Netflix’s weighty new show follows thumpingly authoritative author Michael Pollan as he outlines the benefits of psychedelic drugs such as MDMA and mescaline. It’s hugely eloquent and convincing
The last time I tried watching a show about psychedelic drugs, it didn’t end well. About a year ago, I watched something called Fantastic Fungi, which started off as a pleasant excuse for lots of time-lapse mushroom footage, but ended up as a fairly aggressive paean to the benefits of magic mushrooms. It was so effective that, by the time it finished, I was convinced enough to decide that I was definitely going to take up microdosing. But that didn’t work out because, like an idiot, I tried buying mushrooms online from the Netherlands. Long story short, I quickly received a letter from the UK Border Force saying – and I’m only slightly paraphrasing – “Hey dummy, we’ve got those drugs that you just tried to buy in the stupidest way imaginable, and we’re keeping them.” So I gave up.
Based on his 2018 book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, the series offers a God’s eye view of the creation, prohibition and resurgence of four different psychedelic drugs: LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and mescaline. Taken alone the book was an absolute gamechanger, correcting some of the more virulent myths about psychedelics and opening the door to their potential ability to treat everything from depression to PTSD. Pollan’s book has already gained so much influence that this newspaper alone covers the new wave of psychedelics on a near monthly basis.
For the stragglers who haven’t caught up (I’m one of them), the series offers to send the book’s teachings into the stratosphere. Pollan is already an accomplished broadcaster – along with Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, his previous Netflix series, Cooked, helped to revitalise a food show genre that had long been threatening to wilt into an empty lifestyle echo chamber – but this is a much weightier affair.
Aside from an opening scene that seems designed to weed out the wrong type of viewer – it sees Pollan, a man in his 60s, taking a tobacco trip where he snorts it as part of a ritual (apparently it’s psychoactive) while a woman who bills herself as a “wisdom keeper” chants in Spanish and special effects make his body look like it’s pulsating with lightning – How to Change Your Mind sensibly skews away from the counterculture. The first time we see anyone being altered by psychedelics, for example, it’s in the most sterile environment imaginable: where a man lies stock still in the hushed confines of a Swiss hospital room as part of a medical test.
And this is how it continues. The name of longstanding advocate of psychedelics Timothy Leary is offered as an afterthought, while a long segment is given over to Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first synthesised LSD. We don’t hear much about, say, John Lennon in the psilocybin episode, but we learn a lot about R Gordon Wasson, the JP Morgan banker whose interest in edible fungus led to the introduction of the magic mushroom to the western world. We see brain scans and learn about studies. Far from being a fun thing to do at the weekend, we’re told that these compounds can help terminal cancer patients lose their fear of death. It’s that profound.
Perhaps the smartest thing about How to Change Your Mind, however, is the restraint with which Pollan inserts himself into the narrative. His own story with psychedelics is fascinating – he ignored them for most of his life, only starting to experiment with them in his mid-60s – but that isn’t what this show is about. Instead, the bulk of the advocacy here comes in the form of compassionate case studies, featuring people with anxiety or OCD, who try these drugs (often in clinical settings) and are, if not always cured, then helped considerably.
When he does step in, though, it’s usually at the end of each episode, where he describes his experiences on each drug. This has the potential to be extraordinarily excruciating – nothing is quite as dull as listening to people tell their drug stories – but Pollan’s innate eloquence means that it’s both erudite and convincing. He is a man of such thumping authority that, when he explains the feeling of childlike awe he experienced on LSD, you can’t help but take him seriously.
Obviously a series like this has to be careful with its claims – which might explain why it comes bookended with medical disclaimers and mental health advice – but, like the book, its potential for change is extraordinary. At the very least it stands to push the conversation surrounding psychedelic therapy forward a couple of steps. We won’t know the show’s full impact for a few years, but it will be significant.