It’s Anders and Maggie in Stockholm, Sweden, here. Volunteers in human resource coordination for the QRI.
We would like to hereby announce our commitment to donate fifty thousand dollars to the Qualia Research Institute for research related to the mathematical modeling of phenomenological valence.
We are pretty much just your ordinary Swedish transhumanist couple. With a passion for finding out from first principles how things work. We whole-heartedly agree with Elon Musk that at the end of the day, excellence is the only passing grade. Over the last couple of years we have arrived at the solid conclusion that the biggest bonanza in effective altruism could only be realized by first of all solving valence. Symbolically, in comedy form, this is like first spending the necessary computational resources to arrive at the conciseness of 42 as “the answer”, before it can be determined what the right questions must then be. In our book it is with no doubt the Qualia Research Institute which corresponds to “Deep Thought” in what Elon Musk has called “the best philosophy book ever”: The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Seriously here, it is advisable to balance this with a bit of David Pearce also, but indeed we do believe an encouraging “Don’t Panic” is in fact compatible with the laws of nature in this universe. Immense reward is there for those who roll up their sleeves and start working systematically from first principles.
But again, excellence is the only passing grade. The universe is no picnic. It is a field of seemingly infinite potentialities, all of which are open to exploration and exploitation. It is still unknown what the proto-states of sentience are intrinsically like, but it is clear that biological evolution works as an optimization engine for valence polarization. A “passing grade” for a long-term sustainable and prospering technological civilization must involve a universally global first-principles solution to the horrific downside of this: suffering. That solution must be combined with optimal development of the state space of positive valence and intelligence. It seems plausible that experienced negative valence is a computationally economic way for evolution to drive behavior when the implementation is in biochemistry. However, information processing can also be done non-consciously, and it stands to reason that all the informational saliency achieved via negative valence experience can instead be had via non-conscious processes which would be available to future suitably modified embodiments of intelligence.
The QRI is the only real player in this game so far, as our civilization takes its first baby steps towards maturity. In the domain of effective altruism, the Qualia Research Institute today corresponds to what bitcoin was when first launched. The difference is that the QRI doesn’t just promise to be a novel medium of exchange, but a novel competence about the first principles of well-being!
During the couple of years it took for us to come to the above conclusions, we set aside every penny we could spare. That became the fifty thousand we are now committing to the QRI. If enough others with the same visions were to do the same thing, soon enough it could begin adding up to real money. Money which at this foundational stage stands at quite a favorable exchange rate with respect to the ultimate currency of the universe: positive emotional valence.
Infinite bliss to everyone from a couple of Scandinavian old-timers!
High Entropy Alloy (Al + Ti + Cr + Mo + W) and Low-Entropy Non-Alloy (Ti) – made by Anders and Maggie. If non-materialist physicalist idealism (i.e. panpsychism that respects physics) is true, what do these bundles of baryonic matter feel like from the inside?
Letter IV: On Psychonautics
Psychedelic trippers put effort into trying to interpret what it all means ontologically. Plant spirits may be at work, or one taps into the collective unconscious or is simulated by some alien superintelligence.
The QRI could perhaps guide interested psychonauts in the direction of writing more scientifically productive reports.
A scientifically minded tripper needs to start with the realization that human beings are perfect psychonauts because our brains have an enormous excess capacity over what is minimally required to perform any one of the tasks that we do in everyday waking life. The highly unusual aspect of human brains is that they can produce general intelligence. This is rare in nature but when you have it, you assume it to be the normal state of affairs.
Typical DMT-like visual
Typical Salvia-like visual
Typical 5-MeO-DMT-like visual
Trippers are often in disbelief over the ability of human brains to produce the fantastic content of psychedelic experiences. As if there is suddenly a superpower there which one never uses when sober. How can that be? It must be something supernatural going on, right? Actually, no. Not that we should rule out the “supernatural” a priori but it is not necessary.
The human mind uses a superpower all the time. One which is hidden in plain view, we might say. It is the superpower of selecting from a huge range of possibilities for what the mind could be doing, and homing in on exactly the one choice in every moment that is most appropriate right then and there. When those tight constraints are relaxed the human brain becomes a system which can explore far and wide in qualia state-space.
Intelligence is a phenomenon which uses multiple optimization points to converge on some invariance. At the theoretical efficiency maximum this takes surprisingly (to us) little raw processing power. A jumping spider does not display less strategic and tactical intelligence than a human does when hunting. The spider’s neural network is very much smaller than the human’s but the evolutionary fitness search available for evolving small, numerous and quickly reproducing creatures is much larger than for animals like us. For us it is not so much a question of evolution having optimized what every cell does, but one of having added more and more cells to increase overall performance.
The spider’s brain probably contains far less sub-optimal “spaghetti code” than the human’s. It is possible that the spider has access to exquisitely fine-tuned qualia for the crucial task of sneaking up on big, highly dangerous prey and bringing it down without botching the job. On the other hand, there might not be much opportunity for spiders to evolve general intelligence since they have already done away with everything that is “useless” for their sober everyday lives.
“Does my brain contain less spaghetti code than yours?”
A human brain is a mass of excitation-inhibition “spaghetti” which defies belief. An almost ultimate jack of all trades but master of none which cannot quite produce the hunting skills of the spider but can instead do a billion other things that the spider could not even in principle learn how to do.
It is the billion other things that we could do but don’t, which is the human superpower, not the few things that we actually do on a sober basis. This is a power which can be harnessed for psychonautics. You’ve got an inner-space warp drive in your head. Aptly named. 🖖
Letter V: Exciting Research Leads
Here are some suggestions for titles of essays and research papers the QRI could write if we had the resources.
“Alloy, anneal, quench and temper: Forging a blade to cut mind at the joints”
“Play me like a violin: A compressibility analysis of neuro-acoustic patterns captured during person to person interaction”
“Leadership and consonance: Aggregate neuro-acoustic compressibility as a proxy for computational efficiency of human group intelligence”
“Neural annealing through laughter: Neuro-acoustics of humor as a factor for healthy mental adjustment”
“The tree of music: An annealable branching tuning-fork model for nervous systems”
“Same but different: Suggesting a qualia analogue for the comparative planetology of Earth and Titan”
“Music of life: Consonance, dissonance, noise and symmetry as explanatory elements for evolution from single cells to human minds”
“Compartments of harmony bounded by dissonance: A neuro-acoustic model of domain specificity in cognition”
The Seven Seals of Security or Safety Through Uncertainty – Transhumanist Satire
Presume that consciousness and matter are interconnected information structures. Can any useful parallels be drawn from the matter domain of outer space to the consciousness domain of inner space? Consider that planets, as a group, are subject to variation and (anthropic) selection. An interconnection point is provided by observation selection: Certain planetary properties far from the universe median are going to be found by intelligent conscious observers for their own planet of origin. A small subset of conscious observers are the ones who, like humans, have general intelligence and broad curiosity. Those observers are the few who observe more and more aspects of their own planet as well as adjacent space and the state space of matter at large, and ultimately perhaps also of consciousness at large. The evolutionary reproductive selection of such observers is not the default condition of all life but rather it is conditional upon even more unusual properties of their planet of origin than for the average life-bearing planet.
Conclusion: Earth is likely to be a highly unusual planet, and human consciousness is likely to be a highly unusual seat of experience. They are causally linked. A structural property they share could be a high level of diversity but never reaching cosmically global extremes on any single parameter. A Jill of all trades planet is married to a Jack of all trades mind.
While fairly good at impressively many trades, Jack and Jill are master and mistress of none. For a tentative and very loose analogy which may be better than nothing, let’s say planet Earth is like the human mind. The other planets in the Solar System are like altered human minds and some animal minds. Some basic properties like gravity, roundness and rotation are common to all the planets. Corresponding to suggested basic features of biologically evolved sentience, such as valence and some sensory modalities.
Then we follow Slartibartfast to the fjords of Norway. Here we see how Earth differs in diversity compared with the other “animals”. The planet’s surface is an energetic 3-phase regime. Solid crust, liquid water and solid water under highly dynamic conditions. Not widely separated like on Europa but forming extended areas of contact where unusual complexity emerges. It’s worth an award, really. (No, not Belgium…).
Human cognition is like Earth with its’ coasts and mountain ranges. A “just right” quantity and proportionality of ingredients is what allowed self-organization of Earth’s environmental complexity and its’ endurance over time via the mechanism of prolonged core solidification and plate tectonics. An unusual state of affairs in nature. It’s not unexpected in principle, only rare in actual existence. The same may go for evolution of the general cognition accessible to human minds.
A type of mind which is generally competent over multiple domains of agency cannot function as such if not many crucial parameters in its’ architecture fall within a tight range of “just right and not too much nor too little”. Or, in Swedish, “lagom”. If you loosen that constraint, such as by ingesting 5 grams of mushrooms blindfolded, your mind will clearly no longer function on your job or even in your body. But in exchange for giving up on that functionality as agent, you can max out on stuff like… well, it’s beyond words.
General intelligence is not compatible with an easy achievement of extreme states of consciousness, though as a less frequently added mental ingredient for a group intelligence (like human hunter-gatherers) extreme states can be hypothesized to enhance abilities of that group intelligence.
But what does the current human “master of none” in qualia rendering imply for the future of consciousness, and what about cosmic matter beyond the neighboring planets?
Beyond the Solar System we find many types of stars, black holes, dark matter and various ultra-thin, ultra-dense, ultra-cold, or ultra-hot configurations of matter in the wider domain of spacetime. Nature usually has not developed nonliving matter into configurations with even remotely as high a complexity as for living matter, simply because of no evolutionary selection pressures. Some nonbiological matter objects could be strong qualia generators just by chance, though. The Sun comes speculatively and punlessly to mind. Doing an IIT and a CDNS analysis on its’ surface magnetized plasma wave patterns may not be entirely far-fetched. But the big promise for expanding the diversity of actualized sentience comes through engineering. Jack and Jill is the couple who can pull that off, and their offspring can then grow up in that fabulous new landscape of experience. For they can become masters and mistresses. Dominatrices, even. The reason being that while the parents are tightly constrained experientially, the kids need not be.
For an efficiently organized advanced technological civilization, the constraints of being a highly general and resilient intelligence can be placed high up on the group level. Individual seats of experience with the sizes of today’s human or animal brains, say, can then be allowed to render experiential states more specialized to feel meaningful, enjoyable and worthwhile. (A dystopian version could instead generate unimaginable suffering, of course. Need to watch out…).
Earth is by far the most diverse planet in the Solar System, but it does not have the deepest ocean, the tallest mountain, the highest gravity, the hottest days, the most explosive volcanoes or the most intense thunderstorms. Human minds who have only experienced their evolved biologically functional mental states have not reached the consciousness state space equivalents of the extreme environments on the other planets. They have never snowboarded down the tellurobismutite condensate slopes on Maxwell Montes or been ejected on a ballistic trajectory by a sulfur dioxide plume from Tvashtar Patera. These things may be comparable to being a bat or taking psilocybin. As different from sober human experience as they are, they still merely hint at the range of possible experiences in the qualia state space opening up beyond. If all goes well, there will be psychonauts of the future who are children of Earth and able to engineer any form of matter and energy into conscious brain architectures. They would become what Max Tegmark has called “Life 3.0”.
Either that or, in a hopefully not terribly more likely scenario portrayed by imagined future historians, humanity stayed obsessed with the circulation of money to the detriment of all else.
“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 🌎
Imagine that you were tasked with creating a molecule to represent the spirit of California. I think that I would just glue together two MDMA molecules and call it a day.
