Jason Silva: Brain Games with the Wonder Junkie

Jason Silva and I are shooting the shit. We’re seated in the kitchen of the art loft where we’ve agreed to meet, the video crew bustling around us, making their last preparations for our interview. Jason’s donning a black t-shirt with a circular sticker that reads “Support Psychedelic Science.” To say that I’m nervous is an understatement. I have quite a few interviews under my belt, but I’ve been intensely prepping for this one and know full well that keeping up with Silva’s answers will be a feat. He talks quickly, as I’ve learned from my research, and punctuates specific words in such a passionate manner, really reiterating their importance to the listener. It’s an endearing quality, a reminder that he’s human and not, in fact, a robot-a thought that had crossed my mind. We talk about our recent travels off-camera, and Silva feels like an old pal I haven’t seen in years. He’s calm, attentive and sits at ease. He’s charismatic, and I can tell he isn’t always waiting for his turn to talk.

If you’ve subscribed to Silva’s YouTube channel, Shots of Awe, or watched National Geographic’s Brain Games, you’re well aware of Jason’s ability to effectively express his thoughts through a boisterous and intriguing employment of his hands as speaking tools. Yes, he’s a hand-talker and yes, it works. Silva’s charisma and passion is palpable; it radiates throughout the room, and it’s no wonder he’s made a living in front of the camera. A Philosophy and Film Major from the University of Miami, Jason went straight out of college to work as what Timothy Leary would call a “Performance Philosopher.” I ask Jason if he likes the term. He grins, then jokes, “I am happy to take it. It might be a little pretentious, but I do love the phrase that ‘philosophy should be performed, not taught.'”


I ask Silva his thoughts on the film Her. It’s become obvious to me that interviewing Silva without asking his thoughts on singularity would be a grave mistake. Written, directed and produced by Spike Jonze, Her is, at its core, about singularity. Jason notes, “Singularity is a term, a metaphor borrowed from physics to describe what it’s like going through a black hole.” I ask Silva if he thinks Her is a good representation of singularity for the layman. He does. I transcribed his full answer, and it’s 840 words long-more than half the space I have allotted to pen this piece. Precisely why plugging every answer of his-even as a synopsis-into this article would be not only impossible, but a tragic decision on my part. Luckily, all of Silva’s answers will be turned into short videos for your viewing pleasure on our website.

Silva goes on to talk at length about black holes, time travel, Moore’s Law and super computers eventually shrinking to the size of blood cells. One of the most interesting components of his answer comes near its close. With palpable excitement, Silva asserts, “The origin of language was a singularity, in the sense that it changed the rules of reality as we knew them.” He’s talking about hominids, ape-like primates, and points to Terrence McKenna (the psychedelic philosopher and mystic psychonaut) who laid claim to the idea that “…the Cambrian explosion of mind and consciousness that language ushered was triggered by primates eating magic mushrooms.” The “actual” Cambrian explosion occurred 541 million years ago and is thought to have produced most major groups of animals as revealed by fossil records. Silva is using the Cambrian explosion as a metaphor for the way in which the use of psilocybin mushrooms may have resulted in an explosion of consciousness and the mind. Essentially, Silva notes, “Separate things, but related in that they both ushered in diversity and novelty—first with animals and later with language and mind.” As more legitimate, peer-reviewed research studies are conducted on the relevancy and effectiveness of small-dose psychedelics to combat ailments such as PTSD, stress and depression, this idea that magic mushrooms may have been at the root of language fills me with hope and, as Jason might say, “awe.” The hair on my forearms points skyward.

Silva’s ability to pull direct quotes seemingly out of thin air reminds me of the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Dumbledore extracts a memory and reviews it in a Pensieve (a memory reviewer). It’s a somewhat uncanny ability, almost as though Silva is sitting in front of a teleprompter—which I assure you, he is not. “I am kind of what they call a quote hoarder or quote whore,” Silva jokes. Silva grew up in a household that celebrated language. His mom, Linda, teaches high school literature, and so Jason grew up with a sensitivity to language. He is also admittedly a control freak: “When I come across something astounding or inspiring, any passage that moves me, I immediately need to transcribe and archive,” he admits. “I don’t want to lose my connection to this thing. I have to bookmark it and write it down.” During our chat, Silva quotes verbatim Stuart Brand, Terence McKenna, Rich Doyle, Roland Griffiths, Tim Doody, Carl Sagan, Michael Pollen, Aldous Huxley, Helen Fisher, David Pearce, Timothy Leary and Jerry Garcia—among others. Silva has built his identity on anchoring in his memory the ideas and philosophies of others that resonate with him. Some of us have trouble simply remembering where we’ve parked our cars after exiting the grocery store. Silva divulges, “My love of words and language is probably why I retain so many of these ideas. To hold onto those ideas is to hold onto a part of me. I read a lot. I am always on the lookout for new things that resonate.”

