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April 9, 2022

Does Tested Neuroscience Have Anything Useful to Say On Performance? With Steven Kotler

Does Tested Neuroscience Have Anything Useful to Say On Performance? With Steven Kotler

What motivates you?

It’s a simple question that can be answered in a variety of ways. You can look at extrinsic motivators, which are things in the world that you work hard to get. Examples of this include money, sex, fame, a new house and car.

And then you can also have intrinsic motivators. This includes goal-setting, grip, passion, curiosity, purpose, autonomy, and mastery. 

When we discuss cultivating motivation, we’re discussing how we can align and tune up that entire stack of skills. Steven Kotler concedes that this isn’t an easy feat—but when you finally get the hang of it, the benefits are extraordinary.

You may think that this isn’t something you’re capable of doing. Maybe you feel different from the “greats” of this world. But in this episode, Steven Kotler and Alexander McCaig disprove that mindset. The reality is you are just as capable of peak performance as any other athlete.

It’s the first basic point of Steven Kotler’s book: all human beings are foundationally hardwired for peak performance. Our biggest challenge is learning how to work with our natural biology, so that we seamlessly enter a flow sequence that empowers us to become our best self.

What Happens if I Just Push Through?

What’s our instinctive response to getting something done? We try using raw grit to push ourselves through the task. And grit is trainable, but you have to work at it by pushing yourself slightly harder than you want to every single day. Grit without flow is a recipe for burnout.

The way our system is wired, we need to get some flow from an activity before we’re comfortable enough with learning how to get gritty.

Extrinsic motivators can only do so much in propelling us forward. Once we get what we want, we need to start asking ourselves: what else can we look forward to? 

This is where intrinsic motivators come in. And Steven Kotler believes that it’s best to start with curiosity. Look for different curiosities that introduce more passion into your life. Learn things that catch your eye: read some books, watch a movie, listen to a lecture, take a quick class…there are so many ways to feed your curiosity.

Once you start cultivating them, you can really start looking for where they overlap and intersect. And then you can start building something that’s uniquely your own from these intersections—something that fuels your passion, because it gives you all the dopamine you need to focus.

It’s important to think of achieving peak performance as a marathon, not a sprint. This won’t happen overnight.  It’s all about getting a little today and a little tomorrow, until everything compounds into the peak mindset we’re looking for.

The Role of Autonomy in Motivation

What does our personal autonomy have to do with cultivating motivation? This was a salient part of the discussion, as TARTLE is an advocate for human rights.

If you have to do something that is not of your own choosing, Steven Kotler believes that the best way forward is to find something in the task that affords an opportunity for mastery.

At this point, Alexander McCaig shares his personal experience with rowing. Sure, it helped him get through college and he was pretty good at it. But he did not have any motivation for the sport. 

“My life became a function of how low you can get a specific number over a set distance. That was the mastery, right? How do I get there? How do I get there the most efficiently?” Alexander McCaig shared, “Everything else, it paid for me to go to university at the time and all that other good stuff. But it wasn't truly something I had any passion towards. I wasn't actually intrinsically motivated to do this thing.”

When Alexander McCaig chose to leave rowing, he regained his sense of autonomy. And he shares that the benefits were twofold: first, there was a massive difference in his internal happiness. Second, he freed up more energy to focus on the things he really wanted to do.

Steven Kotler’s Encounter With the Flow State

Steven Kotler shared his experience in being diagnosed with Lyme disease, a chronic autoimmune condition that can be fatal when it reaches the brain. He was incredibly sick, and described it as having “the worst flu you’ve ever had crossed with paranoid schizophrenia.”

Neurologically, Steven Kotler struggled. He lost both short-term and long-term memory, suffered from hallucinations, couldn’t see straight, and experienced pain everywhere. This was his life for three years.

In the middle of this dark period, one of his friends demanded that he try surfing. Initially Steven Kotler laughed at this suggestion—after all, he couldn’t even walk across a room. But she insisted, and eventually he gave in. They took a trip to the beach, carried him to the shore, and handed him a board the size of the Cadillac.

And then they walked him to the lineup and he sat on his board.

“I took all the energy I had left in the world, I think, and decided I was going to try to catch that wave. And it was maybe, as I said, like a foot and a half on,” Steven Kotler explained, “But I paddled and puffed my feet and popped up into a dimension that I didn't even know existed.”

Later in the episode, he described his feeling while surfing as a “very powerful altered state experience.” And he found out that this altered consciousness is referred to as a flow state. 

This flow state is incredibly similar to the state of mind that athletes used to become superhuman.

So What Really is the Flow State All About?

How did Steven Kotler interpret his experience of the flow state, in the context of his Lyme disease? To this, he refers to a book called The Breakout Principle by Herb Benson. 

First, an autoimmune condition is caused by a nervous system going haywire. According to Herb Benson, moving into a flow state jumpstarts a release of nitric oxide. This pushes stress hormones out of our system and lets in a variety of feel-good neurochemicals in, such as dopamine and serotonin.

When Steven Kotler entered the flow state, he effectively reset his nervous system to zero. In addition, these neurochemicals are huge immune system boosters.

We most commonly see the flow state with athletes. But it can also take on a mystical form as well. Abraham Maslow, in his study of high achievers, found that their one commonality was a capacity to alter consciousness and place themselves into flow states. 

Suddenly, a common thread is established between high achievers, athletes, and Steven Kotler’s experience on the waves. Everything boils down to shifting into the flow state.

Closing Thoughts on Neuroscience

Our quality of life can be improved significantly if we understand how our biology works, and what we can do to build towards our flow state. Steven Kotler’s life experiences and insights highlight the urgency for systems and foundations that give us autonomy, the freedom to pursue our curiosities and our passions.

As it turns out, there is nothing that separates us from high achievers, athletes, and mystics. We’ve got everything we need built into our human biology. What we need to work on is our capacity to induce our peak performance.

Let’s build a world where we can make that happen for everyone.

What’s your flow state worth?

Find out more about Steven Kotler through his website.

Sign up for TARTLE through this link here.

Follow Alexander McCaig on Twitter and Linkedin.

Does Tested Neuroscience Have Anything Useful to Say On Performance? With Steven Kotler
Does Tested Neuroscience Have Anything Useful to Say On Performance? With Steven Kotler

Our quality of life can be improved significantly if we understand how our biology works, and what we can do to build towards our flow state. Steven Kotler’s life experiences and insights highlight the urgency for systems and foundations that give us autonomy, the freedom to pursue our curiosities and our passions.

Feature Image Credit: Envato Elements

For those who are hard of hearing – the episode transcript can be read below:


Alexander McCaig (00:08):

Steven, thank you so much for joining me on what seemed like an impossible task to get together here on this recording, but we made it happen. I think it took a little bit of focus, a little bit of intrinsic optimism to get us where we needed to go, and a little bit of laughter so that we didn't get ourselves so frustrated here.

