Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Can ideas get you high?

By Jason Silva, Special to CNN
November 13, 2012 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Filmmaker Jason Silva makes short kaleidoscopic videos on how ideas interrelate
  • He says he aims to show how technology is expanding our sphere of what is possible
  • Silva: Big ideas should instill a sense of wonder in people as if they're high on drugs

Editor's note: Jason Silva is a filmmaker and futurist who has produced a series of online micro-documentaries exploring the evolution of humans and technology that have been viewed nearly 2 million times. Silva produced an opening video on the theme of "radical openness" for the TEDGlobal conference. He is the host of the upcoming "Brain Games" series on National Geographic Channel.

(CNN) -- Can ideas get you high?

My approach to creating content is focused on pulling people out of their intellectual comfort zones. I'm interested in presenting ideas in unique ways that challenge people to question their assumptions.

My mode of presentation is short-form video -- basically I create fast cut, impassioned "idea explainers" that explode with enthusiasm and intensity as they distill how technology is expanding our sphere of possibility.

Jason Silva at TED Global
Jason Silva at TED Global

I want big ideas to have aesthetic relevance. I want to tickle people's intellectual sensibilities and instill a sense of wonder. I think big ideas should get people high!

My short videos, which I call shots of philosophical espresso, are trailers for these ideas. They are not a substitute for a book or academic paper -- they are instigators. My work is simply another way for wider audiences to engage with these ideas.

My goal is for those who might not be inclined toward heady discourse to find a way still to connect to these ideas.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey coined the term "the biological advantage of being awestruck" to describe his theory on why our unique ability to be enthralled was, somehow, biologically selected for in a Darwinian sense. He believes this quirk of our consciousness imbues our lives with a sense of cosmic significance that over the course of history has resulted in a species that works harder not just to survive but to flourish and thrive. To "awe" gives us a "raison d'etre." A reason for being. You can learn more about Humphrey's idea in my video "A Movie Trailer for Awe."

Humphrey says being enchanted by the magic of experience, rather than being just an aid to survival, provides an essential incentive to survive.

"We relish just being here," he says. "We feel the yen to confirm and renew, in small ways or large, our own occupancy of the present moment, to go deeper, to extend it, to revel in being there, and when we have the skill, to celebrate it in words. ..."

As pop philosopher Alain De Botton wrote in "The Art of Travel," "There is an urge to say: I was here, I felt this, and it matters!"

And this sense of cosmic awe continues to manifest itself in the age of technology, as Erik Davis wrote in his book "TechGnosis":

"Collectively, Human societies can no more dodge sublime imaginings or spiritual yearnings than they can transcend the tidal pulls of Eros. ...

"We are beset with a thirst for meaning and connection that centuries of skeptical philosophy, hardheaded materialism cannot eliminate. ... Today we turn to the cosmic awe conjured by science fiction, or the outer-space snapshots of the Hubble telescope as it calls forth our ever-deeper, ever-brighter possible selves."

Terence McKenna, in his book "Food of the Gods," wrote about the origins of human language: this unique, often ecstatic expression of consciousness that bursts forth as morsels of meaning encoded as vocal patterns.

He believes the origins of language stem from our early use of psychedelic compounds, which caused a sort of "ontological awakening" of our species and thus acted as an early catalyst for religion, cosmic feelings of awe and a desire for transcendent experiences.

These experiences, to borrow the words of Tim Doody, re-contextualize oneself as a marvelous conduit in a timeless whole, through which molecules and meaning flow, from nebulae to neurons and back again. Early shamans, Davis wrote in "TechGnosis," became ecstatic technicians of the sacred.

Regardless of whether you buy McKenna's theory, he does provide a compelling case for the relationship between "cosmic, out-of-body euphoria" and the cognitive leaps to which it can give rise.

Some of our greatest poets, scientists and other thinkers have attributed some of their greatest inspiration to the use of these psychedelic chemicals and their resulting out-of-context perspectives.

But it's not necessarily the chemicals themselves I'm interested in, but rather what they do to our sense of perspective and our reference points. My focus is the subjective experiences they seem "to occasion."

Tom Robbins explains:

"The plant genies don't manufacture imagination, nor do they market wonder and beauty -- but they force us out of context so dramatically and so meditatively that we gawk in amazement at the ubiquitous everyday wonders that we are culturally disposed to overlook, and they teach us invaluable lessons about fluidity, relativity, flexibility and paradox. Such an increase in awareness, if skillfully applied, can lift a disciplined, adventurous artist permanently out of reach of the faded jaws of mediocrity."

In my mind the key idea here is that of being forced out of context. We don't necessarily require psychedelics for this, although they might offer a shortcut.

What we require is a bold new attitude and a sense of humility that accepts the ambiguity of many of our so-called truths, habitual thought patterns and cultural reality tunnels. By accepting the need to constantly de-condition our thinking to approach the world with new eyes, we can reconnect with our sense of awe and wonder.

As Michael Pollan wrote, "In order to see things as if for the first time, we must remember to forget." Bucky Fuller used to say "dare to be naive." Oftentimes, our sense of what we think we know is precisely what prevents us from approaching situations free of prejudice.

"Banality is a defense against being overwhelmed," Pollan wrote in his book "The Botany of Desire."

This makes perfect sense to me: In a world where disruption is the new normal, and technological change is happening at an exponential rate; a world where we are bombarded with media messages, and where "attention" is the new limited resource, it seems easier to recoil away from all the mindblowingness going on, and instead look for reasons to be bored. The mundane can be quite comforting for those terrified of leaving their comfort zone.

And this where I think my work serves the purpose of infecting people with wonderment. My short videos are "digital psychedelics" meant to "de-center" the self, dwindle the broadcast of the ego and provide people with a long view, "big picture" perspective on humanity, technology and how their symbiosis might make a dent in the cosmos.

As Alan Harrington wrote in "The Immortalist": "We must never forget we are cosmic revolutionaries."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Silva.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT