Futurist, philosopher, artist, TV personality, filmmaker, and public speaker — Jason Silva was born and raised in Venezuela and came to the United States when he was 18 to major in philosophy and film at the University of Miami. His lifelong passion for media, storytelling, and the big questions of life led him to have dialogues on these big ideas in front of the camera.
Silva started his professional career as a presenter and producer at a user-generated-content channel called Current TV, where he sought to democratize the media, giving the power back to the people to tell their own stories. A few years later, he was nominated for an Emmy for his five seasons with National Geographic’s “Brain Games,” and hit what he calls a “perfect storm”: digital media, hit TV series, and corporate speaking. Now, he hosts a new series on National Geographic called “Origins,” exploring how we humans became who we are — how we essentially domesticated ourselves, how we built our tools, and how the tools have come to build us. But perhaps his most powerful new role is producing his web series “Shots of Awe,” which can be seen on YouTube. This passion project, like Silva himself, is kinetic, psychedelic, and thought-provoking. Brain World recently had the opportunity to talk to Silva about his passion for artwork and his vision for the future.
Brain World: Tell us more about your most recent work.
Jason Silva: I continue to do a lot of public speaking events, and I’m still doing my digital media. One of my biggest passions is the technology of interspace. What are the ways that we can hack our own consciousness? It doesn’t matter how advanced the world becomes. We can’t enjoy it unless we make sense of our own subjectivity and optimize it. In an age of abundance, people are killing themselves at rates above any other time in history. Depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels even though we have more than we’ve ever dreamed of as a society. That’s been interesting to me — a deviation from my techno-optimism progress. Because in spite of all this progress, people are still experiencing existential distress, fear, and panic. So I recently really just dove into advances in psychology, technology, neurobiology, and pharmacology. These are the four forces of ecstasy that are being deployed and employed now to help people deal with mental distress. I think that technologies of interspace are as important as external technologies.
BW: Why do you think we are in this situation?
JS: Ernest Becker wrote the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book called “The Denial of Death.” He basically distilled the human condition, and he said human beings are burdened by this neocortex. This neocortical hardware is an evolutionary advantage — it allows us to conceive of future scenarios and to plan accordingly. No other animal can step outside the present. We can step outside the present and think of a million years from now, or think of a million years ago. We can conceive of 10 years from now and also imagine 50 years from now when we grow old and die. So, from the unique capacity to think about the future has come a paralyzing anxiety to know that we are all going to be food for worms. The explicit awareness that you’re a piece of defecating meat destined to die and ultimately no more significant than a lizard or a potato is not especially uplifting.
We are symbolic animals that live inside of symbolic realities. Together we create stories, essentially. The fact that no story will save us from mortality, I think, is the source of existential dread. We used to turn to religion. Now we do so perhaps a little bit less. Instead, people turn to nationalism or other identities, but that does the same thing. It catapults you into a blissful state of immortality. People may think that this politician will save us, or America will be great again. There are a lot of articles that talk about this election cycle as being totally reflective of the ideas of Ernest Becker.
Other ways in which we can dissipate our anxiety is by falling in love and elevating our partners to deities. She’s like the wind. She’s my salvation. She’s my sun. Or we measure our self-worth with our job or social status. Like I got a million fans on Facebook so I’ll never get old. But no romantic or professional relationship can bear the burden of godhood. Our lovers or icons reveal their clay feet. Your girlfriend will reveal herself as being beautifully imperfect and maybe that’ll be enough. Your favorite actor will get old and that reveals a crack in our facade and in our illusions. So depression and anxiety kicks in again. We’re hungry for ultimate truth and ultimate meaning. We are ephemeral beings in ephemeral times. Knowing that is the disappointment everyone feels, I think.
BW: The world is struggling and people are struggling, and at the same time it seems like this is really a critical time for change. What can we do in this critical time to make the best of it?
JS: I think we need to find what gets us in the zone and build our lives around it. Or at the very least take up a hobby that we can practice regularly; that gets us out of our heads. The key is anything that gets you out of your head. States of consciousness that put you in the zone or put you in the flow are characterized by selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and richness. So the key idea is that the self vanishes. Your sense of time distorts. The information that you get in these moments feels really rich and really meaningful. And it all feels effortless. And that’s an automatic process that happens when you get hurled into the now. So I think people need to figure out what hurls them into the now. It’s the best antidote to depression in my opinion.
