Excerpt from The Resonance Effect: How Frequency Specific Microcurrent is Changing Medicine (2017) by Carolyn McMakin
Kidney Stone Pain
Everyone who has ever had a kidney stone will tell you that the kidney-stone pain is the worst. Emergency rooms treat it with morphine, and nothing else seems to touch it.
The phone rang on a summer Sunday morning and I hardly recognized the friend who grunted through gritted teeth to ask if “my machine” could treat kidney-stone pain. I told him that I’d never treated it before, but I’d be willing to try if he could make it to my house. He shuffled from the front door to the couch bent forward at the waist, sweating in pain. I put one wet graphite glove under his back and the other glove on his abdomen. He tried hard not to moan as I covered him with a soft blanket and placed my hand on top of the glove on his abdomen.
Education said that kidney-stone pain had to be about spasm in the ureter, the tube that carries the stone from the kidney to the bladder. The frequency for spasm was 29 hertz on channel A. The frequency for the ureter was 60 hertz on channel B. It did absolutely nothing: no warmth, no relaxation or softening, nothing. Maybe there was bleeding caused by the rough stone shredding the ureter as it traveled? I tried 18 hertz to stop bleeding on channel A. The glove didn’t get warm, and the pain didn’t change.
I really didn’t want my gray-faced friend to be my first failure. Reaching for inspiration, I tried the always-reliable 40 hertz to reduce inflammation. Nothing changed. Desperation amplified the small murmur of my intuition in my head, “Don’t get sloppy! Be thorough.”
There is a sequence of frequencies leading up to inflammation. The sequence was 20 hertz for “pressure or pain reaction,” 30 hertz for irritation, 40 hertz for inflammation. I never ran the whole sequence because 40 hertz always worked and I had no idea what a “pressure or pain reaction” might be. The buttons clicked down from 40 hertz to 20 hertz on channel A, and two things happened in seconds. The glove resting on his abdomen got hot — not just warm, it was hot. His abdomen started to soften. The feeling is hard to describe. It feels like a balloon feels when it has been sitting on the floor overnight. The tissue softens and stays soft while the correct frequency is working, and it returns to normal when the frequency is finished.
His voice was a little slurred when he fell asleep a few minutes later as he said, “Is that supposed to make me feel woozy?” His deep relaxed breathing said he was out of pain.
There are frequencies for the stone, so I tried those after twenty quiet minutes of watching him doze. The glove got hot, the abdomen softened, and ten minutes later he bolted awake and yelped, “The stone’s moving.” True to its promise, 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B reduced the pain again and put him back to sleep. Forty minutes later he left, pain-free, and passed the stone that night with no increase in pain.
I told this story at the Advanced Course in Australia a few weeks later, and one of the Australian practitioners reported that she treated her husband for kidney stone pain with 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B. He was out of pain in an hour and passed the stone uneventfully.
Every case of kidney stones treated since then has responded exactly the same way. When the patient has gripping lower back pain from lifting suitcases during a long dehydrating flight but treating the muscles doesn’t help, experience finally admits it’s not the muscle. Intuition says, “I wonder if it’s a kidney stone?” The learning curve is very steep and short when the glove gets hot, the muscles begin to relax, the pain goes down in minutes, and the patient falls asleep.
When one specific frequency combination, and only one, works every time anyone uses it, and when it does something that is otherwise impossible, then it can’t be impossible. It’s got to be resonance.
How people in different (Buddhist) realms interpret pain:
1) Heavenly Realm / God Realm: Pain is impermanent. It’s a trick of the mind. A method to help us wake up and realize who we truly are. [said while peacefully unaware of actual pain due to the formidable amounts of pleasure and distractions on hand]
2) Asura Realm / Titan Realm: Pain is a tool to succeed. It is a challenge to be overcome at a personal level, and a weapon to be used against one’s enemies. If I didn’t suffer intensely for the things that I achieved, would they mean anything? [said while experiencing intense cravings for social recognition and the need to feel superbly significant]
3) Animal Realm: Pain is the separation from my pleasures of the day to day. My morning coffee, interrupted by a call. My conversations with a friend, when someone’s bad luck is brought up. The annoying commercials in-between the chunks of TV I like. [said while snoozing the alarm for the 4th time in a row]
4) Hell Realm: Pain is reality in and of itself. Life is suffering. And if it isn’t at the moment, that’s just temporary good luck. Happiness is merely the absence of suffering; happiness is therefore as good as nonexistence. [said while waiting in the ER while experiencing a kidney stone]
5) Hungry Ghost Realm: Pain is realizing that only 10 out of the 15 people who RSVP’ed to my party showed up. It is the feeling of noticing that the Pringles are almost gone. The feeling that you get when you make out with someone and only get to 2nd base when you could have gotten to 3rd or 4th. [said while scrolling Reddit for the 3rd hour in a row].
6) Human Realm: Pain is a healthy signaling mechanism. When you look at it scientifically, it is just a negative reinforcement signal that propagates throughout your nervous system in order to prevent the chain of causes that led to the current state. It’s nothing to worry about, just as you shouldn’t worry about the weather or the shape of the solar system. [said while dispassionately reading a neuroscience textbook].
An approach to doing good is to come up with a metric for what constitutes good or bad, and then trying to do things that will optimally increase or decrease such metric, as the case may be.
If you do this, you have to be careful about what metric you choose.
If you have an ontology where you measure good by “number of people who feel benefited by you”, you might end up doing things like sending everyone you can a doughnut with a signed note. If instead your metric is “number of people classified as poor” you might do best to focus on interventions that get people just over the hump of poverty as defined by your scale. And so on.
Conscientious and systematic altruists tend to see problems with metrics like those above. They realize that “people impressed” and “being poor according to an economic metric” are not metrics that really carve nature at its joints.
Dissatisfied with misleading metrics, one then tends to look closer at the world and arrive at metrics that take into account the length of different lives, their quality, their instrumental effect in the world, how much are they exactly being benefited by the intervention relative to other cost-effective alternatives, and so on. And that’s how you get things like Quality Adjusted Life-Years (QALY), micromorts, and the happiness index.
