How Flow Science is Making Us Rethink Everything We Know About Aging - An Interview With Steven Kotler

How Flow Science is Making Us Rethink Everything We Know About Aging - An Interview With Steven Kotler

What follows is a transcript for the podcast Aging - Steven Kotler - Flow Science.

Topics within the interview include:

  • Aging is a mental event as much as a physical process
  • Mindset shifts can add years to our life (seven, in fact!)
  • Strength and stamina are now seen as use-it-or-lose-it skills.
  • How training our bodies and brains for our later years can help us retain and improve our prowess far longer than suspected
  • How the brain changes in the second half of our lives
  • Why our later years have the potential to be deeply meaningful and fulfilling

Dr. Dan Stickler: All right. Welcome to this edition of Collective Insights Podcast. I'm Dr. Dan Stickler, I'll be your host for this episode. And I have the honor of having Steven Kotler on again. He's a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and executive director of the Flow Research Collective. He's one of the world's leading experts on high performance, and I can tell you, I've referenced his stuff many a times in optimizing the high performers that come into my medical practice. Steven, welcome back to the show.

Steven Kotler: Great to be with you Daniel.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, exciting news is you have a new book out and it's got an interesting title and the title actually threw me off because I did not expect to find what I found in it. But the title is Gnar Country, G-N-A-R Country. Can you kind of give us some idea-

Steven Kotler: Start there? Give you some context?

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. Yeah, please.

The Story Behind Steven Kotler’s Book, Gnar Country

Steven Kotler: The book is about peak performance aging, so let's start there. The book is also about action sports, a little bit, and we can explain all this as we go along, but in action sports slang, gnar is short for gnarly and action sport slang is extremely colorful, but because the athletes are performing in sort of life or death circumstances, it's also extremely precise. So, very colorful words have very precise meanings and gnar, or gnarly, is defined as any environment that is high in perceived risk and high in actual risk. Country, the second half of my title is any landscape, terrain, fictitious or real. So Gnar Country, it turns out, is I think a really great description of our later years, high in perceived risk, high in actual risk. And as it turns out, when you get under the hood of peak performance aging and sort of look at what's gone on over the past 20 years in the fields that come together to bring it, a really great description of the gritty mindset it takes to thrive in the second half of our lives. So that's where the title comes from.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Excellent. Yeah, in reading through the book, I loved it because my area is longevity and age rejuvenation. But you dispel the common myth, and we hear this a lot, is after a certain age, it's just a downhill slide. You're not going to be able to change or be able to improve upon where you are, and that's just a myth that the book helps to dispel.

Aging Is a Mental Event as Much as a Physical Process

Steven Kotler: So, this is sort of the action sports component I guess. But if you were raised in the 20th century for sure, possibly even in the 21st century, you grew up with the traditional theory of aging, which I like to call the long slow rot theory. And it's the idea that all of our mental skills and all of our physical skills decline over time and there's nothing we can do to stop the slide. This theory actually sort of gets its start with Freud. He writes something in, I think, Beyond Psychotherapy in 1907 that kicks off the long slow rot theory or kicks it into high gear. And by 1995, all we've done is prove Freud right in exacting detail. We know every single thing that's going to decline and how it's going to fall apart and when and all that stuff.

And then starting in about '95, the data starts to change. And this is your field, my field, I'm a part of it, and I get involved in it for two reasons, three reasons. One, personal experiments in regenerative medicine that I've been running on my own self, my own body my whole life. Flow science runs straight into peak performance aging, because flow is one of the main engines of adult development. So it's how we develop successfully as adults and that goes into how do we have a successful second half of our lives, that's right there.

And then I was running a hospice care sanctuary with my wife for dogs, which we've done for 20 years and we specialize in the worst of the worst. And we were using mostly lifestyle interventions. We would do some medical stuff along the way and getting world-class ridiculous results. We would take dogs with late stage heart disease and cancer who vets would say, "Oh yeah, don't get very attached to this guy, he's going to be dead in a month," and we get five more years of healthy lifespan and longevity. And really active because we hike our dogs in the back country every day. So it's not just five years hanging around in the house just chilling, they're doing five to seven miles up and down mountains every day. So we were really seeing a bunch of this stuff. So all this stuff came together.

And I don't know how I got to this topic, you asked me a question and I got somewhere over here. So I'm going to pause-

Dr. Dan Stickler: We were talking about-

Steven Kotler: ... and not talk your face off and ask you to ask another question. God, I don't know how I even got there.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, we were talking about Freud and the long slow rot-

Steven Kotler: Oh, the long slow rot theory, I'm sorry. And then in '95 we start to overturn this stuff and now what we know is everything that we used to think declined over time, we now know it's all a use it or lose it skill. So if you never stop using these skills, you get to hang onto them, even advance them far later in life than maybe you thought possible. And to boot, in our late 40s and early 50s, there are really profound and beneficial changes network how the brain process information.

And as a result, we gain access to whole news levels of intelligence, creativity, empathy and wisdom that all really start to come online in our 40s and 50s. And these are significant kind of boosts. It's like whole new cognitive superpowers. You look at the creativity stuff, it's not just that we get more creative, it's that divergent thinking starts to really come online. And if you've ever tried to train people in creativity, you know, you can teach them almost anything, but trying to teach divergent thinking is really hard and it starts to happen naturally in our 50s.

