We all know the anti-drug propaganda, and we’ve all heard about “bad trips,” but how much of that is actually true? Today’s guest made the Netflix Documentary “Fantastic Fungi” and has a different viewpoint on psychedelics.
In this episode, Louie Schwartzberg explains how many psychedelics, like “magic mushrooms,” were never considered illegal until the drug war was ramped up in the 1970s. Before that, they had been used for thousands of years in various cultures around the world. Now that society is having a “psychedelic renaissance,” learn how these drugs — or “sacred medicines” — have found new applications in mental health.
Louie Schwartzberg is an award-winning cinematographer, director, and producer who has spent his notable career providing breathtaking imagery using his time-lapse, high-speed, and macro cinematography techniques. Schwartzberg is a visual artist who breaks barriers, connects with audiences, and tells stories that celebrate life and reveal the mysteries and wisdom of nature, people, and places.
Louie’s theatrical releases include the 3D IMAX film “Mysteries of the Unseen World” with National Geographic, narrated by Forest Whitaker; the theatrical feature, “Wings of Life” for Disneynature, narrated by Meryl Streep, and “America’s Heart and Soul” for Walt Disney Studios, and his TED talks have over 60 million views on YouTube.
Louie’s most recent feature film, “Fantastic Fungi,” is now playing in local theaters throughout the U.S. to rave reviews. Louie has also directed “Soarin’ Around the World;” the most popular motion simulator ride film now playing at Disney Theme Parks globally. Season 3 of his series, Moving Art, is now streaming on Netflix. For Schwartzberg, the greatest satisfaction is creating works that can have a positive effect on the future of the planet, by protecting what we love. Find out more at movingart.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Calling into the show today, we have Louie Schwartzberg. Louie is an Award-Winning documentary filmmaker who has made documentaries for National Geographic, Disney and Netflix, and his most recent feature film, Fantastic Fungi is available on Netflix now. Louis, welcome to the show.
Louie Schwartzberg: Good to be with you, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: You know, the professional in me wants to say that this episode is about researching fungus in the hopes of discovering cures and or treatments for mental illness, which is absolutely true. That’s what the episode is about, but it’s really more understanding and relatable to say that this episode is about using psychedelics to treat mental illness, and in part of your documentary Fantastic Fungi, you literally study magic mushrooms and shrooms on mental illness. Is that correct?
Louie Schwartzberg: Absolutely. Uhm, the great sequence in our film where we recorded patients at Johns Hopkins, patients who are going through end of life anxiety because of the severe diagnosis of cancer. They take a journey with the therapist. Before they do that, they actually go through a process of evaluation. They learn a lot about that person’s psychological profile in case anything pops up. And then they spend a day having this psychedelic experience. And then after that, there is a period called integration of what do they learn? Now what’s beautiful about that journey is that it enables them to have a mystical experience. The majority of the people claim that occurs. And when that happens, and again, most of them actually say it’s indescribable. The words they use, it’s ineffable, which basically, I think gives them this giant feeling of love and oneness, oneness with the planet, oneness with all of life. And the benefit of that is that they really embrace living to conquer their fear of dying, because dying is that existential question we all are grappling with, right?
Louie Schwartzberg: So here you are. You just got this like diagnosis that there’s something wrong with your body. And then on top of it, you have to imagine, Well, what does that mean if I die? And nobody really has that answer. And unfortunately, I would say religion has a lot of bad stories that don’t really ease your pain or anxiety about it. But if you feel this incredible mystical, spiritual connection of oneness, the patients feel that it overcomes that fear, and by overcoming that fear, you’re able to heal. And I think that is a miracle. And 70 and 80 percent of the patients at Johns Hopkins said it was the most incredible spiritual experience of their life, up there with the big moments of like when your baby was born, when your parent died. Major milestones in your life. That’s how they rate it. It’s obviously a giant benefit, and I do believe, and I’m sure you do this in your podcast all the time, the mind, body, spirit, it’s all connected. And if you can eliminate fear and anxiety and stress, then it is certainly the gateway to healing your body as well.
Gabe Howard: Now you tabled this as end of life, but what about somebody living with mental illness day to day who does not have a terminal diagnosis? Has the research shown that the use of psychedelics can help manage mental illness in that way?
