This essay was originally written for, but was not included in, the forthcoming book, Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, to be published by Harper Collins in February 2107.
About the book:
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. They’re harnessing rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.
New York Times bestselling author Steven Kotler and high performance expert Jamie Wheal spent four years investigating the leading edges of this revolution—from the home of SEAL Team Six to the Googleplex, the Burning Man festival, Richard Branson’s Necker Island, Red Bull’s training center, Nike’s innovation team, and the United Nations’ Headquarters. And what they learned was stunning: 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.
One of the first questions any reasonable listener asks when presented with the fact that there’s a $4 trillion dollar underground economy dedicated to Altered States, is how on earth could we have missed something that big? Why isn’t it front page news?
That’s because the only time altered states are typically news that we’d notice or remember comes in the form of cautionary tales—morality plays about hubris, pride, excess or lust. Sex scandals and Cults. Overdoses. Ecstasy gone wrong.
And that’s because any society has preferred states of consciousness it favors, and those it ignores or persecutes. When new information or experiences conflict with the state sanctioned point of view, the results can be predictable. In part, that’s why we’ve missed the $4 trillion Altered State Economy—we’re literally conditioned not to see it for what it is.
Case in point: the curious case of Dr. David Nutt, aka—“the scientist who got sacked.”
In 2009 Nutt, the chair of the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, published a short 2000 word editorial in the Journal of Psychopharmacology on the dangers of equasy. In it, Nutt contended, that equasy. short for “equine addiction syndrome” –commonly known as horseback riding–caused serious accident or death in every 1 in 350 cases, and therefore should be banned as a public harm reduction measure. His tongue-in-cheek commentary on prohibition might have languished in academia, were it not for the sensational headline that journalists culled from it. “British policy doctor claims Ecstasy (the drug MDMA) is safer than riding a horse.”
Within days of that soundbite going viral, the British House of Commons was discussing Nutt’s paper. Within a week, he’d been called up by the Home Secretary (somewhere between the Attorney General and the head of Homeland Security in the U.S.) and publicly chastised for his irresponsible and incendiary remarks.
To be fair to Nutt, he was no talk-radio shock jock, lobbing soundbites just for fun and ratings. He knew quite a bit about both sides of the comparison he was making.
A few years earlier in his role as a practicing psychopharmacologist, he had been working with a middle-aged woman who’d experienced a head injury that had left her with a marked personality change (why paramedics call brain-injured patients “ D.I.C. heads”—disoriented, irritable and combative). Her condition was debilitating enough that her children were taken into protective services, she lost her job and was banned from many local establishments. “The brain damage,” Nutt assessed, “had seriously and permanently affected her life and had imposed some very high costs to society.”
That’s what got Nutt thinking about his other job assessing the dangers of drugs. So he did some quick estimates comparing horseback injuries to that of the current epidemic of MDMA use among Britain’s youth. Even allowing for all the diffused costs of drug use, such as addiction, violent behavior, traffic accidents, etc. Nutt’s risk assessments were several orders of magnitude apart. For every 60 million tablets of MDMA consumed, Nutt noted 10,000 adverse events—that’s one in 10,000 (compared to one in 350 for riding). So for him, what he was saying wasn’t incendiary, it was simply the facts.
In his role of chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs he was tasked to assess 20 of the most common substances of abuse against 9 different sorts of harm, including biological, mental and social factors. Along with colleagues Leslie King and Lawrence Phillips and on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs Nutt, published their findings “Drug Harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis” in The Lancet, one of the top medical journals in the world.
A quick scan of that evidence-based ranking confirmed what many of us would already suspect—heroin, crack, methamphetamines and cocaine—really bad for you, really bad for those around you. But what stood out were the highs and lows.
While heroin was so destructive it claimed the number two slot, it couldn’t beat out the number one scourge—alcohol. And tobacco, that other staple of modern life, clocked in at number six, just behind cocaine and meth, while the demon weed marijuana trailed at number eight on the rankings.
And what about the truly scary ones—the “kid who thought he could fly and leapt out a window” stuff of urban legends and PTA meetings? Ecstasy (MDMA), LSD, and “magic” mushrooms barely made the list, rating 17th, 18th and last place, respectively.
The press, with its ear for nuance and subtlety, crunched the research down to this headline: “government minister claims alcohol more harmful than cannabis!”
The Home Secretary then summarily dismissed Nutt from his post, claiming in The Guardian that Nutt “was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.” That was, of course, exactly what he’d been appointed to do.
So even though what Nutt was presenting was rooted in the research, it went against established norms and policies, and threatened the state-approved channels of awareness and the substances that supported them. He had questioned the state sanctioned states of consciousness, and had to pay with his professional reputation. It’s also why, to this day, if you asked school children or concerned parents about the relative perils of different substances, their lists would look like the exact reverse of Nutt’s.
