Initially, it’s hard to shake the assumption that psychedelic drugs will melt your brain. After all, years of D.A.R.E.-fueled “just say no” rhetoric taught generations of people that all drugs are bad, evil, insidious no-nos.

In reality, as Michael Pollan explains in the new Netflix documentary series “How to Change Your Mind,” drugs are highly contextualized.

“They’re not inherently good, and they’re not inherently evil. They’re tools,” he says. This re-contextualization is the heart of the four-part series, an adaptation of Pollan’s 2018 book by the same name. How does the series contribute to today’s conversations about psychedelics? Keep reading for our “How to Change Your Mind” review.

Diving Into the Complicated History of Psychedelics

“How to Change Your Mind” is executive produced by Pollan and Alex Gibney and directed by Alison Ellwood and Lucy Walker. Each chapter focuses on a different psychedelic: LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline. Pollan serves as our earnest guide, narrating the series with his investigations, commentary, and questions about psychedelics.

In Netflix’s search results, the series appears next to “Have a Good Trip,” a 2020 psychedelic documentary—but they couldn’t be more different. While “Have a Good Trip” heavily leans into the entertainment value of psychedelic trips, “How to Change Your Mind” has one goal: to educate people about psychedelics.

The series thrives when it delves into psychedelic history and therapeutic potential. In the first installment, the 1970s war on drugs campaign is aptly framed as a war on marginalized communities that also halted the fever-pitch of psychedelic research in the prior decades.

Visuals complement each drug’s backstory without verging too far into conventionally trippy imagery. For example, chemist Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of LSD’s psychedelic effects comes alive on the screen: swirling distortions and world-bending effects accompany his now-legendary bike ride.

Part of the appeal of Pollan’s book was that it came from someone who was a self-professed late bloomer to psychedelics, and a book about psychedelic medicine was a far cry from Pollan’s earlier work as a journalist and author. Similarly, the Netflix series is tactful in who tells us about psychedelics: We learn about case studies from clinical study participants, cancer patients, and esteemed psychedelics figures such as Dr. Robin Carhartt-Harris, Dr. Ben Sessa, and the late author Ann Shulgin.

The inclusion of clinical research footage is both compelling and effective. These case studies and participant interviews demonstrate what psychedelic research and therapy can look like, turning empty headlines into reality.

The result: Rather than framing psychedelics as akin to the counterculture movement of the 1960s, “How to Change Your Mind” seeks to de-mystify, legitimize, and humanize the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

For instance, we see Sergeant Jonathan Lubecky nervously preparing to take MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a clinic. It’s a gut-check to see him in a crisp suit, telling the camera that MDMA saved his life. “It’s the reason my son has a father and not a folded flag,” he says.

However, in that pursuit of humanizing psychedelics, the series glosses over more complex questions about psychedelic therapy.

“How to Change Your Mind” Reveals Bumps in the Road

Although the documentary takes care to establish the different effects of various drugs and how they work in the brain, it comes short of defining (as much as it can be defined) the relationship between altered states of consciousness and ego death.

Ego death is one of the hallmark benefits of psychedelics. The term refers to the dissolution of one’s sense of self, and it’s related to the mind-expanding, mystical experiences associated with the therapeutic effects of psychedelics.

However, this topic isn’t fully explored. Instead, “consciousness” is discussed as something that can be expanded—but the everyday viewer might not understand what that means, why that’s a good thing, or how that changes the narrative a person tells themselves.

We also have to talk about the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

Dr. Rick Doblin makes a prominent appearance in the episode about MDMA, as he should.  Doblin founded MAPS, a nonprofit organization with a mission to bring psychedelics back into medicine. Through Doblin’s work, there’s a very good chance that MDMA will be the first FDA-approved psychedelic to help treat PTSD.

However, MAPS and Doblin have also been the subjects of controversy this year due to complaints of alleged investigator misconduct, and Canadian regulators are currently reviewing all MDMA trials. (MAPS has published a response to the claims.)

In fairness to production timelines, the series was likely packaged up well before MAPS faced these allegations. However, the lack of a postscript felt glaring in the current psychedelic landscape, in which conversations about patients’ rights and the ethical responsibilities of psychedelic therapists are growing.

Indigenous Voices

“How to Change Your Mind” presents an important topic with nuance: mescaline and peyote.

The final chapter focuses on Native American voices and the role of peyote as a sacred sacrament within the Native American Church (NAC). The narrative then dovetails into a frank conversation about the effects of Western colonialization on Native American culture, including the extended battle the NAC faced to retain the right to use peyote.

Indigenous voices take the primary seat at the table in this episode, which sets a foundation for the discussion of Decriminalize Nature. This organization pioneered the decriminalization of psychoactive plants and fungi but ran afoul of the NAC by including peyote in its ballot initiative in Oakland.

In 2020, NAC members requested that peyote not be included in decriminalization movements. In part, decriminalizing the personal possession of peyote might lead to a surge of non-Native people harvesting the cactus in its natural habitat, which could hasten its extinction. Without peyote, NAC members and future generations wouldn’t have access to a central and sacred form of medicine in peyote ceremonies.

On that note, Pollan is firm in his decision not to use peyote because respecting Native American culture means leaving peyote alone. And, as Pollan notes, there are other ways to get mescaline, such as San Pedro cactus or synthetic mescaline.

Journeying Into the Psychedelic Future

Each chapter opens with the same disclaimer: “The following series is designed to entertain and inform—not provide medical advice.” In this way, “How to Change Your Mind” succeeds in educating its audience about the future of psychedelic medicine.

Unlike other psychedelics shows on Netflix, Pollan does what he does best with this series: he presents information in a clear, engaging, and richly detailed way that makes it possible for the mainstream viewer to understand the complicated history of psychedelics.

Of course, psychedelics still face an uphill battle. Although they are extraordinary, they’re still illegal in most parts of the world. Oregon is the first state in the United States to legalize the administration of psilocybin in dedicated psilocybin service centers in 2023, and all eyes are on the results, protocols, and overall success of the measure.

Final Thoughts

For now, it seems that people fall into two camps: the assumption that psychedelics will turn your brain into a fried egg, or the passing awareness from news headlines that psychedelics can help with conditions like depression and addiction.

Science supports the latter camp, but the next big hurdle is changing mainstream perceptions. In 2018, the book “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller, signaling shifting tides in public perception about psychedelics. On that note, the series “How to Change Your Mind” isn’t just another drugs documentary on Netflix: It plays a key role in combatting the social stigma about psychedelic medicine.

Pollan’s work does plenty of legwork to help people understand the potential benefits of psychedelics. And hey—it might even change their minds.