Cannabis & Consciousness: An Exclusive Interview With Jason Silva
I sat down with Jason Silva, the television personality, filmmaker, futurist, philosopher, and public speaker, to discuss his relationship with cannabis and psychedelic substances.
Gifted with the ability to speak extemporaneously on topics of philosophy, technology, psychology and psychedelics, Jason Silva is known for his passionate story-telling which has landed him public speaking gigs at Google and TEDGlobal, as well as having two very successful shows on National Geographic, entitled ‘Brain Games’ and ‘Origins: The Journey of Humankind.’
Videos of Jason Silva on YouTube have amassed millions of views, namely through his speeches, his podcast ‘Flow Sessions’, and his ‘Shots of Awe’ series, in which the self-described “wonder-junkie” attempts to thread together various philosophical concepts, modes of being, and cutting-edge technological developments to create an exciting, cohesive worldview.
When it comes to cannabis, Jason has given several high-profile lectures and created multiple viral videos, and so we decided to sit down with him and hear first-hand what Jason Silva’s views are on cannabis, psychedelics, technology and the future.
You’ve been described as a futurist in the past. What is a futurist and do you still call yourself one?
JS: Well, the term futurist is not one that I christened myself with but I did become well known for a lot of digital content that I created on the internet that was exploring technological disruption, exponential technologies, and the future of humanity. I think whenever you are sort of espousing of vision of the ways in which the world is being transformed by technology, you get labeled a futurist, which is great.
I am interested in the future to the degree that I’m interested in human development and human transformation and how we might steer the direction of this transformation. And that’s within the space or the context of information technologies.
But I also have an interest in consciousness and I have an interest in psychedelics and cannabis and it’s not that much of a stretch to have an interest in these things because I believe that cannabis, like other psychoactive compounds, are also information technologies in that they can be deployed to rewire how we think, to expand the repository of our thinking, to increase pattern recognition and to increase performance.
What is your relationship with cannabis?
My relationship with cannabis is fairly simple. I see cannabis as a psychoactive technology that I use to engender novelty in my thinking. Michael Pollan, who wrote “How to Change Your Mind” and “Botany of Desire,” once described cannabis as a “meme mutagen,” in that it allows the generation of new ideas, of new memes. It’s like lubricating the engine. And to that degree, I see cannabis as a performance-enhancing technology. For me, cannabis energizes my thinking, it catalyzes my creativity, it expands and increases my pattern recognition.
Cannabis is a wonderful tool for dropping the thread of time and getting into the present moment.
How do you think cannabis legalization will affect society at large?
JS: Well, cannabis, like other psychoactive compounds are extraordinarily sensitive to what Rich Doyle calls “initial rhetorical conditions,” which essentially means context or set and setting.
So to a large degree, your cannabis experience is programmed or predetermined by the context in which you partake in cannabis. In a way, you might see it as a “placebo with booster rockets” to use the phrase that Michael Pollan put out. So first and foremost, of course, I think that once the stigma around illegality, the anxiety around getting arrested, and the general fears that people have of cannabis go away. Through legalizing cannabis, you get rid of a lot of the negative experiences associated with cannabis. You’re less likely to get paranoid getting high if there’s not a larger cultural context that’s encouraging you to get paranoid, right?
If you’re just getting high in front of the couch eating Cheetos, I believe your experience of eating Cheetos is going to be enhanced but not much else is going to happen.
If you have an understanding of this tool as a technology that increases suggestibility to stimuli and receptivity to stimuli, then what you really want to do is you want to curate and titrate the environments and contexts in which you take cannabis so that you can radically enhance the effects of those contexts in those environments.
So my primary interest in cannabis is that I use cannabis to enhance the power of aesthetic experiences for their therapeutic value. I believe that beauty, art, and cinema all have the ability to heal, and so when I partake in cannabis, I want to go to beautiful places to facilitate the capacity of the beautiful place to impact my consciousness.
When I have cannabis and watch an art film, I’m using cannabis to enhance the capacity of that art film to have its way with me. So essentially I’m curating environments and then I’m partaking in cannabis so that I can set up that environment to do its best work on me.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that cannabis and psychedelic drugs like Ayahuasca and psilocybin can help to elicit spiritual experiences. Do you think that once we legalize these drugs, we will see a resurgence in spirituality and religiosity?
JS: Well, once people have access to cannabis as a tool to heighten their sensitivity and your suggestibility to those spaces and places that might evoke awe, they might think of cannabis as like fairy dust. Cannabis allows you to sprinkle fairy dust to re-enchant your experience of the world. Anytime you have an experience of enchantment, that has the beginnings of religiosity or spirituality, right? And so that’s great.