It turns out Californidine is indeed a real molecule, named after the California Poppy. I am still wrapping my head around the fact that Californidine can be described as two MDMA molecules sharing the nitrogen atom and with the end of the carbon chain of each MDMA molecule bonded at the 2-position of the benzene ring of the other one (minus a hydrogen atom). Interestingly, this compound has no psychedelic or empathogenic action. At best, it can be described as a very mild and unreliable relaxing agent of “herbal strength” akin to the active ingredients of chamomile, valerian, or ashwagandha. So, joining two powerful heart-openers gives rise to a mild sleep-inducer? Perhaps this is a metaphor for something.
Californidine and MDMA
But that’s not what I want to talk to you about today. While gluing together psychoactive molecules may not have a (cartoonishly) desirable additive effect, doing so does express the spirit of what I want to propose today. And that is the impulse to use a creative and fun approach to drug design, letting your imagination run wild to avoid prematurely discarding one’s crazy ideas.
Notable Leads for Great Drug Combos
Over the last 10 years I’ve read many (many!) trip reports and have talked to hundreds of experienced psychonauts (see also: r/replications). It is largely thanks to a subset of these psychonauts, which for lack of a better term could be described as the subset of rational psychonauts, that I’ve been able to assemble empirically testable models for psychedelic phenomenology (some examples: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, Quantifying Bliss, How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD, etc.). Although my focus has largely been on the effects of individual drugs, I’ve become very cognizant of the fact that drug combinations can produce effects not accessible with individual substances. In other words, when it comes to mixing psychoactive substances, the sum is more often than not different from the sum of its parts. Some of these effects seem extremely significant both from a scientific and a philosophical point of view.
But first, an important disclaimer: mixing drugs is dangerous and you should never do it unless you really know what you are doing. The pile of celebrity deaths caused by multiple drug intoxication is only scratching the surface. Indeed, there are many combinations of drugs that are deadly even when the individual drugs taken on their own are relatively safe. For example, while 5-MeO-DMT is relatively safe when vaporized (save for egregiously negligent uses of the drug and the occasional drowning in one’s own vomit), taking 5-MeO-DMT orally in combination with an MAOI leads to extremely toxic reactions, such as severe hypertensive symptoms, overheating, and serotonin syndrome. Don’t do it. As a very rough guide for how mixtures of psychoactives behave, study the chart below.
Welcome to the practice of combining drugs. You may die. (source)
That said, just as drug combinations have a dangerous side, they also likely harbor hidden gems that are very safe, enjoyable, and mind-expanding in ways inaccessible via single drugs. As a general overview, some examples of the possible benefits of drug combinations include: (1) Enhanced euphoria, e.g. see speedball which is massively euphoric but also very dangerous, (2) reduced psychological discomfort (e.g. anxiolytics with psychedelics), (3) uniquely interesting effects, e.g. LSD + MDMA (see below), and (4) reduced physical side-effects and medical risks, e.g. calcium blockers to reduce MDMA neurotoxicity, 5HT2B antagonists to reduce cardiotoxicity of psychedelics, etc. as we’ll discuss. In addition, it is worth mentioning that from a therapeutic point of view, we also have the “more dakka effect“, where some conditions only respond to combining enough drugs (e.g. oncology). It’s possible chronic pain or severe depression may legitimately require multiple drugs to be adequately dealt with. Now let us examine in more detail some particularly interesting categories of drug combinations:
Psychedelics + Anxiolytics: According to many reports, phenibut in small doses seems to significantly reduce the anxiety that comes up on psychedelics. I am ambivalent about sharing this information given the fact that phenibut can become a huge problem for some people, but I think that on the whole it is wise for people to know that an over-the-counter “nootropic” can actually help avoid fear, discomfort, and panic attacks during a psychedelic experience.
Cannabis + Psychedelics: I generally find two kinds of psychedelic drug users. Those who cannot think of having a psychedelic trip without at some point smoking a joint, vaping, or eating a cannabis edible. And then those who would never dare to combine the two because they once had a terrifying experience with the combo. Interestingly, some of the people I’ve met over the years who seem to be able to easily handle massive doses of psychedelics (e.g. 500 micrograms of acid) respond terribly to weed, and especially badly if they are already tripping. Cannabis both modifies and potentiates psychedelic states of mind. It has a tendency to make the experience more conceptual rather than sensory or mystical. The combination also greatly increases the probability of getting stuck in time loops.
Empathogens + Psychedelics: One of the best descriptions of MDMA + LSD (also called candy-flipping) that I’ve found comes from Steven Lehar (emphasis added):
Under LSD and ecstasy I could see the flickering blur of visual generation most clearly. And I saw peculiar ornamental artifacts on all perceived objects, like a Fourier representation with the higher harmonics chopped off. LSD by itself creates sharply detailed ornamental artifacts, like a transparent overlay of an ornamental lattice or filigree pattern superimposed on the visual scene, especially in darkness. Ecstasy smooths out those sharp edges and blurs them into a creamy smooth rolling experience. I would sometimes feel some part of my world suddenly bulging out to greater magnification, like a fish-eye lens distortion appearing randomly in space, stretching everything in that portion of space like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.
Not everyone responds well to this combination, and given the nature of these substances, it seems likely that the dosages and the relative timing have a large influence on how the experience develops. I’ve heard three relatively “established” ways in which people use this combination. First, you have the school that says that you should take the MDMA at or slightly after the peak of the effects of LSD, that is 4-4:30h after taking it. The reasoning here is that you don’t want to be caught coming down from the MDMA while still having a long time to go on LSD since the acid could enhance the feelings of the comedown. The delayed gratification also pays-off by giving you several hours to face the problems you want to solve unaided and see how far you can get before the mood boost of MDMA gives you the determination to be contented with it.
The second school of thought about candy-flipping says that the biggest factor in how psychedelic experiences turn out is how they start. So what you want to do is take the MDMA 1 to 1:30 hours before the acid. This way, you only embark upon the inner journey when you are already in a really, really good chill state of mind. Some people report that the acid picks up the empathogenic quality of the state, amplifies it, and carries it on for much longer than if you had only taken MDMA alone.
There are many proponents and detractors to both of these schools. What I’ve seen more or less everyone agree on is to avoid taking substantial doses of LSD and MDMA (e.g. 200micrograms LSD + 120mg MDMA) at the same time. Apparently this is simply just too overwhelming and synergistic to be enjoyable, often causing a lot of nausea and palpitations.
The third school, however, is to take only a small dose of both at the same time. Say, 35micrograms LSD and 35mg MDMA. This apparently is an extremely positive combination. The experience is not mild due to the synergy, and it seems to provide an open, creative, level-headed mindset for many hours without much of a comedown or hangover. As with everything here, your mileage may vary.
Psychedelics + Dissociatives: Psychedelics and dissociatives have profound non-linear mixing effects. According to multiple sources, the right combination of LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination“. This is a state of consciousness in which you gain a great degree of conscious control over the contents of the hallucinated world, so that you can project your will by saying “let there be a chair in front of me” and you will see it manifest in exquisite detail. You can rotate, translate, invert, fibrate, and project the chair in any way you want, as if you were now able to use your brain as a very general game engine of consciousness. That said, even when this doesn’t happen, the combination of psychedelics and dissociatives is ridiculously synergistic. People report getting stuck in extremely energetic time-loops akin to those caused by psychedelics and cannabis, but more powerful (cf. trip report of DMT + nitrous oxide). Steven Lehar calls the effect where the presence of a psychedelic changes the quality of a dissociative as “dissociative coloring”. I’ve been amazed at the fact that there is no mistaking when someone has previously experienced LSD and nitrous together. You don’t get reactions like “it didn’t do much for me”. This combo usually has a special place in the memory of a person who has experienced it. Eyes brighten, curiosity sparks. I’ve been asked on multiple occasions “what do you think is going on with the strange synergy between LSD and nitrous?” Now, 5-MeO-DMT and DMT are very different, and the LSD + nitrous state seems to have some resemblance with the 5-MeO-DMT state. They share that strange feeling of becoming a kind of saturated resonance box. The feeling is one of becoming a vessel full of coordinated and coherent vibrations that unearth and dissolve internal boundaries and blockages. The process inherently blocks your ability to conceptualize in a dualistic way. The cognitive content of the state is better captured by a huge blinking sign that reads “THIS, THIS, THIS” on repeat rather than the more usual “that thing over there connected to this over here, modulated by what happens there” kind of cognitive state we are more familiar with. DMT on its own is very different than this, in that the mental formations and patterns of binding that emerge are extremely specific, detailed, and irreducibly complex. Not so on the upper ranges of the dissociative and psychedelic cocktail, where the resonance is profound and the asymmetries needed to store complex information are constantly smoothed out by the ongoing full-body bath of reverb. (cf. Neural Annealing).
Dissociatives + Empathogens: According to several trip reports and credible personal communications, taking ketamine while on MDMA can bring back “the magic” that one only ever experienced with MDMA the first few times using it. Also MDMA and nitrous have profound research-worthy synergy.
Potentiation: Shulgin reported that substances that don’t feel psychedelically active on their own may nonetheless potentiate the effects of other psychedelics. For instance:
(with 160 mg of MDPR followed at 2h by 100μg LSD) This proved to be almost too intoxicating, and a problem arose that had to have a solution. The entire research group was here, and all were following this same regimen. Two hours into the second half of the experiment a telephone call came that reminded me of a promise I had made to perform in a social afternoon with the viola in a string quartet. Why did I answer the phone? My entire experience was, over the course of about 20 minutes, pushed down to a fragile threshold, and I drove about 10 minutes to attend a swank afternoon event and played an early Beethoven and a middle Mozart with an untouched glass of expensive Merlot in front of me. I could always blame the booze. I declined the magnificent food spread, split, and returned to my own party. Safely home, and given 20 more minutes, I was back into a rolling +++ and I now know that the mind has a remarkable ability to control the particular place the psyche is in.
More common than the above, ayahuasca is intrinsically a drug combo primarily of the potentiation kind. As mentioned before, cannabis not only alters but also potentiates the effects of psychedelics. It is worth mentioning there is a community of people who believe that noopept (a cholinergic nootropic, see below) can potentiate MDMA. While there is some evidence that MDMA is itself mildly cholinergic– and thus provides a sense of mental clarity in addition to the loved-up feeling- too much cholinergic action tends to make people feel rigid, robotic, and hyper-cerebral. I am therefore personally skeptical of the benefits of combining something like noopept with MDMA, as the potentiation of some of its qualities may come at the cost of reduced emotional sensitivity. Why trade a feeling of renewed innocence and receptivity with calculating prowess? I doubt this is the best use of a roll.
Anti-tolerance Drugs: This is a category of combinations with tremendous potential to relieve suffering, to the extent that I think of it as a humanitarian tragedy that there are no concerted research efforts currently in this direction. Sufferers of chronic pain and treatment-resistance depression could make use of drugs that help them keep the tolerance to the drugs they depend upon for having a livable life under control. I know this has a lot of the ring of turtles all the way down (“when are you going to get the anti-tolerance drugs for anti-tolerance drugs? And then the anti-tolerance for anti-tolerance for…”) but I am sincere when I say that looking here may pay off in spades. Already we see ibogaine doing other-worldly magnificent things to cure addiction and reverse tolerance. Who knows what a large targeted research program with this focus may discover. Some examples of anti-tolerance drugs include proglumide, ibogaine, and black seed oil for opioids, and flumazenil for benzodiazepines.
