Befriending Utility Monsters: Being the Adult in the Room When Talking About the Hedonic Extremes (link)
In this episode I connect a broad variety of topics with the following common thread: “What does it mean to be the adult in the room when dealing with extremely valenced states of consciousness?” Essentially, a talk on Utility Monsters.
Concretely, what does it mean to be responsible and sensible when confronted with the fact that pain and pleasure follow a long tail distribution? When discussing ultra-painful or ultra-blissful experiences one needs to take off the glasses we use to reason about “room temperature consciousness” and put on glasses that actually take these states with the seriousness they deserve.
Topics discussed include: The partial 5HT3 antagonism of ginger juice, kidney stones from vitamin C supplementation, 2C-E nausea, phenibut withdrawal, akathisia as a remarkably common side effect of psychiatric medication (neuroleptics, benzos, and SSRIs), negative 5-MeO-DMT trips, the book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe”, turbulence and laminar flow in the “energy body”, being a “mom” at a festival, and more.
“This manuscript will advance the hypothesis that 5-HT7 directly mediates three specific dramatic mental effects of psychedelics: creative open-eyed Visuals, Ego-loss, and loss of contact with Reality (VER).” (Thomas S. Ray; source)
Mapping State-Spaces of Consciousness: The Neroli Neighborhood (link)
What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, clauses, subordinate clauses, field geometry, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)?
Topics Covered in this Video: The State-space of Consciousness, Mapping State-Spaces, David Pearce at Oxford, Qualia Enrichment Kits, Character Impact vs. Flavors, Linalool Variants, Clusters of Neroli Scents, Neroli in Perfumes, Neroli vs. Orange Blossom vs. Petigrain vs. Orange/Mandarin/Lemon/Lime, High-Entropy Alloys of Scent, Musks as Reverb and Brown Noise, “Neroli Reconstructions” (synthetic), Semi-synthetic Mixtures, Winner-Takes-All Dynamics in Qualia Spaces, Multi-Phasic Scents, and Non-Euclidean State-Spaces.
What is Time? Explaining Time-Loops, Moments of Eternity, Time Branching, Time Reversal, and More… (link)
What is (phenomenal) time?
The feeling of time passing is not the same as physical time.
Albert Einstein discovered that “Newtonian time” was a special case of physical time, since gravity, relativity, and the constancy of the speed of light entails that space, time, mass, and gravity are intimately connected. He, in a sense, discovered a generalization of our common-sense notion of physical time; a generalization which accounts for the effects of moving and accelerating frames of reference on the relative passage of time between observers. Physical time, it turns out, could manifest in many more (exotic) ways than was previously thought.
Likewise, we find that our everyday phenomenal time (i.e. the feeling of time passing) is a special case of a far more general set of possible time-like qualities of experience. In particular, in this video I discuss “exotic phenomenal time” experiences, which include oddities such as time-loops, moments of eternity, time branching, and time reversal. I then go on to explain these exotic phenomenal time experiences with a model we call the “pseudo-time arrow”, which involves implicit causality in the network of sensations we experience on each “moment of experience”. Thus we realize that phenomenal time is an incredibly general property! It turns out that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible here… it’s about time we do so.
Benzos: Why the Withdrawal is Worse than the High is Good (+ Flumazenil/NAD+ Anti-Tolerance Action) (link)
Most people have low-resolution models of how drug tolerance works. Folk theories that “what goes up must come down” and theories in the medical establishment about how you can “stabilize a patient on a dose” and expect optimal effects long term get in the way of actually looking at how tolerance works.
In this video I explain why benzo withdrawal is far worse than the high they give you is good.
Core arguments presented:
Benzos can treat anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, seizures, hallucinations, etc. If you use them to treat one of these symptoms, the rebound will nonetheless involve all of them.
Kindling – How long-term use leads to neural annealing of the “withdrawal neural patterns”.
Amnesia effects prevent you from remembering the good parts/only remembering the bad parts.
Neurotoxicity from long-term benzo use makes it harder for your brain to heal.
Arousal as a multiplier of consciousness: on benzos the “high” is low arousal and the withdrawal is high arousal (compared to stimulants where you at least will “sleep through the withdrawal”).
Tolerance still builds up even when you don’t have a “psychoactive dose” in your body – meaning that the extremely long half-life of clonazepam and diazepam and their metabolites (50h+) entails that you still develop long-term tolerance even with weekly or biweekly use!
I then go into how the (empirically false) common-sense view of drug tolerance is delaying promising research avenues, such as “anti-tolerance drugs” (see links below). In particular, NAD+ IV and Flumazenil seem to have large effect sizes for treating benzo withdrawals. I AM NOT CONFIDENT THAT THEY WORK, but I think it is silly to not look into them with our best science at this point. Clinical trials for NAD+ IV therapy for drug withdrawal are underway, and the research to date on flumazenil seems extremely promising. Please let me know if you have any experience using either of these two tools and whether you had success with them or not.
Note: These treatments may also generalize to other GABAergic drugs like gabapentin, alcohol, and phenibut (which also have horrible withdrawals, but are far shorter than benzo withdrawal).
Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil. Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines […] were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.”
Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms. Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.
Is it possible for the “natural growth” of a pandemic to be slower than exponential no matter where it starts? What are ways in which we can leverage the graphical properties of the “contact network” of humanity in order to control contagious diseases? In this video I offer a novel way of analyzing and designing networks that may allow us to easily prevent the exponential growth of future pandemics.
Topics covered: The difference between the aesthetic of pure math vs. applied statistics when it comes to making sense of graphs. Applications of graph analysis. Identifying people with a high centrality in social networks. Klout scores. Graphlets. Kinds of graphs: geometric, small world, scale-free, empirical (galactic core + “whiskers”). Pandemics being difficult to control due to exponential growth. Using a sort of “pandemic Klout score” to prioritize who to quarantine, who to vaccinate first. The network properties that made the plague spread so slowly in the Middle Ages. Toroidal planets as having linear pandemic growth after a certain threshold number of infections. Non-integer graph dimensionality. Dimensional chokes. And… kitchen sponges.
Readings either referenced in the video or useful to learn more about this topic:
Main Empirical Findings: Our results suggest a rather detailed and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the community structure in large networks. Several qualitative properties of community structure are nearly universal:
• Up to a size scale, which empirically is roughly 100 nodes, there not only exist well-separated communities, but also the slope of the network community profile plot is generally sloping downward. (See Fig. 1(a).) This latter point suggests, and empirically we often observe, that smaller communities can be combined into meaningful larger communities.
• At size scale of 100 nodes, we often observe the global minimum of the network community profile plot. (Although these are the “best” communities in the entire graph, they are usually connected to the remainder of the network by just a single edge.)
• Above the size scale of roughly 100 nodes, the network community profile plot gradually increases, and thus there is a nearly inverse relationship between community size and community quality. This upward slope suggests, and empirically we often observe, that as a function of increasing size, the best possible communities as they grow become more and more “blended into” the remainder of the network.
We have also examined in detail the structure of our social and information networks. We have observed that an ‘jellyfish’ or ‘octopus’ model [33, 7] provides a rough first approximation to structure of many of the networks we have examined.
Ps. Forgot to explain the sponge’s relevance: the scale-specific network geometry of a sponge is roughly hyperbolic at a small scale. Then the material is cubic at medium scale. And at the scale where you look at it as flat (being a sheet with finite thickness) it is two dimensional.
Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (link)
Why does DMT feel so “real”? Why does it feel like you experience genuine mind-independent realities on DMT?
In this video I explain that we all implicitly rely on a model of which signals are trustworthy and which ones are not. In particular, in order to avoid losing one’s mind during an intense exotic experience (such as those catalyzed by psychedelics, dissociatives, or meditation) one needs to (a) know that you are altered, (b) have a good model of what that alteration entails, and (c) that the alteration is not strong enough that it breaks down either (a) or (b). So drugs that make you forget you are under the influence, or that you don’t know how to model (or have a mistaken model of) can deeply disrupt your “web of trusted beliefs”.
I argue that one cannot really import the models that one learned from other psychedelics about “what psychedelics do” to DMT; DMT alters you in a far broader way. For example, most people on LSD may mistrust what they see, but they will not mistrust what they touch (touch stays a “trusted signal” on LSD). But on DMT you can experience tactile hallucinations that are coherent with one’s visions! “Crossing the veil” on DMT is not a visual experience: it’s a multi-modal experience, like entering a cave hiding behind a waterfall.
Some of the signals that DMT messes with that often convince people that what they experienced was mind-independent include:
Hyperbolic geometry and mathematical complexity; experiencing “impossible objects”.
Incredibly high-resolution multi-modal integration: hallucinations are “coherent” across senses.
Philosophical qualia enhancement: it alters not only your senses and emotions, but also “the way you organize models of reality”.
More “energized” experiences feel inherently more real, and DMT can increase the energy parameter to an extreme degree.
Highly valenced experiences also feel more real – the bliss and the horror are interpreted as “belonging to the vibe of a reality” rather than being just a property of your experience.
DMT can give you powerful hallucinations in every modality: not only visual hallucinations, but also tactile, auditory, scent, taste, and proprioception.
Novel and exotic feelings of “electromagnetism”.
Sense of “wisdom”.
Knowledge of your feelings: the entities know more about you than you yourself know about yourself.
With all of these signals being liable to chaotic alterations on DMT it makes sense that even very bright and rational people may experience a “shift” in their beliefs about reality. The trusted signals will have altered their consilience point. And since each point of consilience between trusted signals entails a worldview, people who believe in the independent reality of the realms disclosed by DMT share trust in some signals most people don’t even know exist. We can expect some pushback for this analysis by people who trust any of the signals altered by DMT listed above. Which is fine! But… if we want to create a rational Super-Shulgin Academy to really make some serious progress in mapping-out the state-space of consciousness, we will need to prevent epistemological mishaps. I.e. We have to model insanity so that we ourselves can stay sane.
[Skip to 4:20 if you don’t care about the scent of rose – the Qualia of the Day today]
“The most common descriptive labels for the entity were being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. […] Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.”
So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence.
This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:
We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.
The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…
This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.
I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.
Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.
One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.
In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.
Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence.
So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.
I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.
So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions.But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities.
And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.
I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected.
Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are.
Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.
Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.
And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.
These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.
When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.
So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.
So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.
So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.
Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.
There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those.
Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.
So,dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness.
I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.
Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.
And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.
Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.
Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.
I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.
Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.
Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.
Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has.
So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.
Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.
Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.
These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.
Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.
Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.
Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning.
You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.
You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.
When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.
These are just examples of a piano chord.
Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful.
Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.
And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states.
So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.
Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.
Here are just some quotes. Cool.
And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.
In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it.
Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.
Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry.
Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good.
Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.
For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.
Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena.
This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them.
Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at.
So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.
Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.
And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.
I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.
This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.
We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.
That is, euphoric.
Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true.
Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.
These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.
Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.
Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing.
The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.
And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.
Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!
TL;DR: You can achieve much greater reductions than 50% of PM2.5 with a HEPA filter if you are clever about how you use it. Using a “concentric shells” approach in a 100m^2 apartment has allowed me to enjoy air with up to 99% less PM2.5 than outdoors.
Some of you may recall that QRI held an event called “Cause X” a year and a half ago. Indeed, Dony Christie (whom I recently credited for sounding the alarms in mid-January about the coming coronavirus pandemic) presented: “The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X“. I think this is a great idea, and it is already bearing some fruit…
Recently, Lukas Trötzmüller reached out to me to follow-up on one of the causes I proposed at the event. Namely, to subsidize HEPA filters as a potentially EA-level intervention. Here was my justification:
[Subsidizing HEPA filters] might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.
