Interview with filmmaker Oliver Hockenhull about the resurgence of psychedelics as medicine, and his film Neurons to Nirvana.
Alex Tsakiris: So status quo scientists, mind=brain scientists would have expected that if you ingest psilocybin it’s going to go fire off your brain like crazy and that’s why you’re going to have these amazing experiences and these emotions attached to it. And then Dr. David Nutt does this work and he gives people psilocybin and they go into the fMRI and they see that just the opposite is happening. The brain isn’t firing, these areas are dampened and suppressed, which completely supports this other model that this consciousness is flowing in and what the brain is doing is kind of regulating it. If you turn that regulator down you get a full dose of this consciousness and that’s what it means to be tripping on psilocybin, right?
Oliver Hockenhull: Well yeah, I think this also comes back to Aldous Huxley’s proposition that the mind or the brain is a dampening device. Now, it is basically designed for survival usage so that you can’t be open to everything when you have to make sure that you can catch a particular fish or whatever it may be. So you’re not open to the buzz and confusion, the endless amount of information that is accessible to you because it wouldn’t be of survival benefit. At the same time, these peak experiences of experiencing all, if you will, or the mystical experience, is also extremely important for our survival in terms of erasing the importance and the intoxication of the individual as compared to the group. So if we become more associated with group consciousness, with the consciousness of all our relations, as the native people say, that we’re all connected to the plants, to the water, to the animals, to each other. Then we see each other as brothers. So it is a mystical experience. We are talking about an experience that places us within an associative web of life itself.
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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Oliver Hockenhull to Skeptiko. Oliver is a documentary filmmaker who has created Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines, a movie about the use of and issues surrounding using psychedelics as medicine. Oliver, this ought to be a very interesting dialogue. Thanks so much for joining me on Skeptiko.
Oliver Hockenhull: Well, thank you very much, Alex, for inviting me. I just want to introduce the film by suggesting that, or by letting people know, that when you make a film that there are a lot of people involved. So I can’t take full responsibility for it. I mean, I do take full responsibility for the film but there are so many talents that were involved with making this, including the musicians, the cinematographer, the executive producers, and so on. So it’s a long process to make a film like this, three or four years, with numerous people and people that I forget about and then I remember and go, ‘Wow, that person contributed quite a bit to it.’ It’s just endless really, it’s quite a process.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, well I’m glad you got that out there and I think folks will appreciate that even more if they watch the film, more so because it kind of speaks to the quality of the film a bit. There are a lot of people out there, especially nowadays who make “documentary films” and some of them are okay – they are kind of one-man band kind of things, and they look like it. This is just the opposite in terms of its look. It looks like a very well made film, and it is. It is engaging, it is entertaining, and the content for anyone who is even remotely interested in these topics, that is psychedelics and the edgy use of psychedelic medicine and how it fits into society, what it might need in a broader sense, I can’t recommend the movie highly enough. It’s just really well done. So congratulations on that and tell us a little bit more about this film – really three to four years in the making, what drove you to make it?
Oliver Hockenhull: Well it began when I was talking to Mark Achbar. Mark is the director of The Corporation, probably a film that many of your listeners might know about – a very successful documentary. And we talked about what would be the next film that we could get involved with. And I felt that the issue of psychedelic medicine, since that’s what we’re dealing with, these substances as medicines, would be the most viable film in terms of releasing suffering and in terms of addressing suffering in the world. Because of the development in current research that is taking place with psychedelics we felt that these things really needed to come out more. We really felt that the research, the science, the medicine that is taking place now and that took place very heavily in the ‘60s as well needed to be revisited.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, well once again it is a really great movie. But as we talked about in our email exchange my interest for the most part lies, if you will, on the topics that lie just on the other side of where that movie leaves off. And that’s not quite accurate because your movie does dip into and touch on some of these issues of consciousness, extended human consciousness, where that might lead, how this might challenge some of the paradigms that we have. But it really stays true to the title and it focuses on the medical, pharmalogical issues around the use of this. So the approach I really want to take in this interview, and I hope you’re okay with it and from our email exchange I think you are – it is really honing in on two questions. What do psychedelics tell us about consciousness? And number two, what are the social and political implications of question number one? That is, how might we explain this war on drugs issue that you kind of touch on in the film? We do come to a different understanding about consciousness.