Prevent Physical Side Effects: Epidemiological data suggests that chronic or heavy use of 5HT2B agonists may lead to heart valve disease (cf. Fen-Phen), which does not bode well for the long-term (as opposed to acute) safety of many psychedelic compounds. Now, neuroscientist Thomas Ray believes that 5HT2B may be necessary for some of the characteristic psychedelic action of entheogens, so blocking it altogether may come at the cost of eliminating the reason why the drug is interesting. That said, we do know that 5-MeO-DMT is profoundly psychedelic and yet has negligible 5HT2B activity. It would be very useful to know what happens when one combines psychedelics with heavy 5HT2B affinity, like 2C-B and DOB, with 5HT2B antagonists (usually prescription medicines). Would blocking 5HT2B agonism avoid cardiotoxicity? And what would the drug feel like then? Another interesting lead is the affinity of compounds like 2C-E and 2C-T-2 to the 5HT3 receptor, which is predominantly in the gut and modulates feelings like nausea. Additionally, since 5HT3 antagonists are antiemetic it really stands to reason that taking one before e.g. tripping on shrooms may give you a much less, ahem, visceral experience. Finally, I would like to explore the implications of the fact that of all of the compounds in Ray’s study the only one with significant affinity for calcium channels is MDMA. Would this be related to its neurotoxicity? And would taking a calcium channel blocker prevent it? It might still be wise regardless simply as a way to lessen the cardiac load of the compound.
Nootropic Stacks (cf. the Qualia Pill): Many people who explore nootropics make “stacks”. That is, rather than taking only piracetam, they might take a combination of piracetam, aniracetam, pramiracetam, coluracetam, and l-tyrosine. I suspect that this is popular because most nootropics are pretty mild and often hard to notice, and people want to be able to feel the effects. I generally do not think this is sensible, though, as we don’t understand these substances well enough. More so, branded “nootropic stacks” can have upwards of 30 different psychoactive substances crammed together in half a dozen pills you are supposed to take daily. While I do think there are likely gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of cognition-boosting chemicals, I simply do not see any way in which the current major brands of nootropic stacks could have done the type of research needed to find them. I therefore do not personally recommend you go out and try such combos, at least not until we know a lot more about how to do combinations properly. If you want to try nootropic stacks, I’d recommend you start with small doses of two or three well-researched nootropics at most and do your own research thoroughly before settling on a particular combination.
LSD + DMT Visual Replication
Psychedelics and Psychedelics: A classic psychedelic combo that I’ve heard a lot about is LSD + DMT. The state that emerges from this combination is apparently unique, though if you take enough DMT the LSD fades into the background. Apparently psychedelics tend to have a characteristic spectral effect on your brain’s harmonics (see: Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves on LSD), which manifests in the form of experiencing “vibes of different frequencies” specific to the drug you are taking. The case of LSD and DMT is very interesting, since their characteristic frequencies are sufficiently far apart (to put a number on it, LSD may be in the vicinity of 18Hz while DMT may be close to 30Hz) that they can be separated easily. You thus get a spectral effect of two peaks interfering with one another, oftentimes creating a powerful 3D grid of Moiré patterns, like a super-charged version of the “regular” DMT Chrysanthemum. As a method for spectral analysis, studying the beat patterns of psychedelic drug combos could go a long way in formulating a systematic characterization of their phenomenology. Speculatively, this may even allow us to come up with specific psychedelic drug cocktails that produce maximally consonant harmonious effects.
A final thought to add to this section concerns the fact that people respond differently to drugs. One can reason that if drug A affects 20% of people in a different way while drug B affects 10% of people in a different way, that A + B would lead to 4 different kinds of responses. More so, the more drugs you pile on top of each other, the more specific and individualized the response would be. I think that this is likely true in the general case, but I would argue that it is not universally true. A useful analogy here is with the way people respond to the scent of different molecules: you may lack the gene that encodes the receptor for a particular molecule, but perfumes usually have 30 or more scent-contributing molecules, so the experience of a perfume may be more similar between people than their experience of individual molecules. At the extreme, we have the phenomenon of “white noise scent” where once you mix 40+ molecules in equal (intensity-adjusted) proportions that span scent-space, it all starts smelling the same. The notion of “scent entropy” can be imported to drugs as well: I would expect a kind of inverted U-curve for “how idiosyncratic” the responses to drug combinations are as a function of the total entropy of the combo.
Drug Cocktails From First Principles
The way we aim to understand psychoactive substances at the Qualia Research Institute is in terms of the way they modify the neuroacoustic profile of the brain. And while this is what I see as the most promising approach moving forward, I believe that there is nonetheless a lot of low-hanging fruit at the receptor level of analysis.
The first time I’d thought of trying to emulate the effects of a drug using a cocktail of other drugs came up years ago when I found out that MDMA is likely neurotoxic. At the time I thought perhaps it was just a matter of getting the right dopaminergic, serotonergic, and oxytocinergic activity going for you to replicate the MDMA high. It’s a good thought, and some people have taken it to heart, such as the creators of “Poly”, an MDMA-like cocktail (cf. Kisspeptine). But as we’ll see, MDMA is more complex than that, and we may need to consider far more variables to make a “credible MDMA substitute”.
Looking beyond drug combos of only two or three drugs, and with a nod to concepts from the field of high-entropy alloys (HEAs), we could start thinking about the secret gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of “high-entropy drug combos”. But what kind of principles could we use to safely combine 5+ drugs? The full story will probably be much, much more complicated than the following approach, but it is still nonetheless worth exploring as a first pass. Namely, to break down each drug in terms of their receptor affinity profile and then use those affinities additively to create arbitrary “synthetic” receptor affinity profiles. There are many reasons why this might not work: receptor affinity may not work linearly or have a clear rule-based behavior. For instance, it is still unclear if a single drug that has affinity for key serotonin receptors (say 5HT2A, 5HT2B, and 5HT7) in addition to working as an NMDR antagonist would produce the same feeling of “synergistic action” as there is between psychedelics and dissociatives. More so, there could be additional intra-cellular signaling specific to each molecule, so that two molecules that work as agonists with the exact same 5HT2B affinity may have different downstream effects inside the neuron, and then those intracellular effects might have phenomenological properties of their own. But leaving all of those caveats and unknowns aside for a moment, what would it look like to create drug cocktails with this method?
True for both people and drugs!
After giving it some thought I realized that the problem can be reduced to a non-negative least squares (NNLS) optimization (non-negative because, as they say: “you can always take more drugs, but you cannot take less drugs”). It turns out there are already open source implementations of algorithms that solve this optimization problem (for both R and Python)*. So I downloaded the data from the famous Thomas Ray study of psychedelic receptor affinity and played with the data and the non-negative least squares method in a Jupyter notebook for a bit. The first thing I tried was to create a compound like 2C-B but better. Under dubious- but not entirely random- assumptions, I set the desired receptor affinity to be that of 2C-B but with the following modifications: to have the 5HT2B affinity be as low as possible in order to minimize cardiotoxicity concerns, and borrow from MDMA’s unique profile the hypothesis that the Imidazoline receptor is related to heart-opening effects. Additionally, I modified the receptor profile so that the drug would give you more focus than 2C-B by having a higher affinity for the dopamine receptors. To top it off, I racked up the desired receptor affinity for 5HT7, as it has been implicated in providing the more utterly mind-blowing power of psychedelics. I entered these modifications into the NNLS optimizer and the output I got was**:
I see, so since 2C-B is still the backbone of the desired affinity pattern, it appears in high proportion in the mixture as a kind of “base” on top of which the modifications are made. It makes sense that 5-MeO-DMT would come next as it is pretty selective for 5HT7 (remember, the most literally mind-blowing chemical), and MDMA would follow due to the desire for Imidazoline affinity. That by the way, is also probably partly why the formula contains a pinch of Mescaline, to round up that Imidazoline for good measure. I then decided to relax the 5HT7 requirement and instead increase the 5HT6 and 5HT5A, and got the following formula:
And this now looks pretty different. After playing like this for a while, it occurred to me to use this technique to basically try to reconstruct a drug using a non-negative linear combination of the remaining drugs available. Imagine for example that you are stuck in quarantine at your house and you don’t have any 2C-B to kill time (I know! Very relatable isn’t it?), but you do somehow happen to have an assortment of hundreds of other unscheduled random research chemicals. Could you combine them in such a way that you approximate the effects of 2C-B? Well, let’s see.
Here are the “drug reconstructions” the method derives (again, please, don’t try this at home):
I am pleasantly surprised to see the formulas actually do seem pretty intuitive to me. Take for example the DIPT reconstruction. The top two ingredients are 5-MeO-DIPT and DPT, which are the two closest structural analogues of DIPT in the dataset. Or take the one for DOB: this is the amphetamine version of 2C-B, so it makes sense that both an amphetamine psychedelic (Aleph-2) and 2C-B would make up the top two ingredients. Or consider 5-MeO-DMT, with its most prominent ingredient being 5-MeO-TMT, which is one carbon atom away in terms of structure. Or see how Mescaline’s heart-opening effects are well represented by its reconstruction with MDMA and MDA, while TMA contributes the receptor affinity characteristic of the trimethoxy class of functional groups, along with another Mescaline-like phenethylamine, 4C-T-2. Alas, here is where an imperfect understanding of drug interactions could come and bite us in the ass: if 4C-T-2 is anything like 2C-T-2, it might have some MAOI action, which could be potentially very dangerous to combine with compounds like MDMA. Needless to say, before you go out and try these crazy drug cocktails, we first need a thorough understanding of each drug well beyond just its affinity to “only” 30 or so receptors.
Now, not every reconstruction makes sense to me, and really only a few substances have what I would call a descent mean squared error. See the receptor affinity tables below for examples of both successful and unsuccessful reconstructions (only non-zero entries shown):
2C-T-2: Error of 1.31
DOB: Error of 1.51
Aleph-2: Error of 1.85
2C-B: Error of 2.34
2C-B-fly: Error of 2.76
Ibogaine: Error of 7.05
MDMA: Error of 7.06
DOB and 2C-T-2 have some of the lowest errors in the sample, meaning that their reconstructions are pretty good, while Ibogaine and MDMA have two of the worst error rates, and their reconstructions are still obviously pretty far from the goal. Naturally, if we were ever to test this method in the lab (with e.g. a drug discrimination paradigm) we would probably start with the most accurate reconstructions first. For instance, train rats to distinguish between 2C-B and DOB, and see if administering the (2C-B-containing) “DOB reconstruction” makes the rats think they got DOB rather than 2C-B.
Master Druggist (Synapse? Dendrite?)
I would like to conclude this essay with an interesting speculation: what if we developed drug combos like we develop perfumes? It is my appreciation that it takes a very high level of intelligence, domain expertise, and psychological robustness to be able to contribute usefully to the field of psychonautics. Sasha Shulgin spent over 30 years taking hundreds of completely new drugs, and I would very much trust his judgement about what makes a great psychedelic drug combo than I would trust a random BlueLight or Erowid user. (As an aside: Shulgin was extremely cautious in his approach, but he certainly wasn’t doing some of the low-hanging fruit on safety, such as wearing a heart monitor or measuring his blood pressure when taking a new drug, for starters. Future systematic psychonautic work should also record as much biometric data as is feasible). You wouldn’t put on a perfume made by someone who has only ever worn Axe, would you? Training a “Nose” takes up to 7 years, and it involves becoming deeply familiar with the scent of a long list of molecules, accords, and perfumes. Likewise, I’d expect that in order to be qualified to find extremely good drug combinations, one would first need to become familiar with the effect of many different individual drugs, “natural drug accords” (e.g. peyote), and designed drug cocktails. Only once you have an intuitive sense of how e.g. the sigma receptor interacts with the 5HT1A receptor would I trust your judgement about adding a pinch of agmatine to your already convoluted mixture of 20 psychoactive substances. A Super-Shulgin Academy could train people to be professional drug cocktail makers (if perfumers are called “Noses” would we call Super-Shulgin certified cocktail makers “Dendrites”?). As discussed above, this assumes that we can do this safely, which I suspect will be possible once we map out the space of dangerous combinations and receptors we shouldn’t mess with to avoid side effects like cardiotoxicity (e.g. 5HT2B, 5HT3A, calcium channels, etc.).