After stumbling upon the Cause X post, Lukas and some of his friends decided to do a more thorough cost-benefit analysis, which was recently posted on the EA Forum: Cost-Effectiveness of Air Purifiers against Pollution. I mostly agree with his analysis (and I commented on the post with what I thought was missing). His conclusion?
Air pollution is one of the biggest public health problems of our time. Simple air purifiers are surprisingly effective at reducing the harm. In our sample calculation, the intervention easily meets WHO criteria for a “highly effective” intervention in Austria, and the criteria for an “effective” intervention in India. With just a few small improvements to cost-effectiveness, it would qualify as “highly effective” in India too.
There are many ways in which effectiveness could be improved: If the bedroom is shared by two people, effectiveness doubles. Our calculations were made for 10 hours per day of use. Many people stay home for longer than that, and would correspondingly benefit more from an air purifier in their home. It is plausible that we could find more energy-efficient devices and optimize location, placement and timing. Furthermore, devices could be preferentially given to individuals which are at special risk of pollution-induced illness.
Buying air purifiers for people to place in their homes is probably not a promising EA intervention: Cost-effectiveness is two orders of magnitude worse than GiveWell-recommended charities. That being said, there might be much more cost-effective ways of helping people get access to air purifiers. We might lobby governments to subsidize those devices, or to make HEPA filters mandatory for public buildings and vehicles.
I’ve been quite surprised by the results. It seems that using an air purifier has solid health benefits, both in very polluted and in averagely polluted locations. It is surprising that in affluent countries, where people can easily afford these devices, air purifier use is not commonplace. The health benefits are clear and well-studied. I have installed a homemade device in my bedroom, together with a PM2.5 sensor, and plan to place a second device in the office.
If you’re interested in air pollution, air purifiers, or would like to collaborate on future research please get in touch.
I take this as a sign that encouraging people to sketch out new EA causes can be of very high-value*. Indeed, holding semi-regular “Cause X” events might be a great way to find completely new cost-effective interventions to improve human and non-human welfare across the globe.
Now, the topic of air purifiers has been on my mind again lately. And the reason should be quite obvious. Namely, that in September of 2020 we in the West Coast are currently experiencing one of the worst air qualities in the entire world due to the forest fires. I’ve been recommending friends and acquaintances who live in this area to get a HEPA filter NOW, since the fires are expected to continue for a month at least (and the worst is likely yet to come as we are only in the middle of the fire season). Unfortunately, a lot of HEPA filters are now out-of-stock, in what mirrors perhaps the spike in demand for PPE at the onset of the COVID pandemic. As they say, the prevention is better than the cure – I happened to have both air filters and N95 masks on hand before these two events, but not everyone is as lucky. Ideally, everyone in the West Coast would have at least two air filters from the start (I’ll get to why in a minute) but we do what we can with what we have.
Similarly to how early official advice for how to protect against COVID was deadly (e.g. downplaying the importance of masks early on), I am dumbfounded by the low-res and relatively useless listicles of advice I see for how to deal with the smoke from the wildfires. Yes, staying indoors and avoiding exerting yourself is better than nothing. But we could do much better than that. In particular, I think that a little cleverness in positioning can go a long way in optimizing the effectiveness of HEPA filters for maximum health. Below you will find a brief account of my experience with HEPA filters in a fairly-insulated ~100m^2 (~1100 square feet) apartment in California over the last few years (YMMV) and what I recommend you do if you find yourself in a similar situation:
The basic claim I want to put forth is that the ~50% reduction of PM2.5 quoted in most studies can be massively improved upon with a little work. In particular, with two air filters intelligently placed I’ve been able to achieve a reduction of PM2.5 in the 95 to 99% range. But first, what equipment am I using?
We’ve owned four air quality monitors over the last few years – one I sacrificed by giving it to a friend who went to Burning Man to get some sense of what the air over there is like (answer: really bad), and another one I forgot at the house of a cousin pre-COVID which I haven’t had a chance to retrieve. The two I currently own are: Temtop LKC-1000S+, and BIAOLING’s JSM-131. They both make very similar measurements for PM2.5 and PM10, which also agree fairly closely with the values I get from PurpleAir and AirNow. That said, Temtop seems to be better on the whole – it is even more correlated with the values I get online, is faster (it takes only 1 minute to adapt to a new environment vs. 3 or 4), and is far more granular (it does not jump in increments of 3). So below I will just report the values from the Temtop devise.
We’ve owned two air purifiers for about 3 years – the LEVOIT LV-H132 with H13 filters. It’s really similar to other LEVOIT models, and as far as I can tell, indistinguishable in its performance:
So here is my experience over the last couple of years:
With no air filters the difference between the PM2.5 outside and inside is small, typically in the 20% range. So let’s say the air outside is 20PM2.5, then inside with all the windows and doors closed for many hours, the reading will be no less than 16PM2.5. This is one of the reasons why I feel like the advice of “staying indoors with all the windows closed” is not really that useful (and in my experience people tend to believe they are staying out of harm’s way that way, which is very much not the case).
With one air filter on in the living room, with all of the inside-doors open, I get a stable state where the reduction is in the 60 to 80% range. With two air filters on in separate rooms but with all the inside-doors open, the reduction is a bit higher, in the order of 80 to 85%.
When I have only one air filter on inside one room with no door to the outside (and closed windows), the reduction is more dramatic, in the vicinity of 90%. This makes sense, as both the “surface area” to the outdoors, and the volume of air to clean are smaller.
The best outcome seems to come from having (a) one air filter in the living room, and (b) a second air filter in the room I’m in with its door closed. This is what takes the PM2.5 value to be as low as 1 to 5% of what’s outside. For instance, by using this method, when the air quality outside reached 400 PM2.5 outside a few days ago, I was able to enjoy a 5PM2.5 inside my room (!!!). The living room would be at 60PM2.5 and the smoke still somewhat noticeable, but once inside the bedroom there would be no way to detect there was anything off about the air.
I’ve generally found that the biggest point of entry for PM2.5 is not the windows (which seal pretty well) but the doors that lead to outside. The air also gets in more efficiently when a bathroom vent is on (obviously, as this causes a slight pressure differential with the outside).
Once a room has been cleaned (i.e. the filter has been running inside it for one or two hours), it takes up to 6 hours for the room to become half as dirty as the rooms it’s connected with through doors. I was really surprised by this, actually. But yes, even though most doors do not work as airlocks, they do dramatically reduce the airflow between rooms.
Based on the above, I would offer a few heuristics for how to maximize the benefits from your HEPA filters:
First, use the fact that your place likely has “concentric shells” that separate the outside from the inside. If you have more than one filter, distribute them along the shells: it is much better to have one filter in your studio and another in the living room than having two in the living room. Each shell’s “outside environment” is the shell surrounding it, so make use of the fact that there is this “sequence of relative outdoors” and place a filter on each of them when possible for an exponential reduction of PM2.5 as you move inwards.
Second, if you only have one filter, place it in your bedroom when you sleep and in your studio when you work.
Third, if you are living with other people, you can basically do this iteratively: clean the air in your room, then pass the filter to the next person, who will clean the air in their room and pass it along to the next one and so on. If each person keeps the filter for one hour, by the time it gets back to you, the air inside your room will still be very good.
Fourth, if you have filters to spare, I would recommend placing one right next to each door that leads outside, as this is the place from which you will be getting most of the particles (assuming your windows are pretty good).
Fifth, if you have the stamina for it, you could in principle partition your place into more concentric shells using plastic sheets and tape. Then you can filter the innermost room, then filter the second innermost shell, then the third, and so on until you reach the shell that is connected to the outside doors. If done properly, this will have created highly clean air for the entire apartment. More generally, once you are done cleaning the air of one concentric shell, you can move the filter to the next one. Think of it as a “moving airlock” that cleans the air one step at a time from the center to the edge.
More generally, I would encourage you to notice that thinking in terms of more dakka really does pay off when the air outside is really bad. Don’t just say to yourself “well, I have a filter so I’m doing all I can already” because the above heuristics (and plain just getting more filters) can dramatically increase the effectiveness of the air filtration. Be thirsty for clean air – crave that 99% reduction!
Now, what about even smaller particles? A lot of people worry that particles smaller than PM2.5 may be the most harmful to health, and HEPA filters may leave them free to roam. Is this true? Thomas Talhelm wrote a wonderful answer to the Quora question “Do air purifiers remove PM2.5” where he shows that not only are HEPA filters effective at removing particles around 2.5 micrometers in diameter, but that they are in fact even more effective at removing even smaller particles. He shows the results of a few of his own experiments using a professional-grade air quality monitor capable of detecting PM0.5 particles.
And what about CO2 concentrations? Scott Alexander has written about the importance of maintaining a low CO2 environment for optimal cognition. I agree with this, and arguably the measures I’ve proposed above may lead to a lot of CO2 in one’s living space. I do happen to also have a CO2 monitor, which shows around 600PPM when the space is very well ventilated, but can reach upwards of 1200PPM if we’ve kept all windows and doors closed for several days (and it seems to stabilize around there). This is worth it, I think, when the choice is between 5PM2.5 and 400PM2.5. But I think you can actually have your cake and eat it too:
The solution I’ve found is what I call the “FF procedure”, which is “Flush and Filter”. Don’t just open a little crack in one window hoping that that the CO2 you are removing will make up for the PM2.5 you are getting. Even if you are filtering the air inside, when the air outside is outrageously bad (e.g. 200+PM2.5) you will notice a fast reduction in the quality of air inside. A formal treatment for how to approach this problem optimally will undoubtedly involve playing with differential equations, but I think my solution is pretty effective and I think minimizes the total exposure to PM2.5 while also giving you good CO2 levels. The idea is to wait for a time when the air outside is not as bad and you then open all the windows and turn all the fans on for an hour and a half or so, which will effectively replace the air inside with the air outside. You then quickly close all the windows and turn the air filters on to their maximum capacity. The drop in PM2.5 will be quick (and indeed exponential), while you will now enjoy fully restored CO2 levels that will last for a day or two.
Smoking takes an enormous toll on human health – accounting for about 6% of all ill-health globally according to the best estimates. This is more than HIV and malaria combined. Despite this, smoking is on the rise in many developing countries as people become richer and can afford to buy cigarettes.
Tobacco is a mischievous plant. Tobacco smoke delivers an addictive substance in a particularly carcinogenic medium. Of course you can just get the addictive substance by vaping, presumably cutting the cost to your health by a substantial amount (assuming you don’t compensate for the relative safety of the medium with a significant increase in nicotine consumption). But many people find it hard to stop smoking, no doubt because the ritualistic aspect of it can become deeply ingrained, and perhaps also because of the mildly addictive properties of combustion products (speculatively, carbon monoxide itself has a psychoactive effect in small amounts).
So one idea to keep the nicotine and the smoking while reducing the negative effects is to lace nicotine into a plant with mild flavor and far less severe carcinogenic properties. Damiana, for example, used to be the plant delivery mechanism for research cannabinoids (cf. Spice), salvia, and other exotic drugs – the kind you find in a California smoke-shop or sketchy gas station. If damiana smoke has a better health profile than tobacco smoke when inhaled, then this could be of serious benefits to the world’s health (cf. Herbal Cigarettes).
Alas, can you really imagine millions of people switching from traditional, aromatic, well-known, “perfectly natural” tobacco cigarettes to weird, insipid, bland damiana cigarettes laced with nicotine? I can’t. I don’t think the product would make much of a dent in the market. At least not without some serious leverage and incentives, like tax exemptions or limited edition trading cards inside the packaging (for the younger crowd). But as those options are too unrealistic, we may need to come up with a different product altogether.
