Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.
You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.
Andrew Huberman (00:00):
Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast, where we discuss science and science-based tools for everyday life. I’m Andrew Huberman, and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. Today, my guest is Dr. Sam Harris. Dr. Sam Harris did his undergraduate training in philosophy at Stanford University, and then went on to do his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He is well-known as an author who has written about everything from meditation to consciousness, free will, and he holds many strong political views that he’s voiced on social media and in the content of various books as they relate to philosophy and neuroscience. During today’s episode, I mainly talked to Dr. Harris about his views and practices related to meditation, consciousness, and free will.
In fact, he made several important points about what a proper meditation practice can accomplish. Prior to this episode, I thought that meditation was about deliberately changing one’s conscious experience in order to achieve things such as deeper relaxation, a heightened sense of focus, or ability to focus generally, elevated memory, and so on. What Sam taught me, and what you’ll soon learn as well, is that while meditation does indeed hold all of those valuable benefits, the main value of a meditation practice, or perhaps the greater value of a meditation practice, is that it doesn’t just allow one to change their conscious experience, but it actually can allow a human being to view consciousness itself. That is, to understand what the process of consciousness is. And in doing so, to profoundly shift the way that one engages with the world and with oneself in all practices, all environments, and at all times, both in sleep and in waking states. And in that way, making meditation perhaps the most potent and important portal by which one can access novel ways of thinking and being and viewing one’s life experience. We also discussed the so-called mind-body problem and issues of duality and free will.
Concepts from philosophy and neuroscience that fortunately, thanks to valuable experiments and deep thinking on the part of people like Dr. Sam Harris and others, is now leading people to understand really what free will is and isn’t, where the locus of free will likely sits in the brain, if it indeed resides in the brain at all, and what it means to be a conscious being and how we can modify our conscious states in ways that allow us to be more functional. We also discussed perception, both visual perception, auditory perception, and especially interesting to me, and I think as well, hopefully to you, time perception, which we know is very elastic in the brain.
The literal frame rate by which we process our conscious experience can expand and contract dramatically depending on our state of mind and how conscious we are about our state of mind. So we went deep into that topic as well. Today’s discussion was indeed an intellectual deep dive into all the topics that I mentioned a few moments ago, but it also included many practical tools. In fact, I pushed Sam to share with us what his specific practices are and how we can all arrive at a clearer and better understanding of a meditation practice that we can each and all apply so that we can derive these incredible benefits, not just the ones related to stress and focus and enhanced memory, the ones that relate to our consciousness, that is to our deeper sense of self and to others. Several times during today’s episode, I mentioned the Waking Up app. The Waking Up app was developed by Sam Harris, but I want to emphasize that my mention of the app is in no way a paid promotional. Rather, the Waking Up app is one that I’ve used for some period of time now, and find very, very useful. I have family members that also use it. Other staff members here at the Huberman Lab Podcast use it because we find it to be such a powerful tool. Sam has generously offered Huberman Lab Podcast listeners a 30-day completely free trial of the Waking Up app. If any of you want to try it, you can simply go to wakingup.com slash Huberman to get that 30-day free trial. During today’s discussion, we didn’t just talk about meditation, consciousness, and free will.
We also talked about psychedelics, both their therapeutic applications for the treatment of things like depression and PTSD, but also the use of psychedelics. And we discussed Sam’s experiences with psychedelics as they relate to expanding one’s consciousness. I also asked Sam about his views and practices related to social media, prompted in no small part by his recent voluntary decision to close down his Twitter account. So we talked about his rationale for doing that, how he feels about doing that. And I think you’ll find that to be very interesting as well. Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize that this podcast is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford. It is, however, part of my desire and effort to bring zero cost to consumer information about science and science-related tools to the general public. In keeping with that theme, I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast. Our first sponsor is Levels. Levels is a program that lets you see how different foods and behaviors affect your health by giving you real-time feedback using a continuous glucose monitor. One of the most important factors in your immediate and long-term health are your blood sugar levels, and not just your overall blood sugar levels, but your blood sugar levels throughout the day in response to different foods you eat, to fasting if you’re into fasting, to exercise, and so forth. I started using Levels some time ago in order to figure out how different foods impact my blood sugar levels. And indeed, it does that very well. It allowed me to see how certain foods really spike my blood sugar and others keep it more level, and in particular, how foods that I eat after exercise can help raise my blood glucose just enough, but not so much that then I get a crash two or three hours later, which is what was happening before I started using Levels. I’ve made certain adjustments to my diet. I can now eat post-exercise and still have plenty of energy throughout the day without any issue. It also has helped me understand how different behaviors impact my blood glucose levels. If you’re interested in learning more about Levels and trying a continuous glucose monitor yourself, go to levels.link slash Huberman. Again, that’s levels.link spelled L-I-N-K slash Huberman. Today’s episode is also brought to us by Whoop.
Whoop is a fitness wearable device that tracks your daily activity and sleep, but goes beyond activity and sleep tracking to provide real-time feedback on how to adjust your training and sleep schedules in order to feel and perform better. Six months ago, I started working with Whoop as a member of their scientific advisory council as a way to help Whoop advance their mission of unlocking human performance, and as a Whoop user, I’ve experienced firsthand the health benefits of their technology. It’s clear based on quality research that Whoop can inform you how well you’re sleeping, how to change your sleep habits, how to change your activity habits, even how to modify different aspects of your nutrition, exercise, sleep, and lifestyle in order to maximize your mental health, physical health, and performance. So whether or not you’re an athlete or you’re exercising simply for health, Whoop can really help you understand how your body functions under different conditions and how to really program your schedule, nutrition, and exercise, and many other factors of your life in order to really optimize your health and performance, including your cognition. If you’re interested in trying Whoop, you can go to joinwhoop spelled W-H-O-O-P.com slash Huberman. That’s joinwhoop.com slash Huberman today and get your first month free. Today’s episode is also brought to us by Eight Sleep. Eight Sleep makes smart mattress covers with cooling, heating, and sleep tracking capacity. I’ve talked many times before on this podcast about the fact that sleep is the fundamental layer of mental health, physical health, and performance. Now, one of the key things for getting a great night’s sleep every single night is to optimize the temperature of your sleeping environment.
Put simply, in order to fall asleep and stay deeply asleep, your body temperature needs to drop by about one to three degrees. And waking up, on the other hand, involves a heating of your body by about one to three degrees. With Eight Sleep, you can tune the temperature of your mattress cover or mattress to be cooler or hotter, depending on whether or not you tend to run too hot or too cold. And you can even vary it across the night so that you can access the best deep sleep early in the night, the so-called REM sleep, rapid eye movement sleep, that’s more pronounced in the later half of the night. And in doing so, really get your sleep optimized, not just in terms of duration, but in terms of quality and the overall architecture of your sleep. This has a profound influence on your alertness, focus, mood, and many other important factors throughout the day. If you’d like to try Eight Sleep, you can go to eightsleep.com slash Huberman to save up to $150 off their Pod 3 cover. Eight Sleep currently ships to the USA, Canada, United Kingdom, select countries in the EU, and Australia. Again, that’s eightsleep.com slash Huberman. The Huberman Lab Podcast is proud to announce that we are now partnered with Momentous Supplements because Momentous Supplements are of the very highest quality they ship internationally, and they have single ingredient formulations. If you’d like to access the supplements discussed on the Huberman Lab Podcast, you can go to Live Momentous, spelled O-U-S, so livemomentous.com slash Huberman. And now for my discussion with Dr. Sam Harris. Dr. Sam Harris.
We’re just talking about this. You are indeed a doctor. You’re a scientist.
Sam Harris (08:59):
I cannot save your life, but I might save your non-existent soul if we talk long enough.
Andrew Huberman (09:06):
Well, neither of us are clinicians, but we are both brain explorers from the different perspectives, some overlapping. And I’m really excited to have this conversation. I’ve been listening to your voice for many years, learning from you for many years. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that my father, who’s also a scientist, is an enormous fan of your waking up app, and has spent a lot of time over the last few years, he’s in his late seventies, he’s almost 80, he’s a theoretical physicist, walking to the park near his apartment and spending time meditating with the app, or sometimes separate from the app, but using the same sorts of meditations in his head. So he kind of toggles back and forth. And even, I shouldn’t say even, but yes, even in his late seventies has reported that it has significantly shifted his awareness of self and his conscious experience of things happening in and around him. And he was somebody who I think already saw himself as a pretty aware person thinking about quantum mechanics and the rest. So a thank you from him indirectly, a thank you from me now directly. And I really want to use that as a way to frame up what I think is one of the more interesting questions in not just science and philosophy and psychology, but all of life, which is, what is this thing that we call a self? You know, as far as I know, we have not localized the region in the brain that can entirely account for our perception of self. There are areas of course, that regulate proprioception, you know, our awareness of where our limbs are in space, maybe even our awareness of where we are in physical space. There are such circuits as we both know. But when we talk about sense of self, I have to remember this kind of neuroscience 101 thing that we always say, you know, when you teach memory, you say, you know, you wake up every morning and you remember who you are. You know who you are. Most people do. Even if they lack memory systems in the brain for whatever reason, pretty much everyone seems to know who they are. What are your thoughts on what that whole thing is about? Do we come into the world feeling that way? I would appreciate answers from the perspective of any field, including neuroscience, of course.
Sam Harris (11:26):
Yeah, well, big question. I mean, the problem is we use the term self in so many different ways, right? And there’s one sense of that term, which is the target of meditation and it’s the target of deconstruction by the practice and by just any surrounding philosophy. So you’ll hear and you’ll hear it from me that this self is an illusion, right? And that there’s a psychological freedom that can be experienced on the other side of discovering it to be an illusion. And some people don’t like that framing. Some people would insist that it’s not so much an illusion, but it’s a construct and it’s not what it seems, right?
But it’s not that every use of the term self is illegitimate and there are certain types of selves that are not illusory. I mean, I’m not saying that people are illusions. I’m not saying that you can’t talk about yourself as distinct, yourself as a whole person and as psychological continuity with your past experience as being distinct from the person and psychological continuity of some other person, right? Obviously we have to be able to conserve those data. It’s not fundamentally mysterious that you’re gonna wake up tomorrow morning still being psychologically continuous with your past and not my past, right? And if we swapped lives, that would demand some explanation.
So the illusoriness of the self doesn’t cut against any of those obvious facts. So the sense of self that is illusory, and again, we might wanna talk about self in other modes because there’s just a lot of interest there psychologically and ultimately scientifically. The thing that doesn’t exist, it certainly doesn’t exist as it seems, and I would wanna argue that it actually is just a proper illusion, is the sense that there is a subject interior to experience in addition to experience. So most people feel like they’re having an experience of the world and they’re having an experience of their bodies in the world. And in addition to that, they feel that they are a subject internal to the body and are very likely in the head. Most people feel like they’re behind their face as a kind of locus of awareness and thought and intention.
It’s almost like you’re a passenger inside your body. Most people don’t feel identical to their bodies and they can imagine, this is sort of the origin, the psychological origin, the folk psychological origin of a sense of that there might be a soul that could survive the death of the body. I mean, most people are what my friend Paul Bloom calls common sense dualists, right? You’re used to the default expectation seems to be that whatever the relationship between the mind and the body, there’s some promise of separability there, right? And whenever you really push hard on the science side and say, well, no, no, the mind is really just what the brain is doing, that begins to feel more and more counterintuitive to people and there still seems some residual mystery that, at death, maybe something is gonna lift off the brain and go elsewhere, right? So there’s a sense of dualism that many people have and obviously that’s supported by many religious beliefs.
But this feeling, it’s a very peculiar starting point. People feel that they don’t feel identical to their experience, right? As a matter of experience, they feel like they’re on the edge of experience, somehow appropriating it from the side. You’re kind of on the edge of the world and the world is out there. Your body is in some sense, an object in the world, which it’s different from the world. The boundary of your skin is still meaningful. You can sort of loosely control your body. I mean, you can’t control it. You can control your gross and subtle, voluntary motor movements, but you can’t, you’re not controlling everything your body is doing. You’re not controlling your heartbeat and your, you know, your hormonal secretions and all of that. And so there’s a lot that’s going on that is in the dark for you. And then you give someone an instruction to meditate, say, and you say, okay, well, let’s examine all of this from the first person’s side. Let’s look for this thing you’re calling I.
And again, I is not identical to the body. People feel like their hands are out there and if they’re going to meditate, they’re going to close their eyes, very likely. And now they’re going to pay attention to something. They’re going to pay attention to the breath or the sounds. And it’s from the point of view of being a locus of attention that is now aiming attention strategically at an object like the breath, that there’s this dualism that is set up.
And ultimately, the ultimate promise of meditation, I mean, there are really two levels at which you could be interested in meditation. One is, you know, very straightforward and remedial and non-paradoxical and very well-subscribed. And it’s the usual set of claims about all the benefits you’re going to get from meditation. Right, so you’re going to lower your stress and you’re going to increase your focus and you’re going to, you know, stave off cortical thinning and there’s all kinds of good things that science is saying meditation will give you. And none of that entails really drilling down on this paradoxical claim that the self is an illusion or anything else of that sort.
But from my point of view, the real purpose of meditation and its real promise is not in this long list of benefits. And, you know, I’m not discounting any of those, though, you know, the science for many of them is quite provisional, it’s in this deeper claim that if you look for this thing you’re calling I, if you look for the sense that there’s a thinker in addition to the mirror rising of the next thought, say, you won’t find that thing. And you can, what’s more, you can not find it in a way that’s conclusive and that matters, right? And it has a, there’s a host of benefits that follow from that discovery, which are quite a bit deeper and more interesting than engaging meditation on the side of its benefits, you know, de-stressing, increasing focus and all the rest.
Andrew Huberman (18:08):
I have a number of questions related to what you just said. And first of all, I agree that the evidence that meditation can improve focus, reduce stress, et cetera, it’s there, it’s not an enormous pile of evidence, but it’s growing, and I think that, especially for some of the shorter meditations, which I these days view more as perceptual exercises, you know, talked about this on the podcast before, but for those that haven’t heard it before about, you know, perception, you can have exteroception, extending to things beyond the confines of your skin, interoception, which is, also includes the surfaces of the skin, but everything inward, and meditation through eyes closed, typically involving some sort of attentional spotlighting, something we’ll get into, to more interoceptive versus exteroceptive events, et cetera, including thoughts. And so I think of at a basic level, meditation as a somewhat of a perceptual exercise. You can tell me where you disagree there, and I would expect and hope that you would, but I would like to just touch on this idea that you brought up, because it’s such an interesting one, of this idea that our bodies are containers, and that we somehow view ourselves as passengers within those containers. That’s certainly been my experience. And the image that I have is of, as you say that, is of myself or of people out there that sit a few centimeters below the surface, or that sit entirely in their head. And of course, the brain and body are connected through the nervous system. I think sometimes a brain is used to replace nervous system, and that can get us into trouble in terms of coming up with real directions and definitions.
But the point is that there is something special about the real estate in the head. I think for as much as my laboratory and many other scientists are really interested in brain-body connections through the nervous system, and other organ systems that the nervous system binds, that if you cut off all my limbs, I’m going to be different, but I’m fundamentally still Andrew. Whereas if we were to lesion a couple square millimeters out of my parietal cortex, it’s an open question as to whether or not I would still seem as much like Andrew to other people and to myself, even. And so there is something fundamentally different about the real estate in the cranial vault, right? You could even remove both of my eyes, I’d still be Andrew, and those are two pieces of my central nervous system that are fundamental to my daily life, but I’d still be me. Whereas, and this doesn’t, I think, just apply to memory systems. I mean, I think there are regions of the frontal cortex that when destroyed have been shown to modify personality and self-perception in dramatic ways. So it’s a sort of obvious point once it’s made, but I do think it’s worth highlighting because there does seem to be something special about being in the head. The other thing is that sitting a few centimeters below the surface or riding in this container makes sense to me, except I wonder if you’ve ever experienced a shift as I have when something very extreme happens. Let’s use the negative example of, you know, all of a sudden you’re in a fear state. All of a sudden it feels as if your entire body is you or is me and now I need to get this thing, the whole container and me to some place of safety in whatever form.
This is also true, I think, in ecstatic states where you can feel really, when people say embodied, I wonder whether or not we normally oscillate below the surface of our body. When I say oscillate, I mean, in neural terms. I mean, maybe our sensory experience is not truly at the bodily surface, but sits below the bodily surface, more at the level of organ systems and within our head. And then certain things that jolt us, our autonomic nervous system into heightened states, bring us into states of, you know, bring us closer to the surface and therefore include all of us. Again, I don’t want to take us down a mechanistic description of something that doesn’t exist, but does any of that resonate in terms of how you are thinking about or describing the self?
Sam Harris (22:11):
Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot there. First on the point of the brain being, you know, the locus of what we are as minds. Yeah, I mean, there are people who will insist that sort of the whole nervous system has to be thought of as, when you’re talking about our emotional life and, you know, the insulus connection to the gut and you just, the sense of self extends beyond the brain. But I totally take your point that a brain transplant is a coherent idea and you would expect to go with the brain rather than with the viscera. And so in that sense, we really are the old philosophical thought experiment of being a brain in a vat. I mean, we essentially are already, you know, the vat is our skull and we’re, you know, virtually in that situation.
Andrew Huberman (23:03):
Horrible movie. I’m sorry, I can’t help but interrupt. When I was a teenager, my sister and I used to go to the movies every once in a while we’d trade off who could pick the movie. And she took me to see once the movie, Boxing Helena, the David Lynch film where he amputates the limbs of a woman who he’s obsessed by and keeps her. It’s a really horrible film. And about 20 minutes into it, my sister just turned to me and said, I’m so sorry. And the question then was whether or not two siblings should actually persist in a movie like that. We decided to persist in the movie so that we could laugh about it later, but it was rather disturbing. I don’t recommend the movie nor do I recommend seeing it with a sibling, but in that movie that the woman, he takes her as a container and restricts her movement, right, quite sadistic and horrible thing really.
David Lynch, interesting mind perhaps. But the idea was that, was to question how much of the person persists in the absence of their ability to move, et cetera. Could there be love? Could there be these other affections? Anyway, a rather extreme example, but one that still haunts me and I suppose I’m thinking about still now.
Sam Harris (24:09):
Well, so just to follow that point, there’s a lot about us that we don’t have access to unless we enact it physically. Like, you know, if I ask you, you know, do you still know how to ride a bike, right? There’s no place in your memory where you can inspect by, you know, just sitting in your chair that you’ve retained the knowledge of how to ride a bike, right? Like I said, procedural memory is different from semantic or episodic memory. If I asked you, you know, do you know your address? Yes, you can recall your address just sitting there. But if you had had a microstroke that neatly dissected out your ability to ride a bike, you know, and left everything else intact, you know, you might think you could ride a bike, but suddenly you stand up next to one and you have no idea what to do with it. And that would be a discovery that would only happen if you were motorically engaged with that, you know, object.
And I’m sure there’s, you know, we could probably come up with a hundred things about us that really seem core to us and we, and are not separable for our, you know, from our, you know, personhood, which seem to only get invoked when we’re, you know, out there moving in the world. And, you know, we have limbs, et cetera. And, but yeah, no, it’s the seat of consciousness.
I mean, the right framework to talk about all of this from my point of view is consciousness and its contents. Right, so we have consciousness, the fact that there’s something that is like to be us, right, the fact that the world and our internal experience is illuminated, that it has a qualitative character. And then there’s the question of what is that qualitative character? What is it, you know, what kinds of information do we have access to? What does it feel like to be us? How do different states of arousal change that? So you talked about fear. Yeah, I mean, fear can change a lot of things, but, and, you know, various neurological deficits, or, you know, you can add drugs to the mix. You add psychedelics that radically transform the contents of consciousness.
From my point of view, consciousness itself is simply the cognizance, the awareness that is the floodlights by which any of that stuff appears, right? So consciousness doesn’t change, but its contents change. And to come back to meditation for a second, many people think meditation is about changing the contents of consciousness. There’s some contents you want to get rid of, like anxiety, other contents you want to encourage, like calm, and, you know, unconditional love, or, you know, some other, you know, classically pleasant pro-social emotion. And that’s all fine, that’s all possible. But the real, you know, wisdom, of, you know, the 2,000-year-old wisdom of meditation that really is the, you know, the chewy center of the tootsie pop is a recognition of what consciousness itself is always already like, regardless of the contents and the changes in contents.
And this is why, I mean, we might talk about this, but this is why they’re mutually compatible. Psychedelics and meditation for me are somewhat orthogonal because psychedelics is all about making wholesale changes to the contents of consciousness. And there’s, you know, some wonderful consequences of doing that. There can be some harrowing and terrifying consequences of doing that. But generally speaking, I think, you know, used wisely, they can be incredibly valuable and therapeutic potential there is enormous. But the crucial disjunction here is that there really is something to recognize about ordinary waking consciousness, that the consciousness that’s compatible with my driving a car to get here on time, right? That, you know, you don’t have to have the pyrotechnics of being on LSD to see the, to transcend the central illusion that I’m saying is the thing to be transcended, which is the sense that there is a duality between subject and object in every moment of experience. And to take it back to something you said about just all of our different modes in ordinary life.
The interesting thing is I think people are constantly losing their sense of self and they’re not aware of it. And there’s probably an analogy to the visual system here, which is to a visual saccades, which perhaps you’ve spoken about at some point on your podcast. Not enough, so please. Yeah, so what happens with our, you know, every time we move our eyes, this is called a saccade. And we do that about three times a second or so, just normally. There is a, you know, the region of motor cortex that affects that movement sends what’s called an efferent copy of that motor movement, which is used as information that propagates back to visual cortex that suppresses the data of vision while the eyes are moving. Because otherwise, if you weren’t doing that, every time you moved your eyes, it would seem like the visual scene itself was lurching around. And people can experience this for themselves if they just, you know, touch one of their eyeballs on the side, you know, not all that hard and kind of jiggle it, you know, and then you can roll it around. You can jiggle it from side to side. You can see that a movement of the eyeball that’s not governed by your ocular motor system delivers a jiggling of the world, because it’s not, your brain is not anticipating it in the same way. And it’s not, you’re not producing that same, you know, predictive copy of the movement.
Andrew Huberman (29:58):
It’s a little bit like, we have some action sports filmers on our staff here, that the gimbal, you know, that holds an iPhone, like you see the kids on surfboards or skateboards or something, they’re going to hold a phone while moving around or the people who are the vloggers. Does anyone even still use that for his vlog? Yes. Moving around and it’s image stabilization, essentially, that keeps the camera steady. And these are more than cameras, of course, for those listening, I’m pointing at my eyes, but they do far more than just what a camera would do. But yeah, this internal system of image stabilization, yeah, I can see perhaps where you’re going with this, that it allows us to remain in a self-referencing scheme as opposed to sort of paying attention to just how confusing it is to track the visual world at some level. Well, actually where I’m going is that,
Sam Harris (30:48):
so people are having this suppression of vision three times a second on average, and they’re not experiencing it, right? So like, you’re literally like, you’re effectively going blind and you’re not noticing it. And- It’s very fast. Yes, it’s very fast. Now, there’s an analogous suppression, I would say, of the sense of self that occurs every time attention gets absorbed significantly in its object, right?
So like, we even have this concept of, you know, losing yourself in your work, or, you know, the classic flow experiences have this quality where there’s the, and this tends to be why they’re so rewarding, where there’s just, if you’re in some, you know, athletic activity or, you know, an aesthetic one, or you could be having sex or you could be, whatever it is, some peak experience, its peakness usually entails there being some brief period where there was no distance between you and the experience, right? For that moment, you were no longer looking over your own shoulder or anticipating the next moment, or trying to get somewhere where you weren’t, or, you know, micromanaging errors, or like this, you know, there’s not, there’s just the flow of unity with whatever the, you know, whatever the experience is, you know, a surfer on the wave, right? And we love those experiences and then are continually abstracted away from them by our thinking about them. We’ll think, oh my God, that was so good, or how do I get back to that? Or, you know, you’re looking at a sunset, it’s the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen.
And then you’re continually interrupting the experience of merely seeing it with a commentary about the experience, with a commentary about how amazing this is. And I wonder, you know, what a real estate prices are here. I mean, is it possible that we could move here? And like, your mind is just continually narrating a conversation you’re having with yourself.
However, paradoxically, I mean, you’re telling yourself things that you already know as though there were two of you rather often, right? Like, you know, you’re just, you know, I’m looking for, you know, which is the water? And I say, oh, there it is, right? But like, I’m the one seeing it. Who am I saying? Oh, you know, there it is too. As though there’s someone else who needs to be informed about the thing I already saw, right? So it’s, there’s something about our internal dialogue that is paradoxical.
Andrew Huberman (33:29):
Is there any neurologic condition, cholecelectomy or anything like that, where somehow people feel more unified with the self on a continual basis? The observer and the actor within, whether it stayed more as a complete sentence, is there any known neurological syndrome, makes it sound like a bad thing, but it could be a good thing, whereby people feel that the actor and the observer within them are unified continually?
Sam Harris (34:01):
There’s not a pathological one. Some of the work on the default mode network suggests that that’s at least part of the story, right? So the default mode network, which has been talked about a lot of late because it has come up both in the meditation literature and in the psychedelic literature, but its original discovery was that, you know, and the reason why it was called the default mode was that in virtually every neuroimaging experiment ever run, they found that between tasks, when the brain was just in its default state, these midline structures would increase their activity and then they would reliably diminish whenever the person in the scanner was on task. And usually that meant some kind of outward looking, you know, visual discrimination task. I mean, but it could be visual, it could be semantic, it could be, but it tends to be their eyes are open and they’re paying attention to something that’s being broadcast to them through, you know, monitor goggles, or, you know, they’re looking at a mirror that’s showing them a computer monitor.
So the general insight was there are these midline structures in the brain that seem to be increasing their activity when the brain is just kind of idling between tasks, waiting for something to happen. And then further experiments found tasks that actually up-regulated activity there beyond baseline. And those tasks seem to be self-referential. So that when you ask people, you know, you give them a list of words and you say, well, do any of these apply to you, right? You know, and so people, or you ask people to think about, you know, actually in one experiment I did, when you’re challenging people’s beliefs, when you’re challenging beliefs that have more of a personal significance, like political or religious beliefs, you get an up-regulation in these regions as opposed to just generic beliefs about, you know, you’re in Los Angeles, this is a table, you know, there’s something to which, you know, people are not, you know, holding fast as a matter of identity.
So anyway, both meditation and psychedelics seem to suppress activity in these regions, which we know are associated with both self-talk, mind-wandering and explicit acts of self-representation, right, so.
Andrew Huberman (36:31):
Could we say that they are somewhat autobiographical because they access memory systems and in the way you’re describing them and in the way that a colleague of mine, who’s been a guest on this podcast, I don’t know if you’ve interacted with him before, but I think you’d very much enjoy whatever interaction you would have as David Spiegel, he’s our associate chair of psychiatry. He and his father actually, his father then he founded hypnosis as a valid clinical practice in psychiatry and hypnosis, which is obviously a heightened sense of attention with deep relaxation, is known to dramatically suppress the default mode network. He talks about this a lot and I always wonder as we take down activity within the default mode network, what surfaces in its place and is what surfaces in its place, does that somehow reflect that the two are normally in a push-pull? Because that’s not necessarily the case, right? When I fall asleep, I can hallucinate, but that doesn’t mean that during the day the fact that I’m looking at objects is what’s preventing me from hallucinating. If I close my eyes, I can get imagery, but there’s this kind of a different illusion, the illusion of antagonistic circuitry sometimes. I don’t want to take us off course, but the default mode network seems to want to be there, quote unquote. It seems to be fighting for our attention unless we give ourselves a visual target or an auditory target or some salient experience of some kind, it sounds like. And then I’m surprised to hear that meditation reduces activity in the default mode network at some level because meditation to me oftentimes involves paying attention to some sort of perceptual target. Maybe you could eventually explain as to how it might do that or why it might.
Sam Harris (38:15):
Yeah, and I don’t think it’s the whole story because obviously outward going attention is not, even if you’re having the kind of egoic saccade that I’m talking about where you’re like, you’re actually not clearly aware of yourself, you’re not clearly defining yourself as separate from experience for the moment of paying attention. So you are sort of losing yourself in your work. That’s not the same thing as having the clear meditative insight of selflessness that I’m claiming is the goal of meditation.
But there is a, to wind back to the original point I was making and the reason why I drew the analogy to visual saccades, I do think there’s a continuous interruption in our sense of self that goes unrecognized. But the conscious acquisition of the understanding that the self is an illusion is a different experience. And it’s because you’re then focusing on this absence. Actually, there’s another analogy to the visual system that applies here, which is to the optic blind spot. I mean, it’s like, so, which is a good analogy for me because it cuts through a bunch of false assumption as to where that you would look for this or how this relates to ordinary experience.
So as many people know that we have in both eyes, we have what’s called the blind spot, which is a consequence of the optic nerve transiting through the retina. I mean, unlike cephalopods, I think, I mean, I think cephalopods have their optic nerve, you know, as, you know, an omniscient being would have engineered it, connecting the retina from the back. And therefore there is no blinds, the area of blindness associated with its transit back through the retina.
Andrew Huberman (40:10):
But our- Photoreceptors on the outside. Exactly. Humans, for whatever reason, put photoreceptors, well, I always say I wasn’t consulted the design phase. Something put photoreceptors, combination of things, but photoreceptors in the back. And so you actually have to send the highway of information through the pixel center of the eye. Yeah, cephalopods and Drosophila, basically invertebrates. Right. The design is more at its face logical. Mammals, very illogical design, at least as far as our judgments go.
Sam Harris (40:44):
But it gives me a good analogy. So I’ll take it.
Andrew Huberman (40:48):
I’d like to take a brief break and acknowledge our sponsor, Athletic Greens. Athletic Greens is an all-in-one vitamin mineral probiotic drink that also contains digestive enzymes and adaptogens. I started taking Athletic Greens way back in 2012. So that’s 10 years now of taking Athletic Greens every single day. So I’m delighted that they’re sponsoring this podcast. The reason I started taking Athletic Greens and the reason I still take Athletic Greens is that it covers all of my foundational nutritional needs. So whether or not I’m eating well or enough or not, I’m sure that I’m covering all of my needs for vitamins, minerals, probiotics, adaptogens to combat stress, and the digestive enzymes really help my digestion. I just feel much better when I’m drinking Athletic Greens. If you’d like to try Athletic Greens, you can go to athleticgreens.com slash Huberman. And for the month of January, they have a special offer where they’ll give you 10 free travel packs plus a year supply of vitamin D3, K2. Vitamin D3 and K2 are vital for immune function, metabolic function, hormone health, but also calcium regulation and heart health. Again, that’s athleticgreens.com slash Huberman to claim their special offer in the month of January of 10 free travel packs plus a year supply of vitamin D3, K2.
Sam Harris (41:58):
So in any case, we have this blind spot, which you can, I think most people learn this in school, although my daughters had not been taught this in school. I just showed them this for the first time like a month ago, and they were briefly fascinated, and then they want to return to their screen time. But anyway, you can take a piece of paper and you make two marks on it, and then you cover one eye and you fixate on one mark.
I mean, you can look this up online if you need details about how to do this. And while staring at one fixation point, you move the paper back and forth and you can get it to a place where the other mark disappears. And you can run this experiment long enough to satisfy yourself that there is in fact a blind spot in your visual field, which with one eye closed, you don’t normally notice. The reason why you have to cover one eye is because each eye compensates for the blind spot of the other. But which is to say that if you close one eye and survey the visual scene, something really is missing, whatever you’re looking at. If you’re looking at a crowd of people, somebody is missing a head and you’re not noticing it. And it’s not easy to notice because the brain doesn’t tend to vividly represent the absence of information. I mean, it’s just like, this is part of the game that’s not being rendered. It’s not showing up as a break in the visual field. It’s just not there. And I mean, people have argued that there’s a kind of filling in phenomenon that happens, but I think that can be misunderstood or exaggerated.
Andrew Huberman (43:33):
But the eye movements themselves that you described before, I guess I should say that the saccade analogy of about transiently and repetitively erasing the self works perfectly here because indeed micro saccades, little smaller saccades that occur all the time also prevent our eyes from fixating at one location long enough to observe our blind spot, even if one eye is closed. So if we, the experiments done with paralytics to essentially lock eyes at one location, basically things just start disappearing.
Sam Harris (44:02):
Yeah, it just fades away.
Andrew Huberman (44:04):
We’d all love to think that we’d start hallucinating, but actually we start going blind and those experiments have been done. And on humans, I hear they’re quite terrifying.
Sam Harris (44:11):
Yeah, yeah. But I mean, you can do that for yourself too. It just, you know, it begins to just all melt away in a warm glow, no psychedelics required. But the interesting point there is that when you ask yourself, okay, so this, because as a consequence of the eye’s anatomy, there’s this thing you can see that is absent from your experience. But the question is, where is that in relationship to the rest of you, to your mind? Is that deep within, or is that in some sense, right on the surface of experience? And there’s this expectation that people have, again, I think conflating meditation with a search for changes in the context of consciousness. They’re looking for, you know, you know, much more subtle things to notice about the mind or much, you know, vaster things to notice. Psychedelics sets up this expectation that, you know, you do, you know, a massive dose of mushrooms or LSD and everything changes. I mean, you just get this full, you know, beatific vision and, you know, you get, you know, not only visual changes, but, you know, emotional changes and you get synesthesia where like, you’re just, you have much more mind in so many ways.
So they begin having these experiences or reading the mystical literature, you begin to think, okay, well then freedom is really elsewhere or it’s really, it’s deep within. It’s like, it’s not coincident with the ordinary awareness that can see this coffee cup clearly and that can just transition attention to, you know, reading an email with a sort of full sobriety of just, you know, ordinary waking consciousness.
But the truth is this insight into selflessness, this insight into the non-duality of subject and object is as close to ordinary consciousness as this insight into the optic blind spot. Like, where do you have to go to have this insight into the blind spot? No, you just have to, you don’t have to go anywhere. You just have to set up the experiment correctly such that, you know, you can see the data, but the data is right on the surface. It’s like, it’s almost too close to you to notice. I mean, if it’s at all hard to notice, it’s because it’s so close rather than it’s, you know, deep within or far away. And there are other analogies like, I don’t know, you remember those mind’s eye pieces of artwork that were the random dot stereograms where you have an image that pops out. I always find it very difficult to see those because I have a very dominant eye, you know, but.
Andrew Huberman (46:57):
Some people- People can’t see those, these are these images that used to be at the kind of like touristy shops. People would say, oh, there it is, the whale. And I’m thinking, I don’t see it. You know, kids that swim a lot when they’re younger and they tend to breathe just to one side. I don’t know if this was you, this was definitely me. They tend to, will keep one eye closed. You set up a pretty strong ocular dominance. Biasing your vision to one or the other eye early in life, whether or not you’re learning how to be a bow hunter or you’re learning how to throw darts or shoot billiards or anything involves selectively viewing the world through one eye for even a couple of hours can set up a permanent asymmetry in the weighting of visual flow, flow of visual information from the eye to the brain. It’s reversible, but only through the reverse gymnastics of covering up the other eye intentionally. So I actually be, I had to be reverse patched for a while because I was seeing double because I lost binocular vision. I don’t stand a chance in hell of seeing an image pop out of a random top stereo, which is kind of ironic because I did my PhD on binocular circuitry. But nonetheless, if people can see these, or if they can’t, I think they provide a really terrific example of what you’re talking about as a larger theme, which is that perceptually you see a bunch of dots and then all of a sudden, what you thought wasn’t there is suddenly there, but can just disappear again. Or there are certain visual illusions, if we were to include others, that once you see them, you cannot unsee them. So there’s the faces, vases, you know, figure ground type stuff. Yeah, it’s very, very. It’s a bit bi-stable percepts. Yeah, bi-stable percepts. And then there’s sort of ocular competition. You show two different images to the eyes, each of the two eyes. It is near impossible for people to perceive them both simultaneously. Yeah. So it’s a little bit of what you’re describing. I mean, these seem to be fundamental features about the way the neural circuits are organized, that they don’t want to stably, they don’t want to stay fixated on any one thing for very long, to do so either takes training, intense interest, intense fear, intense excitement. When I say intense, I guess I come back to this idea that the autonomic nervous system is somehow governing our ability to spotlight at any one location for very long. Does that, is that a useful framework or is that going to take us down a different?
Sam Harris (49:14):
Well, it’s sort of a different path for this. I mean, the only point I was making is that the seemingly paradoxical claim that something can be right on the surface and yet hard to see, right? So like there are things that are, because it’s, and again, this seems to justify the expectation held by, I would think, you know, the vast majority of people who get interested in these, you know, spiritual things for lack of a better word, that the truth must somehow be deep within, right? Like there’s really like a, there’s some distance between where you’re, between the one who is looking and the thing that has to be found, right? And that you have to go through this, this long evolution of changes. I mean, there’s many metaphors that set this up. It’s like you’re at the base of a mountain and you have to climb to the top. And so you have to find the path, however secure it is to get you there.
But there really is a distance between where you’re, between your starting point and the goal. And what I’m arguing, you know, and this is a kind of a non-dual, to use a term of jargon, it’s a non-dual approach to meditation as opposed to a dualistic one, that there really is a, the path and the goal are coincident, right? That there’s a, that you have to unravel the logic by which you would seek something that’s outside of, you know, the present moment’s experience, you know, i.e. not available, really not available to you now. Because so many things worth having, so many skills worth acquiring really are not available to you now. It’s like, it’s like, you know, if you want to be a pianist or if you want to speak Chinese, or if you want like, there’s something you don’t know and then you want to learn that thing and there’s a whole process, right? And you might not be capable of doing it, right? And, and real mastery is far away, right? If you’ve never hit a golf ball and you want to hit a golf ball 300 yards straight, right? You know, I can pretty much guarantee you’re not going to do that initially and you’re not going to do it, you know, on day two. And you’re not going to do it reliably for the longest time. And there’s real training, you know, in front of you to be able to do that reliably.
An insight into, and really the core insight, I mean, the insight that is either the core of, you know, the Buddha’s teaching to take one, one historical example of this, really is available now. And it is not, I mean, you know, granted it can be very hard won for people. I mean, I had probably spent a year on silent retreat in, you know, one week to three month increments before I sort of got the point I’m making now, right? So like, I, you know, it’s quite, I mean, literally, and these are, you know, these are retreats where you spend, you know, 12 to 18 hours a day just meditating, trying to, you know, unpack the kinds of claims I’m, you know, making now.
So it’s possible to rigorously overlook this. It’s possible to stand in front of the mind’s eye image and stare in a way that is guaranteed not to give you pop out, right? And to be, to be adept at, you know, staring in that way. So it’s possible to be misled. And so what I’m, what I’m trying to argue here is that there’s, there’s a fair amount of leverage you can get with better information, which can kind of cut the time course of your searching for this thing and kind of cancel your false expectations about just where this is in relation to your ordinary waking consciousness.
And it’s possible to get bad information and to have a bunch of experiences. You know, you go, you go and do an ayahuasca trip and you have, it’s incredibly valuable and it’s valuable for all the ways in which it changed the contents of your consciousness in, you know, startling ways. And you had insights into your past and into your relationships and into why you’re not as loving as you might be. And there’s lots to think about. And you’re like, okay, that’s all great. That’s all something that, you know, we can talk about, but there is, it truly is orthogonal. I mean, if it makes a point of contact to what I’m talking about, it’s really just at one point, you know, and it’s at the point where this sense of subject-object division in consciousness is illusory and vulnerable to investigation. And if you investigate it as sort of the right plane of focus, you know, you pick the analogy you want from, you know, whether it’s, you know, setting up the optic blind spot experiment in just the right way so that you can see that, you know, it’s actually not, the data is not there. Or, I mean, the bistable percept is great because, you know, when you see one of these images, like the vase face diagram or, you know, the Dalmatian, you know, that looks like just a mess of dots and then you see the image of a Dalmatian dog pop out. Once you see it, you really can’t unsee it.
I mean, like once you have the requisite conceptual, you know, anchor to it, then every time you look, you’re going to find it again and it eventually becomes effortless. And that’s what ultimately meditation is. I mean, this kind of meditation, you ultimately learn to recognize that there’s no separation from you, between you and your experience, right? There’s not the experience on the one hand and the self on the other. There’s just experience, right? There’s just seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, feeling, you know, proprioception, add whatever channels of information you want to that.
But there’s just the totality of the energy of consciousness and its contents. And there’s no, it’s not that you’re on the riverbank and this is how it can seem in the beginning, even when you’re practicing meditation fairly diligently, it can seem like you’re on the riverbank watching the contents of consciousness flow by. And meditation is the act of doing that more and more dispassionately. So you’re no longer grabbing at the pleasant or pushing the unpleasant away. You’re just kind of relaxing and in the most nonjudgmental frame of mind, just witnessing the flow, right? But if you’re doing that dualistically, you feel like the meditator. You feel like the subject aiming attention. And so now you’re on the riverbank watching everything go past. But the truth is you are the river, right? Experience itself is, there is just experience itself. You’re not on the edge of experience and everything you can notice is part of the flow, right? And there’s no point from which to abstract yourself away from the flow, to stand outside it and to say, okay, this is my life. This is my experience. This is my body. Yes, you can do that. I mean, those are all just thoughts, but that’s more of the flow, right? And so there’s a process by which you would eventually recognize that there’s no distance between you and your experience. And again, you can wait for those moments in life where experience gets so good or so terrifying, or it’s just so salient, right? Your amygdala is driving so hard. I mean, so you’re in a war and you can’t think about anything because the enemy is shooting at you. And this is the most thrilling video game you’ve ever played in your life. And your life is on the line, or you’re at the peak of some athletic event where there’s just, you don’t know how you’re doing the things you’re doing, but it’s all happening automatically, right? But those are one 100th of 1% of one’s life. And what I’m calling meditation is a way of simply understanding the mechanics of attention whereby you are denying yourself that unity of experience so much of the time and recognizing that that’s, it’s based on a misperception of the way consciousness always already is.
Andrew Huberman (57:33):
Well, if there wasn’t an incentive to learn how to meditate properly, that was one. And I’ve been meditating a fair amount since I was in my teens, but more along the lines of just paying attention to breath and recognize thoughts, sort of observer, open observer type meditation or focused attention. I would suppose more of the focused attention type. We’ll get into these a little bit later, but I have a number of questions related to what you just said. Sure. I love the idea that this thing that we would all do well to understand, to observe consciousness itself, as opposed to trying to alter the contents of consciousness may sit much closer to us than one might think that it, and that because it sits so close to us that that might be one of the reasons why we miss it. I go right to a visual system example. I mean, if you don’t, you’re wearing corrective lenses and there’s a spec on your lens, typically you’re looking out through the lens and so you wouldn’t observe that spec. Any number of different analogies could work here. The fact that there are states, however few positive and negative, extreme ecstasy and extreme fear being the two, I think, most obvious ones that seems like we agree on that allow us to capture the sense of completeness of self or the unity of the observer and the actor.
The fact that those are seldom for the non-trained, for the non-meditator suggests to me two things. I think one perhaps worth exploring more than the other, but one is that what’s really being revealed in the states where we can feel the unity of the observer and the actor is understanding something fundamental about the algorithm, not the online algorithm, but the algorithm that is our nervous system, just as you mentioned cephalopods, I mean, mantis shrimp see an enormous array of color hues that we don’t, right? Their maps and representations of the world are fundamentally different. Pit vipers see in the infrared.
We’re restricted to somewhat of a limited range within the color spectrum, but still more vast than that of dogs or cats. Okay, so understanding that, seeing what a pit viper can see for moments would be informative, perhaps. Sensing heat emissions as a human might be invasive, and maybe that’s why we don’t do it. So the question is, to just make it straightforward, is why would the system be designed this way? Again, neither of us were consulted the design phase, but that brings me to perhaps the more tractable question, which is about development.
I mean, I’m a great believer that the neural circuits that encouraged healthy parent-child relations or unhealthy parent-child relations, as the case may be, in childhood stem from the initial demands of internal versus external states, which is exactly what we’re talking about, which is that a young child feels anxious because it needs its diaper changed. It doesn’t really know it needs its diaper changed, or it’s cold, or it’s uncomfortable, or it’s hungry, or it’s overly full. And so it vocalizes, and then some external source comes to us and relieves that, hopefully, right? And so the fundamental rule that we first learn is not that we have a self or that things fall down, not up, but is that when uncomfortable, externalize that discomfort, and it will be relieved by an outside player. And then, of course, there’s a repurposing of that circuitry for adult romantic attachments. I don’t think anyone doubts that, and that can explain a lot, indeed, about attachment and so forth.
So something about our developmental wiring and the algorithms that these neural circuits run tend to bias most people, the non-practice meditators, to live a somewhat functional life, at least, without this awareness of actor and observer. And so what you’re really talking about is a deliberate intervention to understand and resolve that gap in the algorithm. Do I have that right? I’m more or less restating what you said in a way that I’m hoping will serve as a jumping-off point as to why questions are always very dangerous in biology, or any, you know, and- Or in relationship, yeah. What’s that? Or in relationship. Or in relationship, right, exactly. Although I think it all does really harken back to this early developmental wiring, which, of course, is modifiable. That’s the beauty of the nervous system, is it’s the one organ that seems to be able to change itself, at least to some degree.
So what are your thoughts about the organization of the circuitry to essentially, under normal conditions, to not reveal what seems to be one of its more important and profound and, you know, dare I say, enlightening features, right? It’s almost as if we are potentially like mantis shrimp, we can see so many more colors than we actually see, and yet we don’t, we sort of opt, most people opt not to. And I would argue that one of the great strengths of the waking up app, for instance, that it essentially walks you through the process of being able to arrive at these things without having to go do one-year or three-year long silent meditation retreats. So if you could just elaborate for a moment before we move on about, you know, what are your thoughts about how the circuitry is arranged by default versus the, and what that means for there to be an intervention, that we have to intervene in the self in order to reveal the self.
Sam Harris (01:03:19):
Well, so the two big questions there, one about evolution, one about development. So with respect to evolution, I mean, it’s important to recognize that evolution doesn’t see our deepest concerns about human flourishing and human wellbeing. You know, it’s just, you know, we are set up to spawn and to survive long enough to help our progeny spawn if we can do that. And that’s it, right? And so anything that was good for that, including, you know, tribalism and xenophobia and, you know, all kinds of hardware and software flaws that reveal themselves to be flaws in the present time when we’re trying to build a viable global civilization. But, you know, they redounded to the advantage of our ancestors somehow, or they just, there are things about us that we’re simply not selected for. They just kind of came along for the ride. You know, what Stephen Jay Gould called a spandrel, you know, so, you know, so we are not set up by evolution to be as happy as we possibly can be and to do almost anything that interests us well. I mean, we’re not set up by evolution to be mathematicians or musicians or to create democracies that are healthy. I mean, evolution can see none of this and we’re doing these things based on cognitive and emotional hardware that we’re leveraging in new directions, right? I mean, we have, we are primates and we are, you know, we’re communicating with, you know, small mouth noises. I mean, we’re language using primates and all of that is clearly evolved.
