Michael Pollan on the value of the hallucinogens

Michael (Botany of Desire) Pollan has a breathtaking piece in the current New Yorker on the current wave of scientific research on the benefits – and not merely the medical benefits – of mindful and well-directed use of psilocybin and other chemicals classified as “hallucinogens” or “psychedelics” or (in some uses) “entheogens.” It’s as good an introduction to the field as one could ask for. Well-written, of course: what else, from Pollan? More than that, it catches all the right nuances of a technically, socially, and even metaphysically hairy field of inquiry.

The central idea is that the mystiform experiences that psilocybin and other drugs can trigger under the right circumstances can be beneficial, not only in treating specific problems – end-of-life anxiety, for example, or nicotine dependence – but by enriching lives: making some people “better than well.” So far the studies are small, but the results are impressive.

It’s encouraging to see the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health taking a scientific attitude: cautious but interested. It’s discouraging, though – alas! – not at all surprising to see the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse responding to exciting research results by worrying about what might happen if someone tells the children.

Among the central characters in Pollan’s narrative is Robert Jesse, among the most impressive – I might even say “saintly” – people have I ever encountered. Bob doesn’t push for credit; it’s nice when someone like that gets credit just the same.

Mushroom Myth-conceptions, Part 2

That some hallucinogen experiences are trivial does not mean that none is profound.

Earlier, I posted some of the key findings of the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiments and a condensation of the concerns and criticisms the research has drawn. I promised responses to some of those concerns; this is the first in that series.

Concern/criticism:  “What’s the big deal?  I took mushrooms, and my experience was neither ‘spiritual’ nor life-changing.”

This of course proves that not all hallucinogen experiences are profound, but not that none is.*

Why are some hallucinogen experiences recalled as life-transforming and others as trivial?  Likely because the trivial experiences involved a suboptimal dosage, ill-focused intentions, a suboptimal setting, or the wrong person. Or because even when all those things are right, any given experience may not be profound. But the research shows that well-screened and well-prepared people given a sufficient dose under good circumstances have a two-thirds or better chance of a profound experience, and a very small risk of real harm.
Continue reading “Mushroom Myth-conceptions, Part 2”