So your point where we started with all this is the data, the old idea is you can't teach an old dog new tricks. And what the new data says is, "Hey, wait a minute, old dogs are actually better at certain kinds of learning than the young dogs." So there's a lot that's going on. And in Gnar Country, I ran a crazy action sport experiment to try to test this stuff. All this stuff was true in the lab. A couple people had run some experiments in the wild that were interesting, and I wanted to take it all together and blended it actually into a learning theory and try to learn something, I tried to learn park skiing in my 50s and that's the story told in the book.

Park skiing for 11 or 12 different reasons is supposed to be biologically impossible for anybody really over the age of 35 to try. And once you get over like 40, 45, you move past totally impossible into downright crazy, which I was my 50s, so even really learned people who would hear about what I was trying to do were just like, "You're out of your mind. You're crazy. This isn't possible." And it was remarkably possible, not just possible for me. We reran the experiment with a bunch of other people using the same techniques and it was possible for a lot of people, which is I think the wildest experiment in peak performance aging anybody has ever run. And that's the story told in Gnar Country.

Dr. Dan Stickler: And that's the story I hear every day from people. The interesting thing is I'm 57 now and after the age of 50 was when the wisdom really kicked in and I noticed the changes in those parameters you're talking about with the empathy and the divergent thinking and all of this, they really came on with that. But I've also been actively utilizing tools to create that through lifestyle and other aspects. So your quote of, if you're not moving forward, you're sliding backward is absolutely true in the aging population. See that all the time.

Strength and Stamina Are Use-It-Or-Lose-It Skills When It Comes to Aging

Steven Kotler: I think it's true in the aging population. And if you couldn't... So peel back, so one, you know this too, peak performance aging starts young. There's literally stuff you want to do in your 20s, in your 30s, in your 40s, your 50s. And this is also true on the psychological side. In adult development, we know there are moderators, if/then conditions. At each decade there's a threshold, there's a big question you have to solve to progress on.

And you sort of referenced that, but I think you see it in the aging population, but you also, one of the things; old is a mindset. Aging's a fact alive, but old is a mindset. And it's a mindset for neurobiological reasons that can set up very, very young, very, very young, late 20s, early 30s. And so they've declined [inaudible 00:09:15] kicked off that. So you are right, once you get to 50, if you're not moving forward, you're going backwards, but that doesn't say, because I'll give you a simple example.

So, we know that if you really want to thrive in your 40s and 50s, by age 30 you have to have solved the crisis of identity. You got to know who you are in the world. And by 40, you have to solve the crisis of match fit, meaning you have to have a tight fit between who you are, your identity, and what you do with most of your time. And you have to live with passion, purpose, and flow. And we know all this stuff, but people don't realize that if you don't solve identity by 30, if you don't know who you are in the world, you can't solve match fit at 40 and everything goes sideways from that point on. So psychologically, there are certain thresholds that if you're not actually checking this box in time, you're really going to slow down your progress or retard it completely.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah, we've noticed that. We did a look back at the last 20 years of the high performers that we've worked with and what were the five criteria that we saw that they really came for? And first and foremost for them was the physical aspect of it, but then second was really what we called the mind or mindset. And you talk a lot about this in your book, the mindset, we found that people who possess deficiency mindsets in anything, from finances to purpose to anything like that, they had a deficiency, they were not progressing forward and then we had a sense of purpose. We had peak experiences and states of awe and finally, love. I mean those were the five criteria we found that over 20 years, high performers came here with deficiencies in these areas, one or more, and makes a huge difference in how they age when they transcend that.

Mindset Shifts Can Add Years to Our Life (Seven, in Fact!)

Steven Kotler: Yeah, I completely agree and this is one of the things I always point out to people. There's a whole bunch of really interesting stuff going on in longevity science and regenerative medicine right now. It's phenomenal. It's super interesting. I always tell people what is real in regenerative medicine at this point is bones, tendons, and ligaments. Everything beyond that is still a gray area. And what's happening right now, I love the comments, people are like, "Oh, exclusive medicine is medicine for the rich." And I'm like, "You guys don't understand what's going on." I said, "There's two things going on that is totally insane. One, we've got 60 years of data that say if you want to live a long time, it's psychological, like mindset interventions that get you the farthest." And we can talk more about that in half a second, but I want to make this point, everything that's going on at the cutting edge in regenerative medicine and longevity science, all that's happening is very wealthy people are running the greatest open source experiment in longevity science we've ever seen in the history of the world.

And does it work? Historically, as you know, regenerative medicine, that's about 10% right, 90% wrong. So I'm assuming we're getting better. So let's say it's going to be 20%, 25%, which would be an amazing batting average for cutting edge medicine I have to say. But let's say it's really gotten that we're still, most of what's going on is going to prove to be wrong in 20, 30 years where you actually figure out what was right and what was wrong. But what do we know? What do we have 60 years of data that's overwhelming about? Is the psychological interventions that are one, completely democratized because they're available to all. You just gave your list of what you've seen in athletes. If you look at the data, if you look at the 4,000 papers that I read and are footnoted in the book, and the stuff I ran in the experiment, what you see, if you want to rock till you drop, here's the formula. And listen for the comparisons to how many things are [inaudible 00:13:21] up that overlays on it.

