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.
|1:41||This Week in Neuroscience: First-born children have better thinking skills, study says|
|5:05||The audience interaction section|
|6:59||Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience|
|9:59||“Who is the author of my life?”|
|12:35||Commonalities in effects of different altered states|
|14:19||Personality structure changes and “sense of self”|
|15:47||The difference between flow state and meditative state|
|16:19||What’s happening in our brains when in a flow state?|
|17:55||Profound memories associated with altered states|
|19:32||Altered states and high performance|
|22:46||How can someone become more comfortable in peak states?|
|26:52||Flow is ubiquitous|
|30:16||What drove flow into our species?|
|32:05||How long should you spend in an altered state?|
|35:39||The dangerous side of flow|
|42:28||How to make sure other people can’t “rent space in your head”|
|45:50||Floatation tanks to speed up language acquisition|
|47:49||When flow state becomes mania|
|49:17||Flow states and trauma treatment|
|54:28||Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Brain Activity Can Predict If an Article Will Go Viral|
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Steven Kotler: Stealing Fire, the new book, looks at a $4 trillion underground revolution in people hacking consciousness to massively increased performance. So, flow is one particular altered state of consciousness. Altered states are a pretty wide spectrum. They stretch from dreams on one end to schizophrenia on the other. In our research work at the Flow Genome Project with flow, training organizations up in flow, training individuals up in flow, we started to realize, working with kind of the best of the best from U.S. Navy Seals through tech companies like Google, through stuff on Wall Street, that top performers weren’t just relying on flow to increase performance. They were leaning on a much broader selection of altered states of consciousness.
We saw meditative states, technology-induced altered states, pharmacologically-induced altered states, so-called mystical states, trance states, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, those sorts of things, and the list sort of goes on, sexually-fueled states.
Jesse Lawler: One of the weird-seeming paradoxes of flow states is we always talk about transcending the self and kind of losing the ego, losing the I, which can be great if you’re operating so smoothly that you kind of get out of your own way. But, on the other hand, if you’re talking about spending a significant portion of your life in these peak state experiences, it kind of opens up this question of identity of, “Well, if I’m not self-identified during these times, who is the author of my life?”
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, and I think that’s where, unfortunately, the baby boomers, bless their hearts, kind of just mangle the story. There was a lot of like ego death, ego transcendence, a lot of the kind of garbled translations of Eastern traditions, and then a lot of methodologizing and magical thinking about what it meant to be enlightened or awake, or other side of ego death, blah-blah-blah.
Of course, everybody screwed it up. You either ended up with these like moony-eyed zombies, or some guru with feet of clay. So, it just never really proved out. There were always these disjoints between those claims of, “It’s just unicorns and rainbows on the other side of ego death,” and then the realities either of the people claiming it, and just their own foibles and limitations.
So, your point’s a good one, and we actually talk about in the book, which is as you start taking on ecstasis, or non-ordinary states of consciousness and you get better and better at them, A, they cease to become so sexy or magical. You’re just like, “This is just another tool in my kit,” and B, you can kind of move from having your ego be the operating system, the whole enchilada, the I and me behind my eyes, my story is exclusive reality to using your ego as your user interface.
So, it just becomes the dashboard from which you manage all the different dials and knobs and levers of your neurophysiology and mental experience. That’s a totally different experience, and you’re like, “Well, wait a second. If I am not my thoughts, because I realize my thoughts are completely governable and changeable and malleable, then who am I?” and the more of these ecstatic experiences we have, those moments that take you outside yourself give you a subject-object awareness of what I thought used to be me, the goldfish and the water, and not knowing he’s wet to understanding the notion of wetness, and then understanding hydrogen and oxygen, and the combination into a liquid form. You’re like, “Oh, now I got a bunch more perspectives on that little goldfish experience I thought I used to have.”
At first, you can say, “Well, who would be left?” But, the reality is just like all of the bullshit stories fade away, they do. You realize that, “I’ve wasted a ton of time in calories, just propping up the edifice of my former self, seeking affirmation, validation, pleasure, avoiding pain, blah-blah-blah. But, what’s left is the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. It’s absolutely our core essence. We’re more creative, we’re more inspired, we’re more loving, we’re more courageous. Whose biographical name and story still gets assigned to that is almost beside the point.
Steven: One of the differences between Csíkszentmihályi, he’s a genius and this work goes nowhere if he doesn’t come along, but he’s a psychologist, and that’s what his interest is in. What had started to happen is that we had started to do code flow in neurobiology, and there was neuroelectrical work, and neurochemical work, and there was neuroanatomical work, and there was physiology, and there were all these other veins, and we sort of put it together, and in putting it together, we didn’t just get a picture of flow.
So, to back up, science-wise, 100 years ago, William James, Harvard psychologist, philosopher, brilliant thinker, and probably the first American doing significant research into altered states of consciousness, including flow. So, the research sort of dates back to him. He pointed out that there was a range of experiences flow, awe, psychedelic states, meditative states, contemplative states, mystical states, and he explored it in varieties of religious experience in 1902. He said, “I think these things are the same thing. They seem to have the same psychological impact, they seem to have the same performance-enhancing impact.”
