Dead and Company are heading to San Diego this Friday as Bob Weir continues the long, strange trip of the Grateful Dead into his old age. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the group understands that perhaps more than any other band that started in the 1960s, the Dead are associated with psychedelia and the American Counterculture. For decades, their shows have carried the legacy of the Acid Tests (for which they were the house band) and served both as an inspiration for new generations of Deadheads and a convenient target for the DEA.
In his fascinating new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan touches on the history of the Acid Tests, noting their unintended origins as a result of a CIA funded experiment:
It is one of the richer ironies of psychedelic history that Kesey had his first LSD experience courtesy of a government research program conducted at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, which paid him seventy-five dollars to try the experimental drug. Unbeknownst to Kesey, his first LSD trip was bought and paid for by the CIA, which had sponsored the Menlo Park research as part of its MK-Ultra program, the agency’s decade-long effort to discover whether LSD could somehow be weaponized.
With Ken Kesey, the CIA had turned on exactly the wrong man. In what he aptly called “the revolt of the pigs,” Kesey proceeded to organize with his band of Merry Pranksters a series of “Acid Tests” in which thousands of young people in the Bay Area were given LSD in an effort to change the mind of a generation. To the extent that Ken Kesey and his Pranksters helped shape the new zeitgeist, a case can be made that the countercultural upheaval we call the 1960s began with a CIA mind-control experiment gone awry.
While Pollan’s remarkable new book covers this history, it is not a nostalgic paean to the Age of Aquarius. As Pollan admits, he was too young for the Summer of Love, was wary of drug use, and didn’t come into the proximity of psychedelics for twenty years after the heyday of Haight Ashbury.
Hence the central focus of the book is on the contemporary renaissance of psychedelic research that began, largely out of view, in the 1990s, driven what Pollan describes as “a small group of scientists, psychotherapists, and so-called psychonauts” seeking to re-open investigations into the mind- and culture-changing qualities of these substances.
This time, however, it’s not Ken Kesey driving the bus with the Grateful Dead playing along. Consequently, according to Pollan:
Today, after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance. A new generation of scientists, many of them inspired by their own personal experience of compounds, are testing their potential to heal mental illness such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. Other scientists are using psychedelics in conjunction with new brain-imaging tools to explore the links between the brain and mind, hoping to unravel some of the mysteries of consciousness.
Pollan explains that, in addition to his personal experience, there were three key developments that made him wonder whether we have “failed to recognize the potential of these molecules as a tool for both understanding the mind and, potentially changing it.”
The first was a series of experiments being done simultaneously at John Hopkins, UCLA, and NYU where researchers were giving LSD to patients facing a terminal diagnosis and finding that it had transformative effects, with the dying subjects reporting that they returned from their “trips” with “a new perspective and profound acceptance.” Some patients even reported losing their fear of death completely.
In addition to this, Pollan also cites a dinner conversation he had with a “prominent psychologist” who told him that her own recent LSD experiences had given her “insight into how young children perceive the world” because she believed that it “restores a childlike immediacy, and sense of wonder, to our experience of reality, as if we were seeing everything for the first time.”
Finally, Pollan notes a seminal paper published by a team of scientists at Johns Hopkins in the journal Psychopharmacology entitled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” The study explains how psilocybin “could be used safely and reliably to ‘occasion’ a mystical experience-typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature and the universe.” As Pollan observes, now what many users of psychedelics might have known but “was not at all obvious to modern science, or to me” had been studied and documented. Most remarkable to Pollan was that a large majority of the subjects ranked their encounter with psilocybin as one of the “most significant” experiences of their lives and one that had lasting effects on their “personal well-being, life satisfaction, and positive behavior change.”
Thus began the investigation that informs How to Change Your Mind, a virtuosic book that takes you on a tour of the natural and cultural history of psychedelics, tells the story of Pollan’s personal journey, and outlines the relevant neuroscientific and psychotherapeutic approaches to how these substances can positively affect and, most importantly, heal us.
After reading this book, one wonders where the long, strange trip of psychedelics in America will end. If the CIA can accidentally help birth the counterculture, perhaps mainstream science might more intentionally bring these ways to change our minds back into the culture in the service of helping the dying, treating depression, trauma, and addiction, and enabling us to access more profound meaning in our lives. Maybe there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when, thanks not to a band of Merry Pranksters, but to scientific research, we wake up to find out that we are the eyes of the world.
About The Summer Chronicles: In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds incomparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless, the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer, I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form.