Everyone says love hurts, but that is not true. Loneliness hurts. Rejection hurts. Losing someone hurts. Envy hurts. Everyone gets these things confused with love, but in reality love is the only thing in this world that covers up all pain and makes someone feel wonderful again. Love is the only thing in this world that does not hurt.
Lucas Perry: For this first section, I’m basically interested in probing the releases that you already have done, Sam, and exploring them and your inspiration for the track titles and the soundscapes that you’ve produced. Some of the background and context for this is that much of this seems to be inspired by and related to David’s work, in particular the Hedonistic Imperative. I’m at first curious to know, Sam, how did you encounter David’s work, and what does it mean for you?
Sam Barker: David’s work was sort of arriving in the middle of a series of realizations, and kind of coming from a starting point of being quite disillusioned with music, and a little bit disenchanted with the vagueness, and the terminology, and the imprecision of the whole thing. I think part of me has always wanted to be some kind of scientist, but I’ve ended up at perhaps not the opposite end, but quite far away from it.
Lucas Perry: Could explain what you mean by vagueness and imprecision?
Sam Barker: I suppose the classical idea of what making music is about has a lot to do with the sort of western idea of individualism and about self-expression. I don’t know. There’s this romantic idea of artists having these frenzied creative bursts that give birth to the wonderful things, that it’s some kind of struggle. I just was feeling super disillusioned with all of that. Around that time, 2014 or 15, I was also reading a lot about social media, reading about behavioral science, trying to figure what was going on in this arena and how people are being pushed in different directions by this algorithmic system of information distribution. That kind of got me into this sort of behavioral science side of things, like the addictive part of the variable-ratio reward schedule with likes. It’s a free dopamine dispenser kind of thing. This was kind of getting me into reading about behavioral science and cognitive science. It was giving me a lot of clarity, but not much more sort of inspiration. It was basically like music.
Dance music especially is a sort of complex behavioral science. You do this and people do that. It’s all deeply ingrained. I sort of imagine the DJ as a sort Skinner box operator pulling puppet strings and making people behave in different ways. Music producers are kind of designing clever programs using punishment and reward, or suspense and release, and controlling people’s behavior. The whole thing felt super pushy and not a very inspiring conclusion. Looking at the problem from a cognitive science point of view is just the framework that helped me to understand what the problem was in the first place, so this kind of problem of being manipulative. Behavioral science is kind of saying what we can make people do. Cognitive psychology is sort of figuring out why people do that. That was my entry point into cognitive psychology, and that was kind of the basis for Debiasing.
There’s always been sort of a parallel for me between what I make and my state of mind. When I’m in a more positive state, I tend to make things I’m happier with, and so on. Getting to the bottom of what tricks were, I suppose, with dance music. I kind of understood implicitly, but I just wanted to figure out why things worked. I sort of came to the conclusion it was to do with a collection of biases we have, like the confirmation bias, and the illusion of truth effect, and the mere exposure effect. These things are like the guardians of four/four supremacy. Dance music can be pretty repetitive, and we describe it sometimes in really aggressive terminology. It’s a psychological kind of interaction.
Cognitive psychology was leading me to Kaplan’s law of the instrument. The law of the instrument says that if you give a small boy a hammer, he’ll find that everything he encounters requires pounding. I thought that was a good metaphor. The idea is that we get so used to using tools in a certain way that we lose sight of what it is we’re trying to do. We act in the way that the tool instructs us to do. I thought, what if you take away the hammer? That became a metaphor for me, in a sense, that David clarified in terms of pain reduction. We sort of put these painful elements into music in a way to give this kind of hedonic contrast, but we don’t really consider that that might not be necessary. What happens when we abolish these sort of negative elements? Are the results somehow released from this process? That was sort of the point, up until discovering the Hedonistic Imperative.
I think what I was needing at the time was a sort of framework, so I had the idea that music was decision making. To improve the results, you have to ask better questions, make better decisions. You can make some progress looking at the mechanics of that from a psychology point of view. What I was sort of lacking was a purpose to frame my decisions around. I sort of had the idea that music was a sort of a valence carrier, if you like, and that it could be tooled towards a sort of a greater purpose than just making people dance, which was for Debiasing the goal, really. It was to make people dance, but don’t use the sort of deeply ingrained cues that people used to, and see if that works.
What was interesting was how broadly it was accepted, this first EP. There were all kinds of DJs playing it in techno, ambient, electro, all sorts of different styles. It reached a lot of people. It was as if taking out the most functional element made it more functional and more broadly appealing. That was the entry point to utilitarianism. There was sort of an accidentally utilitarian act, in a way, to sort of try and maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. I suppose after landing in utilitarianism and searching for some kind of a framework for a sense of purpose in my work, the Hedonistic Imperative was probably the most radical, optimistic take on the system. Firstly, it put me in a sort of mindset where it granted permission to explore sort of utopian ideals, because I think the idea of pleasure is a little bit frowned upon in the art world. I think the art world turns its nose up at such direct cause and effect. The idea that producers could be paradise engineers of sorts, or the precursors to paradise engineers, that we almost certainly would have a role in a kind of sensory utopia of the future.
There was this kind of permission granted. You can be optimistic. You can enter into your work with good intentions. It’s okay to see music as a tool to increase overall wellbeing, in a way. That was kind of the guiding idea for my work in the studio. I’m trying, these days, to put more things into the system to make decisions in a more conscious way, at least where it’s appropriate to. This sort of notion of reducing pain and increasing pleasure was the sort of question I would ask at any stage of decision making. Did this thing that I did serve those ends? If not, take a step back and try a different approach.
There’s something else to be said about the way you sort of explore this utopian world without really being bogged down. You handle the objections in such a confident way. I called it a zero gravity world of ideas. I wanted to bring that zero gravity feeling to my work, and to see that technology can solve any problem in this sphere. Anything’s possible. All the obstacles are just imagined, because we fabricate these worlds ourselves. These are things that were really instructive for me, as an artist.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite an interesting journey. From the lens of understanding cognitive psychology and human biases, was it that you were seeing those biases in dance music itself? If so, what were those biases in particular?
Sam Barker: On both sides, on the way it’s produced and in the way it’s received. There’s sort of an unspoken acceptance. You’re playing a set and you take a kick drum out. That signals to people to perhaps be alert. The lighting engineer, they’ll maybe raise the lights a little bit, and everybody knows that the music is going into sort of a breakdown, which is going to end in some sort of climax. Then, at that point, the kick drum comes back in. We all know this pattern. It’s really difficult to understand why that works without referring to things like cognitive psychology or behavioral science.
Lucas Perry: What does the act of debiasing the reception and production of music look like and do to the music and its reception?
Sam Barker: The first part that I could control was what I put into it. The experiment was whether a debiased piece of dance music could perform the same functionality, or whether it really relies on these deeply ingrained cues. Without wanting to sort of pat myself on the back, it kind of succeeded in its purpose. It was sort of proof that this was a worthy concept.
Lucas Perry: You used the phrase, earlier, four/four. For people who are not into dance music, that just means a kick on each beat, which is ubiquitous in much of house and techno music. You’ve removed that, for example, in your album Debiasing. What are other things that you changed from your end, in the production of Debiasing, to debias the music from normal dance music structure?
Sam Barker: It was informing the structure of what I was doing so much that I wasn’t so much on a grid where you have predictable things happening. It’s a very highly formulaic and structured thing, and that all keys into the expectation and this confirmation bias that people, I think, get some kind of kick from when the predictable happens. They say, yep. There you go. I knew that was going to happen. That’s a little dopamine rush, but I think it’s sort of a cheap trick. I guess I was trying to get the tricks out of it, in a way, so figuring out what they were, and trying to reduce or eliminate them was the process for Debiasing.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite interesting and meaningful, I think. Let’s just take trap music. I know exactly how trap music is going to go. It has this buildup and drop structure. It’s basically universal across all dance music. Progressive house in the 2010s was also exactly like this. What else? Dubstep, of course, same exact structure. Everything is totally predictable. I feel like I know exactly what’s going to happen, having listened to electronic music for over a decade.
Sam Barker: It works, I think. It’s a tried and tested formula, and it does the job, but when you’re trying to imagine states beyond just getting a little kick from knowing what was going to happen, that’s the place that I was trying to get to, really.
Lucas Perry: After the release of Debiasing in 2018, which was a successful attempt at serving this goal and mission, you then discovered the Hedonistic Imperative by David Pearce, and kind of leaned into consequentialism, it seems. Then, in 2019, you had two releases. You had BARKER 001 and you had Utility. Now, Utility is the album which most explicitly adopts David Pearce’s work, specifically in the Hedonistic Imperative. You mentioned electronic dance producers and artists in general can be sort of the first wave of, or can perhaps assist in paradise engineering, insofar as that will be possible in the near to short terms future, given advancements in technology. Is that sort of the explicit motivation and framing around those two releases of BARKER 001 and Utility?
Sam Barker: BARKER 001 was a few tracks that were taken out of the running for the album, because they didn’t sort of fit the concept. Really, I knew the last track was kind of alluding to the album. Otherwise, it was perhaps not sort of thematically linked. Hopefully, if people are interested in looking more into what’s behind the music, you can lead people into topics with the concept. With Utility, I didn’t want to just keep exploring cognitive biases and unpicking dance music structurally. It’s sort of a paradox, because I guess the Hedonistic Imperative argues that pleasure can exist without purpose, but I really was striving for some kind of purpose with the pleasure that I was getting from music. That sort of emerged from reading the Hedonistic Imperative, really, that you can apply music to this problem of raising the general level of happiness up a notch. I did sort of worry that by trying to please, it wouldn’t work, that it would be something that’s too sickly sweet. I mean, I’m pretty turned off by pop music, and there was this sort of risk that it would end up somewhere like that. That’s it, really. Just looking for a higher purpose with my work in music.
Lucas Perry: David, do you have any reactions?
David Pearce: Well, when I encountered Utility, yes, I was thrilled. As you know, essentially I’m a writer writing in quite heavy sub-academic prose. Sam’s work, I felt, helps give people a glimpse of our glorious future, paradise engineering. As you know, the reviews were extremely favorable. I’m not an expert critic or anything like that. I was just essentially happy and thrilled at the thought. It deserves to be mainstream. It’s really difficult, I think, to actually evoke the glorious future we are talking about. I mean, I can write prose, but in some sense music can evoke paradise better, at least for many people, than prose.
And it continues on. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast: it is wonderfully edited and musical pieces referenced in the interview are brought up in real time for you to listen to. Barker also made a playlist of songs specifically for this podcast, which are played during the second half of the recording. It is delightful to listen to music that you know was produced with the explicit purpose of increasing your wellbeing. A wholesome message at last! Amazing art inspired by the ideology of Paradise Engineering, arriving near you… very soon.
As an aside, I think that shared visions of paradise are really essential for solving coordination problems. So…
Please join me in putting on Barker’s track Paradise Engineering, closing your eyes, and imagining- in detail- what the creation of an Institute for Paradise Engineering on a grand scale would look like. What would a positive Manhattan Project of Consciousness entail? What is the shortest path for us to create such a large-scale initiative?
By the way: the song is only 4 minutes long. So its duration is perfect for you to use as a guiding and grounding piece of media for a positive DMT trip. Press “play” immediately after you vaporize the DMT, sit back, relax, and try to render in your mind a posthuman paradise in which Full-Spectrum Supersentient Superintelligence has won and the threat of Pure Replicators has been averted. If you do this, please let me know what you experience as a result.
Ps. It’s worth noting that Barker’s conception of art is highly aligned with QRI’s view of what art could be like. See, in particular, models 4 through 8 in our article titled Harmonic Society.
(Organizational) Questions About the Qualia Research Institute
What type of organization is QRI?
QRI is a nonprofit research group studying consciousness based in San Francisco, California. We are a registered 501(c)(3) organization.
What is the relationship between QRI, Qualia Computing, and Opentheory?
Qualia Computing and Opentheory are the personal blogs of QRI co-founders Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Michael Johnson, respectively. While QRI was in its early stages, all original QRI research was initially published on these two platforms. However, from August 2020 onward, this is shifting to a unified pipeline centered on QRI’s website.
Is QRI affiliated with an academic institution or university?
Although QRI does collaborate regularly with university researchers and laboratories, we are an independent research organization. Put simply, QRI is independent because we didn’t believe we could build the organization we wanted and needed to build within the very real constraints of academia. These constraints include institutional pressure to work on conventional projects, to optimize for publication metrics, and to clear various byzantine bureaucratic hurdles. It also includes professional and social pressure to maintain continuity with old research paradigms, to do research within an academic silo, and to pretend to be personally ignorant of altered states of consciousness. It’s not that good research cannot happen under these conditions, but we believe good consciousness research happens despite the conditions in academia, not because of them, and the best use of resources is to build something better outside of them.
How does QRI align with the values of EA?
Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that uses evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good. QRI believes this aesthetic is necessary and important for creating a good future. We also believe that if we want to do the most good,foundational research on the nature of the good is of critical importance. Two frames we offer are Qualia Formalism and Sentientism. Qualia Formalism is the claim that experience has a precise mathematical description, that a formal account of experience should be the goal of consciousness research. Sentientism is the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. We believe EA is enriched by both Qualia Formalism and Sentientism.
What would QRI do with $10 billion?
Currently, QRI is a geographically distributed organization with access to commercial-grade neuroimaging equipment. The first thing we’d do with $10 billion is set up a physical headquarters for QRI and buy professional-grade neuroimaging devices (fMRI, MEG, PET, etc.) and neurostimulation equipment. We’d also hire teams of full-time physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, chemists, philosophers, and artists. We’ve accomplished a great deal on a shoestring budget, but it would be hard to overestimate how significant being able to build deep technical teams and related infrastructure around core research threads would be for us (and, we believe, for the growing field of consciousness research). Scaling is always a process and we estimate our ‘room for funding’ over the next year is roughly ~$10 million. However, if we had sufficiently deep long-term commitments, we believe we could successfully scale both our organization and research paradigm into a first-principles approach for decisively diagnosing and curing most forms of mental illness. We would continue to run studies and experiments, collect interesting data about exotic and altered states of consciousness, pioneer new technologies that help eliminate involuntary suffering, and develop novel ways to enable conscious beings to safely explore the state-space of consciousness.
Questions About Our Research Approach
What differentiates QRI from other research groups studying consciousness?
The first major difference is that QRI breaks down “solving consciousness” into discrete subtasks; we’re clear about what we’re trying to do, which ontologies are relevant for this task, and what a proper solution will look like. This may sound like a small thing, but an enormous amount of energy is wasted in philosophy by not being clear about these things. This lets us “actually get to work.”
Second, our focus on valence is rare in the field of consciousness studies. A core bottleneck in understanding consciousness is determining what its ‘natural kinds’ are: terms which carve reality at the joints. We believe emotional valence (the pleasantness/unpleasantness of an experience) is one such natural kind, and this gives us a huge amount of information about phenomenology. It also offers a clean bridge for interfacing with (and improving upon) the best neuroscience.
Third, QRI takes exotic states of consciousness extremely seriously whereas most research groups do not. An analogy we make here is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to people before the scientific enlightenment thinking that they can understand the nature of energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while completely ignoring extreme states such as what’s happening in the sun, black holes, plasma, or superfluid helium. QRI considers exotic states of consciousness as extremely important datapoints for reverse-engineering the underlying formalism for consciousness.
Lastly, we have a focus on precise, empirically testable predictions, which is rare in philosophy of mind. Any good theory of consciousness should also contribute to advancements in neuroscience. Likewise, any good theory of neuroscience should contribute to novel, bold, falsifiable predictions, and blueprints for useful things, such as new forms of therapy. Having such a full-stack approach to consciousness which does each of those two things is thus an important marker that “something interesting is going on here” and is simply very useful for testing and improving theory.
What methodologies are you using? How do you actually do research?
QRI has three core areas of research: philosophy, neuroscience, and neurotechnology
Philosophy: Our philosophy research is grounded in the eight problems of consciousness. This divide-and-conquer approach lets us explore each subproblem independently, while being confident that when all piecemeal solutions are added back together, they will constitute a full solution to consciousness.
Neuroscience: We’ve done original synthesis work on combining several cutting-edge theories of neuroscience (the free energy principle, the entropic brain, and connectome-specific harmonic waves) into a unified theory of Bayesian emotional updating; we’ve also built the world’s first first-principles method for quantifying emotional valence from fMRI. More generally, we focus on collecting high valence neuroimaging datasets and developing algorithms to analyze, quantify, and visualize them. We also do extensive psychophysics research, focusing on both the fine-grained cognitive-emotional effects of altered states, and how different types of sounds, pictures, body vibrations, and forms of stimulation correspond with low and high valence states of consciousness.
Neurotechnology: We engage in both experimentation-driven exploration, tracking the phenomenological effects of various interventions, as well as theory-driven development. In particular, we’re prototyping a line of neurofeedback tools to help treat mental health disorders.
What does QRI hope to do over the next 5 years? Next 20 years?
Over the next five years, we intend to further our neurotechnology to the point that we can treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), especially treatment-resistant PTSD. We intend to empirically verify or falsify the symmetry theory of valence. If it is falsified, we will search for a new theory that ties together all of the empirical evidence we have discovered. We aim to create an Effective Altruist cause area regarding the reduction of intense suffering as well as the study of very high valence states of consciousness.
Over the next 20 years, we intend to become a world-class research center where we can put the discipline of “paradise engineering” (as described by philosopher David Pearce) on firm academic grounds.
Questions About Our Mission
How can understanding the science of consciousness make the world a better place?
Understanding consciousness would improve the world in a tremendous number of ways. One obvious outcome would be the ability to better predict what types of beings are conscious—from locked-in patients to animals to pre-linguistic humans—and what their experiences might be like.
We also think it’s useful to break down the benefits of understanding consciousness in three ways: reducing the amount of extreme suffering in the world, increasing the baseline well-being of conscious beings, and achieving new heights for what conscious states are possible to experience.
Without a good theory of valence, many neurological disorders will remain completely intractable. Disorders such as fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), migraines, and cluster headaches are all currently medical puzzles and yet have incredibly negative effects on people’s livelihoods. We think that a mathematical theory of valence will explain why these things feel so bad and what the shortest path for getting rid of them looks like. Besides valence-related disorders, nearly all mental health disorders, from clinical depression and PTSD to schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, will become better understood as we discover the structure of conscious experience.
We also believe that many (though not all) of the zero-sum games people play are the products of inner states of dissatisfaction and suffering. Broadly speaking, people who have a surplus of cognitive and emotional energy tend to play more positive sum games, are more interested in cooperation, and are very motivated to do so. We think that studying states such as those induced by MDMA that combine both high valence and a prosocial behavior mindset can radically alter the game theoretical landscape of the world for the better.
What is the end goal of QRI? What does QRI’s perfect world look like?
In QRI’s perfect future:
There is no involuntary suffering and all sentient beings are animated by gradients of bliss,
Research on qualia and consciousness is done at a very large scale for the purpose of mapping out the state-space of consciousness and understanding its computational and intrinsic properties (we think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge about consciousness),
We have figured out the game-theoretical subtleties in order to make that world dynamic yet stable: radically positive, without just making it fully homogeneous and stuck in a local maxima.
Questions About Getting Involved
What are the most important things to read to learn about QRI’s research?
You can start by signing up for our newsletter! This is by far our most important communication channel. We also have a Facebook page, Twitter account, and Linkedin page. Lastly, we share some exclusive tidbits of ideas and thoughts with our supporters on Patreon.
Read and engage with our research. We love critical responses to our ideas and encourage you to reach out if you have an interesting thought!
Spread the word to friends, potential donors, and people that you think would make great collaborators with QRI.
Check out our volunteer page to find more detailed ways that you can contribute to our mission, from independent research projects to QRI content creation.
Questions About Consciousness
What assumptions about consciousness does QRI have? What theory of consciousness does QRI support?
The most important assumption that QRI is committed to is Qualia Formalism, the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. We are also Valence Realists: we believe valence (how good or bad an experience feels) is a real and well-defined property of conscious states. Besides these positions, we are fairly agnostic and everything else is an educated guess useful for pragmatic purposes.
What does QRI think of functionalism?
QRI thinks that functionalism takes many high-quality insights about how systems work and combines them in such a way that both creates confusion and denies the possibility of progress. In its raw, unvarnished form, functionalism is simply skepticism about the possibility of Qualia Formalism. It is simply a statement that “there is nothing here to be formalized; consciousness is like élan vital, confusion to be explained away.” It’s not actually a theory of consciousness; it’s an anti-theory. This is problematic in at least two ways:
1. By assuming consciousness has formal structure, we’re able to make novel predictions that functionalism cannot (see e.g. QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Quantifying Bliss). A few hundred years ago, there were many people who doubted that electromagnetism had a unified, elegant, formal structure, and this was a reasonable position at the time. However, in the age of the iPhone, skepticism that electricity is a “real thing” that can be formalized is no longer reasonable. Likewise, everything interesting and useful QRI builds using the foundation of Qualia Formalism stretches functionalism’s credibility thinner and thinner.
2. Insofar as functionalism is skeptical about the formal existence of consciousness, it’s skeptical about the formal existence of suffering and all sentience-based morality. In other words, functionalism is a deeply amoral theory, which if taken seriously dissolves all sentience-based ethical claims. This is due to there being an infinite number of functional interpretations of a system: there’s no ground-truth fact of the matter about what algorithm a physical system is performing, about what information-processing it’s doing. And if there’s no ground-truth about which computations or functions are present, but consciousness arises from these computations or functions, then there’s no ground-truth about consciousness, or things associated with consciousness, like suffering. This is a strange and subtle point, but it’s very important. This point alone is not sufficient to reject functionalism: if the universe is amoral, we shouldn’t hold a false theory of consciousness in order to try to force reality into some ethical framework. But in debates about consciousness, functionalists should be up-front that functionalism and radical moral anti-realism is a package deal, that inherent in functionalism is the counter-intuitive claim that just as we can reinterpret which functions a physical system is instantiating, we can reinterpret what qualia it’s experiencing and whether it’s suffering.
At QRI, we hold a position that is close to dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, which states that the universe is composed of one kind of thing that is neutral, and that both the mental and physical are two features of this same substance. One of the motivating factors for holding this view is that if there is deep structure in the physical, then there should be a corresponding deep structure to phenomenal experience. And we can tie this together with physicalism in the sense that the laws of physics ultimately describe fields of qualia. While there are some minor disagreements between dual-aspect monism and panpsychism, we believe that our position mostly fits well with a panpsychist view—that phenomenal properties are a fundamental feature of the world and aren’t spontaneously created only when a certain computation is being performed.
However, even with this view, there still are very important questions, such as: what makes a unified conscious experience? Where does one experience end and another begin? Without considering these problems in the light of Qualia Formalism, it is easy to tie animism into panpsychism and believe that inanimate objects like rocks, sculptures, and pieces of wood have spirits or complex subjective experiences. At QRI, we disagree with this and think that these types of objects might have extremely small pockets of unified conscious experience, but will mostly be masses of micro-qualia that are not phenomenally bound into some larger experience.
What does QRI think of IIT (Integrated Information Theory)?
QRI is very grateful for IIT because it is the first mainstream theory of consciousness that satisfies a Qualia Formalist account of experience. IIT says (and introduced the idea!) that for every conscious experience, there is a corresponding mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the properties of the experience. QRI believes that without this idea, we cannot solve consciousness in a meaningful way, and we consider the work of Giulio Tononi to be one of our core research lineages. That said, we are not in complete agreement with the specific mathematical and ontological choices of IIT, and we think it may be trying to ‘have its cake and eat it too’ with regard to functionalism vs physicalism. For more, see Sections III-V of Principia Qualia.
We make no claim that some future version of IIT, particularly something more directly compatible with physics, couldn’t cleanly address our objections, and see a lot of plausible directions and promise in this space.
What does QRI think of the free energy principle and predictive coding?
On our research lineages page, we list the work of Karl Friston as one of QRI’s core research lineages. We consider the free energy principle (FEP), as well as related research such as predictive coding, active inference, the Bayesian brain, and cybernetic regulation, as an incredibly elegant and predictive story of how brains work. Friston’s idea also forms a key part of the foundation for QRI’s theory of brain self-organization and emotional updating, Neural Annealing.
However, we don’t think that the free energy principle is itself a theory of consciousness, as it suffers from many of the shortcomings of functionalism: we can tell the story about how the brain minimizes free energy, but we don’t have a way of pointing at the brain and saying *there* is the free energy! The FEP is an amazing logical model, but it’s not directly connected to any physical mechanism. It is a story that “this sort of abstract thing is going on in the brain” without a clear method of mapping this abstract story to reality.
Friston has supported this functionalist interpretation of his work, noting that he sees consciousness as a process of inference, not a thing. That said, we are very interested in his work on calculating the information geometry of Markov blankets, as this could provide a tacit foundation for a formalist account of qualia under the FEP. Regardless of this, though, we believe Friston’s work will play a significant role in a future science of mind.
What does QRI think of global workspace theory?
The global workspace theory (GWT) is a cluster of empirical observations that seem to be very important for understanding what systems in the brain contribute to a reportable experience at a given point in time. The global workspace theory is a very important clue for answering questions of what philosophers call Access Consciousness, or the aspects of our experience on which we can report.
