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30 June 2021

The plants that change our consciousness

How three plant-derived drugs – caffeine, opium and mescaline – shape society

By Sophie McBain

It is no coincidence that caffeine and the minute-hand on clocks arrived at around the same historical moment, the acclaimed food and nature writer Michael Pollan argues in his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants. Both spread across Europe as labourers began leaving the fields, where work is organised around the sun, for the factories, where shift-workers could no longer adhere to their natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness. Would capitalism even have been possible without caffeine?

The introduction of caffeine to Europe in the early 17th century coincided with the waning of the mystical medieval mindset and the rise of the cool-headed rationalism of the Enlightenment. Before the arrival of tea and coffee, alcohol was the safest thing to drink – or at least, safer than most water – so perhaps it is little wonder that the permanently sozzled intellectuals of the Middle Ages were prone to magical thinking. In contrast, caffeine can intensify “spotlight consciousness”, which illuminates a single point of attention, enhancing our reasoning skills. Voltaire had such faith in coffee’s power to sharpen his mind that he is said to have drunk up to 72 cups a day. Balzac sometimes dispensed with drinking coffee altogether and instead ate the grounds for a more powerful hit.

In the Nineties, scientists at Nasa fed a variety of psychoactive substances to spiders to observe the effect on their web-making. The spider given caffeine spun a completely useless web, with no symmetry or centre, and holes large enough for a bird to get through. The web was much more dysfunctional than those spun by spiders high on cannabis or LSD. It’s unclear from the book (and from my subsequent Google searches) whether the spider was given the arachnid equivalent of a single cappuccino or a more Balzacian dose, which makes the comparison with other drugs less helpful, but Pollan’s point is that caffeine changes us more than we realise. Anyone who has accidentally overdosed on coffee and found themselves too jittery to function will identify with the caffeinated spider, who was extremely busy being unproductive. Perhaps the spider could even serve as a symbol for low-paid workers under present-day, hyper-caffeinated capitalism, for whom hard work yields so few personal rewards.

[See also: Minae Mizumura’s linguistic mission]

Pollan is certainly ambivalent about the role caffeine has played in facilitating modern capitalism – the way in which it enables us to keep up with the pace of 21st-century living, often at the expense of restorative sleep. Many of the sleep researchers Pollan speaks to have given up coffee because they note that, even if it doesn’t keep you awake, caffeine robs you of the deep sleep that makes you feel rested. When you struggle to function without your morning coffee, it could be that you’re reaching for caffeine to solve the problem it created. Caffeine is so widely used and normalised that we don’t think of it as a drug or notice how it alters our minds. Research into its effects is often hampered by the difficulty of finding people who aren’t already dependent on it. One drug researcher told Pollan he developed an interest in caffeine because of his own “revolting behaviour”: in urgent need of a fix, he’d once downed a cup of frozen coffee grounds mixed with warm tap water.

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Pollan gave up caffeine for a few months as a self-experiment, and was surprised by how fuzzy-headed and under-confident he felt, even after the initial withdrawal symptoms had worn off. I was surprised to read this too, because he only drinks a cup of “half-caff” in the morning, green tea, and the occasional afternoon cappuccino – nothing compared to the alarming quantities of black filter coffee I rely on to get through the day. As it happens, I’ve twice gone cold-turkey on caffeine because my earliest symptom of pregnancy is finding the smell of coffee completely nauseating. It hadn’t occurred to me that the brain-fog and exhaustion of early pregnancy might also have been caffeine withdrawal.

Caffeine is one of three plant-derived substances that Pollan profiles in this book, along with opium and mescaline. Together they represent a stimulant, a sedative and a hallucinogen, or an upper, a downer and an outer. He weaves together his own experience, as a cautious but curious psychonaut, with his research into the politics, history and anthropology of psychoactive plants. Almost every society in the world has sought to use plants or fungi to alter or transcend everyday human consciousness, and to liberate people from pain or boredom. In this way, the mind-altering plants that a society relies on or that it prohibits can be revealing of its most foundational fears and desires, Pollan argues. We give little thought to caffeine because it is so economically useful; conversely, societies tend to ban those plants that appear to pose a threat to the social order. It was only once psychedelics became associated with 1960s counterculture that they were declared illegal in the US as President Nixon intensified the so-called war on drugs. This war appears to be ending, or at least entering a different phase, in the US, where 36 states have now legalised marijuana under certain circumstances, and one state – Oregon – has decriminalised possession of small amounts of all hard drugs. Pollan believes this political opening presents the perfect opportunity to broaden the conversation about what plants can do for us.

Pollan, a journalist and the author of eight books, has for decades explored the politics and ethics of consumption, and our entanglement with the natural world. Even those who have not read his work might have heard his sage aphorism on living well: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In his 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, he explored what the new science of psychedelics might teach us about our minds and mental healing, and raised the tantalising possibility that even unaltered human consciousness is a hallucination of sorts, since our brain so frequently relies on its predictions about the world, rather than direct perception.

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Pollan is always an entertaining writer, and a deep thinker with a light touch, but This is Your Mind on Plants feels hastily pulled together. The section on caffeine is an expanded version of an audiobook he released last year, and the section on opium is mostly a reprint of an (admittedly fascinating) 1997 essay he wrote for Harper’s, with the addition of several passages that were redacted for legal reasons at the time. His informal style can become lazy: “a cactusologist (cactologist – not sure)”, he writes.

The Harper’s essay concerned Pollan’s quest to plant opium poppies in his garden and use them to make tea, a plan (and a piece) that was derailed by a heavy-handed crackdown on home-growers of opium. The sad irony, Pollan writes almost 25 years later, is that both he and the authorities missed the real story: while they were worrying about a few home-grown opium poppies, Purdue Pharma was selling Americans OxyContin, a prescription drug that would eventually contribute to almost two million Americans becoming addicted to opiates, and almost 50,000 dying of opioid overdoses a year. This is one devastating consequence of illogical and arbitrary drug laws.

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His final section is on the history and anthropology of mescaline, the psychoactive molecule found in certain cacti, including the peyote cactus used in Native American spiritual ceremonies. Aldous Huxley tried mescaline in the Fifties and marvelled at how it enabled him not to transcend reality but to experience it more intensely: he was thunderstruck by even the most mundane detail, like the folds of his trousers. Pollan had wanted to attend a traditional peyote ceremony, but his home state of California went into lockdown due to Covid-19. In any case, the Native Americans he spoke to were wary of letting an outsider participate – fearful of anyone who might want to appropriate their sacred plant and repurpose it as a recreational drug, a position with which Pollan sympathises.

Eventually, in the middle of the pandemic and surrounded by wildfires, Pollan was able to attend a small ceremony that used wachuma, another cactus that contains mescaline. The elaborate rituals continued through the night and ended with an impassioned prayer for humanity to relearn how to respect nature; for mankind to heed the warning offered by the virus and the fires, and reset our relationship with Earth. Pollan found himself in the role of passive, but not disinterested, observer, carried by the currents of other people’s responses to wachuma. In the morning, Taloma, who conducted the ceremony, handed Pollan’s wife a wachuma blossom that was “faded but still gorgeous”. Something similar could be said of the book: it’s a trip – engrossing, eye-opening, mind altering – but a subdued one. 

This is Your Mind on Plants 
Michael Pollan
Penguin, 288pp, £20