Excerpt from Opening the Heart of Compassion: Transform Suffering Through Buddhist Psychology and Practice by Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short (pgs. 101-107, 112-113)
Beyond Struggle and the Quest for Power: From Titan Realm to Skillful Means
“Sure winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” – “Red” Sanders
“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” – George Santayana, Life of Reason, Volume 1
“Only where love and need are one – And the work is play for mortal stakes – Is the deed ever really done – For Heaven and the future’s sakes.” – Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
The Titans, dressed in full armor, are beings inflamed by jealousy. They see everything in terms of struggle, feel attacked by the gods, and seek the power to become gods. A giant tree grows on the border between the titan realm and the god realm and bears wish-granting fruit. While the tree grows in the territory of the titans, the fruit falls in the land of the gods. The gods, oblivious of where the blessings come from, eat the fruit and toss the pits over the wall between the two realms, which the titans take to be arrows of assault. They fire arrows and spears toward the gods, which magically turn to blossoms as they descend into their neighbor’s realm.
Avalokiteshvara appears to the titans as the Spiritual Father Amogasiddhi, realizer of the aim and of all-accomplishing wisdom, and as the Divine Mother Tara, the All-Merciful. Amogasiddhi is an impeccably skilled warrior who remains cool and fearless in the face of attacks by all the titans, and who radiates a luminous green light. Unable to defeat him, the titans attempt to learn his skill. As they learn to separate their actions from their emotions, and to develop the qualities of skillful means — stillness and quietude, freshness of being, cool unfettered mind, productive activity, harmony with both comrades and opponents, precision, and selfless volition — their original desire to conquer the kingdom of the gods is undermined by their realization that there is nothing to be gained by the struggle.
Tara, as a “savior”, invites the titans, particularly the female titans, to look into the pool of tears they have shed for their husbands, brothers, and sons lost in battle. They reflect on the suffering that flows from their sense of entitlement, their tendency to be aggressive, and their orientation towards struggle. From this reflection comes a pause, a realization of the dangers of fixation, and a sense of grace and gratitude.
When we live in the titan realm, we want to prove that we deserve to be respected, to be honored, to be loved, to be secure, and to be treated justly. We furiously engage in one activity after another, and often in many activities simultaneously, in an effort to show the world that we are worthy. We strive to avoid being criticized or attacked for some failure. We have an enormous fear of failure because it would leave us vulnerable to those who would destroy us with criticism and shame.
In our struggle to prove our worth and prevent failures, we feel compelled toward greater accomplishments and ever grander goals. If only we could control situations, we could use our intelligence, our energy, and our hard work to make things turn out as they should.
Shame and the Fear of Violation
As titans, we feel shame, envy, and fear of attack. All are rooted in the feeling that our basic integrity — who we are and what we feel — can and will be violated. We fear what others think of us, and we are convinced that they think we are not good enough. Shame is specifically this feeling of being unworthy and inadequate as human beings.
Robert Bly points out that, when our inner sovereignty is not respected by our parents, our teachers, or our society, we not only develop shame, but also become confused about boundaries. When we live as titans, we live with paranoia. We think our boss is setting us up to fail. We are sure that the driver passing us on the right is defeating us in an imaginary race. Or we sense that our lover is holding back from acknowledging our achievements out of jealousy.
As titans we are haunted by the feeling that our friends, bosses, lovers, and powerful people are competing with us. They attack us, seeking to destroy our sense of worth and to steal what we have. Those who have more than we have are shaming us by example; they are revealing our failings. Those who help us must have ulterior motives such as domination and dependency. Those who do not help us are selfish and untrustworthy. Those who desire our friendship want the riches we have to offer. Those who give us gifts expect more in return. We know that we work hard and diligently, yet the fruits of our labor seem to benefit others more than ourselves.
So we frequently feel that we are being cheated, that others are reaping the rewards of our efforts. We become protective of our accomplishments. Rather than sharing the joy of our victories, we erect protective walls to secure our gains. This realm is characterized by the illusion of scarcity, the conviction that there is not enough to go around. Therefore, we must fight not only for our fair share now but also for control, so that we can get ours in the future.
Envy and Entitlement
In this realm we are preoccupied with our desire for what other people have. Our territory is extended beyond simply what we own to include those things that we deserve. If we are unable to obtain what we want, we experience not only frustration, but the pain of undeserved loss. We justify what we want as entitlement, and feel that we have a rightful claim not only to what we have but to what we think we need.
This sense of righteous entitlement shapes our attitude toward others: those who support our activities are friends, and all others are enemies. For the titan, even friends and allies are regarded with suspicion because they might shift positions, becoming enemies. This means that we are continually gauging relative positions, not only with foes, but also with friends. We cannot afford to let our friends become too good, too famous, too successful. Instead of rejoicing in their triumphs we feel alienated from them. We feel envy and shame at not having accomplished all that they have accomplished.
This frame of suspicion and threat means that we mistrust information from other people and cut ourselves off from learning from them. We think that only we can judge what is useful and true. We are preoccupied with the way information is manipulated for competitive ends. We think that one of the few things that we can control is the information that we give other people, and we not only use this to advance our own position but assume that others are doing the same. In fact, we believe that everyone is the same, with the same desires and motives and combative spirit. To us people act out of self-interest and are motivated by the desire for accomplishment, acquisition, status, and power.We distrust protestations to the contrary and demonstrations of alternative motives.
Torn by Desire and Distrust
We are torn between our desire for approval and our distrust of others and their motives. We seek peaceful relationships and secure sense of belonging, but feel constant distrust and competition. We want to relax and are often exhausted by our constant struggles; yet we fear the consequences of lowering our guard.
We long to fit into the world, but we are convinced that we have to fight for our place and defend it. This means perpetual alienation from other people. We often decide to settle for their respect rather than seeking their love, as this appears safer in the world of competition.
Competing for Esteem
Competition, as such, is neither good nor bad. Competition can support us by giving feedback on our performance, by providing examples of what is possible, by engendering appreciation for the abilities of others, and by creating side-by-side intimacy through fellowship with our competitors. If, however, it is viewed simply in terms of winning and losing and of proving self-worth, it cuts us off from our aliveness. Our competitive urge drives us to be better, smarter and richer than other people. Even religious leaders and spiritual seekers work to become greater, more devout, more skilled and even more humble than anyone else. Yet, when we are concerned with surpassing others, we cut ourselves off from our own best qualities and energies.
This type of competition distances us from other people, making it easy to ignore the feelings and situations of those around us. The desire to win leads us to concentrate on weaknesses of others so that we will look better. We point out their failings as part of our campaign to appear superior. One paradox of competition is that we want to validate our inherent self-worth beyond all comparison by using comparison with others.
The preoccupation with winning distorts our natural inclination for meaningful action. We search for our arena, our field of competitive advantage. Then we specialize, narrowing the ground of competition to increase our chance of winning. We share less and less with others and lose interest in things outside our sphere of endeavor. Win/lose competitiveness not only alienates us from others but also from our own openness.
To make a virtue of our struggle, we elevate winning to an ideal, excellence to the greatest expression of human nature, and competitiveness to an innate human quality. […] The pressure to succeed, however, breeds the fear of failure and shame, which undermines our self-confidence and keeps us trapped in issues of self-esteem.
We use our continual comparisons with others and with our ideals to judge our progress and to map out strategies for the competitive struggle. The success of others is not an indication of our impoverishment, as in the preta realm, but a basis for shame and a target for achievement. We do not want to be less than others, and so we struggle to be superior to them. Comparisons spur us into action. Whereas in the preta realm we internalize the sense of comparison and evaluation, in the realm of the titans we externalize it and try to change our position. We often treat others as obstacles to be moved out of the way, or as data to be manipulated.
We feel shamed by the accomplishments of other people, as though they succeeded in order to spite us. We try to dismiss their sharing as “showing off” — another insult added to the injury of our relative failure.
In our titan frame of mind, we may come to feel that we must be the best at almost any cost. If we cannot exceed everyone else, then we will diminish their successes. If we cannot be taller naturally, we can at least lop off the heads of those around us.
Conceits of Superiority, Inferiority, and Equality
When we inhabit this realm we are prone to three conceits: superiority, inferiority, and equality. The superiority conceit argues, “I am better than you,” or “You are worse than me.” The inferiority conceit says, “I am worse than you,” or “You are better than me.” The equality conceits suggests that “I am as good as you,” or “I am as bad as you are.”
This last conceit can be the most insidious because it seems virtuous. As titans, we are trying to make everyone at least as bad as we are. If we are angry with our partners and they are calm, we will try to make them upset to show that they are no different and certainly no better than we are. If we confess our failings, we want everyone else to confess theirs to demonstrate that they are no better than us. We want to bring them down to a common level where we can feel equal and can thereby validate ourselves. We enlist the political virtue of equality in the cause of proving that everyone is the same as we are.
Appealing to the Public
In our drive for respect and approval, we may be seduced by superficial judgments. People will encourage us to show only our most appealing behaviors and to say what they want to hear. We pander to an audience and take public attention as validation, even though it is dependent on outward appearances and manipulated impressions.
This habit of superficiality minimizes the threat to our constructed identity and therefore feels comfortable. We befriend people who are engaged in the same game because there is an implicit agreement that “I won’t call you on your game, if you won’t reveal mine.” With most people we attempt to manipulate their feelings, saying what will maintain their esteem for us and prevent their honest feedback. This further obscures both our feelings and our capacity for insight into our own habits.
When we equate manipulation with success, genuine honesty appears naive and unproductive. Our lives seem to be functioning in high gear, our work resulting in material rewards and fame. Yet underneath this superficial progress, we sense that our integrity has been violated, thus aggravating our insecurity and agitation.
