in: Health, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #287: The New Frontier of Flow

A few years ago, I had writer Steven Kotler on the show to talk about his book, The Rise of Superman, which is all about the science of flow — that state of being fully immersed in the energy and enjoyment of an activity. Since then, Steven has worked with high-level athletes, tech CEOs, and even Navy SEALs as part of his Flow Research Collective, an organization dedicated to helping individuals tap into flow states using the latest psychological research and technology.

After rubbing shoulders with various performers, Steven learned that there’s an underground movement of individuals who aren’t just looking to flow to improve performance, but also to a state that Steven calls ecstasis. His latest book shares the research behind this performance-enhancing mental state and the extreme measures some folks are taking to get into it. The book is called Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.

Today on the show, Steven shares what ecstasis is and why it improves performance in sports, business, and even military combat. He then goes on to describe the four accelerating forces in science that allow individuals to hack into ecstasis more easily, including things like mind-altering drugs and zapping your brain with electricity. Pretty crazy stuff. We end the show discussing how average Joes can get into ecstasis as well as the ethical implications of these new technologies. Are we bringing in a brave new world here, literally?

If you want a glimpse of what’s coming into the world of performance enhancement in the next 20 years, you’re not going to want to miss this show.

Show Highlights

  • How Steven’s new book, Stealing Fire, continues the work of The Rise of Superman
  • The various altered states that people enter to increase productivity and efficiency
  • What is “ecstasis,” as well as its traits and characteristics
  • What the brain is doing in the midst of ecstasis
  • What is it that keeps humans from reaching top performance without intentionality and help?
  • Why does “turning off the self” solve some critical challenges in productivity and creativity?
  • How ecstasis boosts our brain’s information processing capabilities
  • The ways that ancient peoples used to enter into ecstasis
  • Modern insights and technologies that allow people today to more easily and reliably tap into ecstasis
  • The 4 forces of ecstasy
  • How pharmacology and modern drugs are changing how people get into ecstasis
  • The research behind micro-dosing psychedelics like LSD and peyote(!)
  • How other activities can get you into the same states as drugs
  • Blending — “stacking” — ecstasis techniques to get the most bang for your buck
  • Electric shock therapy and flow (including my own experience with it!)
  • Why the military and high-powered tech CEOs are interested in what happens at Burning Man
  • What is “group flow”?
  • The risks that surround all this new research

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Stealing fire by Steven Kotler & jamie wheal.

Stealing Fire provides some fantastic insights about the future of performance enhancement. While I probably won’t be dropping LSD anytime soon, Steven provides other research-backed options that I’m exploring to work at my highest level. Pick up a copy on Amazon.

Connect With Steven Kotler

Steven’s website

Steven on Twitter

Stealing Fire website

Flow Research Collective

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. A few years ago, I had writer Steven Kotler on the show to talk about his book, “The Rise of Superman” which is all about the science of flow. That’s state of being fully immersed in the energy and enjoyment of an activity. Since then, Steven has worked with high level performance athletes, tech CEOs and even Navy Seals as part of his flow genome project, an organization dedicated to helping individuals tap into flow states using the latest psychological research and technology. After rubbing shoulders with various performers, Steven learned that there’s an underground movement of individuals who aren’t just looking to flow to improve performance but also to seek a state that Steven calls Ecstasis. His latest book shares the research behind this performance enhancing mental state and the extreme measures some folks are going to to get into it. It’s called, “Stealing Fire: How silicon valley, the Navy Seals, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.”

Today on the show, Steven shares what Ecstasis is and why it improves performance in sports, business, and even in military combat. He then goes on to describe the four accelerating forces in science that allow individuals to hack into Ecstasis state more easily and these include things like mind-altering drugs and zapping your brain with electricity. Pretty crazy stuff. We end this show discussing how average Joes can get into Ecstasis as well as the ethical implications of this new Ecstasis-inducing technologies. Are we bringing in a brave new world here literally?

If you want a glimpse of what’s coming into the world of performance enhancement in the next 20 years, you’re not going to want to miss this show. After the show is over, make sure to check out the show notes at

Steven Kotler, welcome back to the show.

Steven Kotler: Thanks for having me. Good to be with you.

Brett McKay: We had you on the show a few years ago to talk about your book “Becoming Superman”. It’s all about capturing the flow state, that moment when you’re doing something and things just seem to click, time seems to stand still. You’ve been doing a lot of things that the flow project trying to help people get into that flow state. You’ve got a new book out where you delve deeper. I think it’s related, maybe it’s not. I think it is related. How does this new book, “Stealing Fire”, continue the work you started in “becoming Superman” about getting into this flow state?

Steven Kotler: It’s a great place to start. Let me … quick overview of Stealing Fire just so people can orient for a second. Stealing Fire is a book about a $4 trillion underground revolution in people hacking states of consciousness to massively increased performance. I started down this road as you mentioned in a book called, “The Rise of Superman”, which examined flow states which are one particular altered state that have about 150 track record of massively improving performance and about 150 worth of science to back that up.

I wrote “Rise of Superman” and where “Stealing Fire” really came from and how these things linked up is my co-author in “Stealing Fire” is Jamie Wheal and together, we co-founded and run the flow genome project. We train organizations in the use of flow states for performance. Before “Stealing Fire” came out it was top athletes and the military primarily. People with competitive interest in high performance shall we say. After “Rise of Superman” came out, the work went wild in everywhere. Suddenly we were on Wall Street all the time. We were on Main Street and we were talking to bankers and stock brokers and bio hackers and everybody you could possibly imagine, Fortune 100 companies. Didn’t really matter where we went.

Afterwards, we’d give our talk, we present on flow and afterwards people come up to us and go “Yeah! Flow stuff is really cool, really interesting. I think I’m doing some of it and I want to start doing more of it.” What do you think about blank and we met Wall Street guys were zapping their brains with electrodes to alter their consciousness before they were going to the trading floor because it help them make better decisions, faster decisions. We met Navy Seals who were going on two-week silent meditation retreats. We’ve met Fortune 100 companies in Silicon Valley and we’ve meet whole teams of engineers that were on microdosing on psychedelics or whole teams of engineers that were going skydiving on the weekend, and on and on and on.

Everywhere we went, people are using all these different technologies to change their state for performance improvement which lots of different people lots of things going on and they were harnessing more than flow. It was a larger story than what I was talking about in “Rise of Superman” focused on one particular state of consciousness.

The total link, and then i’ll shut up for a second, the real link was in decoding the science of flow, we ended up with a Rosetta stone for a lot of different altered states of consciousness. We basically reproved something that was proved 100 years ago at the birth of psychology when a guy named William James, a Harvard psychologist, said, “Hey, there’s a whole collection of altered states. The so-called ecstatic states, flow states, psychedelic states, meditative states, contemplative states, the states that yogi seemed to get into, and sexually fueled altered states. They all seem to share very similar properties and they all seem to have the same impact on psychology and the same impact on performance.

A hundred years later, we’ve got enough tools in neurobiology at this point to be able to look in the brain and go, “Oh my god! He is right.” All these things that we’re seeing people hack while they are bigger than flow, they fit into this larger category of ecstatic techniques, things that produce all the experiences that you might find north of happy.

Brett McKay: This is what you call in the book Ecstasis. This is a general term to describe these altered states.

Steven Kotler: Yeah. All the frickin’ terms are loaded with cultural baggage. When we’re working with the Navy Seals, one of the guys in seal team 6 used that term. It caught our attention when you look it up it means literally to stand outside one’s self and to be filled with insight and inspiration. The standing outside one’s self, was accurate because in all the states, one of the things they all have in common doesn’t matter what technique you use. You could be using psychedelics, you could be using meditation, you could be using access to trigger flow, they all make that, as you pointed out, your sense of self disappears. You stand outside yourself, you change the channel on normal waking consciousness and as it turns out, in all these states, all of the brain’s information process and machinery gets fired up. That’s where a lot of the heightened performance comes from, that’s why these are states of insight and information and heightened creative problem solving and so forth.

Brett McKay: Some of the traits of Ecstasis are you mentioned one, the standing outside of yourself. What is about the self, I guess, the ego that prevents us from reaching our top performance?