This is, I think, all moving in the right direction. Metrics that make an effort to carve nature at its joints can provide new lenses to see the world. And looking through those lenses tends to generate novel angles and approaches to do a lot of good.
This is why today I will suggest we consider a new metric: The Hell-Index.
A country’s Hell-Index could be defined as the yearlytotal of people-seconds in pain and suffering that are at or above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent)*. This index captures the intuition that intense suffering can be in some ways qualitatively different and more serious than lesser suffering in a way that isn’t really captured by a linear pain scale.
What does this metric suggest we should do to make the world better? Here is an idea (told as if narrated from the future):
Between 2030 and 2050 it was very common for people to wear Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces. People had an incredible variety of custom-fit aesthetic and practical additives to their necklaces. But in every single one of them, you could rest assured, you would find a couple of doses of each of these agents:
Agmatine (to take in case you suspect of having being brainwashed recently), and
Caffeine (if you absolutely need to operate heavy machinery and you are sleep-deprived)
In all cases, the antidote needed would be administered as soon as requested by the wearer. And the wearer would request the antidote as indicated by a very short test done with an app to determine the need for it.
But why? What’s this all about?
The Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace contents were chosen based on a cost-benefit analysis for how to reduce the world’s Hell-Index as much as possible. Cluster-headaches, kidney stones, bad stings, severe psychotic episodes, suicidal depression, panic attacks, and many types of acute physical pain turned out to account for a surprisingly large percentage of each country’s Hell-Index. And in many of these cases, a substantial amount of the suffering was experienced before medical help could be able to arrive to the scene and do anything about it. A lot of that intense suffering happened to be tightly concentrated in acute episodes rather than in chronic problems (save for some notable examples). And by incredible luck, it turned out that there were simple antidotes to most of these states of agony, all of them small enough to fit in a single light necklace. So it was determined that subsidizing Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces was a no-brainer as a cost-effective altruistic intervention.
By 2050 safe and cheap genetic vaccines against almost all of these unpleasant states of consciousness had been discovered. This, in turn, made the use of the Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces unnecessary. But many who benefited from it- who had been unlucky enough to have needed it- kept it on for many years. The piece was thought of as a symbol to commemorate humanity’s progress in the destruction of hell. An achievement certainly worth celebrating.
* Admittedly, a more refined index would also distinguish between the intensity of different types of pain/suffering above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent). Such index would try to integrate a fair “total amount of hellish qualia” by adding up the pain of each state weighted by its most likely “true intensity” as determined by a model, and then do so for each model you have and weight the contribution of each model by its likelihood. E.g. do both a quadratic and an exponential conversion of values in the 0 to 10 visual analogue scale into dolors per second, and then do a likelihood-weighted average to combine those results into a final value.
Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).
This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.
An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).
Why This Matters
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
Predictions of Lognormal World
Appearance Base Rates
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
Latent Trait Ratings
Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of Children
Falling in Love
Games of Chance Earnings
Death of Father and Mother
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.
There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:
In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.
In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.
We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.
The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:
Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences
Why This Matters
Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.
Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.
True long-tail pain scale
As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).
“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.
I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.
My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.
The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.
DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?
What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.
Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss
As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.
Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:
The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.
There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.
“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)
Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:
“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”
– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.
“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”
– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.
Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:
As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.
– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)
All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.
Now, how about the negative side?
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”
– Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)
(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:
4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain].
7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.
11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.
Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?
[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”
Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!
[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.
Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.
If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.
(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are severalqualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:
I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be thathot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).
I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”
Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches
(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:
The KIP scale
KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful KIP-2 More persistent shadows KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing” KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.
The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.
As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.
In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.
While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?
Predictions of Lognormal World
If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:
That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).
To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).
The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.
I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).
I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.
Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition
The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):
Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)
While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:
The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:
And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.
In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.
Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.
I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:
Appearance Base Rates
There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:
Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)
Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)
For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.
A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:
Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)
Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:
Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57
(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).
And for pleasure:
Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.
The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.
The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:
Best experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
Worst experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.
In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion
I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:
Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:
PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.
With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).
In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:
The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:
In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.
Latent Trait Ratings
A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).
I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.
To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:
Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):
(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).
I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).
The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):
If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:
As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of children
I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:
The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.
I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.
I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.
I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.
No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.
Falling in Love
The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.
The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.
It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).
Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.
Games of Chance Earnings
Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.
Key Pains Surfaced
Kidney Stones and Migraines
The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)
Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.
Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.
Death of Father and Mother
This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:
Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors
After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).
In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:
Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.
In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.
Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:
The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.
In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:
First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.
And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.
We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.
Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.
In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.
* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).
[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]
For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.
*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.
tl;dr If we construct a theory of meaning grounded in qualia and felt-sense, it is possible to congruently arrive at “should” statements on the basis of reason and “is” claims. Meaning grounded in qualia allows us to import the pleasure-pain axis and its phenomenal character to the same plane of discussion as factual and structural observations.
TheIs-Ought problem (also called “Hume’s guillotine”) is a classical philosophical conundrum. On the one hand people feel that our ethical obligations (at least the uncontroversial ones like “do not torture anyone for no reason”) are facts about reality in some important sense, but on the other hand, rigorously deriving such “moral facts” from facts about the universe appears to be a category error. Is there any physical fact that truly compels us to act in one way or another?
A friend recently asked about my thoughts on this question and I took the time to express them to the best of my knowledge.
I provide seven points of discussion that together can be used to make the case that “ought” judgements often, though not always, are on the same ontological footing as “is” claims. Namely, that they are references to the structure and quality of experience, whose ultimate nature is self-intimating (i.e. it reveals itself) and hence inaccessible to those who lack the physiological apparatus to instantiate it. In turn, we could say that within communities of beings who share the same self-intimating qualities of experience, the is/ought divide may not be completely unbridgeable.
Summaries of Question and Response
Summary of the question:
How does a “should” emerge at all? How can reason and/or principles and/or logic compel us to follow some moral code?
