There’s no denying that we are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance. Unlike the previous surge of the 60s, this time the movement is shaped by caution as pioneers hold hands with policymakers and tie-dye shirts are traded in for lab coats.
The backbone of this new generation is made up of trailblazers who have fought tirelessly to keep the powerful medicinal qualities of psychedelic compounds on the tips of our tongues. Although a late comer to the movement, one of the strongest voices belongs to Michael Pollan.
The 2022 documentary “How to Change Your Mind” is based on Pollan’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name. It navigates the current research into psychedelic medicine for the treatment of mental health disorders while paying homage to the rich history of these compounds. The four-part series explores LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA and Mescaline through the lens of science, history and personal experience.
In a world where each step feels critically important, how does this documentary fare? Let’s take a look.
Counterculture Meets Mainstream
One of the most important strengths of this documentary is its ability to dance the line between counterculture and mainstream, lifting the veil and allowing every person interested in psychedelics to feel like they can join the movement. Pollan himself is the star of the opening scene, where he is guided by a wisdom keeper on a tobacco trip. The gentle chants and pulsating special effects are later traded in for a sterile hospital room, where a person surrounded by a couple of business casual healthcare workers is handed a bowl of capsules.
The quiet scenes of modern psychedelic sessions are likely to attract a new and different audience. Pollan has effectively eliminated the intimidation factor and given people an updated mental picture of what a “trip” actually entails these days.
The series also does an excellent job of acknowledging the history of psychedelic research, for better or for worse, while constantly reminding us that we are in a different era. The mistakes of the past are briefly highlighted, with footage of Regan and propaganda played to give context to the current state of drug regulations and long-standing anti-psychedelic sentiment in the general public.
By honoring the history and counterculture but pivoting to modern research, Pollan invites everyone to sit at the table and discuss the movement. There is a spot for everyone.
The Faces of Psychedelic Research
Another great strength of this docuseries comes from the inclusion of scientists like Dr. Ronald Griffiths of Johns Hopkins, a psychopharmacology researcher who has been pivotal in reviving psychedelic drugs for the treatment of anxiety, depression, and addiction. Griffiths looks directly into the camera and reminds the audience that he’s here for the science: “Sometimes I’m asked what I believe about psychedelics, and my answer is simple — I believe in the data.”
We also meet Dr. Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who is accredited with creating the regulatory roadmap to approval. Some of the most excited modern research is highlighted by glimpses of Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris analyzing brain scans of individuals taking psychedelics, using technology that scientists of the 60s could only dream about. Viewers even get a chance to see how questionnaires are used to measures the mystical experiences, showing that science is indeed analyzing the abstract. Overall, it embodies a sense of relief — we’re doing it right this time.
Getting Personal with Psychedelics
Similar to the book, Pollan’s documentary does a great job of showing the healing potential of the drugs through personal experience and the shared experiences of others. Pollan himself explains the renewed child-like sense of wonder that gets reactivated on LSD in a way that immediately whisks your mind to a magical place.
The viewer meets people like Ben, a study participant with lifelong Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Ben shares his life-changing experience on his psilocybin trip, where the former version of himself died and he re-grew, albeit as a tree. Clips of Ben’s psilocybin session from a hospital bed are shown as he describes his trip in detail. The end result? His lifelong debilitating OCD was cured.
We also meet Lori, a study participant with a long history of complex trauma leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Lori opens up about the terrible tragedies that have followed her and her ongoing and futile battles to find relief through traditional pharmacology and therapy. Clips of Lori on MDMA are shown as she sits covered in blankets with a hot water bottle on her stomach. Dr. Shari Taylor, a somatic therapist, sits across from Lori and gently talks her through the experience, giving viewers an intimate glance into what actually happens during these therapy-supported sessions. As Dr. Taylor talks about the important brain changes that occur on MDMA, Lori shares what it was like to revisit her trauma, find healing and feel joy again.
Through story after story, viewers are brought face-to-face with the potential of these substances while the trip itself gets demystified through actual footage, lived experiences and the latest in scientific research.
Limitations of How to Change Your Mind
It’s hard not to feel the excitement of the scientists, clinicians and advocates in this documentary. For anyone who has worked with these treatment-resistant populations and toiled over band-aid solutions and failed treatments — the enthusiasm is relatable.
However, there needs to be a measured discussion about limitations. There is still so much to learn about these substances and who is more likely to benefit from their medicinal qualities. The number of people responding in clinical trials is outstanding, but there is still a subset of the population who do not get better on psychedelics. It would have been helpful to include a person’s lived experience who did not respond ideally to their psychedelic intervention.
Likewise, although the visit into microdosing was brief, there is currently limited evidence about whether microdosing is effective, especially for mental health disorders like depression. Ongoing research will give us those answers.
Moving forward, additional conversations about other psychedelic compounds, the potential of non-hallucinogenic analogues and the future of research into psychedelic therapies will benefit the public, stakeholders and policymakers alike.
Can You Change Your Mind?
There is no doubt that we are in dire need of mental health interventions that offer promises of hope, wholeness and healing. The potential of these compounds to change lives is irrefutable. Still, much remains to be discovered about their best uses and how we can safely and effectively offer them as medicine to the public.
Pollan’s documentary does a magnificent job of opening the doors to reveal the current collective mindset of those of us working in this space. We’re excited, but good science is the way forward. It also beautifully covers the nuances and history that make these compounds so truly unique and deserving of respect.
How to Change Your Mind is an informative and emotional journey that will undoubtedly draw viewers into the magic of psychedelic science. On your way, just remember that there is plenty of work ahead and due to the scheduling of these compounds, none of that work comes easy. We are in an exciting stage of development, and the best is yet to come.
Women In Psychedelics Network