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Steven Kotler talks about the psychology and physiology of the flow state

By May 31, 2017 2 Comments


“ There’s a skill set underneath what looks like impossible.’ And from that point on, I really did spend the next 40 years trying to figure out how people do the impossible.”–Steven Kotler


Steven KotlerWho is Steven Kotler?

Steven Kotler (@steven_kotler) is the co-author of the book “Stealing Fire” with his friend Jamie Wheal. He is an expert on flow state, and has deep insight into the physical and emotional aspects of flow. No doubt, everyone is interested in how this kind of effortless perfection or shibumi works. He talks with Commander Divine about flow, and both he and Mark are able to give us some clues as to how we will be able to access this state. Listen to the episode to learn more and be able increase your performance.


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Discussing Flow States With Steven Kotler

Hey folks, this is Mark Divine back at you with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for being with me today. Super-appreciate it as you know. I do not take it for granted. There are literally a bazillion and 1 things vying for your attention, and so I’m excited today to be talking about how we can maybe push back against that with my friend Steven Kotler, who is a bestselling author of too many books to name, and most recently “Stealing Fire.” And you may recall, also, we spoke to his co-author, Jamie Wheal, recently.

But before we get started, and before I kind of let Steven tell you in his own words who he is, let me remind you that it certainly helps if you rate our podcast. Particularly if you give it 5 stars. So the way to do that is just to start… like, to be opposite world… just start on the right side and click the first button to the far right, when you see the 5 stars in iTunes and that’ll automatically give me 5 stars. How cool is that? You don’t have to think twice about it.

All right, also look for our new SEALFIT boot camp, which is going to be a cutting edge, like, really revolutionary functional fitness program where we weave the Unbeatable Mind mental training into the digital workouts. So you can follow along and practice your breath and positive dialogue and imagery. And task orientation while you train. So that’s going to be very cool. We’re going to launch that. The goal is April 15th, so stay tuned.


Thanks, Steve. Thanks so much for joining me. You’re in New Mexico right now. Busy as heck. The phone is dinging and ringing. You got a lot going on. Let’s start with just… like, I like people to get a sense for the character of the guest, you know? Like, what is your ethos? What drives you? And what were some of the influences in your life that made you who you are today, as a very successful author and thought leader?

Steven Kotler: You wanna know where I came from?

Mark: Yeah. Not just geography, although that’s interesting to people. But where you came from? What were the myths, and memes that were part of your upbringing that led you where you are?

Steven: A lot of my life, since I was little … like 8, 9 years old… has been… Well, I think I’ve been shaped by 3 forces more than anything else. Skiing, hurling myself down mountains at high speed. Writing. I wrote my first poem when I was 5. My mom had me… she was young. Didn’t have a lot of money. Didn’t really know what she was doing. But she knew books were good, so she would go to the library and get 50 books and just read them to me. And then get 50 more. So I was raised in this world of words.

And both of those were huge influences. And I’ll just tell you this story. Cause I don’t tell it very often.

When I was 8 or 9 years old my brother, my kid brother comes home. He’d been at a friend’s, Eric’s house and a couple years younger than me. I’m in the kitchen, I’m talking to mom. And he walks in and he holds up this red ball. This red sponge ball. And he takes it from one hand and he puts it the other and it disappears.

And 2 things go through my mind. One is like, “Holy Fuck. I’ve gotta problem capturing mom’s attention anymore.” (laughing) Now it’s war, buddy. Not okay!

And the other thing is, it was like… My baby brother just did something that honest to God, it looked impossible to me. He made a ball disappear. And I knew my brother wasn’t magic. So it was at that moment, in my mind, that I went, “Oh wait a minute. There’s a skill set underneath what looks like impossible.” And from that point on, I really did spend the next 40 years trying to figure out how people do the impossible. Doesn’t matter, really what domain. Could be “Rise to Superman”… I’m talking about action sport athletes pushing the bounds of kinesthetic possibility. It could be gold, and we’re looking at entrepreneurs building kind of world-changing company’s over-night, or abundance people taking on grand global challenges like poverty or energy. These are all impossible quests.

So I don’t know if that answers your question exactly. But those were 3 very big forces.

Mark: No, I think that you did. So first, love for adventure and extreme sports. So hurling yourself down a 60 degree slope on an icy mountain top isn’t normal. Even though we pretend to think it’s normal, over the last hundred years. But it’s really not normal. I don’t think human beings were designed to do that, necessarily.

So that’s one thing. And then this influence of your mom, like and the writing, it’s fascinating. I mean, so I could see how… I’m not sure how those connect up, yet. But then later on, in your writing on exploring flow and potential, they start to connect.

Steven: Yeah, you know, first and foremost I’m a creator, I’m an artist. I was trained as a fiction writer. I was trained as a novelist. I fell into magazine journalism. That led me into book writing… non-fiction book writing, which, you know, led me into a career of science.

But, like, one led to the other, led to the other. But the words have always been a part of it.

