Stealing Fire | Steven Kotler

Summary of: Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work
By: Steven Kotler


In ‘Stealing Fire’, authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore the human quest for non-ordinary states of consciousness, delving into the various ways people strive for ecstasis to improve their performance. Through carefully researched accounts, the book highlights how the military, athletes, and entrepreneurs have experimented with various tools and techniques, such as meditation, psychedelics, and technology, to alter their sense of reality. This introduction to the ‘Altered States Economy’ presents a fascinating look at the pursuit of heightened states, their impact on our lives, and the potential benefits and dangers associated with them.

The Altered States Economy

Over two thousand years ago, a Greek politician and general served a mind-altering drink called kykeon at his wild party, which was usually reserved for an exclusive ritual. Alcibiades’s fate didn’t deter people from seeking out ways to alter their consciousness. People across different domains seek improved performance by changing their sense of reality and achieving some form of ecstasis. The authors met with military personnel, elite athletes, tech entrepreneurs, and healthcare providers, showing how people try to get out of their heads. The Altered States Economy, worth $4 trillion annually, comprises legal substances, illicit drugs, pharmaceuticals, video games, and social media, among others. However, we still don’t understand the mechanics of ecstasis, and we continue in the quest for altered states of consciousness that is thousands of years old.

SEAL Team Six and the Power of the Collective Mind

The success of a SEAL Team Six mission in capturing an Al-Qaeda operative was not only due to their physical abilities but also their collective decision-making. Training the ability to merge one’s thinking with the group’s is essential but expensive. The Mind Gym, a new facility at the SEALs’ training center in Virginia, attempts to develop this ability through the use of cutting-edge body-brain performance devices such as EEG monitors, cardiac coherence devices, and sensory deprivation tanks. The goal is to accelerate the shift from individual flow to group flow.

Alleviating PTSD with Ecstatic Treatments

The Navy SEALs’ experience with non-ordinary states inspired psychologists to explore various treatments for PTSD. MDMA, surfing, and meditation have shown promising results in treating PTSD symptoms.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating condition that has affected millions of people in the US, resulting from traumatic events such as war, child abuse, and sexual assault. Limited medications like Zoloft and Prozac have been approved for its treatment but require weeks or months to take effect. However, unconventional treatments have emerged, yielding positive results.

Ecstasis research has identified four main forces: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology. In the psychology field, the combined use of talk therapy and surfing, tested by occupational therapist Carly Rogers at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, showed significant improvement in mental health for Iraq War veterans.

Additionally, MDMA therapy, once used only in club culture, has shown promise in treating PTSD. A controlled study showed that a single dose of MDMA could eliminate PTSD symptoms, and its effect persisted for years. Moreover, the US government approved studies exploring the use of MDMA in treating anxiety and depression.

Meditation is another promising therapy that has immediate accessibility to everyone. In a US military study on individuals with PTSD, daily meditation for a month enabled 84% of participants to reduce or stop taking antidepressants, whereas the control group’s symptoms worsened by 20%.

While these treatments provide hope for PTSD sufferers, MDMA and surfing have associated risks, and their availability is limited. In contrast, meditation’s limitless accessibility makes it a potential solution for countless people experiencing mental health issues.

AI Technology and the Human Mind-Body Relationship

The relationship between our mental state and physical experiences is more complex than we thought. Our emotions originate not just in the brain but also in the heart, stomach, and intestines. Different mental states produce measurable responses in our bodies, which can be detected by AI technology and used to predict success in teamwork and reduce suicide rates. The article cites two examples where biometric data was collected to predict which US Navy submariners would perform well and which patients were at risk for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. AI therapists like Ellie have been created to provide a non-judgmental space and help patients share more personal information than they would feel comfortable sharing with traditional human therapists. The ultimate goal is to make AI therapy technology accessible to anyone with a laptop and internet connection.

Getting High to Get Ahead

The use of mind-altering substances, including psychedelics, has long been connected to achieving an elevated state of consciousness. This state, known as ecstasis, can be facilitated by the use of certain drugs. Researchers have discovered that when in an altered state, individuals experience transient hypofrontality: a process that quiets parts of the brain responsible for everyday thought and activates networks that generate creative solutions to problems. Animal studies suggest that intoxicating substances can help break repetitive behavior cycles. For humans, this means hallucinations or drunkenness can potentially improve lateral thinking skills. This realization has led to a surge of research into the effects of psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin. Psychopharmacologist Robin Carhart-Harris has been using functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the effects of psilocybin on the brain, and the results have revealed new insights into the experience.

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