However, QRI does not consider the global workspace theory to be a full theory of consciousness. Parts of the brain that are not immediately contributing to the global workspace may be composed of micro qualia, or tiny clusters of experience. They’re obviously impossible to report on, but they are still relevant to the study of consciousness. In other words, just because a part of your brain wasn’t included in the instantaneous global workspace, doesn’t mean that it can’t suffer or it can’t experience happiness. We value global workspace research because questions of Access Consciousness are still very critical for a full theory of consciousness.
What does QRI think of higher-order theories of consciousness?
QRI is generally opposed to theories of consciousness that equate consciousness with higher order reflective thought and cognition. Some of the most intense conscious experiences are pre-reflective or unreflective such as blind panic, religious ecstasy, experiences of 5-MeO-DMT, and cluster headaches. In these examples, there is not much reflectivity nor cognition going on, yet they are intensely conscious. Therefore, we largely reject any attempt to define consciousness with a higher-order theory.
What is the relationship between evolution and consciousness?
The relationship between evolution and consciousness is very intricate and subtle. An eliminativist approach arrives at the simple idea that information processing of a certain type is evolutionarily advantageous, and perhaps we can call this consciousness. However, with a Qualia Formalist approach, it seems instead that the very properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to consciousness can play key roles (either causal or in terms of information processing) that make it advantageous for organisms to recruit consciousness.
If you don’t realize that consciousness maps onto a mathematical object with properties, you may think that you understand why consciousness was recruited by natural selection, but your understanding of the topic would be incomplete. In other words, to have a full understanding of why evolution recruited consciousness, you need to understand what advantages the mathematical object has. One very important feature of consciousness is its capacity for binding. For example, the unitary nature of experience—the fact that we can experience a lot of qualia simultaneously—may be a key feature of consciousness that accelerates the process of finding solutions to constraint satisfaction problems. In turn, evolution would hence have a reason to recruit states of consciousness for computation. So rather than thinking of consciousness as identical with the computation that is going on in the brain, we can think of it as a resource with unique computational benefits that are powerful and dynamic enough to make organisms that use it more adaptable to their environments.
Does QRI think that animals are conscious?
QRI thinks there is a very high probability that every animal with a nervous system is conscious. We are agnostic about unified consciousness in insects, but we consider it very likely. We believe research on animal consciousness has relevance when it comes to treating animals ethically. Additionally, we do think that the ethical importance of consciousness has more to do with the pleasure-pain axis (valence), rather than cognitive ability. In that sense, the suffering of non-human animals may be just as morally relevant, if not more relevant than humans. The cortex seems to play a largely inhibitory role for emotions, such that the larger the cortex is, the better we’re able to manage and suppress our emotions. Consequently, animals whose cortices are less developed than ours may experience pleasure and pain in a more intense and uncontrollable way, like a pre-linguistic toddler.
Does QRI think that plants are conscious?
We think it’s very unlikely that plants are conscious. The main reason is that they lack an evolutionary reason to recruit consciousness. Large-scale phenomenally bound experience may be very energetically expensive, and plants don’t have much energy to spare. Additionally, plants have thick cellulose walls that separate individual cells, making it very unlikely that plants can solve the binding problem and therefore create unified moments of experience.
Why do some people seek out pain?
This is a very multifaceted question. As a whole, we postulate that in the vast majority of cases, when somebody may be nominally pursuing pain or suffering, they’re actually trying to reduce internal dissonance in pursuit of consonance or they’re failing to predict how pain will actually feel. For example, when a person hears very harsh music, or enjoys extremely spicy food, this can be explained in terms of either masking other unpleasant sensations or raising the energy parameter of experience, the latter of which can lead to neural annealing: a very pleasant experience that manifests as consonance in the moment.
I sometimes like being sad. Is QRI trying to take that away from me?
Before we try to ‘fix’ something, it’s important to understand what it’s trying to do for us. Sometimes suffering leads to growth; sometimes creating valuable things involves suffering. Sometimes, ‘being sad’ feels strangely good. Insofar as suffering is doing good things for us, or for the world, QRI advocates a light touch (see Chesterton’s fence). However, we also suggest two things:
1. Most kinds of melancholic or mixed states of sadness usually are pursued for reasons that cash out as some sort of pleasure. Bittersweet experiences are far more preferable than intense agony or deep depression. If you enjoy sadness, it’s probably because there’s an aspect of your experience that is enjoyable. If it were possible to remove the sad part of your experience while maintaining the enjoyable part of it, you might be surprised to find that you prefer this modified experience more than the original one.
2. There are kinds of sadness and suffering that are just bad, that degrade us as humans, and would be better to never feel. QRI doesn’t believe in forcibly taking away voluntary suffering, or pushing bliss on people. But we would like to live in a world where people can choose to avoid such negative states, and on the margin, we believe it would be better for humanity for more people to be joyful, filled with a deep sense of well-being.
If dissonance is so negative, why is dissonance so important in music?
When you listen to very consonant music or consonant tones, you will quickly adapt to these sounds and get bored of them. This has nothing to do with consonance itself being unpleasant and everything to do with learning in the brain. Whenever you experience the same stimuli repeatedly, most brains will trigger a boredom mechanism and add dissonance of its own in order to make you enjoy the stimuli less or simply inhibit it, not allowing you to experience it at all. Semantic satiation is a classic example of this where repeating the same word over and over will make it lose its meaning. For this reason, to trigger many high valence states of consciousness consecutively, you need contrast. In particular, music works with gradients of consonance and dissonance, and in most cases, moving towards consonance is what feels good rather than the absolute value of consonance. Music tends to feel the best when you mix a high absolute value of consonance together with a very strong sense of moving towards an even higher absolute value of consonance. Playing some levels of dissonance during a song will later enhance the enjoyment of the more consonant parts such as the chorus of songs, which are reported to be the most euphoric parts of song and typically are extremely consonant.
What is QRI’s perspective on AI and AI safety research?
QRI thinks that consciousness research is critical for addressing AI safety. Without a precise way of quantifying an action’s impact on conscious experiences, we won’t be able to guarantee that an AI system has been programmed to act benevolently. Also, certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence without any outside observer being aware of it. We need a theory of what produces unpleasant experiences to avoid inadvertently creating superintelligences that suffer intensely in the process of solving important problems or accidentally inflict large-scale suffering.
Additionally, we think that a very large percentage of what will make powerful AI dangerous is that the humans programming these machines and using these machines may be reasoning from states of loneliness, resentment, envy, or anger. By discovering ways to help humans transition away from these states, we can reduce the risks of AI by creating humans that are more ethical and aligned with consciousness more broadly. In short: an antidote for nihilism could lead to a substantial reduction in existential risk.
One way to think about QRI and AI safety is that the world is building AI, but doesn’t really have a clear, positive vision of what to do with AI. Lacking this, the default objective becomes “take over the world.” We think a good theory of consciousness could and will offer new visions of what kind of futures are worth building—new Schelling points that humanity (and AI researchers) could self-organize around.
Can digital computers implementing AI algorithms be conscious?
QRI is agnostic about this question. We have reasons to believe that digital computers in their current form cannot solve the phenomenal binding problem. Most of the activity in digital computers can be explained in a stepwise fashion in terms of localized processing of bits of information. Because of this, we believe that current digital computers could be creating fragments of qualia, but are unlikely to be creating strongly globally bound experiences. So, we consider the consciousness of digital computers unlikely, although given our current uncertainty over the Binding Problem (or alternatively framed, the Boundary Problem), this assumption is lightly held. In the previous question, when we write that “certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence”, we assume that these hypothetical computers have some type of unified conscious experience as a result of having solved the phenomenal binding problem. For more on this topic, see: “What’s Out There?“
How much mainstream recognition has QRI’s work received, either for this line of research or others? Has it published in peer-reviewed journals, received any grants, or garnered positive reviews from other academics?
We are collaborating with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University on several studies involving the analysis of neuroimaging data of high-valence states of consciousness. Additionally, we are currently preparing two publications for peer-reviewed journals on topics from our core research areas. Michael Johnson will be presenting at this year’s MCS seminar series, along with Karl Friston, Anil Seth, Selen Atasoy, Nao Tsuchiya, and others; Michael Johnson, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, and Quintin Frerichs have also given invited talks at various east-coast colleges (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Dartmouth).
Some well-known researchers and intellectuals that are familiar and think positively about our work include: Robin Carhart-Harris, Scott Alexander, David Pearce, Steven Lehar, Daniel Ingram, and more. Scott Alexander acknowledged that QRI put together the paradigms that contributed to Friston’s integrative model of how psychedelics work before his research was published. Our track record so far has been to foreshadow (by several years in advance) key discoveries later proposed and accepted in mainstream academia. Given our current research findings, we expect this trend to continue in the years to come.
How does QRI know what is best for other people/animals? What about cultural relativism?
We think that, to a large extent, people and animals work under the illusion that they are pursuing intentional objects, states of the external environment, or relationships that they may have with the external environment. However, when you examine these situations closely, you realize that what we actually pursue are states of high valence triggered by external circumstances. There may be evolutionary and cultural selection pressures that push us toward self-deception as to how we actually function. And we consider it negative to have these selection pressures makes us less self-aware because it often focuses our energy on unpleasant, destructive, or fruitless strategies. QRI hopes to support people in fostering more self-awareness, which can come through experiments with one’s own consciousness, like meditation, as well as through the deeper theoretical understanding of what it is that we actually want.
How central is David Pearce’s work to the work of the QRI?
We consider David Pearce to be one of our core lineages. We particularly value his contribution to valence realism, the insistence that states of consciousness come with an overall valence, and that this is very morally relevant. We also consider David Pearce to be very influential in philosophy of mind; Pearce, for instance, coined the phrase ‘tyranny of the intentional object’, the title of a core QRI piece of the same name. We have been inspired by Pearce’s descriptions for what any scientific theory of consciousness should be able to explain, as well as his particular emphasis on the binding problem. David’s vision of a world animated by ‘gradients of bliss’ has also been very generative as a normative thought experiment which integrates human and non-human well-being. We do not necessarily agree with all of David Pearce’s work, but we respect him as an insightful and vivid thinker who has been brave enough to actually take a swing at describing utopia and who we believe is far ahead of his time.
What does QRI think of negative utilitarianism?
There’s general agreement within QRI that intense suffering is an extreme moral priority, and we’ve done substantial work on finding simple ways of getting rid of extreme suffering (with our research inspiring at least one unaffiliated startup to date). However, we find it premature to strongly endorse any pre-packaged ethical theory, especially because none of them are based on any formalism, but rather an ungrounded concept of ‘utility’. The value of information here seems enormous, and we hope that we can get to a point where the ‘correct’ ethical theory may simply ‘pop out of the equations’ of reality. It’s also important to highlight the fact that common versions and academic formulations of utilitarianism seem to be blind to many subtleties concerning valence. For example, they do not distinguish between mixed states of consciousness where you have extreme pleasure combined with extreme suffering in such a way that you judge the experience to be neither entirely suffering nor entirely happiness and states of complete neutrality, such as extreme white noise. Because most formulations of utilitarianism do not distinguish between them, we are generally suspicious of the idea that philosophers of ethics have considered all of the relevant attributes of consciousness in order to make accurate judgments about morality.
What does QRI think of philosophy of mind departments?
We believe that the problems that philosophy of mind departments address tend to be very disconnected from what truly matters from an ethical, moral, and philosophical point of view. For example, there is little appreciation of the value of bringing mathematical formalisms into discussions about the mind, or what that might look like in practice. Likewise there is close to no interest in preventing extreme suffering nor understanding its nature. Additionally, there is usually a disregard for extreme states of positive valence, and strange or exotic experiences in general. It may be the case that there are worthwhile things happening in departments and classes creating and studying this literature, but we find them characterized by processes which are unlikely to produce progress on their nominal purpose, creating a science of mind.
In particular, in academic philosophy of mind, we’ve seen very little regard for producing empirically testable predictions. There are millions of pages written about philosophy of mind, but the number of pages that provide precise, empirically testable predictions is quite thin.
What therapies does QRI recommend for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain?
At QRI, we do not make specific recommendations to individuals, but rather point to areas of research that we consider to be extremely important, tractable, and neglected, such as anti-tolerance drugs, neural annealing techniques, frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stone pain, and N,N-DMT and other tryptamines for cluster headaches and migraines.
Why does QRI think it’s so important to focus on ending extreme suffering?
QRI thinks ending extreme suffering is important, tractable, and neglected. It’s important because of the logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain—the fact that extreme suffering is far worse by orders of magnitude than what people intuitively believe. It’s tractable because there are many types of extreme suffering that have existing solutions that are fairly trivial or at least have a viable path for being solved with moderately funded research programs. And it’s neglected mostly because people are unaware of the existence of these states, though not necessarily because of their rarity. For example, 10% of the population experiences kidney stones at some point in their life, but for reasons having to do with trauma, PTSD, and the state-dependence of memory, even people who have suffered from kidney stones do not typically end up dedicating their time or resources toward eradicating them.
