[00:00] Introduction/About Steven Kotler
[08:41] Neurochemicals & Flow
[17:42] How Flow Is Electric
[24:41] The Three Environmental Triggers
[38:40] Quantifying Flow
[40:18] Biohacking Flow
[43:58] The Challenge-Skills Ratio Flow Trigger
[48:24] The Creative Flow Trigger
[54:29] End of the Podcast
Ben: Hey folks, its Ben Greenfield here, and you probably at some point in your life, have experienced this state called flow, even if you didn't know it was called that. So if you've ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or you've got so involved in a work project that you just forget about everything else, or find yourself during a workout firing on all cylinders, then you've probably kind of tasted this kind of experience and this flow state is where you're so focused on a task at hand that everything else just kind of falls away and time flies by, and in many cases, your performance, whether that's your mental performance or your physical performance goes through the roof.
Now my guest today has actually written a book in which he decodes what he calls the science of human performance, and he's written this book called “The Rise of Superman”. It's simply an amazing book in terms of how it goes into breaking down the neuroscience of this flow state. What happens you your brain waves, how you can almost biohack yourself into this state of flow, even if you're not a super-athlete and how you can tap into a lot of the principles that he talks about in the book to achieve some pretty amazing feats of physical and mental performance, and it's a pretty fun read as well so we're going to be able to delve into a lot of that, and I think you're really going to dig this interview today.
So my guest is Steven Kotler, and he's a New York Times best-selling author. He's got some other really good book too. I've read his other book called “Abundance” and I'll link to that book as well as the one we're about to talk about in the show notes for this episode at bengreenfieldfitness.com, but Steven, thank you so much for coming on the call man.
Steven: Thanks for having me, Ben.
Ben: So what's your story, how did you get interested in this whole flow science thing?
Steven: It's a little bit of a story, but it started about seventeen years ago when I was thirty years old. By the way, I cringe every time I say that. But it started seventeen years ago.
Ben: You cringe that you were thirty?
Steven: Well it's a tax at seventeen years ago, and my, it's amazing to me. What happened? I was thirty years old and I got Lyme disease. Spent the better portion of three years in bed, and if you don't know what Lyme is, it's sort of like the worst flu you've ever had crossed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Ben: Now isn't that something you get from ticks?
Steven: Sure is.
Ben: Really? So is that what happened to you? Were you out doing some crazy forest adventure?
Steven: I wish it was that sexy, I was actually at a friend's wedding and I went through a walk through an arboretum.
Ben: You need to make up a better story than that.
Steven: I know, and it suddenly came on the back end of like a year of living dangerously. I had been in Africa living on the side of the river, studying monkeys for three months. I've done all this hardcore stuff, and then no. I get bit by a tick at a wedding and it kills me. I spent three years in bed, the doctors pulled me off drugs at the end of it and said I had no I idea if I was ever going to get better and my stomach lining started bleeding out. So there was nothing anybody else could do for me, ad functionally, I was gone. I was in so much pain on a daily basis that I couldn't move. I could barely walk across the room, and Lyme really affects mental function. So I lost my ability to write, I lost my ability to read, my short term memory, my long term memory. I was dyslexic, I couldn't count, I was hallucinating. Ten percent of the time, I was actually loosened coming here, so I had about an hour a day where I was actually lost. I was disaster, and after a while of this, I had made the decision that I was going to kill myself, and it was a practical decision. I was never going to be anything more than a burden to my friends and my family from that point on, and I didn't want to live that way. And in the middle of all this darkness and this decision making, a friend of mine showed up to my door and demanded that we go surfing, and it was a totally ridiculous surprise. I mean ridiculous because I could walk across a room and ridiculous 'cause I haven't been on the surfboard in five years, and the last time I had been on one I nearly drowned in a big wave accident in Indonesia and never wanted to go near the ocean again.
Ben: So you've been bedridden when this guy wanted you to surf?
Steven: Three years, I mean I haven't moved off the couch for three years, and it was a woman and she was a pain in my ass. I mean would not leave my house, kept badgering me, kept badgering me, and eventually I was like you know what would help? I can always kill myself tomorrow. Let's just go surfing today so you can shut up, and they literally sort of had to carry me into the car, put me into the car and they drove me to Sunset Beach which is the wimpiest beginner wave in the world, it's in L.A. and the tide was super low, so you could wade out of the line-up, and they literally had to help me out of the line-up and they gave me a board the size of a Cadillac. The waves were tiny, like two feet tall, and I was out there. Fifteen to thirty seconds into a wave cane, and there was nobody out vouching. There's no other takers, right? Muscle memory took over for a second, right? And I spun the board around the help once and I popped up and I popped up into a totally different dimension. I felt like my sickness is gone, my senses were incredibly heightened. I felt like I was taking every bit of information in the environment, and my vision felt panoramic. Time had slowed to an absolute crawl that freeze frame affected you, get into the car crash that you've seen in The Matrix. That's what was going on with time, and because the strangest part of the whole thing is I felt great. I mean not just okay, not just a little bit better. I felt great, and I was actually surfing okay which was even weirder, but I mean I felt better than I have in three years, and it was like a realm of life, right?
