What are some Influential books and Movies about Psychedelics?

Over the years, numerous books and movies have been made regarding the subject of psychedelics. Here, we present some of the most influential ones.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan

When it comes to literature about psychedelics, Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind is one of the most influential books published in the past decade.

Known for his writing on plants and food, reporter Michael Pollan came up with the idea after writing an article about psychedelic psychotherapy for the New Yorker, called The Trip Treatment. Amazed by the positive experiences numerous cancer patients who participated in psychedelic research trials shared with him, he wanted to explore the topic further. Thus began a two-year journey into the world of psychedelics.

The book delves into the substances’ rich history and explores the current renaissance of scientific psychedelic research by interviewing numerous scientists and therapists involved in the field.

As a fervent immersive journalist who likes to delve deep into whatever subject he is reporting, Pollan also undergoes and shares his very first psychedelic experiences with LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception is a philosophical essay in book form written by British author Aldous Leonard Huxley. 

The book details Huxley’s first psychedelic experience: a mescaline trip from one year prior. Released in 1954, it is seen as a watershed moment in the psychedelic literature movement, with the band The Doors even naming themselves after the title.

Huxley is best known for his 1932 book Brave New World, a dystopian vision of society in which the characters consume a drug called soma to escape from reality.

Interestingly, before his own psychedelic journey, Huxley called mescaline a poison worse than soma. This all changed after his own experience, and he continued experimenting for the rest of his life.

On his deathbed, Huxley was injected with LSD to help him transition peacefully into death. By that time, he had authored over 50 books, including his 1962 novel Island, which presents a utopian world where drugs are used for the better.

LSD, My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann

LSD, My Problem Child is the story of LSD told by the person who invented it, the late chemist Albert Hofmann.

Written in 1979, right amid nationwide prohibition of psychedelics, Hofmann shares his concerns about how his invention has been used and portrayed, yet remains hopeful that its therapeutic potential will not be forgotten.

Dubbing LSD his ‘problem child’, he speaks about how his research began, how it progressed, and what, ultimately, went wrong – tracing LSD’s path from a promising psychiatric medicine to a recreational drug sparking hysteria and prohibition.

Despite being a scientist, indications of Hofmann’s mysticism clearly shine through. And besides describing some of his own psychedelic trips and documenting his journey across Mexico to discover sacred LSD-related plants, he also shares some of his discussions with important psychedelic figures, such as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Walter Vogt.

PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story and TiHKAL: The Continuation by Alexander and Ann Shulgin

PiHKAL and TiHKAL are two books written by the couple Alexander “Sasha” and Ann Shulgin. Together, they spent many decades creating and subsequently self-experimenting with hundreds of psychoactive substances. For 15 years, this was done legally, as Alexander held a rare government license, allowing him to study and synthesize illegal drugs. 

Adamant that their life’s work should never disappear, the Shulgins published PiHKA, which stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved. The book discusses phenethylamines such as mescaline, MDMA, and 2C-B – both their subjective effects and recipes, as well as the Shulgin’s love story and background. Published in 1991, the book was very controversial – leading to U.S. agents searching Alexander’s home and lab, fining him $25,000, and forcing him to hand in his license.

TiHKAL was published six years later, in 1997, and stands for Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved. It focuses on tryptamines such as LSD, Ibogaine, psilocybin, and DMT.

Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge by Terence McKenna

Food of the Gods is one of many books that the late ethnobotanist and mystic Terence Kemp McKenna wrote on psychedelics.

In it, he traces mankind’s relationship to natural, mind-altering plants from past to present. He explores what altered states of consciousness can tell us about our origins and place in nature, advocates the responsible use of psychedelic plants, and argues that we have lost the shamanic understanding of psychedelics’ significance.

While many of McKenna’s proposed theories cannot be proven nor disproven, they make for an insightful read. One example is his ‘stoned ape’ theory, which suggests mushrooms helped our brain evolve language.

Many psychedelic enthusiasts consider McKenna to be a cultural icon and pioneer. He and his brother, the scientist Dennis McKenna, took an early interest in psychedelic plants in the 1970s – traveling to numerous Latin America countries searching for the psychedelic rituals of indigenous cultures.