I think this whole slew of experiences that I sort of term “north of happy” experiences, what we learn doing the research into flow is James was absolutely correct. Neurobiologically, meditative states, mystical states, flow states, awe states, psychedelic states, a couple others share very similar knobs and levers: same changes in neuroelectricity, same changes in neurochemistry, pretty much, same changes in neuroanatomical function.
There are individual differences. In all these states, for example, we see deactivation in the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that governs most of your higher cognitive functions. These slow down. The technical term is “transient”, meaning temporary, hypofrontality, which means just slow down, shut down, deactivate. That’s pretty common across all of these states.
Jamie: Just last week, I came across a study that was just basically a study over time, people’s personality traits, and there used to be the idea that those were relatively persistent. Who Suzy was in the fourth grade is, more or less, who Suzy was in high school and college, and even by the time she’s a grandma. When they did this study, and I think it was ranging between ages 40 to 78, they did that long-term assessment, obviously, it took a while to get done. They realized, “Wow, there’s virtually nothing consistent about our personality structures and types character attributes across that long a time period.” Then, you roll in all the other stuff like, “Well, okay, every cell in my body has been replaced many times over since then. I don’t look the same, I’m not thinking the same. So, who the hell am I? What is an abiding sense of self in the first place?”
For many of us, we have been raised, in the last 300 years, the whole everybody’s a snowflake, rational individualist, we’re all unique, we have complete control over our own destiny. You realize, “Oh, well that’s very shocking to come up against that particular world view.” But, in reality, we are just metabolic consciousness organized in meat suits for 7 to 10 decades, and it’s a fluid construct, and the fact that we have self-aware sentience in these life forms with opposable thumbs and a prefrontal cortex, that’s the fascinating thing.
I don’t think we need to get excessively wrapped around the axle of families of origin and biographical stories up to the age of 16 or 20, which most people recycle ad nauseam for the rest of their lives. It’s like, “Well, look, man, we are upgradeable. If we’re here and we’re in this present moment and my limbs basically work, and I have agency and choice, we won the lottery. Let’s go do stuff.”
Steven: The difference between a deep meditative state and a deep flow state, you see significant deactivation in the prefrontal cortex in both the medial preorbital prefrontal cortex is hyperactive in flow, totally shut down in meditation. That’s the only big difference we can find. The medial orbital prefrontal cortex governs, among other things, creative self-expression. So, in meditation, you don’t need the self. You’re not trying to express yourself, trying to obliterate the self. Flow, always creative self-expression on overdrive. That’s exactly what you’re doing in flow. It’s a creative state at a very deep fundamental level.
Jesse: If we’re talking about less activity in the frontal portion of the brain, which is where we have analytical thinking and a lot of language processing, presumably, you’re a writer, you’re writing about flow, you’re in flow when you’re writing about flow, I would think.
Steven: Interestingly, most of the prefrontal cortex does downregulate. What we see, and Daniel Levitin wrote about this in the Organized Mind, is that flow also tends to activate language centers in the brain. So, flow is not a binary. It’s not like a light switch. None of these states really are. They don’t really work like light switches unless you’re dealing with the pharmacologically-induced states, maybe the technologically-induced states. There’s usually a cycle.
On the front end of a flow state, before you get into a flow state, is a phase that Herbert Benson at Harvard termed the “struggle phase”. It’s a loading phase. This is when the prefrontal cortex is hyperactive. You’re loading it with information. As you connect into flow, what happens is the information gets passed from the conscious mind to the subconscious. The subconscious is a lot faster, can find way more connections. It can only do this after you’ve filled it up, given it enough stuff.
If you were trying to become a baseball player, this would be skill acquisition. You would have to learn how to keep your eye on the ball, learn to swing the bat at the ball, all that stuff. When it comes together and everything sort of uplevels, that’s a flow state. So, you can turn off that portion of the prefrontal cortex because you’ve already chunked it and started to kind of lay down, I would guess, basic myelination. The pattern is almost there. It’s going to come together when you kick into that flow state, lay down really heavy neurochemistry, and it will burn that pattern in.
Jesse: That’s why Mr. Miyagi had Ralph Macchio wax his car so many times in Karate Kid before the big fight.
Steven: Absolutely. That’s a great metaphor for this.
Jesse: And it’s interesting how our autobiographical self is really tied up with what we can remember, and in a lot of these altered states of consciousness, I’m not sure if, necessarily, your ability to remember things is improved, but emotional memories seem to stick deeper, and oftentimes, there’s sort of a heightened emotionality going on. Sometimes, that’s what kicks us in the state to begin with, but either way, we tend to have these profound memories that are often associated with these states.
Jamie: It’s almost like in the Disney cartoon of Sleeping Beauty where the entire kingdom has been asleep, and they all wake up, and they’re like in mid-conversation, or they’re spilling the soup bowl, or that kind of thing. It’s like literally, you just come back to yourself going, “Oh my god, yes, I forgot what I was saying. I forgot what I knew.” So, that reaffirmation of deep knowledge, or insight, or perspective that we have had, and then we just basically, it almost feels to me like we only have access to certain levels of complex information and inspiration at certain energetic levels in our systems. So, as our energetic levels drop, how do they non-ordinary or peak state back in closer to waking states and then even destabilized states: stress, fear, whatever, whatever. We just lose access to those particular files.