Alexander McCaig (00:34):

But I want to kick this off and say that the book, which you wrote, feels, to me, like a psychological playbook on how you can take yourself from this self-limited state and move yourself into one that is quite close to unlimited or what you would call the superhuman, right? And/or the Superman state.

Alexander McCaig (01:04):

And when I think about the main blend of what you talked about from ... And I have to look at these, oxytocin, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, endorphins, and [inaudible 00:01:17] if I did that correct. Finding the right balance between these can determine the level of focus you have on your internal goals and also externally those rewards that you're trying to achieve. Is that close?

Steve Kotler (01:35):

So you have to understand, for starters, when you get into neurochemistry itself, neurochemicals are multi-tools. So some of those chemicals, specifically norepinephrine and dopamine, are significantly involved in motivation. So when you talk about motivation, you're really predominantly talking about dopamine, once other people get involved. So if you start talking about purpose, right, and purpose is basically a passion, you're taking your passion and directing it towards a problem that's outside in the world.

Steve Kotler (02:17):

The big deal with purpose is, because other people are involved, we start getting what are known as prosocial neurochemicals. So that's when you start to see the other ones you mentioned, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. Oxytocin, for example, really doesn't show up as far as we can tell without other people in the equation. It's predominantly ... It's a trust chemical that shows up when other people are in the equation. And serotonin is a rest and relax chemical. When you eat a big meal and you calm down afterwards, that serotonin, but it all go, makes us relax in social situations.

Steve Kotler (02:56):

So as you start getting more prosocial situations, it'll start showing up, that sort of thing. You're on the right track, though, because from a practical, how can I enhance motivation in my life, you are working with fundamental neurochemicals.

Alexander McCaig (03:13):

So then if we're dealing with the fundamentals, right, and like you said, before you get to the prosocial ones, we're looking at what's essentially happening on the internal track of my mind. So does my psyche and my thought process determine the first step in me layering this stack that affords me the ability to get to this best possible state of thinking or focus that I would be in?

Steve Kotler (03:44):

So that's an interesting question. No, actually. So ... But I had to think about it. The dopamine will enhance ... What dopamine does is it makes us excited. When dopamine is in our system, we're excited, we want to make meaning out of the world, we want to go exploring, right? Curiosity really ramped up. And when you're curious about stuff, you get focused for free. You don't have to work so hard to do it.

Steve Kotler (04:13):

Norepinephrine is similar but different. It's more like if you ever fall in love and you can't stop thinking about the person you've fallen in love with, that's vigilante brain. That's norepinephrine. It'll lock you on to target. It's exciting. But if I give you too much norepinephrine, it moves from excitement into anxiety. So it's not a question of too much. And in fact, depending on how you're hardwired if you are dealing with ADHD, for example, a lot of the ADHD drugs, Ritalin and those things, are norepinephrine. They're speed, basically.

Steve Kotler (04:55):

You give it to somebody who doesn't have ADHD and it tightens focus. You give it to somebody who does and it calms them way down and it does different things. So it's very much dependent on the person in a sense, but these are the foundational neurochemicals that underlie motivation.

Steve Kotler (05:14):

And in The Art of Impossible, when I talk about motivation, motivation, by the way, we should just stop and ...

Alexander McCaig (05:20):

Define it.

Steve Kotler (05:21):

... point this out. When psychologists and neuroscientists really talk about motivation, we're talking about a stack of skills, right? There's extrinsic motivation, that stuff in the world that you work really hard to get money, sex, fame, new car, right, there's intrinsic motivation. These are internal drivers. You talk about curiosity. That's one of the more basic ones.

Steve Kotler (05:45):

There are, obviously, hundreds of internal motivators, but the big five are curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Then you're also talking about goal setting. And there actually are three different tiers of goal setting that we're biologically hardwired for it if you can get those right. And finally, there's grip. And that's the full motivation stack.

Steve Kotler (06:07):

So when you're talking about how do you cultivate motivation, you're talking about aligning and tuning up of that whole stack of skills. And it's not super easy, but the benefits are extraordinary. And the thing is, you said earlier, you said the book, I don't think The Art of Impossible is a guide to how to unlock your Superman self because it gets past the first basic point I wanted to make in that book, which is, all human beings are foundationally hardwired for peak performance. It comes built-in.

Alexander McCaig (06:55):


Steve Kotler (06:55):

[inaudible 00:06:55] is we can all get into flow, right? And flow is the state of optimal performance, where we feel our best, to perform our best. And when we're in flow, all aspects of performance, the long list of what gets amplified, tend to go through the roof. That's available to everyone.

Steve Kotler (07:11):

This other side of the system is the motivational skills that we talked about. There's a bunch of learning skills and there's a bunch of creativity skills. Those go along with the flow skills. We'll be talking about what those are, but that's essentially the skill set that we call peak performance. That's all we're talking about, motivation, learning, creativity, and flow.

Steve Kotler (07:30):

Everybody comes with those abilities built in as well. In fact, 30 years of studying peak performance and really spending my time investigating how everybody can do this, the thing that's most overwhelming to me is that we are all basically hardwired to tackle higher challenges. We're all hardwired for peak performance. That's the lesson you see over and over and over again.

Steve Kotler (08:01):

And in fact, like you said, I spent a lot of time around extraordinary people, people who've done so-called impossible feats in all domains, and none of them started out extraordinary, right? They just figured out how to get their biology to work for them rather than against them. And did that over a long period of years. That's what you tend to see.

Alexander McCaig (08:23):

So we're all ... This is made abundantly clear now. We all come predisposed to having these traits and essences, unlocking them, turning them on, or getting out of our own way, is really a function of our choice for how we want to look at the world. And we can use the biology to our benefit, correct? The one that just innately sits with us.

Steve Kotler (08:45):

For sure, for sure. Absolutely.

Alexander McCaig (08:46):

So is our psyche then the internal trigger that has to make that decision first for choosing the goal, finding the [crosstalk 00:08:56] to learn?

Steve Kotler (08:59):

I don't know what you mean by our psyche. That word doesn't mean anything to me in psychological terms unless we're going back to Freud. So I'm getting lost in your question.

Alexander McCaig (09:11):

Yeah, no problem. Okay. So my train of thought, is that ... So when I perceive the world, and I have a specific train of thought, whether this be some high hard goal, an HHG, or anything else, whatever that motivation might be, does that have to happen firs, before I can start to work on this stack that gets me into these and make traits that I come [crosstalk 00:09:34]?

Steve Kotler (09:35):

Yeah. Okay. So that's a cool question. Let's ...

Alexander McCaig (09:38):

Oh, now it's cool, now that I changed the word. Okay.

Steve Kotler (09:40):

Now I know what you're asking. That's a cool question. All right. And it gets at a really cool point, which is what is at the heart of The Art of Impossible is what we've learned over the past five to 10 years of studying that ... I'm not talking about me or my organizational Flow Research Collective. I mean, we, the field of science, neuroscience. Everybody looking at peak performance. What everybody working together figured out over the past 15 years is all these individual pieces of the puzzle that we've all heard about for years and read books on, whether it's focus or mindfulness or flow or grip or goal setting. We've all heard the little parts of the whole thing, accelerated learning and blah, blah, blah, right?

Steve Kotler (10:30):

There's lots of great books on those individual pieces. I've written some of those books, right?

Alexander McCaig (10:34):


Steve Kotler (10:35):

Great ones, but I've written a couple of those books. And what has been figured out over those five years, wait a minute, our biology is a system. It evolved in a certain order to work a certain way. And the way I explained those four skill sets we mentioned earlier that encompass all of this, motivation is what you need to get into the game. Learning allows you to continue to play. Creativity is how you steer. And flow is how you turbo boost the results beyond all reasonable expectations. So that's the quick shorthand to think about that stack.

Steve Kotler (11:09):

Here's what we've learned of that five years is because it's designed to come online in a specific order and work in a certain way, it's not that you can't start training flow before your motivations, tech is online or learning.

Alexander McCaig (11:21):


Steve Kotler (11:22):

You can do it whichever way, you'll get results. The big deal is if you do it in the order that it was designed to work and then use the system the way it was designed to work, you just going to get a lot farther, a lot faster, with a lot less fuss. And that's the really big deal. And do it using the system.

Steve Kotler (11:42):

And let me give you some simple examples. The way the system was designed to work, you want to start cultivating motivational skills. And once you do that, because of how the motivational skills need to be cultivated, that's going to start triggering flow. Once you start getting flow, which among its extraordinary performance benefits, it feels extraordinarily good. That's one of the core components to euphoric state. Scientists talk about it.

Steve Kotler (12:10):

One of its core characteristics is being autotelic. That's a fancy way of saying an end in itself, right? It basically means all those five pleasure chemicals we talked about earlier, they all show up in flow, right? It's the most addictive pleasurable state on earth. When we test people, people will prefer flow to pretty much any other experience. And it really matters because we now know from a positive side standpoint that the people who score off the charts for overall life satisfaction and well-being, these are the people with the most flow in their lives.

Steve Kotler (12:37):

So there's a specific direct lag between how much flow you get, how happy you are, how much your life means to you, and how much life satisfaction you feel. Very, super motivating. That's the result of all those feel-good neurochemicals, right, [crosstalk 00:12:54].

Steve Kotler (12:55):

If you start trying to train grit, before you're producing a lot of flow, you're going to be miserable because the only way to train grit is to ... Let's say you're working out, right, you want to learn how to get gritty in the gym. If your normal workout is three sets of eight reps, well, today, it's got to be two sets of eight reps, one set of nine, right, and just slowly, slowly, slowly over time.

Steve Kotler (13:21):

Grit is really trainable. But you actually have to train it by pushing yourself slightly harder than you want to go, slightly harder than you think you can go day after day after day for a really long time. Grit without flow is a recipe for burnout. That is one of the ways we burn ourselves out. The reason the system was designed to work in a certain order is so you're going to start getting some flow from an activity before you have to start really learning how to get gritty in that activity.

Steve Kotler (13:51):

So that's what I mean. You won't have to work as hard to develop the skills you want to develop. That's why you want to think about it in an order and a specific way. Does that make sense?

Alexander McCaig (14:03):

It makes perfect sense. And I can even use it on my personal example. I did a lot of collegiate rowing. And I'm not going to be shy, but I was pretty good at it. But what I found is that it felt more of this repetitive stress job where I was great at the flow when I'm actually in that state of doing it. I could do the grit, I could push myself harder, but it lacked total motivation.

Alexander McCaig (14:30):

The focus and my development actually did burn me out so much that I actually never want to be in a rowboat probably never again.

Steve Kotler (14:37):

Here's another one. We talk about ... Let me just talk a little more about flow that needs some backup. But when we-

Alexander McCaig (14:49):

Settle down now, it's all good. We're good in there.

Steve Kotler (14:52):

Yeah. I was trying to figure out how to get this. And what I will tell you is, because you throw a bit on focus, autonomy is a foundational motivators, one of the big five intrinsic motivators, right? This is probably all of us. When you get to choose what to do, you care a hell of a lot more about it. But there's a neurobiological cost for not having autonomy. Autonomy and attention are literally coupled systems in the brain. They overlay one another.

Steve Kotler (15:21):

So literally, if you're not doing something of your choosing, you cannot focus completely on it. And as a result, by the way, you probably need to block from flow on a regular basis with it, which is going to make it even harder, right? And once again, recipe for burnout.

Steve Kotler (15:39):

So autonomy as a motivator is super important. In fact, I always tell people, one of the only ways to get around it is to use mastery. So if you have to do something that's not by your own choosing, boss gives you a job, says, "You've got to do. The company's future depends on it." And you really don't want to do it. The best way forward is to find something in the task that affords an opportunity for mastery.

Steve Kotler (16:08):

Oh, here's this ... I've made the whole job suck, but here's a little skill that actually matters to me. And I'm going to get better at it, right? And you reframe it so you can get that autonomy and that little bit of mastery. It's a really potent tool. And without it, it's really hard to master attention.

Alexander McCaig (16:30):

Yeah, no. And I get that. And I remember my life ... I'm just using my samples [crosstalk 00:16:35] because that's what I know. My life became a function of how low can you get a specific number over a set distance. That was the mastery, right? How do I get there? How do I get there the most efficiently? Everything else, it paid for me to go to university at the time and all that other good stuff. But it wasn't truly something I had any passion towards. I wasn't actually intrinsically motivated to do this thing.

Alexander McCaig (17:01):

And what I found is that when I chose to leave rowing, there felt like some internal autonomy. I now had free will over the decision for where my life was going to head. And it made a massive difference in my internal happiness but also afforded me the focus to go do things I really wanted to do. And until reading, which you have said, I didn't realize that it was a combination of these efforts and one had to lead before the other to really know that this process, it's almost like I ... Go ahead.

Steve Kotler (17:33):

Yeah, you had to get free of the old shackles so you could ... Right, if curiosity is the foundational motivator, you want to end up cultivating passion or purpose, right? You want to start with curiosity because it's the most basic human motivator. It's a little bit of norepinephrine, a little bit of dopamine, and curiosity. That's what builds into passion, right?

