Oh, that Michael Pollan. He’s gonna convert us all to lovers of mind-enhancing substances, I think. His latest offering on this topic, This Is Your Mind on Plants (2021), makes me want to run out and try peyote, so it’s lucky that I am too white to get ahold of it (as you find out in the book, only Indians are allowed to obtain and use it in the US, as a legally protected religious right).
But that’s not all the book’s about. The ever-curious Pollan explores four plants that have been used by humans to mess with their minds: opium poppies, coffee beans/tea leaves, and peyote cactus. I was especially curious about caffeine, which provided my favorite section of the book. I was surprised to learn that the caffeine fixation in Western culture is not very old at all. More fascinating to me was its relationship with the new ways of working that came up as society became more and more industrialized. Caffeine enabled people to concentrate longer, stay focused, and be more productive. Coffee breaks were actually invented to give workers their doses of their drug of choice!
Yep, it turns out that nowadays, caffeine is the most widely used addictive substance in the world, more than nicotine or alcohol. And it isn’t benign, especially since it messes with sleep patterns.
I also learned a lot about opium, but the opium section is more about the issues Pollan had when he grew some poppies for a writing assignment and discovered he could be in trouble with the law. Now, as someone who remembers lovely poppies growing in the garden at her church, this amused me. Apparently, the government doesn’t want people to know it’s easy to make a tea from poppy seed pods, or that if it’s used occasionally for aches and pains, it’s not going to addict you. Like most things, moderation rules. As I know, it’s a real good pain killer (I remember picking up Mom’s drugs when she was dying, and feeling really weird about carrying this giant thing of morphine).
On to more cheerful topics, and that’s good ole mescaline. What a kind drug it turns out to be. And it’s another thing that used carefully, in the right setting, provides many insights. Its effects certainly sound less potentially scary than LSD and the ilk. It apparently takes away the brain’s filters that only make you conscious of inputs that are relevant and lets you really see everything. So, you basically sit around and look at the world in its raw glory. I can see how that would be really cool, but not a way of life.
This section of the book was a lot of him trying to find the stuff and talking to various folks that a lot of readers might find a bit woo-woo, but they were okay. I would have liked to know more about the chemical aspects of how mescaline works.
To sum it all up, this is not Pollan’s most brilliant work, but I enjoyed what I learned, and always enjoy his writing. I’d like to read more about safe and intentional use of tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol, but I guess enough’s already been written about them.