Summary of the response:
If “ought” statements are to be part of our worldview, then they must refer to decisions about experiences: what kinds of experiences are better/worse, what experiences should or should not exist, etc.
A shared sense of personal identity (e.g. Open Individualism – which posits that “we are all one consciousness”) allows us to make parallels between the quality of our experience and the experience of others. Hence if one grounds “oughts” on the self-intimating quality of one’s suffering, then we can also extrapolate that such “oughts” must exist in the experience of other sentient beings and that they are no less real “over there” simply because a different brain is generating them (general relativity shows that every “here and now” is equally real).
Reduction cuts both ways: if the “fire in the equations of physics” can feel a certain way (e.g. bliss/pain) then objective causal descriptions of reality (about e.g. brain states) are implicitly referring to precisely that which has an “ought” quality. Thus physics may be inextricably connected with moral “oughts”.
If one loses sight of the fact that one’s experience is the ultimate referent for meaning, it is possible to end up in nihilistic accounts of meaning (e.g. such as Quine’s Indeterminacy of translation and Dennett’sinclusion of qualia within that framework). But if one grounds meaning in qualia, then suddenly both causality and value are on the same ontological footing (cf.Valence Realism).
To see clearly the nature of value it is best to examine it at its extremes (such as MDMA bliss vs. the pain of kidney stones). Having such experiences illuminates the “ought” aspect of consciousness, in contrast to the typical quasi-anhedonic “normal everyday states of consciousness” that most people (and philosophers!) tend to reason from. It would be interesting to see philosophers discuss e.g. the Is-Ought problem while on MDMA.
Claims that “pleasure and pain, value and disvalue, good and bad, etc.” are an illusion by long-term meditators based on the experience of “dissolving value” in meditative states are no more valid than claims that pain is an illusion by someone doped on morphine. In brief: such claims are made in a state of consciousness that has lost touch with the actual quality of experience that gives (dis)value to consciousness.
Admittedly the idea that one state of consciousness can even refer to (let alone make value judgements about) other states of consciousness is very problematic. In what sense does “reference” even make sense? Every moment of experience only has access to its own content. We posit that this problem is not ultimately unsolvable, and that human concepts are currently mere prototypes of a much better future set of varieties of consciousness optimized for truth-finding. As a thought experiment to illustrate this possible future, consider afull-spectrum superintelligence capable of instantiating arbitrary modes of experience and impartially comparing them side by side in order to build atotal order of consciousness.
Full Question and Response
I realized I don’t share some fundamental assumptions that seemed common amongst the people here [referring to the Qualia Research Institute and friends].
The most basic way I know how to phrase it, is the notion that there’s some appeal to reason and/or principles and/or logic that compels us to follow some type of moral code.
A (possibly straw-man) instance is the notion I associate with effective altruism, namely, that one should choose a career based on its calculable contribution to human welfare. The assumption is that human welfare is what we “should” care about. Why should we? What’s compelling about trying to reconfigure ourselves from whatever we value at the moment to replacing that thing with human welfare (or anything else)? What makes us think we can even truly succeed in reconfiguring ourselves like this? The obvious pitfall seems to be we create some image of “goodness” that we try to live up to without ever being honest with ourselves and owning our authentic desires. IMO this issue is rampant in mainstream Christianity.
More generally, I don’t understand how a “should” emerges within moral philosophy at all. I understand how starting with a want, say happiness, and noting a general tendency, such as I become happy when I help others, that one could deduce that helping others often is likely to result in a happy life. I might even say “I should help others” to myself, knowing it’s a strategy to get what I want. That’s not the type of “should” I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is “should” at the most basic level of one’s value structure. I don’t understand how any amount of reasoning could tell us what our most basic values and desires “should” be.
I would like to read something rigorous on this issue. I appreciate any references, as well as any elucidating replies.
This is a very important topic. I think it is great that you raise this question, as it stands at the core of many debates and arguments about ethics and morality. I think that one can indeed make a really strong case for the view that “ought” is simply never logically implied by any accurate and objective description of the world (the famous is/ought Humean guillotine). I understand that an objective assessment of all that is will usually be cast as a network of causal and structural relationships. By starting out with a network of causal and structural relationships and using logical inferences to arrive at further high-level facts, one is ultimately bound to arrive at conclusions that themselves are just structural and causal relationships. So where does the “ought” fit in here? Is it really just a manner of speaking? A linguistic spandrel that emerges from evolutionary history? It could really seem like it, and I admit that I do not have a silver bullet argument against this view.
However, I do think that eventually we will arrive at a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness, and that this understanding will itself allow us to point out exactly where- if at all- ethical imperatives are located and how they emerge. For now all I have is a series of observations that I hope can help you develop an intuition for how we are thinking about it, and why our take is original and novel (and not simply a rehashing of previous arguments or appeals to nature/intuition/guilt).
So without further ado I would like to lay out the following points on the table:
I am of the mind that if any kind of “ought” is present in reality it will involve decision-making about the quality of consciousness of subjects of experience. I do not think that it makes sense to talk about an ethical imperative that has anything to do with non-experiential properties of the universe precisely because there would be no one affected by it. If there is an argument for caring about things that have no impact on any state of consciousness, I have yet to encounter it. So I will assume that the question refers to whether certain states of consciousness ought to or ought not to exist (and how to make trade offs between them).
I also think thatpersonal identity is key for this discussion, but why this is the case will make sense in a moment. The short answer is that conscious value is self-intimating/self-revealing, and in order to pass judgement on something that you yourself (as a narrative being) will not get to experience you need some confidence (or reasonable cause) to believe that the same self-intimating quality of experience is present in other narrative orbits that will not interact with you. For the same reasons as (1) above, it makes no sense to care about philosophical zombies (no matter how much they scream at you), but the same is the case for “conscious value p. zombies” (where maybe they experience color qualia but do not experience hedonic tone i.e. they can’t suffer).