Our dissatisfaction and striving prevents us from finding any natural balance in the world and experiencing harmony within ourselves. Our heart posture of struggle also prevents us from greeting new situations freshly. We become jaded in relating to ourselves and other people. Everything appears to be the same old thing, as we cloak our innate freshness with habitual perceptions and unconscious assumptions.
Spiritual Masquerade of the Warrior
As titans we may enter the spiritual path to improve our personal power and to enhance our self-image and public image. We become warriors in our struggle for perfection. We want to mobilize the energy body in our pursuit of success and excellence. We are preoccupied with the psychic powers and impeccability of the warrior, and view other spiritual aspirants — and even our own teachers — as competitors. We also sense the power of harmony, spontaneity, and authenticity and want these for ourselves to serve our titan goals.
(with 120 mg [of MDMA]) “I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible. The cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength continued throughout the rest of the day, and evening, and through the next day. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience, and how much more powerful it was than previous experiences, for no apparent reason, other than a continually improving state of being. All the next day I felt like ‘a citizen of the universe’ rather than a citizen of the planet, completely disconnecting time and flowing easily from one activity to the next.” – PIHKAL entry on MDMA
The abolitionist project, i.e. the goal of preventing all future suffering, is tremendously ambitious and grandiose. It is not surprising, then, that one would assume that the demographic that it will tend to attract consists of people who inhabit the titan realm first and foremost. Likewise, when we talk about ending suffering, the grandiosity of this aspiration can likely trigger in the listener precisely the defense mechanisms of the titan realm. How many of the counterarguments against ending suffering are really coming from a place of equanimity and balance, and how many of them are just habitual titan realm reactions to a perceived threat to one’s status in the hierarchies we are invested in?
One may say: “I had to suffer to be great! To be meaningful, to be useful, to be respected, all of that has cost me a sea of sweat and tears. Without great sacrifice there is no great reward! Do you want to take that away from me?”
Compare such pained responses to the mindset that MDMA instills in us. Because on MDMA one often experiences one’s sense of self-worth as inherent rather than conditional, one is able to see our motivations with complete self-honesty. More so, one does not get entangled in the status competitions of others, as the unshakable sense of inner worth is not diminished by one’s relative position in these consensus realities.
One may surely worry that our natural low self-worth is perhaps necessary to achieve great things. That if we could actually emotionally get by with feeling better than well — in a state of compassion, bliss, and wholesomeness — we would have evolved to be that way already. Alas, evolution does not care about our wellbeing; only the inclusive fitness of our genes. And it surely was the case that back in the African Savannah being driven by titan realm energies was highly adaptive. But today, I suspect, we will gain a lot of value by examining all the ways in which titan realm energies, in fact, get in the way of great achievements. Indeed, the very meaning of greatness as seen from the point of view of the titan realm is highly impoverished, narrow, and one-sided. For greatness of an even higher kind is to be found in the wonder and majesty of working towards a world of beautiful feelings for everyone.
It is surely the case that a lot of human accomplishments come straight out of the titan realm. However, I would like to challenge the notion that titan realm feelings are necessary, desirable, or perhaps inevitable in high-achievers. In particular, we should recall that group selection has limits: while every cell of your liver is indeed “in it to win it” with you, this is not quite true for each “cell” of a human group. The reason is simple: we are not all genetic twins, so human colonies are generally bound to be unstable, filled with internal competition, and sabotage. I would posit that one can indeed work towards ambitious and beautiful goals without invoking titan realm energies. In particular, we should be frank about all the ways in which titan motivations are in fact detrimental to our very goals. The low mood and self-loathing caused by internalized low-status is undoubtedly a huge cause of low productivity (see: rank theory of depression); office politics a massive waste of internal resources; and the paranoia overhead of the realm a derailment of effective and coherent group action. Thus, while MDMA-like states of consciousness may not have been the optimally adaptive mindsets from the point of view of our selfish genes, I think that a strong case can be made that they might in fact be extremely adaptive at the group level in modern times. This can be empirically tested. Looking ahead, this maybe is especially so post-reproductive revolution, as we will get to decide the gene distribution of our offspring in anticipation of their expected benefits at the individual and group level.
Much has been said about how we are, by nature, status-seeking monkeys. But an important thing to point out here is that the objective of our actions can be disentangled from the way in which their underlying motivations are implemented. We are not utility maximizers as much as we are adaptation executors. Sure we may nominally act in a way that maximizes our inclusive fitness, but the way we do so is by executing adaptations rather than having a “gene copying maximizing brain module” or anything of the sort. More so, that such adaptations result in the maximization of our genetic inclusive fitness is only guaranteed to be the case in our ancestral environment of adaptiveness. The connection between the (largely male-dominated) titan realm temperament and constant warfare is undeniable in communities largely untouched by modern civilization like Yanomami tribes in South America. And I would argue, it also explains inter- and intra-group aggression in modern times. Today in modern society a lot of (most?) groups indeed run on the fumes of the titan realm. And the fact that this causes huge misery inside these groups is only one reason to want to change it. Even more importantly, the titan realm paranoia, attachment to group identity, and its desire to win at all costs are especially dangerous in an era of drones and nuclear weapons. The maintenance of group pride no matter the consequences is threatening the survival of our species. But modern environments can in principle be designed so that this temperament becomes thoroughly maladaptive.
Thankfully, there is a sliver of a chance that we will soon find ways to motivate large groups of people by entirely wholesome energies. How far-fetched is this? Well, research into MDMA is just starting. We are at the foot of a hockey stick figure of “studies per year” of MDMA and related empathogenic/entactogenic drugs and interventions. This research has the potential to bootstrap a new modus operandi for human groups in a way that is sustainable and adaptive at the personal and group level, such that it effectively makes everyone in them happy, wholesome, and productive. If we manage to do this, we may in fact experience a complete overhaul of the old world energies of pride and domination, in lieu of an adaptive sense that “I love the world and the world loves me”.
“Break often – not like porcelain, but like waves.”
― Scherezade Siobhan
“Ideology has two meanings- actually, most social terms have two meanings, one for the traumatized and one for the non-traumatized.”
― Michael Vassar
“You know the old adage about monkeys typing into infinity, and the question about whether they would eventually produce Hamlet? I think that maybe we are those monkeys, and we’re producing countless Hamlets every single day.”
― Jacob Stephen
“Reality is very weird, no doubt. At the same time, it is easy to get wrong ‘what kind of weird’ reality is.”
― Matthew Barnett
“It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”
― W. Somerset Maugham
December 13th 2019
In a different timeline, I open a high-class experimental qualia-focused restaurant. There is only one kind of meal every month, and it is a challenge to finish it. Only 10% of people manage to do so. On March of 2022, the menu consists of:
A soup. A liter of (tap) water with a single mint leaf in it. Do not be deceived, this is not “spa water”. The amount of mint in it is exactly right below the perceptual threshold for the most discerning of tasters. Hence, you are guaranteed to (a) not be able to taste anything at all, while (b) fully knowing you are indeed drinking aromatic molecules from the mint leaf. Also, they give you a spoon and a straw. If you use the straw, you are “drinking your soup” while if you use the spoon you are “eating your soup”. Up to you. It’s a conceptual piece after all. Once -and only once- you finish it, they serve you the second course…
There are aromas and flavors out there in the state-space of qualia-triggering molecules that cancel each other out perfectly. The second course consists of a series of small hors d’oeuvres that are completely tasteless. If you can taste anything- e.g. a hint of garlic, or orange- it means the chef didn’t prepare it well. The flavors need to be perfectly balanced for them to be entirely tasteless. And once you are done, they bring you…
This thing they left on your table is akin to a wire puzzle, or one of those Hanayama pieces. They tell you that your third course consists of a tiny cookie hidden inside it. Average solving time: 25 minutes. 50% of people can’t solve it.
You are given a miniature 3D printed sugar statue reconstruction of someone who shares your name (as close as possible). Before eating it, you have to scream “There can be only one!” and consume your namesake in a single bite.
Trace minerals. They bring you this large metallic bowl with a tiny little bit of powder at the bottom; certainly no more than 50 or 60 milligrams of material. It contains half of your daily recommended dose of iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium. You can now finally know what these actually taste like. It turns out that the characteristic taste of your grandma’s famous tapioca dish was zinc. Moving on…
Negative food. You donate 300ml of blood.
Distilled saliva. You spit in a bowl a number of times. You are then given a little shot of perfectly tasteless and clean water. The water is chemically pure. However, it is the water in the saliva of the spit of another customer.
Double blind taste experiment. You are given a dish. The waiters do not know what it is. You do not know what it is. You have to write a 100-word report of what you think about this dish. This is actual science; the data is used by a research lab at some undisclosed university. There is something very Buddhist about this course – how much does your top-down model of what you are eating modify your perception of it? What if you do not assume an “essence” behind it – block that specific energy sink from robbing you of the experience of raw low-level sensation?
Sound control. Did you know that food tastes different in an airplane? Many factors contribute to this, but a major one is the constant background noise you can hear inside the aircraft. Turns out tastes change with specific sounds. The Qualia restaurant spent $500,000 dollars researching this (and publishing a number of peer-reviewed papers in the process). The output of that research is that you can now make chocolate taste like vanilla, and strawberry taste like melon – if only you play the proper sound at the right volume. And finally…
Stroboscopic taste – you put on a mouthpiece that entrains half of your tongue to a 30Hz electric seizure vibration while the other half is entrained to 17Hz. As you eat the Ice-cream of Victory (flavored with passionfruit, peanut, and anise) you realize that the flavors combine with the stroboscopic stimulation to create the hallucination of an entire meal replete with much more complex flavors. The beat patterns are tasty.
