Steven Kotler: “The Science of Maximizing Human Potential” | Talks at Google
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Steven Kotler: “The Science of Maximizing Human Potential” | Talks at Google

you Steven Kotler. [APPLAUSE] STEVEN KOTLER: Thank you. Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming out. Thank you, guys,
for inviting me. It’s good to be back at Google. I think it’s been four or five
years since I’ve been here. As [INAUDIBLE] said,
I am an author. I am a journalist. And I’m the Co-Founder
and Director of Research at the Flow Genome Project. And what we study at
the Flow Genome Project is ultimate human
performance– or what does it take to be your
best when it matters most? And what we’re
really interested in is what does it take for
individuals, organizations, sometimes institutions
to sort of level up their game like never before? What does it take to
achieve paradigm shifting breakthroughs, “nothing is ever
the same again” breakthroughs? And kind of in a phrase, the
heart of the work that I do, is really the
question of what does it take to do the impossible
and at a serious level, if you can sort of get
past the hyperbole built into that question. We are in the middle– oh, it works– we
are in the middle of a giant revolution in our
ability to do the impossible. And it’s a strange revolution. It is extremely
counter-intuitive. It’s overturning a lot
of conventional wisdom about high performance. And it’s going to be the subject
of what I talk about today. And it’s sort of
this revolution is sitting at the intersection of
two smaller revolutions and two overlapping ones. One is a revolution
in peak performance, that if you’ve seen
my other Google Talks, I talked about then. We’re going to cover a little
bit of the same ground. And the other is a revolution
in what you could call the science of spirituality. And I’m using the
term spirituality in the most secular possible
definition of the term. And these two things
are colliding. And the collision is
all really, really overturning almost everything
we knew about human performance. And as a way of
introducing this topic, I thought I’d start
where I started. I came to the
question of how do you accomplish the impossible
through a really weird door. I walked in through
the door of journalism. I become a journalist
in the early 1990s. And back then, action sports–
surfing, skiing, rock climbing, and whatever– were
getting a lot of attention. And the X Games were
starting, the Gravity Games. And there was a lot of work. If you could write and ski,
and write and rock climb, or write and surf there
was a lot of work. And I couldn’t do any of
those things very well, but I needed the work. So I lied to my editors. And I was lucky enough
to spend about 10 years chasing professional
athletes around mountains and across oceans. And I will tell you, if you’re
not a professional athlete, and you spend all your time
chasing professional athletes around mountains and
across oceans, you tend to break things. I broke a lot of
things, as you can see. And what this meant is I ended
up taking a lot of time off. So I’d be hanging out,
I’d snap this or that, and I’d have to take three
months, four months, five months off. And when I came back,
the progress I saw was really amazing. It was leaps-and-bounds
kind of stuff. It didn’t make any sense. Stuff that was absolutely
impossible, never been done, never
going to be done just three or four months
ago wasn’t just being done, it was being iterated upon. And this caught my attention
for a lot of reasons, not just the obvious. If you go back to
the early 1990s, action adventure sport athletes
were a rowdy, punk rock, irreverent bunch of
people without a lot of natural advantages. So most of the people I
knew in this community, they didn’t have a
lot of education. They had very little money. And most of them had horrific
childhood experiences. And yet here they were on a
semi-regular basis reinventing what was possible
for our species, right– expanding the limits
of physical possibility. And I wanted to know how
the hell was this possible. But I had also broken about
80 bones at that point, and I knew– wait,
wait, one example. Sorry, we’ll come back to that. One example, I always
forget to give this. So I want to give you
one example of what I was looking at if you
haven’t read “Rise of Superman” or aren’t familiar with it. And if you saw my earlier
talk, and I’m repeating myself, I apologize. We’re going to burn through this
stuff and get to the new stuff. Surfing, 1,000-year-old sport– 480 to 1996 progress
is really slow. 25 feet is the biggest
wave anybody can surf– above that, totally impossible. There are physics papers written
about how you can’t paddle into a wave above 25 feet. As you can see from this
slide, today, surfers are routinely
paddling into waves that are almost 100
feet tall in 20 years. And this was happening
all over action sports. So of course, I did want to
know what the hell was going on. And I also knew that if I
didn’t take my question out of action sports and
into other domains, I was going to kill myself. And so that’s what I did. And that’s what I did in kind of
all the next eight of my books. For example in
“Tomorrowland,” that was about those
maverick innovators who took science fiction
ideas and turned them into science fact technology. “Bold” was wild business
entrepreneurs, your own Larry Page, Jeff Bezos,
Richard Branson– folks like that, Elon Musk,
who invented incredibly world changing businesses in near
record time against crazy odds in abundance. I teamed up with Peter Diamandis
who co-founded the XPRIZE and Singularity University. And we looked at
innovators tackling impossible global challenges–
poverty, water scarcity, energy scarcity, and making dents here. And what we discovered–
what I discovered after all this– is it doesn’t
actually matter where you look. It doesn’t matter what
domain you look in. Wherever you see
people performing at their best, whenever you see
people tackling the impossible, you see a state of consciousness
known to researchers as flow. And you may know flow by lots
of other names– runner’s high, being in the zone, the forever
box if you’re a stand-up comic. If you played basketball,
it’s being unconscious. Flow is a technical term. And it’s technically
defined as an optimal state of consciousness, one
where we feel our best and we perform our best. And we just get so focused
on the task at hand, everything else just disappears. Action and awareness will merge. Sense of self will vanish. Time will dilate– fancy way
of saying it passes strangely. It’ll slow down. You get a freeze frame effect. As soon as that it
speeds up, and five hours go by in like five minutes. And throughout, all
aspects of performance, mental and physical,
go through the roof. Flow science is really old. It dates back to like
the late 1870s, 1880s– very birth of kind of what
became psychology, what became cognitive neuroscience. A lot of this work was being
done on peak performance way back then. It got a huge jump forward in
the 1970s and ’80s when this guy, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,
often called the godfather of flow psychology– he was the chairman of
the University of Chicago psychology department–
did a giant, enormous study on optimal psychology,
positive psychology, went around the world
asking people what times in their lives
they felt their best and they performed their best. And he taught us four really
fundamental things about flow that are worth knowing. The first thing is the
state is definable. It’s got core characteristics. And I named some of these
for you a second ago– absolute concentration
in the present moment, the merger of action
awareness, the vanishing of self, time dilation. Because it is definable,
it’s measurable. We have really well-established
psychometric instruments for measuring flow. Over and over and over and
over they’ve been examined. They’re really solid. So it’s definable
and it’s measurable. It’s also universal. Csikszentmihalyi discovered
that we are all biologically hardwired for flow. This is how we
perform at our best. So the state shows up
anywhere in anyone, provided certain initial
conditions are met. He also named flow. And it’s for a very
specific reason. So when he was running around
the world asking people about the times in that
they’d perform their best, people would say the same thing. They’d say, well, when I feel
this way, I’d end up in a state where every action,
every decision, flows seamlessly, effortlessly,
perfectly from the last. So flow is a
phenomenological description. It describes how the
state makes us feel. Interestingly, if you’ll look
under that phenomenology, you see something really neat. For flow to feel floaty– for every decision
or action to proceed seamlessly and fluidly and
effortlessly from the last– you are looking at high speed,
near perfect decision making. And near perfect, I
need to emphasize– not perfect decision
making at all. That’s a fallacy. Scot Schmidt, who was one
of the early extreme skiers had a great phrase– flow used to make me
