Facing death with grace and dignity is one of the most pressing challenges of the Western world. Helplessness, despair, bitterness, and anger are common emotions among people nearing the end of their lives but unwilling to let go. However, recent research has shown that psilocybin, a psychedelic compound, has great promise in helping cancer patients come to terms with their life and death through spiritual journeys and expanded consciousness.
The documentary A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin, produced by Red Phoenix Productions and distributed by MYTHAPHI, explores the history of research on psychedelics and follows the path of three people using them to overcome anxiety about death and other challenges. Over the course of their therapy the study subjects find that psilocybin helps them deal with pain and depression while giving them a new perspective on their lives.
“People in this country don’t really talk about death,” says Annie Levy, a patient who was participating in a psilocybin study at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. “You really need to look at it, and this is the perfect way to do it.”
“I was so anxious that it was hard to think about anything else,” Levy says of her diagnosis. “I didn’t think I was so worried about death, but I was worried about the process of dying, about suffering and being in pain, and having all kinds of horrible medical procedures.”
The study subjects discuss how the psychedelic helped them grieve for lost family members, discover how to confront fear, and ultimately come in contact with the divine.
“Individuals in psychedelic research studies who experienced a spiritual epiphany during the course of their many hour treatment session were more likely to have a long-term therapeutic outcome,” says Dr. Charles S. Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine and director of Clinical Research at the Heffter Institute.
The film briefly touches on Albert Hoffman’s synthesis of LSD in 1943, which led him to also isolate psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, which causes people to experience the psychedelic effects. Despite their initial promise in psychotherapy, the substances were banned by the U.S. government in 1968 during a backlash against the 1960s counterculture. Congress classified LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelics as Schedule I, labeling them drugs of abuse with high potential for addiction and no medical value.
“There was a decade there of very exciting, promising research,” says Bill Richards, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center who first worked with psychedelics in the 1960s. Then, as he notes during an interview featured in the film, funding dried up as “it became kind of a political football.”
It wasn’t until the 1990s that new research on psychedelics started up again. Funding was still a challenge, however, until the Heffter Institute incorporated in 1993 to support investigation into how these substances work and what benefits they hold.
In addition to the UCLA study, research has also been completed at New York University and Johns Hopkins. All the studies were in Phase 1, but, ultimately, the research could continue through two more phases on the way to petitioning the FDA to approve psilocybin as a prescription medicine for use in conjunction with psychotherapy.
“One of the greatest sources of distress at the end of life is the psychological, spiritual, and existential despair that people go through, and the lack of meaning,” says Anthony Bossis, co-principal investigator of the NYU Psilocybin Cancer Research project. “If meaning is cultivated in some way, then people die a better death.”
“Even if you do have an expectation going into a study like this, of something you will get from it, you’re bound to get so much more, in ways that you probably can’t even imagine now,” says Matt Meza, 49, a study participant at NYU. “The benefit will be beyond what you can even think of.”
“Intense colors and geometric shapes, shimmering and glowing and the sense of being totally in the colors,” says Sandy Lundahl, who participated in the Johns Hopkins research. “I kept going deeper and deeper and deeper into that experience.”
The film gives viewers insights into how psilocybin acts on the brain and shows how therapists use the substance help bring their patients to a place of peace, offering an opportunity to view a therapy session in action.
“You have a new understanding of what you are, that there is something sacred,” Richards says, “something profoundly meaningful about you.”
Learn more about the journeys of Annie, Matt, and Sandy and the revealing research being performed with psilocybin by streaming or downloading the film from Mythaphi.