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.

More playlists
  • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
  • "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."


Like Mick Jagger, the Indian prince we know as The Buddha taught that we can't get no satisfaction from this world, though we try and we try, and we try, and we try.

Buddha means "awakened one". Awake to the fact that the world is impermanent and we suffer and cause suffering to one another because of that. "Woke" is a newer word for something similar. Waking up to pervasive social injustice. To racism, economic disparity, homophobia, and other forces that poison and destroy people's lives and relationships. In other words, suffering people cause by clinging onto impermanent things—in this case, power. The intersection of these two kinds of awakening is at the heart of the work of my guest today, Lama Rod Owens. An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage and the coauthor of RADICAL DHARMA, he grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others, and on trying to help people wake up in all senses of the word.

Surprise conversation starters in this episode:

Michael Shermer on why we die

Pete Holmes on the power of words

  • Since the explosion of the knowledge economy in the 1990s, generalist inventors have been making larger and more important contributions than specialists.
  • One theory is that the rise of rapid communication technologies allowed the information created by specialists to be rapidly disseminated, meaning generalists can combine information across disciplines to invent something new.
  • Here, David Epstein explains how Nintendo's Game Boy was a case of "lateral thinking with withered technology." He also relays the findings of a fascinating study that found the common factor of success among comic book authors.
  • The paper was published by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
  • It shows how states with gun licensing laws have relatively lower gun violence than states with lax gun laws.
  • Most Americans said they'd support stricter background checks for prospective gun buyers, with about 75 percent saying they'd also support gun licensing laws.

Gun violence is lower in U.S. states where people must get a license before buying a gun, according to a new paper from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Before buying a gun, states require residents to pass a federally mandated background check (if purchasing from a licensed dealer) and, depending on the state, obtain a permit or license. To obtain a gun license, states typically require people to submit fingerprints, apply for a permit, and, in some cases, complete a firearms safety course.

"Licensing differs from a standard background check in important ways," Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and study lead author, said in a news release. "Comprehensive background checks are a necessary component of any system designed to keep guns from prohibited persons, but they are insufficient to reduce firearm-related deaths without a complementary system of purchaser licensing."

In addition to strengthening the screening process, licensing laws could also help to reduce gun homicides and suicides by preventing impulse purchases. After all, obtaining a license typically takes several days, while prospective gun buyers in states like Missouri can obtain a firearm in minutes, assuming they pass the federally mandated background check.

Crifasi et al.

The researchers cited Connecticut as an example of a state with long-held licensing laws. In 1995, the state passed a law requiring prospective gun buyers to "submit an application to local law enforcement, including fingerprints, and complete at least 8 hours of approved handgun safety training," and also increased accountability for gun sellers. Since then, gun homicides have dropped by 40 percent and gun suicides fell by 15 percent, the researchers wrote.

Most Americans seem to support licensing laws: About 75% of adults support laws that require prospective buyers to get a license from law enforcement, with about 60 percent of gun owners supporting such laws, according to a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

"Given the body of evidence on the effectiveness of licensing laws and the increasing levels of support among the population, including gun owners, policy makers should consider handgun purchaser licensing as a complement to [comprehensive background check] laws," the researchers of the new study concluded.

  • Elon Musk said at a shareholder meeting that Tesla has designed a car that drives under water.
  • The design was inspired by a James Bond movie.
  • There are no immediate plans for the car's production.

You knew that sooner or later, Elon Musk, the closest person we have to a James Bond villain or Tony Stark, would attempt to build some new, next-level gadgetry straight from the movies. Not one to disappoint when it comes to making outlandish ideas become reality, Musk revealed that Tesla Motors has designs for a submarine car.

Yes, this car will be able to drive on roads, but also on and under the water. At least that's what Tesla CEO Musk said at an annual shareholders meeting in California. When asked by a shareholder whether Tesla thought about building a submarine car, Musk answered in the affirmative. Not only that, his company actually has designs for just such a vehicle (electric, of course).

Musk was inspired by the 1977 James Bond film "The Spy Who Love Me," saying that he thought the car in that movie (inspired by Lotus Esprit) "was like the coolest thing." In fact, he loved it so much that he bought it for £616,000 (close to $800K).

When can you get such a fantastic vehicle? Not so fast, said Musk. He thinks it's technically feasible but the market for such a car isn't quite robust enough yet.

"I think the market for this would be small—small, but enthusiastic," Musk explained.

Who knows maybe the expression of our collective enthusiasm upon reading such articles will make this car a reality.

Check out the submarine car sequence from the “Spy Who Loved Me” here:

Dancing is a human universal, but why?


