How to Change Your Mind - Chapter 2 Summary

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  • Catch up on "How to Change Your Mind" with the Chapter 2 summary.

Chapter two, “Bemushroomed,” covers the history of psychoactive mushrooms. In a laboratory setting, a synthetic version of the psilocybin molecule is prepared for research purposes rather than using a psilocybin containing mushrooms. Although synthetic psilocybin is more practical for research studies, the synthetic psilocybin molecule has become separated from its fungal origin. To better understand the mushrooms, specifically of the genus Psilocybe, Pollan teamed up with famous mycologist Paul Stamets. Stamets is a leading expert on the genus Psilocybe, which are notoriously hard to identify. Together the two had a successful weekend hunting Psilocybe mushrooms in Oregon.

The magic mushroom was introduced into western culture by a 1957 article in Life magazine that described the psychedelic trip of Gordon Wasson after ingesting sacred mushrooms in the town of Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca. Wasson convinced María Sabina to allow him to take part in a ceremony involving the sacred mushroom, which was used by many Mazatecs for the purpose of healing and divination. The article in Life magazine led to the ruin of both the town and María Sabina as foreigners exploited the area for magic mushrooms.  

The compound psilocybin is produced in the fruiting body of mushrooms. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is interesting to consider why a mushroom would contain a chemical that acutely affects the mammalian brain only in the portion of the mushroom meant to be consumed by animals. Humans are not the only animals known to ingest psychoactive mushrooms and a variety of theories exist as to why the mushrooms contain psilocybin. One of the leading theories from Professor Beug is that mushrooms containing greater amounts of psilocybin were selectively eaten leading to an increase in the spread of their spores. Another scientist, Giorgio Saminori, furthers this theory by arguing that altered consciousness could be advantageous to animals during changing conditions when previous patterns of survival are no longer as successful. Beyond questions about the reason for the existence of psilocybin, the compound also brings to light important questions about human consciousness. At the end of chapter 2, Pollan describes his personal experience ingesting Psilocybin mushrooms. For Pollan and others, the altered consciousness brought about by psilocybin led to spiritual experiences. The experiences of individuals are usually interpreted as either an altered state of chemical reactions in the brain due to psilocybin or as the result of an altered conscious state allowing contact with some sort of “beyond.”

Andi DeRogatis is a graduate student at UC Davis in the animal biology graduate group. She is currently studying how the avian immune system is influenced by the process of molt. She loves all things birds and is passionate about getting others excited about birds as well! You can follow her on Twitter @AndiDerogatis.

Lindsey Mooney is a graduate student in the UC Davis Psychology Department. You can follow her on Twitter @Linz_Mooney.

For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on Twitter @SciSays.

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