Excerpt from The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank by John C. Lilly, 1977 (selected reports between pgs. 186 and 247).
Richard Feynman, male, 56 years, 160 lbs., 5′ 11”: summary of 35 hours done in 12 weeks, 1974.
Having done a number of introspective experiments on influencing my own dreams (and been objectively conscious and observing while I was dreaming), I became very curious about hallucinations and welcomed the opportunity to use Dr. Lilly’s sensory isolation tanks, for they were reputed to produce hallucinations, safely. I have spent at least a dozen sessions, each of over two hours, in the tank. The experience was very pleasant and rewarding. Although nothing happened for the first two sessions (except idle thinking as when one is going to sleep), hallucinations were experienced nearly every time thereafter. After some brief period after entering the tank, they would continue for hours. I was always aware that I was hallucinating and part of my mind was nearly always making observations. There were the usual out-of-body, or out-of-the-right-time hallucinations. For example, in one case I could see my hands on my head as if I were standing in back, and when I moved my hands (actually in the water) I would see them move and sky appear between the fingers, etcetera. I have later had imaginary flights over scenery, etcetera. In both of these cases the fact that others get this type of hallucination had been discussed beforehand.
On one occasion I had been thinking (in studies of artificial intelligence) about how the masses of memory materials might be organized in storage in the human memory. That week my hallucination consisted of vivid recalling, or reliving, nearly, image after image from far in the past (in no case were there any new details that I didn’t think I could have remembered if asked). But I was delighted to discover that the memories were stored according to locale — you thought of one scene occurring at some particular place and all the other things that occurred at that placed tumbled out. It took a full hour after I was out of the tank until I realized I had discovered nothing real, that that itself was an hallucination.
I am convinced of Dr. Lilly’s dictum that you can think of anything that you want to — that the hallucinations are a delightful and entrancing union of spontaneity of detail with a pattern or set which you have made or can make about their overall character. Thus if you have discussed a great deal about the blue spheres that you will see, you may see blue spheres but have the illusion they come not from you but from somewhere else — even though you know that the only one in the tank is you. The usual test of scientific reality is that many people see the same thing. In this case coincidence of experience lies not in the reality of the thing experienced but from a coincidence of influencing conversations and ideas about what you will imagine, and an illusion that the “image comes to you.” The same phenomena may explain some success in dream interpretations through dreaming certain symbols whose character or interpretation has been previously discussed.
I should like to thank Dr. Lilly, his wife, and associates for many pleasant experiences both in and outside of his tanks.
I entered the tank with the anticipation of several things happening: claustrophobic panic or delineated stages of experience, i.e. sleepfulness, and then visions. Neither set occurred. Instead, I was totally at ease, feeling as though this place (i.e. total quiet, darkness, and fluidity) was what I wanted. I lost body boundaries and time sense, immediately disappeared and I experienced total peace and a feeling of unity. Experience did not modulate and I did not play with it. Just was very passive and let “it” do it itself. What I experienced was a continuous void that was not boring, yet empty, not engaging, yet full.
Stan Grof, male, 42 yrs.: no time recorded.
After about five minutes, enormous slowing down of time. Increasing stability, tranquility, a certain “inorganic quality of consciousness”–moving away from its biological characteristics. Atmosphere of ancient Egypt, becoming aware of her religion, philosophy and art. Insights into the process of mummification, becoming a mummy and experiencing the consciousness typical for it. Understanding it as an interspace vehicle (organic -> inorganic).
Matter -> spirit.
Moving into the initiation in the pyramids, feeling a parallel between a mummy and an adept in the sarcophagus. Awareness of granite, becoming the consciousness of granite. Understanding that the preoccupation with granite in Egypt was based on the appreciation of the state of consciousness associated with it. Changes occur on a scale of thousands of millions of years (as compared to seconds and minutes for biological forms). Return of an old insight: Granite statues are the deities, not the images thereof.
Moving into absolute void (experienced as consciousness of the interstellar space). Timelessness. No difference between minutes and millions of years.
Ending up the experience with feelings of regeneration, purification, refreshment, rejuvenation, clarity.
2 November 1973
Alejandro Jodorowsky, male, 44 yrs.: 1 hour.
It is one experience I would repeat every day, not to obtain, but to lose, like to go to the bathroom. In the first second, I was afraid of being afraid. “It” controls itself saying “It is only afraid to suffocate.” But he (Lilly) must control oxygen, because what will he do with my corpse? This matter of giving [up] my body, and to die to my self-conception. Ok, I will die. After two or three minutes, floating, marvelous comfort, you are at home, nice security, nice silence, nice temperature, and nice relaxation. No body, no sex, no emotions, no thoughts, no problems, no past, but absolutely no past, not plans for future. Little man into the water being the seed fish, without expecting to be a tree with scales. There in the only time, the no-time, there in the only center, the no-center. Sometimes relating with the maternal womb, but escaping of this image. It didn’t want to play with the fetal-paradise and then, it put out like excrement the problem of practical relaxation. Now we are ready. With a great breath of fire the burning of the oxygen like a simple star and a great general beating of heart. Nothing but nothing, and in the middle of the nothingness it was there like a stone–the conscience–Realize what I know, what I live in every moment. I am not so much but still I am something even if I didn’t want it to be active, even if it wanted to be the tongue like a cup without will with all his being made to receive. It tried to be liberated from the little stone when the middle of nothingness became the whole universe. It prepared itself to jump. But Mr. Lilly come, the hour is past. I regret. Was infinite but too short and this body got out of the baptismal desiring a lot of emersions. Anyway, I think, say the little body, I can live in this society in a very polite way in a very communicative way, being immersed all the time in the tank without having a tank.
16 October 1973
Jan Metzner, no data given: no time recorded.
Became aware immediately of tension areas and moved in to relax and give myself to the experience. I was surprised at the nonexistence of fear reactions to closeness/darkness in tank, which I had expected. Being trained as I am in moving in consciousness with the techniques of Light-Fire, I found I went comfortably within and worked with a technique, but found focusing more difficult. My head felt very heavy and had to support it with my hands. Felt salt irritating to the skin. The overall effect was very relaxing, and there are other areas in consciousness I would like to spend time exploring.
16 October 1973
Ralph Metzner, no data given: no time recorded.
I found it a very relaxing and enjoyable experience, marred only by the slight discomfort due to the fact that my head had a tendency to sink down.
I went into the energy-yoga technique I am currently working with and found that I got some unusual perspectives on the innerbody spaces that would be otherwise hard to get to.
Without the restraints of gravity, the moving into and throughout the body and, to an extent, out of it, was much easier–as if the structures had been slightly greased and made more slippery.
2 July 1975
Francisco Varela, male, 28 yrs., 155 lbs.: actual time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
Closed space, heavy breathing, oppression from suppression. A wave of buoyancy, oily-saltry relaxation, surprise at fitting into water and staying. Letting go, feet are fine, trunk is fine, head is fine.
Beginning to stay–be.
Body goes out, inner sound takes over. Wild ride on heartbeat — inner music. Roller coaster.
Carved into inner sounds: sudden flashes of perception: dogs barking, old tunes on a junky radio, laughter and people’s noise. Startle. Experiment with closed and open eyes. No difference. Stay with eyes open. Visual-acoustic flashes now: scattered, fragmented. Too real. Strong recall of transit stages. I have been here. At a moment: I belong here.
Wilder/surrealist images interface with periods of sleep. In and out with no chance of distinction between dream and tank-reality. Am I there?
Banging. Voice to take me out. Voice is John. Get out. Seems I’ve been in thirty to forty minutes. Long lag in coming back.
Buoyancy definitely an advantage over the old method. Also, much better without need for mask.
Lost awareness of surroundings much faster in this situation. Very rapid access to “preconscious stream” (Kubie), with complete immersion therein until termination. No subclassification of mental state during that period would be accurate; my experience was of a smoothly unbroken flow of both digital and analog information. Had planned to meditate (TM) but never got around to it. My personal experience was that a state of “pure consciousness” (more or less) was reached in the tank without utilizing the mental echo of a mantra, but I wouldn’t emphasize this impression without a series of experimental and control sessions. Emerged refreshed with a sense that far less than an hour’s time had passed. A wholly pleasant experience.
10 April 1975
Robert A. Wilson, male, 32 yrs., 170 lbs., 5′ 10”: 2 hours.