Starting with science and flow

When I read books like Mihaly Csikszsentmihalyi, sort of the godfather of flow psychology.–Which, I’m sure we’re going to get to in a second–wrote a book a book on creativity. In it he describes stuff about the creative personality type, which is a both/and, right? You’re very, very quiet. Very, very loquacious. That sort of thing.

And I’m reading it, and I’m like… “Oh yeah. This is me. He’s got me. He’s got me down. There’s nothing really special about me. I’m right there on that page.”

Mark: Yeah, that was such a classic work, and I often quote him but I try not to do it verbally because I could never pronounce his name. So we call him “Shitsnmolly.” but that’s not too far off, is it?

Steven: Okay, so I’m going to give you the… true story, I’m on NPR, I think Cleveland, Ohio, my second book has come out, where I wrote about his work. And I slaughter his name. The phone rings and somebody gets on and says, “Please tell the idiot its “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high.” Chick-sent-me-high.

Mark: Oh, there we go. I knew there was pneumonic.

Steven: And by the way, fairly appropriate. Okay, I got that.

Mark: One of the things that always stuck with me in his writing was how he said… when he’d talk about accidental flow. What I mean by that is… just to characterize some of our discussion here. I train for deliberate flow access, right? I think that… I believe, based upon my experience as a SEAL and a long time martial artist and yogi, that you can train your brain to access flow at will, or very quickly. By setting up the conditions in your mind for that to happen.

And what Csikszentmihalyi was talking about was really people who just accidentally trigger flow, because of the conditions they set themselves in. And he said there were 2 things–and you can elaborate on this, I hope–2 things that have to occur. One is the challenge level has to be slightly higher than their skill level, right?

And two is, they have to have trained relentlessly to a point where when they meet that point, they don’t back down, but they press into that unknown.

And so now they’ve developed… or they access that shibumi, that Japanese concept of shibumi which is effortless perfection. But it has to happen when the challenge level is high, and their skill level is high, and then the challenge level is slightly raises above their skill level. So they kind of have to step into that unknown. And shut off their active thinking faculties.

I probably didn’t articulate it exactly, but I remember he had a little chart. One was “Skill level” one was “challenge level”…

Steven: Yeah, I mean you’re totally… you’re right. So what we know now… Csikszentmihalyi said flow states have triggers. Pre-conditions that lead to more flow.

Csikszentmihalyi identified 3 psychological triggers. You were just talking about one of them, often called the “Golden Rule” of flow, which is the challenge/skills balance. And easiest way to explain this is flow follows focus. It can only show up when all of our attention is focused on the right here, right now. So that’s what all these triggers do, they’re ways of focusing attention on the present moment. They’re the 20 things evolution shaped our brain to pay a lot of attention to. And we pay a lot of attention to the task at hand when the challenge of the task slightly exceeds the skill set. You wanna stretch but not snap.

And yes, because flow is what happens when a bunch of different chunks… we’ve laid down… we’ve learned the skills already. We’ve learned big parts of it, all right? So it usually… you can have flow in novel experiences. It happens all the time. You go traveling, bunch of novelty produces a bunch of dopamine, drives your focus in the now, produces flow.

But if you’re doing it with an activity, you may get a bunch of flow early on. You’re just learning how to ride a skateboard, and the first time you ride down a hill… not much skill there, but you get some flow. That tends to disappear fairly quickly, and then you have to start laying your skills on, and flow will show up when all the chunks lock together in a place at once.

And what’s underneath that, actually, is pattern recognition. When we link ideas together. Could be kinesthetic ideas, could be cognitive ideas, creative ideas, we get a little burst of dopamine. You felt it if you’ve done a crossword puzzle. You get a right answer, you get that little burst of pleasure, that’s dopamine. It’s a focusing chemical. Drives focus.

So all of these… All the triggers, all 20 of the, including the 3 that Csikszentmihalyi applied, drive focus in the present moment.

We found… there’s 10 that drive people into group flow, the shared, collective version of the state. And now 10 that drive people into kind of individual flow.

Mark: These are based upon your research? Or Csikszentmihalyi’s research? Or where do these 20 flow triggers… who identified them?

Steve: Csikszentmihalyi identified 3 psychological triggers. Clear goals, immediate feedback and the challenge/skills balance. And clear goals are different than big goals. Clear goals means I know what I’m doing right now, I know what I’m doing next. So I’m going to bench press and then I’m going to jump rope. And the reason it’s important for flow is so your attention doesn’t wander. “What am I supposed to do next?” It stays right, focused on the present. You know what you’re doing.

Immediate feedback is the same thing. It’s course correction in real time. Right, like what action sports are awesome for. If you don’t set that ski edge on top of the chute, straight to the bottom. It’s immediate feedback.

A guy name Keith Sawyer, psychologist at the University of North Carolina, identified 10 social triggers for flow. He spent 15 years videotaping Second City television and watching for the moment the comedy troupe, the improv troupe, came together and the level of “funny” went through the roof.

And then he did video analysis using… so he came up with 10 tools. He writes about this in his book. Or 10 triggers he writes about in his book, “Group Genius.” And then our work at the Flow Genome Project has identified 7 more. So of the 7, 5 are triggers that really work for action sport athletes. Everything from risk… again, it triggers dopamine. Those sorts of things. To, you know, novelty, complexity, unpredictability. Whenever I’m encountering those things, again, you get dopamine, focuses attention.

And then creativity’s the last one. So 5 that are sort of those triggers, we call the “environmental triggers.” They’re things in the environment.

And then creativity is the last one. And underneath creativity, all I’m talking about is pattern recognition. So you’re just talking about the fact that when you link ideas together, you get dopamine.

Mark: Right. Interesting.

Brain activity and flow

Steven: You know, if I were totally honest, there’s a shit-ton more. Right, like, you know frame-rate. Things moving past your eyes really closely. Something in there is definitely a trigger. So mountain bikers or dirt-bike riders, when they go from out on the forest into a single track almost immediately… frame-rate shrinks, people drop into flow.

And obviously, if we’re talking about flow, sex triggers an almost nearly… there’s a flow state triggered by sex. Obviously sex focuses our attention, but what is it? Is it lust? Nobody’s looked at that. I can just point to these places and say, “Hey, there’s stuff going on here, and we just don’t…” Nobody’s gone deep enough yet.

Mark: Right. So that’s fascinating. So essentially what we’re talking about is anything’s that’s radically going to change the brain state from thinking to perceiving and using the skills of perception… direct perception… as well as the patterns that you’ve grooved into your subconscious through training. And whether that’s being music or an extreme sport or even a mathematician getting in the flow state. What I’d like to do is… and I can see how there’s a lot of different things that are going to be able to trigger that. Both externally, environmentally as well as internally. So I don’t get lost in this discussion here, let’s talk about both subjective and objective experience of flow.

So we’ve already talked about… so we’ll start with the objective cause you’ve already brought up dopamine. And there’s a lot of science around… emerging around that flow state and altered states and consciousness is all really about pattern recognition, like you alluded to. Chemical and hormonal balances or releases. So what are some of the other objective things happening in flow? I mean, brainwave patterns? You’re going to dip into an alpha-state, right? And so you’re brainwaves are going to slow down, for the most part. Is that correct? Or am I off there?

Steven: 21st century normal. You and I right now. Hyper-activity in the pre-frontal cortex, part of the brain that’s right behind your forehead. This is higher cognitive functions, sense of morality, sense of will. Brainwaves in a fast moving beta-wave, where we are right now. And pretty much, for most people, a steady “drip-drip” of stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol. That is 21st century normal, or what psychologists call “tired, wired and chronically stressed.”

In flow, signature shifts completely. So instead of hyper-activity in the pre-frontal cortex, it quiets down. It’s called transient–meaning temporary–hypo-frontality.

Mark: And what does that look like in terms of brain. Let’s use brainwaves for example.

Steven: Two different things. If you want to talk about where things happen in the brain, you want to talk about three things. Neural anatomy–where is it taking place? Neural chemistry, and neural electricity which is the 3 ways the brain send signals, right?

So neural anatomically, the pre-frontal cortex gets very quiet. This is why “self” disappears. That sense of self gets very quiet. Self is calculated all over the pre-frontal cortex. It’s a network. Network starts to quiet down. We can’t create our sense of self, so that inner critic, that nagging voice in your head, goes quiet.

Brainwaves move from beta down through alpha, but what the research shows is flow is based on is actually closer to the alpha/theta borderline. So alphas the daydreaming mode, essentially. And theta’s where you are in the hypnogogic state. Or during REM sleep, right? You’re falling asleep and the pink elephant changes into a pink sweater, changes into a pink bratwurst. When you’re brain isn’t attaching much, that’s a good signal you’re in theta.

And neural chemicals, stress hormones flush out and you get feel-good, performance enhancing chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, oxytocin.

Mark: Okay. So it’s a confluence of where the brain activity is happening, the chemical released–whether it’s dopamine, which is going to focus you, make you feel good–or whether it’s adrenaline which is going to stress you out and make you feel agitated. And the neural-electrical wavelength, which is either in a beta or gamma- hyper-excited or beta- us having a conversation. Or when we’re in flow it’s going to be more around that alpha-theta-line. So when those 3 come together… what happens if only, like, one of them happens?

Steven: So really great question and the absolute, totally truthful answer is we don’t know. Csikszentmihalyi said, “Hey, wait a minute. I think there’s micro-flow on end of the spectrum and macro-flow on the other.” And he writes… he had 10 phenomenological characteristics of flow. How does it make me feel, right?

And this was uninterrupted concentration, merger of action and awareness, vanishing of self, time passes… etc., etc.

Mark: That’s the subjective part, which I think is critical too. But anyways, we’ll come back to that.

Steven: Right. That’s the subjective part. And we simplify it even more in “Stealing Fire” and came up with a simpler framework that we think is maybe a little more helpful, but… it’s a spectrum, right? It’s a spectrum experience. Like, anger. You could be a little irked, you could be homicidally murderous. It’s the same emotion.

