Dr. Patrick McNamara: Enhance Creativity and Life with REM Sleep, Psychedelics, and Spirituality

Dr. Patrick McNamara Headshot

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In the latest episode, thanks to our guest expert, Dr. Patrick McNamara, we get to learn more about our brain’s capabilities and how we can channel them to live more creative, productive, and healthy lives.

Despite all the available information and resources on the subject, the human brain continues to be a mystery. Within its complex structure, reside not only our thoughts and memories, but also the key to unlocking the potential of our true selves. We uncover some of those secrets in this episode.

About the guest-

Dr. Patrick McNamara is distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northcentral University. He also holds appointments in the departments of Neurology at the University of Minnesota and Boston University School of Medicine.

He is a founding editor of Religion, Brain & Behavior, the flagship journal for the emerging field of neuroscience of religion. He is a co-founder (along with Professor Wesley Wildman) of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion, a non-profit research institute dedicated to the study of the neurologic and evolutionary correlates of religious beliefs, behaviors, and practices. Until 2018, he was based for 20 years at the Boston University School of Medicine.

He is the editor of Where God and Science Meet and Science and World’s Religions, and the author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Religion, Neuroscience and the Self: A New Personalism (Routledge, 2020), and numerous publications on the neurology and psychology of religion.

He is a past recipient of a John Templeton Foundation award on the “Neurology of religious cognition.” A largely expanded second edition of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge University Press) is due out summer of 2022.

In his 25 years of research in the biomedical sciences, he has had extensive experience overseeing and leading large complex scientific and biomedical projects. He was project leader for 3 separate NIH grants in the last 10 years. He has also been a merit Review Award Recipient in the VA Medical System.

Shownotes -

00:03:30 – The mystery of REM sleep

00:07:35 – How to use REM sleep to be more creative? – reel

00:11:55 – Effect of napping on brain volume and function – find the study

00:13:50 – Negative thoughts, nightmares, and creativity

00:18:45 – Understanding and using lucid dream states

00:21:15 – Implanting content into your dreams

00:23:00 – REM sleep, emotions, and behaviour

00:26:30 – REM sleep intruding into waking consciousness

00:35:00 – How religious experiences change us?

00:39:10 – The healthy way to approach religion

00:42:00 – How Dr. McNamara has channeled his learnings?

00:47:10 – Exploring psychedelics and how they can help us

00:59:10 – Creating a super intelligence

01:01:35 – Encountering a supernatural entity

Resources + Guest Info

Krati: Thank you so much, Dr. Patrick McNamara, for being here. I’ve watched all of your videos, I’ve read almost all of your articles, and all of it is so fascinating, from REM sleep to how religious experiences affect our brain. But what I have learned about REM sleep, and using our dreams to enhance our creativity, or use them to add to our creativity, makes me wonder if it is possible for two people, like people like all of these great musicians, all of these great artists, Michelangelo, Picasso, all of these people, their level of creativity was something extraordinary. Do you think if people could tap into this idea that is propagated, accessing the full potential of your brain, do you think if everyone could do that, we would create at the same level of, the way the geniuses did? Could we access that level of creativity?

Dr. McNamara: I don’t know, but I definitely know that accessing your dreams, and or learning more about REM sleep biology, we can enhance our creativity in very significant ways. So, it’s a realm of neurobiology and cognitive science that is as yet untapped in terms of the creativity field, beyond the fact that we know that it’s absolutely fundamental to creativity. Without REM sleep, it’s unlikely you’d have any kind of creativity as we normally understand it anyway.

Krati: May I ask, how did you arrive at this point of research? As in, make this the focus of your research?

Dr. McNamara: Sure, when I was in university, I was exposed to a course that covered REM sleep, as it was known then, this was like 30 years ago. And I must say that even though we’ve learned a ton about REM sleep since then, the fundamental mystery concerning REM sleep is still there. And what I learned at that time is that every 90 minutes during sleep, we go into this brain state that we call rapid eye movement sleep. And during that state, the eyes move around laterally and rapidly, that’s where it gets its name, under the closed eyelids. But at the same time, our brain is intensely activated, more activated than it is during normal waking consciousness. So this is the time of the 24 hour day where our brains are doing the most work during this period of REM sleep. And nevertheless, even though our brains are extremely activated, our body is paralysed. So we cannot move. Every 90 minutes, we can’t move. And yet our brains are very intensely activated. But that’s not all. REM sleep is also associated with these things we call autonomic nervous system storms. So our physiologies are in upheaval. So our physiologies are going wild. Our brain is intensely activated, but our bodies are paralyzed. But again, that’s not all. The other thing that’s going on is that our sexual systems are intensely activated. So males get erections for the entire duration of REM sleep. And females, the clitoris gets engorged, and there’s something called pelvic thrusting for the entire duration of REM sleep. So you got this situation. Every 90 minutes, we go into this brain state, very highly activated, doing enormous amounts of computational information processing. And yet we’re paralysed. And yet we’re sexually activated. And then to top it all off, we’re forced to watch these things we call dreams. Now, why would mother nature produce such a brain state? Like what could possibly be the evolutionary function of something like that? If you’re paralysed, you’re gonna be eaten by predators. So it makes no evolutionary sense. So this is a massive mystery in evolutionary biology. That’s what got me interested in it.

Krati: Okay, okay. That’s actually very fascinating. Understanding how your brain works, understanding its capabilities, do you think, there’s a way for us to channel it in an effective way? Like we have heard about Tesla and Edison using their sleep to come up with ideas. But when you read those articles, it seems like they just had to close their eyes and they could right away tap into it. But for the rest of us, it is not that easy. So what does that process look like? Is there a way for us to consciously channel that power?

Dr. McNamara: Yeah, I think so. And we’re finding out better and better ways to do it. When we go to sleep, we go through basically three or four stages of sleep called N1, N2, N3, and then slow wave sleep. And during the first stage, we go through something called hypnagogia experiences. Our brain goes into the state where it’s got this intense, what we call cholinergic activity going on. So that unleashes genes that promote plasticity. And therefore we’re doing a lot of associative processing. And so we start, the images we see are disparate, strange, but they’re doing these connections between things we don’t usually connect. And in that state, a lot of musicians, a lot of poets, a lot of mathematicians see solutions to problems they’ve been facing. They literally see it. So what a lot of people have been doing is just setting the alarm clock so that when you go into stage N1, you wake up and you have all those images right before you. And then you can use those images to free associate to them and then enhance your creativity. Now there are some smartphone apps that can detect when you go into N1 and automatically wake you up and you can tap that creative potential that way. Rim sleep is much more intense example of hypnagogic sleep. So if you really wanna tap creativity, you wanna get to REM, but N1 sleep is still also a very creative brain state that we can tap very easily and most people don’t do it. So when you say tap into very easily, what does that mean? It means simply waking up after you’ve been in N1 sleep for a few minutes so that when you wake up, you immediately are suffused and immersed in all those images that were in your brain during N1 stage sleep. And since you can easily recall all those images, you can use them for the creative process.

Krati: Okay, I’m beginning to get the idea here. But do you think that would, if you’re waking up every few periods, do you think that would affect the quality of sleep you’re getting and therefore our performance?

Dr. McNamara: Well, yeah, it’s a trade off. In the long run, I mean, you can’t do it every night, but you can do it occasionally. And if you look into the biographies of many creative writers, they discovered this spontaneously. They knew that as they started to fall asleep, they would be immersed in this sea of images that was wild, like untamed, just a sea of images. And so they knew if they could recall those more carefully, they could get more creative ideas. And there’s dozens of examples of writers doing that, for example, and painters. Like many of the surrealists use that technique quite often.

Krati: Okay, so this process seems very independent in itself. Like this is something anybody can access regardless of your age, regardless of who you are. But do you think brain health, your overall brain health would impact it?

Dr. McNamara: Well, again, like you were alluding to just a second ago, if you do it too much, if you do it every night, at some point it’s gonna impact the quality of your sleep and then you get diminishing returns over time. So yeah, you can’t be tapping it all the time, but you can tap it on a semi-regular basis once a week or something like that. And then you don’t pay too high a price. It doesn’t interfere with your sleep that much. It’s just a balancing act.

Krati: Okay, and I recently read something about napping increasing the size of your brain. Is there any truth to it? Does that impact how much of like the potential that we can tap into where our brain is concerned?

Dr. McNamara: I’m not sure napping per se increases the size of your brain what it probably, what probably that study that you saw showed was that it confers some protective effect on brain structure and function. So that people who engage in naps over time, when you compare their brain structure and function to people who do not, or who have sleep deprivation to some extent, the ones who nap do better. Their cognitive abilities are preserved longer than the ones who don’t nap. I think those are the more reliable findings. But there is evidence that sleep, the hippocampus in particular generates new cells during sleep. And also sleep is also associated with clearance of all kinds of bad things from your system. So without sleep, all these bad chemicals and these dead cells and all kinds of other bad things won’t get washed out. So you need sleep to wash out your central nervous system basically and reset it. So there are all these health benefits to sleep that reinforce health and cognitive function.

Krati: Okay, I think that’s good to know because with the amount of performance that people are demanding of themselves, I think sleep has importance all its own, but anytime we are pushed for time, we take away from our sleep. So that’s very helpful to know. I also know that you researched the way nightmares affect our brain. And we’re talking about REM sleep, but I have to wonder using REM sleep to channel our creativity. But from personal experience, I think this is something we all share. And if you’ve watched a horror movie, that’s likely to affect what we see, like what we dream when we’re asleep. And if we are someone who is going through like an anxious period, or we have undergone some severe trauma, that is bound to affect, I would say that that would affect the kind of dreams we have. Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, so how would that show up in a creative process? Can people with severe trauma, can people who have a lot of nightmares also use that for creative process to enhance performance or is that a draining process for them?

