The Natural Origins of Supernatural Experiences

Altered states of consciousness are documented across cultures, from shamans to Silicon Valley coders. As different as these experiences seem, there are four neurological features they all have in common.

Transcendent experiences that were once attributed to gods, angels, muses, or even possession, are now being demystified by neuroscience. Jamie Wheal, Director of Programs at the Flow Genome Project, explains that each culture has unique rituals and narratives when it comes to non-ordinary experiences of consciousness or ‘altered states’, whether that’s mediation, flow state, psychedelic experiences, or others. A farmer in India, a peasant in Mexico, and a coder in Silicon Valley will all have vastly different ways of approaching altered states, and will give vastly different descriptions once they come out the other side – perhaps they saw a vision of Ganesh the elephant God, received a message from the Virgin of Guadalupe, or produced a brilliant line of code while in a Matrix-like binary blur. However, those experiences are more alike than we think. Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler devised a functional framework so they could compare non-ordinary experiences across cultures. Here, Wheal explains that they identified four common elements of altered states of consciousness, which they coined as STER: selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness and richness. Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler's book is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.

Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler's book is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.

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How We Chase Dopamine: Porn, Social Media, and Alcohol

There's a trillion-dollar underground economy hiding in plain sight, says Steven Kotler, and it can be measured in dopamine.

What really fuels the economy? It’s not trade, free spending, or good old-fashioned elbow grease – it’s something much smaller and harder to see: dopamine. Along with high-performance expert Jamie Wheal, Steven Kotler has spent the last four years interviewing and researching trailblazers like Elon Musk, Eric Schmidt, Amy Cuddy, and institutions like Nike's innovation team, the Navy SEALs, and the United Nations' Headquarters. What did he find? That these bright people and teams are using altered states of consciousness – like ‘flow’ – to boost their inspiration, ability, and impact. Winning feels good, as does reward. It all boils down to dopamine. Many of us may not be consciously aware of the the neurochemical, altered-state highs we seek on a daily basis. Kotler runs through three ways we chase dopamine, and questions the ethics of these unchecked habits. For example, when you check your phone for a text, the uncertainty or "magic of maybe" in what the text might deliver results in a 400% spike in dopamine – roughly the same amount of dopamine as a person gets from cocaine. "We’re essentially putting highly addictive drugs into the hands of kids before they have any natural defenses against them," says Kotler. Steven Kotler's and Jamie Wheal's book is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.

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