Lesson 3: The future of neuropharmacology and mental health is bright — How to Change Your Mind by Micheal Pollan

Micheal Pollan shocked the world in the spring of 2018 with his most recent book How to Change Your Mind. Mostly known for his works pertaining cultural foods and how they contribute to socio-cultural aspects of societies throughout history, Pollan deviated from food and focused on humans’ relationship to psychedelic substances.

Pollan began his groundbreaking book by briefly running through the early history of psychedelic experiences. He leads with the story of Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who accidentally discovered Lysergic Acid (LSD) in the late 1930s in his pharmaceutical laboratory. Hoffman derived LSD by chemically breaking down a fungi called Ergot, which is commonly found in wheat. One April afternoon in 1943, after having the LSD left on the laboratory shelves for about 5 years, Hoffman accidentally ingested a large dose of the chemical. On his bike ride home later that day, Albert Hoffman experienced the world’s first acid trip. He described the trip as “… remarkable restlessness, combined with slight dizziness… not unpleasant-like imagination, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.”

Society’s view on psychedelics has drastically changed since Hoffman’s discovery took place. In the late 1940s and 1950s countless scientists became obsessed with how LSD impacted human consciousness and began detailed studies regarding the drug. In the same time frame, in 1955, a banker by the name of Robert Gordon Wasson heard of a ritual carried out by a lady in the Mazatec regions of Oaxaca, Mexico and decided to go. After his psychedelic experience catered by Maria Sabina, a Mazatec Native, through psilocybin mushrooms, the J.P. Morgan banker went straight to LIFE Magazine and published an article about his experience. The article proved to be a massive success and still to this day remains one of the most prolific articles written for LIFE Magazine in its publishing history.

Following Wasson’s momentous article in LIFE Magazine and the discovery of LSD, psychedelic substances began to garner more interest from both the scientific community and curious young adults. Young boomers of the time, wanting to discover themselves in their late teens, experimented taking acid recreationally amongst their peers. Laboratories would freely give out the compound and the drugs eventually found their way to the streets to the hands of everyday kids.

Timothy Leary, an American psychologist, took a position as a professor for Harvard working on the now famous Harvard Psilocybin Project. The goal of this project was to provide scientific evidence that lead to the conclusion that psychedelic compounds, specifically Psilocybin Mushrooms, benefit overall mental health. Previous years of research and the early stages of the project proved these medicines had properties that helped people who suffered from alcoholism, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression at much higher levels than existing medicines for the same illnesses. The progress that psychedelic medicines was making in the laboratory took a turn when the top researchers of the project, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, started deviating from the science of the project and started focusing on the cultural impact that these compounds could have.Psychedelic compounds, already having a bad reputation amongst parents and government officials alike, took a serious hit from this behavior as the public saw doctors contributing to the counterculture while being paid taxpayer dollars. Due to the stigmatization and the abuse of the compounds, all psychedelics were put on Schedule 1 drug list. This barred everyday people from obtaining it legally on the streets, and revoked scientific licenses that previously allowed the compound to be studied.

Up until recently, research of these compounds had been scarce due to their status as Schedule 1 substances. However, today’s high profile scientists and institutions are running clinical trials with modern technology and have found better explanations for what these compounds do to the human consciousness and how they help people who suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. To put it simply, the molecular structure of DMT, psilocybin, and Lysergic Acid resembles that of Serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that our brain naturally produces that regulates emotions like love, happiness, and our general well-being and mood. When you ingest one of these drugs your neurocircuit becomes inundated with serotonin.

You might imagine that all you’d experience from a flood of serotonin flowing through your mind is a generally happier mood and a heightened sense of being, but that’s just where it starts. Where scientists have seemingly found an explanation to what happens when the brain is under these drugs came from MRI readings and what scientists saw happen to the posterior cingulate cortex (CGI) which lies within the default mode network (DMN) of our brain. The DMN region of the brain regulates the ego, our sense of self, and our sensory perceptions while the CGI is the part of your brain that directs signal traffic throughout the brain. In a way it is the Grand Central Station for your brain. Say for example, you pick up a red apple. The signal that carries how the apple physically feels will travel from your hand up your arm through then your neck into your CGI and then finally to the part of your brain that is responsible for physical feeling. When your brain is under the influence of one of these drugs, the function of your CGI hinders allowing parts of the brain that usually wouldn’t communicate to one another to communicate, which in turn directly impacts your DMN. That is why you hear people experiencing synesthesia, where you can smell a color for example, under these substances. The CGI will route brain signal traffic to what is generally the wrong region for it to interpret the meaning of the brain signal. As far as the DMN goes since your perceptions are haywire you tend to lose sense of self to a degree. This allows for people to experience the world without the filter of our ego and challenges us to see life as it naturally is and not with the voice that our ego biases the perception of our environments.

The colors in the diagrams represent regions of the brain. The lines represent connections made between each region. On the left the diagram depicts a placebo dosage of psilocybin mushrooms while the diagram on the right shows what an actual dosage does to the connections of the brain.

Pollan and some scientists believe that people who suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD benefit from having their egos shut down. In shutting down what may be an unhealthy DMN, people get to experience, for the duration of their trip, an alternate set of rules that allows people to question their thinking. Studies show lasting impact from these types of therapies after just one session. Currently, people who suffer from these illnesses usually have to take expensive prescription pills daily that can become one may develop an unhealthy dependency over time. Psychedelics are usually a one time thing in the medical world and have shown no addictive properties whatsoever thus far.

For 2021, I am not saying to go out and try a psychedelic in hopes that you have an overwhelming life experience that puts you on the right path. Instead, just be aware that there is a quiet revolution taking place in the field of medicine for mental health. At the very least, the subject is super interesting and can give you something new to talk about with friends in family!

POLLAN, M. (2019). HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. New York: NIELSEN BOOKDATA.

Edited by Jarett Joldersma