Plate of mushrooms and accompanying peach-nectarine body scent
Prior Cognitive State
Past drug experiences: 2 occasions of cannabis, few times alcohol, and 2 occasions of adderall. All minor experiences, none negative, and generally I strongly abstain from psychoactive drugs (even caffeine). No prior experience with psychedelics(!)
Mood: relatively optimistic and happy; no negative feelings
Beliefs: generally Fictionalist in ontology, though in recent years have experienced Platonist tendencies. Strongly grounded in an empirically-based, scientific-physicalist perspective. Strong sense of individuality + Selfhood. Not religious, nor spiritual, though upbringing was Roman Catholic.
Training: former academic neuroscience + pharmacologically-trained; current data science graduate student
Goals: to gain first-person experience of Klüver constants and re-establish/confirm any potential taxonomy of geometric forms (see here, here, and here for more)
Expectations: extremely skeptical that any fantastical effects might occur other than some random colors in the visual field, minor mood changes, minor memory + time effects such as retarded / slowed time, and maybe at most some Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome perceptual-type effects. Hoping for experiences of strong and consistent + clearly defined Klüver constants, but skeptical they even exist. Skeptical of any notion of god-minds, communion with nature, dying and being reborn, and generally any spiritual or mystical experiences.
10:21 – First noticeable effect. Concentration lagging. Palms beginning to sweat. Starting to feel like it might be difficult to focus enough to write a report. 10:29 – REALLY strong physiological effect. Losing focus. Similar to being extremely tired(!). Sweat increasing (palms, pits, neck in that order). No visual or auditory hallucinations yet. Everyone else is laughing somewhat uncontrollably. 10:33 – First STRONG spike of losing concentration. Similar to being really tired or fainting. 10:36 – Another strong spike of losing consciousness. No hallucinations yet. 10:37 – Spike again. Increasing frequency now. One about every 15-20 seconds. Have to write this sentence in bursts, and memory is trying to keep up recovering my train of thought. Have to stop and now and then to 10:38 – First visual effectss! Tortoise shell-like fractal images. Hard to focus. Palms really really really sweaty, notice it as keyboard residue. 10:43 – Still hanging in there. Notice that friend’s response time is really late with around 2 minute delayss, not sure if that’s me or them? Extreme switching cost now between chrome tabs of writing and watching youtube vid. 10:46 – Switching cost too strong. Dilemma now between 3rd person documentation and 1st person immersion. Trying hrad. 10:47 – okay giving in to the experience now. too strong now 10:48 – laughter 10:48 does not make sense, really hard to type now, losing languge 50 trying hard to document. worried hwo to convey this 51 realizati not abot documnting 52 thats it 53 can i come back 54 latice structs 58 still here k 11 03
Total Trip Duration: ~6-7 hours
I’m writing this now being fully recovered and in my usual frame of mind. I’m going to start with how much I can remember…
Somewhat cognizant but before peak experience, I came back from one of my blackouts and saw one of my friends outside the cabin. I worried about their safety but realized that other people were going to take care of him. I also remember one of my friends constantly checking up on me. The strongest thought that I recall during the beginning of my experience was realizing that I had to let go of all this documentation, stop worrying about others and what other people think, and had to let go of this 3rd person perspective. I know this sounds somewhat monstrously misanthropic, but at the time of the experience I felt like that to pursue Truth I had to go further than everyone else even if that meant leaving them behind, and it was distracting to even have to jump back and forth between 1st and 3rd person perspective to focus on responding to other people during my brief moments of sanity to tell them I was ok when I could be delving deeper and deeper into the experience. This thought of leaving all thoughts of others behind to pursue the Truth reoccurred a few times as I began to get sucked into the vortex of patterns found in the wood grains of the floor and the curls of the carpet.
Linearity of experience was soon lost. I blinked in and out of existence. Time was definitely not unraveling like the constant forward stream I was used to and I felt like I was teleporting from one false reality to the next. I didn’t know in what order those events occurred. At this period I really wasn’t thinking, but more just passively viewing brief glimpses and snapshots of my body going through the motion. One moment I was in the kitchen. The next locked in the bathroom. The next on the living room floor. It’s such a shame that there’s a quirk in our language requiring me to express these as “next experiences” when in reality I did not experience them as having an order. I felt a really strong sense of déjà vu and reverse déjà vu tied to each of them, as if I’ve already done them before while also simultaneously knowing that I will be doing them in the future. It was really weird to have the feeling that you know you’ve already lived the future.
I blinked onto the bathroom floor. I thought why should I even look back and respond at all to the other people asking if I was okay when I finally have the chance to explore and find Truth with a capital T, and suddenly a strong sadness hit me. It was more of a feeling than a coherent logical thought, but the best way I can explain it was that it was a type of guilt that I’ll never be able to share this with my sister, my brother, my mom and dad, and then what will happen to my roommates, and then all my other friends and classmates around me, and how they’ll worry about me and so I told myself I’ll have to come back for them.
And so I tried to come back. Trying and wanting is such an interesting concept. It’s weird to desire language without being able to form a coherent line of thought or internal sentence in your head, but that is what I remember doing. How do you say to yourself that you want something without even being able to describe to yourself what that is? It seems desire may be more fundamental than internal language. Soon my linguistic centers began to reboot and I realized that this had to do with my memory chunks getting larger and allowing me to hold more in short term memory. Although seemingly primitive and simplistic, I can’t emphasize enough how this realization that memory and language were intertwined and recursively bootstrapping each other really helped soothe away any panic that I was totally lost.
I blinked into the kitchen. Time was becoming more linearly coherent now, but I kept blanking out and teleporting randomly throughout the kitchen. The thing was: I didn’t think of it as the same kitchen. I thought of it as different parallel realities of a kitchen that I recognize. I remember my friend offering me a chip and me trying so very hard to grasp that chip from her and hold on to that reality even if it was not the true real one, as if by merely believing by sheer force of will that I am actually grasping an object then made it concrete. I recall saying ‘trying to parse’. I strained with cognitive effort to stop teleporting. I remember asking everyone in each reality I blinked into whether or not this was the real one. “Wow, is this real?” became a repeating question tinted with wonder and surprise.
I blinked into the living room. Time was linear again, and it seems I began to be able to somewhat coherently reflect on the geometric patterns clouding my sight. I regretfully wished I could have focused on them more (as well as the apparently living, pulsating, and breathing floor beneath me and the shrinking and growing of my hands), but it was at this moment that I truly to the deep core of myself had the gut feeling that this reality wasn’t my original one. I honestly and wholeheartedly believed that this reality was a construct and that I was living out a simulation either in the mind of my true body in the real world (where I was probably in some coma in the hospital) or inhabiting the body of a different version of myself in a parallel universe. Everything felt false. Fake. Simulated. I was overcome with a Great Sadness that I didn’t know how to get back to my own original reality, and that I never said goodbye to the people I loved. And I was surprised because these melancholic emotions were of such strength to overcome my scientific training and any previous skepticism I once held.
I tried in vain to remember some mathematical way of proving you were living in a simulation, maybe something from information theory, or Tegmark’s mathematical universe, or something regarding speeds and frames of references and computational power being limited in an embedded simulated universe, but I could not for the life of me recall how to actually prove this to myself or what experiment to run. I remember, fuck man, I really should have worked out those thought experiments and proofs in depth because now I’m stuck.
However, it was on that thought of frames of references that I realized with some sadness and regret that maybe it’s not all that bad since how can I be the one to say one reality is more real and valid than the next? The best way I can convey this was that it was a somewhat mono no aware-type feeling. Even if this is a simulation in my mind or I’m in some parallel universe, why should I be any less happy? If someone spent their whole life creating their own meaning through something as removed from reality as art, or music, or pure math, and was able to live a fulfilling life, why should any particular version of myself be considered less meaningful just because this version of me possesses a memory of another me as an origin and potential branching-off point? Wasn’t another reality just as valid as the original one that I just came from? What made my old frame of reference special except for the mere fact of it being my origin? Why was I feeling this sense of sadness that I left it all behind to teleport to this version of reality? And then came the acceptance that if this reality was just as real except for my gut belief that it wasn’t, why shouldn’t I be able to simultaneously accept that gut feeling and move on and live in this version of reality?
And so I decided to live on, and within a few hours began to lose this sense that this was the false reality (although I really really wished I had a GoPro camera with me so that I could definitively prove to myself that I was in the correct reality). I began to have a newfound strong sense of empathy towards people with dissociative disorders. Thinking back on the experience, I think I primed myself for these thoughts when I kept switching between first-person and third-person perspectives, telling myself I couldn’t handle the switching cost any longer and that I should just immerse myself fully in the experience and forget about documenting this for other people, and why was I even submitting myself to the approval of others anyways because if there’s anyone who will have to go further in their exploration and sacrifice the chance to be with others then I guess I’ll just have to take up that burden.
Overall, I think the strong dissociative experience of thinking this reality was the fake simulated one had to do with maybe a couple of things. As mentioned before, one cause could have been the psychological priming induced by constantly switching between 1st and 3rd person ways of perceiving this event, creating the necessary emotional conditions of being simultaneously split between existing and being fully immersed in the present moment versus wanting to abstract / detach myself from the moment.
The second potential cause of the dissociation could have been due to my brain constantly blacking out and being rebooted in another physical part of the house. Because I had no memory of the continuity of how I got from one context to the next, this conditioned my brain to rationalize and register each separate event as a separate reality, probably falsely recognizing and incorrectly pattern matching these experiences as being more similar to a dream state where teleportation is normal, perceptions are distorted, and sequences of events are jumbled. This probably then began synthesizing the necessary eventual gut-belief that this reality was fake (because I subconsciously falsely pattern matched that it was similar to a dream).
Finally, I think the third potential contributor to the dissociation occurred when I was coming down from the experience and my brain went on overdrive trying to rationalize events. It might be possible that the more you are adept at creatively rationalizing things away the paradoxically worse you are at accepting this reality. Just having knowledge of potential parallel realities in physics, the simulation hypothesis that we might either be simulated in our heads or on a computer and may not realize it, the philosophy of solipsism, and knowing the neuroscience of how just freaking good the brain is at tricking itself that something is real, all created fertile conditions for my brain to interpret this reality as false.
Thinking back on the experience, I now have a newfound appreciation for memory and the continuity of experience, and their contribution to what it means to feel situated and embodied in this reality. If I were to do this again I would probably micro-dose so that I could still retain my linguistic faculties and linear way of reasoning in order to investigate the visual geometric effects in much greater scientific 3rd person POV-like rigor, focusing less on the semantic psychoanalytical content of the experience and more on the psychophysical optical effects (which was my original goal!). This really showed me how dependent the sense of Self was on the continuity of memoryand experience and that maybe the Self really is composed of different smaller frames of reference generated by subnetworks in the brain (and hence is an ecology of momentary and brief snapshots / selves constantly going in and out of existence, both competing and coalescing in dynamic flux to make up the whole Self). Without the strong pillar that the continuity of singular memory provides to the host body that this community of selves inhabits, I think there really could be a binding problem for integrating these individual snapshots into a singular Selfhood and individual identity that persist through time that we call ‘I’.