feel like Superman up until the moment I’m not– key important safety tip
when it comes to this stuff. The last thing he discovered
is that flow is fundamental. It is fundamental to
well-being, to meaning, to overall life satisfaction. When we do studies of overall
life satisfaction and meaning and well-being, people who have
the most flow in their lives are the people who
score off the charts. And this is another extremely
well-established finding. The next question that people
kind of turn their attention to after Csikszentmihalyi’s
foundational work is OK, this is optimal
performance, how optimal? What the hell are
we talking about? The answer is pretty optimal. In sports and athletics, we
now know that flow pretty much is at the heart of any gold
medal athletic championship that’s ever been won. Significant progress in
science and technology. I said earlier I
studied paradigm shift in breakthroughs. Whenever you tend to see
paradigm shift in breakthroughs in science and technology,
you tend to see flow. The same thing with massive
progress in the arts. In business, we have some
really compelling data. McKinsey took a look at flow
and the peak performance. And they found that
after a long study, the top executives report
being five times more productive in flow. That’s 500% more productive. All right, that means
you go to work on Monday, spend Monday in a
flow state, then take Tuesday through Friday off
and get the same amount done. All right, two days a
week in flow and you’re 1,000% more productive
than the competition. And I will tell you,
even though we’re not going to talk about
business today at all, I will say my organization and
a lot of other organizations, we’re training up a lot of
different organizations, including you guys. And we’ll talk about the
work we did with you guys at Google a little bit later. But what I wonder is, when
you look at those numbers and those numbers
are pretty solid, how the hell do you keep up if
you’re not doing this stuff? That’s just an open question. And we’re not going
to linger there. The next thing that happened
after we figured out that flow is at the heart of
all this optimal performance is there’s been a revolution
in neuroscience, right. Biotechnology right now is
moving at five times the speed of Moore’s Law. And this is doubling the power
roughly every four months, and it is dragging
neuroscience along, and it is dragging
flow science long. And this is, by the way, one
example of flow research. So this is an
experiment designed by Stanford neuroscientist
David Eagleman back when he was at Baylor. And I’ve been hoisted 150
feet into a circus net. I’m wearing a perceptual
chronometer on my wrist. And we’re trying to
figure out why time passes so strangely in flow. So I’ve been dropped. I’m free-falling 150 feet and
trying to keep track of time. And I will tell you, we did make
some progress on that question. I’ll talk about
that in a second. It also– like 6 and 1/2
months of chiropractic work till I could walk straight. So I want you to
know that I suffered for this information, people. That’s all I’m saying. [LAUGHTER] So what we’ve learned in a
lot of this new neuroscience is that our old ideas
about high performance had things exactly backwards. The old idea, you guys
are familiar with. It’s the so-called
10% brain myth. This is the idea
that any one time, we use a small portion
of our brain, say 10%. So flow, aka
ultimate performance, must be the full brain
on overdrive, right? Turns out we had it
exactly backwards. In flow, we’re not using more
of the brain, we’re using less. Technical term–
transient hypofrontality, transient meaning temporary. Hypo is the opposite of hyper– H-Y-P-O– it means to slow down,
to shut down, to deactivate. And frontality is this
part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The portion of your
brain that does a lot of your
executive functions, higher cognitive functions,
complex logical decision making, your sense of
morality, your sense of will, long-term planning, this
is all prefrontal cortex. It burns off in flow. It’s an efficiency exchange. But as a result, we see
some really cool things for performance. For example, what happens
when your prefrontal cortex turns off? Well, that’s what
happens to time. Time is actually a
calculation performed by a bunch of
different structures all over the prefrontal cortex. And when they start
to wink out, we can’t separate past
from present and future. We’re plunged into
this space people talk about as the eternal
present, the elongated now, the deep now. So that’s why time passes
so strangely in flow– huge impact on performance. Why? Most of our fears, stuff
we’re scared about, is either horrible stuff
that happened in the past that we’d like to avoid
happening in the present, or it’s scary stuff that
might happen in the future and we’d like to avoid
from the present. But right here, right
now, unless you’re facing moral combat,
there’s not a whole hell of a lot to be afraid of. So when we drop into flow, when
we drop into this deep now, anxiety plummets. Stress hormones literally
leave our system. The same thing happens
to your sense of self. Self is a network effect. It’s produced by a bunch
of different structures in the prefrontal cortex,
a couple different parts of the brain talking to
each other like any network. A bunch of nodes
start collapsing, a whole network goes
down, we lose our ability to create our sense of self. Again, huge impact
on performance– when our self goes
away, our inner critic, that nagging, always on,
defeatist voice in your head, goes away as well. So what do we see? Risk taking goes
up, creativity– because you’re no longer
doubting all your neat ideas– goes through the roof. And we experience this
as liberation of freedom. We are literally
getting out of our way. Simultaneously, we see a
big shift in brainwaves. Normally, where we are right
now, we are all in beta. It’s a fast moving brain wave. It’s where we are when
we’re paying attention. We’re awake, alert. Flow actually takes
place on the borderline between alpha and theta. These are much slower waves. Alpha is daydreaming mode. It’s the brain going
from idea to idea without a lot of
internal resistance. It’s often the signature
brainwave for creativity, though that research
needs more work. Theta is where we
are in REM sleep. It’s the hypnagogic state. So instead of moving
from thought to thought without a lot of resistance,
there is zero resistance. The green turtle, becomes
the green sweater, because the green planet. It’s the hypnagogic. Flow is on the borderline. Now, what’s interesting about
this particular borderline is when you’re in
theta, you also get another wave called gamma. It’s a very fast,
sharp, spiking wave. It is the signature
of the “aha!” moment. Gamma only shows up
in the brain when the brain is combining new ideas
together for the first time. It’s what’s known as binding. So it’s the signature
of the “aha!” moment. Gamma and theta
are coupled waves, which means you can only
get one with the other. So what this technically means
is from a creativity boosting perspective, flow
puts you on the edge of “aha!” insight at all times. If you really want
to understand how flow helps you to
do the impossible, you need to know that
the state cocktails five of the most potent
neurochemicals the brain can produce. Flow appears to be the only
time we get all five at once. All of these boosts
physical performance. They speed up muscle
reaction times, increase strength,
increase dexterity, heighten our threshold to pain. More importantly,
if you really want to know how they
impact our ability to tackle impossible
problems, it’s their impact on the three
sides of what I call the high performance triangle. This is motivation,
learning, and creativity. And I’m going to sort of break
them down one at a time for you because I think it’s critical. So motivation goes
through the roof in flow. Why? Besides being
performance-enhancing chemicals, the five chemicals
that show up in flow are all pleasure drugs. In fact, they’re the
five most potent pleasure drugs the brain can produce,
and flow gives you all five at once. It is a huge high. So when McKinsey finds that
top executives are 500% more productive in flow, it’s
addictive neurochemistry that’s underneath that
huge spike in creativity. But it’s why psychologists
talk about flow as the source code of intrinsic motivation. We see something
similar with creativity. So we’ve made a lot
of progress recently in kind of the
neuroscience of creativity. And one of the things we always
know at a really simple level, it’s always a
recombinatory process. It’s what happens when the
brain takes in some novel information, combines it
with older ideas to create something startlingly new. Flow and these neural
chemicals, more specifically, surround that process. So when we’re in flow, we take
in more information per second. So data acquisition goes up. We pay more attention to
that incoming information, so salience goes up. We find faster
connections between that incoming information
and older ideas, so pattern recognition goes up. We find farther