Small red light room housing two dumpster-like sensory deprivation tanks. Climbing in the darker, older-looking tank I flash that perhaps it is deeper than the floor level would indicate, but not only ten to fourteen inches of warm water in this giant battery casing. Perhaps there’s not enough water. Sitting, then lying back, the buoyancy is surprising–suddenly I’m floating. Slight contact with tank sides, then my breathing is focus of my attention. Breathing, floating, thinking. Mind floats through myriad of subjects, tension generated within is soon apparent. Return to focus on breath. Thoughts return. After an hour little tastes of terror manifest. Each wave of fear though powerful seeming necessitates reevaluation of tension state, breathing again, floating, adjusting to a deeper relaxation state. Perhaps this is where I’ll sleep tonight. After two hours eyes begin burning, keeping them shut tonight… keeping them shut against the salt becomes a labor, then a drop of salt down my nasal passage–that does it. Sitting up pushing the tank lid open. Fun trip, I feel very relaxed, reborn in a way. Sounds seem much more audible, crickets in the night. Nice to be back.
The More Dakka story is common in medicine. You do an intervention; the disease doesn’t get better, or gets only marginally better; the research literature concludes it doesn’t work; nobody tries doing MORE of that intervention, but when somebody just raises the dose high enough, it does work.
a.) Chemotherapy didn’t work on cancer until doctors made cocktails of drugs, raised the dose so high it would kill you, and then mitigated the side effects with prednisone and intermittent dosing schedules. If they just used a safe daily dose of a single chemotherapeutic agent, they’d have concluded chemo didn’t work.
b.) Light therapy barely works for SAD; two internet-famous people have independently found that REALLY BRIGHT light therapy completely fixes SAD.
c.) The example in the post is about allopurinol. Allopurinol prevents gout attacks by lowering uric acid. “In studies, [allopurinol] improved [uric acid] linearly with dosage. Studies observed that sick patients whose [uric acid] reached healthy levels experienced full remission. The treatment was fully safe. No one tried increasing the dose enough to reduce [uric acid] to healthy levels.“
d.) The standard treatment for hypothyroidism is thyroid hormone. People with “subclinical hypothyroidism”– people whose thyroid hormone levels are lower than average, but still above the cutoff for hypothyroid, and still suffer from exactly the same symptoms as hypothyroid–, ALSO benefit from thyroid hormone therapy. It’s not standard of care yet, though.
e.) I believe some vitamin deficiencies, don’t remember which exactly, are the same way; there’s an official cutoff for “deficient” but people slightly above that cutoff still have symptoms and still experience symptom relief from supplementation.
f.)Same deal with HIV. Virus has a replication rate & a clearance rate; its replication rate is also its mutation rate; an antiviral drug can raise the clearance rate above the replication rate, which will make the population drop exponentially, but if there’s only one drug the virus will have a chance to evolve to be resistant before the population drops low enough to be undetectable. And this is a simple differential equation that you can calculate years before you know what the drugs even are. One drug: death. Two drugs: death. Three or more drugs: survival.
Luckily David Ho was a physicist and thought about it this way, so when the antiviral drugs came out he was ready to test them in cocktails.
So “single antibiotics don’t work for chronic Lyme but cocktails do and this wasn’t realized for decades” isn’t an unprecedented story. It could turn out that way.
I bet this is something that has a more formal and accurate phrasing, but: if there’s an exponential-growth dynamic (like in a malignant cancer or an infection) where you’re trying to kill the exponentially-growing population, and if there’s a dose-response relationship where higher dose = more killing, then you have a bifurcation point in the outcome as t -> infinity, where a dose below that point means the enemy takes over and the patient dies and a dose above that point means “the enemy is killed faster than it can reproduce and so dies out in the long run.” And in principle you can calculate this cutoff if you know the dose-response relationship, as Ho did.
And separately, there’s a safety threshold; is the minimum effective dose safe or unsafe? With chemotherapy, the minimum effective dose is UNSAFE, which is why they have to get clever with ways to give you doses high enough to kill you while keeping you alive anyway. (Or “find a better drug”, but nobody has found a cytotoxic drug with strictly better tolerability/effectiveness tradeoffs since the 1960’s.)
This is kinda how you get a continuous/analog system to give you discrete outcomes: bifurcation points! Works in gene regulation too. “This regulatory gene turns on that gene’s transcription” – well, what’s actually happening is a continuous scalar, a rate of transcription and a rate of clearance, but because exponential functions are involved you get bifurcations in “steady-state” outcomes over the several-hour timescales needed to get to “this cell has tons of mRNAs for that gene or it’s literally empty of them”.
Systems biology is cool, it explains the math that gets you from a statistical-chemistry model of the cell (as a bag of molecules that bump into each other and have a probability of interaction) to a tinkertoy model that you can treat like a graph. (Gene regulatory networks, protein-protein interaction networks, neuron networks, etc.)
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.
It presents a plausible unified theory of how psychedelics work.
It’s a wonderful jumping-off point into the literature. Every paragraph is full of pointers to research that’s come out in the last 5 years, and boy are there a lot of rabbit holes to go down – it’s filled out my reading list for the next several months.
REBUS is a (somewhat dubious) acronym for RElaxed Beliefs Under pSychedelics. The basic idea: psychedelics reduce the weight of held beliefs and increase the weight of incoming sensory input, allowing the beliefs to be more readily changed by the new sensory information.
The brain generates mental models that predict upcoming sensory inputs. (The predictions are called “priors,” as in “prior beliefs.”)
These predictive models are layered on top of each other in a hierarchy – the higher levels send predictions down the hierarchy; the lower levels report sense data upwards.
In cases where the model’s top-down predictions do not match the bottom-up sensory input, the model either (a) updates its priors based on the new sense data, or (b) ignores the sense data and maintains its priors.
Carhart-Harris & Friston theorize that the main thing psychedelics are doing is relaxing the weight of the brain’s top-down prediction-making (“REBUS”) and increasing the weight of the bottom-up sense information (“the Anarchic Brain”). This allows bottom-up information to have more influence on our conscious experience, and also on the configuration of the hierarchy overall.
Carhart-Harris & Friston analogize this process to annealing – heating up a metal dissolves its crystalline structure, then a new structure recrystallizes as the metal cools:
The hypothesized flattening of the brain’s (variational free) energy landscape under psychedelics can be seen as analogous to the phenomenon of simulated annealing in computer science – which itself is analogous to annealing in metallurgy, whereby a system is heated (i.e., instantiated by increased neural excitability), such that it attains a state of heightened plasticity, in which the discovery of new energy minima (relatively stable places/trajectories for the system to visit/reside in for a period of time) is accelerated (Wang and Smith, 1998).
Subsequently, as the drug is metabolized and the system cools, its dynamics begin to stabilize – and attractor basins begin to steepen again (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017). This process may result in the emergence of a new energy landscape with revised properties.
Psychedelics “heat up” the brain, increasing plasticity and weakening the influence of prior beliefs. As the psychedelic stops being active, the brain “cools” – the hierarchy re-forms, though perhaps in a different configuration than the pre-psychedelic configuration.
This explains how psychedelic trips can cause changes that last long after the substance has exited the body – in those cases, the psychedelic facilitated a change in the organization of the brain’s cognitive hierarchy.
Psychedelic therapy is showing promise for mental disorders associated with too-rigid thought patterns – depression, anxiety, addictions, maybe OCD, maybe eating disorders. In predictive-coding lingo, “disorders that may rest on particularly rigid high-level priors that dominate cognition.”
In these disorders, new information can’t revise the existing story of how things are, because strong priors suppress the new info before it can update anything.
The REBUS model straightforwardly explains how psychedelics help with disorder like this – by relaxing the strong top-down priors and boosting the bottom-up inputs, bottom-up inputs have more ability to effect the system. Here’s an illustration from the paper:
The top sketch is a brain where strong top-down priors dominate. New sensory inputs are suppressed and can’t update the hierarchy. The bottom sketch is the same brain while on a psychedelic – the top-down priors have been relaxed and bottom-up sensory information flows more freely through the system, causing a bigger impact.
Okay, nice theory, but can we observe this in the brain? Is there any evidence for it?
Carhart-Harris & Friston place the default mode network at top of the brain’s predictive hierarchy. The default mode network is the network of brain regions that’s most active when the brain isn’t engaged with any specific task. It also appears to be the seat of one’s sense of self. The default mode network is intensely relaxed by strong psychedelic experiences – this is subjectively felt as ego dissolution, and allows for the propagation of bottom-up sense data (which are also boosted by psychedelics).
Carhart-Harris & Friston identify two mechanisms by which psychedelics may relax the default mode network – activation of 5-HT2AR serotonin receptors (there are lots of these receptors in the default mode network), and disruption of α and βwave patterns, which seem to propagate top-down expectations through the brain (and are correlated with default mode network activity).