So, by raising our overall energy in our cell system, we can unlock higher and higher layers, and they just recede away from us based on our training, based on our performance, based on our balance of our overall system and based on what psychological models we’re running. So, the more hung-up and wrapped around our own axles we go and the more holes there are in our system, the more fleeting those experiences are.
You could take two people, you can take a saint and a raver to give them a peak experience, and the saint may come back with a new yoga Sutra, and the raver may just come back with a whopping great headache and a desire to buy a new ticket for tomorrow night’s show.
Steven: One of the points we are making is this is not the first time in history. A group of people have discovered that non-ordinary states of consciousness can impact performance at a deep level. That goes all the way back, and the example we give is a story from ancient Greece where they had the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was a 9-day death and rebirth state-changing ritual that involved, really, kind of almost every so-called ecstatic technology you can imagine. They had prayer, they had chanting, they had meditation, they had distance running. I think they had wrestling. Those are flow triggers. They also had Kykeon, which was a potion at the heart of the ritual that modern chemists have sort of tried to backtrace, and we think it is an LSD derivative made of rye ergot fungus, which is the same precursor that Hoffman got LSD from.
If you’re an ethnologist and anthropologist, this is sort of like one of those Holy Grail quests, like what’s in the Kykeon? So, there’s lots of people arguing back and forth, but it was Albert Hoffman and Carl Ruck at Harvard. He used to have a class at Harvard and Hoffman is the discoverer of LSD who put the forth the idea that, “Hey, we think this thing is this LSD precursor,” so most people tend to believe that story.
The point we’re trying to make, among other things, is it wasn’t just this 9-day ritual where these guys trip balls, but more importantly, what they experienced while tripping, the illuminations, the inspiration ended up seeding massive amounts of Western culture. A lot of Plato’s philosophy came out of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a lot of Pythagoras’ early mathematics. So, way back in time, we see people accessing these non-ordinary states, tapping into a heightened level of information, inspiration, insight, intuition, creative problem solving, take your pick, and coming back and using that to seed culture. That happens throughout history.
Usually, historically, the party gets out of hand, and it blows itself up, and our argument is, “Hey, that’s happening now at a bigger level than we’ve ever seen it and there’s a reason we might just get it right this time.”
Jesse: Talking about some of the different states of consciousness that high performers find themselves, and I guess maybe one question is high performers versus everybody else. If you’re talking a $4.6-billion industry, obviously this isn’t something that just high performers, but the broad spectrum is involved in.
Steven: Yeah, I mean, we cover this later on in the book, and we make the point that this stuff has absolutely spread out of the extreme and into the mainstream, and that’s what we’re seeing. You can find it everywhere. You can find it in really obvious places. 44% of American companies are going to have a mindfulness-based stress reduction program rolling out to their employees this year. They’re going to essentially take state-changing technology pioneered 8,000 years ago in monasteries, and they’re deploying it in business.
Now, we call it “mindfulness-based stress reduction”. We’ve given it a nice safe name, but they’re using meditative techniques straight out of spiritual traditions, and it’s 44% of American businesses. Yoga is a $28-billion industry. The action sports world, action sports, and this is my research in Rise of Superman, are packed with flow triggers. There’s a lot of reasons, and we understand these triggers now, but action sports is a gigantic multi-billion dollar industry at this point, and it sort of goes on and on from there.
Jesse: What are some of the methods that a person could use in trying to become more and more comfortable in peak state experiences so they can maintain those states longer and burn less resources in getting there to begin with?
Jamie: There’s nothing new under the sun, right? I mean, every single wisdom tradition, they basically started with these little core groups of ecstatics having direct connection to God consciousness. They end up trying to share that for a while, it gets violently shut down, and they also realize how many people just screw it up and try and skim the cream, and they end up saying, “Just be good to it. Just be good to other people. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. We’re not going to bother telling you the rest, or it gets forgotten.”
So, if you really want to wind it back, it’s that whole good old Abraham Lincoln, “I care not a whit for a man’s religion unless his dog is the better for it.” So, do not pause and go if you’re not actually showing up in this world a better human being.
That said, the flip side is don’t die wondering. If you’re finding yourself trapped in either neurotic storytelling, I just can’t get that inner critic in my head and my life away. Or, some deep trauma or burden, then cultivating a non-ordinary experience can be profoundly healing and really stops you dragging anchors behind and allow you to grow faster.
The simplest would just be practice breathing. Everybody gets all hung up on which particular type, but like just respiratory awareness from box breathing, which the seals do, which is how long can you hold your breath. Inhale for five seconds, hold it for five seconds, exhale for five seconds, hold it for five seconds, and repeat, that’s the box. Then, can you extend that to 10 seconds, and 15 seconds, and can I override my desire to freak out and breathe? Then, you can take that to free-diving, where you actually would put your face in water or even submerge yourself in water. But, that’s an incredibly good fundamentally meditative practice, and not losing your mind when your body wants to have a stress response.