flung connections between that incoming
information and older ideas, so lateral thinking goes up. And then, since
creativity also requires you to take your
cool innovative idea and make it public, on the
back end of the whole thing, we see risk taking
spike in flow. So flow sort of surrounds
the creative process, which is why in studies done by my
organization, the Flow Genome Project, some stuff
done at Harvard, and some stuff done at
the University of Sydney, we see creativity in flow
spikes some 400% to 700%. And that sounds
like a huge spike. It’s crazy. We just finished a
big creativity study. We got some interesting
data, and I’m going to talk about it later. But for now, we’ll
just stop there. But that spike is
not out of line with what we see
with productivity. And nor is it out of line in
what we see with learning. Learning also has a huge impact. These neurochemicals,
quick shorthand for how learning and
memory work in the brain. The more neurochemicals
that show up during experience, the
better chance that experience is going to move from short-term
holding to long-term storage. Flow is a huge
neurochemical spike. As a result, studies run
by the DOD and our friends at advanced brain monitoring,
found that soldiers in flow can learn 430%
faster than normal– huge number, again. And what it suggests
is like we’ve all heard about the fabled
10,000 hours to mastery– which are not accurate, but
that’s besides the point– what the research does
show is that the flow can cut them in half. And all of this is amazing. All of this is kind of the
foundation for the revolution in high performance. We’re going to come back
to the stuff in a minute. But I want to jump, jump
towards the second half, and I want to re-tell
you the same story, a few different players,
from a different perspective. I lied to you
earlier when I said it was going to be about
the science of spirituality. It’s really going to be more
technically about the science of mystical experiences. And that science also dates
back to roughly the same person, William James. So I’m going to
retell the same story. William James was not
just interested in flow. He was interested in essentially
the entire ecstatic spectrum. These are all the
experiences, the kind of upper range of human
experience– flow states, states of awe, trance
states, meditative states, contemplative states,
psychedelic states. Back then, by the
way, flow was treated as a mystical experience. James wrote about it. He pointed out that it has a
huge impact on performance. But he thought it was
a mystical experience. That’s what he thought
he was looking at. And William James was looking
at all of these experiences, sort of what’s known as
the ecstatic spectrum, and he said, wow,
you know, whatever you feel about the context– they may come out of
religious traditions, they may be spiritual– he said, that’s fine. But if you get past that
and look at the data, the data shows you three things. It says that all these states,
interestingly, they all make you feel roughly the same. And we’ll come back
to that in a second. But they’re phenomenologically
very similar. They all seem to
impact performance. And even though they may
be based on religions that I, as a scientist,
don’t believe in, they have psychologically
real impacts. People on the other side
of these experiences are definitely different. Their lives are more meaningful. They’re more fulfilled. And for those reasons alone,
you have to take them seriously. Freud came along and said,
no we don’t, not at all. We’re not going to take
those ideas seriously. You’re out of your mind. Freud agreed with Marx. He thought religion was
the opium of the masses. He wanted nothing to do with it. And more importantly,
Freud said, no, no, no. Psychology is about solving
pathological problems. We are not interested in
psychological possibilities. That’s not what we do here. Flow got away with it
because in the 1950s, Abraham Maslow, who is
also back on this list, was studying success. And he found flow as this kind
of giant secret to success, and everybody was doing this,
studying Albert Einstein, and Eleanor
Roosevelt, and people like that wanting to
know how they achieved what they had achieved. And they had all found ways
to produce flow and use it to amplify performance. But everybody in his study
group was an atheist. So mystical experiences, what
James called it, was out. And peak experiences was
the more secular term that Maslow used. That’s when the split occurred. But there was another
lineage, which was the science of spirituality. It didn’t really do much. But in the 1950s, this guy–
this is Wilder Penfield. He is one of the
great neurosurgeons of the 20th century. He was an epilepsy expert. And back in the 1950s, he was
doing all these procedures where he would open up
people’s brain skull– which you can do. There’s not a whole
lot of nerves there. So you can do it
with local anesthetic and keep people awake. And he was stimulating different
portions of people’s brains in epileptics trying to
produce, not a seizure, but an aura, which is often
a violent shift in perception that precedes a seizure. People see colors
or smell things, the smell of burnt
toast is really common. Anyways he was going through
people’s brains trying to produce these reactions. Once he found a spot,
he would scoop it out. And that was brain
surgery for epilepsy. But when he started stimulating
people’s right temporal lobe and the temporoparietal
junction, where those lobes come together,
weird stuff started to happen. People had out-of-body
experiences. People heard visions. They had hallucinations. They had sense
presence, which is the feeling of a god
or a ghost or a demon in the room with them. And for the first time, somebody
went, hey, wait a minute, there’s biology
underneath our mythology. Whatever else is going
on, there’s biology there. Now real science, of course,
doesn’t study this stuff. And they didn’t until
this man, Andy Newberg came along in the late 1990s. And Andy is an
incredibly brave man who risked his career to ask
a really interesting question. Andy was really interested
in consciousness. He was at the University
of Pennsylvania, and he felt that if you were
interested in consciousness, you absolutely had to account
for the phenomenon known as unity, or cosmic unity,
becoming one with everything. And the reason you
have to account for it is oneness
with everything shows up in every single
mystical tradition on earth. It’s in every religion on earth. And it’s there long before
there was mass communication. So if it’s everywhere
and it’s there before there was
mass communication, there is probably
biology underneath it because it doesn’t seem
like the whole world is having a mass hallucination. It doesn’t make sense, right? So there’s probably
some biology there. He wanted to know what is the
biology, and he took a look. So he took a bunch of
Tibetan Buddhists and a bunch of Franciscan nuns,
who both experience absolute unity through
their meditation practices. For the nuns it’s unia mystica,
oneness with Jesus is love. For the Tibetan Buddhists it’s
absolute unitary being oneness with the universe. And what he discovered is more
hypofrontality, but not quite. What he discovered is this
portion of the brain down here– it’s known as
the orientation area– gets very, very quiet. It’s another efficiency
exchange in the same way the pre-frontal
cortex turns off. And this portion of the brain
is the right parietal lobe. It’s right at the
temporoparietal junction, at the same spot Wilder Penfield
noticed all this activity. And what Newberg discovered is– this portion of the
brain, by the way, he calls it the orientation
area because it helps us orientate ourselves in space. What it does is
it basically draws a boundary around the body
and says at this point, this is where you end and
the rest of the world begins. And you need this
boundary so you can walk across a crowded room
without bumping into people. Or people who have a stroke
or brain damage to this area, they can’t sit down on a
couch, because they’re not quite sure where their leg
ends and the couch begins. During intense
concentration in meditation, when the brain needs
extra energy for focus, it takes it away from this area. This area shuts down– no energy in, no energy out. As a result, because you
can no longer separate self from other– the
brain has to conclude at this particular moment
you’re one with everything. So this is where the
stories come back together. Newberg did this research
in the early 2000s. I was, at that point,
studying surfers who were doing amazing things. And they kept
coming to me saying, hey, man, when I’m out there,
when I’m surfing a tube, I am one with the ocean. And it kept happening. And I was a surfer. And I knew what they were
talking about because I had had that experience. And I just wrote
it off and never talked about it out
loud because what could be flakier than a
surfer running around talking about being one with the ocean. It’s terrible, and yet it
was all over the place, everywhere in surfing. And I looked unto Dr.
Newberg and I said, Andy, is it possible we’re
looking at the same thing? Could the oneness
with everything the surfers are looking at be
the oneness with everything the Buddhists are looking at. And we did some work on it
and thought about it a lot. And the answer is
yes, of course, the amount of concentration
you need to ride a wave is the same amount
of concentration you need for prayer and meditation. Now, it seems so obvious. Back then it was a
big step forward. It was also the first
of a bunch of step forwards along similar lines. So over the past 20
years, neurotheology– since Dr. Newberg
discovered oneness with everything– we
have looked at pretty much every altered state
you can possibly imagine and every so-called mystical
state you can possibly imagine, prayer states, contemplative
states, states of awe, trance states, psychedelic
states, et cetera, et cetera. And what we discovered
is that William James was totally right. I mean he was so ahead of
his time, it was crazy. From a neurological perspective,
from a phenomenological perspective, all these states–
and these are some weird states– so what you’re saying is
a surfer in flow riding a wave is experiencing the
same thing as a Zen Buddhist meditating in a
monastery, is experiencing the same thing as somebody at
Burning Man on a psychedelic. That’s pretty odd. But that is exactly,
it turns out, what we seem to be discovering. The neurobiological of this
entire ecstatic spectrum, we see the same three things. We see the prefrontal
cortex de-activate. And then, if the state
is really intense, we see activation
and deactivation at the temporoparietal junction. We see brainwaves drop down
to the alpha-theta borderline, and we see some combination of
these big five neurochemicals. We also see a lot of
phenomenological overlap. All of these states– it doesn’t matter
if we’re talking meditative states,
states of awe, psychedelic states,
flow states– selfless is consistent
in all of them. By the way to get at this list– I should back up. I wrote Stealing Fire
which is the book that I’m talking about with my
partner Jamie Weil in the Flow Genome Project. And one of the bits of research
that we did is everybody and their mother, from
William James forward, has a way of defining
altered states and measuring altered states and
thinking about altered states. The problem with
most of them is they are very context dependent. So when Buddhists talk
about what they experience in meditation or
in trance, you get very Buddhist interpretations. And the same thing with
Christians and blah, blah, blah. If you go back to the ’60s,
and even if you were dealing with ’60s psychologists,
there was all kinds of rebirthing stuff coming up. So you have versions of
altered state spectrums that have neonatal
this and that. We wanted something that
was context independent. We’re just interested in
how it makes you feel, how it shifts feelings,
and that’s it. And this is what
we’ve come up with. It has not completely validated. We’ve run it by
tons of researchers. A lot of people find
it very, very useful. It has not been validated. There may be something
we’re missing. But we’re certain
about this stuff– selflessness because the
prefrontal cortex turns off, timelessness because the
prefrontal cortex turns off. Effortlessness is this feeling
in mystical experiences. We talk about this as being
propelled by gods or ghosts or forces beyond our control. And in flow we talk about
this as effortless effort. And what it really is
is it’s five of the most addictive
neurochemicals the brain can produce showing
up in your system and making things feel
amazing, and you obviously want more of it. And the richness refers
to information richness. And the idea is quite simple. In the same way that
creativity is amplified, it’s amplified in
all these states because all these states
surround the creative process and amplify, and we get
lots and lots of data. And we are seeing– this is where the revolutions
come together– we’re actually seeing both sides of the coin. So Freud said psychology has
to be about curing the sick, and that’s what we’re seeing. And we’re seeing– because these
states are very, very similar, because they’re
neurobiologically similar, they’re similar in impact. So I want to talk about what
we’re seeing in PTSD research. So I said earlier that flow
can be useful treating anxiety because it resets
the nervous system. PTSD is the most extreme
anxiety disorder we have. And we suck at
treating it generally– SSRIs the only kind of
known treatment for PTSD. 25 million Americans,
by the way, are suffering PTSD
at any one time. So it’s an epidemic. And all we’ve got
for them is SSRIs which A, you have to take
for the rest of your life, B, they don’t work on everyone. There’s a ton of
treatment-resistant depression in PTSD. They rarely work in women. They’re not great drugs. So about 10 years
ago, Rick Doblin and the Multidisciplinary
Association for Psychedelic
RESEARCH said hey, let’s try psychedelic therapy. And psychedelic therapy combines
a psychedelic and talk therapy. It blends it together. And they tried MDMA therapy
on soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with
PTSD, victims of child abuse, and victims of sexual abuse. And what they discovered
is one to three sessions of MDMA therapy, so using the
same psychedelic MDMA that’s inside of Ecstasy or Molly was
enough to significantly reduce or completely cure PTSD. It’s been six years since
those studies have been run, and we know that
it’s persistent. It stays gone. Nobody has had to go back
for further treatments. So exciting is this to the FDA
that they fast tracked MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. It’s already in phase
3 trials, and we’re going to see it as
a medicine by 2020. In fact, the FDA
was so impressed with MDMA and its
ability to treat PTSD that they’re now looking
at it as a treatment for regular depression
and anxiety. So that is moving forward. Not everybody wants
to do a psychedelic to deal with their PTSD. OK, said the DOD. At Camp Pendleton, they
reran the exact same study. This time they swapped
out the psychedelic. They put in flow. They used surfing
and talk therapy. They put over 1,000 soldiers
through this protocol, and what did they discover? Because the neurobiology
is very similar, five weeks of surfing
and talk therapy was enough to significantly
reduce or completely cure PTSD in returning soldiers. Then the DOD said,
OK, that’s cool. Let’s try it again
with meditation. They did. Four weeks of mantra-based
meditation, 20 minutes a day was enough to
significantly reduce PTSD. And when I say
significantly reduce, I mean they’re off their
meds, or significantly off their meds, or
it’s completely gone. So three different approaches,
three different altered states that you would not normally
associate with one another, yet very similar impacts. And we see this on the
curing side of the equation. We also see it on the
high performance side. We talked earlier about
flow’s impact on creativity. Well, there’s some
really cool research that was done in
the Netherlands, for example, where they
were looking at open senses meditation. This is where you’re
taking in information, and you’re not judging
it too harshly, but it’s not
mantra-focused meditation. Open senses meditation
tends to be very, very good for divergent thinking. Focus meditation is good
for convergent turns out. But they’re seeing
in the studies they run, three 45-minute
open monitoring meditation sessions enough to significantly
increase fluency, flexibility, originality, and
elaboration, which are four key characteristics
of creativity. And micro-dosing, which
are sub-perceptual doses of psychedelics– so you’re taking small,
small doses of psychedelics. Micro-dosing, James Fadiman’s
research has found on average, you’re getting a 200%
boost in creativity. The original micro-dosing
creativity study was done here in Silicon Valley. It was done back in the ’60s. It was the last legal study
done before they shut down LSD research. Literally, they shut
it down the next day. But they took a bunch of
