This is the 3rd book I’ve read authored by wordsmith and ecstatic practitioner Steven Kotler. When I think critically about the future of our species I oscillate between being a black pilled accelerationist and a cheerful optimist that thinks we will one day salsa dance on Olympus Mons — when I read Kotler’s books I lean more towards the latter than the former.
Years ago I listened to a very lengthy audio book, The Master Switch by Tim Wu, which is an exhaustive history of information technologies. It describes this very predictable cycle that information technologies go through; decentralization, centralization, regulation and monopolization. It would be easy to assume that we’ve reached the end of history in regards to information technology with the internet that has optimized information flow and consumption and entrenched itself so inextricably with almost everything we do.
Stealing Fire makes the compelling case that engineered ecstasis, this state of mind that has been with us since time immemorial is the next world rocking technology that will flip society on its head and change everything. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to us.
So this is a book about flowstate; the cognitive state of Hypofrontality that enables extreme athletes to flirt with death, artists to draw inspiration from that great bottomless well of human cleverness and the religious to experience a visceral fellowship and connection to something divine. If you’ve ever faced near certain death and experienced a vivid slowing down of time in concert with a heightened sense of things while your life flashed before your eyes you’ve experienced flowstate — maybe it even saved your life.
You are the supercomputer
For at least several decades self help books have been selling this idea that we only use 5% or 7% or some unimpressive fraction of our brains. There’s a quantum of veracity in this puffery, flow unlocks our minds powerfully…
Conscious processing can only handle about 12033 bits of information at once. This isn’t much. Listening to another person speak can take almost 60 bits. If two people are talking, that’s it. We’ve maxed out our bandwidth. (p. 45)
The conscious mind is a potent tool, but it’s slow, and can manage only a small amount of information at once. The subconscious, meanwhile, is far more efficient. It can process more data in much shorter time frames. In ecstasis, the conscious mind takes a break, and the subconscious takes over. (p. 16)
Ecstatic practice and technology gives us the option to linger longer in the “deep now”
Without the ability to separate past from present from future, we’re plunged into an elongated present, what researchers describe as “the deep now.” Energy normally used for temporal processing gets reallocated for focus and attention. We take in more data per second, and process it more quickly. When we’re processing more information faster, the moment seems to last longer — which explains why the “now” often elongates in altered states. (p. 40)
First, creativity is essential for solving complex problems — the kinds we often face in a fast-paced world. Second, we have very little success training people to be more creative. And there’s a pretty simple explanation for this failure: we’re trying to train a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind. (pp. 46–47)
Four Forces of Ecstasis
Researchers have identified four gateways to flow
Thanks to accelerating developments in four fields — psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology; call them the “Four Forces of Ecstasis” — we’re getting greater access to and understanding of nonordinary states of consciousness. (p. 74)
Unsurprisingly sex can be quite ecstatic…
Social scientist Jenny Wade has spent her career studying these same phenomena. “The fact is, sex — all by itself,” she writes in her book Transcendent Sex, “can trigger states identical to those attained by spiritual adepts of all traditions.” By Wade’s estimate, nearly 20 million Americans have had at least one encounter with boundary-dissolving, self-obliterating sex. “[It’s] happened to countless thousands of people regardless of their background,” she notes, “ to hairdressers, investment managers, nurses, lawyers, retailers and executives.” (p. 83)
I’d encourage you to experiment with OneTaste style orgasmic meditation…
Ecstasis is rocket fuel for transformation
Flowstate is not just recreational, an ecstatic practice should be on the radar of anyone serious about personal development.
The move from self-authoring to self-transforming for example? Fewer than 5 percent of us ever make that jump. But in all of this developmental research, buried in the footnotes about those self-transcending 5 percenters, lay a curious fact. A disproportionate number of them had dabbled in ecstasis: often beginning with psychedelics and, after that, making meditation, martial arts, and other state-shifting practices a central part of their lives. Many of them described their frequent access to non-ordinary states as the “turbo-button” for their development. (p. 92)
This is far from being a wuwu, hippy dippy thing, there’s over 200 hundred scientific papers published on pubmed
The scans showed significant deactivation in the right parietal lobe, a key component in the brain’s navigation system. This part of the brain helps us move through space by judging angles and distances. But, to make these judgments, this region must first decide where our own body ends and the rest of the world begins, essentially drawing a boundary line between self and other. (p. 107)
"flow state"[Title/Abstract] - PubMed - NCBI
PubMed comprises more than 28 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and…
Unsurprisingly a lot of the book is discussing various pharmacological gateways to flow. It makes the case interestingly, that intoxicating drugs are a driver of evolution and progress.
UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel pointed out in his book Intoxication, “drug seeking and drug taking are biologically normal behaviors. . . . In a sense, pursuit of intoxicating drugs [in animals] is the rule rather than the exception.” This has led Siegel to a controversial conclusion: “The pursuit of intoxication with drugs is a primary motivational force in organisms.” (pp. 116–117)
In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that coevolution — when two different species come together, often without knowing it, to advance each other’s self-interest — also extends to humans and intoxicating plants. In return for helping mind-altering plants propagate and outcompete other species, these same plants have evolved even greater psychoactive properties for us to enjoy. “Plants,” Pollan explained in a recent essay, “evolved to gratify our desires. . . . [In return], we give them more habitat and we carry their genes around the world. This is what I mean by the ‘botany of desire.’ Our desire . . . for intoxication, for changes in consciousness, [is] a powerful force in natural history.” (p. 118)
A significantly lower risk tool for flirting with flow is music. The book includes and interview with the audio wizard who designed the flow inducing super sound system of Beta Nightclub, a place I used to hangout in downtown Denver!
He’s the cofounder of the British speaker company Funktion-One, and while the name may not be familiar, it represents a half century of sonic innovation and the quest for what Andrews has come to call “the audio moment.” The audio moment is an instant of total absorption. “It’s the point,” explained Andrews in a recent talk, “when you get really involved in the music. [When] you suddenly realize that you’ve been somewhat transported to another place. . . . When you find yourself experiencing more of yourself than you realized was there in the first place.” (p. 139)
Now I use the focus promoting music of Brain.FM to induce flow.
If you’re looking for a shortcut to flow and you don’t want to take any weird drugs or spend a lot of money on going to ecstatic events there’s a few pieces of technology that are a good bet.
HRV for Flow
I’ve reached some very sublime flowstates with cannabis (you probably don’t want to get high on weed in the middle of the workday, so maybe try some small doses of CBD oil) and HRV training, as have others and the Heartmath Institute’s website has some interesting published research on HRV and flow.
Our study attempted to help students achieve sense of flow or peak performance by using HRV coherence biofeedback in conjunction with mental and emotional refocusing techniques that are compatible with the above cited research. well-researched method for learning to achieve optimal and positive states of functioning, such as flow, is through HRV training and more specifically, coherence training using HRV to achieve “psychophysiological coherence” (McCraty Tomasino, 2006).
Effects of Heart Rate Variability Coherence Biofeedback Training and Emotional Management…
Due to the prevalence of music performance anxiety and the emergence of new biofeedback technologies used to decrease…
Flow researchers use HRV a little bit different than I did to bring whole groups of people together in Hypofrontality.
In his work with heart rate variability, Siegel’s found that by upgrading the tone to include a visual display, and adding in an EEG layer — so there’s neurofeedback to go along with the biofeedback — he can get whole groups of people to synchronize their heart rates and brainwaves and drive them into group flow. (p. 147)
Looking for some flow inspiring visuals? Checkout this music video by artist Android Jones…
This is biohacking tech that stimulates focus, creativity and motivation. This runs a very small electrical current across the front of your cranium with some little plastic suction pads. tDCS has been researched widely and has been the subject of an impressive +60 human, clinical trials and is demonstrated as effective in everything from improving reaction times and working memory to treating depression. TheBrainDriver is the top rated tDCS device on Amazon. The priority with this devices is of course safety, it’s equipped with overload protection and safety shut off.
On the higher-tech end of the spectrum, state-changing treatments like transcranial magnetic stimulation are now outperforming antidepressants, and many Silicon Valley executives are going off-label, using the technology to ‘“defrag’” their mental hard drives and boost performance. (p. 176)
Interestingly, video games can be a real gateway to flow. You’ve experienced this of course if you ever binge played a really engrossing videogame all night long.
“Games are a multi-billion dollar industry that employ the best neuroscientists42 and behavior psychologists to make them as addicting as possible,” Nicholas Kardaras, one of the country’s top addiction specialists, recently explained to Vice. “The developers strap beta-testing teens with galvanic skin responses, EKG, and blood pressure gauges. If the game doesn’t spike their blood pressure to 180 over 140, they go back and tweak the game to make it have more of an adrenaline-rush effect. . . . Video games raise dopamine to the same degree that sex does, and almost as much as cocaine does. So this combo of adrenaline and dopamine are a potent one-two punch with regards to addiction.” (pp. 196–197)
For the longest time I always thought that videogames were merely a childish diversion. But I’d consider becoming a gamer just to get a little more flow in my life. Especially noteworthy are fast paced videogames where you are racing or shooting are conducive to focus; you have a clear goal like winning a race or killing bad guys and you get immediate feedback. Let me know what video games you’ve found most flow state inducing…
In The Rise of Superman, experiencing gravity is a consistent flow trigger among extreme athletes. Stealing Fire echos this…
Time after time, they told us it came down to two things: the right triggers and gravity. (p. 150)
You’re probably not going to go free running along the ledges of a skyscraper during your lunch break so you’d want to find a way to experience (or simulate)visceral gravity. You could do this from the safety of your office with a cheap VR headset that you slip your smartphone into.
Ecstatic Political Repercussions
The book devotes some time to exploring how ecstasis is not only transforming us individually but also transforming us on a political and societal level.