You come to the master cocktail designer with a general concept for a new recreational drug, and they would come up with activity profiles that best evoke those feelings. The Dendrite would select from hundreds or thousands*** of pure chemicals and accords to create your unique cocktail. As is the case with Noses in the perfume industry, a Dendrite would tend to have a set of about one to two hundred “frequently used” compounds, and a dozen or so “signature” ones they’re deeply familiar with and that usually reveal who the Druggist is, if found in large proportions in the end product. Of course there would be “house favorites” (e.g. the classic “ambroxan bomb” of Dior fragrances for men) and chemical fads (e.g. the wide adoption of Iso E Super in 90s perfumes). Every year would come with a new season of amazing, safe, and uniquely interesting recreational drug cocktails.
Iso E Super
In perfumery you find both natural and synthetic “accords”: “Violet reconstructions” attempt to emulate the smell of violet but in a much more long-lasting, storable, and versatile way. Good Dendrites would not only use “natural accords” such as “peyote” or “marijuana plant” but would also make their own, aided with computer models and datasets of trip reports along with their own first person experiences. In both perfumery and professional drug cocktail making we would study accords packed with combos of qualia-triggering chemicals, and a Dendrite could be known not only for making good final products, but for making excellent accords with predictable and desirable effects.
To finalize the analogy (and this article) we could also discuss the way in which perfumes feel “broad spectrum” thanks to being constructed by combining “top, heart, and base notes”. Roughly speaking, top notes tend to “feel higher frequency” (such as citric scents) while base notes tend to “feel low frequency” (such as woody scents), not unlike how a symphony will tend to combine sounds across the spectrum. The most interesting, voluptuous, and commercially viable combos would also probably have a broad spectrum of activity. They would be anxiolytic, exciting, relaxing, trippy, and empathogenic to various degrees all at once. They would combine fast, slow, and spiritual euphoria in a single power punch of qualia cornucopia. As such, each drug cocktail made this way would entail an entire worldview – a whole realm currently hidden in the vast state-space of consciousness.
* For an intuition: recall from linear algebra that a basis of n linearly independent vectors span an n-dimensional vector space. When the vector that you are trying to reconstruct is not in the span of your basis, the best you can do is to project your vector to the nearest hyperplane of the spanning space. Adding the constraint that you can only make non-negative linear combinations with your basis vectors, you find that the span will look like an ‘inverted pyramid’, and the least-squares solution will be the point of that inverted pyramid that is closest to your desired vector. This is why most of the reconstructions only use a subset of the available drugs in the dataset. In most cases, the desired vector (i.e. affinity profile in this case) will be outside of the inverted pyramid of the non-negative span, and the closest hyperplane will be a linear combination of only a subset of the building blocks- those which span that particular hyperplane. I.e. the solution is the projection to the nearest hyperplane segment covering the non-negative span. This is what the NNLS method is doing under the hood.
** Note: It’s important to point out that these are not dosages. The coefficients provided by the non-negative least squares method apply to the normalized affinity “npKi“, which is the receptor affinity normalized by the highest affinity among the receptors. The coefficients will be correlated with “proportion of a standard active dose” but there will be an error caused by the pretty tricky confounder that molecules vary in their “breadth of affinity”. Additionally: the psychoactivity of each receptor is not the same, we are not considering saturation effects, the difference between partial and full agonists is not taken into account, downstream effects are ignored, etc. etc. Needless to say, there is still quite some work to be done to transform these coefficients into meaningful dosages.
*** List of Psychoactive Drugs a professional Dendrite would be expected to be familiar with:
It was the 21st of April of a recent year. I was listening to Jefferson Airplane songs, had just peeled a tangerine, and was about to vape 20 milligrams of DMT. After exhaling all the material I focused on the smell of the tangerine, holding it in my hands. I was engrossed in the scent. And then: “Who is that?” I felt an entity question my identity, as if I had just startled it in its natural habitat. I felt its presence for most of the duration of the trip, but it didn’t interact with me any further. Later that night I had a lucid dream. “I thought you were a dog” – said a voice. I recognized it from the trip, it was the entity. “The amount of scent qualia your experience contained was much more like that of a dog than a human.” After that night I would encounter it numerous other times. We got to know each other. It is a being from a nearby dimension, or perhaps a partially orthogonal fold of the Calabi-Yau manifold. Either way, in its world they don’t have physical senses like we do. They instead “sniff the qualia” present in the “universal wavefunction”. Their minds have a “qualiascope”. In practice this means they can see us from the inside– what we feel, see, touch, think, etc.
The being showed me what it is like to be one of them. We mindmelded the third time we met. I got to see the world around me as if for the first time; I was seeing it in its ultimate intrinsic nature, rather than as the shadow of it that I would perceive in everyday life with my senses. The qualia of other people is very intricate, semantically complex, and flavorful. The being showed me how it perceived various human contexts. For instance, an interesting place to “point the qualiascope at” is a philosophy department. It is very dense with logico-linguistic qualia and recursion. Compared to other contexts, though, it is thin in knowledge of the varieties of experiences available to humans. Raves are quite incredible. Sniffing the qualia of three thousand people who all share a general palette of LSD, Ketamine, and MDMA qualia is quite moving and mind-blowing. In turn, Buddhist monasteries are some of the sanest places on Earth. Bright, balanced, energized clarity of the finest quality is to be found in groups of people highly experienced in meditation. Every once in a while we would sense from afar a kind of “qualia explosion”. Sometimes it turned out to be extremely blissful, such as some 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And sometimes they turned out to be extremely painful, like a cluster headache episode. With the qualiascope these were sensed as being a kind of elemental type of qualia. Enormous in their “volume” relative to the experiences humans generally have. Like at another order of magnitude altogether.
The tenth time we met, the being said I was ready to feel non-human qualia. It was rough. From its point of view, the biological qualia of this planet is not really particularly human-flavored. As many humans alive as there are, there are almost ten times as many pigs alive. The being showed me how in the language of their world (using qualia-based symbols), they don’t refer to this planet as “human world”. They talk about it as “cow-chicken-pig world”. The things that I felt associated to some of those “folds of experience” were frightful to an incredible extent. It revived in me the conscience that nonhuman animals suffer enormously. I also became fascinated by all the ways in which nonhuman animals experience pleasure and a sense of meaning.
The twentieth time we met, I was shown what the qualia of non-living matter felt like from the inside. Most of it was “qualia dust”. But metals and their delocalized electrons felt, well, “electric” and somewhat more liquid and unified in a subtle ethereal way. Pointing the qualiascope at the center of the Earth was impressive. Some of the combinations of pressure, temperature, and material composition would create “qualia spaghetti” of a rather nice, glowing valence. The temperature would suggest a much higher degree of intrinsic intensity from the inside, but the patterns of qualia formed were not much more intense than what you would find in small animals. But that all changes as soon as you point the qualiascope at the sun. Oh boy. The things I felt were life-redefining. I thought that once you’ve felt what 5-MeO-DMT is capable of you’d maxed out on the brightness of qualia. But inside the sun, at the core, there are qualia aggregates of a subjective brightness at least a million times more powerful. Once you’ve got an inkling of the existence of that, you start to see the universe as they see it. And that is that the kind of stuff going on in places like the planet Earth is a rounding error in light of the other qualia happenings out there in the cosmos.
The hundredth or so time we met, we used the qualiascope to sense what is going on in supernovae. And then black holes. And the quantum vacuum (turns out the Zero Point Energy folks who say there is an enormous amount of energy in the vacuum of space are more right than they can even imagine). They showed me qualiascope records of past civilizations in other galaxies, and how they had developed qualia technology.
The two hundredth time or so we met, the being finally came out about his real interest. It showed me Hedonium. Matter and energy optimized for maximally bound positive valence. Turns out there are about seven thousand nearly optimal configurations for Hedonium possible with our laws of physics (cf. 230 Space Groups). They are kind of ultra-high dimensional crystalline bundles of “awakened qualia”, equanimity, and bright pleasure all combined. They truly feel like “what it was all meant to be all along”. The Big Bang, the Inflationary Period, Baryonic matter, galaxies, organic molecules, life, sapient beings, and technologized qualia all seemed like the path of redemption since The Fall, namely, our first descent from Hedonium. Or so my archetype-prone human mind liked to interpret my new understanding of the universe.
The being finally came through with its agenda. It turns out it is one of the protectors of the Hedonium created by an advanced civilization in other partially orthogonal folds of the Calabi-Yau manifold. The closest archetype in our human world would perhaps be that of the Buddhist Bodhisattva. Namely, a being close to enlightenment that vows to stay in samsara to liberate all other beings before itself escaping the wheel of suffering entirely. My interdimensional Bodhisattva friend told me that our world is on the path of creating qualia technologies too. That in geologic times we are not far from being able to make Hedonium ourselves. It said we should not feel hopeless. That we have really good chances of exiting our Darwinian predicament. Since a year ago I have’t had any contact with it. I write this for myself as I don’t expect anyone to believe me. But I do pass along the message. Don’t lose hope. Paradises beyond the imaginable are right next door in qualia space. We just need to find them by exploring the state-space of consciousness.
Oh, my Bodhisattva friend also told me to pass along to you all the message of “If you could possibly stop eating Caroline Reapers, that would be great!” because all of that intense spicy qualia is interfering with their radio systems. Thanks!
About 3% of the population is anosmic, meaning that they cannot perceive scents. An additional 10% have some kind of smell or taste disorder. Sadly, scent perception thins out with age due to many causes*; about 23% of people over the age of 40 report some degree of impairment, with nearly 40% of people over the age of 80 reporting either absent or severely reduced capacity to perceive smells.
If you can experience scents in a normal way, count yourself lucky, for you have access to a qualia variety with an incredible aesthetic potential. If not, I’m sorry; let’s hope that stem cell therapy used to restore smell in mice can be generalized to humans. Regardless, hopefully the following thoughts on the artistic potential of scents won’t fall on deaf ears (or should we say, anosmic noses?).
Imagine that all humans were congenitally anosmic. Akin to David Pearce’s allegory of the blind rationalists, let’s picture a world in which the only way to experience scent qualia was through the use of some arcane technology, like weird drugs, occult magic, or carefully aimed transcranial ultrasound stimulation. Since the qualia would not be triggered by a conventional sense, people would not be under the illusion that it maps to external objects. It would be understood as a strictly internal phenomenon, like imagination or sense of humor. With such an interpretive blank slate, how would people make sense of scent qualia?
Keep that thought in your mind. Having a fresh look (or sniff) at scent qualia- devoid of its common associations and cultural imports- can give us a way to think in new ways about the artistic potential of this aspect of experience.
