Michael Pollan’s 2018 tour of psychedelics, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” was a revelatory hit, marking the author’s turn from botany and nutrition toward an unlikelier fascination: psychedelic drugs. He wanted to know what they do to us, and in particular, what healing uses they might offer.
The book’s Netflix adaptation of the same name (available starting July 12) streamlines Pollan’s topics and arguments for the screen by pairing archival clips with original footage and animated graphics. Directed by Lucy Walker and Alison Ellwood — and with Alex Gibney as an executive producer — the series is divided into four parts, each running at roughly an hour: LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline. There is something oversimplified about this TV version of “How to Change Your Mind,” as if its knowledge has been run through a sieve. But worthy pieces of insight still fleck the episodes.
Pollan anchors the series as our guide, offering talking-head testimony that flows into a running stream of voice-over commentary. The risk to this approach is that the narration, swathing the series like a layer of papier-mâché, can blend into inanities. Pollan frequently uses terms like “consciousness” and “the mind,” but never stops to untangle their complex meanings. “One of the things that psychedelics do is reveal all sorts of secrets about consciousness, which is the biggest mystery of all,” Pollan says at one point in an observation so spacey it could be lifted from a laser light show.
The series is most cogent in laying out the history of psychedelics. LSD was synthesized by chance at a Swiss pharmaceutical company, where a chemist accidentally tripped on his creation. It would go on to be tested by the CIA and used in Silicon Valley circles which, the series suggests, sparked innovations that made the area a tech hub. Richard Nixon’s war on drugs — which the documentary accurately reframes as a war on people — becomes a recurrent theme.
Perhaps the wildest story occurs in the second episode, when Pollan describes how America’s eyes were opened to psilocybin mushrooms after a banker and his wife traveled to Mexico, sought out a religious ceremony, and then wrote about the experience. Talk about a yarn fit for a Netflix adaptation — Ethan Hawke could star.
One wishes the series had dedicated its entire runtime to such chronicles. Instead, the history lessons share runtime with records of how the drugs are being used in therapies around the world today to treat conditions including obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction. There’s some persuasive footage, including clips from actual trials in which MDMA was used to combat PTSD. We also hear from a number of psychedelic-aided therapy patients whose lives abruptly changed for the better after completing their drug trips, as if decades of psychoanalysis had been rolled into just a few sessions.
The anecdotal accounts are emotional enough, but in their wholesale advocacy for the psychedelics, they lack the wonder, chaos, and spirit of the tales from the past. Some dubious moments also emerge in these sections, as when the psychedelic activist Rick Doblin discusses his mission on Joe Rogan’s podcast. A clip of Rogan’s interview with Doblin is inserted casually into a jubilant montage of Doblin on his crusade.
This lack of contextualizing extends to other areas, too. Most troubling to me was the series’ seeming unwillingness to examine any potential risks associated with using psychedelics. On one occasion, Pollan refers to the capacity of LSD to trigger a psychotic break in users predisposed to some forms of mental illness. Doesn’t this warrant more than a passing mention?
Pollan has long been preoccupied with habits of ingestion, and I suspect that he and the filmmakers deemed an emphasis on any adverse effects of psychedelics counterproductive. After all, the potential benefits of psychedelics have long been shrouded by moral panic. Why contribute to a reigning fear of what we don’t fully understand?
Yet “How to Change Your Mind,” while superficially framed as a curious newcomer’s education in psychedelics, eschews skepticism altogether. Pollan, in his focus on the science of better living, of all people should know that a healthy dose of doubt is a necessity when the guidebook is being written in real time.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND
Directed by Lucy Walker and Alison Ellwood. Starring Michael Pollan. On Netflix.