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March, 18 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.


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.