The Optimized Brain: A Workshop on Flow States with Steven Kotler


Introduction to the Optimized Brain, with Steven Kotler

Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. Steven Kotler runs through the neuroanatomic shifts that make it possible. If your guess is that the brain somehow works harder or faster during flow states, you may be surprised to learn that everything actually slows down thanks to what's called transient hypofrontality.


This is the first video in a five-part series with Steven Kotler on the "optimized brain" available in playlist form here.

The Neurochemistry of Flow States, with Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler explains the neurochemical changes during flow states that strengthen motivation, creativity and learning. "The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals." Kotler discusses how each amplifies intellectual and cognitive performance.


This is the second video in a five-part series with Steven Kotler on the "optimized brain" available in playlist form here.

What’s Actually Happening When Your Brain Goes “Wow”

Beyond neuroanatomy and neurochemistry, flow states rely on shifts in the brain's neuroelectricity. The brain's default state is one of waking consciouness. Flow alters your brain waves to sit on the border of daydreaming and dreaming.

Understanding Flow Triggers, with Steven Kotler

There are seventeen triggers for flow that can each draw your attention to the now. Mastering flow means building these triggers into your life. Two of these triggers are high consequences and deep embodiment. Kotler explains how these triggers enact flow for people ranging from snowboarders to surfers to Montessori students.

Hack Your Flow: Understanding Flow Cycles, with Steven Kotler

We now know that flow works not like an on-off switch but in a four-part cycle. Understanding these cycles can help you to more often access flow. The parts of the cycle are as follows: struggle, release, flow, and recovery. To hack flow, explains Kotler, you have to learn to struggle better and recover better.

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  • Anxiety is triggered environmentally and emotionally, but a physiological response quickly follows.
  • Calming breathing techniques help to tamp down the physiological response of anxiety.
  • The following four exercises are known to help calm anxiety and develop focus.

Stressed? Use This Breathing Technique to Improve Your Attention and Memory, with Emma Seppälä

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Emma Seppälä, science director at Stanford Center For Compassion And Altruism Research And Education, says American culture values intensity yet undervalues calmness. We never shut off. While intensity has its place, every animal in nature inherently knows the necessity of rest in order to store up energy for when it's actually needed. Americans are careless with our energy reserves, which is why so many of us are chronically tired, overworked, and stressed out.

Seppälä knows that breathing changes our state of mind. She recommends a popular yogic breathing technique, nadi shodhana, also known as alternate nostril breathing.

Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand on your forehead. Use your thumb to close your right nostril while inhaling through the left nostril, then close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Repeat this for at least two minutes, then sit quietly for another minute or two, breathing normally.

There are many variations of this technique. My favorite is a four-cycle breath: inhale for a count of four through one nostril, retain your breath for a count of four, exhale for four, hold your breath out for four. If you're new to this breathing technique, retention might initially create more anxiety than it relieves, so try the basic inhale-exhale pattern until you can last for at least five minutes before moving onto breath retentions.

Mind Hack: Combat Anxiety with This Breathing Technique

Power Breath

Game designer and author of "Superbetter," Jane McGonigal, recommends the Power Breath: exhale for twice as long as you inhale. She says this will shift your nervous system from sympathetic to a parasympathetic tone—you'll calm down. Simply sit comfortably, close your eyes, and begin by inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of eight.

This is also a popular yoga breathing technique. As with nadi shodhana, it can initially kick up rather than diminish anxiety. If you find long exhales challenging, begin by inhaling and exhaling at an even rate: a count of four in both directions. Then try to slowly increase your exhale to a count of five, six, and so on. Longtime practitioners can inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of 50. As with any muscle, you can train your breathing. The benefits are immense.

Breathing Techniques to Help You Relax

Focus Word Breathing

Lolly, a Mind-Body Specialist at the University of Maryland Heart Center, offers what she calls Focus Word Breathing. Traditionally, this is known as Mantra meditation. Choose a word that has meaning to you—calm, grace, ease—and repeat it during every inhalation and exhalation. As your mind wanders, the word becomes a sort of flagpole that you've mentally planted to bring you back to this moment.

As a former sufferer of anxiety disorder, I remember how important my thoughts were when having a panic attack. The power of the physiological symptoms increased when I dwelled on negative thoughts. This spiral felt like being sucked into a vortex. By contrast, when I was able to redirect my thinking, the symptoms lessened.

Mantra meditation never completely worked during an attack. By that point, my physiology had been hijacked. But as a regular practice, this breathing technique is powerful. Think of it as training for the big game of life. You teach yourself to focus on beneficial words. Your attention goes where thinking leads you, but you also have control of your thoughts. By integrating a mantra with breathing, you're priming your mind to focus at will.

