About 18 months ago I had a really cool idea: What if we could communicate with people who are high on LSD in such a way that sober people can’t understand?* I call this idea psychedelic cryptography (PsyCrypto for short).
The GIFs above do just that: The left one is the “original” and it shows how you perceive it while sober. The GIF on the right shows what it’s like to see the GIF on the left after taking 100 micrograms of LSD. Notice anything different?
The first thing to note is that it is easier to see what letter is hidden here (C). On a closer inspection, you can also notice another amazing fact: It turns out that there are gaps between the vertical columns! This feature pops-up with clarity and is self-evident on the right GIF, and yet one needs to carefully observe the left GIF to notice that this is happening. That piece of information is not obvious when you are sober. Hence, while a sober person may infer what the hidden letter is, only a person on a psychedelic will see right away that there are gaps between the columns. Can you think of how to use this as a communication tool?
The approach shown above is only one of a plethora of ways of communicating with people on psychedelics. Here I will mention just a couple low-hanging fruits, give a few ideas for how to extend psychophysical research to build animations in a principled way, and discuss an awesome speculative application of this research.
Do psychedelics enhance performance?
Drug “education” emphasizes the functional, perceptual, cognitive and affective impairments caused by the acute and chronic use of psychedelic substances. Psychedelics impair reaction time, linear thought, verbal expression, and a large range of everyday activities. This much is clear. It is undeniable that not all tasks are suitable for psychedelic experiences: Filing taxes, giving lectures to large audiences, and passing the polygraph test may all be rather poor choices for psychedelic activities.
But impairment is not the whole story. It is obvious to anyone who has researched the matter that psychedelics have some peculiar mind-enhancing properties. Any decent scientific account of psychedelic states has to provide information about the ways in which this particular state of consciousness confers genuine advantages.
And a great scientific account will explain why these particular trade-offs exist, and how we can best use them to (1) understand the mind, (2) achieve our human potential, and (3) address mental illness in a meaningful way.
Harman & Fadiman found a very large performance enhancement in the Witkins Embedded Figures test upon the administration of 100µg of LSD or 200mg of Mescaline. That is one of the most remarkable results of their study, which of course is not to diminish the relevance of their results concerning the rate of outstanding scientific discoveries. Unfortunately, the absence of drug-free controls in that study makes it less useful for convincing skeptics. When the study is replicated, it would be ideal to make it double-blind and not only include drug-free placebo controls, but also use an active performance-enhancing placebo, such as amphetamine.
Likewise, it is now clear that the self-insight concerning difficult emotional subjects can be radically amplified during therapeutic psychedelic sessions. How and why this happens is still a rather difficult mystery.
Finally, we are currently experiencing a memetic explosion with regards to the use of micro-doses. Although we don’t yet have formal double-blind placebo-controlled research on the benefits of micro-dosing LSD, the wealth of anecdotal evidence is too large to ignore. For LSD, a micro-dose is defined as a dose in the 10-20 microgram range. The awesome Gwern is, to my knowledge, one of the few biohackers to have run a placebo-controlled experiment on himself. Although he found no positive effects, I suspect that is largely due to the sort of activities that he cares about. A more noticeable enhancement would be observed on artists, writers and possibly mathematicians. It is genuinely exciting that there is a new wave of attention to this particular application of psychedelics: General, all-purpose life-enhancement.
A Fantastic Speculative Application
If psychedelic states of consciousness provide some sort of information-processing advantage over sober states, this advantage may be possible to exploit for secret communication. Conversely, if there is any information-delivery method that only people on psychedelics can understand, it follows that psychedelic states have distinct information-processing advantages over sober states. From a purely PR point of view, obtaining a portfolio of methods to secretly transmit information to high-people will do a lot of beneficial work in showing the potential benefits of psychedelics. This is partly what motivates my research.
Even more awesome is the idea that this technology can lead to the creation of a video-game that only people on psychedelics can understand and play. For a sober person the game would look like an incomprehensible bundle of dots, edges, colors, sounds, etc. But a person sufficiently zonked would perceive crystal-clear images and easy-to-infer objectives. Only a sufficient amount of LSD would allow you to score a single point in this game.