In addition to the brain-scan-style evidence they cite throughout the paper, Carhart-Harris & Friston dedicate a long section to behavioral evidence (“Behavioral Evidence of Relaxed Priors under Psychedelics”). Briefly, there are several studies showing that surprise & consistency-making responses to sensory stimuli are reduced while on psychedelics, which is what we’d expect if the influence of top-down priors was lessened.
To sum up, REBUS and the Anarchic Brain places psychedelics in a predictive coding framework to give a unified theory of what psychedelics do – they decrease the influence of top-down prediction-making and increase the influence of bottom-up sense data. The theory has the nice quality of tying many disparate psychedelic phenomena together with an underlying explanation of what’s going on. Plus, it gives a brain-based explanation for why psychedelic therapy is helpful for disorders like depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Our first mention of Neural Annealing in relation to psychedelics was in Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States in 2016, and we are pleased to see that the concept is becoming a live idea in academic neuroscience in 2019.*
From our point of view, an extremely promising area of research that mainstream neuroscience has yet to explore is the Symmetry Theory of Valence. In particular, we claim that the very reason why Neural Annealing improves not only global control, belief, and behavioral consistency, but also mood and sense of wellbeing is because it smooths and symmetrifies your neural patterns of activation. Will this turn out to become part of mainstream neuroscience in the future? Well, since QRI was calling Neural Annealing years in advance, perhaps in retrospect you’ll also see that we were on the money when it came to the mathematics of valence. Only time (and funding) will tell.
Idealism leads to realism if it is strictly thought out.
– LudwigWittgenstein (from Notebooks, 1914-1916)
I just came back from spending a week on the water at Mandeville Point (~18 kilometers from Stockton, California), at a yearly gathering called Ephemerisle. Below I will share some thoughts, insights, and takeaways from this experience.
Ephemerisle is an event first conceived as a social experiment to investigate how the construction of autonomous floating nation-states could work in practice. The history of Ephemerisle is full of interesting lessons in how ideologies react when subjected to the acid bath of reality (cf. mini-documentary about the first iteration of the event). Over the years, this event has evolved from a wild, loosely organized libertarian congregation of like-minded individuals with no central planning, no rules, and no taxes, into a -somewhat- tamer, loosely organized libertarian congregation with central planning, rules, taxes, insurance, and heavy legal waivers that you need to sign when boarding islands and vessels. Despite the introduction of rules and legal waivers, the overall vibe of the place is one of freedom, intellectual intensity, and a spirit of giving.
To gain a sense of the scale of the event I’d recommend looking at drone footage over the years: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Compared to Burning Man, this is a relatively tiny event, with a crowd that reaches up to perhaps as many as 600 people throughout the week, the equivalent of only 1% of the population of Black Rock City. In absolute terms, however, it is certainly very impressive to see that many people organized into a superorganism capable of delivering the basic survival needs for hundreds of persons in such an inhospitable environment, along with the luxuries of dance floors, sound systems, massage bunks, and trippy art.
Ephemerisle 2019 – Credit: Sameer Halai
The captain of the ship in which I camped said that “the slogan of Ephemerisle should be ‘Figure It Out'”. Indeed, this event falls in the same category as Burning Man when it comes to the degree of self-reliance that it demands from each participant. Burning Man, as noted before, could very well be called “the annual meeting of the recreational logistics community”. Ephemerisle takes all of the hassle and preparation needed for Burning Man, doubles it, adds an extra dose of uncertainty, and sprinkles it with a number of challenges unique to living on the water for a week.
The first thing to realize about Ephemerisle is that it is not a festival. There are no tickets, no gates, and no central authority whatsoever. But Ephemerisle is on the water, which makes attending a very non-trivial task.
You are responsible for getting yourself to and from the event site and for everything you’ll need to live there and survive for your stay. There are few to no resources adjacent to the event site, and none on the water. Think carefully about what you’ll need, and plan ahead!
So, given the time, effort, resources, knowhow, and social connections needed to be able to attend, who actually ends up going to Ephemerisle?
Like Burning Man, the people at Ephemerisle are not representative of the general population.
Stating the obvious, the mean conscientiousness, openness to experience, and general intelligence of participants are all significantly above the mean relative to the general population. I might add that, based on many conversations I had, it seemed that the following qualities are also significantly more common relative to the general population: graduate studies, social skills, physical fitness, cryptocurrency investments, and of course, number of yachts owned.
What stuck with me was not only the average intelligence of the participants, but also the high density of particularly brilliant people doing impressive work of their own in fields such as nanotechnology, computational biology, machine learning, cryonics, innovation in politics, and many other heavy-duty intellectual fields. I lost count of the number of serial entrepreneurs, people with PhDs in STEM fields from MIT, and advanced meditators working on developing transformative technologies.
I asked people who have been to many Ephemerisles how to explain this unusual density of spiky people, and the answer seems to be a mixture of self-selection and founder effects. First, it takes some degree of agency and determination to choose to attend this event and do all the things you need to do to make it happen. And second, a large number of people attend via invitation from well-established boats and islands, which in turn were seeded by very impressive persons from the late 2000s/early 2010s Bay Area super-cluster of people working on seasteading, longevity, AI safety, and transhumanism. Taken together, these two factors make Ephemerisle a natural Schelling point for energetic people doing cool things to find one another.
If I were to cluster the population of Ephemerisle this year, I’d intuitively estimate that 35% of people are in the broad people-cluster of scientists, libertarians, anarchists programmers, entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency developers, Bay Area rationalists, and psychedelic users. 30% are people in the broad cluster of artists, off-the-grid environmentalists, Oregon ecosystem-oriented hippies, and psychedelic users. 20% are people who live physically nearby, who own a boat, and for whom it is relatively convenient to attend. 10% are people with a festival-oriented lifestyle (to the point that their main activity is to go from festival to festival), and the remaining 5% are real-life hard-core sailors who help trouble-shoot the most difficult problems that (inevitably) arise during the event.
Why are people willing to spend so much time and energy into making an event like this happen? Why not stay at home or go to a club, where the chances of drowning, breaking bones, and getting sepsis from exposing open wounds to delta water are orders of magnitude lower? Why bother to learn knots, anchoring, and how to handle a fire on your boat when you could instead learn to use a remote control, watch TV, and order a pizza? Why the need to carry bucketloads of water to and from different boats for hours at a time when you could simply drink tap water from the comfort of a vacation timeshare apartment? And if you are attending to meet smart people working on cool projects, why not go to a conference or visit an academic department?
I would claim that the thirst for adventure, fear of missing out, and ideological excitement can only go so far in explaining over-the-top events like Ephemerisle. To bridge the explanatory gap here we will need something more. This is why I will offer two analytic angles for explaining high-effort events like Ephemerisle: (1) Health Homeostasis (condition-dependence-based fitness signaling), and (2) Worldview Annealing (as a cure to adultification and the regeneration of a positive internal mental representation of one’s conception of humanity). Let me explain:
This analytic angle comes from evolutionary psychology. In particular, genetic fitness signaling dynamics may explain why some people may have the urge to do wild and risky things when they are exceptionally smart and healthy. The concept of “condition-dependance” comes handy here:
Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well. (Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, from Glossary, pg. 437)
From a gene’s eye view, it makes no sense for genetically robust individuals to spend one’s healthy years in relative security, for one would have no way to advertise one’s good genes relative to average specimens in such conditions. In a sense, doing complex and risky activities is a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Therefore, from the point of view of one’s genes, self-interest might (metaphorically) reason: “I have all this health and energy laying around, better don’t let it go to waste and use it to signal genetic fitness instead” (see: An Infinite Variety of Waste).
Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Christopher Rasch
This could be summarized with a general principle I call Health Homeostasis, which posits that among sexually-reproducing species who engage in fitness displays, we can expect that individuals will have a “desired level of health”. If they notice that they are below that level of health, they will increase the time and resources focused on regenerating health. And if they notice that they are above that level of health, they will instead reduce the time and resources focused on regenerating health, and engage in costly genetic fitness signaling displays. Perhaps events like Burning Man and Ephemerisle have an element of this going on. They are appealing to people who have too much health and for whom the standard ways of signaling fitness simply won’t cut it. They need health-diminishing activities in bulk. They need challenges where they can display physical endurance while exercising their powers of creativity. And this is why, all considered, these events are so sexy.
I should add here that I am not suggesting that this explanation implies that participants are doing this consciously. Executing an adaption rarely involves conscious planning and strategizing. All it requires is following the gradient of what feels right and good.
Introspect, dear reader, about the times where you have felt the most alive. Have you, perhaps, not experienced them during risky situations? When you felt that “this could be a real danger to other people”? When by luck or grace you happened to be willing and able to do something few others could have done? This is what I am talking about. This feeling of reality and authenticity may very well be a good proxy for the process of down-regulating your health. And this is what it looks like for health homeostasis to be at play.
