Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  
Full Review
Breaking Open The Head
by Daniel Pinchbeck
Broadway Books 
Reviewed by Mark Pesce, 11/1/2002

Daniel Pinchbeck started out as a rationalist, materialist, Neo-Freudian New Yorker, a classic intellectual – disconnected from his body, and pessimistic about the possibilities of culture. Then (researching a magazine story) he went to Gabon to take Iboga and become one of the Bwiti, an “initiate of the mysteries”. What follows is a rip-roaring good yarn as he heads into the jungles of the Amazon to take ayahuasca with the natives, to Burning Man in search of modern psychedelic culture, and into his New York apartment, which becomes infested with glamorously evil beings following a DPT experiment – which he explains in a hilarious chapter titled “Not For Human Consumption”. By the end of his journey, Pinchbeck has broken open his own head, lost the predjudices of modernity, and opened himself to a more numinous experience of being.

Not since “The Doors of Perception” has one book so accurately and beautifully described the transformative nature of the psychedelic experience. Pinchbeck alternates between personal journey and cultural history, spinning a thread which connects all of us – psychonauts, policy makers and just plain folks – to something greater than ourselves, a universe of possibilities which, by the end of the text, Pinchbeck has been forced to admit must exist.

Highly recommended.


  1. Breaking Open The Head is an incredibly personal account of a man’s attempt to find deeper spiritual meaning through the use of psychedelic substances and shamanistic practices in what he sees as a growingly spiritless and nihilistic existence in the modern world.

    While the author had reasonable prior experience with psychedelics, which he weaves in and out of the text for most of the book, it is divided basically into sections each describing a particular set of experiences with a certain plant and/or chemical, usually involving a trip on some exotic voyage. The author travels to Gabon, Africa to take iboga with the Bwiti, to Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico to take psilocybin mushrooms with the descandents of the famous Indian shaman, Maria Sabina, to the Amazon to take Ayahuasca, and to Burning Man festival (which involves discussion of several more “exotic” substances).
    Throughout the book he gives a somewhat general history of psychedelic usage, talks about his philosophical opinions about society, religion, politics, existence, psychology, and just about everything else, and discusses his semi-famous/influencual beatnik parents and upbringing, among other things.

    The author isn’t quite an Aldous Huxley, or even a Terence McKenna in describing the the details of his mind bending excursions, but his litterary skill is quite competant, and except for scattered moments when he seems to ramble about only partially related things and when he even advoids describing some tough experiences (which is understanable considering the ineffiable nature of psychedelic experience and sometimes huge dosages of substances he takes). So overall, it makes for pretty interesting reading, just don’t expect to have a mindblowing ephiphany while doing so. If you’re looking for a general reference on psychdelics or factual scientific evidence, look elsewhere. But if you enjoy generally well written trips reports and like the personal nature of, say, a freeflowing journal, you might very well enjoy it.

    My major complaint is that the author seems to have some specific spiritual and sociological assumptions that might get in the way if you share a different opinion on these matters. For example, the author seems have a very anti technology/modern outlook and seems to assume that natural plant substances are intrinsically superior to refined chemicals, and sometimes he gets a tad bit to Marxist in his outlook, which seems to conflict with some of his criticisms in the couple chapters were he discusses the 60’s.

    However, overall I thought it was a pretty interesting and solid account of the author’s experiences. If you like trip reports, you will probably enjoy this book.

    4/5 stars

    Comment by monoamine — 4/30/2005 @ 10:04 am

  2. ‘Breaking Open the Head’ is indeed a good read, but I caanot help being sceptical about Pinchbeck’s sincerity and depth of knowledge on the subject. His desriptions of his esxperiences are not vey full. For eaxample, he is describing an LSD trip and then digresses into dicusssing Hoffman’s dicovery of LSD, which is rather a well-known story. His trip to Africa for an ibogaine was amusing but hardly full of insight—he was simply ripped off! His comments on Leary and Shulgin show that he had not read their books with much attention. He thinks that Shulgin gives drugs a mark out of four—he has not read Schulgin’s explantion of his scale properly. He says that Leary had a bum trip evertime he took acid—hardly likely!

    Comment by EnqireWithin — 4/30/2005 @ 8:51 pm

  3. > Not since “The Doors of Perception” has one book so accurately and beautifully
    > described the transformative nature of the psychedelic experience.

    I take it that you haven’t read MISERABLE MIRACLE or THE MAJOR ORDEALS OF THE MIND?

    Comment by Cliff Anderson — 6/2/2010 @ 10:08 am

Leave a comment

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed:



Note: Your submission will be considered for publication, no need to submit twice. Thank You!