Episode 171

It’s becoming increasingly common to hear talk of “flow” — the mental state of being fully immersed and involved in whatever activity you’re performing.  But you don’t often hear flow states mentioned in the same breath as sexual activity, chanting, psychedelics — and for that matter, controlled breathing.

New York Times bestselling author Steven Kotler and expert on peak performance Jamie Wheal wrote a new book about just that. Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work is about the widespread use of altered states (achieved through many different means) to achieve enhanced performance.

A Broad Array of Altered Mental States

Flow is just one type of altered mental state that Kotler and Wheal are interested in.

Ecstasis is a Greek term meaning to stand outside oneself and to be filled with inspiration.  They use the term to describe the types of mental states where one’s identity fades into the background and you gain an outside awareness of yourself.  It can describe a range of non-ordinary mental states, from flow to psychedelic experiences.

These altered mental states can be entered through a variety of methods.  Meditation, pharmaceuticals, sex, dance, surfing, drumming, sensory deprivation tanks, neurofeedback and more can all induce ecstasis.

The Flow Genome Project

As Kotler and Wheal began to catalog all the diverse technologies and practices that reliably shift a person’s state of consciousness into a non-ordinary state, they realized that, despite the surface differences, all of these technologies were having similar effects on the brain.

That’s when they put together the Flow Genome Project, a matrix of all the neurobiological changes that underpin non-ordinary mental states.

If you’re interested in learning more about your own flow profile, they have a free quiz to help you better understand your own non-ordinary mental states.

The Benefits of Altered States

It’s all very interesting that humans (and, it turns out, most other animals) can change their mental state, but what’s the point?

Kotler and Wheal argue that altered mental states improve performance across a range of areas.  We become more creative, more courageous in ecstasis.  They point to the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, a ritual filled with flow-triggers — prayer, meditation, dance, distance running, and psychedelics — as the inspiration that seeded many ideas in Western Culture.

In modern times, they point to professional athletes and high-performing business people as examples of people using flow to increase performance.

Ecstasis can even heal trauma.  The combination of MDMA and up to three sessions of talk therapy put soldiers’ PTSD into remission for five years.  Later studies found that five weeks of surfing or four weeks of meditation plus talk therapy had similar results. All three — MDMA, surfing, and meditation — are mental state changing technology, albeit with different difficulty and risk levels.

Taking Advantage of Ecstasis

Some flow in your life is great.  You step outside of the limited confines of the ego, enhance creativity, and potentially gain new insights.

How you go about this is up to you. Holotropic breathing, sensory deprivation tanks, meditation, exercise — they’re all great options.

On the flip side, flow states are expensive to the brain to produce.  Kotler and Wheal warn that being permanently in a flow state isn’t high-performance, it’s mania.

Episode Highlights

0:32Flow state
1:41This Week in Neuroscience: First-born children have better thinking skills, study says
5:05The audience interaction section
6:59Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
8:57Stealing Fire
9:59“Who is the author of my life?”
12:35Commonalities in effects of different altered states
14:19Personality structure changes and “sense of self”
15:47The difference between flow state and meditative state
16:19What’s happening in our brains when in a flow state?
17:55Profound memories associated with altered states
19:32Altered states and high performance
22:46How can someone become more comfortable in peak states?
26:52Flow is ubiquitous
30:16What drove flow into our species?
32:05How long should you spend in an altered state?
35:39The dangerous side of flow
42:28How to make sure other people can’t “rent space in your head”
45:50Floatation tanks to speed up language acquisition
47:49When flow state becomes mania
49:17Flow states and trauma treatment
54:28Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Brain Activity Can Predict If an Article Will Go Viral

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Written by Hannah Sabih
Hannah believes there's nothing 8 hours of sleep and some kale can't cure (yes, she's from California). She's an avid runner, reader, and traveler, who brings you the latest and greatest in neuroscience via our social media channels.
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