A very important concept that comes up again and again in our research is the notion that “reduction cuts both ways”. We take dual aspect monism seriously, and in this view we would consider the mathematical description of an experience and its qualia two sides of the same coin. Now, many people come here and say “the moment you reduce an experience of bliss to a mathematical equation you have removed any fuzzy morality from it and arrived at a purely objective and factual account which does not support an ‘ought ontology'”. But doing this mental move requires you to take the mathematical account as a superior ontology to that of the self-intimating quality of experience. In our view, these are two sides of the same coin. If mystical experiences are just a bunch of chemicals, then a bunch of chemicals can also be a mystical experience. To reiterate: reduction cuts both ways, and this happens with the value of experience to the same extent as it happens with the qualia of e.g. red or cinnamon.
Mike Johnson tends to bring up Wittgenstein and Quine to the “Is-Ought” problem because they are famous for ‘reducing language and meaning’ to games and networks of relationships. But here you should realize that you can apply the concept developed in (3) above just as well to this matter. In our view, a view of language that has “words and objects” at its foundation is not a complete ontology, and nor is one that merely introduces language games to dissolve the mystery of meaning. What’s missing here is “felt sense” – the raw way in which concepts feel and operate on each other whether or not they are verbalized. It is my view that herephenomenal binding becomes critical because a felt sense that corresponds to a word, concept, referent, etc. in itself encapsulates a large amount of information simultaneously, and contains many invariants across a set of possible mental transformations that define what it is and what it is not. More so, felt senses are computationally powerful (rather than merely epiphenomenal). ConsiderDaniel Tammet‘s mathematical feats achieved by experiencing numbers in complex synesthetic ways that interact with each other in ways that are isomorphic to multiplication, factorization, etc. More so, he does this at competitive speeds. Language, in a sense, could be thought of as the surface of felt sense. Daniel Dennett famously argued that you can “Quine Qualia” (meaning that you can explain it away with a groundless network of relationships and referents). We, on the opposite extreme, would bite the bullet of meaning and say that meaning itself is grounded in felt-sense and qualia. Thus, colors, aromas, emotions, and thoughts, rather than being ultimately semantically groundless as Dennett would have it, turn out to be the very foundation of meaning.
In light of the above, let’s consider some experiences that embody the strongest degree of the felt sense of “ought to be” and “ought not to be” that we know of. On the negative side, we have things like cluster headaches and kidney stones. On the positive side we have things like Samadhi, MDMA, and 5-MEO-DMT states of consciousness. I am personally more certain that the “ought not to be” aspect of experience is more real than the “ought to be” aspect of it, which is why I have a tendency (though no strong commitment) towards negative utilitarianism. When you touch a hot stove you get this involuntary reaction and associated valence qualia of “reality needs you to recoil from this”, and in such cases one has degrees of freedom into which to back off. But when experiencing cluster headaches and kidney stones, this sensation- that self-intimating felt-sense of ‘this ought not to be’- is omnidirectional. The experience is one in which one feels like every direction is negative, and in turn, at its extremes, one feels spiritually violated (“a major ethical emergency” is how a sufferer of cluster headaches recently described it to me). This brings me to…
The apparent illusory nature of value in light of meditative deconstruction of felt-senses. As you put it elsewhere: “Introspectively – Meditators with deep experience typically report all concepts are delusion. This is realized in a very direct experiential way.” Here I am ambivalent, though my default response is to make sense of the meditation-induced feeling that “value is illusory” as itself an operation on one’s conscious topology that makes the value quality of experience get diminished or plugged out. Meditation masters will say things like “if you observe the pain very carefully, if you slice it into 30 tiny fragments per second, you will realize that the suffering you experience from it is an illusory construction”. And this kind of language itself is, IMO, liable to give off the illusion that the pain was illusory to begin with. But here I disagree. We don’t say that people who take a strong opioid to reduce acute pain are “gaining insight into the fundamental nature of pain” and that’s “why they stop experiencing it”. Rather, we understand that the strong opioid changes the neurological conditions in such a way that the quality of the pain itself is modified, which results in a duller, “asymbolic“, non-propagating, well-confined discomfort. In other words, strong opioids reduce the value-quality of pain by locally changing the nature of pain rather than by bringing about a realization of its ultimate nature. The same with meditation. The strongest difference here, I think, would be that opioids are preventing the spatial propagation of pain “symmetry breaking structures” across one’s experience and thus “confine pain to a small spatial location”, whereas meditation does something different that is better described as confining the pain to a small temporal region. This is hard to explain in full, and it will require us to fully formalize how the subjective arrow of time is constructed and how pain qualia can make copies across it. [By noting the pain very quickly one is, I believe, preventing it from building up and then having “secondary pain” which emerges from the cymatic resonance of the various lingering echoes of pain across one’s entire “pseudo-time arrow of experience”.] Sorry if this sounds like word salad, I am happy to unpack these concepts if needed, while also admitting that we are in early stages of the theoretical and empirical development.
Finally, I will concede that the common sense view of “reference” is very deluded on many levels. The very notion that we can refer to an experience with another experience, that we can encode the properties of a different moment of experience in one’s current moment of experience, that we can talk about the “real world” or its “objective ethical values” or “moral duty” is very far from sensical in the final analysis. Reference is very tricky, and I think that a full understanding of consciousness will do some severe violence to our common sense in this area. That, however, is different from the self-disclosing properties of experience such as red qualia and pain qualia. You can do away with all of common sense reference while retaining a grounded understanding that “the constituents of the world are qualia values and their local binding relationships”. In turn, I do think that we can aim to do a decently good job at re-building from the ground up a good approximation of our common sense understanding of the world using “meaning grounded in qualia”, and once we do that we will be in a solid foundation (as opposed to the, admittedly very messy, quasi-delusional character of thoughts as they exist today). Needless to say, this may also need us to change our state of consciousness. “Someday we will have thoughts like sunsets” – David Pearce.