Drug, Set, and Setting by Norman Zinberg

Norman Zinberg was a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, and professor at the Harvard Medical School who spent a large part of his career studying addiction. Tired of the public hysteria surrounding discussion on drugs in the 1970s, he wrote the book Drug, Set, and Setting: The Basis for Controlled Intoxicant Use.

In it, Zinberg presented a new conceptual framework to understand addiction by exploring the factors that allow some people to use substances such as alcohol, marijuana, psychedelics, and even heroin in a controlled way. That is, without abusing them.

Realizing that he had to take into account not just the pharmacology of the drug and the personality of the user (the set), but also the physical and social setting in which the consumption occurred (the setting), Zinberg proposed that the latter played the biggest part in establishing the line between use and abuse.

While controversial at the time, a great deal of his work is now considered fundamental to the concepts behind responsible psychedelic use.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia by Hamilton Morris

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is an American docuseries starring journalist Hamilton Morris. First aired in 2016, it follows Morris around the globe as he explores the history, chemistry, and societal impact of psychoactive substances.

Best known for his work for Vice Magazine, Morris had initially started a monthly Vice column by the same name. When given the opportunity to film short documentaries to accompany his written pieces, he started creating an online documentary series. After its release on YouTube, the series soon gained a wider international following.

Generally aiming to be as unbiased and non-stigmatizing as possible, Morris has traveled all over the world conducting interviews with a wide range of people: shamans, mystic healers, psychedelic advocates, scientists, and critics. 

Over the years, he has covered numerous psychedelics, including magic mushrooms, LSD, mescaline, DMT, ketamine, MDMA, etc. He often tries the substances on camera to help his audience better understand their true nature.

From Shock to Awe by Luc Côté

The documentary From Shock to Awe shares the story of two American combat veterans suffering from severe mental health issues as they look for a way to heal themselves. The title refers to the ‘shock and awe’ military strategy that uses extreme displays of power and force to destroy the opponent’s will to fight.

Through real-time and archive footage, director Luc Côté shows how the wars have turned the two men into shells of their former selves – thus giving a raw look into how Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) impacts not only those who have the condition but also their family and friends.

After traditional Western medicine offers the men no relief, they begin exploring the world of psychedelics, specifically the brew of ayahuasca.

By closely following their intimate ceremonies and subsequent integration, we are given a peek into their newfound insights as well as ayahuasca’s potential as a treatment for PTSD.

María Sabina, Mujer Espíritu by Nicolás Echevarría

María Sabina, Mujer EspírituMaría Sabina, Spirit Woman – is a Mexican documentary directed by Nicolás Echevarría. Directed in 1979, it offers a personal cinematic portrait detailing the daily life of Maria Sabina, a famous Mazatec shaman and medicine woman who went by the nickname the priestess of mushrooms. Mazatec refers to the Mesoamerican Indians of northern Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

As a voiceover narrates Sabina’s story and poems, we follow her as she goes about her day, braiding her hair and performing her rituals with psychedelic mushrooms, which she calls her ‘niños santos’, her ‘holy little ones’.

The documentary is shot two decades after Sabina introduced banker Gordon Wasson to her healing ceremonies, with him writing an article about his experience, causing an influx of tourists and the anger of Sabina’s fellow villagers. Sabina would eventually regret introducing Wasson to the mushrooms and believed their sacramental power, and her relationship to that power, had been tainted through exposure to the Western world.

Fantastic Fungi by Louie Schwartzberg

Fantastic Fungi is an award-winning documentary that sheds light on the fascinating world of mushrooms.

Directed by Louie Schwartzberg and narrated by Brie Larson, the film combines numerous interviews with leading mycologists – people who work with fungi – including Paul Stamets, as well as writers like Michael Pollan.

Impressive time-lapse cinematography and CGI create a visually breathtaking movie in which this mysterious fungi world is explored and uncovered – with mushrooms growing from seemingly nowhere, spreading their magical spores.

While psychedelic mushrooms’ potential is also explored, the movie is less about psychedelics themselves and more about fungi in general and how they can potentially offer us solutions for some of today’s most pressing challenges, from treating illness and improving mental health to healing the environment by contributing to the regeneration of life on earth.

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