QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.
This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.
A few takeaways:
- Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
- Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
- Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
- Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
- Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
- The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
- Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
- A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.
(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)
This video has a great 3.5 minute explainer of the core idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqRA2m9zlns
A most interesting paper. I was left very unsure as to whether the concept of “annealing” has been or can be empirically tested or proven or whether it is and will remain a mere metaphor for what you and others believe might be happening in the brain. Anecdotally, I can say that I have found in a personal sense that something like annealing does seem to occur with the use of psychedelics. You emerge a different person. But the process needs to be repeated as alluded to in this paper. You need to disrupt habit and ruts with a high energy state fairly frequently to continue the benefits. Whether mere metaphor or not, the analogy certainly speaks to me and fits in with my own experiences.