Qualia Computing at Consciousness Hacking (June 7th 2017)

I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting at Consciousness Hacking in San Francisco on 2017/6/7 (YMD notation).

Consciousness Hacking (CoHack) is an extremely awesome community that blends a genuine interest in benevolence, scientific rationality, experiential spirituality, self-experimentation, and holistic wellbeing together with an unceasing focus on consciousness. Truth be told, CohHack is one of the reasons why I love living in the Bay Area.

Here are the relevant event links: Eventbrite, FacebookMeetup.

And the event description:

What would happen if a bliss technology capable of inducing a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects were available? What makes an experience good or bad? Is happiness a spiritual trick, or is spirituality a happiness trick?

At this month’s speaker presentation, Consciousness Hacking invites Data Science Engineer, Andrés Gómez Emilsson to discuss current research, including his own, concerning the measurement of bliss, how blissful brain states can be induced, and what implications this may have on quality of life and our relationship with the world around us.

Emilsson’s research aims to create a mathematical theory of the pleasure-pain axis that can take information about a person’s brain at a given point in time and return the approximate (or even true) level of happiness and suffering for that person. Emilsson will explore two dimensions that have been studied in affective neuroscience for decades:

  • Arousal: how much energy and activation a given emotion has
  • Valence: the “feel good or feel bad” dimension of emotion

If the purpose of life is to feel happy and to make others happy, then figuring out how valence is implemented in the brain may take us a long way in that direction. Current approaches to valence, while helpful, usually don’t address the core of the problem (ie. usually just measuring the symptoms of pleasure such as the neurotransmitters that trigger it, brain regions, positive reinforcement, etc. rather than getting at the experience of pleasure itself).

A real science of valence would not only be able to integrate and explain why the things people report as pleasurable are pleasant, it would also make a precise, empirically falsifiable hypothesis about whether arbitrary brain states will feel good or bad. This is what Emilsson aims to do.

You will take away:

  • An understanding about the current scientific consensus on the nature of happiness in the brain, and why it is incomplete
  • A philosophical case for both the feasibility and desirability of a world devoid of intense suffering
  • A new candidate mathematical formula that can be used to predict the psychological wellbeing of a brain at a given point in time
  • An argument for why bliss technology that puts us in a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects is likely to become available within the next two to five decades
  • The opportunity to network with other people who are serious about figuring out the meaning of life through introspection and neuroscience

About our speaker:

Andrés Gómez Emilsson was born in México City in 1990. From an early age, he developed an interest in philosophy, mathematics, and science, leading him to compete nationally and internationally in Math and Science Olympiads. At 16, his main interest was mathematics, but after an unexpected “mystical experience”, he turned his attention to consciousness and the philosophical problems that it poses. He studied Symbolic Systems with an Artificial Intelligence concentration at Stanford, and later finished a masters in Computational Psychology at the same university. During his time at Stanford he co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association and became good friends with transhumanist philosopher David Pearce, taking on the flag of the Hedonistic Imperative (HI). In order to pursue the long-term goals of HI, his current primary intellectual interest is to reverse-engineer the functional, biochemical and/or quantum signatures of pure bliss.

He is currently working at a Natural Language Processing company in San Francisco, creating quantitative measures of employee happiness, productivity, and ethics at companies, with the long-term intent of creating a consciousness research institute that’s also a great place to work for (i.e. one in which employees are happy, productive, and ethical). In his free time he develops psychophysical tools to study the computational properties of consciousness.


6:30: Check in, snacks

6:45: Structured schmoozing

6:55: Event intro and meditation

7:00: Andrés Gómez Emilsson

7:50: Break

8:00: Break-out Sessions (small group discussion)

9:00: Break-out Recap

9:15: Closing meditation

About our venue:

ECO-SYSTM is a dynamic community of creative professionals, startups, and freelancers, founded on the idea that entertainment, creativity and business can come together to offer a truly unique work experience for Bay Area professionals. Check out membership plans here: http://eco-systm.com/


Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence

Extract from Principia Qualia (2016) by my colleague Michael E. Johnson (from Qualia Research Institute). This is intended to summarize the core ideas of chapter 2, which proposes a precise, testable, simple, and so far science-compatible theory of the fundamental nature of valence (also called hedonic tone or the pleasure-pain axis; what makes experiences feel good or bad).


VII. Three principles for a mathematical derivation of valence

We’ve covered a lot of ground with the above literature reviews, and synthesizing a new framework for understanding consciousness research. But we haven’t yet fulfilled the promise about valence made in Section II- to offer a rigorous, crisp, and relatively simple hypothesis about valence. This is the goal of Part II.

Drawing from the framework in Section VI, I offer three principles to frame this problem: ​

1. Qualia Formalism: for any given conscious experience, there exists- in principle- a mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology. This is a formal way of saying that consciousness is in principle quantifiable- much as electromagnetism, or the square root of nine is quantifiable. I.e. IIT’s goal, to generate such a mathematical object, is a valid one.

2. Qualia Structuralism: this mathematical object has a rich set of formal structures. Based on the regularities & invariances in phenomenology, it seems safe to say that qualia has a non-trivial amount of structure. It likely exhibits connectedness (i.e., it’s a unified whole, not the union of multiple disjoint sets), and compactness, and so we can speak of qualia as having a topology.

More speculatively, based on the following:

(a) IIT’s output format is data in a vector space,

(b) Modern physics models reality as a wave function within Hilbert Space, which has substantial structure,

(c) Components of phenomenology such as color behave as vectors (Feynman 1965), and

(d) Spatial awareness is explicitly geometric,

…I propose that Qualia space also likely satisfies the requirements of being a metric space, and we can speak of qualia as having a geometry.

Mathematical structures are important, since the more formal structures a mathematical object has, the more elegantly we can speak about patterns within it, and the closer our words can get to “carving reality at the joints”. ​

3. Valence Realism: valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure.

–> I.e. some experiences do feel holistically better than others, and (in principle) we can associate a value to this. Furthermore, to combine (2) and (3), this pleasantness could be encoded into the mathematical object isomorphic to the experience in an efficient way (we should look for a concise equation, not an infinitely-large lookup table for valence). […]


I believe my three principles are all necessary for a satisfying solution to valence (and the first two are necessary for any satisfying solution to consciousness):

Considering the inverses:

If Qualia Formalism is false, then consciousness is not quantifiable, and there exists no formal knowledge about consciousness to discover. But if the history of science is any guide, we don’t live in a universe where phenomena are intrinsically unquantifiable- rather, we just haven’t been able to crisply quantify consciousness yet.