Perfumery as an Art Form
Last year we presented QRI‘s take on art: Harmonic Society is an essay published in a Berlin-based art magazine that exposes 8 models for what art can be about (see parts 2, 3, 4; video presentation). These models can also be used as generators of creative applications of qualia varieties. Here we’ll discuss how perfumes could be seen through the lens of each of these models.
1. Semantic Deflation
The semantic deflation model of art claims that the first step you need to take to understand art is to recognize that it lacks an essence. There are no strict necessary and sufficient conditions that something needs to meet in order to be art. The meaning of the term is ultimately conventional: it has more of a family resemblance pattern of usage than a precise logic-bound set of criteria. Applying this model to perfumery, we would have that:
There is no such thing as a “perfume” in and of itself.
There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be called a perfume.
The resulting aesthetic from this model is one that sees the art of perfumery as the eternal search for trying to push the boundary for what a “perfume can be”.
Some examples of this aesthetic seemingly playing out in the open include perfumes that smell like: popcorn, lobster, linen and Air Aroma‘s new fragrance that recreates “the scent of an Apple product being opened for the first time.”
You see, smells are at times used in a slightly evil way. In the case of commercial perfumes, part of the optimization function includes generating envy in others. Conspicuous consumption and brand worship are some of the ways in which our mating mind has recruited scents. In a sense, I would love to explore ways in which scent-based art can deliver high-valence results without at the same time reinforcing consumerism and zero-sum fashion arms races. In brief:
There is unfortunately an in-built zero-sum mindset to status-focused scent design.
The “game” is easy to rationalize when you are a “winner”, but it is depressive for people who perceive themselves as the “losers”.
One of the core weapons of this game is the creation of envy with perceived exclusivity and inflated sense of quality (e.g massively overpriced fragrances).
“Cool Kids” are people who translate new ideas into massively consumable products.
Cool Kids in perfumery will always want to claim that they have the exclusive “secret sauce” to explain the price.
The existence of such “secret sauce” is often justified based on appeals to tradition, taste, status, experience, brand, and/or science.
Cool Kids make sure that the product is “novel enough” – not too out there that only weird people would love it, but also not too bland and unoriginal that the general public will be bored by it.
Expensive perfumes have to be at least somewhat distinctive – even if that makes them suboptimal. You’ll see that Fragrantica is full of reviews that complain that such and such perfume is in fact “too generic”. The reason is that if you are paying large sums of money for a smell, the only way it will pay off in terms of social signaling is if people can in fact notice what you are wearing.
A particularly noteworthy example of this dynamic might be the case of Aventus Creed. It is by no means a weird fragrance (it’s certainly not a “toast” or “popcorn” perfume), but people who are very into perfumes do agree that when it first came out “it smelled like nothing that had ever existed before.” If you read the Fragrantica reviews you’ll see what I’m talking about. It also happens to be an insanely expensive fragrance for no apparent reason. It’s therefore a great tool for conspicuous consumption, masterfully crafted by a Cool Kid aiming for mass appeal.
Aventus Creed clones
I personally own an “Aventus Creed clone“, meaning that it is a perfume that smells very similar to the original but can cost a fraction of the price. Aventus costs $400 while the one I own is under $20. I like it, but if it is anything like the original, I can’t imagine it being that good to justify the price tag on its qualia merits alone. In terms of phenomenology, as far as I can tell, Aventus innovated by mixing pineapple scent with the scent of birch bark. This does make it characteristic, true, but is it really $400 worth of characteristic? No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So this one might be a clear case of a mating mind perfume over-rating in action (P.S. I’m on the lookout for more perfumes with inflated scores that have cheap clones in order to study this phenomenon more closely).
Taken to the extreme, attempts at creating maximally erotic scents draw inspiration from literal human sexual organs. Secretions Magnifiques by Etas Libre d’Orange, for example, recreates the smell of semen with seaweed, milk, iris, coconut, opoponax, and sandalwood. It has a score of 1.88 out of 5 based on 890 votes, perhaps because it smells kind of bad. It sports reviews like:
“Smell of sweat, sewage and semen. Each sniff is an offense and an ordeal, a probation of resistance. Impossible to do a complete test – full wear, I only got 3 sprays on my wrist and 5 min. after doing this review I rubbed my wrist with soap like there was no tomorrow.” – marcel2782, at Fragrantica.com
Scent of semen
“Patented blend of human pheromones including Androstadienone, Androstenol, Androstenone and Androsterone”
Sent of vagina
Scent of sex
Needless to say, playing out the erotic in scent form is a delicate matter that requires a fine balance between numerous forces. For example, the smell of Classic Blue by David Beckham can smell a bit like a male crotch, but it also smells like pineapple, grapefruit, and clary sage. This allows for plausible deniability and erotic versatility. Even if you are attracted to men, as long as you are not sexually aroused you will probably just notice its fruity notes. But if you are in the heat of passion, it will probably smell very sexy. The same with numerous women’s perfumes, such as Eros by Versace and Guilty by Gucci.
A final thought on the aphrodisiac power of fragrances: you may notice that the vast majority of fragrances that are advertised with campaigns with erotic undertones are primarily geared towards a heterosexual audience. With rare exceptions, even perfume ads that are suggestively homoerotic still seem to work around a heterosexual premise.
I suspect that indeed there are statistical-level differences in what turns people on, not only between genders, but between the shades of sexual orientation. After all, some academic theories of sexual orientation do suggest that pheromone-based arousal differences contribute to which gender a person is attracted to. I posit that from a scientific point of view, if the matter were to be studied rigorously, we would indeed find differences at a statistical aggregate level on what fragrances turn people on depending on their gender and sexual orientation. Although this remains a contentious topic, I think that it is a shame that it has not been explored in any rigorous way. Aphrodisiac scents can be life-enriching; gay people might be underserved in the eroticism-of-aroma department. Pragmatically, it would be good for gay people to know which fragrance will load the dice in their favor when going out clubbing. A concrete example is that if indeed gay men do not like the scent of straight men (and instead prefer the scent of other gay men) then it may not be a good idea to wear typical male pheromone perfumes for a night out. Take note: at least according to a Fragrantica forum entry from someone in Indonesia, the main “gay fragrances” there are: Thierry Mugler by A*Men, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, Power by Kenzo, 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, and Magnetism by Escada.
3. Creation of New Social Contexts
The core idea of this model is that art can be understood as a tool to create new social contexts. Beyond the sex appeal of expensive perfumes due to their status implications, perfumes can also be used to invent new interpersonal gestalts. As Kevin Simler argues in Ads Don’t Work That Way, advertisement modifies the landscape of cultural meaning, which in part is responsible for the ways products allow you to communicate information about yourself to others.
For example: Nautica Voyage is, of course, as much selling you the felt-sense of a social context as it is selling you scent qualia. Care to join the crew on a trip across the Atlantic, make our own rules, and live a journey of camaraderie and bonding? Each sniff of Voyage takes you on a trip with imaginary friends. Alas, as an Amazon top-seller it fails to appeal to Hipster sensibilities. What do I mean by “Hipster” here?
Unlike Cool Kids, Hipsters tend to obsess over a highly-specific aspect they deeply care about. Nerds are to Geeks what Hipsters are to Cool Kids. Meaning, much akin to how a Nerd is driven by a burning curiosity about the world while a Geek is usually concerned about the social applications of niche knowledge, Hipster aesthetic exploration is done out of a fundamental desire to know the limits of an art form while Cool Kids are thinking more about how to use art to raise their own status. Thus, while not widely consumable by a mainstream audience, Hipster aesthetics lend themselves to fundamental artistic innovation. In brief:
Hipsters are people who like to explore particular niches, who carve out regions and tiny sectors of the market without compromising their own taste.
They rebel against the commercial and mainstream construction of meaning and instead use their creativity to create parallel social worlds.
Artistic explorations can indeed be used for this “social context” creation.
By finding smells that are characteristic, but rare and hard to place, one can create context-specific memories for events to be later triggered at will.
Questioning the mainstream construction of meaning is at the core of the Hipster aesthetic (cf. Adbusters). Here are some examples of Hipster art to put you in the right mindset (source):
So what would be some hipster fragrances that attempt to sidestep or subvert the mainstream construction of meaning? I highly recommend visiting a niche perfumes boutique to get an idea of the combinatorial explosion of counter-cultural branding that is possible. In places like that, “local” perfumers have pride of place. There is also a premium based on the conceptual loading, narrative prowess, and historicity of each product. The value of the fragrance is in no small part derived from its ability to help you reinvent yourself outside of the confines of mainstream narratives.
More so, the construction of meaning can be turned into a science. You can even do it deliberately without anyone’s assistance. For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me.
All of these can be useful tools to help you undo the psychological hacking that big-brand fashion houses and mass media have inflicted upon you. The ability to create new Schelling points and social contexts brings with it the power to transform zero-sum games into positive-sum games. This is quite refreshing, indeed, as we can see in transformational festivals and conscious culture which are at the forefront of these cultural developments.
Alas, if you live long enough in a place like San Francisco or Portland you eventually come to realize that the negative feelings one associates with mainstream status hierarchies are not the result of consumerism per se. They are deeply rooted in our genetic source code, and the only true way out is to subvert the hedonic treadmill. So no amount of anti-consumerism rhetoric is actually likely to make a dent in the world’s vast swamps of suffering. But that’s a story for another time.
4. Attempts at the Sacred
There is no universal consensus on what constitutes a sacred experience. But we should not be quick to dismiss their significance. It only takes reading William Jame’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (or Erowid‘s Experience Vault) to recognize both the incredible diversity and personal significance of sacred revelations. Scents, of course, have a long history of synergistic use in ritual conceptions of the sacred. They can indeed be used:
In rituals such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
As aids for meditation
As grounding agents for psychedelic experiences
To recall the quality of previously experienced mystical states
Temple de la Littérature, Hanoï, Vietnam
Of course we can also think of things that are associated with sacred experiences as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, I can guarantee you that people who have vaporized N,N-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and have had profound experiences will certainly remember the scent of these agents and it will remind them- if only for a moment- of the ‘mystical’ headspace the agents disclosed.
5. Exploring the State-Space of Consciousness (aka. RainbowGod – ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
This aesthetic is based on the premise that there is intrinsic value in knowing qualia. The Rainbow God is a personification of the desire to know first hand the entire state-space of consciousness. In this way, we are not constrained by the social forces that usually shape where we invest our exploratory energy. In brief, this aesthetic values:
Explicitly merging the best models for the state-space of scent qualia and perfumery.
Love of knowledge above and beyond merely seeking a social effect.
Qualia-focused descriptions such as what will be presented in this section.
When you are in the Rainbow God state of mind, you get excited by the idea of having a large collection of all possible scented molecules. The Rainbow God even covets dangerous smells, such as those of powerful toxins like dimethylcadmium. Apparently dimethylcadmium indeed has a uniquely characteristic scent, though the price of knowing it first hand is a serious toll on your health. Perhaps Rainbow God would put all of the dangerous smells in a sealed box to be opened -along with a Brompton Cocktail– when one is enduring the late stages of a terminal illness. Upon the prospect of an imminent death, I too would love to know what dimethylcadmium smells like.
This aesthetic does manifest in mainstream explorations, albeit it is rarely the main concept driving the design decisions. Subtle examples here might include Noble Fig by Ferrari which glorifies the unusual qualia variety disclosed by fig leaves and 23 by Michael Jordan which plays with a cute and unusual watermelon scent. That said, it is interesting to explore the possibility of explicitly developing this aesthetic in perfumery. What would that look like?