Then, holotropic breathing is just basically breathe as fast as possible, as deep as possible, as long as possible, put on some good tunes, and see what happens. You end up that the neurophysiology of it is you’re shifting your nitrogen and you’re basically creating a pH alkalosis in your bloodstream, and that massively shifts your consciousness. In fact, Stan Grof at Johns Hopkins developed it. It’s in place of using LSD, which he had been doing as part of NIH sanction research back in the 60s until it was shut down. He developed holotropic breathing just as a substitute, and found that there was virtually no distinguishable difference between a psychedelic experience and just a respiratorily-induced one.
Jesse: Do you know what led him to suspect that that might be the case, to look under that rock to begin with?
Jamie: I think it was just probably an awareness of baseline Pranayama and that kind of stuff. Something we’ve been doing is you take that a step further, you combine all of them. You actually start playing with gaseous mixes. You start playing with sports oxygen and nitrous oxide, and nitrogen, and various other things, and you can actually completely tune and shape consciousness. Those are like PG-13 easy ways. You can go into a sensory deprivation tank. Most cities have those. You can put in music, you can put in brainwave and training music, like Brain.fm. Get some waterproof earbuds and go float in a tank for an hour and a half, or three hours.
There are micro and macro versions of ecstasis, states that take us outside ourselves. Look at one, take the orgasmic meditation folks. I mean, any cultivation of sexuality and sexual arousal, because that’s a massive access to neurochemistry. Sexual arousal plus breathing, plus eye-gazing, plus whatever. I mean, there’s tons of techniques and practices down that road. Just good old-fashioned global travel. Getting outside your own culture is an ecstatic in the technical sense, taking you outside yourself when you’re trying to use a reference makes it an ecstatic experience. Service, soup kitchens, eco-tourism, service work in other countries, those things take you outside our frames, and you can go from all that kind of stuff, you can go from your 10-minute iList. I’ve got a Headspace app on my phone and I just try to be mindful, or I have a heart rate variability app on my phone and I just watch my cardiac rhythms.
Two, you can go to a clinic in Mexico and try 5-MeO-DMT. DMT is a naturally-occurring tryptamine in our brains, lungs, and hearts. It occurs in bananas and oranges, and reintroduced exogenously, blows you sky high and metabolizes instantly. Go down to Peru and book a trip with a shaman, whatever. You can go from baby steps, it can go from a 9-day Vipassana Retreat, or 105-degree sauna in the notion of a sweat lodge, or sweat bathing. Go do the obvious things and stack them, and you get more intensity and more data.
Jesse: I’m wondering about the commonalities between like the extreme athlete in flow versus, let’s say, the mom in flow who’s baking cookies, and baking cookies is where she gets her peak experience from. She’s not Rise of Superman downhill skiing at a million miles an hour.
Steven: No, I mean, like there coders in flow pretty much created the internet. There’s an altruism-based flow state known as Helper’s High that was discovered by Allan Luks who runs Big Brother Big Sister. Most creatives in any field need flow to do their work. If you’re doing anything: live music, live improv theatre, sports, you need flow to get the job done.
Flow is pretty ubiquitous everywhere. In the beginning of the book, we give examples both from Google and from the Navy Seals of how they utilize flow. One of Csíkszentmihályi’s big discoveries back in the 70s and the 80s was flow is ubiquitous – shows up in anyone, anywhere, provided certain initial conditions are met. Of course, it is; it’s altered state of consciousness.
What the research now shows, and this is Ronald Siegel’s work at UCLA, among others, is that pretty much every mammal, humans included, most birds, and some insects, have found a way to alter their consciousness to improve performance one way or another. Whether it’s finding native psychoactive plants, which lots and lots of species of animals have done, children will spin in circles, they’ll hyperventilate, they’ll roll down hills. We see it all over the place.
The reason is it turns out there are certain critical skills that altered states of consciousness are the very tool evolution gave us to solve these problems with. If it comes to how do we heal trauma? How do we deal with hyperanxiety? How do we deal with extreme stress? How do we handle creative problem solving, situational awareness, cooperation, collaboration, high-speed decision making, we have a very hard time trying to train anybody in any of these skills.
The reason is they’re not skills. We keep trying to train up skills. They’re actually states of mind. We’re training the wrong thing. For example, McKinsey did a 10-year study, and they found the top executives are 500% more productive in flow. Creative studies on non-ordinary states of consciousness, whether you’re talking about meditative states, psychedelic states, flow states show boosts in creativity from 200% up to 700%. Huge spikes in creative problem solving.
So, two of the most common characteristics of any non-ordinary state, all the ones we’re talking about, and flow, is they’re selfless and they’re timeless. Your sense of self vanishes and time dilates. Why does this happen? Well, it turns out time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. This is David Eagleman’s research at Stanford. I actually got to participate in some of it. As parts of the prefrontal cortex link out, we can no longer perform the calculation. So, past and present from future get screwed down into what psychologists call the “deep now”, an elongated present. Time dilates; it stretches out.
Same thing happens to your sense of self. Self is a network. It’s a bunch of different structures in your prefrontal cortex, and as that network goes down, we can no longer calculate our sense of self. So, the self disappears, the inner critic, that nagging, always on, defeatist voice in your head shuts down. One of the reasons there’s so much performance enhancement and creative performance enhancement in these states is with the inner critic shut off, risk-taking goes up, creativity goes up because there’s not a voice in your head judging every one of your neat ideas as soon as you have it. You’re liberated from yourself, you get out of your own way. This is also why creative ideas tend to spiral.
