How to Hack Your Brain (for $5,000)

To fulfill his flow-finding mission, Mr. Wheal wants to bring what he calls his Dojo Domes to locations around the world. Next year, he and his partners hope to build a one-million-square-foot complex in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a medical emphasis, combining brain-imaging technology with simpler equipment.

Mr. Wheal began to envision gatherings of this sort in 2007, while he was teaching at Esalen, the spiritual retreat in California. With Steven Kotler, a journalist, he founded the Flow Genome Project, based in Austin, Tex., and dedicated to gathering the latest science behind flow states. Its board of advisers includes neuroscientists, filmmakers and a kiteboarder.

It was his book, “Stealing Fire,” written with Mr. Kotler and published earlier this year, that attracted many of the flow campers to Utah. In it, Mr. Wheal and Mr. Kotler consider the question of peak human performance, describing how so many powerful companies and individuals are now trying to optimize their own brains, in ways both legal and illegal.

They offer case studies from the Navy SEALs and Google, arguing that what the world today faces “wicked problems,” unprecedented and complex, that require creative solutions, the kinds that are most likely to come not from staid meetings in conference rooms but rather from “non-ordinary states.”

“Flow,” they write, is associated with six neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide and endorphins. Knowing the neurochemical profile of flow means, in theory, people can devise ways of achieving it more often, more reliably and more quickly.

The new generation of flowsters are excited, perhaps, that using the advances of neuroscience, they might not have to meditate every day for 10 years to gain access to these layers of their brains.

Photo

Attendees were housed in white, tepee-like tents, with portable toilets set up down a dirt path.

Credit
Michael Friberg for The New York Times

“This was a significant investment of time and money for me — this tells you how compelled I was to come here,” said Alexandre Lang-Willar. At 28, Mr. Lang-Willar is in some ways the embodiment of Mr. Wheal’s target demographic: the high achiever who grasps the brass ring, only to discover he craves something more. Mr. Lang-Willar quit his job as a Goldman Sachs analyst and has created a dating app with his father called “Invite and Meet,” centered on live activities, that will be introduced later this year.

Reading “Stealing Fire,” Mr. Lang-Willar said, he became convinced that nothing less than a “cultural awakening” was underway.

By 8 a.m. each morning, the flow campers lay prone and shoeless in the Dojo Dome, moving back and forth on brightly colored foam rollers. Other daily activities included balancing and bouncing on big yellow balls; acro-yoga, in which partners learn to lift each other in the air; and strapping into special contraptions, like Mr. Wheal’s 360 Swing, which allows those courageous enough to propel themselves, standing up, all the way around the swing’s axle in a complete loop.

All of these undertakings were in the service of honing a crucial element in flow, what Mr. Wheal refers to as “embodied cognition”: integrating our whole minds and bodies through specific exercise, based on the science showing that physical movement directly affects how we think and feel.

“They are tapping into spiritual intelligence that before now was only really talked about in a religious context,” Kristen Ulmer said, sitting outside the Dojo Dome one morning. Ms. Ulmer, formerly the top ranked extreme skier in the world, has also written a book, “The Art of Fear.”

She went on: “A lot more people are saying they’re spiritual but not religious — but what does that really mean? I would say sports and movement are the most oft way we access a spiritual experience and transcend our ego, but they’re the least discussed and least understood.”

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