Sujatha Byravan review This is your Mind on Plants, by Michael Pollan
Exploring the link between man and nature, Michael Pollan examines the impact of the psychoactive elements of opium, caffeine and mescaline on the brain and its consequences
Michael Pollan dazzled us with his writings on our relationship with plants and nature. He examined questions such as how and why plants evolved to satisfy humans, what we should eat, why our connection to nature is important, and how our food emerges through water, heat, fire and Earth. His writing is elegant, original, entertaining and exciting.
His latest book, This is your mind on the plants, is no different. Completely absorbing, it is part of the continuity of How to change your mind, where he opens the door to psychedelics – psilocybin, mushrooms and LSD. In the current volume, he takes us through lyrical historical and cultural narratives, takes us on a path that explores the biology of certain mind-altering chemicals, punches to confuse government drug policies, describes the ancient practices of indigenous communities with peyote, and attempts to explain his own transformational experience with the guided consumption of psychedelics. He examines human involvement with three mind-altering chemicals: opium, caffeine, and mescaline.
Fight for the poppy
The first reference to the poppy is by the Sumerians in 3400 BC in Mesopotamia. The poppy has been used medicinally for thousands of years and appears on Greek and Roman coins. It was a vital trade commodity, and the 19th century Opium Wars between the Qing Dynasty and the British and French brought control of the opium trade and territory.
The US government has waged an unequal drug war on narcotics; for example, while there is a heavy sentence and a prison sentence for growth Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, seductive misinformation from manufacturers about the safety of oxytocin has led to over-prescription and widespread dependence. Pollan takes a careful path around the legality of poppy cultivation. He grew it for a while in his garden and sipped his bitter, foul-smelling tea, which “makes the sadness go away.”
You would be surprised if I called you an addict on something powerful that changes the state of your mind. 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine, or “caffeine” in coffee, tea, or soda, is a psychoactive substance that is widely used and consumed by almost everyone. Pollan is hilarious when he describes his attempt to ditch his soothing daily routine of coffee and tea. He misses the energizing and stimulating effects of caffeine, but he struggles with courage. First discovered in Ethiopia, coffee was marketed throughout the Arabian Peninsula and drunk in the Arab world. Stretching west and north with the Ottoman Empire, cafes fueled conversation, news and gossip.
The first cafe in Europe was established in 1629 in Venice and in 1650 in Oxford, England. These enclaves have shaped the scientific and financial revolutions of the modern world, creating a new space for the exchange of ideas, commerce and political intrigue. Previously, the governor of Mecca and later Charles II had tried to shut them down. French cafes linked to sedition. “The crowd that finally stormed the Bastille gathered at the Café de Foy, excited to action by the eloquence of political journalist Camille Desmoulins and intoxicated not with alcohol but with caffeine. Coffee provides “targeted, linear, abstract and effective cognitive processing.” The writers of the Enlightenment were invigorated by coffee, and Honoré de Balzac used it a lot for his creative productions. “What work of genius has ever been composed on chamomile tea?” Pollan laments his decaffeinated state.
The secrets of tea production were stolen from the Chinese by Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, and cultivated on land seized from the peasants of Assam. The East India Company began cultivating tea and opium in India. Pollan speculates that the disparity in coffee and tea drinking cultures must be due to their different histories.
Switch to mescaline
The third section covers mescaline, a psychedelic that occurs naturally in some cacti. Pollan is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of perception, which describes his experience with mescaline. He wonders whether the consideration by indigenous communities of nature, “not only as a symbol of the spirit but as an immanent – a manifestation of it”, was due to their consumption of mescaline. Pollan realizes he’s unknowingly grown San Pedro, a mescaline cactus, in his garden. The Huichol or Wixáritari, an indigenous people who live deep in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, have used peyote for thousands of years. Their ritualistic practices using peyote were complex and interwoven in their culture. These observations made me wonder about the “soma”, highlighted in the Rigveda. Were his poets also delighted by plants that alter the mind?
Psychedelics and therapy
In carefully administered doses, psychedelics can dissolve ego structures, unlock and expand consciousness, and, on occasion, create mystical experiences. Their use by some communities and in more recent studies has reopened research on psychedelics, especially for people with depression or terminal illness.
Why is expanded fluid consciousness not our natural state? Huxley’s impression was that the role of “ordinary consciousness is to protect us from reality by a process of reduction or filtration.” Human consciousness has been shaped by natural selection to maximize our survival, not necessarily to scrupulously represent reality. We don’t see “the truth”, just our version – always.
This is your mind on the plants worth burying itself even as the planet is burning and drowning in floods and humans have lost touch with nature.
This is your mind on the plants; Michael Pollan, Penguin Random House, 665 (Kindle Prize).
The examiner is a scientist who studies science, technology and development policy.