Books of The Times: A Strait-Laced Writer Explores Psychedelics, and Leaves the Door of Perception Ajar

Michael Pollan’s new book, “How to Change Your Mind,” is not about that. It’s about macro-dosing. It’s about taking enough LSD or psilocybin (mushrooms) to feel the colors and smell the sounds, to let the magic happen, to chase the juju. And it’s about how mainstream science ceded the ground of psychedelics decades ago, and how it’s trying to get it back.

“How to Change Your Mind” is a calm survey of the past, present and future. A book about a blurry subject, it is cleareyed and assured. Pollan is not the most obvious guide for such a journey. He is, to judge from his self-reporting, a giant square. In the prologue, he describes himself as someone “not at all sure he has ever had a single ‘spiritually significant’ experience,” a pretty straitened admission even for an avowed atheist. “I have never been one for deep or sustained introspection,” he writes later. You often find yourself thinking: This guy could really use a trip.

And he takes one. More than one. He learns things from them, but he also doesn’t overplay his experiences, admitting that he never felt his ego had “completely dissolved,” as some others report happening.

Pollan’s initial skepticism and general lack of hipness work wonders for the material. The problem with more enthusiastic or even hallucinatory writers on the subject is that they just compound the zaniness at the heart of the thing; it’s all too much of the same tone, like having George Will walk you through the tax code.

Like another best-selling Michael (Lewis), Pollan keeps you turning the pages even through his wonkiest stretches. We get history, starting with Albert Hofmann, who first synthesized LSD in 1938 and embarked on “the only LSD trip ever taken that was entirely innocent of expectation”; profiles of current-day proselytizers and mushroom hunters; analyses of brain-scanning technologies and government policy.

If Pollan’s wide-ranging account has a central thesis, it’s that we’re still doing the hard work of rescuing the science of psychedelics from the “countercultural baggage” of the 1960s. Timothy Leary and his tuning-in, dropping-out crowd so successfully branded the drugs as accouterments of hippie culture that in the mid-60s “the exuberance surrounding these new drugs gave way to moral panic,” and soon after that “the whole project of psychedelic science had collapsed.”

Before collapsing, though, that project discovered in psychedelics the same potential that scientists are exploring as they reclaim it today: possible help in treating addiction, anxiety and depression, and “existential distress” — common in people “confronting a terminal diagnosis,” which of course, broadly speaking, is all of us.

From 1949 to 1966, the pharmaceutical company Sandoz dispensed free amounts of “however much LSD any researcher requested” to conduct trials. In 1957, before Leary had even tripped for the first time, R. Gordon Wasson, a New York banker, published a lengthy essay in the far-from-radical Life magazine about taking mushrooms in Mexico.

In Mexico and elsewhere, experiences with naturally occurring hallucinogens predated Hofmann’s discovery of LSD by a long, long time. The wonderfully named but factually dubious “stoned ape theory” posits that great evolutionary leaps were made when early humans ingested psilocybin. It’s unlikely that tripping led directly to, say, the development of language, as some proponents of that theory claim. But more convincing conjectures include the one Wasson made about mushrooms in Life: “One is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted in primitive man the very idea of a God.”

In all of this is an assumption that the true value of psychedelics is not the experience of them — the grooviness of the moment — but the sediment the experience leaves behind.

It’s possible these effects can be chalked up, in part, to the drug’s effect on the brain’s so-called default mode network, especially the part associated with self-referential thought. Pollan grants, if briefly, that turning off the network — truly getting over yourself — might also be achieved through “certain breathing exercises,” or through “sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences and so on.”

Pollan doesn’t give a lot of prime real estate to psychedelics’ naysayers. But given that those on LSD can appear to be losing their minds, and that the drug leaves one feeling emotionally undefended (a potential benefit as well as a profound risk), he does strongly recommend having an experienced guide in a proper setting when you trip. With those safeguards in place, he believes usage could be on the verge of more widespread acceptance, pointing out that plenty of other once widely derided practices redolent of the ’60s, like yoga and natural birth, are now common.

There is a notable amount of talk in the book about metaphors; so much so that trips start to feel like textual events as much as physical ones. Pollan writes of emerging from psychedelics or meditation with “usable ideas, images or metaphors.” One researcher says that describing his own mystical experience involved “metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.”

Perhaps the hardest thing for the more skeptical and less mystically inclined of us to accept is that mulling these metaphors often turns people into, in Pollan’s handy phrase, “fervent evangelists of the obvious.”

Yet you end the book wondering if obvious things are all that bad. Aldous Huxley wrote of feeling, on psychedelics, “the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.”

These words, Huxley continued, “of course have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle. But the fact remains.”


