Mental Health Personal Growth Psychology

Michael Pollan – How To Change Your Mind

My Opinion

Great introduction into the field of psychedelics covering their history, the underlying neuroscience as well as Michael Pollan’s own experience with psychedelics while writing this book. 

I absolutely loved the author’s style of writing, so it really was a pleasure reading this book.

Reading Recommendation: 9/10

My Notes


Mushrooms, called Flesh of the Gods by the Aztecs for a reason. 

Diverse applications: Medicine (treat addictions, depressions, disorders, anxiety, …), research (understand the brain & consciousness better) and self-improvement (improve relationships, increase gratitude, overcome obstacles, …).

The recent research is impressive. Roland Griffith’s paper “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” (2006) as a milestone for further research.

  • “Individuals transcend their primary identifications with their bodies and experience ego-free states.” They “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance”
  • 30 Volunteers, never tried Psilocybin before. 2/3 ranked the experience Top 5 of “most spiritually significant experiences” along with the birth of their first child, their marriages, … 14 months later, ranking only slightly slipped. Volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change”, changes confirmed by family members and friends.
  • Crunched survey data of 52 volunteers confirms results. Long-lasting effects in well-being and a long-term increase in the personality trait Openness to New Experiences (about one standard deviation).
  • Roland Griffiths: “As a scientific phenomenon, if you can create a condition in which 70 percent of people will say they have had one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives… well, as a scientist that’s just incredible.”

Several use cases for therapeutic application: 

  • Help people quit smoking. A pilot study in smoking cessation achieved an 80% success rate, which is unprecedented (especially considering that smoking is one of the hardest addictions to break, some say ever harder than heroin). 6 months after psychedelic therapy, 80% of the volunteers were confirmed as abstinent, a figure that only had fallen to 67% at the one-year-mark.
  • Support with further addictions (e.g. alcoholism). 
  • Lower the fear of people who are dying. In both trails with terminal cancer patients from John Hopkins and NYU “80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression” – “Few if any psychiatric interventions of any kind have demonstrated such dramatic and sustained results.” (3+ times the initial treatment effect of SSRI antidepressants).
  • Treat Depressions. Currently, larger trials are conducted in both the U.S. and Europe after initial promising results. Conflict between biologically based treatments and psychodynamic treatments (i.e. is mental illness a chemical disorder or a loss of meaning in life?). Psychedelic therapy is the wedding of these two approaches.
    Rosalind Watts (Clinical Psychologist at John Hopkins): “I believe this could revolutionize mental health care.” Her conviction is shared by every psychedelic researches that was interviewed by Michael Pollan.

Curiosity as an intellectual driver. Some of the most skeptical, critical and rigorous people (scientists) fall into amazement with psychedelics. It’s like being shown a door in your own mind to explore the unconsciousness. How couldn’t one be curious?

How adults perceive the world. Useful heuristics shape our sense of reality. All experiences are categorized and put into pre-defined buckets. Few surprises, energy efficient from an evolutionary perspective. As opposed to the mind of children. Psychedelics erase existing connections (“shaking the snow globe”), decreasing the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) that works as mediator connecting different parts of the brain and is associated with our sense of self (leading to what the scientist call “ego dissolution”).

Our consciousness is just one of many forms. There lie types of consciousness entirely different to what we know. This “forbids a premature closing of our accounts of reality.” (James William)

The nature of consciousness. The Dalai Lama said, the idea that brains create consciousness – an idea accepted without questions by most scientist – “is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact.”

The potential for deeper understanding. Stanislav Graf, psychiatrist and LSD therapy pioneer, once predicted that psychedelics “would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study processes that wouldn’t be visible under normal circumstances.”

Not a typical drug: Psychedelics are non-addictive (taken in a short period of time multiple times, their effect decreases). There are no reported cases of death through overdose. Animals, given the choice, will not self-administer the drug more than once. Psychedelics don’t fit in the classical profile of drugs.

Guidelines as part of the preparation. Sitters of psychedelic sessions work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards. TLO – Trust, Let Go, Be Open. Volunteers are quizzed – if you see a door, what do you do? Open it and enter, is of course the correct answer. Face the fear. If you feel like dying, exploding – go ahead. “Think of yourself as an astronaut being blasted into outer space.”

