We suddenly found a way to explore a continent [through psychedelics] that we didn’t know existed and not many other people knew existed either. Ralph Metzner
Whether or not you agree that psychedelic experiences can be useful, there is a growing consensus that the so-called “War on Drugs” has been a catastrophic failure. This is not a difficult case to make and constitutes more an illustrative side-note to this really quite beautiful film. Instead, the focus is on the nature and utility of the experiences themselves and the substances that induce them. The background around their illegality and the establishment crusade against them, acts only as further evidence for their revolutionary potential.
Oliver Hockenhull’s Neurons to Nirvana explores the possibilities of the psychedelic experience through a combination of historical record and interviews with researchers in the field of psychedelics, notable examples including pscychologist Ralph Metzner, psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt and ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna (brother of the famous shamanic philosopher Terrance McKenna). Aside from the potential therapeutic benefits, there is also a sense in which, through the proliferation of a cultural zeitgeist inclined towards demonising these experiences, we could be missing so much. As Ralph Metzner puts it:
“We suddenly found a way to explore a continent [through psychedelics] that we didn’t know existed and not many other people knew existed either. This is like Marco Polo in the 14th century, he went with his uncle and father to China, and then came back and told stories about China and people said, “oh you’re hallucinating, you’re crazy, there is no such place, you made that up, you’re fantasising.” and he said, “no, you can go for yourself.’”
On a purely scientific level, it is frustrating to realise how little we know, indeed how little we have been allowed to discover, about the therapeutic potential of the substances covered in this documentary. Marijuana alone contains a veritable smorgasbord of organic molecules whose potential has been left largely unexplored, thanks to the global crackdown on the substance, effectively handing over the stewardship of this plant to a black market interested only in increasing yield and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient) content. Both LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) have both shown some promise in psychotherapy and the early experimentation with LSD, before its explosion on the 60s counter-culture scene, focused on this area. Ayajuasca is considered a ‘medicine’ by the native South American tribes who use it. Its active ingredient, DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) has shown some astonishing properties, a subject covered in two other fascinating documentaries, Ayajuasca: Vine of the Soul and DMT: The Spirit Molecule . Psilocybin too, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms (which were, until fairly recently, legal in the UK and could be bought over shop counters) has some fascinating effects, to the extent that psychonaut philosophers of the Terrance McKenna ilk have been led to believe they are the vessel of communication for extra-terrestrial or extra-dimensional intelligences.
There are aspects of this film that come across as naïve, of course. The harmful (or potentially harmful) effects of these substances are glossed over as establishment propaganda or ignored completely. While marijuana may not be physically addictive or physically harmful (aside from the obvious often-ignored fact that you are still inhaling smoke) it can be habit-forming, detrimental to productivity and paranoia-inducing. There is also good evidence that MDMA is neurotoxic.
Despite the slight tone of hippy idealism, it is hard to argue with the central premise that a great deal of potential, medical, scientific, psychological, philosophical and even spiritual is being squandered in the name of fear-mongering nannyism. There is a broader argument presented by Neurons to Nirvana; that our rejection of these mind-expanding substances goes hand-in-hand with a widening gulf between our society and our essential nature, indeed our relationship with nature at large. Instead of broadening our minds by breaking down the barriers that filter our experience we choose instead the sedative approach; raising more barriers between ourselves and our experience of the world.
Also see: We are the Universe Experiencing Itself