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Myths and Facts: Michael Pollan’s Netflix Series Destigmatizes Psychedelics
Michael Pollan’s New Netflix Series Explores Psychedelic Medicine: 8 Myths and Facts to Know
“What if mental health problems like OCD, PTSD, alcoholism, and depression could all be helped by psychoactive substances?” asks science journalist Michael Pollan in his bestselling book How to Change Your Mind. Now, the Netflix docu-series based on the book delves even deeper into the world of psychedelics and their potential medical uses.
The four-episode series focuses on four psychedelic drugs: LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline. The series explores the history of psychedelic research in the United States, which started in the 1950s but was halted in the late ’60s and early ’70s due to Nixon’s “war on drugs.”
In recent years, research into psychedelics has resumed, sparking renewed interest among scientists and the public. But with this interest comes many misconceptions. Dr. Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, director of the Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital, cautions against these misconceptions and emphasizes the potential benefits psychedelics may offer.
Myth 1: Psychedelics Are Addictive
Fact: While psychedelics can be misused or overused, they do not typically lead to addiction or dependence in most people who use them. A review published in April 2016 in the journal Pharmacological Reviews supports this finding. Moreover, some studies have suggested that psychedelics may actually help individuals overcome addiction to other substances. For instance, a pilot study published in November 2014 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that these drugs may be useful in treating alcohol and nicotine addiction.
In the Netflix series “The Mind, Explained,” journalist Michael Pollan notes that psychedelics are not addictive drugs. Dr. Itai Danovitch, a professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, explains that addiction typically involves a compulsive pattern of drug use, with cravings and withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped. Psychedelics do not produce these effects. However, overuse of these substances can be problematic for some individuals.
While some people may become devoted to the psychedelic experience and pursue it as a recreational activity, this behavior is not necessarily indicative of addiction. It is also worth noting that certain psychedelics, such as LSD, can cause some people to develop a tolerance, which can be dangerous given the potentially unpredictable effects of the drug.
Myth 2: There’s Not Much Research on Psychedelics
Fact: The body of research on the potential benefits of psychedelic medicines is extensive and constantly expanding. Dr. Danovitch notes that there has been a groundswell of rigorous research on the therapeutic effects of certain psychedelic agents for specific mental health conditions. While scientific research on psychedelics dates back to at least the 1950s, this knowledge was erased from the history of science, according to Michael Pollan in “The Mind, Explained.”
Recent research has shown promising results in the use of psychedelics to treat various mental health conditions. For instance, a small study published in 2021 in the journal Nature Medicine found that 67 percent of participants with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who were treated with MDMA no longer met the criteria for having the condition 18 weeks after the study began. Another study published in 2020 in JAMA Psychiatry found that psilocybin treatment combined with psychotherapy may significantly reduce symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD). A 2016 study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that high doses of psilocybin, administered under psychologically supportive conditions by medical professionals, improved symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with life-threatening cancer diagnoses. Additionally, a small pilot study published in 2014 in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease suggested that LSD, when used in conjunction with psychotherapy, reduced anxiety in people with terminal illnesses.
Myth 3: Psychedelics Will Cause Permanent Psychosis
Fact: While it’s true that psychedelic drugs can cause hallucinations and distortions of reality while in the system, the effects are unlikely to persist after the drug has been metabolized or eliminated from the body. According to Dr. Danovitch, the intoxication syndrome usually resolves, and a clear sense of reality returns. Scientific studies often use different doses than those used recreationally, so the effects may vary. However, it is possible for people with a predisposition to mental illness or repeated use to experience persistent symptoms of psychosis.
Myth 4: Psychedelics Permanently Damage the Brain
Fact: Psychedelics may change the brain, but not permanently. While LSD can remain in serotonin receptors in a certain part of the brain for several hours, the effects do not last indefinitely. In fact, these drugs may even enhance neuroplasticity, allowing for the establishment of new connections and an enhanced ability to learn and think about things. However, these effects are not permanent.
Myth 5: Psychedelics Are a Universal Cure
Fact: Psychedelics are not suitable for everyone and should be avoided by people with conditions such as schizophrenia or high blood pressure. Additionally, even for those who can safely take these treatments, they may not work for everyone. Psychedelics are a tool that may help some people, but they are not a universal cure-all.
Myth 6: Psychedelics Are Just for Partying
Fact: Although psychedelic drugs are frequently used recreationally, they are not likely to provide therapeutic benefits and can be unsafe when used in this manner. The therapeutic use of psychedelic medicines involves carefully controlled administration in a clinical setting with constant supervision and support from trained medical professionals. Psychotherapy is also a key element of a therapeutic psychedelic experience. The therapeutic benefits appear to depend on psychotherapy, which helps patients process the experience, develop insights, and pursue meaningful change.
Myth 7: Psychedelic Medicines Don’t Have Any Risks
Fact: Although serious side effects are rare in a well-monitored environment with meticulously measured doses of psychedelic medicines, they are still potent drugs that can cause a range of adverse reactions, according to Danovitch.
In some cases, psychedelics can induce extreme anxiety or paranoia, psychosis, fast heart rate, nausea, increased blood pressure, sleep issues, dry mouth, and excessive sweating. As such, it is crucial to continue researching these drugs to determine when, where, and how they work as therapeutic medications, especially in light of adolescents’ increasing access to a wide range of drugs that can affect brain development.
Myth 8: Psychedelics Are the Endgame for Mental Health Researchers
Fact: Psychedelics represent a promising development in mental health medicine, as highlighted in the Netflix series. However, some scientists, such as Rosenbaum, see them as merely a stepping stone to uncovering more effective treatment options.
The hope is that these drugs will lead to exploring a new generation of therapeutics, where the psychedelics currently used are the forerunners of treatment, enabling the development of better psychiatric medications. Researchers are even studying whether psychedelic medicines can offer therapeutic benefits without inducing a psychedelic experience.
As Danovitch puts it, “What we know about psychedelics is just the tip of the iceberg.” A lot of pharmaceutical innovation is currently underway to develop new medications that have the benefits of traditional psychedelics while reducing the risks.