Jason’s identity, like anyone’s identity, is personal; built by the country that we call home; one’s nationality, linguistic principals, belief systems, geography, tribe, religion. Most importantly, as Jason so eloquently points out, our identity is very much about the lenses through which we see the world: “We see with our lenses and we see through our lenses, but we don’t always see the lenses themselves,” he maintains. “When we travel, we become aware of our own lenses by virtue of being exposed to the lenses of others.” Silva’s life—both on- and off-camera—requires more travel than most. Silva likens travel to a mind-expanding drug, asserting that travel “exposes us to novel and new situations. New situations trigger new impressions, new reflections, new thoughts; and all of that, of course, is mediated by neurochemistry, which means that we are getting high. We’re getting a chemical rush from this exposure to novelty from travel.”

The effects of travel can result in cognitive reframing—a term often used to describe the aftermath of employing psychedelics to expand one’s mind, thus altering one’s perspective. For those suffering with PTSD, suicidal thoughts, depression and/or anxiety, psychedelics are shown to transform chemical imbalances and reactions to trauma. “There have been a lot of wildly exciting results that have come from clinical trials in places like Johns Hopkins University, the Imperial College of London and other places that are using psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, mind-altering psychedelics [to treat and absolve mental afflictions],” Jason points out. In the words of Tim Doody, “To entertain such ontologies is to re-contextualize one’s self as a marvelous conduit in a timeless whole, through which molecules and meaning flow, from nebulae to neurons and back again.” Doody is referring to the idea that certain psychedelic molecules may have the ability to not only connect with certain serotonin receptors in our brain but also, as Jason puts it, “[certain psychedelic molecules] can connect us to a grander cosmic reality” where time is non-existent. It is in this clock-less world where perspectives evolve and minds expand.


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Doody goes on to say in The Heretic that if these molecules do in fact have this ability, then why shouldn’t we take a “peek”? The reality is that traditional treatments such as prescription medications are clearly not doing the job that they were designed to do. As Silva contends, “We’re living in a time where anxiety and depression are at epidemic levels. Eight-hundred-thousand people a year now are committing suicide globally, according to the United Nations. That’s a larger number than the amount of people who die from natural disaster and armed conflict combined. This thing with suicide, depression and anxiety is horrific.” Jason continues, stating that regardless of the propaganda you may have been exposed to, he is not encouraging anyone to take multiple tabs of LSD and run into the forest to cure their depression; quite the opposite.

He suggests that we continue to “[create] protocols and frameworks that can use the potential of these molecules [psychedelics] to alleviate the suffering of many people across the world.” Who can’t get behind creating a new frontier for psychotherapy? Moreover, Jason asserts, “What the telescope did for astronomy, these psychedelics can potentially do for consciousness.” Psychedelics as a Psychotherapy assistant is not for everyone, and this article does not intend to convince anyone of that, but rather to offer insight into the possibility that psychedelics may have something to offer humans which prescription drugs simply cannot. “There is more to investigate here,” Jason declares. “I am still profoundly excited to learn more. We are at the edge of the new frontier here. And that’s what humans do, we explore, so we shouldn’t shy away from the implications of these studies, but rather embrace them whole heartedly.”

Whether or not Silva is ready to take on the title of “Performance Philosopher” is really up to him. As Silva taught me, Timothy Leary came out in the ‘80s and ‘90s “as a singularity cyberneticist, and said, ‘In the information age, you don’t teach philosophy . . . you perform it.’” That is exactly what Silva is doing—creating a new platform for a new type of learner. To use Silva’s eloquent words, “If philosophy means love of wisdom, and if the way that we electrify and share wisdom or love of wisdom today is through memetics, through I.T., then YouTube is now the avenue for sharing a love of wisdom.”

Andrea Larson

Andrea is a Seattle native with a passion for the storytelling process. When she isn't curating content for DOPE she can be found binge listening to podcasts, skiing at a local PNW mountain or catching a drag show at Le Faux on Capitol Hill.