Steve Kotler (17:55):

If you were locked into this, that was the first thing I heard in your voice is, oh, yeah, I walked away from rowing. And suddenly, I was free to pursue things that I was interested in. I would guess, what I heard in your voice, I could be making it up, is that you didn't even know you were interested in this stuff until you walked away from rowing.

Alexander McCaig (18:11):

Precisely correct. Yeah. I knew I was disinterested in rowing.

Steve Kotler (18:15):

In rowing, yeah. But it's a funny thing because if you're not getting ... The other thing that you're not getting in that situation is you're not getting the dopamine reward from it, right? If you're not interested in the goal, right, if beating a time is really not your thing and it's not a lot of people's things, right, my problem with competitive sports in general is I was like, "You think it matters if I beat the other guy? Who the fuck cares?"

Alexander McCaig (18:44):

Yeah, no, that's my point.

Steve Kotler (18:45):

I would beat myself, right? I wanted to tell, that's why I like the action sports because I get to beat yourself. But beating somebody ... It seems very important to win. So, okay, they can win. I don't care. Really? I can't believe that there's any version of myself that is better if I can row slightly faster than you across the lake. I'm willing to believe there's a much better version of myself if I go out and ski in gnarly big line in Alaska, right?

Steve Kotler (19:14):

I think the guy who comes out the other end is different than the guy who started. And that's a challenge I'm interested in. Other people are like, "Look, the version of me that can win this rowing race is a better version," right? It's just how you're wired, I think. It's one of the reasons you have to get your intrinsic motivators lined up because, ultimately, they're silly.

Steve Kotler (19:36):

You're just proving yourself to yourself over and over and over and over again, right, because you want to feel safe and secure in this world. And you think, "If I can prove myself to myself today, maybe I'm a little safer and more secure than I was yesterday." And it all takes place at a subconscious level that this is what we're doing. I mean, I can tell you how to do it better, but it's still silly.

Alexander McCaig (20:01):

It's like some weird perverse narrative I was living. And I thought I was in reality. But in truth, there was no reality to what I was doing. I wasn't actually being the human I wanted to be. And so if I go out and I want to look for that social oxytocin that comes from these other inputs from people in these other groups, I could never truly enjoy that unless I found the enjoyment internally within myself with what I'm doing, with what my own nature is.

Alexander McCaig (20:33):

But I know that motivation is such a hard thing for so many people, Steven. And when I think about that is, how do we even get people to the line of motivation? So many are non-motivated. How do we even get the nonstarters to move?

Steve Kotler (20:50):

Well, it's interesting. I mean, I can tell you what the research shows.

Alexander McCaig (20:54):

I love to know, please. Yeah.

Steve Kotler (20:56):

I mean, the motor ... The research says, "Look, if you're cultivating motivation, the place you have to start is extrinsic motivation. You need to make enough money to pay your bills and have a little leftover for fun, basically." Basically, it's because if there's too much fear in the system, meaning like, where's my rent coming from, I can't feed my family, I've got food insecurity, those kinds of things, it produces way too much fear.

Steve Kotler (21:23):

But once you solve that crisis, what people don't realize is if you want to get motivated or you want more forward progress, extrinsic motivators are no longer going to get it done. That's when you want to start reaching for intrinsic motivators. And you really just want to start with curiosity.

Steve Kotler (21:42):

And curiosity is ... When I talk about starting with curiosity, I'm being just like, what you're looking to do is build more passion into your life, right? And the way to do that is passion is quite simply nothing fancier than the intersection of three or four or five of your curiosities. Right. A simple curiosity, when I say explore your curiosities, I mean, you pause time and I gave you two free days, you could learn anything you want, go read a couple of books, watch a movie, tend to lecture, maybe take a quick class, that's what all I mean by curiosity.

Steve Kotler (22:18):

If you had a free weekend, you'd want to spend it learning this, right? Start cultivating those kinds of curiosities and really start looking for where they overlap and intersect. That's how you start playing, you play those overlaps and those intersections. It's how you start to cultivate passion. The way to think about it is, one, curiosity. It's not strong enough to be passion, right? It won't sustain you for the long haul, but you find where two or three or four of those curiosities meet, meaning three or four of those things that produce a lot of dopamine naturally give you a lot of focus.

Alexander McCaig (22:50):


Steve Kotler (22:51):

Now you're starting to really cook, you're starting to get a lot of focus for free. That's the aim and where people screw up is that here ... I think what demotivates people is they have a mistaken assumption about passion. If I say, "Hey, talk to me about athletic passion," and people tell me new stories about LeBron James and the playoffs, right? And windmilling in for some thunder dunk with that crazy grit expression on his face, right?

Steve Kotler (23:26):

That's what we think about. And what people forget is that's passion on the back end. That's what it looks like when it's already fully mature. So they are starting to be like, "Why don't I feel that in myself? Oh, I don't have that." You forget that passion on the front end is nothing more than a little kid in a driveway, shooting baskets, hoping the ball is going to fall down. Or what happens if I spin it this way, or this way, and just exploring basic curiosities? That's what it looks like on the front end.

Steve Kotler (23:55):

So one of the reasons I think people get really derailed on this is they want to get there yesterday and they [inaudible 00:24:02] way too much from themselves way, way too soon. And you can't go into this quest looking for fireworks. They show up but they're slow to build. I always say we peak performance. Everything works like compound interest. Tiny little bit today plus a tiny little bit tomorrow. And the really big impacts that everybody's looking for, they're almost guaranteed because of how the biology works, but it also works slowly. It's not going to happen overnight.

Alexander McCaig (24:34):

Yeah, evolution is a slow process. I mean, if it would have been quick, I mean, we'd all be hairless and probably not speaking and super intelligent. But it takes time, takes a lot of mistakes.

Steve Kotler (24:44):


Alexander McCaig (24:46):

Yeah, hair.

Steve Kotler (24:47):

[crosstalk 00:24:47] is super intelligent. Okay.

Alexander McCaig (24:52):

If I think about the-

Steve Kotler (24:54):

It's more about you than anything evolution there. But that's interesting. Okay.

Alexander McCaig (25:05):

I just [crosstalk 00:25:06]. Listen, all right, listen, if I wanted to use you as an example for childlike curiosity, where did it start for you then, Steven? I know that you wanted to do ... The book talks about you doing research, asking the questions but ...

Steve Kotler (25:25):

Oh, yeah. I've got [crosstalk 00:25:25] on this particular one I won. I won the weird lottery. So ...

Alexander McCaig (25:30):

Tell me.

Steve Kotler (25:31):

... when I was ... So when my parents had me, they were pretty young. They don't have a ton of money. And I don't think my mother really knew how to be a mom, right? I mean, she was in her early 20s. There is no money, but she knew that books were good. So we would just go to the library and anything that was interesting to me, she would just take a book out and we would go home. And all she would do is read to me, until I started reading, and then I would read to her.

