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.
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.
We are Maggie & Anders. A mostly harmless Swedish old-timer couple only now beginning to discover the advanced incompetence that is the proto-science — or “alchemy” — of consciousness research. A few centuries ago a philosopher of chemistry could have claimed with a straight face to be quite certain that a substance with negative mass had to be invoked to explain the phenomenon of combustion. Another could have been equally convinced that the chemistry of life involves a special force of nature absent from all non-living matter. A physicist of today may recognize that the study of consciousness has even less experimental foundation than alchemy did, yet be confident that at least it cannot feel like somethingto be a black hole. Since, obviously, black holes are simple objects and consciousness is a phenomenon which only emerges from “complexity” as high as that of a human brain.
Is there some ultimate substrate, basic to reality and which has properties intrinsic to itself? If so, is elementary sentience one of those properties? Or is it “turtles all the way down” in a long regress where all of reality can be modeled as patterns within patterns within patterns ending in Turing-style “bits”? Or parsimoniously never ending?
Will it turn out to be patterns all the way down, or sentience all the way up? Should people who believe themselves to perhaps be in an ancestor simulation take for granted that consciousness exists for biologically-based people in base-level reality? David Chalmers does. So at least that must be one assumption it is safe to make, isn’t it? And the one about no sentience existing in a black hole. And the one about phlogiston. And the four chemical elements.
This really is good material for silly comedy or artistic satire. To view a modest attempt by us in that direction, please feel encouraged to enjoy this youtube video we made with QRI in mind:
When ignorance is near complete, it is vital to think outside the proverbial box if progress is to be made. However, spontaneous creative speculation is more context-constrained than it feels like, and it rarely correlates all that beautifully with anything useful. Any science has to work via the baby steps of testable predictions. The integrated information theory (IIT) does just that, and has produced encouraging early results. IIT could turn out to be a good starting point for eventually mapping and modeling all of experiential phenomenology. For a perspective, IIT 3.0 may be comparable to how Einstein’s modeling of the photoelectric effect stands in relation to a full-blown theory of quantum gravity. There is a fair bit of ground to cover. We have not been able to find any group more likely than the QRI to speed up the process whereby humanity eventually manages to cover that ground. That is, if they get a whole lot of help in the form of outreach, fundraising and technological development. Early pioneers have big hurdles to overcome, but the difference they can make for the future is enormous.
For those who feel inspired, a nice start is to go through all that is on or linked via the QRI website. Indulge in Principia Qualia. If that leaves you confused on a higher level, you are in good company. With us. We are halfway senile and are not information theorists, neuroscientists or physicists. All we have is a nerdy sense of humor and work experience in areas like marketing and planetary geochemistry. One thing we think we can do is help bridge the gap between “experts” and “lay people”. Instead of “explain it like I am five”, we offer the even greater challenge of explaining it like we are Maggie & Anders. Manage that, and you will definitely be wiser afterwards!
– Maggie & Anders
No qualia or your money back!
Tested for consciousness – zero
Don’t be afraid – she can’t feel anything!
Letter II: State-Space of Matter and State-Space of Consciousness
A core aspect of science is the mapping out of distributions, spectra, and state-spaces of the building blocks of reality. Naturally occurring states of things can be spontaneously discovered. To gain more information about them, one can experimentally alter such states to produce novel ones, and then analyze them in a systematic way.
The full state-space of matter is multidimensional and vast. Zoom in anywhere in it and there will be a number of characteristic physics phenomena appearing there. Within a model of the state-space you can follow independent directions as you move towards regions and points. As an example, you can hold steady at one particular simple chemical configuration. Diamond, say. The stable region of diamond and its emergent properties like high hardness extends certain distances in other parameter directions such as temperature and pressure. The diamond region has neighboring regions with differently structured carbon, such as graphite. Diamond and graphite make for an interesting case since the property of hardness emerges very differently in the two regions. (In the pure carbon state-space the dimensions denoting amounts of all other elements can be said to be there but set to zero). Material properties like hardness can be modeled as static phenomena. According to IIT however, consciousness cannot. It’s still an emergent property of matter though, so just stay in the matter state-space and add a time dimension to it. Then open chains and closed loops of causation emerge as a sort of fundamental level of what matter “does”. Each elementary step of causation may be regarded to produce or intrinsically be some iota of proto-experience. In feedback loops this self-amplifies into states of feeling like something. Many or perhaps most forms of matter can “do” these basic things at various regions of various combinations of parameter settings. Closed causal loops require more delicate fine-tuning in parameter space, so the state-space of nonconscious causation structure is larger than that of conscious structure. The famous “hard problem” has to do with the fact that both an experientially very weak and a very strong state can emerge from the same matter (shown to be the case so far only within brains). A bit like the huge difference in mechanical hardness of diamond and graphite both emerging from the same pure carbon substrate (a word play on “hard” to make it sticky).
By the logic of IIT it should be possible to model (in arbitrarily coarse or fine detail) the state-space of all conscious experience whose substrate is all possible physical states of pure carbon. Or at room temperature in any material. And so on. If future advanced versions of IIT turn out to be a success then we may guess there’ll be a significant overlap to allow for a certain “substrate invariance” for hardware that can support intelligence with human-recognizable consciousness. Outside of that there will be a gargantuan additional novel space to explore. It ought to contain maxima of (intrinsic) attractiveness, none of which need to reside within what a biological nervous system can host. Biological evolution has only been able to search through certain parts of the state-space of matter. One thing it has not worked with on Earth is pure carbon. Diamond tooth enamel or carbon nanotube tendons would be useful but no animal has them. What about conscious states? Has biology come close to hit upon any of the optima in those? If all of human sentience is like planet Earth, and all of Terrestrial biologically-based sentience is like the whole Solar System, that leaves an entire extrasolar galaxy out there to explore. (Boarding call: Space X Flight 42 bound for Nanedi Settlement, Mars. Sentinauts please go to the Neuralink check-in terminal).
