Can altered states of consciousness boost creativity, problem solving, and performance?
This is the question explored in Jamie Wheal & Steven Kotler's new book Stealing Fire.
Humans routinely access “non-ordinary states of consciousness”: meditation and contemplative states, athletically or creatively induced flow states (feeling “in the Zone”), smart tech induced states, (like EEG, biofeedback, etc.) sexually induced states, group flow, and psychedelic states.
The cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us and with greater accuracy. We get access to increased data, heightened perception, and amplified connection.
Accelerating developments in four fields - psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology - are giving us greater access to and understanding of these altered states.
The idea is that the more we understand how these states work, the better we can reverse engineer the pathways to get there, and benefit from the information and inspiration that altered states provide.
In today’s complex and fast-paced world, perhaps altered states can help provide us the perspective and insight we need to make sense of things and come up with novel solutions to wicked problems.
Reprogramming our Psychology
Advances in psychology have given us a better sense of our own development, and, with it, the space to move beyond socially-defined identity. Stepping outside the monkey suits of our waking selves no longer means risking ridicule or madness. Higher stages of personal development have been demystified. We now have the data-driven models needed to navigate this formerly obscure terrain and clearer frameworks to make sense of the journey.
1. Personal Development
In the 1950s, the Human Potential Movement emerged as a counter-cultural rebellion against mainstream psychology and religion. The idea of experimenting with consciousness-altering techniques for healing, spiritual awakening, and personal growth went mainstream. We can now choose from a menu of options to break our mental models and achieve new levels of happiness, creativity, and fulfillment: Erhard Seminars Training, Esalen Institute, Landmark, Tony Robbins’ empowerment seminars, prosperity theology by megachurch minister Joel Osteen, or discussions about becoming more present with Oprah and Eckhart Tolle.
2. Transcendent Sex
Using sex as a trigger for non-ordinary states of consciousness is a practice going back thousands of years. Both pleasure and pain produce endorphins. The uncertainty of teasing, as Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky established, spikes dopamine 400%. Nipple stimulation boosts oxytocin. Pressure in the throat or colon regulates the vagus nerve, creating exhilaration, intense relaxation, and goose bumps. There’s now a broad movement to explore full-spectrum sexuality and elevate it from compulsion or perversion, into something more deliberate, playful, and potent. For instance, you may have heard of “Orgasmic Meditation,” a consciousness partner practice created by OneTaste. Per their website: “During OM, one person strokes another person’s clitoris for 15 minutes with no goal other than to feel sensation. The OM practice combines the power and attention of meditation with the deeply human, deeply felt, and connected experience of Orgasm. Science and experience agree — orgasm can incline people towards empathy, connection, and generosity. Orgasm magnifies, intensifies, and vivifies everyday experience not by altering it, but by revealing its true nature. The implications for our health, happiness, and relationships are astounding.”
3. Therapeutic Interventions
Whether through talk therapy, pharmacological interventions, or flow states induced by action sports, research is demonstrating that even brief moments spent outside ourselves produce positive impact, regardless of the mechanisms used to get there.
In 2007, working with Iraq War veterans at Camp Pendleton, occupational therapist Carly Rogers of the University of California, Los Angeles blended surfing and talk therapy into a treatment for PTSD. In a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Occupational Therapy, Rogers reported that after as little as five weeks in the waves, soldiers had a “clinically meaningful improvement in PTSD symptom severity and in depressive symptoms.”
In 2012, psychologist Michael Mithoefer discovered that even a single dose of MDMA can reduce or cure post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in survivors of child abuse, sexual abuse, and combat. He found that the benefits provided by one to three rounds of MDMA therapy lasts for years. These results outstrip conventional treatments so convincingly that, in May 2015, the federal government approved studies of MDMA as a treatment for depression and anxiety.
A recent study done by the military found that 84% of PTSD subjects who meditated for a month could reduce or even stop taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). In contrast, the control group - who didn’t meditate and stayed on antidepressants - experienced a 20% worsening in PTSD symptoms during that same period.
A Revolution in Human Possibility
Advances in science and technology are giving us unprecedented access to and insight about the upper range of human experience, arguably the most controversial and misunderstood territory in history. The techniques above just scratch the surface of what is now becoming possible for the evolution of consciousness, collaboration, and creativity.
(Original post in Neurohacker Collective)