It would be impossible for me to summarize what truly went on at Psychedelic Science 2017. Since giving a fair and detailed account of all of the presentations, workshops and social events I attended is out of the question, I will restrict myself to talking about, what I see as, the core insights and take-aways from the conference (plus some additional impressions I’ll get to). In brief, the core insights are: (1) that we are on the brink of a culturally-accepted scientific revolution on the study of consciousness in which we finally navigate our way out of our current pre-Galilean understanding of the mind, (2) that the breakdown of both the extremes of nihilism and eternalism as ideological north-stars in consciousness research is about to take place (i.e. finding out that neither scientific materialism nor spirituality convey the full picture), and (3) that a new science of valence, qualia, and rational psychonautics based on the quantification of good and bad feelings is slowly making its way into the surface.
With regards to (1): It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention that there is a psychedelic renaissance underway. Bearing extreme world-wide counter-measures against it, in so far as psychedelic and empathogenic compounds meet the required evidentiary standards of mainstream psychopharmacology as safe and effective treatments for mental illness (and they do), they will be a staple of tomorrow’s tools for mental health. It’s not a difficult gamble: the current studies being made around the world are merely providing the scientific backing of what was already known in the 60s (for psychedelics) and 80s (for MDMA). I.e. That psychedelic medicine (people love to call it that way) in the right set and setting produces outstanding clinically-relevant effect sizes.
On (2): it is very unclear what people who attended the conference believe about the nature of reality, but overall there was a strong Open Individualist undercurrent and a powerful feeling that transcendence is right next door (even the urinals had sacred geometry*). That said, the science provided a refreshing feeling of cautious nihilism. Trying to reconcile both love and science is, in my opinion, the way to go. Whether we are about to ascend to another realm or if we are about to find out about our cosmic meaninglessness, the truth is that there are a lot of more immediate things to worry about. Arguably, psychedelic experiences could be used to treat both the afflictions that come with eternalism as well as those that come from nihilism. Namely, psychedelics often make you experience the world as you believe it to be (echoing John C. Lilly’s famous words: “In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits…”). So if you rely on intense (but mundanely challenged) feelings of transcendence to get by, you may find out on a psychedelic experience that making a world in which what you believe is literally true does not lead to happiness and meaningfulness in the way you thought it might. Unless, of course, one believes that everything that happens is a net positive somehow (which is hard to do given the regular onslaught of meaninglessness found in everyday life), any profound realization of an ontological basis of reality (as in “a made up universe perceived as if real”) can lead to dysphoria. Nihilism can be profoundly distressing on psychedelics. Yet, as evidenced by the bulk of conscious experiences, the quality of meaningfulness in one’s experience is a continuum, neither objective nor subjective, and neither eternal nor unreal (I’m using the terminology from the book “Meaningness“, though other terminologies exist for similar concepts such as the Buddhist “middle way”, Existentialism, Pragmatism, Rationalists’ epistemic rationality, etc.).
Psychedelic veterans usually end up converging on something that has this sort of emotional texture: A bitter-sweet yet Stoic worldview that leaves an open space for all kinds of wonderful things to happen, yet remains aware of the comings and goings of happiness and fulfillment. It makes it a point to not be too preoccupied with questions of ultimate meaning. It may be that for most people it’s impossible to arrive at such wisdom without trying out (and failing in some way) to live all of their fantasies before giving up and accepting the fluxing nature of reality. In such a case, psychedelics would seem to offer us a way to accelerate our learning about the unsatisfactoriness of attachments and find the way to live in realistic joy.
That said, maybe such wisdom is not Wisdom (in the sense of being universal) since we are restricting our analysis to the human wetware as it is today. What reason do we have to believe that the hedonic treadmill is a fundamental property of the universe? A lot of evidence suggests persistent differences in people’s hedonic set-point (often genetically influenced, as in the case of the SCN9A gene for pain thresholds), and this challenges the notion that we can’t avoid suffering. Indeed, MDMA-like states may some day be experienced at will with the use of technology (and without side effects). There may even be scientifically-derived precision-engineered ethical and freedom-expanding wireheading technology that will make our current everyday way of life look laughably uninteresting and unmeaningful in comparison.
