“Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work” by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal — Book Summary
Stealing Fire is a book about nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC), written by the founders of the Flow Genome Project, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.
You may recognize Kotler as the author of the highly popular The Rise of Superman, his previous book about flow, which is also a nonordinary state of consciousness.
The premise of the book is simple: Human beings throughout history have always pursued such states. We’re still doing it today. In fact, according to the authors, we’re doing it with greater frequency and in higher quantities than ever before – thanks to the four forces of ecstasis.
The book explains what nonordinary states of consciousness are, why they are so attractive, and why we should all be interested in learning more about them and be actively pursuing them in our own lives to become happier, healthier, and more creative.
For my taste, the book is a bit too sensational, too hit-piecy, too political, and too complicated at times. It also doesn’t offer too much meat on the bone when it comes to tackling the theory and applying it to an average person’s life. Nonetheless, I find the premise and many ideas of this book exciting and remain a massive fan of Kotler and Wheal’s work.
1. Ecstasis – Nonordinary States of Consciousness Defined
“Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.”
“When we say ecstasis we’re talking about a very specific range of nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC)—what Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as those experiences ‘characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior, [brought about] by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, rang[ing] from profound terror to ecstatic rapture . . . There exist many different forms of NOSC; they can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.’”
Kotler and Wheal use the word ecstasis as a synonym for nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC). They’ve borrowed the term from the Ancient Greeks. It translates as “stepping beyond oneself” or “to be or stand outside oneself.”
It’s also, of course, the antecedent to ecstasy, which is both the street name for MDMA and a term used to describe a profoundly unusual state of consciousness defined by Wikipedia as “a trance or trance-like state in which a person transcends normal consciousness.”
Out of the broad inventory of nonordinary states, the book focuses on the following three categories:
- Flow states: “those ‘in-the-zone’ moments…”
- Contemplative and mystical states: “where techniques like chanting, dance, meditation, sexuality, and, most recently, wearable technologies are used to shut off the self.”
- Psychedelic states: “where the recent resurgence in sanctioned research is leading to some of the more intriguing pharmacological findings in several decades.”
2. All NOSC Are (More or Less) the Same
“Admittedly, these three may seem like strange bedfellows. And for most of the past hundred years, we’ve treated them that way. Flow states have been typically associated with artists and athletes; contemplative and mystical states belonged to seekers and saints; and psychedelic states were mostly sampled by hippies and ravers. But over the past decade, thanks to advances in brain science, we’ve been able to pull back the curtain and discover that these seemingly unrelated phenomena share remarkable neurobiological similarity.”
This is important to understand. The seemingly different ecstatic states mentioned earlier – flow states, contemplative and mystical states, and psychedelic states – are remarkably alike each other. They are neurobiologically and phenomenologically identical in many ways.
3. The Shared Neurobiology of NOSC
“Regular waking consciousness has a predictable and consistent signature in the brain: widespread activity in the prefrontal cortex, brainwaves in the high-frequency beta range, and the steady drip, drip of stress chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol. During the states we’re describing, this signature shifts markedly. Instead of widespread activity in the prefrontal cortex, we see specific parts of this region either light up and become hyperactive or power down and become hypoactive.
At the same time, brainwaves slow from agitated beta to day-dreamy alpha and deeper theta. Neurochemically, stress chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol are replaced by performance-enhancing, pleasure-producing compounds such as dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin, and oxytocin.”
Nonordinary states of consciousness share the same signatures in the brain:
- Neuroanatomically, certain parts of the prefrontal cortex become hyperactive, while other parts become hypoactive.
- Neuroelectrically, brainwaves move from high-frequency beta waves into alpha and theta waves.
- Neurochemically, stress chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol are replaced by pain-killing and pleasure-inducing compounds such as dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin, and oxytocin.
Whether you have an altered state during meditation, prayer, skydiving, dancing, singing, sexual intercourse, or surfing, the underlying neurobiological changes will (more or less) be the same. As the authors state: “So no matter how varied these states appear on the surface, their underlying neurobiological mechanisms – that is, the knobs and levers being tweaked in the brain – are the same. And this understanding allows us to tune altered states with newfound precision.”
