In its ordinary state, the human brain is capable of extraordinary feats. It’s evolved to optimize our survival as a species in this state — so why would anyone want to alter the way it normally operates?
Disclaimer: This episode is not an endorsement of mind-altering substances that may be harmful and are probably illegal wherever you reside. We’re just bringing you on this trip for the science, folks.
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More than a hundred years ago, Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James believed that non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC) — everything from meditative and contemplative states to mystical experiences, trance states, speaking in tongues, out of body experiences, flow states, and psychedelic states — resulted in roughly the same experience.
That is to say intoxication by way of nitrous oxide (James’ experimental drug of choice) could elicit the same effects as a religious mystic’s trance state. It revealed states of consciousness unrealized by the sober, naturally functioning brain and opened the capacity to understand the world in ways to which the ordinary state of consciousness was blind.
This idea was so ahead of its time (and perhaps more susceptible to objections by the religiously devout of the day) that we’re only now beginning to tap into the potential benefits of NOSC as a way to increase performance, heal trauma, treat depression and anxiety, and unlock heightened levels of creativity, cooperation, and inspiration.
“Psychology basically took a hundred-year detour around this idea,” says Stealing Fire author Steven Kotler. “And just to kind of put that in context for you, over the past thirty years there have been 46,000 studies run on depression. Only four-hundred have been run on joy.
“Psychology started to turn a corner around the early 2000s. Neuroscience started accelerating exponentially, meaning it became kind of an information technology and it jumped on the back of Moore’s Law…as a result, what we’ve learned is James was actually right. Under the hood, all these experiences share very common neurobiology. The knobs and levers being tweaked in the brain are remarkably similar.”
This means that Navy SEALs who use flotation tanks in order to enter a state of flow, Wall Street traders zapping their brains with electrodes to disable decision-slowing processes of the prefrontal cortex, Dave Asprey-inspired biohackers who go to Burning Man for an alternative collective experience, and yoga-practicing soccer moms are in search of the same experience — only the methods differ.
“They are all trying to change the channel on normal, waking consciousness to up-level performance,” says Steven.
The Subconscious Mind Is Faster
The 21st century brain’s normal state “has a neurological signature,” Steven says. “It’s hyperactivity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the front of your brain behind your forehead that governs most of your higher cognitive functions, executive functions, critical thinking — that sort of thing. We see brainwaves in the beta range, which is where our brainwaves are right now. It’s a very fast-moving wave and we see a steady drip, drip of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine.”
This is the conscious mind — and the conscious mind can process about 120 bits of information per second. “To put this in perspective,” Steven says, “60 bits is what you’re using to listen to me talk. So if we both start talking at once, your listeners are maxed. That’s it.”
In contrast, ecstasis (from the Greek for a state of consciousness that steps beyond its normal, waking boundaries) is an NOSC — an adaptive unconscious, or subconscious state — that taps into a heightened level of “information, intuition, inspiration — [the Greeks] would call it divine inspiration,” says Steven.
In such a state, the brain’s ability to deal with information is increased. We’re able to take in more information per second and we find connections between ideas more quickly by using more parts of the brain.
“The adaptive unconscious is really fast and processes a ton of information,” Steven says. “The estimates — and there’s still a bunch of different ways to measure it — but at the upper-end, the estimate is we can take in 400 billion bits of information a second. Also, the speed of conscious thought is about 100-150 miles an hour. The speed of subconscious thought is about 100,000 miles an hour.”
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm to learn more about how the adaptive unconscious is able to more efficiently connect disparate ideas, why removing the prefrontal cortex’s sense of self makes such a dramatic difference, why training up states of mind makes more sense in the 21st century than training up skills, the differences between ecstasis and flow, how MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has been more efficacious in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than traditional methods, how the scientific exploration of NOSC has gone horribly wrong in the past, the pales that stand in the way of progress in this field, how insurance companies are seeing value in meditation, and lots more.
THANKS, STEVEN KOTLER!
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AJ Harbinger - author of 1166 posts on The Art of Charm
AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality.
Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.
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