Book Corner 2022.45

by Michael Pollan


I’m not sure how to begin. Michael Pollan is about my age and a materialist – an atheist, with the perspective that the physical laws of matter should be able to explain everything there is. And yet. Those who go on psychedelic journeys so often have mystical experiences – “the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed,” like they “have been let in on a deep secret of the universe, and they cannot be shaken.” William James wrote, “Dreams cannot stand this test.”

Pollan writes, “The most straightforward …is that it’s simply true: the altered state of consciousness has opened the person up to a truth that the rest of us… simply cannot see.”

Pollan then gives us a pretty long history of the research on psychedelics done in this country in the last century; and details about his experiences, which do qualify as “mystical” (a survey told him so). He trips on three different psychedelic substances: mushrooms, LSD, and “the toad,” literally toad venom. This last is the most amazing and the most difficult for him to put into words. What can definitely be said is that the effects of smoking the distilled venom of this toad kick in before the smoker even has a chance to exhale – you inhale one puff and you are transported to before the Big Bang, before there was any being at all. Pollan remarks on how often people express gratitude for “being alive” – after smoking the toad, he was on his knees with gratitude for there being “being” at all.

This actually was an interesting complement to my recent reading of LOST IN MATH by Sabine Hossenfelder. That was about the fundamental question of why we should ever expect the laws of physics to be “beautiful”, why we are bothered that quantum mechanics doesn’t seem intuitive – why should it be? There would have been no reason for our species to evolve to have a fundamental understanding of quantum mechanics or to have brains that “like” the laws of physics. Why the hubris that we should be able to know and understand everything? Maybe there are things we can’t know.

Not without physical tweaks, that is – in the form of certain pharmaceuticals, mushrooms, or toads – that change our perceptions enough for us to see something beyond what we can usually see.

Maybe there is something “beyond” after all.

The book also has a great section on how psychedelics are slowly finding their way back into medical research, and are showing promise to treat an array of disorders: addiction, depression, end-of-life anxiety. The story of the end days of the cancer patient who turned his mind around with psychedelics almost brought me to tears. The description of how psychedelics can alleviate addictions was enlightening – OK, existential dread being lifted by a mystical experience, that makes a certain kind of sense; but how and why should tripping help you quit smoking? I loved one woman’s explanation: “It put smoking in a whole new context. Smoking seemed very unimportant; it seemed kind of stupid, to be honest.”

We’ve seen such sea changes in the legalization of marijuana, in the acceptance of gay marriage – maybe we’ll live to see psychedelics taken off the list of controlled substances; maybe shrooms will start “popping up” someday in a store near you. This book made me really want to do drugs. Maybe not the toad. But some of the others, for sure.

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