Overall, I gained a much greater appreciation for continuity, the linear narrative of language intertwined with memory, and what it feels like on the inside of someone who is dissociated and thinks their surrounding reality is just a construct and not real. Also, the geometric images were really cool and I finally now understand why people say Google’s DeepDream art seems psychedelic, because looking into the mirror during the later stages of my trip confirmed that my face really did look like a globular, eyes-everywhere, and skewed proportioned / sized image!
Anyways, I really want to thank my friends that were with me on this trip and for constantly checking up on me to make sure I was okay. Rarely do I feel comfortable in the presence of other people and I’m glad I felt safe with you.
Thank you ❤️
Overall, I’d give my first experience with psychedelics a 7/10!
2-Week Post-Trip Report
So it’s been 2 weeks since ingestion and I just wanted to briefly report this one last interesting phenomenon for documentation’s sake.
Out of the 14 days post-trip, a little less than half of those nights (6 nights in total, distributed more heavily in the week immediately after the trip), I’ve had dreams that featured strongly self-referential phenomena. Within these dreams, my perceptual surroundings immediately reminded me of my aforementioned psychonautical experience of questioning my reality. These strong emotional realizations would then essentially cause my brain to kick itself out of the dream.
However, instead of truly waking up, I was still nested inside another dream in which I was imagining waking up. I usually went through 2-3 rounds of this false waking-up cycle until I finally surfaced into the real reality of the morning.
I thought it interesting for the first 2 nights, but after that it actually got really tiring always waking up questioning whether or not I’m really awake, and then having to go through the same motions of prepping for school/work knowing you’ve done that 2-3 times already in your head for the day.
What was funny though was that this always occurred around the same time each morning (my body has always naturally woken up at 5 am on the dot since high school), and in each iteration of the dream in which I falsely woke up I remember looking at my clock and seeing that it is 5 am. This would then lend me false-confidence and confirm that “ah, ok, I’m not in the dream anymore since I really do wake up at 5 am“. However, I think after enough times of this not working my brain finally came to learn that that was no longer a reliable indicator of the reality being real.
This skeptical realization finally got strong enough to be able to recall within my dream and act as an early kick-out mechanism that I eventually woke up closer and closer to my true ‘waking up point’. I remember going through the wake-up, look at the clock, remember that this no longer works, then immediately get kicked out, and wake up again, look at the clock, then remember this no longer works and get kicked out again, wake up, then look at the clock and finally get some inkling that this perception is a little different and realize that’s because I’m really waking up for real now. A rather fascinating experience!
Everyone says love hurts, but that is not true. Loneliness hurts. Rejection hurts. Losing someone hurts. Envy hurts. Everyone gets these things confused with love, but in reality love is the only thing in this world that covers up all pain and makes someone feel wonderful again. Love is the only thing in this world that does not hurt.
Lucas Perry: For this first section, I’m basically interested in probing the releases that you already have done, Sam, and exploring them and your inspiration for the track titles and the soundscapes that you’ve produced. Some of the background and context for this is that much of this seems to be inspired by and related to David’s work, in particular the Hedonistic Imperative. I’m at first curious to know, Sam, how did you encounter David’s work, and what does it mean for you?
Sam Barker: David’s work was sort of arriving in the middle of a series of realizations, and kind of coming from a starting point of being quite disillusioned with music, and a little bit disenchanted with the vagueness, and the terminology, and the imprecision of the whole thing. I think part of me has always wanted to be some kind of scientist, but I’ve ended up at perhaps not the opposite end, but quite far away from it.
Lucas Perry: Could explain what you mean by vagueness and imprecision?
Sam Barker: I suppose the classical idea of what making music is about has a lot to do with the sort of western idea of individualism and about self-expression. I don’t know. There’s this romantic idea of artists having these frenzied creative bursts that give birth to the wonderful things, that it’s some kind of struggle. I just was feeling super disillusioned with all of that. Around that time, 2014 or 15, I was also reading a lot about social media, reading about behavioral science, trying to figure what was going on in this arena and how people are being pushed in different directions by this algorithmic system of information distribution. That kind of got me into this sort of behavioral science side of things, like the addictive part of the variable-ratio reward schedule with likes. It’s a free dopamine dispenser kind of thing. This was kind of getting me into reading about behavioral science and cognitive science. It was giving me a lot of clarity, but not much more sort of inspiration. It was basically like music.
Dance music especially is a sort of complex behavioral science. You do this and people do that. It’s all deeply ingrained. I sort of imagine the DJ as a sort Skinner box operator pulling puppet strings and making people behave in different ways. Music producers are kind of designing clever programs using punishment and reward, or suspense and release, and controlling people’s behavior. The whole thing felt super pushy and not a very inspiring conclusion. Looking at the problem from a cognitive science point of view is just the framework that helped me to understand what the problem was in the first place, so this kind of problem of being manipulative. Behavioral science is kind of saying what we can make people do. Cognitive psychology is sort of figuring out why people do that. That was my entry point into cognitive psychology, and that was kind of the basis for Debiasing.
There’s always been sort of a parallel for me between what I make and my state of mind. When I’m in a more positive state, I tend to make things I’m happier with, and so on. Getting to the bottom of what tricks were, I suppose, with dance music. I kind of understood implicitly, but I just wanted to figure out why things worked. I sort of came to the conclusion it was to do with a collection of biases we have, like the confirmation bias, and the illusion of truth effect, and the mere exposure effect. These things are like the guardians of four/four supremacy. Dance music can be pretty repetitive, and we describe it sometimes in really aggressive terminology. It’s a psychological kind of interaction.
Cognitive psychology was leading me to Kaplan’s law of the instrument. The law of the instrument says that if you give a small boy a hammer, he’ll find that everything he encounters requires pounding. I thought that was a good metaphor. The idea is that we get so used to using tools in a certain way that we lose sight of what it is we’re trying to do. We act in the way that the tool instructs us to do. I thought, what if you take away the hammer? That became a metaphor for me, in a sense, that David clarified in terms of pain reduction. We sort of put these painful elements into music in a way to give this kind of hedonic contrast, but we don’t really consider that that might not be necessary. What happens when we abolish these sort of negative elements? Are the results somehow released from this process? That was sort of the point, up until discovering the Hedonistic Imperative.
I think what I was needing at the time was a sort of framework, so I had the idea that music was decision making. To improve the results, you have to ask better questions, make better decisions. You can make some progress looking at the mechanics of that from a psychology point of view. What I was sort of lacking was a purpose to frame my decisions around. I sort of had the idea that music was a sort of a valence carrier, if you like, and that it could be tooled towards a sort of a greater purpose than just making people dance, which was for Debiasing the goal, really. It was to make people dance, but don’t use the sort of deeply ingrained cues that people used to, and see if that works.
What was interesting was how broadly it was accepted, this first EP. There were all kinds of DJs playing it in techno, ambient, electro, all sorts of different styles. It reached a lot of people. It was as if taking out the most functional element made it more functional and more broadly appealing. That was the entry point to utilitarianism. There was sort of an accidentally utilitarian act, in a way, to sort of try and maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. I suppose after landing in utilitarianism and searching for some kind of a framework for a sense of purpose in my work, the Hedonistic Imperative was probably the most radical, optimistic take on the system. Firstly, it put me in a sort of mindset where it granted permission to explore sort of utopian ideals, because I think the idea of pleasure is a little bit frowned upon in the art world. I think the art world turns its nose up at such direct cause and effect. The idea that producers could be paradise engineers of sorts, or the precursors to paradise engineers, that we almost certainly would have a role in a kind of sensory utopia of the future.
There was this kind of permission granted. You can be optimistic. You can enter into your work with good intentions. It’s okay to see music as a tool to increase overall wellbeing, in a way. That was kind of the guiding idea for my work in the studio. I’m trying, these days, to put more things into the system to make decisions in a more conscious way, at least where it’s appropriate to. This sort of notion of reducing pain and increasing pleasure was the sort of question I would ask at any stage of decision making. Did this thing that I did serve those ends? If not, take a step back and try a different approach.
There’s something else to be said about the way you sort of explore this utopian world without really being bogged down. You handle the objections in such a confident way. I called it a zero gravity world of ideas. I wanted to bring that zero gravity feeling to my work, and to see that technology can solve any problem in this sphere. Anything’s possible. All the obstacles are just imagined, because we fabricate these worlds ourselves. These are things that were really instructive for me, as an artist.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite an interesting journey. From the lens of understanding cognitive psychology and human biases, was it that you were seeing those biases in dance music itself? If so, what were those biases in particular?
Sam Barker: On both sides, on the way it’s produced and in the way it’s received. There’s sort of an unspoken acceptance. You’re playing a set and you take a kick drum out. That signals to people to perhaps be alert. The lighting engineer, they’ll maybe raise the lights a little bit, and everybody knows that the music is going into sort of a breakdown, which is going to end in some sort of climax. Then, at that point, the kick drum comes back in. We all know this pattern. It’s really difficult to understand why that works without referring to things like cognitive psychology or behavioral science.
Lucas Perry: What does the act of debiasing the reception and production of music look like and do to the music and its reception?
Sam Barker: The first part that I could control was what I put into it. The experiment was whether a debiased piece of dance music could perform the same functionality, or whether it really relies on these deeply ingrained cues. Without wanting to sort of pat myself on the back, it kind of succeeded in its purpose. It was sort of proof that this was a worthy concept.
Lucas Perry: You used the phrase, earlier, four/four. For people who are not into dance music, that just means a kick on each beat, which is ubiquitous in much of house and techno music. You’ve removed that, for example, in your album Debiasing. What are other things that you changed from your end, in the production of Debiasing, to debias the music from normal dance music structure?
Sam Barker: It was informing the structure of what I was doing so much that I wasn’t so much on a grid where you have predictable things happening. It’s a very highly formulaic and structured thing, and that all keys into the expectation and this confirmation bias that people, I think, get some kind of kick from when the predictable happens. They say, yep. There you go. I knew that was going to happen. That’s a little dopamine rush, but I think it’s sort of a cheap trick. I guess I was trying to get the tricks out of it, in a way, so figuring out what they were, and trying to reduce or eliminate them was the process for Debiasing.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite interesting and meaningful, I think. Let’s just take trap music. I know exactly how trap music is going to go. It has this buildup and drop structure. It’s basically universal across all dance music. Progressive house in the 2010s was also exactly like this. What else? Dubstep, of course, same exact structure. Everything is totally predictable. I feel like I know exactly what’s going to happen, having listened to electronic music for over a decade.
Sam Barker: It works, I think. It’s a tried and tested formula, and it does the job, but when you’re trying to imagine states beyond just getting a little kick from knowing what was going to happen, that’s the place that I was trying to get to, really.
Lucas Perry: After the release of Debiasing in 2018, which was a successful attempt at serving this goal and mission, you then discovered the Hedonistic Imperative by David Pearce, and kind of leaned into consequentialism, it seems. Then, in 2019, you had two releases. You had BARKER 001 and you had Utility. Now, Utility is the album which most explicitly adopts David Pearce’s work, specifically in the Hedonistic Imperative. You mentioned electronic dance producers and artists in general can be sort of the first wave of, or can perhaps assist in paradise engineering, insofar as that will be possible in the near to short terms future, given advancements in technology. Is that sort of the explicit motivation and framing around those two releases of BARKER 001 and Utility?