Dr. McNamara: Yeah, I don’t think, I mean, you’d have to ask them, but I don’t think you can use the images from nightmares. Well, on the other hand, look at Stephen King novels. Right, right. He claims that many of the ideas for his horror stories come from his nightmares. So there’s an example of somebody using imagery from nightmares to generate extraordinary fiction. But in general, I think I wouldn’t advise trying to use your nightmare imagery as a source of creativity, unless it over time reduces the distress you feel from nightmares. In general, you wanna get rid of nightmares. They don’t do a lot of good, at least in my opinion, from what I’ve seen of my patients and people I’ve worked with nightmares. So, and there’s many, I mean, people who have frequent nightmares tend to be creative people. We don’t know why. We think they have, they score on questionnaires that assess what are known as boundaries. That is the inhibitory power in your brain. They score in the range of having thin boundaries. So they don’t have as much inhibitory power as people without nightmares. And so if they have trauma or difficult experiences, it’s more difficult for them to regulate those experiences than people without nightmares. So they’re more vulnerable to the distress associated with those scary images.

Krati: During coaching, I meet a lot of clients and invest a significant period of time trying to get them to come out of that trap that they have themselves and where they’re overthinking, where they’re just completely indulging the anxiety they feel from day to day, or they’re almost revelling in the trauma that they’ve experienced. It’s become so familiar to them that they don’t quite know how to experience anything else. That has to have an impact on your, like it has an impact on your mental performance. I’m guessing it would impact your brain health also. Or do you think like we are wasting our brain resources because you just correlated nightmares to enhance creativity, to like people being more creative who have nightmares. So if while we are awake, we are constantly anxious, overthinking, do you think that affects our brain resources and the way we utilize our brain’s power?

Dr. McNamara: I think people find themselves going through periods of intense suffering or anxiety or distress or pain. And they’re given a choice when they go through these very difficult periods and they can either be destroyed by it or just completely disheartened and be victimised by it. Or they can say, okay, I’m going through this. It sucks to be blunt. And now what can I do? So then you take that energy, that pain, those scary images, the distress, and you try to turn it to good. You try to turn it to something creative or eventually try to work through each of those emotional memories and then let go of them one by one. And then slowly, step by step, get through it and learn some wisdom from the experience. I mean, what other choice do we have? Everybody goes through difficult times. So the task is to find a way through it in such a way as to enrich your life, your creativity and those around you.

Krati: Right, okay. In your videos around REM sleep and creativity, I found this question in the comment section that was very interesting to me. How does one trigger lucid dream states apart from keeping a dream log to spot patterns in? It’s not something we’ve talked about yet.

Dr. McNamara: Uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah. There are many, many methods for triggering lucid dream states. So for your audience, lucid dream states are when you are aware that you’re dreaming. Right. And for some people, you can use that to enhance your creativity in all kinds of ways. For example, if a person has been dealing with nightmare images, they can go into a lucid state and then literally confront the monster and say, why are you chasing me all the time? Go away kind of thing. And often it works. So there are good reasons to try to cultivate lucid dreams for some people. So there are many ways to do it. The most reliable way after decades of research is the most simplest way, and that is to practice during the daytime for a couple of weeks, just ask your question, am I awake or am I dreaming? So that it becomes such a habituated question that every day you’ve been doing this several times a day for a couple of weeks, then you find yourself doing it in your dreams. And then asking that question in one of your dreams starts to wake you up during the dream. And then you suddenly realize, oh, I’m in a dream, you know, and then you’re lucid. That’s the most effective way. There are other techniques that are being developed, but that’s the most effective way.

Krati: So lucid dream states would be different from REM sleep, right?

Dr. McNamara: Yeah. Most lucid dream states take place during REM sleep though.

Krati: Lucid dream states, that sounds kind of like the plot of the movie Inception.

Dr. McNamara: Yeah, that was all about lucid dream states and having dreams within dreams, yeah.

Krati: Okay, that’s very fascinating. So we hear all of these ideas about reprogramming your subconscious during your sleep, launching these ideas in your head that would then change the way you experience reality. Is that something that can be done during REM sleep or during lucid dreams? What is the key to all of that? Because the ideas that are populating Instagram or all of these blogs, they seem very, like they’re simplified. At least that’s how it seems, considering what they’re proposing that can be done. How would you describe that process? Reprogramming your subconscious, is that something that we can really do?

Dr. McNamara: I don’t know about reprogramming the subconscious, but experimental dream researchers definitely can implant content into your dreams. There’s no question about it. And it’s for good and for ill, because the technique has become so reliable that I signed and dozens of other dream researchers signed a letter to the scientific community saying this needs to be looked at and opposed because a lot of companies are gonna start using these techniques to implant the desire to buy their products. So we don’t want dream science to be used for these kinds of nefarious purposes. But my point is that dream science has progressed to such an extent that yes, we now know that we can implant content, ideas, beliefs, images into dreams, and for them to persist in dreams and possibly subsequently affect behaviour. So that’s a problem. It’s also an opportunity, but it’s a problem too.

Krati: Okay, so there is something to this idea that we need to be very mindful of the thoughts that we take to our bed or the thoughts that dominate us while we are awake, because they’re likely to also affect us while we are sleeping. And as you said, like during REM sleep, your brain, the plasticity goes up, which means the brain would be more absorbent of those ideas.

