Advancements in Neuroscience Decode Higher  Consciousness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Stealing Fire" by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are some important advancements in neuroscience? How have they helped us to understand different forms of human consciousness?

According to the book Stealing Fire, advancements in neuroscience are decoding peak states of consciousness. With new technologies, researchers are uncovering the conditions that correlate with these states, allowing us to distinguish between normal consciousness and peak states.

Read on to learn how these advancements in neuroscience are helping to explain peak states of consciousness.

Advancements in Neuroscience Decode Higher Consciousness

Stealing Fire, co-written by Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal, tells the story of a modern revolution in our understanding of peak states of consciousness such as flow, mystical enlightenment, and psychedelic experience. The authors argue, we now have sufficiently advanced technology as well as cultural conditions conducive to serious study of peak states. Researchers are actively exploring these regions of subjective experience, gathering data, and working out empirical explanations for peak states. It’s now broadly accepted that peak states are real—and we’re discovering just what they are, how they work, and how we can benefit from them. In this article, we’ll specifically explore how advancements in neuroscience have helped to explain peak states or higher levels of consciousness, according to the authors.

Neuroscientists Build Evidence-Based Models of Peak States

The authors claim that advancements in neuroscience have allowed neuroscientists to develop brain scanning technologies that enable them to decode peak states. With these technologies, the authors say, researchers have begun to build evidence-based models of various peak states. Altogether, this gives us a clearer picture of the range of possible subjective experiences.

A concrete example: Neuroscience researchers have studied the brains of people who can reliably access peak states, such as Tibetan monks, and identified the neurophysiological conditions that correlate with those states. Advancements like these along with the data they produce allow researchers in the field of neuroscience to distinguish between normal consciousness and peak states by identifying the characteristic markers of each:

  • Regular consciousness, the authors say, involves high activity in the prefrontal cortex, beta range brainwaves, and the consistent presence of norepinephrine and cortisol (two stress hormones).
  • Peak states involve a shift in activity in the prefrontal cortex—some regions rev up while others shut down—as well as slower alpha and theta brainwaves and a different balance of neurochemicals including dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.

Altogether, these changes function to dissolve your sense of self, heighten feelings of existential well-being, and expand your perceptual experience. And, the authors argue, we can use our knowledge of how these states work to intentionally reproduce them and improve our lives.

(Shortform note: While advancements in neuroscience and these new explanations of peak states—such as those produced through deep meditation—are helpful, they may not capture the full picture. Namely, neuroscientists often stress that “the brain produces the mind,” whereas many meditation traditions hold that the mind is prior to matter. Neuroscience has made significant advances in understanding the neural correlates of mental states, but it remains an open question how the mind may affect the body, too. Arguments such as the authors’ above, then, serve as our best-yet maps—but objective data can’t fully explain the subjective territory of various peak states.) 

Similarly, the authors say that brain scans of advanced spiritual practitioners provide a scientific basis for spiritual and religious experiences. For instance, deep meditation deactivates the right parietal lobe, which mediates your sense of space and boundaries. This offers a neurological explanation for spiritual experiences of “oneness with the divine.” In other words, in terms of neuroscience, this advancement suggests that a spiritual, experiential feeling of dissolving into some greater whole is a real, valid experience that correlates with observable changes in the brain. 

(Shortform note: As research on meditation advances, it’s become important to properly distinguish between the variety of meditation techniques. Different techniques produce different effects on the brain, so some findings—such as those the authors discuss above—may not apply to all forms of meditation. A 2021 study suggests a core set of 50 meditation techniques, distilled from just over 300, that may require study to properly distinguish and differentiate.)

Another advancement in neuroscience that the authors mention is that neuroscientists have demonstrated that your body influences your mind, whereas we typically think the mind is in control. This is called embodied cognition: What you do with your body influences what’s going on in your head. The authors argue that this confirms that you can change your mind and your state by moving your body—for instance, through yoga, power posing, or breathing exercises.

Metaphors and the Mind: How Our Physical Experiences Shape Our Thinking

Embodied cognition first gained traction in Western thought through the work of George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist who argued that human thought isn’t separate from the body but is rooted in it. Before Lakoff, philosophical tradition held that thought and reason transcended our physicality—for instance, Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” places the mind as more real than the body. 

However, Lakoff showed through his work on metaphors that abstract thought comes from various metaphors related to our bodies and physical experiences. One metaphor he identified is “down means lack of control”: When we say things such as “I’m feeling down” and “It’s all downhill from here,” we express loss of power as crumbling and falling (while to gain power is to climb up a ladder). So not only can we change our minds by changing our bodies—our bodies are always influencing how we think and use our minds.
Advancements in Neuroscience Decode Higher Consciousness

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  • A modern revolution in the understanding of peak states of consciousness
  • The key benefits of accessing peak states
  • How some are turning to LSD and other substances to reach a peak state

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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