#171: Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness

March 10, 2017

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.

PS:  Join our weekly newsletter — your brain will thank you.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:32

    Flow state

  • 00:01:41

    This Week in Neuroscience: First-born children have better thinking skills, study says

  • 00:05:05

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:06:59

    Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

  • 00:08:57

    Stealing Fire

  • 00:09:59

    “Who is the author of my life?”

  • 00:12:35

    Commonalities in effects of different altered states

  • 00:14:19

    Personality structure changes and “sense of self”

  • 00:15:47

    The difference between flow state and meditative state

  • 00:16:19

    What’s happening in our brains when in a flow state?

  • 00:17:55

    Profound memories associated with altered states

  • 00:19:32

    Altered states and high performance

  • 00:22:46

    How can someone become more comfortable in peak states?

  • 00:26:52

    Flow is ubiquitous

  • 00:30:16

    What drove flow into our species?

  • 00:32:05

    How long should you spend in an altered state?

  • 00:35:39

    The dangerous side of flow

  • 00:42:28

    How to make sure other people can’t “rent space in your head”

  • 00:45:50

    Floatation tanks to speed up language acquisition

  • 00:47:49

    When flow state becomes mania

  • 00:49:17

    Flow states and trauma treatment

  • 00:54:28

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Brain Activity Can Predict If an Article Will Go Viral

One comment

  1. ben says:

    Thomas Nagel wrote a paper about the hard problem of consciousness (What Is it Like to Be a Bat?).. but it might have been useful for Kotler and Wheal to define consciousness.. in order to understand when it’s changing. I get that MRIs show differences when meditating and when in flow (like they both down regulate the prefrontal cortex, and the sense of self and time, with the latter showing increased medial pre orbitofrontal cortex) but how would you personally recognize this experience?

    Also, I wonder how flow relates to deliberate practice. In the awesome book Peak, it describes how you can re-wire your brain via conscious deliberate practice, so is there a point where the gains of practice stop and unconscious flow should take over?

    Perhaps a future episode can be devoted to examining the different breathing techniques they mentioned (free vs box vs holotropic)… and compare that with the view of Dr. Gary Wenk who suggests that breathing causes inflammation and perhaps should only be done just enough to keep the lights!

    Finally, who knew the Dead Milkmen were onto something (DMT) when they were smoking banana peels.. and sounds like they could have also tried oranges!

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