Dr. McNamara: Well put, yep, I think that’s correct, yeah. REM sleep seems to be the brain’s preferred method of dealing with highly significant events or intense emotional memories. So whenever we have something emotionally significant happen in our lives, it gets processed whether we like it or not in REM sleep. Okay. And so our REM sleep and dreams are constantly dealing with taking emotional memories and shaping them in such a way that they get processed into long-term memory, thereby influencing our subsequent behavior. There’s no other way to learn from past behaviors except by processing these emotional memories and REM sleep seems to be the preferred system to process emotional memories of high significance.

Krati: Okay, now I have a bunch of questions and I know that would also lend credibility to this idea that if you can keep your environment clean, clean in the sense that like better thoughts, purer thoughts, or just have experiences that are more positive in their nature, then that would, I’m guessing that would also show up in the creativity that you can channel through REM sleep.

Dr. McNamara: Well, to the extent that those are emotionally significant events, probably, yeah. Yeah, I mean, there have been, even neutral events show up in our dreams and it tends to take about a five-day period for them to show up in our dream content. So over that five-day period, the brain is taking pieces of some event in your life, breaking it down into digestible pieces and then working on them in such a way to provide certain context to them and then storing them into long-term memory systems and then they pop up in our dreams. And we have a dream and we say, okay, there’s this image in the dream, that image, that image. Huh, image number three, I remember that from five days ago. Okay. But all the other images seem random, but one or two, we can trace back to five days previously. So we know that this processing is occurring in our brains and in our dreams and it takes five, seven days.

Krati: Five to seven days, that’s actually interesting because if you’re working on a large project, you can mull over certain ideas and then maybe during REM sleep, you can start connecting them over a period of time and channel your REM sleep to actually create something better than you would have created had you done it during your waking hours completely.

Dr. McNamara: Possibly, yeah, I don’t know of any studies that have done that, but yeah, I don’t see why not.

Krati: Maybe my audience can do it, maybe I can do it because that sounds interesting.

Dr. McNamara: Yeah, why not? Yeah, absolutely.

Krati: Okay, so there is something that I’ve experienced in my life, so ever since I was a kid, I was a very lonely kid, I used to hear voices. Like whenever I would be extremely distressed, there would be a voice in my head. I never talked about it. When I grew up, I experienced extreme depression and I found the support group of people. During depression, the voices got louder and they got way violent. They were never violent or ugly before. But in this group, I met people who have voices in their head and they have like 20, 30 voices. Some people have voices that warn them against imminent disasters that help them save lives, which is crazy. But if you are hearing these voices, when you’re asleep, for me at least, they would become also very visual. They would, it would almost be like they have more power. So during depression, because they were so negative, I would avoid sleeping because they were very, very extreme experiences. And I’ve never had the opportunity to ask someone who has the kind of knowledge that you do, what is that about? Like, do you think that has something, of course it has to do something with the emotional experiences, because right now, right now I’m healthy. I’m no longer hearing those voices, I’m all good. But those other people, they hear them constantly. And for some of them, it’s not, they say that it has nothing to do with our regular life. They’re warning us against disasters. Like we’re hearing God helping us out, something like that. So any idea what that’s about?

Dr. McNamara: There are many answers to that question. From the point of view of a spiritual person, not from a scientist. I mean, a scientist can be very spiritual, of course, but from a non-materialist point of view, from a standard spiritual perspective, I see no reason not to take seriously the prospect that God or quote unquote angelic entities or other supernatural agents might be real and might be providing this individual with real actionable information. Yes. On the other hand, one should proceed with extreme caution when you’re hearing voices, like extreme caution. Because even if these entities are real, very often they’re like the ones you had, they’re saying bad things, you know? And you don’t wanna listen to them. So that’s the first part of the answer. Let’s assume that the entities have some reality. Then you need to use discernment and not listen to the bad voices and listen to the good voices and always be in touch with a spiritual director or a counselor or a doctor, et cetera. Now, from a scientific point of view, nobody knows what’s going on when people are hearing voices, but there are lots of theories. One theory that links it and roots it in REM sleep is that REM sleep, as I described to you, is this highly associative state, this highly creative state. And sometimes it gets what we call disinhibited so that it starts to intrude into waking consciousness. And you see that in disorders like narcolepsy where the physiology of REM sleep enters waking consciousness and they literally fall asleep right before your eyes. But before they do so, they hallucinate because they’re literally dreaming during the daytime and they hallucinate all these supernatural agents and they’re hearing all kinds of voices, the characters talking in the dreams. So one explanation about what’s going on when you’re hearing voices is you’ve got REM sleep intruding into waking consciousness and you’re literally living out these dreams that happen to you spontaneously with all kinds of characters coming from all kinds of memories and all kinds of innovative, creative scenarios. So what to do? So let’s say REM sleep is contributing to good and bad dissociative states and voices. Then what do you do? Well, there are medications that can help regulate REM sleep states and put it back to where it’s supposed to be, during sleep so that it doesn’t intrude into waking consciousness. And there are cognitive behavioral techniques that help with that as well. So there are medications that people with narcolepsy take that do that. There are medications people with frequent nightmares take that can do that, can re-regulate REM sleep. So there are lots of different ways to handle these dissociative states and a person doesn’t have to live with them if they don’t want to.