Louie Schwartzberg: Absolutely, MAPS has a trial going now where they’re using it with people with, primarily dealing with stress, anxiety and especially veterans with PTSD. The results are like 60 – 70 percent positive after one or two sessions. So absolutely, it can reduce stress and anxiety. As a matter of fact, I’m involved in a couple of clinical trials, one here in Santa Monica at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, which is inside of St. John’s Hospital. We’re treating patients for alcohol addiction. Other trials have also done tobacco smoking, but in this particular trial, we’re treating people with alcohol addiction and what we’re doing. They start off by watching the rhythms and patterns of nature video I created on a giant eighty five inch TV with headphones as they are taking a dose of psilocybin, which is magic mushrooms. And then they lay down with the therapist, as I’ve illustrated in the film at Johns Hopkins. And what’s remarkable is that somehow these sacred medicines are able to unlock trauma that’s been buried because why is somebody addicted? Usually, it has to do with some type of trauma that they aren’t facing or some form of other self-abuse. So it’s really remarkable that I would say these sacred medicines can kind of take, you know, 10 or 20 years of therapy and roll it up into one session so they don’t magically cure you or heal you. What they do is they enable you to kind of go deep inside of yourself and deal with anything that may be troubling you or locked up. And maybe for people that have less anxiety and stress, perhaps it just becomes a beautiful, ineffable spiritual journey.
Gabe Howard: There is a ridiculous amount of data to show that people with mental illness are self-medicating with all kinds of mind altering drugs, starting with alcohol.
Gabe Howard: Is that what it looks like when you’re using psychedelic drugs as medication?
Louie Schwartzberg: Um, number one, I don’t refer to a mushroom as a drug. It was never considered a drug, Schedule I drug, until Richard Nixon decided to make it a drug because it was a political move to go against people who don’t vote for him like people of color, the anti-war protesters back in 1970. So that was a political move. That never occurred before. It’s been used for tens of thousands of years in cultures in South America, in Mexico, all over the world, as a rite of passage. So it’s not a street drug. I think that’s a wrong way of looking at it. I would refer to it as a sacred medicine. Now, the research that was, you know, at the forefront of psychology and mental health wellness in 1970 went into a black hole until 2000, and it’s really great that we’re finally picking up the mantle and doing the science to discover how these can be really beneficial for mental health.
Gabe Howard: It’s very interesting what you’re saying about this being on the cutting end of research and the vilification of these substances, I mean, a mushroom is something that grows, grows naturally in nature. Marijuana and hemp that also occurs naturally in nature. And we see where that’s going. And it’s also very interesting to me that 60 universities, including Johns Hopkins, are studying this and finding very interesting things as it relates to treating mental illness, addiction, anxiety and so many things. It’s so fascinating to me because even as I’m listening to you, my own bias is saying, I don’t know. I think we’ve got a YouTube researcher on our hand who has just decided he’s looking for an excuse to do drugs, for lack of a better phrasing. What do you say to the people who say that?
Louie Schwartzberg: Do your own research. Your own googling. And look, Western civilization, white guys now are doing this deep dive. Indigenous cultures, whether it’s Native Americans and the indigenous cultures in northern Mexico or shamans in South America, it’s been going on for thousands of years. Who are we to vilify a sacred practice? I think we need to be less arrogant and judgmental and zoom out a little bit. The Greeks were doing this. It was a rite of passage. It was a celebration. It’s called Eleusinian Mysteries. Aristotle, Socrates. Study the history. And it wasn’t again until, as I said, Richard Nixon declared them illegal and the U.S. government published propaganda, that it would destroy your chromosomes and make you schizophrenic and jump off of buildings. And all of that did have the negative effect of kicking it out of the lab. And that was not a good result. It should have stayed inside of, I think, medical research, but because it was declared to be illegal.
Louie Schwartzberg: You know, guys like Timothy Leary and all the people who are studying at Harvard, barred from studying it ended up talking about it and it started to go into the underground. And that is an unfortunate situation that I hope doesn’t reoccur as we’re in this psychedelic renaissance. So, for anyone who is the skeptic. I think it’s great. Do your own research, but just be open minded. Let’s get a really good broad overview. So what I see with these sacred medicines, psilocybin especially, it’s really what we’re giving people is nature. Nature is a healing modality, whether it’s forest bathing or having a window in a hospital room. Studies prove that being in nature can heal you much quicker and reduce suffering. Well, there’s a couple of ways to absorb nature. You can look at it. You can also ingest it. You know, you can feel it. You can hear it. You can taste it. You got to appeal to all the sensory receptors if you want the medicine, right? So this, to me, is just another form of ingesting the healing energy of nature.