Perhaps we could add aromas as well? This multiplies the potential market several fold. Smokers who buy perfumes, enjoy aromatic spas, and/or make use of essential oils might be interested in “damiana cigarettes that smell like X”. From humulene and alpha-damascone to linalool and geraniol, a little goes a long way in producing a gentle, delicious, and seductive aroma. Indeed, we could even market this as being a kind of smokeable nootropic. Linalool, for instance, is not only essential in perfumery, but has also subtle (yet significant) psychoactive effects when inhaled or ingested orally (cf. lavender oil capsules). The possibilities are endless. For example, an evocative- if perhaps minimalistic- interpretation of a lavender-lemon flavor can be achieved by simply combining d-limonene, citral, and linalool. Or you could use complex accords made of dozens of terpenes. The smoothness of lavender with the awakening effects of lemon in a single power-punch of aromatic bliss, already superior in character to tobacco, could be trivially achieved with an open mind and some experimentation. And orange? Pineapple? Honeysuckle? Pear? Why not explore qualia-space while inhaling addictive smoke? At least you’ll do some productive work while feeding your vice (rather than just feeding your vice). And at a QALY discount over straight up tobacco smoke, this would seem to be by far the superior option, wouldn’t it?
Geranial (citral B)
Neral (citral A)
Now, adding lots of terpenes and other aromachemicals to a “neutral” substrate for a smokeable material reminds of something… It’s almost as if this has been explored before by someone, somewhere…
Super Silver Haze (not Silver Haze, sadly)
The difference between Orange Kush and Silver Haze is not only their THC content (which is 14-18% and 18-23%, respectively, if you must know) or the degree to which CBD is present. To a large extent, their distinct aromas, feel, and perhaps even subjective effects are explained in terms of the presence of terpenoids and other aromatic compounds. For instance, Orange Kush has more terpinolene while Silver Haze has more myrcene. Of course there is very little knowledge about how exactly these differences cash out in psychoactivity. But nonetheless, the cannabis world finds them to be utterly fascinating and endlessly worthy of discussion.
So, could we perhaps take this plant, which has been praised for its aromatic properties, which already has thousands of well-defined and optimized strains, and which is in the process of becoming legal(ish) worldwide… and use it as a delivery medium for nicotine?
Why not? Although cannabis smoke is by no means harmless, it might be substantially better for your health than tobacco smoke. If people find the experience of smoking THC-free nicotine-laced Orange Kush joints enjoyable, and this enjoyment is strong enough to be superior to the experience of smoking tobacco, we may be able to reduce the health costs of nicotine worldwide by a huge margin. Could this be the long-awaited Cause X?
(Organizational) Questions About the Qualia Research Institute
What type of organization is QRI?
QRI is a nonprofit research group studying consciousness based in San Francisco, California. We are a registered 501(c)(3) organization.
What is the relationship between QRI, Qualia Computing, and Opentheory?
Qualia Computing and Opentheory are the personal blogs of QRI co-founders Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Michael Johnson, respectively. While QRI was in its early stages, all original QRI research was initially published on these two platforms. However, from August 2020 onward, this is shifting to a unified pipeline centered on QRI’s website.
Is QRI affiliated with an academic institution or university?
Although QRI does collaborate regularly with university researchers and laboratories, we are an independent research organization. Put simply, QRI is independent because we didn’t believe we could build the organization we wanted and needed to build within the very real constraints of academia. These constraints include institutional pressure to work on conventional projects, to optimize for publication metrics, and to clear various byzantine bureaucratic hurdles. It also includes professional and social pressure to maintain continuity with old research paradigms, to do research within an academic silo, and to pretend to be personally ignorant of altered states of consciousness. It’s not that good research cannot happen under these conditions, but we believe good consciousness research happens despite the conditions in academia, not because of them, and the best use of resources is to build something better outside of them.
How does QRI align with the values of EA?
Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that uses evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good. QRI believes this aesthetic is necessary and important for creating a good future. We also believe that if we want to do the most good,foundational research on the nature of the good is of critical importance. Two frames we offer are Qualia Formalism and Sentientism. Qualia Formalism is the claim that experience has a precise mathematical description, that a formal account of experience should be the goal of consciousness research. Sentientism is the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. We believe EA is enriched by both Qualia Formalism and Sentientism.
What would QRI do with $10 billion?
Currently, QRI is a geographically distributed organization with access to commercial-grade neuroimaging equipment. The first thing we’d do with $10 billion is set up a physical headquarters for QRI and buy professional-grade neuroimaging devices (fMRI, MEG, PET, etc.) and neurostimulation equipment. We’d also hire teams of full-time physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, chemists, philosophers, and artists. We’ve accomplished a great deal on a shoestring budget, but it would be hard to overestimate how significant being able to build deep technical teams and related infrastructure around core research threads would be for us (and, we believe, for the growing field of consciousness research). Scaling is always a process and we estimate our ‘room for funding’ over the next year is roughly ~$10 million. However, if we had sufficiently deep long-term commitments, we believe we could successfully scale both our organization and research paradigm into a first-principles approach for decisively diagnosing and curing most forms of mental illness. We would continue to run studies and experiments, collect interesting data about exotic and altered states of consciousness, pioneer new technologies that help eliminate involuntary suffering, and develop novel ways to enable conscious beings to safely explore the state-space of consciousness.
Questions About Our Research Approach
What differentiates QRI from other research groups studying consciousness?
The first major difference is that QRI breaks down “solving consciousness” into discrete subtasks; we’re clear about what we’re trying to do, which ontologies are relevant for this task, and what a proper solution will look like. This may sound like a small thing, but an enormous amount of energy is wasted in philosophy by not being clear about these things. This lets us “actually get to work.”
Second, our focus on valence is rare in the field of consciousness studies. A core bottleneck in understanding consciousness is determining what its ‘natural kinds’ are: terms which carve reality at the joints. We believe emotional valence (the pleasantness/unpleasantness of an experience) is one such natural kind, and this gives us a huge amount of information about phenomenology. It also offers a clean bridge for interfacing with (and improving upon) the best neuroscience.
Third, QRI takes exotic states of consciousness extremely seriously whereas most research groups do not. An analogy we make here is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to people before the scientific enlightenment thinking that they can understand the nature of energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while completely ignoring extreme states such as what’s happening in the sun, black holes, plasma, or superfluid helium. QRI considers exotic states of consciousness as extremely important datapoints for reverse-engineering the underlying formalism for consciousness.
Lastly, we have a focus on precise, empirically testable predictions, which is rare in philosophy of mind. Any good theory of consciousness should also contribute to advancements in neuroscience. Likewise, any good theory of neuroscience should contribute to novel, bold, falsifiable predictions, and blueprints for useful things, such as new forms of therapy. Having such a full-stack approach to consciousness which does each of those two things is thus an important marker that “something interesting is going on here” and is simply very useful for testing and improving theory.
What methodologies are you using? How do you actually do research?
QRI has three core areas of research: philosophy, neuroscience, and neurotechnology
Philosophy: Our philosophy research is grounded in the eight problems of consciousness. This divide-and-conquer approach lets us explore each subproblem independently, while being confident that when all piecemeal solutions are added back together, they will constitute a full solution to consciousness.
Neuroscience: We’ve done original synthesis work on combining several cutting-edge theories of neuroscience (the free energy principle, the entropic brain, and connectome-specific harmonic waves) into a unified theory of Bayesian emotional updating; we’ve also built the world’s first first-principles method for quantifying emotional valence from fMRI. More generally, we focus on collecting high valence neuroimaging datasets and developing algorithms to analyze, quantify, and visualize them. We also do extensive psychophysics research, focusing on both the fine-grained cognitive-emotional effects of altered states, and how different types of sounds, pictures, body vibrations, and forms of stimulation correspond with low and high valence states of consciousness.
Neurotechnology: We engage in both experimentation-driven exploration, tracking the phenomenological effects of various interventions, as well as theory-driven development. In particular, we’re prototyping a line of neurofeedback tools to help treat mental health disorders.
What does QRI hope to do over the next 5 years? Next 20 years?
Over the next five years, we intend to further our neurotechnology to the point that we can treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), especially treatment-resistant PTSD. We intend to empirically verify or falsify the symmetry theory of valence. If it is falsified, we will search for a new theory that ties together all of the empirical evidence we have discovered. We aim to create an Effective Altruist cause area regarding the reduction of intense suffering as well as the study of very high valence states of consciousness.
Over the next 20 years, we intend to become a world-class research center where we can put the discipline of “paradise engineering” (as described by philosopher David Pearce) on firm academic grounds.
Questions About Our Mission
How can understanding the science of consciousness make the world a better place?
Understanding consciousness would improve the world in a tremendous number of ways. One obvious outcome would be the ability to better predict what types of beings are conscious—from locked-in patients to animals to pre-linguistic humans—and what their experiences might be like.
We also think it’s useful to break down the benefits of understanding consciousness in three ways: reducing the amount of extreme suffering in the world, increasing the baseline well-being of conscious beings, and achieving new heights for what conscious states are possible to experience.
Without a good theory of valence, many neurological disorders will remain completely intractable. Disorders such as fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), migraines, and cluster headaches are all currently medical puzzles and yet have incredibly negative effects on people’s livelihoods. We think that a mathematical theory of valence will explain why these things feel so bad and what the shortest path for getting rid of them looks like. Besides valence-related disorders, nearly all mental health disorders, from clinical depression and PTSD to schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, will become better understood as we discover the structure of conscious experience.
We also believe that many (though not all) of the zero-sum games people play are the products of inner states of dissatisfaction and suffering. Broadly speaking, people who have a surplus of cognitive and emotional energy tend to play more positive sum games, are more interested in cooperation, and are very motivated to do so. We think that studying states such as those induced by MDMA that combine both high valence and a prosocial behavior mindset can radically alter the game theoretical landscape of the world for the better.
What is the end goal of QRI? What does QRI’s perfect world look like?
In QRI’s perfect future:
There is no involuntary suffering and all sentient beings are animated by gradients of bliss,
Research on qualia and consciousness is done at a very large scale for the purpose of mapping out the state-space of consciousness and understanding its computational and intrinsic properties (we think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge about consciousness),
We have figured out the game-theoretical subtleties in order to make that world dynamic yet stable: radically positive, without just making it fully homogeneous and stuck in a local maxima.
Questions About Getting Involved
What are the most important things to read to learn about QRI’s research?
You can start by signing up for our newsletter! This is by far our most important communication channel. We also have a Facebook page, Twitter account, and Linkedin page. Lastly, we share some exclusive tidbits of ideas and thoughts with our supporters on Patreon.
Read and engage with our research. We love critical responses to our ideas and encourage you to reach out if you have an interesting thought!
Spread the word to friends, potential donors, and people that you think would make great collaborators with QRI.
Check out our volunteer page to find more detailed ways that you can contribute to our mission, from independent research projects to QRI content creation.
Questions About Consciousness
What assumptions about consciousness does QRI have? What theory of consciousness does QRI support?
The most important assumption that QRI is committed to is Qualia Formalism, the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. We are also Valence Realists: we believe valence (how good or bad an experience feels) is a real and well-defined property of conscious states. Besides these positions, we are fairly agnostic and everything else is an educated guess useful for pragmatic purposes.
What does QRI think of functionalism?
QRI thinks that functionalism takes many high-quality insights about how systems work and combines them in such a way that both creates confusion and denies the possibility of progress. In its raw, unvarnished form, functionalism is simply skepticism about the possibility of Qualia Formalism. It is simply a statement that “there is nothing here to be formalized; consciousness is like élan vital, confusion to be explained away.” It’s not actually a theory of consciousness; it’s an anti-theory. This is problematic in at least two ways:
1. By assuming consciousness has formal structure, we’re able to make novel predictions that functionalism cannot (see e.g. QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Quantifying Bliss). A few hundred years ago, there were many people who doubted that electromagnetism had a unified, elegant, formal structure, and this was a reasonable position at the time. However, in the age of the iPhone, skepticism that electricity is a “real thing” that can be formalized is no longer reasonable. Likewise, everything interesting and useful QRI builds using the foundation of Qualia Formalism stretches functionalism’s credibility thinner and thinner.
2. Insofar as functionalism is skeptical about the formal existence of consciousness, it’s skeptical about the formal existence of suffering and all sentience-based morality. In other words, functionalism is a deeply amoral theory, which if taken seriously dissolves all sentience-based ethical claims. This is due to there being an infinite number of functional interpretations of a system: there’s no ground-truth fact of the matter about what algorithm a physical system is performing, about what information-processing it’s doing. And if there’s no ground-truth about which computations or functions are present, but consciousness arises from these computations or functions, then there’s no ground-truth about consciousness, or things associated with consciousness, like suffering. This is a strange and subtle point, but it’s very important. This point alone is not sufficient to reject functionalism: if the universe is amoral, we shouldn’t hold a false theory of consciousness in order to try to force reality into some ethical framework. But in debates about consciousness, functionalists should be up-front that functionalism and radical moral anti-realism is a package deal, that inherent in functionalism is the counter-intuitive claim that just as we can reinterpret which functions a physical system is instantiating, we can reinterpret what qualia it’s experiencing and whether it’s suffering.
At QRI, we hold a position that is close to dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, which states that the universe is composed of one kind of thing that is neutral, and that both the mental and physical are two features of this same substance. One of the motivating factors for holding this view is that if there is deep structure in the physical, then there should be a corresponding deep structure to phenomenal experience. And we can tie this together with physicalism in the sense that the laws of physics ultimately describe fields of qualia. While there are some minor disagreements between dual-aspect monism and panpsychism, we believe that our position mostly fits well with a panpsychist view—that phenomenal properties are a fundamental feature of the world and aren’t spontaneously created only when a certain computation is being performed.
However, even with this view, there still are very important questions, such as: what makes a unified conscious experience? Where does one experience end and another begin? Without considering these problems in the light of Qualia Formalism, it is easy to tie animism into panpsychism and believe that inanimate objects like rocks, sculptures, and pieces of wood have spirits or complex subjective experiences. At QRI, we disagree with this and think that these types of objects might have extremely small pockets of unified conscious experience, but will mostly be masses of micro-qualia that are not phenomenally bound into some larger experience.
What does QRI think of IIT (Integrated Information Theory)?
QRI is very grateful for IIT because it is the first mainstream theory of consciousness that satisfies a Qualia Formalist account of experience. IIT says (and introduced the idea!) that for every conscious experience, there is a corresponding mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the properties of the experience. QRI believes that without this idea, we cannot solve consciousness in a meaningful way, and we consider the work of Giulio Tononi to be one of our core research lineages. That said, we are not in complete agreement with the specific mathematical and ontological choices of IIT, and we think it may be trying to ‘have its cake and eat it too’ with regard to functionalism vs physicalism. For more, see Sections III-V of Principia Qualia.
We make no claim that some future version of IIT, particularly something more directly compatible with physics, couldn’t cleanly address our objections, and see a lot of plausible directions and promise in this space.
What does QRI think of the free energy principle and predictive coding?
On our research lineages page, we list the work of Karl Friston as one of QRI’s core research lineages. We consider the free energy principle (FEP), as well as related research such as predictive coding, active inference, the Bayesian brain, and cybernetic regulation, as an incredibly elegant and predictive story of how brains work. Friston’s idea also forms a key part of the foundation for QRI’s theory of brain self-organization and emotional updating, Neural Annealing.
However, we don’t think that the free energy principle is itself a theory of consciousness, as it suffers from many of the shortcomings of functionalism: we can tell the story about how the brain minimizes free energy, but we don’t have a way of pointing at the brain and saying *there* is the free energy! The FEP is an amazing logical model, but it’s not directly connected to any physical mechanism. It is a story that “this sort of abstract thing is going on in the brain” without a clear method of mapping this abstract story to reality.
Friston has supported this functionalist interpretation of his work, noting that he sees consciousness as a process of inference, not a thing. That said, we are very interested in his work on calculating the information geometry of Markov blankets, as this could provide a tacit foundation for a formalist account of qualia under the FEP. Regardless of this, though, we believe Friston’s work will play a significant role in a future science of mind.
What does QRI think of global workspace theory?
The global workspace theory (GWT) is a cluster of empirical observations that seem to be very important for understanding what systems in the brain contribute to a reportable experience at a given point in time. The global workspace theory is a very important clue for answering questions of what philosophers call Access Consciousness, or the aspects of our experience on which we can report.
However, QRI does not consider the global workspace theory to be a full theory of consciousness. Parts of the brain that are not immediately contributing to the global workspace may be composed of micro qualia, or tiny clusters of experience. They’re obviously impossible to report on, but they are still relevant to the study of consciousness. In other words, just because a part of your brain wasn’t included in the instantaneous global workspace, doesn’t mean that it can’t suffer or it can’t experience happiness. We value global workspace research because questions of Access Consciousness are still very critical for a full theory of consciousness.
What does QRI think of higher-order theories of consciousness?
QRI is generally opposed to theories of consciousness that equate consciousness with higher order reflective thought and cognition. Some of the most intense conscious experiences are pre-reflective or unreflective such as blind panic, religious ecstasy, experiences of 5-MeO-DMT, and cluster headaches. In these examples, there is not much reflectivity nor cognition going on, yet they are intensely conscious. Therefore, we largely reject any attempt to define consciousness with a higher-order theory.
What is the relationship between evolution and consciousness?
The relationship between evolution and consciousness is very intricate and subtle. An eliminativist approach arrives at the simple idea that information processing of a certain type is evolutionarily advantageous, and perhaps we can call this consciousness. However, with a Qualia Formalist approach, it seems instead that the very properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to consciousness can play key roles (either causal or in terms of information processing) that make it advantageous for organisms to recruit consciousness.
If you don’t realize that consciousness maps onto a mathematical object with properties, you may think that you understand why consciousness was recruited by natural selection, but your understanding of the topic would be incomplete. In other words, to have a full understanding of why evolution recruited consciousness, you need to understand what advantages the mathematical object has. One very important feature of consciousness is its capacity for binding. For example, the unitary nature of experience—the fact that we can experience a lot of qualia simultaneously—may be a key feature of consciousness that accelerates the process of finding solutions to constraint satisfaction problems. In turn, evolution would hence have a reason to recruit states of consciousness for computation. So rather than thinking of consciousness as identical with the computation that is going on in the brain, we can think of it as a resource with unique computational benefits that are powerful and dynamic enough to make organisms that use it more adaptable to their environments.
Does QRI think that animals are conscious?
QRI thinks there is a very high probability that every animal with a nervous system is conscious. We are agnostic about unified consciousness in insects, but we consider it very likely. We believe research on animal consciousness has relevance when it comes to treating animals ethically. Additionally, we do think that the ethical importance of consciousness has more to do with the pleasure-pain axis (valence), rather than cognitive ability. In that sense, the suffering of non-human animals may be just as morally relevant, if not more relevant than humans. The cortex seems to play a largely inhibitory role for emotions, such that the larger the cortex is, the better we’re able to manage and suppress our emotions. Consequently, animals whose cortices are less developed than ours may experience pleasure and pain in a more intense and uncontrollable way, like a pre-linguistic toddler.
Does QRI think that plants are conscious?
We think it’s very unlikely that plants are conscious. The main reason is that they lack an evolutionary reason to recruit consciousness. Large-scale phenomenally bound experience may be very energetically expensive, and plants don’t have much energy to spare. Additionally, plants have thick cellulose walls that separate individual cells, making it very unlikely that plants can solve the binding problem and therefore create unified moments of experience.
Why do some people seek out pain?
This is a very multifaceted question. As a whole, we postulate that in the vast majority of cases, when somebody may be nominally pursuing pain or suffering, they’re actually trying to reduce internal dissonance in pursuit of consonance or they’re failing to predict how pain will actually feel. For example, when a person hears very harsh music, or enjoys extremely spicy food, this can be explained in terms of either masking other unpleasant sensations or raising the energy parameter of experience, the latter of which can lead to neural annealing: a very pleasant experience that manifests as consonance in the moment.
I sometimes like being sad. Is QRI trying to take that away from me?
Before we try to ‘fix’ something, it’s important to understand what it’s trying to do for us. Sometimes suffering leads to growth; sometimes creating valuable things involves suffering. Sometimes, ‘being sad’ feels strangely good. Insofar as suffering is doing good things for us, or for the world, QRI advocates a light touch (see Chesterton’s fence). However, we also suggest two things:
1. Most kinds of melancholic or mixed states of sadness usually are pursued for reasons that cash out as some sort of pleasure. Bittersweet experiences are far more preferable than intense agony or deep depression. If you enjoy sadness, it’s probably because there’s an aspect of your experience that is enjoyable. If it were possible to remove the sad part of your experience while maintaining the enjoyable part of it, you might be surprised to find that you prefer this modified experience more than the original one.
2. There are kinds of sadness and suffering that are just bad, that degrade us as humans, and would be better to never feel. QRI doesn’t believe in forcibly taking away voluntary suffering, or pushing bliss on people. But we would like to live in a world where people can choose to avoid such negative states, and on the margin, we believe it would be better for humanity for more people to be joyful, filled with a deep sense of well-being.
If dissonance is so negative, why is dissonance so important in music?
When you listen to very consonant music or consonant tones, you will quickly adapt to these sounds and get bored of them. This has nothing to do with consonance itself being unpleasant and everything to do with learning in the brain. Whenever you experience the same stimuli repeatedly, most brains will trigger a boredom mechanism and add dissonance of its own in order to make you enjoy the stimuli less or simply inhibit it, not allowing you to experience it at all. Semantic satiation is a classic example of this where repeating the same word over and over will make it lose its meaning. For this reason, to trigger many high valence states of consciousness consecutively, you need contrast. In particular, music works with gradients of consonance and dissonance, and in most cases, moving towards consonance is what feels good rather than the absolute value of consonance. Music tends to feel the best when you mix a high absolute value of consonance together with a very strong sense of moving towards an even higher absolute value of consonance. Playing some levels of dissonance during a song will later enhance the enjoyment of the more consonant parts such as the chorus of songs, which are reported to be the most euphoric parts of song and typically are extremely consonant.
What is QRI’s perspective on AI and AI safety research?
QRI thinks that consciousness research is critical for addressing AI safety. Without a precise way of quantifying an action’s impact on conscious experiences, we won’t be able to guarantee that an AI system has been programmed to act benevolently. Also, certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence without any outside observer being aware of it. We need a theory of what produces unpleasant experiences to avoid inadvertently creating superintelligences that suffer intensely in the process of solving important problems or accidentally inflict large-scale suffering.
Additionally, we think that a very large percentage of what will make powerful AI dangerous is that the humans programming these machines and using these machines may be reasoning from states of loneliness, resentment, envy, or anger. By discovering ways to help humans transition away from these states, we can reduce the risks of AI by creating humans that are more ethical and aligned with consciousness more broadly. In short: an antidote for nihilism could lead to a substantial reduction in existential risk.
One way to think about QRI and AI safety is that the world is building AI, but doesn’t really have a clear, positive vision of what to do with AI. Lacking this, the default objective becomes “take over the world.” We think a good theory of consciousness could and will offer new visions of what kind of futures are worth building—new Schelling points that humanity (and AI researchers) could self-organize around.