Steve Kotler (26:04):

So early on, I had a mom, didn't really know what she was doing and made up for that by reading everything. And it totally worked. And my parents were ... It's funny because we battled through my childhood. I was a punk rock kid and I was difficult. I was-

Alexander McCaig (26:21):

You don't look like a punk. I could tell you that.

Steve Kotler (26:23):

[crosstalk 00:26:23] difficult, rowdy, kid [inaudible 00:26:27]. But my parents, to their credit, if I was curious about something, even if we didn't have any money, they would find a way, right? I was curious about dinosaurs. Oh, it turns out there's free classes every Saturday at the Natural History Museum and they would drive me, which was incredibly cool.

Steve Kotler (26:45):

The realization that I probably wouldn't do that for another human being is one of the reasons I don't have children. I ski on my Saturdays, man, or I'm going surfing, I don't know.

Alexander McCaig (26:57):

Boy, you're so damn selfish. What's going on here? Oh, man. Okay. So your lottery was really the fact that you had all these external catalysts that really continued to feed your childlike curiosity. And what's interesting about that stage ...

Steve Kotler (27:18):

It just never went away. And I became a journalist, right? And journalism, essentially, getting paid to be curious. And becomes ... Well, I was working a lot in science journalism. And this was back in the '90s when ... I know this is a really strange concept now, but magazines and newspapers, they have these things called fact-checkers. So it was important to them that the thing I said was true, was actually true. I know, it's a totally bizarre [crosstalk 00:27:58].

Alexander McCaig (27:58):

What a strange concept.

Steve Kotler (28:00):

I mean, it was a really hard concept. So I hope I spoke it slowly enough. Anyway. They were vicious. The people who were fact-checkers, I always thought they must have been like the failed writers who were really pissed about it because they did go out of their way to try to prove me wrong. And when you're writing ... And for good reason, right?

Steve Kotler (28:21):

I do a science story for The New York Times Magazine. It's about some weird thing in neuroscience or genetics. I may be the only opinion that the reader is ever going to have on that bit of science. So there's a reason they were so vicious, and I really appreciate it. But what it meant is I had to learn this stuff at an expert level to write about it. And so once your curiosity starts leading into actual mastery, right, even just the shores of mastery it took, I think it took 20 or 30 years before I ever achieve the mastery in science that I really wanted. But that, as we know, is a super fun drunk.

Alexander McCaig (29:07):

Listen, I get that from talking to people. I enjoy so much listening and trying to understand your thought processes and what you want to share. You're like that book that's right in front. I don't have to turn pages, I can just ask questions and you can just brain dump all day.

Steve Kotler (29:26):

That was essentially what journalism allowed, right? We didn't have podcaster. So if you wanted to go out and talk to the smartest people in the world, the only ... At the time, we were journalists, we're really the only people who got to do it. Oh, I had an editor, Rob Hill, who used to say, "Nobody knows, but we get to walk through the kingdom."

Alexander McCaig (29:47):

That's cool.

Steve Kotler (29:47):

And I was like, "Yeah." Now, it's a slightly different thing because there's an internet, you can find experts, you can do all that stuff. And I will tell you that when you can call up and say, "Hey, this is Steven Kotler with New York Times", people will say, "Tell you anything", right? You could call ... But you pay the price. I would routinely, not routinely, but I've been screamed at but called an idiot many, many times by [inaudible 00:30:15] top minds.

Steve Kotler (30:16):

I don't have a tape recorder anymore but I used to have a tape recording of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist yelling at me for 40 minutes. I didn't understand that thing he said. I literally called him up and I said, "Hi, this is Steven blah, blah, blah. Can I ask a single question?" And he just started screaming. And he screamed for like 40 minutes and then he hung up. And I was like, "Woof," right?

Steve Kotler (30:40):

I went back to my question. And I realized there was this hidden presupposition in my question that I didn't even notice that he thought it undercut everything he had devoted his entire life to that it actually really insulted him. But I had no idea, it took so long to figure that out. True story.

Alexander McCaig (31:03):

I love it. I love it when the ego will just completely take something and just bring it off the walls. And you're just like, "Well, I was just trying to figure out what's going on here." And yes, the question [crosstalk 00:31:12].

Steve Kotler (31:14):

One of those questions were like, you and blah, blah, blah, article you or blah, blah. So this [inaudible 00:31:19], right? And I didn't even think about the first half of that sentence, right? That was the setup, let me just get to my first question. Yeah. So live and learn.

Alexander McCaig (31:28):

Wow. Okay. All right, then I got to round this back then. The curiosity to journalism, all these things. You told the story about surfing, and I know you like to surf and I like to ski, right? You said there was a point when you felt like your frame of reference had actually left the material self and you were skiing. And I know you're talking about meditation in a short sense.

Alexander McCaig (31:59):

Can you just talk to me about that real quick? I want to hear from your mouth what the experience was like.

Steve Kotler (32:07):

So you're talking about, basically, a surfing triggered flow state?

Alexander McCaig (32:15):

Yeah. So you were sick.

Steve Kotler (32:16):

You want to ... Oh, okay. Do you want me to tell that story? Or do you want to know why that [crosstalk 00:32:23].

Alexander McCaig (32:22):

Well, hold on. All right. I need you to tell the story so people understand it. And then let's talk about ...

Steve Kotler (32:33):

And then talk about what's going on. Okay. So I'm going to back up and start a few years before this story, just to give people context. I said I became a journalist in the early 1990s. Two things fascinated me, neuroscience. It wasn't even neuroscience, I wanted to know how people worked, right? I want to know how I worked, I want to know how other people worked. And neuroscience in the '90s, there was a field that was just starting to emerge called behavioral neuroscience, literally the neurobiology of how people work.

Steve Kotler (33:03):

And the big deal here, the reason neuroscience matters, the reason you should care is psychology, however useful, is essentially metaphorical. Neuroscience mechanism. So if you want to know how stuff really works, you really want to understand the neuroscience. And we were starting to get the first picture of, this is how behavior works.

Steve Kotler (33:23):

Simultaneously, I was hanging out and covering a lot of stories and action sports, surfing, skiing, rock climbing, snowboarding, and the like. And if you know anything about action sports in the 1990s, there was the era of impossible, where more impossible feats things that had never been done before. They were supposed to never be done. They weren't just being done. They were being iterated on. And this really caught my attention, right? And this was how this was happening. And could I actually use the neuroscience, I was learning about writing these science articles to decode what was happening in athletics, became sort of a mission for me.

Steve Kotler (33:58):

So I was looking at that very, very seriously and had been doing that for a while. And then around age 30, as you pointed out, I got Lyme disease, and it was the end of my career. I spent three years in bed. I was incredibly, incredibly sick. If you don't know what Lyme is like, it's like the worst flu you've ever had crossed with paranoid schizophrenia. That's not a joke. Paranoid schizophrenia is the most common misdiagnosis for Lyme.

