Annaka Harris, author of The New York Times bestseller CONSCIOUS: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, has spent most of her life seeking answers and challenging everyday assumptions about the brain and the wondrous things it can do.
How did you become interested in the intersection of writing, science, and philosophy? What do you love about what you do?
I’ve always had a love of science, and for a time I dreamed of studying physics. But I also trained in dance throughout my life and aspired to become a professional dancer. I planned to double major in physics and dance in college, but it proved to be too challenging for me. So, being forced to make a decision at a young age, I chose to focus on pursuing a dance career and attended Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, squeezing in as many academic classes as possible.
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the topic of consciousness, which led to my interest in meditation and my desire to understand more about the brain.
In fact, consciousness, in one way or another, has been the main subject of my writing since I was a teenager—it’s such a deep and complex topic, and I find it helpful to work through the evolution of my ideas through writing. I was forced to quit dancing at the age of 23, due to an illness, but throughout my time as a dancer (and later as a photographer, my second career), I continued to devour books on physics and neuroscience.
When my husband was working on his PhD in neuroscience and beginning his career as a writer, I discovered my passion for helping to make the work of scientists more accessible to the public through editing and writing. I became his editor and shortly thereafter started taking on other scientist friends and colleagues as my clients. Eventually, I realized that I was finding my “side job” to be much more rewarding than my photography business, and it was about 15 years ago that I quit photography and began editing and ghostwriting for scientists full time.
I feel incredibly lucky to have found a way to make a living immersed in the topics that have captured my interest throughout my life and that still bring me immense joy to explore.
You write a lot about consciousness, wonder, and mindfulness—how does the concept of beauty play into what you write about? Are things that please the eye important to our well- being?
I find extraordinary beauty in the unknown and mystery, reflected in the feelings of awe and wonder, so I think that’s really central to how the concept plays into my work. As far as how physical aesthetics affect our well-being, I truly think it depends on the person. I’m very sensitive to my environment and notice that my surroundings have a significant impact on my mood, whereas other people I know are much less aware and less sensitive in general. But, overall, I do think people are affected by their environment and surroundings. There are some interesting studies showing that patients in hospitals have higher recovery rates when they’re surrounded by beauty in nature, such as gardens or the sound of running water, or even photographs of nature scenes.
Because of my personality and background in the arts, I care tremendously about, and spend a lot of time refining, the visual representation of my work. I was committed to finding the right artist for both my children’s book and for the cover of my recent book, CONSCIOUS. I was also involved in the design for both projects from start to finish—both because it was important for my own creative process and because I believe that the presentation of ideas and scientific concepts helps shape the way they’re received by readers.
Does feeling great in your clothes have a tangible relationship to your mental state?
As I’m about to answer, I realize that I’m embarrassed to say “yes,” which is interesting. In part, I think it’s because I know I’ve been influenced by what I view as an unhealthy emphasis in our culture on appearance above all else. But I think my answer is also connected to my introversion, which makes socializing (and things like my recent book tour!) challenging for me. I noticed early on in my career that what I’m wearing can cause me to feel more or less prepared for the “role” of facing my fears in the context of being social and speaking in public, which has actually become a helpful tool. Additionally, because I’m very sensitive to aesthetics, I derive much happiness in my life from simple pleasures—even small things, like the plant on my office desk, can have a dramatic effect on my mood. And clothing is often included in that category as well—beautiful design as a source of gratification and pleasure.
You have a great sense of style— how did you develop that? Did you always love clothes and fashion?
While living as a dancer in my early twenties in the East Village in Manhattan, I was immersed in a culture of artists and creative thinkers. My best friend moved on from dance to work in fashion design in Paris, and I’ve always been inspired and influenced by her. I have an appreciation for fashion in general as an art form and an expression of creativity, but psychologically, fashion is complicated for women to navigate. There’s always a struggle between appreciating the personal expression and source of aesthetic joy, while combating the toxic elements, including the emphasis on superficiality and the unhealthy pressures placed on women—things I’m acutely aware of, now that I’m raising two daughters. For my daughters’ well-being and my own, I’m careful not to put too much emphasis on how I look or how I’m dressed, while still appreciating the art of it.
What are your go-to wardrobe pieces?
Well, this is going to sound incredibly boring after all of that careful analysis, but the honest answer is jeans!
What does someone’s style tell you about how they think?
In my experience, how someone dresses is often not a direct reflection of how they think. I know astrophysicists who wear heels and chic dresses everywhere they go, as well as brilliant designers and choreographers who wear the same sneakers and black T-shirt day after day. How someone dresses seems to me to be much more a reflection of their complex psychology, personality type, and phase of life.
What are you working on now and excited about for 2020?
I continue to be captivated by the topic of consciousness, and I’m currently working on a film based on my book, CONSCIOUS. I’m conducting a series of follow-up conversations and interviews over the next year for material, and I’m also going to be getting back into the classroom next month, teaching meditation to children and gathering inspiration from them to develop new content for the Waking Up app. Stay tuned!