Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Modern flimflam men? - The Flow Genome Project

(Note added Aug.16, 2019.  Please see this update: https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2019/08/a-schism-in-flow-land-flow-genome.html. Kolter and Wheal have parted ways and have competing websites. Kolter's is the Flow Research Collective and Wheal's is the link given below to Flow Genome Project.)

Cleaning up my queue of articles on which a MindBlog post might be based, I came across this piece by Casey Schwartz titled “How to Hack your Brain (for $5,000)," which immediately triggered my bullshit detector. It uncritically describes what seems to me a circus act devised by internet age flimflam men, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, whose company (the Flow Genome Project, based in my own new hometown of Austin Texas!) is “dedicated to gathering the latest science behind flow states. It’s board of advisers includes neuroscientists, filmmakers and a kiteboarder.” The result seems to be this kind of gibble-gabble of hand waving about various neurotransmitters. From Schwartz's article:
“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.
One tries in vain to find anything of substance on their website, such as a list of the neuroscientists, or references to work on the neurotransmitters mentioned. Their core video presents the two bright-eyed and bushy tailed entrepreneurs engaging you with their personal stories and lots of kewl graphics of spinning brains and neurons. Since I'm being so negative, I felt obliged to buy the Kindle version of "Stealing Fire" by Kolter and Wheal.

The bottom line is that it is an creative, wide ranging, everything but the kitchen sink, whacked out, exuberant, off the wall advertisement for Flow Genome which doesn't offer much substance. It has detailed references and what looks on the surface like a very respectable bibliography. I can't even begin to describe the confusion and chaos that lies below this veneer if one simply begins to follow through on any of the reference threads. Clicking on footnotes that purport to be supportive of the 'science' gets you a mishmash of review articles. There are several references to "The knobs and levers being tweaked in the brain: See www.flowgenomeproject.com/stealingfiretools." This link does not work. Or, "And if you’re interested in helping further this research, visit: www.stealingfirebook.com/research/". This link does not work.

I have great respect for  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s original writings on the state of ‘flow,’ which clearly lays out Kolter and Wheal's' "four signature characteristics underneath: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short." However, my 75 year old curmudgeonly brain is not sympathetic to the package offered by the Flow Genome Project, whose claimed positive outcome I suspect might best be described as a mass placebo effect induced by a pseudoscientific charismatic religious act...If you believe it works, it works!


  1. When I see things like that I always think of the beautiful lecture on scientific method by Richard Feynman.
    He says "Another thing I must point out is that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and rather vague, and the method that you use for figuring out the consequences is a little vague - you are not sure, and you say, 'I think everything's right because it's all due to moogles, and moogles do this and that more or less, and I can sort of explain how this works ... ', then you see that this theory is good, because it cannot be proved wrong!"

  2. I'm pasting in here an email from reader Mike Walterman, who indicated he encountered a glitch in trying to post his comment directly: Hi Deric,

    I read your commentary on the Flow Genome Project (FGP) with great interest. Your suspicions about this "effort" are spot on, and I wish that I had your insight before taking two of these classes from the FGP. By the way, Steven Kotler is an alum of UW-Madison!!

    The first class (Flow Fundamentals) was a great community of people, and I learned much from them, and nothing from the FGP personnel. The second class (Flow Performance) was pseudo-profound BS (PPBS.) There is a great paper that won an Ig Nobel Prize titled "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit." I have attached a PDF version of this paper to this email. The paper perfectly described every aspect of this class!! The instructor - Jamie Wheal - is more interested in impressing people with PPBS than realaying any useful information. Also, each class is prefeaced with the promise that "All the secrets of Stealing Fire will be revealed in this next class." I stopped when this promise was not delivered in Flow Performance; but, was promised for private coaching (at an extremely high price).

    Anyway, I tried to respond to your blog and am not sure that my posting made it though (weird interface glitches). There is so much more I can say about my 12 weeks wasted with the FGP. It could fill many pages.

    All the best,

    Mike Walterman

  3. Lucas5:08 PM

    We're actually re-launching our new website in the coming month or so to address and make more transparent the research we're working on. As for the links, that was a frustrating mistake with them being published without confirmation on the back end. The correct working links are:


    Sorry to hear Mike that you're still not satisfied with your experience in the course. Those marketing criticisms are puzzling as we unpacked quite a lot of information in Flow Performance with respect to that topic. The private coaching is not promising to deliver hidden information that Flow Performance does not, but rather the personal 1:1 time with a coach.

    1. "Information" (actually pseudo profound bullshit) about pseudo-science from pseudo-professionals is of little to no value to anyone, other than building the FGP's bank accounts.

    2. Your "links" to "research" are just links to promotions for your book. That's pretty lame.

  4. During the Flow Performance Class, Jamie Wheal made the statement multiple times that "Stealing Fire [the book that he co-authored and the foundation for FGP training] is a complete fiction; a Promethean Prank." Taking him at his word, how can such a document have any scientific validity and/or application at all?! In addition, whenever a topic came up - in Flow Performance - in which certain class members had experience and deep understanding (e.g. Breathwork, DNA testing, Microdosing), the lack of knowledge/depth of understanding on the part of the FGP was blindingly obvious given the FGP's responses to deeper inquiries by those experts in the class. It is very telling when one starts addressing questions and concerns about their work with statements about their credentials, listing members of their network/inner circle, and engaging in character assassination against those who question; rather than addressing the questions directly. This was a constant problem during Flow Performance. It was the worst, but not the only, source of pseudo profound bullshit in the Flow Performance class.

  5. Per Lucas' comment that:

    "The private coaching [from the Flow Genome Project] is not promising to deliver hidden information that Flow Performance does not, but rather the personal 1:1 time with a coach."

    Here is an excerpt from an email from Jamie Wheal announcing the availability of private coaching to all members of the Flow Performance Class:

    "I’ve only ever done this with CEOs and military leaders, never before to the general public. We’re going to combine deep dive coaching, direct facilitation through some of our highest octane tools and a behind the curtain look at what we covered in Stealing Fire. No filter. Gloves off. The most potent tools and techniques we’ve learned in over a decade of working with the best in the world, and seeing what actually sticks."

    The VERY same promise made for Flow Performance. A promise that was never kept. I rest my case!!

  6. thanks for this post

    1. Hi jl, You are most welcome! I view the field of peak human performance with the utmost respect and reverence. The Flow Genome Project commercializes and demeans this all important area of inquiry with their quick buck predatory antics.

    2. Hi MTW (Mike W.?) and Deric, since you know the topic, could you point in the direction of some valuable study and practice path towards achieving flow in daily life? I once read a summary of the Csikszentmihalyi book but figured that just reading a book won't give me the cues I needed in real life...

  7. Gosh, I was about to register for the course. I thought it would be wise to check for reviews, but I never imagined there would be such devastating criticisms from course participants. 500USD saved.

  8. Jamie Wheal7:45 PM

    hey folks posting here--please be decent humans and have whole hearted debate, but don't be trolls! If what we do at FGP isn't your speed, no worries. Big wide world out there, sure you can find what you're looking for. It's ironic that you've chosen to tar us with the quick-buck info marketer brush, as we have even more of an allergic reaction to that whole scene than you guys do--it's a constant topic in our team meetings and governs everything we do (and don't). We've been doing what we're doing mostly for free, often for low pay, occasionally for high pay for twenty years. We don't share anything we don't live, practice and find essential--that means we don't teach meditation (cuz we don't do it ourselves), and we don't overgeek on supplements and smart tech--just haven't found much in either space that meets our standards. But what we have done, is unrelentingly seek a life of purpose, balance, adventure and meaning. (and along the way, researched the hell out of what works and what doesn't). And not from the safe confines of a laptop--we've led folks up Everest and guided around the world, and have been extreme athletes, along with Montessori teachers, non-profit founders, parents of an Olympic trials swimmer daughter at Stanford, and a wilderness medic/adventure guide son) and we've done it all living the things we teach from the ground up. To say that we don't know what we're talking about when it comes to science is also curious--There are over 15,000 words of endnotes in Stealing Fire which represents probably the richest bibliography to date on the state of the art of optimal psychology, transformational culture and cutting edge neuroscience. It was nominated for a Pulitzer and translated in over a dozen languages. There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world whose lives were changed by that book and dozens of companies founded using it as a blueprint for next gen experience design. (Personally, I was bummed that our editor at Harper didn't let us use superscript citations, because I like to read w a thumb in the endnotes to check all truth claims and wanted that for our readers too.) Out of 300 pages, we mention our own work for 5 pages, and debated even doing that--but decided we had to, because WTF, it's the best synthesis of the book's thesis we can find.

  9. Jamie Wheal7:46 PM

    If you guys are in fact right, and we have no idea what we're talking about, that means you are smarter than the best minds at Stanford (invited to speak twice at their Brain Mind Conference alongside Nobel laureates, and working with two neuro labs there), MIT (presented at their leadership and science summits) Johns Hopkins (coleading a research project on PTSD and breathwork) Imperial College and MAPS (advising on psychedelic research and policy) and the special operations command in the United States and the United Kingdom. I mean, you might be. But then again, that's a fairly high burden of proof. Currently I'm writing the sequel to Stealing Fire, dedicated to unpacking an integrated theory of peak states, trauma relief and social coordination involving a synthesis of delta wave EEG, vagal nerve tone, gas assisted respiratory protocols, sexual integration (collab with Kinsey Institute) and the impact of music, nervous system release and immersive technology as an open source solution to our social and mental crises. No one has tracked a cross disciplinary synthesis at this level to date. As far as our actual trainings, and the worldwide community we're growing? Amazing. For all of our advanced courses folks are required to do community service (a bunch right now are doing end of life interviews in nursing homes, others have started food kitchen and aid projects) wilderness medical training (so they can boost situational awareness, physiological knowledge and leadership skills) and deep hearted support for each other along the road. It's a humbling group of homegrown humans and we're proud to be a part of it. If that's not your jam, it's not your jam. But please understand it before you slander it. "On hearing of the Way, the wise man picks it up and makes it his own. The mediocre man studies it for a while and sets it down. And the fool? The fool just laughs! (and if it were not so, it would not be The Way.) --Jamie