Steven Kotler: It’s a great question, first of all, and a very tricky one because for certain, we are not advocating, “Hey, get rid of your ego permanently in some yogic Eastern philosophy way.” That doesn’t seem to be useful. If you look at all the progress we’ve made in the past 300 years, it starts with the French Enlightenment. Starts when somebody goes, “Hey, the ego, the conscious mind, that logical, rational version of yourself, that’s the version we should trust.” We end up with the scientific method, the technological revolution and thus, the 21st century.

We need those egos. We just don’t need them running the whole show. It turns out switching the channel of consciousness, dropping out of where we normally live, that ego-driven version of ourselves and turning off the self helps solve certain very critical challenges, most importantly our creativity. If you think about this, this is not hard to imagine. The self part of you being a human self comes with you inner critic, that always on nagging the fetus voice in your head. In all of these states, that inner critic goes silent. What happens when that happens, first of all, risk taking goes up which is really often a good thing. Simultaneously, creativity goes up because you’re no longer second guessing all of our neat ideas. It’s like the floodgates open and the brain clicks into brainstorming mode. Very, very useful for solving certain kinds of problems.

Brett McKay: Besides the stepping out of yourself, other traits of Ecstasis are, I guess the timelessness or time seems to slow down a bit.

Steven Kotler: Yup. It helps to understand what’s going on in the brain to talk about these characteristics. The first thing that’s happening is activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that houses most of your higher cognitive functions starts to decrease. It’s an efficiency exchange the brain is trading extra energy that help you focus in the present moment for non-critical functions and start shutting down. The prefrontal cortex comes offline. The self, our sense of self of being an eye is created by structures all over the prefrontal cortex. As those structures wink out, we can no longer create that sense of self.

Same thing happens to our sense of time. Time is a calculation performed by all of these structures in the prefrontal cortex and David Eagleman at Stanford figured out that as they start to go out as this efficiency exchange happens, we lose our ability to process time. We step into a timeless moment what researchers call the deep now. It basically means past, present and future get conflated and you can only think about what’s going on right in front of you at that moment. This is also a big deal for performance.

You think about most anxiety, most fear, is not present moment fear. It’s things that could have happened in the past that you were trying to avoid happening again in the present, things that could happen in the future that we’re scared of. As a result, performance again goes up because anxiety goes down. Simultaneously, the present is the only place in the data stream where you get the most accurate information. Memories are are very very flawed as we learned time and time again and future predictions, nobody saw the the 2007 crash coming. We’re not very good at either. We’re very good at processing data in the present moment. That’s what we evolved to do. You get the simultaneous boost in boost in data processing in the brain and anxiety decreases. Performance goes up and then you get to the next step of the chain which is a sense of effortlessness.

This has a different root. The effortlessness comes that shows up in all these states comes from the fact that you’re flooded with performance enhancing feel good neurochemicals. Stress hormones like cortisol get flushed from our system as we drop into these states, the self turns off, we drop into timelessness and suddenly we get this huge boost in motivation it feels like we’re being propelled by a force that bigger than ourselves. In other words, we’re really passionate about what we’re doing. We’re driven by purpose and meaning and motivation goes through the roof. These states are intrinsically motivating.

Brett McKay: Besides effortlessness, another aspect or another trait of Ecstasis is richness. What is that?

Steven Kotler: Yeah, it’s the last trait that we subscribe to all these kind of north of happy altered states. Richness is short for information richness. I mentioned earlier that in all these states, the information processing in the brain is massively heightened. Again, this has to do with neurochemistry. What we see is in these states, the brain takes in more information per second, goes up so we end up paying more attention to that information. Pattern recognition increases, we find more links between that incoming information and all their ideas and lateral thinking increases. We find more lengths between those older ideas combine with the incoming information and big lateral leaps, aha insights. The richness is essentially surrounds the creative decision making process as well which is one of the reasons you see creativity spikes so much in these states.

Brett McKay: Before we get into how individuals are hacking in to this Ecstasis state, what were people doing before then? In the book, you said that people were able to get into this status on their own, even ancient way. What were they doing a hundred years, thousands of years ago?

