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.
- Creative individuals produce better work when there's a deadline involved, says media mogul Tina Brown.
- To extract great work, you shouldn't have the option to escape it. Deadlines add a level of pressure that makes for better results.
- In Brown's opinion, some of the best journalistic work was done in the period after 9/11. The combination of subject matter, content, and passion rallied creatives to put forth incredible coverage.
These high-frequency radiation waves, known as "T-rays," are also produced by almost anything that registers a temperature, including our own bodies and the inanimate objects around us.
Terahertz waves are pervasive in our daily lives, and if harnessed, their concentrated power could potentially serve as an alternate energy source. Imagine, for instance, a cellphone add-on that passively soaks up ambient T-rays and uses their energy to charge your phone. However, to date, terahertz waves are wasted energy, as there has been no practical way to capture and convert them into any usable form.
Now physicists at MIT have come up with a blueprint for a device they believe would be able to convert ambient terahertz waves into a direct current, a form of electricity that powers many household electronics.
Their design takes advantage of the quantum mechanical, or atomic behavior of the carbon material graphene. They found that by combining graphene with another material, in this case, boron nitride, the electrons in graphene should skew their motion toward a common direction. Any incoming terahertz waves should "shuttle" graphene's electrons, like so many tiny air traffic controllers, to flow through the material in a single direction, as a direct current.
The researchers have published their results in the journal Science Advances, and are working with experimentalists to turn their design into a physical device.
"We are surrounded by electromagnetic waves in the terahertz range," says lead author Hiroki Isobe, a postdoc in MIT's Materials Research Laboratory. "If we can convert that energy into an energy source we can use for daily life, that would help to address the energy challenges we are facing right now."
Isobe's co-authors are Liang Fu, the Lawrence C. and Sarah W. Biedenharn Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT; and Su-yang Xu, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor chemistry at Harvard University.
Breaking graphene's symmetry
Over the last decade, scientists have looked for ways to harvest and convert ambient energy into usable electrical energy. They have done so mainly through rectifiers, devices that are designed to convert electromagnetic waves from their oscillating (alternating) current to direct current.
Most rectifiers are designed to convert low-frequency waves such as radio waves, using an electrical circuit with diodes to generate an electric field that can steer radio waves through the device as a DC current. These rectifiers only work up to a certain frequency, and have not been able to accommodate the terahertz range.
A few experimental technologies that have been able to convert terahertz waves into DC current do so only at ultracold temperatures — setups that would be difficult to implement in practical applications.
Instead of turning electromagnetic waves into a DC current by applying an external electric field in a device, Isobe wondered whether, at a quantum mechanical level, a material's own electrons could be induced to flow in one direction, in order to steer incoming terahertz waves into a DC current.
Such a material would have to be very clean, or free of impurities, in order for the electrons in the material to flow through without scattering off irregularities in the material. Graphene, he found, was the ideal starting material.
To direct graphene's electrons to flow in one direction, he would have to break the material's inherent symmetry, or what physicists call "inversion." Normally, graphene's electrons feel an equal force between them, meaning that any incoming energy would scatter the electrons in all directions, symmetrically. Isobe looked for ways to break graphene's inversion and induce an asymmetric flow of electrons in response to incoming energy.
Looking through the literature, he found that others had experimented with graphene by placing it atop a layer of boron nitride, a similar honeycomb lattice made of two types of atoms — boron and nitrogen. They found that in this arrangement, the forces between graphene's electrons were knocked out of balance: Electrons closer to boron felt a certain force while electrons closer to nitrogen experienced a different pull. The overall effect was what physicists call "skew scattering," in which clouds of electrons skew their motion in one direction.
Isobe developed a systematic theoretical study of all the ways electrons in graphene might scatter in combination with an underlying substrate such as boron nitride, and how this electron scattering would affect any incoming electromagnetic waves, particularly in the terahertz frequency range.
He found that electrons were driven by incoming terahertz waves to skew in one direction, and this skew motion generates a DC current, if graphene were relatively pure. If too many impurities did exist in graphene, they would act as obstacles in the path of electron clouds, causing these clouds to scatter in all directions, rather than moving as one.