Life rushed back into me, and it was this crazy. All plausible mystical experience and it felt so good I caught four more waves, and after those five waves, I was totally done. I was disassembled if you're all being humbled. They put me into bed, and people had to bring me food for fourteen days 'cause I actually couldn't walk like fifty feet away to my kitchen to make a mean, and on the fifteenth day which was the day I could walk again, I caught another ride out to the ocean, and I did it again. And over the course of about six months, when the only thing I was doing differently was going surfing and having these really crazy, powerful, plausy mystical experiences that I didn't understand in a waves. I went from about twenty percent functionality to about eighty percent functionality. So the first question is what the hell is going on, right? Surfing is not a known cure for chronic autoimmune conditions. That was bizarre enough. Second of all, Lyme only gets fatal if it gets into your brain, and I have got a science background. I don't have closed dimensional experiences. I definitely don't have them while surfing, right? So I was absolutely certain the reason that was happening, it was because the disease has progressed into my brain. Even though I was feeling better, I was actually dying. So in the beginning, I led out on a giant quest to figure out what was going wrong with me. What I very quickly discovered is that flow states, whereas if it's these experiences I was having in the name, right? We'll call them flow states, and we knew by then, and we don't have to dive too deep into this, but what's going to happen to me health-wise.
Flow, as you pointed out in your opening, it's produced by this complicated cocktail of neurobiology including a dump of five of the most potent neurochemicals that the brain can produce. All five of them are immune system boosters, very, very strong immune system boosters, but more importantly, flow resets the nervous system back to zero. It calms it completely down, it's basically all of the stress hormones and stress chemicals that are in your body that produce that experience drain out and are replaced by these positive neurochemicals. So Lyme, any autoimmune conditions is essentially a nervous system going haywire, so the fact that I was getting these pauses, right? Everything could reset. My brain was learning new patterns, it was actually learning to heal along the way, and that was responsible for my help and what was going on with me, but I very quickly discovered, right? Very, very quickly the exact same state that helped me get from seriously sub-par back to normal. Just helping a lot of normal people turn into Superman, and that's where all this started for me.
Ben: So a question about these chemicals that are getting released by the brain. Like for example, you read this a lot in running literature, how your body somehow has this mechanism where it literally produces endogenous endo-cannabinoids, like what you get if you were smoking weed, and there's also dopamine and some other neurotransmitters that get released. Are these the kind of chemicals that we're talking about, or are these different ones that flow under the radar?
Steven: We'll jump right into the thick of some of the science. So when you want to talk about neurobiology and flow, you have to really talk about three things, right? You have to talk about neuroanatomy which is where in the brain something happens. I mean you got to talk about neurochemistry and neuroelectricity through the two ways the brain communicates, sending signals both ways.
So neurochemistry flow is a cocktail of the five of the most potent performance enhancing chemicals that the brain can produce. You get norepinephrine and dopamine, both of these are focusing chemicals, right? They drive focus, they drive attention into the now, they also increase muscle reaction times, and they also, because they lower signal to noise ratios in the brain, they jack up pattern recognition, our ability to link ideas together. So flow, we can talk about this later if you want, is known to massively enhance creativity. By some studies, seven hundred percent to use, boost and, according to research, harbor that added creativity. It just outlasts the flow state by a day, sometimes two which seems to suggest that flow, not only makes you more creative but in the moment. It makes you more creative over the long haul, which is really cool. It trains up creativity. So you get that from the norepinephrine, and you brought up anandamide which is an endo-cannabinoid, right? So you get that in flow as well. That is a pain-relieving chemical which is why it shows up in running. This is evolutionary biology, we used to hunt down our prey by running them down, right?
So the person who could run farther faster got more food, had more kids and got passed on. And so the person who got a little bit of pain relief along the way, and that shows up in both anandamide and endorphins which are the body's natural opiates, also which show up in flow, got more food, had more kids. So there's an evolutionary advantage and there's research. There's this documented research, there's this really cool work that's been done in the University of Arizona that it kind of backtracks this. So you get norepinephrine and dopamine, you get anandamide which, beside pain relief, it also enhances social bonding.
Ben: What are you saying, is it anandamide?
Steven: “Ananda,” which is Sanskrit for bliss, “mide”. M-I-D-E, anandamide. So it also boosts lateral thinking which is our ability to link far flung ideas together, just chewing in ideas together. Again why does creativity to go up in flow? ‘Cause not only are we taking in more information per second. There's more novelty, more new things coming in. More pattern recognition, we're linking that to those new things, to more new things, and because of anandamide, we're linking those information of either farther flung things in the brain, surrounding basically the process of the creativity among other things, but that's going on and then you get endorphins. Just so you're clear, these are natural occurring opiates, but the most commonly produced endorphin in the brain is a hundred times more powerful than the medical morphine, and of course on the tail end of the flow state, you get serotonin which is the common chemical the heart of the Prozac revolution. So you get this massive, massive, massive neurochemical cocktail in flow with the other thing that you need to know about this cocktail is besides massively jacking up performance, these are all the most potent pleasure drugs the brain can produce. They're the biggest reward drugs, right?
When you snort cocaine, the most addictive drug on earth, all that happens is dopamine is increased into the brain, right? Norepinephrine is an analog for crystal meth. Serotonin shows up in ecstasy. As you point out, anandamide shows up in THC, and endorphins is heroin and morphine, right? Which is why flow is the most addictive state on earth. Scientists hate the work addictive, so they have coined autotelic which is an end in itself. But what it means is once the experience starts producing flow, we will exceptionally follow out of our way to get more of it which is why psychologists talk about flow and neuroscientists talk about flow 'cause it's the source code of intrinsic motivation.
Ben: Yeah, but surely like everything that you've just described. People describe the runner's high and how they kind of just get in the zone during running, but everything that you've just described seems a little bit more powerful than that. Are we talking about something that goes above and beyond the runner's high?
