Evaluating the Pollan effect

When the American writer Michael Pollan produced his first book on psychedelics, the bestselling How to Change Your Mind (2018), the resulting wave of interest in compounds like psilocybin and MDMA came to be known in psychedelic circles as ‘the Pollan effect’. Having been steadily gaining respectability for around a decade through increasing numbers of clinical trials and largely rhapsodic reports in the mainstream media, psychedelics had found in Pollan the ideal person—white, older, male, and a genial storyteller with a track record of nicely readable books on the sociology of food—to synthesise the exuberance of the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’ for a mass audience. ‘Once Michael Pollan approved them,’ as the Cut’s Hanna Rosin wrote, ‘mushrooms graduated to the refined company of yoga and meditation, a stop on the thinking man’s journey to wellness’.

Given the success of How to Change Your Mind, as well as its follow-up This is Your Mind on Plants (2021), it’s with a certain amount of inevitability that a docuseries drawn from both books has now arrived on Netflix. Executive-produced by prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, the series slickly blends archival footage, patient testimonies, and potted histories of the four key compounds around which each episode is themed—LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline. Alongside affectionate profiles of the many ‘passionate amateurs’ who have shaped the history of psychedelics in the West sit Julie Gratz’s functional but unspectacular animations of patients’ trip reports. While Netflix describes the series as ‘provocative’, I doubt any of this will shock or much surprise even the cursorily informed viewer. My parents, not noted psychonauts, binged it as they might the latest police procedural or celebrity travelogue.        

For all Pollan’s charm, the series is most effective when the host steps back—which is surprisingly often, given the source material—and clinical trial participants are given the floor to tell their stories. I was genuinely moved by the testimonies of Ben, a youngish father with OCD who tearfully recounts an ego-dissolving psilocybin trip that virtually cured him of his condition, and a victim-survivor of Hurricane Katrina, rape, and multiple family tragedies who states she was able to overcome a diagnosis of PTSD through a single course of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Among the many talking heads, most of them investigators on philanthropically-funded psychedelic drug trials in the UK and US, the appearance of pioneering drug researcher Ann Shulgin, who died aged ninety-one shortly before the series went to air, is especially poignant.

For me, the final episode, mostly devoted to the use of mescaline-containing peyote as a legally-protected sacrament in the Native American Church, is the most valuable if only because it partially rectifies the paucity of First Nations voices—the history of psychedelics is nothing if not a microcosm of colonialist repression, erasure, and appropriation—in the book of How to Change Your Mind. It’s also the one most likely to be underappreciated by the casual viewer, given that its narrative doesn’t neatly fit into the medical model of psychedelics that the first three episodes foreground.  

Yet, perhaps the most notable aspect of the series as a whole is that—while Netflix was sufficiently risk-averse to not film Pollan tripping on currently illegal drugs—there is barely any discussion at all of what we might call the shadow side of psychedelics. While the series’ format and running time aren’t built for complexity, I had hoped Pollan and his collaborators might have found space to tell a more nuanced story—one that could have at least touched on any number of issues currently arising from the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, including the expectancy problem and the embellishment of data; physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in psychedelic therapy; the increasing corporatisation of psychedelics, which has already led to ugly patent grabs; and questions around equity of access under a model of medical legalisation. (As revealed by Four Corners last month, the organisation seeking to position itself as the major player in the Australian medical psychedelics space, Mind Medicine Australia, has become acutely controversial on account of its gung-ho advocacy, litigiousness, and frankly bizarre promotional activities.) 

One of the more interesting facets of the way the conversation around psychedelics has evolved since How to Change Your Mind was published is that the backlash against the kind of uncritical reportage the book in some ways epitomised has not come from the mainstream—which, having pushed prohibitionist anti-drug narratives for decades, has now myopically fixated on the idea of psychedelics as ‘breakthrough’ drugs for an array of mental health disorders—but the psychedelic community itself. It took, for example, a podcast by psychedelic insiders to bring wide attention to the problem of misconduct by psychedelic therapists, including at the US-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which features in the series without the issue ever coming up.

