An Altered State: Part One

Originally featured in Listen, Share, and Be Kind publication.

This article will be the first in a three part series discussing the naturally induced, endogenous altered states of consciousness. We will discuss the neurobiology, benefits and methods for inducing such mental states.

We all have experienced these altered states. At times they can be as subtle as losing sense of time and the feeling of euphoria during a physical activity or meditation or as profound as a state of hyper reality that can come during life threatening and near death experiences. They are ingrained in our chemistry and serve a very important role in our personal and collective growth and enhance our perceived reality.

The pursuit of altered states is a multibillion-dollar industry, including the use of illegal controlled substances and thrill seeking extreme adventure sports. In fact, there is no industry on earth that can compare when it comes to demand. Altered conscious states are not unique to our species, almost all higher mammalian species seek changes in conscious perception. Dolphins will ingest blowfish toxin, lemurs will irritate toxic millipedes and ingest their secretions, and elephants will drink fermented bog water. The latest understanding suggests that it is more the norm than not. This leaves us with the question why. Why would an animal, which is in a survival situation every day of their lives, want to expose themselves to something potentially toxic, and have their guard dangerously compromised, to have these experiences? Well, the latest neurological research has presented a possible answer.

An open source, publicly funded research organization calling themselves the Flow Genome Project has spearheaded the scientific pursuit to shine some light on the brain physiology of endogenous altered states of consciousness. They have worked with Google, the Navy SEALs, X Games athletes, and other leading innovators to help unlock this elusive brain phenomenon.

With the recent advancements in brain imaging, the Flow Genome Project has discovered some commonalities that happen in the brain during these altered states. They refer to these states as “flow states.” We call them “being in the zone” or a “Zen moment,” when we are in complete focus in the current moment and the noisy part of our mind, full of self doubt, is completely quiet. Navy SEALs refer to it as “the shift:” the moment when they no longer see themselves as single individuals but are absorbed into a selfless hive-unit that works collectively, without any type of noticeable communication. This is the feeling of complete “ecstasis,” meaning the feeling of ecstasy, the lack of self, and the feeling and knowing that everything is connection.

When a person experiences a flow state, the researchers have identified that the pre-frontal cortex, which is the location for logic, emotions, sense of self, the ego, and personality, becomes extremely inactive. They have also witnessed that formally inert areas of the brain will light up, leading to the theory that by turning off our logic centers these states lead to new synaptic linkages due to the adaptive nature of the brain. So, as seen in adventure sports in which you are putting the body at risk in a very rapid and dynamic problem solving situation, the pre-frontal cortex moves way too slow to be of use and the brain adapts to a faster, more reflex oriented function to cope with the new situation. These newly created neuro synapses do not just go away, but remain available and active. Activating new centers in the brain has profound benefits when it comes to problem solving and decreasing the time it takes to learn new tasks. When interviewed, top CEOs of companies such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft report that creativity is in the top three, if not the number one characteristic, that has led them to excel light years past their peers. Typically in our baseline frontal lobe logic center, we can only see a few solutions to a particular problem. When we activate larger portions of the brain and create a more extensive neuro net, not only are we able to think outside the box, but quickly realize that there is no box. The Flow Genome Project’s data shows that by consistently inducing flow states in the brain, learning potential and creativity can be increased by eighty percent.
Next time we will dive a little deeper into the specifics of the application and induction of flow states. If you would like a little head start, check and bestselling books The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler and Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

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