Book Review: ‘Stealing Fire’ by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal

Stealing Fire

A Previously Untapped Resource…

In 1995 – twenty-two years before Stealing Fire‘s was published – a copy of Psygnosis’ Wipeout spun up on a PlayStation One in a ground floor apartment in the city of Bristol during, what could only otherwise be considered, a gloomy autumnal Thursday afternoon.

Feverishly handling the grey, palm-sized wired control pad was a 15-year-old kid, off school during his half-term leave. This boy sat crossed-leg for hours in front of what may as well have been a religious alter, for such was the stone-like posture he had adopted while all the time while paying reverence to the events that were frantically unfolding upon that front-heavy, three foot deep, 28-inch wide CRT TV display.

He had received his mission, given to him by his brother who apart from being the eldest, was also owner of both apartment and Playstation respectively. Big brother had indeed provided the clearest of challenges to his youngest brethren: “Come first in the game, on the hardest difficulty setting and beat my best lap and race times”. 

I have it on good authority that I responded with a smirk. Apparently I gave my non-verbal agreement using what would be become the famous ‘OK bring it’ hand gesture to extended by Neo in the direction of Agent Smith. The first Matrix film wouldn’t be released for another four years though. (I have always suspected that in my youth I was a little ahead of the curve.)

Challenge accepted.

You move like they do…

One of the anti-grav racing craft from the Wipeout series on PlayStation
A Wipeout anti-grav racing craft

Maybe it was the way the game’s futuristic graphics worked hard to create an immersive world that emitted an awesome sense of speed. (For those not familiar, you pilot an anti-grav vehicle somewhere cross between a jet fighter and a hover car from Star Wars that glides a few meters off the ground).

Perhaps it was the inclusion of energetic electronic music from legendary 90’s dance gods of the time (Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Future Sound of London, Orbital, The Orb etc.).

It could well have been the environment the game provided for my young mind, where my brain was stimulated enough to be ultra-responsive while still relaxed to go into an almost trance-like state.

Whatever the magical ingredients were – I often found myself synchronised perfectly. When in that state, I felt like I was simultaneously both passenger and driver – passive and active rolled into one moment. 

Interestingly, while under this influence – the results were almost always the same; perfect laps and beating personal best race times. Later iterations of the Wipeout series would only better illustrate what I already knew. Race replay modes would visually confirm how at every part of a race from undulating corners, to hair-pin bends – perfect race lines had been taken. No scrapes to the bodywork of my shiny virtual anti-grav racer; never mind track collisions. All the while, I had successfully avoided the mayhem caused by the other dozen or so computer AI controlled rival racers of any given race. 

Now, playing Wipeout was not the only activity where I experienced a ‘perfect lap’ as it were with regards to this strange state of mind.

However, it was the first of its kind that I can recall where an activity could simultaneously run efficiently, meet (often exceed) its goals and all the while nestle under the surface of my consciousness. In fact the trance-like experience that it provided would linger for a little while even after play had come to an end. 

It’s worth saying that the game didn’t always imbue me with this focussed synchronisation. I had races where I couldn’t get my ‘flow on’. Where play seemed staggered, like watching a terrible stop-motion animation, where key steps of movement had been deleted, and characters appeared and disappeared randomly. But the racing genre of video-games and Wipeout especially invoked this state of flow the most reliably and the most often.

Other ‘events’ where I have experienced the same have included certain bike trips in nature, a few mountain hikes, the odd run (bizarrely only while running on the treadmill) and while listening to some select music tracks, usually within the electronica genre.

Whatever the task, however gruelling or challenging – these occasional moments where I have been able to go into the best version of myself on autopilot have been some of the most liberating and productive experiences. I’ve often thought how amazing it would be if I could sum up this alternative version of myself when needed. 

Apparently, I’m not the only one…

Outside Looking In:

If a fighter pilot could go outside of themselves, would they be better abled to achieve their mission goals?

Well, that’s all very interesting I hear you say, but what does any of this have to do with the book: Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal?

It turns out that there is no lack of powerful organisations, across multiple industries – who have demonstrated a fixated level of interest into this human ‘flow state’. Many scientists and researchers are choosing to use the Greek term ‘ecstasis’ meaning: ‘to stand outside of oneself’ to more accurately describe the phenomenon.  

Greek Oracle in state of ecstasis
The Oracle Pythia appears in a state of ecstasis

What started off as interest from the sporting world who were looking to augment athlete performance, has seen the rapid passing of the torch to other less obvious realms of adoption.

Global tech brands like Google, that Stealing Fire examines, are just one of many major players heavily invested in reaping the benefits that this unique state of mind lends itself to, specifically: that of problem solving, productivity and efficiency. 

And it doesn’t stop at the gates of silicone valley. Recognising the immediate benefit of sharing a team-based, instinctive hive-like mind for operations, the US military are keen to explore how their warriors could tap into the resource that’s practically hiding in plain sight.

US Navy Seals, like most special forces the world over, are generally non-hierarchal, with operators needing to work and move as one organism. Team members must keep one another protected while at the same time carrying out high-risk manoeuvres like hostage rescue or the destruction of heavily defended enemy installations/assets.

The emphasis here is the ability for team members to be able to co-ordinate fully with one another. As Stealing Fire outlines, the value of ecstasis is in juxtaposition with the lack of a clear roadmap to it:

Sure, some candidates fail to execute tactically – they shoot a cardboard hostage in the Kill House or drop a weapon out of a helicopter – but far more fail to synch up collectively…

Navigating ecstasis isn’t in a field manual. It’s a blank spot on their maps, beyond the pen of most cartographers, beyond the ken of rational folk.

Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal.

The book is a fascinating read that charts how modern developments across four key sciences (Psychology, Neurobiology, Pharmacology and Technology) have each contributed to the uncovering, stimulation, and subsequent desire to further create/control ‘ecstasis’. 

On a side-note if you are interested in how the German military used pharmacology during the WW2, specifically Crystal Meth you should check out my book review of Blitzed: Drugs Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler.

From a writer’s and researcher’s perspective this book really succeeds on several fronts: It’s clear from the results that this co-authored investigation has been exceptionally well curated with a detailed focus among a wide section of interested and involved parties.

All of which is perhaps little wonder given Steven Kotler’s prowess as an insightful technology writer and journalist who has a deep personal passion for the subject matter, no less so as the founder of the Flow Genome Project.

Similarly, his co-author Jamie Wheal whose speciality lies in neuroscience and flow state application is a lauded public speaker and expert on peak-performance and leadership. The partnership has certainly been put to good effect. 

Together the two make exceptional ingress into what at first appears a straightforward subject but which becomes more complex, due in part to the numerous ways those interested are approaching the same problem.

For us readers, the reward is high-quality reference material that is partially disguised as prose – with fascinating mini stories of how different minds and disciplines discovered this human super-power and how they are going about unlocking its potential.

The way the chapter are arranged – which pun intended ‘flow’ into one another while still holding their sense of identity to stand apart from one another – affords us the freedom to approach the content in any way we wish without running the risk of getting lost.

Even the Greek mythologically borrowed title, mankind getting something that they had no right to using that promethean imagery of ‘stealing fire’ from the gods sets a wonderful tone and one which the authors use and return to; to good effect.

Final Thoughts…

Prometheus carrying fire

Stealing Fire allows us to question just how far down the rabbit hole we should allow ourselves to go in order to unlock ‘ecstasis’. And equally important: supposing we do just that, what might that world look like?

I’m skeptical that a world where ecstasis exists on tap would be one devoid of suffering and I’m not sure I would entirely opt in for that if it were possible. Certainly, you might say that the absence of suffering is joy – but remove the former altogether – can you ever really experience the latter?

Only time will tell, if big pharma get to the chequered flag first – it could be that we see a means to unlock this extra potential within us reduced to something as simple as taking a pill, though I’d expect far less dramatic than the Film Limitless’ portrayal – and hopefully with far fewer fatal side-effects 😉

In any case Stealing Fire is absolutely worth your time and money and is deserving of a spot on your nightstand. Mercifully it is ‘all killer, no filler’ as they say (sometimes right?). In fact my experience of Stealing Fire (no spoilers) were that the chapters that seemed narrower in scope or which skated on the surface of smaller subjects were actually the ones that held the more shocking potential uses for ecstasis. Mind blown indeed.

Wholeheartedly recommended! *****

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