Steven Kotler: Merci Elottie, the historian coined a great term which is techniques of ecstasy. Techniques of ecstasy where everything from chanting, singing, prayer, meditation, dancing, endurance activities like vision quest, all the way through psychedelics. The ways of altering our consciousness haven’t all that much changed. There’s a lot of new technology, there’s not a lot of new pharmacology, that’s different. Our brains are the same. They have all the same way so a lot of the traditional techniques still work great and today we can gussy them up with a bunch of other technology to make them work even better.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some of the insights we’ve gotten that allow us to tap into that easier. For example, what do we learn from psychology in the past few decades that have made getting into ecstasis easier and more reliable?

Steven Kotler: Great question. What you’re dipping into psychology is the first of what we call, for the heck of a better term, I guess the four forces of ecstasy. These are forces that are accelerating very, very quickly right now. Psychology, neurobiology technology and pharmacology, and really giving us a lot more. The story starts with psychology. What we examined is the change in our version of who we are in the world go back to the 1950s. We were fairly limited. Even those stereotypes they’re not that far off, you have Betty homemaker side, and the strong, silent, masculine type on the other. Those were your acceptable versions of yourself which is fairly restrictive.

Today, with out 78 different pronouns for gender sexualities at this point and things along those lines, we live in a much more expansive world. Our individual versions of who we are, how we can live in this world and what we can experiment with has widened greatly. Simultaneously, psychology has, through the internet, become something of a big data science. When you’re approaching slippery subjects like non-ordinary states of consciousness and their impact on our psychology, you might not be able to get the rigorous data you’d be comfortable with but you can ask 100,000 people the same question so you can get a huge sample size. That allows us to work around some of the squishiness in psychology. It’s really, really, helping us move faster.

Brett McKay: What are some of that squishiness that we’ve been able to cess out thanks to technology?

Steven Kotler: My own work with flow. In the 70s, University of Chicago, Chairman of Psychology Department, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is often called the Godfather of Flow, discovered flow as measurable. It’s got 10 core characteristics. You can measure it using a psychological scale. The scale has been used with tens of thousands of people, it’s extremely well-validated but it’s still squishy. You’re still essentially stopping somebody mid-task to say, “Okay, answer these questions to figure out if you’re in flow.”

First of all, if you’re in flow ahead of time, you’re not by the time you’ve done answering the questions. We have been hard at work with a whole bunch of other teams around the world to try to create a biophysical base flow detector so we can look at certain data markers, heart rate variability, EEG, things along those lines, and be able to know yes or no, is somebody in flow. Hat’s how things are shifting that way.

Brett McKay: I imagine smartphones are helping with that as well because they have all these nifty things like features where you can measure that stuff easily. They even have things where they can tell about your mood based on how you’re moving and things so you’re able to get a lot more data.

Steven Kotler: Yeah, it’s getting so … we were in a conversation, I don’t even know if I should tell you about this but, we were in a conversation with a team in Russia. There’s a guy named Paul Ekman who discovered that your face, you make microexpressions on your face. You have no control over these, this is like when you smile, the upper corners of your eyes go up. You can’t do it automatically which is why it’s hard to smile on command but it happens naturally. These things are hardwired directly into our emotions. In the TV show, lie to me, which they made about this work, they prophesied an AI capable of reading these things and determining your mood through your facial expressions. We were talking to a guy who has developed this software and they’re thinking deploying it on planes for example.

The story is like, we’ll get a read out of them, yeah. Guy in 2A is not in a good mood. It’s getting really wild out there. What we could do on cellphones, what we could do in the lab is even crazier, but you’re totally right.

Brett McKay: We’ll get into some of the ethics of that technology and being able to hack into ecstasis more easily, talk about that in a bit. An interesting chapter, which I think is very timely because you’re hearing a lot about in the media is, drugs, pharmacology. What are we learning about from pharmacology about getting into ecstasis?

Steven Kotler: Let me walk you through the whole progression because it’s probably useful. The changes in psychology have given us way more permission to explore. Changes in neurobiology have given us the way to map and measure what’s happening in our body and our brain when we’re experiencing the inexplicable. Pharmacology is letting us tune those experiences with increasing precision giving us access to them nearly on demand. Technology is bringing that access to scale. States that used to be experiencable by five or ten people around a campfire perhaps can now be 500,000 people in a stadium. The first thing pharmacology is really doing is it’s giving us a lot more precision with these states.