If Qualia Structuralism is false and Qualia space has no meaningful structure to discover and generalize from, then most sorts of knowledge about qualia (such as which experiences feel better than others) will likely be forever beyond our empirical grasp. I.e., if Qualia space lacks structure, there will exist no elegant heuristics or principles for interpreting what a mathematical object isomorphic to a conscious experience means. But this doesn’t seem to match the story from affective neuroscience, nor from our everyday experience: we have plenty of evidence for patterns, regularities, and invariances in phenomenological experiences. Moreover, our informal, intuitive models for predicting our future qualia are generally very good. This implies our brains have figured out some simple rules-of-thumb for how qualia is structured, and so qualia does have substantial mathematical structure, even if our formal models lag behind.

If Valence Realism is false, then we really can’t say very much about ethics, normativity, or valence with any confidence, ever. But this seems to violate the revealed preferences of the vast majority of people: we sure behave as if some experiences are objectively superior to others, at arbitrarily-fine levels of distinction. It may be very difficult to put an objective valence on a given experience, but in practice we don’t behave as if this valence doesn’t exist.


VIII. Distinctions in qualia: charting the explanation space for valence

Sections II-III made the claim that we need a bottom-up quantitative theory like IIT in order to successfully reverse-engineer valence, Section VI suggested some core problems & issues theories like IIT will need to address, and Section VII proposed three principles for interpreting IIT-style output:

  1. We should think of qualia as having a mathematical representation,
  2. This mathematical representation has a topology and probably a geometry, and perhaps more structure, and
  3. Valence is real; some things do feel better than others, and we should try to explain why in terms of qualia’s mathematical representation.

But what does this get us? Specifically, how does assuming these three things get us any closer to solving valence if we don’t have an actual, validated dataset (“data structure isomorphic to the phenomenology”) from *any* system, much less a real brain?

It actually helps a surprising amount, since an isomorphism between a structured (e.g., topological, geometric) space and qualia implies that any clean or useful distinction we can make in one realm automatically applies in the other realm as well. And if we can explore what kinds of distinctions in qualia we can make, we can start to chart the explanation space for valence (what ‘kind’ of answer it will be).

I propose the following four distinctions which depend on only a very small amount of mathematical structure inherent in qualia space, which should apply equally to qualia and to qualia’s mathematical representation:

  1. Global vs local
  2. Simple vs complex
  3. Atomic vs composite
  4. Intuitively important vs intuitively trivial


Takeaways: this section has suggested that we can get surprising mileage out of the hypothesis that there will exist a geometric data structure isomorphic to the phenomenology of a system, since if we can make a distinction in one domain (math or qualia), it will carry over into the other domain ‘for free’. Given this, I put forth the hypothesis that valence may plausibly be a simple, global, atomic, and intuitively important property of both qualia and its mathematical representation.

IX. Summary of heuristics for reverse-engineering the pattern for valence

Reverse-engineering the precise mathematical property that corresponds to valence may seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but I propose that it may be easier than it appears. Broadly speaking, I see six heuristics for zeroing in on valence:

A. Structural distinctions in Qualia space (Section VIII);

B. Empirical hints from affective neuroscience (Section I);

C. A priori hints from phenomenology;

D. Empirical hints from neurocomputational syntax;

E. The Non-adaptedness Principle;

F. Common patterns across physical formalisms (lessons from physics). None of these heuristics determine the answer, but in aggregate they dramatically reduce the search space.

IX.A: Structural distinctions in Qualia space (Section VIII):

In the previous section, we noted that the following distinctions about qualia can be made: Global vs local; Simple vs complex; Atomic vs composite; Intuitively important vs intuitively trivial. Valence plausibly corresponds to a global, simple, atomic, and intuitively important mathematical property.


Music is surprisingly pleasurable; auditory dissonance is surprisingly unpleasant. Clearly, music has many adaptive signaling & social bonding aspects (Storr 1992; Mcdermott and Hauser 2005)- yet if we subtract everything that could be considered signaling or social bonding (e.g., lyrics, performative aspects, social bonding & enjoyment), we’re still left with something very emotionally powerful. However, this pleasantness can vanish abruptly- and even reverse– if dissonance is added.

Much more could be said here, but a few of the more interesting data points are:

  1. Pleasurable music tends to involve elegant structure when represented geometrically (Tymoczko 2006);
  2. Non-human animals don’t seem to find human music pleasant (with some exceptions), but with knowledge of what pitch range and tempo their auditory systems are optimized to pay attention to, we’ve been able to adapt human music to get animals to prefer it over silence (Snowdon and Teie 2010).
  3. Results suggest that consonance is a primary factor in which sounds are pleasant vs unpleasant in 2- and 4-month-old infants (Trainor, Tsang, and Cheung 2002).
  4. Hearing two of our favorite songs at once doesn’t feel better than just one; instead, it feels significantly worse.

More generally, it feels like music is a particularly interesting case study by which to pick apart the information-theoretic aspects of valence, and it seems plausible that evolution may have piggybacked on some fundamental law of qualia to produce the human preference for music. This should be most obscured with genres of music which focus on lyrics, social proof & social cohesion (e.g., pop music), and performative aspects, and clearest with genres of music which avoid these things (e.g., certain genres of classical music).


X. A simple hypothesis about valence

To recap, the general heuristic from Section VIII was that valence may plausibly correspond to a simple, atomic, global, and intuitively important geometric property of a data structure isomorphic to phenomenology. The specific heuristics from Section IX surveyed hints from a priori phenomenology, hints from what we know of the brain’s computational syntax, introduced the Non-adaptedness Principle, and noted the unreasonable effectiveness of beautiful mathematics in physics to suggest that the specific geometric property corresponding to pleasure should be something that involves some sort of mathematically-interesting patterning, regularity, efficiency, elegance, and/or harmony.

We don’t have enough information to formally deduce which mathematical property these constraints indicate, yet in aggregate these constraints hugely reduce the search space, and also substantially point toward the following:

Given a mathematical object isomorphic to the qualia of a system, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that system is that object’s symmetry.


XI. Testing this hypothesis today

In a perfect world, we could plug many peoples’ real-world IIT-style datasets into a symmetry detection algorithm and see if this “Symmetry in the Topology of Phenomenology” (SiToP) theory of valence successfully predicted their self-reported valences.

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from having the theory and data to do that.

But if we make two fairly modest assumptions, I think we should be able to perform some reasonable, simple, and elegant tests on this hypothesis now. The two assumptions are:

  1. We can probably assume that symmetry/pleasure is a more-or-less fractal property: i.e., it’ll be evident on basically all locations and scales of our data structure, and so it should be obvious even with imperfect measurements. Likewise, symmetry in one part of the brain will imply symmetry elsewhere, so we may only need to measure it in a small section that need not be directly contributing to consciousness.
  2. We can probably assume that symmetry in connectome-level brain networks/activity will roughly imply symmetry in the mathematical-object-isomorphic-to-phenomenology (the symmetry that ‘matters’ for valence), and vice-versa. I.e., we need not worry too much about the exact ‘flavor’ of symmetry we’re measuring.