This event was- to be open and real with you- quite moving to me. I struggle to give words to some of the feelings, intuitions, and thoughts that I experienced towards the end of my stay. The situations in which I found myself made me feel new sensations about the possibilities hidden in humanity and the unfolding of intelligence on this planet. It felt mystical and significant. It’s as if we were glimpsing the birth of a new stage for humanity.
Something akin to this happened to me at Burning Man a few years ago (with a slightly different flavor). How do I explain it? Someone I met there shared the view that at Ephemerisle we are experiencing a certain kind of “chemistry of consciousness” that is unique to the space. That collectively, in a space of this sort, we all resonate with a set of ideals, conscious efforts, and love that makes the whole environment vibrate with a unique quality of consciousness tuning the participants to a new level.
Perhaps! We could very well throw the towel and declare victory to mysterianism at this point! Alas, this is not the path that Qualia Computing has ever taken before.
So how can we explain the deep emotional feelings induced by Ephemerisle and events akin?
Here is the big picture idea: There are elements about the experience there that give rise to “heightened states of consciousness” for many hours at a time. This can be explained largely due to the build-up of semantically-neutral energy thanks to the high-density of surprising stimuli (cf. free-energy principle, entropic disintegration, and neural annealing). Over the course of several days, such build-up of semantically neutral energy enables neural search processes that solve constraint satisfaction problems that have to incorporate the fact that hundreds of human volunteers can come together to peacefully construct a mini-world in a treacherous environment, all for the benefit and enjoyment of others. Integrating this experienced fact can lead to the felt-sense that the world could be better, much better. That we could create heaven-worlds for each other. That the future could be a place of loving-kindness energized with electrifying creativity and positive energy. By the end of the event, one’s cynical internal representations of humanity have been replaced -to an extent anyhow- by optimistic and loving thought-forms. It is hard to see the creation of such a beautiful thing without shifting one’s priors about the real world.
It is important to realize that changing one’s deep representations of high-level concepts such as humanity and the world can have far-reaching ramifications. The emotional valence that is attached to our big-picture ideals can determine how we see the world. A somewhat far-fetched but ultimately accurate analogy could be made with Rubik’s cubes: Imagine that a “perfect state of the world” is equivalent to a “completely solved Rubik’s cube”. In addition to the degree to which you are close to a fully-solved state, you also have preferences about the aesthetics of the colors of the cube. But ultimately, you care more about the cube being solved than you care about the cube having pretty stickers.
Now, let’s say that we start with a completely scrambled state, which you feel very bad about. If you feel hopeless about being able to unscramble it, you can focus on improving the look of the stickers. The stickers could be more pretty and that will briefly make you feel good, but you will know that doing any surface modification still does not help in rearranging the entire cube so that it is in a solved state. The analogy here is: changing the look of the stickers is akin to many of the band-aid solutions we use in our life. We try to make ourselves feel better by doing superficial things like changing our cars, our appearance, and our job titles. But deep down, none of that addresses the deeper sources of dissatisfaction. The cube of our life remains in an unsolved- if more outwardly pretty- state.
There could also be uncertainty about how far you are from the perfectly solved state. Especially when you are unfamiliar with the algorithms that work for solving the cube, you will find that there are configurations that give the impression of high disorder that are in fact close to getting the cube solved. And then there are situations that seem close to the goal line of a completely solved cube that still require a lot more work to figure all out. The same could be with the state of our lives.
Now, what do I mean with a perfectly solved cube? I’m referring to a sense that “everything is as it should be”. I would argue that for many people, the very idea that humanity cannot get its shit together is a deep source of discomfort. Changing jobs, romantic partners, living situations, and perhaps even political parties do little to address this deep problem. They could be thought of as akin to trying to make the Rubik’s cube more pretty by decorating the stickers.
Experiences where one gets a sense that humanity, if properly focused, could indeed get its shit together might have a much deeper emotional effect on people than one might intuitively realize. All you may need is a proof of concept to create a glimmer of hope. All you need is someone showing you a video of speedcubing for you to realize that there is a short path from the state of your cube to a fully-solved state. And this can be exhilarating and deeply moving.
Now, for this to take place, we need to be on a flexible state of mind. Hence the importance of art, meditation, philosophy, and psychedelics in conjunction with the unfamiliar space. This is the recipe for annealing a big picture change of mind -a reframing of humanity, its possibilities, and one’s place in it. It indeed requires multiple days of iterations of changes of one’s mental representations. Here, meditation, art, psychedelics, and philosophy synergize with the scene in order to raise the brain’s energy parameter. The scene adds a lot of novelty: confrontation with the necessities for survival, extended exposure to people who are smarter and more competent than you along multiple dimensions, high temperatures, new wildlife (spiders and wasps), large amounts of water, wobbly platforms and ships, odd shapes and weird objects abundant in the platforms, etc.
This all results in what we might call worldview annealing. That is, the high energy state repeatedly cooled and re-heated over several days enables the fast search over alternate representations of the world. Worldview annealing gives rise to novel ways of seeing the world and one’s relationship with it.* And this is, perhaps, the underlying reason why people report having durable psychological benefits from doing things like attending Burning Man and similar events (see graphs below for statistics about transformative experiences at Burning Man; I intuit that Ephemerisle might be similar in this regard).
At the end of an event like this, you may very well feel exhausted and totally partied out, but if worldview annealing successfully took place, you will be able to tell that something deep and inward shifted in a good direction. You now have a felt-sense for what a different and better world could be like.
Can such an effect be scaleable? Hopefully many more people can experience it in the future. Perhaps we need to open-source the essential features of that kind of event so that others can take advantage of these key properties and export its benefits elsewhere. And thus we encounter the concept of “Serious Fun”.
In the last few years I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of paradise engineering. This comes up a lot when contemplating the coming centuries in light of David Pearce‘s Hedonistic Imperative, which posits that humanity will ultimately get rid of suffering by tackling its genetic roots. Now, it is true that the bulk of what will make our posthuman paradise a paradise is to be found in the quality of experience of our descendants rather than in their external environment. But for our Darwinian minds to contemplate what paradise might look like we usually need to evoke images that give us good feelings in our current state. For example, images of people cooperating to generate incredible experiences! Indeed, saying “in the future we will all be genetically endowed with negligible mu-opioid receptor down-regulation” does not sound nearly as exciting as saying “we will all be incredibly sexy, live our lives in massive cuddle puddles, be on the brink of orgasm, and have mind-blowing levels of intelligence and loving-kindness” (note: the wise would be advised to choose the first option, for the second does not guarantee sustainable happiness while the first one does). To tickle our imagination and inspire motivation it is indeed a good idea to trigger visions that engage our current reward architecture (even if we know that we are responding to Darwinian triggers and that a true paradise has more to do with brain configurations than external conditions).
So let’s think about wonderful external conditions to evoke a sense of paradise. I like to think of large groups of people engaged in serious planning and strategizing to create amazing experiences for even larger groups of people. Burning Man and Ephemerisle are a proof of concept of what could end up becoming super-fun events of civilizational proportions. And here is where we start wondering: what makes such events possible? What is the distribution of effort, time, resources, etc. contributed by each participant that is needed for Serious Fun to take place? My hunch is that to make this work in real life, the distribution needs to have a long-tail:
The Long-Tails of Serious Fun
It is interesting to ponder the idea that the distribution of the total contribution per participant in events like this has a long tail. In the most simplistic case the distribution could be a power law. As it turns out, many phenomena that are usually described with power laws don’t really fit power laws when closely examined.** Now, whether the “true distribution” of the contribution per participant follows a log-normal, Zipf, Pareto distribution, or one of the general Lévy distributions is an open question. But for the time being, what I want to emphasize is the long-tailed nature of it. In particular, the fact that there seems to be a small cluster of individuals who contribute massively to the event, followed by a larger group that contributes a lot, followed by a large minority who contribute more than they consume, followed by a majority who come to the event and mostly enjoy what others brought with them. Nothing inherently wrong with this, for after all, the people who contribute the most tend to truly enjoy giving, believe in the ideals of the event, and earn the respect of others. That said, it should be noted that if the distribution is too skewed it may lead to burnout among the most active members, which does not bode well for the sustainability of the event.
