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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  • Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas on the planet.
  • A recent study analyzed ice core samples from the pre-industrial era to measure the extent to which industry has played a role in increasing atmospheric methane levels.
  • The researchers note that their results suggest action can be taken to stem methane pollution.


Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas. Colorless, odorless, and lighter than air, methane (CH4) is some 80 times more effective at trapping the atmosphere's heat than carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate it to be responsible for about 25 percent of current global warming. Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased by at least 150 percent.

Still, it's been hard to determine the primary emitters, and the extent to which natural processes are to blame.

Now, new research suggests that methane emissions from fossil fuels have been "vastly underestimated" by as much as 40 percent. The study focused on fossil methane, which is emitted through natural and anthropogenic sources like geologic seeps and the production of fossil fuels including natural gas. Biological methane is the gas's other form, and it comes from natural sources like wetlands, and human activity like rice farming.

The findings, published in Nature, are based on analyses of pre-industrial ice samples obtained from glaciers in Greenland. Because these ice core samples show how much methane was in the atmosphere before the Industrial Revolution, the analyses can offer a more accurate estimate of the extent to which human activity has been responsible for the recent increases of atmospheric methane.

Hmiel et al.

The results show that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, fossil methane emissions were about 1.6 to 5.4 teragrams. For context, the current estimate of total annual methane emissions is 172 to 195 teragrams. So, if the results are accurate, the implication is that human activity is almost entirely responsible for methane emissions, while natural contributors like gas seeps play a smaller role than previously thought. The results also suggest that the industry is likely underreporting the amount of methane leaks coming from various points in the supply chain, including processing, production, and transportation.

But that's not all bad news to lead study author Benjamin Hmiel, a researcher at the University of Rochester.

Fracking rig

Fracking rig site in Oklahoma

J Pat Carter / Contributor

"I don't want to get too hopeless on this because my data does have a positive implication: Most of the methane emissions are anthropogenic (human-caused), so we have more control," Hmiel told USA Today. "If we can reduce our (methane) emissions, it's going to have more of an impact. [...] Placing stricter methane emission regulations on the fossil-fuel industry will have the potential to reduce future global warming to a larger extent than previously thought."

Methane emissions come from all sectors of the fossil fuel industry. But natural gas seems to be an especially dirty contributor, mainly because of the large amounts of gas that's lost during the production process. This leakage challenges the idea that natural gas is a relatively clean "bridge fuel" that society can burn as it develops more renewable energy sources. For example, a recent study found that the methane leakage rate in the U.S. natural gas supply chain was much higher than previous estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency. The implication: Natural gas comes with steep hidden costs.

Reducing methane emissions

The good news is that methane has a relatively short atmospheric lifespan. Unlike carbon dioxide, which can linger in the atmosphere for about 200 years, methane vanishes after about a decade. Its heat-trapping power, however, makes it a serious climate threat over the short term.

"It's impossible to hit [the Paris agreement climate] targets with methane in the mix," Lena Höglund Isaksson, a greenhouse gas expert at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, told National Geographic.

Although reducing methane leaks in the natural gas supply chain might be difficult, many experts argue that it's one of the more inexpensive and straightforward ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond tightening regulations regarding leak monitoring and equipment surveys, a 2018 study published in Science recommended several ways gas companies can reduce methane leaks:

  • Install less failure-prone systems
  • Conduct on-site leak surveys
  • Re-engineer individual components and processes
  • Deploy sensors at individual facilities and on towers, aircraft or satellites
Steven Hamburg, co-author of the study, said in a statement:
"Scientists have uncovered a huge problem, but also an enormous opportunity. Reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector is the fastest, most ­cost-effective way we have to slow the rate of warming today, even as the larger transition to ­lower-carbon energy continues."
  • Written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson around 1900, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" tells a haunting story of spiritual survival.
  • The hymn is considered by many to be the black national anthem and has seen a resurgence lately in popular culture.
  • Music has a way of helping us feel others' story.

Modern memories tend to be short, particularly in America. It's been said that if you ask a European where their people come from, the answer will be a list of countries dating back generations. Ask someone from the United States and the answer is likely to be along the lines of "4th Street." It's reasonable to ask, as some have, just how connected young black Americans feel to their descendants' experiences of slavery. After all, today's America supplies enough injustice that there's no need to dredge up the painful experiences of long ago as a reminder of oppression. Certainly, few young whites can imagine what it felt like to carry such a burden.

