Advancements in Psychology Offer New Ways to Heal & Grow

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 recent advancements in psychology? How are they creating new opportunities for psychological healing and growth?

According to Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal, advancements in psychology are uncovering the mysteries of peak states of consciousness. This cultural shift toward exploring human potential began decades ago and has led to a more open-minded approach to psychological study.

Read on to learn how recent advancements in psychology are revealing the potential of peak states of consciousness.

How Advancements in Psychology Demystify Peak States

According to authors Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal, advancements in psychology have allowed for a more in-depth look into peak states of consciousness, which for most of history, have been shrouded in mystery. In their book Stealing Fire, the authors argue that 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.

(Shortform note: This research has in part been made possible by the collaboration between Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and scientists from Western universities. As early as 2000, the Dalai Lama invited neuroscientists to study the brains of experienced Buddhist meditators. This allowed researchers to learn what goes on in the brain during deep meditation, such that we now have robust models of the long-term effects of meditation on the brain and on the individual.)

What Are Peak States of Consciousness?

Before we explain how advancements in psychology have brought peak states into the spotlight, let’s explain how the authors define peak states. According to the authors, peak states (or “ecstasis”) are a specific set of altered states of consciousness. “Altered states of consciousness” means a nonstandard subjective experience—think inebriation versus sobriety. While altered states include any state other than normal consciousness, peak states occur at the “high end” of possible subjective experiences. In these states, you might encounter novel sensations or visual stimuli, experience heightened creativity, or gain access to seemingly mystical awareness.

The Psychological Exploration of Human Potential

The authors argue that the culture of modern psychological study has shifted to embrace pragmatic, open-minded exploration of human potential. Whereas psychologists used to focus on illness and often pathologized the human mind, advancements in psychology have brought about more researchers today who choose to explore topics such as positivity, adult development, growth, well-being, and mindfulness.

According to the authors, this cultural shift began several decades ago. The epicenter of the change, they argue, was the Esalen Institute in the 1960s. At this countercultural California research and retreat center, psychologists, philosophers, and spiritual seekers gathered to explore various methods of personal, spiritual, and emotional growth, drawing from Buddhistic ideas as well as Western theories of adult development. This eclectic gathering of open-minded seekers gave rise to modern Western culture’s appetite for personal transformation and growth.  

(Shortform note: Today, the Esalen Institute still continues its work on the cliffs above Big Sur in California. They’re also open to visitors, holding over 350 programs annually for around 130 visitors at a time. In 2019, they launched a new conference on psychedelics, called the “Psychedelic Integration” conference, after avoiding the topic for years due to the illegality of many psychedelics. As the culture shifts to embrace and legalize them, however, Esalen is moving toward exploring their medical and metaphysical possibilities.)

According to the most recent advancements the authors cite, researchers in psychology have found that peak states can both heal psychological traumas and facilitate positive personal growth:

1. Peak state experiences can heal the effects of trauma—The authors describe studies that found that peak states—such as those reached through flow, near-death experiences, or the substance MDMA—can heal or reduce the effects of trauma (such as flashbacks or deeply-set fears). Specifically, peak states can help us to see our traumas from new perspectives, process deeply buried emotions, and break free from cycles of reliving those traumas. These changes last for months or longer and outperform typical drug-based remediations. 

(Shortform note: In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan writes of advancements in psychedelics and psychology, based on the psychedelic research program at NYU, where a handful of doctors and therapists have administered guided psilocybin trips to terminally ill volunteers. The results seem promising, if difficult to square with any conventional medical paradigm: Previously depressed, anxious, and dying patients come back from these trips with a deeper sense of peace and understanding than before. These experiences, Pollan writes, seem to be inescapably spiritual in nature—and medical professionals aren’t quite sure what to make of that.)

2. Peak experiences can accelerate personal development—Researchers of adult development found that people who have had more peak experiences than average are often more empathetic, act more ethically, and are more productive. Based on this, the authors argue that regular peak experiences—whether from psychedelics or yoga or elsewise—accelerate your growth. 

(Shortform note: The relationship between peak experiences and personal development is complex, and there may not be a simple cause-and-effect relationship between the two. For instance, peak experiences can catalyze personal development by providing insights into what’s possible, thereby inspiring people to grow. Yet it’s also possible that individuals who are predisposed to personal growth more actively seek out peak experiences (such as those offered by psychedelics). They may be more open to trying new things, taking risks, and exploring new realms of experience. So it’s likely that peak experiences and an inclination to grow reinforce one another in a continuous cycle of growth and transformation.)

Advancements in Psychology Offer New Ways to Heal & Grow

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Here's what you'll find in our full Stealing Fire summary:

  • 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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