It was supposed to be the holy grail of psychiatry, but a person’s best intentions are no match for forces outside his control. In the documentary “The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD,” filmmaker Martin Witz sets out to explore the scientific, cultural, and spiritual history of a chemical compound with the unique power to alter one’s sense of reality through vivid imagery.
He tracks LSD on its journey from a promising research tool to the relic of hippie culture it is today, a cult classic among drug users. Interweaving nature and controlled, manmade environments, Witz emphasizes that one should think carefully before sharing insights into the unknown.
Albert Hofmann was a chemist interested in breaking down the natural world into its composed elements. In 1938, he synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) from ergot, a fungus that grows on rye, but it wasn’t until five years later that he unintentionally ingested it, which took him on a mental trip through consciousness and brought him back to the physical world “reborn.”
At the same time Hofmann was experimenting with the substance, the real world was suspended in a tragic state of unrest. At the peak of World War II, people were reasonably unstable and embraced psychoanalytic theory with open arms. The impetus grew to explore behavior and, more important, psychiatric illness by reconciling various levels of human consciousness.
In Hofmann’s eyes, LSD was a tool to amplify the senses and gain great insight into consciousness, which he saw as an integration of perceptions of the natural world through the senses. Overwhelmed by the promise of this drug as a powerful research and therapeutic tool, Hofmann all too quickly released it to other scientists. It soon became evident that this substance was not to be controlled.
Key to the film is the clash between multiple worlds: the natural and the manmade, culture and counterculture, reality, and perception. Witz achieves this cacophony mainly through his use of antithetical imagery throughout the film. Images shift in the opening scene, as the soundtrack goes from light to eerie, hippies blowing bubbles progress to bubbles tumbling around in test tubes.
Witz captures the cultural and temporal context with unbelievably fantastic footage of actual experiments in labs, therapists’ offices, and even military establishments. As the eye toggles between crashing waves, blowing wheat and bombers dropping missiles from the sky, another theme becomes evident: the human struggle to make sense of an unpredictable world.
Interwoven within this broader theme is the loss of identity to a greater essence. In one scene, a scientist poetically explains how functional magnetic resonance imaging has allowed him to visualize what goes on in a brain under the influence of a drug that echoes LSD, psilocybin. He weakly concludes that as fear diminishes and happiness increases, the ego shrinks, getting lost to the senses. The concept of time and space is also lost. Similar to the mind’s transition, LSD sacrifices its identity to the cultural environment of the time.
Concluding with a montage of all of these images, the film shows that there is much more beyond human control, and that maintaining balance in a world of chaos is not an easy task. Consciousness, that clever shape shifter, may never stay still long enough for humans to capture. This tastefully executed documentary would be a great educational tool for college courses in psychology, research ethics, religion, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology.
This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Winter 2014 issue.