By Theo Winter
“We are simultaneously worms and gods.”
Franz Kafka, a giant of 20th century literature, not satisfied with the notion that we should invest time in books to make us feel “happy,” shared in a letter to a friend his belief in the real purpose of reading:
“We ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Although I can’t forge a wholehearted alliance with this belief, which to me isn’t wrong, just way too narrow, Kafka’s beautiful and evocative use of metaphorical language in the service of shock awakening reminds me of one of the most inspiring and linguistically mesmerising content creators alive: Jason Silva. (And I do mean alive. What’s the opposite of a zombie? You’ll see it once you start watching.)
It’s possible that you’ve already encountered Silva as the host of National Geographic’s Brain Games, or you may have run across his Shots of Awe series — short video riffs (unusually 2-5 minutes) on topics such creativity, art, science, technology, psychology, music, life and love.
Silva is styled as an “Emmy-Nominated TV personality, Filmmaker, Speaker and Futurist,” and his spirit animal, according to Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, is a seagull — which is perhaps less surprising if you’re familiar with Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (The basic plot is, Young Adrenaline-Junkie Bird Jesus Gives Advanced Speed-Flying Lessons, Elder Birds Disapprove.)
From my perspective, I don’t see Silva as another in a long line of noble sages shouting esoteric philosophy-for-the-minority from the mountaintops, but rather more like an everyone’s-invited, dynamite-wielding maniac on a viral mission to create an active Ring of Fire around our collective frozen sea. So why not join him? By grabbing a fistful of dynamite sticks, we can either marvel at the wonders of the universe and together burn like yellow Roman candles — or spread the wild propaganda of a mad man. (Or both. I’m never completely sure with Silva. Nor am I with myself, which is of course why I like him.)
Here I’ve assembled 10 of my favourite “shots of philosophical espresso.” The first video in my list — the one called “Awe” — should give you a good feel for the series as a whole, so if it doesn’t resonate, it’s unlikely the others will either. On the off chance that you like guzzling down this high-strength spirit coffee from a possibly deranged, possibly genius, seagull-inspired human as much as I do, there’s plenty more. You can drink your little heart out on the Shots of Awe Channel.
And I think one of the problems for human beings is mental habits, once we create a comfort zone, we rarely step outside of that comfort zone. But the consequence of that is a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. Over stimulation to the same kind of thing, the same stimuli again and again and again renders said stimuli invisible… one of the ways that we elicit wonder is by scrambling the self temporarily so that the world can seep in.
Nonconformity and the Creative Life
Never forget the words of Jack Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones — mad to live, mad to talk, made to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. Those who would never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky.”
I think that we defy entropy and impermanence with our films and our poems. I think we hold onto each other a little harder and say, “I will not let go.” I do not accept the ephemeral nature of this moment. I’m going to extend it forever. Or at least I’m going to try.
Can We Cure PTSD?
So we all know that an experience of trauma can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be an experience that marks and fundamentally transforms the character of a person — it can make them meet the world with fear. So my question is: Is the opposite also true? Can an experience of such radiance, of such grace, of such astonishment and beauty, be akin to a kind of inverse PTSD, and be as fundamentally transformative to the character structure of a person that it now shifts their lenses of perception to lenses that meet the world not with fear but instead with curiosity?
We Are the Gods Now
(set to start at 31:52)
In this study, they defined awe as an experience of such perceptional expansion, of such perceptional vastness that you literally have to reconfigure, upgrade, your mental schemata just to accommodate, just to take in the scale of the experience… we’ve all felt this before. The first time we stared upon the Grand Canyon, or succumbed to the immersive power of an Imax film… the Hubble has given us nothing less than an ontological awakening, a forceful reckoning of what is, allowing us to contemplate space and time on a scale just shy of the infinite. Wild.
The Creative Urge
… to transcend the specific and only talk about the universe for a second. Leave the trivial at the door. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what Shots of Awe is. To share our ecstasy, to share subjectivity, to break through the screen, to do what we always hoped technology would help us do, which is to come together — warp space and time, and connect.
Cinema As Meditation
I am a lover of cinema. I believe, and this is my opinion, that cinema is the highest form of art that there is, a glimpse of what’s possible, a taste of our divinity… now today everybody’s talking about mindfulness meditation, everybody’s talking about the importance of learning to be present… but for movie lovers like me I believe the ultimate form of meditation is watching the cinema.
The Paradox of Art
So I’m fascinated by the paradoxical function of art. There’s that great line that says, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.” This paradoxical nature, the fact that art speaks to a kind of deeper ecstatic truth, it goes beyond empirical truth, it goes beyond empirical reality and scratches at the very edges of our psyche, digs deeply into our soul, it appeals to that space of archetype, of dream, of myth, of metaphor.
Technology Made Us Human
… actually technology is the real skin of our species. Technology is the exterioration of our nervous system. Technology is our extended mind… we are a tool-making animal that has been in a symbiotic feedback loop with technology since the beginning of stone tools. I mean, think about it — once we created stone tools, our jaws shrank. Once we discovered that fire could cook our foods, making every meal more efficient, it freed up the cognitive real estate necessary for the emergence of culture, religion, and arts. So you might say that who we are is due to the feedback loops between us and our tools… they are apart of us the same way a nest is part of a bird and a spider’s web is a part of a spider.
Gods and Worms
Human beings find themselves in quite the predicament. We have the mental capacity to ponder the infinite, seemingly capable of anything, yet we’re housed in these heart pumping, breath gasping, decaying bodies, simultaneously gods and worms.
Timelapse of the Future: A Journey to the End of Time If you dig Silva’s style and love to contemplate the grandeur of the universe on incomprehensible timescales beautifully brought to life by cutting-edge animation and video editing, you might want to check out this video on the death of our universe. I normally wouldn’t recommend a video that’s 30 minutes, but it’s one of the most mind-boggling things I’ve seen on my computer screen this year. Starting in 2019 and voyaging trillions of years into the future, you’re guided on a cosmic journey by the voices of David Attenborough, Craig Childs, Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michelle Thaller, Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, Mike Rowe, Phil Plait, Janna Levin, Stephen Hawking, Sean Carroll, Alex Filippenko, and Martin Rees.
“We start in 2019 and travel exponentially through time, witnessing the future of Earth, the death of the sun, the end of all stars, proton decay, zombie galaxies, possible future civilisations, exploding black holes, the effects of dark energy, alternate universes, the final fate of the cosmos — to name a few.”
[One Thousand Trillion Trillion Trillion Trillion Trillion Trillion Trillion Trillion Years into the future, time becomes meaningless]
“Once the last stars have decayed to nothing, and everything reaches the same temperature, the story of the universe finally comes to an end. For the first time in its life, the universe will be permanent and unchanging. Entropy finally stops increasing because the cosmos cannot get any more disordered. Nothing happens and it keeps not happening forever.” — Brian Cox
"Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence … and I learn whatever state I may be in, therein to be content." — Helen Keller
About the Author Theo Winter works as Client Manager, Writer & Researcher for DTS International. He enjoys a wide range of movie genres including Science Fiction, Science Fiction Action, Science Fiction Adventure, and Science Fiction Thriller. By far the most important thing you need to know about Theo is that his favourite colour is yellow.