Mystical experiences. William James: Mystical experiences are characterized by a) their ineffability – it defies expression b) they seem to be states of knowledge i.e. bring revelations full of significance and carry a sense of authority


The first wave of psychedelics  (1950s and ‘60s)

  • LSD discovery in 1943 by Albert Hoffman (by accident). Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company he worked at, offered free supply of LSD to any researcher as part of their crowd-sourced research strategy until 1966 when they withdrew LSD from circulation due to the nation-wide controversy.
  • Scientific challenges arise – a) irrational exuberance of researchers that might influence the results and b) fitting psychedelic research into the existing structures of science (How to do a controlled study? How do you effectively blind patients and clinicians? How to control for the powerful expectancy effect? How to treat the fact that the majority of the treatment effect is based on the experience the patients had and not the drug per se?) 
  • Increasing popularity among the (intellectual) elite. From understanding insanity to treating alcohol addiction in the context of research. Wider application and increasing popularity in therapeutic sessions, mainly in LA across many celebrities (many claimed to have transformative experiences). Stanford and other universities start teaching classes about psychedelics. Personal use in research and in business, especially in Silicon Valley (Pollan mentions one Bay Area company that even today uses psychedelics in their management training and apparently some even institutionalised a “microdosing Friday”. 
  • Scientific results look more than promising. In half a dozen papers published in the 60s, researchers report that 78% of the clients stated, the experiences increased their ability to love, 71% recognised an increase in self-esteem and 83% said that they glimpsed a higher or ultimate reality.
    James Fadiman et al. conduct an experiment to increase creativity and overcome frustrating intellectual problems among artist, engineers, scientists and architects and find promising results.
  • The importance of Set and Setting. “Psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers.” Researchers pair with brilliant amateurs that provide funding, amongst them Aldous Huxley. The internal mindset and the external setting significantly impact the journey.
  • Psychedelics are being distributed among the youth (which marks the beginning of its decline).  Harvard professor Timothy Leary transforms from being a professor to becoming a “guru” and promotes the population-wide usage of psychedelics. Psychedelics turn out to be “disruptive” in reference to the existing social order.

Timothy Leary (1963): “ Make no mistake: the effect of [psychedelics] will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed. Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull.” 

  • The (politically caused) decline: “In 1971, Nixon declared the Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” Psychedelics were nourishing the counterculture and the counterculture was sapping the willingness of America’s young to fight. The Nixon administration sought to blunt the counterculture by attacking its neurochemical infrastructure.“ 
  • Further controversies. Additionally, LSD trials by the CIA lead to a national scandal. Pressure increases, reports of bad trips and potential side effects are published, funding is prohibited or at least severely slowed down. Research freezes. 
  • A concluding quote. The fact is whether by their very nature or the way the first generation of researches happened to construct the experience, psychedelics introduced something deeply subversive to the West that the various establishments had little choice but to repulse. LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconsciousness) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material. If all such lines are manifestations of the Apollonian strain in Western civilizations, the impulse that erects distinctions, dualities, and hierarchies and defends them, then psychedelics represented the ungovernable Dionysian force that blithely washes all those lines away.”
The Neuroscience 

Psilocybin is a tryptamine. It resembles the most famous tryptamine Serotonin and has a strong affinity with the serotonin receptor 5-HT(2A). Curiously, psychedelics are even “stickier” than Serotonin itself, which led some scientist to assume that our body most produce some endogenous psychedelic that is released under certain circumstances.

Psychedelics as a tool to understand the contents of consciousness. Due to their effects (dissolution of ego, expansion of consciousness, sense of unity) a number of scientists believe that psychedelics can be the key to understanding the nature of our consciousness. 

Psychedelics allow access to the unconscious. Robert Carhart-Harris (Imperial College London): “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. Psychedelics could turn out to be the super highway.”

Psychedelics decrease the brain activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN).