Jesse: It’s interesting. It seems like in the natural environment, us living back on the Serengeti or whatever, oftentimes, when we would be in flow, it’s kind of when the shit had already hit the fan. We’re talking about it as something that we want to vault ourselves into.
Steven: It’s an interesting question. A lot of people have said that. Now, I, actually in my book, A Small Furry Prayer, made a different argument, and there’s research to sort of back this up. One of the powerful chemicals in flow is anandamide, same psychoactive that’s in marijuana. Research at the University of Arizona, they took humans, dogs, and ferrets and had them run on a treadmill, and they measured the amount of anandamide in their bloodstream, which you can do. Anandamide flows freely across the blood brain barrier, so it’s not like endorphins. It’s not hard to measure. You can measure and get good levels in the blood.
Turns out humans, dogs have anandamide, which is great presence of runner’s high. Ferrets do not. Now, why does this matter? We co-evolved with wolves, and we co-evolved by hunting with wolves. So, the new thinking is if you’re pack hunting with dogs in a time where any time you fall down and get a scratch that could be gangrene which you could lose your arm and die, and you’re hunting buffalo together, which is very dangerous, you need to be able to communicate, non-verbally, at a really high level.
That is what you get in flow. That is why the Navy SEALs train so hard for flow. They work so hard to create group flow because it’s near-perfect, non-verbal instantaneous communications. It’s how you get a hive mind. It’s also how you get a hive mind across species, which is what we needed to co-evolve with dogs, to co-evolve with wolves and hunt with them. So, where it came from, if you really think, it’s, “Hey, somebody got a little more endorphins, a little more pain relief while they were running down their prey. They got a little more meat,” and that’s where it started. But, what really drove flow into the species into mammals may have been pack hunting with dogs.
Jesse: What do you feel like for a healthy psychologically mature adult human being is the percentage of your time, the percentage of your waking hours that you would spend in your default state of consciousness versus an altered state of consciousness?
Jamie: That language sort of skews us in a certain direction. I mean, in some respects, I’d say as little as you have to to keep the lights on and the bills paid. Really, there’s a deflection point, and we see this with folks that train with us at the Flow Genome Project, but also in general, which is it starts out, “I’m a regular waking schmuck trying to get momentarily relief from myself, and I’m seeking a flow state, a peak state, a non-ordinary, or altered state, and I had it, and it lasted four minutes, or moments, or hours, and then I come back, and I’m back to regular old me again,” and the better you get at it, there becomes a set that it’s a sort of watershed moment that it now goes from the states I am forever seeking to, “It’s a stage I’m mostly living in.”
Now, what I notice is when I get kicked in the balls and I get knocked out of it, it’s a very subtle inflection point, but it’s a potentially profound one. Because then, you’re like, “Oh, you mean I can actually give up predict and control, egoic neurotic scenario planning, and then I can actually start trusting my ability to be lived by life,” and that’s a very different thing. Good analogies are in action sports, but anybody that’s engaged in downhill sports, downhill mountain biking, downhill skiing, mobile skiing, whatever it would be, it’s like the faster you’re going, the further down the hill you have to look, and you cannot just be looking at your toes, or your front wheel. If you do, you’re forever reactive, and you’ll generally get thrown, and the very thing you’re afraid of the most will happen.
But, the further you can look down the mountain, it allows you to travel faster, because you get to trust that what’s right in front of me, my eyes, my body, my equipment have already seen, processed, and factored it in, and that’s a fundamentally different way of living, and it is infinitely higher impact and more enjoyable.
Steven: What we’ve seen, and what I think, I think you get one, maybe two small flow states a day. I have a writing block in the morning that usually produces a low-grade flow state, and then I can usually get it via exercise later in the day, or yoga, or something like that. You can get longer, bigger flow states. But, these things are expensive for the brain to produce: certain neurochemistries, certain chemicals, certain minerals, a lot of calories, a bit of energy. You definitely don’t want to be there all the time, and what goes up must come down, and there’s healthy reasons for that in flow. Because, pattern recognition is through the roof, you have tons of creative ideas. They’re not all great.
On the backend of a flow state, after you’ve exhausted all that feel-good neural chemistry — I always say I love writing in flow, I want to edit out of flow. Because, if I still like what I’ve written when I’ve got no more feel-good neurochemicals, I know it’s good. So, I tend to believe evolution built the down on the back of the high in for a reason, to fact-check your creative inspirations. I think it’s a fail-safe and it’s part of the system. I think these are the states that evolution designed for us to innovate. You don’t want to act on every crazy neat idea you have. You want to be able to come back down. You couldn’t have gotten access to those crazy ideas without self being turned off without pattern recognition being through the roof. But, you also want to be able to evaluate them in the cold sober light of day and go, “Good idea, bad idea.”
I think the whole system, the way the whole flow cycle works, evolution does tend to be concerted by design, and it strikes me that just a down period after a big up, psychologically, isn’t super useful. But, it is if you’re using it to judge your innovations and your ideas.