people from the Valley and they said,
OK, all you guys– it was people who were selected
because they’d spent months trying to solve a hard
technical creative challenge– and they gave them micro-dose,
sub-perceptual doses of a hallucinogen. This is a list of
some of the stuff that came out the other side
that was incredibly useful– improvement to a magnetic
tape recorder, math theorem regarding NOR gates, new
model of a photon, space probe to measure solar
properties, new building design, on and on– so huge practical
boost in creativity. We are seeing the same thing. In fact, you saw
earlier on that list technologically mediated states. Really crazy study done at
the University of Australia on creativity and flow. They took a bunch of
people and they gave them the 9-dot problem to solve. You’ve seen this. Connect 9 dots with
4 lines in 10 minutes without lifting your
pencil from a paper. Under normal conditions, less
than 5% of people can solve it. In their study
group, nobody did. Then they use transcranial
magnetic stimulation. They artificially knocked
out the prefrontal cortex by sending a weak
magnetic pulse, so it’s artificially-induced
transient hypo frontality, artificially produces 20-
to 40-minute flow state. 50% of their study group solved
that problem in record time. So we’re seeing on all these
wildly different states same impact on both
sides of the spectrum. They have the potential
to really treat intractable conditions. And they have the potential to
massively improve performance. This by the way, just
in case you’re curious, the one thing I
haven’t talked about– we talked about neural
anatomy, neurochemistry, and neural electricity, which
are three of the things you need to talk about to
talk about brain stuff– we did not talk about networks. But just so you have
some idea of where that heightened creativity is
when you’re on psychedelics. This is work done by
Robin Carhart-Harris. He’s at Imperial College
doing really great imaging studies on psychedelics. We have teamed up with them
to do the very first flow and psychedelic side by side
comparative contrast altered states study that we’re going
to be launching, I think, the first week of
June, so coming up. But anyways, on
the left side, this is your brain connectivity
under normal conditions. On the right side,
that is what your brain looks like in psilocybin. It is the most
network connectivity we see in the brain. That is why creativity is
going through the roof. This is also why
we’re now seeing– this in the cover
of “The Economist,” and it still makes my brain
explode to look at it. “Tune On, Turn On, and
Drop by the Office.” It is about
micro-dosing at work, and it’s the cover
of “The Economist.” So yeah, this stuff is really
starting to go mainstream. And the best news of all
is that this consciousness is incredibly, incredibly,
incredibly hackable. And you don’t actually have to
take a psychedelic substance. So on the flow side– we talked a little bit
about psychedelics– I want to jump back to flow. One of the things that we’ve
discovered very, very recently is that flow states
have triggers. These are preconditions
that lead to more flow. So if you’re interested in kind
of hacking your consciousness with this stuff, these 20
triggers are your toolkit. And we have individual triggers. There are 10 or 11
of these that will drive an individual into flow. And then we have group triggers. This is the product of
Keith Sawyer’s research. He’s at the University
of North Carolina. And there are 10 group triggers. And group triggers will
drive a team into flow, produce a collective, shared
flow state known as group flow. You’ve taken part in
a great brainstorming session where the ideas
are flying off the wall. That’s group flow in action. If you’ve seen a
fourth quarter comeback in football or basketball,
that’s group flow in action. We can talk a little bit
more about these triggers in a second. But the one thing I want to
tell you just so you know is flow follows focus. It only shows up when all our
attention is on the right here, right now. That’s what these triggers do. They drive our attention
into the present moment. More specifically, not all
of them, but most of them, tend to drive norepinephrine
and dopamine, which are our main focusing
chemicals, that’s really what’s going on under the hood. Now I don’t want to
leave you hanging. I want to give you
some practical advice. So I said we just did a giant
study on creativity and flow. It was interesting. About 2,100 people took part. And what we were looking
at is, among other things, what triggers are
most associated with heightened creativity. First we wanted to look at
the big numbers that created this 400% to 700% spike. We were like, what
the hell is that? What do we mean by creativity? So we broke creativity down. We looked at the process
portions of creativity. And so we found that idea
generation, for example, goes up 40%. Problem solving goes up 40%. And so you start to see
where those big numbers come from because these things
start to stack on one another. We also found three triggers are
most associated with creativity across the board in
knowledge workers, so what everybody in this
room does for a living. The first is obvious–
complete concentration. Flow follows focus. It only shows up when we’re
in the right here, right now. But what that means, by
the way, is the research shows is us that you
need 90 to 120 minutes of interrupted concentration
to really maximize flow. So that means you need 90 to
120 minutes where your office door can be shut, where
your phone is off, where email is off,
where Facebook is off, where Twitter is off. It means if you’re
running a team, right, and you’re
telling your team members that they have to email
you back in a half an hour, you’re literally locking that
team out of the very state of consciousness they need
to maximize performance, for example. It’s why when I go
into organizations, I always tend to say,
if you can’t hang a door sign on your door that
says, beep off, I’m flowing, you’re sunk. Next thing we see
with creativity is it requires the challenge
skills balance, often called the Golden Rule of flow, most
important of flows triggers. The idea is that we pay the
most attention to the right here, right now
task at hand when the challenge of
the task at hand slightly exceeds our skill set. So you want to
stretch but not snap. Emotionally, this
means flow sits not on but near the
midpoint between boredom– not enough stimulation,
I could give a shit– and anxiety, whoa, way
too much stimulation. In between is this sweet spot. Finally, immediate feedback–
this should come as no surprise here at Google. But you know, this is one
of the reasons why we saw so much flow in action sports. In action sports you
have immediate feedback. You’re a skier, you
don’t set that edge at the top of the run, and
you’re on a face first death slide to the bottom. It’s really obvious. Same thing happens in
software, of course. Agile software, the
entire agile movement, was about tightening
up feedback loops. And one of the reasons is
maximizes creative flow. So obviously, in
business, for example, if you’ve got quarterly
reports or annual reports and that’s the only
feedback you’re getting, it’s a disaster for this stuff. The last thing I want to
tell you about the triggers is they’re remarkably
easy to train. And if you would have come to
me five years ago– in fact, the last time I spoke
here, maybe two times ago, and said what do you believe
about flow, what would you bet your house on. I would have bet my house
that this stuff is massively hard to train, absolutely. It turns out we were
deadly wrong about that. The example is two
or three years ago, thanks to Adam Leonard,
we teamed up with you guys and ran a six-week
joint learning exercise. And over a course of six weeks,
we took about 70 Googlers from all over the company–
so facilities, and sales and marketing,
and coding, and engineering, take your pick– and we trained people
up, about an hour’s worth of homework a day, in for
high performance basics. I mean basics like
