The following essay* was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue). Below you will find models 5 and 6 (out of 8), which are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute. (See models 1 & 2, and 3 & 4).
I will wrap up this series next week with something many readers would know to expect – an explanation for how art is connected to valence. Stay tuned!
5. State-Space Exploration
The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.
Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.
– Ken Mogi in The Qualia Manifesto (1998)
Is there anything beyond the sacred? Yes. This model of art posits that one key feature of art is the pursuit of novel experiences that challenge preconceptions of what is possible to experience. The state-space of possible experiences is unfathomably vast, and mundane everyday human experiences are restricted to a tiny corner of this enormous behemoth. As they say, “you won’t know if you like it until you try it”. Applying that logic to the exploration of the state-space of consciousness would encourage us to open our horizons and become receptive to the possibility that there are true gems of experience waiting to be found in exotic regions of this space.
Now, it is easy for some people to fetishize the exotic for novelty’s sake. But contrary to popular belief, novelty is not intrinsically valuable. Taking into account previous discussions (especially models 2 and 3 above), we can interpret artistic explorations that push the boundary of our knowledge about what can be experienced as a sophisticated form of signaling genetic fitness. In particular, mastery over novel modes of experience shows that you have the mental and physical power to devote copious amounts of resources to exploration, for only one in a thousand attempts at discovering something new results in something that other people can appreciate. It is thus the case that a lot of novelty creation is aimed at courtship rather than being driven by a genuine passion for knowledge.
That said, what is out there hidden in the state-space of consciousness beggars belief. Anyone who is exploring that vast space in an intelligent way will sooner or later find incredible things. But how do we explore this space intelligently? A systematic exploration of possible images, for instance, could involve taking a picture and changing one pixel at a time. But as we all know, the Library of Babel is almost completely devoid of meaningful books. At least relative to its size. A much better way of exploring the space (inspired by Steerable Pyramid and Deep Dream-type algorithms) would be to sample possible images with an intelligent method, such as training generative neural networks on previous works of art, and then asking them to hallucinate possible images while constraining the neural layers you identify with the aesthetic quality of the images. Style transfer techniques and similar methods can result in images sampled from a given aesthetic, rather than from e.g. a particular low-level feature set (e.g. a type of edges) or a set of high-level semantic content (e.g. cars, people, dogs, etc.).
Exploring the space of possible images is an extremely small sub-problem of exploring the state-space of consciousness. But I think the analogy is useful as a general idea. Now, how vast is the state-space of consciousness? Well, it tends to be larger than you think, even when you take that fact into account. I will coin that fact as Gomez-Emilsson’s Law. Every time you think you know how vast the state-space of consciousness is, you will be surprised to find out you are wrong if you choose to dig deeper.
Consider what happens when someone takes LSD. Most people expect that they will simply get to experience new sensations like brighter colors, tracers, or synesthesia. This is true to a point, for light doses. But on medium doses, in addition to exploring the state-space of sensory configurations, one also experiences new aesthetics, which this model would define as ways of organizing a lot of sensations in ways that feel right. More so, an aesthetic is also a way of delivering uninhibited sensations in a way that feels good at the level of the whole experience, from moment to moment. Most people have no clue that there is a vast space of possibilities here.
On higher doses, people are surprised to find an even more general way of exploring the state-space of consciousness. Namely, one instantiates alternate games. The DMT “vibe” that people report can be thought of as more than a “context switch”. It is, rather, a more radical change that we could describe as a “game switch”. The “Jester” that people talk about regarding DMT experiences is an archetype that the mind uses to signal the “rule violation” quality of the state. There is so much going on that one’s experience splits into multiple games at once trying to find some common ground, and this feeling of game-incompatibility feels very alien. A sort of anti-virus system in the mind is triggered at that point, and labels the inconsistency with a feeling of weirdness so that you know not to update your actions based on the (currently globally inconsistent) experience of multiple superimposed games. Rule violation through fast changes in implicit games of social status causes you to interpret what is going on as having extreme stakes. Interacting with DMT Aliens, Gods, Elves, etc. feels like the upper limit of potential social status transfer that your world simulation affords (like meeting a president or a king). The state-space of consciousness contains all of these alternate games and metagames, and we have not even begun to catalogue them. This is all to say: seen in this light, the era of art has just begun.
Like the previous models, this one also gives rise to an aesthetic of its own. I call this the aesthetic of “Rainbow God”. This is the meta-belief that we gain value by understanding and experiencing extremely novel states of consciousness. Ultimate bliss, according to this aesthetic, is not a bland monotone state, but rather, is a state that incorporates within it an extraordinary variety of types of qualia. Posthuman aesthetics will not only show up in the form of intense feelings, but also in the form of extremely “rainbow-ey” experiences. The concept of a full-spectrum intelligence (an intelligence capable of instantiating any qualia at will) plays an important role in this aesthetic. Thus, the full-spectrum artists of the future will have access to a qualia pallet in an experience editor that includes human qualia like sight, touch, scent, emotions, thought-episodes, etc. It will also include qualia only found in insects, fish, mollusks, people tripping, people having seizures, novel neurocircuitry, etc. The asymptote of incorporating all possible varieties of qualia into a single experience is the final realization of Rainbow God, the ultimate state of knowledge and beauty according to this aesthetic.
