Review: How To Change Your Mind

A brief summary and thoughts upon finishing Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

Jacob Winter
6 min readJun 16, 2021


I recently finished one of the more thought-provoking reads I’ve undertaken in some time. After publicly sharing some of the novel sections surrounding mental health, I received several requests for a more detailed summary/review of this book. Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence broaches a wildly expansive and widely applicable topic that has been shunned since the cultural and legal issues raised in the 1960s.

Many folks today may not realize that there were hundreds of government-sanctioned studies on and tens of thousands of participants in LSD and psilocybin trials in the 1950s and early 1960s. When these compounds jumped from the lab to the streets and became closely aligned with the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, the potential benefits and promising research were halted amidst public hysteria and some targeted government messaging. This time period also had a large impact on Nixon’s (unsuccessful) war on drugs. There is still limited research going on today at Johns Hopkins among other choice institutions. The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been a large advocate and financier for these modern studies.

I will break down each of the six chapters in a paragraph or two in the following “Summary” section and will wrap up this piece with a few notable quotes and personal thoughts.


The Renaissance

Pollan begins the book explaining how the study of psychedelic compounds has begun to experience a renaissance, not only in medicine, but in spirituality and existentialism as well. He dives into the few major events (all occurring around 2006) that revived the academic interest in psychedelics. One of these events was a gathering of all the enduring parties involved in the original psychedelic boom of the 1950s and 1960s to celebrate the anniversary of Albert Hoffman’s unintentional discovery of LSD. Another major 2006 event was the publishing of an era-defining paper by Dr. Roland Griffiths: “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” This paper reported the results of the first study conducted under the present-day standards which deem a study non-biased and scientific. This paper made an important distinction between the potential of these psychedelic compounds and the other classes of controlled substances known for abuse, addiction, and overdoses.

Natural History

The second chapter of the book goes into depth on the natural history of psilocybin and some of the hundreds of mushrooms around the world that contain the compound. One of the main sources Pollan uses in this chapter is information from and about Paul Stamets. Stamets is one of those people who was incredibly successful in paving his own path, his path being mycology and its real-world applications. Other than discovering several species of psilocybin mushrooms, he has patented natural and effective pesticides from mushrooms and discovered an immune-boosting mushroom extract that has halted and reversed the common issue of bee hive collapse, the cause of which is largely unknown. Stamets is an amazing self-made scientist, researcher, and dreamer.

This chapter includes a deep dive into Paul Stamets knowledge on the topic including describing a mushroom-hunting trip in Washington State as well as the history of religious use in native communities the world round. It finishes with Pollan describing his experience on mushrooms he found and harvested with the help of Stamets.


In this longest chapter of the book, Pollan explores all of the movers and shakers that brought psychedelics to the scientific and cultural foreground in the 1950s and 1960s before the movement mostly fizzled out in the early 1970s. This collection of folks includes the likes of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), with the Harvard Psilocybin Project; Aldous Huxley and his The Doors Of Perception; Bill Wilson (Alcoholics Anonymous founder), who hoped to introduce LSD into AA recovery after his successful experience from which the Christian/spirtual aspect of the 12-step program is derived; and several others.

Some of these figures focused on the clinical aspect and potential in mental health while others took a more wholistic approach in pushing psychedelics to the world. The latter are said to have possibly pushed these controversial compounds too far too quickly and contributed to their prohibition. Nonetheless, the initial wave all of these people pushed got the field to where it is today.


This chapter contains the stories of three different occasions Pollan took to the world of underground psychedelic therapists in order to experience psychedelics in the most safe and controlled way currently in existence. I’ll let you read into the details of these if you wish, but it is one experience each of LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT. Throughout the first wave, the community studying these compounds developed standard protocols and best practices to guide these journeys. Pollan gives the reader a look at this community.

The Neuroscience

The chapter behind how these compounds work in your brain gets a bit technical as it dives into neurotransmitter receptors and how psychedelics breakdown in your body. Studying how LSD sticks to serotonin receptors in the 1950s lead to the development of SSRI drugs now commonly used as antidepressants. Pollan also discusses what neuroscientists have deemed the Default Mode Network (DMN). This system of brain components lights up in brain scans when we have no task at hand. It can be described as our brain’s resting state. Psychedelics, deep meditation, focused prayer, and other similar spiritual experiences all are shown to quiet the DMN, allowing our brains to become less specialized and connect more globally. They allow parts of our brain to talk to each other that usually don’t connect.

The ego and self is talked about a lot in this section. The DMN is predicted to host our understanding of self, so follows that the “ego death” often described in intense meditative states and psychedelic experiences is caused by the aforementioned quieting of the DMN.

The Trip Treatment

This final chapter explains the potential for psychedelic treatment in cases of addiction, end-of-life anxiety, and depression. Pollan discusses the comparison between the brains of children and adults. As children, our brains are trying to understand the world and don’t have as clear of a perception of our visual input as an experienced adult mind. A child’s brain is much more malleable and open to questioning reality. Our brains become more predictive as we get older (for efficiency) which carves out rigid paths over time. The mental health claim in this book is that psychedelic treatment can help shake these habitual ways of thinking and “shock” our brains out of the negative feedback loops of depression, addiction, and other mental disorders.

Final Thoughts

Someone who has preconceived notions about these taboo compounds may question why one would even ponder this topic. Most people, however, have no personal reason to be afraid of learning about this topic that doesn’t stem from misinformation and the war on drugs. I invite you to have an open mind in entertaining legitimate study and curiosity in this realm of the non-mainstream.

I believe there is a lot to be learned about the commonalities shared in religious mystical experiences between different cultures through these compounds, and, from knowledge mostly gained via this book, much to learn about the benefits from which our ever-rising mental health problem can see. Happy trails! Enjoy a few notable quotes from Pollan’s work below.


“There is so much authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures.”
-Dr. Roland Griffiths, Director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

“The short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time.”
-Alison Gopnik, on understanding similarities in the youthful brain and the adult brain on psychedeics

“Why if [these projects] were worthwhile six months ago, why aren’t they worthwhile now?”
-Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whose wife had been successfully treated with LSD

“Trepanation involves drilling a shallow hole in the skull supposedly to improve cerebral blood circulation. Fielding went looking for someone to perform the operation on her. When it became clear no professional would oblige, she trepanned herself in 1970, boring a small hole in the middle of her forehead with an electric drill.”
-Michael Pollan, explaining the self-trepanation of Amanda Feilding



Jacob Winter

25-year-old exploring history, religion, & philosophy