Mark: So let me stop. So micro-flow would be like, you know, if I’m a golfer and I just happen to hit an unbelievable shot, and I’m like, “Holy Cow. I don’t know how I did that.” Versus, someone being in flow for an entire 18 holes, or maybe a season. Just differentiate between micr0- and macro-.

Steven: That’s interesting. I think you’re right on your example, though I don’t think about it… I’ve never thought about it that way. I would say, I take it a little back one step further to kind of the mechanical. Which is if a couple of flows initial conditions show up, like, time… you don’t notice time passing right? Hours go by and you don’t notice. You’re not really thinking about yourself. And you’re really focused.

That’s micro-flow. Like, where I got this morning when I was writing.

Macro-flow was where I was yesterday when I was skiing 40 miles an hour through the trees, and I had all the conditions. Time was going slow. And my sense of self was totally gone, I was completely focused in the moment and all that stuff.

Mark: Well I can see how the elevation of risk is going to cause your attention to be more outward versus inward. So I would suggest that you can focus your flow inward, which is going to be the writing experience, or outward, which is going to be to keep yourself from missing the trees whizzing by you. And that’s going to change the subjective experience a little bit.

Steven: But you have to also remember there’s a lot of risk in creativity.

Mark: That’s true. Not necessarily life and death risk. So the time domain is a little different. You may kill your career over 20 years, but you’re not going to kill yourself in 3 seconds when you hit that tree. (laughing)

That’s fascinating. I love it. You know, it’s interesting how much research has been… how much work you guys have done with the flow genome. And picking up the work that Csikszentmihalyi… I actually have to look at that written down when I say his name. Until I pattern that into my mind and I can say Csikszentmihalyi in a flow state myself.

Steven: I have to tell you something. 5 years from now, you’re not going remember one thing I said, but you’re going to remember how to pronounce his name. (laughing)

Mark: (laughing) Right. Exactly. Let’s come back to that whole subjective experience, cause that’s been… I’m relatively new; it’s probably pretty obvious… to all the science behind flow. When we were in the SEAL teams, we didn’t give a you-know-what about the science. What we cared about is what is going to allow us to perform and to survive the mission and to bring our teammates home. And so we did all sorts of things. The long periods of silence was akin to mindfulness meditation. Cause we used to say… I’m sure you probably heard this from you work with DEVGRU and whatnot that an operation is like 23 hours of utter boredom , broken with 30 minutes, or 45 minutes of sheer terror. So that 23 or 23 and a half hours, the true warriors were contemplating, meditating, breathing. That was practice time. And there’s a lot of skill development. Tweaking your gear, and it’s like “Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off.” “Let me tape my gear up a little bit more,” and there’s a lot of those… a lot of those patterns going on, which is not necessarily the patterning of the extreme athlete, but it happens with them too. It’s the mental patterning of the inner domain.

Refining how to shift your attention really quickly. Refining… like you said, how do you shift out of the regions of the neo-cortex that is actively thinking versus the region that is watching what’s thinking and still performing? Those types of things.

In SEALs, we just figured that shit out. Most of us.

Steven: Look, the SEALS are excellent at it. That’s the first thing I learned, is like, you guys… you don’t get to be a SEAL unless you’re best in the world at figuring this out, right?

Same thing as the action/adventure sport athletes I was working with, right? A handful of them, Dean Potter, a couple other people… had enough; they were cross-training with meditation and psychedelic practices. Like, they were experimenting with states of consciousness so they could… and they had read enough that they could speak learnedly on it.

But as a general rule, they had no idea what they were doing. They were just excellent at it because they needed to survive. It was just… so that was how we got to these triggers. We started with guys like you and guys like the athletes. Then we said, “Okay, we’ve got all this neuroscience. Let’s work backwards. That’s how we’re going to do it.” And that was the process, long before we started testing ideas, we just started talking to people. And what did the best in the world do intuitively, and let’s work backwards to some science and see if we can get it right. Then test the hypothesis.

Mark: Yeah, that’s cool.

4 States of flow

Mark: Let’s talk about the 4 subjective experiences of flow. You rattled through a bunch of them earlier, and you mentioned that you kind of came up with a better framework, and I know that time was one of them. The feeling of being very present and basically maybe experiencing time the way it really is. As opposed to our kind of mental, linear concept of time.

So let’s talk through… I think there were 4 primary subjective experiences.

Steven: Yeah, we used the acronym STER. Which stands for “Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness and Richness.” And let me just walk through them quickly.

Selflessness we got. We talked about it, right? Your sense of self disappears.

Same thing happens with sense of time. Time is also calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. So David Eagleman, at Stanford, actually, did most of the work on this. He figured out that the pre-frontal cortex starts to shut down.

And by the way, it’s not fancy… It’s an efficiency exchange. Your brain says, “Hey, I need a lot of energy for focusing attention right now. Let’s pull it away from non-critical areas. And keeping track of the future and the past? Not super-helpful. When you want to focus outright.

