48 pages 1 hour read

Michael Pollan

This Is Your Mind on Plants

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


This is Your Mind on Plants was written by American author Michael Pollan and was published in 2022 by Penguin Books. Pollan, whose previous works include The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked, and How to Change Your Mind, has spent decades writing about food systems, gardening, nature, and human psychology. In his work Pollan shares three separate essays that explore some of the world’s most prominent drugs—opium, caffeine, and mescaline—and the plants that produce them. He also analyzes how modern American society has come to perceive and police these plants and their products in a myriad of ways, examining them through the lens of nature, evolution, horticulture, social practices, and the war on drugs. This guide references the 2022 Kindle Edition.


Pollan's first essay invites us back to the mid-1990s, when his article “Opium, Made Easy” was first published by Harper’s magazine. In his introduction he reminds the reader of the strictness of anti-drug policing during this decade, as the Clinton administration had introduced further punitive laws against drug possession and consumption in the US. The author explores the millennia-long use of poppies as a source of opium, which was appreciated by myriad world cultures for its pain-killing effects. Pollan derides the war on drugs for creating taboos that equate all plant drugs as equally addictive and dangerous. He argues that this leads to misunderstandings about each plant’s unique properties and undermines our culture’s ability to use each in a beneficial way.

In his essay on opium Pollan investigates the confusing set of rules surrounding the growth, harvest, and use of different species of poppy in the US. Pollan is disturbed to learn that Jim Hogshire, a man he had contacted about acquiring poppy seeds and who publishes a zine about his experimentations with both legal and illegal drugs, had been charged with drug possession for having purchased bunches of poppies from a florist. Consulting horticulturalists, nursery growers, writers, and law enforcement, Pollan is given contradicting information about the legality of poppies at every turn. He eventually learns that by simply purchasing poppy seeds and growing them in his garden—with the knowledge that they contain enough opium to make a narcotic tea—he has already violated US drug laws and is in possession of an illicit substance. After consulting with lawyers, Pollan is frightened to learn that for admitting to growing, harvesting, and using opium he could go to prison for 20 years and pay a $1 million fine. He uses his personal experience to explore the changing perceptions and policing of different plants and drugs in the US. For example, a century ago alcohol was prohibited while opium was legal. Pollan criticizes the irony behind the US government’s anxiety about home-grown poppy opium use becoming a popular fad while it ignored the aggressive marketing of Oxycontin to doctors. Pollan explains that this synthetic opiate went on to play a large part in creating what we now know as the “opiate crisis.” He concludes these passages by lamenting the punitive and invasive nature of law enforcement’s interest in what happens in our gardens, homes, and bodies, and reiterates that legally-obtained opiates have done more harm than home-made illicit doses.

In his book’s second part, Caffeine, Pollan shifts his attention to our society’s main sources of caffeine: coffee and tea. He shares that while examining our culture’s relationship to this ubiquitous drug, he is trying to abstain from it himself, which unfortunately causes brain fog, irritability, and other symptoms of withdrawal. The author marvels at how popular caffeinated beverages are around the world, reporting that 90% of all people use the drug daily. As such, he claims that caffeine has created a new kind of consciousness humanity largely shares. He explains that plants such as coffee and tea have evolved caffeine molecules to deter pests, and coincidentally these molecules act as blockers of adenosine, which promotes sleepiness, in the human brain. Pollan explores questions of how caffeine has helped civilization and if it has been beneficial for the individual as well.

Pollan particularly impresses upon the reader the importance of the European shift from drinking ale and beer for hydration and sustenance to coffees and teas. He connects this transition with the emergence of Enlightenment thinking and rationalism as well as the demands of the Industrial Revolution. He concludes that caffeine has unquestionably been a massive boon for the development of civilization as we know it; he argues that over the past several centuries it has influenced trade, economics, colonialism, workplace rhythms and everyday culture. While people’s use of caffeine clears our minds, encourages rational thought and focus, and improves our productivity, this reliance comes with a drawback. Pollan explains that caffeine use has dramatically altered our circadian rhythms and has resulted in people sleeping less. This prompts people to stave off tiredness by using more caffeine, ending up in a cycle of caffeine addiction, which the author admits is difficult for him to resist as well. Pollan concludes his essay on caffeine by pondering whether our use of caffeine is more beneficial to humans or to the plants themselves, which are now among the most dominant and widespread in the natural world thanks to humans planting them throughout millions of acres across several continents.

In Part 3 the author analyzes America’s relationship with mescaline, a lesser-known psychedelic drug with a rich cultural heritage. This drug is found in nature in the peyote cactus, which grows in Texas, as well as the San Pedro or Wachuma cactus. Pollan laments that psychedelics are poorly understood, and mescaline tends to be perceived as similar to LSD (also known as psilocybin) or ayahuasca in spite of its very different effect on the human brain. He explains that while mescaline is considered an illicit drug in US law, Native Americans have been granted an exception to this rule. This is due to their culture’s long tradition of using peyote for medicinal and ritual purposes. Pollan connects these ceremonial uses with Native Americans’ need to heal from traumatic events such as genocide, displacement, and discrimination, noting that their use of peyote increased as white American settlers intensified their oppression of Native American communities in the 19th century.

Pollan interviews several elders and leaders in the Native American Church, which continues to use peyote in healing ceremonies. He learns that this plant is declining in number, and the Native American community is concerned that without significant conservation efforts it may become extinct. Interestingly, it is legal for the Native American Church to harvest and use this plant, and illegal for all non-Native Americans to do so. However, Pollan explains that the Decriminalize Nature (or Decrim Nature for short) movement has successfully lobbied some local governments to decriminalize psychedelic drugs, including peyote, which has angered many in the Native American community who are concerned about irresponsible harvesting of this precious plant.

Interested to try mescaline for himself, Pollan pursues two experiences: one with a synthetic version of mescaline in the form of two pills and another in a Wachuma (San Pedro) ceremony with his wife Judith and others. Pollan reports that the synthetic pills had a greater effect on his brain, causing him to be intensely interested in his surroundings and amazed at the detail in everything around him. The Wachuma ceremony was also a powerful experience that impressed upon Pollan the importance of the group setting and rituals in enabling healing and transformative experiences for each participant.