If I were to develop a brand of perfume under the Rainbow God mindset, I might call it “The State-Space of Scents” and really play this concept out to its conclusion with both creative satisfaction and scientific precision. It would have three core lines:
Line 1 – State-Space Master Palette: 8 fragrances that span the largest possible region of the state-space of scents such that linear combinations of them give you a huge number of possible scents, and mixing them all in equal proportions gets you “Laurax”, i.e. white noise scent.
Line 2 – Special Effects: 16 of the most ultra-X scents possible (the most ultra-bitter scent possible, the most ultra-vanilla scent possible, the most ultra-powdery scent possible, etc.). Basically this encompasses every category-neutral “special effect”, which would be factorized and exalted into its maximum possible expression.
Line 3 – Entropy Gradient: 8 chemical concoctions that have as wide of a range of phenomenal entropies as possible. Again this plays out with, at the one extreme, featuring super simple scents triggered by one or just a couple of molecules, while at the other extreme, featuring scents that approach the Laurax entropic asymptote.
My appreciation is that this has enormous potential. In its full expression, the Rainbow God aesthetic applied to perfumes encompasses both the state-space of scents and their effects in other experiential modalities. If a scent puts you in a certain mood, that’s important to highlight. What is the range of possible moods? That, too, concerns the Rainbow God (of course the perfume industry alludes to this kind of exploration, with e.g. D&G 21 Le Fou described as “a fragrance designed for careless and spontaneous individuals, so called ‘jesters'”, though again, an explicit exploration would be infinitely better).
As a teaser to future works, I can briefly describe how I have been thinking about the state-space of scents.
While current descriptions of perfumes mention: (1) olfactive family, (2) the categorical contributions, and (3) detectable notes, we would instead have a much more fine-grained and informative description. Namely:
The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent).
The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’).
The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category).
Lines connecting notes that have non-linear interactions (e.g. pear & violet, rose & orange, pomegranate & honeydew make unique blends that have phenomenal properties unlike those of the individual ingredients).
Lines connecting notes that form separate “phases” across categories (e.g. with a mixture of mango, sandalwood, rose, lemon, and cinnamon, you get three phases rather than a global consistent smell – mango + cinnamon, and lemon + sandalwood, with rose staying its own distinct scent).
Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually).
Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.).
We will go into much more detail about this in a future article specifically about the state-space of scents. And I don’t mean just breaking down a scent in terms of its chemical profile: Octyl butyrate, isoamyl propionate, and aldehyde C9, etc. I’m talking about a radical re-frame for what scents even are and the space in which they live. Stay tuned!
6. Energy Parameter Modulation
Scents have effects on one’s energy level. Lavender has clinically significant relaxing effects while lemon oil can be energizing. But these direct effects are only one of several ways scents can modulate the “energy parameter” of your experience. Namely, as we covered in the original article, in order to modulate energy levels upwards one can either impair energy sinks or enhance energy sources. Since labeling and recognizing sensory inputs (top-down interpretations) play the role of energy sinks, it stands to reason that playing with abstract, complex and unrecognizable scents would have the effect of increasing one’s global energy parameter. This, I think, is true. Based on experience, easily recognizable scents can certainly be engrossing, but complex scents with no real-world referents seem much more effective for energizing one’s mind and altering one’s consciousness (cf. the neuroscience of meditation).
I suspect that rigorous scientific research on the way scent entropy interfaces with energy modulation will be very fruitful and have many applications. In brief:
Relaxing scents can be obtained either with inherently narcotic qualia (e.g. lavender) or via boring, mundane, easily-recognizable sources (e.g. paper).
Exciting scents can be obtained with inherently exciting qualia (e.g. lemon) but also by using the appropriate amount of novelty, abstractness, and complexity to disable energy sinks.
Energy by Qualia Research (EDT)
Finally, it is my impression that scents can interface, not only with raw energy levels, but also their moments. Meaning, some scents are perhaps suited for a high first or second derivative in the energy parameter of experience. It’s as if the feeling of being “accelerated” into a high-energy regime is part and parcel of many scents. Personally, I experience bitter smells such as grapefruit, bergamot, and geranium to be arresting in that they drive one’s attention to a stop. Sweet spicy scents like vanilla and chocolate, on the other hand, seem to modulate energy rather than increase it or decrease it specifically (think “the Prozac of scents”). Alas, the state of this phenomenological research is still too early to give it any credence. I would love to hear the thoughts of others who also feel they can pin-point the first, second, and even third derivatives of the energy parameter modulation effects of scents.
7. Puzzling Valence Effects
This conception of art focuses on the way exotic sensory stimuli can lead to puzzling feelings of wellbeing. I say puzzling because they defy common-sense. It certainly makes sense that watching porn or eating food rich in salt, fat, and sugar would feel good. That’s perfectly accounted for by working within an evolutionary framework. But why would Picasso, Bach, and Socrates make some people feel good? Or in a more extreme set of examples: Dadaism, Merzbow, and Nietzsche? Puzzling valence effects refers to these phenomenal oddities; the fact that stimuli never encountered in our evolutionary past can nonetheless lead to deeply rewarding sensations. The neuroscientific frameworks used to explain these curious effects were discussed in depth in the original article so I won’t repeat them here. But I will briefly cover some of the ways scents can indeed have both expectedly and unexpectedly pleasant actions. Namely, scents can feel good for any of the following reasons:
Associations: Scents can be pleasant by reminding you of contexts, times, experiences, and people you have previously enjoyed.
Food: Scents that evoke high-calorie foods such as sweet, fried, salted, etc. come with an intrinsic positive valence for most people (and nonhuman animals!).
Safety: The smell of diseased bodies are repugnant while the scent of fresh cotton and a cozy fireplace can bring a pleasant sense of safety.
Eroticism: Scents that spark sexual feelings (already covered this in model 2) are certainly a highlight for the hedonic effects of the sense of smell.
Relative status: Scents that feel expensive, rare, or can be used to demonstrate one’s fitness would naturally feel good (already covered in 2 & 3).
Self-actualization: The very concept of a “signature scent” points at this category of pleasant sensations.
In principle one could use scents that modulate the brain’s energy parameter (see model 6) to heat it above its neural recrystallization temperature.
This might lead to the same kinds of effects one sees on meditation, on psychedelics, and with art. Namely, a three-step process of:
If properly understood, scents that modulate the energy parameter of the brain could be used synergistically with other inputs such as sound, light, and vibration to drive neural annealing for therapeutic benefits (this is an active area of research at QRI).
To say a few words about the scents that make you feel safe: fragrances designed to make you feel unsafe are unlikely to ever be top sellers. It might not be financially sound to launch a perfume (let’s call it “Trench Warfare”) recreating the smell of WWI trenches: “gunpowder, wet rocks, and decaying flesh notes” with flanker fragrances like “Mustard Attack” centered around notes of burned almond and blisters, and “Shell Shock” which emphasizes ashy notes sprinkled with oxidizing iron and overcooked steak. Indeed, safety markers might always be subtly present in fragrances of mass appeal. Rose Of No Man’s Land, a perfume actually inspired by the courage of the nurses who attended to the wounded in no man’s land during WWI, may seem like a counter-example. But it really proves the rule. The scent itself is very pleasant and reassuring, and conceptually it also evokes a relative sense of safety, namely, the feeling of being rescued. In other words, while the context it imports feels unsafe, it is specifically pointing at a part of the situation that emphasizes safety. The setting is used as contrast, it is the ground for the sense of safety which remains the figure (in the figure/ground sense of these terms).
I think that framed in the right way, scent qualia can give us a powerful glimpse of the possible fruits of consciousness research. Indeed, as part of a “QRI starter kit”, interns and visiting scholars get (among other things) a small collection of carefully chosen lesser-known essential oils to symbolize the “gems that are yet to be discovered by investigating consciousness in a systematic way”. (I’m actively looking for a suitable substitute for anosmic people, who almost certainly will be encountered at some point.)
Endless Euphoria – Calvin Klein
Interestingly, the perfume industry could very well be appealing to the agreeable hedonic sensibilities that people are otherwise too prudish to express. The hidden nature of perfumes- their plausible deniability, their elusive character, and their subjective quality- allows people to engage in hedonic fantasy to a greater extent than they would generally openly admit to doing.
Case in point: judging from their marketing materials, it seems that Calvin Klein has already found the key to unending happiness in a bottle. Save yourself the trouble of working towards the Hedonistic Imperative, for endless euphoria has arrived. I should add that their marketing campaign of #EuphoriaForMoms struck a chord with me: “moms, too, deserve euphoria” say both the Hedonistic Imperative and Calvin Klein in unison. According to online reviewers, the ingredients of endless euphoria are:
Take note – these are the ingredients of endless euphoria!
If only I had known! It must be the violet.
This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Indeed, the names of tons of perfumes are often remarkably evocative of the Hedonistic Imperative:
That said, I think that systematizing the study of the hedonic response to scents has yet to be done. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in future articles. For the time being I’ll just tease you with the observation that based on personal experiments there seem to be cross-modal resonance effects between scent and auditory stimuli. The fact that loud broad-spectrum sounds, like the noise of an airplane cabin, modify the sense of taste is known in the literature. Based on my experience, music and special sounds can also subtly modify, and in some cases enhance, the quality of certain scents. Stay tuned.
8. Harmonic Society
Finally, we come to the the grand vision of model 8: Harmonic Society. This aesthetic model posits that it is both possible and desirable to synthesize science, philosophy, and art. The end result does not have to be- as many might expect- the disenchantment of aesthetics. Even with the simplistic take that “bliss is just chemicals in the brain” (which isn’t quite true anyway), we must remember that reduction cuts both ways. Perhaps you can instead see it as “chemicals in the brain are bliss qualia”! The feelings of divinity and profound interconnectedness one can experience on LSD, for instance, do not diminish in significance merely because they can be reduced to neurological phenomena; rather, this exalts what neurological phenomena is in the first place!
A profound understanding of qualia-space can enable us to create a prosocial world of experience in which the transition between every state of consciousness to every other is harmonious and beneficial.
Applied to the art of scent qualia, the principles of Harmonic Society would point us in the direction of deeply investigating the state-space of scents in order to find clusters of fragrances (or scent qualia, more specifically) that have smooth transitions between them.
[March 12 2020 update: Both TSC and IPS are being postponed due to the coronavirus situation. At the moment we don’t know if the other two events will go ahead. I’ll update this entry when there is a confirmation either way. May 6 2020 update: unSCruz was canceled this year as well. More so, as an organization, QRI has chosen not to attend Ephemerisle this year, whether or not it ends up being canceled. Dear readers: I’m sure we’ll have future opportunities to meet in person].
These are the 2020 events lined up for me at the moment (though more are likely to pop up):
I will be attending The Science of Consciousness 2020 from the 13th to the 17th of April representing the Qualia Research Institute (QRI). I will present about a novel approach for solving the combination problem for panpsychism. The core idea is to use the concept of topological segmentation in order to explain how the universal wavefunction can develop boundaries with causal power (and thus capable of being recruited by natural selection for information-processing purposes) which might also be responsible for the creation of discrete moments of experience. I am including the abstract in this post (see below).
At the end of April I will be attending the 2020 Santa Cruz Burning Man Regional (“unSCruz“) with a small contingent of members and friends of QRI. We will be showcasing some of our neurotech prototypes and conducting smell tests (article about this coming soon).
I am booking some time in advance to meet with Qualia Computing readers, people interested in the works of the Qualia Research Institute, and potential interns and visiting scholars. Please message me if you are attending any of these events and would like to meet up.
