Neuroscientist, philosopher, and bestselling author Sam Harris is famous for many reasons, among them his vocal criticism of religion, his scientific approach to moral questions, and his willingness to tackle controversial topics on his popular podcast.
"Until you have some capacity to be mindful, you have no choice but to be lost in every next thought that arises."
He is also a passionate advocate of mindfulness meditation, having spent formative time as a young adult learning from teachers in India and Tibet before returning to the West.
Now his new app called Waking Up aims to teach the principles of meditation to anyone who is willing to slow down, turn away from everyday distractions, and pay attention to their own mind. Harris recently chatted with leapsmag about the science of mindfulness, the surprising way he discovered it, and the fundamental—but under-appreciated—reason to do it. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
One of the biggest struggles that so many people face today is how to stay present in the moment. Is this the default state for human beings, or is this a more recent phenomenon brought on by our collective addiction to screens?
Sam: No, it certainly predates our technology. This is something that yogis have been talking about and struggling with for thousands of years. Just imagine you're on a beach on vacation where you vowed not to pick up your smart phone for 24 hours. You haven't looked at a screen, you're just enjoying the sound of the waves and the sunset, or trying to. What you're competing with there is this incessant white noise of discursive thinking. And that's something that follows you everywhere. It's something that people tend to only become truly sensitive to once they try to learn to meditate.
You've mentioned in one of your lessons that the more you train in mindful meditation, the more freedom you will have. What do you mean?
Sam: Well, until you have some capacity to be mindful, you have no choice but to be lost in every next thought that arises. You can't notice thought as thought, it just feels like you. So therefore, you're hostage to whatever the emotional or behavioral consequences of those thoughts are. If they're angry thoughts, you're angry. If they're desire thoughts, you're filled with desire. There is very little understanding in Western psychology around an alternative to that. And it's only by importing mindfulness into our thinking that we have begun to dimly see an alternative.
You've said that even if there were no demonstrable health benefits, it would still be valuable to meditate. Why?
Sam: Yeah, people are putting a lot of weight on the demonstrated health and efficiency benefits of mindfulness. I don't doubt that they exist, I think some of the research attesting to them is pretty thin, but it just may in fact be the case that meditation improves your immune system, and staves off dementia, or the thinning of the cortex as we age and many other benefits.
"What was Jesus talking about? Well, he certainly seemed to be talking about a state of mind that I first discovered on MDMA."
[But] it trivializes the real power of the practice. The power of the practice is to discover something fundamental about the nature of consciousness that can liberate you from psychological suffering in each moment that you can be aware of it. And that's a fairly esoteric goal and concern, it's an ancient one. It is something more than a narrow focus on physical health or even the ordinary expectations of well-being.
Yet many scientists in the West and intellectuals, like Richard Dawkins, are skeptical of it. Would you support a double-blind placebo-controlled study of meditation or does that miss the deeper point?
Sam: No, I see value in studying it any way we can. It's a little hard to pick a control condition that really makes sense. But yeah, that's research that I'm actually collaborating in now. There's a team just beginning a study of my app and we're having to pick a control condition. You can't do a true double-blind placebo control because meditation is not a pill, it's a practice. You know what you're being told to do. And if you're being told that you're in the control condition, you might be told to just keep a journal, say, of everything that happened to you yesterday.
One way to look at it is just to take people who haven't done any significant practice and to have them start and compare them to themselves over time using each person as his own control. But there are limitations with that as well. So, it's a little hard to study, but it's certainly not impossible.
And again, the purpose of meditation is not merely to reduce stress or to improve a person's health. And there are certain aspects to it which don't in any linear way reduce stress. You can have stressful experiences as you begin to learn to be mindful. You become more aware of your own neuroses certainly in the beginning, and you become more aware of your capacity to be petty and deceptive and self-deceptive. There are unflattering things to be realized about the character of your own mind. And the question is, "Is there a benefit ultimately to realizing those things?" I think there clearly is.
I'm curious about your background. You left Stanford to practice meditation after an experience with the drug MDMA. How did that lead you to meditation?
Sam: The experience there was that I had a feeling -- what I would consider unconditional love -- for the first time. Whether I ever had the concept of unconditional love in my head at that point, I don't know, I was 18 and not at all religious. But it was an experience that certainly made sense of the kind of language you find in many spiritual traditions, not just what it's like to be fully actualized by those, by, let's say, Christian values. Like, what was Jesus talking about? Well, he certainly seemed to be talking about a state of mind that I first discovered on MDMA. So that led me to religious literature, spiritual or new age literature, and Eastern philosophy.
