Thursday, May 24, 2018

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence

The word "Psychedelic" has many connotations for people. When I hear the word I tend to think about the 1960s and Hippie culture---a time of experimentation and a more casual attitude to recreational drug use. But those carefree years are long gone. A plethora of warnings about abuse and the potential lethal nature of psychedelics ended the carefree part of the 60s. Governments around the world have prohibited the recreational use of these substances noting the growing list of dangers to public health. So what are psychedelics? They are drugs that alter the normal functioning of the brain; essentially they are chemicals that if not taken with extreme caution can permanently damage one's cognitive capacities, even potentially kill the one taking them. Given this reality, the reader will be surprised to find author Michael Pollan's considered suggestion that society rethink its ban on psychedelics, and even make access to them more available to the general public.

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is one of the better known psychedelics but there are many others. Mind altering drugs have been used by people since fire was invented and food was retrieved only at the end of a stone tipped club and after a major chase. That is to say psychedelics have been around for a long time. However, it has only been relatively recently that scientific experiments have been conducted on these substances and the true natures of their chemical compositions have been identified. A good part of the narrative of the book is taken up with tracing the harrowing experiments by naive researchers who took rather large doses of these drugs all in the name of scientific progress. These unexpected trips to La-La-Land make for interesting reading.

Without spoiling the surprise, the author takes the drugs.

Michael Pollan wanted to write from experience and so he tried a variety of psychedelic drugs in controlled environments (or as close to controlled as he could get) with an assortment of characters ranging from doctors to New Age gurus. His own honest (even to the point of embarrassing) revelations about his experiences are genuine and interesting as is his research into the possible uses of these drugs to help with an assortment of psychological ailments form depression to addiction. Pollan talks to many experts in the medical field as well as non-professionals who have spent their lives promoting and "researching" the use of these substances. Every one of them has something of value to add to the discussion.

The most interesting portion of the book, for me, was the connection he draws between the experiences people have while under the influence of these drugs and the experiences mystics have especially during meditation. The seeming similarity of the experiences raises fascinating questions. What is consciousness? How is it created by the brain? Is it a creation of the brain? Can consciousness happen without the brain? The mystics and the drug-tripping connoisseur have each experienced---in their own admittedly very different ways---an ineffable bliss and a something else. What is this else? Pollan wrestled mightily with the the nagging question that, perhaps, lurks behind every sentence in this book: what do these psychedelic experiences mean? Is it too simplistic to say "Its just the drugs talking."

The mysteries of the mind are ancient. Psychedelic drugs raise many interesting questions about the brain and altered states of consciousness. Pollan provides no simple solutions and the mysteries remain once the covers of the book are shut. Yet, after his experiences using psychedelics he is now more open-minded about the possibility of a realm beyond our everyday waking-conscious state. This  revelation combined with the now growing evidence of the potential health benefits of controlled use of these substances make for good reasons to reassess society's stance on psychedelic drugs.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Brimming with interesting anecdotes and intriguing facts, Spineless: the science of jellyfish and the art of growing a backbone is written in an engaging style that highlights the author’s academic background (she has a PhD in Ocean Science from USC) and her work as a textbook writer, especially when she connects obscure scientific concepts with tangible examples that most people can relate to.

Juli Berwald’s message to readers resonates in her journey from a hapless undergraduate to the discovery of her passion and fascination for jellyfish and the journey she embarks on to become an advocate for the preservation of underwater ecosystems. She details centuries of human discovery and scientific exploration of the world’s oceans while also highlighting the changes that have occurred as climate change, industrial fishing and sea transport have evolved.

In imparting this knowledge and raising awareness, Berwald also admits that there is no unique or singular solution to the changes being wrought under the oceans (and above it as well) but the urgency of her call to action is present throughout the book. She writes passionately about this subject, as can be seen from this passage:

We have reached a moment in history when we control the chemistry and biology of our planet. We are that powerful. But we are also endowed with gifts of even greater power. We have the capacity to communicate, to learn quickly, to change course, to create and re-create, to make decisions for the health of the oceans, to speak up. We can protect this stunning planet we all share if we grow a collective spine.

(Juli Berwald)

By focussing on jellyfish, Berwald provides a window through which the reader can see the need for awareness of the issues she discusses. As readers delve into the world of jellyfish and the complex ecosystems they inhabit, they will realize why jellyfish are being used by oceanologists as markers for tracking change in the oceans. One example that Berwald provides is in the jellyfish’s ability to thrive in acidic conditions. As ocean acidity increases year by year so do jellyfish populations, threatening the safe operations of nuclear power plants, of fish and plankton that are their natural and unnatural prey, as well as the safe use of beaches visited by people around the world. The impact can be devastating to many and that is the message the author wants readers to take away.

However, If that was the only message then this would be a dreadful read. It is not because Berwald has seamlessly included all sorts of interesting information about jellyfish as well. Partly from research and expert interviews, the information includes the jellyfish connection to the legend of medusa, the manner in which they reproduce and their potential powers of immortality.

Other pieces come from adventures that Berwald has embarked upon in her journey to becoming an advocate, such as trips jellyfishing along the West coast and her travels to Japan to swim with giant jellyfish. For those readers who feel up to it, there are some “try-it-at-home” adventures as well, such as having a jellyfish salad and keeping jellyfish as pets (Berwald’s attempt at the latter was unsuccessful, much to the noted dismay of her children).

There is a lot to discover in this book, and it is an easy engaging read. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in learning more about the world underwater or an interest in gaining more knowledge about the effects of climate change.