So you get obviously enormous performance benefit from this. Because you’re inner critic goes off. Most of our fears are, as you pointed out a second ago, they’re either in the past or in the future. Unless you’re skiing through the trees at 40 miles an hour, or are a Navy SEAL for that half an hour, very little shit is happening right here, right now. So fear goes away. Anxiety drops. Risk taking literally, it measurably goes up. Creativity, cause you’re no longer doubting you need ideas… goes up. All kinds of stuff. And we feel that great liberation, that freedom. We’re out of our own way.

Simultaneously, we get this great sense of effortlessness. I was talking… if I was being really dry and psychological I’d say, “Well, yes. Intrinsic motivation goes through the roof in flow.” If I was being neurobiological, I’d say, “Well, yes. You get 5 of the most potent ‘feel-good’ drugs the brain can produce in this state. And flow is a huge addictive state.”

Or if I was just… if I was trying to describe it to me and you I would say, “Look, it feels like effortless effort. Shibumi. The word you used. Effortless perfection. That’s a great way to talk about it.

It’s like… I am just a vessel for the universe. One of the things… I wrote a book called “A Small Furry Prayer.” My third book. And I wrote it in a non-stop flow state, over, like, a course of 3 weeks.

Mark: No kidding. How cool is that?

Steven: It all came together, and…

Mark: Do you think that’s like a creative genius like Beethoven channeling the 5th symphony. Obviously, he’s in a flow state, but it’s an extended state where all of a sudden shit is just coming right through him.

Steven: Well, that’s what I mean. “Stealing Fire” did really well. It was nominated for a Pulitzer. Got a lot of attention. I have no idea who wrote it.

I sure didn’t. I couldn’t do it again. I’m not quite sure where it came from. There are chunks of it… I open it up and I’m like, “Whoa, that’s amazing! I have no idea who did that. I don’t know how to do that.”

Mark: (laughing) Maybe your editors did it.

Steven: You have that feeling. And flow does that, right? You don’t… you know, and I think that’s part of the… especially when it’s physical right? When you’re doing something and it’s dangerous. There’s that feeling of, like, “I can’t believe what’s going on.”

And what’s amazing about it is, all that’s happened is your subconscious, right? Your adaptive unconscious has taken over processing and the adaptive unconscious… thought moves 150 miles an hour. Unconscious thought moves nearly at light speed.

Thought is limited to about… you can hold about 5 items in your working memory until you’re overloaded. The subconscious is endless. Right? So, you know, very rarely when you’re awake do you actually get to watch the subconscious do its thing at that speed. In flow, you’re actually… you get to sort of move at the speed of the subconscious and it feels like magic. And if it’s creativity, doesn’t feel like your brain is dreaming up the words. And if it’s physicality, you’re not quite sure how you’re doing what it is that you’re doing.

Mark; Right. I think it’s fascinating and it’d be interesting to talk about maybe the environmental triggers that cause one experience to slow down, to the point where you’re just like, everything’s moving in this really slow time. I’ve experienced that in a lot of Chi-gong and Tai Chi experiences in training.

Like, we used to do one simple drill where we’d have our palm facing the ground and we would drop a quarter above the top of our hand and then we would practice catching the quarter. And at first, it was a mechanical thing, and then after… after maybe 50 or 100 of these–because we’d been training for a long time in other ways–all of a sudden realized it wasn’t about catching the quarter, it was about changing the focus of where your mind is at. Softening your gaze. Seeing… tapping into the experience–the subjective experience–of slowing down time and seeing the lattice-work around everything.

And then, all of a sudden, your mind could see the quarter dropping like “chik-chik-chik” and you just turn your palm over and it’s right there, you know?

So that was an experience of time collapsing and activating a flow state, but it took a little bit of training. But most of the training wasn’t how to catch the quarter. It was how to move your mind.

Steven: Right. You’re totally right. We could kill 2 birds with one stone. The R, that richness. Selfless, timeless… Richness. Stands for information richness, and it’s exactly what you’re describing.

Mark: Feels like a lattice of energy around you. That’s the real texture.

Steven: You’re taking in more information per second. You’re processing it more quickly and processing it more completely. So more pattern recognition, more lateral thinking. Salience. More attention to the present. And more data per second. So one of the reasons, you know, time slows down… there’s arguments on all sides on this, but one of the reasons time slows down is because a lot of people seem to think time is a measure of how much information you’re thinking per second. You normally take in a fixed amount of information.

In flow, it seems like that widens. Doesn’t even have to widen by that much. If you think about, your “soft gaze,” that you had to do for the quarter catch, right? Not adding that much data with the “soft gaze.” You’re adding a few more data bits. 10, 20, 30 right? Doesn’t matter.

But we have a fixed… Csikszentmihalyi that most of us can only pay attention to about 120 bits of data per second. And just to put that in perspective, 60 bits is what it takes to listen to me talk. Two people… you and me start talking at once; your listeners are maxed, right? Like, a house could catch on fire behind them, and they don’t have bandwidth. They will not notice.

Mark: This is why we can’t multi-task, right?

