When we think about psilocybin or LSD, its easy to jump to an image of new-agey twenty-somethings gazing in wonder at a tree trunk or a moldy piece of bread. But with A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin — a recent documentary set to be released next month — we get a glimpse of the enormous medical potential these substances have to offer.
Filmmaker Robert J. Barnhart is a board member at the Heffter Research Institute — an organization working to forward research on the potential uses of psychedelics in healthcare. He took his experience and teamed up with documentary producer-filmmaker Roz Dauber and producer-filmmaker Brady Dial to create A New Understanding.
Narrated by Reset’s founder Amber Lyon, the film takes a comprehensive look at the past and present of psilocybin, which was classified as Schedule I substance (a category reserved for the most highly restricted substances) by Congress in the late 1960s. It strings together the stories of people who participated in psilocybin-assisted therapy studies, with talking head shots of psychedelic research psychologists and the occasional fluorescent-hued reenactment of something trippy an interviewee saw during a psilocybin session.
The scientists and psychologists interviewed in the film are working, via various studies, to learn whether psilocybin can mitigate the psychological suffering of terminally ill cancer patients whose days are numbered. The studies themselves have very little money and depend on volunteer patients who are willing to participate.
The film walks us through several different psilocybin studies that have taken place at different universities. It moves fluidly between the “hard science” explanations of neuroscience and the “softer” realm of psychology. In one shot, we’ll have a stiff-looking academic holding up MRI scans and discussing the location of serotonin 2A receptors in the brain. Then, the film will cut breezily to a psychologist wearing a kaleidoscopic green tie, talking about the sense of sacredness imparted to us by psychedelic experiences. In one segment, a researcher holds up a model of the human brain and explains how the cortex responds to psilocybin. In another, a study volunteer tells us she ran into Jesus in the middle of a parade during her psilocybin dosing session.
This may be just what it takes to successfully pull off this kind of documentary: scientific integrity combined with the open-mindedness necessary to deeply explore consciousness.
Annie, featured in the film, was one of 12 terminally-ill volunteers in a study conducted at UCLA. Before she began participating in the psilocybin study, she described herself as anxious and terrified. She said she was so worried about the painful process of dying that she lost her spirituality, and became incredibly irritable towards her husband. It made life difficult for both of them.
“I had lost my faith because of anxiety,” she said during the film, “And I was just terrified. I was so anxious, it was hard to think about anything else.”
During the dosing sessions, researchers dosed her with a moderate amount of psilocybin. She experienced the effects of the drug in a controlled, comfortable livingroom-like environment, where she was monitored and attended by aids. She was observed before and after the study.
After her experience with psilocybin, Annie’s husband said, “Someone had put on a lightbulb in Annie’s head. She was literally glowing.”
Annie said she felt wonderful after the session. She got back in touch with her spirituality, and managed to cultivate happiness in her life despite her approaching death.
“It’s incredibly helpful,” she said during the film. “It’s more helpful than any other treatment I’ve ever had.”
Researchers at NYU conducted a similar study, working with terminally-ill volunteers to see if psilocybin could help them cope psychologically with a terminal illness.
“The greatest source of distress at the end of life is the psychological, spiritual, existential despair that people go through, and the lack of meaning,” said Anthony Bossis, co-principal investigator of the NYU study, during an interview with the filmmakers. “And it is through the search for meaning — and meaning is cultivated in some way — that people die a better death.”
Matt, a terminally ill man who suffered from systemic anal cancer, volunteered in the NYU study. He said he was probably too sick to travel all the way to New York to participate, but it had been well worth it to him.
Like Annie, the filmmakers interviewed him extensively about his experience with psilocybin.
“Eight… nine hours. It was very intense,” he said in the film, speaking of his psilocybin dosing. “Even if you do have an expectation going into a study like this, something you will get from it, you’re bound to get so much more in ways that you can’t even imagine now, sitting here. The benefit will be even beyond what you can think of, quite frankly.”
Matt said the psilocybin dosing sessions helped him cope with the fact that he didn’t have enough time to fix his relationship with his parents before he died.
“I wanted to die unburdened of anger and angst,” he said.
All of the studies came away with positive results — the researchers reported that their subjects had less anxiety, better relationships, felt less depressed, and were generally better disposed to engage with deep, existential questions about life, love, death, regret, and loss.
Aside from the principal investigator of the NYU study, Stephen Ross, mentioning that sometimes frightening experiences during dosing sessions can have an adverse psychological effect, the film doesn’t hit on any potential negative outcomes of the treatment. In the studies discussed during the film, there were only positive results.
This probably speaks to the mindset of the volunteers — they not only were open to the idea of the treatment, but also went out of their way to participate. Matt, for example, travelled despite severe physical discomfort from his illness to receive treatment. This kind of willingness doubtless contributed to the volunteers having a positive experience.
As of now, there is very little funding available to psilocybin research.
“Right now, the studies are all privately funded,” Ross said. “Not a single person gets paid. In many ways, it’s a labor of love.”
Annie and Matt felt this love throughout the remainder of their lives.
“I believe this study has helped open me up to learn more and accept more as opposed to wondering how cancer was going to affect me tomorrow, where it was going to affect me tomorrow,” Matt said. “I feel like I can die now with peace in my heart.”