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Michael Pollan has had several bestselling books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. His seven books have been quite influential in the ways we view food from global and personal perspectives.

On his podcast, Tim Ferris talked with Pollan about his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. From the title alone, it would seem to be a departure from his other work.

I am just getting started with the book. The general topic is one I have read about in the past, but my firsthand knowledge is very limited.

“Psychedelics” is a term that still has 1960s baggage attached to it, though their use goes back centuries. Psilocybin, mescaline, and others have been in and out of the news. They have been legal and used for medical purposes, and also illegal, controlled and banned depending on the time period.

Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety. But apparently the book got more personal than he expected.

He decided to explore himself altered states of consciousness as he was researching the brain science and psychedelic therapies being used today for depression, anxiety, alcohol/nicotine dependence, OCD, PTSD, and others.

From what I have heard and read about the book, he does address the risks of psychedelics too.

Studies into the “entropic brain” are getting serious attention in universities again, though on a limited basis.

Tim Ferris is very much aligned with Pollan’s newest project and is putting a million dollars into the scientific study of psychedelic compounds. This is by far the largest commitment to research and nonprofits I’ve ever made, and if you’d like to join me in supporting this research, please check out.

Pollan’s book has been described as a blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, medicine and participatory journalism. Though the book is certainly a deep dive into psychedelic drugs, he also explores human consciousness and how we might use the drugs “to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.”

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fox and hedgehog

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

“The Hedgehog and the Fox” is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin which was published as a book in 1953. Berlin said that he never “meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.”

But he didn’t invent this way of viewing people. The Greek poet Archilochus  (680 –645 BC) wrote “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” In 1500, Erasmus wrote his Adagia (adages) and one of them was “Many-sided the skill of the fox: the hedgehog has one great gift.” Erasmus’ interpretation favored the hedgehog.

[S]ome people do more with one piece of astuteness than others with their various schemes. The fox protects itself against the hunters by many and various wiles, and yet is often caught. The echinus [hedgehog] … by its one skill alone is safe from the bites of dogs; it rolls itself up with its spines into a ball, and cannot be snapped up with a bite from any side.”

Later interpretations have gone both ways. Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea. Examples often given include Plato, Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Marcel Proust.

Foxes draw on a wide variety of experiences. For a fox,  a world view can’t be contained in one idea. Fox examples might include Aristotle, Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Goethe, and James Joyce.

I had heard of this concept somewhere in my undergraduate days but had totally forgotten about it until recently when I came upon the book, On Grand Strategy. It is by John Lewis Gaddis who based it largely on a class he has co-taught at Yale for about twenty years.

Why have Yale students competed to get into this “Studies in Grand Strategy” seminar? (It is actually taught by Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and Charles Hill.) The premise of the seminar is that this is a way to prepare future leaders by looking at lessons from history and the classics.

In his book, Gaddis looks at how leaders and decision makers fare as foxes and hedgehogs.

Political psychologist Philip Tetlock had earlier studied people who made predictions for a living. These people are at universities, think tanks, in governments and nowadays in the media. He found that the foxes were more accurate because they were more intuitive thinkers and could piece together information from different sources. Hedgehogs tended to be ideologues with big ideas to explain the world. But for television and headlines, hedgehogs are better guests and interviews. Easy sound bites rather than those discursive foxes.

One situation Gaddis looks at leaders during wartime. Who would you follow into battle – a fox or a hedgehog?

Though not everyone agrees on which is the best approach, but the fox and the hedgehog concept has influenced many people.

In The Signal and the Noise, forecaster Nate Silver (who received much attention during the past election cycles) sides with being “more foxy” and a fox is his website’s logo.


A short clip of Gaddis explaining how a “grand strategy” works in the real world.

On the podcast Hidden Brain, I heard a modern day story about a hedgehog surgeon.
In “The Fox And The Hedgehog: The Triumphs And Perils Of Going Big,”
you’ll hear about how he hesitantly became a pioneer in gender reassignment surgery.   LISTEN www.npr.org

A rather strange and fascinating collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects has been digitized. The digitization of these rare texts is being done under an  education project called “Hermetically Open.”