sleep hygiene– get enough sleep
at night, and then put yourself on a sleep
monitor to take care of it. And the use of really what
amounted to four flow triggers. And on the back end of that–
we tested flow pre and post– we found a 35% to 80%
increase in flow here. Now, it’s a little high
because people self-selected to be in that class. They were already
interested in the topic, so those numbers are
probably a little skewed. But I will tell you, we have
a digitally delivered course called Flow Fundamentals. And it’s the same thing,
same similar structure. We were a little more intense
with what we did here. But again, we
measure pre and post. And on average some
thousands of people have taken this
course by now, we’re seeing a 70% increase in
each of flow’s metrics. And this doesn’t mean our
Kung Fu is exceptionally bad ass, which is. What it really means is that
this stuff is really easy. We’re all biologically
hardwired for it, which is really, really cool. And we’re getting options. This is the transcranial
magnetic stimulation I talked about. Because pattern recognition
is so heightened in flow, radar operators– this is
a radar operator in the US military– are using it
before they go on shift. Stockbroker’s, because you
can see so much more patterns in Wall Street, are
doing this before they’re going onto the trading floor. We’re seeing similar
things in EEG development. Back in the 1990s,
at the same time Andy Newberg was doing
his really brave work, another guy named
Richard Davidson started recording the
brainwaves of monks, Tibetan Buddhists, who had
30 years of meditation time. And he discovered some
really cool things that their brainwaves
essentially sit on the edge of
flow at all times. And that there’s a
huge amount of gamma, which you want for extra
creativity in their brainwaves. But who the hell has 30
years, let alone 30 hours? So what do we do? Well, we recorded those
brainwaves and now, using neurofeedback and
EEG, we are training people to move in the same direction in
three weeks, three months, very compressed time frames. In fact, if you want
more flow in your life, the same technology
is available to you. Go to the There is a free flow profile
there under the Learn tab. It’s a diagnostic,
it’s [INAUDIBLE].. It says if you are
this kind of person, you’re likely to find
flow in these directions. It’s become one of the largest
studies on optimal performance [INAUDIBLE]. Killed another
longstanding darling, we thought when we
started this work, flow absolutely must show up the
most in action and better sport athletes and in sort
of performing arts, people in bands, people on
stage, that kins of stuff. It turns out no. The vast majority of
our study subjects, like 80,000 people have taken
the study at this point, are knowledge workers. They do what everybody in
this room does for a living. The most flow tends to
show up in knowledge work. All right, to wrap
this all up, I want to give you one sort of big
picture look at all this stuff. So “Stealing Fire”
origin story– I was writing a book called
“Rise of Superman” about flow, and I was talking to Salim
Ismail, who was at that point the Executive Director of
Singularity University. And Salim, former director
of innovation at Yahoo, really interested in
flow and innovation. And we were talking,
and he pointed out, he’s like, you know, Steven,
if you think about it, every time you go
to a sporting event, if you go to a
basketball game, you’re playing to see players in flow. And he said, if you
go to see a movie, you’re going to
see actors in flow, and you’re hoping to
get a director who was in flow when they shot
the movie, or a poetry reading and on. He said, I’ll bet it’s a
large portion of the GDP. And that caught our attention,
that caught my attention. And I started thinking about it. And when we started doing the
research for stealing fire and figuring out that,
hey, wait a minute, flow, meditative
states, contemplating, state psychedelic states,
et cetera, et cetera, all these things are very,
very similar, we said, well, let’s try to measure that. Let’s measure the
altered state economy. How much money do
people spend chasing this experience of selflessness,
timelessness, effortlessness, and richness? And I’m not going to walk
you through the calculation. It is in the footnotes
to Stealing Fire. Please– hammer on it–
run your own calculations. I spent a year working on it. I want to get as
rigorous as possible because it’s mind blowing
in what it tells us. And the first thing I
also want to point out is not all of this
stuff is positive. When I’m talking
about selflessness, and effortlessness, and
information richness, and all this stuff, some
people seeking it out, they’re going and doing
meditation reheats, or developing a yoga practice,
or they’re pursuing flow. And a lot of people are
just taking a lot of drugs. There’s a negative downside,
dark side to all this as well, and we measured that as well. But when we were done, in our
very conservative calculation, we came up with a figure
that is $4 trillion a year. It is 1/16 of the
global economy that we spend trying to get
out of our head, trying to shift our
consciousness in this way. And as you can see from the
stuff I’m talking about, those numbers, because
we’re getting very precise, we’re getting better
at this, we’re being able to tune this in
ways like we never could before and being able to get some
more of the positive benefits and less of the
negative benefits. This is only going
to grow over time. And I think the last thing
I want to tell you today is that I think all
of this information puts kind of a wonderful,
and yet really terrible, burden on each and
every one of us– because you’ve got
to ask yourself what kind of
impossible challenges are you going to go after
If you can be 500% more productive, if you could be 600%
more creative, if you could cut your learning times in half? The science is
pretty overwhelming that that’s exactly what
is available to each and every one of you today. As Alice Walker pointed
out so many years ago, we are the ones we’ve
been waiting for. But what we choose to
do with that information remains entirely up to us. But thanks for
listening, and I’m happy to take some questions. [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: So I’m
wondering if there’s any limits in age for flow. And I’m asking– I’m coaching
my 10-year-old’s baseball team and I’d like to hear
your thoughts on this. STEVEN KOTLER: That’s
a great question. So as you were talking, I don’t
know if there are upper limits. I really don’t. Age-related limits, I
realized as you were talking, I was like, God, I’ve never
even asked that question or even thought about that. So there may be upper limit
stuff that I don’t know about. Kids are actually very flow
prone because developmentally their prefrontal
cortex doesn’t finish developing until you’re 25. That’s why your nose is
the last thing to grow. It’s space for your
prefrontal cortex. So they’re
developmentally geared towards transient
hypofrontality, and their brainwaves
are actually naturally closer to alpha. Adults are in beta. Kids tend to be closer to alpha. So kids are flow prone. In my book Rise of Superman, we
talked about the crazy places it’s showing up. Flow coaching has gotten
into action sports early. We saw it in
skating, for example. You routinely see 12- to
14-year-old kids win the X Games, beating 25 to 35– like professional athletes. And one of the reasons is
because flow coaching has been in action sports for longer. In mainstream
sports, it popped in. Jimmy Johnson said the Dallas
Cowboys won the Super Bowl back in the ’90s and he
credited Csikszentmihalyi. So flow has been in sports for
a while, but not at the level– those traditional
bat and ball sports are little more conservative. And action sports, they weren’t
even sports back in the ’90s, right? So there’s been a lot
more flow coaching. We’re seeing
interesting results. A friend of ours–
we are working with a guy in Minnesota who
is doing a bunch of flow work in grade school. And they’re using