How to do Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall) w/ AnaMargret Sanchez

Deep Belly Breathing

This exercise is commonly used by yoga instructors to bring their students into Corpse Pose (Savasana). Place your hands over your stomach while lying down and focus your attention there. Take deep, even breaths into your hands. As with the last technique, focus your mind there. Relax the muscles at your extremities: your toes, fingers, and forehead. Allow yourself to melt into the floor.

I love doing this breath while in Viparita Karani, otherwise known as Legs Up the Wall posture. The video above explains how to enter this pose; a blanket or pillow under your lower back makes the posture comfortable. Once there, I practice deep belly breathing. This technique always calms me down. I've recommended it to friends suffering from insomnia; they all responded with positive anecdotal feedback.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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People have searched for sex differences in human brains since at least the 19th century, when scientist Samuel George Morton poured seeds and lead shot into human skulls to measure their volumes.


Gustave Le Bon found men's brains are usually larger than women's, which prompted Alexander Bains and George Romanes to argue this size difference makes men smarter. But John Stuart Mill pointed out, by this criterion, elephants and whales should be smarter than people.

So focus shifted to the relative sizes of brain regions. Phrenologists suggested the part of the cerebrum above the eyes, called the frontal lobe, is most important for intelligence and is proportionally larger in men, while the parietal lobe, just behind the frontal lobe, is proportionally larger in women. Later, neuroanatomists argued instead the parietal lobe is more important for intelligence and men's are actually larger.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, researchers looked for distinctively female or male characteristics in smaller brain subdivisions. As a behavioral neurobiologist and author, I think this search is misguided because human brains are so varied.

Anatomical brain differences

The largest and most consistent brain sex difference has been found in the hypothalamus, a small structure that regulates reproductive physiology and behavior. At least one hypothalamic subdivision is larger in male rodents and humans.

But the goal for many researchers was to identify brain causes of supposed sex differences in thinking – not just reproductive physiology – and so attention turned to the large human cerebrum, which is responsible for intelligence.

Within the cerebrum, no region has received more attention in both race and sex difference research than the corpus callosum, a thick band of nerve fibers that carries signals between the two cerebral hemispheres.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, some researchers found the whole corpus callosum is proportionally larger in women on average while others found only certain parts are bigger. This difference drew popular attention and was suggested to cause cognitive sex differences.

But smaller brains have a proportionally larger corpus callosum regardless of the owner's sex, and studies of this structure's size differences have been inconsistent. The story is similar for other cerebral measures, which is why trying to explain supposed cognitive sex differences through brain anatomy has not been very fruitful.

Female and male traits typically overlap

Chart showing that male traits in blue and female traits in pink overlap quite a bit.

A chart showing how measurements that often differ between sexes, like height, substantially overlap. (Ari Berkowitz, CC BY)

Even when a brain region shows a sex difference on average, there is typically considerable overlap between the male and female distributions. If a trait's measurement is in the overlapping region, one cannot predict the person's sex with confidence. For example, think about height. I am 5'7". Does that tell you my sex? And brain regions typically show much smaller average sex differences than height does.

Neuroscientist Daphna Joel and her colleagues examined MRIs of over 1,400 brains, measuring the 10 human brain regions with the largest average sex differences. They assessed whether each measurement in each person was toward the female end of the spectrum, toward the male end or intermediate. They found that only 3% to 6% of people were consistently "female" or "male" for all structures. Everyone else was a mosaic.

Prenatal hormones

When brain sex differences do occur, what causes them?

A 1959 study first demonstrated that an injection of testosterone into a pregnant rodent causes her female offspring to display male sexual behaviors as adults. The authors inferred that prenatal testosterone (normally secreted by the fetal testes) permanently "organizes" the brain. Many later studies showed this to be essentially correct, though oversimplified for nonhumans.

Researchers cannot ethically alter human prenatal hormone levels, so they rely on "accidental experiments" in which prenatal hormone levels or responses to them were unusual, such as with intersex people. But hormonal and environmental effects are entangled in these studies, and findings of brain sex differences have been inconsistent, leaving scientists without clear conclusions for humans.

Genes cause some brain sex differences

While prenatal hormones probably cause most brain sex differences in nonhumans, there are some cases where the cause is directly genetic.

This was dramatically shown by a zebra finch with a strange anomaly – it was male on its right side and female on its left. A singing-related brain structure was enlarged (as in typical males) only on the right, though the two sides experienced the same hormonal environment. Thus, its brain asymmetry was not caused by hormones, but by genes directly. Since then, direct effects of genes on brain sex differences have also been found in mice.

Learning changes the brain

Many people assume human brain sex differences are innate, but this assumption is misguided.