  • The DMN links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotions. The DMN stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attention networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands our attention. It is most active when we engage in “metacognitive” brain functions such as self-reflection, mental time travel, moral reasoning and “theory of mind” – the ability to attribute mental states to others. 
  • The DMN isn’t operational until late in a child’s development. 
  • As a whole, it operates as a top-down “brain orchestrator conductor”. It’s activity is associated with our sense of self (or the ego) which is why some scientists call it the “me network”. When you are given a list of adjectives and asked to refer these to yourself, the activity in the DMN lights up. 
  •  In studies with long-time meditators, one can recognise a significant decrease in the DMN activity, especially when meditating. 
  • “Self-reflection can lead to great intellectual and artistic achievement but also to destructive forms of self-regard and many types of unhappiness.” In an often cited paper called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” researchers identified a strong correlation between unhappiness and time spent in mind wandering, a principal activity of the DMN.
  • The decrease of activity in the DMN (and its subsequent effects) can be achieved in a number of ways, meditations and psychedelics being two of them. Further possibilities include fasting, sensory deprivation, extreme sports, near-death-experience, overwhelming feelings of awe and so on.

The DMN not only works as a top-down control system, but additionally regulates what is let into consciousness. Most neuroscientists work under the paradigm of the brain as a prediction-making machine. Our brain takes as little as possible sensory data to make an educated guess (categorized buckets of experience relying on previous experiences. 

The philosophical implications are deep and difficult to grasp. Our perception of reality is much less reflecting reality than it is a product of our imagination based on prior experiences and our models of memory. How is normal consciousness then much different from other, seemingly less faithful productions of our imagination such as dreams? 

Theory: The brain is an entropy-reducing machine. 

  • The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs” (2014). Robin Carhart-harris et al.
  • Suppressing entropy (i.e. uncertainty) serves to increase “realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies” but at the same time “constraints cognition” and exert “a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.” 
  • Entropy spectrum to explain psychological “disorders” such as depression, addiction, obsession and eating disorders at the low-end entropy spectrum.
    Carhart-Harris suggests that in the case of depression, the ego “turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades our reality.” He cites research that indicates that this state of mind (sometimes called depressive realism or heavy self-consciousness) may be the result of a hyperactive DMN “which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops”. 
  • For people that suffer from excessively rigid patterns of thought stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotypical patterns of thought and behaviour by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest
  • Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity and increasing the level of entropy to allow for a more open mode of cognition.

We all have the experience of an entropic brain – as a young child. 

  • Alison Gopnik (Development psychologist at Berkeley) draws the distinction between a spotlight consciousness (adult) and a lantern consciousness (young child). 
  • Comparison to AI research: Low temperature searches (local optimum – nearest or most probable solution) vs. high temperature searches (global optimum). Adult minds most often conduct low temperature searches due to energy efficiency. 
  • “[Children’s] thinking is less constrained by experience so they will try even the most unlikely possibilities.” They “are better learners than adults in many cases where the solution is nonobvious.”
Morality Philosophy

Sam Harris – The Moral Landscape

My Opinion

Strong case for the foundation of moral thinking in science and the existence of moral truth. Different peaks in the moral landscape represent various states of human flourishing. Sometimes a little bit out of scope in regards to the original idea of the book but nonetheless highly interesting. 

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

My Notes

Long history of philosophers arguing that no description of the nature of the world (facts) can tell us how to behave (morality), e.g. David Hume, G.E. Moore, Karl Popper. Clear distinction between facts (‘is’) and values (‘ought’). 

Sam Harris argues that this is wrong and that the scientific study of morality is needed (and, in parts, already well under way) based on the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures. Since well-being depends on processes in the brain, it can be objectively understood, hence there is such a thing as moral truth that leads to states of human flourishing (represented as a peak on the moral landscape). It is, however, absolutely possible that there is more than one potential path to maximizing well-being (i.e. multiple peaks). 

Moral truth exists, because the distinction between facts and values is illusory based on following premises:

a) Whatever we know or will know about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is as Harris argues the only reasonable foundation of any value – translates at some points into facts about brains and their interaction with our world. 

“Anything of value must be valuable to someone (whether actually or potentially) – and therefore, its value should be attributable to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”

b) Beliefs about facts and values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain (belief seems to be largely mediated by the MPFC) – apparently our system of judging truth and falsity in both domains is very similar. If believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong”, how can we say that scientific (factual) and ethical judgments have nothing in common? 

Beliefs bridge the gap between values and facts. We believe certain facts to be true (in that regard, the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ is merely a matter of expressing certainty). But we also form beliefs about values i.e. judgments about morality, meaning and personal goals.  