So- given these assumptions, I see three ways to test our hypothesis:

1. More pleasurable brain states should be more compressible (all else being equal).

Symmetry implies compressibility, and so if we can measure the compressibility of a brain state in some sort of broad-stroke fashion while controlling for degree of consciousness, this should be a fairly good proxy for how pleasant that brain state is.


2. Highly consonant/harmonious/symmetric patterns injected directly into the brain should feel dramatically better than similar but dissonant patterns.

Consonance in audio signals generally produces positive valence; dissonance (e.g., nails-on-a-chalkboard) reliably produces negative valence. This obviously follows from our hypothesis, but it’s also obviously true, so we can’t use it as a novel prediction. But if we take the general idea and apply it to unusual ways of ‘injecting’ a signal into the brain, we should be able to make predictions that are (1) novel, and (2) practically useful.

TMS is generally used to disrupt brain functions by oscillating a strong magnetic field over a specific region to make those neurons fire chaotically. But if we used it on a lower-powered, rhythmic setting to ‘inject’ a symmetric/consonant pattern directly into parts of the brain involved directly with consciousness, the result should produce good feeling- or at least, much better valence than a similar dissonant pattern.

Our specific prediction: direct, low-power, rhythmic stimulation (via TMS) of the thalamus at harmonic frequencies (e.g., @1hz+2hz+4hz+6hz+8hz+12hz+16hz+24hz+36hz+48hz+72hz+96hz+148hz) should feel significantly more pleasant than similar stimulation at dissonant frequencies (e.g., @1.01hz+2.01hz+3.98hz+6.02hz+7.99hz+12.03hz+16.01hz+24.02hz+35.97hz+48.05hz+72.04hz+95.94hz+ 147.93hz).


3. More consonant vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) should feel better than dissonant VNS.

The above harmonics-based TMS method would be a ‘pure’ test of the ‘Symmetry in the Topology of Phenomenology’ (SiToP) hypothesis. It may rely on developing custom hardware and is also well outside of my research budget.

However, a promising alternative method to test this is with consumer-grade vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) technology. Nervana Systems has an in-ear device which stimulates the Vagus nerve with rhythmic electrical pulses as it winds its way past the left ear canal. The stimulation is synchronized with either user-supplied music or ambient sound. This synchronization is done, according to the company, in order to mask any discomfort associated with the electrical stimulation. The company says their system works by “electronically signal[ing] the Vagus nerve which in turn stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that enhance mood.”

This explanation isn’t very satisfying, since it merely punts the question of why these neurotransmitters enhance mood, but their approach seems to work– and based on the symmetry/harmony hypothesis we can say at least something about why: effectively, they’ve somewhat accidentally built a synchronized bimodal approach (coordinated combination of music+VNS) for inducing harmony/symmetry in the brain. This is certainly not the only component of how this VNS system functions, since the parasympathetic nervous system is both complex and powerful by itself, but it could be an important component.

Based on our assumptions about what valence is, we can make a hierarchy of predictions:

  1. Harmonious music + synchronized VNS should feel the best;
  2. Harmonious music + placebo VNS (unsynchronized, simple pattern of stimulation) should feel less pleasant than (1);
  3. Harmonious music + non-synchronized VNS (stimulation that is synchronized to a different kind of music) should feel less pleasant than (1);
  4. Harmonious music + dissonant VNS (stimulation with a pattern which scores low on consonance measures such as (Chon 2008) should feel worse than (2) and (3));
  5. Dissonant auditory noise + non-synchronized, dissonant VNS should feel pretty awful.

We can also predict that if a bimodal approach for inducing harmony/symmetry in the brain is better than a single modality, a trimodal or quadrimodal approach may be even more effective. E.g., we should consider testing the addition of synchronized rhythmic tactile stimulation and symmetry-centric music visualizations. A key question here is whether adding stimulation modalities would lead to diminishing or synergistic/accelerating returns.

The Most Important Philosophical Question

Albert Camus famously claimed that the most important philosophical question in existence was whether to commit suicide. I would disagree.

For one, if Open Individualism is true (i.e. that deep down we are all one and the same consciousness) then ending one’s life will not accomplish much. The vast majority of “who you are” will remain intact, and if there are further problems to be solved, and questions to be answered, doing this will simply delay your own progress. So at least from a certain point of view one could argue that the most important question is, instead, the question of personal identity. I.e. Are you, deep down, an individual being who starts existing when you are born and stops existing when you die (Closed Individualism), something that exists only for a single time-slice (Empty Individualism), or maybe something that is one and the same with the rest of the universe (Open Individualism)?

I think that is a very important question. But probably not the most important one. Instead, I’d posit that the most important question is: “What is good, and is there a ground truth about it?”

In the case that we are all one consciousness maybe what’s truly good is whatever one actually truly values from a first-person point of view (being mindful, of course, of the deceptive potential that comes from the Tyranny of the Intentional Object). And in so far as this has been asked, I think that there are two remaining possibilities: Does ultimate value come down to the pleasure-pain axis, or does it come down to spiritual wisdom?

Thus, in this day and age, I’d argue that the most important philosophical (and hence most important, period) question is: “Is happiness a spiritual trick, or is spirituality a happiness trick?”

What would it mean for happiness to be a spiritual trick? Think, for example, of the possibility that the reason why we exist is because we are all God, and God would be awfully bored if It knew that It was all that ever existed. In such a case, maybe bliss and happiness comes down to something akin to “Does this particular set of life experiences make God feel less lonely”? Alternatively, maybe God is “divinely self-sufficient”, as some mystics claim, and all of creation is “merely a plus on top of God”. In this case one could think that God is the ultimate source of all that is good, and thus bliss may be synonymous with “being closer to God”. In turn, as mystics have claimed over the ages, the whole point of life is to “get closer to God”.

Spirituality, though, goes beyond God: Within (atheistic) Buddhism the view that “bliss is a spiritual trick” might take another form: Bliss is either “dirty and a sign of ignorance” (as in the case of karma-generating pleasure) or it is “the results of virtuous merit conducive to true unconditioned enlightenment“. Thus, the whole point of life would be to become free from ignorance and reap the benefits of knowing the ultimate truth.

And what would it mean for spirituality to be a happiness trick? In this case one could imagine that our valence (i.e. our pleasure-pain axis) is a sort of qualia variety that evolution recruited in order to infuse the phenomenal representation of situations that predict either higher or lower chances of making copies of oneself (or spreading one’s genes, in the more general case of “inclusive fitness”). If this is so, it might be tempting to think that bliss is, ultimately, not something that “truly matters”. But this would be to think that bliss is “nothing other than the function that bliss plays in animal behavior”, which couldn’t be further from the truth. After all, the same behavior could be enacted by many methods. Instead, the raw phenomenal character of bliss reveals that “something matters in this universe”. Only people who are anhedonic (or are depressed) will miss the fact that “bliss matters”. This is self-evident and self-intimating to anyone currently experiencing ecstatic rapture. In light of these experiences we can conclude that if anything at all does matter, it has to do with the qualia varieties involved in the experiences that feel like the world has meaning. The pleasure-pain axis makes our existence significant.

Now, why do I think this is the most important question? IF we discover that happiness is a spiritual trick and that God is its source then we really ought to follow “the spiritual path” and figure out with science “what is it that God truly wants”. And under an atheistic brand of spirituality, what we ought to figure out is the laws of valence-charged spiritual energy. For example, if reincarnation and karma are involved in the expected amount of future bliss and suffering, so be it. Let’s all become Bodhisattvas and help as many sentient beings as possible throughout the eons to come.

On the other hand, IF we discover (and can prove with a good empirical argument) that spirituality is just the result of changes in valence/happiness, then settling on this with a high certainty would change the world. For starters, any compassionate (and at least mildly rational) Buddhist would then come along and help us out in the pursuit of creating a pan-species welfare state free of suffering with the use of biotechnology. I.e. The 500 odd million Buddhists world-wide would be key allies for the Hedonistic Imperative (a movement that aims to eliminate suffering with biotechnology).

Recall Dalai Lama’s quote: “If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode – without impairing intelligence and the critical mind – I would be the first patient.” [Dalai Lama (Society for Neuroscience Congress, Nov. 2005)].

If Buddhist doctrine concerning the very nature of suffering and its causes is wrong from a scientific point of view and we can prove it with an empirically verified physicalist paradigm, then the very Buddhist ethic of “focusing on minimizing suffering” ought to compel Buddhists throughout the world to join us in the battle against suffering by any means necessary. And most likely, given the physicalist premise, this would take the form of creating a technology that puts us all in a perpetual pro-social clear-headed non-addictive MDMA-like state of consciousness (or, in a more sophisticated vein, a well-balanced version of rational wire-heading).

The Forces At Work

        Recreational agents which are legal and socially sanctioned by respectable society aren’t, of course, popularly viewed as drugs at all. The nicotine addict and the alcoholic don’t think of themselves as practising psychopharmacologists; and so alas their incompetence is frequently lethal.

        Is such incompetence curable? If it is, and if the abolitionist project can be carried forward with pharmacotherapy in advance of true genetic medicine, then a number of preconditions must first be in place. A necessary and sufficient set could not possibly be listed here. It is still worth isolating and examining below several distinct yet convergent societal trends of huge potential significance.

  1. First, it must be assumed that we will continue to seek out and use chemical mood-enhancers on a massive, species-wide scale.
  2. Second, a pioneering and pharmacologically (semi-)literate elite will progressively learn to use their agents of choice in a much more effective, safe and rational manner. The whole pharmacopoeia of licensed and unlicensed medicines will be purchasable globally over the Net. As the operation of our 30,000 plus genes is unravelled, the new discipline of pharmacogenomics will allow drugs to be personally tailored to the genetic makeup of each individual. Better still, desirable states of consciousness that can be induced pharmacologically can later be pre-coded genetically.
  3. Third, society will continue to fund and support research into genetic engineering, reproductive medicine and all forms of biotechnology. This will enable the breathtaking array of designer-heavens on offer from third-millennium biomedicine to become a lifestyle choice.
  4. Fourth, the ill-fated governmental War On (some) Drugs will finally collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Parents are surely right to be anxious about many of today’s illegal intoxicants. Yet their toxicity will no more prove a reason to give up the dream of Better Living Through Chemistry than the casualties of early modern medicine are a reason to abandon contemporary medical science for homeopathy.
  5. Fifth, the medicalisation of everyday life, and of the human predicament itself, will continue apace. All manner of currently ill-defined discontents will be medically diagnosed and classified. Our innumerable woes will be given respectable clinical labels. Mass-medicalisation will enable the big drug companies aggressively to extend their lucrative markets in medically-approved psychotropics to a widening clientele. New and improved mood-modulating alleles, and other innovative gene-therapies for mood- and intellect-enrichment, will be patented. They will be brought to market by biotechnology companies eager to cure the psychopathologies of the afflicted; and to maximise profits.
  6. Sixth, in the next few centuries an explosive proliferation of ever-more sophisticated virtual reality software products will enable millions, and then billions, of people to live out their ideal fantasies. Paradoxically, as will be seen, the triumph of sensation-driven wish-fulfilment in immersive VR will also demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy of our old Peripheralist nostrums of social reform. Unhappiness will persist. The hedonic treadmill can’t succumb to computer software.
  7. Seventh, secularism and individualism will triumph over resurgent Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. An entitlement to lifelong well-being in this world, rather than the next, will take on the status of a basic human right.

         There are quite a few imponderables here. Futurology is not, and predictably will never become, one of the exact sciences. Conceivably, one can postulate, for instance, the global triumph of an anti-scientific theocracy. This might be in the mould of the American religious right; or even some kind of Islamic fundamentalism. Less conceivably, there might be a global victory of tender-minded humanism over the onward march of biotechnical determinism. It is also possible that non-medically-approved drug use could be curtailed, at least for a time, with intrusive personal surveillance technologies and punishments of increasingly draconian severity. Abetted by the latest convulsion of moral panic over Drugs, for example, a repressive totalitarian super-state could institute a regime of universal compulsory blood-tests for banned substances. Enforced “detoxification” in rehabilitation camps for offenders would follow.

        These scenarios and their variants are almost certainly too alarmist. Given a pervasive ethos of individualism, and the worldwide spread of hedonistic consumer-capitalism, then as soon as people discover that there is no biophysical reason on earth why they can’t be as happy as they choose indefinitely, it will be hard to stop more adventurous spirits from exploring that option. Lifelong ecstasy isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

David Pearce in The Hedonistic Imperative (chapter 3)


Psychedelic Science 2017: Take-aways, impressions, and what’s next


It would be impossible for me to summarize what truly went on at Psychedelic Science 2017. Since giving a fair and detailed account of all of the presentations, workshops and social events I attended is out of the question, I will restrict myself to talking about, what I see as, the core insights and take-aways from the conference (plus some additional impressions I’ll get to). In brief, the core insights are: (1) that we are on the brink of a culturally-accepted scientific revolution on the study of consciousness in which we finally navigate our way out of our current pre-Galilean understanding of the mind, (2) that the breakdown of both the extremes of nihilism and eternalism as ideological north-stars in consciousness research is about to take place (i.e. finding out that neither scientific materialism nor spirituality convey the full picture), and (3) that a new science of valence, qualia, and rational psychonautics based on the quantification of good and bad feelings is slowly making its way into the surface.

