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

Ended: March 13, 2017

As we rounded one corner in the facility, we spotted four egg-shaped pods in a small alcove. 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. But here they were again, in the red-hot center of the military-industrial complex, being used to train supersoldiers. And the SEALs have been iterating on Lilly’s original technology. Working with researchers at Advanced Brain Monitoring, in Carlsbad, California, they’ve hotwired neural and cardiac feedback loops, digital displays, and high-fidelity sound into the experience. They’re deploying these upgrades for a practical purpose: accelerated learning. 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.
we pedaled a couple of the ubiquitous and colorful Google bikes to the other side of campus to attend the opening of their new multimillion-dollar mindfulness center. Outfitted in soothing lime green with bamboo accents, the center features a vitality bar offering fresh-squeezed juices around the clock and a suite of meditation rooms decked out with sensor suits and neurofeedback devices similar to what we saw in the Navy’s Mind Gym. Google had realized that when it comes to the highly competitive tech marketplace, helping engineers get into the zone and stay there longer was an essential investment.
“Tell me what you value and I might believe you,” management guru Peter Drucker once said, “but show me your calendar and your bank statement, and I’ll show you what you really value.”
once we get past the narrative wrapping paper—what researchers call the “phenomenological reporting”—we find four signature characteristics underneath: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short.
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.
Then, in 2009, psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that even four days of meditation produced significant improvement in attention, memory, vigilance, creativity, and cognitive flexibility. “Simply stated,” lead researcher Fadel Zeidan explained41 to Science Daily, “the profound improvements we found after just four days of meditation training are really surprising. . . . [They’re] comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training.” Rather than pulling a caffeinated all-nighter to force a eureka insight, or devoting decades to becoming a monk, we now know that even a few days’ training in mindfulness can up the odds of a breakthrough considerably.
With these developments, psychedelics have begun moving from recreational diversion to performance-enhancing supplement. “A shift began about four or five years ago,” author and venture capitalist Tim Ferriss45 told us. “Once Steve Jobs and other successful people began recommending the use of psychedelics for enhancing creativity and problem solving, the public became a little more open to the possibility.” And, as Ferriss explained on CNN,46 it wasn’t just the cofounder of Apple who made the leap. “The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis. These are people who are trying to be very disruptive. They look at problems in the world and they try to ask entirely new questions.”
In 2012, a study conducted by the American Pediatric Association found that one out of five Ivy League college students was taking “smart drugs” to help improve academic performance6. By 2015, that number had jumped to one in three7 (in all college students). Almost immediately, there was a backlash. You might think the backlash was about safety. After all, the term “smart drug” applies to the unsupervised and often dangerous off-label use of ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. But public health wasn’t the issue.
In 1962, attempting to settle this skin-bag debate, Walter Pahnke conducted one of the more famous psychedelic experiments12 in history. A graduate student in theology at Harvard Divinity School, Pahnke gathered a group of twenty seminary students at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel on Good Friday. To see if mind-altering drugs could produce “authentic” mystical experiences, he gave half the group psilocybin, the other half the active placebo niacin (which produces similar physiological changes without the cognitive effects), then everyone went into chapel to attend the Good Friday service. Afterward, subjects rated the service for a variety of mystical qualities: sacredness, ineffability, distortion of time and space, and a sense of oneness with the divine. “[Psilocybin] subjects ranked their experiences13 much higher in mystical qualities than members of the control group did,” explains John Horgan in his book Rational Mysticism. “Six months later, the psilocybin group reported persistent beneficial effects on their attitude and behavior; the experience had deepened their religious faith. . . . The experiment was widely hailed as proof that psychedelic drugs can generate life-enhancing mystical experiences.” So life-enhancing, in fact, that nine out of the ten seminary students who received psilocybin ended up becoming ministers, while none of the placebo group stayed on the path to ordination.
Other researchers are pushing neurotech even further. Palo Alto Neuroscience,17 a Silicon Valley start-up, has developed a system that can tag the biomarkers of a nonordinary state—that is, brainwaves, heart rate variability, and galvanic skin response—and then use neurofeedback to guide you back there later. Trained meditators like Tibetan monks can put themselves into a transcendental state, and the machine will record their profile. Soon, as the technology matures, a novice will be able to put on the device and use these biomarkers to steer toward the same experience.
