FINDING CONNECTIONS TO & APPLICATIONS FOR MY MENTAL HEALTH JOURNEY IN THE MAKING SENSE BOOK BY SAM HARRIS
“[H]istory doesn’t repeat itself so much as offer you a broad palette of what’s possible.” - Timothy Snyder (189)
In the preface to his new book, Making Sense, a collection of selected conversations from his podcast of the same name, Sam Harris declares this “a new golden age of public conversation,” thanks to the proliferation of podcasts & interview shows. He speaks to the benefit of our ability to “replace the voice in our heads with the voices of others,” learning, being entertained by, & keeping company with whatever expert, celebrity, or thinker one chooses to listen to on a given day. I’ve begun to think of managing mental health similarly. The negative voices of the self, in the case of mental illness, override the more stable, rational self; one of the main tricks in remedying this imbalance is by allowing the voices of others--therapists, mentors, heroes, your better side--in turn to override those disconcerting head voices, prompting one to retain grounding, make better choices, & navigate the murky waters better.
Reading these transcribed conversations, many of which I’ve heard before, I became acutely aware of how the prevailing interests of both Sam & his guests--consciousness, morality, free will, even artificial intelligence--strike similar cords to the work, in thought & in therapy, that I’ve been doing in my personal life regarding my mental health.. As I manage my bipolar disorder, I am attempting to be more mindful of what Pete Holmes reminds us on his You Made It Weird podcast: to give the fire of consciousness good wood to burn. In these conversations, I find much insight, challenges, & hope for the further understanding & management of this wild mind, this barnacled brain, of mine.
Harris often starts with the basic question, what is consciousness? Early on in the book, David Chalmers defines consciousness as “what it feels like, from the first-person point of view, to be thinking and piercing and judging” (3). Moreover, he declares that “a system is conscious if there’s something it’s like to be that system” (3). In managing my disorder, it is this awareness, or at other times the lack of such, that declares whether or not I am level, stable, & grounded; when I have an episode, a gulf divides the what-it’s-like-to-be-me from the reality I’m positioned in, often creating confusion & panic. In conversation with Anil Seth, Harris reminds us of the alternative view of consciousness that Chris Frith has offered, a theory of “consciousness as a controlled hallucination.” I know a thing or two about uncontrolled hallucinations, within, I supposed, the structure of consciousness.
In some ways, this experience leaves me better-suited to pay attention to the ebbs & flow of the controlled hallucination. As Harris said in conversation with David Deutsch, “Evolution hasn’t designed us to fully understand the nature of reality,” so thus, this is me talking, one must adjust as time ticks on, striving towards the best understanding possible. In their conversation, both Harris & Max Tegmark emphasize the possibility & necessity of this better understanding of reality. Tegmark warns us “that whatever the ultimate nature of reality is, it should seem weird and counterintuitive to us,” which is a sentiment, on a functional, everyday level, I can get behind (388). The reality I am familiar with, one dotted with hallucinations, time loss, & delusions, is already a rather peculiar version; here’s to hoping, as both our understanding of reality & my own trip within it continues, I might be able to adjust to such peculiarity with more grace than I’ve shown in my early days of madness.
Furthermore, Deutsch, without meaning to, offers some comfort, induces in me some power, when he says, “You can’t deduce an ought from an is. But we’re not--or shouldn’t be--trying to deduce; we should be trying to explain” (59). This is totally a misapplication of his idea, but this statement acts as a reminder for me to continue to understand my symptoms, triggers, & disorder, not to sit in the purely conceptual understanding of those things, but rather, to put that knowledge into action, by managing my illness & in some small way, making the world a better place; it reminds me of how my psychiatrist emphasizes the symptoms over the disorder, the treatable variables over the conceptual label. As Deutsch says later in the conversation, “[T]here’s no limit to the possibility of removing evil by knowledge” (75). In terms of my mental illness, this means talking to the experts, reading the literature, & practicing the mindfulness in order to prevent the terror, confusion, & pain my unchecked behavior can cause.
For me, I’m terrified & in awe of the depths of my mind, judging from the bits that spew up during spells or psychosis, as well as in my creative work & emotional connections. Harris in conversation with David Chalmers believes there is “reason to wonder whether or not there are islands of consciousness in our brains that we’re not aware of” (11). Later in the book, Deutsch supports this idea when he declares, “What we’re aware of is just the tip of the iceberg, and even our conscious thoughts are supported by a rich infrastructure of unconscious thoughts, which obey the same epistemology as the conscious ones” (82). Here, I am reminded of the critical necessity of maintaining a good subconscious, a la Pete Holmes’ tip, & making the most of my conscious mind. In one of the final conversations, Harris & Daniel Kahneman get into a lengthy discussion about the remembering self versus the experiencing self. Kahneman sees the experiencing self as “the one that’s doing the living” & the remembering self as “the one that’s making the decisions” (304). For me, that dichotomy becomes skewed in the face of symptoms or episodes.