Krati: That’s interesting. But I do wonder the people who have a lot of such experience, like for them, for some of these, the members of this group, it’s almost constant. It’s never not a part of their life. I wonder if that affects your brain. Like does it change your brain in any way or does it change the way you experience reality?

Dr. McNamara: Well, absolutely, yeah. Yeah. I think if you ask most of these individuals and I’ve worked with quite a few of them, they say one thing that’s particularly distressing to them and say sometimes don’t know what’s real and unreal. They’re constantly having to check what’s real, what’s unreal. That’s pretty scary. Of course. So there’s that. And then as you pointed out, a lot of the times the voices are, they’re persecuting the individual. They’re saying, you’re no good. Yeah. You’re awful, you’re terrible, blah, blah, blah. They’re attacking the poor individual. And who needs that? Obviously that kind of experience is gonna wear somebody down. But the good news is that there are, for example, a lot of the anti-psychotic medications affect what are known as 5-HT2A signaling, receptor signaling systems. These are serotonergic signaling systems that also regulate REM sleep. So these anti-psychotic agents do what we were just talking about. They re-regulate REM and then all these delusional states start to subside. And then many of the anti-depressants work by suppressing REM sleep. So they work too. So one doesn’t have to live with those voices always haranguing you.

Krati: Right. There is a cost to taking anti-psychotic drugs.

Dr. McNamara: Oh yeah!

 

Krati: Yeah, because a lot of these people, when they first went to the psychologist or a psychiatrist, they were diagnosed with schizophrenia or some disorder like that. When they are actually contributing members of society, they have normal functioning, except for when they have these incidents, except for that they are completely okay. They’re healthy people, but they were diagnosed with all of these terrible mental disorders and they were given anti-psychotic drugs and that completely disrupted their normal performance.

Dr. McNamara: They’re very heavy drugs. Yeah. And yeah, hopefully we’ll find drugs with left side effects soon. But yeah, you only wanna use them when you got few other choices.

Krati: Yeah. You know, I think the work that you’re doing, the way you’re sharing your content, I think that is very helpful because I know very little about brain. I’m not a scientist. What I have learned has been from books that simplify it for people like me or what I’ve learned as a student of psychology. I think knowing how your brain functions is very helpful. It sort of gives you a lot of the power back. The other thing that I have learned through personal experience that has helped me, I’m a very religious person. I’ve always been very religious. For me, now I’ve reached a point thanks to the depression that I went through where I have found a lot of ways to surrender to my spirituality and let that dominate and take care of me. So I have to ask you, because I know that is something that your research focuses on, how religious experiences change our brain because it’s something I feel like there’s a lot of power to it. So I definitely wanna talk about it. We talked about REM sleep and how it impacts the creativity. How would religious experiences, actively making that part of your life, affect the sort of experiences you have while you’re asleep? How would that affect your creativity? How does it change your brain?

Dr. McNamara: Good question. First, let me say that, obviously, this applies only to people who have come to the conclusions that you have come to, namely that the religious consciousness refers to something real and life enhancing. It’s not mere delusion or lies or any of that stuff. There may be some BS in religion, but for the most part, there’s gold there and it’s worth pursuing. So everything I’m gonna say, I’m speaking about that kind of religion where the person finds something life enhancing in it. Now, what does it do to the brain? For those individuals who hold those beliefs as true and then start to live by them, it does many things. It adds quite a bit of cognitive protection for you. So for example, there are very strong positive associations between degree of religiosity up to a certain point and protection against risky behaviours like taking drugs, doing alcohol, sex at an early age or unprotected sex or adopting a religious consciousness and practices tends to protect you against those kinds of risky behaviours. And it probably does that for a variety of reasons. In addition, through its rituals, it tends to support the processes in REM sleep that generate new cellular structures and plasticity so that it enhances that kind of ability to transform your sense of self into something that you consider an ideal self. We’re always trying to build an ideal self, a self that has power, creativity, life enhancing, able to enrich other people’s lives as well. We wanna reach that ideal self. And religion, when it’s working properly, has a whole suite of tools to help you get to that ideal self. Everything from rituals to ascetical practices to social get togethers to reading sacred texts and going into the archives of thousands of years of experience from people from all over the world saying, look, I suffered and I went through all this. And when I interact with supernatural agents, I learned this wisdom, see if it works for you. And so there’s a ton of gold and treasure in all those religious traditions. So for all those reasons, religion, as we understand it today, helps to shape the brain in such a way that it facilitates your working towards

35:34 Krati that ideal self. Okay, that’s very helpful. But there was this one idea that was explored in one of your videos that was very fascinating to me that how we approach religion in the sense that some of us lose our sense of agency because we adopt a completely subservient position versus if we use them to add to our power. And because for me, I would say the dominant idea for me is that God’s looking out for me. So let me go ahead and take these risks and show up in this very confident, very bold way and he’ll help me or she’ll help me, whatever you choose to believe in. Do you really think that that would, how you approach religion would have such a deep impact on your brain that it would alter your personality, the experiences you have while you’re asleep, the way you experience reality and then completely change how you’re showing up in the world?