It’s also likely that if we can meaningfully improve the absolute worst experiences, much of the knowledge we’ll gain in that process will translate into other contexts. In particular, we should expect to figure out how to make moderately depressed people happier, fix more mild forms of pain, improve the human hedonic baseline, and safely reach extremely great peak states. Mood research is not a zero-sum game. It’s a web of synergies.
Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman, Mackenzie Dion, and Mike Johnson for their collaboration in putting this together. Featured image is QRI’s logo – animated by Hunter Meyer.
“QRI Law of Transhumanism”: The overall motivation of humans to solve social and mental problems will remain much higher than the motivation to solve physics problems. The human performance in solving social and mental problems will remain much lower than the performance in solving physics problems. This continues until social and mental problems become physics problems.
A follow-up for the more nerdy audience could perhaps be how QRI seeks to resolve the confusion about individualism:
It often turns out that parsimony is a more useful guiding principle in science than naïve realism. This includes naïve realism about what constitutes parsimony. All relevant conditions must be taken into account, and some conditions are unknowns, which blurs the picture. Occam’s razor is powerful but more like a Samurai sword: you need great skill to use it well.
Compare the state-space of consciousness with the state-space of chemistry known to humans: there is biochemistry and there is other chemistry. They manifest quite differently. However, parsimony favors that at the fundamental level of organization things reduce to a small set of rules which are the same for all of chemistry. This is now known to indeed be the case but was not always so. Rather, it tended to be assumed that some extra factor, a “life-force”, had to be involved when it comes to biochemistry.
Biochemistry has been evolutionarily selected for performance on a most formidable problem. That of self-replicating a self-replicator. It takes a large number of steps in the process and high preciseness at each step. Only particular sequences of steps lead to normal cell function, and things are always open to getting corrupted. Take viruses, for instance.
Normal function of a brain is somewhat analogous to normal function of a cell. Evolution has selected for brains which produce the experience of continuity as a unique agent self. This is probably one of the harder tasks that conscious intelligence has solved, corresponding to the advanced parts necessary for reproduction in a cell. It is probably about as unusual in the state-space of consciousness as cellular replication is in the state-space of chemistry. However, the state naïvely feels like it is foundational to everything, which can make you confused when reflecting upon it. It can get even more confusing when you consider the strong possibility that valenced experiences of “good or bad” are much more commonplace in the state-space, perhaps more like transfer of electric charge is commonplace in chemistry.
Self-replicating a self-replicator
You can test this by altering (mental) system properties via meditation or psychedelics. Is “individuality” or “valence” more persistent under perturbation? It’s much harder to get rid of valence, and indeed, the highly altered state of a brain on high doses of 5-MeO-DMT gets rid of the agent self altogether but preserves and even enhances valence, interestingly more often in the positive than the negative direction. It’s like jumping from biochemistry to pyrotechnics.
Self-less 5-MeO-DMT “void”: The state is as different and exotic from normal everyday evolved consciousness as the chemistry of explosive pyrotechnics is to evolved biochemistry.
Naïve realism would hold that the sensations of “one-ness” experienced in certain highly altered states of consciousness feel the way they do because they somehow expand to include other entities into a union with yourself. What is likely to really be going on could be the opposite: there is no “self” as a reality fundament but rather a local complex qualia construct that is easy to interfere with. When it (and other detail) goes away there is less mental model complexity left. A reduction in the information diversity of the experience. Take this far enough and you can get states like “X is love” where X could be anything. These can feel as if they reveal hidden truths, for you obviously had not thought that way before, right? “X is love, wow, what a cosmic connection!”
Letter VIII: Fractional Crystallization to Enhance Qualia Diversity
Some more chemistry: is there in qualia state-space something analogous to fractional crystallization? When a magma solidifies relatively rapidly, most of the minor elements stay in solid solution within a few major mineral phases. You get a low diversity assemblage. When the magma solidifies slowly it can yield a continuum of various unique phases all the way down to compounds of elements that were only present at ppb levels in the bulk. Crucially, for this to work well, a powerful viscosity reducer is needed. Water happens to fit the bill perfectly.
Consider the computational performance of the process of solidification of a thousand cubic kilometer plutonic magma with and without an added cubic kilometer of water. The one with the added water functions as a dramatically more efficient sorting algorithm for the chemical element constituents than the dry one. The properties of minor minerals can be quite different from those of the major minerals. The spectrum of mineral physical and chemical properties that the magma solidification produces is greatly broadened by adding that small fraction of water. Which nature does on Earth.
It resembles the difference between narrow and broad intelligence. Now, since the general intelligence of humans requires multiple steps at multiple levels, which takes a lot of time, there might need to be some facilitator that plays the role water does in geology. Water tends to remain in liquid form all the way through crystallization, which compensates for the increase in viscosity that takes place on cooling, allowing fractional crystallization to go to completion in certain pegmatites.
It seems that, in the brain, states become conscious once they “crystallize” into what an IIT-based model might describe as feedback loops. (Some physicalist model this as standing waves?). Each state could be viewed as analogous to a crystal belonging to a mineral family and existing somewhere on a composition spectrum. For each to crystallize as fast and distinctly as possible, there should be just the right amount of a water activity equivalent. Too much and things stay liquid, too little and no unique new states appear.
It may perhaps be possible to tease out such “mental water” by analyzing brain scan data and comparing them with element fractionation models from geochemistry?
Eliezer Yudkowsky has pointed out that something that is not very high hanging must have upgraded the human brain so that it became able to make mental models of things no animal would (presumably) even begin to think of. Something where sheer size would not suffice as an explanation. It couldn’t be high hanging since the evolutionary search space available between early hominids and homo sapiens is small in terms of individuals, generations, and genetic variability. Could it be a single factor that does the job as crystallization facilitator to get the brain primed to produce a huge qualia range? For survival, the bulk of mental states would need to remain largely as they are in other animals, but with an added icing on the cake which turned out to confer a decisive strategic advantage.
It should be low hanging for AI developers, too, but in order to find it they may have to analyze models of qualia state-space and not just models of causal chains in network configurations…
Letter IX: Tacking on the Winds of Valence
We just thought of something on the subjects of group intelligence and mental issues. Consider a possible QRI framing: valence realism is key to understanding all conscious agency. The psyche takes the experienced valence axis to be equal to “the truth” about the objects of attention which appear experientially together with states of valence. Moment to moment.
Realism coupled with parsimony means it is most likely not possible for a psyche to step outside their experience and override this function. (Leaving out the complication of non-conscious processes here for a moment). But of course learning does exist. Things in psyches can be re-trained within bounds which differ from psyche to psyche. New memories form and valence set-points become correspondingly adjusted.
Naïvely it can be believed that it is possible to go against negative valence. If you muster enough willpower, or some such. Like a sailboat moving against the wind by using an engine. But what if it’s a system which has to use the wind for everything? With tacking, you can use the wind to move against the wind. It’s more advanced, and only experienced sailors manage to do it optimally. Advanced psyches can couple expectations (strategic predictive modeling) with a high valence associated with the appropriate objects that correlate with strategic goals. If strong enough, such valence gives a net positive sum when coupled with unpleasant things which need to be “overcome” to reach strategic goals.
You can “tack” in mental decision space. The expert psycho-mariner makes mental models of how the combinatorics of fractal valence plays out it in their own psyche and in others. Intra- and inter-domain valence summation modeling. Not quite there yet but the QRI is the group taking a systematic approach to it. We realize that’s what social superintelligences should converge towards. Experiential wellbeing and intelligence can be made to work perfectly in tandem for, in principle, arbitrarily large groups.
It is possible to make a model of negative valence states and render the model to appear in positive valence “lighting”. Sadism is possible, and self-destructive logic is possible. “I deserve to suffer so it is good that I suffer”. The valence is mixed but as long as the weighted sum is positive, agency moves in the destructive direction in these cases. Dysfunction can be complicated.
But on the bright side, a formalism that captures the valence summation well enough should be an excellent basis for ethics and for optimizing intelligences for both agency and wellbeing. This extends to group intelligences. The weight carried by various instantiations of positive and negative valence is then accessible for modeling and it is no longer necessary to consider it a moral imperative to want to destroy everything just to be on the safe side against any risk of negative experience taking place somewhere.
Is it possible to tack on the winds of group valence?
At this early stage we are however faced with the problem of how influential premature conclusions of this type can be, and how much is too much. Certain areas in philosophy and ideology are, to most people, more immediately rewarding than science and engineering, and cheaper, too. But more gets done by a group of scientists who are philosophically inspired than by a group of philosophers who are scientifically inspired.
In the following video Leo Gura from actualized.org talks about his 30-day 5-MeO-DMT streak experiment. In this post I’ll highlight some of the notable things he said and comment along the way using a QRI-lens to interpret his experiences (if you would rather make up your mind about what he says without my commentary just go and watch the video on your own before reading what I have to say about it).
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait a month to satisfy my curiosity and see what happened after his period of isolation because by the time I found about it he had already posted his post-retreat video. Well, it turns out that he used those 30 days of isolation to conduct a very hard-core psychedelic experiment. Namely, he took high doses of 5-MeO-DMT daily for the entire month. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before.
Learning about what he experienced during that month is of special interest to me for many reasons. In particular, thanks to previous research about extreme bliss and suffering, we had determined that 5-MeO-DMT is currently the psychedelic drug that has the most powerful and intense effects on valence. Recall Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (video): many lines of evidence point to the fact that extreme states of consciousness are surprisingly powerful in ways that are completely counterintuitive. So when Leo says that there are “many levels of awakening” and goes on to discuss how each level is unrecognizably more intense and deeper than the previous one, I am very much inclined to believe he is trying to convey a true property of his experiences. Note that Leo did not only indulge in psychedelics; we are talking about 5-MeO-DMT in particular, which is the thermonuclear bomb version of a psychoactive drug (as with Plutonium, this stuff is best handled with caution). More so, thankfully Leo is very eloquent, which is rare among people who have had many extreme experiences. So I was very eager to hear what he had to say.
While I can very easily believe his trip reports when it comes to their profundity, intensity, and extraordinary degree of consciousness, I do not particularly find his interpretations of these experiences convincing. As I go about describing his video, I will point out ways in which you can take as veridical his phenomenological descriptions without at the same time having to agree with his interpretations of them. More so, if you end up exploring these varieties of altered states yourself, by reading this you will now at least have two different and competing frameworks to explain your experiences. This, I think, is an improvement. Right now the psychedelic and scientific community has very few lenses with which to interpret something as extraordinary as 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And I believe this comes at a great cost to people’s sanity and epistemic rationality.
What Are Leo’s Background Assumptions?
In the pre-retreat video Leo says that his core teachings (and what he attempts to realize on his own self) are: (1) you are literally God, (2) there is nothing but consciousness – God is infinite consciousness, (3) everything is states of consciousness – everything at all times is a different state of consciousness, (4) you are love – and love is absolute – this is all constructed out of love – fear is just fear of aspects of yourself you have disconnected from, (5) you have no beginning and no end, (6) you should be radically open-minded. Then he also adds that physical and mental health issues are just manifestations of your resistance to realizing that you are God.
What Are My Background Assumptions?
I am quite sympathetic to the idea of oneness, which is also talked about with terms like nonduality and monopsychism. In philosophical terminology, which I find to be more precise and rigorous, this concept goes by the name of Open Individualism – the belief that we are all one single consciousness. I have written extensively about Open Individualism in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3), but I would like to point out that the arguments I’ve presented in favor of this view are not based on direct experience, but rather, on logical consistency from background assumptions we take for granted. For instance, if you assume that you are the same subject of experience you were a second ago, it follows that you can exist in two points in space-time and still be the same being. Your physical configuration is different than a few seconds ago (let alone a decade), you have slightly different memories, the neurons active are different, etc. For every property you point out as your “identity carrier” I can find a counter-example where such carrier changes a little while you still remain the same subject of experience. Add to that teleportation, fission, fusion, and gradual replacement thought experiments and you can build a framework where you can become any other arbitrary person without a loss of identity. These lines of argumentation coupled with the transitivity of identity can build the case that we are indeed all one to begin with.
But realize that rather than saying that you can grasp this (potential) truth directly from first person experience, I build from agreed upon assumptions to arrive at an otherwise outlandish view. Understanding the argument does not entail “feeling we are all one”, and neither does feeling we are all one entails understanding the arguments!
Indirect Realism About Perception
There is a mind-independent world out there and you never get to experience it directly. In some sense, we each live in a private skull-bound world-simulation that tracks the fitness-relevant features of our environment. Hence, during meditation, dreaming, or psychedelic states you are not accessing any sort of external reality directly, but rather, exploring possible configurations and qualities of your inner world-simulation. This is something that Leo may implicitly not realize. In particular, interpreting 5-MeO-DMT experiences through direct realism (also called naïve realism – the view that you experience the world directly through your senses) would make you think that you are literally merging with the entire cosmos on the drug. Whereas interpreting those experiences with indirect realism merely entails that your inner boundaries are dissolving. In other words, the partitions inside your world-simulation are what implements the feeling of the self-other duality. And since 5-MeO-DMT dissolves inner boundaries, it feels as though you are becoming one with your surroundings (and the rest of reality).
Physicalism and Panpsychism
An important background assumption is that the laws of physics accurately describe the behavior of the universe. This is distinct from materialism, which would also posit that all matter is inherently insentient. Physicalism merely says that the laws of physics describe the behavior of the physical, but leaves its intrinsic nature as an open question. Together with panpsychism, however, physicalism entails that what the laws of physics are describing is the behavior of consciousness.
What makes an experience feel good or bad is not its semantic content, its computational use, or even whether the experience is self-reinforcing or not. What makes experiences feel good or bad is their structure. In particular, a very promising idea that will come up below is that highly symmetrical states of consciousness are inherently blissful, such as those we can access during orgasm, meditation, psychedelics, or even just good food and a hug. Recall that 5-MeO-DMT dissolves internal boundaries, and this is indicative of increased inner symmetry (where the boundaries themselves entail symmetry breaking operations). Thus, an exotic state of oneness is blissful not because you are merging with God, but “merely” because it has a higher degree of symmetry and therefore it’s valence is higher than what we can normally experience. In particular, the symmetry I’m talking abut here may be an objective feature of experiences perhaps even measurable with today’s neuroimaging technology.
There are additional key background philosophical assumptions, but the above are enough to get us started analyzing Leo’s 5-MeO-DMT journey from a different angle.
[Video descriptions are in italics whereas my commentary is bolded.]
For the first 8 minutes or so Leo explains that people do not really know that there are many levels of enlightenment. He starts out strong by claiming that he has reached levels of enlightenment that nobody (or perhaps just a few people) have ever reached. More so, while he agrees with the teachings of meditation masters of the past, he questions the levels of awakening that they had actually reached. It takes one to know one, and he claims that he’s seen things far beyond what previous teachers have talked about. More so, he argues that people simply have no way of knowing how enlightened their teachers are. People just trust books, gurus, teachers, religious leaders, etc. about whether they are “fully” enlightened, but how could they know for sure without reaching their level, and then surpassing them? He wraps up this part of the video by saying that the only viable path is to go all the way by yourself – to dismiss all the teachers, all the books, and all the instructions and see how far you can go on your own when genuinely pursuing truth by yourself.
With this epistemological caveat out of the way, Leo goes on to describe his methodology. Namely, he embarked on a quest of taking 5-MeO-DMT at increasing doses every day for 30 days in a row.
At 10:05 he says that within a week of this protocol he started reaching levels of awakening so elevated that he realized he had already surpassed every single spiritual teacher that he had ever heard of. He started writing a manifesto explaining this, claiming that even the most enlightened humans are not truly as awake as he became during that week. That it had became “completely transparent that most people who say they are awake or teach awakening are not even 1% awake”. But he decided not to go forward with the manifesto because he still values the teachings of spiritual leaders, whom according to him are doing a great service to mankind. He didn’t want to start, what he called, a “nonduality war” (which is of course a fascinating term if you think about it).
The main thing I’d like to comment here is that Leo is never entirely clear about what makes an “awakening experience” authentic. From what I gather (and from what comes next in the video) we can infer that the leading criteria consists of a fuzzy blend of experience of certainty, feeling of unity, and sense of direct knowing coupled together. To the extent that 5-MeO-DMT does all of these things to an extraordinary degree, we can take Leo on his words that he indeed experienced states of consciousness that feel like awakening that are most likely inaccessible to everyone who hasn’t gone through a protocol like his. What is still unclear is how exactly the semantic contents of these experiences are verified by means other than intuition. We will come back to that.
At 16:00 he makes the distinction between awakening as merely “cessation”, “nothingness”, “emptiness”, “the Self”, or that “you are nothing and everything” versus what he has been experiencing. He agrees that those are true and worthy realizations, but he claims that before his experiences, these understandings were still only realized at a very “low level”. Other masters, he claims, may care about ending suffering, about peace, about emptiness, and so on. But that nobody seems to truly care about understanding reality (because otherwise they would be doing what he’s doing). He rebukes possible critics (arguably of the Zen variety) who would say that “understanding is a function of the mind” so the goal shouldn’t be to understand. He asserts that no, based on his lived experience, that consciousness is capable of “infinite understanding”.
Notwithstanding the challenges posed by ultrafinitism, I am also inclined to believe Leo that he has experienced completely new varieties of “understanding”. In my model of the mind, understanding something means to have the ability to render it in your world-simulation in a particular kind of way that allows you to see it from every possible angle you have access to. On 5-MeO-DMT, as we will see to a greater extent below, a certain new set of projective operations get unlocked that allow you to render information from many, many more points of view at the same time. It is unclear whether this is possible with meditation alone (in personal communication, Daniel Ingram said yes) but it is certainly extraordinarily rare for even advanced meditators to be able to do this. So I am with Leo when it comes to describing “new kinds of understandings”. But perhaps I am not on board when it comes to claiming that the content of such understandings is an accurate rendering of the structure of reality.
At 18:30 Leo asserts that what happened to him is that over the course of the first week of his experiment he “completely understood reality, completely understood what God is”. God has no beginning and no end. He explains that normal human understanding sees situations from a single point of view (such as from the past to the future). But that actual infinite reality is from all sides at once: “When you are in full God consciousness, you look around the room, and you can see it from every single point of view, from an infinite number of angle and perspectives. You see that every part of the room generates and manufactures and creates every other part. […] Here when you are in God consciousness, you see it from every single possible dimension and angle. It’s not happening lilnearly, it’s all in the present now. And you can see it from every angle almost as though, if you take a watermelon and you do a cross-section with a giant knife, through that watermelon, and you keep doing cross-section, cross-section, cross-section in various different angles, eventually you’ll slice it up into an infinite number of perspectives. And then you’ll understand the entire watermelon as a sort of a whole. Whereas usually as humans what we do is we slice down that watermelon just right down the middle. And we just see that one cross-section.”
Now, this is extremely interesting. But first, it’s important to point out that here Leo might implicitly be reasoning about his experience through the lens of direct realism about perception. That is, that as he experiences this profound sense of understanding that encompasses every possible angle at once, he seems to believe that this is an understanding of his environment, of his future and past, and of reality as a whole. On the other hand, if you start out assuming indirect realism about perception, how you interpret this experience would be in terms of the instantiation of new exotic geometries of your own world-simulation. Here I must bring up the analysis of “regular” DMT (i.e. n,n-DMT) experiences through the lens of hyperbolic geometry. Indeed, regular DMT elevates the energy of your consciousness, which manifests in brighter colors, fast movement, intricate and detailed patterns, and as curved phenomenal space. We know this because of numerous trip reports from people well educated in advanced mathematics who claim that the visual symmetries one can experience on DMT (at doses above 10mg) have hyperbolic curvature (cf. hyperbolic orbifolds). It is also consistent with many other phenomena one can experience on DMT (see the Eli 5 for a quick summary). But you should keep in mind that this analysis never claims that you are experiencing directly a mind-independent “hyperspace”. Rather, the analysis focuses on how DMT modifies the geometric properties of your inner world-simulation.
Energy-complexity landscape on DMT
DMT trip progression
Intriguingly, our inner world-simulations work with projective geometry. In normal circumstances our world-simulations have a consistent set of projective points at infinity – they render the modal and amodal features of our experience in projective scenes that are globally consistent. But psychedelics can give rise to this phenomenon of “point-of-view-fragmentation“, where your experience becomes a patchwork of inconsistent projective renderings. So even on “regular” DMT you can get the profound feeling of “seeing something from multiple points of view at once”. Enhanced with hyperbolic geometry, this can cause the stark impression that you can explore “hyperspace” with a kind of “ultra-understanding”.
Looking beyond “regular” DMT, 5-MeO-DMT is yet more crazy than that. You see, even on DMT you get the feeling that you are restricted in the number of points of view from which you can see something at the same time. You can see it from many more points of view than normal, but it’s still restricted. But the extreme “smoothing” of experience that 5-MeO-DMT causes makes it so that you cannot distinguish one point of view from another. So they all blend together. Not only do you experience semantic content from “multiple points of view at once” as in DMT, but you can erase distinctions between points of view so that one’s sense of knowing arises involving a totally new kind of projective effect, in which you actually feel you can see something from “every point of view at once”. It feels that you have unlocked a kind of omniscience. This already happens on other psychedelics to a lesser extent (and in meditation, and even sober life to an even lesser extent, but still there), and it is a consequence of smoothing the geometry of your experience to such an extent that there are no symmetry-breaking imperfections “with which to orient a projective point”. I suspect that the higher “formless” jhanas of “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness” are hitting at this effect. And on 5-MeO-DMT this effect is pronounced. More so, because of the connection between symmetry and smoothness of space (cf. Geometry Through the Eyes of Felix Klein) when this happens you will also automatically be instantiating a high-dimensional group. And according to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this ought to be extraordinarily blissful. And indeed it is.
This is, perhaps, partly what is going on in the experience that Leo is describing. Again, I am inclined to believe his description, but happy to dismiss his naïve interpretation.
At 23:15 Leo describes how from his 5-MeO-DMT point of view he realized what “consciousness truly is”. And that is an “infinitely interconnected self-communicating field”. In normal everyday states of consciousness the different parts of your experience are “connected” but not “communicating.” But on 5-MeO, “as you become more conscious, what happens is that every point in space inter-connects with itself and starts to communicate with itself. This is a really profound, shocking, mystical experience. And it keeps getting cranked up more and more and more. You can call it omniscience, or telepathy. And it’s like the universal communication system gets turned on for the first time. Right now your conscious field is not in infinite communication with itself. It’s fragmented and divided. Such that you think I’m over here, you are over there, my computer is over here, your computer is over there…”. He explains that if we were to realize we are all one, we would then instantly be able to communicate between each other.
Here again we get extremely different interpretations of the phenomena Leo describes depending on whether you believe in direct or indirect realism about perception. As Leo implicitly assumes direct realism about perception, he interprets this effect as literally switching on an “universal communication system” between every points in reality, whereas the indirect realist interpretation would be that you have somehow interlocked the pieces of your conscious experience in such a way that they now act as an interconnected whole. This is something that indeed has been reported before, and at QRI we call this effect “networkintegration“. A simple way of encapsulating this phenomenon would be by saying that the cross-frequency coupling of your nervous system is massively increased so that there is seamless information and energy transfer between vibrations at different scales (to a much lesser extent MDMA also does this, but 5-MeO-DMT is the most powerful “integration aid” we know of). This sounds crazy but it really isn’t. After all, your nervous system is a network of oscillators. It stands to reason that you can change how they interact with one another by fine-tuning their connections and get as a result decoupling of vibrations (e.g. SSRIs), or coupling only between vibrations of a specific frequency (e.g. stimulants and depressants), or more coupling in general (e.g. psychedelics). In particular, 5-MeO-DMT does seem to cause a massively effective kind of fractal coupling, where every vibration can get in tune with every other vibration. And recall, since a lot of our inner world simulation is about representing “external reality”, this effect can give rise to the feeling that you can now instantly communicate with other parts of reality as a whole. This, from my point of view, is merely misinterpreting the experience by imagining that you have direct access to your surroundings.
At 34:52 Leo explains that you just need 5-MeO-DMT to experience these awakenings. And yet, he also claims that everything in reality is imaginary. It is all something that you, as God, are imagining because “you need a story to deny that you are infinite consciousness.” Even though the neurotransmitters are imaginary, you still need to modify them in order to have this experience: “I’m talking about superhuman levels of consciousness. These are not levels of consciousness that you can access sober. You need to literally upgrade the neurotransmitters in your imaginary brain. And yes, your brain is still imaginary, and those neurotransmitters are imaginary. But you still need to upgrade them nevertheless in order to access some of the things I say.”
Needless to say, it’s bizarre that you would need imaginary neurotransmitter-mimicking molecules in your brain in order to realize that all of reality is your own imagination. When you dream, do you need to find a specific drug inside your dream in order to wake up from the dream? Perhaps this view can indeed be steel-manned, but the odds seem stacked against it.
At 38:30 he starts talking about his pornography collection. He assembles nude images of women, not only to relieve horniness, but also as a kind of pursuit of aesthetics. Pictures of nude super-models are some of the most beautiful things a (straight) man can see. He brings this up in order to talk about how he then at some point started exploring watching these pictures on 5-MeO-DMT. Recollecting this brings him to tears because of how beautiful the experiences were. He states “you’ve never really seen porn until you’ve seen it on 5-MeO-DMT.” He claims that he started to feel that this way he really felt that it is you (God) that is beautiful, which is manifested through those pictures.