And we’re doing these amazing things, including science, you know, however, improbably, we’re actually able to, you know, almost entirely with language, understand reality that at a scale that exceeds us in both directions. I mean, the very vast and the very small and, you know, also temporally, the very old. We have, you know, visions of the far future. We can figure out, you know, where an asteroid is gonna, you know, cross earth’s orbit a thousand years from now if we just do the math. And it’s amazing that we can do all of those things, but evolution is blind to all of that, right? And so we have, in terms of what we care about, and certainly in terms of what we, what’s gonna ensure our survival as a species, we have flown the perch that was created for us by evolution. I mean, we’re just not, it’s not just the primate things.
And so, so it is with learning how to regulate our emotions and, and, you know, punch through to a self-concept or beyond a self-concept that is more normative psychologically that allows us to, you know, not be terrorized by our apish genes as fully as we seem to be, even in the presence of more and more destructive technology that, I mean, like, you know, we’re still practically chimpanzees armed with nuclear weapons, right? I mean, and that is, you know, increasingly dysfunctional. And very soon we’re going to be in the presence of minds or apparent minds that we have built, you know, that are as intelligent as we are, and very quickly, you know, probably 15 minutes after that, far more intelligent than we are. And so what we do with all of that is, again, something that we have to figure out based on the minds we have, the minds we can build, the minds we can change, you know, and we can meddle with our own genomes now, and that will produce its own consequences, you know, in ourselves and in future generations if we meddle with the germline. And again, all of that is just, you know, evolution is just sort of the womb we came out of, but it’s not, it didn’t anticipate any of that, right? So the, you know, Mother Nature has simply not had our best interests at heart, right, and we might die off and from the point of view of Mother Nature, that’s fine because 99% of every species dies off, you know.
So there’s that. But when you’re talking about the individual developmentally, so, you know, we all come into this world, again, as a fairly hairless primate that needs a tremendous amount of care by others, and the logic of that is that, you know, you know, the reason why we’re not a gazelle that can, you know, run, you know, 45 minutes later and then basically do all the gazelle things perfectly soon thereafter, the reason why we have, you know, we have this time of immaturity and that becomes, has become functional for us is that it’s just, we’re far more flexible and we can learn based on the needs of an environment to do, you know, so much more than a gazelle can. And language is a part of that. And, you know, in the last 10,000 years or so, culture increasingly has been more and more a part of that. And there’s probably a layer at which we can plausibly talk about cultural evolution, you know, and cultural evolution interacting with biological evolution to change us. But when you’re talking about the development of an individual, each of us comes into this world, I think, not recognizing ourselves in any sense that would make sense to reify. I mean, it’s not that there’s nothing there. I mean, there could be some kind of proto-self differentiation, but I think it takes a long while and there is very likely, it takes a long while and there is very likely a coincidence between really recognizing others. We recognize others first and we’re certainly in relationship immediately and we orient to human faces and we, you know, even detect other humans as good and bad moral actors very early. I mean, certainly long before we recognize ourselves in a mirror.
But we, the experiments run, again, this is Paul Bloom and colleagues, experiments run on kind of the moral hardware and software of developing toddlers. But I think at this point, they push it down all the way to like six months of age where you’ll get these infants staring at kind of a puppet show and they’ll show a greater interest in classically good actors versus bad actors, you know, cooperators versus defectors in various puppet show games.
So there’s, it’s not that we have no mind and no proto-awareness of others and of self, but what eventually happens, certainly as we become at all facile with language use is that we become aware that not only are we in relationship to others, but we are an object in the world for them, right? So that like we have enough people pointing at us in our cribs, right? And impinging upon our experience, right? You know, that you’re being physically moved and prodded and touched and consoled or not consoled. And just imagine what all of these, you’re on the receiving end of 10,000 interventions, right? And you’re completely helpless for the longest time.
And all of that attention, you have all of these people coming up, you know, to the crib and making faces at you. Cheering for you. Yeah, and it’s all pointed at you, right? So there’s a, you know, there’s a classic magical narcissism that gets constructed there. If you take the psychological literature, you know, at least a certain strand of it seriously. And I think it’s largely apt to think of a child at that age as a kind of, there is a kind of narcissistic structure there where it’s all kind of going inward. And at a certain point you realize, okay, I’m the center of all of this, right? Like, it’s not just a movie that you’re, that you’re, you know, where you’re completely absorbed in and you’ve lost your sense of self. I mean, this is to talk to yet another example of what it’s like as a grownup to lose our sense of self. And one of the things I think we find so fascinating by about television and film is that when we get totally absorbed in it, we’re in this very unusual circumstance where we’re, you know, our brain is basically reading it as we’re in the classic social circumstance. We’re presented with, you know, the facial displays of other people. In fact, you know, we can get some of the, sometimes these people are 10 feet tall, right? Or their faces are 10 feet tall. You leave a closeup in a movie theater. So it’s like this super stimulus in terms of evolution. And they could make it, they could be making direct eye contact with a camera, right? So you have this gigantic face staring at you and yet you’re totally unimplicated socially. You can’t be seen and you, and something about that you know you can’t be seen. And so you’re completely, you completely lose self-consciousness and yet you’re able to examine with completely free attention, again, because you’re totally unimplicated.
The facial minutiae and the mimetic facial play of people from, at a very close range. I mean, you’re seeing people close. I mean, you’d have to be, you know, physically just, you know, about to kiss your spouse. Like that’s what a closeup is in a film, right? Like that, you never get that close to people, right? And yet here you’re in a situation where you’re unobserved and you know that. And so, I mean, this is a bit of a tangent, but it’s the other side of what’s happening developmentally for a kid.
When you’re in a movie theater watching a movie, you are truly invisible. And yet you’re right there seeing, you know, however harrowing the human drama is, you’re seeing it play out and you’re seeing it up close. And it is in principle a social encounter that your genes are ready for, but they’re not ready for you to be invisible, right? And so that’s, what’s so magical about it. But what happens developmentally for a kid is that you’re not invisible. You are an object that is constantly being overrun. The boundaries of your, you know, your sensory engagement with the world are constantly being impinged upon by others.
And at a certain point you recognize, okay, I’m at the center of this. And the way this gets enshrined as a self, I think is probably coincident with our learning the language game. We learn to play with others. We’re talking to others. People are talking to us. And at a certain point, we’re talking to ourselves, even when the other people leave the room, right? So, and you can hear it. If you ever have been with a toddler, when they’re externalizing their self-talk, you know, you hear them talking to themselves. They’re playing and they’re having a conversation. They were talking to you, the parent, but then you left the room and they’re still talking. You come back in and they’re still talking, right? And what happens to us, strangely, and this comes back to the logic of evolution, we never stop because evolution never thought to build us an off switch for this, right? I mean, language is so useful and it gets tuned up so strongly for us.
And there was never a reason to shut it off, right? There was never a reason to give you this ability to say, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have four hours of quiet now? And like no self-talk. And so for most of us, I mean, I think there are people who, for whatever neurological reason or idiosyncratic reason, undoubtedly there’d be a neurological reason for it, don’t have any self-talk. But for most of us, we are covertly talking basically all the time. And there’s an imagistic component of this for many people. You’re visualizing things as well, but there’s just a ton of white noise in the mind that feels a certain way. And what you discover in meditation ultimately is that the self is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you’re thinking, right? A thought arises uninspected and seems to just become you, right? So like you and I are talking now and people are listening to us.
They’re struggling to follow the train of this conversation because it is competing with the conversation that’s happening in their heads, right? So I’ll be saying something and a person listening will say, what does that mean? Or like, oh, but wait a minute, he just contradicted himself. And there’s a voice in your head that is also vying for your attention much of the time. And so the first discovery people make in meditation is that it’s just so hard to pay attention to anything, the breath or a mantra or a sound, whatever it is, because you’re thinking about the thing you need to do in an hour. And oh, it’s so good that I downloaded this app. I’m like, oh, this is really good. This is gonna be good for me. But that chatter isn’t showing up. You’re not far back enough in the kind of the theater of consciousness so as to see it emerge. It is just sneaking up behind you and it feels like me again, right? It feels like when someone is thinking the thought, well, what the hell does that mean, right? They’re not seeing it as an emerging object in consciousness. It just feels like me. It just feels that that’s, it is the, you know, subjectively, it’s like the mind contracts around this appearance in consciousness. And it really is just, it is just a, you know, it’s just a sound with the voice of the mind. If you actually can inspect it, it is, it is deeply inscrutable that we ever feel identified with our thoughts. I mean, how is it that we could be a thought? These thoughts, a thought just arises and passes away. And when you inspect it, when you go to inspect it, it’s, you know, it unravels. It’s just, it’s the least substantial possible thing. And it could, but yet it could be a thought of self-hatred. You know, it could be a thought that unrecognized totally defines your mood. You know, it’s like, I mean, just, again, this all can seem kind of abstract,
Andrew Huberman (01:18:34):
but- Well, no, but I think it’s extremely concrete from the perspective of the neural circuits that we’ll return to in maybe in a few minutes. I’d like to take a brief break and thank our sponsor, InsideTracker.
InsideTracker is a personalized nutrition platform that analyzes data from your blood and DNA to help you better understand your body and help you reach your health goals. I’ve long been a believer in getting regular blood work done for the simple reason that many of the factors that impact your immediate and long-term health can only be analyzed from a quality blood test. The problem with a lot of blood and DNA tests out there, however, is that you get data back about metabolic factors, lipids and hormones and so forth, but you don’t know what to do with those data. InsideTracker solves that problem and makes it very easy for you to understand what sorts of nutritional, behavioral, maybe even supplementation-based interventions you might want to take on in order to adjust the numbers of those metabolic factors, hormones, lipids, and other things that impact your immediate and long-term health to bring those numbers into the ranges that are appropriate and indeed optimal for you. If you’d like to try InsideTracker, you can visit insidetracker.com slash Huberman and get 20% off any of InsideTracker’s plans. That’s insidetracker.com slash Huberman to get 20% off. If you could elaborate a bit on this notion of internal chatter and external stimuli and the bridge between them, because I think that for some people that might be intuitive. I think for others it’s not so obvious that language is ongoing in the backdrop. Because sometimes, I think some people are more tuned into that language. For some people it’s louder volume. For some people it’s more structured. I have a colleague at Stanford who’s been on this podcast, Carl Deisseroth, who’s like one of the preeminent bioengineers, he’s also a psychiatrist, and he doesn’t call it a meditative practice, but he has a practice where each evening after his five kids are put down to sleep, they’re older now, but in the quiet of the late hours of the night, early morning, he sits and forces himself to think in complete sentences with punctuation for an hour. This is the way that he has taught himself to structure his thinking because of the very fact that you’re describing, which is that ordinarily there is an underlying structure to what’s internal, but it’s disrupted by external events and typically it’s not coherent enough to really make meaning from. So it’s almost like somebody sitting down to write in complete sentences, but forcing himself to do it in his head. But for many people, including myself, that’s a foreign experience and we only experience structure through our interactions with the world and other people.
That if I were, I’ve taken the time to try and explore ideas with eyes closed and I’ve been able to do that. There are certain pharmacologic states that we could talk about that facilitate that and no, those are not amphetamines. Those do exactly the opposite, by the way. But I think people exist in varying degrees of structured and unstructured internal dialogue and in varying depths of recognition of that internal dialogue. And so the question I suppose is, is just the recognition that there’s a dialogue ongoing internally, is that itself valuable?
Sam Harris (01:21:58):
Yeah, and that also can take some time. So here’s a claim I would make that some people might find surprising, but I think this is an objectively true claim about the subjectivity of most people, which is that unless you have a fair amount of training, unless you just happen to be some kind of savant in this area, which most people by definition aren’t, or you have a remarkable amount of training in what’s called concentration practice in meditation, I believe this is a true claim that if we just put a stopwatch on this table and people could just watch a 30 seconds elapse and I set all of our listeners or viewers the task for the next 30 seconds, just pay attention to anything, your breath, or the sight of your hand or the sight of the clock or any object without getting lost in thought, without getting momentarily distracted by this conversation you’re having with yourself, this couple of things would happen. One is no one would be able to do it, right? And this is not just a superficial inability. I mean, if your life depended on it, you wouldn’t be able to do it. I mean, if the fate of civilization depended on it, none of our listeners would be able to do this.
And yet some percentage of them are so distracted by thought that they will actually try this experiment and think they succeeded, right? And for these people, what happens is you put them on a meditation retreat and you have them spend 12 hours a day in silence doing nothing but this, right? So the practice is just pay attention to the breath when they’re sitting. And then eventually you incorporate everything, sounds and other sensations. And then you interleave that with walking meditation where they’re paying attention just to the sensations of lifting and moving and placing their feet. And then once the practice is going, you incorporate sounds and sights and everything. So you can pay attention to everything, but the goal is for every moment you are going to cultivate this faculty of mind, which increasingly is known as mindfulness, right? So, and mindfulness is nothing other than this very careful attention to the contents of consciousness. But the crucial piece is it is not a moment of being lost in thought, right? You’re not blocking thoughts. Thoughts themselves can arise, but in those moments of being truly mindful, you’re noticing thoughts as thoughts, whether it’s language in the mind or images, you’re noticing those too as spontaneous appearances in consciousness. So if most people, certainly anyone who thinks they can pay attention to, they can do the experiment successfully that I just suggested, pay attention to something for 30 seconds without being lost in thought. You put those people on a meditation retreat, what they’re going to experience is on the first day, they’re going to feel like, oh yeah, I was with the breath or I was with the sensations of walking, and I’d be there for like five minutes, solid, and then I would get lost in thought. Then I’d come back, five more minutes, I’d be lost in thought and then get back. But as the day has progressed, even 10 days into a silent meditation retreat, they’re going to experience more and more distraction. It’s going to seem like, okay, wait a minute, now I can’t pay attention to anything for more than five seconds, right? That is progress, right? Because what they’re discovering is just how distractible they are, right? And for some people that will be immediately obvious, for some people it’ll actually take a lot of practice to realize just how distracted they are.
Andrew Huberman (01:25:58):
What you just said, which was that at some point we can start noticing our thoughts. I can notice my thoughts, but what you’re talking about is as a goal state is not being distracted by thoughts, but actually seeing the relationship between thoughts, self, and other types of perceptions. And here, I think recognizing and seeing thoughts is a form of perception. It’s just an internally directed perception.
This raises a topic that I’m also obsessed by, which I think neuroscience can somewhat explain, but still incompletely that the circuits and mechanics, et cetera, are not yet known, which is about time perception. And a simple analogy would be that there are a lot of small objects flying around in the space that we happen to be having this discussion, but they’re moving so fast that I can’t perceive them.
Or they’re entirely stationary, so I can’t perceive them because of the reasons we talked about before in the visual system. My eyes are moving in perfect concert with these small object movements, and therefore I am blind to them. A slight shift in time perception. We think of this perhaps as a change in the frame rate, camera frame rates, faster frame rate, you can capture slow motion, slower frame rate, you’re going to get more of a strobe type effect if the frame rate is low enough, right? Could it be that our time perception is not one thing, but we have one rate of perceiving time for external objects at a given distance, which we know is true, another frame rate for objects that are up close, we know this to be true even if those objects are moving at the exact same speed, right? I mean, this would be the sitting on a train, the rungs on the fence seem to be going by very, very fast, but the ones in the distance seem to be moving slowly. This is the way the visual system and time perception interconnect at some level. You’re up on a skyscraper, the little ants of cars and people down below, you know they’re moving much faster than you perceive them to move, but it’s a distance effect.
Sam Harris (01:28:11):
You see a plane, it’s going to be going 300 miles an hour. Exactly.
Andrew Huberman (01:28:14):
And it’s not because of the lack of resolution. The lack of resolution is incidental. We know this because in animals, such as hawks that have twice the degree of acuity, as far as we know, they have the same distance associated shifts in time perception. So could it be that we are running multiple streams of time perception, multiple cones of attention that include cones of attention to our thoughts, and that somehow through meditation, we start to align the frame rate for these different streams of attention so that they all fall into the same movie, if you will, although it’s not just a movie with visual content. What I’m doing here is clearly I’m becoming a lumper rather than a splitter. I’m sure this violates certain rules of time perception, neural circuitry, but I’m not sure that it’s entirely untrue either. And does it survive at all as a possible model for what you’re describing? And if the answer is no, I’m perfectly comfortable with that.
Sam Harris (01:29:13):
Well, it’s dependent on what you mean by meditation. This is where you sort of, the particularities of what one is doing with one’s attention under the frame of meditation really matter because there are ways to practice where it’s practice mindfulness in particular where the frame rate really does seem to go way, way up. Right, and there’s actually been some research done on this where you take people before and after a three-month silent meditation retreat and you give them some kind of visual discrimination task where they have to like detect, I think they used a tachistoscope. Is that the tool for it? There’s something that presents like very quick pulses of light. And in any case, you can discriminate just in any sensory channel, I would imagine, you can make finer grain discriminations if you’re practicing mindfulness in a very specific way, which is to be making these fine grain discriminations more and more and do nothing else for three months, which is a way of practicing. So the classic mindfulness practice in what’s called Vipassana meditation is to pay scrupulous attention to seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching in a way that breaks everything down into this kind of microscopic sensory moments. So rather than feel your hands pressing together, what you’re trying to feel with your attention and you’re feeling more and more is all of the micro sensations of pressure and temperature and movement such that the feeling of hands completely disappears. You realize that a hand is a concept and all you have is this cloud of punctate and very brief sensations. And so anything you think you have as a datum of experience, as you bore into it with your attention, it resolves into this kind of diaphanous cloud of changing sensation. And that can be even something as captivating as like a serious pain in your body. I mean, you could have like, you could have injured your neck, you know, and so you have some excruciating pain in your neck if you just are willing to pay attention to it, you know, and just pay a hundred percent attention to it.
Your, a couple of things happen. One is your resistance to feeling it goes away by definition because now your goal is just pay attention to it. And you recognize that so much of the suffering associated with the pain was born of the resistance to feeling it. You’re kind of, you’re bracing against it and all of your thinking about it. You know, you’re thinking like, well, you know, why did I do this to myself? Or when should I see an orthopedist? Or how long is this going to last? And you’re, you know, maybe I herniated a disc. Like all of that self-talk is producing anxiety. And, you know, I’m not saying there’s never anything to think about there, but, you know, either you can do something about it in the moment or you can’t.
And so much of our suffering in the presence of pain is the result of resisting it, worrying about it. Think it’s just all of the, everything we’re doing with our minds, but just feeling it, right? So when you just feel it, again, it breaks apart into this ever-changing, ever-shifting collection of different sensations. And it’s not one thing and it never stays the same.
And it’s, and so there’s two things happen there. One is there can be a tremendous amount of relief that happens there where you can achieve a level of equanimity, even in the presence of really unpleasant, you know, physical sensation. And this is true of mental sensation as well. So this is true of emotions, you know, the classically negative emotions like anger or depression or fear. The moment you become willing to just feel them in all of their, you know, punctate and changeable qualities, they cease to be what they were a moment ago. They’re just there. And they, when you’re talking about emotional states, they cease to map back onto you and your self-concept as meaningful in the same way. So that suddenly, you know, the anxiety you feel, let’s say before going out on stage to give a talk, you know, a moment ago, it was, it had psychological meaning and it felt like, you know, okay, I’m anxious. How do I get rid of this? You know, why am I this sort of person? What, you know, should I have taken a beta blocker? You know, this is the conversation you’re having with yourself. The moment you just become willing to feel it as the pure energy of the physiology of, you know, of cortisol release, it ceases to have any meaning.
It just, it ceases to be a problem in that moment because it is no more, it no more maps onto the kind of person you are than a feeling of indigestion or a pain in your knee maps onto the kind of person you are. It’s just, it’s just sensation. Anyway, but back to the main point here, which is that if you train your attention in this way to notice the particularities of sensory experience and emotional experience, like you’re looking for the atoms of experience, you know, you get better and better at that and certain things happen. But one thing that I really do think happens is there’s a kind of frame rate change in the data stream where you really are just, you’re just noticing much, much more.
All of that is a very interesting way of training. It’s not what I tend to recommend now. It’s a great preliminary practice for what I do recommend because it gives you, it really teaches you the difference between being lost and thought and not. It really teaches you what mindfulness is, but it tends to be done, you know, by 99.9% of people in a dualistic way, which again, you’re set up to think, okay, I’m over here as the locus of attention, you know, and I’m continually getting distracted by thought. And the project is to not do that anymore and actually pay attention to the breath and sounds and sensations. And every time I get lost in thought, I’m going to go back to here. But this whole dance of I’m lost in thought, now I’m strategically directing my attention again, all of this seems to ramify this sense of self, the sense of there’s one to be doing this. There’s somebody holding the spotlight of attention and getting better at coming back to the object of meditation. Again, it’s inevitable that 99.9% of people are going to start there and stay there for some considerable period of time. But the thing I like to do when I talk about all of this is undercut the false assumptions that are anchoring all of that as early as possible, because where I think you want to be is recognizing that there is no place from which to aim attention. This whole dualistic setup of subject and object is the thing that is already not there. And it’s not that it’s there and you meditated out of existence successfully. It’s really not there. And if you learn how to look for it, you can see that it’s not there and feel that it’s not there. And it no longer seems to be there, right? It’s like it’s not.
And it becomes like, again, like a bistable percept where you looked at it long enough and you thought, okay, now I see the vase and the face, and I can’t unsee it. And every time I look, it’s there again, right? And so, yeah, I mean, so to come back to the example you gave with your colleague at Stanford, whose book I know I have, I haven’t read it. This is the, he wrote a book, Projections, right? Deseratia. So it’s on my stack to read.
But it’s the opposite, what I’m recommending, essentially the opposite end of the continuum of the sort of internal exercise he was doing. So rather than, so he’s doing something very deliberate and controlled, and he is deliberately thinking in complete sentences and kind of commandeering the machinery of thought and attention in a way that I would imagine, I mean, I’d be interested to talk to him about it, but I would imagine he really feels like he’s doing that. Right?
Andrew Huberman (01:38:07):
And there’s- He’s an engineer. It’s, you know, as you describe it in this way, it reminds me, he’s a physician, but he’s also an engineer. So it’s really about taking the raw materials of thought and engineering something structured from it. I think, you know, I haven’t been in Carl’s mind.
Sam Harris (01:38:24):
Yeah, but if we got him talking on that,
Andrew Huberman (01:38:27):
I’m sure we would get a sense of what it is. Yes, yeah. We’ll do that conversation at some point.
Sam Harris (01:38:30):
But yeah, so it’s the exact opposite of what you’re describing. The exact opposite would be to recognize that the sense of control is a total illusion, right? It could, because you don’t know what you’re going to think next, right? And even he, in the most laborious way, I mean, he could just get as muscular as he wants with it. He still doesn’t know what he’s going to think next, right? Because thoughts simply arise, right? Like, you know, you can run this experiment for yourself and this connects up to the topic of free will, which we might want to touch.