So let me back up there and start with question one. What does Neurons to Nirvana tell us? What are your conclusions about the nature of consciousness? What do we know about it from our understanding of how psychedelics work?
Oliver Hockenhull: This is of course the key question and even though you’re very much correct, that this is an underlying stream, if you will, or the hidden stream that’s involved in the peace and dealing with consciousness itself. So what psychedelics do, from my understanding of what some of the researchers have come up with, both in terms of these experiential experiences of the people who take psychedelics as well as the neurological research. And we’re talking about people from Johns Hopkins, people from Purdue University – well-known, well-established, accomplished neuropsychopharmacologists, people who have been working in the field for 30, 40 years. And they’re telling me that what these things can do is allow for the perception of our unity with all of life.
Alex Tsakiris: But let’s hone in on that for a minute. Because as you have mentioned, the film features some very top notch researchers who are talking about peer-reviewed research that has been done under the best controls, published in top journals and all that stuff. Talk about David Nutt, if you will a little bit. He is featured in the film, very highly regarded. What is he, a psychologist? Or he is really an MD in the UK.
Oliver Hockenhull: Yeah, David is a neurophysiologist, a neuropsychopharmacologist. Again, he is very well-established. He was a head of the UK drug research institute. I can’t remember the exact title of it as a physician. But anyway, highly regarded individual. In his work with understanding psilocybin under MRI conditions revealed that certain areas of the brain dealing with identity issues –
Alex Tsakiris: Let me jump in there, and tell me if I’m wrong, but what’s amazing about his research is it’s completely counterintuitive in that there are two sides to this debate about what consciousness is. One is this idea that consciousness is purely a product of the brain and your brain produces consciousness, and it just kind of secretes it out and there you go. And there’s this other model that’s less popular but really has some intellectual force behind it. It’s as though conscious is more like something that’s out there and your brain is this transceiver that brings it in. So people would have expected the kind of status quo, mind equals brain, scientists would have expected hey, if you ingest psilocybin it’s going to go fire off your brain like crazy and that’s why you’re going to have these amazing experiences and these emotions attached to it. We know what that’s like, that’s a brain that’s just firing off like crazy. And Nutt does this work and he gives people psilocybin and they go into the fMRI and they see just the opposite is happening. The brain isn’t firing, these areas are dampened and suppressed, which completely supports this other model that this consciousness is flowing in and what the brain is doing is kind of regulating it. If you turn that regulator down you get a full dose of this consciousness and that’s what it means to be tripping on psilocybin. Now, I don’t know which side is right but that’s kind of where the debate has wound up, right?
Oliver Hockenhull: Well yeah, I think this also comes back to our reveals or refreshes – Aldous Huxley’s proposition that the mind or the brain is a dampening device. Now, it is basically designed for survival usage so that you can’t be open to everything when you have to make sure that you can catch a particular fish or whatever it may be. So you’re not open to the buzz and confusion, the endless amount of information that is accessible to you because it wouldn’t be of survival benefit. At the same time, these peak experiences of experiencing all, if you will, or the mystical experience, is also extremely important for our survival in terms of erasing the importance and the intoxication of the individual as compared to the group. So if we become more associated with group consciousness, with the consciousness of all our relations, as the native people say, that we’re all connected to the plants, to the water, to the animals, to each other. Then we see each other as brothers. So it is a mystical experience. We are talking about an experience that places us within an associative web of life itself.
Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating. That’s really interesting, I hadn’t quite thought of it in exactly that way. Tell me this – from your work and from what we find in the movie, how would you say the researchers you talk to are divided on this issue? You said something there that’s really kind of neat and I can really kind of wrap my arms around it – your movie doesn’t come across as being that much in the camp of the expanded view of consciousness. And that’s not a negative, it just says you’re kind of just reporting the research and it’s kind of coming through as hey, we’re not sure this is it but we definitely need to use this as medicine. Tell me how you suss that out in your own way, this step that we take initially to say okay, there are some therapeutic medical advantages to this we must seize right away and then this broader implication kind of idea that you have.