Unfortunately, talking about this (i.e. technologically-induced hedonic recalibration) with people who need a pessimistic metaphysics of valence just to function may be considered antisocial. For example, some people seem to need spiritual theories of the pleasure-pain axis that focus on fairness (such as the doctrine of Karma) in order to feel like they are not randomly getting the shorter end of the (cosmic) stick (this sentiment usually comes together with implicit Closed Individualist convictions). Of course feeling like one is a victim is itself the result of one’s affect. This provides the perfect segway for (3):
In addition to all of the magical (but expected) fusion of art, psychotherapy, mysticism, spirituality and self-hacking that this conference attracted, I was extremely delighted to see the hints of what I think will change the world for the better like nothing else will: psychedelic valence research.
Of particular note is the work of Dráulio Barros de Araújo (“Rapid Antidepressant Effects of the Psychedelic Ayahuasca in Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial”), Mendel Kaelen (“The Psychological and Neurophysiological Effects of Music in Combination with Psychedelics”), Leor Roseman (“Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy: Neural Changes and the Relationship Between Acute Peak Experience and Clinical Outcomes”), Jordi Riba (“New Findings from Ayahuasca Research: From Enhancing Mindfulness Abilities to Promoting Neurogenesis”), Selen Atasoy (“Enhanced Improvisation in Brain Processing by LSD: Exploring Neural Correlates of LSD Experience With Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves”), Tomas Palenicek (“The Effects of Psilocybin on Perception and Dynamics of Induced EEG/fMRI Correlates of Psychedelic Experience”) and Clare Wikins (“A Novel Approach to Detoxification from Methadone Using Low, Repeated, and Cumulative Administering of Ibogaine”).
And of all of these, Selen Atasoy‘s work seems to be hitting the nail in the head the most: Her work involves looking into how psychedelics affect the overall amount of energy that each of the brain’s discrete connectome-specific resonant states has. Without giving it away (their work with LSD is still unpublished) let me just say that they found that having some extra energy in specific harmonics was predictive of the specific psychedelic effects experienced at a given point in time (including things such as emotional arousal, deeply felt positive mood, and ego dissolution).
Remarkably, this line of work is in agreement with Mike Johnson’s theoretical framework for the study of valence (as outlined in Principia Qualia). Namely, that there is a deep connection between harmony, symmetry and valence that will make sense once we figure out the mathematical structure whose formal properties are isomorphic to a subject’s phenomenology. In particular, “Valence Structuralism” would seem to be supported by the findings that relatively pure harmonic states are experienced as positive emotion. We would further predict that very pure harmonic states would have the highest level of (positive) hedonic tone (i.e. bliss). We are indeed very intrigued by the connectome-specific harmonic approach to psychedelic research and look forward to working with this paradigm in the future. It would be an understatement to say that we are also excited to see the results of applying this paradigm to study MDMA-like states of consciousness. This line of research is, above all, what makes me think that this year is the Year of Qualia (whether we have realized it or not). As it were, we are seeing the first hints of a future science of consciousness that can finally provide quantitative predictions about valence, and hence, become the first scientifically-compliant theory of ultimate value.
And now some subjective impressions about the conference…
At its core, the conference felt extremely psychedelic in its own right. The artwork, people’s attires, the scents, the background music, etc. were all what seemed to me like expressions of an emerging style of psychedelic ambiance: A euphoric blend of MDMA-like self-assurant empathegenesis vibes (“everything will be ok”) with an LSD-like ontological sabotage to the ego entheoblasting vibes of universal oneness (“things are not what they seem/everything already always and never has happened at the same time”). Peak experiences, after all, often involve the metaphorical reconciliation of the divine and the mundane in a cosmic dance of meaning.
In his book “Simulations of God” John C. Lilly proposes that beneath the surface of our awareness, each and every mind worships a number of seemingly transcendental values (sometimes, but not always, explicitly personified). Whether we know it or not, he argues, each and every one of us treats as if a God at least something. Whether we think there there is a “God Out There”, that “Truth is the Ultimate God”, or that “God Is The Group”, the highest node in our behavioral hierarchy is always covertly managed by our basic assumptions about reality (and what they prescribe as “intrinsically good”). The book’s table of contents is awesome; it outlines what ends up being the bulk of what humans ever care about as their ultimate values:
- God As the Beginning
- I Am God
- God Out There
- God As Him/Her/It
- God As The Group
- God As Orgasm and Sex
- God As Death
- God As Drugs
- God As the Body
- God As Money
- God As Righteous Wrath
- God As Compassion
- God As War
- God As Science
- God As Mystery
- God As the Belief, the Simulation, the Model
- God As the Computer
- God Simulating Himself
- God As Consciousness-without-an-Object
- God As Humor
- God As Superspace, the Ultimate Collapse into the Black Hole, the End.