But I mean, just think of any category of thing. You know, if I asked you to think of, you know, the names of cities or of, you know, friends you have or of famous people you can, you know, remember exist or think of nouns or, you know, anything, and just watch what comes percolating into consciousness, right? Now, there are things you can’t think of, right? There are things you don’t know the name of, you know, there are languages you don’t speak. There are famous people you’ve never seen or never heard of, right? And so like, so you have no control over that part. Like those names and faces are not going to suddenly come streaming into consciousness.
But of the totality of facts and figures and faces and names that you do know, right? Only some will come vying for inclusion, right? And they’re not, and there’s a sort of, you know, we could make guess that we know something about the neurology of this, but we, you know, depending on what channel you’re waiting for thoughts in, I mean, it’s going to be different if it’s visual or semantic or episodic memory. I mean, all of these things are different, but wherever you kind of point your inner gaze of attention and wait for the next face or name, certain things are going to come and certain things aren’t going to come. And how you land on one, right? There’ll be this process. If you’re paying attention, you might think, we’ll say we go with names of cities, right? You just, you say, you’ll think of Paris, you’ll think of London, you’ll think of Rome, you’ll think of Sedona. You’ll think like, so these names will come. And if I ask you to just say one, right? So just say one, so just Minneapolis is what came to mind for me.
Andrew Huberman (01:40:54):
It was very straightforward. It was Minneapolis. The famous person was Joe Strummer. And they just like, I can give you reasons why I think they, those came to mind recent conversations.
Sam Harris (01:41:04):
Okay. So, so, so whatever. So we know, we know a fair amount of math, a fair bit about much of this. So one, we know that your reasons, you know, obviously could be right or wrong. They’re very likely to be wrong because we have this sort of confabulatory storytelling mechanism, even in an intact brain, where we just, you know, we all seem to never lack for the reasons why something came to mind. And we know, we can know we can manipulate people in ways that prove that people are just reliably wrong and confident, you know, confidently so about the reasons why they thought of things or did things. But leaving that aside, even if you’re completely accurate, right?
There are, there are people’s names who you know and cities names that you know that inexplicably just didn’t come to mind. And if we ran this experiment again and again, again, they wouldn’t come to mind if your brain was in precisely the state it was in a moment ago. If we, if we, if we could return your brain to the state it was in a moment ago, correcting for, you know, all the deterministic changes and all the random changes that would have to, you know, be corrected for it to just get all the synapses and the synaptic weights and, you know, everything in, in the state it was in to produce Joe Strummer in Minneapolis, right? You’re going to, if we rewind that movie that, you know, that part of the movie of your life, you’re going to say Joe Strummer in Minneapolis a trillion times in a row, right? So this is why, in my view, the notion of free will makes absolutely no sense, right? And you can add as much randomness to that process as you want. It still doesn’t get you the freedom people think they have.
There’s another conversation to have about, you know, why none of that matters and why things only get better once you admit to yourself that free will is an illusion. And yes, you can get in shape and you can diet and you can do all the things you want to do and you don’t have to think about free will.
But from a contemplative meditative point of view, the thing to notice is that everything is just springing into view, right? You’re like, there’s no place from which you are authoring your next thought because you would have to think it before you think it, right? Like there is just this fundamental mystery at our backs that is disgorging everything that we experience.
Andrew Huberman (01:43:14):
What if I’m speaking? So if I’m talking about something and I have some command of that information, I can often sense what I’m going to say next and then find myself saying it. Hopefully that’s what I’m saying, not something else. I certainly said things I didn’t intend to say or never thought I would say in life, but when engaged in speech or action, it at least gives us the illusion, I think, that we somehow have more command over our thoughts.
Sam Harris (01:43:41):
Yeah. Well, you have a script. I mean, it’s like there are things you know a lot about and you’ve talked about them a lot and you know you have the things you want to say about those things and the things you don’t want to say or you wouldn’t want to say.
And you know it still is a bit of a high wire act because you can misspeak or you can fail to get to the end of a sentence in a grammatically correct way. And again, all of this subjectively, this whole process is mysterious to you, right? Like you don’t know how you follow the rules of English grammar, right? Like your tongue is doing it somehow and when it fails, it fails and you’re just as surprised as the next guy that it failed. And you mispronounce a word and okay, I don’t know what happened there but if it keeps happening, I’m gonna worry I had a stroke and if it stops, I’m not gonna worry about it.
So it’s still mysterious even when you’re doing it in a very rote, deliberative and repetitive way. But when you’re talking about something that you’ve talked about a lot and you know, you sort of know where you’re gonna go, right? Like, and this is, you know, we have many conversations like this.
It is somewhat analogous to like a golf swing where it’s like, you know how you wanna do it. There’s gonna be all kinds of errors that are gonna creep into your execution of it in real time. But there’s like, you basically have a pattern and so you have certain linguistic patterns which you’re following. And again, none of this is a proof of free will but I will grant you that, you know, phenomenologically it feels different than just waiting for the next thought to come. But my point is that even if you’re, I mean, you can trim it down to the simplest possible thing. I’m like, you take two things you like to drink, right?
You may, you like coffee and you like tea and you’re deciding which to have, right? Both are on offer. You’ve got two cups in front of you. And the question is, you know, which, you know, or here I’ve got water and I’ve got coffee, which am I gonna drink next? It’s incredibly, it’s the simplest possible decision. And no matter how long I make this decision process, I could literally sit for an hour trying to figure out which to reach for next. And I could have my reasons why and I could have all my self-talk.
There’s going to be a final change in me that’s gonna be the proximate cause of me deciding one over the other. And that, no matter how laborious I can make it seem in terms of my reasoning about it, it is gonna be fundamentally mysterious as to why I went with one rather than the other, right? Whatever story I have, because it’s like, it’s still gonna be as mysterious as you thinking of Joe Strummer when you absolutely, like, you know of the existence of Marilyn Monroe just as much, and yet she simply didn’t occur to you. Right, it’s like, it’s fundamentally mysterious. Like there are people who are even more famous than Joe Strummer to you, right?
Who, I mean, I’m sure you, he may be somebody who you have thought a lot about, but there are people who, like, if we could just inventory, you know, your conscious life going back the last 10 years, there are people who you’ve thought about more than Joe Strummer, yet they didn’t appear, right? So, and that is mysterious, right? And they could have, but they didn’t. And so, and what I’m saying is that this mystery never gets banished in our experience, whatever stories we have to tell about it. Like, because if the story is, oh, well, I went for the water because I, you know, I think I’ve been drinking too much coffee. You know, I listened to Andrew Huberman’s podcast and he was talking about caffeine, and I think I probably- It’s good for us, but you don’t want to overdo it. Yeah, yeah. Okay, so let’s say that is actually the causal chain. Like I listened to your podcast, you said something about caffeine. Now I’m self-conscious about my coffee intake, right?
But that’s just adding a couple of links to the chain. There’s still this fundamental mystery of, well, why did I find that persuasive? And why did I find it persuasive now and not five minutes ago when I was drinking the coffee? Right, like, why did I just remember it now? Or why was it effective now? Like, you only have, your experience in every moment is precisely what it is and not one bit more. Like, and this subsumes even moments of real resolve and effort and, you know, picking yourself up by your bootstraps and changing everything. It’s like, you’re on a diet and you’re tempted to eat chocolate.
And you think you’re about to reach, and you say, no, I’m not, I’m not breaking this diet. This diet is actually going to stick, right? Okay, why did that arise in that moment and not at this analogous moment on your last diet, right? And why did it arise now to precisely the degree that it did? Why will it be as effective as it will be and have the half-life that it will have and not, you know, 10% more or less? Like, all of those are always mysterious to you.
Andrew Huberman (01:49:06):
Well, could we give a, as we did before, an evolutionary and a developmental explanation? An evolutionary explanation might be that directed attention and action is metabolically demanding. It would be inefficient or impossible for us to be in constant, you know, deliberate action and with access to all the relevant information as to why we would do anything. So our ideas literally spring to the surface at the last possible moment in order to offset the metabolic, the great metabolic requirements of having ideas that are related to goal-directed action or that goal-directed action is expensive. That’s one idea. The other idea would be, and we know this as a fact, which is that initially the brain is fairly crudely wired. That’s not true within the neural circuits that control breathing, heart rate, et cetera, but within the neural circuits of sensory perception, thought, et cetera, they’re fairly crudely wired. And then across development, there’s a progressive pruning back and also in parallel to that, a strengthening of the connections that underlie directed action and thought. And here, I don’t mean directed as in free will. I mean, just that I can decide to imagine an apple and imagine that apple, for instance.
There seems to be some maintenance of the fine random wiring in systems. I mean, we’ve seen this even in worms, in flies, in so-called lower invertebrates and lower vertebrates. And we see this in humans. And it seems to be that there’s a lot of background spontaneous activity. I mean, I’ve sunk electrodes into the brains of humans, macaques, carnivores, and mice. And in every case, most of what you hear is called hash and it has nothing to do with hashish, it’s just on the audio monitor, which is picking up a bunch of action potentials. You’re listening to a chorus of action potentials, but it’s rare to find a neuron that faithfully fires to represent some sensory stimulus in the world.
And you can arrange that marriage experimentally so that you can arrive at those strong signal to noise events. But I was always struck by how much noise there is in the system all around, all the time. And people argue, is the noise really noise, et cetera? And is it, you know, there’s still a lot of debate about that, but I can imagine that some of the spontaneous nature of thoughts just relates to the fact that there’s a lot of background spontaneous activity in the brain. Now, why that is, is a whole other discussion, but if I were to sort of set up two constraints that there’s a lot of spontaneous activity, it’s going to generate random thoughts.
Thankfully, not much random action, although there’s a little bit of random action in our daily lives. And then against that say, well, any deliberate thought or motion is going to be expensive, right? It’s a metabolically expensive organ to begin with. And so you just have to, evolution has arrived at a place where spontaneous geysering up of things upon which like deliberate thoughts and action are superimposed is the best arrangement overall for this very metabolically demanding organ. Is that, I mean, what I basically gave was just kind of a biological description of one, just one narrow aspect of it, but can we get comfortable with that? And the reason I say get comfortable is that, you know, I’m here, I admittedly, I’m forcing a little bit of a strip tease towards what I think I and everyone else wants to know, which is how to meditate and why in particular meditation convinces us that something doesn’t necessarily have to be eliminated, but that was actually never there. I feel like we’re now set up of sort of a, almost like a, you’re not contradicting yourself by any means, but in my mind, there’s a contradiction and here’s the contradiction.
I love this statement that meditation over time or done properly reveals to us that we’re actually not trying to make the gap between actor and observer go away. It was actually never there. To me, that’s one of the more important statements that I perhaps have ever heard. And it inspires me to go further down this path of meditation because I’ve never experienced that, not deliberately and certainly not through meditation. If I ever experienced it, it was transient enough that I, you know, I’m intrigued to experience it more. So on the one hand, you’re telling me something was never there and there’s a profound experience to be had by anyone that’s willing to do the work to arrive at that experience of the loss of that illusion.
On the other hand, I’m hearing that there’s a profound gap that really does exist, which is that, you know, we believe that our thoughts are somehow from us. And indeed, they’re from in the cranial vault someplace, maybe in the body a bit as well, but that we over attribute the degree to which we are that and that is us in a way that’s volitional, that we control. And so once I’m hearing that there’s something, there’s an illusion that we can eliminate. And on the other hand, I’m hearing that there’s an illusion that we can’t eliminate.
And maybe these are unrelated and I’m bridging them in an unimportant way that seems only important to me, but somehow I can’t resolve these two. And maybe the thing to do then is, can we separate them in terms of a practice to witness them that would allow us to resolve them separately?
Sam Harris (01:54:27):
Right, so yeah, I think I’m hearing the problem. There’s this, well, let me kind of bracket the whole free will discussion, because it really is the flip side of this coin that I’m, you know, the obverse of which is the illusion of the self.
Andrew Huberman (01:54:45):
Okay, so at least, so I might be on the right track. They are the opposite sides of a coin. Okay, great, because to me, they seem very different in essence.
Sam Harris (01:54:53):
No, because what I’m calling the sense of self and what people, what I think most people feel as their core sense of self is this feeling of, I mean, it’s the feeling of being the locus of attention, but it’s also the feeling of being the locus of agency. Like I can do the next thing. I, like, who’s doing this, who’s reaching for the cup? I am, right? I intended this, and now I’m doing the thing. And my conscious intention is the proximate cause of my reaching, right? So I’m the author, and so I’m the author of my thoughts and actions, essentially, and my specific uses of attention, right? So I can pay attention to the breath.
I get lost in thought. I come back to the breath. But, you know, on some level, the thoughts themselves are more of my doing something with almost a, you know, authorial intent, right? Like I’m thinking, like, what the hell is this guy talking about? I’m, I know I’m thinking, you know, I know, you know, who’s thinking these thoughts? I am, right? Like that’s, the person who really doesn’t get what I’m saying is thinking something like that, right? It’s like, what the fuck is this guy talking about? Like, I, like, I know I’m here. I’m a self. I’m, you know, I’m a body, I’m a mind. I can reach for things that these are, these intentional actions are different from things that happened to me, right? A voluntary action is different from an involuntary one. You know, so having a tremor is different from consciously deciding to pick up a glass, right?
So obviously everything I’m saying about meditation and the self and free will, in order to be a sane picture of a human mind and of reality has to conserve the data of experience such that, yes, I can acknowledge the difference between a tremor and a, a deliberative, you know, voluntary motor action.
And, you know, and the things you do volitionally are different, not just psychologically and behaviorally, but they just have different implications for like in a court of law, you know, you accidentally hit someone with your car or you did it on purpose. That’s still a distinction that matters, right? It importantly, it tells us a lot about the global properties of your mind, such that, you know, we have a sense of what you’re likely to do in the future. If you’re someone who likes running over people with your car, you know, you’re a psychopath who we need to worry about. If you’re someone who did it by accident, well then, you know, you may be culpable for the level of negligence that allowed that to happen, but you’re a very different person and we, we, we treat you differently and we, we’re wise to. So anyway, we can, those, let’s bracket all of that.
There’s this, I mean, there’s some fundamental, there’s some false assumptions about the underlying logic of this process, which I think it’s worth addressing. And it was actually, there’s a kind of found object in the news that I talk about. At one point, I forget where it is in the waking up app, but there was a story that I stumbled on on the internet. I think it’s about 12 or 13 years old of a, a tourist bus in, I think it was in Norway. It was somewhere in Northern Europe and it had about 30 people on it. And one person was described as an Asian woman and they all, they went to a rest stop and everyone got off the bus and they, you know, shopped and had lunch and, and this Asian woman changed her clothing for whatever reason. And they all got back on the bus.
I think the relevance of it being an Asian woman is that, you know, there were language barriers that, that explained what later happened. So everyone gets back on the bus. The Asian woman has changed her, her clothing and the bus is about to leave, but then someone notices, hey, there’s a, there was an Asian woman who got off the bus who isn’t, hasn’t come back yet. And they tell the driver this, and this poses a problem.
So now everyone’s waiting for this person to return. But in fact, everyone was on the bus that this woman had just changed her clothing and was not recognized by her fellow travelers. So everyone gets concerned as this tourist doesn’t, you know, show up and they start looking for her, right? And they can’t find her. And so a search party is formed and the Asian woman, because of the, whatever language barrier, thought, heard that there was a missing tourist. So she joins the search party, which in fact is looking for her, right? And this goes on into the night and they’re readying helicopters at, you know, for a dawn patrol to find the missing tourist.
Now at some point along the way, I think it was at like three in the morning, this tourist realizes that she is the object of this search, right? And obviously the whole thing unravels. She, you know, she confesses that she changed her clothes and, you know, the problem is solved, but the problem is not solved by the logic that the seeker is expected, right? So it’s like, it’s not true to say that the missing tourist was found in the way that was expected, right? Because the missing tourist was never lost. The missing tourist was part of the search party, right?
And so when you think about it from her point of view, like what happened, she’s part of the search party. She’s looking for the missing tourist, not knowing that she in fact is the missing tourist. So what happens at the moment she realizes that everyone’s looking for her, right? Like what is, the search isn’t consummated in the way that is implied by the logic of everyone’s use of attention. And yet the problem evaporates and there’s something deeply analogous about the structure of that and the meditative journey.
Precisely in, again, not talking about all the changes and the possible changes in the contents of consciousness that could be good, which again, they come along for the ride anyway when you do the thing I’m talking about. But it’s on this point of looking for the self and not finding it.
And there is this sense that, okay, the self is here and it’s a problem. It is the string upon which all of my conscious states, mostly unhappy ones are strung, right? It’s the thing that is at the center of my anxiety. It’s the thing that I don’t feel good about. It’s the thing that when criticized, I sort of let implode.
It’s the center of my problem and now I’m trying to feel better and meditation has been handed to me as a possible remedy for my situation. And it’s billed as a remedy. In fact, I’m hearing from this guy that this is the thing that is gonna cause me to realize that myself isn’t where, or as I thought it was. So now I’m gonna look, right?
And so again, the sense is, I start out far away from the goal here. I start out with a problem. I’m now meditating on the evidence of my unenlightenment, right? I can feel my problem. I feel that I’m distracted and distractible. And I feel as this sort of cramp at the center of my life, it’s me. And I’m not as happy as I wanna be. I’m not as confident as I wanna be. I’m more distractible than I wanna be. And now I’m paying attention to the breath, right?
This is what the search party feels like. This is what the confused tourist feels like in her own search party. And she’s looking for the missing person. And so the angle of the inclination of all of this is, and the logic of it is all wrong, understandably so, given how we all get into this situation. But it’s useful to continually try to undercut it and recognize that the thing that’s being looked for is actually right on the surface, which is there is no one looking. There is no place from which, if you’re paying attention to the breath or to sounds or noticing the next thought arise, this sense that you are over here doing that thing is actually what it’s like to be thinking and not knowing that you’re thinking. There’s a thought, there’s an undercurrent of thought that’s going uninspected in that moment. And so there is just a, there’s a continually looking for the mind, a looking for the center of experience, a looking for the one who is looking, which again, which is the kind of the orienting practice here, and there’s a lot more I say about this, obviously over at Waking Up, but it’s the experiment you have to perform in order to get ready to recognize that this whole, the search party was formed in error, essentially. And the problem that you’re trying to solve with this practice does evaporate in a similar way, which is like, you don’t actually get there in the way that you’re hoping for, right? It’s like you drop out the bottom of this thing in an unexpected way. It’s not, there’s actually another kind of a similar parable or anecdote that I don’t remember if it’s Zen or Sufi, or I mean, I’m sure it’s been reappropriated in many different ways, but, or by many different traditions. But there’s this, you know, the case of somebody is lost in a town and they’re asking for directions. You know, you could put this in Manhattan. You could, let’s say you’re wandering Manhattan and you’re a tourist, you don’t know where anything is. And you stop and ask someone, you know, where is Central Park? And the person thinks for a second and they says, oh yeah, unfortunately you can’t get to Central Park from here, right?
And that is a very strange, I mean, you think about that for a second, you realize, okay, that’s an absurd claim. There is no place that you can’t get to from the place you’re starting, you know, on earth, right?
Andrew Huberman (02:05:09):
Like- It’s a failure to describe the physical relationships between anything in the world.
Sam Harris (02:05:14):
Yeah, that’s just not the world we live in, right? So, but it’s a funny thing, but on some level that is true of meditation. It’s like, you can’t get there from here. Like the sense of you, the sense of you as subject isn’t brought along to this thing you’re looking for, right? Like you’re like, you’re, you know, it’s almost like, it’s almost like you’re making a fist and you’re trying to get to an open hand. The fist doesn’t get to take that journey as a fist, right? Like you don’t, the fist doesn’t go along for the ride.
The fist comes apart, right? And on some level that our subjectivity is a kind of an attentional fist. You know, it is a contraction of energy. Again, it’s so much bound up in thought for most of us, most of the time, that is, and when properly inspected, there’s just this, you know, evaporation of the starting point, but there’s not this fulfillment of, I’m going to get, this fist is going to just going to, if I, you know, if life gets good enough, if I get concentrated enough, focused enough, you know, if I austere enough, if I renounce enough, if I desire less, if I, you know, you know, with enough good intentions, this fist is going to move into some sort of sublime condition, right? That’s not the logic of the process.
Andrew Huberman (02:06:44):
I really appreciate these models and analogies for conscious experience, both as most people experience them and harbor them, and it’s as a way to frame what’s possible through a proper meditation practice. I do want to talk about what a proper meditation practice looks like. But at some point, I do want to raise a model of maybe even just perceptual awareness to see if it survives the filters that you’ve provided. But first, just even if briefly, and then we could return to it, you know, what does this meditation practice or a set of practices look like? Obviously, the app is a wonderful tool. I’ve started using it, as I mentioned in the beginning, my father’s been using it for a while, and many people have derived great benefits from it. But if we were to break it down meditation into some basic component parts, as we have broken down normal perceptual experience and some of its component parts, I can just throw out some things that I associate with meditation, and maybe you can elaborate on how these may or may not be applied. For instance, there is almost no difference between sitting or lying down. For instance, there is almost always a ceasing of robust motor movement. I know there are walking meditations and so forth, but it seems like sitting or lying down, and perhaps not always, but often, limiting our visual perception, closing the eyes, directing a mind’s eye someplace. There’s a great effort toward generating imagery. What are the component parts? And where I’m really going with this is why would those component parts eventually allow for this disillusion of the fist or the realization that there is no distinction between actor and observer and so on?
Sam Harris (02:08:42):
Yeah, yeah, well, so to answer that second question first, ultimately, meditation is not a practice that you’re adding to your life. It’s not a doing more of anything. It’s actually ceasing to do something. It’s ultimately non-distraction. I mean, ultimately, you’re recognizing what consciousness is like when you’re no longer distracted by the automatic arising of thought. It’s not that thoughts don’t arise. It’s not that you can’t use them. It’s not that you’ve become irrational or unintelligent. I mean, all of that, you still have all of your tools, but everything is in plain view. I mean, there’s an analogy in Tibetan Buddhism, which I love, which is kind of in the final stage of meditation, thoughts are like thieves entering an empty house. There’s nothing for them to steal, right? So in the usual case, thoughts are, there really is something in jeopardy. Every time a thought comes, I’m not meditating anymore. And not only that, I feel terrible because of what I’m thinking about most of the time, right?
And so it’s totally understandable that thoughts seem like a problem in the beginning. And for certain types of meditation, they are explicitly thought of as a problem because you’re trying to focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else, including thought. And that is what I called concentration practice earlier. And that is a, you know, that’s a training that can be good to do. It becomes a tool that you can use for other kinds of insight.
But it’s a very specific and it’s kind of brittle skill in the end. I mean, it’s a skill, just like I’m going to pay attention to one thing and I’m going to do that so well that everything else is going to fade out. And it’s somewhat analogous to what you described in the visual system. If you have a laser focus to one fixation point, everything else in your visual field begins to fade out. But meditatively, if you have a laser focus on any one thing, whether it’s the breath or a candle flame or whatever it is, not only does, I mean, let’s use the breath for a second because your eyes can be closed, I mean, you can lose all sense of everything. I mean, you can lose all sense of hearing. Your physical body can disappear. I mean, like, literally, it can become incredibly subtle and vast and drug-like. And many people approach meditation thinking kind of climbing the ladder of those changes into subtlety and vastness. That’s the whole game, right? And it can be a deeply rewarding game to play. And it also does come with all kinds of ancillary benefits. I mean, all the focus and the calm and the kind of smoothness of emotional states, I mean, all that comes with greater concentration. And it can be quite wonderful. But again, at best, that’s a tool to aim in the direction that I’m talking about now with respect to meditation, which relates to more what I would call mindfulness, generically, and ultimately, kind of non-dual mindfulness. So mindfulness, generically, and for most people, certainly in the beginning, dualistically, is just the practice of paying careful attention to whatever is arising on its own, right? Now, in the beginning, it’s natural to take a single object, like the breath, as a starting point. It’s kind of an anchor. But very, very quickly, over the course of even your first week of doing this, teachers and various sources of information will recommend that once you get some facility, once you know the difference between being lost in thought and actually paying attention to the breath, well, then you can open it up to everything. You can open up to sounds and other sensations in the body and moods and emotions, and even, ultimately, thoughts themselves. And so very quickly, you can recognize that thoughts are not intrinsically the enemy to this practice. They are also just spontaneous appearances in consciousness that can be observed. But for some considerable period of time, people will feel that there is a place from which that observation is happening, right? There is just, I’m now the one who’s being mindful.
