The new Netflix docuseries that will change your mind about psychedelics
What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of psychedelics?
Most of us immediately channel the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. We envision long-haired youths who resemble John Lennon smoking mushrooms while sitting encircled around a flowery VW bus.
The use of substances like LSD and “magic” mushrooms have become synonymous in our minds with reckless behavior and youthful bad choices.
But with the release of the new Netflix docuseries How To Change Your Mind, a new image of psychedelics is beginning to emerge.
Here are all the ways that this docuseries is challenging our old ideas about psychedelics.
From Literature to Life-Changing TV Viewing
The Netflix TV show is adapted from Michael Pollan’s bestselling 2018 book entitled How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. While the title might seem ambitious, both the book and the series give us a revolutionary look into the unexplored potential that psychedelics hold for medical treatment. Most importantly, the show reveals some surprising ways that mescaline, MDMA, psilocybin (“mushrooms”) and LSD can be used to treat mental health.
Since the date of its publication, Pollan’s book has brought about a new respect in our culture for this understanding of the role of psychedelics. As recently as 2017, there was such a stigmaattached to them that funding for continued study was almost impossible to secure. Now, much of that stigma has disappeared.
Because Pollan wrote his book with the goal of counteracting this stigma, his descriptions of early experiments were mostly positive. However, there are risks involved in the use of psychedelics as a mental health treatment. It’s important to undertake this venture with the supervision of a trained guide.
Several promising new studies about psychedelics as a mental health treatment are in the works, including work at both Johns Hopkins and NYUon the treatment of addiction, as well as the use of psilocybin for depression. In one episode of the Netflix show, we watch the real-life story of a young man who is released from the grip of his paralyzing obsessive-compulsive disorder through just one experience with psilocybin. The happiness and delight he shows when he is freed from his illness is powerful and transformative to witness.
As we find more and more promise in such treatments, there is a potential negative result, also. Many companies are competing to cash in on the trend. There are now 350 psychedelic-related companies, which are patenting new treatments and establishing rehabilitation centers with very little real knowledge of how to make them work. Therapist abuse is also a possibility, as patients may be more vulnerable when under the influence of psychedelics.
An Unlikely Spokesperson
One of the reasons that this docuseries may well change your mind about psychedelics is that Michael Pollan’s persona goes completely against common stereotypes.
Far from the image of a youthful hippie, Pollan is in his 60s, trying psychedelics for the very first time in order to describe his experiences to his audience. In the opening scene of the show, he inhales a psychoactive drug while a woman known as a “wisdom keeper” presides over the ritual in Spanish. This is a fitting start to a story that eats away at all our preconceptions about psychedelics, one by one.
In another early scene, we watch black-and-white footage of a man being treated with psychedelics in a hospital in Switzerland, in a carefully controlled experiment. We also learn about the banker who developed an interest in edible fungus, and eventually brought the use of magic mushrooms to the Western world. Far from simply showing us shades of flashing neon, we get to look at brain imaging and see the results of scientific studies.
The Surprising Story of the First Recorded LSD Trip
One of the most surprising stories in How To Change Your Mind is the story of noted Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who accidentally discovered LSD while working in his lab to research possible treatments for respiratory and circulatory illnesses. While working with a type of fungus called ergot, typically found growing on rye plants, Hofmann isolated and distilled a small quantity of lysergic acid. He was amazed by what he experienced after giving himself a dose of the lysergic acid by mistake when it dropped on his finger. He was so intrigued by this, that he took a larger dose the next day to learn more. On his ride home afterwards, Hofmann was disconcerted to find that he had entered a new plane of reality, as everything around him became distorted. He felt, in his words, as if he had moved to the “other side.”
But once some of the more disturbing effects wore off, Hofmann experienced feelings of calmness and euphoria. This experience was so compelling to him that it led to the establishment of a large-scale investigation of the effects of the drug, involving many researchers and psychiatrists.
A Different Kind of Experience
With Pollan’s work, we are beginning to move away from the chaotic and uncontrolled “trip” experiences of the past into something much safer and more intentional.
To use psychedelics as a medical treatment, patients need the supervision of a trained “guide” throughout the process. While there may be a temptation to diminish the amount of psychotherapy that patients receive, this would be a mistake. We can learn a lot from indigenous people who have been treating various ailments with psychedelics for centuries. For example, some Native Americans use a form of mescaline called peyote in a tribal ritual. The ritual is always supervised by an elder, and always undertaken with a clear purpose in mind.
Before legalizing the use of psychedelics, there is a lot of work to do in our culture so that patients have a safe environment and mindset when using them for treatment.
Once this happens, we can collectively move out of the realm of reckless experimentation into the full spiritual awakening which psychedelics can offer.