If you finish the entire thing (which usually takes about 5 hours total) they take a photograph of you and “keep it to themselves”. No, there is no “victory board”. They just want a picture of you.
5/5 | Would recommend.
January 6th 2020
Favorite essential oils at the moment: Freesia, Violet, and Pear. It turns out Freesia was a predominant note in Dior “Addict 2“, a perfume I fell in love with when I was a teen. Violet is “ethereal” in that it feels strangely anesthetizing (the ketamine of smells). Pear is lovely.
Some scent combinations “collapse categories” (e.g. too many flowers combined blend into “generic flowery”).
Others make unstable multi-phase blends (e.g. too many categories – spicy, citrus, minty, woody all at once).
Violet + Pear create a scent HEA.
An interesting blend with “emergent” characteristics: Freesia, Pear, Violet, Sunflower, Azalea, and Patchouli. Very high valence mixture that has a novel feeling that does not seem to come from the ingredients. #HighEntropyAlloy #HighEntropyScent
January 8th 2020
Careful with raising the “scent entropy” too high!
In sound and sight, it seems that there is an inverted U curve relationship between stimuli entropy and the entropy of the experiential response. White noise may be- objectively- the way to cram in as much information as possible into a waveform. But perceptually, white noise is more like its own (neutral valence, indifferent) tone. Likewise visually, if you crowd your images way too much you can’t actually understand its meaning and true complexity. Perceptual complexity response is maximized in the middle, where you achieve “peak useful entropy”.
More so, extremely entropic stimuli can be used to “mask” any input by adding a dose of white noise or visual static. That’s how you can degrade the valence of something when you don’t know what kind of unpleasant input you will get in advance. White noise drowns out both construction sounds and baby screams. It’s a “universal diluter”, so to speak.
And so it seems that this is the case with smells too. If you combine any 40 (42?) scented molecules that are as different as possible, you get as a result a generic smell with neutral valence that is not distinctive at all. If you make a different 40-scent mixture with completely different molecules, it also smells the same! They call it white noise scent, or “Laurax”*.
In other words, the “high-entropy alloys” of smell may only really pay off in the range of 5 to 15 different molecules, where (perhaps) we maximize the experiential “character” of the resulting fragrance.
Now, of course commercial perfumes in practice do have dozens if not hundreds of aromachemicals. But their absolute “scent entropy” is probably not that high. Why? First, the entropy is reduced by the fact that most perfumes do concentrate on a few core notes; the many other notes are usually small additions and tweaks. And second, the perfumes are usually made with relatively few categories of smells blended together (musky, citrus, and flower could be one, or green, ozonic, and non-citrus fruity another, and so on). Additionally, to get true white noise smell you need to also add negatively valenced scents, which are rarely used in actual perfumes. I do wonder, though, if the perfume industry has a sense of the “scent entropy” of their various perfumes, and if having a measure of it would perhaps improve their ability to hone in on blends that have unique emergent characters without relying entirely on heuristics and trial and error. Or how about a portable “scent-entropy-o-meter”? I bet it would find some very useful applications.
Of all the industries, I get the impression that the perfume industry is ahead of the curve when it comes to incorporating hedonistic utilitarian notes into its embedded ideology.
January 11th 2020
Cilantro tasting like soap to 10% of the population is just the tip of the iceberg.
January 13th 2020
What are your favorite perfumes?
(and if it’s not impossible to describe – why do you like them so much?)
Addict 2 by Dior Eros pur femme by Versace Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana
Oh god, what kind of person have I become?
January 14th 2020
Scent combinations with unusual emergent characters that are “more than the sum of their parts” I have discovered so far:
Violet + Pear
Rose + Orange
Honeydew Melon + Pomegranate
Freesia + Golden Hydrangea
In each of these cases, combining in roughly equivalent intensities (i.e. 50-50 ‘equipotent’ mixtures) seems to give rise to qualities that are not present in either of the two scents. This is relatively rare, IMO. If you combine, e.g. lilac and jasmine, you just get something that smells like “lilac and jasmine”. But the four combinations above seem- to me- to give rise to new exotic qualia varieties.
An accord is more about getting rid of the individually distinguishable component scents. The end result, however, is one of a “generic” scent within a given category (or subcategory). For example “white flower accord” or “citrus accord” are common. And although you can distinguish between two citrus accords, they don’t really have unique character – at least not more than e.g. various kinds of brown noise have a unique character. The combinations I’m mentioning are not just ways of creating a category blend so that other elements of the perfume can be more noticeable. Rather, they are on their own uniquely characteristic, much like other pure essential oils.
If you mix a wide enough variety of flowers you inevitably get a flower accord. To get a new qualia type emergent you need something else. (I should add I’m new to the field and have a lot to learn).
I’m developing a way of explaining what a scent is like at a glance with relatively few parameters. One of them is category entropy, meaning how close a given category in the scent is to the maximally blended version of it (i.e. a fully generic “flowery” scent has maximum category entropy).
Then another parameter is the “global entropy” which describes how close the scent is to total white noise scent.
So we start by saying e.g. perfume X is “50% of the way to white noise scent and its distribution of core categories is 30% woody, 30% floral, 20% fruity, and 20% citrus”, then we zoom in to each category and describe its category entropy and salient notes: “the floral entropy is 40%, and the 60% remaining is shared in equal measure between rose and azalea” (repeat for each category).
Additionally, another important thing to add is if there are “note to note interactions”, which in my (limited) experience happens with some pairs. Maybe 10% of them, but I don’t know for sure. But you could describe them with lines between individual notes in a diagram. To round it all out, you also would point out the note accords that work as “phases” in the overall scent (drawing inspiration from high entropy alloys – an alloy that does not make a single crystal structure is called “multiphasic”). E.g. mango + patchouli + cinnamon + jasmine tends to produce two phases, a mango + cinnamon phase that toggles in your attention with the jasmine + patchouli phase. Finally, we would also note “valence inversion” effects that happen when there are combos of scents that when placed together give rise to a flipped valence (also a rare effect, IME).
For a slightly higher level of resolution, we would break down each category into subcategories and then describe the entropy of each. E.g. a floral perfume could be 80% of the way to maximum floral entropy in the “white flower” subcategory but only 10% of the way to maximum entropy in the “powdery flower” category.
This would allow us, I think, to put our finger on many scents that are hard to describe otherwise. Indeed, a lot of sophisticated perfumes, IMO, are playing a lot with different shades of high entropy, so talking about them in terms of notes like jasmine or amber is very misleading. It’s like calling a certain kind of brown noise “closest to a guitar sound” because one lacks words for describing noise profiles.
January 23rd 2020
So we know that we can get “white noise smell” by combining 42 scents of completely different kinds at the same time. This maxes out the “scent entropy” (aka. “Laurax”).
If you combine 42 different flower scents, however, you get a maximally generic “flowery scent”. I call this “category collapse”.
Now some scents have what I call “special effects”, which are category-neutral qualities. An example is the ‘bitterness’ of grapefruit, which although is often associated with fruits, can occur in entirely different categories too.
So I thought: what if we try to combine scents from as many categories as possible that all share the same special effects? I call this “scent factorization”. Namely, you try to get “special effect + Laurax” by canceling out everything but the special effect.
I believe this actually works. Example:
A factorization of “bitter-sweetness” can be obtained by mixing:
In this case you will see that geranium is almost like “the grapefruit of flowers” in that it is flowery in nature but still shares the same “bitter” quality as grapefruit (albeit at a different frequency – yes scent frequencies are a thing, but that’s a story for another time). Likewise, cedar-wood is the most grapefruit-like wood I’ve smelled.
Another interesting factorization is that of “creaminess”:
Coconut + Fig + Vanilla + Almond + Sandalwood
In this case, again, you’ll see that sandalwood is the most “creamy” of all woods (as far as I have tried), fig is the most creamy of all fruits, and so on.
But this is just the start. What other scent factorizations could we try? I’d say we could aim to have the special effects of “ozonic”, “green”, “ethereal”, “powdery”, “acrid”, “cloying”, and so on factorized. Each deserves to become its own perfume in my up and coming new line of high end perfumes called “The State-Space of Scents” (for the consciousness connoisseur).
February 2nd 2020
The Qualia Review – Episode 1: Women’s Perfumes (Part 1):
The Qualia Review – Episode 1: Women’s Perfumes (Part 2)
The Qualia Review is a tongue-in-cheek program where you will get non-expert opinions about the quality of experiences by people who really care about consciousness:
In each episode, Andrés Gómez Emilsson (qualiacomputing.com) reviews a particular qualia variety (i.e. category of experience) with a co-host (in this episode Victor Ochikubo).
In this first episode we review women’s perfumes. In particular, we review (from worst to best):
La Panthére by Cartiere (EDT) By Invitation by Michael Bublé (EDP) Guilty by Gucci (EDT) Brit Rhythm by Burberry (EDT) Jolie Fleur Bleue by Tory Burch (EDP) Rose Goldea by Bvlgari (EDP) Daisy Love by Marc Jacobs (EDT) Valentino by Valentino (EDP) Amazing Grace Ballet Rose by Philosophy (EDT) Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana (EDT) Eros by Versace (EDT)
You will notice that this is unlike any other review of perfumes. This is because the review here provided addresses the following three aspects of scents:
A qualia-focused account (i.e. entropy, categories, special effects, etc.)
What kind of person would enjoy wearing this perfume (mood-congruence, personality, etc.)
The social signaling that the perfume entails (sexual signaling, genetic fitness signaling, etc.)
