The Psychedelic Revolution: Main Barriers to Success

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 is the psychedelic revolution? How is today’s revolution being challenged? What are the main obstacles?

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in higher states of consciousness and some say we’re in a new psychedelic revolution. In their book Stealing Fire, Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal explain the main challenges to the success of the revolution.

Read on to learn about the psychedelic revolution and the challenges it faces, according to Kotler and Wheal.

The Psychedelic Revolution Has Arrived

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. According to the authors, these peak states—collectively, “ecstasis”—can catalyze personal transformation, expand your creativity, and connect you to a palpable sense of meaning and fulfillment. The authors argue that the psychedelic revolution of our time is the most recent development in an age-old historical pattern.

According to Kotler and Wheal, knowledge of peak states has cycled in and out of public awareness throughout history. They attribute this cycle to an ongoing battle between countercultural forces and law-and-order forces:

  • Typically, countercultural forces strive to explore and normalize peak states and the methods of reaching them.
  • Meanwhile, law-and-order forces work to suppress knowledge of peak states and maintain the status quo.

The authors give Ancient Greece as an example: There, a small group of artists, philosophers, and other cultural elites accessed peak states by drinking kykeon (thought to be an ancient psychedelic brew) in combination with music, dance, and philosophical discourse. However, this experience was confined to the elite, and government actors worked to prevent any lasting influence from their free-thinking counterparts. The authors contend that this cycle of emergence and suppression of peak states has repeated throughout human history.

(Shortform note: Recent organizations such as The Third Wave support the authors’ contention that peak states are increasing in popular interest. Paul Austin founded The Third Wave in 2015 to advocate for the responsible and informed use of psychedelics as a route to peak states and personal transformation. They provide a range of free guides to various psychedelic substances as well as a comprehensive course to microdosing, which they promote as a safer way to reach peak states.)

Obstacles to the Revolution: Profit & Control

While the authors discuss promising trends in Stealing Fire, they say there’s no guarantee that the psychedelic revolution will succeed. With the open-source ethos of Burning Man and psychedelic culture, some are trying to democratize knowledge of peak states. On the other hand, the psychedelic revolution could crumble due to private businesses and government agencies seeking to control and co-opt consciousness-altering technologies while reducing public access to them.

While not directly related to the psychedelic revolution, the authors say that we should be wary of how large corporations may use neuroscience to further their private interests—such as improving their bottom lines and retaining customers. For instance, video game companies engineer habit-forming gameplay loops by targeting the brain’s dopamine systems so that people will continue to play their games. The authors also speculate that down the road, we could see a sort of “VR surveillance state” wherein businesses use virtual reality and biotech equipment to gather data about people’s physiological makeups in order to manipulate them into purchasing products.

(Shortform note: The field the authors write of is called neuromarketing or consumer neuroscience—and while we aren’t living in a world of pervasive virtual advertising, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have begun to operate neuromarketing teams. These teams and other private firms use mainly brain-scanning technologies to study how consumers’ brains respond to information such as branding and marketing materials. Businesses can then use this information to pinpoint the responses they want from their customer base in order to better refine and target their marketing efforts.)

Refocusing on threats to the psychedelic revolution, the authors claim that the U.S. military has demonstrated interest in using peak states to their advantage. In the mid-twentieth century, Project MK ULTRA explored how LSD and other psychedelics might be used to brainwash and manipulate foes. Today, U.S. government agencies regularly attend and surveil the proceedings of Burning Man. The authors speculate that they’re interested in any techniques or technologies that might be used to create superior soldiers—and already, Navy SEALs use a “mind gym” full of biofeedback technology to learn skills faster and refine their ability to access group flow.

(Shortform note: Psychedelics and advanced training facilities aren’t the only ways in which the U.S. government has tried to create a superior fighting force. During World War II, U.S. soldiers (as well as Brits and Germans) were given amphetamines to stay awake and alert in grueling combat environments. More recently, the U.S. military has explored the use of modafinil, a drug used to treat narcolepsy by producing amphetamine-like effects without the side effects. However, recent research shows that modafinil may in fact have addictive side effects—and the researchers advise against the use of the drug to boost cognitive performance on a regular basis.) 

The Psychedelic Revolution: Main Barriers to Success

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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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