Oliver Hockenhull: I approach this film in terms of relieving my own suffering and to attempt to assist in the relieving of the suffering of others. Now, in some ways as an example when we talk about something like MDMA, it is being abused by many, many people. At the same time, it can be used very potently within a therapeutic setting that would allow people to touch into their own heart. Now, how does it do that? Scientifically it is revealed, as an example, that it relieves certain kinds of tension within the amygdala, which is a center in the brain that deals with emotional trauma, right? That area in the brain has that and it will be marked in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And in some ways if you really look at our society you can see that all of us have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was growing up nuclear bombs were about to drop all the time, right? I lived through the cold war. So there is a kind of continuum of trauma that we have all experienced and there are medicines out there that will connect us profoundly to who we are, to the heart within us, relieve fear. Fear in the Indian tradition is when there is a quote or a line in the Hindu scriptures that suggests that when there is another, that is when fear begins. And I think that is something that in our society promotes so importantly the idea of the individual as compared to our relationships and the importance of our care for one another is quite prominent in our society.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, so what I hear you saying Oliver and this then syncs up with what I saw in the movie is you can be agnostic, if you will, about this issue of consciousness and still approach and say gee, there’s all these people who are suffering – for example, in the United States. There are so many people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and all these other “wars.” And we can purely approach it if we want from a materialistic, brain-based standpoint and say here’s this drug, MDMA, ecstasy, and they are given in the proper controlled clinical therapeutic environment. It just seems to be efficacious for the result that we’ve been trying to get for these people all along in that we want to help them move on with their life and integrate in these traumas that they have had. And we don’t have to go any further than to just look at doesn’t that work and shouldn’t we make that available to people.
Oliver Hockenhull: Yeah, absolutely. It is that practical. It is a practical film in that way and I am very happy that it is in that direction. At the same time there are moments within the film that either through visuals or through narration explicate this issue of consciousness and where it is heading.
Alex Tsakiris: Well let’s jump from there then to question number two because I feel the little dialogue we have had so far kind of plays out this story and in my mind it is a fascinating issue. It was like okay, so we don’t have to go there in order to see that some of the laws and regulations we have surrounding the use of these important medicines are antiquated, are really injuring people or not helping people that could be helped. So we can get there through your film. But then don’t we have to ask the second part of that question, which is why is it like that? Is there another reason that we have to consider the maybe why these laws are the way they are? Why this culture of war on drugs and your consciousness needs to be controlled, and all the rest of that? Why we have gone down that path. I am sure you have thought about that a lot personally. I don’t know that your film addresses it directly but I would be really curious as to what you think about that. Do you think there is an underlying motive, either directly or indirectly, in our culture’s war on drugs?
Oliver Hockenhull: Well, I appreciate what you’re saying here and I agree with you. I do think that it is mostly indirected and it has to do with fear again. It has to do with fear of one’s own mind. And even if we were to look at this idea of the conservative brain and the liberal brain, there has been some discussion and research in that direction. And it suggests that certain brain structures are not willing to take any risk in their own lives. They are not willing to expand outside of their framework, so the more creative – and clearly as a society we need to be more creative and we need to embrace each other and our own creativity – these substances again, positioned properly within a cultural tradition that respects what these states of mind are about, and what they can give to us, and what they mean, these things can be powerful allies. Now, what’s happened in the past and what’s happening now is that this war on drugs relates to a kind of oppression and suppression of the possibilities of consciousness itself. People in power, people who it’s a bad thing to allow the kids to have all the colors and have all the colored pencils in front of them. It is a way of control, it’s a way of disallowing the possibilities of one’s own mind.