But this isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon, or really about our current preference for substances like alcohol and tobacco over less familiar, but often safer and more beneficial alternates. We’ve been “picking our poisons” to seek novelty and reinforce our beliefs since Neolithic tribes first tossed hemp and poppy seeds onto the fire, and Mesopotamian goatherders caught a buzz from some rotting grapes.
When the Spanish came to Mexico in the sixteenth century for example, they promptly dispatched crews of Franciscan monks to meet with the indigenous tribes and convert them to Christianity. As the monks established a little rapport and trust, the local shamans told them about their ritual use of the psychedelic mushrooms that are indigenous to the region. This “flesh of the gods” as the shamans described the fungi, gave them access to divine realms and served as a central ceremony of renewal and healing.
“Ah,” the Franciscans likely replied, “you are sadly mistaken. That these dung-covered mushrooms take your priests to some otherworld may be true—but it is not heaven. Only our one and true God dwells there. You have been communing with demons, and have been terribly misled. The only way to God is via this wine and wafer combo—want to try?”
And the Franciscans promptly outlawed a millennia old tradition as a demon cult and introduced the sacrament of alcohol in its place—by way of Holy Communion. As mission and then reservation life reordered the Indian world, this newly sanctioned substance flooded trading posts and treaty agreements, and many of those tribes succumbed to the ravages of alcoholism.
Not only did Indian minds and spirits differ from those of the European colonizers—their bodies did too. Native Americans lacked an enzyme crucial to the metabolism of ethanol, leaving them far more susceptible to both the intoxicating and addicting properties of the drug. Denied traditional access to their spirit realms via mushrooms, they struggled to find them again through the Europeans’ new spirits.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that this trend reversed. The crisis of reservation life, coupled with the expanding railroad networks allowed a new Indian revival to spread in the form of the Peyote Cult (subsequently rebranded into the more respectable sounding Native American Church). The Comanche chief Quanah Parker, himself the son of a captured Texas ranch girl and a famous warrior, emerged as a curious hybrid between the Apache freedom fighter Geronimo and Bill W, the yet to come founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Parker traveled throughout North America spreading the potent ceremony of Peyote (a small cactus native to Texas and northern Mexico that contains the psychoactive mescaline). Robbed of direct access to the sacred during their years of colonization, Indians often experienced deep catharsis with the help of the cactus. As Parker clarified to Congress when called to testify on the nature of the Peyote Cult, “when the white man goes to his church, he talks about God. When we go into ours, we talk to God.”
But the interesting thing about history as it actually happens, is that it’s rarely as neat and tidy as moralists would like. Even the familiar narrative, that Europeans have been dominators, forcing their substances onto other cultures, and repressing indigenous traditions and insights, isn’t completely cut and dried. While there were no shortages of that dynamic on display during the age of colonization, the dynamic of authorities resisting the destabilizing effects of unsanctioned states of consciousness tends to show up regardless of who’s in charge.
As the Native American Church spread through the American Southwest, it ran into some of its most violent opposition not from the Anglo settlers who feared a revival of the Indian Wars, but from tribal priests themselves. Before Quanah Parker fueled the spread of the peyote ceremony, the Mescalero Apache shamans had enjoyed an uncontested hammer-lock on access to the sacred. Often singled out in childhood and put through rigorous training and initiations, these medicine men (and in some instances, women) commanded elite status and prestige as mediators of the spirit realms.
“But, with the appearance of peyote,” Oxford anthropologist Richard Rudgley notes, “community members could, without having the training the shamans had, go into altered states of consciousness with the hallucinogenic properties of the cactus, in the process destabilizing the traditional pattern where such access was restricted to the shamans.”
Rather than embracing this new technique of ecstasy that held real promise to heal and renew their people, the Mescalero shamans boycotted. While the Native American Church spread and thrived around them, the Mescalero vilified it, much in the same way as the Franciscans had marginalized traditional mushroom use centuries before. “Peyote use became a great source of conflict,” Rudgley concludes, “and was not seen as a sacred plant but as a social evil.”
And the arguments that the Mescalero shamans used against peyote would’ve been right at home with the Home Secretary’s dismissal of David Nutt’s findings. It was immoral, dangerous, subversive, and never mind the evidence.
So as we compare past and present to look for patterns, and understand how the current revolution in altered states might play out, it’s critical to remember the deeper structural dynamics in play. And that ability to control not just the narrative, but also the techniques of ecstasy we can access, has profound implications for building any social movement. The victors, as is well known, almost always write the history. But they also write the ‘scrips. And that second point matters more today than it ever has.