- The Ultimate Simulation
- God As the Diad
Perhaps what’s most amazing about psychedelics is that they are capable of changing one’s Gods. It’s extremely common for people who take psychedelics to de-emphasize traditionalist and mainstream Gods such as 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 11, 13, while also having experiences (and changes of mind) that push them to emphasize 2, 6, 8, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, and 23. But one wonders, what’s the eventual steady-state? As an umbrella description of what is going on we could say that psychedelics make you more open. But where does this, ultimately, lead?
Perhaps you started out in a conservative household and a family that emphasized loyalty to the group, conformism, nationalism and traditional religious values (1, 3, 5, 7). But once you tried LSD you felt a great change in the strength of your various deep-seated inclinations. You realize that you do not want to worship anything just to fit in, just to be part of a group, and that maybe caring about money is not as important as caring about making your own meaning out of life. You now feel like you care more about mysterious things like Orgasm (6), the Mind-Body connection (9), and philosophical questions like “If I am God, why would I build a universe with suffering in it?” (2, 15, 16, 21). You maybe watch some lectures by Alan Watts and read a book by Huxley, among other counter-culture material consumed, and you might start to develop a general belief in “the transcendent” but in a way that attempts to be compatible with the fact that you and the people you love experience suffering. You fantasize with the idea that maybe all of suffering is somehow necessary for some higher cosmic purpose (18, 19, 22) to which you are only made privy every now and then. You then continue on the path of psychedelic divination, perhaps taking more than you could handle here and there, and you are made aware of incredible universes: you meet guardians, you are led to read about Theosophy, you meet archetypes of the collective psyche, and after a while your strange experience with electronic equipment on LSD makes you wonder whether telepathy (at least an energetic and emotional variant of it) could be possible after all. But you do not ever obtain “good enough evidence” that would convince anyone who is determined to be a skeptic of your glitches of the Matrix. At some point, after taking too many magic mushrooms, you end up in what seems like a sort of Buddhist Hell: Feeling like we are all One no longer feels like a fact to be excited about, but rather, this is felt as a realization that should be forgotten as soon as one has it. Don’t let the cosmic boredom set in, don’t led nihilistic monism get to your very core. But it does, and you have a bad trip, one trip that you feel you never really recovered from, and whose nature is never talked about at psychedelic gatherings. (Don’t worry, right next door someone had a bad trip whose semantic content was the exact opposite of yours yet its effects on your corresponding valence landscapes were similar, e.g. concluding that “we are all made of atoms with no purpose” may feel just as bad as believing that “we are all God, and God is bored”). So maybe psychedelic therapy is a red herring after all, you think to yourself, and we should really be looking only into compounds that both increase euphoria and obfuscate the ultimate nature of reality at the same time. “Science, we need science” -you tell yourself- “so that we can figure out what it is that consciousness truly wants, and avoid both nihilistic bad trips as well as unrealistic eternalist mania”. Perhaps we are currently about to have to figure this out as a collective intelligence: “What do we do with the fact that we are all God?” This question is now making its way in etheric undercurrents in the shared meme-space of humanity just as the psychedelic renaissance starts to unfold.
The above paragraph is just one of the various archetypical ways in which psychedelic self-exploration may progress over time for a particular person. Of course not only do people’s progression vary; people’s starting points may be different. Some people approach psychedelics with spiritual intentions, others do so with recreation in mind, others use them for psychological self-exploration, and yet others use it to try to find glitches in reality. I would love to have a quantitative assessment of how one’s starting “implicit Gods” influence the way psychedelics affect you, and how such Gods evolve over the course of more exposure to psychedelic states of consciousness. There is a lot of wisdom-amplification research to be made on this front.
You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.
– Timothy Leary
The first thing I noticed at this conference was that this is a crowd that values both love and science. The geek in me seemed to be more than welcomed in here.
While I was able to enjoy the incredible vibe of the Bicycle Day celebration (just a day before the conference), I remember thinking that evolutionary psychology (cf. Mating Mind) would have a lot to say about it. A large proportion of seemingly selfless display of psychedelic self-sacrifice (e.g. LSD mega-dosing, spiritual training, asceticism, etc.) might in fact be just sexual signaling of fitness traits such as mental and physical robustness (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Political Peacocks). It’s hard to separate the universal love from the tribal mate-selection going on at raves and parties of this nature, and at times one may even get a bit of an anti-intellectual vibe for questioning this too deeply.
At the conference, though, I could tell there was another story going on. Namely, the God of Science made a prominent appearance, giving us all a sense of genuine progress beyond the comings and goings of the eternal game of hide-and-seek as one would expect in mere neo-hippy cyber-paganist events.
The God of Science… yes… if you think about it, holding an enriched concept of “science” (in its most expansive sense possible) while simultaneously trying to hold with equal intensity and expansiveness the intent of “love for all beings”, can make strange and wonderful things happen in your mind. Of salience is the fact that there will be an intense pull towards either only experiencing thought-forms about love or only focusing on thought-forms about science. Mixing the two requires a lot of energy. It’s almost as if we were wired to only focus on one at a time. This is an effect reminiscent to the mutual inhibition between empathizing and systematizing cognitive styles, and maybe at its core, the difficulty in blending both love and science without residue is a reflection of an underlying invariant. Under the assumption that you have a limited amount of positive valence at your disposal to paint your world simulation, and that you want to achieve clarity of mind, it is possible that you will have to front-load most of that positive valence in either broad quantitative observations (systematizing) or focused feelings of specialness and intimacy (empathizing). This is why, for instance, MDMA and 2C-B are so promising for cognitive transhumanism: these compounds can give rise to experiences in which there is a huge surplus of positive valence ready to be used to paint any aspect of your world simulation with bliss qualia. Sadly, this is a property of such states of consciousness, and it cannot currently be brought into our everyday lives as it is. Without serious genetic engineering (or other valence-enhancing technologies) all we can do for now is to make use of these states of consciousness to catalyze changes in our deep-seated existential stances in order to help us get by in our half-meaningful half-meaningless everyday life.
Of course, the Holy Grail of mental health interventions would be a technology that allows us to instantiate a context-dependent level of empathogenesis in a reliable and sustainable way. When I asked people at the conference whether they thought that having “a machine that makes you feel like you are on MDMA on demand with no tolerance, impulsivity, addiction or other side effects” would be good, most people (at least 80%) said “it would be bad for humanity to have such machine”. Why? Because they think that suffering serves a higher purpose, somehow. But I would disagree. And even if they are right, I still think that there are not enough people steel-manning the case for intelligent wire-heading. It’d be silly to find out in 2200 that we could have avoided hundreds of millions of people’s suffering at no cost to our collective growth if we only had thought more carefully about the intrinsic value of suffering back in 2050 when the MDMA-machine was invented and reflexively banned.
But healthy sustainable wire-heading (let alone wire-heading done right in light of evolution-at-the-limit scenarios) is many decades away into the future anyway. So all we have for now, by way of consciousness-expanding therapies for real-life knots-and-bolts treatment-resistant human suffering is the sort of therapy paradigms discussed in the conference. Of the roughly 135 conference talks (excluding parties, networking events, and workshops) at least 100 were either only or at least primarily focused on psychedelic therapy for mental illness (cancer end-of-life anxiety, PTSD, addiction, treatment-resistant depression, etc.). As far as a strategical cultural move, this focus on treatment is a very good approach, and from a valence utilitarian point of view maybe this is indeed what we should be focusing on in 2017. But I still wish that there was a bigger presence of some other kinds of discussion. In particular, I’d love for psychedelic science to eventually make a prominent appearance in a much wider context. Any discussion about the nature of consciousness from a scientific point of view cannot overlook the peculiar consciousness-enhancing properties of psychedelics. And any discussion about ethics, life and the purpose of it all will likewise be under-informed in so far as psychedelic peak-meaningful experiences are not brought into the conversation. After all, the ethical, philosophical, and scientific significance of psychedelics is hard to overstate.
Ideally we would all organize a conference that takes the best of: 1) A steadfast resolution to figure out the problem of consciousness, such as what we can find at places like The Science of Consciousness, 2) a steadfast resolution to combine both the best of compassion and rationality in order to help as many beings as possible, as we find in places like Effective Altruism Global, and 3) a steadfast resolution to look at the most impressive pieces of evidence about the nature of the mind and valence, as can be found in places like Psychedelic Science. All in all, this would be a perfect triad, as it would combine (1) The Question (Consciousness), (2) The Purpose (Ending Suffering), and (3) The Method (Scientific Study of Highly-Energetic States of Consciousness). Rest assured, the conferences organized by the Super-Shulgin Academy will blend these three aspects into one.
This was a very chill crowd. The only way for me to be edgy in the social contexts that arose at Psychedelic Science 2017 was to refuse to dab with the guy next to me (and to decline the Asparagus Butternut Squash edible offered at some point), or, at its worse, trying to spark a conversation about the benefits of well-managed opioid medication treatment for chronic pain (it was a rather opioid-phobic crowd, if I may say so myself).
On the other hand, talking about one’s experience in hyperbolic phenomenal spaces while on DMT, how to secretly communicate with people on LSD, and about the use of texture analysis and synthesis for psychophysical tasks to investigate psychedelic image processing barely raised anybody’s brows. I was happy to find that some people recognized me from Qualia Computing, and more than one of them shared the thought that it would be great to see more interbreeding and cross-fertilization between the psychedelic and the rationalist communities (I can’t agree more with this sentiment).
To give you a taste of the sort of gestalt present at this event, let me share with you something. Waiting on the line for one of the parties hosted by the conference organizers I overheard someone talking about what his ketamine experiences had taught him. Curious about it, I approached him and asked him to debrief me -if at all possible -about what he had learned. He said:
The super-intelligence that I’ve encountered on my ketamine experiences is far, far, beyond human comprehension, and its main message is that everything is interconnected; it does not matter when you hear the message, but that you hear it, and unconsciously prepare for what is going to happen. We are all soon going to be part of it, and we will all be together, knowing each other at a deeper level than we have ever thought imaginable, and experience love and meaning on another level, together in a vast interdimensional ecology of benevolent minds. All of the stories that we tell ourselves about the grand human narrative are all, well, made up by our minds on our limited human level. Whatever we are coming to, whatever this future thing that we are facing is, goes beyond human cravings for transcendence, it goes beyond the sentiment of return to nature, it goes beyond science and technology, and it goes beyond every religion and contemplative practice. The complexity to be found in the super-intelligent collective being that we will become is inexpressible, but there is nothing to fear, we are it on some level already, and we will soon all realize it.
It is hard to estimate what the distribution, prevalence and resilience of beliefs about the nature of reality, consciousness, love, purpose and everything else of the people attending this conference were. As a whole, it felt remarkably diverse, though. Based on my subjective impressions, I’d suspect that like the person quoted above, about 40% of the attendees were people who genuinely believe that there is a big consciousness event that is about to happen (whether it is a collective spiritual level-breaking point, a technological Singularity, inter-dimensional aliens taking us with them, or a more mundane run-of-the-mill recursively self-improving feedback loop with genetic methods for consciousness research). Maybe about 50% seemed to be what you might call pragmatic, agnostic, and open minded people who are simply looking to find out what’s up with the field, without spiritual (or emotional) vested interested in exactly what will happen. And finally, about 10% of the attendees might be classifiable as nihilists on some or another level. While intrigued about the effects of psychedelics, they see them as dead ends or red herrings. Perhaps useful for mental health, but not likely to be a key to reality (or even a hint of a future revolution in the states of consciousness we utilize on our everyday life).
I am very excited with the current movement to examine psychedelics in a rational scientific framework. Ultimately, I think that we will realize that valence is a quantifiable and definite thing (cf. Valence Structuralism). Wether we are talking about humor, pain relief, transcendence, or knots-and-bolts feelings of competence, all of our positive experiences share something in common. Ultimately, I do not know whether “valence is a spiritual trick” or if “spirituality is a valence trick”, but I am confident that as a species we do not yet have the answer to these questions and that a scientific approach to them may clarify this incredibly important line of inquiry.
Sooner or later, it seems to me, we will figure out what exactly “the universe wants from us”, so to speak, and then nothing will ever be the same; psychedelic research is a powerful and promising way to make good headway in this highly desirable direction.
*Even the bathroom urinals seemed to have sacred geometry: