Netflix’s new documentary will make you want to do drugs. Not in the sense of going to a rave and partying all weekend, but with the aim of opening up your mind and finding whole new ways of living.
Based on Micheal Pollan’s book of the same name, How To Change Your Mind intends to change the way you look at psychedelic drugs. And for the most part, it does. With streamlined storytelling and efficient explanations, this documentary’s look into the healing potential of psychedelic drugs is a convincing one.
Personally, the word ‘drugs’ always held a negative association for me. The term ‘psychedelics’ was a notch above that, bringing about images of people who had completely lost touch with reality. So, it felt like a paradox that this documentary depicted people using these drugs to get more in touch with reality.
The mini-series consists of four episodes and primarily focuses on psychedelic therapy — the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of mental disorders. Each episode looks at the use of a different substance, covering LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and mescaline. Systematically, the documentary takes us through the drug’s discovery or synthesis, followed by its turbulent history in the USA, and culminating in its recent resurgence in research.
The stories are easy to follow and supported by a range of chemists, psychologists, and researchers, as well as test subjects of the research — regular people who volunteered to try psychedelic therapy. This is where the series grabs your attention.
We hear from a man suffering from severe OCD that disturbed his day-to-day life. After one session with psilocybin, his symptoms began to reduce and eventually go away. The sheer relief on the man’s face says a lot.
Similarly, we hear from others who have used such substances, in a controlled manner, to overcome severe mental health issues. We even get glimpses into their sessions with the substances, often combined with some form of therapy. The documentary shows us the positive effect of this practice. While an additional biological understanding of the process would have been welcome, these success stories remain the series’ strongest feature.
Pollan himself takes a backseat, letting the interviews with experts and the patient’s personal experiences do most of the talking. What this does, is bring together facts, figures and experiences from verified sources into coherent episodes. Thereby making a very strong case for the documentary’s stance that psychedelics can get to the source of mental disorders.
Where the case falters however, is in showing the flip side of the argument. There are one or two throwaway comments on the adverse effects of psychedelics, but otherwise, the series avoids the subject altogether. This may have been a calculated decision based on the prevalent negative attitude towards psychedelics. Nevertheless, I think Pollan’s argument would have actually been stronger in the face of some reasonable doubt.
It’s clear that this approach to healing is holistic and must consider the spiritual as much as the psychological. MDMA excluded, the other three substances do have hallucinatory effects, leading several participants to have mystical experiences. But the focus remains on what the images mean to the person rather than the visuals themselves (though they are stunning). Through this understanding, the experience becomes powerful enough to foster change. Look, the series seems to say, how deep the human mind can go.
What’s interesting is the way the series uses psychedelics and the stigma against them, to throw light on more complex issues. It doesn’t shy away from calling President Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’ a war on people. It shows respect towards the native Americans who have been using mescaline for years and desire to not open it up to the world. While going over the Decriminalise Nature movement we hear the question, “How can you criminalise a species?” It’s commendable, the way the series is able to question larger, overlying systems.
Ultimately, what makes the documentary so effective is that it’s not just trying to convince you of the healing potential of these substances. It’s trying to convince you that there is more than one way of looking at the world.
Verdict - 7/10