Staff Picks

This is Your Mind on Plants

Emily Porter

July 02, 2021


In his new book, Michael Pollan focuses in on three substances that alter human consciousness—opium, caffeine, mescaline—and takes us on a whirlwind exploration through his research on the plants that contain them.

YourMindOnPlants.jpegThis is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan, Penguin Random House 

The mind and body is a carefully orchestrated organism that is easily changed when chemicals are introduced. And yes, that also means your morning cup of coffee or your before bedtime tea. Plants have such a vast impact on our daily lives, and Michael Pollan, through extensive research and self-experimentation, takes us on a journey through how these prominent plants have affected our everyday lives.  

Evidently normal everyday consciousness is not enough for us humans; we seek to vary, intensify, and transcend it, and we have identified a whole collection of molecules in nature that allows us to do that. 

In his new book, Pollan focuses in on three substances that alter human consciousness—opium, caffeine, mescaline—and takes us on a whirlwind exploration through his research on the plants that contain them. He shows us how these plants have weaved throughout our history from licit to illicit drugs depending on how the masses chose to see them at that point in time. Through the worrisome trek of tending a garden of poppies and questioning the felony of creating a tea, to abstaining from caffeine, the drug the world is allowed to be addicted to, to the flora of opening the mind, mescaline. He also speaks about how these plants are deeply important to different cultures and religions, questioning how and why plants become illegal and what constitutes a drug. What is legitimate medicine versus an illicit drug? Or are they one in the same depending on how you introduce them into the body–or to the world.  

At one point in time, opium was a daily relaxant used by the everyday individual to calm their nerves. Now, we are deep into America’s drug war, and seeing thousands of opioid overdoses a year. But the seeds of the same plant used to make a poison that kills thousands sit on top of your bagel or lemon muffin (poppy seed). Caffeine, the plant that has found its way into 90% of the world's morning ritual, has negative side effects too, including on sleep. Yes, insomnia affects so many of us and our coveted cup of brew that awakens us to go about our day is most likely the culprit. Mescaline, coming from the San Pedro cactus or the Peyote plant, has been used for centuries in cultural ceremonies, including within the Native American community. It too has been questioned, and efforts have been made to be deem an illegal drug within the government. 

Pollan incorporates his journalistic thoughts, grappling with writing a book on a deadline as Covid looms overhead, disrupting his research and having him question everything. A wonderful read into the mind of a journalist as he explains the history and effects of plants on your brain, all while you watch him experience and contemplate the very thing he is writing about. A very intriguing read that will have you thinking deeper into that ritualistic cup of coffee you have every morning. 

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