4. The Shared Phenomenology of NOSC
“So, in the same way that the biological mechanisms underpinning certain nonordinary states are remarkably consistent, our experiences of these states are, too. To be sure, the actual content will vary wildly across cultures: a Silicon Valley computer coder may experience a midnight epiphany as being in ‘the zone’ and see streaming zeros and ones like the code from The Matrix; a French peasant girl might experience divine inspiration and hear the voice of an angel; an Indian farmer might see a vision of Ganesh in a rice paddy. But once we get past the narrative wrapping paper – what researchers call ‘phenomenological reporting’ – we find four signature characteristics underneath: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short.”
When you ask people to describe their experience during a nonordinary state of consciousness, they will describe a mix of the following four signature characteristics (abbreviated as STER): selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, richness. That’s what ecstatic states of consciousness tend to feel like: selfless, timeless, effortless, and rich.
5. Why Should You Care?
“Wicked problems are those without easy answers – where our rational, binary logic breaks down and our normal tools fail us. But the information richness of a nonordinary state affords us perspective and allows us to make connections where none may have existed before. And it doesn’t seem to matter which technique we deploy: mindfulness training, technological stimulation or pharmacological priming, the end results are substantial. Consider the gains: a 200 percent boost in creativity, a 490 percent boost in learning, a 500 percent boost in productivity.
Creativity, learning, and productivity are essential skills and those percentage gains are big numbers. If they were merely the result of a few studies done by a couple of labs, they would be easier to dismiss. But there is now seven decades of research, conducted by hundreds of scientists on thousands of participants, showing that when it comes to complex problem solving, ecstasis could be the ‘wicked solution’ we’ve been looking for.”
Many reasons why you should care about altered states of consciousness exist. They make you feel alive. They, in many ways, make life worth living. And they powerfully enhance creativity, learning, and productivity.
As the authors explain, shifting our state of consciousness is our best bet at solving so-called wicked problems. Whether you do it by practicing meditation or prayer, by ingesting psychedelic substances like LSD or psilocybin, or by using technology such as float tanks, it doesn’t matter. Some problems are almost impossible to solve with the rationale and logic of our regular waking consciousness. In such cases, tapping into nonordinary states of consciousness can do the trick.
6. Personal Development on Steroids?
“By bridging the gap between peak states and personal growth, these discoveries validate ecstasis as a tool not only for self-discovery, but also for self-development. So while ecstatic states (which are brief and transitory) aren’t the same as developmental stages (which are stable and long-lasting), it appears that having more of the former can, under the right conditions, help accelerate the latter. In short, altered states can lead to altered traits.”
Peak experiences can lead to dramatic, long-term positive changes. Altered states can help people achieve altered traits.
Consider, for example, various therapies, including MDMA therapy, surf therapy, or administration of LSD or psilocybin, that are being used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These therapies expose patients to just one or a few altered state experiences, yet they achieve results far better than more expensive and time-consuming therapies, such as talk therapy or regular psychotherapy.
To repeat: Just one experience of a nonordinary state of consciousness can be enough to create lasting transformation in people. One of the most remarkable examples they mention is of administration of the psychedelic psilocybin to terminal cancer patients: “Griffiths found significant, sustained change: a marked decrease in their fear of death, and a significant uptick in their attitudes, moods, and behavior. Ninety-four percent of his subjects said taking psilocybin was one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives. Four out of ten said it was the most meaningful.”
7. The Four Forces of Ecstasis
“Thanks to accelerating developments in four fields – psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology; call them the ‘Four Forces of Ecstasis’ – we’re getting greater access to and understanding of nonordinary states of consciousness.”
Nonordinary states of consciousness are becoming more and more accessible to the mainstream. This is because the four fields of psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology are undergoing rapid acceleration, leading to greater understanding and increased propagation of ecstatic states.
- 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.”
- Neurobiology: “Advances in neurobiology, meanwhile, have clarified our understanding of what is happening in our brains and bodies when we experience a range of mental states.”
- Pharmacology: “Pharmacology gives us another tool to explore this terrain. By treating the six powerful neurochemicals that underpin ecstasis as raw ingredients, we’ve begun to refine the recipes for peak experience.”