Although statistics for Ephemerisle are lacking, we can again use as an example people’s responses to the Burning Man Census:
Burning Man expenses (other than ticket cost). The exact wording of the question in the online survey was, “How much did you spend this year to go to Black Rock City and return, including fuel, camp dues, food, lodging, airfare, supplies, etc. (but not including your ticket to the event)? If you shared expenses with a group, only include the portion of expenses that you contributed. Give your best estimate in USD.” (source)
The above results are represented with too few bins to really be able to tell what kind of long-tail distribution they follows. However, it is pretty clear that we are looking at a very skewed distribution that does not at all look like a normal/Gaussian distribution. I really wish they had included one more option (e.g. $20,000+) so that we could see the number of people who are really (economically) invested in the event. In addition, another key question that would shed light on the long-tailed nature of the event would be “How many hours did you spend preparing/building/helping others/driving/cooking for others/etc.?” Again, I’d expect a very skewed distribution in the responses to such a question.
As we begin to think about how we can plan the creation of heaven worlds (i.e. large-scale projects of fun) we should consider the long-tailed nature of the contribution distribution per participant. My hunch is that we can perhaps determine whether an event is even possible by estimating how skewed the distribution needs to be to make it happen. On one extreme we have events such as “a picnic at the local park” where the event can realistically take place even if most people do roughly the same amount of work (save for perhaps the organizer who post the event details online and coordinate setting up the chairs and coolers). On the other extreme, we could imagine an actual Seasteading event out in the open ocean, or a festival at the very cusp of Mount Diablo, or even something extreme like a party at the Lagrangian between the Earth and the moon, where we would need a group of people to come together and intensely collaborate for many months and spend millions of dollars on providing the basic infrastructure for the event. In-between these two extremes you could find events like community-led concerts, regional Burns, Ephemerisle, and Burning Man proper. Whether a pie-in-the-sky idea like Ephemerisle ever actually gets to happen may be a matter of the event having the right long-tail skew that makes it possible for actual humans to carry it out. In some sense, I suspect that Ephemerisle is right at the edge of impossibility, while Burning Man proper may have more slack and hence can afford to be substantially bigger.
What other amazing events are there that are “just barely impossible”? And what events will become possible as soon as we discover new techniques, ideologies, and cultural norms to make the distribution needed to make them happen just barely less skewed than impossible? This might be a very generative question to ask if you want to invent “the next Burning Man”.
A final thread to pull here concerns to allometric scaling properties of large events (cf. allometric analysis of Chinese cities). Due to economies of scale, there are thresholds for the number of participants at an event at which some utilities become rentable. Thus, there could also be many un-imagined crazy events that simply require a threshold number of participants to become possible. For example, perhaps a tunnel-based event at a beach is impossible with 100 participants but completely realistic with 500. Who knows! It’s an interesting thing to wonder about.
Anyhow, I invite you to think more about these ideas… perhaps this way you will help us invent the next iteration of paradise on earth.
Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Liz Henry
* This can be used in order to treat the problems associated with psychological adultification. You see, most of the people alive today have some degree of psychological trauma associated with adultification. Acting free and childish is something that we can only really do in a context where we feel like we’ve earned the right to do so. So many highly conscientious people need to nearly kill themselves for the wellbeing of others to feel like they can deserve the right to feel care-free and innocent again. Guess what? Ephemerisle does not have a shortage of ways for you to do prodigious amounts of work to show how much you love others. Hence, perhaps, it is a place where some exceedingly responsible people can finally feel deserving of a relaxed, care-free, time.
** I am using here power laws to point at the general property of long-tailedness. In reality many other similar distributions tend to fit the data better than power laws, among which the log-normal distribution is commonly a superior fit (see: So You Think You Have a Power Law — Well Isn’t That Special?).
I know that the sense of the words idealism and realism in the header quote by Wittgenstein are inappropriate here. I am just amused that the quote happens to be a great fit for this essay if the senses are interpreted within a different context. In true libertarian fashion: Deal with it.
One of the most pressing problems in philosophy of mind is solving the so-called ‘problem of other minds‘, the difficulty of proving that agents outside oneself have qualia. A workable solution to the problem of other minds would endow us with the ability to define the moral patienthood of present-day biological entities, evade our solipsistic tendencies, and open the door to truly understanding future nonhuman intelligences, should they prove to be conscious. Even more strangely, it would allow us to evaluate whether dream characters or the products of dissociative identity disorder are separate consciousnesses. Irrevocably proving the existence of qualia in other biological life which lacks the capacity for language and higher-order thought is not, to my knowledge, even conceptually feasible at this time. In the case of two agents with the capacity to communicate and problem solve, however, this solution has been proposed, which requires the agent being tested to prove they have qualia by solving a “phenomenal puzzle”. Crucially, the solution does not require that the two agents experience the same qualia, simply that there exists a mapping between their respective conscious states.
If an agent A wishes to prove the existence of qualia in agent B using the above procedure, then A and B must have the following:
A phenomenal bridge (e.g. a biological neural network that connects your brain to someone else’s brain so that both brains now instantiate a single consciousness).
A qualia calibrator (a device that allows you to cycle through many combinations of qualia values quickly so that you can compare the sensory-qualia mappings in both brains and generate a shared vocabulary for qualia values).
A phenomenal puzzle (as described above).
The right set and setting: the use of a proper protocol.
I contend that there may already be a procedure which can be used to generate a reversible phenomenal bridge between two separate minds: a way to make two minds one and subsequently one mind two. Moving in each of these two directions has apparently been demonstrated; by craniopagus twins connected with a thalamic bridge and by corpus callosotomy separating the two cerebral hemispheres. There is tantalizing evidence in each case that consciousness is being fused or fissioned, respectively. In the case of the Hogan sisters, the apparently unitary mind has access to sensory information from the sensory organs of each cranium. In the case of separating hemispheres there is some debate: alien hand syndrome has suggested the existence of dual consciousness, while other findings have cast doubt on the existence of two separate consciousnesses. While a surgical procedure for separating the hemispheres is as yet permanent, a chemically-induced separation of the hemispheres via the Wada test may provide new avenues for testing the problem of other minds. While some forms of communication (namely language, which is largely left-lateralized) are impaired by the Wada test, other forms such as singing can be left intact. Thus, I believe a combination of Gazzinaga’s procedure and Gómez Emilsson’s phenomenal puzzle approach, in conjunction with a working qualia calibrator, could demonstrate the existence or absence of dual consciousness in the human mind-brain. A version of the Wada test with higher specificity may also be required, to negate some of the characteristic symptoms of confusion, hemineglect, and loss of verbal comprehension.
Phenomenal puzzle solution
The procedure (utilizing the state space of color, with agents L and R corresponding to the left and right hemispheres) would be as follows:
Note: a difficulty of utilizing the below outlined procedure is determining which hemisphere should serve as the benchmark. While often language ability is dominant in the left hemisphere (especially in right-handed individuals) and therefore eliminated when the left hemisphere is inactivated during the Wada test, this is not always the case. In cases where at least some language ability is preserved in each hemisphere, either can reliably serve as the point of comparison.
Design a phenomenal puzzle, such that the solution corresponds to reporting the number of just noticeable differences required to produce a linear mapping between two locations in the state space of color.
Separate the left and right visual fields (Gazzaniga).
Sodium amobarbital is administered to the left internal cardioid artery via the femoral artery and EEG confirms inactivation of the left hemisphere. In the LVF a consent checkbox for performing the experiment is given to the right hemisphere, Y/N checked using the left hand.
Similarly, sodium amobarbital is administered to the right internal cardioid artery via the femoral artery and EEG confirms inactivation of the right hemisphere. Consent can be verbally obtained from the left hemisphere.
With R inactivated, the phenomenal puzzle is presented to L without enough time for L to solve the puzzle.
Both hemispheres are activated, and L tells the phenomenal puzzle to LR.
L is inactivated and R attempts to solve the puzzle on its own. When R claims to have solved the puzzle (in writing or song most likely), both hemispheres are again reactivated in order to produce LR. R shares its solution with LR.
R is inactivated, and L shares the solution to the phenomenal puzzle. If the solution is correct, then R is conscious!
Point-of-view characterization of above procedure (Under the assumption that both hemispheres are, in fact, conscious):
From the perspective of the left brain: A researcher asks “do you consent to the following procedure?” You answer ‘yes’, perhaps wondering if you’ve lost just a part of your computational resources, or created an entirely separate consciousness. A short period of darkness and sedation ensues while consent is obtained from the right brain. Suddenly, the amount of consciousness you’re experiencing expands greatly and new memories are available. The computer screen in front of you rapidly cycles through a series of paired color values. The Qualia Calibrator confirms a match by waiting for consensus of the right motor cortex (in lieu of a button press) and from verbal confirmation of the left hemisphere. It feels like an eye exam at hyper speed: “Color one or color two? Color two or color three?”, but for thousands of colors, many of which you don’t have a name for. Then, you sleep, for some indeterminate amount of time. When you awaken, the researcher explains to you the puzzle to solve. Your consciousness is then expanded again, and you repeat the puzzle to yourself, with the strange feeling that “part of you didn’t know about it”. You go dark again. And when the lights are turn on again, things feel normal, but you have a prominent new memory, the solution to the puzzle. Quickly you check. Take this strange shade of cyan and change it once, twice, three times…yup! That’s the mellow orange you were looking for, and in the same number of “just noticeable differences”.
