Five Psychedelic Reads to Blow Your Mind

“Hallucinations,” Oliver Sacks writes in his new book of the same name, “have always had an important place in our mental lives and in our culture.” In fact, the neurologist suggests, hallucinations caused by migraine, by seizures, by nightmares, or by psychedelic drugs may have inspired much of our most enduring art, folklore, and religion. If it’s surprising to read such a respected scientist lauding substances we tend to associate with naked hippies dancing in mud puddles, even more surprising is Sacks’ own history experimenting with hallucinogens including LSD, marijuana, opium, and morning glory seeds. But he’s hardly the only writer looking to open the doors to higher consciousness with a little help from magic pills or powders. Here’s a list of other psychedelic memoirs to blow your mind.

"Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism," by Daniel Pinchbeck

Allen Ginsburg, Antonin Artaud, and Walter Benjamin all used psychedelics for insight and inspiration. Following in their footsteps, Pinchbeck embarks on a hallucinogenic vision quest. His reporting takes him to Africa, where he participates in a days-long, drug-fueled tribal initiation; South America, where he hangs out with shamans in the rain forest; and the American southwest, where he alters his consciousness among the participants of the Burning Man festival. Along the way, he strives to balance skepticism with an open mind about the transformative potential of mind-altering drugs.

"The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America," by Don Lattin

Today, the most noted graduates coming out of Harvard are tech geniuses and writers for late-night TV, but in the 1960s, the school produced the founding fathers of a movement that, ironically, encouraged the youth of America to forgo formal education for chemically-assisted life experience. In this biography of the four classmates who would go on to spearhead the psychedelic movement, Lattin examines the social forces that made Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” so appealing to the youth of the day.

"Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs," by Marc Lewis

Lewis is a neuroscientist who studies the brain chemistry of addiction. But he’s also a former addict himself, who started with cough medicine, alcohol, and marijuana, and soon graduated to speed, acid, and heroin. In recalling his own descent into addiction and eventual recovery, Lewis explores exactly what happens to the body and the brain when a person uses, and abuses, chemical substances. Each anecdote from his own past as a user is followed by an incisive description of exactly what was happening on a biological and neurological level, which helps explain why he, like so many others, found it so hard to quit. Describing the first time he got drunk, he writes, “the key to getting high is a simple equation: brain change = mood change. The whole science of addiction starts here, where molecules from outside the body find communion with the cells we're made of. Alcohol is the most boring of drugs, but it does what all drugs must do and it does it quickly and well: it changes the way you feel.”

"Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood," by Peter Bebergal

The first time he got high, Peter Bebergal “glimpsed the sun behind the moon in the middle of the night,” and its rays filled him “with hope.” No wonder, then, that he would dedicate the next several years to experimenting with every type of psychedelic drug he could get his hands on. Ultimately, though, Bebergal concluded that he was seeking not just altered consciousness, but communion with God. In this memoir, he interviews other seekers and traces the history of the psychedelic movement as he strives to place his own story in the context of a universal desire for spiritual enlightenment.