A robust finding in the psychology of sexual attraction is that symmetry in faces is correlated with attractiveness. Indeed, more regular faces tend to be perceived as more beautiful. Amazingly, you can play with this effect by decorating someone’s face with face-paint. The more symmetrical the pattern, the more beautiful the face looks (and vice-versa). Arguably, the effect Leo is describing where people who are already beautiful become unbelievably pretty on 5-MeO-DMT involves embedding high-dimensional symmetries into the way you render them in your world-simulation. A lesser, and perhaps more reliable, version of this effect happens when you look at people on MDMA. They look way more attractive than what they look like sober.
Leo then brings up (~41:30) that he started to take 5-MeO-DMT on warm baths as well, which he reassures us is not as dangerous as it sounds (not enough water to drown if he experiences a whiteout). [It’s important to mention that people have died by taking ketamine on bath tubs; although a different drug, it is arguably still extremely dangerous to take 5-MeO-DMT alone on a bathtub; don’t do it]. He then has an incredible awakening surrendering to God consciousness in the bathtub, on 5-MeO-DMT, jerking off to beautiful women in the screen of his laptop. He gets a profound insight into the very “nature of desire”. He explains that it is very difficult to recognize the true nature of desire while on a normal level of consciousness because our desires are biased and fragmented. When “your consciousness becomes infinite” those biases dissolve, and you experience desire in its pure form. Which according to his direct experience turned out to be “desire for God, desire for myself”. And this is because you are, deep down “infinite love”. When you desire a husband, or sex, or whatever, you are really desiring God in disguise. But the problem is that since your path to God is constrained by the form you desire, your connection to God is not stable. But once you have this experience of complete understanding of what desire is, you finally get your desire fully quenched by experiencing God’s love.
This is a very deep point. It is related to what I’ve sometimes called the “most important philosophical question“, which is: is valence a spiritual phenomenon or spirituality a valence phenomenon? In other words, do we find experiences of God blissful because they have harmony and symmetry, or perhaps is it the other way around, where even the most trivial of pleasures, like drinking a good smoothy, feels good because it temporarily “gets you closer to God”? I lean towards the former, and that in fact mystical experiences are so beautiful because they are indeed extremely harmonious and resonant states of consciousness, and not because they take you closer to God. But I know very smart people who can’t decide between these views. For example, my friend Stuart Garvagh writes:
What if the two options are indistinguishable? Suppose valence is a measure of the harmony/symmetry of the object of consciousness, and the experience of “Oneness” or Cosmic Consciousness is equivalent to having the object of consciousness be all of creation (God‘s object), a highly symmetrical, full-spectrum object (full of bliss, light, love, beingness, all-knowledge, empty of discernible content or information). All objects of consciousness are distortions (or refractions, or something) of this one object. Happiness is equivalent to reducing or “polishing-out” these distortions. Thus, what appears to be just the fact of certain states being more pleasant than others is equivalent to certain states being closer to God‘s creation as a whole. Obviously this is all pure speculation and just a story to illustrate a point, but I could see it being very tough to tease apart the truth-value of 1 and 2. Note: I’m fairly agnostic myself, but lean towards 2 (bliss is the perfume of “God realizing God” or the subject of experience knowing Itself). I would very much love to have this question answered convincingly!
At 50:00 Leo says that “everything I’ve described so far is really a prelude to the real heart of awakening, which is the discovery of love. […] I had already awakened to love a number of times, but this was deeper. By the two week mark the love really started to crack open. Infinite self-love. You are drowning on this love.” He goes on to describe how at this point he was developing a form of telepathy that allowed him to communicate with God directly (which is, of course, a way of talking to himself as he is God already). It’s just a helpful way to further develop. And what God was showing him was how to receive self-love. It was so much at first he couldn’t handle it. And so he went through a self-purification process.
An interesting lens with which to interpret this experience of purification is that of neural annealing. Each 5-MeO-DMT experience would be making Leo’s nervous system resonate in ways in new ways, slowly writing over previous patterns and entraining the characteristic high-symmetry patterns of the state. Over time, the nervous system adjusts its weights in order to be able to handle that resonance without getting its patterns over-written. In other words, Leo has been transforming his nervous system into a kind of high-valence machine, which is of course very beneficial for intrinsic feelings of wellbeing (though perhaps detrimental to one’s epistemology).
55:00: He points out that unlike addictive drugs, he actually had to push himself very hard to continue to take 5-MeO-DMT everyday for 30 days. He stopped wanting to do it. The ego didn’t want it. And yes, it was pleasurable once he surrendered on every session, but it was difficult, heavy spiritual work. He says that he could only really do this because of years of practice with and without psychedelics, intense meditation, and a lot of personal development. And because of this, he explains his 5-MeO experiences felt like “years of spiritual work condensed into a single hour.” He then says that God will never judge you, and will help you to accept whatever terrible things you’ve done. And many of his subsequent trips were centered around self-acceptance.
Following the path of progressive neural annealing, going deeper and deeper into a state of self-acceptance can be understood as a deeper harmonization of your nervous system with itself.
At 1:01:20, Leo claims to have figured out what the purpose of reality truly is: “Reality is a contest for who can love who more. That’s really what life is about when you are fully conscious. […] Consciousness is a race for who can love who more. […] An intelligent fully conscious consciousness would only be interested in love. It wouldn’t be interested in anything else. Because everything else is inferior. […] Everything else is just utter silliness!”
I tend to agree with this, though perhaps not in an agentive way. As David Pearce says: “the pleasure-pain axis discloses the universe’s intrinsic value function.” So when you’ve annealed extremely harmonious patterns and do not get distracted by negative emotion, naturally, all there is left to do is maximize love. Unless we mess up, this is the only good final destiny for the cosmos (albeit perhaps it might take the form of a Hedonium shockwave, which at least in our current human form, sound utterly unappealing to most people).
1:06:10 “[God’s love] sparks you to also want to love it back. You see, it turns into a reciprocal reaction, where it is like two mirrors that are mirroring light between each other like a laser beam that is bouncing between two mirrors. And it’s bouncing back and forth and back and forth. And as it bounces back and forth it becomes more and more concentrated. And it strengthens. And it becomes more coherent. And so that’s what started happening. At first it started out as just a little game. Like ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. A little game. It sounds like it’s almost like childish. And it sort of was. But then it morphed from being this childish thing, into being this serious existential business. This turned into the work. This was the true awakening. Is that with the two mirrors, you know, first it took a little while to get the two mirrors aligned. Because you know if the two mirrors are not perfectly aligned, the laser beam will kind of bounce back and forth in different directions. It’s not going to really concentrate. So that was happening at first. […] The love started bouncing back and forth between us, and getting stronger and stronger. […] Each time it bounces back to me it transforms me. It opens me up deeper. And as it opens me up deeper it reveals blockages and obstacles to my capacity to love.”
Misaligned mirrors letting energy fly away
Aligned mirrors concentrating coherent energy
Now this is a fascinating account. And while Leo interprets it in a completely mystical way, the description also fits very well an annealing process where the nervous system gets more and more fine-tuned in order to be able to contain high levels of coherent energy via symmetry. Again, this would be extremely high-valence as a consequence of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Notice that we’ve talked about this phenomenon of “infinite mirrors” on psychedelics since 2016 (see: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States).
At ~1:09:30 he starts discussing that at this point he was confronted by God about whether he was willing to love the holocaust, and rape, and murder, and bullies, and people of all sorts, even devil worshipers.
Two important points here. First, it is a bit ambiguous whether Leo here is using the word “love” in the sense of “enjoyment” or in the sense of “loving-kindness and compassion”. The former would be disturbing while the latter would be admirable. I suppose he was talking about the latter, in which case “loving rape” would refer to “being able to accept and forgive those who rape” which indeed sounds very Godly. This radical move is explored in metta (loving-kindness) meditation and it seems healthy on the whole. And second: Why? Why go through the trouble of embracing all the evil and repulsive aspects of ourselves? One interpretation here, coming back to the analysis based on neural annealing, is that any little kink or imperfection caused by negative emotion in our nervous system will create slight symmetry breaking effects on the resonance of the entire system as whole. So after you’ve “polished and aligned the mirrors for long enough” the tiny imperfections become the next natural blockage to overcome in order to maximize the preservation of coherent energy via symmetry.
~1:12:00 Leo explains that the hardest thing to love is your own self-hatred. In the bouncing off of the love between you and God, with each bounce, you find that the parts you hate about yourself reflect an imperfect love. But God loves all of you including your self-hatred. So he pings you about that. And once you can accept it, that’s what truly changes you. “Because when you feel that love, and you feel how accepting it is, and how forgiving it is of all of your evil and of all of your sins… that’s the thing that kills you, that transforms you. That’s what breaks your heart, wide open. That’s what gets you to surrender. That’s what humbles you. That’s what heals you.” Leo then explains that he discovered what “healing is”. And it is “truth and love”. That in order to heal anyone, you need to love them and accept them. Not via sappy postcards and white lies but by truth. He also states that all physical, mental, and spiritual ailments have, at their root, lack of love.
If love is one of the cleanest expressions of high-valence symmetry and resonance, we can certainly expect that inundating a nervous system with it will smooth and clean its blockages, i.e. the sources of neural dissonance. Hence the incredible power of MDMA on healing nervous systems in the short-term. Indeed, positive emotion is itself healing and enhances neural coherence. But where I think this view is incomplete is in diagnosing the terrible suffering that goes on in the world in terms of a lack of love. For instance, are cluster headaches really just the result of lack of self-love? In here must bring back the background assumption of physicalism and make a firm statement that if we fall into illusion about the nature of reality we risk not saving people (and sentient beings more generally) who are really in the depth of Hell. Just loving them without taking the causally-relevant physical action to prevent their suffering is, in my opinion, not true love. Hence the importance of maintaining a high level of epistemic rigor: for the sake of others. (See: Hell Must Be Destroyed).
1:22:30 Leo explains that in this “love contest” with God of bouncing off love through parallel mirrors the love became so deep that for the first time in his life he felt the need to apologize: “I’m sorry for not loving more.” He goes into a sermon about how we are petty, and selfish, etc. and how God loves us anyway. “Real love means: I really love you as you are. And I don’t need anything from you. And especially all those things that you think I want you to change about you, I don’t need you to change. I can accept them all exactly as they are. Because that’s love. And when you realize THAT, that’s what transforms you. It is not that God says that he loves you. He is demonstrating it. It’s the demonstration that transforms you.” Leo expresses that he was then for the first time in his life able to say “thank you” sincerely. Specifically, “thank you for your love”: “This is the point at which you’ve really been touched by God’s love. And at this point you realize that that’s it, that’s the point, that’s the lesson in life. That’s my only job. It’s to love.” And finally, that for the first time in his life he was able to say “I love you” and truly mean it. “And you fall in love with God… but it doesn’t end there.”
An interesting interpretation of the felt-sense of “truly meaning” words like “I’m sorry”, “thank you”, and “I love you” is that at this point Leo has really deeply annealed his nervous system into a vessel for coherent energy. In other words, at this point he is saying and meaning those words through the whole of his nervous system, rather than them coming from a fragmented region of a complex set of competing internal family systems in a scattered way. Which is, of course, the way it usually goes.
1:35:30 Leo explains that at this point he started going into the stage of being able to radiate love. That he was unable to radiate love before. “I love that you are not capable of love. I love that. And when that hits you, that’s what fills you with enough love to overcome your resistance to love that next level thing that you couldn’t love.” Then at ~ 1:38:00 it gets really serious. Leo explains that so far he was just loving and accepting past events and people. But he was then asked by God whether he would be willing to live through the worst things that have happened and will happen. To incarnate and be tortured, among many other horrible things. And that’s what true love really means. “When you see a murder on the TV, you have to realize that God lived through that. And the only reason he lived through that is because it loved it.”
I do not understand this. Here is where the distinction between the two kinds of senses of the word “love” become very important. I worry that Leo has annealed to the version of love with the meaning of “enjoyment” rather than “loving-kindness and compassion”. Because a loving God would be happy to take the place of someone who went through Hell. But would a loving God send himself to Hell if nobody had to in the first place? That would just create suffering out of nothing. So I am confused about why Leo would believe this to be the case. It’s quite possible that there are many maxima of symmetry in the nervous system you can achieve with 5-MeO-DMT, and some of them are loving in the sense of compassionate and others are crazy and would be willing to create suffering out of nothing from a misguided understanding of what love is supposed to be. Again, handle Plutonium with caution.
1:43:00 Leo started wondering “what is reality then?” And the answer was: “It’s infinite consciousness. Infinite formless consciousness. So what happens was that my mind in my visual field as I was in that bathtub. My mind and my visual field focused in on empty space, and I sort of zoomed into that empty space and realized that that empty space is just love”. He then describes a process where his consciousness became more and more concentrated and absorbed into space, each dot of consciousness branching out into more and more dots of consciousness, turning into the brightest possible white light. But when he inquired into what was that white light he kept seeing that there was no end to it, and rather, that each point was always connected to more points. Inquiring further, he would get the response that at the core, reality is pure love. That it wouldn’t be and couldn’t be any other way.