The project also received a generous donation from author Dan Brown, who certainly has an interest in these things and has used texts like these in his novels. Who knows – maybe his next novel will come from these texts.

Amsterdam’s Ritman Library has made the first 1,617 books from the project available in their online reading room at embassyofthefreemind.com. It is still a work in progress, but you will have full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. My Latin is quite elementary and that was the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods so there are plenty of Latin texts. I have to say that my first browsings have been more to look at the illustrations, front pieces and the visual aspects.

Some books are in German, Dutch, and French, so us language poor monolingual English speakers are at a reading disadvantage.

I do love the idea of digitizing texts that would otherwise be lost or not available to the masses. Now we need some kind of tech babel fish who can read and speak all these books to us.

I was digging through some boxes in storage and open a box of children’s books. Most of them are ones that I bought for my sons in the 1980s-90s, but there are a stack of ones that were mine in the 1950s and even a few that were given to me as a kid that were from the 1930s and 40s.

Right on top of the stack was The Poky Little Puppy. It is a book that might have been purchased for a child from 1942 through now. This children’s book was written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren and is one of the first twelve books in the Simon & Schuster series Little Golden Books.

This simple story about beagle pups was at one time and might still be the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in the U.S. Since 1942, it has remained in print and there have been other sequels and extensions of those beagle pup stories.

I remember reading the book as a child and had a copy for many years. Too bad I didn’t save pristine first edition as it would be worth quite a bit more now than their original price of 25 cents. I read at the Mental Floss site that before Little Golden Books, children’s books weren’t a big thing. Most were large volumes made more for parents to read and fairly expensive – $2 to $3 each, which is about $28 – $42 in today’s money.

A man named George Duplaix of the Artist’s and Writer’s Guild, partnered with Simon & Schuster Publications and Western Printing to publish small, sturdy, inexpensive books with fewer pages, simpler stories, and more illustrations so kids would be the actual owners and readers.  A series already existed called Golden Books, so the new line was dubbed Little Golden Books.

Another title from those early days that has survived is Tootle from 1945 about a young locomotive who loves to chase butterflies through the meadow. Since most of the Little Golden Book stories carried a lesson for their readers, Tootle has to learn to stay on the tracks if he really wants to achieve his dream of being a Flyer between New York and Chicago. Play by the rules kids!

I’m not sure all parents today would like that Tootle lesson and might instead encourage some butterfly chasing. But in The Saggy Baggy Elephant, we have a theme that might even resonate better now than in the 1940s and 50s.  A mean parrot makes fun of Sooki’s big ears, long nose, and wrinkled skin. This young “saggy baggy” elephant certainly lacks confidence. But in his travels, he finds some beautiful creatures who look just like him, and so discovers his own beauty and acceptance. This book was illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, who also did The Poky Little Puppy.

The odds that you read these books to yourself or have read them to kids are pretty good. I have an immediate connection with these books because of the shiny golden spine they all have that made them stand out on a shelf. The Poky Little Puppy is the top-selling children’s book but others in the series became bestsellers, including Tootle, Scuffy the Tugboat, and The Little Red Hen. And some of the illustrators, like Richard Scarry, have become quite famous for their artwork and better know for their own books.

The Little Golden Books series wasn’t just fiction. It included books on nature and science, Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. I have several Christmas titles, and I bought a number of books for my sons that featured  crossover characters from other media, like Sesame Street, The Muppets, Disney, and some TV and movie tie-ins. In my own collection are older crossover titles from Hopalong Cassidy, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Captain Kangaroo.

From the time that the original 12 titles were released in 1942,  1.5 million copies had been sold within five months. One reason they sold so well is that they were available more readily in department stores, drug stores, and supermarkets rather than just in bookstores. My mother often bought me books when I was home sick from school or on vacation or when I accompanied her shopping downtown.

