You’ve been hearing a lot about psychedelic-assisted therapy in the past year or so. But, have you ever seen it put to use in real-life medical situations? No-holds-barred, warts and all, with the promise of changing your life forever?
A new four-part documentary series on Netflix plans to do just that for modern audiences. Called How to Change Your Mind, based on the eponymous New York Times-bestselling book by Michael Pollan, the docuseries gives an unflinching look at how psychedelic compounds have shifted the landscape of mental health science.
“How to Change Your Mind” on Netflix
The docuseries is the latest offering from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, once dubbed by Esquire magazine as “the most important documentarian of our time”. He is known for deep dives into the secret worlds of cult behaviour. These include (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), religious trauma and systemic coverups (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God), and Taxi to the Dark Side. This 2007 documentary on black site operations in Afghanistan won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
This time around, Gibney has turned his camera lens on the emerging industry of psychedelic-based treatment, focusing on the usage of psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms and truffles), LSD, MDMA, and mescaline. And it is the author himself, Michael Pollan, who takes the viewer to the forefront of these novel therapies with the power to alter lives, not just minds.
Netflix’s synopsis for the adaptation reads:
“Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney and New York Times-bestselling author Michael Pollan present this documentary series event in four parts, each focused on a different mind-altering substance: LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline.
“With Pollan as our guide, we journey to the frontiers of the new psychedelic renaissance — and look back at almost-forgotten historical context — to explore the potential of these substances to heal and change minds as well as culture.”
A ‘Sophisticated Depiction’
The episodes are directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Alison Ellwood and two-time Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Lucy Walker. All four instalments are available to stream on Netflix right now. You can also watch the official trailer for How to Change Your Mind, narrated by Pollan himself, right here:
In an interview with The New York Times, director Alison Ellwood expressed her wish for a sophisticated depiction of the psychedelic experience. One detached from the dizzying visual cues of the ‘60s:
“We didn’t want to fall into the trap of using psychedelic visual tropes — wild colours, rainbow streaks, morphing images, and to keep the visual style more personal, intimate, and experiential.
“We wanted people watching the series who have not had their own psychedelic experiences to be able to relate to the visuals.”
The trailer, as shown above, does not skirt the dual nature of drug use as a whole. It outlines the risks of using hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. The present opioid crisis in Canada and the U.S. is a key example of this.
However, it also displays the potential benefits you could get from psychedelic-assisted talk therapy — such as longer-lasting relief from depression compared to antidepressants. Psychedelic compounds can become a tool for opening up your mind and working towards a solution for mental health problems.
Pollan stressed the importance of ego death — an altered state of mind that can be triggered with full doses of psilocybin and other compounds — in the same interview with the Times:
“The ego is a membrane between you and the world. It’s defensive and it’s very useful. It gets a lot done, but it also stands between us and other things and gives us this subject-object duality. When the ego is gone, there is nothing between you and the world.
“Getting perspective on your ego is something you work at in psychotherapy. But this happened [to] me in the course of an afternoon, and that’s what’s remarkable about it.”
Fascinated by Everything
Pollan recalls a dinner party in Berkeley, California in late 2012 which had among his fellow guests a well-known developmental psychiatrist in her 60s. What she said about psychedelics, not least her own foray with a recent LSD trip, sparked Pollan’s interest immensely.
“People like that are taking LSD?”
The psychiatrist went on to reveal that her psychedelic trip helped her to understand how children perceive the world around them. As Pollan recounts to The New York Times:
“Her hypothesis was that the effects of psychedelics, LSD in that case, give us a taste of what child consciousness would be like — this kind of 360-degree taking-in of information, not particularly focused, fascinated by everything.”
At that point, Pollan had caught wind that doctors in clinical trials were giving psilocybin to cancer patients as a way of coping with death anxiety. Could it be that psychedelic therapy is here to stay? Pollan was determined to get to the bottom of this. He wrote an article in 2015 called “The Trip Treatment” for The New Yorker. The same article went on to become the literary sensation How to Change Your Mind in 2019.