Jesse: I want to talk about — like, this is the dark side, but evil flow. What does it look like if a supervillain gets into flow, or your least favorite person in the world? I mean, we’ve been talking about this like it’s all gumdrops and dandelions, but these can be powerful states in the wrong hands. Presumably, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, these guys were in flow as they were slaughtering tens of thousands of people.
Steven: We cover this at length in Stealing Fire, and you bring up an excellent, excellent point. So, let’s just talk about this a little bit. Individual flow, it’s you in a flow state performing at your best. Group flow is what happens when a team gets into a flow state together, so the Navy SEALs. If you’ve ever taken part in a great brainstorming session, or if you’ve seen a band come together, and the jazz quintet, and suddenly like everything is flowing and moving, or the improv theater trip, it’s all working, or a fourth quarter comeback in football, what the Patriots did in the Super Bowl. That’s group flow.
You can take it up in scale, and you get “communitas”. Communitas is the same altered state of consciousness that a whole stadium gets into at a rock concert. It’s when everybody merges with the band and loses themselves in the crowd. It’s what happens at Burning Man. Communitas, by the way, not my word. Victor Turner, University of Chicago anthropologist, and he pointed out, way back in the 40s, that pretty much every dictator, every fascist uses communitas, right? Do you want to know why Trump won the election and Hillary did not? It was ability to produce communitas.
If you want to see what it looks like, one of the greatest examples I’ve ever seen is Obama gave a speech in 2008 or 2009 that you can find online called “Fired Up, Ready to Go”. Just search “Obama, Fired Up, Ready to Go”, and in four minutes, you will see him start out a normal storyteller and then lift a crowd into state-changing thrall through this power of oratory. It’s communitas, very, very powerful, and you’ve got to remember what I just said to you. I said that when you get into these states, the chemicals that show up are all social-bonding chemicals, very powerful ones.
So, if you get into this state and you’re bonding with the tribe, and somebody is making meaning for you, that’s where it gets worrisome. We always say, “Don’t let anybody else make meaning for you.” It’s very important. We are advocating for cognitive literacy, understand what’s going in your brain and your body, and cognitive liberty. Don’t let somebody rent space in your head. This stuff has a long history.
Like, in the book, we talk about the three perils of non-ordinary states, and the obvious one is hedonism. We all know about that. We’ve seen that. But, the other perils are commercialization and militarization. Militarization, ever since there were non-ordinary states, people have been trying to figure out how to weaponize consciousness, whether it’s Shaolin monks training their bodies to train their minds to be better warriors, the earliest state-changing modern technologies were developed in the 1950s. People were trying to map and model the brain at places like the University of Pennsylvania, and CIA, DEA, these researchers were showing up at their doors saying, “Hey, individually,” sounds like tinfoil hat stuff, like you hear MKUltra, the CIA’s experiments with LSD as a mind control device, and it sounds like crazy conspiracy stuff, but when you realize that’s just one data point in a 60-year history of this stuff that some of it has success. We also see it with marketers. These same states of consciousness can be used to sell you stuff very effectively. These are real issues.
The other point we make in Stealing Fire is four forces: psychology, neurobiology, technology, and pharmacology are accelerating. These are the forces that surround our access to non-ordinary states of consciousness. So, you have states of consciousness that are historically really rare, tightly controlled, like the rights of Eleusinian. It happens once a year. It doesn’t happen whenever you want it.
So, what have we got now? We’ve got changes in psychology that have massively widened our definition of self, of who we are and what’s permissible. Go back to the 1950s, and you’ve got, essentially, two stereotypes: Betty homemaker, strong silent-type male, either/or, to where we are today where you’ve got 70 different gender pronouns, much more permissive versions of self, much more exploratory. We’ve also got psychological maps of this territory. Development theory now includes altered states of consciousness. We’ve mapped these things over time.
Neurobiology gives us the tools to cut a map and measure what’s going on in our brains and our bodies when we’re experiencing the inexplicable. Pharmacology allows us to tune these states with incredible precision, gives us access to them nearly on-demand, and technology brings that access to scale. So, you go from like 50 people around a campfire to 500,000 people in a stadium. All these things are happening, they’re coming. The good news is with this extra information that we now finally have, we hope there’s a middle path between the like excess of the counter-culture on the one side, and the top-down control of church and state on the other.
Jamie: One of the things that people continually ask us simply because we’re making a clear and considerate case for non-ordinary states is, “Oh, you must be just kind of blind advocates. What about all the problems, what about all the drawbacks?” to which we would say, “Exactly.” The very fact that there’s a $4 trillion economy that we all collectively are spending non-deliberately for the most part, often destructively and addictively just to get out of our heads. The fact that 1 in 4 of us are on psychiatric meds, the fact that the World Health Organization just published that suicides, taking our own lives, is killing us more than natural disasters and violent crime, we are our own greatest threat to ourselves, would suggest that what we really need is a move towards cognitive literacy. We need to understand how our bodies and our brains shape our minds and hearts.