Gabe Howard: If somebody’s living with serious and persistent mental illness wanted to try this as a treatment, it’s advisable that they go through their doctor or therapist or somebody. What do you recommend they do? I’m guessing you’re not advising that they just go buy something from a stranger and hope that what they’re getting is the right thing, of quality. And obviously, they don’t know what the dose is, et cetera. So self-medicating is not what you’re advocating. You’re just advocating for the use of this safely.
Louie Schwartzberg: Exactly, look. So the clinics that are opening up now in the U.S. and in Canada offer treatment with ketamine. Ketamine is similar. It’s legal. It was never a Schedule I drug. And people can investigate that and they can google ketamine treatments, K E T A M I N E, which is a legal drug and is being offered in clinics throughout the United States and Canada with professional therapists. And they’ll be able to find perhaps a clinic near them where they can have a quote unquote psychedelic experience.
Gabe Howard: And the psychedelic experience, is this something that they would do daily, weekly, monthly? What does it look like and how does somebody decide what it’s supposed to look like? Because I imagine it’s different for everybody based on, you know, diagnosis. And of course, even in, you know, traditional medicine, we know that just because Gabe and Bob are both on the same drug, they could be different dosages. I could take mine in the morning, he could take his at night. I mean, it’s it’s not an exact science, and I imagine that it’s not an exact science with psychedelics either.
Louie Schwartzberg: That’s true, I mean, if you’re going to do it in the clinic, they have synthetic psilocybin, which is a precise dose that has been manufactured under the rules and regulations of the FDA. So it’s 100 percent pure, one hundred percent quality control. The other part of your question is typically people just want to do it once or twice. That’s it. It’s like once you get it, you get it. Once you see that you’re not the center of the universe, all the anxiety and rumination that’s going on in your head, it’s making you depressed. Once you face it, well, then you move on. So it isn’t anything that this is like the medication where you know you’re numbing something, you’re getting to the root of the problem. And when you get to the root of the problem and you’re able to observe it objectively, that’s step one to healing. And then there’s follow-up integration with the therapist to talk about what it was you discovered on your journey. You know, sometimes people refer to what they experience as a bad trip. Well, the bad trip might have been exactly what you need. I mean, the bad trip might have been that you discovered some type of trauma in your past. It could have been child abuse or somebody was mean to you or whatever it was. Once you face it, it’s step one to healing. And I think it’s actually miraculous that these substances are able to unearth what you have buried deep inside. I mean, just think about that for a moment. How many weeks or years would it take for a therapist to dig deep to find out what is really troubling you?
Gabe Howard: I mean, it takes, it could take weeks, months, years.
Louie Schwartzberg: Exactly. Isn’t that kind of a miracle that nature invented a molecule, that fits the receptor in the brain, that releases serotonin, for you to have this remarkable experience? You know, one of the things that they found out and they’ve done this like looking at the brain under an MRI. When someone is taking a psychedelic, you would think that there would be like a lot of kind of crazy activity. But what they found out is that it quiets the default mode network. That’s the part of the brain that kind of organizes all your thoughts, Mr. Logic, maybe like the CEO of the operation, functional consciousness. And when that quiets down, other parts of the brain start to communicate with parts that normally don’t connect like, you know, maybe somebody hears music and can see colors or emotions get attached to patterns of nature. And you have different feelings. What you’re doing is you’re opening up new neural pathways. You’re getting out of that rut of rumination, of thinking of the same problem over and over and over. And when that happens, you’ve broadened your perspective, you’ve opened up your horizons. You look at life differently. That’s why you never take another journey. You don’t need to. You’ve changed your worldview. You don’t want to have an aha moment after an aha moment after an aha moment. Once you had that aha moment and realization, the next step is you want to manifest. You want to actualize it. You want to do it. This is what I need to do to repair my relationship with my, my wife, my child, my partner.