Can digital computers implementing AI algorithms be conscious?
QRI is agnostic about this question. We have reasons to believe that digital computers in their current form cannot solve the phenomenal binding problem. Most of the activity in digital computers can be explained in a stepwise fashion in terms of localized processing of bits of information. Because of this, we believe that current digital computers could be creating fragments of qualia, but are unlikely to be creating strongly globally bound experiences. So, we consider the consciousness of digital computers unlikely, although given our current uncertainty over the Binding Problem (or alternatively framed, the Boundary Problem), this assumption is lightly held. In the previous question, when we write that “certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence”, we assume that these hypothetical computers have some type of unified conscious experience as a result of having solved the phenomenal binding problem. For more on this topic, see: “What’s Out There?“
How much mainstream recognition has QRI’s work received, either for this line of research or others? Has it published in peer-reviewed journals, received any grants, or garnered positive reviews from other academics?
We are collaborating with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University on several studies involving the analysis of neuroimaging data of high-valence states of consciousness. Additionally, we are currently preparing two publications for peer-reviewed journals on topics from our core research areas. Michael Johnson will be presenting at this year’s MCS seminar series, along with Karl Friston, Anil Seth, Selen Atasoy, Nao Tsuchiya, and others; Michael Johnson, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, and Quintin Frerichs have also given invited talks at various east-coast colleges (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Dartmouth).
Some well-known researchers and intellectuals that are familiar and think positively about our work include: Robin Carhart-Harris, Scott Alexander, David Pearce, Steven Lehar, Daniel Ingram, and more. Scott Alexander acknowledged that QRI put together the paradigms that contributed to Friston’s integrative model of how psychedelics work before his research was published. Our track record so far has been to foreshadow (by several years in advance) key discoveries later proposed and accepted in mainstream academia. Given our current research findings, we expect this trend to continue in the years to come.
How does QRI know what is best for other people/animals? What about cultural relativism?
We think that, to a large extent, people and animals work under the illusion that they are pursuing intentional objects, states of the external environment, or relationships that they may have with the external environment. However, when you examine these situations closely, you realize that what we actually pursue are states of high valence triggered by external circumstances. There may be evolutionary and cultural selection pressures that push us toward self-deception as to how we actually function. And we consider it negative to have these selection pressures makes us less self-aware because it often focuses our energy on unpleasant, destructive, or fruitless strategies. QRI hopes to support people in fostering more self-awareness, which can come through experiments with one’s own consciousness, like meditation, as well as through the deeper theoretical understanding of what it is that we actually want.
How central is David Pearce’s work to the work of the QRI?
We consider David Pearce to be one of our core lineages. We particularly value his contribution to valence realism, the insistence that states of consciousness come with an overall valence, and that this is very morally relevant. We also consider David Pearce to be very influential in philosophy of mind; Pearce, for instance, coined the phrase ‘tyranny of the intentional object’, the title of a core QRI piece of the same name. We have been inspired by Pearce’s descriptions for what any scientific theory of consciousness should be able to explain, as well as his particular emphasis on the binding problem. David’s vision of a world animated by ‘gradients of bliss’ has also been very generative as a normative thought experiment which integrates human and non-human well-being. We do not necessarily agree with all of David Pearce’s work, but we respect him as an insightful and vivid thinker who has been brave enough to actually take a swing at describing utopia and who we believe is far ahead of his time.
What does QRI think of negative utilitarianism?
There’s general agreement within QRI that intense suffering is an extreme moral priority, and we’ve done substantial work on finding simple ways of getting rid of extreme suffering (with our research inspiring at least one unaffiliated startup to date). However, we find it premature to strongly endorse any pre-packaged ethical theory, especially because none of them are based on any formalism, but rather an ungrounded concept of ‘utility’. The value of information here seems enormous, and we hope that we can get to a point where the ‘correct’ ethical theory may simply ‘pop out of the equations’ of reality. It’s also important to highlight the fact that common versions and academic formulations of utilitarianism seem to be blind to many subtleties concerning valence. For example, they do not distinguish between mixed states of consciousness where you have extreme pleasure combined with extreme suffering in such a way that you judge the experience to be neither entirely suffering nor entirely happiness and states of complete neutrality, such as extreme white noise. Because most formulations of utilitarianism do not distinguish between them, we are generally suspicious of the idea that philosophers of ethics have considered all of the relevant attributes of consciousness in order to make accurate judgments about morality.
What does QRI think of philosophy of mind departments?
We believe that the problems that philosophy of mind departments address tend to be very disconnected from what truly matters from an ethical, moral, and philosophical point of view. For example, there is little appreciation of the value of bringing mathematical formalisms into discussions about the mind, or what that might look like in practice. Likewise there is close to no interest in preventing extreme suffering nor understanding its nature. Additionally, there is usually a disregard for extreme states of positive valence, and strange or exotic experiences in general. It may be the case that there are worthwhile things happening in departments and classes creating and studying this literature, but we find them characterized by processes which are unlikely to produce progress on their nominal purpose, creating a science of mind.
In particular, in academic philosophy of mind, we’ve seen very little regard for producing empirically testable predictions. There are millions of pages written about philosophy of mind, but the number of pages that provide precise, empirically testable predictions is quite thin.
What therapies does QRI recommend for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain?
At QRI, we do not make specific recommendations to individuals, but rather point to areas of research that we consider to be extremely important, tractable, and neglected, such as anti-tolerance drugs, neural annealing techniques, frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stone pain, and N,N-DMT and other tryptamines for cluster headaches and migraines.
Why does QRI think it’s so important to focus on ending extreme suffering?
QRI thinks ending extreme suffering is important, tractable, and neglected. It’s important because of the logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain—the fact that extreme suffering is far worse by orders of magnitude than what people intuitively believe. It’s tractable because there are many types of extreme suffering that have existing solutions that are fairly trivial or at least have a viable path for being solved with moderately funded research programs. And it’s neglected mostly because people are unaware of the existence of these states, though not necessarily because of their rarity. For example, 10% of the population experiences kidney stones at some point in their life, but for reasons having to do with trauma, PTSD, and the state-dependence of memory, even people who have suffered from kidney stones do not typically end up dedicating their time or resources toward eradicating them.
It’s also likely that if we can meaningfully improve the absolute worst experiences, much of the knowledge we’ll gain in that process will translate into other contexts. In particular, we should expect to figure out how to make moderately depressed people happier, fix more mild forms of pain, improve the human hedonic baseline, and safely reach extremely great peak states. Mood research is not a zero-sum game. It’s a web of synergies.
Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman, Mackenzie Dion, and Mike Johnson for their collaboration in putting this together. Featured image is QRI’s logo – animated by Hunter Meyer.
In this video I introduce the concept of Open Individualism- the idea that we are all one consciousness -, why it is relevant, and who has historically been a proponent of it (Hinduism, Einstein, Schopenhauer, Schrödinger, etc.).
We also cover the fact that there is a distinction between Open Individualism as an experience and Open Individualism as a philosophical position with rigorous arguments. I mention that I generally consider arguments to be more powerful and useful than just relying on first-person experiences, though experiences certainly have their place.
Part 2: Definitions
We define and illustrate:
Closed Individualism (“you are a separate observer that exists from moment to moment”)
Empty Individualism (“you are just a moment of experience”)
Open Individualism (“we are all one consciousness”)
Part 3: Strongest Arguments
In this video we provide some of the strongest arguments in favor of Open Individualism:
Based on continuity of identity from moment to moment.
Reductio ad absurdum of Closed Individualism.
Lack of viable Identity Carriers (IC).
Based on parsimony.
Self-locating uncertainty when taking a “view from nowhere”.
Part 4: Loneliness, Psychosis, Ecstasy
I address some key considerations when investigating Open Individualism:
It is crucial to distinguish between our human feelings about a certain idea and the merits and drawbacks of that idea on its own.
Open Individualism tends to cause a lot of bliss at first (caused by defanging death)
But Open Individualism can often take a turn for the bad.
It makes you realize that you won’t only not die, which is good, but also be forced to experience all of the suffering of the world (or multiverse).
More so, it can make you feel “cosmically lonely” – a feeling typical of bad trips where the focus is the pursuit of oneness.
While the increased sense of responsibility caused by Open Individualism is good, it is important not to be overwhelmed by the suffering of the world. As they say “one day at a time” and perhaps we could extend that advise to “one lifetime at a time”.
The feeling of loneliness is likely the result of mixing deep brain circuits evolved to track things like one’s place in the tribe via feelings of belongingness and togetherness, which can get deactivated or over-activated when fully internalizing otherwise-neutral philosophical viewpoints. In other words, those feelings are reflections of our mammal brain’s response to Open Individualism rather than inherent to the philosophy in and of itself.
I also briefly mention the interesting relationship between the ways we represent the world and valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis). Given the Symmetry Theory of Valence, which claims that more “consonant and symmetrical” states of consciousness feel better, experiencing “unitive states of mind” usually comes with the “dissolution of internal boundaries”. Therefore, to actively simulate a world where we are all one is likely to come with very positive feelings (perhaps even orgasmic, and ecstatic). Yet, this is not intrinsic of oneness as such – rather, it’s an artifact of the way valence is implemented in the brain! Subtle, but key, distinction.
Finally, I also explain that “the highest truth” is not oneness:
In some sense, Open Individualism is “level 0” – it is the start of a journey of self-discovery. We still need to address things like how to eliminate extreme suffering, understand how physics describes fields of qualia, the binding problem, how causality interfaces with consciousness, what makes consciousness have an “arrow of time”, and so on. While oneness is a piece of the puzzle, it is by no means “the final answer”. To think otherwise leads to mental pathologies that constrict- rather than expand- one’s understanding and engagement with the world.
Part 5: Ethics, Coordination, Game Theory
In this video I discuss the beneficial implications of Open Individualism. Namely:
Its ethical implications, where one feels a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of all sentient beings.
Its ability to solve coordination problems.
Its game-theoretical effects.
I cover how a cultural, philosophical, and scientific movement that grounds the feelings of oneness and universal love in rigorous philosophy and science would be much more powerful and consequential than yet another attempt at a naïve spreading of “peace, love, and harmony”. Indeed, it is the philosophical strength of Open Individualism, rather than just its experiential component, that makes it viable as a tool for solving coordination problems.
In particular, I explain that studying 5-MeO-DMT and MDMA from a rigorous, scientific, and methodical point of view is one of the most promising ways of changing the world for the better. Creating reliable, sane, and integrative methods of experiencing oneness and universal love could help us transform weak feelings of altruism into a solid and powerful new conception of decision theoretic rationality.
We invite you to think with us about how to carry this out for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The Qualia Research Institute has the vision of a world free from involuntary suffering in which conscious agents are empowered to have full control over their lived experiences. Its mission tackles this objective by combining foundational research on consciousness with a focus on explaining the mathematical properties of pleasure and pain for a full, formal account of valence.
By relating our mission to existing memeplexes, we could perhaps accurately describe the ethos of QRI as “Qualia Formalist Sentientist Effective Altruism“. That’s a mouthful. Let’s break it down:
Qualia Formalism refers to the notion that experience has a precise mathematical description that ties it with physics (for a more detailed breakdown see the Formalism section of the glossary).
Sentientism refers to the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. In other words, that the only reason why states of affairs matter is because of the way in which they impact experiences.
Effective Altruism refers to the view that we can aspire to do the most good we can rather than settle for less. If you examine the actual extent to which different interventions cash out in terms of reduction in suffering throughout the world, you will notice that they follow a long-tail distribution. Thus, research on how to prioritize interventions really pays off. Focusing on the top interventions (and being willing to spend extra time digging for even better ones) can multiply your positive impact by orders of magnitude.