"With many impurities, this skewed motion just ends up oscillating, and any incoming terahertz energy is lost through this oscillation," Isobe explains. "So we want a clean sample to effectively get a skewed motion."
They also found that the stronger the incoming terahertz energy, the more of that energy a device can convert to DC current. This means that any device that converts T-rays should also include a way to concentrate those waves before they enter the device.
With all this in mind, the researchers drew up a blueprint for a terahertz rectifier that consists of a small square of graphene that sits atop a layer of boron nitride and is sandwiched within an antenna that would collect and concentrate ambient terahertz radiation, boosting its signal enough to convert it into a DC current.
"This would work very much like a solar cell, except for a different frequency range, to passively collect and convert ambient energy," Fu says.
The team has filed a patent for the new "high-frequency rectification" design, and the researchers are working with experimental physicists at MIT to develop a physical device based on their design, which should be able to work at room temperature, versus the ultracold temperatures required for previous terahertz rectifiers and detectors.
"If a device works at room temperature, we can use it for many portable applications," Isobe says.
He envisions that, in the near future, terahertz rectifiers may be used, for instance, to wirelessly power implants in a patient's body, without requiring surgery to change an implant's batteries. Such devices could also convert ambient Wi-Fi signals to charge up personal electronics such as laptops and cellphones.
"We are taking a quantum material with some asymmetry at the atomic scale, that can now be utilized, which opens up a lot of possibilities," Fu says.
This research was funded in part by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Oﬃce through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN).
- Despite claims, Zoom's video and audio meetings don't support end-to-end encryption, according to a recent report from The Intercept.
- End-to-end encryption is an especially strong form of security that, in theory, scrambles online data so that it's decipherable only to the sender and receiver.
- Zoom also faces a class-action lawsuit after a Motherboard report showed how the platform passed on user data to third parties.
Zoom, the video conferencing platform, has become wildly popular as millions of people have switched to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The platform offers high-quality streaming, an easy-to-use interface, and end-to-end encryption (E2E), which scrambles data so that it's decipherable only to the sender and receiver. In theory, end-to-end encryption would prevent the government, internet providers, and even Zoom itself from eavesdropping on users' meetings.
But a new report from The Intercept shows that Zoom's audio and video meetings don't seem to actually support end-to-end encryption, at least as that term is commonly defined.
"Currently, it is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings," a Zoom spokesperson told The Intercept. "Zoom video meetings use a combination of TCP [Transmission Control Protocol] and UDP [User Datagram Protocol]. TCP connections are made using TLS [Transport Layer Security] and UDP connections are encrypted with AES [Advanced Encryption Standard] using a key negotiated over a TLS connection."
In other words, Zoom does encrypt video meetings, but it does so through transport encryption. This means Zoom has the ability to access users' private meetings. One concern among privacy advocates is that the government could someday compel Zoom to hand over recordings of users' meetings, which were advertised as being encrypted end to end.
Speaking to The Intercept, a Zoom spokesperson described the platform's definition of "end to end":
"When we use the phrase 'End to End' in our other literature, it is in reference to the connection being encrypted from Zoom end point to Zoom end point...The content is not decrypted as it transfers across the Zoom cloud."
Although Zoom might not decrypt data as it transfers across the platform's cloud, it certainly has the ability to do so. "They're a little bit fuzzy about what's end-to-end encrypted," Matthew Green, a cryptographer and computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, told The Intercept. "I think they're doing this in a slightly dishonest way. It would be nice if they just came clean."
In a recently published open letter, the human rights group Access Now called on Zoom to publish a transparency report that includes the following information:
- The number of government requests for user data you receive by country, with compliance rates, and your procedures for responding to these requests
- The circumstances when you provide user information to government authorities
- Policies on notice to potentially affected users when their information has been requested or provided to government authorities, or exposed by breach, misuse, or abuse
- Policies and practices affecting the security of data in transit and at rest, including on multi-factor authentication, encryption, and retention
Other privacy concerns
Zoom is also facing criticism for passing user data on to third parties. Last week, Motherboard published a report showing that the Zoom iOS app was sharing data with Facebook, even if Zoom users didn't have a Facebook account. On Monday, a Zoom user filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging:
"Upon installing or upon each opening of the Zoom App, Zoom collects the personal information of its users and discloses, without adequate notice or authorization, this personal information to third parties, including Facebook, Inc. ("Facebook"), invading the privacy of millions of users."
