Netflix has no shortage of documentaries about psychedelics. In 2016’s The Last Shaman, a severely depressed actor ventures into the Amazon rainforest in the hope that a cup of ayahuasca can keep his suicidal thoughts at bay. Ram Dass, Going Home (2017) follows the last days of the eponymous psychologist, who was once ousted from Harvard for using drugs in his research. In Have a Good Trip (2020), A$AP Rocky, Anthony Bourdain, and other celebrities—both dead and living—share the stories behind their wildest psychedelic trips.
To these entries the streamer recently added How to Change Your Mind. Based on a 2018 book of the same name by the journalist and New York Times best-selling author Michael Pollan, this docuseries follows Pollan as he researches (and uses) 4 different psychedelic drugs: LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline. Unsurprisingly, the series quickly became a huge hit, trending in the streaming service’s top 10 ever since its release on July 12.
How to Change Your Mind is a captivating watch, even if you’re not remotely interested in psychedelics. This is largely thanks to Pollan, who is not only a likable host but a talented writer. Pollan began his career reporting on the relationship between people and plants, focusing mostly on the food industry. His beat eventually led him from ordinary plants to mind-altering plants, starting with insidious examples like coffee and tea and ending with full-blown psychedelics.
In the opening scenes of the first episode, Pollan refers to himself as a “late bloomer.” Born shortly after the infamous Summer of Love, his understanding of psychedelics was limited to the terrifying and exaggerated stories he’d been told by agents of the U.S. government. Later in life, journalism taught him to think for himself. Viewers now find Pollan, approaching his 70s, sitting cross legged in a field while a ceremonial leader shoots concentrated doses of tobacco up his nostrils. The journalist, quivering and groaning as though his body has been set on fire, tries his best to remain composed; he knows his trip is only just beginning, and the worst (or best) has yet to come.
The first episode of How to Change Your Mind is dedicated to the “first” psychedelic: LSD. Lysergic acid diethylamide, Pollan explains, was first synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hofmann. Hofmann, a Swiss chemist under the employment of pharmaceutical giant Sandoz, unknowingly synthesized the psychedelic while breaking down ergot, a fungus that commonly grows on rye. Hofmann suspects the substance must have accidentally entered his bloodstream through his fingertips, causing him to undergo the first acid trip in European history. The initially terrifying but ultimately pleasant experience motivated Hofmann to experiment further, ingesting quantities of LSD that would intimidate even the most seasoned psychonauts.
Unsure what to do with the new substance and curious about its pharmaceutical potential, Sandoz started an open research and development program, shipping LSD to any chemist, neurologist, and psychoanalyst interested in running experiments. These experiments continued into the sixties, until the U.S. government interfered. Detecting a link between the eye-opening drug and conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, Washington declared LSD a schedule 1 narcotic. Other countries including Switzerland followed suit, and all research was shut down.
Mainstream media, which previously covered LSD with unbridled enthusiasm, now presented the drug as a dangerous and addictive substance. News coverage focused exclusively on “bad trips,” presenting them as the only kind of outcome one can expect from LSD. Crying teenagers are unable to distinguish between reality and hallucination. Their panic attacks are so severe they have to be restrained by police or medical personnel. Though LSD is non-lethal and non-toxic, there is indeed a slight danger to it. For people prone to mental illness, warns Pollan, dropping acid might trigger their first psychotic break.
That’s not to say LSD is a shortcut to schizophrenia. For the majority of psychonauts, the drug causes a myriad of exciting, pleasant sensations. They say the only way to understand a trip is to experience one for yourself, but Pollan and the people he interviews actually do a pretty good job describing what they see and feel. Hofmann recalls that the Swiss landscape morphed into “kaleidoscopic” shapes and that acoustic perceptions were translated into visual ones. (How to Change Your Mind uses some cool CGI to show what this might look like). The Canadian psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond initially took LSD to better understand his psychotic patients, only to realize that acid trips were more mystical than maddening. Everything around him, the psychiatrist explains, acquired a profound sense of beauty and intrigue, so much so that he could spend all day contemplating something as unremarkable as a flower. Pollan agrees, adding that LSD makes you look at the world as though you are seeing it for the first time, the way you did when you were a child.
Indeed, many find that taking LSD puts them back in touch with lost or suppressed memories. One young man participating in a modern-day clinical trial in Zurich says he remembered being inside his mother’s womb where, the umbilical cord tightly wrapped around his little neck, he was forced to decide whether to survive or give up. This predicament, though strange, is hardly unique; from war veterans to sexual assault survivors, people say psychedelics allow them to confront—and, crucially—move past their traumatic experiences, healing themselves in ways that conventional psychiatry and medication cannot.
It is interesting that individuals from all walks of life use the same basic language to describe the emotional significance of their trips. They say LSD makes them feel “connected” to the world around them. Starstruck by the beauty and awe described by Osmond, they suddenly realize that they are but one small part of a much larger organism. This realization leads them to the conclusion that if they hurt someone else, or hurt nature, they are also hurting themselves—a train of thought which may explain why love plays such a central role in the psychedelic movement, and why so many young Americans ended up refusing to participate in the Vietnam War.
It is only in retrospect that we recognize the influence psychedelics have had on society. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, did not quit drinking until he was given a dose of LSD. According to Wilson, the drug changed his perspective on addiction and awakened his capacity to himself. To this day AA remains a deeply spiritual organization, and that spirit can be traced back directly to psychedelics.
Psychedelics also gave us the personal computer. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, famously referred to a college LSD trip as “one of the most important things in my life.” Like other entrepreneurs and artists who came of age during the Summer of Love, Jobs used drugs to unwind and open his mind to new creative possibilities. Pollan says it’s no coincidence that Jobs and other future tech titans took a liking to LSD, as both psychedelics and digital technology are all about dissolving boundaries and connecting people that would have otherwise been separated by space and time. Times haven’t changed that much either. If life on Wall Street continues to be defined by its normalization of cocaine use, Silicon Valley is still a place where employees can release their inner psychonaut without fear of being sacked by straight-laced superiors.
Today, research into LSD and other kinds of psychedelics is gradually resuming. Between the War on Drugs being unmasked as the witch hunt that it was, and the legalization of other previously persecuted substances like cannabis, researchers are once again able to legally handle their test subjects. How to Change Your Mind spotlights a number of contemporary studies, several of which are happening in Switzerland: the very country where Hofmann discovered LSD all those years ago. One team is looking at whether or not psychedelics could improve the mental state of terminally ill cancer patients. Another is finding out, once and for all, which areas of the brain are stimulated when an acid trip kicks in (one of these, spoiler alert, is the area of the brain that regulates our sense of self).
Once you finish the first episode of Pollan’s documentary, chances are you’ll stick around for the other three. Though they are all qualified as psychedelics, each substance influences the brain in different ways. Whereas LSD toys with our sense perception, its cousin MDMA straight up fills our heads with serotonin. The popular party drug does not cause us to see outlandish visuals, but feel an unprecedented amount of love. While LSD allows you to look at the world from a different perspective, MDMA enables you to see and accept yourself for who you are—yet another fascinating prospect for medical researchers. As for psilocybin and mescaline, you’ll simply have to watch How to Change Your Mind for yourself.