From the perspective of the right brain: You awaken to a scrollable consent form with a checkbox, and a left-handed mouse. Despite your state of relative confusion and lack of verbal fluency, you’re able to understand the form and check the box. Suddenly, your conscious experience expands and your fluency erupts. The computer screen in front of you rapidly cycles through a series of paired color values. The Qualia Calibrator confirms a match by waiting for consensus of the right motor cortex (in lieu of a button press) and from verbal confirmation of the left hemisphere. It feels like an eye exam at hyper speed: “Color one or color two? Color two or color three?”, but for thousands of colors, many of which you don’t have a name for. Again you sleep, your consciousness is briefly expanded, and you learn of the puzzle you are to solve. How did you learn about it? It is weird, you started “repeating” the puzzle to yourself, with the strange feeling that “part of you already had heard it before”. But either way, now you feel like you have heard it really well. Next, it feels like you took a strong sedative and a memory-loss drug at the same time. Now, in this highly impoverished cognitive state, you have to solve a complicated puzzle. To prove that you exist. Ugh. Fortunately, you have help, in the form of an AI which provides the linear mapping you need to discover, provided you answer how many just noticeable differences occur between each set of two points. Half man and machine collaborate to find the solution, and you commit it to memory. Reunited once more, you “share your findings to yourself”. It turns out you’re conscious. The world now knows: the right hemisphere is conscious on its own when the left one is unconscious. Hooray!
Martin Ball: Here is what I learned very quickly in working both with 5-MeO-DMT and other medicines during the same time period. First, I noticed this in myself, and then I started looking to see if this was true for other people, and very quickly found that this was true. There is a fundamental distinction: when people go into fully energetically open non-dual states of awareness -and I do qualify it with ‘fully energetically open’ because that is different than, say, a meditative non-dual experience, which I do not qualify as energetically fully open- when someone is energetically fully open and goes into a non-dual state of awareness, what happens is that they always open up with a perfectly mirrored bilateral symmetry, with the left and right sides of the body always mirroring each other. And nothing ever crosses the center line of the body. People move spontaneously or their bodies open up, and their hands may come together, but they come together right here, in the middle along the center line, and then they separate, and then come back together. Then you can see a transition when suddenly someone comes back into the ego. So, they are fully immersed in the experience and their bodies are opened… and then as soon as the ego comes in, there is some kind of break when suddenly the left side of the body is doing something different than the right side of the body.
For people who don’t get all the way to being fully energetically open, you give them a very powerful psychedelic -which again is changing the energetic experience of the body- and you can watch them fight with it, and you will see that there is always some kind of asymmetry taking place in their body language when they are fighting with it. Or if they are still residing in their ego. So I learned very quickly that non-dual states of awareness coincide with balanced bilateral symmetry and the ego almost always functions through some form of energetic asymmetry. Which is perfectly natural! I mean, there is noting wrong with it, I am not trying to criticize it. But for example (I use this example all the time): My glass of water is to my right. Now if I -a subject- become thirsty and I want my water, operating with bilateral symmetry isn’t going to get me my water. My water is over here to the right. So I break into object-subject duality so we can have an interaction between these two different parts of the self. So working with psychedelics for the intention of achieving… not only achieving, but also working out the distortions of the ego, means paying attention to how either symmetries or asymmetries show up within the body.
So this is the challenge that I give people: Take some 5-MeO-DMT, and see how long you can stay perfectly symmetrical within your body. Now, some people can ride it all the way through. And they can do that fairly easily. Many people… I would say the vast majority, can’t. And even those who do, who open up initially and are in this nice bilateral symmetry, you will see, after 10 or 15 minutes, or for some people after 30 seconds, as soon as the ego starts to reintegrate, they start breaking into asymmetries. Now, what can happen is… so the ego itself, and this is also coming out of my own experience, this is not based on anybody else’s model, this is just my own definition of the ego… the ego itself is not a singular thing. It is a collection of patterns of energy. So as we are coming into ourselves, as young beings, what we are doing is learning different -what we perceive as acceptable- ways of engaging our energy.
Believes states of meditation, psychedelic use, and the combination of the two allow for an application of ‘energy’ which is directed towards the brain’s natural harmonics. Coarsely, there is a pattern of energy application -> entropic disintegration -> search/self-reorganization -> neural annealing which is likely to occur in such states.
Believes meditation is a tool which can increase the amount of cognitive control an individual has over his/her conscious experiences.
Believes 4-AcO-DMT is an entactogen, and feelings of empathy and connection with others are desirable.
Believes there is an interaction of ‘top-down stories’ and ‘bottom-up sensory data’ in the mind-brain. Each affects the other, and neither provides a complete account of reality.
Problem of other minds: Believes animals and other complex systems are capable of experiencing conscious states, other individuals exist and are conscious.
I took a pill with 100mg of L-theanine and 200mg of caffeine when I woke up at ~7:45AM, in order to wake up at ~8:10AM. Those unfamiliar with the caffeine nap should give it a try.
We took our 4-AcO-DMT in capsule form, gathered our ‘tripping accoutrements’ and set off for the local park. It was a beautiful 75 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny, with some welcome clouds in the sky, which seemed placed for our later entertainment. We made it to the park without feeling the effects, making small talk and finding our ‘goldilocks zone’ – the tree with enough shade, ample view, and dry grass. We walked back and forth several times, finding out which side the grass was greenest on. During this 10 minutes, I began to notice the first perceptible changes.
Onset – 13:15-13:45
I described to my partner that I could tell the drug was ‘kicking in’ due to an increase in my proprioception (closest ‘subjective effect’ is probably bodily control enhancement). I then noticed a man lying on his side on the grass in front of us, with his arm and leg out of my view, and next to him lay which I soon realized was a bike. At first blush I thought he was an amputee, and that the device next to him was a walker of some kind. Upon seeing him sit up, I realized I had been mistaken, at which point it could not have been clearer that the ‘walker’ was actually a bicycle (I noted that I was highly aware of the distinction between my perception of the objects and my top-down ‘storytelling’, a welcome surprise I’m sure our Buddhist friends would approve tremendously of). I relayed this to my partner and she laughed, clearly still more certain of her own ability to discriminate. As we lay under a beautiful oak tree in the ‘goldilocks zone’, she commented some discomfort (in the form of ‘anxiety’), and that she felt “too much energy” was getting pumped in with “no place to go”. As a reader of opentheory.net, this analogy was welcome and even surprising in its similarity to my current opinions. I chuckled, although I too was feeling a tinge of anxiety (which I attributed mostly to the 200mg of caffeine I had consumed), increased bodily temperature, and some minor pattern recognition enhancement in the surrounding flora. As I looked to the edge of my visual field, I had the distinct sense of being in a simulated environment. While I have at times toyed with “simulation theory”, I have transitioned to a view more based on an “inner simulator”: that the reality we enjoy is taking place within the boundary of our minds, and these inner simulations exist in separation from one another (similar to Max Tegmark’s ‘bubbles’), with each one representing the mind-independent reality that I believe, but do not “know” exists. In light of this thought, I found myself looking towards the ‘boundary of my external reality’ and explaining to myself that it was in truth actually like looking deeper internally. I noticed (again with more than sober clarity) a change in my belief map.
My partner put on some appropriate lo-fi music and we began to talk as the effects became more pronounced. I felt my experience to be ‘classically psilocin-like’, characterized by intense drifting, pattern recognition enhancement, magnification, color enhancement and geometry similar to that found in ‘trippy artwork’ (internally and externally). When I focused more loosely on my surroundings I had my first brush with scenery slicing, which divided my view of the fountain and hillside opposite us into thirds, each characterized by tapestries of fractal geometry. My partner had been blowing dandelion seeds, which reminded me of a thought I had had on a past trip, that subconsciously she was fulfilling a genetically programmed role in the ecosystem, explained away as a ‘weird urge’. We began discussing the ‘jobs’ other insects and animals had in the ecosystem, and enjoyed their personification. I spouted off some factoids on dragonflies, and their 95% predatory kill rate. She respected the prowess of the beautiful little assassins, and I internally hoped to live in a balanced ecosystem without the predators we now honor. We both noticed that we could see dandelion seeds almost a hundred feet up (magnification, and in my estimation an artifact of our mental entrainment at the time). My partner went to the bathroom in the art museum nearby, and I took 2.5 minutes to meditate, using a silent mantra technique. I experienced beautiful 8B geometry in this state, a truly profound experience. When she returned, we saw a young boy playing with dandelions in front of us. He was so purposeful, so confident, and so apparently random in his behavior. My word choice in describing him (in hushed tones, so as not to disturb his work) revealed a greater availability of infrequently-used words in my vocabulary, and some increased sense of humor. My partner commented that she thought the whole thing to be fake, and this label seemed to cause an increase in my acuity enhancement and color enhancement of the scene (again, I was highly aware of the influence of the ‘top-down story’ on my experience). To me, it also appeared in some ways “not real”, but I thought the two of us had a very different sense of the concept.