In those situations, the remembering self has gone haywire, irrational & unduly influenced by misconceptions, misperceptions, & perception errors; now, it is the experiencing self trying to juggle both jobs & its many factors. As Harris says in conversation with Robert Sapolsky, “[M]ost of human evil is the result of bad ideas more than bad people” (275). In my case, my evil moments--harming LR, terrifying DS, verbally abusing others--often arise out of the bad ideas perpetuated by paranoia, hallucinations, & delusions. In the confusion & panic of such symptoms, I am overtaken by the bad thoughts arising, the ones I am unable to squelch. Similarly, when I look back on my past, this decade-long struggle with mental illness, I see clearly what Kahneman says about regret, that it is “not about something that happened, it’s about something that could have happened but didn’t” (295). I could’ve been more proactive in distancing myself from my victims before the tragedy; I could’ve been more careful about who & what I trusted for advice & counsel; I could’ve prevented the stressors--a big move, an ill-fitted job, certain social circumstances--that caused such flare-ups of symptoms.
I see now that I’ve been caught up in what Harris calls “the apparent split in my brain between what-it’s-like-to-be-me and what-it’s-like-to-be-the-rest-of-me” (11). That is part of the beauty in Sam Harris’s work with mindfulness & meditation; it bridges that gap. If we believe Thomas Metzinger, “[Y]ou have no self, but you have a self-model active in your brain, and it’s naturally evolved representational structure that’s transparent,” then there is applicable work to be done in awareness. Anil Seth claims, “We perceive the world as it’s useful for us to do so,” which is what I think is so frustrating about knowing when I’m slipping into a manic or psychotic episode (121). I am not functioning in a way that is reasonable & productive for myself. It is completely disruptive & at worst, destructive.
In terms of how we deal with things, Deutsch adds, “Science is a way of dealing with theories regardless of whether or not one believes them.” I use the scientific method & other methods of verification to settle myself when the rumblings of hallucinations & delusions begin, testing out the reality by asking questions of others (“Did you hear that noise?” “I’m starting to be paranoid that [this] is happening.”), checking for evidence (searching for the speaker of the voice I heard, maker of the shadow I saw), & reminding myself of the facts of reality (the conceptual nature of dreams, for instance). Deutsch means it more generally, but I am relieved to know “the fact that improvements create new problems” (90). I am not caught off guard when attempts to improve or actual improvements themselves bring about new challenges; I had this when my anti-anxiety meds caused manic episodes, I had this when my move home to Indiana started rockier than I would’ve liked, I had this when it took awhile to find the right, side-effect-free combo of medications following my hospitalization.
Though he’s talking about larger structures like society & culture, Snyder’s points can be brought down to the individual human level as well, with a warning to heed: “The future will always be full of surprises, structural forces we don’t anticipate, & accidents.” So what do we do in the face of that? As Robert Sapolsky says of behavioral biologists, in response to something happening, we must ask, “Why did that behavior just happen?” (257). I believe on an individual level, we can ask the same question of ourselves. In discussing free will, which Harris & many of his guests don’t subscribe to, he often points to the sheer number of outside influences affecting our decision-making--genetics, biological responses, subconscious impulses, others’ influence, etc. I see that point, but I have found avenues to circumvent such pressures, even in the face of mental illness & loss of control, such as separating from stressors & pinpointing biological catalysts. Though he’s talking more about philosophical & societal concepts, I like Kahneman’s clarification of “a fairly clear boundary about when you can trust your intuitions and when you can’t” (288). I apply this to my management of my mental health, back to the application of evidence-based modes of inquiry. He says you can trust intuition if 1) “the world [is] regular enough” 2) you “have enough exposure to those regularities to have a chance to learn them” & 3) “the time between when you’re making a guess and a judgment, and when you get feedback about it” (288). One thing to do, then, is to manage the container as much as I attempt to harness the reactive material within that container, creating a better context within which to work.
Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle, because, as Harris says in conversation with Metzinger, “[O]ur intuitions weren’t designed by evolution to enable us to grasp reality as it is. Our intuitions were designed to avoid getting hit over the head by another ape and to mate with his sister.” I, more than others it seems, have trouble keeping the lizard brain at bay, instead of leaning on reason. Furthermore, as Metzinger says, “The self-model we have as human beings is something that brings a lot of conscious suffering into the world” (179).” Then, I stumble upon something like this from Robert Sapolsky: “We assume that as creatures with big cortexes, reason is at the core of most of our decision making. And an awful lot of work has shown that far more often than we’d like to think, we make our decisions based on implicit emotional, automatic reflexes” (259). Again, in terms of disorder & symptom management, it circles back to awareness, training & utilizing mindfulness as a means to better understand the conscious nature of our reality & work in tandem with the unconscious impulses in our software.
At the end of his talk with Metzinger, Sam Harris calls for “a fully rational spirituality.” I think that is a good place to start. Using what we know of how the brain, & my mind in particular, works, I can situate myself in more comfortable contexts through mindfulness, gratitude, & better decision-making. This is totally out of context, but David Krakauer says, “The middle ground has always seemed lukewarm and uninspiring--but that’s exactly the bath I want to sit in” (377). When I first started therapy as an adult, my sophomore year of college, my therapist noted how I only lived on extremes, how I was all-in or all-out on situations; the growth comes, continues to come, through following the clues of my own experiencing to lead me to a middle-ground, somewhere closer to contentment, the safety of. Tegmark sums up my feelings well, “[I]f you’re a secular thinker, where does meaning and purpose come from? It comes from our having subjective experience, having consciousness, and I feel that we shouldn’t risk that” & this is me, by letting its depths run-wild, unfiltered & unprocessed, as much as I can (426).