Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD. Ilustration by Alex Grey.
For seven months in 1953, William S. Burroughs journeyed through South American jungles on an expedition to find the near-mythical drug ayahuasca ("yage," as he preferred to call it). Burroughs, hoping to kick junk, but also experience the substance's so-called "space-time travel" and telepathic qualities, documented a great deal of his adventures and misadventures in letters to Allen Ginsberg. The letters, written in Burroughs typical meandering style, would later be published as The Yage Letters by City Lights.
One could almost say that Burroughs was the first American ayahuasca tourist. Always on an ultimately fruitless journey to kick heroin, Burroughs sought out any substances that could help—apomorphine being one of them. Though none worked, Burroughs seems to have been on to something with yage. Because in the last several years, scientific research now suggests that ayahuasca and other psychedelic substances can help in the treatment of addiction.
Enter director Oliver Hockenhull, who has been quietly making a documentary on the subject of psychdelics as medicines for the last several years. When Giancarlo Canavesio, founder of Mangusta Productions and Mangu.tv discovered that Hockenhull was pursuing the project, he offered to help out. Canavesio is helping with distribution, getting the film into festivals and theaters, while producer Mikki Willis of Elevate films is helping with the editing process.
The film, Neurons to Nirvana, takes a look at the history and the future of scientific research into five psychelic substances: LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, MDMA, and cannabis. In it, various highly-regarded scientists and experts in the field talk about the medicinal potential of the drugs. The filmmakers are careful in their approach. Each of them notes that scientific studies and vocabulary, presented in a mainstream way, are necessary to educate the public about psychedelic medicine. They realize they are up against a lot of government—not to mention big business—disinformation, and paranoia about psychedelics.
I recently spoke to Hockenhull, Willis, and Canavesio about the project, their experience with psychedelics, and their effort to raise some additional funding with a Kickstarter campaign, which successfully wrapped up today.
Let's talk briefly about your respective work outside of Neurons to Nirvana, as well your experiences with psychedelics.
Mikki: I started working with Ayahuasa seven and a half years ago, and my company Elevate is strictly focused on bringing to light new modalities in the realm of human transformation. And through that work, I was led to explore what at the time I'd only known as plant medicines. Before that, I really had no idea what they were. I was pretty phobic about drugs at that point, though I experimented a little bit. I'm allergic to marijuana, so that was never a big part of my life. I experimented with ecstasy and mushrooms a little bit. But, I had a brother with drug issues, so I was really phobic about doing anything too regularly and then getting hooked. And then I was steered toward this ayahuasca ceremony. I knew the moment I walked into the first ceremony that it was an entirely different experience with different intentions. It was a completely life-changing experience.
Giancarlo: I was an investment banker for ten years in London. I got completely passionate about filmmaking, and started doing short movies and video art. So, we started Mangusta Productions in 2002, producing small narrative indies. I got into psychedelic medicine through my wife, who has been doing ayahuasca for twenty years. She organized a ceremony in Paris on a boat with ayahuasca, and that was the beginning of a long journey of discovery.
Giancarlo, how did you get involved in the project? As I understand it, Oliver was already deep into the documentary when you two were introduced.
Giancarlo: A year and a half ago, I went to the MAPS Conference in Oakland, which was mainly a scientific discourse. I was really passionate about how science was discovering the therapeutical benefits of these compounds. So, I started telling collaborators that I wanted to do a documentary on the subject. Then I heard through Mark Achbar, a friend and the director of The Corporation, that his friend, Oliver Hockenhull, was already putting together a documentary called Neurons to Nirvana. So I contacted him and asked how I could help.
Is Neurons to Nirvana largely an effort to combat disinformation on psychedelics?
Mikki: Absolutely. I would say the paramount intention with the film is to reopen the possibility of psychedelic research. There is just far too much data showing that these medicines are here to serve the evolution of our human family. Through fear and paranoia and greed, and all of the other things that stifle public awareness, this truly important work has been made to look bad. It's important to us that we bring to light the possibility of truth, and tell both sides equally.
But, we don't want to fuel the destructive story about us and them. We're not saying pharmaceuticals are bad—we are saying they have limitations. We're also saying there are limitations to psychedelics. But, it behooves all of us to bring everything into the realm of consciousness that may actually be beneficial to our evolution. There is a very vast imbalance when you consider the things that are legal and the things that are not legal. This isn't opinion, it's scientific fact. Compare the deaths on account of nicotine to marijuana-related death; and yet nicotine is still legal. You have to question things.
Giancarlo: The ultimate goal is the legalization, regulation, and taxation of these compounds. The idea is to create enough interest so that people can then go deeper with all our experts. On the website, we'll have the full interviews with all of the scientists heard in the documentary.
At John Hopkins University there has been really encouraging scientific results about treating nicotine addicition with psilocybin, or magic mushrooms. At Harvard and UCLA there have been studies using LSD to treat alcohol addiction. There is some interesting evidence that a cannabis compound called CBD has been effective in killing cancer in animals. Now, this isn't proven yet, but we're waiting for clinical trials for humans. And we haven't even talked about other forms of addiction, whether opiate, cocaine, amphetamines, etc.
These compounds are also extremely beneficial for anxiety and depression. Professor David Nutt, a psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College of London, with the help of the Beckley Foundation, received a £500,000 grant from the U.K. government to research psilocybin's effect on depression. In a clinical trial with a healthy volunteer, using a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery), Nutt showed that depressed people have a very high activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a hub that connects various parts of the brain. In depressed people, this area is very high in filtering. What they discovered is that psilocybin, by reducing the blood supply in that specific area of the brain, basically kills the filters so that the brain is better connected, creating a better sense of well-being as a result.