Sam Barker: BARKER 001 was a few tracks that were taken out of the running for the album, because they didn’t sort of fit the concept. Really, I knew the last track was kind of alluding to the album. Otherwise, it was perhaps not sort of thematically linked. Hopefully, if people are interested in looking more into what’s behind the music, you can lead people into topics with the concept. With Utility, I didn’t want to just keep exploring cognitive biases and unpicking dance music structurally. It’s sort of a paradox, because I guess the Hedonistic Imperative argues that pleasure can exist without purpose, but I really was striving for some kind of purpose with the pleasure that I was getting from music. That sort of emerged from reading the Hedonistic Imperative, really, that you can apply music to this problem of raising the general level of happiness up a notch. I did sort of worry that by trying to please, it wouldn’t work, that it would be something that’s too sickly sweet. I mean, I’m pretty turned off by pop music, and there was this sort of risk that it would end up somewhere like that. That’s it, really. Just looking for a higher purpose with my work in music.
Lucas Perry: David, do you have any reactions?
David Pearce: Well, when I encountered Utility, yes, I was thrilled. As you know, essentially I’m a writer writing in quite heavy sub-academic prose. Sam’s work, I felt, helps give people a glimpse of our glorious future, paradise engineering. As you know, the reviews were extremely favorable. I’m not an expert critic or anything like that. I was just essentially happy and thrilled at the thought. It deserves to be mainstream. It’s really difficult, I think, to actually evoke the glorious future we are talking about. I mean, I can write prose, but in some sense music can evoke paradise better, at least for many people, than prose.
And it continues on. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast: it is wonderfully edited and musical pieces referenced in the interview are brought up in real time for you to listen to. Barker also made a playlist of songs specifically for this podcast, which are played during the second half of the recording. It is delightful to listen to music that you know was produced with the explicit purpose of increasing your wellbeing. A wholesome message at last! Amazing art inspired by the ideology of Paradise Engineering, arriving near you… very soon.
As an aside, I think that shared visions of paradise are really essential for solving coordination problems. So…
Please join me in putting on Barker’s track Paradise Engineering, closing your eyes, and imagining- in detail- what the creation of an Institute for Paradise Engineering on a grand scale would look like. What would a positive Manhattan Project of Consciousness entail? What is the shortest path for us to create such a large-scale initiative?
By the way: the song is only 4 minutes long. So its duration is perfect for you to use as a guiding and grounding piece of media for a positive DMT trip. Press “play” immediately after you vaporize the DMT, sit back, relax, and try to render in your mind a posthuman paradise in which Full-Spectrum Supersentient Superintelligence has won and the threat of Pure Replicators has been averted. If you do this, please let me know what you experience as a result.
Ps. It’s worth noting that Barker’s conception of art is highly aligned with QRI’s view of what art could be like. See, in particular, models 4 through 8 in our article titled Harmonic Society.
Smoking takes an enormous toll on human health – accounting for about 6% of all ill-health globally according to the best estimates. This is more than HIV and malaria combined. Despite this, smoking is on the rise in many developing countries as people become richer and can afford to buy cigarettes.
Tobacco is a mischievous plant. Tobacco smoke delivers an addictive substance in a particularly carcinogenic medium. Of course you can just get the addictive substance by vaping, presumably cutting the cost to your health by a substantial amount (assuming you don’t compensate for the relative safety of the medium with a significant increase in nicotine consumption). But many people find it hard to stop smoking, no doubt because the ritualistic aspect of it can become deeply ingrained, and perhaps also because of the mildly addictive properties of combustion products (speculatively, carbon monoxide itself has a psychoactive effect in small amounts).
So one idea to keep the nicotine and the smoking while reducing the negative effects is to lace nicotine into a plant with mild flavor and far less severe carcinogenic properties. Damiana, for example, used to be the plant delivery mechanism for research cannabinoids (cf. Spice), salvia, and other exotic drugs – the kind you find in a California smoke-shop or sketchy gas station. If damiana smoke has a better health profile than tobacco smoke when inhaled, then this could be of serious benefits to the world’s health (cf. Herbal Cigarettes).
Alas, can you really imagine millions of people switching from traditional, aromatic, well-known, “perfectly natural” tobacco cigarettes to weird, insipid, bland damiana cigarettes laced with nicotine? I can’t. I don’t think the product would make much of a dent in the market. At least not without some serious leverage and incentives, like tax exemptions or limited edition trading cards inside the packaging (for the younger crowd). But as those options are too unrealistic, we may need to come up with a different product altogether.
Perhaps we could add aromas as well? This multiplies the potential market several fold. Smokers who buy perfumes, enjoy aromatic spas, and/or make use of essential oils might be interested in “damiana cigarettes that smell like X”. From humulene and alpha-damascone to linalool and geraniol, a little goes a long way in producing a gentle, delicious, and seductive aroma. Indeed, we could even market this as being a kind of smokeable nootropic. Linalool, for instance, is not only essential in perfumery, but has also subtle (yet significant) psychoactive effects when inhaled or ingested orally (cf. lavender oil capsules). The possibilities are endless. For example, an evocative- if perhaps minimalistic- interpretation of a lavender-lemon flavor can be achieved by simply combining d-limonene, citral, and linalool. Or you could use complex accords made of dozens of terpenes. The smoothness of lavender with the awakening effects of lemon in a single power-punch of aromatic bliss, already superior in character to tobacco, could be trivially achieved with an open mind and some experimentation. And orange? Pineapple? Honeysuckle? Pear? Why not explore qualia-space while inhaling addictive smoke? At least you’ll do some productive work while feeding your vice (rather than just feeding your vice). And at a QALY discount over straight up tobacco smoke, this would seem to be by far the superior option, wouldn’t it?
Geranial (citral B)
Neral (citral A)
Now, adding lots of terpenes and other aromachemicals to a “neutral” substrate for a smokeable material reminds of something… It’s almost as if this has been explored before by someone, somewhere…
Super Silver Haze (not Silver Haze, sadly)
The difference between Orange Kush and Silver Haze is not only their THC content (which is 14-18% and 18-23%, respectively, if you must know) or the degree to which CBD is present. To a large extent, their distinct aromas, feel, and perhaps even subjective effects are explained in terms of the presence of terpenoids and other aromatic compounds. For instance, Orange Kush has more terpinolene while Silver Haze has more myrcene. Of course there is very little knowledge about how exactly these differences cash out in psychoactivity. But nonetheless, the cannabis world finds them to be utterly fascinating and endlessly worthy of discussion.
So, could we perhaps take this plant, which has been praised for its aromatic properties, which already has thousands of well-defined and optimized strains, and which is in the process of becoming legal(ish) worldwide… and use it as a delivery medium for nicotine?
Why not? Although cannabis smoke is by no means harmless, it might be substantially better for your health than tobacco smoke. If people find the experience of smoking THC-free nicotine-laced Orange Kush joints enjoyable, and this enjoyment is strong enough to be superior to the experience of smoking tobacco, we may be able to reduce the health costs of nicotine worldwide by a huge margin. Could this be the long-awaited Cause X?
(Organizational) Questions About the Qualia Research Institute
What type of organization is QRI?
QRI is a nonprofit research group studying consciousness based in San Francisco, California. We are a registered 501(c)(3) organization.
What is the relationship between QRI, Qualia Computing, and Opentheory?
Qualia Computing and Opentheory are the personal blogs of QRI co-founders Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Michael Johnson, respectively. While QRI was in its early stages, all original QRI research was initially published on these two platforms. However, from August 2020 onward, this is shifting to a unified pipeline centered on QRI’s website.
Is QRI affiliated with an academic institution or university?
Although QRI does collaborate regularly with university researchers and laboratories, we are an independent research organization. Put simply, QRI is independent because we didn’t believe we could build the organization we wanted and needed to build within the very real constraints of academia. These constraints include institutional pressure to work on conventional projects, to optimize for publication metrics, and to clear various byzantine bureaucratic hurdles. It also includes professional and social pressure to maintain continuity with old research paradigms, to do research within an academic silo, and to pretend to be personally ignorant of altered states of consciousness. It’s not that good research cannot happen under these conditions, but we believe good consciousness research happens despite the conditions in academia, not because of them, and the best use of resources is to build something better outside of them.
How does QRI align with the values of EA?
Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that uses evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good. QRI believes this aesthetic is necessary and important for creating a good future. We also believe that if we want to do the most good,foundational research on the nature of the good is of critical importance. Two frames we offer are Qualia Formalism and Sentientism. Qualia Formalism is the claim that experience has a precise mathematical description, that a formal account of experience should be the goal of consciousness research. Sentientism is the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. We believe EA is enriched by both Qualia Formalism and Sentientism.
What would QRI do with $10 billion?
Currently, QRI is a geographically distributed organization with access to commercial-grade neuroimaging equipment. The first thing we’d do with $10 billion is set up a physical headquarters for QRI and buy professional-grade neuroimaging devices (fMRI, MEG, PET, etc.) and neurostimulation equipment. We’d also hire teams of full-time physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, chemists, philosophers, and artists. We’ve accomplished a great deal on a shoestring budget, but it would be hard to overestimate how significant being able to build deep technical teams and related infrastructure around core research threads would be for us (and, we believe, for the growing field of consciousness research). Scaling is always a process and we estimate our ‘room for funding’ over the next year is roughly ~$10 million. However, if we had sufficiently deep long-term commitments, we believe we could successfully scale both our organization and research paradigm into a first-principles approach for decisively diagnosing and curing most forms of mental illness. We would continue to run studies and experiments, collect interesting data about exotic and altered states of consciousness, pioneer new technologies that help eliminate involuntary suffering, and develop novel ways to enable conscious beings to safely explore the state-space of consciousness.
Questions About Our Research Approach
What differentiates QRI from other research groups studying consciousness?
The first major difference is that QRI breaks down “solving consciousness” into discrete subtasks; we’re clear about what we’re trying to do, which ontologies are relevant for this task, and what a proper solution will look like. This may sound like a small thing, but an enormous amount of energy is wasted in philosophy by not being clear about these things. This lets us “actually get to work.”
Second, our focus on valence is rare in the field of consciousness studies. A core bottleneck in understanding consciousness is determining what its ‘natural kinds’ are: terms which carve reality at the joints. We believe emotional valence (the pleasantness/unpleasantness of an experience) is one such natural kind, and this gives us a huge amount of information about phenomenology. It also offers a clean bridge for interfacing with (and improving upon) the best neuroscience.
Third, QRI takes exotic states of consciousness extremely seriously whereas most research groups do not. An analogy we make here is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to people before the scientific enlightenment thinking that they can understand the nature of energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while completely ignoring extreme states such as what’s happening in the sun, black holes, plasma, or superfluid helium. QRI considers exotic states of consciousness as extremely important datapoints for reverse-engineering the underlying formalism for consciousness.
Lastly, we have a focus on precise, empirically testable predictions, which is rare in philosophy of mind. Any good theory of consciousness should also contribute to advancements in neuroscience. Likewise, any good theory of neuroscience should contribute to novel, bold, falsifiable predictions, and blueprints for useful things, such as new forms of therapy. Having such a full-stack approach to consciousness which does each of those two things is thus an important marker that “something interesting is going on here” and is simply very useful for testing and improving theory.