the flow profile with kids, trying to figure
out what’s their dominant flow area, and then having them do
a lot of independent studies over the years. And their idea is that
if they can get them into high school already
knowing what produces the most flow in their life and what
they’re most passionate about, they’ll have a leg up. So we’re doing
some of that work. We’re looking at it. But there’s a ways to go. AUDIENCE: Thank you. STEVEN KOTLER: Sure. AUDIENCE: Hi. Great topic. Thinking about this, I’m sold. I want to be in flow all the
time– very productive, very great, awesome. But thinking about the chemicals
that have heightened levels, isn’t there supposed
to be a crash? Like I know– STEVEN KOTLER: Yeah. So yeah, let me–
let’s stop there. Because if you were
going to say that nobody gets to be in flow all the time. People come up to me
about once a month, and are like, [WHISPERING]
dude, Steven, psst, I’m in flow all the time. You should study me. And this has been
happening for years. In the beginning, I
didn’t know what to say. And now I’m just honest. I’m like, absolutely. You know, we have
a term for that– we call that schizophrenia. Sometimes we call
that mania, depending. But it’s an either/or. Flow is a cycle. Herb Benson did a lot of the
foundational neuroscience on this. And it’s a four-part cycle. And as you pointed out,
those neurochemicals that show up in the flow
are expensive for the brain to produce. They require minerals. And some of them
require sunlight. And some of them require
vitamins, and foods, and blah, blah, blah. So there’s a recovery time. Norepinephrine and
Dopamine, for example, why are Ted Talks
20 minutes long? Because these are you two
principal focusing chemicals, and they are mostly
exhausted after 20 minutes at peak concentration. So if you’ve ever seen
a James Bond movie, everything blows up for
the first half an hour, and then you’re bored to death
for the rest of the time. It’s because you’ve
exhausted all you’re focusing feel-good
drugs, and now you’ve just got bad popcorn
in your stomach. I mean, literally,
like that feeling. So yes, on the
backside of flow there is a recovery period for sure. It’s built in. So nobody gets to live in
flow as far as we can tell. There’s some really
interesting work– some people often
misconflated enlightenment with permanent flow. There’s an idea out
there that enlightenment might be permanent flow. We’ve actually made some
really interesting progress on studying so-called
enlightenment. And the one thing
that we’re pretty sure is it doesn’t appear
to be permanent flow. It seems that it takes
the shift in perspective that you get from flow,
that expansive oneness with everything that
allows you to access it under normal conditions,
but it doesn’t seem to be a permanent flow state. I don’t think that’s possible. Outside a manic episode, I
don’t think that’s possible. AUDIENCE: Thanks. STEVEN KOTLER: Sure. Thanks for asking. AUDIENCE: Thank you for
this fantastic talk. So what you essentially talked
about is meditation 101. A lot of the concepts
are very similar. There are these
gadgets these days. They call it the
brain balancing. Apparently they can induce
you into your flow state. There are certain
devices, EEG-based, which people with
ADHD use to train. And that is nothing
but attention training. So you look at a certain
pattern on the screen, and you focus your
attention there by trying to do
something repeatedly and you slowly get into your
flow state by doing this. So this is well known. But the other kind
of devices, the claim is that you don’t
need to do anything. You don’t need to
focus your attention. But it plays some signals,
some sounds in your ears. And apparently it’s supposed
to divert your state to what’s the flow state. I don’t know how much it is. STEVEN KOTLER: I call bullshit. AUDIENCE: It’s BS, OK. STEVEN KOTLER: What
I’ve found consistently is there a lot of
people out there who have a device that measures
one thing or does one thing, and they want to call it flow. So we’ve got this EEG device
that drives your brainwaves to the alpha-theta
borderline, and it’s going to put you into flow. Well no, it’s going
to drive your brain waves to the alpha-theta
borderline, OK. But flow is changes in
network structures, changes in neural anatomical function. It’s changes in neurochemistry. It’s a bunch of
physiological reactions that we’re just now
starting to maybe measure. And nobody’s put it all together
in one physiological flow detector at this point,
though we are working on one. But anytime I hear a single
correlate hypothesis– it takes your brain
waves, it does this– and calling it flow, to me,
I don’t understand that. I don’t understand
why people are doing that when we know flow has
total shift in brain function. So that’s first of all. When it comes to sound,
though I have friends Will Henshall at Focus
Will, Brain FM, there are some really
interesting groups doing really good work
on sound and flow. My friend Kris Berkner who
runs Advanced Brain Monitoring in Carlsbad, California,
she is the person who teamed up with the DOD to
do the flow in the accelerated learning stuff. She give a Ted Talk. You can find that online. One of the things they did is
they looked at binaural beats. There were 400 companies doing
sound with binaural beats. And it’s supposed to put
you in flow and whatever. They make just about
the best EEG measurement device in the world,
I think, and they took every binaural beats
program they could find and looked for any consistent
neurological shift, found nothing that was consistent. So I’m not saying that there
is this technology out there– sooner or later, somebody is
going to crack that, right? We know from Apple’s work with
Sonos that the power of music is really amazing in terms of
its ability to shift conscious. So there’s definitely
something there. But we’re not there yet, I
don’t think, nothing I’ve seen. There are probably
people out there would breakthrough technology
that tell me I’m lying and don’t know. But I haven’t seen
anything that I’m comfortable with that
I think does that yet. I think we’re getting
closer though. And I think all this stuff is
on exponential growth curves. So you know what seemed
absolutely ridiculous three years ago,
you are going to get in two years, three years. AUDIENCE: Thank you. STEVEN KOTLER: Sure. AUDIENCE: All right,
thanks for coming. From your comments, it
sounds like you’re not a big fan of open office plans. But open office plans are a
super big fad around here. So my request to you
is please rescue us. What can you do for us? STEVEN KOTLER: Yeah. It’s a fair point. And you’re not the only one. A couple of years ago,
when Facebook decided they were going to do away
with desks entirely and put everybody on walking desks,
facing each other in a circle. [LAUGHTER] I don’t know if that’s
true or not, by the way. But I just heard it, and I was
like what a disaster for flow. That said, open office plans can
be really good for group flow, depending. They have their purpose. The companies that I’m
seeing that are doing this are building– any of the co-work spaces
that you’re seeing pop up, they have little phone
booth rooms that anybody can go into and shut
the door, and it’s a private little office. So I’m seeing a lot of companies
that like open office plans start to build in silence
pods, where you can just close yourself in and
lock yourself off. And equally important is you’ve
got to have your conversations about this. If you’ve got a
manager, and they’re not into this whole idea
of what you’re doing. And suddenly you’re going
off from 90 to 120 minutes, and you’re coming back with
something like I was in flow, you’re going to be fired. So it’s got to be
done loud, I think. People have to understand
why this is mandatory. But I think open office
plans, ultimately, I think we’re going to
start to see them go away. And I think some of
this is just that we’re going to be 3D printing
office buildings, and we get complexity for free. So suddenly it’s not
going to be cost efficient to put everybody in cubicles. We’re going to being able