In particular, (1) describes scents in terms of:
A) The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent)
B) The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’)
C) The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category)
D) Lines connecting notes that have non-linear interactions (e.g. pear & violet, rose & orange, pomegranate & honeydew make unique blends that have phenomenal properties unlike those of the individual ingredients)
E) Lines connecting notes that form separate “phases” across categories (e.g. with a mixture of mango, sandalwood, rose, lemon, and cinnamon you get three phases rather than a global consistent smell – mango + cinnamon, and lemon + sandalwood, with rose staying its own distinct scent)
F) Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually)
G) Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.)
Thus, we share an entirely new angle on how to describe the ineffable. Namely, the hard-to-put-your-finger-on elusive subjective quality of scents can finally be grounded in terms we can all understand (with a modicum of shared background assumptions).
Hope you enjoy! Happy scent qualia!
February 5th 2020
Three scents that are surprisingly similar to strawberry (based on my personal experience with essential oils):
In fact, following the “scent factorization” concept – if you make a mixture of these three scents the resulting oil smells almost exactly like strawberry cake. Strange!
February 9th 2020
I love this video! The idea that the information content in a perfume could possibly fit so much phenomenal detail is enticing, albeit perhaps a bit optimistic.
In the interest of honesty, out of the 15 or so women’s perfumes I’ve experienced deeply so far, La Panthere by Cartier is the worst by quite a long shot.
I don’t mean this to troll! I am serious. I still don’t quite know why I feel it as so unpleasant. I think it has to do with its very high entropy quotient, and the fact that it centers around gardenia, which is my least favorite flower. It feels predatory – and perhaps the perfumist did succeed at telling a story. Too bad I aim to reprogram the biosphere so that predation is a long-forgotten nightmare of our ancestral Darwinian environment of adaptedness. So long! We should aim to transform scent exploration from its current state of commercialism mixed in with weapons of sexual conquest, and push it into new frontiers… the exploration of the state-space of consciousness, valence research, perhaps even energy parameter modulation! The future of scent qualia research is wide open.
The Qualia Review – Episode 2: Men’s Perfumes
The Qualia Review is a tongue-in-cheek program where you will get non-expert opinions about the quality of experiences by people who really care about consciousness:
In each episode, Andrés Gómez Emilsson (qualiacomputing.com) reviews a particular qualia variety (i.e. category of experience) with a co-host (in this episode Victor Ochikubo).
In this second episode we review men’s perfumes. In particular, we review (by order of appearance):
CK2 by Calvin Klein (EDT) Pasha de Cartier Edition Noir by Cartier (EDT) Virtu by Vince Camuto (EDT) 21 Le Fou by Dolce & Gabbana (EDT) Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier (EDT) Scuderia Ferrari Light Essence Bright by Ferrari (EDT) Jimmy Choo Man Blue by Jimmy Choo (EDT) 1 Million by Paco Rabanne (EDT) Terre D’Hermes by Hermes (EDT) Invictus by Paco Rabanne (EDT) Bleu De Chanel by Chanel (EDP)
In this episode we also discuss the way in which an enriched conception of art could helps us reformulate the artistic potential of perfumes. We make allusions to the 8 models of art discussed in a previous video:
It’s very sad that there is a huge paywall for scent qualia. It’s your birthright to know what they smell like!
February 11th 2020
~120 essential oils and ~40 perfumes (ordered by categories and general character).
This is the dataset my brain has been training over to interpret the state-space of scent qualia for the last month and a half. This is still amateur level – but I can nonetheless confidently say that I now understand scent qualia at least 50% better than I did last year.
I would still appreciate specific suggestions for essential oils or perfumes to get that are very unusual or characteristic. I continue to be surprised by the uniqueness of oils, fragrances, and mixtures I haven’t tried before.
Also: drastic income inequality is a massive tragedy, no doubt. But why are people not talking about qualia inequality? I wish everyone was as qualia-rich as I am right now. I’m happy to share some scents with people who feel qualia-deprived; just come to the Bay and give me a call. 🙂
Ps. Peony is an incredibly versatile low-entropy flower scent with a creamy strawberry-like effect. I kept reading about how this or that perfume has peony in it, but it really took me owning an essential oil of it to grok the type of qualia peony is all about. Someday there will be a monument built to celebrate the qualia variety disclosed by peony formulas. I’m pretty sure of this.
February 14th 2020
People say “a blind buy” when they talk of buying a perfume they haven’t smelled. Shouldn’t it be more appropriate to say an “anosmic buy”?
February 18th 2020
In order to survive the apocalypse, having a “blue” fragrance on hand will become very useful. I suggest “Nautica Voyage“.
Very interesting! Two followup questions: (1) does it replicate on a larger sample size? and (2) is the baserate of different sexual orientations of anosmic people statistically different than those of the general population?
Gay men showed a strong preference for the body odour of other gay men in the scientific test of how the natural scent of someone’s body can contribute to the choice of a partner.
Although previous studies have shown that body odour plays a role in making heterosexual men or women attractive to members of the opposite sex, this is the first study that has investigated its role in sexual orientation. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, a non-profit research institute, said the findings underline the importance of natural odours in determining a sexual partner whatever the sexual orientation of the person involved.
“Our findings support the contention that gender preference has a biological component that is reflected in both the production of different body odours and in the perception of and response to body odours,” Dr Wysocki said.
February 25th 2020
Review of Shalimar Eau de Parfum by Guerlain for women:
February 27th 2020
Jasmine, Tuberose, and Gardenia: the Dark Triad of White Flowers. Beware! They are treacherous, envious, and guileful. DO NOT TRUST. They will ruin your perfume with their high-entropy indolic ‘broad spectrum scent noise’. Deranged, distracting, and disingenuous. #FlowerProblems
March 12th 2020
Why you should not insufflate ketamine: (1) it can irreversibly damage your bladder and cause very serious untreatable chronic pain, (2) it can damage your liver, also very painful, but above all (3) it will slowly degrade your ability to experience scents! Not worth it IMO!
Cocaine is well known for causing anosmia in regular users. I suspect we are going to see a wave of anosmic people as ketamine becomes more popular. Don’t be a victim. “Remember kids, don’t insufflate drugs – either eat them or inject them” would be my DARE go-to phrase.
March 16th 2020
Running out of hand sanitizer but you are fab and have a perfume collection? Use some cheap perfume instead! It’s usually 70+% alcohol.
Factoring in the loss of precious qualia would make this epidemic even worse. This year I’ve finally begun appreciating the state-space of scents. I’m heartbroken to learn about this effect. So much qualia in potentia that might be lost!
March 23rd 2020
We should emphasize the possibly of life-long loss of smell in order to get more young adults onboard with strict social distancing measures. A 20-something person might not fear a fever, but they may fear “having less sexy sex and enjoying food less for the rest of their lives”.
March 26th 2020
Sense of smell over the years. People under 40: please do yourself a favor and get some nice scents so you enjoy them while you are still sensitive to them. It’s always a tragedy not to use a qualia variety and then lose it. #qualia #scent #aging #valence #bliss #WeAreTheQualia
March 29th 2020
This is the future – in 2010 I was saying that in the long run humanity will need to adopt entirely new and seemingly extreme measures against contagious diseases.
Nasal filters (aka. “nose condoms”) were one of the ideas I was considering at the time. Reality is now catching up with fiction.
Why adopt extreme measures? Because we haven’t seen anything yet. The possibility of rational virus design and the political will to invest in innovative weapons means that sooner or later we will encounter things with a case fatality rate > 80% and R0 > 4. Nothing short of large-scale contact network engineering and the widespread use of tech like nasal filters can really work against those long-tail risks.
Perhaps in the future going out without nasal filters will be considered as reckless as today it’s considered having unprotected sex with a random stranger. #NasalFilter #TheNewMask #PM2point5
April 8th 2020
Summer 2020 Unisex Perfume Recommendations:
1. Bright Neroli – Ferrari (amazing sharpness and cute Sicilian dry-down)
2. Monserrat – Bruno Fazzolari (incredible grapefruit punch and bitter-sweet resonance)
3. Born – Adidas (a cheap but highly rewarding lavender rhubarb scent).
April 21st 2020
Haven’t posted about scents in a while; I’m still actively researching this fascinating qualia variety (better do so while I still have scent qualia, which may of course go away if/when I acquire COVID-19).
I’ve developed a lot of new vocabulary to talk about scents. In particular, I like to break down a scent in terms of entropy (how close to ‘white noise scent’ it is), category distribution (% woody, citric, fruity, etc.), category-specific entropy (e.g. 70% of the way to ‘generic flowery’), specific notes (e.g. 10% rose), and of course, “special effects” (such as “creamy”, “powdery”, “bitter”, etc.).
A recent “special effect” I’ve explored is the rather peculiar feeling that the scent is “flammable”. For example, gasoline has it, and so does ethanol. It is similar to the feeling you get when you inhale nitrous oxide. A kind of fascinating gas-like intoxicated state that produces spatiotemporal confusion and a sense of resonance. Of the scents I currently have access to, 100% pure Neroli essential oil strongly triggers this particular special effect. Neroli has that strange “flammable” quality, perhaps an octave or two in pitch higher relative to gasoline. It’s equally enthralling as the smell of gasoline (for those who like it) but much more dinner-party-friendly.
Anyway, with this “flammable” special effect in mind, I’ve been exploring what can be added to it in order to create beautiful scents. Last night I found a combination that made me really happy. It consists of equal (intensity-adjusted) parts of:
Orange essential oil
Lime essential oil
Pear essential oil
It is sweet, sour, and gasoline-like in an unexpectedly euphoric way. I highly recommend this quale. I very much like its vibe. Meet me there.