6. Energy Parameter Modulation
People say they have weird and novel experiences with art, but by a large margin, the novelty itself is not the focus of what matters in people’s reports. Rather, people especially talk about having experiences that are not only novel and unusual, but also characterized by heightened states of consciousness. For example, when people “get art” they report being inspired, amazed, surprised, enthralled, or even shocked. These states seem to have in common a quality of high-energy in one form or another. Although possible, it is rare to talk about art as purposefully sedating, boring, anesthetizing, or numbing. That’s the exception. In general, art as diverse as Japanoise and Jodorowsky have in common the quality of heightening, and not only changing, one’s state.
At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI) we take very seriously the notion that experience has an energy parameter. In psychology-speak, nearby concepts include emotional arousal and activation level, though these tend to have more physiological than phenomenological connotations. In contrast, we hold that you can indeed experience very high levels of conscious energy without at the same time experiencing the physiological responses that are usually associated with high arousal (such as high heart-rate, high breath-rate, high blood pressure, sweating, etc.). Likewise, it is not the case that only traditionally high-arousal emotions (such as being excited, thrilled, fearful, anxious, etc.) come in high-energy forms. Indeed, it is possible to experience states of relaxation, serenity, equanimity, and peacefulness in extremely energetic forms(!), as happens in the concentration-based altered states of consciousness called “Jhanas” in the Buddhist tradition.
Here it is relevant for me to bring up the fact that my colleague Mike Johnson recently wrote about the neuroscience of meditation. He discussed how to make sense of the acute and long-term effects of meditation through the lens of modern neuroscience paradigms, and then found a way to tie them together into an overarching theory. For the sake of brevity I will schematically outline some of the key features of the paradigms he integrated:
- Free Energy Principle (Karl Friston, 2010):
- The brain is trying to minimize expected future surprise by building high-level models of sensory input
- When a model says that the input is very unlikely, our brain propagates an error signal in the form of excess energy
- This energy motivates the search for a better model, for which the previously surprising input is now expected
- Entropic Disintegration (Robin Carhart Harris, 2014):
- Psychedelics elevate the “neural temperature” of the brain, meaning that they increase the entropy/disorder present in neural circuits
- One’s everyday mode of consciousness relies on learned neural patterns solidified over years, which at times can be chronically maladaptive
- By “raising the temperature” of our neural circuits, maladaptive neural circuits, especially “egoic structures” in the default-mode network (DMN), disintegrate
- This enables you to “start from scratch” and form new, more adaptive, neural patterns
- Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves (Selen Atasoy, 2016):
- Physical systems with excitation-inhibition wavefronts have harmonic modes
- By mapping out the connectome of a brain (white and grey matter tracks) and using empirically-derived excitation-inhibition differential equations of neural activity, one can infer the electromagnetic resonant modes of a given brain
- Using this technique, it was found empirically that psychedelics increase the amplitude of connectome-specific harmonic waves across the spectrum, and in particular, the amplitude delta is higher on the upper ranges of the spectrum
Tying together these frameworks we see that (a) the brain responds to surprise in an excitatory way which gives rise to a process of search for better models, (b) there is a sense of neural energy for which increasing it gives rise to the disintegration of pre-existing patterns, and (c) there is a sense of actually physical energy in the brain tied together with its resonant modes, which are variable depending on one’s state of consciousness. To bring all of these frameworks together, we can interpret them in terms of energy sources and energy sinks:
- Energy Sources: surprises, sensory stimulation
- Energy Sinks: passage of time (decay factor), semantic content (crystallization around explanatory representations), pre-existing attitudes
At a high-level, we could describe the relevance of these frameworks for art as follows: For art to energize you it needs to either reduce the influence of energy sinks and/or increase the amount of energy from energy sources.
The numerous tricks of the craft of different kinds of art can be reinterpreted in this framework. For example, a lot of artistic advice for a broad audience focuses on making sure that there is a twist you are introducing in an otherwise familiar space. Even subtle surprises (colors being out of place, unusual garments, implausible actions, perspective mixups, etc.) will propagate a prediction error and heighten the energy available in one’s state. This will make you experience the rest of the piece in a more energized and impactful form. Now, to sustain the heightened energy parameter, it is important to avoid making it easy for the brain to redirect the energy to a large energy sink. If the perceptual mistake one makes is one you are familiar with and have experienced before, you might end up diverting the newly available energy towards reinforcing an attitude you developed about that perceptual mistake (e.g. word tricks could trigger anxiety about not being a good reader rather than helping you stay in an energized state).
