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‘How to Change Your Mind’: Michael Pollen’s New Netflix Documentary That Explores the World of Psychedelics

Dive deep into the benefits of psychedelics.

credit: Netflix/ Alison Ellwood

How to change your mind is a recently released Netflix documentary based on a book of the same name. The author, Michael Pollen, grew to fame through the release of his multiple food and plant-based novels. Pollen came out of the left field with the release of his book How To Change Your Mind. The book is based on Pollen’s research into using psychedelics as a medicine and how the culture around drugs is changing. The series is only 4 episodes long, but just like psychedelics, sometimes less is more.

Although Pollen briefly experimented with psychedelics in his 20s, it wasn’t until his 60’s that he became a full-fledged “Psychonaut”  Pollen’s inspiration for the book came from a study on terminally ill cancer patients. These patients suffered from “existential distress”, increased depression, anxiety, and a desire for a hastened death. The purpose of the study was to allow the patients to acquire a new perspective on their disease and, hopefully, to come to peace with their deaths. Pollen explains in an NPR Podcast;

“What the drugs appear to do is disable, for a period of time, the part of the brain where the self talks to itself”.

The study Pollen is talking about reported that more than 80% of the patients involved had significant reductions in standard measures of depression and anxiety. These figures shocked and intrigued Pollen and led him down a path of research and discovery that has lasted nearly a decade.

Michael Pollen smiling, sitting at table.
Credit: Shutterstock/Christopher P. Michael

Each episode is based on a different form of psychedelic: LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA, and Mescaline. They are deep dives into the culture and the benefits of the drugs. Pollen is an active narrator as we get to witness him engage with “trip-sitters” and spiritual gurus, who believe that psychedelics are a key to unlocking the full spectrum of the mind.

The spiritual aspect of these drugs is juxtaposed by the clinal research that has only reason begun to receive the support of the medical community. The first episode explores the discovery of LSD by Albert Hoffman and its use in treating alcoholism. Much like the treatment of terminal patients, the drug allowed the subject to engage in a single, intensive, self-reflective session that created a new-self image with the power to overcome their addiction.

Hoffman was one of the original advocates for the drug, an avid user and engaged in multiple early studies. In his interview with Pollen, he states the importance of this “sacred drug” and states;

“I see the true importance of LSD in the possibility of providing material aid to meditation aimed at the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.”

This is just one of many amazing applications of a drug that has been demonized by most governments. Psychedelics are collateral damage in the war on drugs. In 1996 President Johnson signed the drug abuse control act making the possession of psychedelics a crime. This was followed by Nixon’s more comprehensive controlled substances act and little has changed in the law regarding psychedelics since then. The absurdity of this, as pollen points out, is that both psilocybin and MDMA have received Breakthrough Therapy Status Designation and yet remain a “Schedule 1” drug. 

Magic mushrooms
Credit: Shutterstock/Anitram

However, the culture is changing and psychedelics are making their way into the recreational world just as much as the medicinal one. According to the global drug survey, the use of mushrooms is increasing internationally, with a rise from 9 to 16 percent from 2015 to 2021. The study was conducted with 120,000 participants from more than 50 countries, out of this figure 28,000 had taken magic mushrooms. In his series, Pollen perfectly encapsulated what people hope to gain from these experiences. 81.7% of the 120,000 were seeking a psychedelic experience that would lead to the 

“Enhancement of environment and social interactions”.

Timothy O’Leary, a psychologist and face of the psychedelic movement famously said;

“Psychedelic drugs cause panic and tempory insanity in people who have not taken them”

This is a sentiment shared by Pollen throughout the course of the series. He rigorously sets out the benefits of the application of psychedelics in medicine and in conquering the human mind. So if you want to enter the realm of the psychonaut but the idea of ingesting mind-altering chemicals makes you a little nervous then this show may be for you.

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