April 28th 2020
First I tried essential oils. Then I tried perfumes. Now I’m entering a third phase in my “scent literacy” journey: pure molecules.
I have 50 pure perfume ingredients in an air-tight container now. And I have been trying out a couple each day in a systematic way in order to map out the state-space of scents.
One core insight so far:
Essential oils are extremely rough approximations for “building blocks” of scents. Perfume notes are often described in terms of fruits, woods, flowers, animalic sources, etc. But “apple” is not a natural unit of scent qualia. Although there is a general “apple vibe”, in reality that vibe can come from any of 20 or so different molecules. Additionally, many molecules that have an apple vibe do not even appear in biological apples (and vice versa). I’ve so far tried two apple-vibe molecules:
Alpha Damascone: The smell of a dried out green apple, slightly past its prime, unsweetened and with trace amounts of beeswax wrapper stuck to its skin.
5-octen-1-ol: The smell of extremely mild refrigerated apple sauce, slightly waxy, reminiscent of sandalwood, and at a slightly higher “phenomenal frequency” than damascone.
In other words, I’m learning that pure molecules are indeed more “simple” than essential oils by far. They feel very specific and low-dimensional rather than voluptuous and scenic. But despite their relative simplicity, they are still not “categorically pure”. A single molecule can smell woody, fruity, and camphorous all at the same time. Part of the story is likely that a single molecule can have a broad spectrum of receptor affinities. But even if only one scent receptor were to be activated, perhaps the resulting experience would also not be uni-categorical.
The fascinating implication here is that scents that feel very uni-categorical (e.g. pear essential oil being unequivocally “fruity” with no hint of floral or woody) are more likely to be compositions of many molecules!
Each uni-categorical accord is made by mixing many molecules that all share the same “main vibe” but have different “secondary traits”. This way the accord lets the secondary traits “cancel out in white noise scent” while the main vibe is additively compounded into a broad-spectrum power-punch of a single category, like fruity (reminiscent of “scent factorization”, which I’ve described in previous posts).
May 2nd 2020
“You don’t need to be phenomenally rich in order to be phenomenally rich!”
I’m an advocate of high-dose behavioral enrichment (I talk about it at 22:16):
Ellena will dip a touche into a molecule called isobutyl phenylacetate, which smells vaguely chemical and nothing else, and another into a synthetic molecule whose common chemical name is ethyl vanillin. (A rich gourmandy vanilla molecule, its IUPAC name is 3-methoxy-4-hydroxy benzaldehyde, and it is the heart of Shalimar.) He puts the touches together and hands them to you. Chocolate appears in the air. “My métier is to find shortcuts to express as strongly as possible a smell. For chocolate, nature uses 800 molecules, minimum. I use two.” He hands you four touches, vanillin + natural essences of cinnamon, orange, and lime—each of these has the full olfactory range of the original material—and you smell an utterly realistic Coca-Cola. “With me,” says Ellena, “one plus one equals three. When I add two things, you get much more than two things.”
He will hand you a touche that he has sprayed with a molecule called nonenol cis-6, which by itself smells of honeydew melon or fresh water from a stream. He’ll then hand you a second touche with a natural lemon on it, direct you to hold them together now, and suddenly before you appears an olfactory hologram of an absolutely mesmerizing lemon sorbet.
The explicit point was not to create a thing but an illusion of that thing, an olfactory alchemy. The point of Nil was not to create a green mango but the illusion of a green mango.
Junior perfumers discover that Vetiver Huile Essentielle from Haiti smells like a Third World dirt floor and Vetiver Bourbon from Isle de la Réunion smells like a Third World dirt floor with cigar butts. (They hope to do something wonderful with the cigar butts.) They learn, as Ellena knew from decades of work, how to create the illusion of the scent of freesia with two simple molecules, both synthetics: ionone beta + linalool. And orange blossom: linalool + anthranylate de methyl, which by itself smells like aspirin. The classic Guerlain perfumes often used a molecule called styrex, which smells of olive oil pooled on a table in a chemical factory. Add phenylethylic alcohol and you get lilac. Add the smell of corpse (indoles), you get a much richer lilac. And you can give your lilac, freesia, and orange blossom a variety of metallic edges: Add allyl amyl glycolate, you get a cold metal freesia. Add amyl salycilate, and you get a freesia with the smell of a metal kitchen sink dusted with Ajax powder. Aldehyde C-12 lauric adds an iron with a bit of starch still on it.
May 8th 2020
Excerpt from Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s 2008 perfume guide:
The last decade has seen the unfortunate flourishing of a dismal genre, the fragrances for men and women who do not like fragrance and suspect that none of their friends do either. The result has been a slew of apologetic, bloodless, gray, whippet-like, shivering little things that are probably impossible, and certainly pointless, to tell apart. All fragrances whose name involves the words energy, blue, sport, turbo, fresh, or acier in any order or combination belong to this genre. This is stuff for the generic guy wishing to meet a generic girl to have generic offspring. It has nothing to do with any other pleasure than that of merging with the crowd. My fondest hope is everyone will stop buying them and the genre will perish. Just say no.
Lastly, and by way of contrast, remember that perfume is foremost a luxury, among the cheapest, comparable to a taxi ride or a glass of bubbly in its power to lift the mood without causing subsidence the morning after. Wear it for yourself.
– Luca Turin in PERFUMES: THE A-Z GUIDE (2008)
May 13th 2020
The perfume Tommy Girl just registered as an outlier to my nose. It registers as high in valence as Bleu de Chanel and Bright Neroli by Ferrari. Extraordinary perfume. 10/10 #ScentQualia
May 27th 2020
The Rainbow God Experience
One of the most interesting lines of evidence pointing in the direction of the Symmetry Theory of Valence is how in the neighborhood of the peak of high-energy neural annealing events one can often glimpse states of consciousness with a characteristic “full-spectrum of qualia” property.
This may happen nearing the peak of a strong LSD trip, during intense Jhanic concentration, Fire Kasina practice, or even just spontaneously (though extremely rarely).
At the actual peak of the annealing process you are likely to arrive at a “moment of eternity“- itself extremely high-valence- where the symmetry is so complete that it becomes impossible to distinguish between self and other, before and after, or even left and right (this is a phenomenal property of peak valence states, and not proof of Open Individualism and non-duality per se, even though most people tend to interpret such experiences that way).
The “Rainbow God” phenomena lives at the edge of such peak valence states.
Timothy Leary in “The Psychedelic Experience” says that as you approach the highest bardo you are given the choice between “tasting sugar” and “being the sugar”.
The former is close to the peak of the annealing process, where there is enough asymmetry in the state for you to be able to encode information and distinguish between past and future, self and other, etc. and thus able to experience a projective world-simulation and the illusion of a self that “experiences it”. At the top of the annealing process, however, the extreme symmetry does not allow you to do that. The valence is almost certainly higher, though the degree of consciousness is arguably lower. You are “the sugar” rather than “tasting the sugar” (i.e. you are luminosity rather than a constructed world-simulation “experiencing luminosity”).
Stunningly, this edge between perfect symmetry and its surroundings in configuration space often shows extreme levels of qualia diversity. This is an empirical observation you can verify for yourself (or you can trust me, find others who have experienced it, or derive it from first principles).
What is it like? At this boundary between quasi-perfect symmetry and perfect symmetry you experience rainbows with all the phenomenal colors in the CIELAB color space (and perhaps some other colors that you only see in heaven, like blue-yellow and red-green, which require enough energy to overcome the lateral-inhibition opponent process going on in the cortex at all other times). You experience a sense of “all possible temporalities”. A sense of “all possible scents”. And a sense of all possible spatial relationships at once.
If you get any closer to the peak of annealing, the rainbows collapse into luminosity, the scents into a sense of presence, the temporalities into a sense of eternal now, and the possible feelings of space into a projective-less “view from nowhere”. The combination of all qualia values of each qualia variety somehow, incredibly, seem to add to zero. But not any kind of zero. A special “Zero” perhaps equivalent to “no information but awake”. (Cf. David Pearce’s Zero Ontology for a possible grounding of this state in fundamental physics.)
Yes, this is very much a real state of consciousness. It is profound, and extremely important.
I call it the “Rainbow God” state of mind. I do not know how to reliably induce it, but I do know that it is likely to have extremely deep computational, ethical, and experiential properties capable of advancing our understanding of the nature of the state-space of consciousness. I just figured you should know this exists.
Really excellent presentation about the biological and physical underpinnings of scent. It’s a bit on the long end (50 minutes) but you can get 80% of it by just watching the first 12 minutes. It’s really good! So much information…
For instance: did you know there are about 400,000 scented flower species in the world? I struggle to come up with more than 30 flowers off the top of my head (up from 5 just less than a year ago). The remaining 399,970? Who knows what they smell like. We don’t have words for these smells… is it “rose” or “jasmine” smell? Good luck using that kind of ontology describing the space of possible flower smells.
Also: it turns out that volatile molecules don’t diffuse very effectively. So that’s why you get “whiffs” of scents – for the most part, in the wild, air is a very non-homogeneous gas, with all kinds of pockets with specific linear combinations of aromachemicals. Hence why holding two essential oils side by side doesn’t give rise to a proper mixture between them. You need to literally mix the oils and then smell the mixed result if you want to actually know what the combination is like. Otherwise you will get a whiff of one, a whiff of the other, etc. with a Poisson-like distribution. This also reminds me that: we have an olfactory bulb in each nostril! So if you apply one scent in one nostril and another scent in the other nostril, you will get a kind of “bi-scent rivalry” [binosmic?] similar to what you get when you see one image with the left eye and one image with the right eye (i.e. “binocular rivalry”).