It’s possible, I think, to view all of this as part of the overcorrection we had to have. After half a century of the political and moral disaster that has been Nixon’s globalised ‘war on drugs’, it’s all too easy to conflate legitimate criticism of the revival of psychedelics with unscientific anti-drug propaganda of the ‘LSD will scramble your chromosomes’ variety. The fear, ultimately, is that to speak out—whether against unscrupulous therapists, overzealous researchers, or Big Pharma players seeking to monetise psychedelic consciousness—is to risk resetting the clock to the worst days of prohibition when psychedelics were banished to society’s fringes.

However, as Vice’s Shayla Love has astutely observed, ‘as psychedelics have gained more respectability … the pendulum has been swinging the other way again: not back toward stigma or calls for prohibition, but away from uncritical hype and toward a desire for a more circumspect approach to the research, its processes, and the claims that can be made about it.’ While this may be obvious to anyone who has spent much time in the psychedelic community, you wouldn’t know it from watching How to Change Your Mind, much of which presents as a kind of infomercial for psychedelic-assisted therapy (albeit with the requisite warnings about contraindications for their use such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and family history of psychosis). 

In episode two of the series, the American psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths tells us he ‘believes in the data’. Elsewhere, Pollan says that ‘the results are in’. The trouble is, they aren’t. Of the substances spotlighted in How to Change Your Mind, none have completed Phase 3 trials, which test the safety and efficacy of new medical treatments against standard ones. Even then, the small sizes of most of the new clinical trials—many of which don’t reflect the ‘gold standard’ of randomised controlled studies, especially given that psychedelics are notoriously difficult to blind—mean that we really have no idea of what will happen if/when psychedelic-assisted therapy is rolled out at scale. It isn’t hard to imagine that, among the kinds of startling success stories which pepper How to Change Your Mind, will be more than a few adverse or just disappointing experiences.

While it’s true that some of the results from psychedelic trials overseas show remarkable promise for a range of conditions, we shouldn’t forget that not so long ago SSRI antidepressants were also hailed as a panacea for mental illness. Thirty-five years after their introduction into the medical mainstream, we now know that these drugs—in addition to producing pretty much every side effect you can imagine—are only effective in around half of patients, while as few as five percent achieve full and ongoing remission.

This is not to say that SSRIs aren’t useful—indeed, essential—for some people living with depression and anxiety. But it’s worth asking whether trading in one pharmacological cure-all for another, while continuing to overlook the social determinants of psychological distress, is really the answer to the mental health crisis. As James Davies argues in his recent book Sedated, the advent of SSRIs was concomitant with the rise of neoliberalism, under which suffering has become privatised and depoliticised. We have been conditioned to view mental illness as a problem of individual brain chemistry rather than one that stems from inequality, disadvantage, and alienation—issues that cannot be solved, or of course spun into capitalist gold, via a pill (or a mushroom).

The problem, in the end, is our tendency to view things as either thesis or antithesis while ignoring the third, far more fruitful category—synthesis, whereby conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new premise. The answer to the demonisation of drugs, which has caused incalculable harm and so far deprived us of a more complete understanding of their risks and benefits, is not evangelism. Rather, the revival of interest in the kinds of compounds extolled in How to Change Your Mind presents us with a unique opportunity to reevaluate our relationship with them wholesale, good and bad.

In the short term, if we are to pursue a cultural container for psychedelics similar to the medical marijuana model, which is looking increasingly likely, this means waiting for the completion of Phase 3 trials. Beyond that, vital questions of decriminalisation, legalisation, and access will need to be thought through. While a post-‘war on drugs’ future may still be a way off, I don’t think it’s too soon for Michael Pollan and others to start asking some of the hard questions now.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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