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.
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Intralytix's phage cocktails to safeguard food from bacteria are approved for consumers in addition to food producers, but currently the company sells to food producers only. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says.
It's not the company's only goal. Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery.
"Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria," Sulakvelidze says, "we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."