Book review: “How to Change Your Mind”

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics
Author: Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s nice to have your interest in a subject reinvigorated. My readings of late have rotated around cognitive science and personal transformation. Apparently those keywords must have made this book pop up. Reading it helped me re-connect my experience with psychedelics with who I am today (and probably why I keep adding books like this to my “to read” shelf).

So much of the psychedelic experience lies tantalizingly outside of our ability to form an intelligible narrative about it. This is both its bug and its feature. But the frustrations of communicability regarding my time spent unencumbered by restraints of conventional reality due to the presence of these molecules in my blood system are only the subjective dilemma writ large.

So I really appreciate Michael Pollan’s attempt at this journalism of consciousness. Talk about hard reporting. Some journalists go to war zones and put themselves in range of deadly ordinance in service of getting the story. Pollan chooses to travel to the brain on psychedelics. In both cases the challenge of getting the story is as formidable as the intimations of personal mortality.

The therapeutic benefit of this class of drugs has become a sliver of hope for me in a world that desperately needs transforming. The modern dilemma is one of scaling crisis in the face of an atomized psyche. In order to move towards a context where solutions to environmental, nationalist and even ontological problems can present themselves we will need something that resembles a trans-personal awareness.

So there is reason for hope that these drugs may play a beneficial role. My own take on them is that they can and should. And on personal reflection, having had the experience, the world has now and forever become psychedelicized; less opaque, more imbued with worth, unifying and celebratory. May we all get there in our own way.

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Migrating Through the Problematic

 
We traveled to Nebraska this spring to see the Sandhill crane migration. “I guess that’s a thing” said a friend. Is it ever. Half a million or more of this one species of bird channel their way through a fifty mile stretch of the Platte River on their way to northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They stop over at the Platte for a few weeks before the final push, for the corn, for the flocking sociability and because the river has open shores.
 
The birds are accustomed to the wide vistas afforded by what was formerly a natural flood plain and they gain an understandable sense of security in maintaining clear sight lines on potential predators headed their way on their nightly roost in the river. But the open river banks were made problematic by human priorities. Damning for both power generation and flood control ended the scouring effect of the seasonal rush of waters which removed the small plant starts from the shore every year.
 

The river shores in this one stretch of the Platte are now cleared by human action; bulldozing, bush hogging, chain sawing. This is done in the off season so that the birds are accommodated and put at ease upon their return. Seems only right since they were the ones who got first dibs here.

 
It’s an anxious time for the cranes since they are on a timeline to stock up and get north to reproduce during the tight window that is the arctic summer. The flocking behavior provides some vital function for them during this stopover. It must help to ease the anxiety. This safety in numbers thing and the natural comfort of being part of a large community puts me in mind of some kind of large summer music festival. On the Platte the birds provide their own soundtrack with their Sandhill burbling, their hoots and cackles.
 

This huge celebration of youth and music disbands after the reproduction cycle is completed. After a brief summer of mating, of nesting and nurturing their young up north they return south in relaxed fashion, in much smaller family knots. 

 
On our way up there from western Kentucky we stopped in Kansas City and visited the Truman Presidential Library in Independence. It’s a shrine to a problematic individual. This mild mannered man with poor public speaking skills and a history as a failed businessman in the hat and oil trades also bears the responsibility of the decision to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese. There’s a weird irony in that personality making that particular decision. And the decision itself seems incomprehensible even as part of a practical expediency. A bookish Missouri farm boy becomes a presidential decision maker involving the use of atomic weapons on a civilian population, all tied to his nation’s psychology brutalized by the sufferings of war. 
 
From there the highway north passes right in front of Leavenworth Prison which is a massive monument to the power of evil sitting in the prettiest, more benign and lovely Kansas river valley you ever saw. The walls of Leavenworth extend forty feet each direction from the ground. Forty feet up and forty feet down. Machine Gun Kelly and Bugs Moran did time there. So did Tom Pendergast after riding high for many years atop his pyramid of corruption as the Kansas City political boss and Truman mentor. The problem of evil is not just about bad guys. Good guys sometimes get into trouble just migrating through the problematic.
 

Layers

 

I am building layers in my studio. My recent efforts in surface design involve pattern creation using stencils that I cut in acetate which are then used to print color onto fabric. I rotate the stencil (in this case a loose grid of rhomboids) and repeat the printing process with a second contrasting color. I use translucent dyes which when layered create a third color. In this case I started with a bright red-magenta and overlaid a muted blue. A lovely purple happened where the colors overlaid. 
 
In thinking about mental patterns and the benefits that arrive by allowing for the possibility of changing them, I recognized this artistic exercise as illustrating this process. The third color that appeared, the purple, was not possible without first creating one pattern and then starting completely over with another. The color also wouldn’t appear as visually striking if the colors weren’t profoundly divergent (red and blue).
 
Our patterns of thought have a certain beauty. They can be regular and uniformly pleasing. But a much more powerful and interesting thing happens when two opposing patterns interact. These interference patterns bring us a new level of understanding. They tease out something new that wasn’t in each pattern individually. Something emerged from the interaction. The overlayed patterns form points where they conjoin to make new information.
 
 

Getting to Eukaryota

Micro-eukaryota
 
It’s strange how one thing can lead to another. Sometimes the result is hodgepodge, sometimes pattern. Today it was intricate, well ordered, lustrous pattern.
 
