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“How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan - A Book Review by John Loupos, M.S., H.S.E.

Disclaimer: The book reviewed herein advocates for the use of psychedelic, and in some cases currently illegal, drugs. This review is not intended to promote the use of drugs, illegal or otherwise.

     As a rule, I prefer books that leave me a little smarter about the issues I care about, i.e. wellness, personal growth/empowerment, self-reliance, environmental responsibility, human potential, etc., as well as thinking outside the box. With half a dozen or so previous books to his credit Michael Pollan hadn’t disappointed yet in this regard. Those of you who have read any of Pollan’s previous works, i.e. The Botany of Desire or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, will likely concur. That being said, you never know for sure what a book has to offer until you’ve read it.

     Having seen Pollan hyping his latest release on late night TV*, I purchased his book with the foreknowledge that it offered a contemporary take on what for many of my generation represents a bit of a flashback, namely psychedelic drugs. The book’s title, How to Change Your Mind, teases a simple solution for an un-simple challenge. Happily, I found “How to Change Your Mind” both scholarly and engaging, with a plethora of information and ideas that I felt have bearing on my own interests as both an in-process self-actualizing individual and as a Hanna Somatics professional.

* The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, May 15, 2018

     There were lot of great factoids gleaned from Pollan’s historic accountings, i.e. that LSD was in widespread clinical use in the 1940s and 50s as a treatment – and a very promising treatment at that – for alcoholism, both in this country and in Canada... and that the circuit chips in your computer that allow you to be reading this review have their basis in earlier generation chips created in many cases by computer engineers who took their design inspiration from trips on LSD... and that observations about LSD’s effects on consciousness led directly to important advances in the then-new field of neurochemistry in the 1950s.

     Pollan recounted in some detail his own forays into the psychedelic world (purportedly for research purposes), which surprisingly did not seem to detract from his credibility as an objective investigator. But what I liked best were the chapters in his book that focused on the neuroscientific implications of his subject matter.

 

>> Specifically, and particularly, there was quite a lot of discussion about the brain’s DMN, or default mode network, which most certainly has relevance to our H.S.E. work. As Pollan explains, the DMN has a strong correlation to the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The PCC seems to be something of a “me” structure, the place where we create our self-narratives, or what Pollan cleverly describes as the, “But enough about you” part of the brain.

     The self-narratives we create for ourselves, rooted as they are in our individual ego structures, can be as prone as any muscle to patterns of amnesia-like stuckness. As many readers of this publication already know, or suspect, patterns of stuckness in the body and patterns of stuckness in the mind often both reflect and reinforce each other. Working with clients whose bodies arrive accompanied by minds that may also be stuck can require a special sensitivity in order to achieve best results and ensure client compliance at home practice patterns..

     I also found noteworthy Pollan's mention of prominent mental health professionals who reported that a single chaperoned psychedelic trip often produced patient breakthroughs that would otherwise have been expected to require years of therapeutic work. I couldn’t help but think of how our Hanna Somatics work consistently produces similarly expedient results. A mere handful of Somatics clinical sessions are often sufficient to provide the sought after reprieve where other modalities may require protracted therapy spanning years or decades. Psychedelic drugs have been found to provide, in many cases, immediate and lasting reprieve from the patterns of mental stuckness – emotional, spiritual, cognitive – that limit individuals from reaching their potential as fully actualized beings. In this sense I see parallels at least in the goals and results of psychedelic drugs used for therapeutic purposes and the goals of H.S.E., if not in the means used to achieve those goals. Many roads, as they say.

     Another issue of special interest that Pollan raised had to do with the dynamic of attention. Prior to reading Pollan’s book I’d operated under the assumption that attention was attention, meaning attention as most people think of attention. “Regular” (i.e. endogenous) attention was qualified as such by the father of modern psychology, William James, back in the late nineteenth century. Regular attention is aptly referred to as spotlight attention. Spotlight attention is what keeps you clearly focused on a task or an issue without getting distracted. A well developed capacity for spotlight attention is an obvious asset for both clients and clinicians when practicing at Hanna Somatics.

     Pollan went on to describe a second type of attention, citing the research of Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at UC Berkeley and author of, The Philosophical Baby. Gopnik has identified what she calls lantern (i.e. exogenous) attention. Both spotlight attention and lantern attention can help individuals absorb information and knowledge, but in very different ways, and at very different stages of life.

     Lantern attention is dominant spanning infancy through childhood. However, lantern attention is attenuated as the DMN matures during the shift from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. During this transitional time spotlight attention assumes primacy, leaving adults less inclined to the spontaneous awarenesses and insights that typify lantern attention. Left generally by the wayside, lantern attention may be reawakened under extraordinary circumstances, i.e. during moments of great significance such as awe or trauma. .

     Apparently, the psychedelic experience can also make for such an extraordinary circumstance. As per Pollan, psychedelic drugs can affect the brain to suppress the DMN, allowing for a resurgence of lantern-style attention and its attendant diffuse awareness, leading in many cases to significant personal breakthroughs.

     I believe that special disciplines like Tai Chi and Somatics can also induce such extraordinary circumstances, albeit with somewhat more subdued effects than those characterizing a full blown acid trip. I know from my own experiences that Tai Chi practice has the potential to induce altered states of mind/body consciousness and enlightenment in surprisingly diffuse ways as regards insight or even extrasensory awarenesses. Practice at Somatics can be similarly evocative. The Tai Chi or Somatics derived equivalent of an extraordinary circumstance may not quite be psychedelic, but it’s still pretty cool, and by my estimation meaningful and empowering.

     I can only guess as to the specific neural mechanisms inherent in disciplines like Tai Chi or Somatics that enable a reawakening or re-accessing of lantern-type attention. But I suspect that some combination of these disciplines’ slowness, their interoceptive features, their deliberate eschewing of reliance on inadvertent momentum, and the resultant sense of a congruent internal milieu/ambience serve in like manner to the effects of psychedelics to suppress the normal role of the DMN. One thing for sure is that these considerations, along with Pollan’s book, give us lots of food for thought.

     While Hanna Somatics is ostensibly about redressing the effects of sensorimotor amnesia in the body, some may agree that Hanna Somatics is, simultaneously, a living philosophy that can contribute to overall personal congruence. We Hanna Somatic Educators work, de facto, with people’s minds and egos and self-narratives as much as we work with the bodies that house their psyches

     If psychedelics can jolt (or ease) somebody out of a place of stuckness, while at the same time opening up a new world of possibilities, perhaps there is something of value there that we might learn from as it relates to our own work. Mind you, I’m not advocating that anybody drop out for a trip down memory lane. But it does appear from Pollan’s account that the findings associated with consciousness expanding psychedelic drugs may have some implications for our own work that invite further scrutiny.