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 late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States, David Fajgenbaum, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, devised a 10-day challenge for his lab: they would sift through 1,000 recently published scientific papers documenting cases of the deadly virus from around the world, pluck out the names of any drugs used in an attempt to cure patients, and track the treatments and their outcomes in a database.
Before late 2019, no one had ever had to treat this exact disease before, which meant all treatments would be trial and error. Fajgenbaum, a pioneering researcher in the field of drug repurposing—which prioritizes finding novel uses for existing drugs, rather than arduously and expensively developing new ones for each new disease—knew that physicians around the world would be embarking on an experimental journey, the scale of which would be unprecedented. His intention was to briefly document the early days of this potentially illuminating free-for-all, as a sidebar to his primary field of research on a group of lymph node disorders called Castleman disease. But now, 11 months and 29,000 scientific papers later, he and his team of 22 are still going strong.
On a Personal Mission<p>In the science and medical world, Fajgenbaum lives a dual existence: he is both researcher and subject, physician and patient. In July 2010, when he was a healthy and physically fit 25-year-old finishing medical school, he began living through what would become a recurring, unprovoked, and overzealous immune response that repeatedly almost killed him.</p><p>His lymph nodes were inflamed; his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were faltering; and he was dead tired all the time. At first his doctors mistook his mysterious illness for lymphoma, but his inflamed lymph nodes were merely a red herring. A month after his initial hospitalization, pathologists at Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease—a particularly ruthless form of a class of lymph node disorders that doesn't just attack one part of the body, but many, and has no known cause. It's a rare diagnosis within an already rare set of disorders. Only about 1,500 Americans a year receive the same diagnosis. </p><p>Without many options for treatment, Fajgenbaum underwent recurring rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, the treatment would offer temporary respite from Castleman symptoms, but bring the full spate of chemotherapy side effects. And it wasn't a sustainable treatment for the long haul. Regularly dousing a person's cells in unmitigated toxicity was about as elegant a solution to Fajgenbaum's disease as bulldozing a house in response to a toaster fire. The fire might go out (though not necessarily), but the house would be destroyed.</p><p>A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.</p><p>Fajgenbaum became hellbent on devoting his practice and research to making similar breakthroughs for others. He founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, to coordinate the research of others studying this bewildering disease, and directs a laboratory consumed with studying cytokine storms—out-of-control immune responses characterized by the body's release of cytokines, proteins that the immune system secretes and uses to communicate with and direct other cells. </p><p>In the spring of 2020, when cytokine storms emerged as a hallmark of the most severe and deadly cases of COVID-19, Fajgenbaum's ears perked up. Although SARS-CoV-2 itself was novel, Fajgenbaum already had almost a decade of experience battling the most severe biological forces it brought. Only this time, he thought, it might actually be easier to pinpoint a treatment—unlike Castleman disease, which has no known cause, at least here a virus was clearly the instigator. </p>
Thinking Beyond COVID<p>The week of March 13, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fajgenbaum found himself hoping that someone would make the same connection and apply the research to COVID. "Then like a minute later I was like, 'Why am I hoping that someone, somewhere, either follows our footsteps, or has a similar background to us? Maybe we just need to do it," he says. And the CORONA Project was born—first as a 10-day exercise, and later as the robust, interactive tool it now is. </p><p>All of the 400 treatments in the CORONA database are examples of repurposed drugs, or off-label uses: physicians are prescribing drugs to treat COVID that have been approved for a different disease. There are no bonafide COVID treatments, only inferences. The goal for people like Fajgenbaum and Stone is to identify potential treatments for further study and eventual official approval, so that physicians can treat the disease with a playbook in hand. When it works, drug repurposing opens up a way to move quickly: A range of treatments could be available to patients within just a few years of a totally new virus entering our reality compared with the 12 - 19 years new drug development takes.</p><p>"Companies for many decades have explored the use of their products for not just a single indication but often for many indications," says Stone. "'Supplemental approvals' are all essentially examples of drug repurposing, we just didn't call it that. The challenge, I think, is to explore those opportunities more comprehensively and systematically to really try to understand the full breadth of potential activity of any drug or molecule."</p>
The left column shows the path of a repurposed drug, and on the right is the path of a newly discovered and developed drug.