The description sounds remarkably close to the formless jhanas such as “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness”. The description itself is extremely reminiscent of an annealing process, reaching a highly energized state of consciousness nearly devoid of information content and nearly perfectly symmetrical. The fact that at this incredibly annealed level he felt so much love supports the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
147:28 – And after Leo realizes that “Of course it is love!” he says that’s when the fear comes: “Because then what you realize is that this is the end. This is the end of your life. You are dead. If you go any further you are dead. Everything will disappear. Your family, your friends, you parents, all of it is completely imaginary. And if you stop imagining it right now, it will all end. If you go any further into this Singularity, you will become pure, formless, infinite, love for ever, loving itself forever. And the entire universe will be destroyed as if it never existed. Complete nothingness. Complete everythingness. You will merge into everyone.”
This sounds like the transition between the 6th and 7th Jhana, i.e. between “boundless consciousness” and “nothingness”. Again, this would be the result of further loss of information via an annealing process, refining the symmetry up to that of a “point”. Interestingly, Mike Johnson in Principia Quallia points out that as symmetry approaches an asymptote of perfection you do get a higher quality of valence but at the cost of reduced consciousness. This might explain why you go from “the brightest possible love” to a feeling of nothingness at this critical transition.
1:48:25: “…You will merge into everyone. Your mother, your father, your children, your spouse, Hitler, terrorists, 9/11, Donald Trump, rape, murder, torture, everything will become pure infinite love, merging completely into itself, there will be no distinction between absolutely anything, and that will be the end. And you will realize what reality is. Infinite consciousness. Love. God. And you will realize that everything in your life from your birth to this point has just been some imaginary story. A dream that was design to lead you to pure absolute infinite love. And you will rest in that love forever. Forever falling in love with yourself. Forever making love to yourself. Forever in infinite union. With every possible object that could ever exist. Pure absolute, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, intelligent, consciousness. Everything that could ever possibly be, is you. And THAT is awakening. When you are this awake, you are dead. And you have no desire for life. There is no physical existence. There is no universe. Nothing remains. Your parents, and your spouse, and your children, they don’t stay back and keep living their lives, enjoying their life without you while your body drops dead. No, no, no, no, no. This is much more serious than that. If you do this. If you become infinite love, you will take everybody with you. There will not be anybody left. You will destroy the entire universe. Every single sentient being will become you. They will have no existence whatsoever. Zero. They will die with you. They will all awaken with you. It’s infinite awakening. It’s completely absolute. There will not be anything left. You will take the entire universe with you. Into pure oneness. THAT’S awakening.”
This is not the first time I hear about this kind of experience. It certainly sounds extraordinarily scary. Though perhaps a negative utilitarian would find it to be the ultimate relief and the best of all possible imaginable outcomes. With the human survival instinct, and quite possibly a body fully aroused with the incredible power of 5-MeO-DMT, this is bound to be one of the most terrifying feelings possible. It’s quite likely that it may be one element of what makes “bad 5-MeO-DMT experiences” so terrifying. But here we must recall that the map is not the territory. And while an annealing process might slowly write over every single facet of one’s model of reality and in turn making them part of a super-cluster of high-dimensional resonance that reflects itself seemingly infinitely, doing this does not entail that you are in fact about to destroy the universe. Though, admittedly, it will surely feel that way. Additionally, I would gather that were it possible to actually end the universe this way, somebody, somewhere, in some reality or another, would have already done so. Remember that if God could be killed, it’d be dead already.
1:52:01: “And I didn’t go there! As you can tell, since I’m still sitting here. I’m not there. I was too afraid to go there. And God was fine with it. It didn’t push me. But that’s not the end of the story! It’s still just the beginning.” He then goes on to explain that a part of him wanted to do it and another part of him didn’t want to. He says it got really loopy and weird; this really shook him. That God was beckoning him to go and be one forever, but he was still ambivalent and needed some time to think about it. He knew it would make no difference, but he still decided to ‘make preparations’ and tell his family and friends that he loves them before moving forward with a final decision to annihilate the universe. By the time he had done that… he had stopped taking 5-MeO-DMT: “The experiences had gotten so profound and so deep… this was roughly the 25th or 27th day of this whole 30 day process. I swore off 5-MeO-DMT and said ‘Ok I’m not doing any more of this shit. It’s enough'”. He explains that by this time the drug was making him feel infinite consciousness when waking up (from sleep) the next day. He felt the Singularity was sucking him into it. It felt both terrifying and irresistible. Every time he would go to sleep it would suck him in really strongly, and he kept resisting it. He would wake up sweaty and in a panic. He was tripping deeper in his sleep than in the bathtub. He couldn’t sleep without this happening, and it kept happening for about 5 days. “I just want to get back to normal. This is getting freaky now.”
I’ve heard this from more than a couple people. That is, that when one does 5-MeO-DMT enough times, and especially within a short enough period of time, the “realizations” start to also happen during sleep in an involuntarily way. One can interpret this as the annealing process of 5-MeO-DMT now latching on to sleep (itself a natural annealing process meant to lessen the technical debt of the nervous system). Even just a couple strong trips can really change what sleep feels like for many days. I can’t imagine just how intense it must have been for Leo after 25 days straight of using this drug.
2:01:40 – Leo explains that when he was dozing off with a blanket on his living room (terrified of sleeping on his bed due to the effect just described) he experienced a “yet deeper awakening” which involved realizing that all of his previous awakenings were just like points and that the new one was like a line connecting many points. “Everything I’ve said up to this point were just a single dimension of awakening. And then what I broke through to is a second dimension. A second dimension of awakening opened up. This second dimension is completely unimaginable, completely indescribable, cannot be talked about, cannot be thought about. And yet it’s there. In it, are things that are completely outside of the physical universe that you cannot conceive or imagine.” He goes on to explain that there are then also a third, fourth, fifth, etc. dimensions. And that he believes there is an infinite number of them. He barely even began to explore the second dimension of awakening, but he realized that it goes forever. It kept happening, he had intense emotional distress and mood swings. But gradually after five more days it subsided, and he started to be able to sleep more normally. “And I’ve been working to make sense of all of this for the last couple of weeks. So that’s what happened.”
Alright, this is out of my depth and I do not have an interpretation of what this “second dimension of awakening” is about. If anyone has any clue, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’m as as confused as Leo is about this.
~2:05:00 – Leo confesses he does not know what would happen if he went through with joining the Singularity and mentions that it sounds a bit like Mahasamādhi. He simply has not answers at this point, but he asserts that the experience has made him question the extent of the enlightenment of other teachers. It also has made him more loving. But still, he feels frustration: “I don’t know what to do from here.”
And neither do I. Do you, dear reader?
Postscript: In the last 10 minutes of the video Leo shares a heart warming message about how reality is, deep down, truly, “just love” and that him saying this may be a seed that will blossom into you finding this out for yourself at some point in the future. He ends by cautioning his audience to not believe as a matter of fact that this is the path for everyone. He suggests that others should just use his examples from his own journey as examples rather than an absolute guide or how-to for enlightenment. He asks his audience to make sure to question the depth of their own awakening – to not believe that they have reached the ultimate level. He admits he has no idea whether there is an ultimate level or not, and that he still has some healing to do on himself. He remains dissatisfied with his understanding of reality.
Even with the benefit of enormous hindsight, it is hard to introduce complex numbers in a compelling manner. Historically, we have seen how cubic equations forced them upon us algebraically, and in discussing Cotes’ work we saw something of the inevitability of their geometric interpretation. In this section we will attempt to show how complex numbers arise very naturally, almost inevitably, from a careful re-examination of plane Euclidean geometry.
Although the ancient Greeks made many beautiful and remarkable discoveries in geometry, it was two thousand years later that Felix Klein first asked and answered the question, “What is geometry?”
Let us restrict ourselves from the outset to plane geometry. One might begin by saying that this is the study of geometric properties of geometric figures in the plane, but what are (i) “geometric properties”, and (ii) “geometric figures”? We will concentrate on (i), swiftly passing over (ii) by interpreting “geometric figure” as anything we might choose to draw on an infinitely large piece of flat paper with an infinitely fine pen.
As for (i), we begin by noting that if two figures (e.g., two triangles), have the same geometric properties, then (from the point of view of geometry) they must be the “same”, “equal”, or, as one usually says, congruent. Thus if we had a clear definition of congruence (“geometric equality”) then we could reverse this observation and define geometric properties as those properties that are common to all congruent figures. How, then, can we tell if two figures are geometrically equal?
Consider the triangles in [fig 23], and imagine that they are pieces of paper you could pick up in your hand. To see if T is congruent with T’, you could pick up T and check whether it could be placed on top of T’. Note that it is essential that we be allowed to move T in space: in order to place T on top of T˜ we must first flip it over; we can’t just slide T around within the plane. Tentatively generalizing, this suggests that a figure F is congruent to another figure F’ if there exists a motion of F through space that makes it coincide with F’. Note that the discussion suggests that there are two fundamentally different types of motion: those that involve flipping the figure over, and those that do no. Later, we shall return to this important point.
It is clearly somewhat unsatisfactory that in attempting to define geometry in the plane we have appealed to the idea of motion through space. We now rectify this. Returning to [fig 23], imagine that T and T’ are drawn on separate, transparent sheets of plastic. Instead of picking up just the triangle T, we now pick up the entire sheet on which it is drawn, then try to place it on the second sheet so as to make T coincide with T’. At the end of this motion, each point A on T‘s sheet lies over a point A’ of T’‘s sheet, and we can now define the motion M to be this mapping A → A’ = M(A) of the plane to itself.
However, not any old mapping qualifies as a motion, for we must also capture the (previously implicit) idea of the sheet remaining rigid while it moves, so that distances between points remain constant during the motion. Here, then, is our definition:
A motion M is a mapping of the plane to itself such that the distance between any two points A and B is equal to the distance between their images A’ = M(A) and B’ = M(B). (22)
Note that what we have called a motion is often termed a “rigid motion”, or an “isometry”.
Armed with this precise concept of motion, our final definition of geometric equality becomes:
F is congruent to F’, written F ≅ F’, if there exists a motion M such that F’ = M(F). (23)
Next, as a consequence of our earlier discussion, a geometric property of a figure is one that is unaltered by all possible motions of the figure. Finally, in answer to the opening question of “What is geometry?”, Klein would answer that it is the study of these so-called invariants of the set of motions.
One of the most remarkable discoveries of the last century was that Euclidean geometry is not the only possible geometry. Two of these so-called non-Euclidean geometries will be studied in Chapter 6, but for the moment we wish only to explain how Klein was able to generalize the above ideas so as to embrace such new geometries.
The aim in (23) was to use a family of transformations to introduce the concept of geometric equality. But will this ≅-type of equality behave in the way we would like and expect? To answer this we must first make these expectations explicit. So as not to confuse this general discussion with the particular concept of congruence in (23), let us denote geometric equality by ~.
(i) A figure should equal itself: F ~ F’, for all F.
(ii) If F equals F’, then F’ should equal F: F ~ F’ ⇒ F’ ~ F.
(iii) If F and F’ are equal, and F’ and F” are equal, then F and F” should also be equal: F ~ F’ & F’ ~ F” ⇒ F ~ F”.
Any relation satisfying these expectations is called an equivalence relation.
Now suppose that we retain the definition (23) of geometric equality, but that we generalize the definition of “motion” given in (22) by replacing the family of distance-preserving transformations with some other family G of transformations.
It should be clear that not any old G will be compatible with our aim of defining geometric equality. Indeed, (i), (ii), and (iii) imply that G must have the following very special structure, which is illustrated in [fig 24].
(i) The family G must contain a transformation ε (called identity) that maps each point to itself.
(ii) If G contains a transformation M, then it must also contain a transformation M-1 (called the inverse) that undoes M. [Check for yourself that for M-1 to exist (let alone be a member of G) M must have the special properties of being (a) onto and (b) one-to-one, i.e., (a) every point must be the image of some point, and (b) distinct points must have distinct images.]
(iii) If M and N are members of G then so is the composite transformation N ∘ M = (M followed by N). This property of G is called closure.
We have thus arrived, very naturally, at a concept of fundamental importance in the whole of mathematics: a family G of transformations that satisfies these three requirements is called a group.
Let us check that the motions defined in (22) do indeed form a group: (i) Since the identity transformation preserves distances, it is a motion. (ii) Provided it exists, the inverse of a motion will preserve distances and hence will be a motion itself. As for existence, (a) it is certainly plausible that when we apply a motion to the entire plane then the image is the entire plane — we will prove this later — and (b) the non-zero distance between distinct points is preserved by a motion, so their images are again distinct. (iii) If two transformations do not alter distances, then applying them in succession will not alter distances either, so the composition of two motions is another motion.
