Nick Bostrom defines an “Information Hazard” as: “A risk that arises from the dissemination or the potential dissemination of (true) information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm.” A more general category is that of “Memetic Hazard”, which is not restricted to the potential harms of true information. False claims and mistaken beliefs can also produce harm, and should thus also be considered in any ethically-motivated policy for information dissemination.
Perhaps one of the best known analysis of meme hazards is the work of Nick Bostrom concerning: Information Hazards, the Unilateralist’s Curse, and Singletons. His focus could roughly be described as one of classifying the types of situations that can give rise to information hazards. A parallel set of problems to that of categorizing memetic hazards is the problem of coming up with policies for dealing with them, and the problem of convincing people that they should care. In this post we suggest some basic heuristics for dealing with meme hazards, and explain why you should care about them even when your work seems unambiguously positive.
Why You Should Care
A big problem with getting people to engage with any kind of memetic hazard policy is that it may be perceived as a voluntary constraint on one’s behavior with little to no personal benefit. Nobody (well, at least nobody we know*) gets excited about compliance training at a new job, or inspection day at a manufacturing facility. Subjectively, most people perceive compliance and oversight as something that gets in the way of doing one’s work and as a hassle for one’s organization. That said, there is reason to believe that as the world’s technologies become both more powerful and more widely accessible, that there will be increasingly more dangerous information around. Considering the possible downsides of sharing information will thus become increasingly more important. So at least on a global scale, it will be increasingly more important for people to consider the impact of the information they choose to share. But at an individual level, why would they care about meme hazards policies and not think of them as a bothersome constraint?
Just like there are actions that can help or harm there are ideas that can help or harm. Furthermore, some ideas produce their primary good or bad effect through social transmission, which we can call memes. There are several ways to prevent the harm from memes: not producing them in the first place, not sharing them, or fixing the situation so that when dispersed they do not do damage (before or after dispersal). Let’s call policies to prevent harm from meme hazards, meme hazard policies. Because in a world with increasingly accessible technological power a lot of our largest effects are likely to be produced by memetic hazards, a good way to improve the chances of achieving one’s goals is to tilt things as much as possible towards our goals with good meme hazard policies. It thus makes sense to read works about meme hazard policy and to think about how it bears on one’s work. This way you can improve your implementation and design of meme hazard policies to avoid hampering your own goals. In particular, assuming that you are a rational agent (who both attempts to be epistemically and instrumentally rational) you will generally find that spreading dangerous information that causes large negative effects (even if by accident!) will interfere with your ability to carry out your own goals.
Why Good Work May Have Bad Net Effects
When one engages in very novel research one should be careful to consider the ratio with which one’s work advances desired outcomes relative to undesired outcomes. This may yield surprising results for the net effect of one’s work, sometimes flipping the net effect of research that at first may have seemed unambiguously good. For example, Artificial Intelligence Alignment research may in principle increase the chances of unaligned AI by virtue of providing insights into how to build powerful AIs in general. If it is 100 times harder to build an aligned AI than an unaligned AI, and researching AI alignment advances the goal of building unaligned AIs by more than 1/100 relative to how it advances building aligned AIs, then such research would (counter-intuitively) increase the chances of building unaligned AIs relative to aligned AIs.
As another example of how seemingly good work may have bad net effects let’s consider how information mutates in a social network. As discussed in previous articles such as consciousness vs. replicators there is no universal reason why causing large effects and causing good effects have to be correlated (see also: Basic AI Drives and Spreading happiness more difficult than just spreading). With an evolutionary view, it becomes clear that memes that are good and beneficial to everyone can eventually evolve to become bad and harmful to everyone if by doing so they gain a reproductive edge. As a rule of thumb, you can expect ideas to mutate towards:
Unless your copying method is perfect or has error correction methods, every time you make a copy of something the information will degrade to some extent. This is called generation loss and it leads to more noisy copies over time.
Since information transmission incurs a cost, simpler mutations of the meme have a reproductive edge.
Ease of memorization and communication
Mutations to the memes that are easier to memorize and communicate are more likely to spread.
Inciting arms races
If the meme provides a competitive edge in a zero-sum game, it may give rise to an arms race between agents who engage in such zero-sum game. For example, a new marketing method discovered by a given agency would force other marketing agencies to invest in researching how to achieve the same results. Since the rate of evolution of a meme is partly determined by the rate at which iterations over it are performed, a lot of memetic evolution takes place in arms races.
Saliency (cognitive, emotional, perceptual, etc.)
Saliency refers to the probability of noticing a given stimuli. Memes that mutate in a way that makes them more noticeable have a reproductive edge. Thus, many memes may over time acquire salient features, such as causing strong emotions.
Uses for social signaling (such as used for signaling intelligence, knowledge, social network, local usefulness, etc.)
Consider the difference between manufacturing a car that focuses exclusively on basic functionality and a car that in addition also signals wealth. Perhaps it would be better if everyone bought the first kind of car because the second kind incites the urge in others to get a new car more often than necessary. Namely, people might want to buy a new car whenever the neighbors have upgraded to a more luxurious car (see: Avoid Runaway Signaling in Effective Altruism and Keeping up with the Joneses).
As a general heuristic, memes will spread faster when they are presented as better than they really are. Unless there is a feedback mechanism that allows people to know the true value of a meme, those that can oversell themselves will tend to be more common relative to those that are honest about the value they provide.
The usefulness of a meme increases the chances that it will be passed on.
Given considerations like the above, it’s clear that in order to achieve what we want we need to think carefully about the possible impacts of our research and efforts, even when they seem unambiguously positive. Now, when should one give special thought to memetic hazard policies?
When Should You Care the Most?
Meme Hazard Action Space – Worry when the ideas are both novel and have the potential to have large effects
There are two key features of potential memetic hazards that should be taken into account when thinking about whether to pursue the research that is bringing them to life.
The first one is how large their effects may be, and the second is how novel they are. How large an effect is depends on factors such as how many people it may affect, how intense the effects would be on each person affected, how long the effects would last, and so on. How novel a meme is depends on factors like how many people know about it, how much specialized knowledge you require to arrive at it, how counter-intuitive it is, and so on.
No matter how novel a piece of information may be, if it does not have the potential to cause large effects we can disregard it in the context of a meme hazard policy. When the potential to cause large effects is there but the idea is not very novel, then one should focus on actions to mitigate risks. For instance, if everyone knows how to build nuclear bombs, then the real bottleneck to focus as a matter of policy would be on things like the accessibility to rare or expensive materials needed to build such bombs.
But when the information is both novel and can cause large effects, then the appropriate focus is that of a meme hazard policy based on strategies to handle information dissemination.
What you had for breakfast, yet another number sorting algorithm, how to get the hair of a cat to be more fluffy
Focus on ideas:
A more efficient deep learning technique, a chemical to improve exercise response efficiency, a new rationality technique, information on where the world’s biggest tree is
Focus on actions:
The idea of guns, the idea of washing hands for sanitary purposes, running an Ayahuasca retreat in the amazon
To wrap up, here we provide a very high-level set of suggested heuristics to consider if one is indeed discovering ideas that are both very novel and capable of producing large effects:
Develop if you conclude that there is no risk
Share if you conclude that there is no risk
Log your analysis and proceed
Store the results of your analysis for future use by others who may overlook the risks and then continue developing or sharing it
Think more about it
Conclude that it would be valuable to analyze the risks of the meme (e.g. a new technology) further
Develop a cure of the meme hazard’s downsides
This approach may entail selectively sharing the information with people who are highly benevolent, good at keeping secrets, and capable in the relevant domains of expertise
Improve the groups that receive it so that it is safe
Some information is only risky if certain types of groups get it, so if you change the nature of the groups then there is no risk
Framing it so it goes to the right people or only yields good effects
The way an idea is posed or framed determines a fair amount of who will read it and how they will act on it
Selecting a safe subset to share
When you have information it could be that some parts are good or safe to share and you can selectively share those parts
Make sure those parts are not sufficient to reconstruct the original (unsafe) information
Selecting a safe subset to develop
When developing some information it can be that some parts are good or safe to develop and you can selectively develop those parts
Selectively share to a subset of people
Some information is only risky if certain types of groups get it; if you can aim where the information goes you can avoid the risk
Report the information to proper authorities
Some information is too risky to develop
Some information is too risky to share
Monitor to see if others move towards developing or sharing it
If you’ve identified something risky it may make sense to see if others are developing it or likely to share it so that you can warn them, focus on building a cure, contact authorities, or start changing your actions knowing that a disaster is likely.
Try to decrease the likelihood of rediscovery
If it’s really risky you may want to see what you can do about decreasing the likelihood that it is rediscovered
In this post we discussed why you should consider following heuristics to deal with meme hazards as an important part of achieving your goals rather than as a chore or hassle. We also discussed how work that may seem unambiguously good may turn out to have negative effects. In particular, we mentioned the “ratio argument” and also brought up some evolutionary considerations (where memes may mutate in unhelpful ways to have a reproductive edge). We then considered when one should be especially cautious about meme hazards: when the information is both highly novel and capable of producing large effects. And finally, we provided a list of heuristics to consider when faced with novel information capable of producing large effects.
In the future we hope to weave these heuristics into a more complete meme hazard policy for researchers and decision makers working at the cutting edge.
*After posting this article someone contacted us to point out that they in fact love compliance training. This person was very persistent about updating this post with that fact.
It presents a plausible unified theory of how psychedelics work.
It’s a wonderful jumping-off point into the literature. Every paragraph is full of pointers to research that’s come out in the last 5 years, and boy are there a lot of rabbit holes to go down – it’s filled out my reading list for the next several months.
REBUS is a (somewhat dubious) acronym for RElaxed Beliefs Under pSychedelics. The basic idea: psychedelics reduce the weight of held beliefs and increase the weight of incoming sensory input, allowing the beliefs to be more readily changed by the new sensory information.
The brain generates mental models that predict upcoming sensory inputs. (The predictions are called “priors,” as in “prior beliefs.”)
These predictive models are layered on top of each other in a hierarchy – the higher levels send predictions down the hierarchy; the lower levels report sense data upwards.
In cases where the model’s top-down predictions do not match the bottom-up sensory input, the model either (a) updates its priors based on the new sense data, or (b) ignores the sense data and maintains its priors.
Carhart-Harris & Friston theorize that the main thing psychedelics are doing is relaxing the weight of the brain’s top-down prediction-making (“REBUS”) and increasing the weight of the bottom-up sense information (“the Anarchic Brain”). This allows bottom-up information to have more influence on our conscious experience, and also on the configuration of the hierarchy overall.
Carhart-Harris & Friston analogize this process to annealing – heating up a metal dissolves its crystalline structure, then a new structure recrystallizes as the metal cools:
The hypothesized flattening of the brain’s (variational free) energy landscape under psychedelics can be seen as analogous to the phenomenon of simulated annealing in computer science – which itself is analogous to annealing in metallurgy, whereby a system is heated (i.e., instantiated by increased neural excitability), such that it attains a state of heightened plasticity, in which the discovery of new energy minima (relatively stable places/trajectories for the system to visit/reside in for a period of time) is accelerated (Wang and Smith, 1998).
Subsequently, as the drug is metabolized and the system cools, its dynamics begin to stabilize – and attractor basins begin to steepen again (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017). This process may result in the emergence of a new energy landscape with revised properties.
Psychedelics “heat up” the brain, increasing plasticity and weakening the influence of prior beliefs. As the psychedelic stops being active, the brain “cools” – the hierarchy re-forms, though perhaps in a different configuration than the pre-psychedelic configuration.