I do think that “digital smell” is possible (unlike the presenter). But it will require us to describe each molecule in terms of their ADSR patterns for each of the basic scent qualities (that is, to describe how the sweetness develops across time – its attack, decay, sustain, and release – and do the same for each core qualia scent dimension). Without taking into account the ADSR envelope for each molecule, the mixtures will be uneven.
The lowest-hanging fruit would be to use a non-negative least squares regression that minimizes the error for the envelope of each of the core qualia scent dimensions. Hence, the molecular spectrum is not enough – the non-negative least squares requires pattern-matching across the entire temporal envelope of each dimension. IF we do this – then digital smells might be possible after all (IMO!).
June 3rd 2020
There are a TON of questions whose real answer is: “Bleu De Chanel”. Think about it.
That’s how VAST the multiverse is.
“Bleu De Chanel” spans eons and eons of subjective time – the grapefruit/incense/amber vibe ringing on and on throughout eternity. That’s how large it ALL is.
You can get a powerfully believable Smirnoff Lime impression with as little as a few drops of citral and aldehyde C-12 in an ethanol + water mixture. Amazing what passes as a “fine drink” these days.
“At least add some linalool to make it worth it” – would be my recommendation.
Note to self: by virtue of their sharp smell, aldehydes are powerful high-frequency psychoactives.
June 6th 2020
Note to self: Smelling a bunch of aldehydes over and over for several days in a row causes bad headaches. Use them only occasionally from now on.
June 13th 2020
I asked a DMT being about the nature of scent qualia. Its response: “One hint: are you sure it’s only one kind of qualia?”
An insight came like a lightning bolt. Yes! Two types:
Aromachemicals that are “character impact”
Totally different state-spaces!
Luca Turin, the quantum neurobiologist who has done research on the vibration theory of olfaction (showing “we can smell functional groups”) told me that if perfumes are tomato soups, the money is in “making the best cream” rather than in the “tomatoes”. Character impact!
Examples of character impact molecules:
Examples of flavor-like vibe molecules:
June 20th 2020
Magenta: The Non-Spectral Color
An important point of confusion about qualia to which I offer a clarification:
The qualia you experience as a result of light coming into your eyes can be logically and empirically dissociated from physical light. Color qualia, just as much as visual texture qualia, can be triggered by auditory stimuli in people with synesthesia, or people tripping. More so, you don’t even need light to ‘see’ in your dreams. Visual qualia is ultimately not intrinsically tied to physical light. Phenomenal light, as it were, is a particular spatial qualia that we use to ‘illuminate’ our inner world simulations. Yet this illumination is not based on photons.
Hence the mystery of magenta: phenomenal colors don’t always map on to frequencies of light. Even leaving aside the issue of metamerism, magenta itself is a ‘non-spectral color’ because you need to combine at minimum two frequencies of light to trigger that color qualia in your visual field (namely, a combination of the upper and lower frequencies you can detect).
Why do we experience color qualia from light, then? This is not out of logical necessity, but rather, because it happens to have the appropriate information processing properties for the mapping to be evolutionarily advantageous. The state-space of color and visual texture happen to have useful isomorphisms to the structure of visual data. But there is nothing to suggest they are the best at representing ‘projective data-structures’.
In fact, I strongly suspect that once we master free-wheeling hallucinations and qualia control techniques, we will discover new applications of exotic qualia varieties for information processing purposes. Such as, for instance, using complex synesthetic representations of natural numbers that make it easy to ‘feel’ whether a 10-digit number is prime or not.
Anyhow, this all informs the kind of answer I might give to the question “what is it like to be a bat?”. In particular, it compels me to say that for all we know echolocation information is represented with scent qualia. We simply don’t know enough about the information-theoretic properties of state-spaces of qualia varieties to make an educated guess for what kind of qualia is best at representing echolocation information.
And more so, even if you were to train a human to use echolocation from birth, there is no guarantee that the qualia varieties and the associated state-spaces their brain would recruit for that task would have anything to do with bat echolocation qualia. So the problem has more moving parts than is usually assumed.
June 28th 2020
“Son, there is something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time, but only now I’m brave enough to do so: I just don’t think aromatic Fougères are a good fit for you. Based on my experience, I think Chypres would fit you better. Or even some woody citruses. Not Fougères.”
July 16th 2020
I love smelling dirty every once in a while.
July 19th 2020
If you have a prejudice against the smell of single molecules because they are “too simple” and you need some “entourage effect” balanced blend “only nature can provide”… try smelling Agrumen Aldehyde Light. A single molecule that smells like a full perfume!
Soapy lime herbal!
July 22nd 2020
Freesia is 90% linalool and 3% beta-ionol. I suppose that’s why my 50%/50% mixtures weren’t quite Freesia-like.
July 24th 2020
Vimalakīrti then asked the bodhisattvas from the Host of Fragrances [world], “How does Accumulation of Fragrances Tathāgata explain the Dharma?”
Those bodhisattvas said, “In our land the Tathāgata* explains [the Dharma] without words. He simply uses the host of fragrances to make the gods and humans enter into the practice of the Vinaya. The bodhisattvas each sit beneath fragrant trees, smelling such wondrous fragrances, from which they attain the ‘samādhi of the repository of all virtues.’ Those who attain this samādhi all become replete in the merits of the bodhisattva.”
– Chapter X – The Buddha Accumulation Of Fragrances
[*Tathāgata is an honorable name for the Buddha of a realm.]
July 30th 2020
Emergent scents – when you combine two or more aromachemical cocktails and you get as a result a scent that is different than the sum of its parts.
I have in the past found a number of essential oil combinations that do this (pear + violet, pomegranate + honeydew, lemon + lavender). But I figured that it’s much better to try to identify clear cases of this phenomenon by combining pure molecules.
So this little “research program” I have going on is to find pairs of aromachemicals and then mix them in many different ratios and smell the results (usually dissolved in ethanol at a concentration of ~20%). So far, it seems that about ~25% of pairs of molecules I’ve tried result in emergent scents. Here are some specific examples (please feel free to try at home and verify!!):
1) Humulene + d-limonene: Humulene smells herbal and earthy, d-limonene smells like orange or mandarin. When the ratio is ~4:1 I get an emergent scent that I can only describe as “classic chewing gum flavor”, completely distinct and phenomenally richer than the ingredients alone.
2) Linalool + beta-ionone: linalool smells like a very gasoline-like volatile version of a flower scent, beta-ionone is the classic “violet scent” molecule. When combined in 9:1 ratio I get an emergent scent that is like that of a citrus version of freesia or peony.
3) Humulene + vanillin: vanillin is the smell of vanilla, which is watery at the onset (attack and decay) and creamy on the second half (sustain and release). When combined in 1:1 ratio you get a completely new scent that feels close to a dried out old tobacco Cuban cigar blended with coffee liqueur.
That last one is also relatively close to the classic combination of vanilla + vetiver. Luca Turin told me that the perfume called Habanita is precisely playing with a vanilla/vetiver combo, which at first sniff comes across as a completely new and unrecognizable (yet very pleasant) scent. He said that a wonderful metaphor for this phenomenon is like the song Loro by Gismonti, where in the second half the piano and the flute play in such a synchronized fashion that you get the impression that there’s a new instrument involved. I’ve been smelling vanilla/vetiver while listening to this song. It’s quite beautiful.
Humulene combined with d-limonene create an emergent “missing fundamental” type olfactory illusion of classical chewing gum flavor. It only works when Humulene is between 70% and 90% of the mixture (before adding ethyl alcohol). Cleanest example of “emergent scent” I’ve found.
Humulene is a simple scent of the category “earthy”, roughly similar to a vetiver essential oil but “one octave higher”. It also has a very mild musky undertone.
D-limonene is an orange/lemon-like scent. Extremely common in perfumery. Chances are something you ate today has it.
July 31st 2020
The simplest example I can think of to illustrate what an “emergent scent” is comes from the auditory illusion called “the missing fundamental”.
If you play 200 hertz together with 300 hertz and 400 hertz you will hallucinate an emergent 100 hertz tone.
The 100 Hz tone is not there! But it is quite real in your experience.
Of course if you are very acquainted with this auditory effect, you might notice the fundamental (100hz) is a bit fainter than expected, and infer it’s an illusion. But it is nonetheless very much present in your experience.
Likewise, when you smell Humulene + Vanillin at a 1:1 ratio you will get a third smell that emerges as a sort of gestalt that “bridges together” the two underlying notes.
You can probably infer the input scent is made up of two notes if you are really experienced with this kind of phenomenon. But the third note, the gestalt, does not disappear when you have “reduced” it to the two underlying notes. It’s still there. Thus, really, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I like my coffee how I like my perfumes: with the fewest chemicals needed to cause the desired effect.
As an aside, learning about emergent effects in low-entropy perfume recipes makes me think that there could probably be a job for “scent simplification”. Namely, take something like cacao, with hundreds of molecules contributing to its characteristic scent. The question is: what is the minimum viable number of aromachemicals you can use to replicate it (within a Just Noticeable Difference unit)?
I suspect most natural scents that come from a complex entourage effect have relatively minimalistic reconstructions. A question that also emerges is: what is the most complex scent? I.e. what is the smell whose minimum reconstruction has the maximum number of molecular diversity?
[It’s important to distinguish between molecular entropy and phenomenal entropy. A solution of Agrumen Aldehyde Light and ethanol has low molecular entropy but pretty high phenomenal entropy, whereas a “lime accord” made of tens of molecules could be high in molecular entropy yet low in phenomenal entropy because it smells very cleanly like a ‘single note’]
A master perfumer like Ellena has memorized hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes for manufacturing smells. Many complex natural scents can be conjured with only a few ingredients. The scent of freesia, he explained, is created by combining two simple molecules: beta-ionone and linalool, both synthetics. (To give freesia a cold, metallic edge, a touch of allyl amyl glycolate is added.) The smell of orange blossom is made by combining linalool and methyl anthranilate, which smells like Concord grapes.