We could thus say that people and organizations are more or less aligned with QRI to the extent that they are aligned with each of these notions and their combinations thereof. More so, QRI also values the practice of rational psychonautics and the study of one’s own mind with meditation – hence we also include lists of rational psychonauts and great dharma teachers.
Find below the list of people and organizations that have a significant degree of alignment with QRI on each front. We also include a list of blogs and websites from readers of our work, which is meant to incentivize community-building around the aforementioned core ideas.
Name of Person/Organization – Blog/Website/Media [if any] (Representative Post of the Author- Sometimes Not from Their Primary Site [if any])
List of current and former QRI collaborators and volunteers not listed above (in no particular order): Patrick Taylor, Hunter Meyer, Sean McGowan, Alex Zhao, Boian Etropolski, Robin Goins, Bence Vass, Brian Westerman, Jacob Shwartz-Lucas.
People and Organizations that Advocate for Sentientism and the Elimination of Suffering
The Wider World of People Who are Friends and Acquaintances of the QRI Ecosystem
Note: I asked (on social media) our readers to share their blogs and personal sites with us. Some of these links are very aligned with QRI and some are not. That said, together they represent a good sample of the memetic ecosystem that surrounds QRI. Namely, these links can be taken as a whole to be suggestive of “the memetic ground upon which QRI is founded”. Please feel free to share your blog or personal site in the comment section of this post.
I want every strategy we’ve got on Near Earth Object Collision, OK?
Any ideas, any programs, anything you’ve sketched on a pizza box or a cocktail napkin…
– Armageddon (1998 film, when NASA realizes that there are 18 days left before the asteroid hits the Earth)
This Whole Thing
On January 20th someone shared, in a facebook group that I’m a part of, four facts about an emerging viral infection in China: (1) high death rate, (2) high contagion rate, (3) long incubation periods, and (4) the fact that it appeared uncontained. Despite the (at the time) relatively low number of cases, those four facts did not seem to paint a pretty picture of what was about to happen.
This was immediately alarming to a lot of people in my circles, and for good reason. Matthew Barnett, Justin Shovelain, Dony Christie, and Louis Francini sounded alarms as early as mid-January, and the rest of the EA and rationalist cluster followed suit. It makes sense people in this cluster would be concerned early on, as many of them have looked at global catastrophic risk scenarios for years, and were already well aware that the world was unequipped to deal with an infectious disease with all of the above four properties. Pandemic preparedness programs have so far relied on luck. For instance, in his 2015 TED talk “The next outbreak? We’re not ready” Bill Gates uses as an example the 2013 Ebola outbreak: “The problem wasn’t that there was a system that didn’t work well enough. The problem was that we didn’t have a system at all.” Accordingly, that particular outbreak didn’t become a disaster because of sheer luck: the disease only becomes contagious when you are already very sick and it didn’t hit a major urban area, so containing it was possible. But this time around we don’t seem to have the same luck.
This all adds up to a vibe of countdown to Armageddon: “X days until hospitals are overwhelmed, Y days until a million people die, Z days until a vaccine will be found”. In line with this perceived, if not frighteningly real, urgency, we’ve seen countless facebook groups, subreddits, and forums scouting for novel ideas and projects to help above and beyond what the governments of the world are already doing (e.g. Covid19RiskApp, Give Directly Response, Covid Accelerator [of technology to decelerate the spread [possibly a terrible or brilliant branding]], List of Predictors, and Corona Variolation).
As of March 20 2020
I personally gave a lot of thought to pandemics several years ago (in college I was on the fence between working on pandemic prevention and consciousness research as a career), so my immediate thought when learning about the virus and its properties was “we are screwed, this can’t be contained with how the world is currently set up”. While containment might have been possible at the very beginning with some luck, it very quickly becomes unmanageable. That said, I’d like to explore here ways in which the world could be realistically modified in order to contain, mitigate, and ultimately reverse the spread of novel contagious diseases including this one. After all, the WHO director general said on March 9th: “The rule of the game is: never give up.” So, well, let’s give it some more thought. I hence offer my ‘sketches on a cocktail napkin’ type of ideas in case they find any application:
Let us start by breaking down “social networks” into (1) contact networks, and (2) information networks:
Contact networks are weighted undirected graphs where each node is a person and each edge encodes the frequency and intensity of the contact between the people it connects.*
Information networks are weighted directed graphs that encode the amount of information transmission that there is between pairs of people. To a large extent, contact networks are subsets of information networks.**
Contact networks are what matters for modeling infectious disease transmission. Despite the constitutionally granted freedom of assembly, one can posit that if the risks to the public are high enough, it is justified to place some constraints on the nature and properties of contact networks. In a free society that truly grasps the danger of pandemics and is determined to squash them at the very beginning, contact networks might require some degree of top-down control. Perhaps, if we are serious about future pandemic prevention, we could re-conceptualize freedom of assembly as pertaining to information, rather than contact, networks.***
So in what ways could a contact network be pandemic-safe? As an intuition pump for what I’ll be discussing further below, I’d like you to consider what it might be like to live in the original “Halo” Ringworld (and Ringworld too). Assume that unrestricted travel in Halo is limited to land roaming with a maximum speed, and that in order to use a spacecraft or tube across an arc of the circle, you need to be thoroughly tested and quarantined in-between. With these constraints, we would naturally infer that the structure of the contact network of the people in this world would be embedded in the ring itself. Meaning that if an infectious disease originates somewhere on the Ringworld, containing its spread would be as easy as blocking movement on two small fronts around the epicenter of the outbreak. This even allows you to control and ultimately fully suppress diseases with long incubation periods. It is a matter of estimating how long the incubation period is, and quarantining the entire region of “furthest possible transmissibility”.
More so, given the overall circular geometry of the world, after a brief period of quadratic growth of the epidemic (as concentric circles expand around the epicenter) one would expect to see a threshold after which there is merely linear growth in the number of cases as a function of time!
Network Geometry as a Containment Strategy
To a first approximation, the single most important problem to overcome for containment is the exponential growth of the early stages of an outbreak. Of course in some cases an exponential growth is not itself the problem: and R0 = 1.001 leads to exponential growth, but it is still so slow that it can be easily dealt with. Likewise, a sub-exponential growth can still be unruly, as in a polynomial growth with an exponent of 20. But to a first approximation, I would argue that if you can get rid of exponential growth you can manage an outbreak. The example above of a Ringworld shows that exponential growth in contact networks can be slowed all the way down to linear growth at relatively early stages. Similarly, “thin” toroidal planets would also enable easy containment of outbreaks (Anders Sandberg‘s amazing work on the physics of toroidal planets finally pays off! It remains to be seen when his work on stacking high-dimensional polytopes finds real-world applications).
But we don’t have to go all the way to high sci-fi scenarios to encounter sub-exponential growth of infections in human contact networks. You see, the black death happened at a time when the contact network of humanity had a quasi-quadratic structure at the largest of scales. Villages almost certainly had a scale-free structure (e.g. the priest touching everyone once a week and the lone serf perhaps only interacting with two people a week), but once you look at the structure at scales above the village, you would find routes between neighboring villages weaving a planar graph with a 2D Euclidean geometry. The trade routes, though, provided an exception, and in the end they turned out to be key for the spread of the plague. That said, in the absence of cars, trains, or airplanes, the maximum speed of transmission was seriously limited. Historians can tell when different parts of Europe got the plague because it really took a long time to spread; we are talking about years rather than weeks.
So imagine having a contact network structure characteristic of the medieval times, but with an information network structure akin to the ones we currently have. Then controlling the black plague would be a piece of cake! You would simply need to close central trade routes, track down which villages are already infected, and put a perimeter around them.
Ok, so how do we generalize this idea to the modern times in a realistic way? I think we should perhaps think outside the box here. Remember, the core intention here is to make the spread of an infectious disease not behave in an exponential way at the beginning so that we can “segment out” the part of the network affected (i.e. quarantine) because the “surface area” of the region is not very large. Now, most analysis of disease spread on networks focus on analyzing how realistic-like network features affect disease spread. For example, clustering coefficients, the steepness of the slope of power law networks, the distribution of in-betweenness centrality of the nodes, and so on.
In a perhaps high-modernist style approach to network engineering, one can ask how the spread of a disease would change depending on alterations we could make to the network. The simplest real world case is the reasoning behind adding travel restrictions, which aim to block the spread between very large clusters (i.e. countries) and the closing of schools, universities, and large gatherings, which decrease the interconnectivity of each region of the network. A slightly more sophisticated version of this approach would be to come up with a “Pandemic Klout Score” for each person based on the their “network influence” and pay them to quarantine early on during an outbreak.
I actually worked at Klout as an intern in 2010, and my contributions were mostly on the (unfortunately slightly evil because it’s marketing) following problem: “How do you maximize the spread of a commercial campaign by giving free products to people?” Klout had what they called “perks” which was how they made money. They had contracts with other companies to give free products to “influencers” so that they talked about the perks on their social media accounts. To maximize the spread of a commercial campaign meant to distribute perks in such a way that the largest number of people made mentions of the campaign on their networks (including people who didn’t receive the free products). This is how they measured success- at least when I was there- and what the companies paid them for.
The “basic approach” would be simply to distribute the perks to people with the highest Klout scores, with the additional constraint that those people were influential on the relevant topic (e.g. if you had a popular Twitter account about “beauty and personal care” you might be a prime candidate to get a free “anti-aging sunscreen stick”, or whatever) . But since you can’t actually, you know, entice Justin Bieber (the person with the highest Klout score for several years) with a free Virgin America flight and expect him to either care or talk about it on his Twitter feed, the problem ends up being substantially more complex than just “give people with high Klout the free products”. I am under an NDA about the specific algorithms and research I conducted there. But I mention this because the problem of pandemic prevention could in some sense be thought of as the inverse of the problem Klout was trying to solve. Namely, how you use the node features of the network in order to minimize the spread of a contagious disease. The low-hanging fruit idea here can be to simply allot money to pay people with high Pandemic Klout Scores to stay home or cut their human touch in half whenever an outbreak arises. I would expect this to be significantly better at reducing the reproductive rate of a contagious disease than choosing people at random (or even just based on how many people they interact with on a daily basis).
That said, given the risks and costs involved with pandemics, especially in the long term in light of bioterrorism, we should not close off the possibility of making drastic changes to humanity’s contact network for the sake of our collective wellbeing. That is, merely asking some people to stay home may not be enough. We should contemplate what it would really take to be able to fully contain any future pandemic.
In terms of large-scale network geometry rather than just dealing with one node at a time, perhaps the key point to make is that we should really not fetishize and romanticize the “six degrees of separation” that results from the small world-like structure of the modern human contact network. Yes, “it’s a small world after all“, but you forgot to mention “and that’s what will get us all killed in the end.” Let’s not allow misguided network idealism to murder grandma. We need to make the contact network a large world, and save the small world exclusively for the information network.
Intuitively, it is precisely the small world-like property of our contact network that allows us to: meet many new people on a regular basis, collaborate with people around the world, be able to attend large gatherings, raves, and festivals, and travel care-free across the planet. Meaning, most people might think that changing the contact network structure to make it pandemic-proof would come at the cost of sacrificing what makes society so interesting and worth living in. I would disagree. I think that such a line of thinking is just the result of a failure of the imagination. We can, I posit, have contact networks that allow you to do all of that and yet be pandemic-proof. I will argue that with intelligent top-down network engineering you can in fact achieve this. Here is my case:
The main concept that one needs to understand for my argument is that the options for large-scale network structure go far beyond the textbook examples of small worlds, scale-free, random, planar graphs, etc. In fact, one can create all kinds of fascinating hybrid networks where the properties vary by region and scale. The examples I am about to show you play with the notion of scale-dependent geometry. Meaning that the network properties depend on the number of interconnected nodes that you are considering. In particular, I’ll break down networks in terms of their micro (1 to 1,000 nodes), meso (1,000 to 1,000,000 nodes), and macro (1,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 or more nodes) structure:
QLE and ELQ
The first example is one where the structure of the network leads to quadratic spread on the micro level, linear spread on the meso level, and exponential spread on the macro level. We achieve this by having the nodes arranged along a rectangular grid at the micro level. As one zooms out, the grid hits a limit on two fronts so that the advancement of an infection disease will start growing linearly as it only has two directions to grow in (for the sake of symmetry you can glue the two fronts to make a tube, for a meso network structure akin to that of a toroidal planet). Finally, at the largest scale this network looks like a binary tree, where the growth can reach an exponential rate.
The same scheme will apply to all of the following networks. That is, the letters indicate the ordering of the types of growth for the micro, meso, and macro scale. What I will instead focus on is explaining the advantages of these structures. In this case- the case of QLE- the primary advantage is that the spread can be entirely contained by cutting connections around the epicenter. And the best part is that even if you hit the exponential scale (i.e. you start spreading from “one arm to another”) you will still have long periods of linear growth as each “arm” will grow linearly, so cutting it will remain an option at any point. The “surface area of the spread” will remain tiny relative to the size of the network.
A very nice property of this network is that you can have “villages” of up to 1,000 people where everyone can interact with and touch each other. Within each of these villages you have super efficient in-person information transmission and contact hedonism without restrictions. Then each of these villages would be connected to two neighboring villages, perhaps not unlike how kids in grade school often make friends with other kids in the grades immediately above and below (and only rarely with grades that are further apart). The spread of disease would very quickly engulf each village, but thankfully that would be it. After that you would have a very slow village-by-village take-over that could be stopped by ‘cutting’ the contact channels between two pairs of villages (or four if you started at an intersection of the macro structural grid). More so, you could conceive of a “conveyor belt” approach where every month half of the village moves in one direction while the other one stays put. This way over the course of years you would still be able to get to know tens of thousands of people, party like crazy in raves touching everybody, and be able to retain long-term friendships by coordinating with them to either move or stay. And you could do all of this while living in a pandemic-proof world!
This one is perhaps the least viable because it relies on most persons only having contact with two people. That said, the spread would start very, very slowly, and so it might be ideal for the worst possible pandemics. At the macro level the network looks like high-dimensional cardboard boxes, where each “cardboard side” is glued at the edge with one or multiple other sides.
A “continuous” version of LQE could use hyperbolic geometry at the macro level, such as what you get when you sneak a pentagon here and there in an otherwise rectangular grid so that locally you have a square spread, which slowly turns into an exponential spread as you begin swallowing pentagons. (Or a few heptagons in a grid of hexagons).
This one is pretty similar to ELQ, and you can do pretty much the same things I mentioned about ELQ. The main difference is that this structure is safer at the macro level but riskier at the meso level. So if you expect diseases to be really really contagious, then this structure might prevent “the end of the world” but it might be somewhat susceptible to “pretty bad scenarios”, while ELQ works the other way around.
I find this network very interesting because to build it I had to come up with the idea of connecting lots of cycles of different lengths with each other by having them share nodes. You can also easily construct a network like this by starting with a scale-free network and replacing the edges with long chains of nodes.
This would perhaps be the steel-manned version of the toroidal or ring world we discussed in the introduction. Here the infections would spread first slowly at a quadratic rate, then quickly accelerate once you reach the edges of the planar graph you start in, and finally there is a massive linear bottleneck at the macro scale. It’s like Ringworld, but where you interact with people in an interlaced braided mesh embedded inside the Ringworld rather than only in its meager inner surface.
Because each of these examples contain a “linear bottleneck” at some scale, an outbreak of a disease would be easy to contain at some scale. Which network is ideal for which kind of disease will depend on things like its incubation period and its contagion probability. But any of these examples is vastly safer pandemic-wise than our current contact network.
Is Biology Doing This Already?
One thing this exercise has made me wonder is if perhaps our bodies are already using this kind of strategy. I mean, looking at QLE reminds me of the structure of blood vessels in the kidney and liver. It would make sense that evolution would identify great micro, meso, and macro network structures in order to give each organ appropriate contact networks at the scale that matters to conduct its function, while creating network bottlenecks at other scales for protection against pathogens and the spread of cancer. In contrast, the immune system would have every reason to maximize spread at the largest scale while having compartmentalized spread at the micro scale (example: Topological Small-World Organization of the Fibroblastic Reticular Cell Network Determines Lymph Node Functionality). Finding the sub-exponential chokepoints in the human body would, I posit, give us a new angle for understanding it more deeply.
If this analysis pans out, we could perhaps think of the challenge being presented to us by SARS-CoV-2 and future pandemics as a wake up call to “scale up the network-protective measures our bodies are taking to combat disease while maintaining functionality” all the way up to the structure of all of human society. Indeed, wouldn’t it be amazing if we coordinated to be a harmonious large-scale global organism?
Now, I am not saying we should simply adopt one of these network structures. They are just proofs of concept to show it is possible to have humanly-desirable properties that come with highly interconnected networks along with a linear (or at least sub-exponential) bottleneck at some scale. The bottleneck does not even need to be visible or detectable from the point of view of each individual!
Even if we cannot construct an ideal world from scratch, we could still try to bootstrap it from within our current world. To do so we have a number of options. I will mention two and then dive into them in greater depth. The first is the strategy of “network modification” and it consists of developing gradient descent algorithms that point us to the modification of the network that would maximize a scale-specific sub-exponential bottleneck. Of course this could lead to local minima, but we don’t care about achieving the best configuration, just the closest one that is “good enough”. The second approach is that of “network nucleation” to bootstrap a pandemic-protected contact network by connecting with other people who can prove that they do not have the disease. They could all get to know each other, and then submit a list of “people they would like to hang out with on a regular basis”. An algorithm would then optimize the network so that each person can hang out with as many others as possible while making sure the overall geometry of the network is desirable for disease contention. If lucky, we could even bootstrap this system all the way up to the entire planet, starting from a mixture of people who’ve demonstrably been quarantined for a long time and people who have already recovered from the disease. And since, of course, people would eventually get sick of hanging out with a restricted list of friends, they could periodically re-submit another list and the algorithm would take into account this dynamic so that the geometry can be stable over time.
My prediction is that the current strategies that are being used to reduce the spread of disease would show up as a tiny subset of the set of possible effective strategies, many of which are currently invisible- and in some sense inconceivable- to us. This is because, in part (as far as I know) nobody is thinking in terms of scale-specific network geometry. Also, little is known about the actual empirical structure of the human contact network. In this sense, removing super-spreaders or closing schools may be re-conceptualized as pointing in this direction, and yet perhaps may not even make the Top 10 list of best cost-effective strategies. This is because just removing high-degree nodes in a scale-free network won’t automatically prevent exponential growth; since exponential growth is the killer, making strategies directly targeted at it will probably be vastly more effective. Let’s investigate these strategies in more detail:
Option 1: Network Modifications
The first thing we should do is find what actual contact networks look like, so that we can identify the smallest possible modifications to them in order to create sub-exponential bottlenecks on some scale. I have not found a good study on this, since there really aren’t public datasets of “who is physically hanging out with whom”. Though, if you were to combine, perhaps, the datasets of USA’s NSA, UK’s GCHQ, Russia’s KGB, China’s MSS, cellphone location information, census responses, and commercial surveillance camera data you might be able to get a very decent version of it. In fact, there is reason to believe Israel is already in the process of constructing this dataset.
In the absence of contact network data, we can nonetheless learn from other social and information networks. In particular, the best research I’ve read about the macro-structure of complex networks comes from the lab of Jure Leskovec (I recommend watching his CS224W lectures from past years, which are all available online):
We study over 100 large real-world social and information networks. Our results suggest a significantly more refined picture of community structure in large networks than has been appreciated previously. In particular, we observe tight communities that are barely connected to the rest of the network at very small size scales; and communities of larger size scales gradually “blend into” the expander-like core of the network and thus become less “community-like.” This behavior is not explained, even at a qualitative level, by any of the commonly-used network generation models.
– Lescovec et al. 2008, “Community Structure in Large Networks: Natural Cluster Sizes and the Absence of Large Well-Defined Clusters“
As you see, large-scale analysis of real-world networks indicate that they are not adequately described by the classic textbook structures that are most well known. Rather, there seems to be a kind of “galactic shape” at the more macro scale, where there is a highly connected giant core of overlapping communities surrounded by loosely connected superstructures (nicknamed ‘whiskers’):
Given this structure (and assuming it generalizes to contact networks), one could divide the problem into two rough components: (1) how to you deal with ‘whiskers’?, and (2) what do you do about the ‘galactic core’? I do not have answers here, but I do think that having more people who are good at math and computer science think about this would be very good. For what is worth, I have the hunch that in particular the following two network analysis techniques will be useful to tackle this problem:
Spectral Graph Theory: This is a set of techniques that can help us ‘see diffusion bottlenecks in graphs’ at a glance. For instance, these techniques reveal the presence of network “chokepoints” that create insulation in heat flow. Clearly heat flow does not behave in the same way as the spread of disease, but the similarity makes it worth highlighting.
Discrete Differential Geometry: An emerging field that blends differential geometry with network analysis and has shown amazing applications for graphicswhich can help us ‘see the curvature and dimensionality of a network around each of its nodes’ at a glance. Note: As much as I love hyperbolic spaces, I must admit that from the point of view of early pandemic prevention living in a contact network with hyperbolic geometry is a terrible idea.
Flatten the Network!
One additional interesting approach for Option 1 would be to apply topological clustering techniques to the contact network so that we can identify the hubs with the least desirable network geometry and try to “flatten them”. And policy-wise, I might imagine that in the long-run we could improve the flattening of the contact network by encouraging people to use things like the Bumble app for dating, where you find people physically near you with whom you could form a healthy relationship.
Option 2: Network Nucleation
Green and Red Countries
Imagine green are virus free, red are virus uncontrolled, and grey have unreliable statistics. (This actual map is about something unrelated I’m not going to name; it is just used as an example of what the world might look like).
Joscha Bach predicts that in a couple months there will be “green and red” countries, meaning that the outbreak will be completely under control in some countries, and completely out of control in others. I’d also add “grey” to refer to “unreliable statistics”, as many countries might just choose to not monitor the situation. You can imagine what the travel restrictions may be between green, red, and grey countries, as green countries would not find it worthwhile (or at least not politically viable) to accept the risk of reigniting the spread. Grey countries may end up also avoiding red countries while not being allowed to enter green countries.
Speculatively, this would perhaps lead to a worldwide Sakoku phenomenon, but where rather than just Japan, we would have all of the countries of each color becoming economic and cultural blocks.
What I’ll describe below is a kind of generalization of this possibility. Namely, that the blocks don’t need to be country-based.
A very interesting question to ask is “what possible partitions of humanity could create sets of people for whom a green/red/grey dynamic would successfully create clusters of wholly virus-free people?” The existence of at least some greens opens up the possibility of:
Reversing The Pandemic
I address you tonight, not as the president of the United States, not as the leader of a country, but as a citizen of humanity. We are faced with the very gravest of challenges. The Bible calls this day Armageddon. The end of all things. And yes, for the first time in the history of the planet, a species has the technology to prevent its own extinction. All of you praying with us need to know that everything that can be done to prevent this disaster is being called into service. The human thirst for excellence, knowledge, every step up the ladder of science, every adventurous reach into space, all of our combined technologies and imaginations, even the wars that we’ve fought, have provided us the tools to wage this terrible battle. Through all the chaos that is our history, through all of the wrongs and the discord, through all of the pain and suffering, through all of our times, there is one thing that has nourished our souls and elevated our species above its origins, and that is our courage. Dreams of an entire planet are focused tonight on those 14 brave souls traveling into the heavens. May we all citizens of the world over see these events through, Godspeed, and good luck to you.
– Armageddon (1998 film, when the president of the US announces the plans to avert an asteroid that would destroy the earth) [See also: what if they don’t come back?]
Nucleating Whole Virus-Free Communities
The simplest way to create a virus-free community would be to think of verifiable self- quarantining as an investment. If you can prove you’ve been physically disconnected from everyone for 30 days, you would be let into a club for people near you who have done the same already. This could become a large set of people, especially if it turns out that cash handouts are insufficient for millions of people who might end up needing to work in a month or two and defy any kind of large-scale quarantine. Those who can afford (and prove!) that they’ve been diligently quarantining would be allowed in. For a stricter “inner set” there might be stricter criteria where you would need to submit an unfakeable biosample to prove you are not infected (which would be tricky but not impossible given pre-existing DNA databases like 23andMe). Then the algorithm would group you with a subset that you can realistically physically meet, and then allow you to make friends with them. Finally, as you submit a list of people you do want to hang out with long-term, the algorithm would run an optimization process to make as many of the people happy and return the curated list of people you could hang out with so that the network as a whole has convenient scale-dependent sub-exponential chokepoints. I know this sounds like a lot. And it is. But again, pandemics can be really bad. And we have the technology, so why not try?
In a way this idea is the complementary problem to “keeping the virus out of the general population”. In the latter you start out in a fully virus-free situation and try to keep it that way, while the former starts out in a highly contaminated population and tries to “spread health” from the standpoint of a verifiably healthy core. That is, how you create pockets of health in a virus-saturated general population and grow them as much as possible.
Another approach in this vein I can think of is to seed a location with an excess of people who already have immunity and cannot transmit. The people there who haven’t gotten the disease would in a sense be lucky to find themselves around people who won’t transmit it, and thus be blessed with spontaneous herd immunity. That said, the key sacrifice here would be the potential damage elsewhere, where herd immunity would be reached later due to the removed group of immune people. This and the previous approach incur the cost of having to associate with new people, and the relocation challenges would be a logistical nightmare. But perhaps worth doing.
Finally, another approach to this problem would be to use an app with a personality test that is hard to fake, so that only healthy people who score in the top 2% of both introversion and conscientiousness could join the club. It would tell you where to go live with other people who meet the same criteria, and to get a comprehensive test of all major transmissible diseases and treat those you have before relocation. Given the temperament selected for, everyone who becomes part of the community would be extremely diligent about not physically meeting people outside the group and follow the contact network prescriptions dictated by the algorithm. If this sounds like hell to you, well, perhaps it is not for you. But at least this way there would be some pockets of fully healthy people, and that would have a lot of value. (Cf. Rat-free Alberta).
What are your options for modifying a network in order to remove (or at least tame) exponential growth? The one’s I’ve considered are:
Remove nodes with a high “Pandemic Klout Score”
Creating sub-exponential chokepoints:
Option 1: Gradient descent methods:
You make piece-meal modifications to the contact network one connection at a time in order to improve the prospects of the entire network.
Each person would receive a set of options for mild modifications to their contacts so that whichever they chose would lead to an improvement of the network geometry.
Option 2: Network nucleation:
You create a criteria for what constitutes “infection-free” such as:
Self-enforced quarantine on one extreme, and
Provable DNA-matched tests on the other extreme.
Allow people who qualify to meet each other.
Everyone submits a list of people they’d like to hang out with.
The algorithm would optimize the connections to make everyone happy and at the same time maximize the sub-exponential chokepoints of the network (such as by making it a planar graph with a high clustering coefficient, etc.).
Now, perhaps if all of this sounds insane and like too much trouble, there is always the option of, er, becoming comfortable with no human touch…
A Religion of Abstinence of Human Touch
I know how hard it is, what is being demanded of us.
Especially in times of needs such as these, we like to be close to one another.
We understand care and affection in terms of human closeness and human touch.
But at the moment the exact opposite is the case, and everybody really must understand that.
At the moment, the only real way of showing you care is keeping your distance.
Have you ever noticed that it is possible to reproduce without any human touch? Artificial insemination conducted with robotic arms is not a far-fetched prospect. A further question is: can we do away with human touch entirely for all functions of life?
You don’t need to be anywhere to be everywhere.
– John C. Lilly
You may say: wouldn’t a community of touch-free individuals somehow lack the most basic of human qualities, i.e. interpersonal intimacy? I reckon that you would be wrong on more than one account. First of all, insofar as touch-based intimacy is based on endorphin and oxytocin release in conjunction with nervous system entrainment under the hood, there is no reason why one couldn’t engineer a brain-stimulation technology ecosystem so that people receive the same kind of physically, psychologically, and spiritually rewarding feelings of connection by merely acknowledging each other’s presence or synchronizing with each other’s brainwaves. Perhaps even you could achieve this despite doing away with technology, as the power of deep metta meditation would suggest. Perhaps we could all cultivate a loving temperament that embraces all of the universe of sentient beings. Here, the commitment to each other’s physical wellbeing is possible without sacrificing the emotional richness of communion; in principle they could be simultaneously satisfied. Alas, the evolutionary roots of human touch are deep, and trying to mess with them with humans as they currently are is far fetched. But just wait until a virus with 0.98 fatality rate and R0 = 6 is discovered and see what people are willing to do to survive.
This concludes my presentation of the cocktail napkin ideas I’ve considered so far to deal with pandemics. But I still have a couple more things to say about this topic, so I’ll take advantage of the soap box I’m standing on and add:
Now That The World Is Paying Attention
From the 1998 film “Armageddon”
I’d like to draw your attention to the following highly relevant goals that the current crisis highlights:
1) We ought to recognize the existence of extreme suffering so that we focus our efforts on its prevention (asphyxiation is an example of extreme suffering, which is how people are dying of COVID-19).
3) Get factory farms banned (for real, they are the breeding grounds of future pandemics – and they of course also cause the bulk of easily preventable suffering, so there is that too. Every animal product you put on your plate is a probabilistic pandemic on its way. Sorry!).
Let’s make the best of this situation (More Dakka!)
A Few Final Thoughts
The Framing Effect
Recall the “Framing Effect” – the cognitive bias where we prefer an option when the problem is framed in a certain way, and a different option when it’s framed differently even though the corresponding options in each framing are of equal expected value.
I worry a lot of the people in my friend network, and in fact worldwide, might be falling prey to the framing effect for the coronavirus situation:
Here is how the “containment vs. mitigation” problem is being “framed” right now (assume 5 million people will die worldwide if nothing is done, but you can choose to invest your resources on ‘containment’ or ‘mitigation’):
Option A: 10% chance 0 people die (i.e. successful containment), and 90% chance 5 million people die. Option B: 100% chance 4 million people die.
Clearly option A is more ‘heroic’. Alas, it is the one that leads to more expected deaths.
Now consider the alternate framing that might make you feel differently about the options:
Option A: 10% chance of saving 5 million people (i.e. successful containment) and 90% of saving nobody. Option B: 100% chance of saving 1 million people (i.e. mitigation prevents many deaths).
In both cases option B is much better by a huge margin. In fact by an expected number of 500,000 people saved. Yet when framed in the first way option A seems a lot more attractive. Why? And should we try to get rid of this bias?
Of course in the real world you don’t have to choose between A and B entirely. You can try to do both containment and mitigation. But you *do* need to choose how to allocate resources, and I believe this framing issue does actually come up in our current situation.
I do want to say that, as Robin Hanson suggests, if we are doing the containment strategy we need buy-in from the population. Some personally costly and dramatic public display of commitment from many people would be useful. I am personally very happy to commit in public to hard-core quarantine if it’s ethically necessary.
Social Withdrawal and Behavioral Enrichment
Social distancing is painful because we are all opioid addicts, namely, addicts to the endogenous opioids released when socializing. With a quarantine in place, we can anticipate that people who are on the threshold of being depressed might cross that threshold as an effect of reduced in-person socializing. Likewise, we can anticipate collective health decline at a statistical level due to reduced exercise, sunlight exposure, and sensory diversity (cf. white torture).*****
Possible solutions? Besides being very bullish on at-home exercise routines and HEPA filters, I would also point out the following. I think that we should not be afraid of comparing ourselves with other animals. Bear with me. Humans, not unlike domestic dogs and cats, benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of novel sensory inputs. If you enjoy scents, for example, it would be advisable to order a set of essential oils or perfume samples in order to trick your brain into thinking you are exploring a larger area than you are. Apparently, for example, big cats in captivity are more engaged and less depressed when you spray Calvin Klein perfumes on their territory. Alternatively, if scent is not something you care about, think of perhaps increasing the repertoire of visual art, dance, food, touch, and music you are exposed to on a daily basis. This, I suggest, will help you keep depression away (for a while longer).
(e) Hierarchical space
Glass Pavilion by Nick Xu
Caption: Just a little bit of behavioral enrichment for you! 🙂
Finally (self-promotion ahead), if you have time on your hands, and you’ve been meaning to dive deeper into Qualia Computing, this might be your chance. I’d suggest you start out with the following three resources:
And if you are really hard core, feel free to reach out to the Qualia Research Institute to help with volunteer work. Also we are going to be doing virtual internship cycles in April, May, and June, so you can stay home and safe and still collaborate with us. But shh! It’s a secret! (Wait, how come it’s a secret but you now know about it? Well, because you’ve scrolled all the way here, that’s some commitment!).
* A more accurate representation might require the use of directed edges to encode asymmetrical contact relationships. For example: the cleaning crew of a hotel might be more exposed to the guests than the guests are exposed to the crew. Also, when two people who have very different habits of hygiene meet, the cleaner person is more likely to get the short end of the stick transmission-wise.
** It is worth pointing out for information networks the “degree of interaction” between nodes is extremely skewed. You may have a thousand friends on Facebook, but the number of people you are likely to interact on a daily basis will be a tiny subset of them, perhaps on the order of 0 to 20. And among the people you interact with, you are likely interacting much more word-count-wise with some than with the others. Indeed, if you plot the number of words exchanged in private messages between people in an information network, the distribution follows a long-tail.
*** In the long-run, this may also have to apply to information networks. Whether information networks will need also some level of top-down control will be a difficult question to answer that requires a complex cost-benefit analysis beyond the scope of this article. The most important variables being (a) what the benefits of fully-free communication are, and (b) the density and severity of memetic hazards in idea-space, in conjunction with the nature of intellectual selection pressures in future societies. If it turns out that people above a certain level of education and intelligence in a future with far more advanced science and engineering are extremely likely to encounter what Nick Bostrom calls “black balls”, there might be no way around developing tight controls on information networks for the safety of everyone. It this happens, we could also use many of the strategies outlined in this article for contact networks. After all, viruses are related to contact networks in the same way as meme hazards are related to information networks.
**** Of course, in some ways this is more about collective emotional processing than about object-level problem solving.
***** It is worth noting that the better air quality might buffer a bit against these negatives.
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 IV: 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…).
Just the right amount of Al, Ti, Cr, Mo, and W to get this High Entropy Alloy (HEA)!
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.
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?
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 🌎
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.