I too needed to relieve myself at this point, and decided to take the adventure towards the bathroom, listening to the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiment playlist on Spotify along the way. I will (for the sake of brevity that I am otherwise flouting) focus only on the seemingly pertinent detail of how I received directions to the bathroom. My partner described the sequence of steps and potential pitfalls to me, and I had an extraordinary ability to visualize the path I eventually followed. My visualization skills in general were extremely heightened, and I noticed I could imagine quite easily and accurately envision how my scenery would change when I moved to a different position (e.g. sitting to lying down).
At this point we both were reporting intense cognitive euphoria (as well as spiritual euphoria). We decided to pack our things and make a trip to expend some of the boundless energy we had in our possession. We journeyed to the sculpture garden behind the museum, and I began to describe the chemical differences between psilocybin and psilocin as my partner and I basked in the glorious shade of the trees there (to which we both felt intense connection). I found that in the sculpture garden I had a greatly increased appreciation for art, and especially the symmetry and proportion found in the sculpture and museum itself. Combined with my feelings of intense well being and spiritual euphoria (which felt augmented by the artwork), this amounted to a point in favor of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I also noticed cracks in the unity of my conscious experience, where locally bound objects seemed to separate (the analogy I could find was separate “virtual environments” a la whonix), which also engendered in me a type of pleasure I cannot find in the “Subjective effect index”. This may be an area of further examination for the Qualia Research Institute. We enjoyed a blissful walk in the park, featuring feelings of intimacy with children, pets, and ducklings. Of note here was what I felt to be an enhancement of my working memory, as borne out by the following observations: I again had higher availability of vocabulary and terminology in conversation, I was able to juggle rocks more effectively while walking (and felt that during my juggling I was simultaneously apprehending more objects – this was again pleasantly accompanied by increased reflective intelligence that allowed gave me the felt sense of 8B geometry without the visuals). I threw a rock in the stream and found that I could apprehend each ripple simultaneously, and my qualia decay function was much fatter as well. Hmmm, maybe there are some beneficial computational properties of consciousness! We sat on a bench, as I felt the intense urge to exercise physically (specifically to climb a tree, but that was a bit conspicuous). Instead, we looked at a goose and talked about memetics. We marvelled specifically about Dr. Seuss, and how his thoughts had taken root, despite his distasteful personal tendencies. I began to think about the cultivation of plants, and how we tend to use hypotheses and heuristics to guide advances in the rapid evolution, wondering if the same could be done with ideas.
I found myself capable of simultaneously ‘holding in my attention’ each ripple as I cast a stone in the water. (image source)
*Skip home journey, where much of the conversation centered around the responsibilities of pet ownership* 16:30-17:30
We found ourselves at home with the welcome company of a close friend. We relayed some of our experiences, and I felt the onset of some fast euphoria – there were simply too many things I wanted to do – feel water on my hands, do yoga, eat food, smoke marijuana, have sex. I considered how wonderful it would be to restructure the human cognitive reward architecture around health, knowledge of which could be researched, stored and relayed via artificial intelligence. More simply put, as I consumed an entire family-size amount of Tostitos Hint of Lime chips (feeling gustatory and olfactory enhancement), I wished pleasure mapped 1:1 to health. We did some yoga, ate some food (I found sociability enhancement with the delivery man) and we again basked in the glory of the weather and natural environment, taking comfort in each others’ arms. I noticed multisensory magnification and acuity enhancement, finding that I could hear and see elements of nature that usually were unavailable to me, such as the sounds of distant insects and birds, and the ability to see bits of dust floating far off in the sunlight. The birds above drew my attention to my frame rate enhancement, as I could easily watch their wings flapping each time, even from a distance. I could also extract more information from an amorphous reflection in a car door, with the feeling that I was “looking through it” to a slightly more misshapen world. We saw a bunny (“awww bunny!!!”) and had an interesting exchange:
Me: “You know, when I look at that bunny I think about the algorithms going through it’s head – eat blade -> look for next blade -> check for predators -> eat blade -> ..”
Her: “Yeah, that sounds like something YOU would think. I just like to think he’s so excited every time he sees another blade, like it’s the first time every time. That would be cute.”
Me: “Well actually, those could both be true. I’m just talking about the ‘program’ – it could be implemented any way you like. I really have no idea how they feel when they see the next blade of grass, but I hope you’re right. In terms of it being the ‘first time’, he could be like Clive Wearing, on a perpetual refresh.”
Her: “I guess we’ll never know what it’s really like.”
Me: “I don’t know about that.”
Really, we’re just talking about Marr’s theory, but it was interesting to see a real-life example. I was discussing his algorithmic level of analysis, while she was pointing to potential features of the implementational level. Makes me think about how virtual and augmented reality could be such wonderful tools for education. As someone who had thought about his theory often, it was also interesting how this exchange affected me phenomenologically: I felt now like I understood it. I definitely think understanding clearly has qualia-properties (not a very bold statement), and also important computational properties (ahem). I certainly think I can “do more” in terms of analogizing etc. with concepts I understand, and yet I find that understanding likely boils to a feeling. I have had this issue ever since reading John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment and thinking it was positively moronic.
As we were talking, I found that I had heightened coordination and dexterity in playing with my pocket knife, something I often do when deep in thought. I considered how it could be a use of some of the ‘excess mental energy’ I had been accumulating, and how the increase in neuroplasticity that Paul Stamets swears by could be playing a role as well.
Intimacy – 18:00-19:00
We vaporized some marijuana (~0.125g each – I commented on how the Pax 2 would eventually come equipped with it’s own brain) and went inside to enjoy a shower and cuddling together. Before our shower, she commented that the water was too cold, and I joked that the whole day was ruined. Yet in that moment, I felt none of the ecstacy which so permeated our day, and so I thought once again that empty individualism had such merit. I had intended to experience the feelings of ‘oneness’ commonly associated with 4-AcO, and wasn’t disappointed, feeling at times as though I was touching my own body when I felt hers. Point in favor of open individualism. For unimportant reasons which I label “boundaries”, I’ve chosen to keep the rest of the details of our intimacy to myself…
There is much more I could write, and yet there are only a few pertinent details of our trip that I’d like to share:
We smoked some additional marijuana, which ended up overpowering the influence of the 4-AcO as the trip came to a smooth stop (there were none of the feelings of depletion or dejection I associate with other compounds such as LSD).
I had a relative reduction in REM sleep compared to my average and felt a small amount of residual grogginess which I personally attribute to the marijuana.
When we went out for a late snack, I again had a thought and associated changes in perception (or vice-versa, who knows?) I discussed in ‘Onset’ – I saw a car headlight, and as the afterimage decayed from my visual field, I had the sense that it was slipping from my attentional system as well. It was moving further in space-time, and more internally, making its retrieval more difficult.
“The easiest pain to bear is someone else’s.”
(François de La Rochefoucauld)
Could two small genetic tweaks get rid of most of the world’s mental and physical pain?
A tentative answer is: just conceivably. More cautiously, the problem of suffering should be genetically soluble this century. Before launching into a long list of caveats and complications – and outright scepticism – it’s worth considering a case study. The subject has waived anonymity.
Jo Cameron is a retired Scottish schoolteacher, a socially responsible vegan and pillar of the local community. Jo has gone though life in a perpetual state of “mild euphoria”. She has unusually high levels of anandamide (from the Sanskrit for “bliss”) and is never anxious, though her serenity may vary. Jo doesn’t feel pain, or at least not in any sense most of us would recognise: childbirth felt like “a tickle”. She is hyperthymic, but not manic. Unlike previously reported cases of congenital analgesia, Jo didn’t die young or find the need to adopt a “cotton-wool” existence to avoid bodily trauma. She came to the attention of medical researchers only when her disdain of painkillers for what “ought” to have been an excruciating medical procedure – a trapeziectomy on her right thumb – intrigued her doctor. “I had no idea until a few years ago there was anything that unusual about how little pain I feel – I just thought it was normal.”
With CRISPR genome-editing, lifelong bliss could be normal.
