In this book, Pollen narrates the story behind a group of compounds called Psychedelics. Psylocybin is one of them, it is produced by a group of fungi that we now call magic mushrooms. When these mushrooms are consumed by a mammal, it activates a particular neurotransmitter in the mind. This causes strange visions and thoughts. Some influential people from the 1950's have even claimed that this had an everlasting impact on their lives. The problem with these fungi is that consuming them is illegal in most parts of the world. I'm no stranger to Pollen's writings. He is someone who has to experience the things he is going to describe. Pollen under the guidance of underground professionals takes these psychedelics and comes up with a brave personal narrative.
Why should these mushrooms produce this mind-altering compound is an open question to science. It is speculated that it was an accident in the beginning. And, then they could have co-evolved with us since we started consuming them. Why are we talking about mushrooms now? They were here from centuries and various cultures around the world knew about their magical properties. Some cultures even considered them sacred and limited their usage to ritual that happens few times in a year. The reason behind the recent surge in interest is because scientists were able to prove that these compounds can be used effectively in therapy to cure depression, personality disorders, trauma and various addictions. The old medicines for depression called SSRI's are quickly becoming ineffective.
Micheal successfully tells the story and people behind the the first (1950's) and second revolutions (2000's) in our understanding of magic mushrooms and their strange mind-altering properties. Most of the stories revolve around Timothy Leary and Ronald Griffiths, two influential scientists who were behind these revolutions.
The Default Mode Network
The science of psychedelics is even more interesting than the trips. Scientists have put long-term mediators and ordinary people on psychedelics under MRI and have observed that both of them have lessened activity in a part of brain called the default mode network. This default mode network is responsible for the creation of a self. It collects the information from the past, present and the future, acts a filter and creates an illusion of self. It is also speculated by the scientists that diseases like depression and anxiety are diseases coming from over-utilization of this default mode network. Turning this off temporarily or even realizing the fact that there are other modes of brain activity could be immensely helpful in curing these medical conditions. Based on these initial results, we might see more approved studies using psychedelics in the near future from the government.
At some point in my childhood, I was religious. I believed that there is a God, and one can through meditation & control of thoughts attain Moksha from this material world and achieve transendence. Then, something I read changed my world-view. It held that we evolved through natural selection and there is no necessity for the God hypothesis. The science struck with me. Reading this book made me realize that I have made a terrible mistake. I was connecting two separate pathways which can probably exist independently: religious and spiritual. I have realized that one can be spiritual but not religious. What the ancients called as a spiritual experience could be understood as a off-switch of the default mode network. The difference being the time these saints took to achieve that state is on the order of years where as any ordinary person can take Psylocybin and get it in minutes.
All this sounds great but all of these experiences are subjective. How can be bring a subjective experience into science? I'm not so sure.
What Micheal suggests is not a decriminalization of psychedelics so that everyone can buy it like alchohol. He rightly points out the positive sides and asks the society to be open towards the possibility of using LSD or psylocybin to cure certain medical conditions. He also cautions anyone with a history of mental health problems in the family should never directly use these drugs. I liked the book a lot. Probably better than most of the most I've read this year.