Brett McKay: Right now, I just heard on NPR, a story about psychedelics, LSD, this thing that was once part of the 60s and we’ve banned it but it’s starting to come, you’re seeing people use psychedelics or LSD to treat things like depression or just to become more creative. We’re talking like microdoses, they’re not like-

Steven Kotler: Yeah, for sure. By the way, cover of last month’s issue of GQ, why your boss wants you to do LSD at work. By the way, the data in psychedelics is pretty clear. Before the microdose in revolution started happening, it shows that roughly one out of ten Americans has an annual psychedelic practice, does psychedelics at least on a yearly basis. There is a huge swatch in the country that have been experimenting with psychedelics. Prior to this, microdosing which are sub-perceptual doses. You don’t trip, have been shown since the 60s in gray experiments to amplify creativity, problem solving, all kinds of stuff.

That’s why when we’re doing the research for “Stealing Fire” for example, what caught our attention was whole teams of engineers at Fortune 100 companies who were secretly microdosing at work on a regular basis. This was not a one-off at one company. This was in a number of different companies that we bumped into this.

Brett McKay: It’s not just LSD. It’s things like ayahuasca is hip in the entrepreneur world. People go on these ayahuasca journeys to South America or peyote is another one.

Steven Kotler: I think the bigger, more important point, and this is my favorite bit of research in the book, I think, bit of data in the book is that today we have options. Here’s what I mean. A lot of these substances we’re now talking about is treatments for anxiety and depression but some of the early work that really led in this direction began about 10 years ago where people are looking at alternative cures for PTSD which is a devastating condition, 25 million Americans at any one time suffer PTSD. It is completely debilitating. The only things on the market were SSRIs which don’t really work for everyone, they don’t really seem to work for women at all. They definitely don’t work in the severe cases and stopped the drugs and you’re back where you started. Not a very effective treatment.

Ten, twelve years ago Michael Mithoefer a psychologist is South Carolina teams up with the multi-disciplinary association for psychedelic research which is run by my friend Rick Doblin. They decided to test MDMA which is technically in a pathedelic, it makes you feel more empathy. It’s known on the street as ecstasy or molly, take your pick as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. They look at victims of child abuse, sexual abuse and war traumas. They test in vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

What they discovered is one to three sessions of psychedelic therapy that means they administer the drug and they do talk therapy with you for the period, was enough to put symptoms of PTSD into near total remission. People got off their meds. It’s been four, five years since that study has rocked then run and they’ve stayed off their meds, which is why the FDA is now looking at MDMA as a treatment for just normal anxiety and depression.

That’s cool but here’s the neater point. Four years after they ran that study, they re-ran that study. This time, instead of using a psychedelic, they substituted surfing which is packed with flow triggers. Camp Pendleton in California, they put over a thousand soldier through a, surfing is a trigger for flow plus talk therapy protocols. Same basic study as the MDMA study, they just switched the trigger mechanism. What they found is that five weeks of surfing and talk therapy was enough to completely cure basic PTSD in soldiers.

Last year, they re-ran that same study, replacing surfing with meditation. They got the same results in four weeks. This is what I mean by options. If you have a tolerance for risk, if you want to get yourself enrolled in a government study or do an illegal substance, or you have a very quick time period that you need to get right in, maybe that’s the way to go. If you got a little more time and you like outdoor activities, flow and surfing is the way to go. If you’re somebody who can learn to meditate and that works for you, we have options. We now know pretty clearly that these states are phenomenal at healing trauma, lower anxiety all that stuff, and we can pick our poison, pardon the pun. That’s the most important thing.

In the end of the book, we do put this into a formula that allows everybody to … it’s really hard to do comparison contrast between these techniques. How do I know what I want to do when and where so we came up with a formula. I will tell you, the formula is more about stack ranking multiple activities because what the research consistently shows is the best way to maximize impact and this is whether or not you’re seeking heightened performance, collaboration, creativity, productivity, or if you’re seeking treatment for trauma and those sorts of things, that blending techniques together.