Looking for a video-conferencing platform that does offer end-to-end encryption? Consider looking into Microsoft Teams, Signal, Clickmeeting, and Wire.
The COVID-19 pandemic has elicited a global response unlike anything we've seen before.
From government and business taking on new roles to respond to the crisis to the complete re-organisation of how we work, travel and socialize, we have witnessed transformational changes that didn't appear possible just weeks ago. The human costs of the pandemic are horrifying, but the response has largely been characterised by care, compassion and connection – and an unheard-of pace of change.
What happens over the coming months could go one of two ways.
There is a risk that as the immediate crisis wanes and its economic consequences become clearer, we cast aside longer-term aspirations in pursuit of short-term easy fixes, many of which would have adverse environmental consequences. These include rolling back environmental standards, stimulating the economy by subsidising fossil-fuel-heavy industries and focusing on making more things, rather than using them better.
But there is another possibility. While we are reeling in the shock of what is happening around us and coming to terms with our new reality, we could seize this moment as a unique window of opportunity to re-build our society and economy as we want it. With scientists warning we have 10 years left to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, this could offer an opportunity to fix the climate crisis before it's too late.
A number of shifts brought on by the COVID-19 emergency lay the groundwork for the transformation required. Here are five actions we should take.
We have known about the risk of a global pandemic for years: just see Bill Gates declare during a 2015 Ted Talk that "If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it is most likely to be a highly infectious virus… We should be concerned. But in fact we can build a really good response system." Yet it took an unfolding disaster to prompt governments, businesses and individuals to act at the scale required.
Climate change similarly poses a major threat to human lives and urgently requires a comprehensive response. A study published in the medical journal the Lancet predicts 500,000 adult deaths caused by climate change by 2050.Image: The Atlas
If the pandemic teaches us to acknowledge our vulnerability to high-impact shocks such as pandemics and climate-related disasters, we will be infinitely better placed to prepare for them.
Listen to global perspectives
The truly global nature of the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to recognise that we are all in this together. For example, China sending help to Italy represents more than just shifts in the geopolitical landscape; it also shows an overcoming of the sense of "other," and an acknowledgement that events in one part of the world can affect us all.
The jury is out on whether COVID-19 will prompt the world to choose the route of national isolation or global solidarity, but a growing understanding that we are inherently connected to people in vastly different geographies and circumstances can help build momentum for strong climate action.
Make people the top priority
The response to COVID-19 has seen the plight of patients, medical staff and other vulnerable groups skyrocket to the top of the agenda – of individuals, businesses and governments alike. Many individuals are re-arranging their lives to practice social distancing, offering elderly neighbours help with their chores and volunteering in health facilities and food banks, showing the power that can be unleashed when we are united behind a common cause.
Businesses are re-directing their production lines to provide medical and hygiene supplies, offering free access to their online platforms and supporting their employees in a number of ways, such as increasing their wages, highlighting how agile they can be in responding to critical needs. And governments are committing trillions to help those affected by coronavirus, in what looks like a "race to the top" in providing the most comprehensive support to their citizens.
All this shows that a large-scale response to a global crisis is possible. We need to harness this wave of compassion and proactivity to protect vulnerable people in all contexts, including those most exposed to climate impacts.Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020
As the significance of the pandemic has dawned on us, the value of knowledge has become increasingly clear. The advice of epidemiologists has gone viral (we've all seen the "flatten the curve" meme), and doctors have been held up as heroes. This might represent a turning point in a trend towards the demise of experts.
We need to listen to climate scientists and policy advisors to win the climate change fight too. A greater trust in experts of all types takes us in the right direction.