And however attenuated that sense of self can be, I mean, again, it can get very expansive. I mean, you can lose, as you get anything, just a modicum of concentration, it becomes very drug-like. And you get the boundaries of your body dissolve. And your feeling of having a body can disappear. And if your eyes are closed, your visual field can be, most people, when they close their eyes initially, they just forget about their visual field. But if you close your eyes right now, you notice your visual field is fully present.
And we call it dark, but it’s not quite dark. There is a sort of scintillating field of color and shadow that’s there in the darkness of your closed eyes. And that can become a sky-like domain of vast visual expression that opens up as you get more concentrated with your eyes closed, right? So you can very much be aware of seeing with your eyes closed in a meditative practice. But from the point of view of mindfulness, the logic is not to care about any of the interesting changes and experience that come as a result of practicing in this way, because the underlying goal is to be more and more equanimous with changes. So not to grasp at what’s pleasant or interesting and not to push what’s unpleasant or boring or otherwise non-engaging away.
What you want is just a kind of a sky-like mind that just allows everything to appear. And you’re not clinging to anything or reacting
Andrew Huberman (02:15:12):
to anything. Could I ask you what your thoughts are about the differences between nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the context of what we’re talking about and you’re describing? And the reason I bring this up is that, as you know, and I know everything in biology is a process, we would never ever say, oh, you know, the perception of that red line on a painting is a noun, right? I mean, it’s an event in the visual system. You’re abstracting some understanding about that thing in the outside world. And I think it’s very useful in thinking about the brain. And people will notice I notice, excuse me, actively avoid the use of the word mind because I figure, especially with you sitting across from me, that I’ll step in it if I do.
But the brain generates a series of perceptions or what have you through processes, not nouns. And so when thinking about biology, I think of development as an arc of processes. Aging is an arc. Perception is an arc of processes. They just exist on different time scales. And so a little bit of what I’m hearing is that inside of an effective meditation practice, there’s a little bit of a certainly non-judgment but discarding of the noun and the adjective modes of language. Like red apple, OK, it’s a red apple. But then you sort of need to eliminate some other adjectives about it. It’s a rotten apple. It’s a ripe apple. And instead view the appearance and disappearance of that apple as just a thing, a process, as opposed to an event. And now events, we could really get into the language aspect. That just reveals how diminished language is to describe the workings of the brain at some level.
I don’t know if any of this resonates, but it seems to me the goal or one of the goals is to start to understand the algorithm that is the fleeting nature of perception, but to not focus on any one single perception. And then to not even focus on one single algorithm, but to at some level there’s a what is revealed to the meditator over time is some sort of macroscopic principle about the way perceptions work at a deeper level, right? That there’s sort of a deeper principle there that sits below certainly our normal everyday awareness, but that in paying attention to the mechanics of all this stuff and not judging those mechanics, not naming those mechanics, or just naming them and let them pass by, that there’s some action function, some verb is revealed. And that maybe that verb, maybe the word to describe that verb is mindfulness.
Maybe mindfulness is really just a verb to describe that. I don’t know. But is there anything here or am I creating? I don’t know if I’m creating just like useless straw or if there’s actually a seed here of something real. But to me, anytime I want to understand something in biology or psychology, I try and broaden the time domain and think in terms of verbs, not nouns or adjectives.
Sam Harris (02:18:15):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s very useful. And that’s somewhat adjacent to this distinction I’m making between dualistic and non-dualistic ways of experiencing the world. So even dualistically, everything is still a process, right? And we’re misled by the reification that noun talk gives us. So, and this applies not just to something like mindfulness, but even to something like the self, right? So the sense of self is also a process. I mean, it’s a verb. It’s not, we’re selfing more than we are ourselves, right?
And there are even appropriate uses of the term self that don’t go away even when you recognize that the core subject self is an illusion. There are states of self, right?
Where you can recognize in your life that you inhabit very different modes of being depending on the context. So like there are moments where you, just by walking into a certain building, you suddenly transition into a different state of self. Like suddenly you pass through a door and now you’re a customer in a store, right? So we know what that customer feeling is. Like you’re now the person who’s getting the attention. It’s a very kind of formalized type of attention from the person who’s running the store and, you know, or a restaurant, you’re a customer in a restaurant, right? That’s a, I just remembered something that’s kind of funny that it was born of a mismatch of this. I’ll come back to that in a second. But so there are, so we go through, you can be a, you know, you can be a student in the presence of a teacher. You can be a parent in the presence of a son or a daughter. You can be a spouse in presence of your spouse. And all of those shadings of, like the change in context really does usher in some fundamental psychological changes in just the states of consciousness that are available to you. I mean, and it’s, and some of this is really, I mean, I’m sure we could understand a lot about this, you know, personally and, you know, generically, but it is pretty mysterious. I mean, like, I mean, there are people who I know, who I, you know, I’m with them in a certain way.
And like, based on something I’m getting off of them, like, I can’t be that, I’m effortlessly one way with them. And there’s no way I could be that way with somebody else. Right, like, it’s just, I don’t know if it’s the pheromones or their, you know, their facial, just the way they are, their facial expression. But I mean, there are people with whom I’m really kind of effortlessly funny. And there are people with whom, you know, I couldn’t even, it would never occur to me to be funny no matter what happened, you know? It’s like, and I have like longstanding relationships with these people, you know? So like, it’s just very, you know, all of that’s very mysterious. But anyway, the difference there is not in this core sense of subject in relationship to all the objects, it’s in kind of the states of self. And all of that is just very verby, right? Like, all this is a pattern of changes. It’s a pattern of what’s available and what’s not available, the capacities that are, you know, that come online or not in those various contexts. But no, the memory I just had, which I hadn’t had in a long time, but it was one of these moments where I realized the power of these shifts in context for states of self. So I once, I was a young man, I think I was probably 22 or so, and single and like, just like trying to figure out how do you meet women? And like, how does one get confident to do this well? And I walked into a restaurant and a kind of a woman was walking toward me, toward the front door of the restaurant, but she was walking toward me in a way where I just by default assumed she was the hostess in the restaurant.
But she wasn’t the hostess, she was just a, someone who had just eaten there, I guess. So I walked through and she comes out. And so there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in me that’s set up by literally just this change in architecture. And so I just said hi to her in a way that I would, I presumably, I would say hi to any hostess who was coming up to ask me where I wanted to sit. But what had actually happened is I had said hi to a total stranger in a way that I tended at that point never to say hi to total strangers, because I was shy and, you know, just like.
But apparently I gave her like a 10,000 watt, you know, high of like all of the confidence you would have if you were that sort of person. And it just ushered in a complete, like, you know, this is, so I went to my table and this woman like came back into the restaurant and like gave me her phone number, right? Which was something that was just a completely foreign experience to me, you know? And it was based completely on my misunderstanding of the situation I was in, right? And so anyway, that among the understanding,
Andrew Huberman (02:23:37):
among the misunderstandings that one can have and then action engage in life, I would say that was a somewhat adaptive one.
Sam Harris (02:23:46):
Yeah, but then you realize that, okay, but then there are certain people who recognize this machinery to whatever degree or have kind of natural aptitudes for bringing certain things online or not, such that, okay, they can make these, they can consciously make these states of self, you know, this level of gregariousness, say, available to them in different, in the circumstances where it’s actually useful to them. So if you’re single and you want to meet people, well, it’s actually very helpful to feel confident enough to just go say hi to strangers and ask them how they’re doing and to be, you know, online, you know, in that way, where at that point in my life, in that circumstance, you know, by default, I was going to ignore this stranger who I was passing by in the doorway of a restaurant, but thinking she was the hostess, I was engaging her, you know, fully. So anyway, you can consciously, again, this does not invoke free will at all, but yes, you can consciously decide to play with these mechanisms such that you can decide what state, states of self would be more normative to have, you know, given what you want in life. And you can become increasingly, you know, attentive to the ways in which you get played by the world. You know, you’re a kind of instrument. Your mind is a kind of instrument. Your brain is a kind of instrument that is continually getting played by the situations you’re in. And you can become more of an intelligent curator of your conscious states and your conscious capacities just by noticing the changes in you. Like I, in graduate school, this is something I talk about, I think at some point in waking up, this became very stark for me because I had, you know, I was a, you know, an old graduate student. I had taken 11 years off at Stanford between my sophomore and junior year, right? So I like, when I went back to school.
Andrew Huberman (02:25:41):
Talk about a leave of absence. Yeah, no, it was, yeah, yeah. But I mean,
Sam Harris (02:25:43):
so Stanford had this, you know, you might know this. They have this stop out policy where you never really drop out. You just stop out. So you can always go back. You don’t have to write letters saying that you still exist every, you know, two years as you do in other schools. So anyway, I showed up after 11 years. And, but, you know, so I was really on a deadline. I mean, I felt late for everything. So I’m kind of, you know, finishing my degree, you know, as quickly as I can as an undergraduate. And then I jump into graduate school and I’m an old graduate student. And I’m, you know, there’s a real sense of kind of urgency. Like I’m late. I should have done this earlier. I want to get this stuff done.
But then 9-11 happened. And I, just as I had finished my coursework, you know, getting my PhD. And I was just getting into my research. But 9-11 intersected with my life in such a way that I just had to drop everything and write my first book. And I did that. And then I just had to drop everything and write my second book because of the response to the first book. And so essentially I had like four years where I was AWOL doing my PhD.
But I still had a toe in the lab and I was still showing up occasionally, but I was becoming this kind of cautionary tale from the point of view of grad school. But I was also becoming kind of a famous, you know, or semi-famous writer. Because my first book had been a New York Times bestseller. And I just, I was, you know, so I was getting some notoriety as a writer. And so I was doing things like, you know, I was giving a TED talk, but I still hadn’t finished graduate school. Right? So like, it was just, it was, I think that timing’s right. Maybe I had just finished graduate school when I gave the TED talk.
But anyway, so I was rowing in two boats and one boat was sinking or, you know, showing every sign of being damaged. And I was literally like, you know, getting letters from the head of the department saying, you know, we’re concerned about you. But on the other hand, I was like becoming a, you know, a quasi-celebrity in that world too, you know, at least in a world that was overlapping. So I was having the experience of like going in. I mean, the moment where this crystallized would form me in a fairly peculiar way was I had a meeting at like three o’clock with my advisor, who was just this guy, Mark Cohen in the Brain Mapping Center at UCLA. He was a fantastic guy, great advisor. I did not extract as much wisdom from him as I should have, brilliant scientist.
And, you know, he’s, for him, I’m late, right? At least in my head, like he, it’s not that he was riding me so hard, but like in my head, I’m very self-conscious about how I’m not living up to his expectations at this point. So I have a meeting with him at like three o’clock and I’m just kind of wilting, you know, under my, you know, his gaze and my own imagined, you know, inner gaze of his, you know, but that two hours later, I have a meeting with his boss, you know, a dinner meeting with his boss who wants to meet with me to get advice on launching his book. We have the same publisher, but I’m like the much bigger author at, you know, at Norton, you know, and he’s coming to me for advice.
And so I’m ricocheting between two diametrically opposite self-states that are, again, this comes down to architecture. It’s literally like the state I was in, walking into one building and then leaving and walking into another building on the same campus. And they were completely opposite self-concepts. Like in one context, I’m a fuck-up. In another context, I’m a celebrity who’s-
Andrew Huberman (02:29:20):
And you have mastery and virtuosity and we’re developing it very quickly.
Sam Harris (02:29:24):
Yeah, and, but so again, this is a kind of a stark version of that, but everyone has some version of this just in bouncing between talking to their mom and then talking to their best friend and then talking to a stranger and then talking to someone who’s very successful, talking to someone who’s not very successful. Like you notice your vulnerability to all of this stuff. And ultimately what you want is a level of psychological integrity that is truly divorceable from that. Now, I’m not saying you’re ever going to get it perfect. There’s always going to be some, I mean, I can’t talk about the ultimate fulfillment of this process. Like I’m not a Buddha. I’m not saying I’ve finished the project, but I think there’s more and more, you know, as you become sensitive to these changes and you become sensitive to what it’s like to actually not be psychologically reactive and not be definable by your own self-concept, your own idea. I mean, you’re not identifying with anything. You’re not hanging your hat on anything. You’re not thinking about yourself in terms, in the kind of terms that you would export to others and then care about what they think about you, right? Like there’s a kind of invulnerability that arises that’s not born of being well-defended. It’s born of being evaporated, right? It’s like, you’re no longer keeping score in those ways.
Andrew Huberman (02:31:03):
Once again, we’re at the, I really appreciate that description because these days I’m really intrigued by something we’ve known for a long time that you’re certainly familiar with is the prefrontal cortex’s ability to establish context-dependent rule sets. Stroop task would be a basic example of reading numbers or letters on cards and then switching to having to report the colors that the letters and numbers are written in. It’s a basic task, but prefrontal cortex is obviously important for setting context-dependent thought and behavior and directed action. But within the context of all these different variations of the self, depending on graduate school or relationship or sitting alone in one’s room, yeah, there are different rule sets arise, and somehow we are able to have a sense, a coherent sense of self that encompasses all of those. Functional people can toggle between them as needed and not overlap them inappropriately, at least not to the extent that it’s career failing or life failing.
Although there are sad examples of that, many of which exist in the Twitter space. I know several colleagues, not directly of mine, but people who, through mistakes made with their thumbs, where they forgot context or forgot to realize that the context on social media is near infinite, but the context that it existed in their head might not be clear in the way that they communicated something, and they lost their jobs by saying what were perceived as insensitive things, in some cases, were in fact offensive and sensitive things. In some cases, it’s debatable, right?
In any case, I think that the image that now comes to mind relates to something you’ve said several times, that it’s not about eliminating something, it’s about revealing that something was never actually there. And then in terms of sensory experience and these different aspects of the self, I had this image in my mind of, I’m not an experienced scuba diver, but I’ve done enough of it, I’ve worn a wetsuit, you wear a complete wetsuit with the hood, and this idea, if you were born into that wetsuit, you might think that, yeah, you nudge up or lean up against a wall and you experience it one way, right? But were you to shed that wetsuit, you would go, wow, there’s this incredible landscape of somatosensory experience that I had no idea, that goes way beyond levels of sensitivity, right? Now you’re talking about fine two-point discrimination and light strokes, and this could be positive or negative, pain, and other ways too.
What you’re describing is essentially that the wetsuit was never really there, but was created through a series of action steps. And I think what we’re migrating towards here is a set of foremost non-intuitive or non-reflexive action steps that reveal to us that, in fact, we’re not wearing this wetsuit. Now, you raised one topic, which I think is analogous to this wetsuit, which is this notion of distraction, that normally distraction is masking what would otherwise be a better experience of life.
I can think of distraction as falling into two different bins. One would be the kind of distraction that is internally generated, like the fact that thoughts arise and pull me down different alleyways and avenues of my brain and my thoughts and my experience. And then the other would be, and that would compete with my ability to really focus on something. And then another form of distraction, which captures my ability to focus intensely, but has me focusing on the wrong things. And here, I think the judgment of wrong is reasonable to include if, for instance, I’m being impulsively yanked to something on social media, I’m being impulsively yanked to someone else’s pain and experience, and somehow confusing that with my own experience. This isn’t empathy, but just being yanked around, my attention as a spotlight is kind of like, over here, over there. I’m not feeling as if I’m the one standing behind that spotlight controlling it, or I’m not the spotlight, just to keep with what we’ve been building up here. So could you tell us a little bit about distraction and tell me whether or not these two forms are in any way accurate or inaccurate. I’d be happy for them to be inaccurate. And whether or not there are other forms of distraction that we need to be on the lookout for.
And again, I think what most people are seeking is what is the way to not just enhance our ability to focus, but to shed this wetsuit-like cloak that limits our experience that I’m calling and that you’ve called distraction.
Sam Harris (02:35:43):
Yeah, I get, well, this, I mean, distraction is one component of it. The other aspect of it is identification with thought, and identification, the feeling of self is bound up in the sense that I’m the thinker, I’m the one attending, I’m the one vulnerable, I’m the inner, kind of the inner homunculus that’s vulnerable to experience. And I think it can be gratified by it or not. And it’s constantly trying to improve it or in mitigate negative aspects of it. It’s the sense that there’s kind of a rider on the horse of consciousness as opposed to just consciousness and its contents. So it’s, again, it rides atop this illusion of control, et cetera. So to go all the way back to the question you asked about, just what do I recommend as a starting point for meditation?
Some of your assumptions are in fact true. Yes, I mean, it’s, you know, I often recommend in the beginning people close their eyes and you do a sitting practice and that’s different from a walking practice. I mean, you can do both, but people tend to start, you know, sitting with their eyes closed. But again, ultimately where this is going is it’s not an art of meditation properly recognized is not an artifice that you’re adding to your life. It’s not even a practice. It is less rather than more, you know, and therefore it is also coincident with potentially every waking moment. There’s nothing that you can do with your attention once you know how to meditate that in principle excludes meditation because meditation is just a recognition of an intrinsic character of consciousness in each moment. And all you have in each moment is consciousness and its contents, whatever you’re doing.
So in the beginning, you know, you’ll be very deliberate and precious about deciding to practice meditation and you’ll set aside 10 minutes in the morning and you’ll do that. And then, and it’ll seem very different from the next 10 minutes when you’re, you know, spilling out onto your to-do list and you’re trying to figure out, you know, what the day looks like, right? But ultimately you want to erase this boundary between formal practice and the rest of life such that there’s, it’s just not remotely findable. And that’s achievable. And I think even from the very beginning you can relax this conceptual distinction between meditation and its antithesis, because it’s not, it’s not at the level of anything you’re doing, it’s the level, it’s at the level of what’s happening in your relationship to thought. You know, like, what can you notice when you know, it’s the transition from, you know, the bistable percept, you know, you’re looking at the image and you see nothing. Let’s say this, you know, the Dalmatian, you know, it’s just the spots on the paper and you just, you don’t see, you don’t see anything. And then all of a sudden the Dalmatian or the face of Jesus or whatever the image is, pops out and then you see it. It’s the transition from nothing to something, right? That you, the practice becomes the transition from being lost in thought and then waking up. And it’s very much like breaking the spell of thought and identification with thought is very much like waking up from a dream and having, it’s like that transition, the whole, like you’re having a dream and there’s a couple of things are true there.
I mean, it really is a kind of, it’s a psychosis that is just not, we don’t problematize because you’re safely in bed and you’re not moving or anything unless you’ve got some kind of, you know, sleep disorder. You’re not walking around harming yourself or anybody else. So, but to be in bed and to not know it and to think you’re, you know, running along a beach or, you know, you’re getting tried for murder in a court of law or whatever the thing is that you’re completely delusional about, right? That is psychosis, right? And it’s like, you’re fundamentally unaware of your circumstance. And then you, there are two things can happen there. You can either become lucid within the dream, right? Which is interesting. There’s a whole phenomenology of that, which can be practiced. But more commonly, you can just wake up from the dream and all of a sudden the problem you thought you had is no longer there. And you have a completely different context for your conscious life. Like now, you know, you’re in bed, you were safely in bed all the while. There really is something analogous when you break this identification with thought, right? You’re just, you’re having a thought that seems to be some kind of, you know, moral or psychological emergency.
And you can, the moment you see daylight around it, the moment you see that the mind is larger than this mere appearance, right? Then you have it, suddenly you have a degree of freedom that a moment ago was just unthinkable, right? And you’re also, you recognize, you sort of come to in a way, you recognize your circumstance in a way that you weren’t a moment ago when you were just talking to yourself, when you were just identical to that conversation. So this is all to say that ultimately meditation, I mean, so again, there’s another apparent paradox here. Many people don’t know much about meditation will say things like, you know, well, you know, for me, running is my meditation or skiing or rock climbing or playing the guitar, something they like to do that gives them an experience of flow. That’s what they go to, to feel better. And that’s the opposite of all the chaos of their lives or their time on Twitter or whatever it is.
In virtually every case, it’s not true to say that that is effectively meditation. You’re not gonna, by learning to play the guitar, you’re not gonna learn what I’m calling meditation. And you’re not gonna learn it by, you know, cycling or getting, no matter how good you get at any of those things, you’re not gonna learn it by doing those things. But paradoxically, I mean, not really, but it can seem like a paradox. Once you know how to meditate, then you can meditate doing all of those things, right? Meditation is totally compatible with playing the guitar or skiing or doing any ordinary thing you like to do, right? So once you know how to meditate, and again, it’s totally natural in the beginning to formalize it and to set aside time each day to do it because it is a, it is a training. I mean, it is something that in the beginning you have to get used to, but once you have, once you’re getting used to it, then there is no good reason not to be experiencing this thing I’m calling meditation, this insight into the centerlessness of consciousness, the non-selfhood of consciousness. You should experience it when you’re playing your favorite sport or when you’re having a conversation with somebody. And then the reason, then to come back to your initial assumption about eyes closed, a lot of practice, even formal practice can be done eyes open, and it’s important to do it eyes open because so much of our anchoring of our sense of self is based on visual cues. I mean, like we just, we know that if you give people the right visual cues, you can translocate their sense of self. You can give them an out of body experience, you know, with a video display where you can literally make them feel like there’s a body swapping illusion. You can make them feel that they’re in another person’s body looking back at their body if you run the cameras the right way.
Andrew Huberman (02:43:38):
I’ve done this in VR, seeing an image of they create an avatar for you and then your bodily movements generate the movements of the avatar and you start gaining presence as they call it in the VR lingo very quickly. And then pretty soon you lose sense of your own bodily representation. And it’s a little eerie. What’s eeriest to me is going back into, of course never left, but back into your actual body when the VR goggles pop off, the world seems almost overwhelming the number of sensory stimuli that are in like a laboratory room, which is actually quite sparse. So exactly what you described, this translocation of notions of self through visual experience.
Sam Harris (02:44:23):
But conversely, when you lose the sense of self, the sense of self I’m talking about, it can be especially vivid and salient with eyes open, because so many of your reference points to selfhood are delivered visually, right? Especially in a social situation. It’s like, I’m talking to you, you’re looking back at me, right? So the implication of your gaze is that I’m over here behind my face implicated by your gaze. So the sense that you’re looking at something is the sense of self in that social context, right? And so, and if your facial expression changes, like, so I’m saying something, and if you kind of furrow your brow, like, well, what the hell’s here? And I can read into that facial change some inner state of yours that is salient to me. All of a sudden, we’ve got this sort of dance of like, I’m noticing you reacting to me, and that’s changing the way I’m feeling about what I’m, that’s the purview of every neurosis everyone didn’t want, right?