Louie Schwartzberg: Whatever it might be, this is what I need. This is how I want to move my career forward or the work that I’m doing. You know, when you have insight, when you have that light bulb go off in your head, you want to then do it. You don’t want to just think about it over and over and over. So that’s the beautiful part of these journeys. I mean, it makes people more compassionate. It makes people more loving. It makes people more self-actualized. I mean, look, there are a lot of ways to get there. People can do meditation and get there. People do yoga. People can take a sacred journey on psilocybin. They’re just tools. And what’s also really important in all of these situations, they call it set and setting. So you have to have a mindful intention of what do I want coming out of this experience? What am I trying to fix or heal in my life? And then the setting is your surroundings. You know, ideally, nature is great, but you wanted to be in place that’s very comfortable, a place that you feel safe, a place where you’re surrounded by the things that make you feel good. I mean, that’s really, really critical. It’s not going to a rock concert. It’s not hanging out with a bunch of people partying. That’s the opposite of what you want to do. You want to do this with as much respect as possible.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg. In addition to the mental health benefits that you’ve discussed and we have been discussing, fungi can help boost our immune systems, if I understand correctly. Can you walk us through why that is, how it works and of course, how we know that?
Louie Schwartzberg: Sure. Well, first of all, so our DNA is more similar to fungi than they are to any other kingdom. It’s one of the reasons why penicillin has saved more lives than any other medication. It’s because the fungi fights the same viruses and bacteria that can attack us. So the similarity between us and fungi is the fact that what fungi does is they exude an enzyme and they break down organic matter and then they absorb it. So basically, they have an external stomach. We do the same thing. We have enzymes that breakdown food, et cetera, with the help of fungi in our gut. Plants, on the other hand, takes light energy and they can convert that photosynthesis into chemical bonds. So we are more closely related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom. And the fungi in our gut are critical, the microbiome, for digesting and absorbing food. That’s who you are. The fact that they can help build your immune system has been proven in a number of situations. For example, they found that the lion’s mane is really helpful with memory loss and a valuable potential supplement for treating people with Alzheimer’s. A recent study at Yale showed that giving psilocybin to mice actually grew the telomeres. In other words, neurological growth can occur from a psilocybin, one psilocybin treatment to a mouse. That deserves a lot more research. Whoever heard of the ability of being able to create new neurons? Really remarkable. Turkey tail has also been found to be a powerful supplement in treating cancer. Again, it builds your immune system because what the fungi are doing is they’re fighting those viruses and bacteria that they would normally combat in their environment that might be in our environment. Again if they had not invented penicillin. People claim that was the reason why we won World War II. We had it the Japanese, the Germans did not have it, and that saved more lives during World War II. It was considered the miracle drug. Penicillin’s a mold.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Louie Schwartzberg: Ok?
Gabe Howard: Do you see that happening with mushrooms? That it’s just we’ve done this with so many other things and we end up in a really good place. It started vilified.
Louie Schwartzberg: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Research, and now here we are. And it’s saving lives.
Louie Schwartzberg: Well, yeah, I mean, look, it didn’t start like being vilified. I mean, before being vilified, it was used in sacred ceremonies for tens of thousands of years. As far back as we know, because we don’t have written history. Going back into the Greeks or further. But, you know, indigenous cultures in the Amazon, it’s always been a rite of passage with ayahuasca and peyote in northern Mexico. And then it did get vilified. But let’s be honest about it got vilified by a guy named Richard Nixon who had to leave office for being a criminal. And we’re still suffering the consequences of that decision. It’s called the war on drugs. How many people of color are incarcerated because maybe they smoked a joint? I mean, I got billboards on Ventura Boulevard here in L.A., every street corner, encouraging me to come into like a medical marijuana shop. So you’re right. I mean, look, you got vilified. And now we find out that CBD is the most popular ingredient in cosmetic and health care products. All the millennials want CBD. It’s a giant industry. The cannabis industry is not going backwards. I think it’s a $70 billion industry right now.
Louie Schwartzberg: You know, it’s regulated. And look what happened. It’s paying taxes for schools and for governments. Oregon just passed the decriminalization of psilocybin, and so did the cities of Denver, Santa Cruz, Oakland. There are initiatives in California and New York. I mean, it’s going to follow very quickly in the same pathway that cannabis did. It’s inevitable. I mean, who would have thought that cannabis would have exploded as quickly as it did? You got Republican legislatures and politicians now advocating for it. The head of the Republican Party in the House, Boehner, I see ads for cannabis with Boehner talking about it. It’s pretty remarkable how fast things change. I think especially when you put a lid on something and you put false propaganda out around it. You know, everything from look backwards for a moment. Look at gay marriage. When Obama went into office, he was against it. When he was out of office, Republicans were for it. Look how fast these judgments of suppressing behavior changes really quickly when you look at it through the lens of science and objectivity. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a psychedelic journey?