It is present in human cultures old and new; central to those with the longest continuous histories; evident in the earliest visual art on rock walls from France to South Africa to the Americas, and enfolded in the DNA of every infant who invents movements in joyful response to rhythm and song, long before she can walk, talk or think of herself as an 'I'. Dancing remains a vital, generative practice around the globe into the present in urban neighbourhoods, on concert stages, as part of healing rituals and in political revolutions. Despite efforts waged by Christian European and American colonists across six continents over 500 years to eradicate indigenous dance traditions and to marginalise dancing within their own societies, dancing continues wherever humans reside. Any answer to the question of why humans dance must explain its ubiquity and tenacity. In so doing, any answer will challenge Western notions of human being that privilege mind over body as the seat of agency and identity.

Current explanations for why humans dance tend to follow one of two approaches. The first, seen in psychological and some philosophical circles, begins with a human as an individual person who chooses to dance (or not) for entertainment, exercise, artistic expression or some other personal reason. Such approaches assume that dance is one activity among others offering benefits to an individual that may be desirable, but not necessary, for human well being. Alternatively, a raft of sociological and anthropological explanations focus on community, asserting that dancing is one of the first means by which the earliest humans solidified strong social bonds irrespective of blood lines. In these accounts, dancing is eventually replaced by more rational and effective means of social bonding that the dancing itself makes possible, such as language, morality and religion. While the first type of reasoning struggles to explain why so many humans choose to dance, the second struggles to explain why humans continue to dance. What is missing from these accounts?

What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? What if humans are creatures who evolved to dance as the enabling condition of their own bodily becoming?

Recent evidence for such a thesis is gathering across scientific and scholarly disciplines. Time and again, researchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears. This threefold capacity is what every dance technique or tradition exercises and educates.

According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how.

In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters. Each repetition of a movement deepens and strengthens the pattern of mind-body coordination that making that movement requires; and the repetition also defines avenues along which future attention and energy flow. Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds. From this perspective, every aspect of a human bodily self – from chromosomal couplet to sense organ to limb shape – is a capacity for moving that develops through a process of its own movement making. An arm, for example, develops into an arm by virtue of the movements it makes, beginning in utero. These movements pull its bones and muscles into shape, as contracting cells build the physiological forms needed to meet the movements' demands.

In this sense, a human being is what I call a rhythm of bodily becoming. A human is always creating patterns of bodily movement, where every new movement unfolds along an open-ended trajectory made possible by movements already made. Dancing can be seen as a means of participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming.

Further support for this thesis comes from anthropologists and developmental psychologists who have documented the importance of bodily movement to infant survival. As the American anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy affirms in her book Mothers and Others (2009), human infants are born premature, relative to their primate cousins: a human foetus intent on emerging from the womb with the neuromuscular maturity of an infant chimpanzee would need to stay there for 21 months. Instead, hopelessly dependent human infants must have a capacity to secure the loyalty of caregivers at a time when their sole means for doing so is by noticing, recreating and remembering those patterns of movement that succeed in connecting them to sources of nurture. In a view shared by Hrdy and others, this capacity for the responsive recreation of bodily movement forms the roots of human intersubjectivity. In other words, infants build their brains outside the womb in relation to mobile others by exercising a capacity to dance.

Recent research on mirror neurons further supports the idea that humans have a unique capacity to notice, recreate and remember patterns of movement. More abundant in the human brain than any other mammalian brain, mirror neurons fire when a person notices a movement, recreating the pattern of neuromuscular coordination needed to make that movement. In this way, humans can learn to recreate the movement of others – not only other humans, but also trees and giraffes, predators and prey, fire, rivers and the Sun. As the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran writes in his book The Tell-Tale Brain (2011), mirror neurons 'appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture' by allowing humans 'to adopt each other's point of view and empathise with one another'.

Nevertheless, the term 'mirror' is misleading; it hides the agency of bodily movement. A brain does not provide a passive reflection. As eyes register movement, what a person sees is informed by the sensory awareness that his previous movements have helped him develop. He responds along the trajectories of attention that these previous movements have created. From this perspective, dance is a human capacity, not just one possible activity among others. It is a capacity that must be exercised for a person to build a brain and body capable of creating relationships with the sources of sustenance available in a given cultural or environmental context. To dance is human.

In this light, every dance technique or tradition appears as a stream of knowledge – an ever-evolving collection of movement patterns discovered and remembered for how well they hone the human capacity for movement-making. Most of all, dancing provides humans with the opportunity to learn how their movements matter. They can become aware of how the movements they make are training them – or not – to cultivate the sensory awareness required to empathise across species and with the Earth itself. In this regard, dance remains a vital art. From the perspective of bodily becoming, humans cannot not dance.

Kimerer LaMothe

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.