A psychedelic renaissance

Setting: a rambling lakeside Victorian hotel, underpopulated and fusty in the off-season, floorboards failing slightly to one side in corridors lined with grave portraiture of prominent guests from the past two centuries: presidents and stewards, malevolent industrialists and heirs, great men and their broods, a taxonomy of period beards and corsets at leisure.

Set: post-counter-culture adolescent raised in hippie town on hippie myths, hungry for the kind of mind-expanding psychic adventures celebrated in books, films and music, and in the drug stories of peers, an adolescent who fears that he might be psychically stunted, ungifted, unamenable to expansion, corseted by insecurity and inhibition.

The book was the drug.

In the spring of 1979, I was working as the weekend game room supervisor at the Mohonk Mountain House. I didn’t know it at the time, but jobs wouldn’t get any sweeter than that one, unless you had a mind to be someone someday. I had my own booth to sit in; a ping-pong table and a steady stream of off-duty employees to challenge; a lockbox of quarters I was permitted to pump through the pinball machines and first-gen video games.

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I enjoyed something that, every time I dared to ask, resembled “no real responsibilities.” I couldn’t even tell you who my boss was, though any number of managers frowned at me in the halls. In my booth, I kept the mandolin I was learning to play, books and snacks. Traffic was light, incidental. The Smileys’ Mohonk never seemed quite comfortable with a noisy arcade in its sober, Quaker-naturalist midst.

That spring, my generationally-issued Kurt Vonnegut obsession had led me to the steps of a potent little book called The Eden Express. It was written by Kurt Jr.’s son, Mark Vonnegut. Although it shared in the playful and profound family voice, it was nothing like a Kilgore Trout novel. The Eden Express was Mark’s vivid, interior account of his own schizophrenia.

Critical consensus today seems to agree with what I discovered on my own. The kid could write. His willing, musical prose seemed to produce in the reader an approximation, a short-acting taste, of schizophrenia. I would read 30 or 40 pages and rise to roam the haunted Mohonk halls, feeling a bit of the madness gnawing at the edge of my own sanity and undoing my reality. I wanted it. I coaxed it and I courted it.

I had just enough drug experience to know what a loosened ego felt like and to imagine an exploded one. I craved the shamanistic authority, the paradoxical distinction awarded those who have known the dissolution of their socially constructed selves and have returned to tell of it, stable but changed. Madness, I naively believed, is wasted on the crazy. Schizophrenia was not genetically available to me or for sale in the streets as such, but I had The Eden Express, and the book was the drug.

I predict that the gifted author Michael Pollan is already a little worried if not downright aghast by the indirect effect of his successful new book, How to Change Your Mind, a brilliant and inspiring account of the history and revival of research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs — maybe too inspiring for the author’s taste. Books aren’t so very popular these days, but via the casting of pods and the fastidious curation of NPR their stories and synopses are disseminated and discussed widely among the chatty classes, and Pollan’s popular book may well turn out to signal the dawn of a new age of de-mythologized, decidedly non-freaky interest in what psychedelics can contribute to human and planetary health.

Thanks to Pollan and his 360-degree scientific, historical and autobiographical documentation of the agency of psychedelics, I imagine the acid and psilocybin flying off the shelves, wherever those shelves might be. I imagine hordes of respectable seniors, some infirm, others in rosy good health (for much of the current research into psychedelics studies the “betterment of well people”), showing up at EDM festivals and Phish shows looking for the product.

Pollan has an enriched, multifaceted way of telling a story. He handles historical narrative, personal memoir, and lay-level mycology and chemistry with the same lyrical grace and unifying intelligence. His mode is new-journalistic and Heisenbergian.  He continuously monitors, acknowledges, and adjusts for his own biases — an especially important trait when writing about psychedelics, a topic in which people tend to see what they want to see, a subjectivity that seems to be the essence of their power.

How to Change Your Mind starts with the goings on at Johns Hopkins University at the turn of the millennium, culminating in the 2006 publication of Roland Griffith’s “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” in Psychopharmacology, the first serious clinical study of psychedelics in over four decades. From that time and place, the characters and concerns of Pollan’s story radiate in all directions, temporally and spatially.

 

Much of How to Change Your Mind celebrates the work of a dedicated group of researchers and advocates not named Leary responsible for the first, productive decade of psychedelics research, before Kesey, the counter-culture and the polarization of society over the subject of LSD. Many of these characters were distinguished researchers and practitioners whose ties were loosened and whose research priorities and methods were irrevocably transformed by a jolt of acid or mushrooms. Other characters come off as mythic American figures — the self-made mycologist and prophet of fungus Paul Stametz, for example, or Captain Trips (Al Hubbard) , who turned on thousands and who beat Timothy Leary to the set-and-setting way of understanding the variables of the acid trip.

Leary, who was once to psychedelics what Bob Marley is to reggae music, is rather coldly demoted, repositioned as a shoddy scientist who produced few meaningful studies and who, by accepting the role as the prophet of acid and the despoiler of young minds, did far more to end psychedelic research than to advance it. Still, Pollan grants him his role as a gadfly who went far out with it, providing cover for the researchers working closer to the mainstream of science.

Psychedelics have been shown — repeatedly and emphatically — to help cure alcoholism and addiction, to eradicate fear and anxiety and to promote profound acceptance in terminally ill patients, to stimulate the resourcefulness and imaginations of artists and engineers (with a direct role in the evolution of computer science), and to promote deep values, empathy and positive change in the lives of the well. They have proven to be an especially valuable tool for people turning the corner into later life — when a little unsettling and un-patterning of consciousness can be useful.

Huge Problem #1, of course, is that the acid trip cannot be observed and studied directly. The whole field of inquiry is perforce subjective and anecdotal, a fact of which Pollan is abidingly aware throughout the text.

There can be no doubt that How to Change Your Mind whets the appetite for the psychedelic experience, especially in anyone who still has the taste in their mouth. And this points to Huge Problem #2. While researchers now have access to the substances and some legislative ground is being made — you and I are not researchers, are we? — these drugs remain highly classified.

Reading How to Change Your Mind, how could I not crave some of that chemical magic? The undoing and re-modeling of my increasingly pinched reality? The re-patterning of my patterns? The loosening of all my impacted adult worrying, and the broadening of scope in a middle-age life that rarely takes me further than Kingston any more?

Alas, there is no pouch hidden inside the cover of How to Change Your Mind. The book itself, and the equally poorly understand art of literary alchemy, will have to be the drug for most of us.

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