But what I think is important is that spirituality is kept private. I believe in the separation between church and state and I believe in a separation between the poetic and the empirical. I believe that religion becomes corrupted once you turn a religious experience, which is a very personal thing, into scripture that other people have to follow.
So in other words, I would never say to people this is what you have to believe when you smoke cannabis or this is what the experience has to tell you about your life. No, that’s for you to decide. The only thing that I would prescribe is the preconditions for a positive experience. I would recommend going to nature, listening to music you love, hanging out with someone interesting, and then having some cannabis. Whatever occurs inside of that experience, that’s for you. It shouldn’t be something you impose upon other people.
Do you think in the future we might see a shift from priests and nuns toward psychedelic shamans in psychedelic churches?
JS: I definitely think that we’ll see that. We’re already seeing psychedelic clinics around the world. I think it will be very, very important to have some kind of way to make sure that whoever is administering the substances doesn’t bring their own baggage or projections into the experience of the passenger or the guests of these psychedelic clinics.
I’m averse to the term shaman or priestly hood because I think shamans and priests are too easily able to act in a corrupt fashion. We give them too much power. My view is that the real shaman is the artist. The real shaman doesn’t call himself a shaman. The ecstatic technicians of the sacred are the philosophers and the artists, Vincent van Gogh, and his impressionist paintings. That’s shamanism. Musicians that make incredible music, their shamans. But the guy who wears a $200 that he bought in TULUM and calls himself a shaman might just be a guy that wants to seduce women that he’s administered psychoactive compounds to…and that’s not good.
Do you think when these drugs become legal, it will promote more unique ways of thinking and create more people like Elon Musk and like other visionaries that we see today?
JS: Yes, I do, and I think this comes down to a concept called semantic priming. Semantic priming has to do with associations, how your mind makes associations between concepts. So if I say the word “bird,” you might associate that with wings and with “flight.” Those are obvious linkages, conceptual linkages, and associations.
Now it turns out that cannabis can induce what’s called ‘hyper priming.’ Hyper priming means you’re expanding your associative network. So this time, instead of when I say bird, instead of just writing ‘wings’ and ‘flight,’ you might make more imaginative conceptual leaps of association. You might say “actually, bird makes me think of flying over all my limitations and flying over my limitations makes me think about the ways in which humans transcend their limits.”
In that sense, cannabis allows you to make more elastic and more imaginative leaps. It facilitates what I might call poetic languaging, and that’s a good thing. That’s why cannabis is associated with improvisation and improvisational arts like jazz, like spoken word, like rap, freestyle rap.
However, the only caveat is that too much hyper priming can then cross the threshold into incoherence or like speaking in tongues where now you’re just making associations that don’t make sense and you sound like a crazy person. So there has to be a balance between disinhibiting yourself enough to stretch your conceptual linkages but also immediately inhibiting yourself afterward to make sure the conceptual linkages actually fit and actually work.
Do you subscribe to Terence McKenna’s ‘Stoned Ape Theory’ which argues that this hyper-priming effect of cannabis and psychedelics is what catalyzed our evolution from ape to man?
I think it’s very, very compelling and persuasive. It’s hard to prove, right? But as a proof of concept, it definitely makes sense. And given that we really don’t have a theory to account for that sort of transcendence from animal consciousness to self-reflective consciousness, it does seem like one of the unintended consequences of eating the mushrooms that were growing in, I guess the droppings of animals, might’ve increased visual acuity and led to neurogenesis and then maybe even synesthesia which is the beginning of language, right? Like, seeing sounds is a synesthetic thing. When you see something and then you find a word to describe what you’re seeing, that’s an act of synesthesia. So languaging is synesthetic and we know one of the effects of psychedelics is synesthesia. So, it’s compelling.
Finally, what excites you about the future?
JS: One of the things that excites me about the future is the idea of ‘designer subjectivities.’
My friends, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, wrote a book, “Stealing Fire” about the future of modulating and mediating consciousness, sort of hacking flow states. They introduced this concept of the four forces of ecstasy, psychology, technology, neurobiology and pharmacology. And we’re having parallel advances in those four areas, right?
If we are having all these advances in psychology, all these advances in technology, all these advantages in neurobiology and all these advances in pharmacology, our capacity to modulate and mediate and, to a certain degree, design our own lived experience is increasing.
Basically we can then engender mental experiences for ourselves that are… I mean the sky’s the limit.
Imagine all the music in the world, imagine all the art in the world, all the ways in which we can already hack our experience simply by exposing ourselves to art, music, places, spaces, ideas that we’re going to have an even better tool kit to be even more capable of just crafting experiences of heightened qualitative intensity for ourselves. Soon we’ll be blowing our own minds in ways we can hardly even imagine.