While the experiences of one person of the past are no more important than those of another person in the present, who we are inarguably has to do with who they were as handed down through the lessons of our parents, grandparents, and so on. Their stories are our story. A powerful telling of that story, a song from 1900 titled "Lift Every Voice and Sing," is being embraced by a new generation. It is reconnecting young black people with their inspirational ancestors and endowing to white Americans with an unforgettable, visceral understanding of what it takes to overcome.

A memory remembered

The contemporary re-emergence of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" arguably began when Beyoncé sang its opening lines as she took the stage at the Coachella festival, a watershed moment in and of itself. The first black woman to headline the festival, the singer delivered a dazzling knockout performance that was dedicated to historically black colleges. When Beyoncé sings a song it gets heard, and this performance helped bring "Lift Every Voice and Sing" straight onto America's playlist.

The song was written long ago and began as a poem by James Weldon Johnson.

A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln's birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. James Weldon Johnson

According to "Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora" by Shana L. Redmond, Johnson later recalled, "I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so."

Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children. Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used. — James Weldon Johnson

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named "Lift Every Voice and Sing" the "black national anthem" in 1919, but not everyone agrees with that designation since it implies the need for a separate American black anthem. Nonetheless, listening to this American hymn is a haunting, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting experience.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing"

(Sung by June's Diary)

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

  • A simple question on Twitter resulted in an avalanche of mind-blowing answers.
  • What else are we supposed to do with all of these stray bits of information?
  • Sciency, helpful, and ridiculous — we've got 'em all.

On January 27, educator, organizer, and writer Brittany Packnett Cunningham tweeted a simple question: "What's the most random fact you know?" It turns out people know a lot of random things — the replies have been stunningly informative, amazing, and ridiculous. Here are 20 of the best facts shared:

1. A tarantula's best friend

So many thoughts. Interspecies slavery? Frog mills?

2. The snap

This might make you feel better if you're one of the many people incapable of doing the African Finger Snap once explained and demonstrated by Lupita Nyong'o.

3. Coincidence?

Mind = blown. Did her folks do this on purpose?

4. Blood stains

This is both amazing and cool. Custom-coded saliva just for your own personal use.

5. Not to worry

Are we the only ones who worry about this? Also, if you don't remove the label before washing the fruit, good luck getting it off.

6. In the event of alligator

One wonders how Ms. Rose, star of "The #1 Ladies Detective Agency" and "The Princess and the Frog," learned this useful survival trick.

7. Listen carefully

Hmmm, mmm, mmm. Whaddya know!

8. The nipple rule

Today is not the day nature stops being weird.

9. Your final sensation in space

Grim, but fascinating. Let's not do this.

10. Dotting your “i”

Because of course.

11. Not who you think they are

Ergo: Respect!

12. Vegans beware

While this is true, the resulting flavoring is so expensive to produce that it rarely gets used in foods. Check the label for castoreum. While you're there, keep an eye out for carmine, which is commonly used as a red coloring for food. It's made from crushed beetles.

13. Stand back or run away

Marine researchers must be very dedicated.

14. Or maybe just swim as fast as you can

Maybe keep your horses away from the ocean.

15. The fine grain of time

Of course "now" is a difficult concept to really comprehend. The moment you notice it, it's gone, as the tweet suggests.

This brings to mind quantum entanglement. Maybe particles don't really exist in multiple states at a time, but our ability to capture "now" is just so coarse it seems that way. Our idea of simultaneity may actually be a series of fine-grained moments rounded off into a single "now" that's large enough for us to perceive. Thus, we perceive multiple particle states as simultaneous but they're really not. Just saying.

16. Million billion

You've wondered, right? A perfect fact for the next conversation lull you need to fill.

17. Nuts in nature

Also, we only see the nuts because some of the discarded parts of the plant are toxic.

18. Orange carrots

Censored vegetables, for goodness' sake.

19. Angular numbers?

Some researchers are skeptical about this origin story, especially when it comes to the symbol for zero.

20. How long you’ll remember all this

What was the first fact on this list?