It finally arrived. I had to appeal it’s denial a couple times, but it finally came through. It arrived in the mail today. It’s laminated with rounded corners, a holographic mark, and a pinch of glitter. I finally got my Poetic License. They said if I wanted permission to use metaphors I would need to apply for an allegorical diploma, but what is a poetic license without metaphor? In practice most licensed professionals in the field ignore this rule. It’s not like the reader ever asks you for your credentials whenever symbolism is used. They said my trope copyright agreement is on the way. They gave me a tracking number. But I’m not going to be waiting around any longer…
The most insidious thing about taking the blue pill is that it is usually followed by an immediate amnesia of having done so. Soon after one is presented with the same decision, but now with an incredible -unbelievable- literary feeling of empowerment and bravery that makes you decide to take the red pill in an heroic act of self-effacement. Alas, this is of course all a fantasy induced by the original blue pill.
There are various grades of pseudo-red pills. You have the standard sedatives that put you to sleep; a dreamless coma – “Life is an unprofitable episode disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence” (Schopenhauer). You have the one that makes you forget -in fact achieve a state of convenient social neglect- of the intensely bad experiences that exist out there in Hell branches of the multiverse. There is the one that makes you believe that nonhuman animals lack souls and are unable to suffer (despite their, it turns out, much greater capacity for suffering than humans). There are those that by virtue of making you believe that you took the red pill give your life a tremendous sense of mission and moral superiority. There is the pill of sentimentalism, the pill of fanaticism, the pill of scientism, the pill of mainstream sports, the pill of social media rage, the pill of analytic philosophy fandom, and the pill of pop psychopharmachology (SSRIs increase your serotonin levels, and serotonin is the happy molecule, or so the scientists are saying *wink*). Alas, naming the most common ones, those that zombify the people who claim to be the most awake would feel like a personal attack (even if far from it). So the most common blue pills shall remain unmentioned lest I’m lynched.
The true red pill is not just DXM with red 2. It isn’t just eugenics, international conspiracies, evolutionary psychopathology, or Hansonian signaling theory. The real red pill is made of 4000°C bright red luminous magma that destroys not only your esophagus, but cuts through your body and falls directly on the ground below passing right through, only barely cooled down by your body due to its incredibly high specific heat capacity.
No. That’s still another blue pill fantasy designed to make you feel brave and morally superior for taking it. The real red pill is agape. The communion with the Godhead in its infinite compassion for all Beings large and small.
But you guessed it right, that’s also another type of coating for the blue fellow (iridescent, yes, but still synthetic and bad for your liver).
What did you think, that there is any real closure? It is not like nature is going to be kind to us humans who suffer from high levels of neuroticism and psychological need for closure.
There is no red pill. But there are decent approximations. There is the unprejudiced pursuit of truth – the high AQ high IQ depressive realism that is an evolutionary spandrel. The state of metta and LSD ego death are close seconds, though they lack the critical clarity of mind needed to be willing to stare at the raw truth of suffering and its causes for too long before craving social validation for doing so.
Is there an alternative? Yes.
The purple pill is the pill that gives you both high hedonic tone and an unprejudiced open ended approach to the pursuit of truth. For losing truth is to lose it all, but to lose it all is only bad because it makes you and others suffer in the wider universe. Yes, here is where I am abusing my poetic license. I am a licensed wordsmith, don’t you know? I carry with me the approval of RA, I have the blessing of poetic authority so don’t you dare question my use of vagueness to drive a point home. The purple pill is what will redeem us all. The recognition that though truth is painful in our current, evolutionarily adaptive mind-frame, it is not in and of itself a cause of seething pain. Recognizing that true evil is not a person or a mythical archetype but the mere existence of states of consciousness as pornographically unethical as kidney stones or cluster headaches does not need to induce (at least not logically, not physically) a nihilistic depression. It does not need to make you speak in tongues, to scream at strangers in the street “AHH don’t you see how bad it is that we live in an eternalist empty individualist universe that does not care about the welfare of moments of experience!?!?” – It is still possible to do something productive instead. You can still, it turns out, choose to take eros and agape and reforge them into a laser sword that produces hyperdopaminergic loving-kindness in those who are hit by it, and mindfulness in those who wield it.
The purple pill is the true red pill; at least the best approximation there is. For if the truth is that the world is tenselessly (timelessly) littered with hellish states of consciousness implicated by the universal wavefunction satisfying the principles of zero ontology, this still does not imply that accurately representing the causal structure of such facts *has* to come along with a hellish hedonic tone of itself. This is the truth we all long for.
Take the purple pill and join us in the battle to destroy hell. You will, much to everyone’s incredulous amazement, be happy while doing so.
Singer called the movement that grew up around him “effective altruism”, and its rallying cry was that one ought to spend every ounce of one’s energy doing whatever most relieves human suffering, most likely either feeding the poor or curing various tropical diseases. Again, something his opponents rejected as impossible, unworkable, another example of liberal fanaticism. Really? Every ounce of your energy? Again, they could have just read their Bibles. Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Then Singer changed his tune. In the 1970s, after the sky cracked and the world changed, he announced that charity was useless, that feeding the poor was useless, that curing tropical diseases was useless. There was only one cause to which a truly rational, truly good human being could devote his or her life.
Hell must be destroyed.
The idea of billions of human beings suffering unbearable pain for all eternity so outweighed our little earthly problems that the latter didn’t even register. He began meeting with his disciples in secret, teaching them hidden Names he said had been vouchsafed to him by angels. Thamiel put a price on his life – quite a high price actually. Heedless of his own safety, Singer traveled what remained of the civilized world, making converts wherever he went, telling them to be perfect as God was perfect, and every speech ended the same way. Hell must be destroyed.
An angel appears on Earth. This genderless being connected to God shows up on every screen on Earth at once and asks us if we are interested in drastically improving life on Earth. A large enough portion of those who hear the message (which gets a coverage of 80%+ of people worldwide) see into their souls and find the willingness to make life better, and then they see into their hearts and see the warmth of hope, and so they resolve to agree to do whatever is necessary to help the angel improve life on Earth. And thus the angel says “thanks to the collective desire to make it so, I shall change some things about how the planet is programed, and you will see a 99% reduction in suffering and a 20% increase in overall happiness.”
And so the angel gets to work.