Of course we don’t currently know how IIT is going to stand up, but thankfully it does make testable predictions. There is, therefore, a beginning of something to be hoped for with it. In a hopeful scenario IIT turns out to be like special relativity, and what QRI is reaching for is like quantum gravity. It will be a process of taking baby steps, for sure. But each step is likely to bring benefits in many ways.
The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.
Below you will find models 7 and 8, which conclude this series of posts. (See previous models: 1 & 2, 3 & 4, and 5 & 6).
7. Valence Modulation
What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill, despair and bliss? Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s treasure, and we have it a plenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.
The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and creates a bubbling celebration of life.
It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been trampled upon since the beginning of time.
– Letter From Utopia by Nick Bostrom
Photo by Andrés Silva (aka. El Capitán). Claudia Silva (in the picture).
We are now approaching the point at which we will finally start cooking with peanut oil, so to speak. We will finally start thinking about how to build extremely good art from first principles. The ‘Art as Valence Modulation’ model builds on top of the previous model where art involves messing with the brain’s energy parameter. To explain this model we need to introduce two additional concepts:
Neural annealing is a concept we developed at QRI to extend the entropic disintegration framework. Namely, the most beneficial use of ‘energy’ is to direct it towards the brain’s natural harmonics in order to carve out the presence of a naturally blissful state in everyday life. This process works on a progression that goes like this:
Together with neural annealing, STV provides an answer for why we experience intensely rewarding states of consciousness from art. Here is where some of the theories that we have been working on come into play. In particular, we hypothesize that when highly-energized states of consciousness follow an adequate cooling schedule, they can give rise to highly ordered states that are experienced as very pleasant and which can carve good attractor states into the brain in the long term. Making an analogy with metallurgy, with annealing, you can increase the regularity of the microscopic structure of metal by heating it above the recrystallization temperature and letting it cool. This results in changed material properties (such as reduced hardness and increased ductility). We hypothesize that something along these lines also takes place in brains. Neural annealing facilitates solving complex constraint satisfaction problems at the perceptual, emotional, and conceptual level. The higher energy enables quick search between possible configurations that satisfy as many constraints as possible (over- stepping the local maxima we are usually stuck within normal energy ranges), while the cooling process solidifies the best constraint satisfaction solutions. Critically, here the STV comes into play by proposing that the more regular the resulting neural structures are, the better they feel. Annealing smooths out inconsistencies and irregularities, which according to the STV are key sources of discomfort. Symmetry, in the form of smoothness and harmony, is why the process of annealing leaves you feeling great.
Very high-valence annealed states of mind feel cosmic and profound in significance. Images by Adrián Regnier Chávez
In this light, art with lasting desirable mood effects does not only need to increase the energy parameter, but it also needs to know how to lower it at the right schedule in order to leave people annealed to a given desirable mindset. A lot of art that successfully raises the energy parameter nonetheless does not succeed in the ecosystem of human attention, because it does not let people cool off in the right way. More so, an excessively competitive memetic landscape that incentivizes maximum surprise tends to train people to experience too much fear of missing out to let them adequately consume art at the pace needed to leave you better off emotionally. There is genuine wisdom in going to museums with one’s smartphone turned off.
Where do we draw the line between healthy recreation and distraction? Some might say that art in the form of pictures is fine, but audiovisual is too much. Some may be fine with movies but not with VR. Others would be ok with videogames but perhaps not with drugs. Others perhaps would be ok with drugs but not with genetic modification of neuronal gene expression. Some would be ok with that but not with neural dust rewiring, and so on. The format, we would argue, is not what matters. But rather, what the annealing pattern is, which is actually what makes the effects of art stick in the long run (or not).
Image by Joseph Matthias Young. It makes me think of the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic.
This way of seeing art is highly generative. It gives us a research lead for how to construct new grandiose and highly-effective art. More so, the model can itself be developed as an aesthetic of its own. Perhaps we could call it the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic. That is, an aesthetic that rewards distilling the essential reason why any aesthetic can feel good and meaningful. In the future, we might expect to see in stores “Hedonium Magazine” – which catalogues all of the peak-valence states that can be achieved with any method whatsoever, and sees the craft of perfecting neural annealing as itself the highest form of art. Here we transcend the post-modern ethos of giving each aesthetic its place in the garden of paradoxes. Yes, give each aesthetic its place, but do not let that prevent you from building a meta- narrative that ties together and clarifies the value-add of each aesthetic. No aesthetic is above being examined in terms of how it achieves neural annealing in those who consume it.
In turn, this model gives us a new understanding of what an “aesthetic” even is. According to it, an aesthetic is a system for long-term neural annealing. A one-off weird art piece might give rise to annealing and solidify random structures in your brain. An aesthetic is more than that. It is a collection of generator seeds for art pieces that give rise to a coherent form of neural annealing that is reinforced with each piece, no matter how different they may seem from one another on the surface.