A quick scan of Nutt’s evidence-based rankings confirm what many would suspect. On the list of toxic substances, drugs like heroin, crack, and methamphetamine rank high. No question about it, they’re really bad for you and really bad for those around you. But, while heroin is so destructive it claims the number-two slot, it still couldn’t beat out the number-one scourge: alcohol. And tobacco—another legal staple of modern life—clocked in at number six, two ahead of marijuana, and just behind cocaine and methamphetamine. And what about MDMA, that supposed public enemy number one? It barely made the list, coming in at number 17, just ahead of LSD and magic mushrooms, which were 18 and 20 respectively. So, while those substances are arguably our most “feared” drugs, when Nutt examined the facts, they weren’t even close to the most “harmful.”
An optimally tuned market economy needs alert employees who work as hard as possible for as long as possible. So dedicated time-outs for stimulant consumption (that is, the coffee break and, these days, the e-cigarette break) are institutionally sanctioned and socially reinforced. Which is where the cocktails come in. Without the soothing effects of alcohol, the cigarettes-and-coffee workforce would become jittery wrecks within a fortnight. Add in some booze from time to time and you’ve got a finely tuned cycle of stimulation-focus-decompression that dovetails with broader economic goals. “In the competitive environment of the firm,” explains Intel researcher and author Melissa Gregg in the Atlantic,25 “it is little wonder that workers resort to performance-enhancing drugs. . . . When so many jobs require social networking to maintain employability, these mood enhancers are a natural complement to the work day after 5 p.m.
In an always-on world, professional credibility involves a judicious mix of just the right amount of uppers and downers to remain charming.”
Which brings us to the final reason the Stealing Fire revolution has remained hidden from view: nearly every time we light out into this terrain, somebody gets lost. By definition, ecstasis makes for tricky navigation. The term means out of our heads and “out” isn’t always pleasant. These states can be destabilizing. It’s why psychologists use terms like “ego death” to describe the experiences. “[It’s] a sense of total annihilation,”29 writes psychiatrist Stanislav Grof in his book The Adventure of Self-Discovery. “This experience of ego-death seems to entail an instant merciless destruction of all previous reference points in the life of an individual.” In short, Alice didn’t wander into Wonderland—she fell down the rabbit hole.
During ecstasis, our sense of being an individual “I” gets replaced by the feeling of being a collective “we.” And this doesn’t just happen in small groups like the SEALs on night ops or Googlers at a desert festival. It’s also the feeling that arises at large political rallies, rock concerts, and sporting events. It’s one of the reasons people go on spiritual pilgrimages, and why evangelical megachurches are booming (with more than six million attendees every Sunday).30 Bring a large group of people together, deploy a suite of mind-melding technologies, and suddenly everyone’s consciousness is doing the wave.
“Communitas” is the term University of Chicago anthropologist Victor Turner31 used to describe this ecstatic sense of unity. This feeling tightens social bonds and ignites enduring passion—the kind that lets us come together to plan, organize, and tackle great challenges. But it’s a double-edged sword. When we lose ourselves and merge with the group, we are in danger of losing too much of ourselves. Our cherished rational individualism risks being overrun by the power of irrational collectivism. This is how the ideals of the French Revolution veered into the bloody mob rule of the Reign of Terror. It’s why, Turner argued, communitas is too potent to unleash without proper checks and balances: “Exaggerations of communitas,32 in certain religious or political movements of the leveling type, may be speedily followed by despotism.”
As Nietzsche said: “madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, political parties, nations and eras, it’s the rule.”
They took the best that organized religion had to offer, stripped out anything that was doctrinal or impractical, and placed a heavy emphasis on ecstatic experimentation. It was a “pragmatic culture of sensation and know-how,” notes author and modern religious historian Erik Davis11 in AfterBurn, “an essentially empirical approach to matters of the spirit that made tools more important than beliefs. Consciousness-altering techniques like meditation, biofeedback, yoga, ritual, isolation tanks, tantric sex, breathwork, martial arts, group dynamics and drugs were privileged over the claustrophobic structures of authority and belief that were seen to define conventional religion.”
In 2011, Griffiths gave three grams of psilocybin to a group of terminal cancer patients, in an attempt to provide them with relief from fear-of-death anxiety (which is understandably hard to alleviate). Afterward, he administered a battery of psychological tests, including a standard fear-of-dying metric, the Death Transcendence Scale, at one- and fourteen-month intervals. Just as with Britton’s NDE survivors, Griffiths found significant, sustained change: a marked decrease in their fear of death, and a significant uptick in their attitudes, moods, and behavior. Ninety-four percent of his subjects said taking psilocybin was one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives. Four out of ten said it was the most meaningful.