A year passes, and nobody can really tell the difference from before. Most people’s day to day experience is perhaps even slightly more tedious and slightly more boring. What happened? After a few years it is clear that no major change has happened, and indeed affective psychologists report a mild but very generalized decrease in people’s engagement with their day to day activities and increases in feelings of being a bit disoriented. Did the angel scam us? Or did people fail to do their part? Or why are there no improvements? A large enough mass of people asked this question that the angel felt the need to provide an update. He comes back down and appears in all of the planet’s screens and says:
“Everything went according to plan. It is just that your society hasn’t reached the point of scientific development where you are able to measure the quality of experience of sentient beings. You aren’t quantifying pain very well.”
“Here is what I did. Above of all, I focused my energies on trying to prevent some of the worst experiences, which in aggregate happened to be an ethical catastrophe. I managed to reduce how bad these experiences were by about 99.99%.”
“I started by reducing how bad cluster headaches feel. They are now only about 44,000 dolors per second (d/s). They used to be around 450,000,000 d/s. You see, when most people get a fleeting headache, we are talking about headaches that range from 0.5 to 1d/s. You know, the type of headache that people are willing to wait out, and perhaps some people will ask for a little aspirin or some placebo of some sort and then get on with it. Most headaches are of this kind. But even if you bundle all of them together we are talking about a rounding error relative to the suffering caused by other types of headaches, the bad ones. Migraine, for example, tends to get to about 1,000 dolors per second, and sufferers have a hard time communicating the fact that it is not just a lot worse, it is a thousand times more painful than the “normal” ones. But even then that does not register relative to one of the really really bad ones, like cluster headaches, which as I said can spiral up to values close to a billion d/s. As it happens, on your planet there are simple chemical tricks to reduce that particular type of pain (e.g. LSD), so I just went ahead and got rid of the bulk of it very easily. It’s still super painful by human standards, but not by my standards, like it was before. To have a cluster headache now is just as “indescribably bad” as before, meaning it goes beyond people’s ability to imagine and make sense of. But that doesn’t challenge the fact that the 99.99% improvement I did is an ethical victory of civilizational magnitude.”
“Next I went on to reducing how bad it feels to have kidney stones, bone pain, and various kinds of particularly bad neuropathies in people with schizophrenia. By the time I had taken care of about the dozen or so worst kinds of pain, I had already overdelivered by an order of magnitude and was starting to run into diminishing returns. So I decided to go on to helping other planets in my quest to prevent as much suffering as possible.”
“I apologize I used about 0.13 hedons per second (h/s) from mundane experiences to implement one of those cosmic pain diminishing plans. In order to increase the amount of happiness in the world as I promised I made the experience of showering about 50% more enjoyable and the experience of listening to music about twice as good. As you can see, the bathing industry did take off, but not many thought much of it. And the musicians were able to tell that music was awesome again and wondered why, but most people seem to have attributed their increased musical enjoyment to what they imagined had been their own hidden musical talents all along.”
“Thank you, and keep enjoying your drastically improved planet.”
Thus, people realized that the world was indeed a lot better. Well, some did. And others complained, but it was ok.
Thanks to Michael Aaron Coleman and Jonathan Leighton for inspiring this piece. Michael suffers from cluster headaches and has described their phenomenology in gruesome detail. He says that in a 0 to 10 scale, cluster headaches are solid 10/10. But he also says you really need a different scale to make sense of this monster. He once used the phrase “minus one million hedonic tone”. He says that morphine makes the pain go from 10/10 to 9/10, if at all, maybe more like 9.5/10. Thankfully, LSD in small doses (~25 micrograms) makes it go to 1/10. DMT also works, but 5-MeO-DMT does not (and yet it still expands time, so not a good idea). Jonathan is the Executive Director of the Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS). He works on identifying cases where intense suffering can be prevented on a massive scale and doing what has to be done. I recommend getting in touch with him if this is a particular interest of yours.
This serious article starts with a wacky quote from an alleged clairvoyant couple. They describe the way that objects “feel like” in the “etheric plane of existence”. Don’t be discouraged by the woo in the quote – the article uses it to point out real properties of experience that are rarely talked about outside of spiritual contexts. As is the case in many spiritual circles, the dramatic other-worldly experiences people talk about concerning spiritual realms have an important kernel of truth, at least with regards to phenomenology.
The analysis section compares the descriptions of the etheric-plane experiences described in the quote with free-wheeling hallucinations. A free-wheeling hallucination is a state of mind usually triggered by combining psychedelics and dissociatives, where one can willfully create arbitrary phenomenal objects, akin to a very intense but more controllable version of a lucid dream. In that state, one can analyze the resonance properties of the objects and contexts one chooses to hallucinate. Indeed, one can have startling experiences where each object has a certain musical signature! Above all, this sort of research can be useful to find structural artifacts in the way objects acquire pleasant and unpleasant qualities. As it turns out, more symmetrical objects sound better on those states. This is an important datapoint that we shouldn’t dismiss!
David Pearce is the co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and the writer of the book-length manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative (1995). He’s been in the trenches of transhumanism since the 90s, building a web-empire of essays and hyperlinks, always courageously advocating for the elimination of suffering (“the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event”).
David has been a huge influence on my way of thinking. I first encountered his essays when I was 17 years old and my reaction was “OMG! At least one person is saying sane things on the internet!” To start with, David is one of the few people to have recognized the very core of what is fundamentally wrong in the world. Namely, our reward circuitry. We are miserable not because we are unwise, impulsive, resentful, or addicted to technology. On the contrary! We are those things because we are not naturally happy. Our reward circuitry is rigged against us being happy and motivated in the long term, and no peripheralist approach will ever truly fix this problem. We must address the problem at the very root, and fix our neurological architecture with transhumanist technologies.
His view is that in the future it will be strictly irrational to take any kind of drug, not because we will know better or because we will be boring and conformist, but because we will already be naturally super-happy. This really struck a chord with me:
Fortunately, over the next few centuries humanity will be able to outwit its ancient genetic masters. Our present status as throwaway genetic vehicles will finally be subverted. When gradients of heavenly well-being become the genetically predestined norm of mental health, then the very notion of tampering with our new-won “natural” condition and feeling “drugged” may come to seem immoral. It may also seem perverse. Why should anyone want to contaminate the divine ecstasy of their spirituo-biological soul-stuff with chemical pollutants? No thanks.