Dr. McNamara: I think if you take it seriously, yeah. And I’m not sure what video you’re referring to, but it sounds like what I was trying to say when I said that many of the religions ask us to, when interpreted a certain way, ask us to be subservient towards a supernatural agent. And I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think the gods and goddesses and the God in the Abrahamic traditions wants full, free, powerful, creative, adult, rational agents, not mere servants. In fact, I mean, in the Christian scriptures, Jesus says, I call you friends, not servants. And I know that there are similar in other sacred texts and other religious traditions, you got the same message. So I think there’s been traditions in all the world religions to ask us to shut up and just do whatever the gods tell us to do. But I think there’s another set of traditions in all the world’s religious traditions that say, well, no, the gods want us to get up off our knees and start to collaborate with them to create life enhancing ecologies and environments and social situations for human beings. Now, yes, we’ve got to, if we take religion seriously and the gods as real, we should reference them. But that doesn’t mean we have to shut our minds down and just be quote unquote servants. So anyway, that’s my two cents worth. And that’s just from my experience. But whoever’s listening, look to your traditions, not to me, I’m no expert on how to interact with the gods. I’m not. Look to your traditions and what resonates with you and what seems right to you.

Krati: No, I think that’s what you’ve shared is very, very helpful because doing the work that I do, I often meet people because a lot of people know that I have, I believe in God. I’m very, I’m not ritualistically religious, but I’m very invested in the teachings. So they would often, I think people who give up that power where they’re like, I am a servant to my fate. I have a very, they’re not as proactive. They’re not as involved in creating their own reality because they have almost given up their weapons that they do have. So no, what you’ve shared is incredibly helpful, but I have to ask and you can always choose not to answer this and that would be perfectly okay. But all of the knowledge that you’ve shared with me, the spiritual inclination of yours and the REM sleep stuff, the dream, all the power that it offers us, how you’ve channeled it into your, in your life. I would love to know that.

Dr. McNamara: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I’ve done such a good job of it. I mean, I struggle with it every day, you know, and I try to be as good a scientist as I can and contribute to scientific knowledge. And I think I’ve done that. Yes. And that’s sometimes, you know, it’s all we can ask of a person, you know, is like, okay, contribute as much as you can to the world’s base of knowledge. And hopefully that knowledge will enrich other people’s lives. And I use whatever I learn in my own life to have compassion for myself and for all those around me. You know, when all is said and done, that’s what helps us get through the difficulties and challenges of life, it seems to me. That sounds very simple minded, but I tend to forget that, you know, so I need to remind myself of that every day. And I think the science is consistent with that kind of attitude. Yes. You know, like life is hard. So take it day by day, use your rationality to understand it and get to the tip of the matter, get to ultimate reality. Life is a chance to reach that ultimate reality. So go for it, you know, use your brain, your mind, your spirit, your heart, go for the ultimate reality, you know, and then share it.

Krati: Yeah. I love that. I really love that. And I think that comes across in the way you share the knowledge that you have. So that- I think that’s the scientific attitude. But I have to ask you, because I am almost on a regular basis pooped by the variety of experiences my brain creates for me. And considering this is like, this is what you do. This is your main job in life. Like you’re constantly going deeper and deeper into brains capabilities. Are you ever spooked by it? Like, are you ever very left feeling very abandoned that there’s so much you’ll never know and you’ve no idea like how much remains under the layers. And what you’ve already known is so massive. Are you ever spooked by it? It’s a silly question, but I am curious about it.

Dr. McNamara: Oh, no, it’s a great question. I mean, and this is gonna sound a bit trite, but it’s absolutely true in any science. And I think indeed in any spiritual pursuit, if you don’t become more and more humble over time, then you’re not really realizing how deeply you’re penetrating the mystery, you know, because the deeper you go into a mystery, the more you find out how little you really know and how much there is to know, you know, and that forces on you to meet a scientific attitude, you know, like deep curiosity, awe and wonder, but a very sort of humble attitude like, wow, this is big. I may never penetrate to the, but I’m gonna go for it, you know, and learn as much as I possibly can because there’s nothing more exciting than the truth, you know, so I think the more I know, the more I realize how little I know. Yeah, like Socrates. Well, exactly, he’s a perfect example. He was the smartest guy because he realized he knew very little. Yeah, okay. How do we improve our REM sleep? Sleep hygiene, basic sleep hygiene practices. So, you know, very common sense things. Don’t drink a lot of coffee. Don’t do a lot of alcohol and drugs. Go to bed at a regular time. Don’t bring your smartphone into bed with you. Exercise daily, standard sleep hygiene and you’ll get very good REM sleep.

Krati: That’s helpful. That’s easy to follow also. Now I have to ask about the hallucinogenic experiences. Psychedelics, that keeps coming up more and more now. People are very interested in finding out more, but there’s also understandably a lot of fear around it. Like what utility does it offer if any? And how do we, like for some, I’ve never done psychedelics. Where do we start if we want to go down the path?

