How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us
MIDWAY THROUGH the twentieth century, two unusual new molecules, organic compounds with a striking family resemblance, exploded upon the West. In time, they would change the course of social, political, and cultural history, as well as the personal histories of the millions of people who would eventually introduce them to their brains. As it happened, the arrival of these disruptive chemistries coincided with another world historical explosion—that of the atomic bomb. There were people who compared the two events and made much of the cosmic synchronicity. Extraordinary new energies had been loosed upon the world; things would never be quite the same.
The first of these molecules was an accidental invention of science. Lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD, was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938, shortly before physicists split an atom of uranium for the first time. Hofmann, who worked for the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz, had been looking for a drug to stimulate circulation, not a psychoactive compound. It wasn’t until five years later when he accidentally ingested a minuscule quantity of the new chemical that he realized he had created something powerful, at once terrifying and wondrous.
The second molecule had been around for thousands of years, though no one in the developed world was aware of it. Produced not by a chemist but by an inconspicuous little brown mushroom, this molecule, which would come to be known as psilocybin, had been used by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America for hundreds of years as a sacrament. Called teonanácatl by the Aztecs, or “flesh of the gods,” the mushroom was brutally suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church after the Spanish conquest and driven underground. In 1955, twelve years after Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, a Manhattan banker and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson sampled the magic mushroom in the town of Huautla de Jiménez in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Two years later, he published a fifteen-page account of the “mushrooms that cause strange visions” in Life magazine, marking the moment when news of a new form of consciousness first reached the general public. (In 1957, knowledge of LSD was mostly confined to the community of researchers and mental health professionals.) People would not realize the magnitude of what had happened for several more years, but history in the West had shifted.
The impact of these two molecules is hard to overestimate. The advent of LSD can be linked to the revolution in brain science that begins in the 1950s, when scientists discovered the role of neurotransmitters in the brain. That quantities of LSD measured in micrograms could produce symptoms resembling psychosis inspired brain scientists to search for the neurochemical basis of mental disorders previously believed to be psychological in origin. At the same time, psychedelics found their way into psychotherapy, where they were used to treat a variety of disorders, including alcoholism, anxiety, and depression. For most of the 1950s and early 1960s, many in the psychiatric establishment regarded LSD and psilocybin as miracle drugs.
The arrival of these two compounds is also linked to the rise of the counterculture during the 1960s and, perhaps especially, to its particular tone and style. For the first time in history, the young had a rite of passage all their own: the “acid trip.” Instead of folding the young into the adult world, as rites of passage have always done, this one landed them in a country of the mind few adults had any idea even existed. The effect on society was, to put it mildly, disruptive.
Yet by the end of the 1960s, the social and political shock waves unleashed by these molecules seemed to dissipate. The dark side of psychedelics began to receive tremendous amounts of publicity—bad trips, psychotic breaks, flashbacks, suicides—and beginning in 1965 the exuberance surrounding these new drugs gave way to moral panic. As quickly as the culture and the scientific establishment had embraced psychedelics, they now turned sharply against them. By the end of the decade, psychedelic drugs—which had been legal in most places—were outlawed and forced underground. At least one of the twentieth century’s two bombs appeared to have been defused.
Then something unexpected and telling happened. Beginning in the 1990s, well out of view of most of us, a small group of scientists, psychotherapists, and so-called psychonauts, believing that something precious had been lost from both science and culture, resolved to recover it.
Today, after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance. A new generation of scientists, many of them inspired by their own personal experience of the compounds, are testing their potential to heal mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. Other scientists are using psychedelics in conjunction with new brain-imaging tools to explore the links between brain and mind, hoping to unravel some of the mysteries of consciousness.
One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience. The hoary 1960s platitude that psychedelics offered a key to understanding—and “expanding”—consciousness no longer looks quite so preposterous.
How to Change Your Mind is the story of this renaissance. Although it didn’t start out that way, it is a very personal as well as public history. Perhaps this was inevitable. Everything I was learning about the third-person history of psychedelic research made me want to explore this novel landscape of the mind in the first person too—to see how the changes in consciousness these molecules wrought actually feel and what, if anything, they had to teach me about my mind and might contribute to my life.
THIS WAS, FOR ME, a completely unexpected turn of events. The history of psychedelics I’ve summarized here is not a history I lived. I was born in 1955, halfway through the decade that psychedelics first burst onto the American scene, but it wasn’t until the prospect of turning sixty had drifted into view that I seriously considered trying LSD for the first time. Coming from a baby boomer, that might sound improbable, a dereliction of generational duty. But I was only twelve years old in 1967, too young to have been more than dimly aware of the Summer of Love or the San Francisco Acid Tests. At fourteen, the only way I was going to get to Woodstock was if my parents drove me. Much of the 1960s I experienced through the pages of Time magazine. By the time the idea of trying or not trying LSD swam into my conscious awareness, it had already completed its speedy media arc from psychiatric wonder drug to counterculture sacrament to destroyer of young minds.
I must have been in junior high school when a scientist reported
(mistakenly, as it turned out) that LSD scrambled your chromosomes; the entire media, as well as my health-ed teacher, made sure we heard all about it. A couple of years later, the television personality Art Linkletter began campaigning against LSD, which he blamed for the fact his daughter had jumped out of an apartment window, killing herself. LSD supposedly had something to do with the Manson murders too. By the early 1970s, when I went to college, everything you heard about LSD seemed calculated to terrify. It worked on me: I’m less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic that psychedelics provoked.
I also had my own personal reason for steering clear of psychedelics: a painfully anxious adolescence that left me (and at least one psychiatrist) doubting my grip on sanity. By the time I got to college, I was feeling sturdier, but the idea of rolling the mental dice with a psychedelic drug still seemed like a bad idea.
Years later, in my late twenties and feeling more settled, I did try magic mushrooms two or three times. A friend had given me a Mason jar full of dried, gnarly Psilocybes, and on a couple of memorable occasions my partner (now wife), Judith, and I choked down two or three of them, endured a brief wave of nausea, and then sailed off on four or five interesting hours in the company of each other and what felt like a wonderfully italicized version of the familiar reality.
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