Sam Harris: Can Psychedelics Help You Expand Your Mind?

Neuroscientist, Philosopher, and Author
Sam Harris discusses the virtues of psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA. While he does not condone the use of these drugs without caveat, he does acknowledge their profound consciousness-altering properties.
  • Transcript


Sam Harris: Well many people ask me about the virtues of psychedelics because I’ve written about this on my blog and in my book Waking Up. And they were at a point early in my inquiry they were indispensable and this is an experience that’s shared by many Westerners. It’s hard to really recommend psychedelics without serious caveats because some of them I think are probably neurotoxic. Some are really well tolerated but still you can have very scary destabilizing experiences on them. So you just can’t without a caveat recommend that people drop acid or take MDMA. So it’s – everything I say on the subject should be understood in that context. But for some people taking a drug is the only way they’re going to notice that it’s possible to have a very different experience of the world. They’re sufficiently lumpen and uninquisitive about the nature of their own minds that if you tell them to meditate, if you teach them mindfulness, if you tell them how to follow their breath they will look inside for 30 seconds or 30 minutes and see nothing of interest and walk away feeling that there’s no there there. Either it doesn’t work for them or that everyone else must be just faking it or there’s – it requires a certain talent and a certain degree of luck, therefore, to have enough concentration to connect with any “spiritual practice” the first time or even the tenth time or even after a year of attempting it because it’s just – these practices are difficult and the conditioning of our minds to just ceaselessly talk is deep.

So, as Terence McKenna once said, “Psychedelics are the only method that truly guarantee an effect.” And this effect can be, again, very painful. You’re not necessarily going to have a good experience but there’s no question that if someone gives you 100 micrograms of acid something is going to happen. Two hours later the significance of your existence will have just been borne down on you like an avalanche. And again this can be terrifying or it can be absolutely sublime depending on various causes and conditions. But the one thing it cannot be is boring. And that is you can’t say that about yoga or meditation or just going into solitude or anything else that – any other, you know, non-pharmacological means of inquiry. So, where drugs have been indispensable for many people is in advertising the possibility of a change in consciousness. And so I don’t think they’re durable methods for people that – I don’t think you need or should just keep taking drugs month after month, year after year, as a mode of spiritual inquiry. But there’s certainly a period in many people’s lives at the beginning where you wouldn’t even see a glimmer of reason to suspect that a radical change in the nature of your experience would be possible.

My first experience with psychedelics that was important, that actually shifted my view of human possibility was with MDMA which I took before it became a club drug. I think this was in 1987 I took it. And no one I knew, no one of my generation had taken it. And although the drug obviously goes back many decades before that. And it had not been adopted by popular culture as a party drug. So this was coming pretty much coming out of the therapeutic community. People were doing in a closeted way psychotherapy with it. And I took it as a means of discovering something about the nature of my mind. It was not a social situation. I was just – a friend and I were alone and we took it together and just had a conversation on this drug. And what was revelatory about it was that it was an experience of absolute sobriety. It was not – there was no druggy component to it. We just became clearer and clearer and clearer in our thinking and feeling. And the crucial component of this was a loss of any feeling of self-concern.

I was no longer looking at myself through my friend’s eyes. I was no longer worried about what he was thinking about me. I was no longer subtly correcting course based on changes I saw in how he was perceiving what I was saying. It was a whole veneer of fear frankly that I didn’t know was there that got stripped away. And there was just kind of naked awareness of the present moment and what came into that void was a very clear understanding that I loved him, that I – here I was, you know, 18 or 19 and I was not in the habit of, you know, thinking about how much I loved the men in my life. And here’s one of my best friends and I just realized with a, you know, it sounds absolutely pedestrian to say it but I realized that I wanted him to be happy in a way that was just – it was like, you know, a lightning bolt. And the – what was truly revolutionary about this insight was that the feeling that came crashing down to that point was just, you know, boundless love for one of my best friends and absolutely no egoic self-concern, no possibility for feeling envy, for feeling any kind of petty emotion that separated myself from him. But then I realized in the next moment that I would feel this way for anyone who walked through the door.

There was nothing contingent on our relationship about this feeling. It was not a – it was not justified by my friendship with him. This was the way I felt for every other conscious being. So this is the way I would feel for the postman if he walked through the door. And that suddenly opened my mind to the possibility of being like Jesus, whoever he was, you know. That these icons of traditional religion were not all epileptics and schizophrenics and frauds. These were people who – and again we can be skeptical about any specific individual, you know, some of them could have been schizophrenic. Some of them could have had temporal lobe epilepsy but some people historically – and even in the present have borne witness to this experience where you can just quite literally lose yourself concern in a way that makes you love people unconditionally. And so, you know, that was the experience I had on MDMA. It, you know, frankly blew my mind and it took me years for me to integrate this understanding of this possibility into my intellectual life. And it prompted me to seek to have this experience in other ways, you know, for many, many years.

I spent years studying meditation in various contexts, mostly in India, Nepal. And, you know, I can say you can have this experience without MDMA. It’s not, MDMA isn’t the only way to have it. And the truth is virtually any experience you can have with psychedelics you can have without psychedelics because all psychedelics do is modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain. They’re not doing something that the brain can’t do on its own. You’re just playing with neurotransmitters or mimicking neurotransmitters. I have had the same experience to more or less a similar degree just through meditation. But it’s clear to me that I would never have suspected that such an experience was possible but for my experimenting with MDMA in the beginning. So I have to just acknowledge that. Again, issuing the caveat that this drug could well be bad for you. There’s some evidence of its neurotoxicity. And there’s also a lot of evidence that that research has been heavily politicized so you have to be cautious on both sides. But, I can’t advocate that we drop MDMA in the water supply and cure us of our egocentricity. There’s reasons to be circumspect there.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Dillon Fitton, and Elizabeth Rodd