Based on what you've heard from the scientists featured in the documentary, is there a possibility that a psychedelic might make matters worse for a depressed individual?
Mikki: One of the things that Neurons to Nirvana stresses is that we're not condoning radical, recreational, unguided use of these medicines. All of this stuff can be abused and be counter-productive to the purpose they were birthed to serve. You need responsible, guided experiences. And, yes, this can happen with a psilocybin trip in the country. That said, we are in support of professional, guided use of these substances. If you're surrounded by doctors in an environment with medical equipment that can help you, you've already reduced the amount of stress on your body that can accompany losing control.
Giancarlo: I feel that the current renaissance of ayahuasca, for example, is important because it can only be done in the right set and setting, and in the countries where it's legal. You have to plan it a few months in advance, and maybe you have to diet. Psychologically, you have to prepare yourself for the experience. And the shaman wants to create a circle of safety and trust. When researchers give patients psilocybin, they create that trust and a safe environment. Stephen Ross, a researcher at NYU, explains that very well in our documentary.
What can we expect from the documentary apart from its scientific focus?
Oliver: It's not only a film about drugs, but about consciousness. It allows us to say that we can use tools to relieve a lot of the pressures that accumulate in our lives. And, really, we have two films. One of them is my director's cut, which is 108 minutes with different music and different angle. The other, inspired by Giancarlo, is designed to be more accessible. It's more about informing people, whereas my approach is a bit more artsy, personal, and esoteric.
Mikki: This movie takes a different approach than other movies that have recently come out about the sacred medicines. The information needs to come out and it just lands in the matrix, and that's great. But, what I appreciate most about Neurons to Nirvana is that it's been made to be understood by the masses. Some of the scientists and experts in the film could be your grandparents. They are highly educated, Harvard graduate types. There's something very powerful about that. This is a movie I could show my dad, who knows nothing about this world. But, he could watch it and relate to the individuals in the film.
As a fan of Aldous Huxley's writings on psychedelics, government, and culture, I was always interested in how psychedelic discourse evolved from his smooth intelligence—perhaps aided by his upper class British accent—to the cultural hysteria and propaganda that followed Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert's (Ram Dass) proselytizing.
Mikki: It's true that with some of the iconic people in psychedelics, the information was absolutely accurate, but the way they shared it may have not been the best way to make it available and translate it to the rest of the world.
Oliver: With the scientists featured in Neurons to Nirvana, the research into psychedelics has more to do with compassion and healing, rather than to proselytize about the potentialities of what these things can do as far as social change. It's not that those other issues—the history and the politics—aren't looked at in the film, but nobody is coming from an antagonistic position. No one is saying, "Well, you haven't tripped, so you have no idea."
Which raises an interesting question, in my opinion. Many people want to do psychedelics to bend their mind for no other reason than to party, which I feel defeats the purpose. With psychedelics, it's like reading Moby-Dick: do it when you're ready, not because someone says you should. There has to be a purpose, which seems to be the film's entire raison d'être.
Oliver: I think we're all recognizing the importance of the respect for resources. These substance are very powerful resources. You don't want to be eating gallons of ice cream every day. If you use these substances properly, they can be amazing. It's a matter of maturity. Our society uses drugs in a very immature way. You have to respect your own mind, and the minds of other people.
Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) in the early days of their psychedelic research at Harvard.
This is a good point of entry into the subject of MDMA (ecstasy), which has a reputation as a party drug; mostly because of its use at raves. How are scientists using it in controlled settings?
Oliver: For post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment. For example, they're doing research with soldiers who are suffering from PTSD. One of the valuable things about this particular drug is that it's quite short acting compared to LSD. And there are no hallucinations, and very few visible experiences associated with it. It used to be called a "love drug," because you definitely feel loved and you feel love in your body. It has a very unique chemical profile—there is no other drug in the world like MDMA. It effects the human body in a way that is quite different from the psychedelics, stimulants, and depressants like alcohol.
MDMA is both an empathogen and entactogen. Its empathogenic qualities create empathy with other people. You start thinking of other individuals in your life, and then think about how, when you get back to reality, you should get back into contact with them. As an entactogen, it allows you to touch within. MDMA is also used quite often by a lot of underground therapists for couple therapy. It also gets rid of pain. It can give cancer sufferers a little window of relief, and it won't affect their bodies in the way morphine and heroin do. Molecularly, it's closely related to both mescaline and amphetamines.
What needs to happen legally to help in the scientific research of psychedelics?
Giancarlo: The most immediate thing that should be done is rescheduling the drugs from Schedule 1 to Schedule 3. Because Schedule 1 makes scientific research very difficult, which can discourage scientists.
Where is the film premiering?
Oliver: The director's cut will premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival. We're also going to try to get the 70-minute cut into the festival. We are also planning a big premiere event in NYC in mid-October. I should note that we're going to limit the release of the director's cut for at least eight months.
In filming, did you discover anything that you previously hadn't known about psychedelics?
Oliver: Yeah, one of the most interesting things that I learned was the great interest in ayahuasca. Also, I realized that, as Gabor Maté said, our society is addicted. And he's really dealing with these medicines as a way to heal society, in terms of allowing us to recognize the value of oursleves. Not in a mushy way, but in the potentiality of recognizing life itself.
This brings us into the whole issue of light. I also learned a great deal about the neurochemistry and neurophysiology of what these substances do. Gabor Maté's is a sociological position, but David Nichols is the foremost neurochemist dealing with psychedelics. In the film, he discusses psychedelics and serotonin. What psychedelics do in high enough doses is that they get you into a plane of pure consciousness.
What that means is anyone's guess.