IMPORTANT: The consequence is moral truth. If the premise “well-being is the basis of morality” is accepted (which really is the fundament of the entire book!), then that means that securing well-being depends on events in our brain and events in the world, and that there are, objectively speaking, better and worse ways of achieving it. In this case, “some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human suffering”. 

The courage of moral truth. Why is it that most educated, secular people tend to believe that there is no thing as moral truth? Harris states that “moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.” If morality is indeed based on maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, it seems to be very clear that many people are simply wrong about morality – just as many are wrong when it comes to physics, biology, history, etc. 

The problem of religion. Derivation of moral behaviour from an ancient textbook that is based on salvation of our souls . Dogmatism prevents almost by definition the maximization of well-being. Harris argues that science and religion are in a zero-sum conflict about fundamental claims of reality. 

Since most religions understand morality as being obedient to God, their definition of moral behaviour often don’t have anything to do with maximizing well-being in this world (heaven vs. hell)

Examples catholic churn: “Even among non-Catholics, its doctrines are widely associated with the concepts of ‘morality’ and ‘human values.’ However, the Vatican is an organzation that excommunicates women for attempting to become priests but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children. […]
It seems clear that the CAtholic Church is as misguided in speaking about the ‘moral’ peril of contraception, for instance, as it would be in speaking about the ‘physics’ of Transubstantiation.” 

Just because we can’t answer a question concerning our well-being right now, doesn’t mean there is no right answer. “People consistently fail to distinguish between there being answers in practice and answers in principle to specific questions about the nature of reality” 

Evolution is not a contradiction to morality. Arguing that evolution entails selfishness as a biological imperative is an oversimplification. In fact, evolution fosters cooperation. This is explained by the concept of reciprocal altruism which includes friendship, moralistic aggression (i.e. cheaters get punished), guilt, sympathy and gratitude. Neuroimaging studies show that cooperation is associated with an increased activity in the brain’s reward regions. 

Idea: If cooperation is genuinely human to homo sapiens, then that replaces the original Hobbesian “state of nature”. One could assume that large scale cooperation necessarily requires a moral code and needs to be designed based on principles of fairness to be sufficiently stable. 

There is an (almost) unsolved problem with defining morality as maximizing well-being by taking all consequences of actions into consideration (which in philosophy is called consequentialism)

  • We can’t always determine what the best decision is. As Harris writes, “population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox” since “people have competing interests and mutually incompatible notions of happiness.”
  • Further, what should we maximize? Total happiness? Then we would prefer a world where 100 millions people live a life barely worth living over a world where 7 billion of us live in perfect ecstasy. Average happiness? (1 extremely happy person > 1 billion only slightly less happy people). This is called The Repugnant Conclusion.
  • Harris concludes: “However, such puzzles merely suggest that certain moral questions could be difficult or impossible to answer in practice; they do not suggest that morality depends upon something other than the consequences of our actions and intentions. This is a frequent source of confusion: consequentialism is less a method of answering moral questions than it is a claim about the status of moral truth.” 
  • Further, what we should do is try to follow a path that maximizes both our own well-being as well as the well-being of others

People are biased in various ways. Should these be taken into consideration when making a moral decision?

  • Loss Aversion – people care much more about potential losses then they care about potential gains. Assume a child with IQ of 195 accidentely given a neurotoxing decresing IQ to 100 → loss; versus a child with IQ of 100 that should have been given a genetic enhancement to increase its IQ to 195 which now has been given to someone else → gain. Obviously, the result is the same. But what if the mental suffering is much worse in the former exampel? 
  • Also: Peak-End-Rule (memory as distortion). Should decisions such as medical treatment be based on actual experienced pain or rather based on the memory of suffering? 
  • Order – The Asian Disease Problem (A: 200 people will be saved, B: ⅓ probability that nobody will be saved, ⅔ that 600 people die OR A: 400 people die, B. ⅓ that nobody dies and ⅔ that 600 people die)
  • Context – Study where psychologists had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals. After being commited, they declared they no longer had symptoms. Yet, the average length of hospitalization was 19 days.  

The Identifiable Victim Effect represents an obvious violation of moral norms. We care more about the suffering of an individual human than about the suffering of millions which appears to be much more abstract (which is for example something that NGO tend to make use of). 