Steven: Good and great question. So first of all, let's back up and start with the facts that there are tons of synonyms for flow. So in-the-zone, runner's high, if you're a basketball player being unconscious, if you're a jazz musician you're in-the-pocket, if you're a stand-up comedian you're in the forever box. It goes on and on and on. Flow is actually a technical term, and that's the reason we use the term flow, and the reason it's a technical term. When the original, one of the biggest psychological studies ever done which is what flow emerged out of, the high chick sent me high was the Chairman of the University Of Chicago Psychology Department went around the world asking people about the times in their life when they performed their best. They felt their best, and they all described flow as the experience. When they used that term, they would say in this experience, everything is effortless, everything. Every decision, every action flows perfectly, seamlessly, fluidly for the next.
It feels flowy. So because the term kept coming up over and over and over, we chose that term. All these other experiences are basically the same, but the thing is, and this is where the confusion reigns, flow is a spectrum experience, so it's like any emotion, take and go. You can be a little bit irked and you can be homicidally murderous, same emotion. Flow works the same way. We know that there are ten characteristics that define the state, and you hit on some of them again and you're opening it. It tends to focus on the task at hand. Time dilation, which mean sometimes it slows down. You get that freeze frame effect I described. Sometimes it speeds up, in five hours, sometimes past five minutes. The disappearance of self and sub-consciousness on and on and on. Concentration, the merger of action and awareness. Anyways when a couple of these things show up, you're in a state of micro flow. Runner's high is a state of micro flow. It's a low-grade flow state. Usually actually probably about a medium-grade flow state. This goes all the way up to macro-flow which is when you toll ten of these characteristics show up, and then it's sort of the experience I was describing while surfing, right? It's often confused with mythical experiences or myth-labelled. That's that powerful, and it's psychologically powerful too. We have data going back a hundred and fifty years that shows a number of things.
One, it shows that people on the other side of the flow state, they're more psychologically complex which is sort of the technical term, but from Chithen Medhi's research and hundreds of other studies back in the sub, we know for example, that the people with the most flow in their lives are the people who score off the charts on life satisfaction are essentially the happiest, most content people on earth. So there's a massive psychological benefit as well. So you get jacked up motivation, you get amplified creativity. It massively increases happiness, accelerates learning with studies done with the U.S. Military with snipers. They found learning accelerated 200 to 500 percent in flow, and again, by the way, that's because of the neurochemicals.
Interestingly, one of the other things that neurochemicals do is they tag experience. What's shorthand for learning is the more neurochemicals that show up during experience, the greater chance that experience has a moving in the short term hold storage, or some of them holding into long term storage. So it's this giant dump of neurochemicals which are big on science and it's super important to save for later. So that's why DARPA finds that flirting is accelerated to 200 to 500 percent, and there's evidence from pretty much everywhere from brick and mortar schools, every learning environment that you can imagine on the planet. Flow has been shown to significantly boost positive learning attitudes and positive learning outcomes. So you get business accelerated, right?
And by the way, when you look at all this together, now you start to understand. I don't know if you know this or not, but McKinsey, the consultancy. A new study, ten year study of flow. They found top executives in flow are five times more productive, that's 500 percent more productive. It means you could go to work on Monday, spend Monday in flow, take Tuesday through Friday off, and it gets much done as your study says peers, which sounds totally ridiculous until you start to understand the neurobiology. This is ultimate human performance, and the title of “The Rise of Superman” is actually defined as performance when life for limb is on the line, but the larger point here is everybody is hardwired for this. We also know flow is ubiquitous. Everybody anywhere can get into this state, provided certain initial conditions are met.
Ben: Yeah, and I definitely want to talk about getting into that state. I definitely want to cover how we can do that, how listeners can tap into this, but there was one thing that we didn't get into that you mentioned 'cause you talked about the neurobiology of flow. You talked about how it's electrical, too. What do you mean by that?
Steven: So a number of things happen in flow. Neuroelectrically, what happens in flow is the brain waves move to the borderline between alpha and theta, so let me explain. Beta is normal waking consciousness. It's my mind is awake, it's alive, I'm arguing, I'm thinking. I'm doing all that stuff, I'm making conscious decisions all that stuff. That's normal waking consciousness. Alpha, which is a slower wave, right below beta, you're sort of daydreaming about, right? You kind of go from thought to thought without much internal resistance, and you're pretty calm. Below that is theta. You only get into theta in that hypnagogic gap right as you're falling asleep and in deep RAM sleep. So that's the only times you ever get into theta, and blow that, there's a very fast wave called gamma that we'll get into a second. What happens in flow is you move down to the alpha-theta border which does a lot of really, really cool things. First of all, there's a lot less internal resistance. This is why one idea leave to the next. It's kind of like a pattern for recognition. It's just something flung wide open, and you know this experience as you're falling asleep. You'll see that happening where you'll think of one thing and it'll lead to something else, right? If the brain does that, this is a very focused, high-performance version of that.
That's what is resulting from the brain waves. Where this really shows up and matters a lot also is that, so gamma, which is a very fast wave in the brain. It only shows up what's called binding which is when you're having new ideas. Literally the brain wave signature of the aha moment, but here's the cool thing. The gamma wave is actually coupled. It's totally tightly linked to the theta wave, so the only time you can get a gamma spike is if the brain is in theta, but the brain is very rarely in theta in normal waking consciousness. But flow essentially puts you on the brink of the aha moment. It holds the brain in the kind of space, right before the big creative breakthrough. So when they talk about flow is a huge driver of innovation, all the amplified creativity and this that we're talking about is the reason why.
Ben: Okay, got it.
Steven: Okay, let's complete the picture since we've covered neuroelectricity and neurochemistry 'cause the coolest thing that goes on is actually what goes on with neuroanatomy. The old idea about ultimate performance and flow was what's now called the ten percent brain. It's based on what this interpretation of what psychologist, William James, once said, but it's the idea that we only use ten percent of our brain. So ultimate performance flow has to be whole grain, functioning all cylinders, right? Everything firing all at once, and it turns out that's exactly backwards. In flow, what happens is parts of the brain, parts especially the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that houses a lot of our higher cognitive function or sense of will or sense of morality, all that stuff, turns off. So this happens because the brain performs an efficiency exchange. It trains, trades conscious processing which is slow, energy expensive and very limited. It can only hold on to seven ideas at once, it's basically for subconscious processing which is lightning fast. It's extremely energy efficient and basically infinite in RAM, right? So it's much better to use. Flow happens to be one of the only times we actually get to see our subconscious mind in action, but for that to happen, as the brain's energy needs go up. Like you peg more attention to the present moment, engine being driven into the moment, so that requires more energy. As that energy' being used, the brain starts shutting down parts of the prefrontal cortex to save energy and to affect performance. For example, why does time slowdown in the flow state, right?
Ben: When you said to save energy, you mean literally to save on the glucose that fitting into the brain?
Steven: Yeah, you're glucose, the calcium, the sodium. Your brain is roughly two percent of your body mass at rest, when you're not even doing anything hard. It uses about twenty-five percent of your energy. It is a massive energy hog, and for the first thing that the brain alts, the fundamental thing the brain tries to do in every situation is conserve energy. Like basic evolution of biology.
Ben: I think that's interesting because I've experienced a state of flow, and the last time I really got into this state pretty hardcore was during an Ironman triathlon, and I can tell you for sure that during that race, I was in the state of ketosis. What that means is I was dumping a bunch of ketones into my brain as an extra fuel in addition to glucose, and I have no clue if that somehow allowed me to, from this neuroanatomical perspective that you're talking about, just allow for more activation of more areas of the brain.
Steven: You know, Ben? I'm not going to lie to you. I have no idea, nor have I seen any studies on it, but it's a great, great, great question. It's one I'm going to make sure that the flow gene on project takes up.
Ben: Yeah, I think it's interesting 'cause they use these. They use ketosis for people that have epileptic seizures and folks who want, basically, extra ketones for brain fuel. So I think that's interesting, it's not something I know much about either in terms of the link between the flow and ketosis, but I mean we think of that.
Steven: What's interesting about flow, and this is sort of my organization of the Flow Genome Project, this is one of our missions. The psychology goes back almost a hundred and fifty years. We have been looking at this stuff for a really long time. The neurobiology that followed the imaging revolution, right? We got better brain imaging technology in the nineties because of the deck in the brain and the money flooded in neuroscience, so now we started to get some answers. So we've got about twenty years of pretty good neurobiological data. We have the outline, and we're starting to fill in some of the details. What we don't have is the physiological data. It's a huge gap because the measurement technology in a functional way, especially in a way that you could use with athletes and what not as you know, didn't exist for about until five years ago. So what we're trying to do is map the psychology under the neurobiology onto the physiology and create a total heat map flow.
Ben: Gotcha. Okay, so cool. In your book, you've got a bunch of stories of some super athletes and some crazy daredevils like ski jumpers and base jumpers and people jumping of skyscrapers and stuff like that, and you talk about how these people are, in some ways, doing what they're doing because they're in a state of flow, and obviously we've got a lot of listeners who are probably not going to go jump off a building anytime soon, but do you have ways that you found when you were writing the book that were ways that just like the average person, like working at the office or maybe going out for their soccer game on the weekend, we're kind of able to tap into this state of flow?
Steven: Yeah, absolutely. Let me push it back one level to start answering your question. Let's start with the athletes, and then we'll move into everybody else. So the thing, obviously a lot of you aren't going to go jump off buildings, but here why they should care about action adventure sports anyways, and this is kind of the ore idea at the heart of rise. If you look at action adventure sports, the surfing, skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, etcetera as a data set, what you see over the past twenty-five years is merely exponential growth and ultimate human performance, right? Performance life, live on line, so it makes sense that evolutionary, it's the slowest growth place.
Ben: What do you mean when you say that? What's an example of something like that?
Steven: I'll give you an example. Before we get into the example, you got to understand nothing like this has ever happened before. Sports progression, it's slow, it's steady, it's governed by the laws of evolution. At no point in history, right, has it quintupled in a decade. It's exactly what's happening in action adventure sports and here's the example. Surfing is a thousand year old sport, from 400 A.D. to 1996. Biggest wave anybody has ever surfed is twenty-five feet. Above that, everybody from scientist to surfers to what not believe it's impossible. It biologically defies the laws of physics, impossible to get into a wave bigger than that. Today we're pushing into waves that are a hundred feet tall. In 1992, in snowboarding, the biggest gap jump any of you have ever cleared, the Baker Road Gap in Southern Washington. Its forty feet which is huge. Today, people are jumping 250 feet.
Ben: Is that the one that goes over the road that you would jump over on like a snowboard?
Steven: Yup, it's on the road to Mount Baker, which is why is called the Baker Road Gap. It's like a couple of turns down from the resort itself, and they jump the highway.
Ben: Wow, I think I've actually driven through that gap.
Steven: Its 250 feet, right? It's five plus times the size of that. That's like it's unheard of, and the question is, of course, what the hell is going on, right? And why is this happening now? And the answer, as you pointed out, is that for a variety of reasons, these athletes have gotten better at hacking the state of flow than anybody else in the history of the world which is great 'cause what gave was research or some men of hard data set with which it worked, right? We didn't have to wonder if our subjects were in flow. If they lived through the experience, we knew for sure. Working backwards from that information and from all the neurobiology, we've discovered, and there's forty years of work and a lot of different researchers. So when I say what we've discovered, I'm not just talking about the Flow Genome Project. I'm talking about a lot of researchers, but what's been discovered is that there are seventeen flow triggers. These are preconditions that bring on more of the state. What do the action adventure sports athletes do? Honestly, they pack their lives with these triggers. A lot of it in the beginning was inadvertent, it happened for a lot of different reasons. We can go into why it happened if we care, but the real point is they pack their lives with these flow triggers and as a result, they started generating more of the state than anybody else.
Ben: When you pack your life with a flow trigger, what would be an example of a flow trigger?
Steven: Well the good news is anybody can do this. So let's just talk about these flow triggers, right? What can anybody do to get in the flow? They can pull more of these flow triggers, so let's start with the three triggers that these athletes relied on the most and we'll talk about what they did, why they worked for them and how it works in everyday life. We'll give examples.
Just to give you an overview, there are three external or environmental triggers, three internal or psychological triggers. There's one creative trigger, and then there's a shared version of the flow state. We're here talking about, those previous triggers were all about individual flow, but there's group flow, which is literally a collective version of a flow state. So if you're ever taken part in a brainstorming session or played in a band or seen a comeback in football where it looks like ballet more than football 'cause everybody's in the right place at the right time. It looks amazing. That's pure flow in action, and there are ten social triggers that bring on more group flow, but the triggers of the action sports athletes, and before I actually dive in, let's clarify. Flow follows focus, right? So all these triggers are literally wave evolution shaped our brain to pay the most attention to the present moment. All of these triggers drive attention into the now, right?
The three triggers that the action sports athletes rely on the most, the first one is obvious. Its high consequences. Flow follows focus, consequences catch our attention, right? The cool thing here is it turns out it doesn't just have to be physical consequences. You can replace physical risk with mental risk, emotional risk, creative risk, intellectual risk, and it's also totally independent, right? Big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, he's got to paddle onto a fifty-foot wave. It jaws to pull this trigger, but a shy guy. He's only going to raise his hand in it in a pork and business meeting and speak up to pull this trigger. So it's totally independent of individuals, and as I said. You hear action sports athletes, you think physical risk, but until about 400 years ago, banishment right? You socially screwed up and the tribe kicked you out? It was a death sentence. The brain does not differentiate between social fears and physical risk. Same thing which is why public speaking is the number one fear in the world, right?
So you can pull this, you can risk this necessary for flow. You have to take risks, and there are a bunch of reasons for this, but you don't have to take physical risks. You can take emotional risks, social risks, and intellectual, creative. You van hack this, and this tells us something really interesting of business, for example. Tells us that those Silicon Valley companies with a fail forward, fail faster kind of motto. Facebook, whose got a sign hanging in there main stairwell that says, “Move fast, break things,” right? They are giving their employees the space to take risks. There's no fear of failure, they're giving their employees the space to take risks, and as a result, they are getting more flow. They are maximizing flow, so this rapid experimentation idea that's running through there. Silicon Valley has kind of been the heart of the skunk works for half a century. It's one of the main reasons it works, is it gives its employees space to take risks, gives people the space to fail. Ups the amount of flow, so it ups the amount of creativity and it ups the amount of innovation, and you get this glorious feedback loop.
So that's the first, high consequences, right? The second one that the action sports athletes rely on a lot is called deep embodiment. Deep embodiment is a really fancy way of saying hey, I'm paying attention to multiple sensory strings at once. So this does include, by the way, the five senses. There's also balance and proprioception which is where your body is positioned in space, these also count.
Ben: What were the five senses though, like in addition to balance? You're talking about taste and smell and touch?
Steven: Our five senses, yeah. Taste, touch, feel, right, but on top of those five, on the top are five basic is proprioception and vestibular awareness. They also count, but what happens in actions sports is obvious. These athletes are constantly pulling zero gees, multiple gees and experiencing poly-actual rotation which is rotation around your middle. For gravity-bound creatures, right? These are very unusual sensations. When you come up, when they show up, when you sense them, it drives attention in and out 'cause something crazy and unusual is going on, right? But you don't obviously have to be an action sport athlete for this. In fact, researchers went looking for the highest flow environment on earth besides action sports. What they fund was Montessori Education, and the reason is Montessori Education is often called in bodied education. They radically emphasize learning through doing. Don't just read about the windmill, go out and build one. As a result, it drives attention into the present 'cause you're igniting multiple sensory streams. We're more focused in the now, get more flow as a result. Flow goes up, there's a couple of other things going on in Montessori, but the embodiment is the major contributing factor.
Ben: That is so cool. You know I don't think I told you this, I home school my kids, and we do a ton of unschooling, meaning we just go out into nature and learn. You know I took them to Thailand a few months ago, and we just spend my time in Thailand learning how to speak Thai and cook Thai and all this jazz, and it's amazing to see their little brains firing. You know I had no clue about the link between flows, but it sounds like that type of learning for kids. You're actually allowing some of your kids to kind of get close to some of these flow mechanisms?
Steven: Well the other thing is kids are already close to some of these flow mechanisms. Their brains are naturally more in alpha, and more than that. Shutting down of the prefrontal cortex is called Transient Hypofrontality. Transient meaning temporary, hypo is H-Y-P-O. It's the opposite of hyper, it means to slow down, to deactivate, and frontality is obviously the prefrontal cortex. Kids are developed mentally hypofrontal. Their prefrontal cortex doesn't finish developing 'til they're twenty-five, so they're naturally inclined towards flow which is astounding because if you build flow-based education, we know flow jacks up learning 200 to 500 percent, right? Imagine what's possible, and we don't actually have to imagine. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article not too long ago about the Montess of the so-called Montessori Mafia which is all the Montessori-trained kids, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Paige, etcetera, etcetera, who are now running Silicone Valley. There's an over number of Montessori-educated kids running extremely successful, extremely cutting edge tech ventures, and there's a tight length between the two.
And lastly, the last kind of environmental trigger which is to kind of round this out is what we call a rich environment which is a really fancy way of saying lots of novelty, complexity and unpredictability in the environment. All these three things do is they focus our attention in and out, and everybody has had this experience, right? If you've ever felt awe, right, where you see a night sky or you get a hit of geologic time when you look at the Grand Canyon, something like that, right? The brain can't process that information, it's too much novelties, too much complexity, and reality seems to pause for a second. It gets sucked into the moment. It's the front end of a slow state that's beginning the time dilation, time slowing down and stretching out and getting strange in a flow state. So everybody's had that experience, right? The action sport athletes pull this trigger all the time 'cause they perform in living environments, right? No two waves are the same, the snow pack morphs on a mound by mound basis in the big mountains. It's constantly changing lots and all of the unpredictable complexity.
What does it look like i the real world? If you're an organization, you want to rely on this more? Pixar is what it looks like. Steve Jobs from this designing Pixar had this big problem. Flowies were staying balconized, right? The marketing wasn't talking to animation, it wasn't talking to engineering, blah, blah, blah, and it was hampering progress. There wasn't enough novelty, complexity, unpredictability in the environment to kind of amp up creativity, so they're staying balconized. So he build a giant atrium in the center of the building, and he put the meeting rooms, the cafeteria, the mailboxes, and most insidiously, the only bathrooms in the whole building right off the atrium. So everybody had to walk through from every department no matter what, and you have massive uptake and novelty, complexity and unpredictability which lead to more flow which lead to the heightened creativity which is why we're talking about Pixar in the first place.
Ben: Wow, interesting. So basically when we're trying to “hack” ourselves into a state of flow, we want a complex environment, we want consequences, and what was the last one again?
Steven: Consequences and deep embodiment, you want to be disciplined in all that what you're doing. Now let's be clear, those are only the three environmental triggers, right? There are three psychological triggers that were kind of the same, there were the ten social triggers, and then there's a creative trigger. So there's lots and lots of on-ramps in the flow. Your job, if you want more flow, you don't have to pull all these triggers at once, right? There are certain ones that work good in combination, and there's basic ones that seem to show up across the board, but three or four or five of them in the situation is enough to kind of radically move you towards more flow. The job of individuals, 'cause it's totally individual, right? There's genetic components, there's environmental components, and how you're raised, what you're interested in. There's a lot of other stuff going on. Passion matters in flow, not for any big fancy reason, but because of simply paying more attention to those things we believe in that we're passionate about. So passion is another focusing mechanism, right? It's nothing fancy, not mystical. It's not spiritual, so literally we pay more attention to the things that we're passionate about and get more flow as a result, right? And by the way, you can get this link at the end. I have a slide share where I break down. You don't even need to buy the book, right? I have a free slide share that has seventeen flow triggers in it. They're broken down, I can give you the link afterwards.
Ben: Is that on your Flow Genome Project website?
Steven: It's not on the Flow Genome Project website, but it's all over the internet, especially a host to the on fly chair.
Ben: Okay, cool. I'll put a link to that in the show notes for folks 'cause obviously we can't get into all the different mechanisms today, but I did want to ask you. Can you quantify flow? The reason I ask that is personally, I do heart rate variability testing. So I look at the strength of my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and some feedback from the vagus nerve into the heart, and so I try and figure out basically how high my heart rate variability is, how emotionally tuned I am, etcetera. Sure there pieces of technology or self-quant tools out there to where you could say okay, I'm getting this close to a state of flow?
Steven: So the answer as of right now, no. There are phenomenally, well-bust, psychological questionnaires. They are extremely well validated, three or four of them have been doing all for over thirty years, extremely well validated. The psychological stuff is there. What we're doing right now with the Flow Genome Project is we are in heart rate variabilities in the mix. We are now running, kind of the first of the long series of research projects that is going to attempt to get multi-corralled hints of flow. In the end, it'll be an iFlow app, right? You'll be able to tell it'll be a bench of different metrics, but right now, even the order of the cascade, what comes first? Neurochemistry changes neuroanatomy changes brain wave. We don't quite know, so that's another thing we're trying to determine. What role does heart rate variability, what role does respiration play? It's a bunch of other factors we're looking at, but that research. We're starting that research right now.
Ben: Okay, got it. Interesting, and now the other question 'cause people are lazy and people are also into biohacking, have you noticed that this movement has picked up that people are using anything from supplements to there's like light-sound devices that you can wear on your head? Any of these type of things to get themselves close to a state of flow before they say go for a day of work or go hop into a big workout or race or something like that? Have you noticed things that seemed to be working for people to almost hack their way into a state of flow?
Steven: Well there is, and we work with a number of these companies, there are a number of different home training EEG devices that can help you train, that kind of like alpha-theta borderline, right? The technology's getting very, very robust. We're starting to be able to kind move out all of it.
Ben: These are the electrodes that you'd wear on your head?
Steven: Yeah, but I mean there's only a couple of companies that are making. There's a lot of stuff on the market, we fell there's only a handful of companies who are making stuff that's really robust that we really like.
Ben: Are you allowed to give me an example?
Steven: Yeah, I mean Advanced Brain Monitoring, Carlsbad, California. They are the ones who worked with DARPA on that flow sniper study I talked about with the accelerated learning and Chris Berka has a great TED Talk that she gave about that work. `You can find it, so they make a device. Neurotropin makes another device that's really, really good.