Steven: Yes. Yeah.

Mark: Okay. So richness… Selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness… I mean, totally, you guys nailed it. I love that. And each one of those has a whole kind of subjective expression depending upon the type of flow. Whether it’s a creative experience like writing, or skiing down that slope, or a Navy SEAL in a firefight. And I guess 1 of the things that I’m struggling with… There’s a couple things I’m struggling with and I wanna take maybe… go down one of those little rabbit holes that we talked about before I recall.

Mystery and flow

One is… and I feel this way with a lot of things these days… is I really enjoyed the mystery of it. You know what I mean? Like I loved the mystery of training in the martial arts and yoga and not always having to have the freaking answer as to why I could do certain things. Or to explain how Nakamura could cut through 6 blocks of ice with his forehead. You know what I mean?

And, how some of my friends in the SEALs were able to literally walk through the most intense firefight, being able to see the patterns and know that they’re going to be 100% safe, and just go do the mission.

Steven: When I wrote “Rise of Superman,” Alex Honnold, who’s probably the greatest living rock climber–who’s a friend–calls me up and he says “Well, it’s really well written. But I had a really hard time reading it.”

And I was like, “Well, what do you mean?”

He’s like, “I don’t want to know how the sausage is made.”

Mark: (laughing) Exactly. I don’t want to be reduced to a biological mechanism, you know?

Steven: I always say with this is, “Just cause I can… there’s mystery right outside the science.” The science doesn’t mean that there’s missed mystery. Like, for example, in flow, the question we were talking about earlier, writing felt like channeling.

So where does the writing come from? Is it all pattern recognition? Cause you certainly in these states feel like you’re tapping into a richer information stream.

Like the Greeks called it Divine Inspiration for reason, right?

So we don’t… earlier, before we got on the podcast, you raised the question of what is AI going to bring to this? And it’s one of the things that I… to answer that question now for you is … so with AI, we’re going to start moving into the edge of intuitive AI right now. So massive pattern recognition. So we’re going to get… by watching this develop, we’re going to get a sense of maybe an answer to that question of where does the information come from? Cause we’ll get to see what a super pattern recognition system on high produces. And we’ll be able to map it. Compare it to our own experiences.

And I think it’ll get us a little bit farther. But it’s just a little bit farther. Because the mystery is right on the other side of that little bit farther. And thank God. That’s so compelling. That’s part of the fun. That’s the fun of science is you get to like kind of probed the mystery, and you just get to the next question.

It doesn’t go away; you just get to the next question.

I always said… I wrote “Rise of Superman,” cause I wanted other… I wanted to introduce like, “Let’s establish a common language for this thing. So other smart people can get in here… I’m out of ideas. Let’s get to the next… to help me get to the next question. This is the best I got.”

Mark: I agree with you, and on my most optimistic days, I think that AI will really help us explore the full or… not just explore, but tap into the full potential of the human being, right? And it’ll do it in ways that obviously we can’t really anticipate right now. We just can’t see it.

What we can see is, for example, what you wrote about, and disclosed in “Stealing Fire,” about accelerated learning. Accessing flow states like the SEALs in the float tank, and piping in Berlitz. Learning a language like Farsi in 6 weeks as opposed to traditionally, 6 months or longer.

So we know that tapping into bio-hacks and leveraging multiple of I would say stacking flow triggers, which is what you’re doing… If you’re doing that with a float tank, breath control, meditation and then piping in a binaural beat with a language, what you’re doing essentially is stacking triggers, or stacking tools… I’m not sure which term is correct… probably both.

Stacking tools and triggers, and then what ultimately is going to happen is you’re going to see some sort of intersection where they’re going to trigger different chemical, different electrical and different regional areas in your brain, for maximum effect. Now that’s cool.

Steven: And the other thing is this. Certainly what all the research has showed is everybody’s an individual.

Mark: Yeah. It’s going to have a different effect for you as it does for me.

Steven: Your flow triggers are not my flow triggers. We seem to think that how this state makes us feel… the subjectivity of it is shared, right?

Jason Silva, famously calls altered states “the language without words that we all share.” And I think that’s true, right? Like, we have this experience. We don’t have to… we can’t put words around it. We can describe it, but once again, I guess that’s the mystery.

Mark: Yeah, that is the mystery. So that’s the one way. Virtual Reality… I think about the holo-deck or the Construct in the Matrix, I think that’s where training is going to go. But it might take us a hundred years to get there. Or 50 to 100. I don’t know. Some people think it’s coming really fast, but that part, that kind of rich experience of Virtual Reality and using it for training is… there’s a lot of complexity there.

Then there’s the other part. The Kurzweilian kind of view of the world that AI is just going to be able to replicate the human experience. And this brings me back to the context of this discussion around mystery. And I’m like, “I don’t know.” Because there is that… all of this discussion is really interesting. To allow us to tap into our potential and to experience maybe a rich, more nuanced life and to perform. But I don’t think, at least you and I don’t mistake that for the totality of what the human experience is. For instance is there a soul, and what is “spirit,” and what is it when Beethoven channels the 5th or the 8th symphony? There’s something beyond that, and will AI be able to channel that, or tap into that, or experience that?

Steven: Forget all the mystery, the metaphysicality for a second. Think about it this way. When you have a party and everybody leaves, the house feels empty. Doesn’t look empty or sound empty, it feels empty. Absence of life, sensation. So presence of life is also a sensation. And in a weird way, at a fundamental level I think at the basic level empathy is a life detector. That’s the first thing we’re doing.

And then we’re modeling and mirroring, and doing all that stuff. But there’s a built in life detector. So the question is, “Am I going to be able to build a robot… an AI brain that…

Mark: That you detect life in.

Steven: Right, because what we’ve found is… when they build robots that are too lifelike, it crosses what they call the “uncanny valley.” And we tend to get revolted by them. It’s literally like a physical… people have a physical response if we make robots that are too life-like, we tend to feel disgust in their presence. And it’s called the “uncanny valley.” The valley between actual life and artificial life. Nobody quite knows why, they just know that we have this reaction.

Mark: That’s fascinating. I’d never heard that. So that movie “Her” where the guy falls in love with his Suri-like AI, that’s not borne out by current research?

Steven: It is borne out. Because you certainly see… they’ve done studies of those in Japan they have all kinds of animatronic, stuffed animals, basically. Fake dogs, fake cats, whatever… You can get an oxytocin reaction… kids will get oxytocin from petting the robot, right?

So you can… some of it yes, some of it, no. It seems to be too lifelike is what freaks us out. When it looks…

Mark: If it looks too much like a human…

Steven: That’s why if you see… a lot of the robots they’re making, they look a little ridiculous.

Mark: They’re kind of boxy and ridiculous, yeah. They’re kind of more like a mechanical pet, yeah.

Steven: So I mean… all this stuff starts to get really interesting, because we have the technology to ask the questions. We’ve never had that before. So we, you know, it’s a great time to be on the roller-coaster is how I think about it.

Technology and flow

Mark: Yeah, no kidding. I agree. Well said and probably a good segway to kind of like move on. Because we’ve been at this for a while. We could probably talk about this stuff forever.

Steven: I’ve gotta call Peter in…

Mark: Yeah, you gotta call Peter… So let me shout out to Peter by the way, cause you guys wrote a tremendous book–2 of them, actually. “Abundance” really, I gotta admit, helped me understand the positive power of technology. And also, of course, start to see with… how it’s all coming in accelerated fashion. And that got me to go meet Peter and go to his “Abundance” thing every year and it’s really neat. I love the work that he has done and that you’ve done with him, by capturing that knowledge.

So “Abundance,” and then the follow-on was “Bold” where you actually looked at the entrepreneurs, who you said were kind of in that macro-flow state, and doing extraordinary things that… Like, Elon Musk is now creating a neural network interface company, and he’s sending people to Mars, and I’ve been waiting for his solar roof to come along for a couple of years now. I mean, its one guy. He’s like, “I’m just waiting to go to Mars. I’m waiting for a solar roof. I’m not sure I’ll put the neural net into my bloodstream, but I’ll let you test that first.”

But anyways, my point is the book “Bold” it talked about the individuals who are really making big moves. And your book “Stealing Fire” kind of brings it back to the science of flow.

What is next? Where… you’re kind of all over the place, but you have a general movement with your work and writing. So what’s next?

Steven: So… I’m writing a novel right now. First one in 20 years. I wanted to have some fun. I haven’t… I’m gonna do it pretty quickly. Then I’m writing a book on intuition. Same kind of way I looked at flow, I wanna look at the deeper question of intuition.

And then, you know, as I said, I’ve been looking at these impossible questions in all these domains and I wanna write a book at some point about the overlap. Like what I’ve really seen with all these different takes on the impossible.

Because flow is a huge overlap. We talk about overlaps in “Stealing Fire.” There’s more stuff in… it’s everywhere. But there’s a whole category of stuff that I’ve seen that crosses all the domains and I… there are a lot of great people who work with a lot of high performers in the world. And I’d love to get everybody in a room and compare notes.

But the one thing that I think I bring to the equation that other people maybe don’t… and Catherine Kelly always says, “don’t ask what book do you want to write, ask what book nobody else can write.” I think that’s a great question. And so I, you know, I think there’s stuff… because I have looked at everything from innovators turning science fiction into science fact, to punk-rock artists, to top business… I’ve seen a wider swath than most people. It’s how I got to make a living along the way. So I wanna throw my hat in that ring and add to that conversation a little bit too.

So those are the big things that are in front of me.

Mark: Last question. Do you think trainers like me are gonna be obsolete in 5 or 10 years?

Steven: No. No. And I don’t remember who said it, but somebody said it on the Tim Ferris podcast. And they said, “As a general rule, the trainers, the frontline guys are 50 years ahead of the scientists.” And now, mind you, sometimes the frontline guys are totally bat-shit crazy. Like…

Mark: (laughing) Thank you very much, by the way. I take that as a compliment.

Steven: You get…it’s true, you get as much crazy as you do wisdom. Cause that’s what the cutting edge always looks like. It’s messy, right? If I was talking about it as a Chaos theorist, I would say that the greatest possibility for evolution is right on the edge of chaos, it’s right before everything explodes. That’s where… it’s the most innovative spot in any ecosystem. Same thing with trainers, right?

So, no, I don’t think we’re going to mechanize this down… I don’t think performance works that way. You know, it’s like why I would argue with Ray about the singularity in consciousness in AI. He will say, “Brute force will get us there. Once this thing can calculate X amount of speed per second, we’re going to have” what he calls “strong AI.” AI that can mimic human capability.

And I always say, “Hey, wait a minute.” We know consciousness is an emergent property, and we also know it’s a complex system. I don’t think… that means something else happens, right. We don’t know what an emergent property means. All this is is order out of chaos. Happens in the natural world all the time. We don’t know where it comes from. It defies the laws of thermodynamics in all honesty. But it’s a law of physics. Works. I think the brain, most people will say that the brain is a complex system, an emergent property. And consciousness is probably an emergent property.

Which means it may not just be brute force calculation. Get it done. And I don’t think it is. Ray… we disagree. The great news is computers are advancing so quickly, if I can make it to 2029 on his timeline, I get to see if he’s right. According to him I gotta live 13 more years.

Mark: (laughing) We gotta make it. And then we can live forever and have a collective hive mind.

Yeah, I mean, I… again this a whole ‘nother subject for another podcast, but my sense is and one of the things that we teach is that the brain is just one organ of the mind. And consciousness can’t be conflated to the brain. Including, you know, the geography of the brain, or the chemicals of the brain, or the electricity of the brain.

You also have the heart and you have the belly and you have the nervous system, and you have the entire body is part… in my lexicon, it’s part of your mind system. And as well as the field around you.

Steven: Let me just take it one step farther, just for the fun of it because you’ll like this. And then I really do actually have to run. But here’s my last thought. You’ll like it.

So, we have a micro biome, right? As you pointed out, we’ve got as many neurons in the gut and heart as we have in the brain. So the brain is obviously… the mind is a full-body system. But the micro biome, there’s a good chunk of you, like from your elbow to your wrist, that is foreign bacteria. Not you. Not human. Co-existing with you.

So one of the questions… flow is optimal performance, right? It’s the full brain working together to create this perfect system. Altering our consciousness.

But is it… does the micro biome also work in concert? Like, is it a multi-species concert?

Mark: Wow.

Steven: And we don’t know. It sure seems like if this is optimal performance, the micro biome might get in the middle…

Mark: You think that gut bacteria is experiencing flow when you’re racing down the slope at 70 miles an hour?

Steven: I think that gut bacteria needs you to be alive to survive. You’re its ecosystem. So it’s going to support it. I mean, like, I’ve talked to a lot of micro biome experts about these questions. Nobody can answer them, right? But they’re great questions and it’s like… when we think about optimal and performance, nobody stops to go, “Hey, wait a minute. Maybe it’s optimal human plus? Human -post? Not quite “also”… because we’re not all human. There’s a lot of… there’s as much junk DNA and virus… there’s way more virus DNA in your system at a genetic level than there is…

Mark: And so Ray and Elon will say, “That’s correct. We’re not all human already, so let’s just add a layer of AI on that, and we’ll become Human 2.0 and see where it goes.

Steven: I’m not… look, it’s going to happen anyways. It’s going to be punk rockers putting animal eyes… cat eyes and tails. That’s what it’s going to be. It’s going to be the piercings of the next decade. That’s where it’s going to start.

Forget like Ray is going to augment… fine. Forget it. That’s not how culture evolves. It’s going to be some fully sleeved tattooed woman who wants honest to God cat eyes, and is going to alter her DNA. That’s where it starts.

That’s what’s going to happen, I think. I don’t… Ray thinks that the geeks are going to control the world. Maybe they will. I think that the punk rockers will.

Mark: (laughing) Awesome.

On that note… awesome, awesome, awesome.

On that note, we’ll leave it there. Steven Kotler. So latest book is “Stealing Fire.” Go check it out. It’s fantastic.

And I look forward to reading your novel and continue this conversation.

Steven: It’s super-fun.

Mark: Yeah, likewise.

Hooyah. You take care now.

All right folks, you heard it. Steven Kotler, the man with the plan on flow. Wow! What an interesting guy. Man, I can’t wait to come back and have another convo with him. Very, very cool.

So hope you enjoyed that. Thanks for staying focused. Whether you were driving when you were listening to that. Hopefully you didn’t drive off the road with some of the crazy things we talked about.

And as usual, at least right now until AI kinda kicks in, you’ve got to do the work. The training starts with you. Your daily practice. So do the work, every day, show up. Practice the big 4 skills. Learn to trigger and activate flow. And evolve yourself so that we can stay ahead of the curve.

‘Til next time.

Mark Divine out.


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