A further property of neural annealing is that it is what enables you to fully experience a self-consistent worldview as if true. This bridges the gap between meaning and pleasure, and is at the core of the connection between valence and the experience of sacredness we discussed in model 4. According to model 7, sacred experiences are the result of driving the energy parameter of the brain above the recrystallization threshold and then having it cool down as it reorganizes the elements of a given target ontology and worldview. The result is an annealed mental state optimized to represent that worldview. The sense of global consistency makes the worldview feel good and true, almost as if you were able to smell truth with it. This model would say, thus, that the core mechanism behind every kind of sacred experience is the same. Which emotions, ontologies, and worldviews get annealed is what is different depending on set, setting, and aesthetic (i.e. how the energy sources and sinks were modified). But deep down, it is successful annealing that makes sacred experiences feel so compelling and good.
8. Affective Language: Harmonic Society
An idealised full-spectrum superintelligence will indeed be capable of an impartial “view from nowhere” or God’s-eye-view of the multiverse, a mathematically complete Theory Of Everything – as does modern theoretical physics, in aspiration if not achievement. But in virtue of its God’s-eye-view, full-spectrum superintelligence must also be hypersocial and supersentient: able to understand all possible first-person perspectives, the state-space of all possible minds in other Hubble volumes, other branches of the universal wavefunction (UWF) – and in other solar systems and galaxies if such beings exist within our cosmological horizon. Idealized at least, full-spectrum superintelligence will be able to understand and weigh the significance of all possible modes of experience irrespective of whether they have hitherto been recruited for information-signalling purposes.
– David Pearce, in The Biointelligence Explosion (2012)
If we succeed at developing a science of art built on top of a modern science of consciousness, what should we do with it? What would the art of a wise post-scarcity and post-suffering society look like? As far I can tell, Utopia consists of both having the system in place to keep the lights on, while being able to use the surplus energy to power blissful experiences beyond the bounds of our current conceptions.
Harmonic Society by ALGE
The vision of Harmonic Society is that of a particular type of post-suffering utopia that resolves to optimize for good art. Referencing the models of art we’ve built upon so far: Harmonic Society (1) knows there are stakes in art and hence sidesteps the traps of semantic deflation, (2) avoids runaway signaling and Cool Kid gridlock, (3) utilizes Hipsters to explore promising new frontiers, (4) has mastery over a diverse range of conceptions of the sacred, (5) systematically explores the state-space of consciousness, (6) has a scientific and precise understanding of the energy parameter of experience, and (7) has deep knowledge of how to induce arbitrary types of neural annealing. In addition to all of this, Harmonic Society has (8) a map of all high-level aesthetics, knows what they are useful for, and can instantiate them at will.
In Harmonic Society there is always a way to smoothly transition between seemingly irreconcilable aesthetics. It deeply understands the pros and cons of different aesthetics and knows how to apply them optimally both for instrumental purposes and hedonic value.
Image by Michael Aaron Coleman
Nowadays a lot of people who could benefit from, e.g. going to art festivals, taking acid, subpack cuddle parties, participating in plays (i.e. exposing themselves to high-end aesthetic experiences), find it hard to do so, because it is difficult to get back to work once the weekend is over after experiencing incredible bliss. A rough solution to avoid residual incompatibility between the state you annealed over on the weekend with the mindset you need today for work would be to develop a mood organ that instantly puts you into any mindset you want. But perhaps a more elegant solution is to have such an advanced and detailed map of the state-space of mindsets that smooth, painless, and synergistic transitory states between arbitrary modes of being are discovered.
Thus, one could one minute be on a 5-MeO-DMT-type white light conscious void ultra-blissful state, the next minute be on a perfectly functional MDMA-like state useful for socializing, the minute after moving to a highly-focused nootropic-like systematizing state, and so on. The aesthetic to foster here is a meta-aesthetic of avoiding sharp discontinuities between mindsets, and allowing you to transition between all known awesome aesthetics. In Harmonic Society the entire state-space of consciousness is your oyster.
A further thought about Harmonic Society is that a sufficiently advanced understanding of aesthetic experience might even revolutionize our understanding of identity.
For instance, a non-trivial sense of personal diachronic identity could arise if everyone
starts to identify with e.g. a different person-specific song. If we truly understood how
valence works and we had full access to our neurocircuitry, we could in a way embody a
given work of art and interact with others in a way that is consistent with the artistic
degrees of freedom our identity allows. This way, people’s interactions could perhaps be guaranteed to be positive. The combinatorial space of possible back-and-forth interactions does not need to be small, since high-energy allows for incredibly varied states. But nonetheless we could get to a point of understanding how valence works such that we could provably demonstrate that two persons with the right neural implementations will always have positive-sum interactions no matter what.
Identity in Harmonic Society: The aesthetic of understanding the valence of every possible state of consciousness and how to translate what matters between them. (Picture: Symbol of Open, Empty, Closed Individualism from Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029, Continuity Camp)
As the guiding premise of this essay we started out assuming that there are real and substantial stakes in art. It sure is all fun and games to think that anything goes in art until your landscape of cultural meaning is polluted with replicator strategies and attention-zapping exploits that lead to long-term neuropsychological problems and anneal false and neurotic metaphysics. Understanding art matters.