Meditation works great. Meditation or the periodic psychedelic practice seems to work better. This is recent research they were doing I think at Oxford, and so forth. We’re starting to see … not only do we have options but the next level of research is what’s the best mix and match toolkit. It’s totally different for every individual. There’s no … that’s why we gave you an equation that lets you do this for yourself.

Brett McKay: Besides the pharmacology, another tool, another option is this technology, hardware that’s being developed that actually you can use to trigger states of ecstasis. This is the transcranial, it’s something you shock.

Steven Kotler: Yeah. Okay. I don’t remember if we delved too deep into this earlier. One of the things that happens when we move into these states is there’s deactivation of the prefrontal cortex. It gets quiet in there which is why our sense of self goes away and time pass us strangely and so forth. What we’ve discovered is you can take, you can use transcranial magnetic stimulation, send a weak electromagnetic pulse through the prefrontal cortex, knock it out and induce an artificial flow state. Just to give you a sense of how well this works for stuff, they did an experiment at the University of Sydney not too long ago, like last year or two years ago where they took 46 people people and they gave them the nine dot problem to solve which is the classic test of creative problem solving.

Connect nine dots four line without lifting through pens and paper in 10 minutes. In normal conditions, less than 5% of the population can pull it off. In their group, nobody did. Then they took a different group, same size, and they used transcranial magnetic stimulation to knock out the prefrontal cortex, put people in a 20 to 40 minute temporary flow state and 42% of the people solved the problem in record time. Really, really potent.

By the way, one example, if you want, one of the crazier bits of research in the book, it’s tucked into the neurobiology section but it’s a really neurobiology and technology coming together. Back in 2000, 1999-1998, Andy Newberg a university of Pennsylvania neuroscientist decoded the first spiritual experience. He figured out the most common mystical experience in the world that shows up everywhere is what’s known as unity or cosmic unity. It’s the feeling of becoming one with everything.

He figured out why the brain produces this feeling. I got to know him at that time. I remember having conversation about this and saying, “Do you think we’re going to get very far with many other spiritual experiences soon?” Mystical states, I was curious and he said, “No, maybe a couple more in our lifetime.” Twenty years later and pretty much every mystical state trance states, speaking in tongues, prayer, chanting, meditation, yogi, on and on and on and on, out of body experiences, near death experiences, has been decoded. Even crazier, we’re starting to figure out not only what’s causing the stuff in the brain but we’re starting with using VR simulations for example to be able to reproduce these experiences in people.

There’s now a way to having out of body experience in VR. There’s now a way to have a doppelganger experience in VR. These are some of the rarest experiences in the history of the world and they’re now available at a flick of a switch, which is really a very interesting development that is certainly going to push hard on a lot of religions going forward.

Brett McKay: Another technology you discussed in the book and one I’ve actually tried before is transcranial direct current stimulation where you put all the electric in certain parts of your brain and it somehow excites the neurons where you think faster or whatever. I know athletes are starting to use this a little bit.

Steven Kotler: Yeah, we’re seeing it across the board. The open question about all these technology is what was your experience first of all?

Brett McKay: I didn’t really experience anything. Like I tingled and that was it.

Steven Kotler: That was where I was going because what we’re seeing some of the people who were best at this in the world are the book, “Advanced Brain Monitoring”, Mikey Siegel from the Conscious Hacking Movement, these guys are really talented at this stuff. What the research seems to be showing more and more is at least now, this is where the tech is right now, you really need a skilled practitioner who … because this stuff seems to be very individually customized, you can have some effects at a blanket level though using EEG neuro feedback is probably better if you want one way in. I will also mention that I was talking to Tim Farris about this at one point and he said, “You know, if you get this wrong in a DIY hacker kind of way, you can make yourself pretty stupid for a long time.”

Brett McKay: Right. Scramble your brain. There’s an interesting chapter, I wasn’t expecting it, there was a whole chapter dedicated to Burning Man. What’s interesting is this is timely for me because I have my brother in law, he works for a company that makes tactical electronic stuff for law enforcement and militaries. Make basically surveillance cameras, drone stuff.