Cures Within Reach
A Confounding Virus<p>The FDA declined to comment on what drugs it was fast-tracking for trials, but Fajgenbaum says that based on the CORONA Project's data, which includes data from smaller trials that have already taken place, he feels there are three drugs that seem the most clearly and broadly promising for large-scale studies. Among them are <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30503-8/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>dexamethasone</u></a>, which is a steroid with anti-inflammatory effects, and <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-drug-combination-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>baricitinib</u></a>, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, both of which have enabled the sickest COVID-19 patients to bounce back by suppressing their immune systems. The third most clearly promising drug is <a href="https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/full-dose-blood-thinners-decreased-need-life-support-improved-outcome-hospitalized-covid-19-patients" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>heparin</u></a>, a blood thinner, which a recent trial showed to be most helpful when administered at a full dose, more so than at a small, preventative dose. (On the flipside, Fajgenbaum says "it's a little sad" that in the database you can see hydroxychloroquine is still the most-prescribed drug being tried as a COVID treatment around the world, despite over the summer being <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2021801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>debunked</u></a> widely as an effective treatment, and continuously since then.)</p><p>One of the confounding attributes of SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to cause such a huge spectrum of outcomes. It's unlikely a silver bullet treatment will emerge under that reality, so the database also helps surface drugs that seem most promising for a specific population. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2773108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Fluvoxamine</u></a>, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, showed promise in the recovery of outpatients—those who were sick, but not severely enough to be hospitalized. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2772185" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Tocilizumab</u></a>, which was actually developed for Castleman disease, the disease Fajgenbaum is managing, was initially written off as a COVID treatment because it failed to benefit large portions of hospitalized patients, but now seems to be effective if used on intensive care unit patients within 24 hours of admission—these are some of the sickest patients with the highest risk of dying. </p><p>Other than fluvoxamine, most of the drugs labeled as promising do skew toward targeting hospitalized patients, more than outpatients. One reason, Fajgenbaum says, is that "if you're in a hospital it's very easy to give you a drug and to track you, and there are very objective measurements as to whether you die, you progress to a ventilator, etc." Tracking outpatients is far more difficult, especially when folks have been routinely asked to stay home, quarantine, and free up hospital resources if they're experiencing only mild symptoms. </p><p>But the other reason for the skew is because COVID is very unlike most other diseases in terms of the human immune response the virus triggers. For example, if oncology treatments show some benefit to people with the highest risk of dying, then they usually work extremely well if administered in the earlier stages of a cancer diagnosis. Across many diseases, this dialing backward is a standard approach to identifying promising treatments. With COVID, all of that reasoning has proven moot. </p><p>As we've seen over the last year, COVID cases often start as asymptomatic, and remain that way for days, indicating the body is mounting an incredibly weak immune response initially. Then, between days five and 14, as if trying to make up for lost time, the immune system overcompensates by launching a major inflammatory response, which in the sickest patient can lead to the type of cytokine storms that helped Fajgenbaum realize his years of Castleman research might be useful during this public health crisis. Because of this phased response, you can't apply the same treatment logic to all cases.</p><p>"In COVID, drugs that work late tend to not work if given early, and drugs that work early tend to not work if given late," says Fajgenbaum. "Generally this … is not a commonplace thing for a virus." </p>
Thursday, March 11th, 2021 at 12:30pm - 1:45pm EST
On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
SPEAKERS:<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://leaps.org/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY3Mzc4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjYwNjU4NX0.Tdrh5pze5P4XxgiJK3J4JFrsrijfabIzNJz-AATghDE/image.jpg?width=534&coordinates=365%2C3%2C299%2C559&height=462" id="87554" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b6c7311be7aec25807f9af19b683bf1d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="534" data-height="462" />
Dr. Paul Offit speaking at Communicating Vaccine Science.commons.wikimedia.org<p><strong><a href="https://www.research.chop.edu/people/paul-a-offit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Paul Offit, M.D.</a>, is the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, and he has lent his expertise to the advisory committees that review data on new vaccines for the CDC and FDA.</strong></p>
Dr. Monica Gandhi
UCSF Health<p><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi"></a><strong><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi" target="_blank">Dr. Monica Gandhi, M.D., MPH,</a> is Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief (Clinical Operations/ Education) of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/ San Francisco General Hospital.</strong></p>
Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh, FACP, FIDSA
Yale Medicine<p><strong><a href="https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/onyema_ogbuagu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh</a>, is an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine who treats COVID-19 patients and leads Yale's clinical studies around COVID-19. He ran Yale's trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.</strong></p>
Dr. Eric Topol
Dr. Topol's Twitter<p><strong><a href="https://www.scripps.edu/faculty/topol/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Eric Topol, M.D.</a>, is a cardiologist, scientist, professor of molecular medicine, and the director and founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He has led clinical trials in over 40 countries with over 200,000 patients and pioneered the development of many routinely used medications.</strong></p>