May 14, 2018

Sources: New York Times

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  • Out There: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Is Still the ‘Ultimate Trip’

    Out There: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Is Still the ‘Ultimate Trip’

    us to reflect again on where we’re coming from and where we’re going.</p><p>In the spring of 1964 the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was very worried. NASA was about to fly the Mariner 4 space probe past Mars.</p><p>At the time he was deep in development of a blockbuster film about the discovery of alien intelligence. Word was that MGM had bet their studio on the film. What if Mariner discovered life on Mars and scooped them?</p><p>Mr. Kubrick’s movie, “2001, A Space Odyssey,” finally debuted, late and over budget in April 1968, to baffled film critics and long lines of young people. John Lennon said he went to see it every week. It was the top-grossing movie of the year and is now a perennial on critics’ lists of the most important movies of all time, often the first movie scientists mention if you ask them about sci-fi they have enjoyed.</p><p>The movie broke with many of the conventions of the time, like mood music to tell you what to feel and think. “2001” left you alone in space with your thoughts.</p><p>The story begins four million years ago in Africa, where a bunch of bedraggled primates are losing the battle of the survival of the fittest until a strange black monolith appears. To the thunder of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” one of those apemen is inspired to pick up a bone and use it as a club to kill the animals that have been pushing him around.</p><p>Suddenly, the apemen are eating meat and chasing their rivals away from the water hole. In a moment of exultation the ape throws the bone into the sky where, in what has been called the longest fast forward in film history, it turns into a spaceship.</p><p>Around that toss Kubrick pivots his movie and all of human evolution. Another monolith appears on the moon, and yet another in orbit around Jupiter, where an astronaut named Dave Bowman connects with it after subduing a neurotic computer, the HAL 9000, which has murdered his shipmates. In the finale, Bowman is sent through a “star gate” on a trip through space and time, death and rebirth, returning as a glowing Star Child to float like a fetus over the Earth.</p><p>The last time I watched the movie (on VHS of all things on my tiny home television), was in 2000, on the eve of its eponymous year.</p><p>I never realized how much I had missed until I read Mr. Benson’s book, a deep, informative and entertaining dive into the making of the movie.</p><p>One revelation is how haphazardly the movie was made. Nevermind the special effects and the model spaceships, Kubrick and Clarke were making up much of the story as they went along. Up until the very end, Mr. Benson tells us, they were struggling with how to portray the alien being responsible for the monoliths, until they realized it couldn’t be done. We don’t know what is out there. It would be hubris to even try to imagine.</p><p>This is not a review of the book; Mr. Benson is a friend of mine, and I’m unabashedly ignorant of the history of cinema anyway. But it is a review of my own shifting attitudes and encounters with the movie itself over the years.</p><p>One mark of the movie’s status as a masterpiece is that it has something different to say to us every time we encounter it anew.</p><p>Like the monolith it appears to give us what we need.</p><p>Fifty years ago it was a harbinger of the future. We were about to win the race with the Russians to the moon. A whole generation was pumped and primed to tune in, turn on and transcend the whole dreary space-time continuum as we knew it.</p><p>Thoroughly researched by Kubrick and Clarke, large swaths of the film were like a documentary of the future: the space station, the moon base, the grand-stepping outward just as Clarke and people like Wernher von Braun had prophesied.</p><p>It’s now been 46 years since there was anyone on the moon. It’s possible to imagine a time in which there will be no humans alive who have been there.</p><p>But Mars is having a moment in the popular imagination — from the Matt Damon film “The Martian,” which got high marks for scientific realism a couple years ago, to an upcoming television series “The First,” about settlers on Mars being planned by Beau Willimon, the producer and showrunner of the Netflix series “House of Cards.”</p><p>Where the script has really flipped is in the future history of evolution.</p><p>We all carry HAL in our pockets now, and in a few years he, it, will be in our bloodstreams. The future, to the extent that humans are part of it, is bionic.</p><p>Computers, to the delight of surveillance states and the despair of civil libertarians, can now recognize faces. For all we know neural networks like Deep Mind can dream.</p><p>In that case, I have a bone or two to pick with the director.</p>

    1 May 13, 2018
  • Astronaut, Purdue University alum receives honorary doctorate, addresses graduates from space

    Astronaut, Purdue University alum receives honorary doctorate, addresses graduates from space

    or redistributed. &copy;2018 FOX News Network, LLC. All rights reserved. All market data delayed 20 minutes.</p><p> Purdue University President Mitch Daniels connects with Purdue alumni astronauts Scott Tingle, left, and Andrew Feustel, who are aboard the International Space Station some 250-plus miles above Earth. &nbsp;(Purdue University photo/John Underwood) </p><p>Amid all the commencement ceremonies taking place at colleges across the country, one particular commemoration on Friday featured a guest who was literally out of this world.</p><p>Purdue University granted NASA astronaut and alumnus Andrew J. “Drew” Feustel an honorary doctorate during its spring commencement ceremonies, which was connected live to the International Space Station as it circled about 250 miles above Earth.</p><p>While a Purdue dean typically places a ceremonial hood on honorary degree recipients, fellow alum and NASA astronaut Scott Tingle, who is also stationed on the ISS, had to stand in and place the hood on Feustel due to obvious logistical challenges.</p><p>“For me, after community college, there was no other choice but Purdue, the only university I applied to, hoping and now knowing that that decision would change my life and set me on a path to the stars,” Feustel told graduates.</p><p>Feustel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in solid earth sciences in 1989 and a master’s degree in geophysics from Purdue in 1991, has spent 80 days in space, including 51 days on his third mission. The Purdue alum is a veteran of three NASA spaceflights, and is currently assigned aboard the ISS until October.</p><p>&quot;As the adventure unfolds, I hope you look back on Purdue the way I do, with fond memories of the good and challenging times,&quot;&nbsp;Feustel said. &quot;You have earned your right to walk the stage and I wish you all the chance to fly among the stars professionally and for some of you, personally.&quot;</p><p>Purdue has graduated 24 NASA astronauts and, by the end of 2018, Purdue astronauts will have spent the equivalent of more than 1,100 days in space.</p><p>This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. &copy;2018 FOX News Network, LLC. All rights reserved. All market data delayed 20 minutes.</p>

    1 May 13, 2018


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