Pollan’s promotional letter for the book described his findings on psilocybin-based therapy in no uncertain terms:
“I interviewed a number of cancer patients who, in the course of a single guided session on psilocybin, had such a powerful mystical experience that their fear of death either faded or vanished altogether.”
Despite the success of How to Change Your Mind, readers were often surprised to learn that Pollan never experimented with psychedelics as a young man. Not even a toke or two! The author stumbled into the world of psychedelics much later.
After all, he was just a child during the Summer of Love and severely limited by the anti-LSD witch hunt and the War on Drugs brewing in the ‘70s. No more limitless scientific research into LSD and psilocybin, a la Timothy Leary in the ‘50s.
Thankfully, Pollan came to satisfy his curiosity and decided to experiment with trippy compounds to see what all the fuss was about — a conversion that has lasted to this day.
“At this age, sometimes you need to be shaken out of your grooves. We have to think about these substances in a very cleareyed way and throw out the inherited thinking about it and ask, ‘What is this good for?’”
A Fresh Take on Psychedelic Culture
Pollan, at 67, is an advocate of healthy eating — his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants, came out a few days ago. He is very serious about which substances are good for you and which ones are not. And even though psychedelics gained a rep for being “freewheeling” such as Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests (which were also grand parties) in the ‘60s, Pollan wants to make it clear that he advocates a different path, rather than the “turn on, tune in, and drop out” way as Timothy Leary did back then.
“Kids were going to communes, and American boys were refusing to go to war. President Nixon believed that LSD was responsible for a lot of this, and he may well have been right. It was a very disruptive force in society. That is why I think the media after 1965 turned against it after being incredibly enthusiastic before 1965.”
Today, Pollan is the co-founder of the University of California Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics. The author even got name-dropped in an episode of Hacks on HBO Max, in which a character extolled the power of How to Change Your Mind. And in the United States, the Netflix adaptation of his work has landed the service’s coveted Top 10 List.
Explosion of Clinical Trials
Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA and a staunch advocate for psychedelic therapy, noted the slow rebirth of this branch of science in recent years:
“From the early ‘70s to the early ‘90s, there was no approved psychedelic research in human subjects. Since then, research development has re-emerged and slowly evolved, until the last few years when professional and public interest in the topic appears to have exploded.”
The professor is referring to the recent spate of approvals for clinical trials by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It’s a long time coming from the very same agencies who had decried psychedelics loudly in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was also the junk science being spread about LSD “messing up” chromosomes. This led to the compound being made illegal in California in 1966, and across the U.S. in 1970.
The resulting stigma affected all other psychedelics, including psilocybin. Scientists became afraid to move forwards with existing psychedelic studies. They wouldn’t be able to do so for a very long time, until the slow reemergence in the 21st century.
Luckily America’s laws have started to change their tune on psilocybin and other naturally-occurring psychedelics. U.S. states, such as Oregon, have decriminalised the possession and use of magic mushrooms for medical and recreational use. A slate of upcoming legislative changes shows the potential for the wider acceptance of shrooms and the like.
A Mental Travelogue for the Modern Age
How to Change Your Mind, both the docuseries and the book it is based upon, are the perfect intellectual journey you could take in an age of scepticism and growing distrust in mainstream medicine. Like the book, the streaming episodes serve as a “mental travelogue” (as Pollan would put it) of the weird, wild history of psychedelics in America. As well as the promise of what lies ahead, in the form of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Should you find yourself itching for a breathless experience in the comfort of your own home, why not tune into How to Change Your Mind? Not only will you learn the origins of psychedelic usage — particularly that of psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, and mescaline — you’d also see firsthand how these misunderstood substances are changing the lives of those living with resistant depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.
It’s not a magic trick; but as Pollan’s colourful research will show you, the capacity for lifelong change that psychedelics can provide is something to get excited about…
*All four episodes of the limited series How to Change Your Mind are now available to stream on Netflix. From executive producers Alex Gibney and Michael Pollan, a documentary series based on Pollan’s eponymous bestseller.