If you’re like me and you listen to NPR when you want to feel smart, you might have heard the big Michael Pollan interview on ‘Fresh Air,’ where he calmly talked about his new book, the title of which is unnecessarily long: “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” And the book’s cover is even worse. It looks like the cover page for a third-grader’s big end-of-the-year science paper.
But despite the book’s unfortunate presentation, its subject matter is crucial for a country like ours and at a time like this, when we find ourselves woefully unprepared to deal with large-scale issues of mental health. Suicidal thoughts among teenagers have seen an increase, and millennial opinions on suicide have turned surprisingly benevolent. I don’t have time to get into the many causes of this major shift, but I’m sure you can guess at a few of the big ones. (Hint: one of them rhymes with dump.)
Mr. Pollan’s extensive press tour for his new book has been shocking to me for only one reason: I can’t remember the last time I witnessed any kind of public discussion on the potential benefits of hallucinogens. Sure, you can find that kind of material in sleazy corners of the internet, where Alan Watts and Terence Mckenna are fetishized to no end, blending actual scientific evidence with elements of Eastern philosophy and generalized mysticism. And unfortunately, these communities have given psychotropics a pretty bad name, or have at least relegated them to the likes of outdated hippies, ‘drug people’ with no significant connection to reality.
The big twist here is that behavioral scientists have been studying this stuff for years, patiently and quietly. And they’ve found convincing evidence that hallucinogens could help those struggling with anxiety, depression, and a host of widespread psychological ailments. It has to do with neural pathways, and how bad wiring can lead to overly negative thoughts and feelings. And what psychotropics do on a very basic level is change up these pathways, resulting in an altered state of consciousness. Oh yeah, and they’re non-addictive.
And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a call to legalize all controlled substances, or even all hallucinogens. But this question is very interesting to me, this question of why we haven’t given more attention to a potential solution for a serious problem. Why do we get so skittish around this stuff?
I don’t have much space left here, but I put forth that it has to do with a very American conception of drugs. That word has exactly one definition for us: fun and dangerous. We don’t bother to make distinctions between them, at least not on a broad scale. We’re still afraid of what might happen, despite evidence and despite testimony, like Mr. Pollan’s new book.
I think we’re afraid, not only of the danger that could come to us from outside after choosing a lifestyle of substance-taking, but also of the harm that could come from inside, out of what we find out about ourselves.