As Buddhist scholar Alan Watts put it, ‘Western scientists have an underlying assumption that normal is absolutely as good as it gets and that the exceptional is only for saints, that it is something that cannot be cultivated.’”
But many of the same interventions that can help us get our heads above water can just as effectively be devoted to raising our heads above the clouds. If we’re interested in untapped levels of performance improvement and lasting emotional change, peak states of consciousness may provide the quickest path between two points: a shortcut from A to E(cstasis).
Kegan noticed that some people moved beyond generally well-adjusted adulthood, or what he called “Self-Authoring,” into a different stage entirely: “Self-Transforming.” Defined by heightened empathy, an expanded capacity to hold differing and even conflicting perspectives, and a general flexibility in how you think of yourself, self-transforming is the developmental stage we tend to associate with wisdom (and Roger Martin’s Opposable Mind). But not everyone gets to be wise. While it usually takes three to five years for adults to move through a given stage of development, Kegan found that the further you go up that pyramid, the fewer people make it to the next stage. The move from self-authoring to self-transforming for example? Fewer than 5 percent of us ever make that jump. But in all of this developmental research, buried in the footnotes33 about those self-transcending 5 percenters, lay a curious fact. A disproportionate number of them had dabbled in ecstasis: often beginning with psychedelics and, after that, making meditation, martial arts, and other state-shifting practices a central part of their lives. Many of them described their frequent access to non-ordinary states as the “turbo-button” for their development.
In study after study, when seriously depressed patients received Botox injections3 in their frown lines, they got significant and sometimes instantaneous relief from depression. But when Botoxed subjects were asked to empathize4 with other people, to feel their joy or share their sorrow, they simply couldn’t.
Five thousand years ago, early yoga practitioners were tinkering with embodied cognition to prompt higher states of awareness. If simply standing like Wonder Woman for a few minutes is enough to produce meaningful changes in our hormonal profile, imagine what practicing a full sequence of yoga postures every morning would do. “There’s all this evidence that [movement sequences] have an impact on stress,”11 Peter Strick, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Brain Institute, writes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel.”
Once again, by examining the neurophysiological profile of these students, Berka was able to identify “emergent leaders”—those individuals who would have an outsize positive impact on the team and its decision making—in as little as thirty minutes. While there was no correlation between emergent leadership and how much students talked or even what they said, there was a direct relationship between their neurophysiological responses and those of their classmates. Transformational leaders not only regulated their own nervous systems better than most; they also regulated other people’s.
What Newberg discovered is that extreme concentration can cause the right parietal lobe to shut down. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” he explains. “During ecstatic prayer or meditation, energy normally used for drawing the boundary of self gets reallocated for attention. When this happens, we can no longer distinguish self from other. At that moment, as far as the brain can tell, you are one with everything.” In finding biology beneath spirituality, Newberg helped bridge the gap between science and religion. For the first time, mystical experiences were understood not as a symptom of mental illness or divine intervention, but rather as the by-product of normal brain function.
Certainly, atheists have used the fact that there’s neuronal function beneath mystical experience to claim that spirituality is merely a trick of the brain. But neurotheology takes a faith-neutral position. All this work proves is that these experiences are biologically mediated. If you’re a believer, it offers a deeper understanding of divine methods. If you’re a nonbeliever, it provides another consciousness-altering tool upon which to draw. Either way, these advances do more than just provide an academic explanation for the ecstatic—they provide a user manual on how to get there.
With the recent advancements in neurobiology, we now have options: Embodied cognition teaches us that how we move our bodies affects our brains and minds. AI therapy proves that our subconscious expressions can reflect our inner state more accurately than we do. Precognition demonstrates that we can anticipate how we’re going to feel and think in the future by tracking (and even altering) our biometrics in the present. Neurotheology integrates all of these findings and lets us reverse-engineer a whole host of nonordinary states, just by working backward from our neurophysiology.
Rather than treating our psychology like the unquestioned operating system (or OS) of our entire lives, we can repurpose it to function more like a user interface (or UI)—that easy-to-use dashboard that sits atop all the other, more complex programs. By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.