Here is the abstract I submitted to TSC 2020:
Title – Topological Segmentation: How Dynamic Stability Can Solve the Combination Problem for Panpsychism
Primary Topic Area – Mental Causation and the Function of Consciousness
Secondary Topic Area – Panpsychism and Cosmopsychism
Abstract – The combination problem complicates panpsychist solutions to the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 2013). A satisfactory solution would (1) avoid strong emergence, (2) sidestep the hard problem of consciousness, (3) prevent the complications of epiphenomenalism, and (4) be compatible with the modern scientific world picture. We posit that topological approaches to the combination problem of consciousness could achieve this. We start by assuming a version of panpsychism in which quantum fields are fields of qualia, as is implied by the intrinsic nature argument for panpsychism (Strawson 2008) in conjunction with wavefunction realism (Ney 2013). We take inspiration from quantum chemistry, where the observed dynamic stability of the orbitals of complex molecules requires taking the entire system into account at once. The scientific history of models for chemical bonds starts with simple building blocks (e.g. Lewis structures), and each step involves updating the model to account for holistic behavior (e.g. resonance, molecular orbital theory, and the Hartree-Fock method). Thus the causal properties of a molecule are identified with the fixed points of dynamic stability for the entire atomic system. The formalization of chemical holism physically explains why molecular shapes that create novel orbital structures have weak downward causation effect on the world without needing to invoke strong emergence. For molecules to be “natural units” rather than just conventional units, we can introduce the idea that topological segmentation of the wavefunction is responsible for the creation of new beings. In other words, if dynamical stability entails the topological segmentation of the wavefunction, we get a story where physically-driven behavioral holism is accompanied with the ontological creation of new beings. Applying this insight to solve the combination problem for panpsychism, each moment of experience might be identified with a topologically distinct segment of the universal wavefunction. This topological approach makes phenomenal binding weakly causally emergent along with entailing the generation of new beings. The account satisfies the set of desiderata we started with: (1) no strong emergence is required because behavioral holism is implied by dynamic stability (itself only weakly emergent on the laws of physics), (2) we sidestep the hard problem via panpsychism, (3) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal because the topological segments have holistic causal effects (such that evolution would have a reason to select for them), and (4) we build on top of the laws of physics rather than introduce new clauses to account for what happens in the nervous system. This approach to the binding problem does not itself identify the properties responsible for the topological segmentation of the universal wavefunction that creates distinct moments of experience. But it does tell us where to look. In particular, we posit that both quantum coherence and entanglement networks may have the precise desirable properties of dynamical stability accompanied with topological segmentation. Hence experimental paradigms such as probing the CNS at femtosecond timescales to find a structural match between quantum coherence and local binding (Pearce 2014) could empirically validate our solution to the combination problem for panpsychism.
Kenneth Shinozuka of Blank Horizons asks: Andrés, how long do you think it’ll take to fully map out the state space of consciousness? A thousand or a million years?
The state-space of consciousness is unimaginably large (and yet finite)
I think we will discover the core principles of a foundational theory of consciousness within a century or so. That is, we might find plausible solutions to Mike Johnsons’ 8 subproblems of consciousness and experimentally verify a specific formal theory of consciousness before 2100. That said, there is a very large distance between proving a certain formal theory of consciousness and having a good grasp of the state-space of consciousness.
Knowing Maxwell’s equations gives you a formal theory of electromagnetism. But even then, photons are hidden as an implication of the formalism; you need to do some work to find them in it. And that’s the tip of the iceberg; you would also find hidden in the formalism an array of exotic electromagnetic behavior that arise in unusual physical conditions such as those produced by metamaterials. The formalism is a first step to establish the fundamental constraints for what’s possible. What follows is filling in the gaps between the limits of physical possibility, which is a truly fantastical enterprise considering the range of possible permutations.
A useful analogy here might be: even though we know all of the basic stable elements and many of their properties, we have only started mapping out the space of possible small molecules (e.g. there are ~10^60 bioactive drugs that have never been tested), and have yet to even begin the project in earnest of understanding what proteins can do. Or consider the number of options there are to make high-entropy alloys (alloys made with five or more metals). Or all the ways in which snowflakes of various materials can form, meaning that even when you are studying a single material it can form crystal structures of an incredibly varied nature. And then take into account the emergence of additional collective properties: physical systems can display a dazzling array of emergent exotic effects, from superconductivity and superradiance to Bose-Einstein condensates and fusion chain reactions. Exploring the state-space of material configurations and their emergent properties entails facing a combinatorial explosion of unexpected phenomena.
And this is the case in physics even though we know for a fact that there are only a bit over a hundred possible building blocks (i.e. the elements).
In the province of the mind, we do not yet have even that level of understanding. When it comes to the state-space of consciousness we do not have a corresponding credible “periodic table of qualia”. The range of possible experiences in normal everyday life is astronomical. Even so, the set of possible human sober experiences is a vanishing fraction of the set of possible DMT trips, which is itself a vanishing fraction of the set of possible DMT + LSD + ketamine + TMS + optogenetics + Generalized Wada Test + brain surgery experiences. Brace yourself for a state-space that grows supergeometrically with each variable you introduce.
If we are to truly grasp the state-space of consciousness, we should also take into account non-human animal qualia. And then further still, due to dual-aspect monism, we will need to go into things like understanding that high-entropy alloys themselves have qualia, and then Jupiter Brains, and Mike’s Fraggers, and Black Holes, and quantum fields in the inflation period, and so on. This entails a combinatorial explosion of the likes I don’t believe anyone is really grasping at the moment. We are talking about a monumental “monster” state-space far beyond the size of even the wildest dreams of full-time dreamers. So, I’d say -honestly- I think that mapping out the state-space of consciousness is going to take millions of years.
But isn’t the state-space of consciousness infinite, you ask?
Alas, no. There are two core limiting factors here – one is the speed of light (which entails the existence of gravitational collapse and hence limits to how much matter you can arrange in complex ways before a black hole arises) and the second one is quantum (de)coherence. If phenomenal binding requires fundamental physical properties such as quantum coherence, there will be a maximum limit to how much matter you can bind into a unitary “moment of experience“. Who knows what the limit is! But I doubt it’s the size of a galaxy – perhaps it is more like a Jupiter Brain, or maybe just the size of a large building. This greatly reduces the state-space of consciousness; after all, something finite, no matter how large, is infinitely smaller than something infinite!
But what if reality is continuous? Doesn’t that entail an infinite state-space?
I do not think that the discrete/continuous distinction meaningfully impacts the size of the state-space of consciousness. The reason is that at some point of degree of similarity between experiences you get “just noticeable differences” (JNDs). Even with the tiniest hint of true continuity in consciousness, the state-space would be infinite as a result. But the vast majority of those differences won’t matter: they can be swept under the rug to an extent because they can’t actually be “distinguished from the inside”. To make a good discrete approximation of the state-space, we would just need to divide the state-space into regions of equal area such that their diameter is a JND.
In summary, the state-space of consciousness is insanely large but not infinite. While I do think it is possible that the core underlying principles of consciousness (i.e. an empirically-adequate formalism) will be discovered this century or the next, I do not anticipate a substantive map of the state-space of consciousness to be available anytime soon. A truly comprehensive map would, I suspect, be only possible after millions of years of civilizational investment on the task.
Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular, all happenings are played out in one universal consciousness and there is no multiplicity of selves.
– Erwin Schrödinger, ‘My View of the World’, 1951
Enlightenment came to me suddenly and unexpectedly one afternoon in March  when I was walking up to the school notice board to see whether my name was on the list for tomorrow’s football game. I was not on the list. And in a blinding flash of inner light I saw the answer to both my problems, the problem of war and the problem of injustice. The answer was amazingly simple. I called it Cosmic Unity. Cosmic Unity said: There is only one of us. We are all the same person. I am you and I am Winston Churchill and Hitler and Gandhi and everybody. There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself.
– Freeman Dyson, ‘Disturbing the Universe’, 1979
Common sense assumes “closed” individualism: we are born, live awhile, and then die. Common sense is wrong about most things, and the assumption of enduring metaphysical egos is true to form. Philosophers sometimes speak of the “indiscernibility of identicals”. If a = b, then everything true of a is true of b. This basic principle of logic is trivially true. Our legal system, economy, politics, academic institutions and personal relationships assume it’s false. Violation of elementary logic is a precondition of everyday social life. It’s hard to imagine any human society that wasn’t founded on such a fiction. The myth of enduring metaphysical egos and “closed” individualism also leads to a justice system based on scapegoating. If we were accurately individuated, then such scapegoating would seem absurd.
Among the world’s major belief-systems, Buddhism comes closest to acknowledging “empty” individualism: enduring egos are a myth (cf. “non-self” or Anatta – Wikipedia). But Buddhism isn’t consistent. All our woes are supposedly the product of bad “karma”, the sum of our actions in this and previous states of existence. Karma as understood by Buddhists isn’t the deterministic cause and effect of classical physics, but rather the contribution of bad intent and bad deeds to bad rebirths.
Among secular philosophers, the best-known defender of (what we would now call) empty individualism minus the metaphysical accretions is often reckoned David Hume. Yet Hume was also a “bundle theorist”, sceptical of the diachronic and the synchronic unity of the self. At any given moment, you aren’t a unified subject (“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat, cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception” (‘On Personal Identity’, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739)). So strictly, Hume wasn’t even an empty individualist. Contrast Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception”, aka the unity of the self.
An advocate of common-sense closed individualism might object that critics are abusing language. Thus “Winston Churchill”, say, is just the name given to an extended person born in 1874 who died in 1965. But adhering to this usage would mean abandoning the concept of agency. When you raise your hand, a temporally extended entity born decades ago doesn’t raise its collective hand. Raising your hand is a specific, spatio-temporally located event. In order to make sense of agency, only a “thin” sense of personal identity can work.
According to “open” individualism, there exists only one numerically identical subject who is everyone at all times. Open individualism was christened by philosopher Daniel Kolak, author of I Am You (2004). The roots of open individualism are ancient, stretching back at least to the Upanishads. The older name is monopsychism. I am Jesus, Moses and Einstein, but also Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan. And I am also all pigs, dinosaurs and ants: subjects of experience date to the late Pre-Cambrian, if not earlier.
My ethical sympathies lie with open individualism; but as it stands, I don’t see how a monopsychist theory of identity can be true. Open or closed individualism might (tenuously) be defensible if we were electrons (cf. One-electron universe – Wikipedia). However, sentient beings are qualitatively and numerically different. For example, the half-life of a typical protein in the brain is an estimated 12–14 days. Identity over time is a genetically adaptive fiction for the fleetingly unified subjects of experience generated by the CNS of animals evolved under pressure of natural selection (cf. Was Parfit correct we’re not the same person that we were when we were born?). Even memory is a mode of present experience. Both open and closed individualism are false.
By contrast, the fleeting synchronic unity of the self is real, scientifically unexplained (cf. the binding problem) and genetically adaptive. How a pack of supposedly decohered membrane-bound neurons achieves a classically impossible feat of virtual world-making leads us into deepphilosophical waters. But whatever the explanation, I think empty individualism is true. Thus I share with my namesakes – the authors of The Hedonistic Imperative (1995) – the view that we ought to abolish the biology of suffering in favour of genetically-programmed gradients of superhuman bliss. Yet my namesakes elsewhere in tenselessly existing space-time (or Hilbert space) physically differ from the multiple David Pearces (DPs) responding to your question. Using numerical superscripts, e.g. DP^564356, DP^54346 (etc), might be less inappropriate than using a single name. But even “DP” here is misleading because such usage suggests an enduring carrier of identity. No such enduring carrier exists, merely modestly dynamically stable patterns of fundamental quantum fields. Primitive primate minds were not designed to “carve Nature at the joints”.