Humans learn quickly in childhood and continue learning – alas, more slowly – as adults. From remembering facts or conversations to improving musical or athletic skills, learning alters connections between nerve cells called synapses. These changes are numerous and frequent but typically microscopic – less than one hundredth of the width of a human hair.

Studies of an unusual profession, however, show learning can change adult brains dramatically. London taxi drivers are required to memorize "the Knowledge" – the complex routes, roads and landmarks of their city. Researchers discovered this learning physically altered a driver's hippocampus, a brain region critical for navigation. London taxi drivers' posterior hippocampi were found to be larger than nondrivers by millimeters – more than 1,000 times the size of synapses.

So it's not realistic to assume any human brain sex differences are innate. They may also result from learning. People live in a fundamentally gendered culture, in which parenting, education, expectations and opportunities differ based on sex, from birth through adulthood, which inevitably changes the brain.

Ultimately, any sex differences in brain structures are most likely due to a complex and interacting combination of genes, hormones and learning.The Conversation

Ari Berkowitz, Presidential Professor of Biology; Director, Cellular & Behavioral Neurobiology Graduate Program, University of Oklahoma

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  • Lions help maintain balance in their ecosystems, but they also kill cattle.
  • The big cats are ambush predators who depend on the element of surprise.
  • In an experiment, eyes painted on cow backsides appear to deter lions from attacking.

For cattle-owning subsistence farmers in Botswana, lions pose a threat to the livestock on which they depend. Attempts to keep cattle safe often result in the shooting or poisoning of the big cats. Aside from the obvious moral discussion of what makes the life of one animal more worthy of preservation than another, large predators play a vital role in preventing trophic cascades in which the loss of one species throws an entire ecosystem dangerously out of balance. The African lion population is in decline, with the estimated number of adults ranging from 23,000 to 39,000, as opposed to more than 100,000 lions in the 1990s.

As part of the search for a non-lethal remedy to the farmers' problem, a collaboration between the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) in Africa and the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and Taronga Conservation Society, both in Australia, recently completed a program they called the "i-cow project." Its tongue in cheek [pun intended] moniker might just as easily be spelled "eye-cow," since what it involved was painting large eyes on cows' hind quarters to see if they might deter lion attacks. They did.

Sneak attackers

Image source: Bobby-Jo Photography/The Conversation

Lions are ambush predators who sneak up on their quarry. Ambush predators are common in nature, on land and sea and in the air. They come in all sizes, from the praying mantis to the orca, and what they have in common is a sit (or swim)-wait-pounce strategy.

The element of surprise is a critical part of an ambush predator's method, and previous research on lion and leopard behavior in Africa's Okavango Delta suggested that an attack may be called off when an ambush predator believes it's lost the element of surprise.

Conservation biologist Neil Jordan of UNSW's Centre for Ecosystem Science has seen this in action. He tells UNSW Newsroom about how he got the idea for i-cows as he was watching a lion about to attack an impala near a village in Botswana where he was staying. "Lions are ambush hunters, so they creep up on their prey, get close and jump on them unseen. But in this case, the impala noticed the lion. And when the lion realized it had been spotted, it gave up on the hunt."

There's also support for this deterrent effect in nature, where having markings that look like eyes staring back at a predator appears to provide a distinct evolutionary survival advantage for a range of species, including butterflies, moths, reptiles, fish, and birds.

No mammals, however, have eyespots, and the i-cow team believes this is the first time that humans have investigated the effect of adding eye markings to them.

Eyes, crosses, and bare backsides

Prepping a cow

Image source: Bobby-Jo Photography/The Conversation

Jordan and his colleagues painted markings on cattle from 14 herds. 683 cows had eyes painted on their rumps, a cross was painted on the posteriors of 543 cows to learn if a natural eye shape was required to deter predators, and 835 cows were left unpainted.

Most lion attacks occur during that day — cattle are more likely to be securely penned at night — so the test cattle were painted in the morning and released to forage as usual. There were 49 painting sessions with each lasting for 24 days.

While 15 of the unpainted cows were ultimately taken by lions, not a single eye-painted cow was killed. Unexpectedly, a painted cross seemed to help a bit, if not as much as an eye painting — only 4 cross-painted cattle were attacked.

A few caveats

The researchers point out a couple of potential issues with their research.

First, the presence of completely unmarked cows in their experiments may have provided a more obvious target for lions in that they had no potentially off-putting (or even confusing in the case of the crosses) markings.

Second, animals learn. It may be that the area's lions would eventually habituate to or figure out the humans' subterfuge. The researchers note in an article for The Conversation noting that this tends to be a problem with non-lethal anti-predator remedies in general.