Steve Kotler (34:23):

So everything neurological me was gone. I had no short-term memory, no long-term memory. I was hallucinating. I couldn't see straight. I had pain everywhere. So sick to barely walk across the room. And after three years of this, the doctors pulled me out of meds. They never know if I was going to get any better. My stomach lining started bleeding out in reaction to the meds and ...

Alexander McCaig (34:46):

This was high-dose antibiotics, I'm guessing [crosstalk 00:34:49].

Steve Kotler (34:49):

Yeah, this was where somebody pointed out that it was a bad idea to keep somebody on doxycycline for a year and a half, right?

Alexander McCaig (34:57):

Yeah, I'd say. Steven, don't call them the sun, Steven.

Steve Kotler (35:01):

Right. Anyways, needless to say, I was front for about 10% of the time. So I could work an hour a day and the rest of the time, I would lie on a couch and moan. And I knew, it's like fuck, from here on out, I'm a burden to my friends, my family. I may never getting better and I was getting very suicidal. Not even out of depression, just out of practicality, there was no way to live my life. And I didn't want other people to have to take care of me for the rest of my life.

Steve Kotler (35:27):

And in the middle of this really dark period, a friend of mine showed up my door, I was living in Los Angeles at the time, when she demands we go surfing. And I just started laughing. I was like, "I can't walk across a room. You're out of your mind." It'd be also been four or five years since I've surfed and she wouldn't leave and wouldn't leave and wouldn't leave and wouldn't leave and kept badgering me. And then hours went by. And finally, I was like, "You know what, anything to get her to shut up. Let's just go surfing today. What the hell, I can always kill myself tomorrow," right?

Steve Kotler (36:01):

I mean, what is the worst that could happen? So they literally heard a friend had to [inaudible 00:36:06] me to the car because I couldn't really walk to the car. Then they had to carry me to the beach. They gave me a board the size of a Cadillac. And [crosstalk 00:36:15] sunset beach in Los Angeles was, if you know anything about surfing, that is literally the wimpiest beginner wave in the world.

Steve Kotler (36:21):

And the tide was out. So the waves were like a foot and a half, maybe two feet tall, three feet at best. And no one was out in the lineup, which is really rare in Los Angeles. And they literally carried me out to the lineup and walked me out to the lineup and a board. I sat down. And that first wave came 30 seconds later, and I don't know what happened. I lost my [inaudible 00:36:43] mind. And I took all the energy I had left in the world, I think, and decided I was going to try to catch that wave. And it was maybe, as I said, like a foot and a half on. But I paddled and puffed my feet and popped up into a dimension that I didn't even know existed.

Steve Kotler (37:01):

And I suddenly could feel a panoramic vision. I could see outside of the back of my head. Time, it's slowed down. It was moving at an absolute crawl. I had this weird out-of-body experience going on. But the strangest part, forget all that weird stuff, I felt great. I mean, I felt amazing. My head was clear. There was no pain in my body. That felt so good. I caught four more waves that day. And after those five waves, I was totally disassembled. There was nothing left of me. They took me home, poured me into bed, and I couldn't move for about two weeks.

Steve Kotler (37:33):

And then on the 15th day and I could move again, I went back to the ocean because I wanted more. I caught a ride with a friend and I wanted this experience. And once again, I had this weird altered state experience and same thing. Over the course of about eight months, when the only thing I was doing different in my life was surfing and having these really weird altered state experiences, two things happened that really caught my attention.

Steve Kotler (37:55):

One is I got better. I went from 10% functional up to about 80% functional. And that didn't make any sense because surfing is not a known cure for chronic autoimmune conditions. So what the hell is going on?

Alexander McCaig (38:07):


Steve Kotler (38:08):

Then ... But I can having these very powerful altered state experiences while surfing. And Lyme is only fatal if it gets in your brain.

Alexander McCaig (38:19):


Steve Kotler (38:20):

I'm a rational materialist. The only ... I figured even though I was feeling better, the disease must be in my brain. And I was dying. And I lit out on a quest, what the hell is wrong? Man, I quickly figured out that these altered states of consciousness had names. They were flow states. And they were really similar actually, in description, what the athlete said they were been tapping into to achieve the impossible back in the '90s. And it hadn't made a whole lot of sense to me because some of the language had been mystical and weird. And suddenly, I was having a lot of these experiences, I was like, "Oh, wow."

Steve Kotler (38:53):

And when I figured out they were flow states, I got remarkably lucky enough that the moment I went looking, a guy named Herb Benson had written a book called The Breakout Principle, where he mapped the neurobiology of flow and he pointed out that as we move into the state, there's a global release of a nitric oxide. It's a gaseous signaling molecules all over the body. It pushes stress hormones out of our system and it lets all those feel-good performance in and neurochemicals, dopamine and serotonin. They flood in.

Steve Kotler (39:24):

And what he pointed out is two things. One is explain what happened to me because an autoimmune condition is a nervous system gone haywire, doesn't know [inaudible 00:39:35]. You lose. The body is a homeostatic organism. But if it can't find baseline, it doesn't know where to go. So you bounce all over the place. That's the sense [crosstalk 00:39:44].

Alexander McCaig (39:44):

Protects itself, right?

Steve Kotler (39:47):

By resetting my nervous system to zero, suddenly, the organ, it was resetting. But more importantly, those same neurochemicals all are huge immune system boosters. And Herb Benson in The Breakout Principle went so far as to say, "Hey, I think most of the cases so-called spontaneous healing we see, it's this mechanism."

Steve Kotler (40:08):

But what I started to figure out is, wait a minute, the same state of consciousness that took me from seriously subpar to normal, it was helping all those same athletes go from normal all the way up to Superman. And that was my introduction into flow. And from that point on, I mean, I wrote hundreds of articles. I wrote one for Psychology Today. I wrote seven books. I started the Flow Research Collective and get to work with 50 different neuroscientists and psychologists now and folks at USC and Stanford and UCLA, and it's the same quest. What the hell is going on? And how does it work? And can [crosstalk 00:40:48] benefit?

Alexander McCaig (40:50):

I find this incredibly interesting as a data point, specifically about you and how this moves into a lot of other things. You are on the board and you made a choice that I am going to appropriate my energy and focus to this one wave. In doing so, and if I think you describe it properly, if I can describe this properly, the parietal lobe goes quiet ...

Steve Kotler (41:23):

Oh, so you want to [crosstalk 00:41:24]. Okay. You want to talk about oneness with everything. That's the question that-

Alexander McCaig (41:30):

I love why you jumped the gun but, Steven, people got [inaudible 00:41:33] there.