- Technology: “Technology is bringing ecstasis to the masses, allowing us to taste it all, without having to risk it all.”
8. The Fourth Drive
“So potent is the urge to get out of our heads that it functions as a ‘fourth drive,’ a behavior-shaping force as powerful as our first three drives – the desire for food, water, and sex.”
In the chapter on pharmacology, Kotler and Wheal describe various consciousness-altering techniques used by animals: “Dogs lick toads for the buzz, horses go crazy for locoweed, goats gobble magic mushrooms, birds chew marijuana seeds, cats enjoy catnip…” Drug-seeking and drug taking are the rule rather than the exception in the animal kingdom. “The pursuit of intoxication with drugs is a primary motivational force in organisms,” explains UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel in his book Intoxication.
This fourth drive – the desire to get out of our heads, to change our state of consciousness – is present in animals and humans for a reason. And if you consider the many benefits nonordinary states of consciousness provide, it’s not very surprising. Accessing these states with regularity helps us solve problems, enhances learning, and makes us more productive – all of which can enhance our chances for surviving and replicating.
9. A Game of Attention
“Ecstasis only arises when attention is fully focused in the present moment. In meditation, for example, the reason you follow your breath is to ride its rhythm right into the now. Psychedelics overwhelm the senses with data, throwing so much information at us per second that paying attention to anything else becomes impossible. And for action and adventure athletes seeking flow, risk serves the same function.”
As we’ve learned in our discussions on flow, the one thing all flow triggers have in common is that they drive attention into the now. Flow follows focus is a phrase Steven Kotler uses frequently in The Rise of Superman.
The same thing can be said for other consciousness-altering technologies such as psychedelics, meditation, dancing, float tanks, and so on. If you want to enter an ecstatic state of consciousness, find a way to pull all of your attention to the here and now.
10. The Title Explained (Warning: It’s Complicated)
“…as far back as we can trace Western civilization, buried among the stories that bore schoolchildren to tears, we find tales of rebel upstarts willing to bet it all for an altered state of consciousness. And this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s just an early indicator of a perennial pattern, hidden inside of history, tucked among the names and dates we know so well.
At the center of this dynamic sits the myth of Prometheus, the original upstart rebel, who stole fire from the gods and shared it with humankind. And he didn’t just steal a book of matches, but also the power to seed civilization: language, art, medicine, and technology. Enraged that mortals would now have the same power as the gods, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock, letting eagles rip out his innards for eternity.
This story has continued to repeat itself throughout the ages. Typically, a rebel, seeker, or trickster steals fire from the gods. It can take the form of a potent celebratory rite, a heretical new scripture, an obscure spiritual practice, or a secret, state-changing technology. Whatever the case, the rebel sneaks the flame out of the temple and shares it with the world. It works. Things get exciting. Insights pile up. Then, inevitably, the party gets out of hand. The keepers of law and order—call them the priests—spot the hedonistic blaze, track down the thief, and shut down the show. And so it goes, until the next cycle begins.
Stealing Fire is the story of the latest round in this cycle and, potentially, the first time in history we have a chance for a different ending. It’s the story of an entirely new breed of Promethean upstart—Silicon Valley executives, members of the U.S. special forces, maverick scientists, to name only a few—who are using ecstatic techniques to alter consciousness and accelerate performance. And the strangest part? It’s a revolution that’s been hiding in plain sight.”
In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and shared it with humanity. As a result, he was punished by Zeus.
Similarly, there have always been human beings who have brought ecstatic technologies to the mainstream (they “stole fire”) and have then been published for doing it by “the priests,” the keepers of law and order who then took away the consciousness-altering technologies.
This scenario, according to the authors, has happened over and over again throughout human history: An ecstatic technology (a technique for achieving an altered state of consciousness) has been brought to the masses by some rebel, and has then been shut down by the keepers of law and order.
Today, the same thing is happening again. The new Promethean rebels who are bringing consciousness-altering technology to the masses are Silicon Valley executives, members of the U.S. special forces, maverick scientists, and the authors themselves. Only this time, the ending might be different.
(As I wrote in the introduction, the book can be unnecessarily sensational, hypey, complicated, over-the-top.)