This paradigm also puts in a different light, and makes sense of, the criticisms often raised against pieces perceived as Kitsch, Camp, and Cliché, or other aesthetics centered around the over-use of a given artistic trick. Art can fail to sufficiently energize your state by failing to introduce a large enough surprise. If you can immediately grasp the full scope of the novelty introduced by a given piece (even if you are misapprehending the input!) you can quickly categorize your experience into a pre-existing bucket and skip the intended energized state. This functions as an energy sink, and hence you fail to stay energized.
This is just a piece of the full story here, for energy sinks are not completely reliable. There is a phenomenon called semantic satiation, where a pattern of rapid and regular repetition of words, images, and concepts makes them feel meaningless. So even the most cliché of art can indeed get the job done of energizing your state of consciousness, by presenting many versions of the same thing in flashes at a sufficiently high rate (I’m not saying this is necessarily pleasant, but it might be effective!). On the flip side, if what you are after is the maximization of a particular meaning in e.g. a commercial, you will find there is a Goldilocks Zone for the number of times you should present the core concept/image to the audience; too few and the meaning will be weak, too many and you’ll trigger semantic satiation by overwhelming the energy sinks of the audience.
Schematically, there are three broad ways of inhibiting energy sinks to allow the buildup of what we call “semantically neutral energy”. You can:
- Overwhelm, or
- Avoid them
Let me elaborate. First, you can disable energy sinks by switching to unfamiliar contexts (e.g. it is harder worrying about work while on a screen-free beach, at a museum… or at Burning Man). Also, disabling energy sinks can happen in states of exhaustion, fasting, intoxication, or other states of mind that impair some of the normal functions of the brain. Second, as we saw, semantic satiation would be an example of overwhelming energy sinks, but there are many other ways of doing so, such as increasing the intensity of input above a certain threshold. And third, avoiding energy sinks involves things like setting the intention to focus your attention on a meditation object and refocus on it every time you get distracted. Alternatively, one can load a given energy sink with negative implications and learn to avoid it via negative feedback (e.g. when a standard interpretive framework is frowned upon by a social group).
Most drugs and activities could be described in terms of their characteristic effect on energy sources and sinks. But only some of these drugs and activities are “broadband energy enhancers”, in the sense that the energy they give rise to is transferable to a broad range of mental and physical activities. This is what sets meditation, trance-inducing music/dancing, psychedelics, philosophy, and art apart from other energizing activities. Those methods in particular allow energized states to be sustained for long periods of time, and they give rise to novel sensations exclusive to the high-energy regions of the state-space of consciousness.
A note on psychedelics here is in order. There is indeed something very peculiar that psychedelics do to the energy sources that to my knowledge is not done by the other broad-band energy enhancers. Psychedelics make energy sources echo! They change the neuroacoustics of the brain, which favors temporally repeating patterns in a delayed-echo fashion along with a slower decay function for experience over time. Thus, visual tracers and the amplification of music appreciation during a psychedelic trip are both expressions of the same underlying principle: the brain is more resonant. The fact that this effect is distinct from what art, meditation, philosophy, or strobes have to offer makes psychedelics synergistic and complementary with the other methods. After all, it is hard to ignore the gazillion subjective reports of enhanced aesthetic appreciation experienced on even small doses of psychedelics.
For the above reasons, I think this model has a lot of explanatory power. To recap, this model of art says that increasing the energy parameter of one’s consciousness is the success condition of art. It explains the repeating trance-inducing quality of music, the need for balance between predictability and surprise, common craft advice, and the existence of higher aesthetics. In turn, this model implies that art can be done in a wrong way. Art that is uninspiring, insipid, unexciting, irrelevant, etc. could be understood as art that fails to raise the energy parameter of those who experience it. And indeed, the higher the form of the art, the more it allows for the buildup of semantically-neutral energy.
 The term “state-space” refers to a very general concept that identifies the set of all possible configurations of a given system (of equations, machines, experiences, etc.) and the ways in which these configurations can transition from to another.
 As a proof of concept: According to cognitive scientist Steven Lehar, combining LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination”, which is a state of mind where one gains the ability to edit the contents of one’s experience at will (“You can say ‘give me a table’ and a table will appear right in front of you as real as a solid table”).
 For example, anti-psychotic drugs are broad-band energy sink enhancers, psychedelics are broad-band energy source enhancers, classic stimulants (such as amphetamines) are narrow-band energy source enhancers, classical depressants (such as benzodiazepines) are narrow-band energy sink enhancers.
 In one account proposed by “Psychedelic Information Theory” (James Kent), psychedelics achieve the tracing/echo effect by disabling an energy sink. The control interrupt model of psychedelic action says that there are natural inhibitory processes that prevent features of our current experience from building up over time. Psychedelics are thought to chemically interrupt inhibitory control signals from the cortex, which are constantly preventing the build-up of qualia. In this account, what you are paying attention to is in fact the part of the sensory input that is being inhibited the least. Interrupting the inhibitory “control signal” gives rise to echoes of previous states across the board that you intrinsically attend to whether you like it or not.
Featured image credit: Seifert Surfaces by Paul Nylander
* Originally titled: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia