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This Is Your Mind on Plants
by Michael Pollan
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I'd found Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind so impactful that I was very excited for this book. It wasn't bad. divided into three sections the book does a brief pass over Opium, Caffeine, and Mescaline. Pollan is a good writer and his research is robust, however I don't think This is Your Mind on Plants really is a book. I believe it was originally three articles and their good articles, but not really enough meat on the bone to make it a book. That fact is made worse by the fact that the premise feels kind of forces. If one were really to write This is your mind on plants, I don't think these three would be the only players and I don't think the book should be so segmented. That's just my opinion though. If you do read it I think You'll get something out of it. ( )
I really enjoyed the first two parts, about opium and caffeine. The last part, about mescaline was mixed, some good but a lot was hand-wavy and muddled with way too much dopey spiritual stuff.
Not at all what I was expecting, this book consists of essays on each of three plants: a sedative (opium), a stimulant (caffeine), and a hallucinogen (mescaline). For each, the author becomes the subject of his own experiments with these psychoactive plants. His memoir is supplemented by politics, history, and a small amount of science.
The first essay is about the author’s experience growing opium poppies (papaver somniferum). He is a gardener who is interested in the impact of plants on the mind. He imbibes opium tea and advises the reader of the onset, peak, and dissipation of effects. There is a lot of political and legal discussion revolving around freedom of speech and America’s “war on drugs.”
The section on caffeine focuses on the history of coffee and tea consumption worldwide. The author goes “cold turkey” to get off all caffeine products and records how he feels. He observes that caffeine is a socially accepted addiction. He restates a number of stereotypes regarding coffee and tea drinkers, which seem out of place in a purportedly science-based book.
The last essay entails an account of the author’s participation in a ceremony, derived from Indian rituals, involving mescaline. This portion takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is mildly interesting, but the author does not put himself “out there” – he mostly focuses on his wife’s experience. This section also does not quite work in conveying the Native American perspective.
Based on the title I had assumed I would find a book about plants that help increase mental acuity. That’s what I get for picking out a book solely on the title. I almost turned it back into the library but decided it was interesting enough to finish. I am still unsure of the purpose of this book.
Audiobook read by the author.
This was an entertaining commute read. I’m left wondering why Pollan didn’t include a section on marijuana, which is certainly much more relevant to the drug war in terms of people incarcerated than peyote and at least as influential as opium—not that I would have wanted him to leave either of those sections out in trade.
As an aspirational gardener, I appreciated the stories of his experiences cultivating poppies and, to a lesser extent, cactus (not peyote, another non-protected variety; I can’t remember the name—the major drawback to audiobooks is not being able to flip back).
And as a recovering religious studies student, I thought he did a pretty good job discussing the Native American Church, although obviously if your primary purpose is to learn about the NAC, you should probably find materials produced by NAC members. Pollan’s discussion is necessarily limited by *his* primary purpose, which was to get paid to write about tripping.
But again, to talk about the drug war through the story of the one guy (white, naturally) who has literally ever been prosecuted for growing poppies while mentioning only in passing the millions of people, mostly people of color, who’ve been sucked into the criminal justice system because of weed is maybe just a wee bit of an oversight.
This book consists of three disparate essays about psychoactive plants. The first, “Opium, Made Easy,” recounts Pollan’s adventures with cultivating and harvesting poppies, as well as his experiment sampling tea made from its seeds. This first saw the light of day a quarter-century ago in truncated form in Harper’s Magazine. Here the deleted sections, which he feared at the time might invite prosecution and seizure of his house, are restored. The second, “Caffeine,” appeared last year as a stand-alone audiobook. Third, on mescaline, appears here for the first time.
The result is a mixed bag. However, one common theme that connects them is the senselessness and futility of the war on drugs. Pollan professes ignorance about why certain drugs are banned and their users prosecuted, while others, more harmful and more addictive, are allowed. This is, of course, pseudo-ignorance. He reports on the usefulness of criminalizing certain drugs to serve social and political aims.
The time elapsed since the article on opium was published allows Pollan to reflect on the irony that, as he wrote it, a more serious opioid problem was arising, perfectly legally. Yet, he and the rest of society failed to recognize it.
For me, the middle section, caffeine, was the most satisfying. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that it’s about my drug of choice. Pollan suggests that the introduction of coffee and tea to Europe was a significant factor in the development of the Enlightenment in the West. This was due to the chemical effect on the mind, enhancing focused thought, and the setting in which it was consumed. Coffeehouses flourished in London and other cities, becoming places where scientists, merchants, writers, and others gathered and exchanged ideas. The insurer Lloyd’s, for instance, originated as a coffeehouse. And then there are those civilized afternoon tea parties.
Pollan also points out the costs of our devotion to caffeine: from the exploitation of producers to the possible role in the onset of dementia, perhaps through its interference with what researchers call “deep wave” sleep.
To appreciate his own experience of caffeine, Pollan withdraws from it for three months (an experiment I once performed as well). His account of his first cup when he breaks his fast, the effect of which, he notes, is to be “intoxicated on sobriety,” is one of the book’s highlights.
The third section is well-done, as well. His exploration of peyote and similar substances includes historical background on its use, anciently, as well as in North American native ceremonies that are little more than a century old. This latter use has been valuable in helping Indians cope with their near-extermination at the hands of European settlers. Pollan’s attempts to participate in a ceremony meet resistance, understandably.
Yet Pollan persists. He raises his own cactus and meets a spiritual guide willing to allow him to participate in a ceremony, an event postponed ed by COVID-19, and then of the devastating California wildfires. He eventually takes part and stresses that the group setting for peyote ingestion is critical.
What Pollan experiences shows him that it is misleading to lump mescaline together with other drugs labeled psychedelics. All of them, he writes, are “profound teachers of the obvious.” Whereas LSD and other substances point beyond the objects we might see, mescaline heightens one’s awareness for what Pollan calls the “Isness” of things. He quotes Aldous Huxley’s reaction to it: “For if one always saw like this one would never want to do anything else.” Pollan speculates that human consciousness has evolved precisely to reduce sensory input since to survive, we need to be doing, not just observing.
This line of thought ties in with a second theme that connects the three parts of this book: Pollan’s awe at the way that plants have evolved substances that both protect them from predators and yet interact with the human brain in such a satisfying way that humans have spread them far outside of their lands of origin.
For all the disparity of the substances Pollan investigates and his manner of treating them, this book was informative and readable.
The instant New York Times bestseller "Expert storytelling . . . [Pollan] masterfully elevates a series of big questions about drugs, plants and humans that are likely to leave readers thinking in new ways."--New York Times Book Review From #1 New York Times bestselling author Michael Pollan, a radical challenge to how we think about drugs, and an exploration into the powerful human attraction to psychoactive plants--and the equally powerful taboos. Of all the things humans rely on plants for--sustenance, beauty, medicine, fragrance, flavor, fiber--surely the most curious is our use of them to change consciousness: to stimulate or calm, fiddle with or completely alter, the qualities of our mental experience. Take coffee and tea: People around the world rely on caffeine to sharpen their minds. But we do not usually think of caffeine as a drug, or our daily use as an addiction, because it is legal and socially acceptable. So, then, what is a "drug"? And why, for example, is making tea from the leaves of a tea plant acceptable, but making tea from a seed head of an opium poppy a federal crime? In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan dives deep into three plant drugs--opium, caffeine, and mescaline--and throws the fundamental strangeness, and arbitrariness, of our thinking about them into sharp relief. Exploring and participating in the cultures that have grown up around these drugs while consuming (or, in the case of caffeine, trying not to consume) them, Pollan reckons with the powerful human attraction to psychoactive plants. Why do we go to such great lengths to seek these shifts in consciousness, and then why do we fence that universal desire with laws and customs and fraught feelings? In this unique blend of history, science, and memoir, as well as participatory journalism, Pollan examines and experiences these plants from several very different angles and contexts, and shines a fresh light on a subject that is all too often treated reductively--as a drug, whether licit or illicit. But that is one of the least interesting things you can say about these plants, Pollan shows, for when we take them into our bodies and let them change our minds, we are engaging with nature in one of the most profound ways we can. Based in part on an essay published almost twenty-five years ago, this groundbreaking and singular consideration of psychoactive plants, and our attraction to them through time, holds up a mirror to our fundamental human needs and aspirations, the operations of our minds, and our entanglement with the natural world.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)581.6 — Natural sciences and mathematics Plants Specific topics in natural history of plants Miscellaneous nontaxonomic kinds of plants
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