With regards to (1): It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention that there is a psychedelic renaissance underway. Bearing extreme world-wide counter-measures against it, in so far as psychedelic and empathogenic compounds meet the required evidentiary standards of mainstream psychopharmacology as safe and effective treatments for mental illness (and they do), they will be a staple of tomorrow’s tools for mental health. It’s not a difficult gamble: the current studies being made around the world are merely providing the scientific backing of what was already known in the 60s (for psychedelics) and 80s (for MDMA). I.e. That psychedelic medicine (people love to call it that way) in the right set and setting produces outstanding clinically-relevant effect sizes.

On (2): it is very unclear what people who attended the conference believe about the nature of reality, but overall there was a strong Open Individualist undercurrent and a powerful feeling that transcendence is right next door (even the urinals had sacred geometry*). That said, the science provided a refreshing feeling of cautious nihilism. Trying to reconcile both love and science is, in my opinion, the way to go. Whether we are about to ascend to another realm or if we are about to find out about our cosmic meaninglessness, the truth is that there are a lot of more immediate things to worry about. Arguably, psychedelic experiences could be used to treat both the afflictions that come with eternalism as well as those that come from nihilism. Namely, psychedelics often make you experience the world as you believe it to be (echoing John C. Lilly’s famous words: “In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits…”). So if you rely on intense (but mundanely challenged) feelings of transcendence to get by, you may find out on a psychedelic experience that making a world in which what you believe is literally true does not lead to happiness and meaningfulness in the way you thought it might. Unless, of course, one believes that everything that happens is a net positive somehow (which is hard to do given the regular onslaught of meaninglessness found in everyday life), any profound realization of an ontological basis of reality (as in “a made up universe perceived as if real”) can lead to dysphoria. Nihilism can be profoundly distressing on psychedelics. Yet, as evidenced by the bulk of conscious experiences, the quality of meaningfulness in one’s experience is a continuum, neither objective nor subjective, and neither eternal nor unreal (I’m using the terminology from the book “Meaningness“, though other terminologies exist for similar concepts such as the Buddhist “middle way”, Existentialism, Pragmatism, Rationalists’ epistemic rationality, etc.).

Psychedelic veterans usually end up converging on something that has this sort of emotional texture: A bitter-sweet yet Stoic worldview that leaves an open space for all kinds of wonderful things to happen, yet remains aware of the comings and goings of happiness and fulfillment. It makes it a point to not be too preoccupied with questions of ultimate meaning. It may be that for most people it’s impossible to arrive at such wisdom without trying out (and failing in some way) to live all of their fantasies before giving up and accepting the fluxing nature of reality. In such a case, psychedelics would seem to offer us a way to accelerate our learning about the unsatisfactoriness of attachments and find the way to live in realistic joy.

That said, maybe such wisdom is not Wisdom (in the sense of being universal) since we are restricting our analysis to the human wetware as it is today.  What reason do we have to believe that the hedonic treadmill is a fundamental property of the universe? A lot of evidence suggests persistent differences in people’s hedonic set-point (often genetically influenced, as in the case of the SCN9A gene for pain thresholds), and this challenges the notion that we can’t avoid suffering. Indeed, MDMA-like states may some day be experienced at will with the use of technology (and without side effects). There may even be scientifically-derived precision-engineered ethical and freedom-expanding wireheading technology that will make our current everyday way of life look laughably uninteresting and unmeaningful in comparison.

Unfortunately, talking about this (i.e. technologically-induced hedonic recalibration) with people who need a pessimistic metaphysics of valence just to function may be considered antisocial. For example, some people seem to need spiritual theories of the pleasure-pain axis that focus on fairness (such as the doctrine of Karma) in order to feel like they are not randomly getting the shorter end of the (cosmic) stick (this sentiment usually comes together with implicit Closed Individualist convictions). Of course feeling like one is a victim is itself the result of one’s affect. This provides the perfect segway for (3):

In addition to all of the magical (but expected) fusion of art, psychotherapy, mysticism, spirituality and self-hacking that this conference attracted, I was extremely delighted to see the hints of what I think will change the world for the better like nothing else will: psychedelic valence research.

Of particular note is the work of Dráulio Barros de Araújo (“Rapid Antidepressant Effects of the Psychedelic Ayahuasca in Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial”), Mendel Kaelen (“The Psychological and Neurophysiological Effects of Music in Combination with Psychedelics”), Leor Roseman (“Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy: Neural Changes and the Relationship Between Acute Peak Experience and Clinical Outcomes”), Jordi Riba (“New Findings from Ayahuasca Research: From Enhancing Mindfulness Abilities to Promoting Neurogenesis”), Selen Atasoy (“Enhanced Improvisation in Brain Processing by LSD: Exploring Neural Correlates of LSD Experience With Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves”), Tomas Palenicek (“The Effects of Psilocybin on Perception and Dynamics of Induced EEG/fMRI Correlates of Psychedelic Experience”) and Clare Wikins (“A Novel Approach to Detoxification from Methadone Using Low, Repeated, and Cumulative Administering of Ibogaine”).

And of all of these, Selen Atasoy‘s work seems to be hitting the nail in the head the most: Her work involves looking into how psychedelics affect the overall amount of energy that each of the brain’s discrete connectome-specific resonant states has. Without giving it away (their work with LSD is still unpublished) let me just say that they found that having some extra energy in specific harmonics was predictive of the specific psychedelic effects experienced at a given point in time (including things such as emotional arousal, deeply felt positive mood, and ego dissolution).

Remarkably, this line of work is in agreement with Mike Johnson’s theoretical framework for the study of valence (as outlined in Principia Qualia). Namely, that there is a deep connection between harmony, symmetry and valence that will make sense once we figure out the mathematical structure whose formal properties are isomorphic to a subject’s phenomenology. In particular, “Valence Structuralism” would seem to be supported by the findings that relatively pure harmonic states are experienced as positive emotion. We would further predict that very pure harmonic states would have the highest level of (positive) hedonic tone (i.e. bliss). We are indeed very intrigued by the connectome-specific harmonic approach to psychedelic research and look forward to working with this paradigm in the future. It would be an understatement to say that we are also excited to see the results of applying this paradigm to study MDMA-like states of consciousness. This line of research is, above all, what makes me think that this year is the Year of Qualia (whether we have realized it or not). As it were, we are seeing the first hints of a future science of consciousness that can finally provide quantitative predictions about valence, and hence, become the first scientifically-compliant theory of ultimate value.

And now some subjective impressions about the conference…


Psychedelic Ambiance

At its core, the conference felt extremely psychedelic in its own right. The artwork, people’s attires, the scents, the background music, etc. were all what seemed to me like expressions of an emerging style of psychedelic ambiance: A euphoric blend of MDMA-like self-assurant empathegenesis vibes (“everything will be ok”) with an LSD-like ontological sabotage to the ego entheoblasting vibes of universal oneness (“things are not what they seem/everything already always and never has happened at the same time”). Peak experiences, after all, often involve the metaphorical reconciliation of the divine and the mundane in a cosmic dance of meaning.

The Gods

In his book “Simulations of God” John C. Lilly proposes that beneath the surface of our awareness, each and every mind worships a number of seemingly transcendental values (sometimes, but not always, explicitly personified). Whether we know it or not, he argues, each and every one of us treats as if a God at least something. Whether we think there there is a “God Out There”, that “Truth is the Ultimate God”, or that “God Is The Group”, the highest node in our behavioral hierarchy is always covertly managed by our basic assumptions about reality (and what they prescribe as “intrinsically good”). The book’s table of contents is awesome; it outlines what ends up being the bulk of what humans ever care about as their ultimate values:

  1. God As the Beginning
  2. I Am God
  3. God Out There
  4. God As Him/Her/It
  5. God As The Group
  6. God As Orgasm and Sex
  7. God As Death
  8. God As Drugs
  9. God As the Body
  10. God As Money
  11. God As Righteous Wrath
  12. God As Compassion
  13. God As War
  14. God As Science
  15. God As Mystery
  16. God As the Belief, the Simulation, the Model
  17. God As the Computer
  18. God Simulating Himself
  19. God As Consciousness-without-an-Object
  20. God As Humor
  21. God As Superspace, the Ultimate Collapse into the Black Hole, the End.
  22. The Ultimate Simulation
  23. God As the Diad

Perhaps what’s most amazing about psychedelics is that they are capable of changing one’s Gods. It’s extremely common for people who take psychedelics to de-emphasize traditionalist and mainstream Gods such as 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 11, 13, while also having experiences (and changes of mind) that push them to emphasize 2, 6, 8, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, and 23. But one wonders, what’s the eventual steady-state? As an umbrella description of what is going on we could say that psychedelics make you more open. But where does this, ultimately, lead?

Perhaps you started out in a conservative household and a family that emphasized loyalty to the group, conformism, nationalism and traditional religious values (1, 3, 5, 7). But once you tried LSD you felt a great change in the strength of your various deep-seated inclinations. You realize that you do not want to worship anything just to fit in, just to be part of a group, and that maybe caring about money is not as important as caring about making your own meaning out of life. You now feel like you care more about mysterious things like Orgasm (6), the Mind-Body connection (9), and philosophical questions like “If I am God, why would I build a universe with suffering in it?” (2, 15, 16, 21). You maybe watch some lectures by Alan Watts and read a book by Huxley, among other counter-culture material consumed, and you might start to develop a general belief in “the transcendent” but in a way that attempts to be compatible with the fact that you and the people you love experience suffering. You fantasize with the idea that maybe all of suffering is somehow necessary for some higher cosmic purpose (18, 19, 22) to which you are only made privy every now and then. You then continue on the path of psychedelic divination, perhaps taking more than you could handle here and there, and you are made aware of incredible universes: you meet guardians, you are led to read about Theosophy, you meet archetypes of the collective psyche, and after a while your strange experience with electronic equipment on LSD makes you wonder whether telepathy (at least an energetic and emotional variant of it) could be possible after all. But you do not ever obtain “good enough evidence” that would convince anyone who is determined to be a skeptic of your glitches of the Matrix. At some point, after taking too many magic mushrooms, you end up in what seems like a sort of Buddhist Hell: Feeling like we are all One no longer feels like a fact to be excited about, but rather, this is felt as a realization that should be forgotten as soon as one has it. Don’t let the cosmic boredom set in, don’t led nihilistic monism get to your very core. But it does, and you have a bad trip, one trip that you feel you never really recovered from, and whose nature is never talked about at psychedelic gatherings. (Don’t worry, right next door someone had a bad trip whose semantic content was the exact opposite of yours yet its effects on your corresponding valence landscapes were similar, e.g. concluding that “we are all made of atoms with no purpose” may feel just as bad as believing that “we are all God, and God is bored”). So maybe psychedelic therapy is a red herring after all, you think to yourself, and we should really be looking only into compounds that both increase euphoria and obfuscate the ultimate nature of reality at the same time. “Science, we need science” -you tell yourself- “so that we can figure out what it is that consciousness truly wants, and avoid both nihilistic bad trips as well as unrealistic eternalist mania”. Perhaps we are currently about to have to figure this out as a collective intelligence: “What do we do with the fact that we are all God?” This question is now making its way in etheric undercurrents in the shared meme-space of humanity just as the psychedelic renaissance starts to unfold.

The above paragraph is just one of the various archetypical ways in which psychedelic self-exploration may progress over time for a particular person. Of course not only do people’s progression vary; people’s starting points may be different. Some people approach psychedelics with spiritual intentions, others do so with recreation in mind, others use them for psychological self-exploration, and yet others use it to try to find glitches in reality. I would love to have a quantitative assessment of how one’s starting “implicit Gods” influence the way psychedelics affect you, and how such Gods evolve over the course of more exposure to psychedelic states of consciousness. There is a lot of wisdom-amplification research to be made on this front.

Psychedelic Gods

You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.

– Timothy Leary

The first thing I noticed at this conference was that this is a crowd that values both love and science. The geek in me seemed to be more than welcomed in here.

While I was able to enjoy the incredible vibe of the Bicycle Day celebration (just a day before the conference), I remember thinking that evolutionary psychology (cf. Mating Mind) would have a lot to say about it. A large proportion of seemingly selfless display of psychedelic self-sacrifice (e.g. LSD mega-dosing, spiritual training, asceticism, etc.) might in fact be just sexual signaling of fitness traits such as mental and physical robustness (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic StatesPolitical Peacocks). It’s hard to separate the universal love from the tribal mate-selection going on at raves and parties of this nature, and at times one may even get a bit of an anti-intellectual vibe for questioning this too deeply.

At the conference, though, I could tell there was another story going on. Namely, the God of Science made a prominent appearance, giving us all a sense of genuine progress beyond the comings and goings of the eternal game of hide-and-seek as one would expect in mere neo-hippy cyber-paganist events.

