Lashaun Dale: Why the fascination with peak experiences?
Jamie Wheal: I launched Flow Genome Project with Steven Kotler, a science journalist and athlete who was and is deeply, passionately interested in the neuroscience underneath states and experiences. My passion is a combination of the developmental psychology—what’s happening inside people as they have these experiences—and the real-world experiences. I have a background in mountain guiding and various other kinds of adventure sports and activities, and I’m very interested in seeing what happens [when people are in these experiences].
Steven and I wanted to take the ideas that were being pioneered in the extreme, in the sense of military special operations and extreme action sports, and then bring them to the mainstream. We believe that there are lots of really fun, cool, interesting ways to have experiences that are sort of rare and precious but also can put gas in your tank for the every day that we all have to live.
Think of it a little bit like when the Apollo astronauts took that picture of Earth from the orbit of the moon, with the sun coming up, rising behind our little blue marble. That played a meaningful part in launching the entire ecological and sustainability movement of the 1970s [with that image]. … We can’t all buy a ticket to the moon, no matter how fast Elon Musk builds rockets. But instead of astronauts or cosmonauts, we can become psychonauts. If we can experience, basically, unfiltered reality, then the ability for us to shift our perspective in a positive way is an important step in expanding how much we care and how much good we can do.
LD: When you think about the future of the body and our human potential, what comes to mind for you?
JW: Any time we consider the specific term human potential, I always think of George Leonard, who coined the term and was one of the unofficial co-founders of the Esalen Institute. He came up with that idea to typify everything that was happening in the ’60s and ’70s. On the other side of the coin, I think of Leonardo [da Vinci’s] Vitruvian Man, sort of perfected man—probably the most famous visual representation of that.
What happens when we can balance head and heart? What happens when we can balance masculine and feminine? What happens when we can balance doing and being? What happens when we can balance body and mind? For a lot of human history, we’ve been lopsided geniuses and demons. Mark Zuckerberg’s sister said a few years ago, “Family, health, friends, love and work. Pick three.” These are the kind of hard, ugly trade-offs that depict how we’re living imbalanced lives.
Human potential in the 21st century is one of the first opportunities for us to finally learn to be integrated, balanced humans and, at the same time, embrace the market and entrepreneurship, as well as meditation and spirituality. There’s just no room for skipping steps anymore.
LD: Imagining we live in that space of our expanded human potential, how does it influence our ability to innovate and create a different world?
JW: In “Stealing Fire,” Steven and I share four foundational qualities of intentional and productive non-ordinary states, and we called it STER. STER stands for selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness and richness. Each quality has a very cyclical, neurobiological method, why it happens or why we experience it that way—but the last one, richness, is short for information richness.
One of the most consistent, subjective reports of people who experience flow states or any of these other big experiences is, “I was able to innovate, problem-solve, see things more clearly, come through with breakthrough insights at a factor anywhere from two times to five times to 10 times what I do in my normal frame of mind.”
We are currently doing a study with Deloitte focusing on the role of flow states in organizations. John Hagel at Deloitte Center for the Edge said that teams that are in flow are consistently the ones out-innovating their industries and competition. There was a study a couple of decades ago at Stanford that found that even using micro-doses (sub-perceptual threshold dosages) of psychedelics led engineers who were all working on hard problems for at least six months to 12 breakthroughs, three patents and several hundred million dollars’ worth of marketplace innovation.
Everything we’re facing these days is complex, chaotic problem sets. One of the only ways for us to solve them is to actually put ourselves at a level of computation, decision-making and creativity that is at least or, ideally, even more complex than the problem we’re trying to solve. Peak states heighten all the problem-solving tools, including pattern recognition, the access to increased data, the connectivity between different parts of our brain, and the ability to come up with novel insights. This is the turbo button we need to solve our way into a livable future.