I would make the claim that a new science of valence, i.e. a new science of pleasure, pain, love, hate, and indeed transcendent bliss, can be a new rallying flag for cultural value. Rather than the messy consilience patchwork between different aesthetics we have today, we might in the future indeed find a true and real grounding for the meaning of beauty and bliss. Contrary to the conservative spirit often associated with calls to reinvigorate an objective sense of beauty, here we arrive at a theory of art that would very well appreciate experiences as outlandish as DMT breakthroughs. This theory of art appreciates such states not “just as much” as fine art, but indeed as far more valuable and implicated in what matters than most of everyday life. For art, meditation, psychedelics, and philosophy all share the fact that they are messing with the energy parameter of experience in powerful ways that can be used to achieve much better and globally-consistent brain states. Understanding that the effects of art can be very strong and life-changing is one thing, but knowing the mechanism of action behind those changes comes with entirely new possibilities and responsibilities. We invite you to consider what this entails, and to join us in envisioning a future Harmonic Society constructed with full knowledge of neural annealing.
 The Penfield Mood Organ is a technology described in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick that allows the user to instantly tune into any of hundreds of possible moods via direct cerebral stimulation. Some example moods include “3. The desire to dial other moods”, “481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future”, “594. Pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters”, and “888. The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”.
Cool Kids: Someone who is well-rounded and uses strategic mediocrity in order to entice people to show their peacock feathers. At its extreme, Cool Kids become the leaders of artistic gangs who corner the marketplace of aesthetic attention.
Hipster: Someone who enjoys art and media that seems too obscure to care about. Typically, the preferred aesthetics of a Hipster are highly detailed and focus on specific favored attributes at the expense of well-roundedness. A Hipster does not only have opinions about what is enjoyable, but also about how to enjoy it and why.
Nerd: Someone who wants to figure out what is true, especially as it applies to technical and formal systems. A philosophy nerd, for instance, compulsively tries to figure out ultimate truth.
Minimax art strategies: A strategy for making art that tries to be the best on a narrow set of attributes while neglecting well-roundedness. This is sometimes adaptive and some- times maladaptive.
L1/L2 normalization: Using mean absolute error (L1) favors minimax strategies vs. using mean squared error (L2) which favors well-rounded strategies.
Special thanks to: Michael Johnson, Romeo Stevens, Liam Brereton, Duncan Wilson, Victor Ochikubo, and David Pearce for their thoughts and feedback.
* The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia
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Evolutionary qualia suggests our inner world-simulations are not merely painted with different colors, but have different soundtracks, aesthetics, narrative themes, and walk-on character status. Cilantro tasting like soap to ~10% of people is merely the canary in the coal-mine. Our differences in qualia (and consciousness more broadly) probably involve modes of experience you and I don’t even know exist.
Excerpt from Global Brain (2000) by Howard Bloom (Pgs. 143 – 146). [Emphasis mine]
Our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed, they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure […] varies seven-fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia […], is not found at all in one in four people. The primary visual cortex can vary three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala (it is responsible for our fears and loves) can vary two-fold in volume – as can something called our hippocampus (involved in memory). Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume.
– Dr. John Robert Skoyles
Thanks to Plato, we have what purport to be records of the conversations of a human Cuisinart of concepts, an eclectic sage whose roughly fifty-year-long intellectual life bracketed the Periclean Golden Age (443-429 B.C.). This all-purpose conceptual chopper and blender was that son of a socially high-placed family, Socrates. Experts and neophytes agree that it’s impossible to tell how many of the words Plato ascribes to this self-appointed gadfly were authentic and how many were simply Plato’s way of getting his own notions into the public eye. But one thing is generally accepted as accurate – the names of the folks from whom Socrates extracted opinions before shredding them with the quiz mastering which now bears his name (Socratic dialogue). The cast of characters palavering with Socrates in Plato’s Dialogs, says learned reasoning, was too well known in Athens for Plato to have fudged.
Just who were the fonts of learned conversation whose wisdom Socrates whipped and whirled? Socrates’ interlocutors were frequently famous thinkers from distant cities, each of which specialized in a different manner of plucking goods from its surroundings and injecting them into the circulatory system through which the trade of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea swirled. Socrates was a student of Anaxagoras, who came from the Ionian city of Clazomenae on the coast of today’s Turkey. He was also a disciple of Archelaus, another Ionian import. The Socratic dialogues Plato “chronicled” included those with Protagoras from the Balkan city of Abdera, Hippias from Peloponnesian Elis, Parmenides from Italy’s Elea, and Gorgias from Sicily’s Leontini. Each visiting intellect had been shaped by contact with a unique group of surrounding tribes, and by the exigencies imposed on city structure, domestic habit, and vested interest by distinctive forms of enterprise. One result: each arrival presented a philosophy which appealed to a very different configuration of the human mind.
To understand how philosophy couples with the mind’s biology, let’s track the complex adaptive system’s best-concealed constituent to its hiding place. The five elements of the complex adaptive system are conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resources shifters, and intergroup tournaments. Inner-judges may be the most unusual of the crew, for they are physiological built-ins which work deep inside the body to transform a bacterium, a lizard, a baboon, a me, or a you into a module of a larger learning machine. The basic rule of learning machines is one we’ve already seen: turn on the juice to components which have a grip on the problem at hand and turn off the power to those components which just can’t seem to understand. Inner-judges help decide whether the components in which they reside will be enriched or will be denied, then they aid in carrying out the sentence. The irony is that these evaluators, prize givers, and executioners are built into their victims biologically. On the microlevel, inner-judges work through “programmed cell death” – apoptosis – a molecular chain reaction deep within the genes which ends in cellular suicide. In higher animals the inner-judges dole out interior punishments which range from overdoses of stress hormones to emotional miseries. Or they grant internal bonuses of zest and confidence to those of us fulfilling our group’s needs.