Now, we also need to understand who is seeking to influence our own decisions and perceptions, who’s looking to rent space in our heads without consent, whether that’s political movements, whether that’s marketers and consumerism. When you name the venue, we need to understand what our own level set is, and we also need to understand that being able to shift the channels of consciousness freely and skillfully and appropriately is a human birthright, and it’s essential to our foundational health. We know that being able to shift out of 21st century normal, the tired, wired, stressed, and be able to experience even moments of alternate states of consciousness and integrate them into our lives heals trauma, increases creativity, boosts collaboration. The numbers are absurd. They’re 200%, they’re 400%, they’re 500% greater than benchmarks and norms.
What we need is to integrate these things. We need to start talking about addiction, we need to start talking about sexuality, we need to start talking about religion. These statements require us to act, and this is no longer just an endless lap of navel-gazing and spiritual materialism.
Jesse: I’d like to talk some about that idea of people renting space in our heads. To an increasing extent, it’s really hard not to do that, especially for like a kid that’s being born now and kind of coming into the world in 2017. Facebook’s going to be tracking your friends, Google’s going to be following you around the internet. The Internet of Things, devices are going to be telling about what you’re up to. All this is going to be for your benefit. You wouldn’t want to necessarily opt out of these things.
But, on the other hand, this massive infrastructure already exists that is learning everything about you, and at the same time, knows from broad demographic trends, how you can be best manipulated, the type of person you are, the things that are going to be triggers for you, and all of these decision-making processes that, even if we didn’t necessarily know what they were, at least they used to be internal to us and weren’t strategized by some third party. Suddenly, internally, as well as externally, we live in a very manufactured reality.
What is the right way to think about this? What’s sort of the middle path between just being a Utopian, “It’s all going to be okay”, and being the Unabomber and going out and living in a cabin with no internet?
Jamie: There’s a bunch of ways, and I say cognitive literacy, number 1, is just understand the tools that you’re using and are using you, and if it’s free, it probably isn’t. Reading The Master Switch by Tim Wu, reading Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Clay took a right critic, I think, in just being a little bit of just an upside booster on the whole thing. Read Douglas Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed. Understand, from smart media critics, information theorists, what’s up these days. Because, there’s a lot of digital sharecropping going on that people are just serfs to a capital stack and sits behind these companies while we all create the value inside those platforms. Snapchat’s valuation is based on how many times it gets my kids to check back in and maintain meaningless streaks with friends they don’t even talk to in real life.
So, just understanding mechanisms of action is huge. Kevin Kelly wrote a good piece in Wired Magazine last year about VR and AR, specifically about Oculus and Magic Leap, and he’s like, “Look, if we’re concerned that our smartphones are a surveillance device we willingly carry with us in our pocket, VR and AR will be surveillance states we willingly enter.” All of the micro-muscles, all of the biometrics, all of the pupil dilation, all the capillaries that we pump, we will happily just trade all that information just to blow my mind. In reality, that’s us in the palm of someone else’s hand.
So, A, awareness. Just awareness and choice. We use these tools, these tools are using us. Do not kid yourself to the contrary. The others, you can make a case that’s sort of Tim Leary had it backwards. His famous thing was “tune in, turn on, drop out”, and it’s much more like “tune out, turn off, drop in”, drop into the mountain, drop into life, drop into the beach. Like, go live a little in these bodies of ours. Tune out the digital distractions, turn off the incessant interruptions and the media cycle noise, and drop in.
Steven: Like, some of this stuff that we don’t understand about Silicon Valley. Why is it such a big deal that Google has in-house dry cleaning and free really healthy food, and gyms right there and all that stuff? Because, they want to keep you in flow. Because, if you have to start thinking, “Oh my god, I haven’t done this and I got to do this,” you’re turning the prefrontal cortex back on. You’re putting the I back in the equation, so all those things that we don’t understand that seem like perks, they’re actually performance hacks meant to keep people in flow.
There was interesting studies that were done on coders, and they found that coders in flow can get knocked out by as little as a text, and it will take them 15 minutes to get back there, minimum, if they get back at all.
Jesse: One of the things that was mentioned in the book, and I thought was super interesting was Navy SEALs using floatation tanks to speed up language acquisition, learning new languages. Now, admittedly, most of us listening are probably not Navy SEALs, but all of us are interested in learning it. What are some of the broader lessons there?
Steven: The lesson is it’s a big dump in all these states of consciousness that I’m talking about. There’s a big neurochemical dump. Five, six of the most potent neurochemicals that the brain can produce get dumped in at once. Why does this matter? The more neurochemicals that show up during experience, the better chance that experience will move from short-term holding to long-term storage. This is how memory works, this is how learning works. So, in these states, we see massively heightened learning. In research done on snipers and radar operators where they use neurofeedback to drive people into flow, they found people learned 470% faster than normal. It’s a huge boost.
The same people who did that research, advanced brain monitoring in Carlsbad, California, tricked out isolation float tanks for the Navy SEALs. So, they took standard float pods which get rid of the self because they remove all the inputs from which we can construct the self: no sight, no sound, no body temperature, all that stuff. So, the self disappears that way, and they have gussied them up with neurofeedback, with entrainment, with heart rate variability, and some other biometrics, and the Navy SEALs are predominantly using them for recovery, which is a huge deal. They are figuring out how to massively accelerate post-mission recovery times with these tanks.
But, they also figured out that once you kick people into a non-ordinary state, because these chemicals are in your body, you can train them up in languages. For SEALs, when they end up behind enemy lines, they got to speak the language. It’s life or death for them. In a year, they can be deployed in five different theaters of war, so that’s five different languages. The best they used to be able to do in language school, and this is best of the best training best of the best, was six months. With the flow tanks, they got it down to six weeks.
Jesse: Are there any people for whom flow would be inadvisable, or this would just be not something — if you were a doctor, you would not prescribe a flow state to person X?
Steven: That’s a very tough question. Here’s my answer. What I found with flow, once a month, somebody comes up to me, usually very wide-eyed, and like, “Dude, you got to study me. I live in a flow state. I’m always in a flow state,” and I laugh, and I’m like, “You know, we actually have a word for that. We call that mania.” So, if you are on that spectrum, if you are a manic depressive, you’re on that spectrum, you tend to, in flow, get a ton of dopamine flowing through your system. Excessive dopamine is mania and schizophrenia, thus the problem. With all these states, you actually need a level of emotional responsibility, and when you get into these peak experiences, these high-perched experiences, you get to see farther over your life is what happens, right? You actually get a little more perspective.
We end Stealing Fire on this very idea. This does not excuse you from the human condition. You have to actually do that work to really utilize these states, otherwise they tend to go badly. When you do the work, you get to move farther up the development scale. You become more mature, you gain all the traits that we associate with wisdom very, very quickly. It’s accelerant up that scale, but you got to do the homework.
Jesse: Yeah, I guess that goes nicely with the Stealing Fire metaphor in the book title. You can’t just take the fire and burn houses down with it. You’ve got to learn to build a wood stove, or build a steam engine, make this useful.
Steven: With these new tools, we have options. We understand options. Let me give you a great example. I said earlier that these states can heal trauma, and that they can help us psychologically. The great research on this comes out of three different studies into PTSD. PTSD, it’s an intractable condition psychologically. SSRIs like Prozac and Zoloft are horrible. They don’t work in severe PTSD, they don’t work in most people with mild to moderate PTSD. They don’t seem to work for almost any women, and the treatment only works for as long as you’ve been taking the pills. You stop the pills back where you started. So, not a phenomenal option. Yet, 25 million Americans at any one time, so roughly 1 out of 10 of us has PTSD. This is an epidemic.
Back in 2003, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research, and a psychologist named Michael Mithoefer decided to test MDMA, the psychoactive inside of ecstasy on soldiers with PTSD and victims of sexual abuse and childhood abuse, and they found that 1 to 3 MDMA therapy sessions – so, that’s combining the psychoactive with talk therapy – was enough to significantly decrease or completely cure PTSD. It stayed in remission for over five years. It’s not like, “Stop the pills and you’re back where you are.” It’s a permanent fix.
In 2011, they redid that study at Camp Pendleton with soldiers with soldiers with PTSD, and they replaced MDMA with surfing, which is a phenomenal flow trigger, and they used surfing as a trigger for flow in talk therapy. It’s the same protocol, but surfing instead of MDMA. Five weeks of surfing and talk therapy was enough to completely remove, or totally abate PTSD in soldiers.
Then, last year, they redid the same study with meditation, and they find that four weeks of like a transcendental-style meditation was enough to significantly reduce symptoms of PTSD or completely cure it. So, you have same trauma, three different state-changing technologies, different levels of risk and immediacy depending on where you’re at and what you’re into. If you need your results by tomorrow morning and you have a high-risk tolerance, and you have the ability to get into a government study, or you’re willing to do an illegal substance and find an underground therapist, well you can fix yourself in a couple of days. If you want to do the hard work of learning to meditate 20 minutes a day, which is not for everybody and not super easy, you can get it done in a month. Or, surfing, a little more fun, a little more playful, and you don’t have to surf every day. You only have to surf two times a week with talk therapy.
So, similar results, three different state-changing technologies. We understand, at every level of the mechanistic change, why this is happening, we understand how it works, and that’s the big deal here. We have options, we have choices, we can have cognitive literacy and cognitive liberty, and we can massively increase aspects of our life.
Jamie: Yeah, and fundamentally, it’s your foundational practices, and are you right with things? I mean, when people say, “Oh, I get so paranoid on weed,” or, “I don’t like acid, but I love mushrooms, they’re fun,” and all those kind of bullshit distinctions, it’s like it’s you. Every single one of those is you. Take some responsibility for your own consciousness, and if you’re getting error messages, if you’re paranoid because you’ve introduced anandamide into your system, which increases lateral pattern recognition, and some of those patterns are one you’ve been keeping at arm’s distance, and now they’re suddenly staring you in the face, okay, cool. Well, how about face them? How about go deal with that punch list?
Everybody shows up being like, “I just want to tap the button, I just want to ring the bell. I just want to feel all blissed out and warm and fuzziness.” There’s that bill to pay, and it is everything you’ve been pretending not to know. So, if you can’t handle that, don’t start it. The Chinese have a great saying, “It’s a journey best never begun, but if begun, must be completed.”