Make a cultural shift
Many aspects of the COVID-19 response are similar to the types of changes we need as part of a comprehensive climate-change response. What is interesting is that many necessary shifts just require a change in culture. For example, neither the surge in cycling and expansion of bike lanes in Bogota as citizens avoid public transport, nor the coronavirus work-from-home experiment, have required any new technology, but instead have relied on new thinking.
It is clear that we have many of the tools to make major advances in addressing climate change; what we need now is the political will to apply them.
Much remains uncertain about what the world will look like when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fundamental societal changes we are witnessing may well offer us a final chance to avoid a climate catastrophe.
- Over one-third of all 2019 e-commerce sales in the US involved a purchase from Amazon, as the company continues to grow and diversify.
- While the company has overcome plenty of obstacles in the past, it's possible that the COVID-19 crisis is different.
- Among the factors which could finally bring down the giant are disrupted supply chains, disgruntled sellers, delivery delays, warehouse infections, and nosediving discretionary income among shoppers.
To say that Amazon is America's biggest e-commerce marketplace is almost an understatement. In 2019, the company generated approximately $280.5 billion in revenue. More than one-third of all US e-commerce sales came through Amazon last year. Scores of offline retailers have blamed Amazon for crushing them into the dust and poaching their customers.
But no retail giant is too big to fail, as other behemoths have demonstrated before Amazon. Sometimes they end in a bang, sometimes in a whimper. So far, Amazon has weathered accusations of ignoring product safety and has gotten away with paying $0 in taxes on its 2018 revenue, but to the not-so-secret delight of the businesses it destroyed on the way up, Amazon is looking more vulnerable today than it has in years.
In the case of Amazon, it's possible that its downfall could be the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. This could be a silver lining for local businesses and e-commerce SMBs (small and medium-sized businesses) that are themselves trying to weather the economic upheaval of the outbreak.
Many experts have issued dire predictions that the coronavirus pandemic will wipe out scores of small businesses, but there's been less talk about the possibility that it could bring down a giant like Amazon. And yet the signs are there if you look closely.
Disrupted supply chain
Maryland GovPics / Flickr
Amazon faces a paradox that could break the system. On the one hand, it's seeing a massively increased demand for household goods, groceries and medical supplies like hand sanitizer and face masks. While this should mean more revenue for Amazon, it also places enormous stress on its supply chain.
Amazon operates on the principle of "just in time" delivery, which means that fulfillment warehouses never hold a lot of stock for any given product. It's based on the assumption that logistics are in place to ship more items as soon as stock levels begin to fall, but panic-buying depletes the inventory before manufacturers have the chance to respond.
What's more, disrupted worldwide logistics are delaying shipments, and even the US trucking network, which is the lifeblood of Amazon, is facing disruptions. Truckers are avoiding cities with shelter-in-place laws, complaining about the impact of corona regulations, and often face extra journeys to reach the goods they need to deliver.
Amazon is reshuffling logistics to prioritize essentials, but this in turn is damaging their ability to meet ongoing, although lower, demand for non-essentials. Bear in mind that "non-essentials" includes things like children's toys and games, electronics, and home sports equipment, all of which are in demand from parents and others stuck at home.
On top of that, most of Amazon's sellers ship their products from China, where industry is currently operating at least 13.5 percent below normal production rates. "How well stores keep products in stock will determine if they thrive or lose share in this crisis," said Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. The jury is still out on whether Amazon will pass this test.
The fall of third-party sellers
Amazon Fulfillment Center, Shakopee, Minnesota
Tony Webster / Flickr
It would be ironic if Amazon's fall were to come about due to the failure of its third-party sellers, given that Amazon has received so much criticism for pushing smaller retailers and brands out of business. Yet it remains a possibility.
Over 50 percent of Amazon sales are made through third-party sellers, and they are the foundation of the company's meteoric growth in the last few years. However, Amazon has been slowly selling them out, and COVID-19 could finally push them under.
For many vendors, Amazon is their only point of contact with customers. But now Amazon is turning away shipments of "non-essentials" to FBA (Fulfilled By Amazon) warehouses, in order to support smooth flow of essentials. This decision has affected approximately 53 percent of Amazon sellers, preventing them from shipping products to their customers.