When we feel like kicking ourselves around the block or curling up and disappearing, our condemnation comes from inner-judges like guilt and shame. What’s a good deal harder to realize is that behind the scenes our inner-judges sicken us and dumb us down quite literally. If they sense we’re a drag on the collective intelligence, inner-judges down shift our immune system and neurochemically cloud our ability to perceive. They induce a narcotic haze by swamping our system with endorphins, the body’s self-produced equivalent of morphine*. And they flood us with glucocorticoids which kill off both brain cells and lymphocytes – critical cells in our fight against disease.
Inner-judges measure our contribution to the social learning machine by two yardsticks: (1) our personal sense of mastery; and (2) the hints we get from those around us telling us whether they want us eagerly or couldn’t care less if we disappeared like a blackhead from the face of decent society.
Mastery is a useful gauge. It measures whether we’re coping with the trials tossed our way, and whether our example can help steer others in their trip through choppy seas. Popularity is an equally practical yardstick. It measures the extent to which we’re feeding others’ physical, organizational, and/or emotional needs.
Nestled deep within our neuroendocrine complex, inner-judges operate on a sliding scale. By adjusting our mix of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, or the balance between the gloomy right and sunny left side of the brain, they shift us from fear to daring, from misery to happiness, from grouchiness to charm, from timid silence to expansive speech, from deflation to elation, from pain to ecstasy, from confusion to insight, and from listlessness to lust or to the resolute pursuit of goals.
Some of us are born with inner-judges whose verdicts are perpetually harsh. The result is depression, shyness, and heightened susceptibility to pain. Others arrive from the womb with inner-judges preset to treat us generously, endowing us with energy, few inhibitions, a deep sense of security, and little sense of guilt or shame. But most of us are in the middle – our inner-judges sentence us sternly or magnanimously depending on the snugness with which we fit our social network’s needs.
Those born with inner-judges excessively lenient or severe have taught us much about the secrets of mental and emotional diversity. Harvard University researcher Jerome Kagan has probably never heard the term “inner-judges,” yet he may have done more than any other psychologist to uncover their capabilities. To understand what Kagan hath wrought, a background briefing is in order.
The early-twentieth-century psychoanalytic thinker Carl Jung, says Kagan, originated the concept of introverted and extroverted personalities. Jung also believed that each had a slightly different brain structure. Kagan feels that in his own way, he has proven Jung right. He’s found that 10 to 15 percent of infants are born with a tendency to be fearful and withdrawn, while another 10 to 15 percent are born with a flair for dauntless spontaneity. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, Kagan performed numerous experiments and accumulated large amounts of data demonstrating his concept’s validity.
He refers to facts like these:
In studies of Japanese and American newborns, some infants took the removal of the nipple from their mouths calmly, while others went into emotional fits. The babies as yet had had no opportunity to learn these reactions from their parents. The tendencies were those they’d brought with them from the isolation of the uterus. At fourteen months, the babies who’d been easily upset at birth were still so oversensitive that they often broke out crying when the sight of a stranger loomed. On another test, babies who became upset at birth when they were switched suddenly from water to a sugar solution squalled hysterically at the age of one or two when their mothers left the room, but babies who had taken the change in beverage casually did not. In addition, a study of 113 children showed that those who had a hard time handling the unexpected when they were one year old were still shy and withdrawn by the time they reached six.
This tendency toward variation in personality was not limited to human beings. According to Kagan, it appeared in dogs, mice, rats, wolves, cats, cows, monkeys, and paradise fish. Some of these animals were fascinated by novelty. Others were terrified by anything the least bit out of place.
Fifteen percent of cats steered clear of strangers and even avoided attacking rats. This was remarkably close to the percentage of humans frozen by anxiety attacks.
Kagan traces these differences to genes, which can help set off a lifelong domino effect in the brain. The production of key manufacturing enzyme for the stimulant norepinephrine, says Kagan, is controlled by a single pair of genes, making norepinephrine levels highly heritable. Norepinephrine – which is also a potent stress hormone – shows up very early in the development of the embryo, making the hippocampus oversensitive to the unfamiliar, and hyperactivating the amygdala, which jolts us with the warning signal we call fear. The hippocampus and amygdala – as we’ve seen earlier – are central shapers of the memory bank we call reality. They are also key to the inner-judges’ machinery.
Later in life the products of a prebirth norepinephrine cascade are timid children, who, in carefully controlled studies, are alert to slight changes in tones or brightness of light that other children miss. In other words, these children literally see and hear their world in ways others would not recognize. According to Kagan, the constitutionally frightened are endowed with a limbic system hair-triggered to curse them with a sense of imminent catastrophe. As a consequence, shy children attempt to escape punishment by hiding from everyday events which threaten to torment them hideously. Uninhibited children, on the opposite end of the scale, have underaroused limbic systems and demand a deluge of entertainment to dodge boredom’s intolerability. Their craving for excitement can sometimes wear their parents to a frazzle.
Kagan’s shy children are condemned to solitude and pain by hanging judges in their own biology. Kagan’s uninhibited kids are gifted with indulgent inner-judges predisposed by the limbic system to offer such unearned rewards as boldness and social dexterity. But most of the animals and humans Kagan has studied avoid these two extremes. Seventy percent remain in the middle, their inner-judges handing out positive and negative verdicts according to the rules of the learning machine.