This explains how psychedelic trips can cause changes that last long after the substance has exited the body – in those cases, the psychedelic facilitated a change in the organization of the brain’s cognitive hierarchy.
Psychedelic therapy is showing promise for mental disorders associated with too-rigid thought patterns – depression, anxiety, addictions, maybe OCD, maybe eating disorders. In predictive-coding lingo, “disorders that may rest on particularly rigid high-level priors that dominate cognition.”
In these disorders, new information can’t revise the existing story of how things are, because strong priors suppress the new info before it can update anything.
The REBUS model straightforwardly explains how psychedelics help with disorder like this – by relaxing the strong top-down priors and boosting the bottom-up inputs, bottom-up inputs have more ability to effect the system. Here’s an illustration from the paper:
The top sketch is a brain where strong top-down priors dominate. New sensory inputs are suppressed and can’t update the hierarchy. The bottom sketch is the same brain while on a psychedelic – the top-down priors have been relaxed and bottom-up sensory information flows more freely through the system, causing a bigger impact.
Okay, nice theory, but can we observe this in the brain? Is there any evidence for it?
Carhart-Harris & Friston place the default mode network at top of the brain’s predictive hierarchy. The default mode network is the network of brain regions that’s most active when the brain isn’t engaged with any specific task. It also appears to be the seat of one’s sense of self. The default mode network is intensely relaxed by strong psychedelic experiences – this is subjectively felt as ego dissolution, and allows for the propagation of bottom-up sense data (which are also boosted by psychedelics).
Carhart-Harris & Friston identify two mechanisms by which psychedelics may relax the default mode network – activation of 5-HT2AR serotonin receptors (there are lots of these receptors in the default mode network), and disruption of α and βwave patterns, which seem to propagate top-down expectations through the brain (and are correlated with default mode network activity).
In addition to the brain-scan-style evidence they cite throughout the paper, Carhart-Harris & Friston dedicate a long section to behavioral evidence (“Behavioral Evidence of Relaxed Priors under Psychedelics”). Briefly, there are several studies showing that surprise & consistency-making responses to sensory stimuli are reduced while on psychedelics, which is what we’d expect if the influence of top-down priors was lessened.
To sum up, REBUS and the Anarchic Brain places psychedelics in a predictive coding framework to give a unified theory of what psychedelics do – they decrease the influence of top-down prediction-making and increase the influence of bottom-up sense data. The theory has the nice quality of tying many disparate psychedelic phenomena together with an underlying explanation of what’s going on. Plus, it gives a brain-based explanation for why psychedelic therapy is helpful for disorders like depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Our first mention of Neural Annealing in relation to psychedelics was in Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States in 2016, and we are pleased to see that the concept is becoming a live idea in academic neuroscience in 2019.*
From our point of view, an extremely promising area of research that mainstream neuroscience has yet to explore is the Symmetry Theory of Valence. In particular, we claim that the very reason why Neural Annealing improves not only global control, belief, and behavioral consistency, but also mood and sense of wellbeing is because it smooths and symmetrifies your neural patterns of activation. Will this turn out to become part of mainstream neuroscience in the future? Well, since QRI was calling Neural Annealing years in advance, perhaps in retrospect you’ll also see that we were on the money when it came to the mathematics of valence. Only time (and funding) will tell.
The God-like perspective-taking faculty of a full-spectrum superintelligence doesn’t entail distinctively human-friendliness any more than a God-like superintelligence could promote distinctively Aryan-friendliness. Indeed it’s unclear how benevolent superintelligence could want omnivorous killer apes in our current guise to walk the Earth in any shape or form. But is there any connection at all between benevolence and intelligence? Pre-reflectively, benevolence and intelligence are orthogonal concepts. There’s nothing obviously incoherent about a malevolent God or a malevolent – or at least a callously indifferent – Superintelligence. Thus a sceptic might argue that there is no link whatsoever between benevolence – on the face of it a mere personality variable – and enhanced intellect. After all, some sociopaths score highly on our [autistic, mind-blind] IQ tests. Sociopaths know that their victims suffer. They just don’t care.
However, what’s critical in evaluating cognitive ability is a criterion of representational adequacy. Representation is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon; it varies in functional degree. More specifically here, the cognitive capacity to represent the formal properties of mind differs from the cognitive capacity to represent the subjective properties of mind. Thus a notional zombie Hyper-Autist robot running a symbolic AI program on an ultrapowerful digital computer with a classical von Neumann architecture may be beneficent or maleficent in its behaviour toward sentient beings. By its very nature, it can’t know or care. Most starkly, the zombie Hyper-Autist might be programmed to convert the world’s matter and energy into heavenly “utilitronium” or diabolical “dolorium” without the slightest insight into the significance of what it was doing. This kind of scenario is at least a notional risk of creating insentient Hyper-Autists endowed with mere formal utility functions rather than hyper-sentient full-spectrum superintelligence. By contrast, full-spectrum superintelligence does care in virtue of its full-spectrum representational capacities – a bias-free generalisation of the superior perspective-taking, “mind-reading” capabilities that enabled humans to become the cognitively dominant species on the planet. Full-spectrum superintelligence, if equipped with the posthuman cognitive generalisation of mirror-touch synaesthesia, understands your thoughts, your feelings and your egocentric perspective better than you do yourself.
Could there arise “evil” mirror-touch synaesthetes? In one sense, no. You can’t go around wantonly hurting other sentient beings if you feel their pain as your own. Full-spectrum intelligence is friendly intelligence. But in another sense yes, insofar as primitive mirror-touch synaesthetes are prey to species-specific cognitive limitations that prevent them acting rationally to maximise the well-being of all sentience. Full-spectrum superintelligences would lack those computational limitations in virtue of their full cognitive competence in understanding both the subjective and the formal properties of mind. Perhaps full-spectrum superintelligences might optimise your matter and energy into a blissful smart angel; but they couldn’t wantonly hurt you, whether by neglect or design.
More practically today, a cognitively superior analogue of natural mirror-touch synaesthesia should soon be feasible with reciprocal neuroscanning technology – a kind of naturalised telepathy. At first blush, mutual telepathic understanding sounds a panacea for ignorance and egotism alike. An exponential growth of shared telepathic understanding might safeguard against global catastrophe born of mutual incomprehension and WMD. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Maybe so. The problem here, as advocates of Radical Honesty soon discover, is that many Darwinian thoughts scarcely promote friendliness if shared: they are often ill-natured, unedifying and unsuitable for public consumption. Thus unless perpetually “loved-up” on MDMA or its long-acting equivalents, most of us would find mutual mind-reading a traumatic ordeal. Human society and most personal relationships would collapse in acrimony rather than blossom. Either way, our human incapacity fully to understand the first-person point of view of other sentient beings isn’t just a moral failing or a personality variable; it’s an epistemic limitation, an intellectual failure to grasp an objective feature of the natural world. Even “normal” people share with sociopaths this fitness-enhancing cognitive deficit. By posthuman criteria, perhaps we’re all quasi-sociopaths. The egocentric delusion (i.e. that the world centres on one’s existence) is genetically adaptive and strongly selected for over hundreds of millions of years. Fortunately, it’s a cognitive failing amenable to technical fixes and eventually a cure: full-spectrum superintelligence. The devil is in the details, or rather the genetic source code.
This is a glossary of key terms and concept handles that are part of the memetic ecosystem of the Qualia Research Institute. Reading this glossary is itself a great way to become acquainted with this emerging memeplex. If you do not know what a memeplex is… you can find its definition in this glossary.
Consciousness (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): There are over a dozen common uses for the word consciousness, and all of them are interesting. Common senses include: self-awareness, linguistic cognition, and the ability to navigate one’s environment. With that said, the sense of the word in the context of QRI is more often than not: the very fact of experience, that experience exists and there is something that it feels like to be. Talking loosely and evocatively- rather than formally and precisely- consciousness refers to “what experience is made of”. Of course formalizing that statement requires a lot of unpacking about the nature of matter, time, selfhood, and so on. But this is a start.
Qualia (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): This word refers to the range of ways in which experience presents itself. Experiences can be richly colored or bare and monochromatic, they can be spatial and kinesthetic or devoid of geometry and directions, they can be flavorfully blended or felt as coming from mutually unintelligible dimensions, and so on. Classic qualia examples include things like the redness of red, the tartness of lime, and the glow of bodily warmth. However, qualia extends into categories far beyond the classic examples, beyond the wildest of our common-sense conceptions. There are modes of experience as altogether different from everything we have ever experienced as vision qualia is different from sound qualia.
Valence / Hedonic Tone (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): How good or bad an experience feels – each experience expresses a balance between positive, neutral, and negative notes. The aspect of experience that accounts for its pleasant and unpleasant qualities. The term is evocative of pleasant sensations such as warming up one’s body when cold with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. That said, hedonic tone refers to a much broader class of sensations than just the feeling of warmth. For example, the music appreciation enhancement produced by drugs can be described as “enhanced hedonic tone in sound qualia”. Hedonic tone can appear in any sensory modality (touch, smell, sight, etc.), and even more generally, in every facet of experience (such as cognitive and proprioceptive elements, themselves capable of coming with their own flavor of euphoria/dysphoria). Experiences with both negative and positive notes are called “mixed”, which are the most common ones.
Ontology (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): At the most basic level, an ontology is an account of what is real and what is good.
Epistemology (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The set of strategies, heuristics, and methods for knowing. In the context of consciousness research, what constitutes a good epistemology is a highly contentious subject. Some scientists argue that we should only take into account objectively-measurable third-person data in order to build models and postulate theories about consciousness (cf. heterophenomenology). On the other extreme, some argue that the only information that counts is first-person experiences and what they reveal to us (cf. new mysterianism). Somewhere in the middle, QRI fully embraces objective third-person data. And along with it, QRI recognizes the importance of skepticism and epistemic rigor when it comes to which first-person accounts should be taken seriously. Its epistemology does accept the information gained from alien state-spaces of consciousness as long as they meet some criteria. For example, we are very careful to distinguish between information about the intentional content of experience (what it was about) and information about its phenomenal character (how it felt). As a general heuristic, QRI tends to value more e.g. trip reports that emphasize the phenomenal character of the experience (e.g. “30Hz flashes with slow-decay harmonic reverb audio hallucinations”) relative to intentional content (e.g. “the DMT alien said I should learn to play the guitar”). Ultimately, first-person and third-person data are complementary views of the same substrate of consciousness (cf. dual-aspect monism), and so are both equally necessary for a complete scientific account of consciousness.
Functionalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): In Philosophy of Mind, functionalism is the view that consciousness is produced (and in some cases identical with) not only by the input-output mapping of an information-processing system, but also by the internal relationships that make that information-processing possible. In light of Marr’s Levels of Analysis (see below), we could say that functionalism identifies the content of conscious experience with the algorithmic level of analysis. Hence this philosophy is usually presented in conjunction with the concept of “substrate neutrality” which posits that the material makeup of brains is not necessary for the arising of consciousness out of it. If we implemented the same information-processing functions that are encoded in the neural networks of a brain using rocks, buckets of water, or a large crowd instantiating a large computer, we would also generate the same experiences the brain generates on its own. Importantly, functionalism tends to deny any essential role of the substrate in the generation of consciousness, and will typically also deny any significant interaction between levels of analysis (see below).
Eliminativism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2, 3): In Philosophy of Mind, eliminativism refers to a cluster of ideas concerning whether the word “consciousness” is clear enough to be useful for making sense of how brains work. One key idea in eliminativist views is that most of the language that we use to talk about experiences (from specific emotions to qualia) is built on top of folk-psychology rather than physical reality. In a way, terms such as “experience” and “feelings” are an interface for the brain to model itself and others in a massively simplified but adaptive way. There is no reason why our evolved intuitions about how the brain works should even approximate how it really works. In many cases, eliminativists advocate starting from scratch and abandoning our intuitions about experience, sticking to hard physical and computational analysis of the brain as empirically measured. This view suggests that once we truly understand scientifically how brains work, the language we will use to talk about it will look nothing like the way we currently speak about our experiences, and that this change will be so dramatic that we would effectively start thinking as if “consciousness never existed to begin with”.
Watchmen Chapter IV
Watchmen Chapter IV
Watchmen Chapter IV
Presentism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The view that only the present is real, the past and the future being illusory inferences and projections made in the present. Oftentimes presentism posits that change is a fundamental aspect of the present and that the feeling of the passage of time is based on the ever-changing nature of reality itself.
Eternalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The view that every here-and-now in reality is equally real. Rather than thinking of the universe as a “now” sandwiched between a “past” and “future”, eternalism posits that it is more accurate to simply describe pairs of moments as having a “before” and “after” relationship, but neither of them being in the future or past. Some of the strongest arguments for eternalism come from Special and General Relativity (see: Rietdijk–Putnam argument), where space-time forms a continuous 4-dimensional geometric shape that stands together as a whole, and where any notion of a “present” is only locally valid. In some sense, eternalism says that all of reality exists in an “eternal now” (including your present, past, and future selves).
Personal Identity (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The relevant sense of this term for our purposes refers to the set of questions about what constitutes the natural unit for subjects of experience. Questions such as “will the consciousness who wakes up in my current body tomorrow morning be me?”, “if we make an atom-by-atom identical copy of me right now, will I start existing in it as well?”, “if you conduct a Wada Test, is the consciousness generated by my right hemisphere alone also me?”, and so on.
Closed Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1): In its most basic form, this is the common-sense personal identity view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die. According to this view each person is a different subject of experience with an independent existence. One can believe in a soul ontology and be a Closed Individualist at the same time, with the correction that you exist as long as your soul exists, which could be the case even before or after death.
Empty Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1, 2, 3): This personal identity view states that each “moment of experience” is its own separate subject. While it may seem that we exist as persons with an existence that spans decades, Empty Individualism does not associate a single subject to each person. Rather, each moment a new “self” is born and dies, existing for as long as the conscious event takes place (something that could be anywhere between a femtosecond and a few hundred milliseconds, depending on which scientific theory of consciousness one believes in).
Open Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4): This is the personal identity view that we are all one single consciousness. The apparent partitions and separations between the universal consciousness, in this view, are the result of partial information access from one moment of experience to the next. Regardless, the subject who gets to experience every moment is the same. Each sentient being is fundamentally part of the same universal subject of experience.
Open Individualism: All is One
Empty Individualism: You are a “moment of experience”
Closed Individualism: You are a distinct narrative over time
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Having realized that there are both positive and negative psychological aspects to each of the three views of personal identity discussed (Closed, Empty, Open Individualism), the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness emerges as a conceptual resolution. Open Individualism comes with a solution to the fear of death, but it also can give rise to a sort of cosmic solipsism. Closed Individualism allows you to feel fundamentally special, but also disconnected from the universe and fundamentally misunderstood by others. Empty Individualism is philosophically satisfying, but it may come with a sense of lack of agency and the fear of being a time-slice that is stuck in a negative place. The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness posits that there is a way to transcend classical logic in personal identity, and that the truth incorporates elements of all of the three views at once. In the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness one is simultaneously part of a whole but also not the entirety of it. One can relate with others by having a shared nature, while also being able to love them on their own terms by recognizing their unique identity. This view has yet to be formalized, but in the meantime it may prove to be pragmatically useful for community-building.
The Problem of Other Minds (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This is the philosophical conundrum of whether other people (and sentient beings in general) are conscious. While your own consciousness is self-evidence, the consciousness of others is inferred. Possible solutions involve technologies such as the Generalized Wada Test (see below), phenomenal puzzles, and thalamic bridges, which you can use to test the consciousness of another being by having it solve a problem that can only be solved by making comparisons between qualia values.
Solipsism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2, 3): In its classic formulation, solipsism refers to a state of existence in which the only person who is conscious is “oneself”, which resides in the body of an individual human over time. A more general version of solipsism involves crossing it with personal identity views (see above). Through this lens, the classic person-centric formulation of solipsism refers exclusively to a Closed Individualist universe. Alternatively, Open Individualism also has a solipsistic interpretation – it is thus compatible with (and in at least in one sense entails) solipsism: the entire multiverse of experiences are all experiences of a single solipsistic cosmic consciousness. With an Empty Individualist universe, too, we can have a solipsistic interpretation of reality. In one version you use epiphenomenalism to claim that this moment of experience is the only one that is conscious even though the whole universe still exists and it had an evolutionary path that led it to the configuration in which you stand right now. In another version, one’s experience is the result of the fact that in the cosmic void everything can happen. This is not because it is likely, but because there is a boundless amount of time for it to happen. That is, no matter how thin its probability is, it will still take place at some point (see: Boltzmann brain). That said, one’s present experience -with its highly specific information content- being the only one that exists seems very improbable a priori. Like imagining that despite the fact that “the void can give rise to anything” the only thing that actually gets materialized is an elephant. Why would it only produce an elephant, of all things? Likewise, solipsistic Empty Individualism has this problem – why would this experience be the only one? To cap it off, we can also reason about solipsism in its relation to hybrid views of personal identity. In their case solipsism either fails, or its formulation needs to be complicated significantly. This is partly why the concept of the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness (see above) might be worth exploring, as it may be a way out of ultimate solipsism. On a much more proximal domain, it may be possible to use Phenomenal Puzzles, Wada tests, and ultimately mindmelding to test the classical (Closed Individualist) formulation of solipsism.
Suffering Focused Ethics (recent philosophy term from rationalist-adjacent communities; ref: 1, 2) The view that our overriding obligation is to focus on suffering. In particular, taking seriously the prevention of extreme suffering is one of the features of this view. This is not unreasonable if we take into account the logarithmic scales of pain and pleasure into account, which suggest that the majority of suffering is concentrated in a small percent of experiences of intense suffering. Hence why caring about the extreme cases matters so much.
Antinatalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This is the view that being born entails a net negative. Classic formulations of this view tend to implicitly assume Closed Individualism, where there is someone who may or may not be born and it is meaningful to consider this a yes or no question with ontological bearings. Under Open Individualism the question becomes whether there should be any conscious being at all, for neither preventing someone’s birth nor committing an individual suicide entail the real birth or death of a consciousness. They would merely add or subtract from the long library corridors of experiences had by universal consciousness. And in Empty Individualism, antinatalism might be seen through the light of “preventing specific experiences with certain qualities”. For example, having an experience of extreme suffering is not harming a person (though it may have further psychological repercussions), but rather harming that very experience in an intrinsic way. This view would underscore the importance of preventing the existence of experiences of intense suffering rather than preventing the existence of people as such. A final note on antinalism is that even in its original formulation we encounter the problem that selection pressures makes any trait that reduces inclusive fitness disappear in the long run. The traits that predispose to such views would simply be selected out. A more fruitful way of improving the world is to encourage the elimination of suffering in ways that do not reduce inclusive fitness, such as the prevention of genetic spell errors and diseases that carry a high burden of suffering.
Tyranny of the Intentional Object (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2): The way our reward architecture is constructed makes it difficult for us to have a clear sense of what it is that we enjoy about life. Our brains reinforce the pursuit of specific objects, situations, and headspaces, which gives the impression that these are intrinsically valuable. But this is an illusion. In reality such conditions trigger positive valence changes to our experience, and it is those that we are really after (as evidenced by the way in which our reward architecture is modified in presence of euphoric and dysphoric drugs and external stimuli such as music). We call this illusion the tyranny of the intentional object because in philosophy “intentionality” refers to “what the experience is about”. Our world-simulations chain us to the feeling that external objects, circumstances, and headspaces are the very source of value. More so, dissociating from such sources of positive valence triggers negative valence, so critical insight into the way our reward architecture really works is itself negatively reinforced by it.
Formalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): Formalism is a philosophical and methodological approach for analyzing systems which postulates the existence of mathematical objects such that their mathematical features are isomorphic to the properties of the system. An example of a successful formalism is the use of Maxwell’s equations in order to describe electromagnetic phenomena.
Qualia Formalism (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Qualia Formalism means that for any given physical system that is conscious, there will be a corresponding mathematical object associated to it such that the mathematical features of that object will be isomorphic to the phenomenology of the experience generated by the system.
Marr’s Levels of Analysis (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): This powerful analytic framework was developed by cognitive scientist David Marr to talk more precisely about vision, but it is more broadly applicable to information processing systems in general. It is a way to break down what a system does in a conceptually clear fashion that lends itself to a clean analysis.
Computational Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The first of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Computational Level of abstraction describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. That is, the input-output mapping, the runtime complexity for the problems it can solve, and the ways in which it fails are all facts about a system that are at the computational level of abstraction. In a simple example case, we can describe an abacus at the computational level by saying that it can do sums, subtractions, multiplications, divisions, and other arithmetic operations.
Algorithmic Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The second of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Algorithmic Level of abstraction describes the internal representations, operations, and their interactions used to transform the input into the output. In aggregate, representations, operations, and their interactions constitute the algorithms of the system. As a general rule, we find that there are many possible algorithms that give rise to the same computational-level properties. Following the simple example case of an abacus, the algorithmic-level account would describe how passing beads from one side to another and using each row to represent different orders of magnitude are used to instantiate algorithms to perform arithmetic operations.
Implementation Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The third of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Implementation Level of abstraction describes the way in which the system’s algorithms are physically instantiated. Following the case of the abacus, an implementation-level account would detail how the various materials of the abacus are put together in order to allow the smooth passing of beads between the sides of each row and how to prevent them from sliding by accident (and “forgetting” the state).
Interaction Between Levels (obscure cognitive science concept handle; ref: 1, 2): Some information-processing systems can be fully understood by describing each of Marr’s Levels of Analysis separately. For example, it does not matter whether an abacus is made of metal, wood, or even if it is digitally simulated in order to explain its algorithmic and computational-level properties. But while this is true for an abacus, it is not the case for analog systems that leverage the unique physical properties of their components to do computational shortcuts. In particular, in quantum computing one intrinsically requires an understanding of the implementation-level properties of the system in order to explain the algorithms used. Hence, for quantum computing, there are strong interactions between levels of analysis. Likewise, we believe this is likely going to be the case for the algorithms our brains perform by leveraging the unique properties of qualia.
Natural Kind (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): Natural kinds are things whose objective existence makes it possible to discover durable facts about them. They are the elements of a “true ontology” for the universe, and what “carves reality at its joints”. This is in contrast to “reifications” which are aggregates of elements with no unitary independent existence.
State-Space (standard term in physics and mathematics; ref: 1, 2): A state-space of a system is a geometric map where each point corresponds to a particular state of the system. Usually the space has a Euclidean geometry with a number of dimensions equal to the number of variables in the system, so that the value of each variable is encoded in the value of a corresponding dimension. This is not always the case, however. In the general case, not all points in the state-space are physically realizable. Additionally, some system configurations do not admit a natural decomposition into a constant set of variables. This may give rise to irregularities in the state-space, such as non-Euclidean regions or a variable number of dimensions.
Phenomenal puzzle solution
Emotion transition probabilities
State-Space of Consciousness (coined by David Pearce; 1, 2, 3): This is a hypothetical map that contains the set of all possible experiences, organized in such a way that the similarities between experiences are encoded in the geometry of the state-space. For example, the experience you are having right now would correspond to a single point in the state-space of consciousness, with the neighboring experiences being Just Noticeably Different from your experience right now (e.g. simplistically, we could say they would be different from your current experience “by a single pixel”).
Qualia Value (QRI term; ref: 1): Starting with examples- the scent of cinnamon, a spark of sourness, a specific color hue, etc. are all qualia values. Any particular quality of experience that cannot be decomposed further into overlapping components is a qualia value.
Qualia Variety (QRI term; ref: 1): A qualia variety refers to the set of qualia values that belong to the same category (for example, tentatively, phenomenal colors are all part of the same qualia variety, which is different from the qualia variety of phenomenal sounds). A possible operationalization for qualia varieties involves the construction of equivalence classes based on the ability to transform a given qualia value into another via a series of Just-Noticeable Differences. For example, in the case of color, we can transform a given qualia value like a specific shade of blue, into another qualia value like a shade of green by traversing across a straight line from one to the other in the CIELAB color space. Tentatively, it is not possible to do the same between a shade of blue and a particular phenomenal sound. That said, the large number of unknowns (and unknown unknowns!) about the state-space of consciousness does not allow us to rule out the existence of qualia values that can bridge the gap between color and sound qualia. If that turned out to be the case, we would need to rethink our approach to defining qualia varieties.
Region of the State-Space of Consciousness (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A set of possible experiences that are similar to each other in some way. Given an experience, the “experiences nearby in the state-space of consciousness” are those that share its qualities to a large degree but have variations. The term can be used to point at experiences with a given property (such as “high-valence” and “phenomenal color”).
The Binding Problem (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): The binding problem (also called the combination problem) arises from asking the question: how is it possible that the activity of a hundred billion neurons that are spatially distributed can simultaneously contribute to a unitary moment of experience? It should be noted that in the classical formulation of the problem we start with an “atomistic” ontology where the universe is made of space, particles, and forces, and the question then becomes how spatially-distributed discrete particles can “collaborate” to form a unified experience. But if one starts out with a “globalistic” ontology where the universe is made of a universal wavefunction, then the question that arises is how something that is fundamentally unitary (the whole universe) can give rise to “separate parts” such as individual experiences, which is often called “the boundary problem”. Thus, the “binding problem” and “the boundary problem” are really the same problem, but starting with different ontologies (atomistic vs. globalistic).
Phenomenal Binding (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This term refers to the hypothetical mechanism of action that enables information that is spatially-distributed across a brain (and more generally, a conscious system) to simultaneously contribute to a unitary discrete moment of experience.
Local Binding (lesser-known cognitive science term; ref: 1): Local binding refers to the way in which the features of our experience are interrelated. Imagine you are looking at a sheet of paper with a drawing of a blue square and a yellow triangle. If your visual system works well you do not question which shape is colored blue; the color and the shapes come unified within one’s experience. In this case, we would say that color qualia and shape qualia are locally bound. Disorders of perception show that this is not always the case: people with simultagnosia find it hard to perceive more than one phenomenal object at a time and thus would confuse the association between the colors and shapes they are not directly attending to, people with schizophrenia have local binding problems in the construction of their sense of self, and people with motion blindness have a failure of local binding between sensory stimuli separated by physical time.
Global Binding (lesser-known cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): Global binding refers to the fact that the entirety of the contents of each experience is simultaneously apprehended by a unitary experiential self. As in the example for local binding, while blue and the square (and the yellow and the triangle) are locally bound into separate phenomenal objects, both the blue square and the yellow triangle are globally bound into the same experience.
The Mathematics of Valence
Valence Realism (QRI term; ref: 1): This is the claim that valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure. Also defined as: “Valence (subjective pleasantness) is a well-defined and ordered property of conscious systems.”
Valence Structuralism (QRI term; ref: 1): Valence could have a simple encoding in the mathematical representation of a system’s qualia.
Symmetry Theory of Valence (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Given a mathematical object isomorphic to the qualia of a system, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that system is that object’s symmetry.
Valence Gradients (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): It is postulated that one of the important inputs that contributes to our decision-making involves “valence gradients”. To understand what a valence gradient is, it is helpful to provide an example. Imagine coming back from dancing in the rain and feeling pretty cold. In order to warm yourself up you get into the shower and turn on the hot water. Ouch! Too hot, so you dial down the temperature. Brrr! Now it’s too cold, so you dial up the temperature just a little. Ah, just perfect! See, during this process you evaluated, at each point, in what way you could modify your experience in order to make it feel better. At first the valence gradient was pointing in the direction of higher temperature. As soon as you felt it being too hot, the valence gradient changed direction and pointed to lower temperature. And so on until it feels like there is nothing else you could do to improve how you feel. In the more general case, we posit that a significant input into our decision-making is the direction of change along which we believe our experience would improve. At an implementation level of analysis (see above) the very syntax of our experience might be built with a landscape of valence gradients. In a sense, noticing them is possible, but it is a task akin to the metaphor of a fish not knowing what water is. We use valence gradients to navigate both the external and internal world in such a basic and all-pervasive way that missing this fact altogether is easy. When we justify why we did such and such, we often forget that a big component of the decision was made based on how each of the options felt. The difficulty we face when trying to point at the specific valence gradients that influence our decision-making is one of the reasons why the tyranny of the intentional object (see above) arises, which is that what pulls and pushes us is not explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme.
CDNS Analysis (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A scientific and philosophical hypothesis with implications for measuring valence in conscious systems. Namely, the hypothesis is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence is expressed in the structure of neural patterns over time, implying that the valence of a brain will be in part determined by neural dissonance, consonance, and noise. This makes precise, empirically testable predictions within paradigms such as Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves.
Evolutionary Qualia (QRI term): Evolutionary Qualia is a scientific discipline that will emerge as the science of consciousness improves to the point where cellular gene expression analysis, brain imaging, and interpretation algorithms get to infer the qualia present in the experience of the brains of animals in general. For instance, we may find out that certain combinations of receptor types and protein shapes inside neurons of the visual cortex are necessary and sufficient for generating color qualia. Additionally, such understanding could be complemented with an information-theoretic account of why color qualia is more effective (cost-benefit-wise) for certain information-processing than other qualia. Together, these two kinds of understanding will allow us to explain why the specific qualia that we have was recruited by natural selection for information-processing purposes. Evolutionary Qualia is the (future) discipline that explains from an evolutionary point of view why we have the specific qualia and patterns of local binding that we do (said differently, it will explain why “the walls of our world-simulation are painted the way they are”). So while Evolutionary Psychology may explain why we have evolved to have some emotions from the point of view of their behavioral effects, Evolutionary Qualia will explain why the emotions feel the way they do and how those specific feelings happen to have the right “shape” for the information-processing tasks they accomplish.
Stimuli with tracers
17 wallpaper symmetry groups
Paredolia / Enhanced Pattern Recognition
Algorithmic Reduction (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A reduction is a model that explains a set of behaviors, often very complex and diverse, in terms of the interaction between variables. A successful reduction is one that explains the intricacies and complexities present in the set of behaviors as emergent effects from a much smaller number of variables and their interactions. A specific case is that of “atomistic reductions” which decompose a set of behaviors in terms of particles interacting with each other (e.g. ideal gas laws from statistical mechanics in physics). While many scientifically significant reductions are atomistic in nature, one should not think that every phenomenon can be successfully reduced atomistically (e.g. double-slit experiment). Even when a set of behaviors cannot be reduced atomistically we may be able to algorithmically reduce it. That is, to identify a set of processes, internal representations, and interactions that when combined give rise to the set of observed behaviors. This style of reduction is very useful in the field of phenomenology since it can provide insights into how complex phenomena (such as psychedelic hallucinations) emerge out of a few relatively simple algorithmic building blocks. This way we avoid begging the question by not assuming an atomistic ontology in a context where it is not clear what atoms correspond to.
How you see it sober
~How you see it on ~100µg of LSD
Psychedelic Cryptography (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): Encoding information in videos, text, abstract paintings, etc. such that only people who are in a specific state of consciousness can decode it. A simple example is the use of alternations in after-image formation on psychedelics (enhanced persistence of vision, aka. tracers) to paint a picture by presenting the content of an image one column of pixels at a time. Sober individuals only see a column of pixels while people high on psychedelics will see a long trace forming parts of an image that can be inferred by paying close attention. In general, psychedelic cryptography can be done by taking advantage of any of the algorithms one finds with algorithmic reductions of arbitrary states of consciousness. In the case of psychedelics, important effects that can be leveraged include tracers, pareidolia, drifting, and symmetrification.
Psychedelic Turk (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4): Mechanical Turk is a human task completion platform that matches people who need humans to do many small (relatively) easy tasks with humans willing to do a lot of small (relatively) easy tasks. Psychedelic Turk is akin to Mechanical Turk, but where workers disclose the state of consciousness they are in. This would be helpful for task requesters because many tasks are more appropriate for people in specific states of consciousness. For example, it is better to test ads intended to be seen by drunk people by having people who are actually drunk evaluate them, as opposed to asking sober people to imagine how they would perceive them while drunk. Likewise, some high-stakes tasks would benefit from being completed by people who are demonstrably very alert and clear-headed. And for foundational consciousness research, Psychedelic Turk would be extremely useful as it would allow researchers to test how people high on psychedelics and other exotic agents process information and experience emotions usually inaccessible in sober states.
Generalized Wada Test (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): This is a generalization of the Wada Test where rather than pentobarbital being injected in just one hemisphere while the other hemisphere is kept sober, one injects substance A in one hemisphere and substance B on the other. This could be used to improve our epistemology about various states of consciousness. By keeping one hemisphere in a state with robust linguistic ability the other hemisphere could be used to explore alien-state spaces of consciousness and allow for real-time verbal interpretation. The caveats and complications are myriad, but the general direction this concept handle is pointing to is worth exploring.
Self-Locating Uncertainty (originally a physics term but we also use it for describing a phenomenal character of experience; ref: 1, 2): The uncertainty that one has about who and where one is. This is relevant in light of states of consciousness that are common on high-dose psychedelics, mental illnesses, and meditation, where the information about one’s identity and one’s place in the world is temporarily inaccessible. Very high- and low-valence states tend to induce a high level of self-locating uncertainty as the information content of the experience is over-written by very simple patterns that dominate one’s attention. Learning to navigate states with self-locating uncertainty without freaking out is a prerequisite for studying alien state-spaces of consciousness.
Phenomenal Time (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The felt-sense of the passage of time. This is in contrast to the physical passage of time. Although physical time and phenomenal time tend to be intimately correlated, as you will see in the definition of “exotic phenomenal time” this is not always the case.
Phenomenal Space (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): The experience of space. Usually our sense of space represents a smooth 3D Euclidean space in a projective fashion (with variable scale encoding subjective distance). In altered states of consciousness phenomenal space can be distorted, expanded, contracted, higher-dimensional, topologically distinct, and even geometrically modified as in the case of hyperbolic geometry while on DMT (see below).
Each layer is connected itself in a geometric way, and connected to the previous and next layer with directed edges.
Strong dose (overwhelming layering/confusion between layers)
Pseudo-Time Arrow (QRI term; ref: 1): This is a formal model of phenomenal time. It utilizes a simple mathematical object: a graph. The nodes of the graph are identified with simple qualia values (such as colors, basic sounds, etc.) and the edges are identified with local binding connections. According to the pseudo-time arrow model, phenomenal time is isomorphic to the patterns of implicit causality in the graph, as derived from patterns of conditional statistical independence.
Exotic Phenomenal Time (QRI term; ref: 1): It is commonly acknowledged that in some situations time can feel like it is passing faster or slower than normal (cf. tachypsychia). What is less generally known is that experiences of time can be much more general, such as feeling like time stops entirely or that one is stuck in a loop. These are called exotic phenomenal time experiences, and while not very common, they certainly are informative about what phenomenal time is. Deviations from an apparent universal pattern are usually scientifically significant.
Reversed Time (QRI term; ref: 1): This is a variant of exotic phenomenal time in which experience seems to be moving backwards in time. “Inverted tracers” are experienced where one first experiences the faint after-images of objects before they fade in, constitute themselves, and then quickly disappear without a trace. According to the pseudo-time arrow model this experience can be described as an inversion of the implicit arrow of causality, though how this arises dynamically is still a mystery.
Moments of Eternity (common psychedelic phenomenology term; ref: 1): This exotic phenomenal time describes experiences where all apparent temporal movement seems to stop. One’s experience seems to have an unchanging quality and there is no way to tell if there will ever be something else other than the present experience in the whole of existence. In most cases this state is accompanied by intense emotions of simple texture and immediacy (rather than complex layered constructions of feelings). The experience seems to appear as the end-point and local maxima of annealing on psychedelic and dissociative states. That is, it often comes as metastable “flashes of large-scale synchrony” that are created over the course of seconds to minutes and decay just as quickly. Significantly, sensory deprivation conditions are ideal for the generation of this particular exotic phenomenal time.
Timelessness (QRI term; ref: 1): Timelessness is a variant of exotic phenomenal time where causality flows in a very chaotic way at all scales. This prevents forming a general global direction for time. In the state, change is perceptible and it is happening everywhere in your experience, and yet it seems as if there is no consensus among the different parts of your experience about the direction of time. That is, there is no general direction along which the experience seems to be changing as a whole over time. The chaotic bustle of changes that make up the texture of the experience are devoid of a story arc, and yet remain alive and turbulent. Trip reports suggest that the state that arises at the transition points between dissociative plateaus has this noisy timelessness quality (e.g. coming up on ketamine). Listening to green noise evokes the general idea, but you need to imagine that happening on every sensory modality and not just audio.
Time Loops (common psychedelic phenomenology term; ref: 1): This is perhaps the most common exotic phenomenal time experience that people have on psychedelics and dissociatives. This is due to the fact that, while it can be generated spontaneously, it is relatively easy to trigger by listening to repetitive music (e.g. a lot of EDM, trance, progressive rock, etc.), repetitive movements (e.g. walking, dancing), and repetitive thoughts (e.g. talking about the same topic for a long time) all of which are often abundant in the set and setting of psychedelic users. The effect happens when your projections about the future and the past are entirely informed by what seems like an endlessly repeating loop of experience. This often comes with intense emotions of its own (which are unusual and outside of the normal range of human experience), but it also triggers secondary emotions (which are just normal emotions amplified) such as fear and worry, or at times wonder and bliss. The pseudo-time arrow model of phenomenal time describes this experience as a graph in which the local patterns of implicit causality form a cycle at the global scale. Thus the phenomenal past and future merge at their tails and one inhabits an experiential world that seems to be infinitely-repeating.
Psychedelic view in the null scenario
Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis
Time Branching (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A rare variant of exotic phenomenal time in which you feel like you are able to experience more than one outcome out of events that you witness. Your friend stands up to go to the bathroom. Midway there he wonders whether to go for a snack first, and you see “both possibilities play out at once in superposition”. In an extreme version of this experience type, each event seems to lead to dozens if not hundreds of possible outcomes at once, and your mind becomes like a choose-your-own-adventure book with a broccoli-like branching of narratives, and at the limit all things of all imaginable possible timelines seem to happen at once and you converge on a moment of eternity, thus transitioning out of this variety. We would like to note that a Qualia Computing article delved into the question of how to test if the effect actually allows you to see alternative branches of the multiverse. The author never considered this hypothesis plausible, but the relative ease of testing it made it an interesting, if wacky, research lead. The test consisted of trying to tell apart the difference between a classical and a quantum random number generator in real time. The results of the experiment are all null for the time being.
World-Sheet (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): We represent modal and amodal information in our experience in a projective way. In most common cases, this information forms a 2D “sheet” that encodes the distance to the objects around you, which can be used as a depth-map to navigate your surroundings. A lot of the information we experience is in the combination of this sheet and phenomenal time (i.e. how it changes over time).
Hyperbolic Phenomenal Space (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): The local curvature of the world-sheet encodes a lot of information about the scene. There is a sense in which the “energy” of the experience is related to the curvature of the world-sheet (in addition to its phenomenal richness and brightness). So when one raises the energy of the state dramatically (e.g. by taking DMT) the world-sheet tends to instantiate configurations with very high-curvature. The surface becomes generically hyperbolic, which profoundly alters the overall geometry of one’s experience. A lot of the accounts of “space expansion” on psychedelics can be described in terms of alterations to the geometry of the world-sheet.
Chaotic pseudo-time arrow
Dimensionality of Consciousness (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): A generative definition for the dimensionality of a moment of experience can be “the highest virtual dimension implied by the network of correlations between globally bound degrees of freedom”. Admittedly, at the moment this is more of an intuition pump than a precise formalism, but a number of related phenomena suggest there is something in this general direction. For starters, differences between degrees of pain and pleasure are often described in terms of qualitative changes with phase transitions between them. Likewise, one generally experiences a higher degree of emotional involvement in a given stimuli the more sensory channels one is utilizing to interact with it. Pleasure that has cognitive, emotional, and physical components in a coordinated fashion is felt as much more profound and significant than pleasure that only involves one of those “channels”, or even pleasure that involves all three but where they lack coherence between them. Another striking example involves the states of consciousness induced by DMT, in which there are phase-transitions between the levels. These phase transitions seem to involve a change in the dimensional character of the hallucinations: in addition to hyperbolic geometry, DMT geometry involves a wide range of phenomena with virtual dimensions. On lower doses the hallucinations take the shape of 2D symmetrical plane coverings. On higher doses those covers transform into 2.5D wobbly worldsheets, and on higher doses still into 3D symmetrical tessellations and rooms with 4D features. For example, the DMT level above 3D tessellations has its “walls” covered with symmetrical patterns that are correlated with one another in such a way that they generate a “virtual” 4th dimension, itself capable of containing semantic content. We suspect that one of the reasons why MDMA is so uniquely good at healing trauma is that in order to address a high-dimensional pain you need a high-dimensional pleasure to hold space for it. MDMA seems to induce a high-dimensional variety of feelings of wellbeing, which can support and smooth a high-dimensional pain like such as those which underly traumatic memories.
Meme (standard science/psychology term coined by Richard Dawkins; 1): A “meme” is a cultural unit of information capable of being transmitted from one mind to another. Examples of memes include jokes, hat styles, window-dressing color palettes, and superstitions.
Memeplex (lesser known term coined by Richard Dawkins; 1, 2): A “memeplex” is a set of memes that, when simultaneously present, increase their ability to replicate (i.e. to be spread from one mind to another). Memeplexes do not need to say true things in order to be good at spreading; many strategies exist to motivate humans to share memes and memeplexes, ranging from producing good feelings (e.g. jokes), being threatening (e.g. apostasy), to being salient (e.g. famous people believe in them). A classic example of a memeplex is that of an ideology such as libertarianism, communism, capitalism, etc.
Full-Stack Memeplex (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A “full-stack memeplex” is a memeplex that provides an answer to most common human questions. While the scope of a memeplex like “libertarianism” extends across a variety of fields including economics and ethics, it is not a full-stack memeplex because it does not attempt to answer questions such as “why does anything exist?”, “why are the constants of nature the way they are?” and “what happens after we die?”. Religions and some philosophies like existentialism, Buddhism, and the LessWrong Sequences are full-stack memeplexes. We also consider the QRI ecosystem to contain a full-stack memeplex.
Hedonistic Imperative (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2): The Hedonistic Imperative is a book-length internet manifesto written by David Pearce which outlines how suffering will be eliminated with biotechnology and why our biological descendants are likely to be animated by gradients of information-sensitive bliss.
Abolitionism (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1): In the context of transhumanism, Abolitionism refers to the view in ethics that we should eliminate all forms of involuntary suffering both in human and non-human animals alike. The term was coined by David Pearce.
Factors 1 and 2: Subjective sense of meaningfulness or significance also described by “spiritual euphoria” (1), Calming/slow/comforting energy (2).
Factors 3 and 4: Intense, bright, defined euphoric energy (3), overall cost-benefit or worth it after all (4).
Factors 5 and 6: Sober mind and clean linear thinking (5), marijuana specific qualities and outwardly rather than inwardly focused aesthetics (6).
Slow and Fast
Spiritual and Fast
Spiritual and Slow
Fast Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “high-energy and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: energetic, charming, stimulating, sociable, erotic, etc.).
Slow Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “low-energy and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: calming, relieving, blissful, loving, etc.).
Spiritual/Philosophical Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “high-significance and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: incredible, spiritual, mystical, life-changing, interesting, colorful, etc.).
Current hedonic negative feedback dynamics.
Trans/Post-human negative feedback mechanisms.
Wireheading (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term; 1, 2): The act of modifying a mind’s reward architecture and hedonic baseline so that it is always generating experiences with a net positive valence (whether or not they are mixed).
Wireheading Done Right (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): Wireheading done in such a way that one can remain rational, economically productive, and ethical. In particular, it entails (1) taking into account neurological negative feedback systems, (2) avoiding reinforcement cycles that narrow one’s behavioral focus, and (3) preventing becoming a pure replicator (see below). A simple proof of concept reward architecture for Wireheading Done Right is to cycle between different kinds of euphoria, each with immediate diminishing returns, and with the ability to make it easier to experience other kinds of euphoria. This would give rise to circadian cycles with stages involving fast, slow, and spiritual/philosophical euphoria at different times. Wireheading Done Right entails never getting stuck while always being in a positive state.
Pure Replicator (QRI term; 1, 2): In the context of agents and minds, a Pure Replicator is an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A Pure Replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
Consciousness vs. Replicators (QRI term; 1, 2): This is a reframe of the big-picture narrative of the meaning of life in which the ultimate battle is between the act of reproducing for the sake of reproduction and the act of seeking the wellbeing of sentient beings for the sake of conscious value itself.
Maximum Effector (QRI term; 1): A Maximum Effector is an entity that uses all of its resources for the task of causing large effects, irrespective of what they may be. There is a sense in which most humans have a Maximum Effector side. Since causing large effects is not easy, one can reason that for evolutionary reasons people find such an ability to be a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Arrogance and power may not be all that people find attractive, but they do play a role in what makes someone seem sexy to others. Hence why, unfortunately, people research how to cause large effects even if they are harmful to everyone. The idealized version of a Maximum Effector, however, would be exclusively interested in causing large effects to happen rather than doing so as a way to meet an emotional need among others. Although being a Maximum Effector may seem crazy and pointless, they are important to consider in any analysis of the future because the long-tailed nature of large effects suggest that those who specifically seek to cause them are likely to have an impact on reality orders of magnitude higher than the impact of agents who try to simultaneously have both large and good effects.
Super-Shulgin Academy (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8): This is a hypothetical future intellectual society that investigates consciousness empirically. Rather than merely theorizing about it or having people from the general population describe their odd experiences, the Super-Shulgin Academy directly studies the state-space of consciousness by putting the brightest minds on the task. The Super-Shulgin Academy (1) trains high-quality consciousness researchers and psychonauts, (2) investigates the computational trade-offs between different states of consciousness, (3) finds new socially-useful applications for exotic states of consciousness, (4) practices the art and craft of creating ultra-blissful experiences, and (5) develops and maintains a full-stack memeplex that incorporates the latest insights about the state-space of consciousness into the most up-to-date Theory of Everything.
Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).
This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.
An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).
Why This Matters
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
Predictions of Lognormal World
Appearance Base Rates
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
Latent Trait Ratings
Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of Children
Falling in Love
Games of Chance Earnings
Death of Father and Mother
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.
There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:
In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.
In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.
We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.
The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:
Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences
Why This Matters
Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.
Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.
True long-tail pain scale
As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).
“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.
I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.
My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.
The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.
DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?
What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.
Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss
As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.
Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:
The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.
There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.
“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)
Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:
“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”
– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.
“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”
– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.
Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:
As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.
– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)
All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.
Now, how about the negative side?
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”
– Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)
(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:
4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain].
7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.
11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.
Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?
[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”
Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!
[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.
Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.
If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.
(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are severalqualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:
I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be thathot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).
I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”
Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches
(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:
The KIP scale
KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful KIP-2 More persistent shadows KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing” KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.
The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.
As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.
In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.
While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?
Predictions of Lognormal World
If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:
That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).
To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).
The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.
I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).
I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.
Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition
The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):
Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)
While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:
The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:
And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.
In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.
Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.
I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:
Appearance Base Rates
There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:
Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)
Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)
For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.
A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:
Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)
Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:
Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57
(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).
And for pleasure:
Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.
The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.
The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:
Best experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
Worst experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.
In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion
I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:
Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:
PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.
With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).
In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:
The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:
In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.
Latent Trait Ratings
A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).
I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.
To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:
Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):
(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).
I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).
The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):
If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:
As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of children
I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:
The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.
I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.
I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.
I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.
No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.
Falling in Love
The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.
The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.
It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).
Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.
Games of Chance Earnings
Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.
Key Pains Surfaced
Kidney Stones and Migraines
The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)
Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.
Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.
Death of Father and Mother
This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:
Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors
After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).
In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:
Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.
In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.
Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:
The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.
In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:
First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.
And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.
We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.
Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.
In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.
* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).
[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]
For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.
*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.
“A new study by the CDC revealed that 50 million Americans (just under 20% of the age-adjusted adult population) suffered from chronic pain, which was defined as “pain on most days or every day in the past 6 months.” Nearly 20 million (about 7.5%) experienced high-impact chronic pain, defined as “limiting life or work activities on most days or every day in the past 6 months.”
Using IHME’s GBD visualization tool, about 5% of total DALYs come from conditions associated with chronic pain (back pain, neck pain and self-harm), not to mention the implications pain has in a variety of other conditions, from osteoporosis to cancer.
The Most Effective Tool for Pain Management Carries its Own Significant Burdens
Opioids are highly effective as analgesics for managing chronic and acute pain, and are the most widely used pain treatment. However, consistent use of opioids results in tolerance, dependence, withdrawal and overdose, which claimed the lives of 47,600 people in 2017. Furthermore, the CDC estimates the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse in the US is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.
Finding a solution for opioids’ dark side would help millions enjoy life, reduce the global health burden by no less than 5%, avoid 10s of thousands of future deaths, and recover billions in lost productivity.
A solution may be to combine variable doses of Ibogaine, the active compound found in the Tabernanthe iboga shrub with safer classes of opioids.
The proliferation of opioids (specifically, full mu-opioid agonists) has this laundry list of problems: tolerance, addiction, withdrawal, overdose and euphoria (if one chooses to see it as a negative side-effect). In an effort to wean off of opioids, several groups have sought to attack these symptoms. Non-opioid therapeutics include cannabidiol (CBD) and CA-008, a TRPV-1 agonist which acts on nociceptive c-fibers in the peripheral nervous system similarly to capsaicin. These tend to be less habit-forming than opioids (attributed to their lower affinity for nuclei in the mesolimbic system), but also less effective at offering relief from intense neuropathic pain. Other attempts to tame opioids have been made, most of them having the reduction of pleasure as the main target. CARA Therapeutics has created a kappa-opioid agonist which acts selectively on receptors in the peripheral nervous system to “produce little to no CNS-mediated side effects that one sees with traditional CNS-acting mu opioids like nausea/vomiting, sedation, respiratory depression, abuse, addiction or euphoria”. NKTR-181, a novel full mu-opioid agonist, is more direct: “NKTR-181, a first-in-class opioid analgesic, is a new chemical entity (NCE) that is the first full mu-opioid agonist molecule designed to provide potent pain relief without the high levels of euphoria that can lead to abuse and addiction with standard opioids”. As it turns out, addiction and pleasure have a complex relationship; one is not reducible to the other. Euphoria-inducing psychedelic drugs and the jhana states of meditative absorption seem to lack the addictive profile of opioids. Pleasure and habit become decoupled over time in the path of opioid addiction as well, one fading with the other stubbornly immovable. If we can have opioids that forego tolerance, addiction, withdrawal and overdose, but keep the euphoria, wouldn’t that be better?
Ibogaine has a history of being used for the treatment of opioid addiction, but it may also have interesting properties for producing safer opioids as well. While at high doses (1g+) it creates intense psychedelic effects, it also has interesting properties at both lower doses of 500-600mg and at ‘microdoses’ of around 50mg. Ibogaine is illegal in many countries, but unregulated in Mexico, legal in Brazil, Gabon, and Costa Rica, and on the prescription drug list in New Zealand and Canada. For a more in-depth review of the history of Ibogaine and its use in treatment, read this review on Pysmposia.
In this case study, a patient who had been a long-term opioid user and recently transitioned to methadone (a replacement for harder opioids like heroin, but maintaining the full agonist mu-opioid method of action) was taken off methadone without withdrawal using increasing doses of Ibogaine (150mg, 300mg, 400mg, 500mg, 600mg). As the Ibogaine dose was increased, the methadone was halved each time. We could allow opioid users to substantially decrease their opioid intake without withdrawal, while continuing to use opioids for pain management. After a few applications at the 100-600mg level, users could be maintaining their usage at ¼ of their original intake. Then they could utilize “dirty maintenance”: taking 25-50mg of Ibogaine daily while using a much lower amount of the opioid they typically use. Microdosing ibogaine alone is also potentially mood-enhancing, and some former opioid users have employed “clean maintenance” (i.e. just Ibogaine), to reduce post-acute-withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).
The reason these solutions work is because Ibogaine acts as an ‘anti-tolerance’ drug. It potentiates the effects of opioids and prevents patterns of tolerance and dependence from forming at the neurological level. When combined with full mu-opioid agonists, even in lower doses, this can pose a risk since the dose required to overdose could be more unpredictable with Ibogaine. A ‘best of both worlds’ solution would be to continue microdosing Ibogaine in conjunction with a partial mu-opioid agonist. Partial mu-opioid agonists prevent overdose by creating an upper-bound on activity at the opioid receptor and preventing the respiratory depression that causes death in full agonists.
While existing partial mu-opioid agonists, such as the drug combo of buprenorphine and naloxone are used in opioid replacement therapy settings, they too lack euphoria-producing properties. With this new class of analgesics, patients could choose when to start, stop, and for how long to take their pain medication without fear, along with a depression-preventing hedonic enhancement. For more, see: On Hitting the Actual Target of Hedonic Tone.
A well-known example of a partial mu-opioid agonist is 7-hydroxymitragynine, the active compound in kratom. Brazil is the only country to not prohibitively schedule either kratom or Ibogaine, and so might be an option for conducting research into this new form of non-tolerance-inducing opioid mixture. In the United States, research is being done at DemeRX for approving Ibogaine through the FDA IND process for the detoxification of people afflicted with opioid addiction. Their success would also open the door to further innovation in Ibogaine-assisted pain treatments in the US.
Risks of Ibogaine
Unfortunately, Ibogaine has a harsher risk profile than most psychedelics, and has been associated with about 30 deaths due to cardiac complications. However, many researchers who have worked with Ibogaine for decades believe that these incidents can be minimized or even eliminated by standard medical practices like employing EKG screenings. Medical screenings should not only assess current heart health, but also in-system drugs, which can be potentiated by Ibogaine use, and can lead to unexpected overdose. In a population of drug users to be treated, higher incidences of poor heart health and the presence of other drugs likely contributed to a significant number of the cases of death recorded.
Mash et al. 2018 reviewed 191 cases of ibogaine therapy (all at Dr. Mash’s clinic on Saint Kitts) and found that there were no cases of cardiac-related death at doses used for interrupting addiction. Furthermore, Clear Sky Recovery has administered 1000s of Ibogaine sessions without a single fatality.
Iboga rescheduling in the US may be far off, but its potential shouldn’t be underestimated. As Hamilton Morris notes, Ibogaine is “alien technology”, with the potential to help us humans solve some of our greatest medical mysteries. For now, it’s enough to think that it might be able to a create stable, long-term pain medication with no risk of respiratory depression, tolerance, and minimal withdrawal. Along with risk-free… risk tolerant euphoria. Whether that sustainable euphoria will be available to all, remains to be seen.
To extend this recent EA Forum Post, I wanted to share the results of Qualia Research Institute’s research into using tryptamines to abort and prevent cluster headaches. While the quotes and statistics contained here can provide some notion of the pain experienced by cluster headache sufferers, I think it is truly unimaginable. This report contains specific interventions to be pursued in both a philanthropic and for-profit business capacity. While for-profit options are beyond our scope, those interested in supporting philanthropic interventions should consider donating to ClusterBusters (the most important nonprofit dedicated to researching treatments for cluster headaches), or QRI (which does foundational research on ways to reduce intense suffering).
Mission: Instantly and safely abort cluster headaches and treat migraines, the #2 and #10 (respectively) most painful medical conditions according to NHS. Emphasis is placed on chronic cluster headaches, which account for as much as 80% of all clusters and currently lack an effective treatment option.
“Even child birth is 1/10th the pain of a cluster headache, seriously this name needs to change… call it ultra super migraine.” (source)
A back of the envelope calculation indicates there are roughly 14 thousand people enduring a cluster headache right now.
14.2% of US adults 18 or older reported having migraine or severe headache in the previous 3 months in the 2012 NHIS. The overall age-adjusted 3-month prevalence of migraine in females was 19.1% and in males 9.0%, but varied substantially depending on age. (source)
Current treatments are either ineffective, costly, unsafe, or some combination of the three. The most effective treatments available for cluster headaches include oxygen, which requires the patient to carry an oxygen tank with them at all times, and triptans, which can be used a maximum of three times daily (an issue for chronic sufferers especially) and have side effects from pain to heart attack and stroke. The most effective treatments for migraines include triptans and opioids (which have high addiction potential). Emgality, a more promising treatment for episodic cluster headaches, has recently entered the market, but its long-term risk profile and efficacy have not yet been established.
Bob Wold founded “Cluster Busters” in 2002 with the explicit purpose of trying to get psychedelics to be prescription medication (see his lecture Treating Cluster Headaches with Psychedelics). He tried over 75 different prescription medications and was at the end of the rope when he found psychedelics could be helpful:
Medications Bob Wold tried that didn’t work (1/2)
Meditations Bob Wold tried that didn’t work (2/2)
As noted in this Qualia Computing article, the survey surfaced that about 83% of all cluster headaches are experienced by 20% of the sufferers, most of which are classified as ‘chronic’. No existing medication has been approved for use to treat chronic cluster headaches. Vaporizing DMT could be the first such treatment, offering instant relief for cluster headaches as often as they arise in a (potentially large) percentage of sufferers.
“One of the most incredible experiences of my life was when I first aborted a CH [cluster headache] with DMT. That feeling of going from a place of excruciating pain…and feeling the pain fizzle away and die in a matter of seconds” (source)
It is known by a majority of cluster headache sufferers that psychedelics can be highly effective treatments. Due to the legal status of psychedelics, no randomized controlled trial (RCT) has been conducted, but analysis has been done on online forum responses and anonymous surveys, and interviews have been recorded. Evidence from these reports points to a number of important factors: tryptamines (the class of psychedelics which includes compounds like N,N-DMT and psilocybin, the active chemical in ‘magic mushrooms’) seem especially effective, sub-psychoactive and non-psychedelic doses can be therapeutic, and psychedelics can also decrease the frequency of headaches on long time horizons. While smoking/vaporizing is the fastest method of administration available, information from a private correspondence suggests that the FDA may be averse to approving inhalants. Intramuscular administration, utilizing Rick Strassman’s protocol, could be an alternative that would achieve rapid relief without the use of an inhalation device. Since the pain being experienced is so severe, having a faster method of administration is critical.
From the relevant academic literature:
“The indoleamine hallucinogens, psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide, and lysergic acid amide, were comparable to or more efficacious than most conventional medications. These agents were also perceived to shorten/abort a cluster period and bring chronic cluster headache into remission more so than conventional medications.” (source)
“Also, for DMT, it was suggested that singular or infrequent dosage could have potential long-term beneficial effects on headache disorders: ‘Even a single dose, or perhaps a couple, can be a lifelong benefit.’” (source)
“Of interest, an open-label study found that similar compounds (2-bromo-LSD) without psychedelic effect were promising for this purpose” (source)
From online surveys:
A survey of members of online cluster headache forums revealed that 68% of respondents who used tryptamines had a 4 or 5 out of 5 relief. 5 indicates “completely eliminated the cluster headaches”.
This survey again suggests that the main barrier to use is lack of access and hallucinogenic effects. As we found in an interview with an anonymous sufferer (see below), hallucinogenic effects may be avoidable.
Difficulty getting. 0 – Extremely easy to acquire, 5 – Nearly impossible to acquire
Legal risk. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
Side effects. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
From interviews with cluster headache sufferers who have tried N,N-DMT:
Due to the Schedule I status of psychedelics in the United States, pursuing this intervention in the US will not be feasible for a number of years (see Section IV for more information on pursuing FDA approval for DMT for cluster headaches/migraines).
A possible solution would be to create an online education campaign publicizing the results of this report to cluster headache sufferers, designated as ‘information-only’, and pursuing the use of psychedelics to treat cluster headaches and migraines in countries where tryptamines are legal, including Brazil, Jamaica and the Netherlands. In addition, given the gravity of the disorder, it could be cost-effective to fly patients to such countries for months at a time.
While we believe that traditional metrics such as the QALY do not accurately capture the suffering caused by a cluster headache (see upcoming post on the true pain/pleasure scale), a rough QALY calculation would be as follows (focusing on chronic cluster headache sufferers rather than average, since they compromise up to 83% of total headaches):
Facebook AD campaign:
An estimated 370,000 Americans suffer from cluster headaches, 68% of whom are on Facebook (=251,000). About 15% of these suffer from chronic cluster headaches (=37,740). According to Sprout Social, the average estimated cost per click of an ad campaign is $1.72. Assuming 1/10 who click are cluster headache sufferers, to reach all chronic sufferers would take (ballpark) $650,000.
Assuming about 30% of those who view the ad will pursue the treatment (rough estimate-those who put 2 or less on survey results for questions of legality, difficulty to acquire etc.) and that in 68% of cases it cured or nearly cured their clusters (based on survey results), then the resulting increase in QALYs would be (37,740 people * 0.3 * 0.68) * [0.760 (QALY coefficient) * 1 QALY – ( -0.429 (QALY coefficient)* (0.47QALY)) ] = $650,000/7, 404QALY = $87.70 per QALY.
These ads could also be targeted to users in countries where psilocybin and DMT are legal for use recreationally, increasing conversion rate. Further targeting could be done on Facebook groups (and other social media groups) which are associated with cluster headache treatment.
IV. For-profit Opportunities
The recent emergence of psychedelics in for-profit business settings also affords the opportunity for entrepreneurs to seek legal rescheduling of N,N-DMT in the US for the purpose of treating cluster headaches and/or migraines. Below is an outline of the process of navigating the FDA IND process, which could result in a change in legal status:
‘Orphan disease’ status:
There are two main classifications of cluster headaches, chronic and episodic. Episodic cluster headaches are characterized by periods of headaches (up to 8 times per day) of a week to a full year, which remit for periods from a month up to a year. Chronic cluster headaches, on the other hand, either last for longer than a year or have remittance periods of less than a month. A meta-analysis from the NIH estimates that cluster headaches affect 124/100,000 in the U.S., meaning an estimated 370,000 people suffer from cluster headaches a year. Of these, about 15%, or 60,000, suffer from chronic cluster headaches.
The FDA grants ‘orphan disease’ status to diseases which affect fewer than 200,000 persons in the U.S per year, and offers incentives to those pursuing treatments through the FDA’s IND process for such diseases, such as longer periods of exclusivity (monopoly on drug manufacture and sale) for the treatment after approval.
The global market for migraine drugs (which encompasses cluster headache drugs) in 2017 was $1.7 billion.
Healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraine are estimated to be as high as $36 billion annually in the U.S. Current estimates of cluster headaches’ annual cost in the U.S. is ~$3.5 billion.
Share of market
5 years after launch (with FDA approval, with a 5-year monopoly) – serve 20% of chronic migraine sufferers (800,000), serve 20% of cluster headache sufferers (40,000)
Platform’s average annual revenue per patient (migraines): $452/patient/year
There is significant variance in frequency of cluster headaches: estimates range from [$120/g*0.02g/dose*30 doses/month *3 months = $324, $120/g*0.02g/dose*120 doses/month*12 months = $6912/patient/year].
Annual revenue, 5 years after launch: $13.6M [low cluster headache estimate] – $344M [high cluster headache estimate]
Annual revenue, 5 years after launch (migraines): $344M
The 5-year (or more, if ‘orphan disease’ status is gained) monopoly provided by the FDA would allow for further R&D, and as-yet undetermined projects. Some promising directions:
FDA on track to approve MDMA therapy in 2021, psilocybin therapy in 2022
FDA approval will catalyze a large increase in demand for psychedelic services
There is sufficient evidence to attempt bringing DMT for headaches through the FDA process as it becomes increasingly open to psychedelic interventions
Reasons to start before FDA approval of MDMA and psilocybin:
A “psychedelic renaissance” is underway: funding for psychedelic research has skyrocketed, and multiple psychedelic decriminalization initiatives (1, 2) have recently passed. Riding the current wave of activist and public support is advantageous to our efforts.
More time to build relationship with the FDA (important for seeking DMT clearance)
More time to build relationships with organizations currently seeking FDA approval for therapeutic uses of psychedelics (MAPS &Compass Pathways)
Taking on the FDA IND process can be challenging and high risk from an investment standpoint. The average cost of successfully completing Phase 1-3 trials (after which the drug can be rescheduled and approved for medical use) is $100m, requires about 9-11 years and has a 6.7% success rate (private correspondence).
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has recently raised $26.7M for Phase 3 MDMA trials alone. Total, MAPS has spent in the ballpark of $30M. If Phase 3 trials demonstrate statistically-significant results, MDMA could be selectively rescheduled for use in therapeutic settings, but would require subsequent Phase 4 trials.
The FDA is risk-averse and has incurred backlash from their last notable rescheduling of fentanyl in 1985. Convincing the FDA to pursue rescheduling for treatment of a relatively rare disease with other available medications will likely be difficult.
The success or failure of MAPS in receiving approval for MDMA will be crucial for defining the regulatory landscape for other psychedelics. Should they fail, bringing another similar substance through the process may prove much more difficult.
As discussed in Section I, most available migraine and cluster headache drugs are ineffective, expensive, and/or have heavy risk profiles. Emgality, a new migraine drug approved last month, has received FDA ‘breakthrough therapy’ status for its ability to decrease the frequency of episodic cluster headaches and has shown promise as a palliative for migraines as well. Emgality has not been approved for use in treating chronic cluster headaches, however, and does not achieve the same rapidity of administration as the DMT vape pen (see Section III). Thus, our solution is still critical for relieving symptoms instantly, and maintains the advantage of being eligible to treat chronic cluster headaches, an ‘orphan disease’.
Phase 1 studies (typically involve 20 to 80 people).
Phase 2 studies (typically involve a few dozen to about 300 people).
Phase 3 studies (typically involve several hundred to about 3,000 people).
Use of Funds
Expenses for research and operations staff
Researchers with clinical experience
Legal counsel (paperwork)
Phase 1 FDA trial (our connections to expertise in the field would reduce the cost compared to average Phase 1 trials)
Data on Cost of Trials
The following information is from the MDMA/PTSD Trials led by MAPS. However, the treatment for PTSD involves: multiple therapy sessions and an MDMA-trained psychotherapist. Therapy sessions also last 6-8 hours. Presumably, some of these costs would not apply to a DMT/CH trial, so we expect trials for DMT/CH to be cheaper than the MDMA/PTSD Trials.
However, cluster headaches are not well suited to the therapeutic environment that is used to treat mental health conditions (they arise unpredictably, and require instant relief). This means there are likely significant cost-saving opportunities in the experimental design protocol.
Summary of costs for MAPS IND Process:
 Assume a world population of 7.7 billion people, and 53 out of 100,000 yearly prevalence suffering from this. Going by public health records, we see that the average number of cluster headache attacks that a sufferer experiences is about 30 a year (with a huge variance, where some people get only about 5 a year and some get them multiple times a day). Attacks last on average 1 hour (but range from 20 minutes to 3 hours). Hence, the number of people currently experiencing a CH is: 0.00053*7,700,000,000*(30/(24*365)) = 13,976.03 ~= 14 thousand
How people in different (Buddhist) realms interpret pain:
1) Heavenly Realm / God Realm: Pain is impermanent. It’s a trick of the mind. A method to help us wake up and realize who we truly are. [said while peacefully unaware of actual pain due to the formidable amounts of pleasure and distractions on hand]
2) Asura Realm / Titan Realm: Pain is a tool to succeed. It is a challenge to be overcome at a personal level, and a weapon to be used against one’s enemies. If I didn’t suffer intensely for the things that I achieved, would they mean anything? [said while experiencing intense cravings for social recognition and the need to feel superbly significant]
3) Animal Realm: Pain is the separation from my pleasures of the day to day. My morning coffee, interrupted by a call. My conversations with a friend, when someone’s bad luck is brought up. The annoying commercials in-between the chunks of TV I like. [said while snoozing the alarm for the 4th time in a row]
4) Hell Realm: Pain is reality in and of itself. Life is suffering. And if it isn’t at the moment, that’s just temporary good luck. Happiness is merely the absence of suffering; happiness is therefore as good as nonexistence. [said while waiting in the ER while experiencing a kidney stone]
5) Hungry Ghost Realm: Pain is realizing that only 10 out of the 15 people who RSVP’ed to my party showed up. It is the feeling of noticing that the Pringles are almost gone. The feeling that you get when you make out with someone and only get to 2nd base when you could have gotten to 3rd or 4th. [said while scrolling Reddit for the 3rd hour in a row].
6) Human Realm: Pain is a healthy signaling mechanism. When you look at it scientifically, it is just a negative reinforcement signal that propagates throughout your nervous system in order to prevent the chain of causes that led to the current state. It’s nothing to worry about, just as you shouldn’t worry about the weather or the shape of the solar system. [said while dispassionately reading a neuroscience textbook].
[Warning: Disturbing content ahead. Why talk about it? This is an ethically very serious topic and it deserves more attention. But please beware that thinking about this might be bad for one’s mental health.]
One of the key insights that shows why Effective Altruism is so important is that the positive effect on the world that results from donating to various charities follows a long-tail distribution:
It is for this, among other, reasons why focusing on the best interventions really pays off. Where else can we expect long-tails to appear?
In Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace we discussed how introducing a new metric into the Effective Altruist ecosystem could shed light on neglected cost-effective interventions. We presented the Hell-Index:
A country’s Hell-Index could be defined as the yearly total of people-seconds in pain and suffering that are at or above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent)*. This index captures the intuition that intense suffering can be in some ways qualitatively different and more serious than lesser suffering in a way that isn’t really captured by a linear pain scale.
In a future article we will discuss how the quality of suffering as a function of different medical and psychological conditions very likely follows a long-tail distribution. That is, some conditions such as Cluster Headaches (which affect about 1 in 1000 people worldwide) produce pain that is orders of magnitude worse than the pain experienced in other kinds of medical conditions, such as migraines (which are themselves already described as orders of magnitude worse than tension headaches). In other words, a 0-10 pain-scale is better thought of as a logarithmic compression of the true levels of pain rather than a linear scale. So concentrating on the worst conditions could really pay off for reducing suffering in bulk amounts.
Now: the long-tailed nature of suffering may extend beyond the quality of suffering, and show up also in its quantity. That is, the frequency with which people experience episodes of intense suffering, even among those who experience the same kind of suffering, is unlikely to be normally distributed.
Intuitively, one may think that how much suffering people endure on a given year follows a normal distribution. This intuition says that if the median number of hell-seconds people endure in a year is, say, 1,000, then people who are at the 90% percentile of hell-seconds experienced per year will be experiencing something like 1,500 or at most 2,000. If suffering follows a long-tail distribution, in reality the 90% percentile might be experiencing something more akin to 10,000 hell-seconds per year, the 99% percentile something akin to 100,000, and the 99.9% something akin to 1,000,000. If true, such a heavy skew of the distribution would suggest that we should concentrate our energies on addressing the problems of the people who are unlucky to be on the upper ranges, rather than be overly concerned with “the typical person”*.
Unfortunately, I come to share the bad news that suffering probably follows a very long-tail distribution:
It is generally acknowledged that Cluster Headaches are some of the most painful experiences that people endure. Having a single Cluster Headache, lasting anywhere between 15 minutes to 4 hours, is already an ethically unacceptable situation that should never happen to begin with. It is disheartening to know that 1 in 1,000 people experience such extreme pain. But the truth of the matter is yet much worse than we intuitively think…
We recently analyzed a survey** of Cluster Headache patients that was conducted with the intention of determining the reasons why sufferers do or do not use psychedelics to relieve their pain. As it turns out, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT all get rid of Cluster Headaches in a majority of sufferers. Given the safety profile of these agents, it is insane to think that there are millions of people suffering needlessly from this condition who could be nearly-instantly cured with something as simple as growing and eating some magic mushrooms.
We will get back to this in more depth in later articles, but for the time being what we want to highlight is the responses to the question “About how many cluster headaches do you get in a typical year?”.
After cleaning the data***, we end up with 270 participants. We then ranked the values from smallest to largest, and visualize them:
Honestly I am a bit suspicious of the very top numbers (I do not know how you can fit 25,000 Cluster Headaches in a year, so perhaps the participant interpreted the question as “lifetime number of Cluster Headaches”). So, just to be safe, we cut the top 20 highest numbers and visualize the bottom 250 values:
This is clearly a long-tail distribution. And since many people online do claim to have 3 or more Cluster Headaches a day, I am inclined to believe this curve. To zoom in on some parts of the distribution, here are some additional histograms that focus on the lower percentiles:
Bins of 1, responses between 1 and 10 CHs per year.
Bins of 1, responses between 1 and 100 CHs per year.
Bins of 10, responses between 1 and 1000 CHs per year.
Bins of 100, responses between 1 and 2000 CHs per year.
Bins of 10, responses between 1 and 5000 CHs per year.
If we take the logarithm of the number of yearly Cluster Headaches, the distribution looks remarkably normal:
Natural log of the responses to the question “About how many cluster headaches do you get in a typical year?”
I should also point out that the distribution is really close to the 80/20 Pareto principle – we see that the top 20% of the participants contain about 83% of the CH incidents per year. Below you will find the percent of the total number of incidents accounted for by the bottom x% of the respondents:
The bottom 10% accounts for .06% of incidents
The bottom 20% accounts for 0.36% of incidents
The bottom 30% accounts for .95% of incidents
The bottom 40% accounts for 1.82% of incidents
The bottom 50% accounts for 3.17% of incidents
The bottom 60% accounts for 5.54% of incidents
The bottom 70% accounts for 9.56% of incidents
The bottom 80% accounts for 17% of incidents
The bottom 90% accounts for 30% of incidents
The bottom 95% accounts for 43% of incidents
Below we also include the number of yearly Cluster Headaches experiences at different percentiles:
10% percentile experiences 5 CH/year
20% percentile experiences 17 CH/year
30% percentile experiences 30 CH/year
40% percentile experiences 45 CH/year
50% percentile experiences 70 CH/year
60% percentile experiences 105 CH/year
70% percentile experiences 200 CH/year
80% percentile experiences 365 CH/year
90% percentile experiences 730 CH/year
95% percentile experiences 1095 CH/year
98% percentile experiences 2190 CH/year
I believe that this information is crucial to consider when assessing cost-effective interventions to help people who endure intense suffering.
Here are some additional results from the survey.
The following graphs are about the beliefs and attitudes of Cluster Headache sufferers who do not use tryptamines (LSD, psilocybin, DMT, etc.) to treat their condition:
Difficulty getting. 0 – Extremely easy to acquire, 5 – Nearly impossible to acquire
Legal risk. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
Side effects. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
Social stigma. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
I think it is fair to say that the survey shows that one of the biggest barriers preventing CH patients from using tryptamines to treat their condition is simply the difficulty of acquiring them. Since a number of interviews we’ve conducted have shown that even sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT can abort cluster headaches (writeup coming soon), more education could easily address the barrier of being concerned about hallucinogenic side effects. The social stigma seems like a minor problem, and the legal implications (the hardest to change, perhaps), are a big concern to about half of the participants (ratings of 4 or 5/5). Hence the importance of passing new laws allowing people with this condition to use them without repercussions.
Do CH sufferers who do not use tryptamines think they would work?
And do they work? Here is what the CH sufferers who do use them say:
If we interpret a 2 or 3 in the 0 to 5 scale as an equivalent to a “maybe”, and a 4 or 5 as a “yes” to the question “do they work?” we see a big difference between non-users beliefs in their effectiveness and their reported effectiveness by users. 24% of people who use tryptamines to treat their CHs report that “They have completely eliminated the cluster headaches” and in total 68% mark it as either a 4 or a 5 in the scale (which we can interpret as “working” even if not “completely eliminating them”). This is compared to only 30% of non-users who believe the tryptamines would work. This large discrepancy also suggests that outreach and education could help sufferers give this approach a try.
Finally, we also looked at whether the users and non-users had different number of incidents per year (reasoning that perhaps those who experience more incidents would be more desperate to try legally and socially risky treatments). We notices that there is a very slight difference in the mean (and mean-log) for the number of CH incidents a year between the 20% of sufferers who treat their CHs with tryptamines and those who don’t. I won’t report the difference in the mean because the skew of the distribution makes such a metric deceptive, but the log-mean of yearly incidents of tryptamine users is 4.73 whereas for all the rest it is 4.10 (which reaches statistical significance of p < 0.05 based on a t-test). That said, we don’t think this is a very practically relevant difference. The distributions look roughly the same:
The similarity between these two distributions also suggests that there is a long way to go to make sure that those who are the worse off get prompt access to tryptamines.
See also https://clusterbusters.org/, which is an organization that aims to make psychedelics legally available to people who suffer from this condition. Please consider donating to them to help this very important cause. Also consider donating to MAPS which is championing the use of psychedelics for mental health applications. Finally, consider also donating to organizations that care and strategize about how to reduce intense suffering, such as: QRI, FRI, OPIS, and The Neuroethics Foundation.
*There are instrumental considerations here – if experiencing more than, say, 5,000 hell-seconds in a year is very likely to make you depressed and ineffective, then it might pay-off to also spend resources on keeping as many people as possible below that level. In particular, to be an effective Effective Altruist it pays off not to be heavily depressed and nihilistic.
**Thanks to Harlan Stewart for taking the initiative to conduct this survey. He advertised it on the Facebook groups and subreddits of Cluster Headache sufferers and got 371 responses.
***Some people provided numerical answers, which we used directly. Some other people provided ranges, in which case we used the middle point between the values provided (e.g. “200 to 300” was coded as “250”). Some people provided lower bounds, in which case we simply used such lower bound (e.g. “500+” was coded as “500”). We discarded the data of people who didn’t provide an answer in any of those formats – which left 270 participants. A more strict analysis that uses *only* the numerical responses results in the same observations listed above (e.g. the distribution is equally long-tailed and it appears to be log-normal).
It increases the range of possible valence (the distribution of valence per moment of consciousness on psychedelics follows a long-tail distribution, where some of the most intense moments of bliss are literally orders of magnitude bigger and more energetic than the median amount of bliss on the state or sober. I am convinced that this is a real thing, and that this fact will be shown scientifically in the future. It will require us to be able to generalize valence measurements to exotic brain states, but it will be done).
It increases the range of qualia varieties and values which form the building blocks of one’s world-simulation (for instance, one may experience novel qualia that has some resemblance to smell and some resemblance to a certain kind of touch, but which is not just a synesthetic mix of the two, but which belongs to a genuinely new category of qualia. Presumably such qualia was not recruited for information-processing purposes by natural selection, but that does not mean that it couldn’t find some applications for qualia computing and post-Darwinian aesthetics).
Of the above, the most ethically relevant attribute is (3) – which is also the most profound when considered in light of what humans care about.
I really think that the majority of sensible people who happen to experience a- let’s say- sense of bliss and wholeness that would score a 113 out of 10* in a happiness scale, and which crams 4 or 5 times “more qualia” within each moment of experience, should understandably realize at that point that “there is more, much more, to reality than we usually believe”. The experience is a proof-of-concept of what reality is capable of consciousness-wise; and evidence that we live in vastly sub-optimal configurations of qualia relative to the love and beauty that we could live with instead.
Now, which precise intentional content gets annealed as a consequence of a high-valence experience is a matter of the tripper’s ability to make sense of the experience, along with the power of the conceptual tools at his or her disposal. Independently of the specific things that LSD makes people believe in, I emphasize that one should not forget the key revelation. The key fact to never forget is that valence can go way, way, up. Valence can reach values way above the upper region of one’s everyday experiences. This insight is both true and agnostic about the semantic content of the specific revelations people experience.
When scientifically proven, the realization that there is a long-tail distribution of suffering and wellbeing ought to revolutionize how we make utilitarian calculations. This will give rise a very generative view, which I call “long-tail ethics”.
Just as Effective Altruism made us think about the long-tail nature of “lives saved per dollar”, long-tail ethics, more broadly, will make us ponder the implications of the fact that the bulk of bliss and suffering are concentrated in high-energy states of consciousness. By first getting rid of the negative extreme, and then finding adaptive regions of the positive extreme, we will find -what feels like it anyhow- our true home. In a sense our true home is, and has always been, in the form of a peak-valence region of the state-space of consciousness.