Stealing Fire

This book, authored by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, is a fascinating look at how out-of-mind experiences affect us, and how they are being slowly incorporated into the world around us. Everyone from Navy SEALS to the government to Google and Facebook are using neurological understanding to shape our lived experiences. They explore the mind-altering moments of Burning Man, religion, and LSD, and talk about the benefits of this flow experience. It’s an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it to anybody curious about mind-altering states or about how to get out of the rut of common everyday life.

The authors focus on “ekstasis” — the feeling of being outside one’s body, often achieved via intensive focus, near-death experiences, or illicit drugs — throughout the book, and promote the idea that humans should aspire to have more of this experience. They open with examples from the Navy SEALS and Google, showing how each is trying to capture the benefits of out-of-mind thinking and help their people achieve a ‘flow’ experience more often. They also tie this experience back centuries, to the gods and to shamans, as an example of how this pursuit of ekstasis has been a part of our human experience for a long time. They delve into the science behind it as well, talking about the brain mapping through fMRI machines and how pharma companies are testing various chemical compounds to understand how each tweak affects the lived experience of the person.

The framework they develop for these ekstasis experiences is STER: Statelessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness. The point is not to simply escape real life, but to enhance and elevate it. They talk about the fact that Buddhist monks can spend decades of focused concentration before achieving this state, where they truly feel one with the world; they also bring in examples of world-class athletes chasing dangerous sports like paragliding to get the same feeling. The authors argue, reasonably in my view, that if we can achieve those feelings and experiences with chemical assistance, rather than 30 years of intensive focus or risking death, then this would be an overall benefit to society and the happiness experienced by its members. There’s a fascinating part that talks about how local drugs are traditionally accepted as mysterious and powerful and are welcome, but that outside and unfamiliar drugs are shunned and often banned. It’s an interesting take on governance, that controlling substances is part of controlling people.

Another really interesting argument they make is that we are not the only mammals who pursue mind-altering experiences. They list maybe 15 different animals who pursue getting high from very specific sources — from dolphins chewing on blowfish to monkeys chewing on local leaves. The argument furthers their big idea that these are not novel pursuits, and also tries to imbue some evolutionary benefit to seeking mind-altering substances. Yes, marijuana may cause a person to forget their keys, but it can also help them figure out how to bring two ideas together to solve a problem.

There is an interesting chapter about a British government official who was charged with the task of identifying the safe and dangerous substances, including hard drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco. He used a good scientific process to identify the frequency of danger associated with a substance, and ultimately found that many of the banned substances are less bad than legal ones. Of course, some of the top offenders are also banned, such as heroin, but the big emphasis is that the legal/illegal line is not drawn on a safe/unsafe plane, but a traditional/non-traditional plane. It certainly makes me think twice when considering what substances are good or bad.

To no big surprise, these authors are big fans of serious drugs. They talk about the mind-altering benefits of LSD and MDMA (also known as ecstasy), and how these drugs — and they do include caveats about not OD’ing — can help a person escape the rut of normal life. According to the authors, these drugs can enhance neural connections that weren’t previously there, aiding in the creative process and helping solve challenging problems. They rattle off an impressive list of achievements that have been aided by psychedelic drugs, and at one point they had me convinced that legalization could be a reasonable approach.

There are a lot of interesting aspects to the book, and it was fun to listen to. The big idea is that mind-altering states are good, and that we should seek them out (while recognizing that scarcity is an important aspect too). It helped open my mind to the benefits that may lie within, and is something that I think will cause me to evaluate life a little differently going forward.