Steven Kotler: They’re testing it at Burning Man.

Brett McKay: No, his boss was a burning man and was transformed by it. Now he’s having the whole company go to Burning Man.

Steven Kotler: That’s awesome. By the way, that’s one of the reasons it’s in the book. The reason, it’s sort of is a chapter and isn’t a chapter on Burning Man, this certainly opens that. The point is we got all these lab experiments, we know all this stuff works in the lab, we really do. The question was where is a place where the four forces are showing up really at full force? What’s happening there as a test bed for how this works in the wild? Burning Man, whatever else you want to say about the event is the single largest concentration of state-changing ecstatic technology on the planet. Everything is on display there and all at once.

We open the book with a story about Google who used so many years ago, Burning Man as a way to scream Eric Schmidt. Eric Schmidt got the job as CEO, Burning Mann and because a CEO at Google because of Burning Man. We open that lane, I was going, “why are they doing that? What could this mean?” Where we go with it is, okay, these forces are showing up and what are they producing? The point is you just point it out. First of all, even though the press coverage is either naked hippies doing drugs in the desert or Lady Gaga in a wild costume in the desert. What’s really gone under the hood when you go to the event is you find tremendous amounts of people with money, power and influence.

We’re going to the event, they’re taking the inspiration they’re gathering there and I should pause to mention that Burning Man is called the transformational festival. It’s actually a literal terminal research done at Oxford. They found that the same kind of neuron biological changes that you can get in mediation and chanting in flow and all that stuff shows up at Burning Man. It’s literally transformation. It puts you in an altered state of consciousness. It lingers. Research out of Oxford shows that 75% of people who attend to have have a transformative experience, and 80% of those people  has experienced lingers in their consciousness for weeks and month after the event.

We’re seeing people like Elon Musk for example, going to Burning Man, and struck by inspiration, debuting therapy Tesla roadster there and getting the idea for therapy hyperloop there. Tony Shea, who runs Zappost, they’re literally reorganizing this entire company so that Burning Man style holocracy can be put into the corporate world. We’re seeing over and over and over and over again, and the example is we drill down into the rest of the chapter, of places where you wouldn’t really expecting this. One things to say, “OK, you have people from Silicon Valle, they’re going to Burning Man, they’re getting inspired, they’re coming back.

What we document is Burning Man principles and that heightened inspiration that comes from attending the festival making inroads into thing like intelligence gathering, disaster relief, at a really big deep level. It’s not just a Silicon Valley innovation front, as you pointed out, it’s now going into the security agencies, a lot of other agencies. We’re seeing a lot of government presence at the event, and we’re seeing it really bleed into all aspects of culture at this point.

Brett McKay: Right. I thought the section about how the military is only interested how Burning Man has organized because it’s all bottom up. The military’s trying to shift towards that direction more of bottom up so this command in control idea where-

Steven Kotler: In lives. They’re putting people in the group flow, what’s great about that is one of the things that happens when all those neurochemical that show up do a lot of things as I’ve mentioned but they’re also social bonding chemicals. They amplify trust between people and collaboration and cooperation and things along those lines. When you get a bunch of people in group flow inspired that way, they function as like a seamless team. Team performance just goes through the roof. That’s what they saw, burners without borders which was a disaster response team that was organized during Katrina has now worked everywhere around the world, every disaster you an think of. But they were significantly faster and more productive that FEMA. They were getting job after job after job done, and FEMA was getting bogged down and bogged down. That caught a lot of people’s attention including the UN. They went, “What the heck is going on? How were you doing this? Teach us.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Steven, as I was reading the book, I was thinking, “This all sounds really cool.” But the same time, I was like, “You know this is kind of creepy too. I feel like this could be easily abused be it corporations, by governments, you have these things you can stick on your head and change people’s thoughts.” Drugs, I teacher sounded like, and you talked about this in the book, it sounds like “Brave New World”, the novel. Can’t these ecstasis technology have some bad side effects?