What methodologies are you using? How do you actually do research?
QRI has three core areas of research: philosophy, neuroscience, and neurotechnology
Philosophy: Our philosophy research is grounded in the eight problems of consciousness. This divide-and-conquer approach lets us explore each subproblem independently, while being confident that when all piecemeal solutions are added back together, they will constitute a full solution to consciousness.
Neuroscience: We’ve done original synthesis work on combining several cutting-edge theories of neuroscience (the free energy principle, the entropic brain, and connectome-specific harmonic waves) into a unified theory of Bayesian emotional updating; we’ve also built the world’s first first-principles method for quantifying emotional valence from fMRI. More generally, we focus on collecting high valence neuroimaging datasets and developing algorithms to analyze, quantify, and visualize them. We also do extensive psychophysics research, focusing on both the fine-grained cognitive-emotional effects of altered states, and how different types of sounds, pictures, body vibrations, and forms of stimulation correspond with low and high valence states of consciousness.
Neurotechnology: We engage in both experimentation-driven exploration, tracking the phenomenological effects of various interventions, as well as theory-driven development. In particular, we’re prototyping a line of neurofeedback tools to help treat mental health disorders.
What does QRI hope to do over the next 5 years? Next 20 years?
Over the next five years, we intend to further our neurotechnology to the point that we can treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), especially treatment-resistant PTSD. We intend to empirically verify or falsify the symmetry theory of valence. If it is falsified, we will search for a new theory that ties together all of the empirical evidence we have discovered. We aim to create an Effective Altruist cause area regarding the reduction of intense suffering as well as the study of very high valence states of consciousness.
Over the next 20 years, we intend to become a world-class research center where we can put the discipline of “paradise engineering” (as described by philosopher David Pearce) on firm academic grounds.
Questions About Our Mission
How can understanding the science of consciousness make the world a better place?
Understanding consciousness would improve the world in a tremendous number of ways. One obvious outcome would be the ability to better predict what types of beings are conscious—from locked-in patients to animals to pre-linguistic humans—and what their experiences might be like.
We also think it’s useful to break down the benefits of understanding consciousness in three ways: reducing the amount of extreme suffering in the world, increasing the baseline well-being of conscious beings, and achieving new heights for what conscious states are possible to experience.
Without a good theory of valence, many neurological disorders will remain completely intractable. Disorders such as fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), migraines, and cluster headaches are all currently medical puzzles and yet have incredibly negative effects on people’s livelihoods. We think that a mathematical theory of valence will explain why these things feel so bad and what the shortest path for getting rid of them looks like. Besides valence-related disorders, nearly all mental health disorders, from clinical depression and PTSD to schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, will become better understood as we discover the structure of conscious experience.
We also believe that many (though not all) of the zero-sum games people play are the products of inner states of dissatisfaction and suffering. Broadly speaking, people who have a surplus of cognitive and emotional energy tend to play more positive sum games, are more interested in cooperation, and are very motivated to do so. We think that studying states such as those induced by MDMA that combine both high valence and a prosocial behavior mindset can radically alter the game theoretical landscape of the world for the better.
What is the end goal of QRI? What does QRI’s perfect world look like?
In QRI’s perfect future:
There is no involuntary suffering and all sentient beings are animated by gradients of bliss,
Research on qualia and consciousness is done at a very large scale for the purpose of mapping out the state-space of consciousness and understanding its computational and intrinsic properties (we think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge about consciousness),
We have figured out the game-theoretical subtleties in order to make that world dynamic yet stable: radically positive, without just making it fully homogeneous and stuck in a local maxima.
Questions About Getting Involved
What are the most important things to read to learn about QRI’s research?
You can start by signing up for our newsletter! This is by far our most important communication channel. We also have a Facebook page, Twitter account, and Linkedin page. Lastly, we share some exclusive tidbits of ideas and thoughts with our supporters on Patreon.
Read and engage with our research. We love critical responses to our ideas and encourage you to reach out if you have an interesting thought!
Spread the word to friends, potential donors, and people that you think would make great collaborators with QRI.
Check out our volunteer page to find more detailed ways that you can contribute to our mission, from independent research projects to QRI content creation.
Questions About Consciousness
What assumptions about consciousness does QRI have? What theory of consciousness does QRI support?
The most important assumption that QRI is committed to is Qualia Formalism, the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. We are also Valence Realists: we believe valence (how good or bad an experience feels) is a real and well-defined property of conscious states. Besides these positions, we are fairly agnostic and everything else is an educated guess useful for pragmatic purposes.
What does QRI think of functionalism?
QRI thinks that functionalism takes many high-quality insights about how systems work and combines them in such a way that both creates confusion and denies the possibility of progress. In its raw, unvarnished form, functionalism is simply skepticism about the possibility of Qualia Formalism. It is simply a statement that “there is nothing here to be formalized; consciousness is like élan vital, confusion to be explained away.” It’s not actually a theory of consciousness; it’s an anti-theory. This is problematic in at least two ways:
1. By assuming consciousness has formal structure, we’re able to make novel predictions that functionalism cannot (see e.g. QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Quantifying Bliss). A few hundred years ago, there were many people who doubted that electromagnetism had a unified, elegant, formal structure, and this was a reasonable position at the time. However, in the age of the iPhone, skepticism that electricity is a “real thing” that can be formalized is no longer reasonable. Likewise, everything interesting and useful QRI builds using the foundation of Qualia Formalism stretches functionalism’s credibility thinner and thinner.
2. Insofar as functionalism is skeptical about the formal existence of consciousness, it’s skeptical about the formal existence of suffering and all sentience-based morality. In other words, functionalism is a deeply amoral theory, which if taken seriously dissolves all sentience-based ethical claims. This is due to there being an infinite number of functional interpretations of a system: there’s no ground-truth fact of the matter about what algorithm a physical system is performing, about what information-processing it’s doing. And if there’s no ground-truth about which computations or functions are present, but consciousness arises from these computations or functions, then there’s no ground-truth about consciousness, or things associated with consciousness, like suffering. This is a strange and subtle point, but it’s very important. This point alone is not sufficient to reject functionalism: if the universe is amoral, we shouldn’t hold a false theory of consciousness in order to try to force reality into some ethical framework. But in debates about consciousness, functionalists should be up-front that functionalism and radical moral anti-realism is a package deal, that inherent in functionalism is the counter-intuitive claim that just as we can reinterpret which functions a physical system is instantiating, we can reinterpret what qualia it’s experiencing and whether it’s suffering.
At QRI, we hold a position that is close to dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, which states that the universe is composed of one kind of thing that is neutral, and that both the mental and physical are two features of this same substance. One of the motivating factors for holding this view is that if there is deep structure in the physical, then there should be a corresponding deep structure to phenomenal experience. And we can tie this together with physicalism in the sense that the laws of physics ultimately describe fields of qualia. While there are some minor disagreements between dual-aspect monism and panpsychism, we believe that our position mostly fits well with a panpsychist view—that phenomenal properties are a fundamental feature of the world and aren’t spontaneously created only when a certain computation is being performed.
However, even with this view, there still are very important questions, such as: what makes a unified conscious experience? Where does one experience end and another begin? Without considering these problems in the light of Qualia Formalism, it is easy to tie animism into panpsychism and believe that inanimate objects like rocks, sculptures, and pieces of wood have spirits or complex subjective experiences. At QRI, we disagree with this and think that these types of objects might have extremely small pockets of unified conscious experience, but will mostly be masses of micro-qualia that are not phenomenally bound into some larger experience.
What does QRI think of IIT (Integrated Information Theory)?
QRI is very grateful for IIT because it is the first mainstream theory of consciousness that satisfies a Qualia Formalist account of experience. IIT says (and introduced the idea!) that for every conscious experience, there is a corresponding mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the properties of the experience. QRI believes that without this idea, we cannot solve consciousness in a meaningful way, and we consider the work of Giulio Tononi to be one of our core research lineages. That said, we are not in complete agreement with the specific mathematical and ontological choices of IIT, and we think it may be trying to ‘have its cake and eat it too’ with regard to functionalism vs physicalism. For more, see Sections III-V of Principia Qualia.
We make no claim that some future version of IIT, particularly something more directly compatible with physics, couldn’t cleanly address our objections, and see a lot of plausible directions and promise in this space.
What does QRI think of the free energy principle and predictive coding?
On our research lineages page, we list the work of Karl Friston as one of QRI’s core research lineages. We consider the free energy principle (FEP), as well as related research such as predictive coding, active inference, the Bayesian brain, and cybernetic regulation, as an incredibly elegant and predictive story of how brains work. Friston’s idea also forms a key part of the foundation for QRI’s theory of brain self-organization and emotional updating, Neural Annealing.
However, we don’t think that the free energy principle is itself a theory of consciousness, as it suffers from many of the shortcomings of functionalism: we can tell the story about how the brain minimizes free energy, but we don’t have a way of pointing at the brain and saying *there* is the free energy! The FEP is an amazing logical model, but it’s not directly connected to any physical mechanism. It is a story that “this sort of abstract thing is going on in the brain” without a clear method of mapping this abstract story to reality.
Friston has supported this functionalist interpretation of his work, noting that he sees consciousness as a process of inference, not a thing. That said, we are very interested in his work on calculating the information geometry of Markov blankets, as this could provide a tacit foundation for a formalist account of qualia under the FEP. Regardless of this, though, we believe Friston’s work will play a significant role in a future science of mind.
What does QRI think of global workspace theory?
The global workspace theory (GWT) is a cluster of empirical observations that seem to be very important for understanding what systems in the brain contribute to a reportable experience at a given point in time. The global workspace theory is a very important clue for answering questions of what philosophers call Access Consciousness, or the aspects of our experience on which we can report.
However, QRI does not consider the global workspace theory to be a full theory of consciousness. Parts of the brain that are not immediately contributing to the global workspace may be composed of micro qualia, or tiny clusters of experience. They’re obviously impossible to report on, but they are still relevant to the study of consciousness. In other words, just because a part of your brain wasn’t included in the instantaneous global workspace, doesn’t mean that it can’t suffer or it can’t experience happiness. We value global workspace research because questions of Access Consciousness are still very critical for a full theory of consciousness.
What does QRI think of higher-order theories of consciousness?
QRI is generally opposed to theories of consciousness that equate consciousness with higher order reflective thought and cognition. Some of the most intense conscious experiences are pre-reflective or unreflective such as blind panic, religious ecstasy, experiences of 5-MeO-DMT, and cluster headaches. In these examples, there is not much reflectivity nor cognition going on, yet they are intensely conscious. Therefore, we largely reject any attempt to define consciousness with a higher-order theory.
What is the relationship between evolution and consciousness?
The relationship between evolution and consciousness is very intricate and subtle. An eliminativist approach arrives at the simple idea that information processing of a certain type is evolutionarily advantageous, and perhaps we can call this consciousness. However, with a Qualia Formalist approach, it seems instead that the very properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to consciousness can play key roles (either causal or in terms of information processing) that make it advantageous for organisms to recruit consciousness.
