelic pioneers and the intelligence agencies. Pollan suggests that Hubbard was linked to the CIA. Some have speculated that R. Gordon Wasson was not only a senior banker at J. P. Morgan but also a chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations; he acknowledged in his Life report that his trip to Mexico was supported by the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, which reportedly received funds from the CIA. Many people, including William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, reportedly believed that Timothy Leary was involved in a CIA plot to defang the radical left. Even ­McKenna may have been connected: in one of his talks he seems to say he was approached by the FBI after getting busted for hash smuggling, and that he has been performing “public relations” services for them ever since. It’d be going too far to claim, though some do, that the psychedelic movement was part of CIA psyops. But it might as well have been: the proto-hippies had promulgated radical anti-government and environmentalist politics; psychedelic drugs introverted the movement, making it focus on altering consciousness rather than policies and power structures.

Pollan and Lin both write about the suggestibility of psychedelic experience—the importance of the environment you’re in when you take psychedelics, your state of mind, your expectations. Pollan proposes that all Western psychedelic experiences have been influenced by Huxley: “Eastern” artistic motifs and metaphysical ideas are such common tropes because they’re how Huxley used them to characterize his trip in The Doors of Perception. But neither Pollan nor Lin really explores the ramifications of this suggestibility: It’s true, as Pollan says, that if you’re told you’re going to have a “mystical experience,” you probably will. But this logic applies to whatever you’re told, and experimenting with setting a goal before you take psychedelics—an object to find, a map to follow, an entity to encounter—is one of the most entertaining things you can do with them. The tripping individual’s receptivity, combined with the enhanced sensory awareness the chemicals provide, could make refined psychedelic drugs a powerful accessory to immersive theater or role-playing games. Psychedelic therapy, on the other hand, I find a little creepy. The default mode network can be disarmed less riskily through meditation and exercise; “fundamentalisms” can be challenged more effectively by reading books or articles written by intelligent people who oppose them; and the impressionability of the psychedelic experience can be readily abused. The CIA’s experiments with psychedelic drugs as a tool for mind control were not misguided. As McKenna once said, “‘They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong”; they also, as Hubbard knew, make it easier for someone else to impose his view of what’s right. Changing your mind is one thing, but trusting someone else to change it for you is quite another. 

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