Steven Kotler: Absolutely. Thank you for bringing it up because I don’t want this all to feel like sunshine and rainbows because it’s really not. This stuff brings a massive amount of responsibility. There’s three pitfalls. The most obvious one is headiness. These are sticky states produced by very, very, very addictive neurochemistry, really powerful feel good neurochemistry. That doesn’t mean matter like cob walking in. Psychedelics have been proven time and time again not to be addictive but it’s still, they’re compelling in a deep way. Flow states are compelling in a deep way. How many athletes do I know growing up who just lost their to a ski town or a surf town and spent a decade as a surf bum or a ski bum chasing flow states. These are sticky states, they require a lot of responsibility to play with them.

This isn’t just self-help. This isn’t 5% to 10% happier. It’s a huge boost, 400% heightened creativity, 500% heightened productivity, huge boost. But if the book was going to be about the self-help movement, would have called it Borrowing A Night Light not Stealing Fire. There’s consequences involved here. You have to be an adult about this stuff.

The other issues that you brought up are probably just as sticky. We cover militarization. The military has been interested in ways to trigger non-ordinary states of consciousness since literally, we tell the story of John Lilly’s inventing of the world’s first pleasure probe. It’s a brain implant that stimulates our orgasm machinery. The minute he invents the thing, and he’s at the University of Pennsylvania, every government three-letter agency you can imagine is at his door. Lilly doesn’t want to give it to him. He says, “Look, given to the wrong hands, this can control a person.” We’re going to open source it business his boss says you got to give him presentation anyways so he does, a couple of months after that, he get another guy from presentation, contacts him and say, “We’d like to come photograph your research with dolphins.”

He again insists that it’s got to be open sourced and nothing can be classified. Two years later, John Lilly is flipping through Harper’s magazine and he sees literally a photo of a man who came to his lab standing next to what they call a nuclear donkey. They have literally taken a donkey, put his brain implant in the donkey’s brain, put a nuclear suitcase on its back and can steer it into enemy territory through pleasure and pain.

The very first time we invent one of these technologies, the military, the Sandia corporation coops it. From that point on, the stories, they’re absurd on one level they’re tinfoil hat on another and they’re downright frightening on another level because there’s a 50-year very visible track record written about a lot of places packed into the X Files. We don’t take it seriously but there’s a 50-year track record of people trying to militarize these technologies. That’s a dangerous, dangerous trend. We talked about the importance of cognitive literacy, understand what’s going on in your brain, how it work, how you can use it, and cognitive liberty. Don’t let other people rent space in your head if you can avoid it. The bigger I think on the cognitive liberty front, I think the military is problematic but marketing is even more problematic. We’re seeing an overall trend … these states, I always tell people don’t go shopping in a flow state. You got heightened pattern recognition, everything looks good. You’re going to come home with a bunch of shit you did not want.

The same thing is really true. You take some of the most meaningful potent states of Earth and associate them with brands and you have a very powerful link. Advertisers and marketers are already working to exploit this link. The whole field of neuromarketing which was you sort of like popped into consciousness back in the late 90s early thousands, we’re a little bit not taken seriously because it was early days. Now the technology is getting really good. It’s no longer early days.

Those are issues. They’re all very very real. What the force is accelerating and the fact that this is already a $4 trillion underground market, the opportunity for entrepreneurs is everywhere, fantastic, but also double-edged sword a little bit.

Brett McKay: Steven, there’s a lot more we could talk about. Where can people learn more about your book and your work?

Steven Kotler: Perfect question. is everything you need about “Stealing Fire”. If you want more about me, If you want to know more about flow hacking, go to If you go to the flow genome project site by the way, there’s a free flow profile, anybody can take it. It’s a trickology. It says, if you’re this kind of person, you’re going to find flow in these directions. It’s a really good place to start if you’re interested in this stuff and want to move forward.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Steven Kotler, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Steven Kotler: My pleasure, thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Steven Kotler. He’s the author of the book, “Stealing Fire”, it’s available on, in bookstores everywhere. You can also find more information about the book at, and also more about Steven’s work with the Flow Genome Project and his other writing at Also make sure to check our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at Our show is recorded on If you’re a podcaster and do remote podcast recordings, it’s a service that I’ve developed with my brother in law to improve the sound quality on it. You can check it out at Thank you for your continuous support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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