Low Hanging Fruit
The simplest method is to take advantage of the longer-lasting after-images experienced under the influence. This happens to be one of the most robust effects that psychedelics have, and there seems to be a very clear dose-dependent curve in the intensity of these lingering phosphenes. Neurologically, this is explained by the Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action, which can be summarized as follows: Our cortex’s main role is to provide inhibitory control on thalamic activity. The serotonergic activity of psychedelics blocks this control signal, and thus prevents the swift extinction of qualia once the triggering stimuli (whether internal or external) is removed.**
The basic idea for using tracers to communicate information is to provide, little-by-little, pieces of information that can be assembled into a coherent whole only if you use lingering after-images as building blocks.
Psychophysics for Psychedelic Research: Afterimages/Tracers
In order to find the right parameters to make awesome visualizations that can only be interpreted during psychedelic experiences, we will need to do a lot of trial-and-error, and ideally, build quality psychophysical tools. The following are some of the most important questions that we need to answer before we can go wild and build the psychedelic video-game:
- What is the dose-dependent decay function of tracers’ brightness?
- What is the additive function? Do similar colors average out? Do opposite colors cancel out?
- What is the range of features that remain in one’s experiential field? Is this dose-dependent?
- Do lingering features interact with one another? Do they achieve after-the-fact local phenomenal binding?
- What is the role of synesthesia in tracers?
To elaborate a little: The first question is about the rate of decay of phosphenes as a function of the dose and the time since the presentation of the stimuli. The GIF at the top of this page assumes an exponential gamma-corrected decay function.
The second question goes a little deeper, and it inquires about the way in which successive after-images of simple features (such as color and brightness) interact. If you first show a red square followed by a yellow one, do you then experience two overlapping but unblended colors? Or do you experience the average of the two (a hue of orange)? (If you know the answer from first-hand experience, please comment below!)
According to abundant anecdotal evidence (erowid, PsychonautWiki, r/psychonaut, etc.) the kind of perceptual objects that linger in one’s experiential field is dose-dependent. On small doses only colors and edges linger, while on higher doses you may experience emotions, faces, abstract concepts and even ontological qualia for many more seconds than normal. But what is the precise equation that describes this?
The fourth question is getting into more serious and difficult-to-research territory. Namely, we would want to know how different features interact with one another once they are lingering in one’s experiential field. If you first look at the blue sky and then look at a white cube, do you perceive a blue cube? More stunningly: If you think about the concept of recursion and then look at a tree, do you see recursion in the tree? (anecdotally, this definitely happens). The amazing thing about this particular question is that it may get at the very reason why consciousness was recruited by natural selection for information-processing purposes: There are some qualia that can be locally bound and some that can’t. This determines the range of constraints with which our mind implements constraint satisfaction solvers. But that’s a story for another post.
Finally, studying synesthesia during psychedelic experiences will almost certainly require the combination of neuro-imaging (such as fMRI) and quality psychophysics. I will explore this question further at a later time.
Answering the Questions
In order to answer most of the above questions, we can use the following paradigm: In order to test a theory you will want to (1) create interesting animations that produce particular effects, (2) create simulations of how these animations should look like under psychedelic vision, and (3) ask participants to rate the degree of similarity between the actual and predicted experiences.
For example, the GIFs below illustrate how an image might be seen if after-images are additive in nature. In other words, if you do experience orange when you flash red and yellow in quick succession, we can predict that the image on the left would be seen as the image on the right while on LSD. Is this so? I don’t know! Let me know if you happen to try it out.
Answering these questions using this and other paradigms will be very valuable to neuroscience.***
Textures (Once Again)
In Psychophysics for Psychedelic Research: Textures we discussed how we can use psychophysical tools and computational models in order to measure deficits and enhancements in our visual pattern recognition ability while under the influence of LSD. This is done by measuring the size of the Just Noticeable Differences (JND) for each of the summary statistics our visual system can recognize in peripheral vision. I have yet to collect real data from people under the influence, but thankfully the paradigm is already fleshed out. (Dear psychophysical researcher reading this blog, please feel free to use this approach!). Presumably both textures and after-images can be used to encode information that only high people can read.