  • Faheem Hussain, clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University, says we need to discuss our digital afterlife.
  • One major problem is that we generally avoid talking about death in the first place.
  • Where and how we (and our data) will be used when we die remains a mystery.

Where do we go when we die? This philosophical question predates writing. Our earliest stories deal with mortality and the quest for eternal life. "I will make a lasting name for myself," said the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh. "I will stamp my fame on men's minds forever." Upon losing the plant of immortality after an epic quest, the hero faced the reality of death and asked, "What shall I do now? All my hardships have been for nothing."

Not nothing, exactly. The Akkadian tablet containing this mythology has kept his story alive for over 3,800 years. Gilgamesh's fame remains stamped in our minds. Yet how many clay manuscripts have been lost? How many others have been denied immortality? More disturbingly, what if Gilgamesh didn't actually want his name circulated after his demise? That's a question we all face today with the internet and social media.

The question of digital afterlife is being asked by Faheem Hussain, a clinical assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) at Arizona State University. During a recent talk, "Our Digital Afterlife," Hussain entertained questions that are hard to answer.

"We have normalized talking about safety and security of our data and privacy, but we should also start including the conversation of how to manage data afterwards. It's a bit tricky because it involves death and no one wants to talk about it."

The refusal to face death is not new; that too predates mythological kings. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker writes that children's tendency for domineering role play accurately reflects man's tragic destiny.

"He must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else."

The tragedy is that flesh never survives as long as clay. We disguise this fact by trying various procedures meant to prolong the inevitable impact of death. It won't, but facing up to mortality simply won't do. Better that the illusions hold.

While the transition into digital is at first seductive, it remains pedestrian in nature. Future historians will contend with too much, not too little, information. The likelihood that your blog post will live on in eternity is even more unlikely than an archaeologist unearthing preserved scrolls.

We do share a penchant for fabrication and grandeur with ancient scribes, however. Who are you on that screen? Finally, a medium in which we can manipulate every last crevice, to portray ourselves as we like to believe we are, not who we actually are. No longer do we need poets to pen our myths; we can now imagine these others selves.

(In the past month, a number of friends have randomly told me of encounters with highly disagreeable people that espouse kindness and love on their social media handles. We seem neurologically and socially primed to pretend.)

Who you are in real life is another eternal mystery. In his new book, The Science of Storytelling, journalist Will Story writes that humans are essentially hallucinating all the time. The notion of "reality" is itself a construction. The illusions we create help us live another day.

"The world we experience as 'out there' is actually a reconstruction of reality that is built inside our heads. It's an act of creation by the storytelling brain."

women in costume for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico

A group of women dressed as Catrinas pose as part of the 'Day of the Dead' celebrations on November 2, 2019 in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Photo by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet / Getty Images

Social media, like books and clay tablets before them, is just another platform for expression. Sure, it happens to be the most accessible in history, but there is a precedent. The copyright on books eventually expire; clay tablets never had that sort of protection. What about those 20,000 tweets you sent, those photos in which you wrap your arms around your beloved, or all those "private" messages you sent on Facebook? Who takes ownership when your flesh returns to earth?

Hussain believes everyone should have a say, just as we do when we decide whether we're going to be buried, cremated, or turned into a tree. Facebook transforms your page into a memorial, for which you can appoint a legacy contact. Google has a similar policy. By the year 2100, there could be in excess of five billion Facebook accounts representing the deceased. For the most part, the internet is turning into an unmarked graveyard.

Will all those posts matter after you're gone, and if so, to whom? We know that data is king when it comes to the living, but what morally deficient corporation will figure out how to monetize the dead?

We are all Gilgamesh now. Perhaps someone will dig up your clay in a few millennia. Maybe you'll remain in the minds of men for generations to come. Right now you don't have much say in the matter. If you want to control your legacy, however, the discussion needs to begin now.

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

  • The moral and political philosophy known as classical liberalism is built around a number of core concepts, including, perhaps most importantly, human dignity and individual liberty.
  • Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, introduces these two principles as forces that shape the liberal notion of justice. This applies to both individuals' treatment of others, as well as the government's treatment of individuals.
  • This just conduct contributes to the liberal ideal: the good society. By emphasizing the individual, liberalism encourages collaboration and cooperation while also offering the freedom to make choices and learn from failure.