Will Self: After 100 trips, I know how drugs help us deal with the darker side of life

As long as you can cope with corpses playing jazz with human bones
April 19, 2018
I first experienced ego-death in my oak-panelled room at Exeter College, Oxford in 1979 after swallowing a red microdot of blotting paper soaked with some 150 micrograms of lysergic acid. Things had begun going awry while we were watching an episode of Doctor Who in the JCR—but an ascent of the University Church’s tower in Radcliffe Square didn’t help, and by the time I collapsed back on to my bed, life, the Universe, me, and everything was being sucked into a horrific involute, that took the visual form of the interior of a giant steeple, comprised entirely by gaping mouths screaming the word… “No!” Worse still, I’d stupidly put a recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the turntable before I keeled over, and, as I thrashed about in the flotsam of my own mind, I was visited with a vision of lower Manhattan, populated by the risen dead. As I watched, from some non-locatable but panoptic perspective, a marching jazz band came parading down Broadway—the musicians were all corpses in various states of decay, and the instruments they tootled, trumped and banged were all made of human bones. Needless to say, I’ve never felt the same about Gershwin—or acid—since. The fundamental insight that the major psychedelics gifted me was that human consciousness was definitely a contingent and very material by-product of a Universe devoid of any transcendent meaning. The last time I took a major psychotropic it was some so-called “spice.” (This was before the government made all “legal highs,” illegal.) In my reverie I saw—or thought I saw—what Einstein termed “the block universe”: a three-dimensional rendition of the four dimensions of space/time. Wavering through the block—like sentient fireflies—were the tiny little trails of individual consciousnesses. I saw them flicker into and out of being, a function of other, equally material processes—and this vision felt as veridical and commonsensical as the view of the 1970s council block from the window of the room I’m writing this review in.

How to Change Your Mind

Michael Pollan

(Allen Lane, £20)

Curiously, I’ve never found these rather extreme experiences to be depressing or alienating. (At least, once I’ve come down, that is.) On the contrary, they only confirmed me, reassuringly, in my baseline philosophic perspective: one both stoic and sceptic. And of course, this insight is also in line with trendy contemporary “mindfulness,” which teaches us to regard the mysterious convulsions of our consciousnesses as just that, and furthermore, nothing to the purpose of life, which goes on regardless of how we think about it. And I’d go further: while by no means undertaken for therapeutic purposes, my inner-space travelling has helped me to deal with lifelong depression, addiction and fear of death. These extraordinary states of mind have also enabled me to experience both powerful feelings of biophilia, and the way the “reducing valve” of the ego (as Huxley described it) prevents us from apprehending the collective aspect of our consciousness. I could go on in this vein more or less indefinitely, but I’m wary of ending up in the smoky speculative student bar. That’s the kind of place where you might expect to run across someone who—if not then, at some point in the future—might well consider it a good idea to put all their speculative musings about such experiences together in a long book. And Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is just such a long book about psychedelic drugs and how they can, like, man, redefine your, like, relationship with life, death, your fellow beings and the cosmos.
“I’ve never felt the same about Gershwin—or acid—since”
Actually, the “likes” are superfluous: this really is a very long book about how psychedelic drugs can be powerful tools for engineering life-changing experiences—ones that can ameliorate sadness, destructive habits and palliate the terminally ill; as well as teach us more about the nature of our being, and—depending on where you teeter metaphysically—whether it’s a necessary or merely contingent feature of the Universe. Well, either put snarkily or straightforwardly, it doesn’t sound like a compelling read. Whether intoxicating compounds are assimilated to the religious, spiritual, medical, or merely sumptuary practices of a given society, it’s difficult to see them as a prime mover of social change, as against more solidly material factors. Drug enthusiasms come and drug enthusiasms go, while the landscape of human phenomenology never seems to be that permanently altered. All of this made How to Change Your Mind a testing read for me; one that dragged for many pages as the author completed an exhaustive tour d’horizon of the subterranean world of psychedelic experience, and its superstructures of academic research, therapeutic application, and New Age shamanic hoodoo. But I persevered and in the end was rewarded with, if not a mystical experience, at least one that convinced me Michael Pollan is on to something. In part, Pollan’s championing of the psychedelics as productive not just of good mental health, but also wholesale social and spiritual change, has to be a generational phenomenon: a Baby Boomer in his sixties, as evident from the workmanlike clapboard of his Yankee prose, he was stirred but not shaken by the heady afflatus blowing through the American body politic in his youth. How else to explain waiting until such an exalted age without having taken any of the major psychedelic drugs? Of course, absolute prevalence for LSD use in the 1960s and 70s is difficult to establish: once this powerful compound leapt the flimsy fence notionally erected for it by Albert Hofmann, its inadvertent discoverer, it went feral—tearing through the groves of academe, and out into the wider world, where it rendered all it touched a little… hairier. At least for a while. So, Pollan’s path has to be forked: one way a narrative of his own belated lift-off into inner-space, and the other a potted history of the (mal)absorption of these compounds by the West. On the latter matter, I found Pollan a fair enough guide, but contra his own sense that he’s uncovering some gnostic gospel, sealed—along with a lot of magic mushrooms—in a Mason jar, buried at the junction of Haight and Ashbury some time in the Summer of Love, the timeline of the major psychotropics has been well chronicled already. While anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject (and let’s face it, when it comes to drugs, you’ve either a consuming interest, or hardly any at all), already knows all about Huxley’s mescaline experiences in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, Hofmann’s discovery and enthusiastic embrace of LSD (in 1943, in Basel of all places) and R Gordon Wasson’s encounter—in the Mexican hinterland, in the late 1940s—with a mushroom-wielding curandero.

Listen: Will Self on Prospect's podcast

Knows also, how these trippy forefathers, armed with the tablets of lawlessness, between them begat at first a quasi-serious, quasi-scientific, and very definitely queasy movement among occidental Buddhists, high bohemians and psy-professionals; one that bodied forth from laboratory and consulting room, until, under the guise of “studies” intended to prove something or other about these extraordinary “experiences,” it escaped into the general population—the main vector principally being (and this is attested to by an extraordinary number of those who were there), one Timothy Leary, an American psychologist. That one of the main activators of the psychedelic convulsion of the 1960s was called Tim would seem to confirm its redundancy. But the truth is that by pump-priming a generation of seekers, some of whom now occupy exalted positions in the hierarchies of psychiatry, Big Pharma, state and medical apparatuses, Leary may indeed have paved the way for the wholesale acceptance of psychedelics as highly efficacious aids for pretty much everything that ails us—true catholicons. For the blasé such as myself, who’ve been blasting new holes in the fabric of space/time/consciousness since we were at our mother’s teat (and my mother was, as it happens, pretty blasé about Leary himself, who she met in the 1950s), the old chestnut about how Hofmann discovered LSD just in time for its effects to militate the post-Hiroshima superpower confrontation, by choking the US military-industrial complex in a convolvulus of drug-induced introspection, is just that. Pollan envisages another go-round of this weird dialectic, with the thesis being looming environmental disaster; the antithesis, once again, psychedelics; and the new synthesis, an enlightened humanity who will collectively avert said disaster.

article body image

So, in his exhaustive interviews with the new generation of psychedelic researchers who are attempting to reverse the state’s anathematising—and the media’s demonising—of LSD, psilocybin et al in the late 1960s, Pollan risks sounding like just another acidhead. So much of drug experience—whether the drugs be sacred hallucinogens, profane opiates, or even dumb sedatives such as alcohol—has a stereotypical character, that it takes more than the continued reassertion that such an experience really is important, to make it so. Recount a dream, lose a reader, said Nabokov—and Pollan recounts so very many dreamy states that even this tolerant reader was nodding off. That he was also, in a nerdish way, vetting potential “guides” for his own jejune psychedelic journeying should, I suppose, have given the whole affair a certain frisson—not unlike the prickly horripilation that accompanies the feeling you’re “coming up” on LSD itself—but as a veteran of well over a hundred trips (facilitated by a broad selection of psychedelics and other mind-bending compounds), I really couldn’t get that excited about this nervous neophyte Nelly.
“That one of the main activators of the psychedelic convulsions of the 1960s was called Tim would seem to confirm its redundancy”
And yet Pollan’s compelling earnestness allows him to (gulp) transcend the limitations of his own material. He rightly identifies the conundrum that lies at the core of every major psychedelic experience, and keeps on worrying at it under different guises. It’s a conundrum first fully identified by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience. James used the word “noetic” to describe the character of mystical experience that makes it seem apodictic: true by virtue of the philosophic pomp and synaesthetic circumstance with which it states itself. That psychedelic experience possesses this character is a truth also universally acknowledged—but the fact that it’s provoked by a mere drug (as opposed to scourging yourself, or sitting praying atop a desert pillar for decades), has always counted against it. Pollan’s defence of the truth-value of psychedelia also takes a familiar route, diving beneath the loam to excavate the rhizoid tangle that allows fungi to commune and symbiose with other major orders of nature, whether they be plants or humans. Again, this trippy extension of consciousness into the realms of deep ecology can seem all too wish-fulfilling: wouldn’t it be groovy if we discovered that—or rather rediscovered—our cognitive coevolution with the rest of observed creation? And wouldn’t such a renaissance—drug-induced or not—automatically make all such psychonauts part of the solution they wish to see in the world? Well, um… yes. However, that the path to such wisdom lies through such excessive mental states as—in Hunter S Thompson’s memorable formulation—the sight of your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth, has always been something of a drawback. Pollan’s own trip tales are oddly pedestrian. Whether doing low-level psilocybin with his wife at their weekend house in the woods, more psilocybin with an “outlaw” psychedelic therapist in the Pacific northwest, smoking the dimethyltryptamine-laden goo extruded from a toad native to the Americas, or indulging in shamanic ayahuasca-imbing with New Agers, Pollan never convincingly loses his head. I don’t doubt that a clinical dose of LSD or psilocybin creates near-global activity in the human brain—the forming of myriad new connections that can be registered by the latest neural-imaging. Nor do I have any problem with these compounds being used therapeutically for a large number of malaises. Pollan’s contention that what the psychedelics do is to break down the “default neural system” that underpins our egos is no more convincing than Huxley’s literary-phenomenological account in The Doors of Perception. But there’s nothing unique about this. The use of just about any compound that makes humans feel different can be arrogated to just about any psychotherapeutic effect. How else to explain the great “success” of the SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: Prozac et al) in the treatment of depression? Pollan, refreshingly, points out that these drugs were probably more effective to begin with because of the placebo effect (in fact, the nocebo effect: they make you feel a bit dicky, and therefore—credulous creatures that we are—we assume that they’re ameliorating our misery). But he neglects to mention that the chemical theory of depression that, allegedly, underpinned their efficacy, has long since been disproved. This is an important point when we come to consider the possible clinical application of psychedelics in the future. It’s worth noting that almost all intoxicants do better at “treating” depression than the SSRIs. (Heroin is particularly good—and we all know how its pure cousins are invaluable when it comes to that great euphemism: “end of life care”.) All of which leads us back to the great suggestibility of our species.

article body image

The Johnny Appleseed of LSD, Timothy Leary, is allowed a curtain call at the end of How to Change Your Mind. Attending a conference on the new psychedelia, Pollan is amazed to see luminaries from the American Psychiatric Association in attendance, and speaking positively about licensing the psychedelics for therapeutic use. True, he also points out that this could well be a function of the growing crisis of depressive illness, and the bankruptcy of Big Pharma; however, American optimist that he is, he still wants this “rediscovery” of the psychedelics to be an opportunity for progress—while, noting the willingness of these Baby Boomer shrinks to admit to their own youthful tripping, he retrospectively accords Leary a formative role as a progressive. But it seems to me that Leary’s real significance was in his identification of “set and setting” as crucially important to the character of psychedelic experience. We can widen this idea out to provide a viable heuristic which explains—at least in part—the tendency newly discovered (or rediscovered) intoxicants perennially have to be seized upon as curative. After all, it took just a few snorts to convince Freud that cocaine hydrochloride was a cure for… opiate addiction; while Miltown, Valium and the other benzodiazepines were once widely touted as “mother’s little helpers.” It’s our kneejerk tendency to believe in the efficacy of virtually anything prescribed by a medical doctor—or, worse, psychiatrist—that constitutes the real “set and setting” productive of those effects. Really, most of the problems we’ve seen with psychoactive drugs in the past century have been a function of the iatrogenic diseases that are their inevitable sequels.
“Psychedelics are too important to be left in the hands of doctors—let alone shrinks”
Moreover, it strikes me hard that the collective mindset and social setting into which the psychedelics are being reintroduced is by no means innocent of their effects. Pollan decides early on not to consider in depth either MDMA (ecstasy), or marijuana, on the grounds that their chemistry is different to the major psychedelics—yet this is just the sort of arbitrary taxonomic distinction Leary’s insight debars. Pollan wants to medicalise compounds that millions have already learned to use recreationally, therapeutically and spiritually. (And, for my own part, I would say that marijuana can be just as effective in both palliating mental malaise and promoting transcendent insight.) Had he bothered to consider the case of marijuana in our own times, he’d have seen that attempts to put it back in a prescription-only bottle were followed in short order by the collective acknowledgement that the genie was uncontainable. I would like to see the major psychedelics available to those for whom medical or psychotherapeutic sanction is an essential prelude to treatment; but surely it remains the case that—as with all intoxicants—their proper socialisation (which implies, of course, legalisation), is the best way to ensure their safe use? The psychedelics, in common with all sorts of other mind-bending compounds, are just too important and powerful to be left in the hands of doctors—let alone shrinks. llustrations by Lovatto