If you don’t realize that consciousness maps onto a mathematical object with properties, you may think that you understand why consciousness was recruited by natural selection, but your understanding of the topic would be incomplete. In other words, to have a full understanding of why evolution recruited consciousness, you need to understand what advantages the mathematical object has. One very important feature of consciousness is its capacity for binding. For example, the unitary nature of experience—the fact that we can experience a lot of qualia simultaneously—may be a key feature of consciousness that accelerates the process of finding solutions to constraint satisfaction problems. In turn, evolution would hence have a reason to recruit states of consciousness for computation. So rather than thinking of consciousness as identical with the computation that is going on in the brain, we can think of it as a resource with unique computational benefits that are powerful and dynamic enough to make organisms that use it more adaptable to their environments.
Does QRI think that animals are conscious?
QRI thinks there is a very high probability that every animal with a nervous system is conscious. We are agnostic about unified consciousness in insects, but we consider it very likely. We believe research on animal consciousness has relevance when it comes to treating animals ethically. Additionally, we do think that the ethical importance of consciousness has more to do with the pleasure-pain axis (valence), rather than cognitive ability. In that sense, the suffering of non-human animals may be just as morally relevant, if not more relevant than humans. The cortex seems to play a largely inhibitory role for emotions, such that the larger the cortex is, the better we’re able to manage and suppress our emotions. Consequently, animals whose cortices are less developed than ours may experience pleasure and pain in a more intense and uncontrollable way, like a pre-linguistic toddler.
Does QRI think that plants are conscious?
We think it’s very unlikely that plants are conscious. The main reason is that they lack an evolutionary reason to recruit consciousness. Large-scale phenomenally bound experience may be very energetically expensive, and plants don’t have much energy to spare. Additionally, plants have thick cellulose walls that separate individual cells, making it very unlikely that plants can solve the binding problem and therefore create unified moments of experience.
Why do some people seek out pain?
This is a very multifaceted question. As a whole, we postulate that in the vast majority of cases, when somebody may be nominally pursuing pain or suffering, they’re actually trying to reduce internal dissonance in pursuit of consonance or they’re failing to predict how pain will actually feel. For example, when a person hears very harsh music, or enjoys extremely spicy food, this can be explained in terms of either masking other unpleasant sensations or raising the energy parameter of experience, the latter of which can lead to neural annealing: a very pleasant experience that manifests as consonance in the moment.
I sometimes like being sad. Is QRI trying to take that away from me?
Before we try to ‘fix’ something, it’s important to understand what it’s trying to do for us. Sometimes suffering leads to growth; sometimes creating valuable things involves suffering. Sometimes, ‘being sad’ feels strangely good. Insofar as suffering is doing good things for us, or for the world, QRI advocates a light touch (see Chesterton’s fence). However, we also suggest two things:
1. Most kinds of melancholic or mixed states of sadness usually are pursued for reasons that cash out as some sort of pleasure. Bittersweet experiences are far more preferable than intense agony or deep depression. If you enjoy sadness, it’s probably because there’s an aspect of your experience that is enjoyable. If it were possible to remove the sad part of your experience while maintaining the enjoyable part of it, you might be surprised to find that you prefer this modified experience more than the original one.
2. There are kinds of sadness and suffering that are just bad, that degrade us as humans, and would be better to never feel. QRI doesn’t believe in forcibly taking away voluntary suffering, or pushing bliss on people. But we would like to live in a world where people can choose to avoid such negative states, and on the margin, we believe it would be better for humanity for more people to be joyful, filled with a deep sense of well-being.
If dissonance is so negative, why is dissonance so important in music?
When you listen to very consonant music or consonant tones, you will quickly adapt to these sounds and get bored of them. This has nothing to do with consonance itself being unpleasant and everything to do with learning in the brain. Whenever you experience the same stimuli repeatedly, most brains will trigger a boredom mechanism and add dissonance of its own in order to make you enjoy the stimuli less or simply inhibit it, not allowing you to experience it at all. Semantic satiation is a classic example of this where repeating the same word over and over will make it lose its meaning. For this reason, to trigger many high valence states of consciousness consecutively, you need contrast. In particular, music works with gradients of consonance and dissonance, and in most cases, moving towards consonance is what feels good rather than the absolute value of consonance. Music tends to feel the best when you mix a high absolute value of consonance together with a very strong sense of moving towards an even higher absolute value of consonance. Playing some levels of dissonance during a song will later enhance the enjoyment of the more consonant parts such as the chorus of songs, which are reported to be the most euphoric parts of song and typically are extremely consonant.
What is QRI’s perspective on AI and AI safety research?
QRI thinks that consciousness research is critical for addressing AI safety. Without a precise way of quantifying an action’s impact on conscious experiences, we won’t be able to guarantee that an AI system has been programmed to act benevolently. Also, certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence without any outside observer being aware of it. We need a theory of what produces unpleasant experiences to avoid inadvertently creating superintelligences that suffer intensely in the process of solving important problems or accidentally inflict large-scale suffering.
Additionally, we think that a very large percentage of what will make powerful AI dangerous is that the humans programming these machines and using these machines may be reasoning from states of loneliness, resentment, envy, or anger. By discovering ways to help humans transition away from these states, we can reduce the risks of AI by creating humans that are more ethical and aligned with consciousness more broadly. In short: an antidote for nihilism could lead to a substantial reduction in existential risk.
One way to think about QRI and AI safety is that the world is building AI, but doesn’t really have a clear, positive vision of what to do with AI. Lacking this, the default objective becomes “take over the world.” We think a good theory of consciousness could and will offer new visions of what kind of futures are worth building—new Schelling points that humanity (and AI researchers) could self-organize around.
Can digital computers implementing AI algorithms be conscious?
QRI is agnostic about this question. We have reasons to believe that digital computers in their current form cannot solve the phenomenal binding problem. Most of the activity in digital computers can be explained in a stepwise fashion in terms of localized processing of bits of information. Because of this, we believe that current digital computers could be creating fragments of qualia, but are unlikely to be creating strongly globally bound experiences. So, we consider the consciousness of digital computers unlikely, although given our current uncertainty over the Binding Problem (or alternatively framed, the Boundary Problem), this assumption is lightly held. In the previous question, when we write that “certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence”, we assume that these hypothetical computers have some type of unified conscious experience as a result of having solved the phenomenal binding problem. For more on this topic, see: “What’s Out There?“
How much mainstream recognition has QRI’s work received, either for this line of research or others? Has it published in peer-reviewed journals, received any grants, or garnered positive reviews from other academics?
We are collaborating with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University on several studies involving the analysis of neuroimaging data of high-valence states of consciousness. Additionally, we are currently preparing two publications for peer-reviewed journals on topics from our core research areas. Michael Johnson will be presenting at this year’s MCS seminar series, along with Karl Friston, Anil Seth, Selen Atasoy, Nao Tsuchiya, and others; Michael Johnson, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, and Quintin Frerichs have also given invited talks at various east-coast colleges (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Dartmouth).
Some well-known researchers and intellectuals that are familiar and think positively about our work include: Robin Carhart-Harris, Scott Alexander, David Pearce, Steven Lehar, Daniel Ingram, and more. Scott Alexander acknowledged that QRI put together the paradigms that contributed to Friston’s integrative model of how psychedelics work before his research was published. Our track record so far has been to foreshadow (by several years in advance) key discoveries later proposed and accepted in mainstream academia. Given our current research findings, we expect this trend to continue in the years to come.
How does QRI know what is best for other people/animals? What about cultural relativism?
We think that, to a large extent, people and animals work under the illusion that they are pursuing intentional objects, states of the external environment, or relationships that they may have with the external environment. However, when you examine these situations closely, you realize that what we actually pursue are states of high valence triggered by external circumstances. There may be evolutionary and cultural selection pressures that push us toward self-deception as to how we actually function. And we consider it negative to have these selection pressures makes us less self-aware because it often focuses our energy on unpleasant, destructive, or fruitless strategies. QRI hopes to support people in fostering more self-awareness, which can come through experiments with one’s own consciousness, like meditation, as well as through the deeper theoretical understanding of what it is that we actually want.
How central is David Pearce’s work to the work of the QRI?
We consider David Pearce to be one of our core lineages. We particularly value his contribution to valence realism, the insistence that states of consciousness come with an overall valence, and that this is very morally relevant. We also consider David Pearce to be very influential in philosophy of mind; Pearce, for instance, coined the phrase ‘tyranny of the intentional object’, the title of a core QRI piece of the same name. We have been inspired by Pearce’s descriptions for what any scientific theory of consciousness should be able to explain, as well as his particular emphasis on the binding problem. David’s vision of a world animated by ‘gradients of bliss’ has also been very generative as a normative thought experiment which integrates human and non-human well-being. We do not necessarily agree with all of David Pearce’s work, but we respect him as an insightful and vivid thinker who has been brave enough to actually take a swing at describing utopia and who we believe is far ahead of his time.
What does QRI think of negative utilitarianism?
There’s general agreement within QRI that intense suffering is an extreme moral priority, and we’ve done substantial work on finding simple ways of getting rid of extreme suffering (with our research inspiring at least one unaffiliated startup to date). However, we find it premature to strongly endorse any pre-packaged ethical theory, especially because none of them are based on any formalism, but rather an ungrounded concept of ‘utility’. The value of information here seems enormous, and we hope that we can get to a point where the ‘correct’ ethical theory may simply ‘pop out of the equations’ of reality. It’s also important to highlight the fact that common versions and academic formulations of utilitarianism seem to be blind to many subtleties concerning valence. For example, they do not distinguish between mixed states of consciousness where you have extreme pleasure combined with extreme suffering in such a way that you judge the experience to be neither entirely suffering nor entirely happiness and states of complete neutrality, such as extreme white noise. Because most formulations of utilitarianism do not distinguish between them, we are generally suspicious of the idea that philosophers of ethics have considered all of the relevant attributes of consciousness in order to make accurate judgments about morality.
What does QRI think of philosophy of mind departments?
We believe that the problems that philosophy of mind departments address tend to be very disconnected from what truly matters from an ethical, moral, and philosophical point of view. For example, there is little appreciation of the value of bringing mathematical formalisms into discussions about the mind, or what that might look like in practice. Likewise there is close to no interest in preventing extreme suffering nor understanding its nature. Additionally, there is usually a disregard for extreme states of positive valence, and strange or exotic experiences in general. It may be the case that there are worthwhile things happening in departments and classes creating and studying this literature, but we find them characterized by processes which are unlikely to produce progress on their nominal purpose, creating a science of mind.
In particular, in academic philosophy of mind, we’ve seen very little regard for producing empirically testable predictions. There are millions of pages written about philosophy of mind, but the number of pages that provide precise, empirically testable predictions is quite thin.
What therapies does QRI recommend for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain?
At QRI, we do not make specific recommendations to individuals, but rather point to areas of research that we consider to be extremely important, tractable, and neglected, such as anti-tolerance drugs, neural annealing techniques, frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stone pain, and N,N-DMT and other tryptamines for cluster headaches and migraines.
Why does QRI think it’s so important to focus on ending extreme suffering?
QRI thinks ending extreme suffering is important, tractable, and neglected. It’s important because of the logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain—the fact that extreme suffering is far worse by orders of magnitude than what people intuitively believe. It’s tractable because there are many types of extreme suffering that have existing solutions that are fairly trivial or at least have a viable path for being solved with moderately funded research programs. And it’s neglected mostly because people are unaware of the existence of these states, though not necessarily because of their rarity. For example, 10% of the population experiences kidney stones at some point in their life, but for reasons having to do with trauma, PTSD, and the state-dependence of memory, even people who have suffered from kidney stones do not typically end up dedicating their time or resources toward eradicating them.