One of the most interesting approaches of “designing” a fair society: John Rawls in Theory of Justice. People are asked to design a society while not being born yet (veil of ignorance). Harris adds that fairness is not merely an abstract principle but felt experience. Neuroimaging shows that fairness drives reward-related activity in the brain whereas unfair behaviour requires the regulation of negative emotion. “It seems perfectly reasonable, within a consequentialist framework, for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate, selfish interests will often be superseded by considerations of fairness.”

Human evil is part of our nature, yet we have grown steadily less violent.

  • Studies show that “both humans and chimpanzees tend to display the same level of hostility towards outsiders, but chimps are far more aggressive than humans are (by a factor of about 200).”
  • 20th century state-societies have broken all records of violent deaths. Yet, this is only true in absolute terms. The actual percentage of violent deaths was on average higher in traditional pre-state societies 

Moral responsibility depends on the intention to do harm. 

  • Example 1: 25-year old man, who had been the victim of constant abuse as a child, intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend because she left him
  • Example 2: 25-year old man, raised by wonderful parents, intentionally shot and killed a young women he had never met just for the fun of it
  • Example 3: 25-year old man, raised by wonderful parents, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met just for the fun of it. An MRI revealed a large tumor in his medial prefrontal cortex. 

→ What we condemn in other people’s behaviour is the intention to do harm. “Our urge for retribution, therefore, seems to depend upon not seeing the underlying causes of human behaviour 

Cognitive biases influence our public discourse and moral reasoning. Political conservatism for example is governed by a number of factors. It is correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability.

It seems that religiosity is strongly coupled to perceptions of social insecurity. This seems to be the case both within and between nations. In the U.S. 57% think one must believe in god to be moral and 69% want a president who is guided by ‘strong religious beliefs’. Further, only 26% believe in evolution through natural selection. This might be caused by the fact that the U.S. has the greatest economic inequality of all developed nations. 

Maybe there is a cognitive template for religious ideas that runs deeper than culture. The same seems to be true for language. Several experiments suggest that children are predisposed to assume both design and intention behind natural events. Therefore, many anthropologists and psychologists believe that children, left entirely on their own, would come up with some conception of God.  

Even though many behave as there wasn’t, there is a conflict between reason and faith. Francis Collins, who is the director of the National Institute of Health (annual budget of €33b), publically argues (in this example at the University of California) how God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago, planning the “mechanism of evolution” and “gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” Isn’t there an obvious conflict between science and religion? Imagine how it would look like if Collins were a Hindu (he certainly wouldn’t run the National Institute of Health).

Despite our perennial bad behaviour, moral progress seems unmistakable. We are increasingly reluctant to violence. We are less tolerant of ‘collateral damage’ in wars and condemn ideologies that demonize whole populations. Racism, even though it remains a problem, has been diminished significantly in the last hundred years. 

An Example, almost hard to believe,  to illustrate the progress: “Most readers will have seen photos of lynchings from the first half of the twentieth century, in which whole towns turned out, as though for a carnival, simply to enjoy the sight of some young man or woman being tortured to death and strung up on a tree of lamppost for all to see. These pictures often reveal bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, church elders, newspaper editors, polcement, even the occasional senator and congressman, smiling in their Sunday best, having consciously posed for a postcard photo under a dangling, lacerated, and often partially cremated person. Such images are shocking enough. But realize that these gentell people often took souvenirs of the body – teeth, ears, fingers, kneecaps, genitalia, and internal organs – home to show their friends and family. 

The current state of research as it relates to human well-being is in its infancy. Sometimes this pile of research is called ‘positive psychology’. The part that we understand about human well-being is strinkingy small, especially on the brain level. But we are progressing. Some examples of relevant questions:

  • Paradox of choice – it might be rational to strategically limit of number of choices
  • Affective forecasting – we systematically overestimate the impact of good or bad experiences in regard to our well-being (changes in wealth, health, age etc.) 
  • The experiencing self vs. the remembering self (Kahnemann) – which one to choose? (According to Kahnemann, the correlation in well-being between the two ‘selves’ is around 0.5)

This claim, that science has something important to say about values, is made on first principles. It could however, be falsified, if there wasn’t any connection between “being good and feeling good – and, therefore no, no connection between moral behavior (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being. In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints. This, however, seems a little bit far far-fetched, considering that neuroimaging shows how cooperation is affecting our reward-center in the brain.