Nowadays most people have a rather bleak view of the future. And while David is not very optimistic about the prospects of avoiding terrible wars in the 21st century, he nonetheless offers powerful arguments for why in the long run humanity is headed towards a world animated by gradients of superhuman bliss.
This is a work of fiction that imagines what theme camps at Burning Man might look like in the year 2029. This was written as an exercise in exploring which comprehensive ideologies will be alive and thriving 10 years from now. Some of them include microlife-based longevity lifestyles (Longevity Camp), a quasi-religious quest to explore the entire state-space of consciousness (Camp Rainbow God), and our very own boss-level rational hedonism worldview, which seeks to uncover the fundamental nature of bliss and optimize experiences for its maximum possible expression (Valence Camp).
This article deals with time. More specifically, the experience of the passage of time. Any theory of consciousness should be able to explain the nature of our everyday modes of being. But in addition, for the theory to be real and complete, it must also be able to make formal models of exotic experiences. This article examines how exotic experiences of time could be explained if we model experiences as graphs, and the feeling of time as the implicit direction of causality in such graphs. In particular, with this model we can explain odd experiences such as looping, time branching, moments of eternity, and atemporal states (which are often experienced during meditation and/or psychedelic states).
This article talks about the big-picture views of who we all are, and how on earth you find yourself as the person reading this very sentence right now rather than being someone else (!). The article provides some speculations about the evolutionary benefits of different views of personal identity (e.g. believing “we are all one” can be beneficial for super-organisms to arise because people with such a belief would be more willing to radically change their state of consciousness and share information with others).
What is pleasure? What is pain? Ask a pharmacologist and they will tell you pleasure and pain are the result of various concentrations of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain. Ask a neurophysiologist and they’ll tell you pleasure and pain are the result of the degree of activation of the pleasure centers and the amygdala in the brain. Ask an AI researcher and they’ll tell you pleasure and pain are the reward signals of a reinforcement learning algorithm implemented by the brain. Ask a life-coach, and they’ll tell you that pleasure and pain are the result of your life’s circumstances such as the quality of your friendships, your engagement at work, and your sense of meaning.
There is a kernel of truth in every one of the responses above, but they all miss the mark somehow. They are saying what pleasure and pain is correlated with, but not what their underlying true essence is.
In this article we advance a fundamental theory of valence (the pleasure-pain axis) built from first principles and which makes precise, empirically testable, predictions. The theory is based on Michael Johnson‘s hypothesis that valence is fundamentally related to symmetry (technically: the degree of symmetry of the mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to a system’s phenomenology; see: Symmetry Theory of Valence) and Selen Atasoy‘s recent work on quantifying the brain’s natural connectome-specific harmonic waves. Combining these two paradigms we can come up with an actual quantitative equation for the overall macroscopic symmetry of a brain state, and in turn, predict how good or bad a given experience will feel. We are currently working on setting up the experiment to empirically test this theory.
This is an article about how to encode information in brief animations that people high on psychedelic drugs can easily decode but sober people cannot. The main trick discussed is the use of visual psychedelic effects (such as tracers) in order to accumulate information across time that would otherwise get erased on a sober state. I coined the term psychedelic cryptography in this piece to describe the set of techniques that enable this kind of secure communication.
The “how fast you are pushed towards your baseline” vector field.
A change of basis by turning the space 90 degrees. Fast and Slow euphoria are two of three dimensions of the cube of euphoria.
Current hedonic negative feedback dynamics.
Trans/Post-human negative feedback mechanisms.
In any case, wouldn’t we get bored of life-long bliss?
Apparently not. That’s what’s so revealing about wireheading. Unlike food, drink or sex, the experience of pleasure itself exhibits no tolerance, even though our innumerable objects of desire certainly do so. Thus we can eventually get bored of anything – with a single exception. Stimulation of the pleasure-centres of the brain never palls.
Why can’t we all be happy all the time? The short answer is: because the negative feedback dynamics of our reward circuitry won’t allow us to. For deep evolutionary reasons, we’ve inherited an emotional system prone to generate very negative states of consciousness. Evolutionarily adaptive mental states such as jealousy, hatred, anxiety, despair, and frustration could be like our cravings for sugar and fat – an artifact of our calorie-deficient past. Today, with the abundance of food and positive-sum opportunities, it makes sense to rethink the necessity of preserving our ability to experience suffering. Critically, direct electrical stimulation to our pleasure centers shows that lifelong bliss is physiologically possible. Meaning, that the brain’s endless capacity to get bored of anything is not a match against electric (as opposed to chemical) inputs.
The question then becomes – how do we stay happy without compromising other things of value? This article discusses some of the main pitfalls of life-long bliss. Namely: (1) that trying to achieve it while ignoring negative feedback backfires, (2) that it makes you prone to get stuck in small behavioral attractors, and (3) that hyper-motivation could empower entities who do not care about the wellbeing of other sentient beings.
The article proposes a number of potential solutions to these pitfalls. In particular, rather than wireheading by reducing the development of physiological tolerance to specific forms of bliss (which leads to the problems outlined), we could instead wirehead in such a way that every type of bliss leads to transient habituation while at the same time making it easier to experience different types of bliss. Thus, a person who has wireheaded in this way would constantly experience extremely blissful states, but constantly change which type of bliss is being experienced. From hyper-motivated focused states, to hyper-relaxed restful states, to hyper-creative high-energy states, the person in question would maintain the ability to interact with the world productively without ever having to experience a negative state.
How do we know that other people are conscious? Is there any undeniable evidence against solipsism? These questions have been asked for ages, but convincing solutions are lacking. If indeed other brains are haunted with inner experiences then in some sense we all are profoundly ignorant of that aspect of the world. We can speculate about the experiences of other sentient beings, but what do we really know about them? How can we definitively verify that someone indeed has a rich subjective experience independently of you?
