At 31, Venezuela-born Jason Silva has invented himself an occupation: He’s a professional “wonder junkie.” After creating a series of provocative viral videos he likes to call “shots of philosophical espresso,” he’s now the host of National Geographic Channel’s new weekly docuseries ‘Brain Games‘ (new episodes on Mondays at 9 p.m. EST). He’s effusive about the inner workings of the human brain and how we process information, always on the prowl for an idea or experience that will enhance his sense of “aliveness.”
If you’re thinking that sounds more than a little like the cultural shamans back in the day who promised a new consciousness through the ingestion of selected fungi or little tabs of chemically soaked paper, well, Silva says you’re not entirely wrong. “It’s important for people to understand, those chemicals have been used in religious contexts for 10,000 years,” he tells ‘Men’s Journal.’ “Those chemicals are no different from chemicals produced in your own brain. Just stepping outside your comfort zone creates a chemical effect that is in itself like a high.”
Human beings are inclined toward habitual patterns. “[By creating mental habits], neural pathways get forged, and that saves energy,” Silva notes. The problem is, that kind of routine doesn’t “flex your brain muscle,” he explains. The solution can be something as simple as changing your commute to work, he says.
Even doing the things that make us happiest can quickly lose appeal if they become habitual. “Anything that’s always around becomes invisible,” says Silva. “It’s called hedonic adaptation.” The idea is to put yourself in novel situations, to reset the brain: “For me, that’s a huge thing. I always step out of my comfort zone,” he says. “I know this sounds like a bumper sticker, but it’s so key to making sure that ‘neuroplasticity‘ thing is working.”
Exploring a different culture, taking a walk in the park, or “watching a challenging film” – any break from convention “forces you to gawk in amazement at the everyday wonders you’re culturally disposed to ignore,” he says.
Growing up, Silva attended an international school in Venezuela, speaking both English and Spanish. “I was exposed to kids from all over, and I saw the value of perspective – seeing the world from a different pair of eyes,” he says. “We have to shake ourselves.”
It’s not as hard as it can sometimes seem. “Human beings are attracted to novelty, to probe the ‘adjacent possible,'” he says. “We didn’t stay in the caves. We didn’t stay on the planet, and soon we won’t stay within the limitations of our biology. We move forward. We transcend our limits. We go to the moon, and we create the internet.”
Both Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan, Silva points out, recognized the awesome potential of the virtual world. They shared a “cyberdelic” view of technology – that computers are “the new LSD,” he says.
One simple way to expand your consciousness, he suggests, is to use Twitter as a cognitive resource. “If you use it intelligently, Twitter can be a form of engineered serendipity,” he says. “You’re basically harnessing its pattern recognition powers to empower your brain. If I follow Douglas Rushkoff or Maria Popova to see what they think is interesting, I’m leveraging their brainpower.”
Given his seemingly boundless energy for ideas, you might think Silva doesn’t have bad days. But he says he does – on those days when he fails “to be engaged by the world. For me, it’s always a failure of the imagination. I have that anxiety that time is passing, that everything is ultimately fleeting and impermanent. I better take advantage of every single moment.” If that’s a bumper sticker, we should all be driving behind it.