It’s also likely that if we can meaningfully improve the absolute worst experiences, much of the knowledge we’ll gain in that process will translate into other contexts. In particular, we should expect to figure out how to make moderately depressed people happier, fix more mild forms of pain, improve the human hedonic baseline, and safely reach extremely great peak states. Mood research is not a zero-sum game. It’s a web of synergies.
Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman, Mackenzie Dion, and Mike Johnson for their collaboration in putting this together. Featured image is QRI’s logo – animated by Hunter Meyer.
Some substances seem to be much better at treating psychological trauma than others, even when they are seemingly similar in nature. We have reason to believe that 5-MeO-DMT is significantly better suited for this task than N,N-DMT (“DMT” from now on). In order to gain insight into why this difference exists, we investigate the phenomenological differences and similarities between the experiences produced by these two tryptamine psychedelics. In particular, we develop 9 lenses that show promise for understanding how 5-MeO-DMT and DMT differ:
Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT.
Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT.
Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving.
Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it.
Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic.
Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it.
Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it.
Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes.
Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.
All of this together suggests that 5-MeO-DMT is better at helping you “reconnect with yourself” than DMT. And this may be key to treating trauma effectively.
What is Trauma?
I will start out by briefly mentioning an interesting property of psychological trauma. You see, trauma has a lot of somatic manifestations. Feeling disconnected from yourself, like you are full of blockages, that you have numb regions in your body despite no physical damage, and so on, are all quintessential ways in which trauma shows up in a person’s everyday life. Given these manifestations, do these suggest any new way of treating this? How about using something that facilitates the communication between parts of your nervous system that are not on “speaking terms” with each other? Would giving our nervous system a kind of vibration that simultaneously entrains any two of its regions to make them act as a unit be of any help?
Psychotropic Treatment of Trauma
Based on tens of interviews, hundreds of trip reports, and a literature review, I have arrived at a tentative short list of drugs that have the highest potential to heal trauma (in decreasing order):
They are all synergistic combined with music, vibration, strobes, and olfaction. And when wisely used, they all have the ability to help you move on past pain: stop ruminating, stop feeling like your behavior is inhibited, and stop having panic attacks associated with your past experiences.
At some point in the future I will provide direct empirical evidence for the claim that these three substances are uniquely good for treating trauma. Arguably psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD can be helpful in processing traumatic experiences too. But my claim is that the options I listed are uniquely good at deeply resolving the issues at an emotional level and bringing to you the opportunity to feel a profound and lasting sense of inner peace.
DMT won’t help as much as 5-MeO-DMT.
MDA is not as good as MDMA.
And DXM, ok, perhaps it can also be quite useful for trauma… but ketamine has something “extra” that really helps.
What is this?
The Koan: 5-MeO-DMT, MDMA, Ketamine?
Perhaps we could gain a new perspective by framing this as a Koan: what do MDMA, 5-MeO-DMT, and ketamine have in common? You HAVE to the figure this out in the next 24 hours, or your guru will literally cut your cat in half. Motivated enough?
What do you do? Well, you start out by borrowing psychopharmacology books from the library. But does that help? When it comes to trauma, in traditional textbook neuroscience MDMA is at best just a footnote. Ketamine is not even mentioned for the most part, unless the book is hip, but even then it will be mentioned in the chapter about anaesthetics and painkillers; its psychoactive effects will be glossed over as “emergent phenomena”. No! What are you doing? Wasn’t John C. Lilly already talking about the far-out, extraordinarily bizarre, perhaps even literally inter-dimensional properties of “vitamin K” way back in the 70s? Then why is my 2007 “Drugs and the Brain” textbook so totally lacking in any kind of genuine phenomenological insight about this stuff?
And what about 5-MeO-DMT? You are lucky if the term appears even once in your $800 textbook. And if it does indeed appear, you can bet it will also be in a footnote, this time concerning matters such as “psychoactive animals”, “other tryptamines”, and “mesoamerican entheogens”. You will neither see 5-MeO-DMT mentioned in a personal identity philosophy textbook, nor in a neuroscience treatise on “neural synchrony”, nor in the part of academia focused on “innovation in the treatment of mental illness”.
It is sad to admit, but the official main-lined level of interest in the three most promising therapeutic tools for trauma listed above is a matter of sorting and assembling footnotes.
I am exaggerating a bit, of course.
MDMA’s therapeutic potential is gaining traction thanks to the tireless work of MAPS. S-Ketamine is now approved as an anti-depressant. And while 5-MeO-DMT is gaining popularity at a glacial pace, it is at this point by no means a secret. An increasing number of vocal members of the psychedelic community have been talking about 5-MeO-DMT for some years. People who have publicly emphasized how different five is from other psychedelics include Hamilton Morris, James Oroc, Martin Ball, Leo Gura, and Rak Razam. But what we still lack is rigorous scientific backing for these claims. After all, everyone is likely to want to sell their aesthetic preferences as universal truths about beauty and bliss, right? Thankfully, there are some early scientific indications already:
The above graph comes from a 2018 study that investigated the therapeutic effects of 5-MeO-DMT-containing toad venom relative to psilocybin. The dose used (the amount of buffo venom vaporized) had an estimated content of 5-7mg of 5-MeO-DMT, and the researchers classified 75% of the resulting experiences as meeting the criteria for a “complete mystical experience”. It measured people’s level of response with the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ30), and as you can see from the graph above, in every category 5-MeO-DMT seems to be more powerful than psilocybin. The level of effectiveness was indeed found to be higher than all but the highest dose of psilocybin, and chances are that the study couldn’t show it was more effective than that because it was underpowered to detect it, and not because there is no difference (in other words, the sample size was not large enough for the difference between high-dose psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT to reach statistical significance). Also bear in mind the key difference that the trip lasts under 20 minutes in total, meaning that even if the trip fails to produce full effects, you can still afford to try it again ten more times in the same time interval that it would have taken you to experience a full psilocybin trip. More so, it is important to point out that the dose of 5-MeO-DMT taken by the participants of this study is considered to be at the edge between “light” and “common” in PsychonautWiki’s entry on the drug*. Indeed, for many people the “breakthrough” tends to happen around 10mg, and I’ve heard of people using up to 30mg of it at a time. (Beware: if you ever try this – please don’t jump straight to a high dose, as this can cause serious trauma as a result.) Therefore, I think it is reasonable to expect that future studies will confirm what anecdotal data is currently screaming: that 5-MeO-DMT is more “powerful” and “mystical” in its effects than psilocybin, LSD, DMT, 2C-B, and all the rest.
But what this “power” and “mysticism” exactly amounts to still lacks clear and useful definitions. More so, is there any concrete reason why 5-MeO-DMT may be also superior at healing trauma relative to, eg. LSD or psilocybin? Technically, one could currently argue that since the presentation of “complete mystical states” is a mediating factor in whether psilocybin has long-lasting psychological benefits, that 5-MeO-DMT is more effective simply because it has a higher probability of causing this effect. But I would argue that the texture of 5-MeO-DMT peak experiences is different and not only just more intense, and that the way in which it is different matters for its therapeutic value.
To investigate this particular difference, we now move on to examining the phenomenological difference between 5-MeO-DMT and DMT.
5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses
My experience is that a reasonable ~20% of people I talk to who have a long-standing interest in psychedelics have heard about 5-MeO-DMT’s special properties. However, only a much smaller percentage of people have actually tried it. At Qualia Computing we have talked about its exceptionalphenomenologicalproperties a number of times. Yet it remains that most readers who reach out have not themselves experienced it. Hence I have not really had access to quality trip reports in order to say anything meaningful about the way in which it is different from DMT.
Thankfully, I’ve recently interviewed someone who has a decent level of experience with 5-MeO-DMT (20+ trips), along with a significant level of experience with vaporized DMT (100+ trips), and is also acquainted with the combination (10+ trips with both substances at once).
Given the incredibly intense psychoactive effects of 5-MeO-DMT (both for good and bad), most people struggle to put into words anything meaningful about the state. That said, as it has been the case with a number of other states of consciousness (e.g. LSD, DMT, and MDMA) I feel compelled to try to offer a sane, rational, agnostic, and pragmatic description of its phenomenology. In particular, I think that 5-MeO-DMT’s unique trauma-healing potential really deserves a close look. I believe that it sheds light on a wide range of topics of interest such as neural annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and the pseudo-time arrow (video). With this in mind, I inquired with my interviewee about the differences between N,N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Together, after a lengthy open-ended discussion, we found the following ways to compare them:
1. Space vs. Form
One of the first things that stands out when you take DMT at even small doses is the way in which colors get intensified. This is a special case of a very generalizable effect: in fact, every perceptual feature you can point to is enhanced while on DMT, from the sharpness of edges and pointy things to the feeling of movement and rotation. The interviewee indeed said that a brain on DMT “becomes a powerful qualia machine“.
After trying 5-MeO-DMT for the first time, most people already familiar with DMT mention something along the lines of “I was surprised that I didn’t see many colors.” The visual component of five is rarely very colorful; if color appears, it is in the form of a golden or sometimes light faint magenta or green hue. For the most part, the visual component of the experience is black and/or white. At times, one can see rainbow halos, but like rare subatomic particles, on 5-MeO-DMT rainbow colors come in and out of the vacuum, as if somehow equivalent to it. The bulk of the visuals manifest in a dazzling sense of spaciousness, as if there was a cosmic paint called “transparent/translucent”. The space often feels immeasurable due to a lack of a reference frame from which to make a judgement in terms of known comparisons. But what inevitably stands out is that the space seems large, uniform, harmonious, smooth, and luminous. Somatic feelings blend with this space, and the uniformity and symmetry of it allows for energy to seamlessly move throughout it. It really is a remarkable effect, one which can easily give rise to the felt-sense of Open Individualism. Yet, despite the engrossingly engaging character of these feelings, there is very little narrative complexity in sight.
Who knew that empty space could be so much fun? That you could fit so much love and bliss in an (experiential) vacuum? More so, the more you are able to relax into it, the more you embrace the waves of equanimity, the more you allow the space to become perfectly smooth and seamless… the more blissful it all gets!**
2. Crystals and Quasi-Crystals
Here is an interesting thing – ultrasound has been used in order to bias the way in which water crystals form, and thus creating much more “cubical” water than is otherwise possible. More generally, the phenomenon of vibration affecting crystallization processes is worth considering as an explanatory framework. DMT comes with a particular vibe that some have identified as having a characteristic frequency somewhere between 20 and 30Hz, whereas 5-MeO-DMT’s vibe seems to be a notch higher, perhaps in the range of 30 to 40Hz. On these drugs, your attention is jittered back and forth at a certain frequency, and this affects your ability to focus on any given part of your experience. The specific jittering itself makes it harder and easier to construct and manipulate certain thought-forms over others.
Speculatively, this model says that the jittering of attention caused by 5-MeO-DMT and DMT give rise to crystal and quasi-crystal building blocks, respectively, for phenomenal objects in one’s experience.
Phenomenologically, it seems that the vibratory signature of DMT effects doesn’t wrap around your experience an integer number of times. Thus, what we will call, for lack of a better term, the qualia crystals that form while on DMT seem to be inherently unstable and alien to your normal way of cogitating. The fact that the vibrations don’t fit perfectly in one’s experiential field forces it to bend out of shape to accommodate such vibrations. The result is constant chaos – fluid instabilities as the core effect.
On the other hand, with 5-MeO-DMT, it’s as if the vibration activates parts of the field of experience in exactly the right way for them to blend, unite, and resonate with one another. The vibrations fit perfectly inside one’s experiential field, and allows it to relax into its own natural shape. And this allows for perfect crystals of awareness to peacefully grow, multiply, and synchronize.
(d) Quasi-crystaline take-over
(c) Parallel narratives going on in interweaving channels with characteristic microstructure
(b) Irregular worldsheet with ambiguous self-models
It is of course surprising that a tiny difference in the frequency of the vibe could have such large effects in the way phenomenology crystallizes. But this is true for other systems. When one talks about the complexity of shapes in resonant systems, for instance, Lissajou curves can provide a helpful intuition pump: in Lissajou curves, merely changing one of the frequencies by a small relative amount can result in a huge difference between the pictures drawn. From a simple circle to a complex mesh.
According to the interviewee, 5-MeO-DMT would neatly correspond to one of the simplest Lissajou curves above, while the DMT sensations would be better evoked by one of the meshy ones.
With that said, it is worth mentioning that 5-MeO-DMT is probably not hitting the right frequencies merely by chance. It’s probably more that it is activating a system whose attractor is self-correcting and results in the kind of symmetrical crystallization that gives rise to deep feelings of bliss.
3. Attachment to Existence and Non-Existence
5-MeO seems to point at a super general sense of “relaxation”. A meditation teacher, Ajahn Brahm, talking about jhanas said that his mantra to achieve states of deep concentration and peace was: “Relax… to the maaaaaaaxxxx…”.
And according to the interviewee, the thrust of 5-MeO is that it feels like your nervous system is paradoxically injected with a lot of energy and yet the vibe of this energy is that of total and complete- ultimate?- relaxation. But our body and mind are not used to relaxing deeply. The contrast between this energy and one’s usual neurotic state can itself produce a lot of dissonance and resistance. In most cases, this is transient and contained to the first couple of minutes of the experience, though in higher doses and with bad luck, it can also spiral out of control. On small and moderate doses the energetic vibe of “relax to the max” takes over one’s experiential center of mass and teaches the rest of your nervous system how to relax.
It vibrates your nervous system in just the right way that all of your tensions, and hidden knots, and internalized stresses, bubble up to the surface, and you have the chance to try to “unravel” all of that tension.
After taking it a couple of times, you get the very nice feeling of being OK with whatever happens. 5-MeO-DMT might be described as a drug that allows you to reduce “thirst, craving, desire” in a very generalized kind of way. In Buddhist terms, this would be to reduce “Taṇhā“, which comes in three different kinds: “kāma-taṇhā (craving for sensual pleasures), bhava-taṇhā (craving for existence), and vibhava-taṇhā (craving for non-existence).” While we are used to hearing religious figures and moralists talk about the importance of not experiencing cravings for sensual pleasure, popular culture still lacks legible myths about the craving for existence and non-existence. So it comes as a shock for someone who has never developed meditative introspective insight just how much of our suffering has the flavor of either craving for existence or non-existence. Dosing on 5-MeO-DMT gives you a glimpse for what a mind devoid of these more subtle forms of craving feels like.
DMT comes with a vibratory frenzy that directly causes a lot of knots and tiny stress points throughout your entire experiential field. And to a large extent, how the experience unfolds is the result of you trying to manage all of those knots and stress points to avoid having them accumulate and concentrate in painful ways. The effect of this is that DMT acutely increases attachment to existence and non-existence. You wonder “what am I in this world?” and then cling to it, along with an intense fear of losing yourself in the world of vibration. The fear is quite involuntary and primal. And because you are clinging to who or what you are, there is something that you can lose, and that contributes to the feeling that the stakes are very high.
On 5-MeO you look at a landscape- say a tree in a Savannah- and you can see it in the most Zen way you can possibly imagine (and I don’t mean cutting cats in half). You think: “there is neither someone nor nobody in there” and “it’s all just arising and passing of ephemera”.
On DMT you look at the same landscape and you feel: “Oh gosh, what AM I in here? Am I that rock over there? That rock seems threatened by erosion! Am I the tree? But what if something comes and eats the tree?” and so on.
On DMT you feel like you are one of many little beings in a vast ecosystem. On 5-MeO-DMT you step back and you “realize” that you are the entire ecosystem.
In turn, this may explain to some extent the fact that the content of DMT hallucinations is often filled with exotic beings. And almost always, these beings have hyper-specific ways of life, tastes, intentions, and beliefs. The realms you experience on DMT are all saturated with attachment to existence and non-existence, and the beings you interact with are no exception. In fact, they may be a manifestation of those intensified cravings! From the interviewee:
“I’ve taken DMT about 100 times and have encountered many different vibes and kinds of intelligences in those realms. I’d love to map out the possible narratives – there are so many! Loosely speaking, I’ve had many different encounters with intelligent beings: from blissfully angelic and benevolent to outright demonic. Most of the beings I’ve encountered are somewhere in-between, and for the most part, tend to have pretty dualistic mindsets.
There is this whole class of beings I’d identify as harlequins/jesters that just love to play tricks with perception (I’m sure that’s what Terrence McKenna was pointing at).
Then there are “artists” which have a particular style that they explore and can range from emotionally self-sufficient to aggressively in-your-face about their work. The “look at THIS and look at THIS and look at THIS!!” kind of stance, where you are not given enough time to process what they’ve already shown you before they thrust even more stuff into you, and then attach ‘cookies’ into your etheric body to track you in future trips so you “like” and “subscribe” to their “interdimensional channel” or something like that.
There’s also a lot of beings that seem to want to tell you that they are confident that God does not exist and that “everything is allowed”. And I’ve felt that they are really indifferent to morality, but still have powerful abilities and unique qualia of a more scientific bent.
I once also encountered what felt like a true sadistic demon that played some really nasty tricks on my perception, and filled me with “etheric bugs” and had hundreds of little minions to attack me in many unpleasant ways. That said, I blame this on the fact that I was sleep deprived when I took DMT that one time, and it’s never happened before or since. But that experience gave me a lot of respect for the drug.
I’ve also encountered realms where they actually do consciousness research as such, and are benevolent and into engineering paradises. I even asked one of them if they knew my favorite philosopher, and they said “yes, what a nice fellow – we hope he will be more widely known in the future. We just wished that he wasn’t so sad a lot of the time.”
I have found that my pre-existing mood is the single most important variable that determines the kind of intelligences I encounter. So I’d really like to someday try MDMA and DMT combined. I suspect those would be very angelic beings most of the time.
Interestingly, I feel that while DMT feels profoundly spiritual, to a large extent it is less “nondual” than most other psychedelics. A lot of beings I’ve encountered simply don’t seem to care about oneness at all. But on LSD, mushrooms, and of course 5-MeO-DMT, the Golden Rule seems to play a very central role in the experience. Those experiences are much more of a “teaching” than the wacky stuff one encounters in the DMT realms.
When you take 5-MeO-DMT and DMT at the same time, you can really feel the contrast between the dualistic “us vs. them” vibe that underlies DMT and the unitive sense that underlies 5-MeO-DMT. I’ve experimented with the combo and found it to be super informative. And usually, I realize that while DMT turns your brain into a high-octane “qualia machine”, 5-MeO is in fact much more peaceful and happy in a deeper sense. I’d like to understand both, but my preferred “home” would be for sure the 5-MeO realms.”
4. Underfitting vs. Overfitting
One interesting lens with which to make sense of the difference between people who are open to experience and people who are not is that of model complexity, which casts this difference in terms of the statistical concepts of underfitting and overfitting.
Having narrow views, simple explanations, and enduring preferences is very good when the world itself is either very simple or impossible to understand. But having complex views, multi-layered explanations, and flexible preferences is more adaptive than the alternative in a world that is both complex and can be understood with some effort.
Indeed, some speculation about the nature of sleep from the predictive coding paradigm of cognition is that dreaming is a process of model complexity reduction. The information that we accumulate over the span of a day is incorporated in an ad-hoc fashion while awake, and only properly integrated (and pruned) after a good night’s sleep. This at least provides the theoretical precedent for describing a specific state of consciousness in terms of its effects on model complexity. And here we would propose that as a very general effect profile, 5-MeO-DMT reduces model complexity while N,N-DMT increases it.
As a consequence, we would posit that people who take five a lot will converge towards compelling yet over-simplified models of realty, whereas people who use DMT a lot will converge to overly complex and unnecessarily detailed explanation for even the simplest of phenomena.
Perhaps in the future people could be diagnosed as chronic overfitters and underfitters. In turn, these two drugs could be given by prescription, for the maladies of improper model selection practices:
N,N-DMT would be given to the sufferers of too much worldview simplicity. People like this believe that the world is dominated by the struggle between capitalism and communism. They think that there is a 50% chance that God almighty exists. They assign zero probability to unlikely events, such as lizard people power conspiracies. In people like this, DMT is a powerful mind enhancer capable of challenging cartoonishly simple background assumptions and introducing a healthy dose of skepticism in mainstream narratives.
5-MeO-DMT would instead be given to people who are overwhelmingly embroiled in complex interpretations of the nature of reality. Whether it is in the realm of conspiracy theories, religious cults, the biochemistry of aging, or any such hopelessly convoluted field of research, a little five will unscramble the mind of the compulsive overfitter. Thanks to the drug, the Bayesian puncture, the Occam’s cut, and the pragmatic so what coalesce into a decimating hit to the load-bearing hub-nodes that feed unfalsifiable belief systems. The model complexity reduction effect dissolves entire subfields, assimilates clusters, and seamlessly mends discontinuities in the reality mappings of the patient. At moderate dosages and treatment regimes, the sufferer recovers fully. The sufferer often ends up healed of their traumas, and occasionally healed of many more things than expected. At levels much above those of the therapeutic standard of care, there is a risk that the treatment may result in the healing of the fundamental traumas of conscious experience. The drug may offer the patient a chance to relinquish phenomenal reality in exchange for an extemporal “ultimate relief”. To extinguish the flame of existence, as they say.
Importantly, after 5-MeO-DMT therapy, the patient is, let’s say (for the sake of speculating), 20 times as likely as members of the general public to say yes to questions like “Are we all one consciousness?”, “Is the world a process created for the refinement of our souls?” and “Is the universe made of infinite consciousness?”.
So where does that leave us? The good news is that this may have game-theoretical benefits for the side of consciousness in the eternal battle between consciousness and pure replicators. The bad news is that it can overwrite important information obtained from the senses, one’s education, and logical reasoning:
Becoming the God of “I-AM-Now-ness” and filling your entire experiential field with that flavor of awakening is a recipe for ecstasy, not for good epistemology.
Indeed, the patient may become a bit hooked to the simplification of their model complexity; to make reality as they know be replaced by a simpler, yet more intense, version of perceived reality is very tempting. It can be seductive to embrace a view like “you are God and you have created everything for your own amusement” or “you are the dream of God”. Rather than compassion, why not indifference? Being the “way God entertains itself” is both poetically satisfying and super trippy. A lot of people would find that such belief adds some spice to their lives.