Steve Kotler (41:34):

You asked that question. You asked where did the mystical stuff come from and I told you all the story and I left out the ending.

Steve Kotler (41:40):

Okay. So the mystical stuff is really common, by the way. For the first 50 years when scientists were looking at flow, until Abraham Maslow came along. It was predominantly a discussion about people in spiritual and religious communities. They thought it was a religious experience that people could have. They didn't think it was common for all people. And then Abraham Maslow in the '50s was studying in a group of super-high achievers, super successful people, and wanted to know what was their secret. And the only commonality he found is they all found ways to alter consciousness and put themselves into flow states. And that was probably the secret of their success.

Steve Kotler (42:16):

So suddenly, peak experiences, mystical experiences, throughout flow states connect. And what we have started to figure out ... And this is sort of what happened to me because when I was out in the waves, I don't know what the hell was happening, but one of the things I knew is that I was feeling one with the ocean, right? I had this sensation of merging with the ocean. My consciousness was expanding. They call it oceanic boundlessness. Literally, in the psychological literature, that was the technical term for it.

Steve Kotler (42:46):

And in religious traditions, they talked about it as oneness with everything. And it showed up a lot in the world. It wasn't just me. I remember Laird Hamilton the first time I interviewed him, the big-wave surfer.

Alexander McCaig (42:58):

Big-wave surfing. Yeah.

Steve Kotler (43:00):

Yeah. He would tell you about this experience and other surfers were mentioned. And I was like, "I didn't quite get what was going on." But right at the time, I was asking these questions. A guy who do become a mentor, Dr. Andrew Newberg, he was at the University of Pennsylvania, who's a neuroscientist. He was the very first neuroscientist to use brain scans. He was using SPECT, which was like early fMRI with a radioactive tracer, to look in the brains of Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhists who both experienced oneness with everything for the-

Alexander McCaig (43:30):

As they pray and meditate, right?

Steve Kotler (43:32):

Yeah, they pray and meditate. So with the nuns, it's only a mystical, it's oneness with Jesus' love. And for the Buddhists, it's absolute unitary, being oneness with the universe. So he took pictures of their brains trying to figure out what was going on. And what he ...

Alexander McCaig (44:06):

Oh, you still there. You cut out.

Steve Kotler (44:08):

I'm still here. You froze.

Alexander McCaig (44:10):

Oh, no, I was watching you. You just froze and disappeared. So we have a full post-production team. So keep going, keep talking. I caught the part of the nuns and the Buddhists with the oneness. And then [crosstalk 00:44:19].

Steve Kotler (44:21):

What he figured out is ... So your brain is an energy hog, right? Your brain just uses 25% of the body's energy at rest. So one-quarter of everything you eat goes to power your brain, right? And yet, it's like a tiny, tiny fraction of your actual body weight.

Steve Kotler (44:46):

So the first order of business for all structures in the brain is conserve energy. So when you're really focused like in Buddhist meditation or Franciscan prayer on a single thing, the brain goes, "Oh, you need lots of energy for focus and attention." And it shuts down non-critical structures. One of the structures that gets shut down is near the intersection of the temporal lobe and the parietal lobe. It's called the temporoparietal junction and more in the right parietal lobe and TPJ.

Steve Kotler (45:15):

But right in that area, this portion of the brain shuts out, stops sending information out, stops taking information in. What does, right, TPJ do? Among other things, it helps us orient ourselves in space. It essentially draws a line around the body and says, "You end here and the rest of the world begins." And in flow or in deep meditative trance states, when this part of the brain shuts down, you lose the ability to say, "Hey, I am here and the rest of the world begins."

Steve Kotler (45:52):

So people who have had a stroke or brain damage to this area, they can't even sit down on a couch because they're like, "Well, where does my leg end and where does the couch begin?" It shuts off in meditation or in flow. What happens is the same thing, your brain goes, "At this point, we can't tell where you end and the rest of the world begins" concludes. It has to conclude, at this particular moment, you are one with everything.

Alexander McCaig (46:15):

And that's sort of that ecstatic meditation, those are those states that people would want to be in all the time as opposed to other extrinsic motivators, right? They'll go for this intrinsic thing that is occurring that makes them feel this expansiveness. I mean, for your flow state, surfing, putting you into the state multiple time brought you from 10% usefulness as a human being back up to 80% for yourself, right?

Alexander McCaig (46:42):

So when I think about practicality of tools and for people getting to those things, is this something that people should practice if the data points say that you can move yourself to the states that actually give you a more articulated focus, allowing you to practice that focus? Is this something that, in common people, should try and do?

Steve Kotler (47:05):

Well, are you asking me if people should try to get into flow?

Alexander McCaig (47:13):

No, no, I'm asking if they should use meditation as a tool to feel those flow states. If they find themselves motivated, should they use meditation as a way to even get there?

Steve Kotler (47:28):

So you can use meditation as a way to train the brain for focus. That enhanced focus tends to help people drop into flow. Flow is a focusing skill, so like mindfulness is a focusing skill but they're different. So slightly different things are happening in the brain, they're similar but different. But mindfulness, this is a really well established finding at this point, people with a regular mindfulness practice will end up with more flow. So that's a very useful tool.

Steve Kotler (48:01):

And as far as tapping into more of these altered states of consciousness, I mean, to me, the benefits for flow are the performance enhancement is enormous. And they're deeply meaningful experiences, right? So you get enormous ... I mean, motivation and productivity and flow will go up sometimes 500% above baseline. We'll see creativity and innovations by 700%.

Steve Kotler (48:34):

The Department of Defense figured out that soldiers in flow learn 240% to 500% faster than normal, and so forth. And so, right, there's a huge spikes in a lot of core performance metrics, which is why I think flow has become a tool in business and the regular world. But on the more spiritual side, it's the only spiritual experiences I ... If you want to call those spiritual experiences, they're the only ones I ever get. You know what I mean?

Steve Kotler (49:05):

I have never meditated myself into a spiritual experience, but I've certainly skied myself and surfed myself. I think certain tools work better for certain people than others on that particular one.

Alexander McCaig (49:19):

Okay. Yeah, no, I was just asking, because people all over the world listen to this. Some of them are Buddhists. Some of them may be a practicing nun. But if flow is that common state outside of any religion or dogma, whatever it might be, getting people to move above Maslow's based on needs, get rid of those fears and using tools that help them focus on things that can really advance their evolution biologically or within their social groups or how they even feel mentally, those are data points that I want to share with them so that they can help better understand themselves.

Alexander McCaig (50:00):

Once they understand themselves, they can understand the rest of the world, right? You didn't have time really to focus on anyone else. And you said, if I'm continually in the state of sickness, of having Lyme disease and having an effect on my immune system, well, then, I'm frankly more of a burden. And people feel like a burden. And there's a great majority of it.