One of the most important networks to disintegrate is the default mode network. Responsible for mind-wandering and daydreaming, this network is active when we’re awake but not focused on a task. It’s the source of a lot of our mind chatter, and with it, a lot of our unhappiness. But, like many of the brain’s systems, the default mode network is fragile. A little trouble in a couple of nodes is all it takes to knock it offline. “Early psychologists used terms like ‘ego disintegration’ to describe the effects of an altered state,” says Carhart-Harris. “They were more correct than they knew. The ego is really just a network, and things like psychedelics, flow, and meditation compromise those connections. They literally dis-integrate the network.”
The other important discovery made by Carhart-Harris and his team involved the birth of new networks. The scans revealed that psychedelics created highly synchronized connections between far-flung areas of the brain, the kinds of linkages we don’t normally make. So when researchers like James Fadiman discovered that psychedelics could enhance creative problem solving—these far-flung connections were the reason why. Or, as Carhart-Harris explains, “What we’ve done in this research is begin to identify the biological basis of the reported mind expansion associated with psychedelic drugs.” 
Carhart-Harris set out to take real-time pictures of the unconscious and when he did, he saw the unconscious actively hunting for new ideas. It’s a discovery that helps to legitimize these substances as performance-enhancing tools for solving wicked problems.
Today, iFly6 is in fourteen countries with over fifty-four tunnels and revenue nudging ten figures. Thousands and thousands of people who would never have considered jumping out of a perfectly good airplane or leaping off a cliff in a wingsuit have realized that dream, and done so safely. By taking out the risk, iFly has taken a sport once reserved for daredevils and made it accessible to everyone—ages three and up.
In a recent study, Apple and the speaker manufacturer Sonos16 took a deeper look at music’s power to connect. To track how much music people listened to at home (on average, four and a half hours a day) and what happened while they listened, they rigged thirty homes with Sonos speakers, Apple watches, Nest cams and iBeacons. When tunes were playing, the distance between housemates decreased by 12 percent, while chances of cooking together increased by 33 percent, laughing together by 15 percent, inviting other people over by 85 percent, saying “I love you” by 18 percent, and, most tellingly, having sex by 37 percent.
His most recent project, appropriately named MicroDoseVR, is an immersive VR game offering an atom’s-eye tour through many of Shulgin’s alphabetamine compounds. Zooming through that digital world, surrounded by deep trance music and the actual “molecules of desire,” the simulation is more than enough to knock you out of regular awareness. “That’s probably the real value of these experiences,” explains Jones. “They take us out of our conditioned world. They open a realm of everything else we might never have experienced and only dreamed of. You think you know where the boundaries are, but you see this stuff and think, if this thing I’m looking at is possible, what else might be possible?”
In the fall of 2015, we had the opportunity to bring a prototype of the Dojo to Google’s26 Silicon Valley headquarters and engage in a joint-learning project. For six weeks, a handpicked team of engineers, developers, and managers committed to a flow training program, and then capped that off with two weeks in a beta version of the training center. The premise was simple: if you train your body and brain, and manage your energy and attention, you’ll be able to get into flow more frequently and perform better at work and at home. Each day, participants engaged in a range of activities, from sleep tracking, to diet and hydration, to functional movement (designed to undo the imbalances of deskbound lives), to brain entraining audio and respiration exercises. With just those basic practices, subjects reported a 35 to 80 percent increase in incidents of flow during their workdays. The bigger surprise for the engineers was that they also experienced more flow at home, where family dynamics were frequently less rational and predictable than the algorithms they played with at work.
Brin’s instinct to keep training these skills is supported by the data. Embodied cognition research shows that we become more flexible and resilient when we train our bodies and brains together, and in increasingly dynamic situations. It’s why the SEALs say “you don’t ever rise to the occasion, you sink to your level of training” and then proceed to overtrain for every scenario possible. It’s a more advanced corollary to Amy Cuddy’s power-posing advice: Once you get the basics down, start upping the ante. Try remaining centered under more challenging conditions (like managing heart and brain activity while swinging upside down). If we want to train for stability in all conditions, the science suggests, it’s essential to practice with instability first.
While the field of immersive experience design and training is in its infancy, early results, like this project at Google, suggest that by combining all of the advancements in technology (movement, sound, light, and sensors) with an embodied hands-on training program, you can trigger a range of nonordinary states with far more precision and with much less risk. In the past, to get a glimpse of “no-self,” it might have taken a high-risk wingsuit flight, a decade of monastic isolation, or a heroic (and possibly reckless) dosage of an unpredictable substance. Today, we can use innovations like the Flow Dojo to skillfully tweak and tune the knobs and levers of our bodies and brains and get similar breakthroughs with a fraction of the breakdowns.