In my presence, Ellena once dipped a touche into a molecule called isobutyl phenal acetate, which has a purely chemical smell, and another touche into vanillin, a synthetic version of vanilla. He placed the two paper strips together, waved them, and chocolate appeared in the air. “My métier is to find shortcuts to express as strongly as possible a smell,” he explained. “For chocolate, nature uses eight hundred molecules. I use two.” He handed me four touches—vanillin plus the natural essences of cinnamon, orange, and lime. The combined smell was a precise simulation of Coca-Cola. “With me, one plus one equals three,” Ellena said. “When I add two things, you get much more than two things.”
Imagine you have been a musician for your village all your life. You play drums and acoustic guitar and you have never heard modern music. One day you are gifted an iPod and you listen for the first time to the crazy sounds of psychedelic trance. For the first time in your life you experience the wonders of reverb, flanging, distortions, and FM-synthesis. Surely this gives you a sense that your conception of music only tapped into a tiny fraction of what had always been possible.
An analogy could be made with smells: having tried essential oils one gets the impression of understanding what is possible in the realm of scents. But one day you discover Galaxolide, hedione, and eso E super. Like reverb and FM-synthesis in sound, these compounds are capable of giving surreal, unexpected, and space-warping properties to scents (much like reverb in sound, they are character impact molecules, meaning that they modify the presentation of other scents more than contributing a ‘flavor’ of their own).
Galaxolide in particular is something you have probably smelled, either in perfumes or detergents, but it really only becomes clear just how insane of a substance it is when you smell it raw. I associate it with “DMT Realm Aesthetics” – like a smell coming from another planet where hyperdimensional experiences are common everyday events, and the world of the arts uses exotic phenomenal time routinely. It has a vibe I can only describe as “having already always been here yet just arrived”. It’s probably what traveling in time feels like when you are in a transcendent Bardo between lifetimes.
Pellwall describes galaxolide thus: “Galaxolide is an isochroman musk, that has an odour profile that is liked by most people and is similar to a macrocyclic musk. It is strong, clean smelling and a good fixative. It combines well with other musks and is often used in combinations.”
In wikipedia, they describe the scent as: “a synthetic musk with a clean sweet musky floral woody odor”.
I think the musk-like quality accounts for maybe 60% of its effect. But I swear there is something much more special about it than just a clean musk. It has a kind of time-dilation effect, and it seems to my nose as a “musk but high-dimensional”. Perhaps it’s musk + the harmonics of musk. So while other musks are just a single note, galaxolide is like the feeling of a musky accordion.
I’ll write about my setup for doing this kind of research, but suffice to say that it’s super cheap if you know what you are doing. Each experiment (i.e. a little bottle with a few ml of a new combination in precise proportions) costs me about ~30 cents to make, all things considered (the cost of the materials, the ethanol, the pipettes, the bottle).
I highly recommend just getting a 2ml sample vial. It can cost as little as $2.16 (plus shipment) here: Galaxolide.
Other stellar molecules to try out to expand your conception of what’s possible:
Linalool, dihydro linalool, alpha-damascone, damascenone, helional, C-16 aldehyde (strawberry), agrumen aldehyde light, farnesene, nerolione, and alpha-ionone. All of that can cost you as little as $30. Not a bad price for expanding your “sense of what’s possible”.
I so wish I had a “DMT-smell accord” to use as a note in perfume compositions.
There is this one here meant to evoke the hallucinogenic state, but reportedly it has nothing to do with the actual scent of DMT, which I find very disappointing. I will try to find the way to emulate the scent of it – I suspect that linalyl acetate and coranol could be part of the compounds making up that accord. I’ll let you know if I manage to make anything vaguely resemblant of that scent.
August 14th 2020
Lemon Lavender World
One of the first essential oil combinations I fixated upon was that of lemon plus lavender. You could say it is the “speedball” equivalent of essential oil combos, for it relaxes and excites at the same time. I figured that trying to “understand” the “lemon-lavender world” would be a good exercise in the quest of mapping out the state-space of scents.
Lemon Lavender experiments
I currently have six different lemon essential oils from different brands and places, and seven lavender essential oils. To my surprise, the variability is very substantial. The lemon essential oils range from extremely sour and astringent to sweet and waxy. The lavenders I have also have many different qualities: some are very oily and flavorful, while others are particularly camphorous. Which of the qualities are “essential” for lemon and lavender is surely a matter of convention, though I also think they point to roughly objective attractors – the citrus sharpness of lemon rings high and has a cascading sourness that can be used for waking up the senses, whereas lavender has a narcotic entrancing reverb effect. My quest to understand, and ultimately create, lemon lavender smells was not defined in terms of merely reconstructing the standard natural smells, but as an attempt at understanding how these two qualities interact at the phenomenal level.
The diversity of lemon and lavender oils means that the space of possible combinations is even larger. Of the 42 possible combinations of one lavender oil and one lemon oil I have some are far more blissful and rich than others. I picked a few of my favorite ones to use as “model lemon-lavenders” to try to emulate.
Starting in the spirit that in order to deeply understand a scent I have to be able to construct it from scratch- so that I understand how each piece contributes to the whole- I set myself the goal of creating both lemon and lavender accords and then exploring their combinations. All starting from raw aromachemical ingredients, of course:
Making a Lemon Accord
I have always wanted to know what makes citrus fruits smell the way they do. Empirically, both isomers of limonene are a key piece of the puzzle. For instance, both lemon and mandarin oil have upwards of 80% limonene. Alas, if you smell limonene alone, you will notice it is somewhat one-dimensional in character. It IS pointing in the direction of “citrus” quite clearly, but on its own is indisputably too simple to evoke a real lemon scent.
I had a false start: aldehydes. Aldehyde C-8 through C-15 are all “extremely high-pitch scents”. They give a sharp edge to perfumes like Chanel No. 5 and the like. But they are very hard to use – partly because they are extremely potent. So for a couple of days I worked with combinations of citral and aldehydes that had, though a somewhat citric quality, mostly headache-inducing effects. I ended this series of experiments when I got a headache that lasted 24 hours (this goes to show how far I am willing to go to understand that sweet, sweet lemon qualia).
Taking a step back, I decided to explore a different angle. Valencene (note the great name) is very similar to limonene, except slightly lower in pitch. When mixed in equal proportions with limonene one gets a richer, more believable citrus scent – both molecules seem to say the same thing but in a slightly different voice, which results in a kind of chorus effect (unlike merely doubling the volume of a single voice). Alas, at this point the scent is still a bit flat, and not particularly lemon-like relative to near-enemy citrus fruits like the good old orange, mandarin, or grapefruit.
I recall being very puzzled by the scent of lime, as it seems like a kind of “super lemon” when it comes to its high-pitched sour and astringent character. And no matter how much I tried mixing citrus-like aromachemicals, I found it hard to get any hint of lime in the results. That is until I discovered that lime oil has a great deal of alpha- and beta-pinene. These are molecules that are primarily found in trees (in pines!) and smell very woody. As it turns out, to turn a citrus smell into an outright lime scent you need to add woody molecules. In retrospect, this was always hidden in the name: Lemon + Pine = Lime. After having this insight, I realized that even lemon requires a bit of alpha- and beta-pinene to distinguish it from orange scent.
After a lot of trial and error, the most convincing minimalistic lemon scent I identified is (numbers represent parts):
3 D-Limonene 3 Valencene 1 Citral 2 Linalool 1 Alpha-Pinene 1 Beta-Pinene 1 Nerolione (optional; for a rindy effect)
Making a Lavender Accord
This turned out to be more difficult than making a lemon accord. I think this is not only me: I also own two “fragrance oils” (those products that are advertised in the same context as essential oils, yet in the fine print reveal they are not at all natural, and instead are synthetic reconstructions) of lavender, and neither of the two smell anything like lavender. So I wouldn’t be the first to fail.
Linalool is a key ingredient of lavender, making up about 30% to 50% of most lavender essential oils. This is a very powerful aromachemical that seems to work as a gasoline-like fuel amplifier and modifier for any other scent (“there is no boring ten-carbon alcohol” – Luca Turin). It is also one of the things that makes lavender so narcotic and entrancing. On its own it is already quite interesting. But it is only one of the voices in lavender.
Then you have linalyl acetate, which makes up between 0% and 30% of lavender oil, depending on the species, place of origin, and time of harvest. Linalyl acetate has a “dry” quality, which I associate with “salt” (in fact if you just add this to the lemon accord above you get a smell I would describe as “salted margarita cocktail”). Alpha and beta pinene also play a role in lavender.
Interestingly, a lot of lavender oils also have up to 10% of camphor, which contributes to its narcotic get-well-soon cozy quality. Alas, it is hard to work with this material, and it always smells too synthetic to me. I found that instead I could double-down on beta-pinene, which is more camphorous than alpha-pinene (which is more earthy), and does the job quite nicely.
Finally, centifoleather, farnesene, and various alcohols like coranol can give “flavor” to the accord. In the end, I’ve settled on a minimalistic (but I think effective) arrangement. It does not quite hit the flavor of lavender, but I think does a good job at evoking its “character impact”:
Ultimately, adding these two accords (and their variations) together does not always produce the best results, as some aromachemicals are repeated and the proportions that give rise to the desired interactions can be scrambled by the combination. This, by the way, is a general reason why synthetic combinations span a much larger space of possible scents. In brief, because to make reconstructions with natural oils you are constrained by non-negative least squares methods, and many combinations may simply be inaccessible that way.