Jo Cameron is first known case of someone with mutations in both the FAAHgene and its newly-discovered sister gene, FAAH-OUT, which modulates the FAAH gene. The FAAH gene (short for Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase) is a protein-coding gene responsible for degrading bioactive fatty amides, most notably the endogenous cannabinoid anandamide. Previous mutations of FAAH are known, but the FAAH-OUT gene was previously reckoned a pseudogene. Single FAAH mutations are associated with high pain-tolerance, reduced anxiety and a sunny outlook without Jo’s “extreme” syndrome of well-being. Jo’s son has the single mutation.
Other case studies may be cited. I often use (again with prior consent) the example of my transhumanist colleague Anders Sandberg (“I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point”) – although Anders’ pain-sensitivity lies within the normal range. The pain-modulating SCN9A gene, which has dozens of alleles conferring varying pain (in)tolerance, is much better studied (cf. How much do our pain thresholds differ?).
What biologists call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) ensures such outliers are rare. Although Jo Cameron shows accelerated wound-healing, not being a “normal”, neurotic mother on the African savannah would have carried a fitness-cost. Predators are unforgiving of relaxed moms. Our sugary “wildlife documentaries” barely hint at the cruelties of Nature. Pain, fear and anxiety are intimately linked. “Only the paranoid survive”, said Intel boss Andy Grove; and this bleak diagnosis can be true of market capitalism to this day. But we are not living on the African savannah – or even in a world of unfettered free markets. Looking ahead, all kinds of risks can be offloaded to artificial intelligence. AI and smart prostheses can potentially manage risks moreeffectively than bias-ridden humans. Intuitively, for sure, tampering with our reward circuitry will be hazardous. Genetically modifying or creating superhappy organisms with relative pain-insensitivity and enhanced zest for life will lead to increased personal risk-taking. Yet the story is more complicated. A great deal of risky and self-destructive behaviour in today’s world involves not happy, pain-free people, but the pain-ridden, depressive and psychologically disturbed. Life-loving optimists typically value life more – and seek to preserve and protect it. Anecdotally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the happiest people I know dedicate their lives to the study and prevention of existential risk.
So a practical question arises. Should a large, well-controlled clinical trial of CRISPR babies be launched, with some babies carrying Jo’s two mutations, others a single FAAH mutation like her son, and controls?
If the trial is successful, then the controls and (in due course) the wider human population could enjoy remedial gene-therapy to share the benefits.
One of the few publications to recognise the far-reaching significance of Jo’s case is the magazine Wired (cf. Crispr Gene Editing Could One Day Cut Away Human Pain). Instead of the double mutation promising “only” better drugs to treat pain, humanity can now tackle the problem of suffering at its source.
Bioconservative critics will be appalled at the idea: “Doctor Mengele!” “Eugenics!” “Designer babies!” “Gattaca!” “Brave New World!” Being malaise-ridden is normal and natural. Creating superbabies would be hubris. Where will it lead? How do we know gene-editing won’t be used by despots to create a race of fearless superwarriors?
In more measured language, how can experimentation with the lives of sentient beings without prior informed consent be ethically justified?
Indeed. Yet all babies born today are unique and untested genetic experiments. All baby-making entails creating involuntary suffering. None of our genetic experiments first passed muster with a medical ethics committee. Any proposal to create transhuman superbabies will probably strike our descendants as genetic remediation, not enhancement. If we reject the arguments of anti-natalists, who view Darwinian life as malware, then allprospective parents are committed to practising genetic experimentation – just not under that inflammatory label. So what’s at issue is not the principle of genetic innovation, only whether we should harness the new tools of CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing to conduct our experiments more responsibly. If aspiring writers can benefit from proofreaders and editors, why not aspiring parents too – where the stakes are higher?
Your question asks about breaking the hedonic treadmill (cf. What would people who never suffered be like?). Breaking or otherwise dismantling the hedonic treadmill is worth distinguishing from recalibration of its dial-settings. Hedonic adaptation can be broken in human and non-human animals by experimentally inducing “learned helplessness” and behavioural despair in response to chronic, uncontrollable stress. Hedonic adaptation can be broken at the other extreme by using intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system. “Wireheading” shows virtually no tolerance. Pathological cases of a broken hedonic treadmill occur “naturally” in chronic unipolar depression and, much more rarely, in euphoric unipolar mania. Attempts to cheat the hedonic treadmill via drugs are fraught with pitfalls. The most powerful mood-brighteners, namely the opioids, activate the hedonic treadmill rather than mitigate it. Some opioid users end up with a habit hundreds of times their starting dose. Natural selection did not design living organisms to be happy.
Functionally, therefore, genetic recalibration is a more fruitful strategy than abolishing the hedonic treadmill, both for the individual and society at large. For what it’s worth, I personally think we should aim for a hyperthymic civilisation built on a biology of invincible well-being. Future sentience will be underpinned by gradients of bliss. However, nothing so grandiose need be envisaged in order to warrant human CRISPR trials of happy babies. Grant some fairly modest ethical assumptions, e.g. other things being equal, intelligent moral agents should act so as to reduce the burden of suffering, or at least not wantonly add to it. For any genetic intervention that alters default hedonic tone, conserving information-sensitivity to “good” and “bad” stimuli is critical. In other words, we should aim to retain the hedonic treadmill but transform its negative feedback-mechanisms into a hedonistic treadmill – where “hedonism” is understood not in the amoral popular sense of a life of drink, drugs and debauchery, but as embracing Mill’s “higher pleasures”. Hence the hedonistic imperative. If clinical trials of superbabies go well, prospective parents world-wide could be offered the opportunity to have happy, heathy babies via CRISPR genome-editing, preimplantation genetic screening and counselling.
A biohappiness revolution would be extremely cost-effective. Depression, anxiety disorders and chronic pain-syndromes significantly reduce economic growth worldwide. By conserving hedonic adaptation, but ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points, humanity can conserve and enhance empathetic understanding, social responsibility and critical insight while enriching default quality of life. By conserving hedonic adaptation, we can also conserve cherished traditional values, if so desired. Yesterday’s utopias involved overriding the preferences of others, whether for their own notional good or in pursuit of some higher cause. By contrast, elevating your pain-tolerance and raising your hedonic set-point would radically enrich your life but wouldn’t challenge your values and preferences – unless one of your core values is preserving the genetic status quo.
What could go wrong with a biohappiness revolution?
Cue for vast treatises and a sci-fi movie.
However, as well as seriously – indeed exhaustively – researching everything that could conceivably go wrong, I think we should also invesigate what could goright. The world is racked by suffering. The hedonic treadmill might more aptly be called a dolorous treadmill. Hundreds of millions of people are currently depressed, pain-ridden or both. Hundreds of billions of non-human animals are suffering too. If we weren’t so inured to a world of pain and misery, then the biosphere would be reckoned in the throes of a global medical emergency. Thanks to breakthroughs in biotechnology, pain-thresholds, default anxiety levels, hedonic range and hedonic set-points are all now adjustable parameters in human and non-human animals alike. We are living in the final century of life on Earth in which suffering is biologically inevitable. As a society, we need an ethical debate about how much pain and misery we want to preserve and create.
A relatively recent hypothesis for the neurotoxicity associated with MDMA is that it causes the brain to over-heat (see: 1, 2, 3). This would make the sorts of environments in which people take it particularly hazardous (hot raves, nightclubs, warm baths, and wild sex).
I really hope this is the core main reason for MDMA’s long-term deleterious effects.
Because then the damage would be completely preventable! In particular, I would point you to the athletic performance-enhancing technology developed at Stanford in 2012 that uses rapid thermal exchange devices (aka. “the cooling glove”*) in order to cool your blood and allow you to compete at a higher level. This is an extremely efficient method to keep the temperature of your whole body (including your brain!) within a healthy range.
Sadly, the device is likely to get banned for athletic purposes (it would be, some say, an unfair advantage if some teams have access to the cooling glove and others don’t). Sports are, of course, completely inconsequential, so the fact that the device is likely to get banned for this application shouldn’t matter. Yet it does, because as a result many people seem to be losing interest in this line of research.
Maybe, I would posit, the device could be resurrected as part of a modern harm-reduction strategy. Imagine night-clubs with a chill-out space stocked with dozens of cooling gloves. Party for 30 minutes, cool down for 10 minutes, repeat. If this could allow people to take MDMA once every month for the rest of their lives without enduring the brain damage that doing this usually causes… wouldn’t that be wonderful? I would expect it to also be highly beneficial for the benevolence of culture and the overall mental health of our society.
And this is all to say: Who would have known… that “being cool” was the key to partying for the rest of your life? Cool it down and party it up!