Dr. McNamara: Well, there’s, as you probably know, there’s been a revolution in scientific knowledge of what psychedelics do, at least the serotonergic psychedelics, what they do to the brain and stuff like that. And there’s been clinical trials on them, double-blinded placebo controlled experiments done to see if they improve things like depression or all kinds of distress states and the addiction. So the results tend to indicate that there is improvement in mood with one session with a psychedelic. So they look promising, at least the so-called serotonergic psychedelics. Not, ketamine is still, there’s still a lot of controversy about that, but things like psilocybin and LSD, there’s pretty good reliable data that it, with one session under the controlled setting conditions of a clinic or laboratory helps with mood when a person is previously depressed. So whether serotonergic will help with all kinds of other disorders, that’s all under active investigation now. For a person who wants to look into psychedelics, I recommend that you don’t do it alone. You do it in a ritual setting with people you trust, and preferably with one of these clinics, trained professionals. And don’t do high doses, obviously. Although you probably won’t die from a high dose, but if you have a vulnerable psyche to start with, when you do a high dose psychedelic, it’s asking for trouble. So proceed with caution, but I’m hopeful that psychedelics are gonna be another tool we can use to help people with mood disorders in particular.

Krati: Okay, I have no knowledge around it, so can you please let me know, the psychedelic drugs that you mentioned, are those similar to mushrooms? Because what I understand, mushroom is the starting point, which is the easiest to access.

Dr. McNamara: Yeah, psilocybin basically comes from mushroom. Okay. Yeah, and then there’s of course ayahuasca, which is this drink that was discovered and developed in South America, but is being used by Westernized peoples now. But the mechanisms are basically the same. They all work on these 5-HT, 2-A signaling systems that I mentioned earlier. So they increase brain plasticity, for example. However, they do it in one big fell swoop and it happens to you all. DMT happens in about 20 minutes, ayahuasca over several hours and psilocybin and LSD over several hours. But in any case, it’s a very intense experience. And so it shouldn’t be undertaken without serious spiritual intent, in my opinion. Of course, people do it all the time with no ill effects, just for fun. But in my opinion, they’re powerful agents and particularly with people with vulnerable psyches, you should not, it’s playing with fire.

Krati: Okay, that’s good to know because we do hear a lot of, when we talk to these people who have these very focused groups of intellectual people, highly intellectual people who innovate almost constantly, they often talk about using psychedelics to enhance their genius, so to say. And they do it in a very casual way, like taking supplements. It’s so much a part of their lifestyle. Is there any, does that seem like a viable option, making it so much a part of your life that you are using it whenever you are in a highly, when you’re in that period of your work where you are innovating almost constantly?

Dr. McNamara: I don’t think there’s any good experimental evidence that microdosing with these agents enhances creativity over time. However, the people who are doing it claims, they claim it really does. But I have not seen any controlled studies to prove that. So I would be skeptical myself.

Krati: Okay, I found this article that was sharing someone’s, it was anecdotal evidence, a few people shared that they could see more colors when they were under the influence of psychedelics. And apparently human beings can only see three colors, and there are so many more colors in the universe. So that was very fascinating to me. So apparently it can also impact your senses and what you can, like delimit your perception in a way.

Dr. McNamara: Well, there’s no question that psychedelics at higher doses, not microdosing, but psychedelics at higher doses absolutely have these profound effects on the senses. Absolutely no question. And on the brain, major massive effects. And to me, particularly when you go, when you, what we call demodulate the default mode network, then your brain is reset into this whole other state and you have access to these just extraordinary realms. So yes, psychedelics have those incredible effects and we should experimentally explore them. But I think what’s going on with microdosing is to get back to REM sleep is that it disinhibits REM sleep. So you microdose, you get small doses of these agents and that releases REM sleep. So it starts to intrude during daytime. And so they have these periods of dreamy states, colorful states with lots of images. And yeah, to me, that’s just REM intruding into daytime consciousness and that’s not necessarily a good thing over time.

Krati: Okay, okay. Yeah, well, that makes me wonder, what we talked about lucid dreaming, is there a way to connect the psychedelic experience to lucid dreaming, the way you described it in itself sounds such a powerful, if you can channel it, it sounds such a powerful thing that could completely alter your life and personality. And then you can use psychedelics in any way would further amplify that.  Is that possible to do?

Dr. McNamara: There’s initial evidence that people who use psychedelics regularly tend to have more lucid dreams. But to me, what that suggests is that, you’re taking these tools and you’re saying, let’s disinhibit REM sleep on a major basis, day after day after day after day. And eventually you start to have lucid dreams. And now REM sleep is invading all your brain states, not just waking consciousness, but it’s starting to invade slow wave sleep and all the other sleep stages. And for a while, that means you’re enormously creative and you’re having all these insights and everything’s amazing. But after a while, you pay very high price, you start to lose quality sleep. Everything that slow wave sleep was supposed to be doing, it can’t be doing because REM sleep is invading it. So there’s all these other physiological functions that are being neglected because you’ve unleashed REM by microdosing or by taking lots of psychedelics and going into lucid dreams too often. So everything requires balance. This is a wide open frontier and there’s experimental controlled studies going on on all aspects of this. And we simply don’t know enough yet to say anything definitive, but I’m really glad we’re investigating psychedelics. I think it’s gonna teach us major, major things about creativity, about spirituality, about mood disorders, about the brain. It’s gonna be a revolution in all of that stuff. Well, we have to approach it cautiously as you said. Please proceed with caution.

