I’m at the bar in what appears to be an Old West saloon, shooting the breeze with a guy from Nevada who sits on a stool in a dark corner, hiding from his fans, casually crumbling marijuana into his roll-up tobacco. As he does this, Nevada guy explains why weed, alongside the other drug we had that morning at camp, the psychoactive bean juice commonly known as coffee, provides a way into a brain state prized by athletes, monks, and every creative person ever.
The saloon and campground are actually on a business property — sorry, Institute — in the middle of Mendocino, California, ground zero for old-school outdoor pot production. The pot company is Flow Kana, which pitches itself as an organic farm-to-table service — a weed middleman, basically, and a rising star in the cannabis world. I’ve watched Flow Kana’s expansion up close, ever since I met its gregarious Venezualan-American CEO, Mikey Steinmetz, at his 2015 launch party at a home in the Berkeley Hills where the generous trays of joints and the excited conversations of VCs spoke of an industry being born.
Now, four years later, look at Mikey: founding an institute, constructing convincing Old West Saloons, filling fields full of fully-stocked glamping tents on a valley property of untold rolling acres. And down from the Saloon on a vast stage-tent setup, the centerpiece of a new content-first plan: Flow Talks, the weed industry’s answer to TED. Later, Mikey would bring on stage the event’s mystery guest: Snoop Dogg.
All respect to Snoop, but the true headliner of the talks was an expert in the fascinating brain state for which the company was named: flow. (Some say “in the zone,” musicians talk of “the pocket,” but we all know flow: that moment where time has no meaning and your ego vanishes and you just accomplish, effortlessly. Studies have shown that being in flow spikes levels of creativity and executive productivity, often for days after the flow state; DARPA says it lets you learn new things 490 percent faster.)
This expert was Nevada weed guy, aka multi-bestselling author Steven Kotler, who founded a company, the Flow Research Collective, formerly the Flow Genome Project. It funds further flow science in collaboration with universities like UCLA and Imperial College London. Clients for its “ultimate human performance” training (which doesn’t include weed, at least on paper) include Google, Nike, and the U.S. Naval War College. Kotler also headlines Flow Kana’s first podcast, hosted by National Geographic channel’s Jason Silva and released this week. His Flow Talk was titled Cannabis, Flow and Peak Performance.
The talk opened with an arresting anecdote from the 1990s, when Kotler was a reporter covering extreme sports. He found himself at 7 a.m. one morning in windy, 10 below zero weather at the top of the terrifying Palisades, the steepest peak in California’s Olympic wintersport Mecca, Squaw Valley, with eight world-class skiers. And what were they doing to prepare? Sitting in a circle, smoking and passing a glass bowl.
“It was like a 5, 10 minute circle; they were stoned,” Kotler told me in the Saloon when I pressed him for details. “At the time, I was like ‘what the fuck are they doing? Like, get stoned last night at the bar, OK, but you’re about to do a double backflip off an 80-foot cliff over rocks.'” This led to Kotler uncovering the popularity of, uh, pre-gaming at the highest levels of pro sports.
“Action sport athletes for years have been combining exercise, coffee, and cannabis into a ‘hippie speedball,’ and they’ve been using it as a performance-enhancing chemical,” Kotler said. Which “led me to a ‘what the fuck is going on’ question that took about 20 years to answer.” Answer: Performance enhancement, combined with exercise, was chemically indistinguishable from the state of flow.
Brain science has taken giant leaps forward since flow was first identified in the 1970s by renowned psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (appropriately, his name is pronounced “chick sent me high”). Not only do we know what flow looks like in the brain, thanks to the wondrous MRI machine, we know exactly what neurochemicals are present when we enter that mystical state of perfect productivity: dopamine, anadamide, seratonin, and endorphins.
And guess what chemicals are released by the hippie speedball? Yup. The same.
How it works
Endorphins should come first, Kotler emphasizes: Ideally, you should exercise for a good 20 minutes or more to trigger the flow state. We don’t enter flow until we’re doing something that taxes us, something that stretches the limits of our comfort zone. “Wait until it gets quiet upstairs,” he says, tapping his forehead. That’s a thing: It’s called exercised-induced transient hypofrontality, and scientists have proved that it literally alters your thought process. “Once you’re there, if you add in caffeine and then a sativa, you’re as close as we can get to a pharmacological version of flow.”