You want to regularly engage in challenging, creative, and social activities that demand dynamic movement. And dynamic is a shorthand for strength, stamina, dexterity or agility, balance, and flexibility all at once. So action sports are dynamic activities, badminton is a dynamic activity because it's using all these things. Dynamic activities that demand deliberate play and take place in novel outdoor environments. That's peak performance aging in a complete sentence, with 60 years of data. And there's nothing in there that's a substance or a expensive technology or it's available to all of us and those are the big levers. I'm not saying, I play with all the regenerative medicine stuff too and I love it, but it's experimental and I think it's small potatoes in comparison to mindset, right?

There's 60 years of data that says if you have a positive mindset towards aging, "My best years are ahead of me and I'm excited about the second half of my life," it translates to eight years of healthy longevity. And if you have a negative mindset towards aging, and this is Becca Levy's research at Yale, or are exposed to ageism, the most common stereotype in the world, by the time you're age 60, you will exhibit 30% greater memory decline. So negative mindset towards aging is literally killing us at ridiculous, not only is it taking eight years off your life, it's crushing your memory long before you're coming to the end.

So this is one of the things, and I'm sure you've seen it in your work, I find so fascinating. We've spent the past 30 years really looking at the mind-body connection and every year it gets closer and closer and closer and closer. But when you get into peak performance aging and longevity science, I mean it's hand and glove, it's wild how tight it really gets and how important it really gets.

Dr. Dan Stickler: I was doing an interview for a short film about Brian Johnson. And the young guys that were interviewing me, they asked me the question, they said, "What can we do when we don't have $2 million a year to spend on this health and aging aspect?" And I said, "The thing that most people don't realize is about 10% of longevity is based on genetics. You have another 15% to 20% that can be from medical discoveries and medical advancements. But 70% is lifestyle." And that 70% of healthy aging comes down to lifestyle and that tends to blow people away, which really surprises me because I mean we've known this one for a long time and it just doesn't stick very well.

Steven Kotler: I mean you've seen people love, they love pills and technology, they like the whizzbang and they like the easy and it's unfortunate also because if you look at the stuff that peak performance aging, the whole long list, it's fun. I mean everything on my list is a colossal amount of fun. So, I mean it's really funny, they want the quick fix which doesn't really work, or as you pointed out, is going to work... I think, like you said, it's only 15%, but I think the real sentence there is it's 15% of the time if you have the right genetics for the particular discovery that we're talking about is often the case. So, yeah, I don't know why that is, but we see it again and again and again.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, and with epigenetics we're seeing the evidence of all of this. I mean we see how gene expressions change, I mean what is it? Over 7,000 genes alter expression by six months of regular exercise, meditation, all of these things. I mean even the thing like APOE4s, people are really worried about that right now, but what they don't realize is that an APOE4 risk for Alzheimer's development, if you're a carrier of that, you can implement lifestyle changes that will result in a normal risk.

How Flow Science is Making Us Rethink Everything We Know About Aging

Steven Kotler: I mean one of the things that I talk a lot about, because flow is so tightly linked to this, so in flow, one of the things that happens is we learn new skills. Flow is, in fact one of the arguments for what is flow from an evolutionary perspective is it's an internal signal of mastery. It's a way of your body letting you know you have mastered this skill, you know what you're doing which confer... And that doesn't seem to be the only evolutionary cause for flow, but it seems to be kind of one of those spandrel benefits that has really worked in our favor. Though I could be wrong about my spandrel benefit classification completely, I'm guessing here on that one. So on the other side of a flow state, wisdom increases and mastery increases.

What do we know about staving off Alzheimer's and dementia no matter what your genetics is? You want to build up cognitive reserve. How do you build up cognitive reserve? You build up cognitive reserve through expertise and wisdom, right? Because they're the most diffused, redundant neural networks in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain most vulnerable to cognitive decline. So, expertise and wisdom massively amplifies that.

That's not a pill first of all, right? Let's talk about the first thing about that, but expertise and wisdom, and this is where it gets hysterical. Yaakov Stern, the godfather of cognitive reserve who's at Columbia, does work on so-called leisure activities and discovers that for each additional leisure activity we learn, so you learn to play the drums, you teach yourself math, I'm learning to draw, you take up park skiing, whatever, you get an additional 8% protection against cognitive decline. So when we talk about lifelong learning as really important for staving off Alzheimer's and dementia, et cetera, et cetera, we know what you get from each leisure activity, we know they stack, it goes on and on.

And one of the reasons I stressed dynamic motion and novel outdoor environments, so part of the formula I gave you, dynamic motion, so when we move dynamically, and you probably know this, it stimulates. So dynamic motion is I have to use strength and coordination at the same time. For example, skiing or skateboarding, or playing tennis for that matter in a lot of cases, it amplifies both angiogenesis and neurogenesis. So you're getting new blood vessels to support new neurons and you're getting new neurons. Novel outdoor environments, where do most of those new neurons show up? Hippocampus. The hippocampus does map making and location, it also does long-term memory, but it does map making, it's location, grid cells, place cells.

