Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines is a richly-illustrated feature documentary about the resurgence of psychedelics as medicine. It explores the promise of these brave new advances in psychopharmacology and cultural understanding guiding the viewer in a thought-provoking journey, as told by those determined to hold open the doors of perception. Through interviews with the world’s foremost researchers, writers, psychologists and pioneers in psychedelic psychotherapy, the film explores five powerful psychedelic substances (LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA, Ayahuasca and Cannabis) and their previously established medicinal and psychotherapeutic potential.
The following discussion is between three of the film’s creators:
Dr. Julie Holland is a board-certified psychiatrist in New York City. She has been quoted as an authority on MDMA in magazine, newspaper and website articles (Harper’s, Slate, SF Chronicle, LA Times, Wall Street Journal). She is featured in Neurons to Nirvana.
Oliver Hockenhull is the director/producer of Neurons to Nirvana. He works in film, video, hyper media installations, writing, and design. He’s an artist who is a documentarian, screenwriter, communication theorist, stand-up philosopher and essayist.
Giancarlo Canavesio is the producer and distributor of Neurons to Nirvana. Through his company Mangusta Productions, he has produced many award-winning feature films including The Living Wake, Explicit Ills, Fix,2012 Time for Change, Being in the World, Starlet, and Here Comes the Night.
Giancarlo Canavesio: I’d like to ask Oliver about the genesis of this project. How did you get interested in this compound? Why did you decided to invest so many years of your life in researching those molecules?
Oliver Hockenhull: I’m from the tail end of the hippie generation. I was something like 9 years old when Magical Mystery Tour came out, when the Beatles were around. I’m of that generation, if you will. So I’ve had a personal and cultural interest in these drugs for many, many years. I also made a film on the grandfather of psychedelics, Aldous Huxley, with the approval of Laura Huxley. Huxley’s involvement with these substances has been quite crucial to my own reading of their potential and the viability of their momentous cultural import.
Giancarlo: I’d like to ask Julie the same question. How did you decide to devote your career on studying MDMA and cannabis?
Julie Holland: I was born in 1965, so I really grew up in the seventies. I definitely was seeing people smoking pot, taking acid, and tripping out on PCP. I was the youngest of 3 kids, often left to my own devices, and spent a lot of time with peers. I saw some really crazy things go down. I was intrigued by how a tiny little piece of paper could completely distort somebody’s perception and make them act in a way I’d never seen before. Even just dilated pupils fascinated me.
At a very young age, I became interested in the brain, behavior, and drugs. I was the kid who got the subscription to Psychology Today and was reading Aldous Huxley. It was like every time I had to do a report in school, I would want to do it on LSD. I just thought these things were fascinating and there was so much to learn. I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I thought I wanted to be a brain doctor. At first I didn’t know if that meant being a neurosurgeon, but once I figured out that psychiatry was really the study of drugs and human behavior, I knew I wanted to be a psychiatrist.
When I was in college, during the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I started reading all these magazine articles about this new drug. First of all, I was majoring in psychopharmacology as an undergraduate, and there was suddenly a new drug.
If you’re interested in how drugs affect human behavior, and human culture, a new drug is exciting. I was like, “Whoo-hooo!” There hadn’t been any new drugs since the cultural phenomenon of LSD decades earlier. It was the mid-eighties and not only was it a new drug, but it was a drug that psychiatrists were giving their patients as a catalyst in therapy — MDMA.
I decided to do a paper on it for my human sexuality class. It ended up being forty pages on the drug Ecstasy, on the pretense that some people thought it was an aphrodisiac. I wrote this ridiculously long, totally in depth, paper about the drug. My human sexuality teacher didn’t want to accept it. He told me, “You should give this to a medical journal. This really isn’t what I asked for.”