When Tim Ferriss mentioned that nearly all of the billionaires he knows in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems, Burning Man is one of their preferred locations to step out and go big. “If you haven’t been [to Burning Man], you just don’t get Silicon Valley,”3 serial entrepreneur and longtime attendee Elon Musk noted in Re/Code. “You could take the craziest L.A. party and multiply it by a thousand, and it doesn’t even get fucking close.”
In 2007, Elon Musk did just that, debuting an early prototype10 of his Tesla electric roadster at the event. He also came up with the ideas11 for both his renewable energy company SolarCity and his superfast transit system Hyperloop while on the playa. And true to the Burning Man principle of gifting, he gave both away. SolarCity went to his cousins; Hyperloop, published online in a white paper, was an offering to the world at large (that has since inspired two different companies).
MaiTai hosts multiday gatherings that blend kiteboarding sessions, off-the-record conversations with founders, start-up pitch marathons, and a transformational festival atmosphere. “We curate our experiences very strategically,”32 explains Susi Mai. “We find the right mix of really interesting people and subject them to powerful state-changing experiences that accelerate social bonding. It’s the same formula used at Burning Man and at Summit.”
most surprisingly—shopping and spirituality seem to rely on similar neuronal circuitry. When deeply religious subjects view sacred iconography or reflect on their notion of God, brain scans reveal hyperactivity in the caudate nucleus, a part of the pleasure system that correlates with feelings of joy, love, and serenity. But Lindstrom and Calvert found that this same brain region lights up when subjects view images associated with strong brands like Ferrari or Apple. “Bottom line,” Calvert reported, “there was no discernible way to tell the difference between the ways subjects’ brains reacted to powerful brands35 and the way they reacted to religious icons and figures. . . . Clearly, our emotional engagement with powerful brands. . . . shares strong parallels with our feelings about religion.”
Soon VR systems are going to track everything from eye gaze to vocal tone to—as DARPA-style biometrics get further integrated—neurochemistry, hormones, brainwaves, and cardiac coherence. “This comprehensive tracking of your behavior inside these worlds,”45 continues Kelly, “could be used to sell you things, to redirect your attention, to compile a history of your interests, to persuade you subliminally, to quantify your actions for self-improvement . . . and so on. If a smartphone is a surveillance device we voluntarily carry in our pocket, then VR will be a total surveillance state we voluntarily enter.”
It’s why Burning Man advises people to not make any life-changing decisions for at least a month following the event,3 and why online psychedelic message boards like Erowid are filled with advice like “Don’t believe everything you think.” In nonordinary states, dopamine often skyrockets, while activity in the prefrontal cortex plummets. Suddenly we’re finding connections between ideas that we’ve never even thought of before. Some of those connections are legitimate insights; others are flights of fancy. In 2009, Swiss neurologist Peter Brugger discovered that people4 with more dopamine in their systems are more likely to believe in secret conspiracies and alien abductions. They’re suffering from apophenia, “the tendency to be overwhelmed by meaningful coincidence,” and detecting patterns where others see none.
“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year,”11 Bill Gates once said, “and underestimate what they can do in ten.”
Hedonic calendaring provides a way to hack the ecstatic path without coming undone. It gives us a method to integrate hard-and-fast approaches like extreme skiing and psychedelics with slow and steady paths like meditation and yoga. It’s one way to turn ecstasis into a sustainable long-term practice. And for anyone interested, there’s a free downloadable Hedonic Calendaring PDF at
Just as old sailing wisdom favored “high and slow”—meaning that you pointed your boat as close to the eventual upwind destination as possible—we are steeped in a “high and slow” culture of relentless goal setting and linear forward progress. It’s why, in the United States, more than half of paid vacation days go unclaimed and we perversely brag about clocking 60–80-hour workweeks (even though our effectiveness drops after 50 hours). We valorize suffering and sacrifice, even when the victories they provide are hollow.
The same is true for ecstasis. Research shows that these experiences lift us above normal awareness, and propel us further faster. Much of our conventional schooling, personal development, and professional training still miscalculate this fact. It’s hard to fathom how much faster we can go, how much more ground we can cover, if we can only appreciate what high performance now looks like.