*”Endorphin” is a contraption of the term “endogenous morphine.
I will be giving a presentation about The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences at the Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club on September 17, at 8pm (Sever 113). The venue is apparently quite large so we are not going to run out of capacity for this talk. Feel free to amplify this as a Schelling point for smart rational psychonauts to meet one another.
Michael Johnson will also be giving a presentation at the Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club: 21st of September (7PM), at the Fong Auditorium in Boylston Hall.
Both Harvard talks are free and open to the public. The venues have a large number of seating spots, so all you need to do is show up. For the NYU talk the organizers of the event would like you to get a (free) ticket first in order to RSVP and secure a seat as the venue is not very large.
We will record these talks, share them online, and add them to the list of media appearances.
If you are in Boston, want to meet up with us, but can’t make it to any of the talks: I will show up to the SSC meetup on the 20th of September wearing a Qualia Research Institute shirt. Feel free to find me and say hi.
Nick Bostrom defines an “Information Hazard” as: “A risk that arises from the dissemination or the potential dissemination of (true) information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm.” A more general category is that of “Memetic Hazard”, which is not restricted to the potential harms of true information. False claims and mistaken beliefs can also produce harm, and should thus also be considered in any ethically-motivated policy for information dissemination.
Perhaps one of the best known analysis of meme hazards is the work of Nick Bostrom concerning: Information Hazards, the Unilateralist’s Curse, and Singletons. His focus could roughly be described as one of classifying the types of situations that can give rise to information hazards. A parallel set of problems to that of categorizing memetic hazards is the problem of coming up with policies for dealing with them, and the problem of convincing people that they should care. In this post we suggest some basic heuristics for dealing with meme hazards, and explain why you should care about them even when your work seems unambiguously positive.
Why You Should Care
A big problem with getting people to engage with any kind of memetic hazard policy is that it may be perceived as a voluntary constraint on one’s behavior with little to no personal benefit. Nobody (well, at least nobody we know*) gets excited about compliance training at a new job, or inspection day at a manufacturing facility. Subjectively, most people perceive compliance and oversight as something that gets in the way of doing one’s work and as a hassle for one’s organization. That said, there is reason to believe that as the world’s technologies become both more powerful and more widely accessible, that there will be increasingly more dangerous information around. Considering the possible downsides of sharing information will thus become increasingly more important. So at least on a global scale, it will be increasingly more important for people to consider the impact of the information they choose to share. But at an individual level, why would they care about meme hazards policies and not think of them as a bothersome constraint?
Just like there are actions that can help or harm there are ideas that can help or harm. Furthermore, some ideas produce their primary good or bad effect through social transmission, which we can call memes. There are several ways to prevent the harm from memes: not producing them in the first place, not sharing them, or fixing the situation so that when dispersed they do not do damage (before or after dispersal). Let’s call policies to prevent harm from meme hazards, meme hazard policies. Because in a world with increasingly accessible technological power a lot of our largest effects are likely to be produced by memetic hazards, a good way to improve the chances of achieving one’s goals is to tilt things as much as possible towards our goals with good meme hazard policies. It thus makes sense to read works about meme hazard policy and to think about how it bears on one’s work. This way you can improve your implementation and design of meme hazard policies to avoid hampering your own goals. In particular, assuming that you are a rational agent (who both attempts to be epistemically and instrumentally rational) you will generally find that spreading dangerous information that causes large negative effects (even if by accident!) will interfere with your ability to carry out your own goals.
Why Good Work May Have Bad Net Effects
When one engages in very novel research one should be careful to consider the ratio with which one’s work advances desired outcomes relative to undesired outcomes. This may yield surprising results for the net effect of one’s work, sometimes flipping the net effect of research that at first may have seemed unambiguously good. For example, Artificial Intelligence Alignment research may in principle increase the chances of unaligned AI by virtue of providing insights into how to build powerful AIs in general. If it is 100 times harder to build an aligned AI than an unaligned AI, and researching AI alignment advances the goal of building unaligned AIs by more than 1/100 relative to how it advances building aligned AIs, then such research would (counter-intuitively) increase the chances of building unaligned AIs relative to aligned AIs.
As another example of how seemingly good work may have bad net effects let’s consider how information mutates in a social network. As discussed in previous articles such as consciousness vs. replicators there is no universal reason why causing large effects and causing good effects have to be correlated (see also: Basic AI Drives and Spreading happiness more difficult than just spreading). With an evolutionary view, it becomes clear that memes that are good and beneficial to everyone can eventually evolve to become bad and harmful to everyone if by doing so they gain a reproductive edge. As a rule of thumb, you can expect ideas to mutate towards:
Unless your copying method is perfect or has error correction methods, every time you make a copy of something the information will degrade to some extent. This is called generation loss and it leads to more noisy copies over time.
Since information transmission incurs a cost, simpler mutations of the meme have a reproductive edge.
Ease of memorization and communication
Mutations to the memes that are easier to memorize and communicate are more likely to spread.
Inciting arms races
If the meme provides a competitive edge in a zero-sum game, it may give rise to an arms race between agents who engage in such zero-sum game. For example, a new marketing method discovered by a given agency would force other marketing agencies to invest in researching how to achieve the same results. Since the rate of evolution of a meme is partly determined by the rate at which iterations over it are performed, a lot of memetic evolution takes place in arms races.
Saliency (cognitive, emotional, perceptual, etc.)
