The Hyper Experience Economy
Image by Martin420

Mind-altering substances, video games and meditation release the same neurochemicals and enable us to enter an altered state. Ever more consumers strive for such a state, simply for the experience itself or as a form of performance enhancement, making for a $4 trillion market in the U.S. Along with consumers, companies are increasingly ‘hacking consciousness’ to benefit from the Hyper Experience Economy.

Observations

  • In Stealing Fire, authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal have constructed the ‘Altered States Economy’. Here Americans spent $4 trillion to reach an altered state of mind in which they ‘step out of themselves’.
  • These altered states are characterized by deactivation of self-consciousness, and the presence of six neurochemicals which amplify focus, pattern recognition, collaboration and pleasure.
  • Mind-altering substances help us get out of our heads. These substances include: prescribed medication (for pain, depression and anxiety), legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) and illegal drugs (cocaine and heroin).
  • Experiences towards personal growth help us get out of our current state of awareness: the online self-help market, life coaches, therapy and counseling, and neuromodulation.
  • Immersive media and entertainment are designed to prompt a loss of self: video games, IMAX and 3D films, virtual reality, binge watching, Electronic Dance Music and porn.
  • A realm of recreation has a central function to get us out of ourselves: extreme sports, yoga, theme parks, adventure travel and gambling.
  • The authors of Stealing Fire claim that all of the state-changing substances and experiences mentioned above, release the same neurochemicals.

Analysis

Mind-altering substances, video games and meditation seem unrelated. But neuroscience has revealed that these activities release the same neurochemicals. We enter an altered state in which we are no longer trapped by our regular self-consciousness. The prefrontal cortex, which generates self-consciousness, turns off. In turn, we enter ‘transient hypofrontality’: our ego shuts off, we lose our sense of time, we experience intense pleasure, and our capacity to process information increases.

Indeed, these neurochemicals can also be performance-enhancing. Hence, the authors of Stealing Fire have worked with Google and SEAL Team Six, the most elite military unit of the U.S., on accelerated learning. By using sensory deprivation tanks to eliminate distraction, train specific brainwaves and regulate heart rate, the SEALs were able to cut down the time to learn a language from six months to six weeks.

while we might be unaware of our tendency to strive for altered states, we spend more money to reach them than we think

Regardless of the reason we choose to strive for altered states, we go to great lengths to reach them. The $4 trillion spend in the ‘Altered States Economy’ reveals the distance people are willing to go.

Part of the explanation lies in the addictive neurochemicals involved: video games raise dopamine to the same degree that sex does, and almost as much as cocaine. Most importantly, while we might be unaware of our tendency to strive for altered states, we spend more money to reach them than we think.

This means that we are forced to reconsider some assumptions about our economy. Since neuroscience reveals similar altered states between drugs, video games and yoga, there is a deeper explanation to their appeal than fun, relaxation or escapism.

Indeed, the loss of self and time points towards a fundamentally different experience of the world around us. Hence, we can understand the Altered States Economy as a Hyper Experience Economy – a combination of Toffler’s experience economy (in which we desire feelings) and Pine’s transformation economy (in which we desire personal transformation).

In fact, we transform our experience of the world around us. Major companies are already ‘hacking consciousness’. In the video game industry, developers use EEG brain sensors and heart rate monitors to raise adrenaline-rush effects. DARPA can predict future spending simply by reviewing data produced by these sensors and monitors in front of an audience. As virtual reality becomes integrated with biometrics, opportunities and concerns will both rise significantly.