But the price of truth is everything. In turn, it would be ideal to complement any model complexity reduction that goes too far with a healthy amount of prediction errors.
5. Fixed-Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors
The brain contains many self-correcting feedback systems. Psychedelics in general can be modeled as drugs that mess with the inhibitory component of excitation-inhibition feedback systems. They accomplish this, quite possibly, by disrupting the inhibitory serotonergic connections coming from the cortex that gate the excitatory input coming from the thalamus. This may account for why tracers look the way they do – the failure to inhibit the thalamus results in looped replays of recent states. This may go a long way in explaining why people find “video feedback” so trippy and fascinating. Namely, because a lot of psychedelic effects can be understood as feedback getting out of control, literally.
More concretely, at the Harvard talk on the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT experiences I introduced this notion that each DMT experience as a whole can be thought of as a trajectory in the energy vs. complexity landscape. Here, the vertical axis indicates the degree of energy of the experience (roughly corresponding to the intensity, brightness, and amount of qualia), while the horizontal axis represents how much information is encoded in the experience. One interesting operationalization of information is through the concept of symmetry breaking***, in which case the horizontal axis approximately tracks the “distance from perfectly symmetrical spaces in terms of number of symmetry breaking operations”.
I then postulated that we could generate an ontology based on feedback + noise to explain how two DMT trips of roughly the same level of intensity can nonetheless contain very different amounts of information.
What I did not mention at the time was that while DMT does have the ability to send you to any place in the energy-complexity landscape, most of the experiences are in the region of middle-complexity. In fact, especially strong DMT trips tend to become fully chaotic, so there is even a mild correlation between dosage and complexity. On the other hand, 5-MeO-DMT tends to propel you towards the low-complexity region of the space.
Using a feedback system ontology we could thus posit that 5-MeO-DMT modifies the feedback parameters of your brain in such a way that the states it gives rise to are ether fixed points or short limit cycles:
The video above depicts a fixed point (as with the other animations below, I took this from an old 1984 video about video feedback you can see here). A fixed point is a configuration of the system that is stable upon feedback iterations. In the video above we see a fixed point consisting of a cross (presumably the result of the camera having a 90 degree tilt) that is then perturbed and eventually collapses into just a single circular dot at the center.
The above are limit cycles. The first (left) is a comparatively simple limit cycle in that every stage along its reproduction cycle is very similar to each other. The second (right) one is a bit more complex, yet despite a long winded path, it really does repeat more or less perfectly over and over. 5-MeO-DMT limit cycles are more akin to the one on the left, but on occasion may be a bit more complex and rhythmic over the span of seconds. Either way, there is often a strong pull towards a simple resonant pattern with remarkable stability.
Contrast that with chaotic attractors:
Chaotic pseudo-time arrow
When we have actual chaos, the states continue to change indefinitely. We could then posit that DMT’s characteristic jittering seems to prevent the formation of stable fixed points or short limit cycles. Despite both DMT and 5-MeO-DMT disrupting feedback in the brain, the subtle differences in the way parameters of this feedback are modified can make all the difference between perfectly simple and smooth results and the endless generation of chaotic structures.
6. Modulating Lateral Inhibition
Another exciting lens with which to look at the difference between these psychedelics is by allusion to lateral inhibition: according to a couple of recent trip reports I received from another anonymous source, there is a remarkable difference between the tracers of 5-MeO-DMT and those of DMT. In particular, the anonymous tripper points out that DMT tracers are chains of concatenated positive and negative after-images of the stimulation source, whereas 5-MeO-DMT only produces positive after-images.
Stare at the cross. The green ball you see as a result is the “negative after-image” of the missing purple dot.
In other words, when you see a blue ball moving on a screen, on DMT you will see tracers of that ball that change in color from blue to yellow to blue again and so on, all following after the original blue ball. But on 5-MeO-DMT, one will only see a long blue tracer. This is a remarkable difference, and if true, it would seem to be an important hint.****
Orientation selectivity map in the visual cortex
Lateral inhibition in the cortex prevents the overlapping of incompatible features in one’s own experience. For example, the primary visual cortex shows a map of orientation selectivity as shown above. Each hypercolumn is selective to only a specific orientation, and the surrounding hypercolumns are selective to different orientations. More so, via lateral inhibition, when a hypercolumn is activated, it inhibits the surrounding ones.
In this model, DMT would perhaps leave this process untouched, so that when the brain is massively energized, it still maintains this flip-flopping between each feature and its complement. Indeed, some people have described DMT as turning half of your neurons fully on, the other half of your neurons fully off, then inverting the activation so that the off neurons are turned on and the on ones are turned off, and flip-flopping between these two steps many times per second. Could this be the phenomenal expression of having energized checkerboard patterns of excitation and inhibition saturating your cortex? That is, taking a system with in-built lateral inhibition into over-drive?
5-MeO-DMT, on the contrary, seems to allow for “all colors to blend together into pure white light”, and “the past and the future to collapse into the present”, and the “self-other distinction to be dissolved”, and so on. Intuitively, if the drug is biochemically disabling lateral inhibition, that could be reflected as a profound sense of unity and interconnectedness at the phenomenological level, “transcending every last barrier”.
7. Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention
As we mentioned earlier, DMT tends to come with a feeling of “becoming tense” while 5-MeO-DMT has a primary vibe of “becoming relaxed”. One way in which we can model this is in the way the drugs influence whether your attention is focused or diffuse. Now, I should say that this model will be necessarily incomplete because at the peak of a 5-MeO experience one often does in fact feel super focused in some way. But I would posit that this sense of focus is much more holistic than the way our common-sense use of the term would suggest. The focus on DMT, on the other hand, does feel very much akin to the “conventional” sense of focus, where you are able to precisely position figure and ground in such a way that they have as much contrast as possible.
In a way, the beings one encounters on DMT could be thought of as “attentional attractors”. As you create a lot of little focal points during the experience, these begin to build up and define the contents of your mind. Each focal point makes it easier for you to create another one nearby. This snowballs into an effect where there are clusters of focal points that become the “centers of mass” of the narrative. These could very well be what underlies the “beings” on DMT. Using Buddhist terms again, DMT beings might perhaps be thought of as exotic “nimittas“: attention hubs.
Also, because the experience is high-dimensional and changes your sense of what “understanding” even means, it seems that the feeling of super-intelligence on DMT might be a projection of one’s own super-intelligence (of a certain kind) in the state.
In contrast, 5-MeO-DMT makes it easy to de-focus on anything. To let go, and experience it in a diffuse way.
8. Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks
Geology uses the word matrix in way that is very different from either math or science fiction aficionados. In geology, a matrix is the entire mass of materials on a rock within which crystals, grains, and clasts are found. As Anders and Maggie discussed recently, the way in which minerals form depends to a large extent on the presence of water in the process of crystallization. The huge diversity of minerals we see on Earth’s surface is partly a result of the availability of water in the mantle. Perhaps a lens with which to see DMT is as playing the same role in the brain as water does in fractional crystallization. It lubricates the matrix of your mind, which enables the crystallization of countless qualia exotica. 5-MeO-DMT instead homogenizes the kinds of crystals that can form.
In brief, DMT is to 5-MeO-DMT as a matrix of diverse minerals is to a mono-phasic large enclave. DMT is like complex music (cf. music as an ordered phase of sound) while 5-MeO-DMT is like a single mantra repeated over and over. Is this metaphor useful? It seemed to resonate with the interviewee.
9. Integration vs. Fragmentation
In Neural Annealing, Mike Johnson argues that what makes MDMA special for healing trauma is what at QRI we call integration:
On MDMA’s strangely powerful therapeutic effects, I’d suggest MDMA shares the ‘basic psychedelic package’ with substances like LSD and psilocybin (albeit a little weaker at common doses). Anything with this ‘baseline’ package significantly increases the energy parameter of the brain, which both allows escape from bad local minima and canalizes the brain’s core CSHWs, which both should be highly therapeutic. My intuition is MDMA may also have a particular effect on stochastic firing frequencies of neurons, and that this effect essentially acts as an emergent metronome – and this metronome will drive synchronicity between diverse brain regions. Given the presence of such a region-spanning ‘clean’ metronomic signal, brain regions that have partially ‘stopped talking to each other’ will re-establish integration, and some of this integration will persist while sober (or rather, some of the reasons for the lack of integration will have been negotiated away during the MDMA-driven integration). Plausibly this ‘emergent metronome’ effect may also underlie the particular phenomenological effects of 5-MeO-DMT as well, particularly in terms of sense of unity, high valence, and therapeutic potential. (HT to Steve Lehar for pointing at this ’nystagmus’ phenomenon as being somehow linked to MDMA’s mood-lifting effect, and to Andrés for calling my attention to Lehar’s work and suggesting 5-MeO-DMT may also share this mechanism.)
Like most other psychedelics, N,N-DMT also shares the same ‘basic psychedelic package’ and can have beneficial therapeutic effects. But it lacks this ‘special’ ability that allows arbitrary parts of your nervous system to rhythmically entrain with one another. This “emergent metronome” on MDMA and 5-MeO-DMT works as a kind of universal “vibratory currency” and results in a reduction of inner dissonance to a much greater extent than (relatively) simple “energizers” like DMT.
To Wrap Up
We hope that the above discussion has given you an idea about the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT and why this matters for their therapeutic potential. The above is just the start of a deep inquiry into the topic that will certainly take many years, but we believe that it is a novel way of seeing the contrast between these two substances that may be generative for others. We also believe that it is very worth trying: nailing down this difference may be incredibly important to develop novel ways of treating mental illness. While DMT will undoubtedly continue to dazzle and amaze people curious about the state-space of consciousness, the superlative potential of 5-MeO-DMT to heal trauma puts it on a different level of importance altogether.
In the future we shall also explain why MDMA and ketamine have this potential. And ultimately, as we begin to understand what makes these substances so special, we hope to find ways of creating effective therapies from first principles. Stay tuned.
* The toad venom dose was 50mg, with an estimated 5-7mg of 5-MeO-DMT. This is admittedly likely to produce somewhat more potent effects than just 5 to 7mg of pure 5-MeO-DMT. But the extent of this enhancement is currently poorly understood, and you can find many people online saying that the difference is tiny and others who argue it is enormous. Given just how intense and qualitatively unique pure 5-MeO-DMT already is, I think that applying Occam’s razor would tell us that “it’s just the 5-MeO-DMT itself”. So while I am ready to accept the possibility of profound synergy between other tryptamines in toad venom and 5-MeO, I am not holding my breath for it. I, rather, expect that the difference between 5-MeO alone and the full-spectrum stuff will be akin to the difference between drinking 10 shots of vodka and drinking 10 shots of vodka and one chamomile tea. Namely, a real but largely inconsequential difference.
*** This is where information-less states are those which are perfectly symmetrical, and the information content of a state is defined as the minimum number of symmetry breaking operations needed to transform an information-less state into it.
**** This is admittedly very weak evidence so far. If you have experience with both of these compounds and have explored the way in which they give rise to after-images, please let me know if you can confirm or deny the effect here mentioned.