Out of His Mind: Michael Pollan digs deeper and further in his new book ‘This Is Your Mind on Plants’
By Lou Fancher
Michael Pollan is out of his mind. Or, upon reading his new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, it appears the Berkeley-based, New York Times–bestselling writer hungers for—even craves—mental escape by way of deep immersion in mind-altering substances.
While investigating human relationships with three psychoactive plants—opium, caffeine and mescaline—Pollan meanders through biological science, history, politics, law, anthropology, drug culture, religion, addiction, human behavior, medicine, psychology and personal memoir. Cutting a typically wide path, his inquisitions and revelations come from the expected in-person and virtual interviews, along with extensive research and self-explorations that include participatory journalism as he deliberately ingests—or in the case of caffeine, denies himself—the potent, consciousness-skewing drugs derived from the plants.
What makes for fascinating storytelling, and is true of several of his prior books--How to Change Your Mind, Cooked and others—is Pollan’s ability to lift a topic beyond sensational adventure or easy, low-stress, fact-filled presentations aimed at reaching tidy conclusions. This Is Your Mind isn’t simply an excuse for Pollan to get tripped-out and talk about it, or to display his rocketing curiosity and considerable intellectual energy. It is a book that presents, and leaves for readers to consider, valuable questions: about presumptions they may hold, and embedded taboos relative to a sedative—opium—that has in recent history been transformed by a pharmaceutical company into a destroyer of human lives. Another mind game? Why is a stimulant—caffeine—accepted and legal, while the use of a hallucinogen—mescaline—is illicit in the United States unless a person is a member of a Native American tribe? Ultimately, This Is Your Mind asks, what is a drug, and why are drug laws and the “war on drugs” so arbitrary? If making tea from the leaves of a tea plant is OK, why is tea made from the seed head of an opium poppy a federal crime?
Pollan is the author of eight books, including How to Change Your Mind, Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire. He is a longtime contributor to the New York Times Magazine and teaches writing at Harvard University and UC Berkeley. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. His essays have appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing and the Norton Book of Nature Writing. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Mother Jones, Gourmet, Vogue, Travel + Leisure, the New York Review of Books and other periodicals. In 2020, he co-founded, with Dacher Keltner, the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics. The center conducts research, using psychedelics, to investigate various aspects of the human brain and cognition.
The new book’s first chapter untangles the knotty, centuries-long history of the opium poppy. Expectedly, Pollan includes the tale of opium’s refinement and the vast, destructive distribution of the FDA-approved opiate produced by Purdue Pharma, OxyContin. The central story is based on an essay Pollan wrote that appeared in the April 1997 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The essay is re-published here in full, along with an interjection/interruption explaining the legal reasons and precautions that caused part of the original article to be cut—and “lost” for 24 years, until this reprinting. Along the way, we learn the differentiations made between “opium” and “opiate”; and about the half-million heroin addicts in 1996 that blossomed into an estimated 2 million Americans addicted to opiates today. Pollan’s ethics-versus-income dilemma infuses drama—should he claim First Amendment rights as a journalist, and push for the full essay, that included his growing opium poppies in his garden, to be published? Might he lose his job, or be arrested, if he does? “From an evidentiary point of view, my article was a bonfire of self-incrimination,” he writes.
What began as a seeming history, botany and gardening essay on red poppies therefore transforms into the equivalent of a crime novel. Light humor enters as a reliever from the existential melodrama as Pollan struggles to retrieve the original, complete article and does battle with technology, specifically, Microsoft Word and an outdated floppy disk—remember those? It’s fun to read that even a celebrated author shares everyday struggles with the swift pace of technological change.
The chapter on caffeine unfolds as most personal, exposing Pollan’s self-doubts and self-questioning as a writer. He offers confession-style admissions of attachments to a daily “special” at Berkeley’s Cheese Board—a double-shot espresso drink with steamed milk—and later, his slipping back into an addiction shared with some 90% of other people worldwide who consume caffeine with regularity. This middle section of the book packs in caffeine’s history and cultural importance. Caffeine’s positives as a stimulant and booster of “spotlight consciousness,” or what is more commonly referred to as “attentional focus,” are outlined. It’s influence on work hours and capitalism are thoroughly described. As coffee replaced or at the very least came to equal the importance of tea in various cultural spheres—spiritual, medicinal, world cuisines and others—the pleasure positives pivot to more foreboding realities. Colonialism, imperialism, exploitation in global trade markets and high-volume coffee production that pushes farms to higher elevations as the land is depleted and climate change alters weather patterns demonstrate the destructive force of our thirst for, and dependency on, a daily “cuppa’ joe.” Near the end of the chapter, Pollan says, “My own relationship to caffeine remains a work in progress.” Despite his resolve to establish an “only on Saturdays” rule, he finds these words to the Cheese Board barista popping out of his mouth on a non-Saturday: “Make it a regular, please.”
Pollan’s investigative journey was most impacted by Covid-19 while developing the final chapter on mescaline, the hallucinogenic compound found in peyote—a cactus resembling a small, dark green pincushion. Having nailed down access, and eager to meet with, several Native American Church tribes—and hoping, among other activities, to observe or participate in a peyote ceremonial meeting—Covid canceled his plans. What follows is a tale of “instead,” which covers mescaline’s “woo-woo” pop-status and political fireball role in Western cultures as it is embraced, and/or becomes the propellant during decades of culture wars concerning civil liberties. This story is countered with a full description of the deeply spiritual, medicinal, reverential and rightfully reserved ownership Native Americans and other indigenous people have with peyote. Stalled, but not deterred by the pandemic and other obstacles, Pollan ends the book with his and his wife’s experiences during an all-night peyote ceremony. The lessons learned while imbibing the trio of substances leave him grateful and humbled. It’s likely Pollan’s next book will find him once again seeking to get out of, or more wildly into, the human mind.