Sellers who don't use FBA warehouses aren't affected by this, but part of the rise of Amazon has been to make FBA extremely attractive to both sellers and consumers. For sellers, using FBA gives them a better shot at winning the Buy Box and allows them to surrender the hassles of delivery and returns. Consumers enjoy faster delivery and the reassurance of the Amazon brand when sellers use FBA. As a result, only 6 percent of Amazon sellers don't use FBA, and they are the only ones who'll benefit from this decision.
Vendors are reportedly already looking at alternatives like Flexe, which can give more flexibility for storage than Amazon. If FBA loses its appeal, could the rest of the Amazon pyramid topple as well?
Adding insult to injury, Amazon still hasn't responded to seller requests to suspend in-house Amazon Working Capital loan payments, subscription fees, and other costs associated with selling on the platform. Amazon might weather the corona storm only to find that its Marketplace has walked away.
Failure to deliver on a core brand promise
Amazon Pickup & Returns in Philadelphia
Amazon's core brand promise is fast delivery. Amazon Fresh promises same-day delivery on groceries and produce. Amazon Prime entices subscribers primarily for the free two-day delivery, while Amazon Dash takes it a step further and guarantees to deliver new supplies of vital household goods just in time, before you run out.
However, the same disrupted supply chain, spikes in panic buying, and quarantine conditions in some cities are preventing Amazon from delivering on this brand promise. Some Prime deliveries will reportedly take up to a month to arrive, rather than two days.
At a time when communities are rallying to support local businesses in crisis, it's possible that negating a key aspect of its value proposition could be fatal for Amazon. If the company can't deliver in every sense of the word, then the previously loyal customer might just as well shop at the mom-and-pop grocery down the block that will deliver in the same timeframe. The customer would feel good about supporting their local business ecosystems, with less harm to the environment.
Additionally, many people using Amazon during the outbreak are first-time users who can't get out to shop at their usual local store. They've heard a lot of hype about Amazon's fast deliveries and have high expectations. Instead of meeting those expectations, Amazon is disappointing new customers with delays and short stock/out of stock messages. That is turning off people who could otherwise have become loyal shoppers, and hampering Amazon's future growth, if not its current stability.
Direct impact from disease
We can't ignore the direct impact of COVID-19 on Amazon's situation. So far, workers at ten warehouses have tested positive for COVID-19. In some cases, only the affected workers were directed to self-isolate and the fulfillment center continued to operate. Others had to be shut down for deep cleaning, disrupting Amazon's responsiveness further just when it needs it most.
A warehouse in Kentucky has had to close indefinitely after staff members protested being sent back to work, showing that angry employees do have the power to bring down Amazon.
Amazon also stands accused of not doing enough to protect workers, including failing to notify them about COVID-19 cases in their workplaces, refusing to pay for coronavirus-related sick leave until pressured into doing so, and not supplying enough cleaning materials to keep warehouses sanitized.
The threat of potentially fatal infection could push away even the most desperate for work Amazon employees, and the outbreak has brought political pressure on the company to improve its employee relations.
The overall global slowdown
Finally, the global COVID-19-provoked economic slowdown is also going to impact Amazon's retail revenue. At a time when people are losing jobs and watching businesses collapse, they are spending far less than usual on extra purchases.
Prime Day in July brings in a significant segment of Amazon's revenue, but it's unlikely that most economies will be in good enough shape to support mass materialism by then.
What's more, small to medium businesses are pulling back on spending in order to preserve their cash flow. For many, one option is to delay a shift to the cloud, reducing demand for Amazon Web Services (AWS). According to the company's earning report for Q4 2019, 67 percent of its operating income came from AWS.
As SMEs drop out of business, AWS stands to lose still more customers.
History teaches us that nothing is inevitable until it happens, but there are strong signs that Amazon could be reaching the end of a long run. Disrupted supply chains, disgruntled sellers who see the downside of relying on Amazon, failure to deliver on a core brand promise, a desire to support local businesses, and the direct dual impact of disease among workers and a global recession dragging down demand could between them deliver a flurry of punches that could leave Amazon down and out.