BW: How do you deal with the difficulties in life?
JS: Struggle. I try to get enough sleep, try to get enough exercise, because those are ways of using the body to tame the mind so that the story stops spinning. You condition your body and you get rewarded with chemicals from exercise and good sleep. Sometimes existential despair is just a lack of sleep and low blood sugar. I’m aware of interventions I could use to hack my consciousness whenever possible. That’s pretty much my response to the whole thing. Hacking my consciousness. That’s why I’ve been calling myself an inspiration junkie. As long as I’m being catapulted into ecstasy by something magnificent, I’m not thinking about the inevitable.
BW: How would you explain the importance of this mind-body connection?
JS: The key idea to realize is that this (your brain) is wired to this (your gut). It’s all part of one spider’s web, one network. It’s all interconnected. Some of the latest science is saying that the bacteria that live in here, in our gut, can actually, without our awareness of it, influence how we feel. Sometimes your happiness or your sadness has more to do with the bacteria in your stomach than the events in your life. The fact that sometimes sadness is just a lack of sleep and low blood sugar should be a reminder of that: Don’t always listen to the running story here. You know, the cul-de-sacs and error messages. Sometimes the story is irrelevant. Sometimes it’s your neurochemistry that you have to hack.
BW: What is the relationship between science and art in your opinion?
JS: Marshall McLuhan used to say that it’s the artist who always realizes that the future is the present and uses his work to prepare the grounds for it. So I think art is really the moment when science is interpreted from the perspective of our humanness. What does this mean to us? How does this change how we live? And to express that from a human point of view, from a particular perspective, is to be an artist. Artistry is the human response to the cut-and-dry aspect of science. It’s like the Hubble Space Telescope telling the brilliant engineers to build a machine. It floats in space, takes pictures of the universe, and uses algorithm and complex electronic components to communicate. It’s amazing. The artist looks at those images and it vindicates John Keats’ famous couplet: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” As artists, we use all this science to reveal the world to our senses, and then we interpret that world through the eyes of poetry and art.
BW: You’re a very successful communicator — what is the key to get people’s attention in your experience?
JS: Empathy. To connect to people, you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to
be compelling. But how do you know if you’re compelling? It’s because you have empathy. It’s because you’re effectively modeling the other person’s mind well enough to know if you’re reaching them or not. You can’t be aloof in your communication. You have to really relate with the people you’re talking to, to make sure you’re being understood. That’s quite taxing, by the way.
There’s a book called “Others in Mind” [by Philippe Rochat], which talks about how communication requires us to render ritual versions of other people’s interior worlds within our interior world. When you don’t connect with somebody, it means that you’re not effectively modeling their mind. Or you’re modeling their mind and you don’t like what you see. So much of communication is estimation, rendering, and assessment; modeling the environment. It’s kind of like the self-driving cars that show the graphics modeling the surrounding streets and the other cars. We’re running all those algorithms too, when we communicate with other people. I think the key to good communication is how rich those algorithms and your modeling of others are. If you know your audience well, you can connect with them, and you know what to say to them. Politicians do that well.
BW: You say, “we are gods” — can you elaborate more on this perspective?
JS: I think that life is wonderfully anti-entropic. Even though it is ultimately still subject to death and decay, life before it decays moves toward greater complexity and organization in a universe where everything else breaks down. Life gets more complex and more interesting. And out of life comes technology, which also grows more complex and more interesting. Kevin Kelly talks about this in his book, “What Technology Wants.” He talks about the technium, the seventh kingdom of life.
So, when I say we are as gods, it’s because we are the climax, perhaps, thus far, of the evolutionary process, which has gained sentience. When something has sentience it can self-modify through mindful will. It’s like we decommissioned natural selection and now it’s within our own agency and volition to modify ourselves. People say, “Oh, when artificial intelligence starts to build itself and modify itself, that’s a singularity.” I would say yes, but the first singularity was when we start doing it. Genetic engineering, gene sequencing, CRISPR technologies [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — that is, genome-editing technology] — that’s the software of life. We are alphabetic. We are made of language and the capacity to make modifications to the source code of life is engendered godhood, in my opinion.