Gabe Howard: I personally have, yes, and one of the things that I’m struggling with is when I utilized drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for bipolar disorder, it did not turn out well for me.
Louie Schwartzberg: Yeah, look, as I said earlier, people that are interested in having a clinical psychedelic experience are always evaluated. You know, if you’ve got schizophrenia and any other serious mental condition, then you’re not a candidate for this type of treatment. So you need to have a professional, you know, go through a serious evaluation. Now here’s just like dealing with like moderate depression or anxiety. I’m not saying you should purchase anything off the street and go try it. I think that you should discover and do the research and talk to a medical expert before you do anything like that. I think we have to be super careful. We don’t want this movement to go off the rails because some irresponsible person did something terrible, which creates a lot of negative publicity and really will destroy this research and the movement that is helping people across North America, if not the world.
Gabe Howard: Louie, thank, thank you so, so much for being here, I know that we could talk about this all day. We could spend an entire show on the controversy. We could spend an entire show
Louie Schwartzberg: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: On the research, we could spend an entire show on how we got here. I think it’s very interesting to wrap up with the idea that this wasn’t always the case. You are right. It was the Nixon administration that started the war on drugs, and we vilified a lot of things, and it’s been very interesting for me, as a middle aged white guy living in suburbia. Just I want to own it. That when we had the crack epidemic, it was all about prison and arrests. And now we have the opioid epidemic and it’s all about help. And the big difference was who was impacted, the socioeconomic status, the race, the communities. One community we wanted to help, the other community, we wanted to criminalize. And as I hear you talking, I hear those things start to come out and I think this is this is so incredibly interesting. But of course, we also want to be very, very responsible, like you said, and not just take matters into our own hands because we listen to a 25 minute podcast. Nobody should listen to a 25 minute podcast and declare themselves an expert on anything. And I imagine that you will agree with me, Louie.
Louie Schwartzberg: I totally agree, and I would take that same type of skepticism and vigilance to any recommendation that the medical establishment gives you, I mean, look at the opioid crisis. This was pushed on your neighbors in a very aggressive way that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. So if you want to take a look at what, if any, instead of like, you know, zooming in on a tiny mushroom that grows out of a piece of dung in a cow field? The mushrooms, for me, Gabe, it’s just a portal into understanding nature’s intelligence. There are many ways to go down that rabbit hole. I did a movie called Wings of Life on Disney Nature with Meryl Streep. It was all about pollination, which I thought at that point was the foundation of life. And then you would go, well, great if plants give us like different nuts, vegetables, all the healthy food we need to eat, and the bees are critical for that, you know, for their reproduction to move their pollen around. Well, then you go the plants need soil. Where does soil come from? It come from fungi. There’d be no soil without fungi to break down organic matter and recycle nutrients. So for me, this is a giant scientific and spiritual journey to see what is what is life. How do we unveil the mystery of life? What is the foundation of life? That’s what I try to do with the movies I make.
Gabe Howard: Louie, sincerely, I’ve learned a lot and I have a lot to consider as I imagine all of our listeners do as well, and those are the best shows, right? I mean, I did not know what to expect when you came on to the show and you did not disappoint.
Louie Schwartzberg: My pleasure, Gabe, thank you.
Gabe Howard: Fantastic Fungi is available on Netflix, but can folks find you online, Louie?
Louie Schwartzberg: Yes, if they got FantasticFungi.com, I’d like everyone to know that we have a fungi global summit. You can download and stream the incredible interviews we have with remarkable experts in the field like Dr. Mark Hyman, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Michael Beckwith, Paul Hawken, et cetera, et cetera. These are powerful conversations that I’ve recorded with all of these leading experts from a health, wellness, environmental, culinary and psychedelic perspective.
Gabe Howard: I love it. Thank you so much for being here. And a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can get a signed copy with free podcast swag and learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free and recommend the show to everybody you know. You know word of mouth works better than social media in some cases. Just throwing that tip out there. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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