It would be very easy to dunk on The Goop Lab, the new Netflix extension of Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade-egg-and-vagina-candle-hawking wellness brand. I went into the first episode, “The Healing Trip”, which is about the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, expecting to be either incensed by the show’s lack of scientific rigour or else pleasantly surprised by its factual accuracy. By the end, I was mainly just bored.
The episode opens at Goop HQ, where Paltrow and chief content officer Elise Loehnen talk to Will Siu, a psychiatrist, and Bill Haden, executive director for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Canada. MAPS helps to fund and conduct research into drugs including MDMA and psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms).
Haden explains that, after an effective moratorium on scientific research using psychedelic drugs following laws brought in in the 60s and 70s, “psychedelics are back”. He’s right: in the past two decades, research studies and clinical trials have been conducted that involve LSD, psilocybin and other substances that we usually think of in a recreational context, often with the aim of exploring treatments for mental health disorders such as depression, addiction and PTSD. So far, so good.
It doesn’t take long for some of the broad statements and biases to shine through. When asked the reason behind this renewed interest in psychedelics, Siu suggests a dissatisfaction around the use of SSRI antidepressants – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as fluoxetine (often known by the brand name Prozac), which can be prescribed for conditions including depression and anxiety. “Psychiatry left psychotherapy behind and we embraced these drugs that we all know give terrible side effects,” he says. From Paltrow and Loehnen’s serious nods, it seems that we’re assumed to hold negative views on these kinds of drugs – a tired trope that disregards the proven benefits many people get from antidepressants. The scene glosses over the fact that psychedelics are also drugs, and may also have side effects, and that antidepressants are often used in combination with talking therapy treatments (as the experts suggest psychedelics should be too).
Most of the episode is dedicated to Loehnen and other members of the Goop team going to Jamaica to take magic mushrooms in a retreat-style setting that is far from what you’d expect in a clinical trial. There are smudge sticks, and an appeal to “be with the spirit of the mushroom”. This is where the episode starts really starts getting boring. Not only is it frankly very dull to watch a bunch of people you don’t know take drugs (we get every cliché – ”isn’t the sky crazy?”), but the exploration of the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics becomes so vague that we don’t really learn anything at all. It’s not that there’s much wrong exactly; it’s more that there’s very little substance to begin with. The Goop members laugh, cry and cry some more. There’s lots of talking about feelings that’s all a bit too much for my British sensibility, and some very awkward-to-watch hugging.
The episode does include a couple of interviews with participants in recent research studies, who share their (notably always positive) personal experiences. We don’t get any real details on what the studies involved or what the findings or limitations were – which is a shame, because they’re interesting. One of the interview subjects was involved in a study that found psilocybin reduced depression and anxiety in patients with cancer; the other is a veteran who took part in one that found MDMA-assisted psychotherapy reduced symptoms in patients with PTSD (with all the usual caveats that it’s still early days for this kind of research, sample sizes are small, etc). There’s also a brief interview with someone who microdoses psilocybin.
Between the different interviews about different studies involving different drugs and different disorders, everything gets rather muddled up, and the only real takeaway is that there is some evidence psychedelics may have therapeutic benefits to some people in some situations. Where The Goop Lab pushes things is the implied suggestion (and it is only ever implied) that psychedelics could be rather more broadly beneficial.
Ultimately, there’s a fundamental disconnect between what Goop seems to really want to explore and the research work it references, however much it tries to connect the two. When researchers refer to psychedelics as “therapeutic”, they mean that they could have potential as a medical treatment; Goop’s definition of “therapeutic” is the more colloquial meaning of a general sense of wellbeing. While scientific studies focus on very specific applications and outcomes, Goop is in search of the much more vague and subjective notion of wellness. One team joins the Jamaica trip because she wants to “feel more like her authentic self”; another wants to have a “psychospiritual experience”.
While these individual goals and experiences are perfectly valid – and while it may be the case that psychedelics can have some general positive effects on mood or wellbeing (there’s less good research on this) – it’s a long stretch to extrapolate findings from, say, a study looking at anxiety in cancer patients to this more goopy idea of “healing”. The result is an exploration that remains so surface-level, it doesn’t really engage with the topic in any meaningful way. While Goop seems to think it’s being incredibly edgy, it all ends up a bit pedestrian.
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