Looking to make sense of this and put into a larger context that wasn't just synonymous with taking drugs, it was a sketching a path of practice and growth that could lead further across this landscape of mind, which I just had no idea existed. I basically thought you have whatever mind you have, and the prospect of having a radically different experience of consciousness, that would just be a fool's errand, and anyone who claimed to have such an experience would probably be lying.
As you probably know, there's a resurgence of research in psychedelics now, which again I also fully support, and I've had many useful experiences since that first one, on LSD and psilocybin. I don't tend to take those drugs now; it's been many years since I've done anything significant in that area, but the utility is that they work for everyone, more or less, which is to say that they prove beyond any doubt to everyone that it's possible to have a very different experience of consciousness moment to moment. Now, you can have scary experiences on some of these drugs, and I don't recommend them for everybody, but the one thing you can't have is the experience of boredom. [chuckle]
Very true. Going back to your experiences, you've done silent meditation for 18 hours a day with monks abroad. Do you think that kind of immersive commitment is an ideal goal, or is there a point where too much meditation is counter-productive to a full life?
Sam: I think all of those possibilities are true, depending on the person. There are people who can't figure out how to live a satisfying life in the world, and they retreat as a way of trying to untie the knot of their unhappiness directly through practice.
But the flip side is also true, that in order to really learn this skill deeply, most people need some kind of full immersion experience, at least at some point, to break through to a level of familiarity with it that would be very hard to get for most people practicing for 10 minutes a day, or an hour a day. But ultimately, I think it is a matter of practicing for short periods, frequently, more than it's a matter of long hours in one's daily life. If you could practice for one minute, 100 times a day, that would be an extraordinarily positive way to punctuate your habitual distraction. And I think probably better than 100 minutes all in one go first thing in the morning.
"It's amazing to me to walk into a classroom where you see 15 or 20 six-year-olds sitting in silence for 10 or 15 minutes."
What's your daily meditation practice like today? How does it fit into your routine?
Sam: It's super variable. There are days where I don't find any time to practice formally, there are days where it's very brief, and there are days where I'll set aside a half hour. I have young kids who I don't feel like leaving to go on retreat just yet, but I'm sure retreat will be a part of my future as well. It's definitely useful to just drop everything and give yourself permission to not think about anything for a certain period. And you're left with this extraordinarily vivid confrontation with your default state, which is your thoughts are incessantly appearing and capturing your attention and deluding you.
Every time you're lost in thought, you're very likely telling yourself a story for the 15th time that you don't even have the decency to find boring, right? Just imagine what it would sound like if you could broadcast your thoughts on a loud speaker, it would be mortifying. These are desperately boring, repetitive rehearsals of past conversations and anxieties about the future and meaningless judgments and observations. And in each moment that we don't notice a thought as a thought, we are deluded about what has happened. It's created this feeling of self that is a misconstrual of what consciousness is actually like, and it's created in most cases a kind of emotional emergency, which is our lives and all of the things we're worrying about. But our worry adds absolutely nothing to our capacity to deal with the problems when they actually arise.
Right. You mentioned you're a parent of a young kid, and so am I. Is there anything we as parents can do to encourage a mindfulness habit when our kids are young?
Sam: Actually, we just added meditations for kids in the app. My wife, Annaka, teaches meditation to kids as young as five in school. And they can absolutely learn to be mindful, even at that age. And it's amazing to me to walk into a classroom where you see 15 or 20 six-year-olds sitting in silence for 10 or 15 minutes, it's just amazing. And that's not what happens on the first day, but after five or six classes that is what happens. For a six-year-old to become aware of their emotional life in a clear way and to recognize that he was sad, or angry…that's a kind of super power. And it becomes a basis of any further capacity to regulate emotion and behavior.
It can be something that they're explicitly taught early and it can be something that they get modeled by us. They can know that we practice. You can just sit with your kid when your kid is playing. Just a few minutes goes a long way. You model this behavior and punctuate your own distraction for a short period of time, and it can be incredibly positive.
Lastly, a bonus question that is definitely tongue-in-cheek. Who would win in a fight, you or Ben Affleck?
Sam: That's funny. That question was almost resolved in the green room after that encounter. That was an unpleasant meeting…I spend some amount of time training in the martial arts. This is one area where knowledge does count for a lot, but I don't think we'll have to resolve that uncertainty any time soon. We're both getting old.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."