Lemon Accord Experiments
Anyhow – with the combination, I found that adding some character impact molecules like abroxan and helional was important to create a “bridge” between the two phenomenal characters. Alpha-ionol also seems to do something good here that is hard to put your finger on. But I think it’s that it adds the right kind of waxy rindy effect (which it has some of) in a way that does not make the mixture feel “dry” (which more classically citrus waxy smells like nerolione inevitably do). So the end result has some of these three molecules.
I am happy to say that the best lemon lavender reconstruction so far is about as good as the median natural lemon lavender mixture. It is not as good as the best lemon lavender oil mixture, though, but it is a start. I still expect to perfect it quite a bit before unleashing it into the world.
Ladies and gentleman, I present to you Lemon Lavender World:
Evolutionary qualia suggests our inner world-simulations are not merely painted with different colors, but have different soundtracks, aesthetics, narrative themes, and walk-on character status. Cilantro tasting like soap to ~10% of people is merely the canary in the coal-mine. Our differences in qualia (and consciousness more broadly) probably involve modes of experience you and I don’t even know exist.
Excerpt from Global Brain (2000) by Howard Bloom (Pgs. 143 – 146). [Emphasis mine]
Our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed, they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure […] varies seven-fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia […], is not found at all in one in four people. The primary visual cortex can vary three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala (it is responsible for our fears and loves) can vary two-fold in volume – as can something called our hippocampus (involved in memory). Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume.
– Dr. John Robert Skoyles
Thanks to Plato, we have what purport to be records of the conversations of a human Cuisinart of concepts, an eclectic sage whose roughly fifty-year-long intellectual life bracketed the Periclean Golden Age (443-429 B.C.). This all-purpose conceptual chopper and blender was that son of a socially high-placed family, Socrates. Experts and neophytes agree that it’s impossible to tell how many of the words Plato ascribes to this self-appointed gadfly were authentic and how many were simply Plato’s way of getting his own notions into the public eye. But one thing is generally accepted as accurate – the names of the folks from whom Socrates extracted opinions before shredding them with the quiz mastering which now bears his name (Socratic dialogue). The cast of characters palavering with Socrates in Plato’s Dialogs, says learned reasoning, was too well known in Athens for Plato to have fudged.
Just who were the fonts of learned conversation whose wisdom Socrates whipped and whirled? Socrates’ interlocutors were frequently famous thinkers from distant cities, each of which specialized in a different manner of plucking goods from its surroundings and injecting them into the circulatory system through which the trade of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea swirled. Socrates was a student of Anaxagoras, who came from the Ionian city of Clazomenae on the coast of today’s Turkey. He was also a disciple of Archelaus, another Ionian import. The Socratic dialogues Plato “chronicled” included those with Protagoras from the Balkan city of Abdera, Hippias from Peloponnesian Elis, Parmenides from Italy’s Elea, and Gorgias from Sicily’s Leontini. Each visiting intellect had been shaped by contact with a unique group of surrounding tribes, and by the exigencies imposed on city structure, domestic habit, and vested interest by distinctive forms of enterprise. One result: each arrival presented a philosophy which appealed to a very different configuration of the human mind.
To understand how philosophy couples with the mind’s biology, let’s track the complex adaptive system’s best-concealed constituent to its hiding place. The five elements of the complex adaptive system are conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resources shifters, and intergroup tournaments. Inner-judges may be the most unusual of the crew, for they are physiological built-ins which work deep inside the body to transform a bacterium, a lizard, a baboon, a me, or a you into a module of a larger learning machine. The basic rule of learning machines is one we’ve already seen: turn on the juice to components which have a grip on the problem at hand and turn off the power to those components which just can’t seem to understand. Inner-judges help decide whether the components in which they reside will be enriched or will be denied, then they aid in carrying out the sentence. The irony is that these evaluators, prize givers, and executioners are built into their victims biologically. On the microlevel, inner-judges work through “programmed cell death” – apoptosis – a molecular chain reaction deep within the genes which ends in cellular suicide. In higher animals the inner-judges dole out interior punishments which range from overdoses of stress hormones to emotional miseries. Or they grant internal bonuses of zest and confidence to those of us fulfilling our group’s needs.
When we feel like kicking ourselves around the block or curling up and disappearing, our condemnation comes from inner-judges like guilt and shame. What’s a good deal harder to realize is that behind the scenes our inner-judges sicken us and dumb us down quite literally. If they sense we’re a drag on the collective intelligence, inner-judges down shift our immune system and neurochemically cloud our ability to perceive. They induce a narcotic haze by swamping our system with endorphins, the body’s self-produced equivalent of morphine*. And they flood us with glucocorticoids which kill off both brain cells and lymphocytes – critical cells in our fight against disease.
Inner-judges measure our contribution to the social learning machine by two yardsticks: (1) our personal sense of mastery; and (2) the hints we get from those around us telling us whether they want us eagerly or couldn’t care less if we disappeared like a blackhead from the face of decent society.
Mastery is a useful gauge. It measures whether we’re coping with the trials tossed our way, and whether our example can help steer others in their trip through choppy seas. Popularity is an equally practical yardstick. It measures the extent to which we’re feeding others’ physical, organizational, and/or emotional needs.
Nestled deep within our neuroendocrine complex, inner-judges operate on a sliding scale. By adjusting our mix of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, or the balance between the gloomy right and sunny left side of the brain, they shift us from fear to daring, from misery to happiness, from grouchiness to charm, from timid silence to expansive speech, from deflation to elation, from pain to ecstasy, from confusion to insight, and from listlessness to lust or to the resolute pursuit of goals.
Some of us are born with inner-judges whose verdicts are perpetually harsh. The result is depression, shyness, and heightened susceptibility to pain. Others arrive from the womb with inner-judges preset to treat us generously, endowing us with energy, few inhibitions, a deep sense of security, and little sense of guilt or shame. But most of us are in the middle – our inner-judges sentence us sternly or magnanimously depending on the snugness with which we fit our social network’s needs.
Those born with inner-judges excessively lenient or severe have taught us much about the secrets of mental and emotional diversity. Harvard University researcher Jerome Kagan has probably never heard the term “inner-judges,” yet he may have done more than any other psychologist to uncover their capabilities. To understand what Kagan hath wrought, a background briefing is in order.
The early-twentieth-century psychoanalytic thinker Carl Jung, says Kagan, originated the concept of introverted and extroverted personalities. Jung also believed that each had a slightly different brain structure. Kagan feels that in his own way, he has proven Jung right. He’s found that 10 to 15 percent of infants are born with a tendency to be fearful and withdrawn, while another 10 to 15 percent are born with a flair for dauntless spontaneity. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, Kagan performed numerous experiments and accumulated large amounts of data demonstrating his concept’s validity.
He refers to facts like these:
In studies of Japanese and American newborns, some infants took the removal of the nipple from their mouths calmly, while others went into emotional fits. The babies as yet had had no opportunity to learn these reactions from their parents. The tendencies were those they’d brought with them from the isolation of the uterus. At fourteen months, the babies who’d been easily upset at birth were still so oversensitive that they often broke out crying when the sight of a stranger loomed. On another test, babies who became upset at birth when they were switched suddenly from water to a sugar solution squalled hysterically at the age of one or two when their mothers left the room, but babies who had taken the change in beverage casually did not. In addition, a study of 113 children showed that those who had a hard time handling the unexpected when they were one year old were still shy and withdrawn by the time they reached six.
This tendency toward variation in personality was not limited to human beings. According to Kagan, it appeared in dogs, mice, rats, wolves, cats, cows, monkeys, and paradise fish. Some of these animals were fascinated by novelty. Others were terrified by anything the least bit out of place.
Fifteen percent of cats steered clear of strangers and even avoided attacking rats. This was remarkably close to the percentage of humans frozen by anxiety attacks.
Kagan traces these differences to genes, which can help set off a lifelong domino effect in the brain. The production of key manufacturing enzyme for the stimulant norepinephrine, says Kagan, is controlled by a single pair of genes, making norepinephrine levels highly heritable. Norepinephrine – which is also a potent stress hormone – shows up very early in the development of the embryo, making the hippocampus oversensitive to the unfamiliar, and hyperactivating the amygdala, which jolts us with the warning signal we call fear. The hippocampus and amygdala – as we’ve seen earlier – are central shapers of the memory bank we call reality. They are also key to the inner-judges’ machinery.
Later in life the products of a prebirth norepinephrine cascade are timid children, who, in carefully controlled studies, are alert to slight changes in tones or brightness of light that other children miss. In other words, these children literally see and hear their world in ways others would not recognize. According to Kagan, the constitutionally frightened are endowed with a limbic system hair-triggered to curse them with a sense of imminent catastrophe. As a consequence, shy children attempt to escape punishment by hiding from everyday events which threaten to torment them hideously. Uninhibited children, on the opposite end of the scale, have underaroused limbic systems and demand a deluge of entertainment to dodge boredom’s intolerability. Their craving for excitement can sometimes wear their parents to a frazzle.
Kagan’s shy children are condemned to solitude and pain by hanging judges in their own biology. Kagan’s uninhibited kids are gifted with indulgent inner-judges predisposed by the limbic system to offer such unearned rewards as boldness and social dexterity. But most of the animals and humans Kagan has studied avoid these two extremes. Seventy percent remain in the middle, their inner-judges handing out positive and negative verdicts according to the rules of the learning machine.
*”Endorphin” is a contraption of the term “endogenous morphine.