Alexander McCaig (50:20):

And so when I look at this and when I read about flow states and the chemicals, it is uplifting to hear that at a fundamental level, everybody carries these innate traits, and just finding practical ways for them to go about it and begin to unlock those levels of potential that they have within them is something very, very positive. And I just love the fact that your new book on the impossible shares that for them to adapt, if that makes any sense.

Steve Kotler (50:52):

Sure. Thank you.

Alexander McCaig (50:55):

Yeah. Listen, you're the one that wrote the book and that's going to require a huge amount of flow because the focus in just putting together a narrative that makes sense is not an easy task. And you've done it seven times. So I guess in some way, it's got to be like skiing for you. Otherwise, it just seems like quite an impossible feat.

Steve Kotler (51:15):

Well, you got to ... I mean, my first book took 11 years.

Alexander McCaig (51:21):

That's insane.

Steve Kotler (51:21):

My second one took six. My third one took three. Then I started to get good at four through 14 as a general rule, a year to two, right? So it took me like three or four books to warm up, but I'm finishing book 14 right now. And anything's easy with 20 years practice, 30 years practice.

Alexander McCaig (51:47):

That's the compound interest for you, I guess, right?

Steve Kotler (51:50):

It is the compound [inaudible 00:51:51]. Writing is fully aligned with all my intrinsic motivators, right? Curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, mastery, produces a lot of flow for me. So that helps tremendously.

Alexander McCaig (52:06):

Now, I think that's phenomenal. And then if you-

Steve Kotler (52:12):

The thing I want to say is ... Because we didn't really cover this, and I know I have to jump in like three or four minutes. But it's not about mindfulness. We now know that flow states have triggers, right? That's the big deal, preconditions that lead to more flow.

Steve Kotler (52:30):

So if you want more flow in your life, these triggers are your toolkit. There's 22 of them. And they all basically work the same way. We've been talking about it all in the show, right? Flow follows focus, shows up with all of the attention right here right now. That's what these flow triggers do. They drive attention into the present moment, right? And they do it either by pushing dopamine or norepinephrine into our system or some combination. Or they lower cognitive load.

Steve Kotler (52:55):

Cognitive load is all the crap you're trying to think about at any one time. And I lower it, I liberate more energy for attention and gets repurposed on the task at hand. So those triggers are available to anybody. They're all built in, right? They work automatically [crosstalk 00:53:10], for example, as a flow trigger. And we know this, you travel, you drop into flow states all the time. Why? Because you're in novel environment and it's dropping a lot of dopamine into your system and it's driving that focus.

Steve Kotler (53:23):

And people don't realize that's automatic. So I'll give you an example of how I use that in my own life. I have to read a bunch of neuroscience textbooks in my daily life, right? Here's Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention Volume Two, this is this week's pair. And as you might imagine, Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention Volume Two and all this other stuff, these books are thrilling. They're the most exciting things you've ever read-

Alexander McCaig (53:49):

Oh, no doubt that.

Steve Kotler (53:51):

You can't put them down. I know. So they're hard reading, right? And ideally, I want to be in flow if I can read them because I don't want to have to read them twice. I want accelerated learning. I want to get it the first time, right?

Steve Kotler (54:06):

When I'm really slogging through something that's difficult, first thing I do is take it on the road. Take my book to a coffee shop across town where I haven't been before because I'm in a novel environment.

Alexander McCaig (54:19):

Oh, interesting.

Steve Kotler (54:20):

And the novelty in the environment is putting a little bit of dopamine in my system. Or I'll give you ... I'll take it one step further. I just did this. I usually do this twice a year. When I really have a bunch of textbooks, when I'm trying to solve a puzzle, and I've got a bunch of books that I have to read, I will rent a hotel room with a balcony that looks out onto a huge natural vista. And I will go there, I will sit in the balcony. I'll read there because you get the novelty, but you also get other flow triggers like unpredictability and complexity from the environment. And it starts to add up and it starts to produce a little flow.

Steve Kotler (54:59):

And then one of the other flow triggers that we talk a lot about is pattern recognition, linking ideas together, right? We've all had this experience. You go crossword puzzle or STOOP, you get an answer right. That little rush of pleasure, that's dopamine.

Alexander McCaig (55:11):


Steve Kotler (55:13):

And one of the cool things about dopamine and norepinephrine too is besides driving focus, they also enhance signal-to-noise ratios. They basically make you detect more patterns. So if you've ever noticed, you get an answer in a crossword puzzle, you don't just get one, you get two or three in a row. It's because the dopamine you get from the first right answer, now you're noticing more connections between ideas. And so this is why creative ideas spiral, that's why one will lead to the next and lead to the next and lead to the next.

Steve Kotler (55:43):

So that's going to happen. I start reading in this novel environment, I got a little bit of dopamine in my system. So I'm a little more focused, I'm a little more able to spot patterns. Suddenly, something reminds me of a bit of other research that I've read and, boom, connection, little more dopamine.

Steve Kotler (55:59):

And so suddenly, just by taking my shit on the road and using a new environment to trigger a little bit of dopamine, I have a much easier time getting into flow and, thus, can focus for 479 pages of an exciting book you've ever read. I mean, The Da Vinci Code, forget about it. Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention Volume Two. Thank you, Michael Posner.

Alexander McCaig (56:22):

So I guess the mic drop is take your shit on the road and if you want to really put some focus into something.

Steve Kotler (56:29):

I think the mic drop is you could go to flowresearchcollective.com, go to the video page, there's tons of free videos about the flow triggers and everything else, or you can buy The Art of Impossible. But just learn how to work with flow. It's all built-in, comes hardwired into all of us. If you're interested in exploring spiritual paths, the neuroscience is roughly the same. If you're interested in peak performance, there's a lot there's a lot to offer and it's built-in.

Alexander McCaig (56:59):

That's awesome. Well, Steven, you gave me a shitload of time today. And I'm definitely more knowledgeable than I was about 45 minutes ago. So I appreciate you sharing that, and this is going to have a lot of reach [crosstalk 00:57:15] a lot of people. Yeah.

Steve Kotler (57:17):

If you happen to bump into Bigfoot, sending my love.

Alexander McCaig (57:24):

I will, I will. Well, listen, Steven, thank you so much-

Steve Kotler (57:27):

[crosstalk 00:57:27] Bigfoot is male, right? It should.

Alexander McCaig (57:29):

You just go with it. Bigfoot, who knows? You never know. But listen, thank you so much for coming on, Steven. I really do appreciate it. Hopefully, I see you on the mountain or see you on some waves up.

Speaker 3 (57:48):

Thank you for listening to TARTLE Cast with your hosts, Alexandra McCaig and Jason Rigby. Where humanity steps into the future, and the source data defines the path. What's your data work?