How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan

Cover of How To Change Your Mind, a green cover with a person swinging from a cloudPollan has taken his love of botany to a new place in this book. How To Change Your Mind is focused on psychedelics, which are a group of drugs which give a “trippy” effect. Psychedelics from mushrooms have been used since the dawn of human kind (probably), with a brief Western moment of publicity and research in the 1950s. This of course was followed by a moral panic in the 60s, so that the research into how they can help people has only recently started up again.

Pollan covers this history by targeting a few times and places, then discusses the brain science behind psychedelics before examining the new research and where it might lead. In between these sections are descriptions of the trips he took while researching. It’s obvious he had to define a tight scope for this book or else he’d have written a whole encyclopaedia about this topic. I’d loved to have read more about the way indigenous people use these drugs, or more about European researchers, or other similar families of drugs. I’m glad he tried to make the trip diaries readable rather than detailed though – there’s only so much you can read of people trying to describe such an un-describable experience. I was more interested in the before and after of each trip, how he approached them and what consequences they had.

Close up of a psilocybe azurescens mushroom. It is small, with a yellow-ish light brown cap and a pale stem.
Psilocybin azurescens mushroom. Source: shroom360 at Mushroom Observer CC BY-SA 4.0

He frequently mentions the way that psychedelics have a side-effect of making people really excited to share psychedelics with other people. I lost count of the number of people he interviewed who took one trip then changed their work to focus on making psychedelics more widely available in some way. Scientists did it with research, psychologists by including them in treatment, artists by hopping on a bus to drive across the USA handing out acid at concerts. Knowing how he feels about how humans co-evolved with plants, I was sure he’d eventually speculate that the enthusiastic evangelism of trippers is a mushroom’s way of propagating itself more widely. But no, not even when he talks about Paul Stamets calling mushroom mycelium the “wood-wide web”! If a desire to convert people is a side effect, maybe part of the effect is not realising the mushroom is using you for its own purposes. Sneaky mushrooms!

As I read the book I related very much to his apprehension that tripping would lead him away from his materialist, atheist world view and persuade him of more New Age takes on consciousness. It was a relief to find that most people don’t radically change their beliefs after experiencing the dissolution of their self, but instead make a fresh commitment to their existing values. Almost all of the people who made big changes in their lives did so by quitting things they’d never been 100% happy about but hadn’t felt like they could stop doing. Addictions, careers, relationships, that sort of thing. And Pollan is a humanist as well as an atheist, so in spite of his frequent doubts about the reliability of his interviewees he writes about them with compassion and an openness to being proven wrong.

From reading this, I’m now thinking that if I had a safe opportunity to try mushrooms I’d definitely take it out of curiosity. Maybe LSD too. But where I live that’s not likely to happen in a way I’d be comfortable with. Maybe one day that will change.

How I manage to read so much

As a kid I was a voracious reader. I read everything I could get my hands on, and spent as much time as possible in libraries. All the way through university I spent whatever spare money I had on buying books, and as much time reading them as I could manage while still having friendships, a job, and so on. It helps if you have friends who also love reading!

Nowadays it’s so very easy to spend hours at a time on social media, reading nothing much, just clicking like and leaving little friendly comments. I still buy books at the same rate, but I’m not reading them as quickly or as frequently. So I’m challenging myself to read 52 books this year, an average of one each week. To make this a fun stretch goal and not a dreadful chore, I’m being quite easy on myself: work books count, and I don’t have to actually finish 52 books, just start that many.

As with any resolution or challenge, it helps to have SMART goals and decide what habits you’ll use to work towards reaching that goal. SMART goals are:

  • Specific – 52 is pretty specific
  • Measurable – I’m making a note in my diary each time I start a new book
  • Attainable – I used to read about 70 books a year in my glory days
  • Relevant – well, it’s relevant to me and I don’t much mind if other people care
  • Time-bound – I’ve got one year, and read fast enough that the average novel takes me a few days to finish

The habits I’ll be using to make sure I do the work needed are to:

  • Always have a book with me – I have the Kindle app on my phone and many books bought using the One-Click Purchase feature on Amazon after a few glasses of wine and an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend.
  • Schedule time to read – Monday afternoons are when I usually start a new book and that’s on my calendar app

If you want to be reading more than you already do, why not do a little challenge like this? It doesn’t have to be 52 books, and honestly you’ll be more excited about it if you make the goal easy to achieve. Start with one book a month, or whatever feels right to you. If it’s more than you’re reading now, that’s perfect.

Other tips for reading more:

  • Turn off the TV or music – background noise is okay, but reading for pleasure rather than work isn’t particularly good for multitasking.
  • Make yourself a little treat when you sit down with your book – a cup of tea, a glass of wine, some biscuits or whatever. A little reward for working towards your goal is helpful and creates a pleasant association with picking up a book! Also sitting in a cozy chair is easier than reading in bed (sore neck!) or at a desk (this isn’t your job).
  • Ignore the snobs and read whatever you like. Fiction or non-fiction, trashy pulp or fine literature… it’s all good.
  • Likewise, ignore the classics lists and the must-read lists and the best-seller lists. Read a book because the plot or the characters seem interesting to you, not because lots of other people think it’s good or important. Those lists are useful when you’re looking for new-to-you things to read, but there’s no law that says you must follow them. Recommendations from people who like similar books to you are much more likely to help you find a new favourite.
  • If the book you’re reading isn’t working for you, for any reason at all, put it down and start a new book. Maybe you’re just not in the mood for it now, maybe it’s not well-written, or maybe you’re not the target audience. But forcing yourself to read a book like it’s your duty is a guaranteed way to make you wander off and hit refresh on Facebook. Move on to the next book – it will almost certainly be more fun.

I hope this is helpful for you. I’ll be posting some more about my reading throughout the year.