Review: “This is Your Mind on Plants” by Michael Pollan

Aaron Guy Leroux
4 min readMar 21, 2022

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Pollan’s examination of the human relationship to Opium, Caffeine, and Mescaline. Part of my Pandemic Reading series.

“This is Your mInd on Plants by Michael Pollan. Shot on Kodak Ektar 35mm, Photo by Aaron Guy Leroux

In his latest work, Michael Pollan explores humans’ relationship with three plants: The Poppy, Coffee, and Mescaline. “This is Your Mind on Plants” is loaded with scientific information, cultural history, and anecdotes of Pollan’s run-ins with these three plants, which ranges from the criminally adjacent when trying to divine what it is legally permissible to do with a poppy plant (the laws wander quickly into shades of grey) — to the hilarious when Pollan realizes that the best way to study caffeine will be to give it up which promptly jeopardizes the entire project of the book.

“How can you possibly expect to write anything when you can’t concentrate? That’s pretty much all writers do: take the blooming multiplicity of the world and our experience of it, literally concentrate it down to manageable proportions, and then force it through the eye of a grammatical needle one word at a time.”
― Michael Pollan, This is Your Mind on Plants

As is typical of Pollan’s writing, the book is a joy to read and flys by quickly as he leads the reader through the machinations of his research. In particular, I found his examination of the poppy, its laws, and the larger story and consequences of the War on Drugs to be mind-blowing. But unfortunately, the profundity of that mistaken approach continues to ripple through our society. I’m not sure when we will ever come to grips with the immeasurable harm we’ve done to ourselves by framing our relationship with these compounds as a war. The antecedents of the War on Drugs are precisely as dark and cruel as you might imagine:

“Ehrlichman [Council and Assistant to President Nixon on Domestic Affairs] explained that the Nixon White House “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. . . . We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course, we did.”
― Michael Pollan, This is Your Mind on Plants

One of the great revelations of the book is how arbitrary and strange our laws and norms around these compounds are. People are at once powerfully drawn to these plants and their effects. Yet, our culture has surrounded these substances with taboos that warp our thinking and make it impossible for our society to see and discuss the potential of a more appropriate relationship. “Why do we go to such great lengths to seek these shifts in consciousness, and then why do we fence that universal desire with laws and customs and such fraught feelings?” Pollan asks.

In this latest book, Pollan is re-treading some of the same ground he covered in “How to Change Your Mind,” which explores psychedelics, their history, their place in our culture, and their vast potential as treatment and even cure; if we could jettison our old fears and calcified thinking on what a healthy relationship to compounds like LSD, Psylociben, and other psychedelics could be. Still, “This is Your Mind on Plants” is a fascinating read. It raises pertinent questions about the human relationship to these molecules, which, to be fair, is the overarching theme of Pollan’s work anyway.

In this lengthy quote, Pollan tries to tease apart what it is about specific plants that warrant making them illegal. By implication, he reveals the utterly arbitrary nature by which we have classified things, deeming one compound illicit and another healthy based on nothing:

“Is it the quality of addictiveness that renders a substance illicit? Not in the case of tobacco, which I am free to grow in this garden. Curiously, the current campaign against tobacco dwells less on cigarettes’ addictiveness than on their threat to our health. So is it toxicity that renders a substance a public menace? Well, my garden is full of plants — datura and euphorbia, castor beans, and even the leaves of my rhubarb — that would sicken and possibly kill me if I ingested them, but the government trusts me to be careful. Is it, then, the prospect of pleasure — of “recreational use” — that puts a substance beyond the pale? Not in the case of alcohol: I can legally produce wine or hard cider or beer from my garden for my personal use (though there are regulations governing its distribution to others). So could it be a drug’s “mind-altering” properties that make it evil? Certainly not in the case of Prozac, a drug that, much like opium, mimics chemical compounds manufactured in the brain.”
― Michael Pollan, This is Your Mind on Plants

I found “This is Your Mind on Plants” to be thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. I’ve been a fan of Pollan’s work for a long time, and it is easy to proselytize on behalf of his work. However, if you are the kind of person who doesn’t like nature, information, or words, this book is not for you. For everyone else, it’s worth grabbing a cup of coffee and spending some time with yet another fascinating adventure in the continuing saga of our relationship with the natural world.

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Aaron Guy Leroux

Photojournalist & Documentary Photographer / Member NPPA & NHJA / University of the Arts London alumnus www.aaronguyleroux.com