In late 2012, best-selling author and journalist Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) was at a dinner party in Berkeley, California. Among his dinner colleagues was a prominent developmental psychiatrist in her 60s, who spoke at some length about a recent LSD seizure. This alarmed Pollan.
His first thought, which he shared during a recent video interview: “People like what are you taking LSD? The psychiatrist went on to explain that the drug helped her better understand how children think.
“Her hypothesis,” Pollan said, “was that the effects of psychedelics, in this case LSD, give us an idea of what a child’s consciousness would be like—that 360-degree perception of information, not particularly focused, enchanted. everyone.”
Pollan had already heard of clinical trials in which doctors gave psilocybin to cancer patients to help them cope with their fear of death. Now he was really interested in psychedelic therapy. This curiosity became an article in The New Yorker (“The Trip Treatment”, 2015). The article became the book How to Change Your Mind (2019).
And now the book has become a four-part Netflix series of the same name that debuted on Tuesday. Pollan is an executive producer (along with Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney) and the main face on camera.
A thoughtful and comprehensive look at psychedelic therapy, the series draws on accounts of their centuries of sacramental use and their complex history in modern society, especially in the United States. In particular, the focus is on four substances—LSD, mescaline, MDMA (known as ecstasy or molly), and psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms)—and how they can be used to treat patients with illnesses, including post-traumatic conditions. stress disorder, drug addiction, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
One such patient is Laurie Tipton, a New Orleans woman who, like Gob, has experienced a series of failures. Her brother died of an overdose. Her mother killed two people and then committed suicide; Tipton found the bodies. She was raped by a friend. Not surprisingly, she developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I really felt like I couldn’t access the joy in my life even when it was right in front of me,” Tipton said in a video interview. She constantly thought about suicide. When she heard about the 2018 MDMA clinical trials, she decided she had nothing to lose.
I can relate to some of this. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with PTSD and clinical depression after my life partner Kate was diagnosed with a terminal brain disease and died about 18 months later, in 2020. I didn’t have much interest in life. Out of options, my doctor prescribed me a weekly regimen of esketamine, which is a close relative of the dissociative hallucinogen ketamine.
Like many, I experimented with hallucinogens in my youth, including mushrooms and LSD. I was having fun, not looking. I never planned to go back there. But the treatment began to help me almost immediately.
Pollan, 67, has never experimented in a youthful way. Known primarily as an expert on plants and healthy eating—his latest book, This Is Your Mind About Plants, is out in paperback on July 19—he turned to psychedelics late in life. He was too young to indulge in the Summer of Love, and by the 1970s the war on drugs and the anti-LSD hysteria had wiped out what had been a fruitful period of scientific research in the 50s.
But once he started learning and experimenting, he quickly became a convert.
“At this age, sometimes you need to be shaken out of the rut,” he says on the Netflix series. “We have to think very clearly about these substances, discard our inherited ideas about them, and ask ourselves, ‘What is it good for?’
Tall and bald, with the build of a swimmer, Pollan is no Timothy Leary – he doesn’t ask anyone to drop out – and the medical tests described and shown in How to Change Your Mind should not be confused with Ken Kesey’s willful acid tests. 60s. Then, when psychedelics left the laboratory and entered the counterculture, the security forces went berserk.
“Children went to the communes, and American boys refused to go to war,” Pollan said. “President Nixon definitely thought it had a lot to do with LSD, and he may have been right. It was a very destructive force in society and that is why I think the post-1965 media revolt against it after the incredible enthusiasm until 1965.”
Junk science spreads nonsense about LSD scrambling chromosomes. The drug was declared illegal in California in 1967 and then nationally in 1970. Researchers were not prohibited from continuing their work with psychedelics, but the stigma made such work very rare until it resumed in the 2000s. Today, clinical trials are approved by the FDA and DEA.
“From the early 70s to the early 90s, there were no approved psychedelic studies in humans,” said Charles Grob, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and pediatrics who has written extensively on psychedelic therapy. “Since then, the development of research has revived and slowly developed, until in the last few years there has been an explosion of professional and public interest in this topic.”
Given the changing attitudes, one of the challenges the filmmakers, including directors Alison Ellwood and Lucy Walker, faced was how to subtly portray the psychedelic experience without stumbling into ’60s exploitation film territory.
“We didn’t want to fall into the trap of using psychedelic visuals – wild flowers, rainbow stripes, transforming images,” Ellwood wrote in an email. “We wanted the visual style to be more personal, intimate and experiential. We wanted people watching the show who didn’t have their own psychedelic experience to be able to relate to the visuals.”
One imaginary scene recreates the famous bike ride by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who first synthesized LSD in 1936 but only discovered its psychedelic effects in 1943 (accidentally). Feeling weird after taking 250 micrograms, Hofmann rode his bike in the middle of his trip. In How to Change Your Mind, we see the buildings around him twist and sway as he drives. The road under him blurs. Gravestones in the cemetery are swinging.
Tipton’s experience in her MDMA clinical trials has been more controlled but no less profound. According to her, the results after three sessions exceeded anything she could have imagined.
“Over the course of the sessions, I worked with therapists to stay embodied and fully represent my emotions while remembering some of the most difficult experiences of my life,” Tipton said. “In doing this, I was able to find a new perspective that had eluded me for years. And from that place, I could find empathy, forgiveness and understanding for many people in my life, but most importantly for myself.”
Her descriptions sounded familiar. In 2020, I started going to the doctor once a week to take three nasal spray inhalers and sit for two hours, pausing only to check my blood pressure halfway through. I didn’t hallucinate, but I found myself talking to Kate as if she were in the room.
I saw my grief as something separate from my being, something more like love than death. I didn’t identify with my pain in the same way.
No doubt it was a spiritual experience. Then, two hours later, slightly weakened but otherwise normal, I was ready to go home. After several of these sessions, combined with conversation, I began to see light at the end of the tunnel. Esketamine is not technically a psychedelic, but it definitely changed my mind.
It’s safe to say that Pollan has changed too. He recently co-founded the University of California, Berkeley. Center for Psychedelic Science. part of it author’s website now serves as a clearinghouse for people wishing to learn more. Word of his efforts seems to be spreading. His book on the subject was tested on a recent episode of the HBO Max series “Hacks”. The Netflix series is already in the top 10 streamers in the US.
Gradually, the laws of the land begin to reflect changing attitudes. Last year, Oregon voters approved the electoral initiative which directs the Oregon Health Authority to license and regulate “the production of psilocybin and the provision of psilocybin-related services.” Colorado likely to vote on a similar initiative this fall.
For Pollan, such efforts hurt his personal nerves.
“The ego is the membrane between you and the world,” he said. “It’s protection and it’s very useful. He does many things, but he also stands between us and other things and gives us this duality of subject and object. When the ego is gone, there is nothing between you and the world.”
“Understanding your ego is what you work on in psychotherapy,” he added. “But it happened to me during the day, and that’s what’s remarkable about it.”