 

I found that more than two billion Little Golden Books have been sold. They seem to be priced around $3-4 these days – still a bargain for a book.

My own kids may have read Pokemon, and Thomas the Tank Engine books, and now Dora the Explorer, Dinosaur Train and SpongeBob SquarePants might be more popular titles. I know my boys got a few Little Golden Books with McDonald’s Happy Meals.

If there are copies hiding in boxes in your attic and you are thinking that they might be worth big bucks, here are some facts to consider. It is difficult to determine if you have some original editions if you base that on the copyright date. That rarely changes from the original printing.

For a first edition, a blue spine means it was published between 1942 and 1947 (the edition number will be on the first or second page). Original books in great condition often sell for $100 or more.

A letter near the spine on the lower-right corner of the last page will tell you it was published between 1947 and 1970 and an “A” means first edition, “B” is second edition. They had to start over, so an “AA” is the 27th edition.

The third period of books have a series of letters on the first few pages of the book. These books are from 1971 to 1991 and the first letter is that same letter system – “A” is a first edition from that period.

Between 1991 and 2001 the publisher went to years written in Roman numerals on the title page. An “A” in front of the year means it’s a first edition, and an “R” means it’s a revised edition – and no letter means who-knows-what-edition you own. , there’s no definitive way to know what edition it is.

Since 2001, the copyright page has a series of numbers and the last one is the edition.

 

 

I read that “time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language. I guess we are pretty obsessed with it past, present and future.

Albert Einstein said that time was relative and in the most general sense of that we can say that children experience it differently from adults do, and that it does slow down when we are bored. Does it ever really fly any faster?

A quote attributed to Albert (though many online attributed to him are not things he said) is “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

It is often said that time speeds up as we get older, though we know that is not possible. But sometimes, time indeed seem “to fly” by.

In Why Time Flies Alan Burdick looks to understand how a sense of time gets into our bodies and minds. Why do we perceive it the way we do?

Subtitled “A Mostly Scientific Investigation,” he visits scientists and considers the most accurate clock in the world (which is still just an idea) and the ways we measure time and its passing.

Burdick says “My interest in the human relationship to time grew partly out of my previous book, Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. In it, I came to the conclusion that one reason our species has such a fraught relationship to the natural world is because the timescales across which evolution unfolds and ecosystems develop — thousands to millions of years — are far beyond what we, with our measly eighty-or-so-year lifespan, can really wrap our minds around. Our ability to appreciate nature, and to appreciate what’s at stake, is greatly constrained by our limited perception of time. That left me wondering: What exactly is the difference physical time and biological time? What’s the difference between time “out there” and the time in our bodies and heads?”
Also, historically, I’ve had a terrible personal relationship to time — as in, being perpetually late. My hope was that if I learned a little more about what time actually is, I’d become less afraid of it and maybe on better terms with it. This turned out to be true, sort of.”

Along the way he discovers that “now” actually happened a split-second ago.  He finds a twenty-fifth hour in the day. He spends some time living in the Arctic where you can lose all sense of time.

And for a very brief time, in a neuroscientist’s lab, he gets to make time go backward.

When I was in college, I wrote a short story, “The Book,” that was about a book that revealed the date of death for everyone who was living at the time it was opened. The questions the story asked were whether or not you would want to know that date, and if you did know, how would it shape your remaining life.

The story (which I overly-optimistically sent out to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other out-of-reach magazines) no longer exists. It was part of a literary funeral pyre a few years ago when I returned a stack of fiction and poetry back into the universe. But those two questions have stayed with me, and I imagine with others, my entire life. The story and questions came back to me when I started reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

The novel is similar to my old story because the mystical knowledge is not so much what the stories are about. Like my story, the novel is about what people do with the knowledge. (In my story, one of the three main characters chooses not to open the book.)

The novel starts in 1969 in New York City when four adolescent siblings go to psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die.