I found the descriptions of intentionally ecstatic events like Burning Man (or Envision Festival which I attended years ago in Costa Rica) very illuminating…
And it wasn’t just Silicon Valley tech titans in attendance. Senior vice presidents from Goldman Sachs, heads of the largest creative ad agencies in the world, and leaders of the World Economic Forum, were all discreetly there, using fanciful assumed names, far from the flashbulbs and scrutiny of the media and the markets. Their goal was to forge a future based on the shared experience of communitas writ large: a permanent Burning Man community, (p. 162)
So these elites in finance, silicon valley and government are trying to turn the whole world into Burning Man. And you can kind of understand why, Burning Man sounds like an amazing week long love fest in the desert where people from all over the world get along. But unlike these elites Burning Man is not statist…
impact, it’s important to understand that in preparation for the event, all the central Burning Man organization does is survey the streets and put out port-a-potties. (p. 163)
There’s no centralized government, there’s no perverse financial incentives from fractional reserve banking, there’s no politicians playing identity politics, there’s no laws interfering in voluntary relationships or commerce and there’s no dysgenic welfare discouraging productivity.
For these elites (and even more pedestrian influencers and entrepreneurs) Ecstatic events are networking on steroids
“We learned that when you take a bunch of really bright, diverse people,” explains Rosenthal, “and let them share a dynamic immersive experience, you get powerful results. Lifelong friendships were formed. It removed the tedious, transactional nature of networking. I guess you could say that one of the things we discovered on that trip was that altered states accelerate business.” (p. 170)
As flow enters the mainstream more and more as an information technology there’s a real concern that it will go the way of the internet, television, radio and print and become a tool of tyrants, control freaks and social engineers in the big government and big business.
Much in the same way that regimes used to declare certain books subversive, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a government declaring certain brain chemistry subversive. A telltale combination of neurotransmitters coursing through your bloodstream could be enough to get put on a watch list, or worse. (pp. 186–187)
Kotler urges that this revolution must be open sourced!
the ultimate paradox of these states: all that liberation comes with an unavoidable dose of responsibility. While these states provide access to heightened performance and perspective, the upsides come at a cost. Between our own wayward tendencies and the dangers of militarization and commercialization, it’s easier than ever to fall asleep at the Switch. (p. 200)
The Darkside of Flow
Often when flowstate, risk taking or psychedelics are discussed there’s no sense of conservatism. Stealing Fire frankly discusses the downsides of flow and gives some wise words of warning…
When the prefrontal cortex shuts down, impulse control, long-term planning, and critical reasoning faculties go offline, too. We lose our checks and balances. Combine that with excessive dopamine telling us that the connections we’re making are radically important and must be immediately acted upon — that we’re radically important and must be listened to — and it’s not hard to imagine how this goes wrong. (p. 203)
The Risk Equation
Those three parameters — risk, reward, and time — provide a way to compare nonordinary states. This sliding scale lets you assess otherwise-unrelated methods — from meditation to psychedelics to action sports, to any others you can think of. And you can distill these variables into an equation:
Value = Time × Reward/Risk
Finally, Stealing Fire prescribes flow in moderation
Altered states are an information technology and what you’re after is quality data. If you spend all of your time blissed out, zenned out, drunk, stoned, sexed up, or anything else, then you’ve lost all the contrast that initially made those experiences so rich — what made them “altered” in the first place. By balancing inebriated abandon with monklike sobriety, ribald sexuality with introspective celibacy, and extreme risk-taking with cozy domesticity, you’ll create more contrast and spot patterns sooner. (p. 216)
And hedonic calendaring; this means scheduling or ritualizing different flowstate inducing activities so you don’t get addicted to this potent combination of neurochemicals and so that these experiences are most meaningful…
- Do an hour of meditation every Sunday afternoon.
- Every Saturday spend several hours having tantric sex with your partner.
- Do a psychedelic ceremony for your birthday.
- Do MDMA once a year on new years’ eve.
I rated this book 4 stars
On Amazon because I was hoping that it might contain a bit more actionable information and techniques for experiencing and using flow. It’s a fascinating philosophical and scientific discussion of this elusive and mysterious state of mind that unlocks so much human potential but I found it a little short on lifehacks and how-to’s. The author Steven Kotler and his colleague Jaime Wheel have a great website and a newsletter with a number of resources and courses that go deeper into the specific ways of using and experiencing flow.
Flow Genome Project: Unlocking The Next Level Of Human Performance
Discover your unique entry points to peak-performance and take part in the largest citizen science project to date.
If you want some protocols for experiencing flow you’re probably better off reading everything on that website and browsing around the biohackingsphere of the internet to find flow cocktails of experiences, technology and drugs (to use that word in it’s widest sense) that enable flow.
This book has renewed my interest in lingering more in my life in the deep now. In the past when my risk tolerance was higher, I would partake of gateways to flow like…
- Dancing all night long at raves, clubs or festivals (and sometimes using the party drugs on offer)
- Even doing an psychedelic ceremony in the Andes mountains
- Social risk taking (nightgame or daygame)
As my risk tolerance shifts, I’m going to explore new domains of flow…
- Ohming or Orgasmic meditation with my partner.
- Biohacking tech — HRV training and tDCS.
- Religion — I was a very passionate evangelical when I was younger, I remember entering very vivid flowstates during worship services — I may try this again.
Shortly I’ll be publishing a very practical and detailed how to guide to flow that adds to the gateways to flow mentioned above.
I’m an intellectual dissident
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