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This Is Your Mind on Plants

Michael Pollan
Published by Penguin Press in 2021

Michael Pollan’s fine body of work addressing the relationships between plants and humans has piqued readers’ curiosity for decades. He typically offers a provocative introduction to set the stage, then presents distinct but related sections that support his thesis in unique ways. His knack for bringing together scientific, historical, and cultural perspectives provides something for everyone. He often enters the intersections of plant and human relationships himself, putting some skin in the game.

As one of Pollan’s loyal readers, I was eager to dig into his recent book, This is Your Mind on Plants, which addresses the ability of some plants to influence human consciousness. Here, he examines plants that produce specific neurologically active alkaloids that defend them from hungry animals. These alkaloids perfectly fit the molecular receptors of animal brain cells, causing changes in behavior and, in humans, consciousness. In typical Pollan style, he’s chosen a few plants among many possibilities for his winsome exploration, the opium poppy (a downer), coffee and tea (uppers), and the hallucinogenic peyote cactus (an “outer”). This sets up a nice contrast of neurological effects for the reader, which Pollan discusses from multiple perspectives and from personal experiences. For each of the plants, he also employs historical and cultural backgrounds in varying degrees to address the social impacts and legality of their uses.

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), which produces an addictive sedative, is covered in the first major section of the book. The material is largely a reprint of an article Pollan wrote for Harper’s Bazaar in 1997. As the U.S. waged the War On Drugs, we are offered a glimpse into the murky world of gardeners growing lovely, but (probably) illegal, opium poppies for illicit use. Pollan shows us the legal gray areas associated with growing plants that produce narcotic compounds. It’s still unclear to me if innocently growing opium poppies is illegal, but there is no doubt that the narcotic use of poppies is prohibited. To avoid legal jeopardy, Pollan’s original article didn’t include the last few pages in which he brews poppy tea to experience its mind-altering effects. The section ends with an update contrasting the illegal use of opium with incredible harm done by legally prescribed and incredibly addictive opioids. The section is heavy on social commentary and consideration of our legal system, but a bit light on the scientific background and historical depth that many of Pollan’s readers enjoy.

The section addressing coffee, tea, and caffeine showcases Pollan’s ability to transform a subject that we think we know a lot about into a fascinating journey of discovery. It’s all here – science, history, culture, experience – and it’s in nicely balanced doses. Those who appreciated his early book, The Botany of Desire, will enjoy this section. The chapters addressing how Europeans emerged from centuries of alcohol-soaked “magical thinking” well suited for the drudgery of agricultural toil into a new era spiked with caffeine provides fuel for thought. He makes a case that the rise of 17th-century European coffeehouse culture is linked to the spread of scientific thought, calls for democratic political reform, and demands for industrialization. Pollan again is a participant in these chapters, abstaining from caffeine and narrating his withdrawal effects throughout the section bearing witness to the addictive nature of this legal plant product. Mescaline is a hallucinogenic chemical that produced a few species of cactus, including peyote. Considering Aldous Huxley’s experimentation with mescaline in the 1950’s, the interest in its use in the 1960’s, and the subsequent negative impacts of its popularization on Native Americans, Pollan faces the challenge of balancing his own curiosity and journalistic instincts with respectful inquiry. This is a theme running through the section, whether addressing the history of mescaline use among Indigenous peoples, the conservation of peyote cacti, the legality of mescaline use, or his own experimentation with the drug.

Compared to Pollan’s other works, the sections of this book were a bit more varied in form and feel. Some readers may enjoy that, but others might not. The twenty-year gap between his Harper’s Bazaar article and the rest of the book is particularly notable. Overall, fans of Pollan will find much to interest them in This is Your Mind on Plants, and new readers will likely be inspired to explore his work further.

Laura Furlong

An environmental scientist, Dr. Furlong holds a doctorate in ecology, evolution and marine biology. Her research and publications have been in the fields of stream ecology, entomology and biogeography, and she has experience as a biological consultant.