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Book Review – Michael Pollan's "This Is Your Mind on Plants"

review Shakti

This month, Shakti Swaminathan writes about one of her recent favourite popular science books, Michael Pollan's This is Your Mind on Plants. Read on for her thoughts, and get your copy of the book from Champaca.


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

Over a billion people in the world consume a stimulant, a substance that is said to sharpen minds and kick one’s day into action. This addictive stimulant is legal. On the other hand, 24.5 million consume another addictive stimulant, one that is said to bring its users waves of euphoria, but can also get them a jail sentence. Both substances are derived from plants. They are coffee and opium. While coffee is legal and socially acceptable, opium is taboo. Why is that? The latest book by renowned journalist and best-selling author Michael Pollan, This Is Your Mind on Plants, begins with this premise.

Part science, part history and part rigorous participatory journalism, this book delves into the history of three addictive stimulants derived from plants –  coffee, opium and mescaline. It explores their impact on the human mind, and on cultures through history. Pollan unpacks why humans are drawn to these psychoactive plants and how this attraction has culminated in paradigm-shifting changes in history. For instance, did you know that the discovery of coffee led to the establishment of capitalism the world over? Pollan takes us on a journey that spans from the discovery of coffee in northern Africa, to how it travelled to the middle east, leading to the spurt of coffee places, akin to modern day coffee shops. Often these cafés drew ire from the authorities, as these places of coffee and therefore conversations metamorphosed into breeding grounds for planning rebellions against the establishment. Soon the carefully guarded coffee plants were smuggled into Europe by an avid coffee drinker and coloniser (no surprises there!). Coffee, the Europeans realised, not only kickstarted their day, but also kept workers energised and awake for longer hours. Fortunately (or rather unluckily), the arrival of coffee to Europe coincided with the Industrial Revolution, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Or should we say capitalism?) Pollan’s work is peppered with such interesting insights that made me question serious life choices, like the copious cups of coffee that I consume, and their implicit implications on the world’s economy.

History has witnessed many wars fought over opium, that have infamously made and broken several countries such as China, Hong Kong, and Britain. However, in this book, Pollan delves not just into history, but also into the nitty-gritties of the drug, studying the poppy plant from which it is extracted, all while surreptitiously trying to grow the plants in his backyard, treading the fine line between what is illicit and what is not.

Mescaline is a psychedelic hallucinogen, derived from a small spineless cactus called the Peyote, found largely in Mexico and southwestern United States. Native Americans have been using it as part of their religious rituals and ceremonies for more than a hundred years. Mescaline is said to cause rich visual hallucinations and is currently legal for only Native Americans to extract and consume it. Pollan’s writing is as engaging as any of the three substances mentioned. At times, they even kindle a tiny desire to try one of them!

Of all the different human interactions with plants, be it for food, fibre, fragrance or flavour, the use of plants to alter human consciousness is perhaps the most contradictory. While humans actively seek these substances to undergo mind altering experiences, the same mind also devises the most elaborate laws to curtail their use. Pollan’s work is a refreshing perspective and an engaging read on this fraught relationship between man and plants, without reducing these substances into drugs or merely slotting them into illegal and legal.

If you like this book, you may like A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in India by Meena Menon and Uzramma, A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal, and Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.

Three parts teacher, two parts writer and complete mental glutton, Shakti Swaminathan is a free(lancer) spirit based in Bangalore.

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