Andrew Huberman (02:45:22):
And every relationship, I had a girlfriend when I was a postdoc who was very, very, she was brilliant, really, still is. And she always said that every relationship, there are four arrows, she used to say, she’s a neuroscientist, still is, and said, you know, there’s the arrow of, you know, she was talking to me, so she said, you know, me to you, and kind of what you perceive coming from me, and then there’s you to me, and then there’s an arrow from the middle going right back at each one of us, which is our own perception of what the other person is thinking about us, and it’s feeding back on the other arrow. And she gave me this very clear, but model of basically relationships. The relationship failed, but it was good while it lasted, I should say. But the four arrow model of relationships actually shows up in every type of one-on-one relationship, and it’s probably an under-description of the total number of arrows, but I think it’s exactly what you’re describing, is that perception of self through the eyes of other, whether or not we’re empathic or not, strongly shapes the way that we access different context-dependent rule sets about what we’re going to say and not going to say. It’s very dynamic, right?
Sam Harris (02:46:27):
Yeah, so, but the freedom that I think we want, and people can sometimes experience this just haphazardly, but the thing that, the center of the bullseye from the meditative point of view is to get off that ride entirely, and so losing the sense of self in this context of a social encounter is to give up your face, essentially, like your, like, and what that entails is, or what that gives you is the free attention to actually just pay attention to the other person, right? And the other person is now no longer quite an object in the world for you. There’s really just a kind of a totality of which that person is a part. And actually, you know, Martin Buber, the kind of mystical Jewish philosopher talked about the kind of the I-thou relationship, and this, I think, you know, it’s been a long time since I’ve read Buber, but, and I don’t know if he goes, you know, far enough to be truly non-dualistic, but this distinction between I and thou, because the thou part of it is, I think, potentially this, or, again, it’s been several decades since I read him, but there’s a way of beholding another person where you have the free attention to simply behold them, right? Like, you’re no longer, you no longer care what they think about you. You don’t feel neuronically implicated by their gaze. You don’t feel, you’re just, you’re simply the space in which they’re appearing, right? And so you’re free. You’re like, there’s just, there’s no, and people can feel, and so you’re, by definition, you’re no longer self-conscious, right? And when, and this phrase, self-consciousness really does get at this, what I’m calling the self, the illusory self, as a kind of contraction. And you can notice this for yourself. Just imagine what it’s like to be in that space like to go from not being self-conscious to suddenly being self-conscious. And the proximate cause of this, you know, almost invariably is suddenly recognizing that somebody’s looking at you, right? So like, you’re in a Starbucks and you’re, you know, you’re alone and you’re reading the newspaper or whatever it is, and this is now sounds highly anachronistic. It’s been three years since I’ve held a physical newspaper in a Starbucks, but you know, you’re, you’re, you’re just minding your own business and you look up and you’re just, you’re seeing, you know, a room full of strangers, but then you notice that someone is just looking at you, you know, and so like that moment of eye contact, right? Suddenly that throws you back on yourself as a kind of, suddenly you’re the object in the world for that other person. And that recognition is a, the tightening there, the kind of contraction there is a, is a further ramification of this, this feeling most of us have most of the time of being the center of experience. Like the place you feel like, it’s like, you know, we’re all walking around with a fist and in moments of self-consciousness, the fist gets really tight, you know, and that’s, and that’s, that’s the thing that gets fully relaxed when you discover this, this, what I’m, you know, at various points called the nature of mind or the non-dual nature of consciousness is just that there is no center to this experience. And when you recognize no center, then even when your gaze is aimed at another person’s gaze, there is no implication going back to the center because there is no center, right? And, and rather than that being an experience of weird detachment or confusion, or, or it’s, it’s actually an experience of greater relationship because you’re no longer, you no longer defend it. You’re not defending anything over here. Like you’re not, you’re not braced against anything. You’re just the space in which that person is showing up. And so it’s a, it’s a, it’s an experience of being much more comfortable in, in the presence of another person, whatever your relationship, because you’re not contracting, right? And then when you do, when you have that, again, and this is meditation, right? This is meditation that is totally compatible with having a conversation with somebody. And then when you notice yourself contracting, like when you notice you’re not doing, you’re not meditating anymore, you’re just, you’re actually reacting. Like they just said something or looked a certain way, and now you’re cast back upon yourself in relationship to them.
That becomes a kind of mindfulness alarm, right? Then you know that, that it becomes like the, the unsatisfactoriness of that psychologically becomes more and more salient, right? And it’s, because that’s not, one, that’s not the way you want to be. I mean, it’s like, it’s the antithesis of being as comfortable as you were a moment ago. But two, it’s something you’re doing unnecessarily, right? Like, it’s like, you’re like, again, you’re making a fist when you don’t have to make a fist, right? And it’s, again, you can leave aside all those circumstances where it’s appropriate to react to someone. And, you know, I’m into martial arts and self-defense, and yes, you’re not supposed to be just this puddle of goo out in the world who can be just mistreated by people and never put up resistance. But it’s psychologically, you know, even if a state like anger or contraction is sometimes normative and appropriate, the question is, how long is it normative and appropriate for? Like, how long do you want to stay angry for? In my experience, these kind of classically negative emotions like anger and fear are appropriate as salience cues. You know, they orient you to, you know, an emergency or a potential emergency, but then in dealing with the emergency, they’re almost never the state you want to be in. You know, it’s like, you don’t, you know, like it’s better to actually be calm in an emergency, you know, so.
Andrew Huberman (02:52:55):
Oh, absolutely. I think that, and again, the language is insufficient to describe what you’re telling us, but I think what comes to mind for me is this distinction between situational awareness and self-awareness, and we need both. But under conditions of emergency, true emergency, or motivated desire, we need to dial down the amount of self-awareness in order to be more effective within the situational awareness. But you said something very important, and my lab has been working on fear-like states for a long time, so I’m going to, I confess I’m going to rob this from you, but I’ll credit you every time I describe it, is that the fear or the threat detection state or set of events acts as a flag, but is not meant to persist in the way that the flag went up. Right. If one is to be in their most adaptive state. Actually, Jocko Willink and I were talking about this. He talks a lot about detachment and open gaze, things that my lab is interested in, visual system and autonomic interaction. So why broadening the gaze, literally broadens the time domain of thinking, and you’ve come up with new solutions to complex problems in real time, and so on. And you’re describing an everyday set of interactions where that could be very useful. And yet there seems to be something about the way you describe meditation and what you’ve managed to arrive at and what practitioners of meditation can arrive at, which is something more than that. Like it’s not just about being effective or optimizing all the language we see thrown around a lot in the space that I live in these days, but something fundamentally more important about how to experience life and the self, this realization that what you thought was there was never really there, but that there are constraints that limit that. And so to try and fracture those constraints one by one, would you say that meditation as a practice done for a few minutes each day or with the app, that it’s a kind of a step function, is it very non-linear in terms of people’s progress?
I’m certainly going to go start doing more meditation based on this discussion, truly, because anytime someone describes that there’s kind of a myth that we’ve been living in, I become obsessed with the idea of dissolving that myth. That’s a very seductive phrase, so thank you for using that one. There is no better marketing tool, which is, I realize what you’re not trying to do here, but that’s for me to capture my efforts. You tell me that there’s a myth that I’m living in and that it can be dissolved and that opens up a better landscape. What is the process like? Do some people make progress very quickly? Do some people experience kind of step functions towards progress?
What does the meditation practice look like over time? Do you still meditate or have you just threaded it through your jujitsu, your writing, your daily life, your coffee, your time with your wife, et cetera?
Sam Harris (02:56:07):
Yeah, also, just to come back, just to talk about the myth for a second. So they’re really, what you just enunciated was kind of a second doorway into this whole project. So the usual door is through the door of suffering, for lack of a better word. I mean, people feel unhappy in a variety of ways and they get more sensitized to the mechanics of their own unhappiness. And meditation is one of the things on the menu that is explicitly billed as a remedy for unhappiness.
And it is, and that’s, I think that’s probably the most common path to this. But another path is just intellectual interest. I mean, just wanting to know what’s real about the mind subjectively in a first-person way. And there’s no contradiction between those two things. I’m motivated by both of them, but it’s a totally valid doorway into this. There are definitely step functions. I mean, I would say there are at least two. I mean, and they really are articulated along the lines of the framework I’ve been describing of dualistic and non-dualistic mindfulness, right? So in the beginning, you’re gonna start out, 99.9% of people will start out dualistically paying attention and noticing the difference between being distracted by thought and then being on the object of attention, whether it’s the breath or sounds or whatever. And eventually that opens up to all possible objects of attention, including thoughts. And there’s still this fluctuation between being distracted and then being mindful of whatever.
And the fact that it’s open to all possible objects differentiates this type of practice from anything that is narrowly focused on one object, like a mantra or a visualization or society. You know, those are other paths of practice that are more concentration-based and interesting. But the benefit of mindfulness is that very quickly you realize it’s by definition compatible with all possible experience because you’re not artificially contracting your attention down to something. You’re just being aware of the next thing, a sight, a sound, a taste, a thought.
So the first step function is to very clearly experience the difference between being lost in thought and being clearly aware of any part of experience, including thought. And to notice the freedom, the comparative psychological freedom that gives you, right? So you can, like, something’s made you angry, and now you’re thinking about all the reasons why you should be angry and have every right to be angry and what you’re going to tell that person when you see them.
And then you notice you’re thinking, right? And you notice the connection between the thought and the anger, right? You’re like, the minute spent lost in thought about what’s making you angry is the thing that dragged through the physiology of anger, right? And the moment you notice, once you’re mindful, once you can be mindful, you can notice thought as thought and how quickly that dissipates, that just the language and the imagery, just you couldn’t hold onto it if you wanted to. And then you notice the physiology of the anger is just this kind of meaningless, you know, kind of inner incandescence that has its own half-life and degrades very, very quickly when you’re no longer thinking about the reasons why you should be angry. You can’t hold onto the anger. The anger itself dissipates, right? And from the point of view of the one who’s being mindful, this is tremendous relief. I mean, and at minimum, it’s a degree of freedom. You can, at that point, decide, well, how long do I want to be angry for, right? Is it useful to stay angry? Do I want to be angry for one minute, two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes? Or, and before you have that capacity to be mindful, you’re going to helplessly be as angry as you’re going to be for as long as you’re going to be that way, just based on the kind of the time course of your thinking about it, brooding about it, telling your wife about it. You know, like, it’s just going to be this conversation-based misadventure in, you know, negative states of mind.
And you are going to be the hostage of that for as long as you’ll be the hostage of that. You’ll have nothing you can do, apart from just deciding to, you know, check out and watch Game of Thrones again for the third time, right? Like, it’s just, you can divert your attention to something else, which is, you know, sometimes a good thing to do. But mindfulness, even dualistic mindfulness gives you this capacity to just observe the mechanics of this and then get off the ride when you, whenever you want. So that really is a step function. Like, first, there was a time when, there was a time before you could do that, and then there’s a time after which you can do that. The other step function is…
noticing that there is no one who is doing that. I mean, this is the non-duality, the selflessness, the centrallessness of awareness, right? The fact that there’s no place from which the mindfulness is being aimed but the fact that there’s just this open condition in which everything is appearing, you know, thoughts included. To have you, as, at that point, your mindfulness no longer becomes… it’s no longer this, this dualistic effort to strategically pay attention to anything as opposed to being lost in thought. It’s just what’s left when thoughts, when the present recognized thought unravels, even before it unravels, what’s recognized is you are simply identical to the condition in which everything is appearing. Again, this is not a, I’m not making a, a Deepak Chopra-like metaphysical claim about the mind. You know, this is not, I’m not saying the mind isn’t what the brain is doing. I’m not saying that you’re recognizing the consciousness that gave birth to the universe. I’m not making any broad claims about metaphysics. I’m just talking about, as a matter of experience, there is just this condition in which everything is appearing. Right? And what you’re calling your body, again, as a matter of experience, I’m not saying that we can’t have third-person conversations about, you know, physical bodies in a physical world, but as a matter of experience, the only body you’re ever going to directly encounter as your own is an appearance in consciousness. Right? So consciousness is not in your body. What you’re calling your body is in consciousness. You know, visually, proprioceptively, it’s like everything is just appearing in this condition. And again, you’re not aiming, you’re not, this is not a spotlight that you’re aiming at the body or at, you know, there’s just this condition in which everything, including anything you could call yourself, is appearing. And so, yeah, so that’s the second step function is to recognize that this is already true. Consciousness is already without this thing you’ve been calling your ego, hoping to unravel it through meditation.
Consciousness is not going to get any more selfless, any more centerless, any freer than it always already is, recognized as such. And so that’s the step function at that point is your mindfulness at that point, the thing you come back to when you’re no longer distracted is that recognition again and again. And then it becomes, yeah, it becomes compatible with anything you would do. And so to answer your question, yes, I still practice, you know, formally, you know, sometimes, you know, frequently, but not, you know, I definitely miss days and I don’t do it for, I mean, you know, I don’t rule out the possibility that I will go back on retreat at various times just to, you know, check in with that and see if that makes a difference.
But, you know, I tend to sit for, I mean, I tend to, I’ve designed my life so that I can spend a lot of time meditating without having to be formally meditating. Like, so, you know, I’ll go for a hike for two hours, right? And what I’m doing when I’m hiking is identical to what I’m doing when I’m, quote, meditating, you know, sitting in a chair, you know, doing nothing but meditate. So it’s, yeah, I mean, I just, again, I’m very interested in erasing the boundary between what people are calling meditation and the rest of life. And so that’s, in teaching these things, I tend to emphasize that from the beginning because I think it’s very easy to set up, to get gulled by a bunch of assumptions that cause you to be very split in your sense of what your life is about. And like, I’m sort of banking my meditation over here because I’m meditating two hours a day diligently, and, you know, this is gonna be really good for me. And then over here is the rest of my life, which is not nearly as wise or as useful or as, like, this is the stuff that is still the area of my problems.
And I think it’s useful to recognize you’ve got one life, you know, and you’ve got this single condition of consciousness and its contents in every mode of life. And there’s something to recognize about it, and you’re always free to recognize that, truly even in your dreams, right? I mean, it’s just not, it never stops. So that’s what I tend to emphasize.
Andrew Huberman (03:05:58):
So earlier, you told us that meditation is not about changing the content of conscious experience. And in a different podcast that you were on, I heard you say something to the effect of that normally we are in our daily experience, and unless we are trained in meditation, unless we’ve dissolved this illusion of the gap between actor and self and observer, that we require certain sensory events to create collisions within us and with the natural world that sort of, you know, blast us into a different mode of being.
I want to use that as a way to frame up this idea that some things, such as psychedelics, but also a very long hike, a very long fast, you know, who knows, a banquet, you know, different types of life experiences do exactly the opposite of what you’re describing meditation does, which is that they actively change the content of our conscious experience, so much so that we often remember those for the rest of our lives. Yeah. Could you tell us why psychedelics can be useful?
And here I’ll give the caveats that maybe you’ll feel obligated to give as well, but this we’re talking about use safely and responsibly, age appropriate, context appropriate, ideally with some clinical or other type of guidance, legality issues obeyed, etc. All that stated, psychedelics to me are an experience of altered perception, internal and external perception, altered space-time relationship, somewhat dream-like. I think it was Alan Hobson at Harvard for a long time talked about the relationship between psychedelic-like states and dream-like states because of this distortion of space-time dimensionality. And I haven’t experimented with them much. I’ve been part of a clinical trial, three doses of MDMA, which certainly altered the quality of my conscious experience in ways that led to a lot of lasting and at least for me, valuable learning. Yeah. So what are your thoughts about psychedelics in terms of how they intersect with the discussion that we’ve been having?
And what utility do they play in recognition of the self or in other sorts of brain changes?
Sam Harris (03:08:23):
Well, so yeah, let’s just price in all those caveats that people can anticipate. These drugs are not without their risks. And it’s one problem is that we have this single term drugs or psychedelics, which names many different types of substances, and they’re not all the same. And so like MDMA is not even technically a psychedelic. I think it has an immense therapeutic value. And it actually was my gateway drug into this whole area of concern.
Andrew Huberman (03:08:55):
Amphetamine pathogen, right? It’s sort of an amphetamine and a pathogen at the same time.
Sam Harris (03:08:59):
Yeah, I mean, it’s often called-
Andrew Huberman (03:09:01):
M pathogen. Yeah, an m pathogen. Not pathogen, m pathogen.
Sam Harris (03:09:05):
An m pathogen or an n-tactogen, it’s been called. But it doesn’t tend to change perception in the way that classic psychedelics do. And it’s also serotonergic, but it’s not- it has to be in some part differently so than- I mean, even LSD and psilocybin, which are much more similar in classic psychedelics, both are also serotonergic, but they’re not merely so. And they’re also different. And the higher dose you take of these drugs, the more you- at lower doses, everything can kind of seem the same. At higher doses, they begin to diverge.
And we can talk about the pharmacology if you wanted to. But I would just say that for many of us, and certainly for me, psychedelics were indispensable in the beginning in proving to me that this was- that a first-person interrogation of the mind was worth doing, because I was somebody who at age 17 or 18, before I had any real experience with MDMA or LSD or psilocybin, if you had taught me how to meditate at that point, I think I would have just bounced off the whole project. I think my mind was- I was just- I was so cerebral in just my engagement with anything. I was so skeptical of any of the religious and spiritual traditions that have given us most of our meditation talk, you know, that I think I just would have- and I know many of these people, like I have tried to teach Richard Dawkins to meditate and Daniel Dennett to meditate. I’ve ambushed them with meditation, both in a group setting and one-on-one. Not Dan, but Richard. I ambushed on my own podcast with a guided meditation.
And he just, you know, from his- he closes his eyes, he looks inside, and there’s nothing of interest to see. Like, it’s just- it’s like it’s not- he doesn’t have the conceptual interest in him that would cause him to persist long enough to find out that there’s a there there, right?
Now, this is not a problem with LSD or psilocybin or MDMA. I know that if I gave him 100 micrograms of LSD or 5 grams of mushrooms or, you know, 25 milligrams of psilocybin, that’s probably not the analogous dosage to the 5 grams of mushrooms. 5 grams of mushrooms would be more than that. I forget what it is of MDMA, maybe 120 milligrams.
Andrew Huberman (03:12:06):
I think the MAPS dose, which is the one that’s under clinical trials, is 125 milligrams with an option of a 75-milligram booster.
Sam Harris (03:12:13):
Right, right, right. Funny I would remember that. It’s strange, the facts that come to hand. Exactly. But there’s just no possibility that nothing’s going to happen right now. Something with a psychedelic, with MDMA, most people tend to have, certainly under any kind of guidance, tend to have a very positive, you know, pro-social experience.
But, you know, with a psychedelic, you might have a somewhat, you know, terrifying experience if you have, quote, a bad trip. And I’ve certainly had those experiences on LSD and to some degree on psilocybin. But the prospect that nothing is going to happen is just, you know, nearly a million cases out of a million just not in the cards. I mean, just neurophysiologically, something’s going to happen with the requisite dose of one of these drugs. And if that thing that happens is psychologically at all normative and, you know, pleasant and interesting and valuable, which it is so much of the time, and certainly under the appropriate, you know, set and setting and guidance, it can be, you know, a lot of the time for, you know, virtually everybody. Again, there are caveats. If you’re prone, if you think you have, you know, a proclivity for schizophrenia or, you know, bipolar disorder, this is almost certainly not for you. You know, and anyone doing the studies at, like, Johns Hopkins for the therapeutic effects of any of these drugs, they’re ruling out people with, you know, first-degree relatives with any of these clinical conditions.
But so for somebody like me at 18 who didn’t know that this was an area of not only interest, but would be, you know, the center of gravity for the rest of his life, if only he could pay attention clearly enough to see that it could be, right? I was someone who very likely… Again, I don’t know. I don’t have the counterfactual in hand. I don’t know what would have happened if someone had, you know, forced me to meditate for an hour at that point. But I know I wasn’t interested in it until I took MDMA.
I know I wasn’t having these kinds of experiences spontaneously that showed me that there was an inner landscape that was worth exploring. I was a very hard-headed skeptic who was very interested in lots of things, but there was no alternative to me just thinking more about those things, right? I mean, the idea that there’s some other way of grasping cognitively at the interesting parts of the world beyond thinking about the world, right? I just… That just wouldn’t have computed for me at all, right? And if you had… So I just… And I literally have… No one ever gave me a book to read or never had… I don’t even… The noun meditation very likely meant absolutely nothing to me before I took my first dose of… In this case, it was MDMA. So what the drug experience did for me is it just proved…
I mean, so one of the limitations of a drug is that, you know, obviously, no matter how good the experience, the drug wears off, and then you’re back to, you know, in more or less your usual form, and now you have a memory of the experience. And it can be a fairly dim memory. I mean, some of these experiences are so discontinuous with normal waking consciousness that it can be like trying to remember a dream, you know, that just disappeared, that degrades, you know, over the course of seconds, and then it could have been the most intense dream you’ve ever had, and for whatever reason, you can barely get a purchase on, you know, what it was about, and…
You know, there’s some psychedelic experiences that are analogous to that, but… For most people, most of the time, there’s a residue of this experience, and with something like MDMA, they can be quite vivid… where you recognize, okay, there was a way of being that is quite different than what I’m tending to access by default, and it is different in… ways that are just… you know, obviously better and psychologically more healthy. I mean, it’s possible to be healthy psychologically in a way that I never imagined.
Right? And then when you begin… then when you link it up to the traditional literature around any of this stuff, again, so much of it is shot through with superstition and otherworldliness of religion, and, you know, as you know, and I think your… listeners probably know, I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing all that, but there is a baby in the bathwater to all of that, right? It’s not that…
somebody like Jesus or the Buddha or any of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the world’s religions, it’s not that they were all conscious frauds or, you know, temporal lobe epileptics, or, like, there’s a pathological lens that you can put on top of all that, but… once you have one of these experiences on psychedelics or on a drug like MDMA, you know that there’s a there there. You know that unconditional love is a possibility, right? You know that feeling truly one with nature, right? I mean, just so one with nature that you could spend ten hours in front of a tree and find that to be the most rewarding experience of your life, right? That’s a possible state of consciousness. Now, it may not be the state of consciousness you want all the time. You know, you don’t want to be the crazy guy by the tree, you know, who can’t have a conversation about anything else, but…
once you have one of these experiences, you recognize, okay, there’s…
there’s some reason why I’m not having the beatific vision right now, and I can’t even figure out how to aim my attention so as to have anything like it. And that’s a problem, right? Because it’s available, right? And it’s the best, you know, it is among the best things that has ever happened to me, right? And now I can just only dimly remember what that was like. So how do I get back there on some level? And so that invites, again, a logic of changes, a logic of seeking changes in the contents of consciousness, which sets someone up for this…
protracted or seemingly protracted and, you know, fairly frustrating search to, you know, game their nervous system so as to have those kinds of experiences more and more. And again, it’s not that that’s in principle fruitless, but it is from the point of view of the kind of the core insight of, you know, the core wisdom of, you know, what I would take from a tradition like Buddhism, which is not, you know, it’s not the only tradition that has given voice to this, but I would argue it’s given voice to it in the most articulate way. Again, leaving aside any of the superstition and otherworldliness and miracles that, you know, we don’t have to talk about at the moment, and you certainly don’t need to endorse in order to be interested in this stuff.