I began this morning by picking up where I left off last night with my “drifting off” thoughts in bed. Ironically for someone who, like many others, has preparation for sleep in mind when he reads in bed the subject of my evening’s read was mental restlessness. I’m reading “Open Minded” by Jonathan Lear and he puts the idea of restlessness out there as a basic feature of the human psyche. OK, maybe not the best book for your bedside table at night. But I get up this morning (having successfully put aside that concept in favor of actual restfulness) thinking about the disruptive function of restlessness and how it works to break up the cozy comforts of “knowingness”.
 
My Sunday morning pledge is to not look at social media until I actually accomplish something. Sunday morning is also my “Bible study.” Well, that’s what I call it anyway and sometimes it involves studying the actual Bible. But it is always dedicated to pondering imponderables. After sitting quietly with the usual morning muddle of my own thoughts during which I drink my first cup of coffee (I told you this was a routine!), I go off in search of the term “disruption.”
 
This leads to a chain of exploration which winds up with Eukaryota, which is kind of an important word for reasons we will discover. For now let’s just leave it here on the page with its lovely pronunciation: “You-carry-oh-tah.”
 
I’m glad I woke up today. I say it out loud: “You-carry-oh-tah.” (just so beautiful.)
 
Let me recount the descent of thought I followed from just typing “disruption” into the search field. If you prefer “ascent” that’s fine. Just beware that you are now identified as hopelessly cheery.
 
Up pops “The Disruption of 1843.” Sounds curious. Many years are full of disruption. Why does 1843 rise above the others to earn distinction on the disruptiveness scale? It turns out that a great schism occurred in the Scottish church that year involving dissent over who controlled the placement of clergy in local churches and who was really in charge after all. According to those rebels who decided to part ways from their established church, it was most certainly not the state! 
 
“The Disruption Assembly” by David Octavius Hill

 A side discovery to this was finding an amazing portrait of over 400 of the 1000 plus Scottish dissenters who met to begin their independence movement. A painter present for the festivities wanted to memorialize the confab and a photographer who was also present offered to take pictures of the rabble as reference material. It was a pioneering event in the history of photography and resulted in one amazing 5’ x 11’ painting. (See image here)

 
From there I picked up on “Presbyterianism” because I remembered something about it starting in Scotland as a religious movement with emphasis on local control of church teaching and organization, rather than relying on hierarchical dictates. In that Wikipedia article there was a curious editor’s warning that said emphatically; “This section possibly contains original research.” Well that certainly caught my attention since I was under the impression that Wikipedia was all about original research. Turns out to be anything but! A basic rule for them is that nothing should appear on any page without referencing established resource material. In other words, you can’t just put any old shit up there. Wait… this IS the internet isn’t it?
 
From there I went off onto a little bit of a worm-hole tangent. Just stay with me.
 
On the Wikipedia page that describes the above policy regarding “original research” there was a small flag at the bottom “Wikiversity allows original research”. Hey, thank goodness somebody does! Again, my interest in the theme of disruption was demanding some access to the open air here. And “Wikiversity” sounded interesting. I think I could afford to go there!
 
Wikiversity is part of the “Wiki” nebulae, an element of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is in turn part of the Wikimedia Movement. And that’s a lot of Wiki. Wikiversity is a free school, a collection of learning materials developed through the generosity of spirit that runs rife through this whole enterprise. After noodling around this cloud college for a while I saw a list of other projects that the Wikimedia Foundation has going. First I tried Wikinews but that was a little thin (the content seemed to be dominated by English football for some reason.)
 
The next morsel of click bait for me was Wikispecies. I have no idea why. There was also Wikivoyage which sounded too leisurely I guess. This was study time after all. On Wikispecies I looked at several pages but they all contained just taxonomy with no narrative content. I did learn that wrens and finches are related so now I’ve got that little factoid to wield on my next trip birding. (me) “Did you know wrens and finches are related?” (her, looking at a wood duck) “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”
 
Now comes the part where those members of my audience in the “cheery” faction get their due. I found myself looking at the taxonomy structure and wondering what was towards the top. I was ascending! Way up there, above order, above class, above phylum, above kingdom even… was that word: Eukaryota. “You-carry-oh-tah.”
 
This was the big kahuna! The Domain. All organisms with a cell structure that contain a nucleus with genetic material belong to it. Its the mother ship. The uber category. The Realm of the Seven Kingdoms. The background category that every form of life belongs to.
 
Except for bacteria.
 
That will have to wait for another Sunday.
 
 

Our Life in Between

The theme of this blog is the life we live in between. We have our main life, usually one of work and home and family. And we have our other life. The one we use to offset the primary life. Vacation. Hobbies. Community service. If we lived only in the first life we might function responsibly but we might also arrive at that dreaded sense of stagnancy. Endless cycles in the mundane. Featureless existence on a long slog towards our demise.

Life proceeds without our prompting. But our sense of being alive depends crucially on our ability to inject our energy into it. And this ability must be expressed in two ways; our responsible existence, and our crazy life. In the time we are allowed we are provided the opportunity to create this crazy space that helps us to regain something. I know that life wants a discussion about what is possible. But practical Dave says this can’t happen. Or that is just plain crazy. We can’t afford it. It can’t be done. Dreamer Dave says “Why not?” So we move into little spots where our dreams can meet up with reality. We buy a boat. We start a project that benefits the community. We open our minds to a way of thinking that isn’t part of our habit.

I find that this creates a space in between. I call it “Life in the Hyphen” because it exists as real as both sides of life. It is where we find wholeness and peace. If we are courageous enough to create both we can then find a point of balance in that “between”.