So if you really want to stimulate neurogenesis, angiogenesis, protect the new neurons that you get, which is how we stave off cognitive decline, novel activities in outdoor environments is what the brain was designed to remember. So you can boost all this and everything we're talking about, as you pointed out, these are lifestyle interventions. But the longest lived communities in America, people think it's the Blue Zone, Loma Linda, California, it's not. It's Summit County, Pitkin County, and Eagle County, Colorado where people live 10 years longer than every place else in America. That's home to Aspen, Vail, Beaver Creek, it's outdoor activity central and Mecca. And you see it in how long people live and the quality of their lives.

Dr. Dan Stickler: It's interesting, I just got back from a place called Mazama Washington, which is up in the Cascades and it's a small little town and there's people of all ages there and there are some very elderly people that were out on bikes climbing these mountains and I was just amazed at how fit they were. And I'm sure that their longevity is probably pretty significant as well because they cross country ski in the winter and they bike and hike in the summer. It's just amazing to watch.

Steven Kotler: So it's funny in Gnar Country, early things in Gnar years ago, I want to go back to the late 90s, I remember having discussions with Laird Hamilton, the big wave surfer, and I would see he was seeing things in the surf community that I would see in the ski and snowboard community. We were having conversations about people performing at remarkably crazy high levels in their 60s and 70s. And this was long, and sort of notice that action sports, you go to these towns, these action sport communities as you pointed out, and you look at the age of participants and ski mountains, you got a bunch of kids and then you got a bunch of people who are over 60, 65. But I ski a lot at Palisades, Tahoe with a community of mostly professional athletes, including current Olympians and whatever, and invariably the person at the front of the pack, when there's a group of skiers or snowboarders together, is a guy named Tom Day. He's 67 years old. And there could be 20-year-old Olympians in the back, he's the guy up front and it's because nobody can catch him.

You know what I mean? You start noticing these things and you're like, "Huh." Those old stories about age, either... I mean I don't know, so this is one of the things that happened to me in my pursuit of peak performance aging, I don't know if you know this story, but 15 years ago I was going to write a novel about a cat burglar and I wanted the cat burglar to steal something cool. And I was like, "Oh, musical instruments, rare musical instruments. That's a cool thing to steal." And next question, what are the rarest musical instruments in history? And I started digging and it turns out Stradivarius, Antonio Stradivarius, one instrument maker out of billions, owns the record for half of the most priceless instruments in history have been made by this one person, which is just bizarre.

Could you imagine if half of the most important paintings or books were written by one person? It's really weird. So it just caught my attention as, what a weird detail? Let's learn more about Stradivarius, but never really paid attention. And then I learned that he crafted two of his most famous and priceless instruments when he was 92 years old. So one, this is in the 1600s, so before the advent of modern medicine, and two, that was the big chink when I went, "Wait a minute, either everything I've been told about aging is wrong," because there's no way a 92-year-old man can make two of the most priceless instruments in history if fast twitch muscle response declines over time, if fine motor performance declines over time, if cognitive performance on and on and on, there's no way that can happen.

And as a science guy, I don't believe in anomalies. I don't think, "Oh, this guy is one in a gazillion." I think, "No, this is Stradivarius. This is probably a whole swatch of the population and our theory is probably wrong because it's not matching the data." The data just didn't feel extraordinary. You know what I mean? There was no thing in Stradivarius's life about longevity and health and what he did to stay... But what he did do is he never stopped making musical instruments, use it or lose it skills. He made over 1,000 instruments in his lifetime, which is incredible considering he had no modern instrumentation whatsoever to make any of it. So long story short, or long story, but that was where it started for me was I was looking at these weird cases of, "Wait a minute, either what I'm looking at as impossible and wrong, or our whole theory has to be wrong," which it turned out was the case.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. The question that comes up for me, because this is what I've observed and this is all anecdotal, and it seems like you're in the same state as I am, but our community, we tend to hang out with all age groups. So in our close community, we have from 24 to 75 year olds, very diverse backgrounds, but being around the younger people has made a huge difference, I think, for us as far as really feeling that more youthful, vital state in ourselves. Have you seen anything or any research on that in particular?

How Cross-Generational Friendships Impact Longevity

Steven Kotler: Yeah, so there's actually a ton here. So let's just start with, what do we know? The healthiest societies where people age the best have cross-generational friendships. It's one of the founding, so we know, you hear a lot about the importance of a robust social life over time. By the way, you want to talk about another psychological intervention, seven years to your life to maintain a robust social life. This is really interesting by the way, if you're morbidly obese, smoke cigarettes, are an introvert with a bad mindset towards aging, and you want to live a long time, if you change your mindset and make some friends, you're going to live longer than if you lose weight or quit smoking. It's amazing. And nobody talks about that, but well known, really well known.

But when you dig into the social stuff, a couple things are really clear. One, at the heart of every society where people really thrive, all the Blue Zone communities have this, by the way, in Dan Buettner's research and many other places, they have crossed generational friendships. It's really important. And we can talk, when I'm done saying what I'm about to say, ask me about risk aversion and I'll talk about why.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Okay.

Steven Kotler: But really important. The other thing that you see, and this is something people talk less about, but it shows up again and again in the research. If you want to thrive in the second half of your life, you need to make replacement friends. So a lot of people tend to form friends in their age group and not younger. And this is really, really common. And what happens is if you are successful with your approach to longevity and healthy aging and that sort of stuff, you can find yourself the last person standing. And it sounds like one of these really extreme statements.