And so that’s the bifurcation between all of the utility of psychedelics and what I’m talking about under the rubric of meditation is at this point of, okay, once you realize there’s a there there, what do you do and what’s the logic by which you’re led to do it? And it’s possible, like, if your only framework is the good experiences, the good feels you had on whatever drug it was, and a further discussion of, like, what that path of changes, you know, can look like, and that can come in a religious context, it can come in just a purely psychedelic context or, you know, some combination of the two, I think you can be misled to…
you can just be… you can be misled to just seek lots of peak experiences. You’re just trying to string together a lot of peak experiences, hoping they’re gonna change you, every one of which, by definition, is going to be impermanent, right? I mean, first it wasn’t there, then it’s there, and then it’s no longer there, and then you’ve got a memory of it, right? So what I think it’s… what everyone really wants, whether they know it or not, and they’re right to want, is a type of freedom that is compatible with even ordinary states of consciousness, which can ride along with them into extraordinary states of consciousness. I mean, so what I… I hadn’t done psychedelics for 25 years, because, I mean, again, they were super useful for me in the beginning.
Then I discovered meditation on the basis of those experiences, got really into meditation and realized, okay, this is a much more… this really is… you know, conceptually, this makes much more sense to me. This is delivering the goods, you know, in terms of my experience. There’s no need to keep having these, you know, seeking these peak experiences with drugs. But it had been, you know, 25 years since I had done that, and there was this resurgence in research on psychedelics, and I was being asked about psychedelics, and I was talking about their utility for me. But, again, these were distant memories, and so I… and there was also one type of psychedelic experience…
I was aware that I had never had. I had never done a high dose of mushrooms blindfolded. You know, like, every mushroom trip I’d ever had, I’d been out in nature and interacting with, you know, which has been a very transformed sensory experience of the world and of other people. But I’d never done it alone, blindfolded, just purely, you know, inwardly directed, and at a high dosage. I’d done high doses of LSD, but not mushrooms.
So I did that, you know, and it was very useful, and I spoke about it on my podcast, and there’s actually… I think if you search Sam Harris Mushroom Trip on YouTube, you get the 19-minute version of that, of my describing that trip. It was incredibly useful, and… but what was doubly useful was… my mindfulness training in the context of that explosion of synesthesia. I mean, it was such an overwhelmingly strong experience.
And there were so many moments where it could have gone one way or the other based on my sense of just, okay, I’m going to try to resist this, you know? It was, like, it was, in truth, irresistible, because it was just so much, but… there were moments where I was aware of, okay, this is, like, letting go of self, you know, in this context, is…
is the thing that is going to, you know, make the difference between heaven and hell here, you know? Because there are experiences that are so extreme that you can’t even tell if it’s agony or ecstasy. It’s just, it’s just, everything is turned up to 11, right? And the difference between the two is, like, you know, the tipping point is just, it really is kind of a high-wire act in some sense. You know, you could just fall to one side or the other. And, yeah, so what I think people want…
is… they certainly want to be able to extract from the psychedelic experience wisdom that is applicable to ordinary states of consciousness. It’s like, what is the thing you can realize in a moment of having a conversation with your child that isn’t distracting you from that relationship? It’s not a memory of when the world dissolved, or, you know, when you were indistinguishable from the sky, but it’s just a way of having free attention and unconditional love in this, you know, totally ordinary and potentially chaotic human experience, you know, which can be psychologically fraught, and you can meet, you know, iterations of yourself that you don’t like, that are not equipping you to be the best possible person in that relationship. And what we want to do is cut through all of that and actually, you know, be in love with our lives and with the people in our lives more and more of the time. And…
I’m not saying that, you know, repeated psychedelic journeys can’t be integral to that project, but you know that the project can’t be being high all the time, right? So whatever is extractable from the occasional, you know, psychedelic trip has got to be mappable into ordinary waking consciousness. And the real point of contact does kind of run through this, you know, what I’ve been calling the illusion of the self. And again, that part is discoverable without any changes in contents, right? So you don’t have to suddenly feel the energy of your body be rush out and be continuous with the, you know, the ocean of energy that is not your body, right? Like, that’s an experience that’s there to be had, right? I mean, there’s no doubt. But…
this… the truth is, just looking at this cup is just as formless and as mysterious as that, right? When seen in the right way. And that’s what, you know, meditation encourages, you know, one to recognize.
Andrew Huberman (03:26:38):
Share the experience that MDMA significantly altered my perception of what’s possible in terms of an emotional stance towards self and others, including animals, right? Something that runs very deep for me and that I had been kind of actively suppressing in anticipation of having to put my dog down. But also, you know, I’m not… I don’t know how to frame it except to say, you know, my lab did animal research for years and I was always very conflicted about it. Because I love animals and yet I wanted to understand the brain and we need to work on animal brains. Rodents or what? Yeah, I’ll be very direct about this. My lab… I’ve worked on many species. I’ve worked on mice and rats. I’ve worked on… admittedly, I’ve worked on… I’ve done some cat experiments. I’ve worked on large non-human primates, including macaques. I no longer work on any of those species. I’ve worked on cuttlefish, cephalopods. A discussion for another time. Brilliant little creatures. Maybe as smart as us or who knows. Maybe smarter. And now I work on humans because I couldn’t reconcile the challenge inside me, which was my love of animals and working on them. I just couldn’t do it any longer. And MDMA didn’t set that transition. That transition actually had been set a lot earlier. It was something I really grappled with. It didn’t keep me up at night, but it was always in the back of my mind. In any event, I hope what we discovered was worthwhile, but that’s a bigger debate. And I have strong feelings about this, and maybe it’s a topic for another podcast. But I’m very happy that now I work on humans and they can tell me if they want to be part of the experiment or not, and I trust them. I trust their answers. I think that MDMA, in its role as an empathogen, I think really did set an understanding of what’s real and true. So I think truths like that become— I felt that they didn’t hit me square in the face. I just could—the feeling behind the conflict made itself evident, and what to do about it made itself evident. So I suppose MDMA did assist the transition to purely human research as opposed to animal research.
The other thing that I noticed it did is it made it not scary to confront things that were scary to confront in my conscious life. And I could think about things in my conscious life, but it brought them close in a way that I could get closer and closer to the flame and then gain some understanding. I’m still amazed at how answers arrive both during the session and in the weeks and months that follow. If one puts the attention to it, I think that’s why it’s important to have a guide of some sort or to have some pseudostructure because otherwise one can get attached to the sounds in the room and there’s probably meaning there, but I wanted to do some deeper work. I have not had experience with psilocybin, at least not since my youth, and I don’t recommend young people do it. I regret doing LSD and psilocybin as a young person. I don’t say that for politically correct reasons or liability reasons. I just think my mind was not developed, but I’m intrigued by something. So here’s the question.
How is it that psilocybin in particular and high-dose psilocybin and the ego dissolution that people talk about on psilocybin, how do you think that lines up with some of the experiences that you’ve been describing for an adequate meditation practice? Because that’s something that I did not experience on MDMA. In fact, if anything, I experienced for the first time what really feeling like an isolated container was and how empathy and being bounded, in other words, good boundaries and empathy could be symbiotic. I experienced that for the first time there. I do think that there is learning inside of these states that translates into everyday life when one is not on these states. The last thing I’ll say is, no, I don’t feel the impulse to go and do 20 more MDMA sessions. I think that the three as part of this study were very effective for me.
As they say, if you hear the calling again, you might do it. But I’m very curious about psilocybin in particular and this notion of ego dissolution because we’ve been talking about the self.
Sam Harris (03:30:55):
There are different ways in which the sense of self can be eroded or expanded. There’s lots of experiences that can still have a kind of center to them but be very novel and transformational. One can reify those as a kind of goal state. There’s a concept in Buddhism that I think is useful. It doesn’t translate well to English or it can set up kind of false associations in English that are unfortunate. So there’s a concept of emptiness in Buddhism which sounds, again, kind of gray and dispiriting in English.
But what its cognate terms are are things like unconditioned, unconstrained, open, centerless, right? So when I’m talking about non-duality, when I’m talking about the loss of a sense of subject and then what’s left, in Buddhism, they would often describe what’s left as emptiness. But emptiness is not a something. Importantly, it’s not the same thing as unity, right? So it’s not a oneness, right?
Because when the center drops out of experience, it’s not like you are suddenly merged with the cup, right? Now, granted, this is where psilocybin and other psychedelics can give a false impression of, I think, what the goal is. You can have seeming merging experience. You can have unity experiences on psychedelics, which can be quite powerful, especially with other people and with nature, where you can just feel like the energy of your body becomes incredibly vivid and powerful. It’s like everything is just buzzing with life energy. And then when you touch another person’s hand or you touch a tree, there can be this continuity of energy, which can be this overwhelming experience. And again, this is just a 20-megaton change in the contents of consciousness, right? This is a non-ordinary state of consciousness, but this gives some indication of how this happens. Back in the day, when I was in my 20s and I was experimenting with, this was LSD, but some friends and I decided we had this brilliant idea. We would camp above Muir Woods and then take some LSD at dawn and then walk down, you know, like a mile, I think, from the campsite into the actual proper grove of trees and, you know, commune with the giant redwoods, the tallest trees on Earth. And so we dropped the acid at dawn and we start walking, but the acid came on, you know, almost immediately. And we didn’t get, I mean, we got nowhere near the woods, and we got stopped by a tree that was just like an ordinary, you know, 20-foot oak tree, like the most boring tree in the world. And that tree absorbed, like, the next six hours of our conscious attention because it was just, you know, it was the tree of life. I mean, it was just, there could be no better tree. So we’re talking about non-ordinary states of consciousness wherein a merging with life and with the world is possible. And that is a…
So I’m not saying that kind of experience isn’t possible, but there’s a sort of expanded self-reification. It is a kind of ego dissolution, but there’s a kind of egoity that sort of goes along for the ride as well or can go along for the ride. And the real insight into emptiness, the real sort of centerless, you know, center of the bullseye, is a recognition that in some ways equalizes all experiences.
I mean, again, it’s just as available now in this ordinary, you know, podcasting experience as it is when you’re merging hands-on with an oak tree and, you know, on, you know, 400 micrograms of acid, and this is, you know, this is the whole universe. And so it’s the equality of those two experiences that this concept of emptiness captures, which a concept of oneness doesn’t quite capture, because oneness is really this peak experience of being dragged out of your, you know, your somethingness into a much bigger somethingness, right? Emptiness is just no center, right? And then everything is in its own place, right? There’s still sights and sounds and sensations and thoughts and feelings, but there’s just, there’s no center, and there’s no clinging to anything.
There’s no clinging to identity. There’s no clinging to the good stuff. There’s no resistance to the bad stuff. There’s no, this is so pleasant and unpleasant, gets sort of strangely equalized, and there’s this very, it’s very expansive, and most importantly, it doesn’t block anything. So, yeah, if for whatever reason, if your nervous system is set up to have the, oh, my God, I’m now merging with the tree experience, that’s possible from the state of no center, right? And on my, you know, my recent, now not so recent, three years ago, it was right before COVID, but my last, you know, big psychedelic experience, you know, I was very much experiencing that, whereas, you know, insofar as I, you know, at the peak, there was no me to remember any of this stuff, but, you know, insofar as I could experiment with, is this really different from anything else? You know, there is a kind of equalizing to the emptiness recognition, even in the presence of a completely transformed neurophysiology. And so that’s, again, there’s a point of contact. I mean, the real point of contact between psychedelics and meditation for me is, but for my experiences on psychedelics, I don’t think there’s just no way I would have had the free attention to be interested in the project at all. And there are other aspects to the project. It’s not just having this insight into selflessness. It’s all of the ethical ramifications of that. It’s just like, what kind of person do you want to be? What are your values? What is a good life altogether when you are talking about relationships and, you know, political engagement and the changes you can make in the world or not make? It’s just, you know, what kind of person do you want to be? There’s a much larger consideration. And, I mean, as you discovered, you know, studies on MDMA can really both expand your model of what is possible and what is desirable, what is normative. I mean, just what kind of, you know, what kind of self do you want to be in the world? And it can also help you cut through things that are inhibiting your actualizing any of those possibilities in ordinary waking consciousness.
Andrew Huberman (03:38:40):
I’ve certainly found that to be the case. I mean, you raise a really important point, which is that once these learnings take place, these understandings take place inside of psychedelic journeys, and I do believe they translate to neuroplasticity. I do want to highlight the point for people. Oftentimes, people say, you know, this mushroom or this psychedelic, it opens plasticity. But, of course, plasticity has to be directed someplace. Plasticity is just a process, like walking or anything else, underlying neural process.
And I think it’s impossible for me to understand what compartments of my life have been impacted by these three MDMA sessions. But in some ways, I wonder whether or not, not just the transition away from animal research, but also a deeper realization of the love for learning and sharing information. I won’t go so far as to say this podcast is happening because of that particular session, but these things, they splay out into multiple domains of the self. And I do think that the key features that feel most important to me to mention are that it really identified true loves, things that I truly love, and made me less cautious about feeling how intense those loves really are. And then also lower the inhibition point of exploring, like, well, what would that mean? And one of the reasons I bring this up and why I think it’s so important that you mentioned some issues around politics and ethics and many things have splayed out from your exploration of psychedelics, meditation, neuroscience, philosophy, all the things that are you, and of course, that’s only a subset, is that so much of what I hear and see, so much of what I hear and see in the kind of self-help space contradicts itself and leads back to the origin without a lot of progress.
And for instance, we hear, you know, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but then out of sight, out of mind. You hear about radical acceptance, but then what if it’s radical acceptance of non-acceptance, right? I mean, there are some experiences in people for which I radically accept the fact that I want nothing to do with them. Am I supposed to transcend that? So these are the questions, I think, that keep a lot of people from exploring things like meditation because they feel like, well, is the idea to just be okay with everything? Is radical acceptance just like, well, just, you know, bulldoze me with things, even if they’re, you know, and my goal is to somehow surpass the idea that they’re harmful. And I don’t think that’s actually the way that any of this stuff is supposed to work, although I don’t claim to be the authority on it either.
You know, I think notions of radical acceptance and radical honesty and any number of different sayings that one can find out there are really the most salient beacons and guides that most people have in order to try and navigate tough areas in their life, including the relationship to self, but others, and political orientations. And so I feel like almost all those things can be used to anchor down in a stance that may or may not be informed or to open up to ideas.
And so I think that none of this can really be solved in a single practice, it sounds like, but it does seem to me, based on what you’ve told us today, is that only through a deep understanding of the self as it really is, as opposed to this illusion that you framed up, could we actually arrive at some answers about what’s actually right for each and every one of us?
Sam Harris (03:42:21):
Yeah. I mean, there’s one generic answer that I think can be extracted both from psychedelics and from meditation and just from just thinking more clearly about the nature of our lives, and it’s to become more process-oriented and to be more and more sensitive to the mirage-like character of achieving our goals.
Right now, I’m not against achieving goals. I have a lot of goals. I’m very busy. There are lots of things I want to get done, and I’m as satisfied as anyone to finish a project. But if you look at the time course of all of that fulfillment and there are a few lessons everyone, I think, has to draw. One is most of your life is spent in the process, right? Like, the moment at which the goal is fully conquered, that is just, I mean, that has a, you know, it’s a tiny duration, and it has a very short half-life, and the moment you arrive at it, it begins to recede, because in the meantime, you have all these other goals that have appeared on the horizon. You’ve got people asking what you’re going to do next, and in some sense, if you’re focused on goals, you really can never arrive, right? And I think what we’re looking, what we’re all looking for in life, you know, whether we’re ever thinking about taking psychedelics or practicing something like meditation, we’re looking for good enough reasons to let our attention fully rest in the present.
Right now, like, so, I mean, that is the logic of success. Like, the sense, like, I’ve got all these things I want to do. If I could just get rich enough or fit enough or, you know, dial in my sleep well enough or, you know, improve my life in all these ways, get the right relationship, wouldn’t it be great to be married? You know, I want to start a family. I want all of these things. Why do I want these things, right? I want these things because I’m telling myself, it’s not that all of those things are wonderful, right? I’m not discounting those relative forms of happiness or sources of happiness.
Because it’s all completely valid, it’s completely valid to want those things. But in the present, one thing is absolutely clear. It’s possible to be miserable in the presence of all of those things, right? And you can add great wealth and fame and everything on top of that. It’s possible to be absolutely miserable having everything anyone could seemingly want, right? You just have to open a newspaper to see people living out that predicament, right? Spectacularly wealthy, famous, healthy, successful people who could do anything they want in life, apparently, and yet they’re doing this thing that is completely dysfunctional and making them needlessly miserable. I won’t name names. There are enough of them out there. Some people come to mind at the moment.
So…so there is a clear dissociation between having everything and happiness that’s possible. And it’s also possible to have very little, you know, and almost nothing, and to be quite happy. I mean, you might not have met these people, but, you know, I have met people who have spent… you know, ten years alone in a cave, right? And they come out of that cave not floridly neurotic or psychotic. They come out of that cave beaming with compassion and joy. And, I mean, it’s like they’ve been taking MDMA for ten years, essentially, and they come out of the cave, and now they’re going to talk about it, right?
So…and I’m not necessarily recommending that project to anyone, but I’m just saying that is a psychological possibility. So you have a double dissociation here, where you can have everything and be miserable, and you can have everything and be beaming with happiness. So what is it that we actually want in all of our seeking to arrange the props in our lives and the story, to have a convincing enough story to tell about ourselves that we’re doing the right thing? What is all of that effort predicated on? It’s predicated on this desire and this expectation that if we could get all of this stuff in the right place and not have anything terrifying to worry about, right? Everyone we love is healthy for the moment, right? And we’re healthy, and we’ve got something to look forward to on the weekend, and there’s not a plumbing leak in the house that we have to immediately respond to. And we like our house, and our career is going fine, and there’s something good to watch on Netflix, and we have all of it, right?
Now can we just actually give up the war, right? Can we fully locate our sense of well-being in the present moment? Can we relax the impulse to brood about the past or think anxiously about the future for long enough to discover that all of this here is enough, right? Because our life is… We have this finite resource of… I mean, we absolutely have the finite resource of time, but within the finite resource, the continuum of time, we have the even more precious resource of free attention that can find our fulfillment in the present, right? Because even if we’re guarding our time to do the things that are most important to us, we can spend all of that time regretting the past or anxiously expecting the future and just bouncing between past and future in our thinking about ourselves and our lives and basically just dancing over the present and never making contact with it, right? So I think what we want is a circumstance where attention can be located in the present in a way that’s truly fulfilling. And unless you have had some kind of radical insight that allows you to do that on demand, you are in some sense hostage to the circumstances of your life to do that for you. You’re constantly trying to engineer a state of the world that will propagate back on a state of self that will make the present moment good enough. And what meditation does, and psychedelics to some degree does this, but meditation very directly does this, it reverses the causality and lets you actually change states such that you can be fulfilled before anything happens. Your happiness is no longer predicated on the next good thing happening. You can be in the presence of the next good or bad thing already being fulfilled and already being at peace. There’s a…
I think there are misleading nouns. We can throw it at what is left there, but it is, you know, tranquility, peace, freedom, lack of contraction, lack of conflict. I mean, like, all of that can be more and more of a default. And all of that is also compatible with deciding, you know, yeah, why not get in shape? Why not engage this project? Why not, you know, change your career? I mean, it’s not that you need to be somebody who accepts… I mean, to your point, you can notice all of these non-optimal things, because no matter how much you meditate, you’re very likely going to spend a lot of your time…
still lost in thought, still identified with it, and still wanting, still caring about the difference between dysfunction and normativity in your life, right? And the question is, what can you locate when…
The question, it’s really, it’s like, how much can you puncture that seeking happiness project with the recognition that you’re already free, right? That is, that’s what meditation makes possible. You can keep just a thousand times a day letting some daylight into this search space. And so, but it is still compatible. Like, you can… I mean, working out is a great…
frame in which to look at this, because, I mean, in working out, when you really work out, you know, I’m thinking, you know, mostly of… I mean, it’s really, it’s anything, but it’s, you know, resistance training or cardio or something like jiu-jitsu. You’re intentionally putting yourself in classically unpleasant circumstances physiologically. I mean, so if you were, you know, imagine what it’s like to do anything to failure, right?
Well, if you just check in on what that is like at the level of sensation, I mean, that is, it’s basically a medic… It feels like a medical emergency, right? I mean, like, if you were having that experience for some other reason, like, if you woke up in the middle of the night and felt what it feels like to be deadlifting, you know, on your 10th rep on a set where you’re gonna, you know, you would fail at 11, right? Like, that is just, you know, that’s an emergency. But because you understand what you’re doing in the gym and you’ve sought it out and, like, it’s actually something you like doing, right? And you can get a real dopamine, you know, hit from doing it.
That, what you’re doing when you’re doing that is you’re owning kind of a, like, you’re actually transforming a classically negative experience into something that’s almost intrinsically positive, right? Certainly the net on it is positive. You can do that, and being able to do that is more and more the experience of being actually at peace even while exerting a really intense effort in one direction. So you can be straining and I’m sure physiologically showing a lot of stress. I mean, I’m sure that, you know, cortisol is up and, like, you know, blood pressure’s up, heart rate is certainly up.
So it’s like, as far as the body’s concerned, it’s stress as far as the eye can see, but you really can be deeply a quantumist and at peace because, again, because of the frame around it, because of the concepts attached to it, because you know what you’re doing, you know why it’s happening, and you want it. So that’s an attitude you can bring into other stressful things that take effort to accomplish. So it’s not that you just need to be a pushover when you learn how to meditate or when you take MDMA or you work on yourself in any of these ways, but what I think you want to find is you want to find your point of rest in the midst of any struggle.
Andrew Huberman (03:53:50):
I would say that certainly MDMA and, again, I have less experience with meditation, but they really, I think, put us ultimately in positions of what can only refer to as real strength. These can make what before seemed like impossible decisions or even concepts or emotional states to even think about for any period of time without deliberately distracting or avoiding in some other way and be able to lean into those with open eyes. And I think that’s, to me, that’s my definition of strength. I don’t know what other people consider, but there’s definitely something real there in each case.
This may seem like a divergence, but I and many other people are very curious about a recent decision that you made, which was to close your account on Twitter. You still have an Instagram account, I know.
Sam Harris (03:54:46):
Yeah, yeah. I mean, my team manages that.
Andrew Huberman (03:54:51):
It’s a lot friendlier over at Instagram.
Sam Harris (03:54:52):
I’ve been there a lot longer. I’ve never even seen it.
Andrew Huberman (03:54:54):
It’s pretty good, actually. Imagine what would happen if you did deepfake that. They’re doing a good job with it. But your decision to close your account on Twitter, I think, grabbed a lot of eyes and ears, and there’s a lot of questions about why. It was a very large account. It correlated with a number of things that, for the outsider, you might be wondering about new leadership, new people who had been booted off, brought back on, or at least invited back on, and so on.
You are certainly not obligated to explain your behavior to me or anybody else for that matter, but I’m curious if you might share with us what the motivation was for taking the account down and how you feel in the absence of it. I mean, your thumbs presumably are freed up to do other things.
Sam Harris (03:55:47):
Yeah, I was getting like an arthritic right thumb, I think.
Andrew Huberman (03:55:51):
If you don’t mind sharing, I think there’s a lot of curiosity about you and your routines. You’ve been very generous in sharing that, your knowledge, but also kind of like what makes you tick, what motivates. Pretty big decisions like that. It wasn’t a major platform for you.