At the same time I understand why that has happened in the past because people can abuse these things, and it’s true they can, but they can abuse anything. They are very powerful medicines. We should be looking to cultures as examples of Native American culture, who have been using peyote for 5,000 years. When they do it in ceremony it is very much a gathering that is very sacred, that respects everyone, that deals with these issues but in a very elegant and complete manner. So how do you deal with these ultimate states of consciousness? If you do it without respect then you’re just entertaining yourself. And people do that too, which is kind of unfortunate. Because even though I think that it’s fine to engage occasionally in a less-than-ceremonial setting, I think if you’re going to fully benefit from the experience it should be within community and within a support structure that recognizes the potential, the symbols, the metaphors, the mythic level of consciousness that one gets into with these substances and navigates all of that.
Alex Tsakiris: I agree with that. At the same time what I appreciated about your movie is your movie doesn’t say that as much, or doesn’t say that directly. Instead, it says something I think very powerful in that let’s start with the therapeutic model as a way of understanding how we might integrate that in and then we have therapists who come out and say, “The use of this drug is all about setting, it’s all about context, as well as it’s about the biochemical reaction. And I think that speaks to some of the issues that you are talking about and does it in a really pragmatic medical way that everyone can understand and feel comfortable with.
Oliver Hockenhull: Great, yes. I think that is true. I think that we have managed to do that. And again, I really want to emphasize the importance of all the people that were involved with the film and give them thanks and gratitude.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me circle back, if I can Oliver, to a little bit more on the political side and social side because I think we’re kind of coming at this from a very similar way and you kind of crept up there and said, “Hey, if you really were interested in controlling large masses of people and you were interested in controlling them for the reason that you wanted to protect them and at the same time protect your own interests, then it is not really in your interests to have people run out there and explore their individual or group consciousness. You would really prefer to have them kind of more in this fear-based, consumer-based mode. That’s much more malleable. And at the same time what you would do – again, I would suggest it was exactly what we’ve seen. You would want to take those medicines yourself and explore how to use those, how to weaponize those. And you might want to do something like project MK Ultra and give them to people under the worst conditions and the worst context and try and really warp the brain and twist the brain and see what you want to do. I mean, don’t we have to face that it what we would expect a government to do, a controlling entity to do, and that’s the best evidence we have for exactly what has happened.
Oliver Hockenhull: Yeah, I think some of your listeners may be interested in Jay Stevens LSD and the American Dream, and it’s called Storming Heaven. It’s an excellent book about psychedelics during the ‘60s and the involvement of the CIA and so on. It’s a fascinating read and I do believe yes, that some aspects of what you’re saying I certainly agree with. I think at the same time it’s important for us to not be too conspiratorial about this, in my opinion. There is such a flexibility as an example with maleability in this whole world, if you will. So even though I do believe that there is a number of people that were involved with LSD in the CIA, who became a little bit different than the rest of their fellow workers because of their experiences. So I don’t have any examples in front of me, but they got turned on and probably dropped out as well. It’s not all black and white.
Alex Tsakiris: Sure, certainly. And again, your movie is evidence of that in that you see all these folks who have a sincere interest in helping people. As you said, we’re leaving suffering and I think that’s just a wonderful place to start because we can certainly build consensus around that and build consensus around the medical use of these drugs. Which one of these drugs, these substances, did you learn the most about in terms of making this movie and the medical uses of it?
Oliver Hockenhull: That’s a difficult question. It’s actually impossible to answer because they are each unique in their own way and at the same time one of substances that I didn’t examine in the film because it is positioned within the Native American community is peyote. I just wanted to pay homage, if you will, to that community because they have been traumatized to such an extent and at the same time it’s such an amazing community and such an amazing culture. If we really look at what it means to be, or at least to know, of that beauty of the Native American culture. And they were involved with peyote for 5,700 years. So we’re talking about a long history of medicinal use, sacred use of a plant.
Alex Tsakiris: We should at least touch on the substances that you do cover in the movie, and each of these is covered in depth in terms of its medical uses and some of the issues surrounding them legally – LSD, psilocybin, MDMA (also known as ecstasy), ayahuasca, and cannabis of course. Cannabis was the one that kind of surprised me the most. I guess I learned some things about the medical uses of cannabis and marijuana that I wasn’t aware of.
