Sam Harris: Can Psychedelics Help You Expand Your Mind?

While Sam Harris doesn't necessarily condone their use, his experimentations with psychedelic drugs were indelible in the formation of his worldview and understanding of consciousness. 

Sam Harris recently visited Big Think to discuss a variety of topics including the illusion of the self, secular spirituality, and the use of psychedelic drugs. That last topic is one Harris has written about at length both on his website and in his new book, Waking Up. The video clip below features a discussion of Harris' feelings toward psychedelics, a weighing of their pros and cons, and examples of how one can achieve similar states of awareness without their use:


Harris makes sure to be upfront about how he can't recommend the use of psychedelics without serious caveats. The neuroscientist and best-selling author notes their neurotoxicity and observes that not everyone's experience with them will be positive. Psychedelics won't guide users to enlightenment, but their nature and effects on the brain are of neuroscientific interest and importance.

Within that context, Harris describes psychedelics as indispensable tools from early in his inquiry and a means through which one can tap into a very different perspective on existence. While such an experience is attainable through different channels, Harris quotes Terence McKenna, who once said, "Psychedelics are the only method that truly guarantees an effect." For those unable to elicit breakthroughs through yoga or mindfulness, Harris says psychedelics can be something of a crash course on the dynamism of consciousness:

"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."

Despite the guarantee of an effect, Harris explains that psychedelics are best thought of as advertisements for the possibility of a change in consciousness. Therefore, he doesn't believe they can be durable methods for spiritual inquiry. Psychedelics are merely one avenue by which people can experience Consciousness 101. Again, it's a crash course.

Harris describes his first experience using MDMA in 1987 before it became a major party drug. Back then, it was something coming out of the therapeutic community and was being used as a tool for psychotherapy. So Harris and a friend sat in a room for a few hours and had a conversation on MDMA in order to discover something new about the nature of their minds:

"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."

Harris found that the veneer of insecurity, fear, and self-consciousness that envelops almost every social situation simply evaporated when on MDMA. All that was left was a naked awareness of Harris' love for his friend and all of humanity. There was no pettiness, envy, or self-concern. There was simply the connection. It was a life-changing moment for Harris:

"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."

As was mentioned before, since psychedelics are not a durable method for achieving this sort of "naked awareness," Harris sought out other avenues. What he found is that the experiences one has on drugs can be replicated without their use. All psychedelics do is tinker with the brain's neurotransmitters. With the right methods and discipline, one can train him- or herself to reach these states through mindfulness:

"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.... 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."

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.