Sam Harris (03:56:10):
Right. Yeah, it was the only social media platform I’ve ever engaged. Like you said, I have an Instagram. I have a Facebook account, but I never used those as platforms. I was never on them. I’ve never followed people, and all the posting has just come from it’s just marketing from my team. But Twitter was me, for better or worse, and I began to feel more and more for worse. And it was interesting because it was very – I’ve talked about it a lot on my podcast, about just my love-hate relationship with Twitter over the years. Many good things came to me from Twitter, and I was following a lot of smart people, and it had become my newsfeed and my first point of contact with information each day, and I was really attached to it just for that reason, just as a consumer of content.
And then it was also a place where I genuinely wanted to communicate with people and react to things, and I would see some article that I thought was great, and I would signal-boost it to the people following me on Twitter, and that was rewarding, and I could literally help people on Twitter. There are people who I’ve raised lots of money for on Twitter just by signal-boosting their GoFundMes, and so I was engaged in a way that seemed productive. But I was always worried that it was producing needless conflict for me and was giving me a signal in my life that I was being lured into responding to and taken seriously that was out of proportion to its representation of any opinion or set of opinions that I should be taking seriously.
So I was noticing that, and again, this evolved over years. I mean, this long predated recent changes to Twitter. But I was noticing that many of the worst things that had happened for me professionally were first born on Twitter. I mean, just like some conflict I got into with somebody or something that I felt like I needed to podcast about in response to on Twitter. It’s just so much of it. It’s either Genesis was Twitter, or it’s the further spin of it that became truly unpleasant and dysfunctional happened on Twitter. It was just Twitter was part of the story when it got really bad, and I’ve had vacations that have gone sideways just because I got on Twitter and said something, and then I had to produce a controversy that I had to respond to, and then I had to do a podcast about that. And it was just, okay, this is a mess, right? And so at that point, I have friends who also had big Twitter platforms who would say, why are you responding to anything on Twitter? Just tweet and ghost. Joe Rogan sat me down and tried to give me a talking to, as did Bill Maher.
And both of them engaged Twitter in that way. I mean, I think they basically never look at their at mentions. They never see what’s coming back at them. They use it effectively the way I use or don’t even use Instagram or Facebook. I mean, I don’t even see what’s going out there in my name. And so I could essentially do that for myself on Twitter, presumably, and I did that for some periods of time, but then I would continually decide, okay, now it’s all balanced again. Maybe I can just communicate here, because it was very tempting for me to communicate with people because I would see somebody clearly misunderstanding something I had said on my podcast, and I think, like, why not clarify this misunderstanding, right? And my efforts to do that almost invariably produced a…
I mean, sometimes it was a kind of meandering process of discovery, but often it was just kind of a stark confrontation with what appeared to me to be just lunacy and malevolence on a scale that I never encounter elsewhere in my life. Like, I never meet these people in life, right? And yet I was meeting these people by the tens of thousands on Twitter, and so the thing that began to worry me about it…
And again, I understand that people have the opposite experience on Twitter. I mean, depending on what you’re putting out and what you’re, you know, the kinds of topics you’re touching, you could have just nothing but love coming back at you on Twitter, right? But because I’m very essentially in the center politically and because this is now on my podcast, this is not in the Waking Up app, I’m often criticizing the far left and criticizing the far right. I’m basically pissing off everyone some of the time, right? And it’s very different. If you’re only criticizing the left, no doubt you get hate from the left, but you have all the people on the right who just reflexively and tribally are expressing their solidarity for you, right? And who are dunking on your enemies for you, you know, when your enemies come out of the woodwork. And if you’re only criticizing the right, you get a lot of pain from the right, but you’ve got the people on the left who are tribally identified with the left who are just going to reflexively defend you. If you’re in the center criticizing the left, as hard as anyone on the right ever criticizes the left, and you’re also criticizing the right as hard as anyone on the left criticizes the right, you’re getting hate from both sides all the time, and no one is reflexively and tribally defending you because you pissed them off last time. You might be getting hate from the left now, and the people on the right agree with you, but they can’t forget the thing you said about Trump on that podcast, you know, two podcasts ago, so they’re not going to defend you. And so what I… I basically created hell for myself on Twitter because it was…
I just, you know, it was just a theater of… it was just pure cacophony most of the time. And… what I was seeing was, I mean, like, there’s no way there’s this many psychopaths in the world, but I was seeing psychopaths everywhere. I was seeing, like, the most malicious dishonesty and, you know, just goalpost moving and hypocrisy and… I mean, it was just… I mean, some of it’s trolling, and some of it’s real confusion, and some of it is psychopathy, but it’s, like, it was so dark… that, um…
I worried that he was actually giving me a very negative and sticky view of humanity that was… I mean, one, it was, you know, I think it is inaccurate, but two, it was something I was returning to so much because, again, I was checking Twitter, you know, at least a dozen times a day, and I’m sure there were some days where I checked it 100 times a day. I mean, again, it was my main source of information. I was constantly reading articles and then putting my own stuff out.
Um…that it became this kind of funhouse mirror in which I was looking at the most grotesque side of humanity and feeling… you know, implicated in ways that were important because it was just… it was reputationally important or seemed to be important. I know a lot of these people. These weren’t just faceless trolls. These are people with whom I have had relationships and, in some cases, friendships, who, because of what, you know, largely Trump and COVID did to our political landscape in the last, you know, half a dozen years…
were beginning to act in ways that seemed, you know, starkly dishonest and, you know, crazy-making to me. So I was just noticing that I was forming a view of people who I actually have had dinner with that was way more negative based on their Twitter behavior than I think would ever be justified by any way they would behave in life with me. You know, I mean, never… I was never gonna have a face-to-face encounter with any of these people that was this malicious and dishonest and gaslighting and weird, right, as was what was happening hourly on Twitter, right? And so I just began to become more sensitive to what this was, you know, just the residue of all of this in my life and just how often the worst thing that…
the worst thing about me in my relationship with the people in my life, you know, just talking to my wife or my kids, was just the fact that I had been on Twitter at some point, you know, previously, in the previous hour, and there was some residue of that…
you know, in my interaction with them. You know, it’s like, what are you stressed out about? What are you annoyed about? What are you pissed off about? You know, what can’t you get out of your head? What is the thing that you now feel like you need to spend the next week of your life focused on because it went so sideways for you? All of that was Twitter, you know. I mean, literally 100% of that was Twitter. And so I just… At one point, it was actually on Thanksgiving Day, I just looked at this and I just… I mean, there was very little thought went into it. I mean, literally, I mean, you know, there was more thought involved in you, you know, whether I wanted coffee when you asked me when I showed up here. I mean, it was just like at a certain point, I just saw it and I just ripped the Band-Aid off. And yeah, so… And to answer your other question, it’s been almost wholly positive, as you might expect, given the litany of pain and discomfort I just ran through. But, um…
I mean, it’s also… It’s surprising to recognize how much of a presence it was in my life, given the sense of what is now missing. I mean, it’s like there’s… There’s no question there’s kind of an addictive component to it. And when you see, I mean, like, when I look at what Elon’s doing on Twitter, forget about his ownership of it. I mean, I’m not, you know… I don’t have a lot to say about, you know, the choices he’s making for the platform. But just his personal use of it is just so obviously an expression of… I mean, I don’t know if addiction is the, you know, clinically appropriate term, but…
you know, his dysfunctional attachment to tweet to using the platform. Forget… Again, forget about changing it and owning it. But just the degree to which it is pointlessly disrupting the life of one of the most productive people in any generation. Um… Uh… That was also instructive to me, because I know Elon, and I just, you know… He’s…
From, you know, kind of a friend’s eye view of the situation, it’s so obviously not good for him that he’s spending this much time on Twitter. That… I just brought that back to me. It’s like, well, if it’s not… If this is what it’s doing to Elon, and he’s got all these other things he could be doing with his attention, how much of my use of Twitter is actually, you know, a good idea and, you know, optimized to my well-being and the well-being of the people around me? Um… So anyway, it was… There was an addictive component to it, I think. And when that got stripped off…
I, you know, I do notice that there’s… I mean, there are times I pick up my phone, and I realize this is like the old me picking up my phone for a reason that no longer exists. Because it’s not that much… You know, I have a Slack channel with my team, and I’ve got email, obviously, but… It’s like, that is… not much of what I was doing with my phone, really, in the end. And so, like, it’s just my phone is much less of a presence in my life. So it’s almost wholly good, but, um… Yeah, you know, there’s… I think there is some danger in… or some…
a possible danger in losing touch with certain aspects of culture, which, again, I’m not even sure… I mean, there’s this question of, you know, how much is Twitter real life, and how much is it just a mass delusion? I don’t know, but insofar as it actually matters what happens on Twitter, or insofar as I was actually getting a news diet, which I’m not going to be able to recapitulate for myself, or I’m just not, in fact, going to recapitulate for myself, even if I could…
If any of that matters, I haven’t discovered that yet. But it’s, yeah, I mean, there’s… It was taking up an immense amount of bandwidth, and it’s impressive. I mean, I think I said I… You know, it was like I amputated a phantom limb, right? It was not a real limb, but it was this continuous presence in my life that…
That… It’s weird. It actually relates to the concept of self in surprising ways, because I felt there was a part of myself that existed on Twitter, and I, you know, I just performed a suicide of that self. Like, this is ending right now. You know, there’s no residue. There’s nothing to go back and check. There’s just… It’s gone. I didn’t even… I didn’t go back and look at my… Like, what’s interesting to consider is that, you know, I’d been on Twitter for 12 years.
I don’t keep a journal. I mean, Twitter, my timeline would have been a kind of journal. I could have gone back to a specific hour and a specific day and looked at what I was paying attention to. I mean, that could have been an interesting record of just who I’ve been for a decade, and probably a pretty humbling record of who I’ve been for a decade in terms of the kinds of things that captivated my attention. But…
I didn’t even, you know, I didn’t even think to go, you know, nostalgically just look at any of that or see if any of it was worth saving or archiving or thinking. I just… just delete, you know? And it was, um… Uh, and so my actual sense of who I am and my engagement with… with… my audience, my, you know, the world of people who could potentially know me, like, what does it mean to be, to have a platform? You know, where do I exist digitally? My sense of… of all of that got truncated in a… in a way that, um…
is much less noisy. I mean, it’s amazing how much… can’t get fucked up now in my life. Like, it’s like, with Twitter… almost anything could happen, right? Like, the next tweet was always an opportunity to massively complicate my life. There is no analogous space for me now. And, you know, what I’m gonna say on your podcast, what I’m gonna say on my own podcast, what I’m gonna write next, that’s much more, um…
you know, uh, deliberative and, uh, the opportunities to take my foot out of my mouth or to reconsider all, you know, whether any of this is worth it. Is it worth… is this the hill I really want to die on now? Um, it’s much more, um… can be much more considered and… I mean, I think all of that’s to the good. Um, but even more important than that is there’s not… I’m not getting this continuous signal that is always inviting a response, whether on Twitter or on my own podcast or, you know, anywhere else. Um, and…
it’s just much less noisy. I mean, life is much less noisy and-and cluttered. And that’s, you know, that-that is… it definitely feels better. I mean, it just, uh, it’s 100% better.
Andrew Huberman (04:12:25):
I’m happy to hear that. I know a number of people miss you there, but, um, you sound happy. I sense the genuine happiness in it. Um, several things come to mind. Uh, first of all, thank you for sharing your…
rationale there and how it went. I think for a lot of people, they think, oh, you must have, like, walked around in circles for hours talking about it. No, no, it was… Delete. As many good decisions are executed, right? Right, yeah, yeah. Um, you know, I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s work, deep work. In many ways, Cal’s… I’ve never met him, but, um, we know each other through the-the Internet space. He, um, really ahead of his time with this notion of deep work and limiting distractions. I think he’s even got a book about, uh, a world without e-mail or something.
Sam Harris (04:13:07):
Yeah, yeah. But really extreme. So he had, I mean, he deserves some credit because he had been… somewhat a proximate cause to this. He had been on my podcast, and he had encouraged me to delete Twitter. Ah, okay. Because I had been, I had been sort of in the… reaching some kind of, uh, you know, crisis point with it, uh, prior to that podcast. And so we’ve talked about it, and…
I had-I had recorded that podcast, but hadn’t released it. I actually recorded the podcast the day before I wound up deleting Twitter, uh, but hadn’t yet released it. So in my podcast with him, you know, in the intro to it, I-I then give a postmortem on my deleting it. But he was, yeah, he was one of the last people who was in my head around these issues. And I-I, you know, that was not by accident. I had invited him on the podcast because I increasingly wanted to think about, you know, whether this was totally dysfunctional.
Andrew Huberman (04:13:55):
Well, I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s, and I-I am on social media. I’m on Twitter. I’ve had some, you know, high-friction interactions there, and, um, I have a process for dealing with those. I tend to avoid high-friction confrontations online. But, um, Instagram’s a much friendlier place. By the way, if you wanted to come over to where, like, the nice kids, like, the-the cool kids actually hang out…
Sam Harris (04:14:17):
Strangely, strangely, I’m not looking for a substitute.
Andrew Huberman (04:14:19):
Good, okay, well… You know, so… I didn’t, I don’t let me entice you over there. You do. But I think that this notion of-of, um, really being able to access what Cal calls deep work, what, um, Rick Rubin talks about, you know, um, being able to touch the source of creativity and focus on a regular basis does require that one have certain types of, and in some cases, zero interaction with certain platforms, um, that merely being on a platform and blocking people that would just won’t provide. I think a lot of energy opens up, and I’m fascinated by this concept of energy. I mean, we only have so much energy, neural energy to devote. Um, and in many ways, what you described, um, there’s really, I think, striking parallels to what I’ve been talking about all along these last hours, which is that sometimes the thing that feels so, um, so powerful that has such a gravitational pull and that we think this is experience, this is life, this is just the way it is, actually is an illusion. And when you step away from it, you realize that there’s this whole other dimension of interactions that-that was available all along that we, uh, for whatever reason, um, we’re intervening in by way of our reflexive, distracted behaviors.
Sam Harris (04:15:30):
So I think there’s a-there’s a-there’s a poetry there. No, I-I was a hard case, but, uh, yeah. I-I got religion on this point, and it’s, uh, it’s a good change.
Andrew Huberman (04:15:40):
Well, Sam, I want to say a couple of things. First of all, um, every time you talk, I learn so much. And that’s, you know, in the dimensions of neuroscience, even hardcore neural circuitry type stuff, which I’m, you know, sort of my home. Um, when you talk about philosophy or, uh, or meditation or psychedelics, and even politics, a topic that I’m, you know, woefully undereducated in, but, um, you have this amazing ability to-to blend and-and synergize across things. And I think today what-what occurs to me is that, um, not only is that no accident because of your training and your-the rigor and the depth at which you’ve explored these different topics, but also your openness to it. But I think, at least for me, above all, is because I think you are able to encapsulate this idea of-of the self and-and the different ways in which we each and all can potentially interact with the environment and-and our inner landscape. Um, your description of meditation, I have to say, is…
now has forever changed the way I think about meditation. I would no longer just think of it as a perceptual exercise. I-on the podcast, I’ve been talking about it as something to-to do for these various benefits, the benefit set of more focus, or stress, et cetera, of which certainly exists. But what you described today has a, um…
has such an allure and a-and a, um… holds such a promise that, um, as I mentioned, I’m certainly going to change my behavior. And-and I know I’m speaking on behalf of many, many people. And I just want to extend my thanks for your coming here today to teach us even more, because, of course, you have your podcast and the-the app, the Waking Up app. Um, and… the fact that regardless of the political landscapes, regardless of the-what neuroscience feels about psychedelics or the-where things are at any point in time, you strike me as somebody who is very committed to sharing knowledge and…
thoughtful, deep discourse so that people can benefit. And there are very few people like you. Um, in fact, there’s probably only just one. And so I feel very grateful to be sitting across, uh, the table from him for these last hours.
Sam Harris (04:17:57):
Well, nice, nice. Well, I-I really enjoyed this, and, uh, I want to congratulate you on what you’ve built here, because your podcast is-is everywhere. I-I just, you know, I’m a-a fan, and…
uh, even more than that, I’m continually seeing the evidence of you reaching people and-and benefiting people, and it’s just, it’s really, I mean, like, this is the… one of the best examples of, you know, new media just carving out a space that-that people didn’t really know existed. You know, because, like, this is not television, it’s not radio, it’s not, and-and all of a sudden, people have time to hear a conversation of great length that goes into, you know, nitty-gritty scientific detail on, you know, hormones. I mean, like, who would have thought that was even possible? And so, um, yeah, I mean, just congratulations. It’s fantastic to see, and I’m just very happy for the opportunity to talk to you and-and your people.
Andrew Huberman (04:18:52):
Thank you. It’s very gratifying to hear, and, um, I feel very blessed, um, in no small part because of our conversation today. Thank you so much. Nice. Well, to be continued. To be continued.
Sam Harris (04:19:01):
We’ll do it again and again and again.
Andrew Huberman (04:19:03):
Thank you for joining me today for my discussion with Dr. Sam Harris. I hope you found it to be as enlightening as I did. And be sure to check out the Waking Up app that Dr. Sam Harris has made free to any Huberman Lab listeners for 30 days by going to wakingup.com slash Huberman.
Please also check out his incredible podcast, The Making Sense Podcast, and you can find any number of Sam Harris’s different books on meditation, consciousness, philosophy, neuroscience, politics, and more. You can find links to those books by going to samharris.org. If you’re learning from and or enjoying this podcast, please subscribe to our YouTube channel. That’s the best zero-cost way to support us. In addition, please subscribe to the podcast on Spotify and Apple. And on both Spotify and Apple, you can leave us up to a five-star review.
If you have questions for us or comments or topics that you’d like me to cover or guests you’d like me to invite onto the Huberman Lab Podcast, please put those in the comment section on YouTube. I do read all the comments. Please also check out the sponsors mentioned at the beginning and throughout today’s episode. That’s the best way to support this podcast. Not so much during today’s episode, but on many episodes of the Huberman Lab Podcast, we discuss supplements. While supplements aren’t necessary for everybody, many people derive tremendous benefit from them for things like enhancing the depth and quality of sleep, for enhancing focus and for hormone support and many other aspects of mental health, physical health and performance. The Huberman Lab Podcast is proud to announce that we are now partnered with Momentous Supplements because Momentous Supplements are of the very highest quality. They ship internationally and they have single ingredient formulations, which turns out to be important if you’re going to develop the most cost-effective and biologically effective supplementation regimen. If you’d like to access the supplements discussed on the Huberman Lab Podcast, you can go to livemomentous, spelled O-U-S, so livemomentous.com slash Huberman. If you’re not already following us on social media, we are Huberman Lab on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. And all of those places, I talk about science and science-related tools, some of which overlap with the content of the Huberman Lab Podcast, but much of which is distinct from the content of the Huberman Lab Podcast. Again, it’s Huberman Lab on all social media handles, all platforms, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. If you haven’t already subscribed to our Neural Network newsletter, that’s a monthly newsletter, it’s completely zero cost and includes summaries of podcast episodes as well as toolkits for things like enhancing your sleep, enhancing your focus and ability to learn, hormone support, fitness, and on and on. You simply go to HubermanLab.com, go to the menu, click on the menu, and scroll down to newsletter, provide your email, and you can start receiving our monthly Neural Network newsletter. Thank you once again for joining me for today’s discussion with Dr. Sam Harris about meditation, consciousness, free will, psychedelics, social media, and much, much more. And as always, thank you for your interest in science.
- Sam Harris
- David Lynch
- David Spiegel
- Stephen Jay Gould
- Bill Maher
- Cal Newport
- Rick Rubin
- Daniel Dennett
- Richard Dawkins
- Joe Strummer
- Marilyn Monroe
- Jocko Willink
- Deepak Chopra
- Joe Rogan
- J. Allan Hobson
- Martin Buber
- Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity by Sam Harris: https://amzn.to/3Gfqgka
My guest is Sam Harris, Ph.D. Sam earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Stanford University and his doctorate (Ph.D.) in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is the author of multiple best-selling books and is a world-renowned public-facing intellectual on meditation, consciousness, free will, psychedelics and neuroscience. He is also the creator of Waking Up and the host of the Making Sense podcast. In this episode, we discuss meditation as a route to understanding “the self” and experiencing consciousness, not just changing one’s conscious state. Sam describes several meditation techniques and their benefits, including how meditation fundamentally changes our worldview and how it can be merged seamlessly into daily life. It can help us overcome universal challenges such as distractibility and persistent, internal dialogue (“chatter”) to allow for deep contentment and pervasive shifts in our awareness, all while acknowledging the more immediate stress-lowering and memory-improving effects of meditation. We also discuss the therapeutic use of psychedelics and the mechanistic similarities between the benefits of a psychedelic journey and long-term meditation practices. And we discuss the rationale behind Sam’s recent decision to close his social media (Twitter) account. This episode should interest anyone wanting to learn more about the higher order functions of the brain, the brain-body connection, consciousness and, of course, meditation and why and how to meditate for maximum benefit.
Thank you to our sponsors
AG1 (Athletic Greens): https://athleticgreens.com/huberman
Eight Sleep: https://eightsleep.com/huberman
Supplements from Momentous
For the full show notes, visit hubermanlab.com
(00:00:00) Dr. Sam Harris
(00:04:36) Levels, WHOOP, Eight Sleep, Momentous
(00:08:54) Sense of Self & Meditation, Dualism of Self
(00:18:07) Sense of Self in Brain & Body
(00:25:28) Consciousness vs. Contents, Meditation
(00:28:25) Interrupting Sense of Self & Attentional Focus, Visual Saccade
(00:33:30) Observer & Actor, Default Mode Network & Meditation, Blind Spot
(00:40:48) AG1 (Athletic Greens)
(00:41:57) Mediation & Paths to Understanding Consciousness, Non-Dualistic Experience
(00:57:32) Sense of Self throughout Evolution
(01:07:40) Sense of Self from Human Development, Language
(01:19:46) Internal Dialogue, Distractibility & Mindfulness
(01:26:27) Time Perception & Mindfulness, Vipassana Meditation, Resistance & Pain
(01:37:13) Consciousness & Sense of Control, Free Will
(01:43:14) Authoring Thoughts: Storytelling & Ideas, Free Will
(01:52:11) Meditation & the Paradoxical Search for Self
(02:06:44) Meditation & Concentration Practice
(02:11:58) Mindfulness, “Skylike Mind” & Thoughts
(02:15:11) States of Self & Context, Dualistic Experiences
(02:32:39) Distraction & Identification of Thoughts, Meditation & “Flow” States
(02:42:58) Eyes-Open Meditations, Sense of Self, Visual Cues & Social Interactions
(02:54:59) Paths to Meditation, Mindfulness Meditation Step-Functions
(03:05:58) Psychedelics, MDMA & Experiences in Consciousness, Religion
(03:21:11) Meditation, Psychedelic Journeys & Inner Truths
(03:29:48) Psilocybin, Ego-Dissolution & Thought Expansion
(03:40:09) Process vs. Achievement of Goals, Fulfillment in Present
(03:54:29) Leaving Twitter; Conflict, Life Interruption & Politics
(04:06:14) Social Media, Attentional Disruption & Deep Work
(04:15:39) Meditation & Sense of Self
(04:19:02) Sam Harris & Waking Up App, Zero-Cost Support, YouTube Feedback, Spotify & Apple Reviews, Sponsors, Momentous, Social Media, Neural Network Newsletter
Title Card Photo Credit: Mike Blabac
The audio for Huberman Lab is the property of Scicomm Media and is served directly from their servers. The podcast is not affiliated with Podscript in any way.
Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.