There's two people in my life. So I have a friend, who will go unnamed, who is literally one of the most famous thinkers from the 20th century and he's part of this group of thinkers in the 1970s who thought in a very big picture, holistic, weird way, and literally all of his, I call him up and he'll be like, "Oh Steven, it's so great to talk to you. Nobody's called me in a month." And he's not kidding and all of his friends have died. So it's not only, he didn't make replacement friends, there's nobody left on the planet who thinks like him. He thinks like this elite critic, you know the Marshall McLuhans of the world, he was part of that group of people and they're all dead. He's the last one who's left and it's just wild he didn't make replacement friends along the way.

So they really, really stress it. And I, by the way, the CEO of the Flow Research Collective is 30 years younger than me. My Chief of Staff is 20 years younger than me. I do this all the time. And one of the main reasons is, of course, risk aversion naturally increases over time and if you want to thrive in the second half of your life, you have to fight against it. And one of the ways you have to fight against it is expose yourself to new ideas, new thinking, new activities, all this stuff. And you get that with younger folks as a general rule. So, healthy on a billion different levels.

Dr. Dan Stickler: So let's go into this risk-

Steven Kotler: That billion, by the way, that's anecdote, that's not science.

The Role of Risk Aversion in Adding Years to Our Life

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. So how about this risk aversion?

Steven Kotler: Yeah.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Go into it?

Steven Kotler: This is interesting. So there's some geeky stuff with it too. So risk aversion increases over time, which is pretty well known, it's not true across the board. Social risk aversion does not, right? You get to be 60 and you're all, "I don't give a fuck what anybody thinks," and you're willing to walk up and say hello to anybody. So that sort of goes away. And if you work with money, if you work in the markets or that sort of thing, financial risk does not decline. But if you're unfamiliar with money and you're worried about retirement, financial risk obviously starts to spike. All other kind of risk declines over time. This is problematic for a lot of different reasons.

So, fear risk aversion, which is essentially fear, risk aversion is a polite way of saying you've got more anxiety about more stuff. That's all we're talking about. So as you know, there's a huge penalty there from an aging perspective, nine known causes of aging, what do they have in common? Stress and inflammation. It's the only thing. So anything that fights inflammation, anti-aging tool, anything that increases inflammation, stress and anxiety is aging you. So, there's another reason why walking in the woods is so good, right? Because it calms you down. And it's another reason that flow is so good for anti-aging because it resets our nervous system and flushes stress hormones out of our system.

But... I'm sorry, you asked me a question and I got sidetracked-

Dr. Dan Stickler: We were talking about risk aversion.

Steven Kotler: ... by a delicious tangent.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Risk aversion.

Steven Kotler: Risk aversion, thank you. By a delicious tangent. So, for anti-aging purposes, you want to fight this anxiety, also because underneath the hood of anxiety, one of the main things you get is norepinephrine. And when norepinephrine levels get higher, you block learning. So if we know lifelong learning is how we stave off cognitive decline, you got to be really careful with stress levels because you can end up blocking learning and you can end up blocking creativity, which all of these things have really significant consequences in the second half of our life.

And some of it is interesting because some of it is they've been trying to figure out why does risk aversion increase over time? And there's a bunch of different psychological reasons and then there's a decline in white matter, especially in the temporal lobes. And what happens is processing speed slows down and your brain goes, "Oh, you're not quite as quick as you were, so let's be a little cautious."

Now it turns out, I don't know if you've had my colleague, Dr. Adam Gazzaley on the program, but if you know Adam's work, then you know that processing speed is trainable over time. It's one of those things that's trainable. And here's the cool thing, this is really neat and you probably know this as well, but one of the cutting-edge things going on is the relationship between bone health and brain health. And bone density decreases over time, we're getting really better at fighting that, but one of the things that happens is most people just don't realize that the bones are the mineral factory for the body and that includes things like where does the calcium that your brain runs on come from? It passes the blood-brain barrier and a lot of it comes from your bones. So as that declines over time, that appears to be one of the things that impacts processing speed.

So this is what I like about peak performance aging is we're discovering that everything is trainable, but in weird ways. You could train up processing speed by improving bone density, which is, that's not a sort of normal chain of causation appears to be true, and I think that's kind of cool. But anyways, fighting that will seem to fight risk aversion, but risk aversion is take risks. You just want to regularly take risks. This is, by the way, so since we have a geeky audience, we can go here. People, where does the mindset of old come from? Why do we get this old mindset? It's because when we're younger, we are predominantly being driven emotionally by the seeking system, which is predominantly underpinned by dopamine and norepinephrine, which are wildly fun, [inaudible 00:34:26] cocktail and they get it, you get romantic love, everybody's favorite feeling on earth, right? It's a very addictive high.

Then you get to be about 30 and you trade the seeking chemicals for a whole other set of chemicals because once you start getting things you want to keep, where you're no longer seeking, now I've got the job, now I've got the right partner, the right spouse, the right house, the right apartment, the right career trajectory, all of it, you swap your addictions. You're no longer interested in norepinephrine and dopamine, now you want serotonin and oxytocin and endorphins. These stabler protect and conserve, rest and relax chemicals that help you hold on and keep what you have.

And this is good, this is why we raise our children and don't abandon our children. So it's a good thing, but what happens when you get to peak performance aging and risk aversion and the proper mindset, you realize that you have to reboot your addiction to dopamine and norepinephrine. You actually need all five of these sort of neurochemicals and all five of these motivators, in the latter portion of our lives, really working together. And you're only going to get that dopamine, that norepinephrine from seeking behavior, from taking risks and going out.

I mean the world, and we know again and again and again, this is why the first thing I said about peak performance aging, you want to engage in challenging and creative activities, starts with challenging because if you're not starting there, so many of the other things fall apart. And bonus, if risk aversion goes up too high, if norepinephrine goes up too high, it'll block flow and flow is so foundational to be performance aging that you're causing yourself even more pain.

The Difference Between Deliberate Play and Deliberate Practice

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. Yeah. You mentioned something earlier, you talked about deliberate play. And in the book you talk about the difference between deliberate play and deliberate practice. Can you kind of unpin that for us?

Steven Kotler: Yeah, for sure. So one, deliberate practices, Anders Erickson's idea about what does it take to get to mastery to expertise? And this was colloquial Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours, it was 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that you need. Now that 10,000 hours turns out to be not an accurate figure, as we all mostly know at this point. And by the way, deliberate practice is defined as repetition with incremental advancement. Do the same thing over and over again, just do it a little bit harder, right? Push a little bit.

And it turns out, so we talked about the importance of lifelong learning and skills mastery and all that stuff for people for performance aging, it turns out for learning, deliberate practice is very effective, but only, and Anders himself pointed this out, at very specific kinds of learning. If you're trying to get better at the violin or math or a couple other very specific subjects, certain kinds of music, classical music, deliberate practice works really, really well.

But for most everything else, and we see this again and again and again, it's not the fastest path towards mastery. In fact, there have been a number of challenges to that idea. Anders himself mounted the first one, David Epstein in his brilliant book, Range, and the second one, in Rise of Superman kind of lay out the fact that flow seems to cut the path to mastery in half, and that's what we're seeing in action sport athletes in the 1990s. And by the way, before Anders passed away, I knew him, I got to meet him at the Santa Fe Institute a couple of times for a peak performance conference and he agreed with me about deliberate practice and these ideas.

But anyways, what the data has shown is that if you're really interested in mastery and learning, deliberate play outperforms deliberate mastery most of the time. Deliberate play is repetition without repetition. It's repetition with improvisation. So, do the same thing you did before and then improv on top of it. And what's the big deal? There's a couple of big deals here. One, the obvious psychological. It's playful and so there's no shame, there's no embarrassment, there's less self-consciousness. So all these things that tend to block learning tend to go away. So that's huge. Two, deliberate practice, the most neurochemistry you're going to get, if you do everything right, is a little bit of dopamine because you've done the thing you did before and you've just taken it a little farther and the goal-directed system is going to say, "Oh, let's reward this with dopamine." And that's good, that's going to help you cement it into the long-term memory, it's better than no dopamine. But with deliberate play, you get dopamine, bigger hit of dopamine, and endorphins.

So, much better chance that this memory is going to get turned into long-term storage and going to become actual learning. So, that's really key. The other thing I like to point out from a dopamine standpoint with deliberate practice, there's one right answer, I did the same thing with a little bit of improvement, but with deliberate play, there's one wrong answer, it's only I did the same thing I did last time. Every other answer, 360 degrees around the problem is a correct answer. You're learning, you're gaining information, and you're rewarded neurochemically which is why play outperforms everything else as a learning tool. And then there's seven or eight other psychological, cognitive, neurobiological, health and wellness benefits of play that are downstream of that. So from a de-stress, peak performance aging, longevity, everything you want to play out, deliberate play is really a great way forward.

But the most important one, and this goes back to exactly where you started, which is the old dog can't learn new tricks. One of the reasons, and why they thought me learning to parks ski was impossible, is because we hear about this motor learning performance window that's open in childhood. Don't become a ballerina after 18, don't become a... And it's because this motor learning window slams shut and a lot of these truisms, it's only sort of true. There's a window and it does sort of slam shut, but what really changes isn't the brain's ability to learn difficult physical activities, it's that we stop learning like we did when we were kids. We play as kids, as adults we get really, really serious about our learning. And as a result, a lot of things shift.

And so a lot of what we thought was that motor performance window is actually no, it's how we approach learning itself. If you reboot what kids do naturally, you can reboot a lot of the same learning processes, not entirely. There's some, as you know, there's parts of that, there are kind of neuroplastic changes that are going to happen and things are going to be a little trickier, but same thing for learning a language. If you're playful about it when you're older, you're going to learn much faster than if you're kind of leaning into it.

Dr. Dan Stickler: I think we're seeing a lot of rethinking of developmental windows now in many areas. I know I just got back last week from the psychedelic sciences conference in Denver and there were like 12,000 people there, it was amazing.

Steven Kotler: Yeah, I heard it was huge.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah.

Steven Kotler: I heard it was amazing.

Dr. Dan Stickler: But Gul Dolen, who I've spoken with before about this, she presented a topic, her research on MDMA, she researches it at Hopkins, and she found that the social reward and social developmental window, which closes during late teen years, can be reopened for roughly a two-week period after a single dose of MDMA. And-

Steven Kotler: Well by the way, I don't know where they did the work, but they found with ibogaine, and they shut the experiment down, the window hadn't shut, they actually ran out of funding or something. I need to look into this because I just heard this story and I'd never heard it before. And I was like, "Is this real? That the window stayed open so long they ran out of funding before it actually shut down?" Which is kind of amazing.

Dr. Dan Stickler: These psychedelics are creating all new possibilities for people. But what I was getting at is too that, even though that was MDMA opening that, it just shows that we can reopen these windows and lifestyle is another way that we can actually create these opportunities.

How the Brain Changes in the Second Half of Our Lives

Steven Kotler: And they really are opportunities, right? That's really... The other thing I... Let me back into this for half a second. When I wrote Bold, I spent a lot of time, I mean running around the world giving speeches and talking to CEOs and I do more of this work at the Flow Research Collective, I'm sure you do too. Invariably, in my experience, when CEOs get to talk to folks like us, one of the things you talk a lot about hiring and training, how do you hire for peak performance? How do you train for peak performance? I would, and I'm sure you do this too, my first question whenever I'm in this conversation was, well what exactly do you want? Because those are pretty broad categories. What exactly are you looking for?

So for years I would hear the same two things over and over. I want the following two things for my employees more than anything else, and I've come to think of these as the mantras of the 21st century business, the first was I want creativity and innovation because the rate of change is so fast that if I can't, this is this hard thing that we're not great at and if we can't figure it out, we're clearly going to be out of business. And obviously this is the [inaudible 00:44:34] university and exponential growth and welcome to the world of AI, et cetera.

The second thing I heard was actually surprising is that I see people, what they really said to me is they want empathetic employees. And it was three reasons. One, all the psychological safety stuff, that was starting to come to the fore and people realized that if employees didn't feel psychologically safe, they weren't going to perform well. Forget about happiness and wellbeing and thriving, you were just crushing it and you can't have any psychological safety without empathy. But the more important point was that, I think Jeff Bezos sort of declared the mantra of the 21st century; business is customer-centric thinking and if you don't have empathetic employees, nobody can think like your customers at all, period. And obviously with today's sociopolitical climate, this is also a mandatory.

But the point was, we talked earlier about what happens, the changes in the brain in the second half of our life, we get new intelligence, new creativity, new empathy, and new wisdom. And as you pointed out earlier, it's very profound. This means that the over 50 crowd, the very people who people are pushing out of their companies right now, these are the dream employees of the 21st century. But there's a caveat there, right? Because it's not every over 50 year old, it's well trained. Because if you haven't, first of all risk aversion, if you have norepinephrine in your system for example, you haven't trained up risk aversion, you'll never get the heightened creativity because norepinephrine, literally divergent thinking, which is what you get in your 50s, that comes mainly out of the anterior cingulate cortex which finds far-flung connections.

And it does this based on how much or how little norepinephrine is in that part of the brain at any one time. And the more norepinephrine there is, the more logical and linear you get, right? With the extreme example being fight or flight. But it's a spectrum of experience. You can't... So as an employee, you're blocking it. But the whole point I wanted to make here is you were talking about counterintuitive and this is the thing that sort of blows my mind, because I'm like, well there's a business revolution hiding inside of longevity and peak performance aging. And we're seeing it, you and I are seeing it just like we're seeing the athletes do it, but it's starting to creep into the world but it's one of these huge changes that's coming in the next 10 to 15 years and it's super interesting.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah, I'm excited to see where it goes as the data starts coming in on this for sure. One area that I mentioned earlier that we've kind of seen, and I see the healthiest agers essentially, one of the aspects is that they experience peak experiences, states of awe or states of profound gratitude on an almost daily basis. And the ones that are really having a rough time with the aging process, they can't even remember their last state of awe. I mean-

Steven Kotler: Yeah, we...

Dr. Dan Stickler: ... have you seen anything like this?

Steven Kotler: So yeah, I've seen a bunch of stuff. So one, [inaudible 00:48:06] me high before he died, I don't know if you know this, his last study was on flow proneness. He wanted to know do we crave flow? Do we need flow until the end? Yes. So we crave flow, we crave all three stages of consciousness until the very end of our life. Work that came out of, I mean good god, this is Bob Keegan pointed this out, the more peak experiences you have over time, the better chance you have moving up the pyramid of adult development. But here's the big kicker, and it's one, we see this with flow. So when you experience super positive emotions, and the two most powerful positive emotions we think are mastering control, and it has to do this, this is for survival reasons, as we add skills, we become more adaptive, we become safer. So these are the big highs for us from an evolutionary purpose, you get them in flow.

Both those feelings, what people don't often realize, Barbara Fredrickson did this work, a bunch of other people have done this work, I'm sure you know this, when you experience super positive emotions, so mastery, control, love, really deep love, a couple others, it amplifies T-cell production and killer T-cells. So the immune system's getting boosted, we've known this for a while, but natural killer cells, this is tumors and senolytic cells. So cancer, one of the leading killers on earth, and senolytic cells, one of the nine major causes of aging. And so regular access to peak experiences is flushing this stuff out of your system, resetting the nervous system is the other thing. You see this, I don't know if there's a nitric oxide flush in awe, which is what usually pushes the stress hormones out of your system with flow, or if there's another, how much awe resets the nervous system. And gratitude is a no-brainer because it calms you down, it's a de-stressor.

We also did some really cool work with Glenn Fox at USC, who's one of the best neurobiologists on gratitude, and we worked on gratitude when we flow and we found that people with regular gratitude practices tend to be more flow prone. So there's a direct link between gratitude and more peak experiences as well. I would not be surprised if, as you mentioned, the same thing shows up with awe. That would not surprise me either. So, we're seeing the neuroimmunology of why is this happening, why are peak experiences so important? And the other thing is we're getting better and better at generating those peak experiences.

I'm really interested in combinatory therapies for longevity science in terms of thinking about altered states, for example. What is the best combination of micro flow, macro flow, awe, maybe psychedelic experiences, maybe meditative? What is that? One of the things that I'm really excited about AI for and ChatGPT is this exact help solving combinatory therapy questions because the variables are infinite I think. And I think everybody's going to be a very, very individual here, and I think that's an AI problem, or it's a smarter than Steven problem one way or the other.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. You mentioned Barbara Erickson's study and it reminded me, I remember when she worked with Steve Cole out of UCLA I believe, and they studied happiness and the people who were eudaimonically happy had an improvement in their immune systems, whereas people who were hedonically happy actually had a suppressed immune system when they looked at it.

Steven Kotler: That's interesting. That's not entirely surprising. That's interesting. What's weird about that is that sort of tells you that it's not just the dopamine, right? We're not just looking at clear reward chemicals that there's something much more complicated going on, which I think is true anyways, but that's cool. I like that.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. I love that study. So before we go, I want to get into, tell us about what kind of exciting research you got coming up.

Steven Kotler: So, fun stuff. So we published a piece of the first few seconds of flow, it was an article for neuroscience about behavior reviews, I think three or four months ago, that looked at the neurobiology and neurodynamics, so a systems neuroscience approach to what happens in the brain as we transition into flow. We just did the exact same thing for intuition. It's a neurobiology and neurodynamics accounts, with many of the same, Scott Kelso is on the paper as well and some other folks are working on that with us. Then we are just starting some research on the intersection between flow and intuition. This has been worked on before, but we're trying to figure out, we know anecdotally that intuition is louder in flow, clearer in flow, and maybe, anecdotally at least, more accurate in flow. The question is why and we have some ideas and there's some cool stuff going on. So we're working on that.

We've got a bunch of papers that are about to come out. One on caffeine in flow. Short answer is, if you're looking for a cheap flow hack, coffee is your friend, not that this is surprising to really anyone. Flow follows focus and all the flow triggers drive focus and coffee does a lot of different things or caffeine does a lot of different things, but it certainly drives focus. Though obviously you can overdose, there's too much caffeine and then it's going to keep you out of flow. But that's the long story short.

We also are at the front end of studies about pain in the gym really, which is where we're working, and tolerance for pain and mindset and the neurobiology of tolerance. This is going to move towards some flow and pain studies and some stuff like that. But we're really, I like to start with really basic science and work my way forward to the complicated stuff. So we have some stuff there.

Dr. Dan Stickler: You have some good examples of that in your book.

Steven Kotler: Yeah, we're working, we actually just, this is cool with a couple other neuroscientists, we're working on a Springer textbook on performance neuroscience. It's going to be the first textbook anybody's written on performance neuroscience. So I'm working on that as well.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Wow.

Steven Kotler: That's really exciting. I think there's three or four other studies that are ongoing that are... Oh, the coolest study. What I'm really looking forward to, this is with Adam Gazzaley's lab at UCSF, a couple other people, JUMP, which is a base jumping simulation and it's an experiential, with VR helmets, but it's an actual simulation so that you jump and there's a crane so you float and there's blah, blah. It's as realistic as anything we've ever seen and we think, most of the experimental paradigms for testing flow are, "Eh, I've got a video game and we think it's putting people into flow." And I'm always looking at that, I'm like, "Well, if you like video games, it is, but if you don't play video games, that's not a very flowy," you know what I mean?

And there's other people, there's some studies where they use math problems to get people into flow and arithmetic problems. I know mathematicians who are literally professional mathematicians who can't get into flow doing arithmetic. So what are you doing with some of these paradigms? So we're really excited about that. And we're tracking seven or eight neurophysiological markers in that study, including one of the cool things about the first few seconds of flow paper is, as I said, we found two or three or four actual different neural markers for flow, flow state onset, that people hadn't found before. And so we get to try to hammer on those and figure out what's real. I'm sure a couple of them are real and I'm sure a couple of them are just make believe or not quite right or something along those lines. So we're going to get to hammer on that stuff starting in the fall.

And then we've got a whole new flow in AI center as well.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Nice.

Steven Kotler: So we're doing a whole bunch of stuff with AI.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah, it sounds like you're like me. I just love coming into work.

Steven Kotler: Do we call it work? It hasn't been work for a really long time.

Dr. Dan Stickler: No, it's play for me for sure. Well, it's been a real pleasure to speak with you again, Steven, and everybody out there, go out and get Gnar Country. You will enjoy the read for sure. You might have a couple of awe moments in it as well. So thank you.

Steven Kotler: Well thank you, sir. It was fun hanging out with you again. I appreciate you.

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