A proof of concept for how to do this would be to encode information in binary code: Take a set of summary statistics that high people are good at distinguishing (and sober people confuse). Then show pairs of textures, one on the left and one on the right, so that the texture on the right has either the same or different summary statistics as the one on the left. If the textures are different then that encodes a 0. And if they are the same, that encodes a 1. Make sure that this particular summary statistic difference is only noticeable by people on psychedelics and you will have a state-dependent visual binary encryption!
Since you can communicate anything using a binary sequence, you can use this to provide any information you may want. But will your zonked friends be able to string together 1024 1s and 0s in order to decode a verbal message? Unlikely.
As the sole way of communicating information, textures are an unlikely candidate. But they may fit well as a component of a complex array of stimuli. If we can answer questions (3) and (4) we may be able to flash textures in sequence in such a way that their summary statistics are combined. While a pair of textures may not provide a lot of information, a sequence of them may overlap in such a way that high-level features begin to appear.
Hence, maybe we can build a sequence of textures that will make a person on LSD experience a particular face, or a dog. The sober person will remain clueless, though, since the consecutive textures fail to become integrated into a coherent percept.
According to Shulgin there was a study conducted in the 60s that showed that people on psilocybin can read a text with fewer letters. What does this mean? Take a random text like a children’s story. Then remove X% of letters from it at random (substituting them by an underscore to show that a letter is missing).
Every person has a comprehension threshold: A 55-percenter would only be able to read texts that have 55% or more of their letters remaining. If that person takes psilocybin, then the comprehension threshold may drop to, say, 44%. This test should be particularly easy to replicate since it does not require any sort of image processing. Would you be interested in building an online test that determines your comprehension threshold? If you do, make sure to ask “are you on a psychedelic currently?” and collect the data!
Perhaps this generalizes to other areas of verbal comprehension. For instance, can you understand spoken words with more syllables taken out? What about sign language?
These are just a few promising approaches. I am confident that by opening this idea up to the broader academic and psychedelic community a lot more ideas will blossom. If you were inspired by this article to build your own psychophysical toolkit, make sure to let me know in the comments below. And remember: I’m always looking for collaborators. 🙂
* LSD here is a shorthand for psychedelics in general.
** Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action: In his awesome book called Psychedelic Information Theory, James Kent argues that the visual and cognitive components of psychedelic experiences can be explained as the effect of subtle disruptions to the inhibitory control cycle of perception. He calls this theory the Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action. The basic idea is that in order for our experience of the world to be linear and stable there must be mechanisms in place that regulate the overall loop of consciousness. In other words, when we open our eyes, the image in out visual field does not become arbitrarily brighter over time. Nor is it the case that our visual field gets as bright as it can if you give it enough time. Rather, we have in place a negative feedback mechanism involving lateral inhibition and inhibitory projections from the cortex to the thalamus that regulates the brightness of our experience.
This inhibitory control mechanism occurs a discrete number of times per second. Therefore “control interruption” caused by psychedelics, in this model, is conceived as a periodical failure of inhibitory control that allows aspects of one’s experience to be sustained for longer than usual. The frequency of control interruption is specific to the psychedelic used. As the article conjures, salvia and nitrous oxide produce control interruption at a frequency of 8-11 and 12-15 Hz, respectively. On the other hand, DMT disrupts control at a much higher frequency (24-30+ Hz). This control interrupt creates “a standing hallucinogenic interference pattern in the consciousness of the subject”.
*** As argued by Julien Dubois and Rufin VanRullen in “Visual Trails: Do the Doors of Perception Open Periodically?” tracers may be very significant when it comes to reverse-engineering the human visual system. How many frames per second do we experience? How long do the images last in the visual field? Does this effect generalize to high-level features, or is it specific to colors and edges? Thus, building psychedelic communication tools would be of great value to neuroscience.