Ben: Okay, I'm looking at it right now, advancedbrainmonitoring.com.
Steven: Yeah, so we work with those guys.
Ben: Looks like they have a sleep device, too. It looks like it.
Steven: They do, and I mean I have to tell you this. At the Flow Genome Project, in our trainings, sleep is a part of what we do. We definitely practice sleep hygiene and talk about it, but our whole real point there is get more high-quality sleep, right? There's all kinds of fancy tech that you can get, but here's the point. Go to bed at the same time, get up at the same time, and get more high-quality sleep. That's end of story, right? You can get all hot and techy as you want, but that's really what's going on.
Ben: I know, it's funny actually because I have all these sleep hacks that I use like infrared light and sleep masks and a bio mat device and everything, and it's kind of funny because my wife just plops into bed next to me, just goes to sleep. I have all these hacks that I use to get this deep sleep.
Steven: You want me to give you the funniest tip I can give you? Sleep with dogs.
Ben: Oh that's so true.
Steven: We co-evolved with dogs, so a lot of our brain is taken up at all times with safety and security, right? We're always constantly monitoring the environment, if there's something new, if there's a danger. We do it awake, we do it asleep. We pay attention to survival, the first order of business. we co-evolved with dogs, and when they're around in the bed, actually sleeping with us the way that we co-evolved with them, we start to outsource some of the safety and security functions, so that part of the brain calms down fast.
Ben: Interesting, I found the slideshare that you've got with your seventeen different flow triggers, and I'm going to link to it in the show notes for folks, but you talked about the three environmental triggers and there's obviously seventeen triggers in total, but just on the time we have left, do you think you could give folks maybe one or two additional triggers that you've found to be big wins for achieving the state of flow?
Steven: Absolutely, so let's talk the psychological triggers. The most famous of all psychological triggers, and this has been exceptionally well validated next to performance theory, and lots of people have written about it, is what's known as the Challenge-Skills Ratio. So flow follows focus, right? The question is when do we pay the most attention to what we're doing? You pay most attention to what we're doing when the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds the skills we bring to bear, right? Or to put it emotionally, we pay the most attention when we are sort of not on but near the midpoint between boredom, not enough stimulation or not paying attention, and anxiety, too much stimulation, too much coming in. We are starting to freak out, right? In that sweet spot, it's called the flow channel or the Yerkes-Dodson curve depending on whether you're in cognitive neuroscience or in flow psychology, but the point is if you want to chase flow, if you want to kind of walk the flow path, you have to constantly, constantly, constantly be scaling up to challenge. You want to stretch, but not snatch. So here's where things get tricky.
Under-performers have a difficult time finding the sweet spot because the sweet spot is after the point of uncomfortability, right? You want to push yourself hard enough that you are past your comfort zone. You are uncomfortable, so you have to get very good at being uncomfortable. The thing is it's only a little bit uncomfortable, so super top performers, high performers. They blow by this sweet spot without even knowing, right? They bite off, they challenge us twenty-five percent bigger, fifty percent bigger. They don't care, and by doing that, they're locking themselves out of flow, the very thing they need to tactically challenge that bit. So it's really slow and steady wins this race, it's a little bit of the time, but it takes tremendous, as why they're studies, but gen dug worse than others is it takes a lot of grin to constantly be walking on the flow path because when I said earlier that flow correlates really, really well with life satisfaction, what I mean is it doesn't exactly correlate with happiness because you are constantly rising to new challenges and you're getting very uncomfortable, and you're uncomfortable a lot, right?
Not all wine and roses all the time, it's not always fun at all. If you're a bliss junkie, this is not for you, right? Do you have to really be up to the challenge 'cause you're going to be in that struggle state a lot? On the way, the rewards are huge. They're bigger than anything else available to us, but you're uncomfortable most of the time ‘case you are constantly pushing, but it's been constantly pushing day in and day out. It keeps tension folks in the now and keeps driving into flow, so you can't chase flow without understanding that.
Ben: You know, and by the way, I got to say I think that's going to strike a core with a lot of our listeners because for example, we've got a lot of folks who listen in who'd be in like Ironman triathlons and these big cycling events and Spartan races and stuff like that. One question that I get a lot from people who see me going out and doing something like an eight mile Spartan race full of all these obstacles that are bringing you closer to the brink of getting injured or just seriously uncomfortable. They asked me why the hell you would actually do that. One of the big, big reasons that they give people is the way that you feel at the finish line. Like you feel so freaking alive when you finish something like that even though it is uncomfortable, and it sounds to me like what you talk about with the state of flow is when people are going out and doing some of these events we're really tapping into, whether we know it or not.
Steven: Yeah, absolutely. I mean without question, that's why people are doing these events. Look, I'm not saying flow is a cure-all-of-panacea, and there's a big dark side and down side. This isn't self-help, you have to understand that these neurochemicals you're playing, with flow, they're addictive. And if you find yourself getting into flow fairly frequent than this and we cut off in the source. You've been surfing a lot and you move or you get married and have kids, something along those lines. It is a hard and harsh come down, and it is not something to be toyed with or played with lightly. You have to know what you're doing with this stuff. You're playing with really fundamental neurochemistry and really fundamental human motivations.
Ben: Interesting, so there were a couple of things that you were just about to get into when I interrupted you?