Krati: There was this very fascinating discussion going on on Reddit as unreliable as Reddit can be, but there was something that someone mentioned about, again, they were hearing voices, having hallucinations and they had it during depression and then it would show up every once in a while in their life whenever they would go without sleep for too long. And then someone mentioned that now your brain is simply more susceptible to these experiences because there was an intense period of this experience. And to me that made sense even though, I don’t know if that person had any kind of knowledge around this area or not, but that made sense that if your brain has been able to access these states for you, even if it was causing distress, your brain would be more susceptible whenever under any kind of emotional trauma or any kind of stress. Does that make any sense or?

Dr. McNamara: I think it does, but I would hasten to add though that that person is not stuck, so to speak, and always being open to hearing voices all the time just because they’ve accustomed their brain to being open to those kinds of influences. It doesn’t mean that that’s gonna be that way for the rest of their lives. If they want that to go away, there’s ways to make that to go away.

Krati: Okay. And would that translate to psychedelics also? If you’ve done psychedelics, in the way that you recommend that people do it, would the effects linger even without the effect of psychedelics or would that completely, you would revert back to normal completely?

Dr. McNamara: Well, the studies show that some of the beneficial effects, like when people go into mystical states, some of the beneficial effects of that last for at least six months afterwards. Right. And there have been controlled studies of people, like, you know that trip you did 20 years ago? Are you still having any experiences from that? And people will say yes. Okay, okay. There’s a very famous experiment called the Marsh Chapel experiment that was done in the 1960s where people were given psilocybin during a Christian service at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. And they had very intense psychedelic experiences during the service. And I think maybe there was like 10, 15 people involved in it. And those 10 or 15 people were tracked down like 20 or 30 years later and interviewed about that experience. Right. And every single one of them said, yeah, I’m still deriving insight from it, still integrating it 30 years later.

Krati: Wow. So they’re powerful experiences. Another note of caution there that that’s helpful. So there is this one question that I have to ask you in this age of AI with all of these things happening, putting together robots that can do all kinds of things. If you had the power to create like a whole new being that would in some ways be superior to humans that would definitely be superior to humans if you were mindfully putting it together, what would be the features that that species would have to make it fully effective if we could take anything across species, like anything from any being?

Dr. McNamara: Well, you’d have to, I would personally want to program into its DNA, so to speak, to do no harm to human beings. Yes. As a absolute first principle. Right. And then I would design it or program it so that it could write its own programs and escalate its intelligence algorithms so that it can engage in what we call cumulative learning. So that it learns a body of knowledge up to level X. But then when it starts the next cycle of learning, it doesn’t go back to zero, goes back to X, and then it builds on it. And it builds and builds and builds and builds so that you have cumulative learning. And that way you get super intelligence pretty quickly. And as long as that, the primary directive, so to speak, do no harm to humans is guiding it all. Then what you would have at the service of human beings is this set of intelligences that so far advanced about what we can do on a global scale that it would really revolutionize, I mean, everything about our lives. You know? Right. Get us to other planets. I mean, it’s just unbelievable what, a super intelligence could do.

Krati: Yeah, that sounds amazing. And with the principle of do no harm, dominating its actions, that would be, great.

Dr. McNamara: But there’s the rub. Nobody’s figured out how to do that. Yeah. You know, so this is just, you know, like, I don’t.

Krati: So we’re realizing. Okay, my last super juvenile question. I don’t know if this is something you’ve already experienced or not, but with everything we’ve discussed today, if you were to ever encounter, because, you know, people always talk about going to haunted houses, going to all these spooky places that people warn you against. If you were to ever meet something that you cannot rationally explain away, like it’s standing right there, it seems to be a spirit ghost. What would your first reaction be in an event like that? And what if you also do psychedelics and then you just don’t know what’s up?

Dr. McNamara: People who have done psychedelics experience that every day. At least that’s what they report. If I experienced that, I would treat the entity with extreme caution and respect. And respect in the sense that it’s like, you know, if you came across a very poisonous, wild snake in the woods and you could barely see it, you know, you proceed with extreme caution. You know, it’s something that could really harm you if you made the wrong move or something, you know. So that’s how, I mean, the thing you presented me with, okay, there’s this supernatural agent and it seems to be demonic in some way, right? Yeah, yeah. If I experienced that, I wouldn’t say, oh, it’s just an illusion, a delusion. I can just laugh at it. No, I would treat it with caution. And avoid it at all costs.

Krati: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. We have these places, in India especially, India is filled with places like that, that are very mystical and people are always planning to go there and I’m like, why would you do that? You don’t know what you’re gonna find in there. But it’s fascinating. I think if I were in a situation like that, I would conveniently pass out.

Dr. McNamara: I often ask myself, like, why do a lot of people expose themselves to horror movies? You know, these, they go to a horror movie and there’s these horrifying images. Those images get into your mind, brain and then you gotta deal with them. And yet, some people find it appealing. To me, it’s inviting. I’d rather not invite those kinds of horrifying images into my mind, if I have a choice about it.

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