The God of Science… yes… if you think about it, holding an enriched concept of “science” (in its most expansive sense possible) while simultaneously trying to hold with equal intensity and expansiveness the intent of “love for all beings”, can make strange and wonderful things happen in your mind. Of salience is the fact that there will be an intense pull towards either only experiencing thought-forms about love or only focusing on thought-forms about science. Mixing the two requires a lot of energy. It’s almost as if we were wired to only focus on one at a time. This is an effect reminiscent to the mutual inhibition between empathizing and systematizing cognitive styles, and maybe at its core, the difficulty in blending both love and science without residue is a reflection of an underlying invariant. Under the assumption that you have a limited amount of positive valence at your disposal to paint your world simulation, and that you want to achieve clarity of mind, it is possible that you will have to front-load most of that positive valence in either broad quantitative observations (systematizing) or focused feelings of specialness and intimacy (empathizing). This is why, for instance, MDMA and 2C-B are so promising for cognitive transhumanism: these compounds can give rise to experiences in which there is a huge surplus of positive valence ready to be used to paint any aspect of your world simulation with bliss qualia. Sadly, this is a property of such states of consciousness, and it cannot currently be brought into our everyday lives as it is. Without serious genetic engineering (or other valence-enhancing technologies) all we can do for now is to make use of these states of consciousness to catalyze changes in our deep-seated existential stances in order to help us get by in our half-meaningful half-meaningless everyday life.

Of course, the Holy Grail of mental health interventions would be a technology that allows us to instantiate a context-dependent level of empathogenesis in a reliable and sustainable way. When I asked people at the conference whether they thought that having “a machine that makes you feel like you are on MDMA on demand with no tolerance, impulsivity, addiction or other side effects” would be good, most people (at least 80%) said “it would be bad for humanity to have such machine”. Why? Because they think that suffering serves a higher purpose, somehow. But I would disagree. And even if they are right, I still think that there are not enough people steel-manning the case for intelligent wire-heading. It’d be silly to find out in 2200 that we could have avoided hundreds of millions of people’s suffering at no cost to our collective growth if we only had thought more carefully about the intrinsic value of suffering back in 2050 when the MDMA-machine was invented and reflexively banned.

But healthy sustainable wire-heading (let alone wire-heading done right in light of evolution-at-the-limit scenarios) is many decades away into the future anyway. So all we have for now, by way of consciousness-expanding therapies for real-life knots-and-bolts treatment-resistant human suffering is the sort of therapy paradigms discussed in the conference. Of the roughly 135 conference talks (excluding parties, networking events, and workshops) at least 100 were either only or at least primarily focused on psychedelic therapy for mental illness (cancer end-of-life anxiety, PTSD, addiction, treatment-resistant depression, etc.). As far as a strategical cultural move, this focus on treatment is a very good approach, and from a valence utilitarian point of view maybe this is indeed what we should be focusing on in 2017. But I still wish that there was a bigger presence of some other kinds of discussion. In particular, I’d love for psychedelic science to eventually make a prominent appearance in a much wider context. Any discussion about the nature of consciousness from a scientific point of view cannot overlook the peculiar consciousness-enhancing properties of psychedelics. And any discussion about ethics, life and the purpose of it all will likewise be under-informed in so far as psychedelic peak-meaningful experiences are not brought into the conversation. After all, the ethical, philosophical, and scientific significance of psychedelics is hard to overstate.

Ideally we would all organize a conference that takes the best of: 1) A steadfast resolution to figure out the problem of consciousness, such as what we can find at places like The Science of Consciousness, 2) a steadfast resolution to combine both the best of compassion and rationality in order to help as many beings as possible, as we find in places like Effective Altruism Global, and 3) a steadfast resolution to look at the most impressive pieces of evidence about the nature of the mind and valence, as can be found in places like Psychedelic Science. All in all, this would be a perfect triad, as it would combine (1) The Question (Consciousness), (2) The Purpose (Ending Suffering), and (3) The Method (Scientific Study of Highly-Energetic States of Consciousness). Rest assured, the conferences organized by the Super-Shulgin Academy will blend these three aspects into one.

The Crowd

This was a very chill crowd. The only way for me to be edgy in the social contexts that arose at Psychedelic Science 2017 was to refuse to dab with the guy next to me (and to decline the Asparagus Butternut Squash edible offered at some point), or, at its worse, trying to spark a conversation about the benefits of well-managed opioid medication treatment for chronic pain (it was a rather opioid-phobic crowd, if I may say so myself).

On the other hand, talking about one’s experience in hyperbolic phenomenal spaces while on DMT, how to secretly communicate with people on LSD, and about the use of texture analysis and synthesis for psychophysical tasks to investigate psychedelic image processing barely raised anybody’s brows. I was happy to find that some people recognized me from Qualia Computing, and more than one of them shared the thought that it would be great to see more interbreeding and cross-fertilization between the psychedelic and the rationalist communities (I can’t agree more with this sentiment).

To give you a taste of the sort of gestalt present at this event, let me share with you something. Waiting on the line for one of the parties hosted by the conference organizers I overheard someone talking about what his ketamine experiences had taught him. Curious about it, I approached him and asked him to debrief me -if at all possible -about what he had learned. He said:

The super-intelligence that I’ve encountered on my ketamine experiences is far, far, beyond human comprehension, and its main message is that everything is interconnected; it does not matter when you hear the message, but that you hear it, and unconsciously prepare for what is going to happen. We are all soon going to be part of it, and we will all be together, knowing each other at a deeper level than we have ever thought imaginable, and experience love and meaning on another level, together in a vast interdimensional ecology of benevolent minds. All of the stories that we tell ourselves about the grand human narrative are all, well, made up by our minds on our limited human level. Whatever we are coming to, whatever this future thing that we are facing is, goes beyond human cravings for transcendence, it goes beyond the sentiment of return to nature, it goes beyond science and technology, and it goes beyond every religion and contemplative practice. The complexity to be found in the super-intelligent collective being that we will become is inexpressible, but there is nothing to fear, we are it on some level already, and we will soon all realize it.

It is hard to estimate what the distribution, prevalence and resilience of beliefs about the nature of reality, consciousness, love, purpose and everything else of the people attending this conference were. As a whole, it felt remarkably diverse, though. Based on my subjective impressions, I’d suspect that like the person quoted above, about 40% of the attendees were people who genuinely believe that there is a big consciousness event that is about to happen (whether it is a collective spiritual level-breaking point, a technological Singularity, inter-dimensional aliens taking us with them, or a more mundane run-of-the-mill recursively self-improving feedback loop with genetic methods for consciousness research). Maybe about 50% seemed to be what you might call pragmatic, agnostic, and open minded people who are simply looking to find out what’s up with the field, without spiritual (or emotional) vested interested in exactly what will happen. And finally, about 10% of the attendees might be classifiable as nihilists on some or another level. While intrigued about the effects of psychedelics, they see them as dead ends or red herrings. Perhaps useful for mental health, but not likely to be a key to reality (or even a hint of a future revolution in the states of consciousness we utilize on our everyday life).


I am very excited with the current movement to examine psychedelics in a rational scientific framework. Ultimately, I think that we will realize that valence is a quantifiable and definite thing (cf. Valence Structuralism). Wether we are talking about humor, pain relief, transcendence, or knots-and-bolts feelings of competence, all of our positive experiences share something in common. Ultimately, I do not know whether “valence is a spiritual trick” or if “spirituality is a valence trick”, but I am confident that as a species we do not yet have the answer to these questions and that a scientific approach to them may clarify this incredibly important line of inquiry.

Sooner or later, it seems to me, we will figure out what exactly “the universe wants from us”, so to speak, and then nothing will ever be the same; psychedelic research is a powerful and promising way to make good headway in this highly desirable direction.





The look from the Sunset Cruise at the Psychedelic Science 2017 Conference

*Even the bathroom urinals seemed to have sacred geometry:



Even the urinals had sacred geometry… reminding you of the interconnectedness of all things at the unlikeliest of moments.

How Every Fairy Tale Should End

“And even though the princess defeated the dragon and married the prince at the end of the story, the truth is that the hedonic treadmill and the 7-year itch eventually caught up to them and they were not able to ‘live happily ever after’.

“Thankfully, the princess got really interested in philosophy of mind and worked really hard on developing a theory of valence in order to ‘sabotage the mill’ of affective ups and downs, so to speak. After 10 years of hard work, three book-length series of blog posts, a well founded team of 17 rational psychonauts, and hundreds of experiments involving psychedelics and brain computer interfaces, at last the princess was able to create a portable device capable of measuring what amounts to a reasonable proxy for valence at an individual level in sub-second timescales, which over time enabled people to have reliable and sustainable control over the temporal dynamics of valence and arousal.

“Later on the prince developed a Moloch-aware and Singleton-proof economy of information about the state-space of consciousness, and thus kick-started the era of ethical wireheads; the world became a true fariy tale… a wondrous universe of enigmatic -but always blissful- varieties of ineffable qualia. After this came to pass, one could truly and sincerely say that the prince and the princess both became (functionally and phenomenally) happily ever after. The End.”

Political Peacocks

Extract from Geoffrey Miller’s essay “Political peacocks”

The hypothesis

Humans are ideological animals. We show strong motivations and incredible capacities to learn, create, recombine, and disseminate ideas. Despite the evidence that these idea-processing systems are complex biological adaptations that must have evolved through Darwinian selection, even the most ardent modern Darwinians such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richards Dawkins, and Dan Dennett tend to treat culture as an evolutionary arena separate from biology. One reason for this failure of nerve is that it is so difficult to think of any form of natural selection that would favor such extreme, costly, and obsessive ideological behavior. Until the last 40,000 years of human evolution, the pace of technological and social change was so slow that it’s hard to believe there was much of a survival payoff to becoming such an ideological animal. My hypothesis, developed in a long Ph.D. dissertation, several recent papers, and a forthcoming book, is that the payoffs to ideological behavior were largely reproductive. The heritable mental capacities that underpin human language, culture, music, art, and myth-making evolved through sexual selection operating on both men and women, through mutual mate choice. Whatever technological benefits those capacities happen to have produced in recent centuries are unanticipated side-effects of adaptations originally designed for courtship.


The predictions and implications

The vast majority of people in modern societies have almost no political power, yet have strong political convictions that they broadcast insistently, frequently, and loudly when social conditions are right. This behavior is puzzling to economists, who see clear time and energy costs to ideological behavior, but little political benefit to the individual. My point is that the individual benefits of expressing political ideology are usually not political at all, but social and sexual. As such, political ideology is under strong social and sexual constraints that make little sense to political theorists and policy experts. This simple idea may solve a number of old puzzles in political psychology. Why do hundreds of questionnaires show that men more conservative, more authoritarian, more rights-oriented, and less empathy-oriented than women? Why do people become more conservative as the move from young adulthood to middle age? Why do more men than women run for political office? Why are most ideological revolutions initiated by young single men?

None of these phenomena make sense if political ideology is a rational reflection of political self-interest. In political, economic, and psychological terms, everyone has equally strong self-interests, so everyone should produce equal amounts of ideological behavior, if that behavior functions to advance political self-interest. However, we know from sexual selection theory that not everyone has equally strong reproductive interests. Males have much more to gain from each act of intercourse than females, because, by definition, they invest less in each gamete. Young males should be especially risk-seeking in their reproductive behavior, because they have the most to win and the least to lose from risky courtship behavior (such as becoming a political revolutionary). These predictions are obvious to any sexual selection theorist. Less obvious are the ways in which political ideology is used to advertise different aspects of one’s personality across the lifespan.

In unpublished studies I ran at Stanford University with Felicia Pratto, we found that university students tend to treat each others’ political orientations as proxies for personality traits. Conservatism is simply read off as indicating an ambitious, self-interested personality who will excel at protecting and provisioning his or her mate. Liberalism is read as indicating a caring, empathetic personality who will excel at child care and relationship-building. Given the well-documented, cross-culturally universal sex difference in human mate choice criteria, with men favoring younger, fertile women, and women favoring older, higher-status, richer men, the expression of more liberal ideologies by women and more conservative ideologies by men is not surprising. Men use political conservatism to (unconsciously) advertise their likely social and economic dominance; women use political liberalism to advertise their nurturing abilities. The shift from liberal youth to conservative middle age reflects a mating-relevant increase in social dominance and earnings power, not just a rational shift in one’s self-interest.

More subtley, because mating is a social game in which the attractiveness of a behavior depends on how many other people are already producing that behavior, political ideology evolves under the unstable dynamics of game theory, not as a process of simple optimization given a set of self-interests. This explains why an entire student body at an American university can suddenly act as if they care deeply about the political fate of a country that they virtually ignored the year before. The courtship arena simply shifted, capriciously, from one political issue to another, but once a sufficient number of students decided that attitudes towards apartheid were the acid test for whether one’s heart was in the right place, it became impossible for anyone else to be apathetic about apartheid. This is called frequency-dependent selection in biology, and it is a hallmark of sexual selection processes.

What can policy analysts do, if most people treat political ideas as courtship displays that reveal the proponent’s personality traits, rather than as rational suggestions for improving the world? The pragmatic, not to say cynical, solution is to work with the evolved grain of the human mind by recognizing that people respond to policy ideas first as big-brained, idea-infested, hyper-sexual primates, and only secondly as concerned citizens in a modern polity. This view will not surprise political pollsters, spin doctors, and speech writers, who make their daily living by exploiting our lust for ideology, but it may surprise social scientists who take a more rationalistic view of human nature. Fortunately, sexual selection was not the only force to shape our minds. Other forms of social selection such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and even group selection seem to have favoured some instincts for political rationality and consensual egalitarianism. Without the sexual selection, we would never have become such colourful ideological animals. But without the other forms of social selection, we would have little hope of bringing our sexily protean ideologies into congruence with reality.