Saliency refers to the probability of noticing a given stimuli. Memes that mutate in a way that makes them more noticeable have a reproductive edge. Thus, many memes may over time acquire salient features, such as causing strong emotions.
Uses for social signaling (such as used for signaling intelligence, knowledge, social network, local usefulness, etc.)
Consider the difference between manufacturing a car that focuses exclusively on basic functionality and a car that in addition also signals wealth. Perhaps it would be better if everyone bought the first kind of car because the second kind incites the urge in others to get a new car more often than necessary. Namely, people might want to buy a new car whenever the neighbors have upgraded to a more luxurious car (see: Avoid Runaway Signaling in Effective Altruism and Keeping up with the Joneses).
As a general heuristic, memes will spread faster when they are presented as better than they really are. Unless there is a feedback mechanism that allows people to know the true value of a meme, those that can oversell themselves will tend to be more common relative to those that are honest about the value they provide.
The usefulness of a meme increases the chances that it will be passed on.
Given considerations like the above, it’s clear that in order to achieve what we want we need to think carefully about the possible impacts of our research and efforts, even when they seem unambiguously positive. Now, when should one give special thought to memetic hazard policies?
When Should You Care the Most?
Meme Hazard Action Space – Worry when the ideas are both novel and have the potential to have large effects
There are two key features of potential memetic hazards that should be taken into account when thinking about whether to pursue the research that is bringing them to life.
The first one is how large their effects may be, and the second is how novel they are. How large an effect is depends on factors such as how many people it may affect, how intense the effects would be on each person affected, how long the effects would last, and so on. How novel a meme is depends on factors like how many people know about it, how much specialized knowledge you require to arrive at it, how counter-intuitive it is, and so on.
No matter how novel a piece of information may be, if it does not have the potential to cause large effects we can disregard it in the context of a meme hazard policy. When the potential to cause large effects is there but the idea is not very novel, then one should focus on actions to mitigate risks. For instance, if everyone knows how to build nuclear bombs, then the real bottleneck to focus as a matter of policy would be on things like the accessibility to rare or expensive materials needed to build such bombs.
But when the information is both novel and can cause large effects, then the appropriate focus is that of a meme hazard policy based on strategies to handle information dissemination.
What you had for breakfast, yet another number sorting algorithm, how to get the hair of a cat to be more fluffy
Focus on ideas:
A more efficient deep learning technique, a chemical to improve exercise response efficiency, a new rationality technique, information on where the world’s biggest tree is
Focus on actions:
The idea of guns, the idea of washing hands for sanitary purposes, running an Ayahuasca retreat in the amazon
To wrap up, here we provide a very high-level set of suggested heuristics to consider if one is indeed discovering ideas that are both very novel and capable of producing large effects:
Develop if you conclude that there is no risk
Share if you conclude that there is no risk
Log your analysis and proceed
Store the results of your analysis for future use by others who may overlook the risks and then continue developing or sharing it
Think more about it
Conclude that it would be valuable to analyze the risks of the meme (e.g. a new technology) further
Develop a cure of the meme hazard’s downsides
This approach may entail selectively sharing the information with people who are highly benevolent, good at keeping secrets, and capable in the relevant domains of expertise
Improve the groups that receive it so that it is safe
Some information is only risky if certain types of groups get it, so if you change the nature of the groups then there is no risk
Framing it so it goes to the right people or only yields good effects
The way an idea is posed or framed determines a fair amount of who will read it and how they will act on it
Selecting a safe subset to share
When you have information it could be that some parts are good or safe to share and you can selectively share those parts
Make sure those parts are not sufficient to reconstruct the original (unsafe) information
Selecting a safe subset to develop
When developing some information it can be that some parts are good or safe to develop and you can selectively develop those parts
Selectively share to a subset of people
Some information is only risky if certain types of groups get it; if you can aim where the information goes you can avoid the risk
Report the information to proper authorities
Some information is too risky to develop
Some information is too risky to share
Monitor to see if others move towards developing or sharing it
If you’ve identified something risky it may make sense to see if others are developing it or likely to share it so that you can warn them, focus on building a cure, contact authorities, or start changing your actions knowing that a disaster is likely.
Try to decrease the likelihood of rediscovery
If it’s really risky you may want to see what you can do about decreasing the likelihood that it is rediscovered
In this post we discussed why you should consider following heuristics to deal with meme hazards as an important part of achieving your goals rather than as a chore or hassle. We also discussed how work that may seem unambiguously good may turn out to have negative effects. In particular, we mentioned the “ratio argument” and also brought up some evolutionary considerations (where memes may mutate in unhelpful ways to have a reproductive edge). We then considered when one should be especially cautious about meme hazards: when the information is both highly novel and capable of producing large effects. And finally, we provided a list of heuristics to consider when faced with novel information capable of producing large effects.
In the future we hope to weave these heuristics into a more complete meme hazard policy for researchers and decision makers working at the cutting edge.
*After posting this article someone contacted us to point out that they in fact love compliance training. This person was very persistent about updating this post with that fact.
The God-like perspective-taking faculty of a full-spectrum superintelligence doesn’t entail distinctively human-friendliness any more than a God-like superintelligence could promote distinctively Aryan-friendliness. Indeed it’s unclear how benevolent superintelligence could want omnivorous killer apes in our current guise to walk the Earth in any shape or form. But is there any connection at all between benevolence and intelligence? Pre-reflectively, benevolence and intelligence are orthogonal concepts. There’s nothing obviously incoherent about a malevolent God or a malevolent – or at least a callously indifferent – Superintelligence. Thus a sceptic might argue that there is no link whatsoever between benevolence – on the face of it a mere personality variable – and enhanced intellect. After all, some sociopaths score highly on our [autistic, mind-blind] IQ tests. Sociopaths know that their victims suffer. They just don’t care.