However, just because a theory is true doesn’t mean humans ought to believe in it. What matters are its ethical consequences. Will the world be a better or worse place if most of us are closed, empty or open individualists? Psychologically, empty individualism is probably the least emotionally satisfying account of personal identity – convenient when informing an importunate debt-collection company they are confusing you with someone else, but otherwise a recipe for fecklessness, irresponsibility and overly-demanding feats of altruism. Humans would be more civilised if most people believed in open individualism. The factory-farmed pig destined to be turned into a bacon sandwich is really you: the conventional distinction between selfishness and altruism collapses. Selfish behaviour is actually self-harming. Not just moral decency, but decision-theoretic rationality dictates choosing a veggie burger rather than a meat burger. Contrast the metaphysical closed individualism assumed by, say, the Less Wrong Decision Theory FAQ. And indeed, all first-person facts, not least the distress of a horribly abused pig, are equally real. None are ontologically privileged. More speculatively, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then fields of subjectivity are what the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory describes. The intrinsic nature argument proposes that only experience is physically real. On this story, the mathematical machinery of modern physics is transposed to an idealist ontology. This conjecture is hard to swallow; I’m agnostic.
Speculative solutions to the Hard Problem of consciousness aside, the egocentric delusion of Darwinian life is too strong for most people to embrace open individualism with conviction. Closed individualism is massively fitness-enhancing (cf. Are you the center of the universe?). Moreover, temperamentally happy people tend to have a strong sense of enduring personal identity and agency; depressives have a weaker sense of personhood. Most of the worthwhile things in this world (as well as its biggest horrors) are accomplished by narcissistic closed individualists with towering egos. Consider the transhumanist agenda. Working on a cure for the terrible disorder we know as aging might in theory be undertaken by empty individualists or open individualists; but in practice, the impetus for defeating death and aging comes from strong-minded and “selfish” closed individualists who don’t want their enduring metaphysical egos to perish. Likewise, the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone – the primary focus of most DPs – will probably be delivered by closed individualists. Benevolent egomaniacs will most likely save the world.
“One for all, all for one”, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers?
Maybe one day: full-spectrum superintelligence won’t have a false theory of personal identity. “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno” is the unofficial motto of Switzerland. It deserves to be the ethos of the universe.
[Some] versions of identity panpsychism are holistic in that they invoke fundamental physical entities that are not atomic or localized. One such view combines identity panpsychism with the monistic view that the universe itself is the most fundamental physical entity. The result is identity cosmopsychism, on which the whole universe is conscious and on which we are identical to it. (Some idealist views in both Eastern and Western traditions appear to say something like this.) Obvious worries for this view are that it seems to entail that there is only one conscious subject, and that each of us is identical to each other and has the same experiences. There is also a structural mismatch worry: it is hard to see how the universe’s experiences (especially given a Russellian view on which these correspond to the universe’s physical properties) should have anything like the localized idiosyncratic structure of my experiences. Perhaps there are sophisticated versions of this view on which a single universal consciousness is differentiated into multiple strands of midlevel macroconsciousness, where much of the universal consciousness is somehow hidden from each of us. Still, this seems to move us away from identity cosmopsychism toward an autonomous cosmopsychist view in which each of us is a distinct constituent of a universal consciousness. As before, the resulting decomposition problem seems just as hard as the combination problem.
Perhaps the most important version of identity panpsychism is quantum holism. This view starts from the insight that on the most common understandings of quantum mechanics, the fundamental entities need not be localized entities such as particles. Multiple particles can get entangled with each other, and when this happens it is the whole entangled system that is treated as fundamental and that has fundamental quantum-mechanical properties (such as wave functions) ascribed to it. A panpsychist might speculate that such an entangled system, perhaps at the level of the brain or one of its subsystems, has microphenomenal properties. On the quantum holism version of identity panpsychism, macrosubjects such as ourselves are identical to these fundamental holistic entities, and our macrophenomenal properties are identical to its microphenomenal properties.
This view has more attractions than the earlier views, but there are also worries. Some worries are empirical: it does not seem that there is the sort of stable brain-level entanglement that would be needed for this view to work. Some related worries are theoretical: on some interpretations of quantum mechanics the locus of entanglement is the whole universe (leading us back to cosmopsychism), on others there is no entanglement at all, and on still others there are regular collapses that tend to destroy this sort of entanglement. But perhaps the biggest worry is once again a structural mismatch worry. The structure of the quantum state of brain-level systems is quite different from the structure of our experience. Given a Russellian view on which microphenomenal properties correspond directly to the fundamental microphysical properties of these entangled systems, it is hard to see how they could have the familiar structure of our macroexperience.
The identity panpsychist (of all three sorts) might try to remove some of these worries by rejecting Russellian panpsychism, so that microphenomenal properties are less closely tied to microphysical structure. The cost of this move is that it becomes much less clear how these phenomenal properties can play a causal role. On the face of it they will be either epiphenomenal, or they will make a difference to physics. The latter view will in effect require a radically revised physics with something akin to our macrophenomenal structure present at the basic level. Then phenomenal properties will in effect be playing the role of quiddities within this revised physics, and the resulting view will be a sort of revisionary Russellian identity panpsychism.
We are Maggie & Anders. A mostly harmless Swedish old-timer couple only now beginning to discover the advanced incompetence that is the proto-science — or “alchemy” — of consciousness research. A few centuries ago a philosopher of chemistry could have claimed with a straight face to be quite certain that a substance with negative mass had to be invoked to explain the phenomenon of combustion. Another could have been equally convinced that the chemistry of life involves a special force of nature absent from all non-living matter. A physicist of today may recognize that the study of consciousness has even less experimental foundation than alchemy did, yet be confident that at least it cannot feel like somethingto be a black hole. Since, obviously, black holes are simple objects and consciousness is a phenomenon which only emerges from “complexity” as high as that of a human brain.
Is there some ultimate substrate, basic to reality and which has properties intrinsic to itself? If so, is elementary sentience one of those properties? Or is it “turtles all the way down” in a long regress where all of reality can be modeled as patterns within patterns within patterns ending in Turing-style “bits”? Or parsimoniously never ending?
Will it turn out to be patterns all the way down, or sentience all the way up? Should people who believe themselves to perhaps be in an ancestor simulation take for granted that consciousness exists for biologically-based people in base-level reality? David Chalmers does. So at least that must be one assumption it is safe to make, isn’t it? And the one about no sentience existing in a black hole. And the one about phlogiston. And the four chemical elements.
This really is good material for silly comedy or artistic satire. To view a modest attempt by us in that direction, please feel encouraged to enjoy this youtube video we made with QRI in mind:
When ignorance is near complete, it is vital to think outside the proverbial box if progress is to be made. However, spontaneous creative speculation is more context-constrained than it feels like, and it rarely correlates all that beautifully with anything useful. Any science has to work via the baby steps of testable predictions. The integrated information theory (IIT) does just that, and has produced encouraging early results. IIT could turn out to be a good starting point for eventually mapping and modeling all of experiential phenomenology. For a perspective, IIT 3.0 may be comparable to how Einstein’s modeling of the photoelectric effect stands in relation to a full-blown theory of quantum gravity. There is a fair bit of ground to cover. We have not been able to find any group more likely than the QRI to speed up the process whereby humanity eventually manages to cover that ground. That is, if they get a whole lot of help in the form of outreach, fundraising and technological development. Early pioneers have big hurdles to overcome, but the difference they can make for the future is enormous.
For those who feel inspired, a nice start is to go through all that is on or linked via the QRI website. Indulge in Principia Qualia. If that leaves you confused on a higher level, you are in good company. With us. We are halfway senile and are not information theorists, neuroscientists or physicists. All we have is a nerdy sense of humor and work experience in areas like marketing and planetary geochemistry. One thing we think we can do is help bridge the gap between “experts” and “lay people”. Instead of “explain it like I am five”, we offer the even greater challenge of explaining it like we are Maggie & Anders. Manage that, and you will definitely be wiser afterwards!
– Maggie & Anders
No qualia or your money back!
Tested for consciousness – zero
Don’t be afraid – she can’t feel anything!
Letter II: State-Space of Matter and State-Space of Consciousness
A core aspect of science is the mapping out of distributions, spectra, and state-spaces of the building blocks of reality. Naturally occurring states of things can be spontaneously discovered. To gain more information about them, one can experimentally alter such states to produce novel ones, and then analyze them in a systematic way.
The full state-space of matter is multidimensional and vast. Zoom in anywhere in it and there will be a number of characteristic physics phenomena appearing there. Within a model of the state-space you can follow independent directions as you move towards regions and points. As an example, you can hold steady at one particular simple chemical configuration. Diamond, say. The stable region of diamond and its emergent properties like high hardness extends certain distances in other parameter directions such as temperature and pressure. The diamond region has neighboring regions with differently structured carbon, such as graphite. Diamond and graphite make for an interesting case since the property of hardness emerges very differently in the two regions. (In the pure carbon state-space the dimensions denoting amounts of all other elements can be said to be there but set to zero). Material properties like hardness can be modeled as static phenomena. According to IIT however, consciousness cannot. It’s still an emergent property of matter though, so just stay in the matter state-space and add a time dimension to it. Then open chains and closed loops of causation emerge as a sort of fundamental level of what matter “does”. Each elementary step of causation may be regarded to produce or intrinsically be some iota of proto-experience. In feedback loops this self-amplifies into states of feeling like something. Many or perhaps most forms of matter can “do” these basic things at various regions of various combinations of parameter settings. Closed causal loops require more delicate fine-tuning in parameter space, so the state-space of nonconscious causation structure is larger than that of conscious structure. The famous “hard problem” has to do with the fact that both an experientially very weak and a very strong state can emerge from the same matter (shown to be the case so far only within brains). A bit like the huge difference in mechanical hardness of diamond and graphite both emerging from the same pure carbon substrate (a word play on “hard” to make it sticky).
By the logic of IIT it should be possible to model (in arbitrarily coarse or fine detail) the state-space of all conscious experience whose substrate is all possible physical states of pure carbon. Or at room temperature in any material. And so on. If future advanced versions of IIT turn out to be a success then we may guess there’ll be a significant overlap to allow for a certain “substrate invariance” for hardware that can support intelligence with human-recognizable consciousness. Outside of that there will be a gargantuan additional novel space to explore. It ought to contain maxima of (intrinsic) attractiveness, none of which need to reside within what a biological nervous system can host. Biological evolution has only been able to search through certain parts of the state-space of matter. One thing it has not worked with on Earth is pure carbon. Diamond tooth enamel or carbon nanotube tendons would be useful but no animal has them. What about conscious states? Has biology come close to hit upon any of the optima in those? If all of human sentience is like planet Earth, and all of Terrestrial biologically-based sentience is like the whole Solar System, that leaves an entire extrasolar galaxy out there to explore. (Boarding call: Space X Flight 42 bound for Nanedi Settlement, Mars. Sentinauts please go to the Neuralink check-in terminal).
Of course we don’t currently know how IIT is going to stand up, but thankfully it does make testable predictions. There is, therefore, a beginning of something to be hoped for with it. In a hopeful scenario IIT turns out to be like special relativity, and what QRI is reaching for is like quantum gravity. It will be a process of taking baby steps, for sure. But each step is likely to bring benefits in many ways.
QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.
This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.
A few takeaways:
Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.
(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)