to build whole offices, and I think the problem’s
going to get solved. I think it’s a money issue
less than an open office plan issue at this point. But yeah, they are
disasters for flow. AUDIENCE: So you talked
about the psychedelic drugs. But I’m curious. Are there studies seeing
how different drugs simulate the flow state, like
cocaine, marijuana. STEVEN KOTLER: The
neurochemicals, the big five neurochemicals, every time
you have a neurochemical– you have an endogenous
and exogenous chemical, so the body produces endorphins. These are our natural opiates. So flow is essentially
dopamine, which is cocaine. Whenever you use
cocaine, all that happens is the brain releases
a bunch of dopamine, and it blocks its re-uptake. You get a little serotonin. That’s ecstasy at one
pathway or LSD in another. anandamide, which,
as you said, is THC. Norepinephrine is
essentially speed. I don’t know what
I’m forgetting here. But the point is you
actually couldn’t cocktail those drugs
on the street, which is really interesting. Some of them counteract. You’re going to end up dead
or in a coma if you try. What’s cool is the brain can
cocktail them all naturally and you don’t tend– I mean, you know,
flow has a dark side. It’s a very sticky state. It’s very addictive. Csikszentmihalyi said flow
is different than most other addictions. Most other addictions
lead backwards. Flow, because you’re always
extending your skills, because you’re walking up
that challange skills balance, is an addiction
that leads forward. But if you have a
high flow lifestyle– the Navy SEALs, who we do some
work, when the Navy SEALs stop being Navy SEALs, when an
action sport athlete stops being an action sport
athlete, when a rock star stops being a rock star– These are massively difficult
transitions to handle. And a lot of what we’re
seeing, for example, in soldiers returning from
combat and things like that, is these are such high flow
environments, that compared to regular life, it’s
really difficult. And that’s a big portion
of the difficulty. And we’re doing some
work around that to try to see what
we can learn there. There’s a long way to go,
but we’re poking at it. Anybody else? AUDIENCE: Yeah, two more
questions both from the Dory. The first one is about
the concept of flow hike– STEVEN KOTLER: [LAUGHING] OK. AUDIENCE: –that was
addressed on our podcast. How can we translate
flow states that we achieve through athletic
pursuits to everyday life? STEVEN KOTLER: So
part of that answer– do they want me to break down
the flow hike or was that– AUDIENCE: Basically, if
I understand the question correctly, how we can sort
of use the flow hike online. STEVEN KOTLER: OK. So there’s a couple
of different answers. The first answer is flow is
a focusing skill essentially. Whoever said it was
like meditation 101, there’s a lot of
fundamentals there. We train people in mindfulness
because flow follows focus. So you want to drive that
focus into the present tense. How did I get here? What did you ask me? I totally lost my place. I looked at you. I did the meditation thing. What was the question? AUDIENCE: Flow hike or flow
through athletic pursuits in everyday life. STEVEN KOTLER: Flow
through athletic pursuits, it tends to translate. so the flow training that
I get while skiing helps me as a writer. It’s the same kind of focus. So whenever you’re training
that, you’re training that– one is the athletic pursuits
will just naturally bleed over into your everyday life. So in other words, the more flow
you get, the more flow you get. That’s across the boards. The flow hike is not an
athletic pursuit hike. It’s actually a daily flow. Like you asked about
the neurobiology, right. So this is a hike
I use every day. I wake up. I start writing at 4
o’clock in the morning. I write from 4:00 till 8:00 AM. And at 8:00 AM, I take
my dogs for a hike. And it’s a hike specifically
designed to put me into flow. Meaning if my writing session
was really unpleasant, if I was struggling
a bunch, this is going to put me into
flow on the back end. And so when I come back to
work, I’ll feel refreshed. And [INAUDIBLE] flow state is
a good way to reset my system. But what I do is I start off
and I walk uphill very slowly for 20 to 25 minutes. Low grade physical activity
for about 20 to 25 minutes will produce exercise-induced
transient hypo-frontality. It’s going to deactivate
the prefrontal cortex. We all know this, right? You go to the gym. You workout for
about 20, 25 minutes. It gets quiet upstairs. I then run uphill. I run up cliff faces. Or you could just
sprint if you want. And I do it for
about five minutes or until I’m in pain basically. And then I sort of slow it down. And you will get
endorphins and anandamide, which are pain relievers
among other things. And then, I turned around
and I run back downhill, trying to move my feet faster
than they would normally move without gravity. So they are big leaps
down that mountain. Whenever you take a
risk, you get dopamine. And so by the time I’m
back down on my path and I’m walking home, I’ve
mimicked essentially a bunch of the neurobiology of flow. It’s not 100%. It doesn’t work all the time. But pretty much it’ll put you
into a low grade flow state. And I do this between
work sessions. And it takes about 45 minutes. And I try to do my problem
solving on the way home because I’m in a low
grade flow state, and I’ve got heightened learning
and creativity and pattern recognition. And so if there was
something that I wasn’t doing in my writing– I got stuck somewhere– that’s when I try to
solve it because I know I’m going to be in
a low grade flow state. I think that’s a
great place to end. Thanks, guys. [APPLAUSE]

19 thoughts on “Steven Kotler: “The Science of Maximizing Human Potential” | Talks at Google

  1. The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  2. I would have loved to make a (bigger) contribution in the world. Sadly I couldn't.

  3. Loved the talk! Lots of beautiful insights and practical tools. I have a question. What’s the trade-off we make by choosing flow? Not being pessimistic but trying to understand the flip side.

  4. This was a pretty interesting talk, I have been in flow state more than I thought I was. I'm heading over to his website to learn more about this.

  5. Steven Kotler has made a massive contribution to society with his FLOW work.
    With his combination of FLOW chasing, FLOW studying, being a science writer, and a best selling author, he is sharing and spreading valuable knowledge.
    Thank you Steven Kotler! Thanks to Talks at Google for posting and sharing these superb talks.

  6. Steven Kotler, you are a rock star! In 1985, I stumbled on FLOW while acting onstage. An accident triggered my experience of FLOW. It was such a euphoric state and I performed  at a level I'd never experienced as an actor that I went looking for how to create it on purpose. I ended up creating a method to transform stage fright and fear of public speaking. For 30 years now I have facilitated this method in Houston. It was based only on my intuition and training as an actor and meditator with no science to back it up. Then you came along and gave me all the science to explain what I have been doing for so long by intuition. I am full of gratitude and respect for your research, writing and speaking. Thank you! PS. I love your low grade FLOW state morning ritual. I will be doing it tomorrow morning.

  7. Surfers don’t paddle into 100 ft waves. That’s just idiotic. They get pulled by jet ski into position because it’s extremely dangerous.

  8. Also got to love reporters discussing science not the actual practitioners or experimenters but the people who jabber for a living.

  9. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease the brains Default Mode Network similiarly to what happens in a flow state.

    However, Transcendental Meditation has been shown to increase the overall activation of the Default Mode Network in practitioners.

    Is it valid to assume that Trascendental Meditation is not optimal for flow state?

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