However, what’s critical in evaluating cognitive ability is a criterion of representational adequacy. Representation is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon; it varies in functional degree. More specifically here, the cognitive capacity to represent the formal properties of mind differs from the cognitive capacity to represent the subjective properties of mind. Thus a notional zombie Hyper-Autist robot running a symbolic AI program on an ultrapowerful digital computer with a classical von Neumann architecture may be beneficent or maleficent in its behaviour toward sentient beings. By its very nature, it can’t know or care. Most starkly, the zombie Hyper-Autist might be programmed to convert the world’s matter and energy into heavenly “utilitronium” or diabolical “dolorium” without the slightest insight into the significance of what it was doing. This kind of scenario is at least a notional risk of creating insentient Hyper-Autists endowed with mere formal utility functions rather than hyper-sentient full-spectrum superintelligence. By contrast, full-spectrum superintelligence does care in virtue of its full-spectrum representational capacities – a bias-free generalisation of the superior perspective-taking, “mind-reading” capabilities that enabled humans to become the cognitively dominant species on the planet. Full-spectrum superintelligence, if equipped with the posthuman cognitive generalisation of mirror-touch synaesthesia, understands your thoughts, your feelings and your egocentric perspective better than you do yourself.
Could there arise “evil” mirror-touch synaesthetes? In one sense, no. You can’t go around wantonly hurting other sentient beings if you feel their pain as your own. Full-spectrum intelligence is friendly intelligence. But in another sense yes, insofar as primitive mirror-touch synaesthetes are prey to species-specific cognitive limitations that prevent them acting rationally to maximise the well-being of all sentience. Full-spectrum superintelligences would lack those computational limitations in virtue of their full cognitive competence in understanding both the subjective and the formal properties of mind. Perhaps full-spectrum superintelligences might optimise your matter and energy into a blissful smart angel; but they couldn’t wantonly hurt you, whether by neglect or design.
More practically today, a cognitively superior analogue of natural mirror-touch synaesthesia should soon be feasible with reciprocal neuroscanning technology – a kind of naturalised telepathy. At first blush, mutual telepathic understanding sounds a panacea for ignorance and egotism alike. An exponential growth of shared telepathic understanding might safeguard against global catastrophe born of mutual incomprehension and WMD. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Maybe so. The problem here, as advocates of Radical Honesty soon discover, is that many Darwinian thoughts scarcely promote friendliness if shared: they are often ill-natured, unedifying and unsuitable for public consumption. Thus unless perpetually “loved-up” on MDMA or its long-acting equivalents, most of us would find mutual mind-reading a traumatic ordeal. Human society and most personal relationships would collapse in acrimony rather than blossom. Either way, our human incapacity fully to understand the first-person point of view of other sentient beings isn’t just a moral failing or a personality variable; it’s an epistemic limitation, an intellectual failure to grasp an objective feature of the natural world. Even “normal” people share with sociopaths this fitness-enhancing cognitive deficit. By posthuman criteria, perhaps we’re all quasi-sociopaths. The egocentric delusion (i.e. that the world centres on one’s existence) is genetically adaptive and strongly selected for over hundreds of millions of years. Fortunately, it’s a cognitive failing amenable to technical fixes and eventually a cure: full-spectrum superintelligence. The devil is in the details, or rather the genetic source code.
Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).
This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.
An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).
Why This Matters
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
Predictions of Lognormal World
Appearance Base Rates
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
Latent Trait Ratings
Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of Children
Falling in Love
Games of Chance Earnings
Death of Father and Mother
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.
There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:
In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.
In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.
We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.
The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:
Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences
Why This Matters
Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.
Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.
True long-tail pain scale
As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).
“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.
I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.
My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.
The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.
DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?
What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.
Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss
As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.
Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:
The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.
There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.
“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)
Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:
“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”
– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.
“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”
– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.
Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:
As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.
– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)
All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.
Now, how about the negative side?
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”
– Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)
(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:
4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain].
7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.
11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.
Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?
[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”
Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!
[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.
Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.
If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.
(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are severalqualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:
I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be thathot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).
I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”
Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches
(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:
The KIP scale
KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful KIP-2 More persistent shadows KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing” KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.
The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.
As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.
In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.
While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?
Predictions of Lognormal World
If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:
That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).
To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).
The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.
I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).
I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.
Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition
The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):
Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)
While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:
The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:
And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.
In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.
Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.
I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:
Appearance Base Rates
There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:
Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)
Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)
For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.
A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:
Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)
Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:
Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57
(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).
And for pleasure:
Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.
The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.
The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:
Best experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
Worst experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.
In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion
I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:
Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:
PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.
With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).
In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:
The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:
In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.
Latent Trait Ratings
A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).
I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.
To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:
Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):
(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).
I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).
The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):
If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:
As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of children
I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:
The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.
I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.
I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.
I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.
No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.
Falling in Love
The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.
The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.
It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).
Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.
Games of Chance Earnings
Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.
Key Pains Surfaced
Kidney Stones and Migraines
The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)
Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.
Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.
Death of Father and Mother
This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:
Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors
After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).
In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:
Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.
In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.
Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:
The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.
In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:
First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.
And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.
We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.
Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.
In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.
* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).
[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]
For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.
*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.