Well, first consider that there already exists a sort of proof of concept for mindmelding in the form of the thalamic bridge between the brains of the Hogan sisters. According to some reports, they are able to feel each other’s sensations:
Tatiana hates ketchup; Krista loves it. Krista scrapes the breading off her chicken McNuggets; Tatiana likes the breading. Specialists speculate that somehow they can selectively block out sensory input from the other. Ketchup, however, is different: Tatiana hates it so much she screams if Krista eats it.
Now, exactly what the boundary around each of their experiences is remains a mystery. But for the sake of the argument, let us assume that someday we create a reversible inter-thalamic bridge that we can use to temporarily become one with one another. As pointed out by some philosophers, this alone would not be proof that the person one is mindmelding with is independently conscious. It would certainly be evidence, but can we do better? This article provides an additional piece of the puzzle. Namely, it discusses the possibility of using puzzles that can only be solved by making comparisons between the qualia values of our experience. The precise protocol for the experiment is a bit subtle, so I won’t reproduce it here – read the article and watch the video for a detailed explanation.
Changes in the connectivity of the micro-structure of the texture
Constant flow of interlocking symmetry elements tile the texture.
This is, in my opinion, the best article I have written up to now. Why? In brief: because it advances the completely new hypothesis that a large part of what makes the state of consciousness induced by N,N-DMT (aka. “the spirit molecule”) so mysterious, confusing, and bewilderingly bizarre can be explained in terms of a change in the geometry of the phenomenal space one experiences during the trip. The article goes beyond merely making this claim, provides a number of reasons why, and discusses plausible mechanisms of action for this effect. Of note is the fact that the symmetrical texture repetition one sees on a high enough dose of DMT is non-Euclidean. Indeed, the symmetries experienced on that state are hyperbolic in a strict mathematical sense. So unlike trip reports from people who merely say e.g. “I saw a lot of symmetries!” this article zooms in on precisely which symmetries arise, and infers that they imply a change of curvature that is not possible in normal everyday states of consciousness.
Most people who try DMT come back to consensus reality with new and outlandish beliefs about higher dimensions, otherworldly entities, telepathy, and even life after death. Because most people who are willing to talk about their experiences- and the interpretation they have about those experiences- do not make sense to the scientifically-educated, serious thinkers tend to dismiss the significance of this state. But with the analytic angle of this article, we can actually start making solid progress on characterizing the properties of the surreal states of consciousness found in the DMT-verse.
When it comes to psychedelic theory, at Qualia Computing we focus on the phenomenal character of the experience rather than on its intentional content. You see, it is far less useful to know that you saw a dragon capable of barfing liquid nitrogen during your trip than it is to point out that its body was covered with a patterning with a wallpaper symmetry group of the *632 type. It is this level of attention to detail in phenomenology that actually advances our understanding.
The article concludes with a bold prediction: that if indeed N,N-DMT allows you to experience hyperbolically-curved phenomenal space, then a lot of future breakthroughs in pure math will be arrived at by serious mathematicians exploring such altered states in a systematic way. I stand by this prediction.
I will also link to some honorary mentions – There are three high-quality trip reports submitted by Qualia Computing readers that showcase the usefulness of being acquainted with the QC memeplex in order to rationally make sense of otherwise seemingly ineffable experiences (personally I found it really interesting to see Qualia Computing concepts be fire-tested in real life by being applied to the alien state-spaces of consciousness these readers experienced). The trip reports are for LSD, 2C-B, and 4-AcO-DMT.
Another set of related articles important to highlight involves one-off descriptions of research leads that could have huge collective hedonic payoffs if carried out. That is, there are many low-hanging fruit research projects that could lead to revolutionary interventions to reduce suffering and enhance our quality of life. These are:
Anti-Tolerance Drugs (Surprisingly, substances exist that, when taken in conjunction with euphoric drugs, prevent the development of tolerance, and this could have game-changing implications for the treatment of chronic pain and addiction)
Cooling It Down To Partying It Up (If the reason why MDMA causes long-term neurological damage is due to the way it overheats the brain, then bracelets designed to cool your blood really quickly could allow people to take MDMA sustainably for decades without getting hurt)
Low-Dose Ibogaine for Hedonic Tone Augmentation (According to some published reports and anecdotal data, microdosing ibogaine gives rise to an increased hedonic baseline for several days that does not lead to a comedown, possibly by up-regulating mu-opioid receptors – if true this could revolutionize the treatment of depression)
Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain (Along the lines of the previous article, one of the most painful experiences people tend to have in their lifetime is that of kidney stones. So even if there is a small probability that this intervention actually works, there is a strong utilitarian case to research this lead because, if successful, it would lead to a very cheap and widely available method to greatly diminish this very common (~10% lifetime prevalence) form of intense suffering).
And finally, I will also point you to Qualia Computing media appearances, in case you would like to consume Qualia Computing content with the aid of auditory and/or visual qualia.
* I arrived at this particular ranking by sorting all the articles by a weighted sum of (a) the number of genuinely new ideas presented (which Google searches reveal they have never previously been discussed anywhere, including academia, internet forums, popular culture, etc.), (b) how happy it makes me feel that I wrote and published the article, and (c) the logarithm of the number of views of the article to date.
(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.
Bolded titles mean that the linked article is foundational: it introduces new concepts, vocabulary, heuristics, research methods, frameworks, and/or thought experiments that are important for the overall project of consciousness research. These tend to be articles that also discuss concepts in much greater depth than other articles.
The “long” tag means that the post has at least 4,000 words. Most of these long articles are in the 6,000 to 10,000 word range. The longest Qualia Computing article is Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2) at ~16,000 words. The second longest article is the first post about Burning Man which is about 13,500 words long (and also happens to be foundational as it introduces many new frameworks and concepts).
Quotes and transcripts are usually about: evolutionary psychology, philosophy of mind, ethics, neuroscience, physics, meditation, and/or psychedelic phenomenology. By far, David Pearce is the most quoted person on Qualia Computing.