It is at this stage that we should point out the obvious caveat: Kotler is just a researcher, not a doctor, and nor is he writing you a prescription. “Everyone’s flow triggers are different,” he says, and he is constantly pointing out that more research is needed. (He’s particularly excited about the portable MRI machines now being developed, by ex-Facebook executive Mary Lou Jepsen among others, which if they pan out will turn the cost of multimillion-dollar flow studies into “pennies on the dollar.”)
“Let me tell you how little we know from here on out,” Kotler cautions me at the Saloon. “We don’t know anything about the cannabis combinations; we believe it’s sativa because we need the dopamine, but that’s probably actually about the terpenes,” those marvelous, mysterious chemicals in plants that science has barely begun to catalog. Also: “What kind of caffeine? Does coffee work better than tea? Here’s another substance we use all the time for high performance, and we don’t know shit about it.”
We do have plenty of information on how these three elements work in isolation. Exercise is as close to a silver bullet against ailments as we have found; it’s even linked to lower cancer risk. If it came in pill form, every doctor in the world would prescribe it. The psychoactive chemical caffeine is so effective at sharpening the mind that a famous mathematician once uttered the immortal phrase “a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.”
Given that the 18th century’s great leap forward, The Enlightenment, occurred around the same time that coffee houses sprung up everywhere and we stopped drinking beer for breakfast, you could also say that humans are devices for turning coffee into modern civilization. (As little as we understand the why, we do know that it is safe to drink up to 25 cups of coffee a day.)
And cannabis? It isn’t just sports pros who sing its praises. Its effect on musicians is well-documented, from jazz (Louis Armstrong was called “Satchmo” for the little satchel of weed he carried around his neck and consumed every day) through pop and rock (Bob Dylan changed Beatles music forever when he got the Fab Four high in 1964) to hip hop (too many artists to mention).
Famous writers too: not just the obviously high (Hunter S. Thompson) but also literary giants (Thomas Pynchon, Maya Angelou) and thriller masters (Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, revealed in a 2013 interview that he’d smoked weed 5 nights a week for 44 years).
Count Kotler among that number. “I’ve written nine bestsellers stoned,” he says; he was moderately high throughout the writing process for all but his first book, a novel he now dislikes. And that’s the key word, at least for the way Kotler does it: moderately. When he started doing this, he was stuck in bed healing from lyme disease, unable to write.
His attitude at the time, he says, based on the doses he’d ingested in the past, was “how the fuck is weed going to help me?” A friend, veteran psychedelic researcher Rick Doblin, responded: “no, you’re doing it wrong.”
Doblin suggested Kotler take a very brief inhale —a “quarter hit,” Kotler says, basically a microdose — for every 45 minutes of writing. This turned out to be the sweet spot, and the words flowed. “The stuff that normally inhibits you goes away,” Kotler says. “You have to do a big edit session afterwards, especially in the beginning, but you can usually find enough nuggets that it’s worth pursuing.”
This is not a topic Kotler has written much about in his books on human performance thus far, though it is starting to seep into his work. His latest book is a novel, Last Tango in Cyberspace, in which the protagonist receives a gift from a mysterious billionaire that includes a vial of a Trainwreck hybrid, and puffs it steadily throughout. “I took a lot of crap for that,” Kotler says. “It was set in the future, and people were like ‘why is there so much cannabis?’ I’m like ‘because in the future, alcohol is going to go away.'”
Certainly the millennial attitude to alcohol suggests that the booze industry has a long, slow decline ahead of it, but Kotler suggests the timeline of the marijuana takeover is more accelerated than we think. “Look at Silicon Valley, everyone’s smoking pot on their lunch break. This is, like, five years from now. Don’t kid yourself.”
Looking around the Flow Kana Institute, listening to the earnest talks that followed Kotler’s, it was hard not to believe it. When Snoop arrived at the end of the day, Mikey seemed to stumble over his words a lot while interviewing him on stage. He later told me that the hip hop legend had insisted they smoke six (six!) joints together before going on. He could have refused, of course, but “hey, it’s Snoop!”