The prophecies do change their life paths, though not in always obvious ways.

In an interview, Chloe Benjamin was asked if she was given a date for her own death, would she be living her life in a different way? Her answer is the kind of cheating answer many of us would give.

“I have thought about whether I would want to know my date of death, and I always say only if it were good. It’s a paradox! But would I live it a different way? I think yes. I think it would be impossible not to, depending on what it was. Maybe I wouldn’t live it differently if it was very far in the future, because that’s sort of the supposition that we all go on, and hope for, but certainly if it were soon, I think that that would impact the decisions that I made.”

The novel’s adolescents who learn their fate go in different directions. Simon heads to San Francisco for a new liberating gay life. Klara becomes a magician where reality and fantasy can be toyed with as a career. Daniel, the oldest, becomes a doctor, perhaps hoping to  put some human control on Fate. Varya becomes a researcher specializing in longevity and comes the closest to actually testing the space between science and immortality. I won’t include any spoilers here about whether or not the prophecies hold true, but religion, free will, fate and magic do enter all their lives in some way.

It is ironic that the book is called The Immortalists because knowing their fate means they all know they are not immortal. (The title comes from the name of Klara’s magic act.)

Of course, no one reading this really believes in immortality through this life. But we do think about the possibilities of life after death. I won’t go into religious territory here, but there is lots of research into near-death experiences (NDE).

One large study I found concluded that consciousness can be preserved for a few minutes after clinical death. Dr. Sam Parnia of the State University of New York spent six years examining 2060 cases of cardiac arrest patients in Europe and the USA. Only 330 of those survived as a result of a resuscitation procedure, and 40% of those reported that they had some kind of conscious awareness while being considered clinically dead.

When I was 10, my father had to have brain surgery for a tumor. This was the 1960s and a procedure like that was probably quite crude compared to today. His surgeon was writing a book about NDEs and questioned him after the surgery where he was clinically dead for a short time. My father did not have any extraordinary NDE story, but I became quite fascinated with the idea of these experiences. I read things that will well beyond my years and grasp, but the fascination remains with me.

What happens after we die? What do those who “die” and come back to life report?

Many of those people recall their resuscitation and recount details about sounds in the room or the actions of the staff. The most common reported experiences and feelings include: feeling calm and peaceful, a sense of no time passing, the now clichéd “going into a light,” and sensing or seeing yourself separated from your body. Some report seeing a person, sometimes a person they know who has died, sometimes an unknown “guide.” I found it interesting that the smell of bread baking was often noted as a smell they recalled.

What did all this mean to a ten-year old who was thinking about his father’s death and his own, and who was grappling with the things he had been taught as a Catholic by the church?

I took comfort in it at the time. All of it seemed to indicate that there was something after death – and it didn’t seem like something to fear.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. That is the law of conservation of energy. I was not the only person to consider that in relationship to the human soul. If that soul, or human consciousness, is energy – and we all have seen EEG and EKG tests that measure the electrical energy in our heart and brain – that means it cannot just die or disappear.

Then, what happens to that energy after physical death? What form does it change into?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that or to whether or not there is some “life” after death.

I love science, but it treats consciousness as just a product of the human brain. Near-death experiences seem to point in another direction.

Robert Lanza, known for his Biocentrism theory, believes that consciousness moves to another universe after death. He claims that consciousness exists outside the time and space and the physical body. And that would mean that it survives physical death.

The biocentrism theory isn’t a rejection of science. Biocentrism challenges us to fully accept the implications of the latest scientific findings in fields ranging from plant biology and cosmology to quantum entanglement and consciousness. By listening to what the science is telling us, it becomes increasingly clear that life and consciousness are fundamental to any true understanding of the universe. This forces a fundamental rethinking of everything we thought we knew about life, death, and our place in the universe.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet to Horatio. I think Hamlet is correct.

I think next I will read Chloe Benjamin’s earlier novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.  Dreams and particularly lucid dreams are also things that I have had a lifelong interest in studying.

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