Steven: Oh, so on the flow hacking tip. Let's talk about one other trigger just 'cause it's so fundamental and it's the Creative trigger, and what that really means, what actually triggers flow is that whenever there is pattern recognition in the brain. As I said earlier, the brain releases dopamine, and everybody's had this experience. You've filled out a crossword puzzle, that little rush of pleasure that you get when you get an answer right? That's dopamine, it's coming from pattern recognition. So that activates flow triggers, so what you move in creativity is one of the strongest flow triggers possible. If you want to know what started it, and actually it was twenty-five years ago, what changed? What changed is they wouldn't let snowboarders onto resorts. The snowboarders went into back country and they started “free riding” and when you're free riding the back country, because you had to hike for everything, right? It didn't make sense to race down as fast as you can. So the fastest guy on the bottom no longer won, and they started to judge rounds based on creative interpretation of the terrain, and they was never only one winner, right? You were a winner as long as you creatively threw down a great line, right?
And creativity became this fundamental value in action sports. Shane McConkey borrowed it to describe skiing. He was sick of the term extreme stint 'cause it didn't describe what he was doing. He said, well free skiing is what I'm doing. Then it became free surfing and free riding with mountain biking and on and on and on. Suddenly creativity became the fundamental value in action sports, they started pulling the creative trigger. On top of all the others, right? There were steep bodies, there was rift, there was all that other stuff, but they added in the creative trigger, and that's what started the cascade.
Ben: Wow, interesting. So it's creativity, basically being able to tap into new things.
Steven: Yeah, creativity is being able, and the other thing is you know, I talked to a lot of people. I said god, I want more flow in my life, but I'm stuck in a dead end job, right? I got a mortgage, I got kids, and I got a wife. I don't love my job, but I need the money. What do I do? Now what I always say is you got to get a hobby that creates flow, whether its sports, weather is when your play it's hard, paint and water flows. It doesn't matter 'cause one of the things that happens in flow, besides its usually amplified performance and you know 'cause you had this experience. You get what I call the high perch experience. You're kind of lifted up above your life.
First of all 'cause you're free of yourself. We talk about the prefrontal cortex that shuts off. Part of what shuts off is your inner critic, your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which houses your inner critic. That nagging-defeat-is-always-on voice in your head shuts off the flow, right. Your field is liberation, creativity goes up, risk taking goes up, and our willingness to explore new ideas go up. We have hype, we can see farther over our life, and new things start to come together. So even if you're just getting in the flow by painting watercolors in the half hour free that you have every day, right? Between the job that you like and dislike and everything else, over time, it's going to lead some place because it's basically moving the brain into the position where it can lead some place. So sometimes the clue to the dead end job is simply find something in your life that starts producing more flow and just let it unfold. It'll lead some place new.
Ben: Yeah, there's so much more you can do than just go in for a forty-five minute lunch time run to tap into that runner's high. Whether it be maybe making your run a little bit more risky, heading out to the trails, trying to figure out creative ways to tap into new environments, engaging.
Steven: Yeah, well if you want to laugh, if you search online for something called the five-dog workout, my wife and I co-run an animal sanctuary in the mountains in Northern New Mexico, and flow is part of our human methodology, which is very, very successful. We were very sick and old animals here, and they live forever. Part of it is taking them on this amazingly crazy runs up and down the cliff faces in the mountains, and it's really fun. It's really, really fun, and it's definitely the kind of run that produces incredible, incredible, incredible amounts of flow, especially group flow. You get into a group flow state with the dogs and suddenly you stop tripping all over them, it's great. But you can see what that looks like online, it looks totally silly and ridiculous, but it was a lot of fun.
Ben: Yeah, well we've really only tapped into a few things that you talk about in the book, so I really recommend that folks go out and grab this. It's called “The Rise of Superman: Decoding The Science of Ultimate Human Performance” and by the way like I mentioned, Steven's other book “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” is actually a really good book too. In the show notes for this episode, which are going to be over at bengreenfieldfitness.com. I'm also going to put a link to Steven's Flow Genome Project which we didn't have a lot of time to tap into today, but its super cool. Basically, you're just collecting a ton of information by achieving the flow state over there, right Steven?
Steven: We're doing a lot of different things from there's trainings and course and events to research projects and things along those lines, and we're actually building Flow Dojos which are dedicated flow training and research facilities.
Ben: That's awesome, so I'll link to that if you want to go over there. There's even like a questionnaire and stuff over there. That's kind of fun.
Steven: Yeah, no check it out. There's the full profile which is, as I said there's lots of different on-ramps in the flow, and this is just a free, ten-question profile that kind of gives you a look in the areas of your life, where you're the most flow prone. So if you're looking to up the flow in your life, this is the direction to head.
Ben: Gotcha, cool. And then of course, I'll link over to his free slide show reek and read about the seventeen flow triggers, and also this advanced brain monitoring EEG stuff he was talking about which looks pretty cool. So Steven, thank you so much for coming on the call, man. This is really fascinating stuff.
Steven: Ben, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Most of us have at least some familiarity with a state called “flow”.
If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work project that all else is forgotten or found yourself completely firing on all cylinders during a swim, bike, run or other workout, then you’ve tasted the experience. In flow, you are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away.
Action and awareness merge.
Performance goes through the roof.
In his book The Rise Of Superman – Decoding The Science of Ultimate Human Performance, and on today's podcast interview, my guest Steven Kotler tells you exactly how to biohack yourself into this state of flow, and how you can tap into this power to achieve amazing feats of physical and mental performance, even if you're not a “super athlete”.
I really enjoyed this discussion with Steven, and you're going to get a lot out of it if you want to increase your ability to tap into the equivalent of “the runner's high” anytime, anyplace.
Resources we discuss during this podcast:
-Steven's Book: Abundance – The Future is Better Than You Think
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about how to achieve a state of flow, or tap into your ultimate performance potential? Leave your questions, comments and feedback below!