Oliver Hockenhull: I found it really interesting because I think that the war on drugs from the ‘60s and ‘70s and today as well, of course – but the beginning of it was related a lot to the youth movement of the ‘60s. So when people were starting to smoke marijuana it was kind of like a refusal of the gin and tonic and the scotch and water. You could tell a lot about a culture by the drugs it approves. And the youth embracing marijuana was related to – first of all, it’s a lot easier on the body than alcohol. It gets you into a state of mind that is much more compatible to being at ease in the world. And it definitely can be medicinal. So at that moment, the youth movement in the ‘60s against the war, against the Vietnam war, which is covered somewhat in the film, was related to the use of something like marijuana. And I think that the youth embraced these drugs because they wanted to and they realized there was something wrong with our society, deadly wrong with it. And they wanted to have conscious experiences that were definitely outside of the box of daddy’s liquor cabinet. We’re still dealing with that. We’re still dealing with the choices that are made about where you want your brain to go, where you want your consciousness to go. And some people still obviously are frightened about a certain kind of ease as compared to the harshness that is often attached – I mean you rarely hear about someone hurting someone under the use of cannabis, while alcohol obviously is both a depressant and seems to encourage violent activity from a certain group of people.
Alex Tsakiris: I have one final question for you, Oliver. Let me kind of take it out there a little bit, but this is a topic that has been touched on by several different folks when I had Rick Strassman, who of course wrote the spirit molecule into his research into DMT. But also in the book by Graham Hancock lately, and that is this idea that there are spirit entities associated with these substances. Now, that may sound way out there for some folks but we have to realize that the conversation that we’ve had is really a precursor to that. If we free ourselves from this materialistic explanation that consciousness is purely a product of the brain and we just follow the data, like the data you have in your movie to get there, and we say, “Wow, that really seems to be it,” then we might have to be open for this spirit world and we might have to take seriously at least into consideration whether there are spirits associated with these substances. Do you have any opinion or thoughts on that or even how to approach a question like that?
Oliver Hockenhull: Thank you, I think that’s a really important question. I think that if you appreciate as an example the ideas of Joseph Campbell, if you appreciate the ideas of someone like Wade Davis, these are anthropologists and story researchers, people who have studied mythology and so on. What we can ascertain and what I have personally ascertained is that there are levels of consciousness that reveal to us that we are not alone, these entities that are much larger than us. As an example, water itself. I mean, if you really thought about it what the hell is water? If you can set yourself in what would be called in the western mind the poetic frame of mind, you will see that the world is a magical, full place, full of entities and full of powers. And again if you want to go further in that idea, and you want to go wilder, it doesn’t really make sense to me that an advanced civilization would be rocketing from one place to another. That seems like it would be an archaic way of getting around when you could do it through the mind. And in my opinion, this world is full of who knows what. I think that it’s so interconnected, and I think all the universe is so interconnected, that the aliens are us. And by approaching it that way, when it’s not relying on a fear-based oh my God, there are scary things out there, you are approaching it like oh, I am one of these scary things. I am one of these aliens. I am an entity. And it gives you power too, and I think that is a good thing.
Alex Tsakiris: That is a good thing. Again, the movie is Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines. Oliver, tell folks where they can find the movie, how the movie is going?
Oliver Hockenhull: It’s screening all over the world. There are a number of places, including tonight in San Francisco at Landmark Theater, and I think about 3 days ago it was in Chicago at the Landmark. We have got screenings happening in Helsinki, Ibiza, London – it’s really getting out there. You can also go neuronstonirvana.com, where you can download the whole movie or you can order a DVD at the same URL.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Well, again it’s a film that I think anyone who has even a slight interest in this topic will really find interesting and I do hope they check it out. Oliver, best of luck with it and again thank you so much for joining me on Skeptiko.
Oliver Hockenhull: It’s been a real pleasure, thank you.
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