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Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work


Personal Thoughts

It’s the biggest revolution you’ve never heard of, and it’s hiding in plain sight. Over the past decade, Silicon Valley executives like Eric Schmidt and Elon Musk, Special Operators like the Navy SEALs and the Green Berets, and maverick scientists like Sasha Shulgin and Amy Cuddy have turned everything we thought we knew about high performance upside down. Instead of grit, better habits, or 10,000 hours, these trailblazers have found a surprising short cut.

Summary Notes

  • In more contemporary terms, the Eleusinian Mysteries were an elaborate nine-day ritual designed to strip away standard frames of reference, profoundly alter consciousness, and unlock a heightened level of insight.
  • The people really good at finding flow, mostly artists and athletes, were rarely interested in studying it. And the people interested in studying flow, primarily academics, were rarely good at finding it.
  • In their own ways, with differing languages, techniques, and applications, every one of these groups has been quietly seeking the same thing: the boost in information and inspiration that altered states provide.
  • Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.
  • Does an operator, with his back against the wall, retreat into himself, or merge with his team?
  • Second, contemplative and mystical states, where techniques like chanting, dance, meditation, sexuality, and, most recently, wearable technologies are used to shut off the self. Finally, psychedelic states, where the recent resurgence in sanctioned research is leading to some of the more intriguing pharmacological findings in several decades. Taken together, these three categories define our territory of ecstasis.
  • At the same time, brainwaves slow from agitated beta to daydreamy alpha and deeper theta. Neurochemically, stress chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol are replaced by performance-enhancing, pleasure-producing compounds such as dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin, and oxytocin.
  • They were sensory deprivation tanks, where users float in salt water in pitch blackness for hours at a time. Invented by National Institutes of Health researcher and neuroscientist John Lilly26 in the 1960s, these tanks were specifically designed to help people shut off the self (since the brain uses sensory inputs to help create our sense of self, by removing those inputs, you can dial down this sense). After Lilly began using these tanks to explore the effects of LSD and ketamine on consciousness, they fell out of favor with the establishment and devolved into a countercultural curiosity.
  • By using the tanks to eliminate all distraction, entrain specific brainwaves, and regulate heart rate frequency, the SEALs are able to cut the time it takes to learn a foreign language from six months to six weeks.
  • Then we took a conservative approach to the broader categories of media and entertainment. While one could argue, for example, that much of the live music industry reflects a desire for state-changing collective experience, we zeroed in on an ascendant and uniquely qualified genre: electronic dance music (EDM). In EDM, leading DJs earn eight figures a year for showing up in a club and pressing “play” on a laptop. So it’s not about the appeal of the band. There isn’t one. And it’s not about the lyrics, either. There aren’t any. What is it about? Thunderous bass, tightly synchronized light shows, and, typically, lots of mind-altering substances. Other than the state-shift it produces, there is little reason to seek out the experience. And those states have become increasingly popular. In 2014, EDM represented almost half of all concert sales, attracting a quarter of a million concertgoers at a time and drawing the attention of Wall Street investors and major private equity firms.
  • We were equally focused in our assessment of film and TV, narrowing our accounting to genres that are especially immersive and escapist, like IMAX/3D films and streaming pornography. In the case of IMAX, for instance, why go to see these movies at all? In a few months, we could catch the identical film in the comfort of our homes. Instead, we drive to faraway theaters and pay a premium for total immersion: surround sound that shakes our seats, forty-foot screens that swallow our vision, and the company of others who gasp, boo, and clap alongside us. We don’t pay extra to see more, we pay it to feel more—and think less.
  • And then there’s pornography. Given that seven of the top twenty most-visited sites on the Web are porn sites, and that nearly 33 percent of all Internet searches are for terms related to sex, it’s safe to say that we’re sinking a ton of time and money into digital voyeurism. Unlike analog sex, viewing porn has no evolutionary payoff. So why do so many do it so often? Because, for a brief moment (and it really is brief—an average PornHub visit clocks in at seven and half minutes), we lose ourselves in a state of physiological arousal and neurochemical saturation. Put bluntly, we watch porn to get high, not to get laid.
  • We ended our study with what many of us know best these days: social media. What makes these online distractions so sticky is how effectively they prime our brains for reward (mainly the feel-good neurochemical dopamine). Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky calls this priming the “magic of maybe.” When we check our email or Facebook or Twitter, and sometimes we find a response and sometimes we don’t, the next time a friend connects, Sapolsky discovered that we enjoy a 400 percent spike in dopamine. This can become distracting to the point of addicting. In 2016, the business consultancy Deloitte found that Americans are looking at their phones more than eight billion times a day. In a world where 67 percent of us admit to checking our status updates in the middle of the night, during sex, and before attending to basic biological needs like going to the bathroom, sleeping, or eating breakfast, we think it’s safe to assume that a good part of what we’re habitually doing online is more to forget ourselves for a moment than inform ourselves for the long haul.
  • Psychologist Robert Kegan,8 chair of adult development at Harvard, has a term for unzipping those costumes. He calls it “the subject-object shift” and argues that it’s the single most important move we can make to accelerate personal growth. For Kegan, our subjective selves are, quite simply, who we think we are. On the other hand, the “objects” are things we can look at, name, and talk about with some degree of objective distance. And when we can move from being subject to our identity to having some objective distance from it, we gain flexibility in how we respond to life and its challenges. In time, Silva noticed exactly this change. “Whenever I get out of my head, I get a little more perspective. And every time I return, my world is a little bit wider and I’m a little bit less neurotic. Over the years, it’s made a real difference.”

Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work

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