Klein’s idea was that we could first select a group G at will, then define a corresponding “geometry” as the study of the invariants of that G. [Klein first announced this idea in 1872 — when he was 23 years old! — at the University of Erlangen, and it has thus come to be known as his Erlangen Program.] For example, if we choose G to be the group of motions, we recover the familiar Euclidean geometry of the plane. But this is far from being the only geometry of the plane, as the so-called projective geometry of [fig 24] illustrates.
Klein’s vision of geometry was broader still. We have been concerned with what geometries are possible when figures are drawn anywhere in the plane, but suppose for example that we are only allowed to draw within some disc D. It should be clear that we can construct “geometries of D” in exactly the same way that we constructed geometries of the plane: given a group H of transformations of D to itself, the corresponding geometry is the study of the invariants of H. If you doubt that any such group exists, consider the set of all rotations around the center of D.
The reader may well feel that the above discussion is a chronic case of mathematical generalization running amuck — that the resulting conception of geometry is (to coin a phrase) “as subtle as it is useless”. Nothing could be further from the truth! In Chapter 3 we shall be led, very naturally, to consider a particularly interesting group of transformations of a disc to itself. The resulting non-Euclidean geometry is called hyperbolic or Lobachevskian geometry, and it is the subject of Chapter 6. Far from being useless, this geometry has proved to be an immensely powerful tool in diverse areas of mathematics, and the insights it continues to provide lie on the cutting edge of contemporary research.
 The excellent book by Nikulin and Shafarevich  is the only other work we know of in which a similar attempt is made.
 Here G is the group of projections. If we do a perspective drawing of figures in the plane, then the mapping from the plane to the “canvas” plane is called a perspectivity. A projection is then defined to be any sequence of perspectivities. Can you see why the set of projections should form a group?
 In more abstract settings it is necessary to add a fourth requirement of associativity, namely, A∘ (B∘ C) = (A∘ B)∘ C. Of course for transformations this is automatically true.
Note: QRI‘s Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) refers to the claim that valence (the pleasure-pain axis) manifests in the symmetry of the mathematical object that corresponds to each experience such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the phenomenal character of that experience. Using the lens of Klein’s conception of geometry, one could in turn give to STV a strictly geometrical interpretation. Namely, that the shape of one’s experience will be of high valence when it contains geometric invariants. In addition, Noether’s theorem (one of QRI’s lineages, which states that “every differentiable symmetry of the action of a physical system has a corresponding conservation law”) along with physicalismof consciousness suggests that for every symmetry in the mathematical object that corresponds to consciousness there is a corresponding preserved quantity. Thus, one could posit– assuming that the STV is correct– high-valence states might be extremely energy-efficient in addition to feeling good.
We are currently preparing a paper that ties all of these threads together in a way that, we believe, may turn out to have tremendous explanatory power. In particular, this formal account of valence will be able to explain succinctly a wide range of disparate and exotic empirical phenomena such as:
Why phenomenal symmetry during psychedelic experiences is correlated with more extreme valence values.
How and why Jhanas present the way they do, namely, as having:
Read at the Theatre de I’Oeuvre (Paris), the World Exposition of Modern Art (Geneva), and published inComoedia in January 1921
Futurism, founded by us in Milan in 1909, gave to the world a hatred of the Museum, the Academy and Sentimentalism; it gave the world Action-Art, the defence of youth against all senility, the glorification of illogical and mad innovative genius, the artistic sensibility of mechanisation, of speed, of the music hall, and of the simultaneous interpenetration of modern life, words in freedom, plastic dynamism, noise-intoners, synthetic theatre. Futurism today redoubles its creative effort.
Last summer, at Antignano, where the street named after Amerigo Vespucci, discoverer of America, curvingly coasts along the sea, I invented Tactilism. Red flags waved from the workshops taken over by the workers.
I was naked in the silky water that was torn by rocks, foamy scissors knives razors, among the iodine-filled mattresses of seaweed. I was nude in the sea of flexible steel, which had a fertile and virile breathing. I drank from the goblet of the sea filled to the rim with genius. The sun, with its long roasting flames, vulcanised my body and bolted the keel of my forehead rich with sails. A working-class boy, Who smelled of salt and hot stone, looked, smiling, at my first tactile board:
“Having fun making little boats?!“
I answered: “Yes, I’m building a craft that will take the human spirit to unknown waters.” Here are my reflections, the reflections of a swimmer: The unrefined and elemental majority of men came out of the Great War concerned only to conquer a greater material well-being. The minority, composed of artists and thinkers, sensitive and refined, instead displays the symptoms of a deep and mysterious ill that is probably a consequence of the great tragic exertion that the war imposed on humanity.
This illness displays, as symptoms, a sad listlessness, an excessively feminine neurasthenia, a hopeless pessimism, a feverish indecision of lost instincts, and an absolute lack of will.
The rough and elemental majority of men tumultuously hurls toward the revolutionary conquest of the Communist paradise and definitively storms the problem of happiness, convinced that it has solved it by satisfying all material needs and appetites.
The intellectual minority ironically scorns this breathless attempt, and no longer enjoying the ancient pleasures of Religion, of Art, of Love, which previously constituted its privilege and its shelter, brings life, which it no longer knows how to enjoy, to a cruel trial, and abandons itself to refined pessimism, sexual inversions, and to the artificial paradises of cocaine, opium, ether, etc. That majority and this minority both denounce Progress, Civilisation, the mechanical powers of Speed, of Comfort, of Hygiene, Futurism in short, as being responsible for their past, present, and future misfortunes.
Almost everyone proposes a return to a savage life, contemplative, slow, solitary, far from the hated cities.
As for us Futurists, we who bravely face the agonising drama of the post-war period, we are in favour of all the revolutionary attacks that the majority will attempt. But, to the minority of artists and thinkers, we yell at the top of our lungs: Life is always right!
The artificial paradises with which you attempt to murder her are useless. Stop dreaming of an absurd return to the savage life. Beware of condemning the superior powers of society and the marvels of speed. Heal, rather, the illness of the post-war period, giving humanity new and nutritious joys. Instead of destroying human throngs, it is necessary to perfect them. Intensify the communication and the fusion of human beings. Destroy the distances and the barriers that separate them in love and friendship. Give fullness and total beauty to these two essential manifestations of life: Love and Friendship.
In my careful and anti-traditional observations of all the erotic and sentimental phenomena that unite both sexes, and of the no-less-complex phenomena of friendship, I have understood that human beings speak to each other with their mouths and with their eyes, but do not manage a true sincerity because of the lack of sensitivity of the skin, which is still a mediocre conductor of thought.
While eyes and voices communicate their essences, the senses of touch of two individuals communicate almost nothing in their clashes, intertwining, or rubbing. Thus, the need to transform the handshake, the kiss, and the coupling into continuous transmissions of thought.
I started by submitting my sense of touch to an intensive treatment, pinpointing the confused phenomena of will and thought on various points on my body, and especially on the palms of my hands. This training is slow but easy, and all healthy bodies can, through this training, give surprising and exact results.
On the other hand, unhealthy sensibilities, which draw their excitability and their apparent perfection from the very weakness of the body, will achieve great tactile power less easily, without duration or confidence. I have created a first educational scale of touch, which is, at the same time, a scale of tactile values for Tactilism, or the Art of Touch.
First scale, level, with four different categories of touch.
First category: extremely confident touch, abstract, cold.
Second category: touch without heat, persuasive, reasoning.
Third category: exciting, lukewarm, nostalgic.
Wool from the Pyrenees,
Silk Wool Crepe
Fourth category: almost irritating, hot, determined.
Through this separation of tactile values, I have created:
1. Simple tactile boards that I will present to the public in our contactilations or conferences on the Art of touch.
I have arranged the previously catalogued tactile values in wise harmonic or antithetical combinations.
2. Abstract or suggestive tactile boards (hand journeys).
These tactile boards have arrangements of tactile values that allow hands to wander over them, following coloured trails and experiencing a succession of suggestive sensations, whose rhythm, in turn languid, cadenced, or tumultuous, is regulated by exact directions.
One of these abstract tactile boards made by me, and that has as a title Sudan-Paris, contains, in the part representing Sudan, rough, greasy coarse, prickly, burning tactile values (spongy material, sponge, sandpaper, wool, brush, wire brush); in the part representing The Sea, there are slippery, metallic, fresh tactile values (silver-coated paper); in the part representing Paris, there are soft, delicate, caressing tactile values, hot and cold at the same time (silk, velvet, feathers, down).
3. Tactile boards for the opposite sexes.
In these tactile boards, the arrangement of tactile values allows the hands of a man and a woman, tied together, to take a tactile journey together and evaluate it. These tactile boards are extremely varied, and the pleasure that they give is enriched by the harnessing of rival sensibilities, which will attempt to feel more acutely and better explain their rival sensations. These tactile boards are destined to replace the brutalising game of chess. [Emphasis mine]
4. Tactile pillows.
5. Tactile sofas.
6. Tactile beds.
7. Tactile shirts and dresses.
8. Tactile rooms.
In these tactile rooms, we will have floors and walls made of large tactile boards. Tactile values of mirrors, running water, rocks, metals, brushes, lightly electrified wires, marble, velvet, rugs that will give the bare feet of the male and female dancers varied pleasures.
9. Tactile streets.
10. Tactile theatres.
We will have theatres arranged for Tactilism. Seated spectators will rest their hands on long, running tactile ribbons that will produce tactile sensations with different rhythms. It will also be possible to place these ribbons on small rotating wheels, accompanying them with music and light.
11. Tactile boards for the improvisation of words in freedom.
The tactilist will express aloud the sensations that his hands’ journey transmits to him. His will be a free-word improvisation, that is, freed from all rhythm, prosody and syntax, an improvisation essential and synthetic and with as little of the human element
as possible. The improvising tactilist may be blindfolded, but it is preferable to wrap him in the light of a projector. The new initiates, who have not yet trained their tactile sensibilities, will be blindfolded. But, as for the true tactilists, the full light of a projector is preferable, since darkness has the drawback of concentrating sensitivity into an excessive abstraction.
The education of the sense of touch.
1. It will be necessary to keep the hands gloved for many days, during which the brain will attempt to condense in them the desire for varied tactile sensations.
2. To swim underwater, in the ocean, trying to distinguish tactilely the plaited currents and different temperatures.
3. Enumerate and recognise every evening, in absolute darkness, all of the objects in the bedroom. It was precisely with giving myself over to this exercise in the underground darkness of a trench in Gorizia, in 1917, that I made my first tactile experiments.
I never claimed to have invented the tactile sensibility, which has already manifested itself in genial forms in the Jongleuse and in the Hors~nature of Rachilde. Other writers and artists had premonitions of tactilism. Moreover, the plastic art of tactilism has been in existence for a long time. My great friend Boccioni, futurist painter and sculptor, felt as a tactilist when he created, in 1919, his plastic ensemble Fusion of a Head and a Window, with materials that are absolute contraries in tactile weight and value: iron, porcelain, and women’s hair.
The Tactilism created by me is clearly distinct from the plastic arts. It has nothing to do with, nothing to gain from, and everything to lose by association with painting or sculpture. It is necessary to avoid, as much as possible in the tactile boards, a variety in colour, which lends itself to plastic impressions. It will be difficult for painters and sculptors, who tend naturally to subordinate tactile values to visual values, to create significant tactile boards. Tactilism seems to me particularly suited to young poets, pianists, typists, and to all erotic, refined, and potent temperaments.
Tactilism, nevertheless, must avoid not only collaboration with plastic arts but also morbid erotomania. It must, simply, have as a goal tactile harmony, and it must indirectly collaborate in the perfecting of spiritual communication between human beings through the epidermis.
The identification of five senses is arbitrary, and one day we will certainly discover and catalogue numerous other senses. Tactilism will contribute to this discovery.
Imagine that you were tasked with creating a molecule to represent the spirit of California. I think that I would just glue together two MDMA molecules and call it a day.
It turns out Californidine is indeed a real molecule, named after the California Poppy. I am still wrapping my head around the fact that Californidine can be described as two MDMA molecules sharing the nitrogen atom and with the end of the carbon chain of each MDMA molecule bonded at the 2-position of the benzene ring of the other one (minus a hydrogen atom). Interestingly, this compound has no psychedelic or empathogenic action. At best, it can be described as a very mild and unreliable relaxing agent of “herbal strength” akin to the active ingredients of chamomile, valerian, or ashwagandha. So, joining two powerful heart-openers gives rise to a mild sleep-inducer? Perhaps this is a metaphor for something.
Californidine and MDMA
But that’s not what I want to talk to you about today. While gluing together psychoactive molecules may not have a (cartoonishly) desirable additive effect, doing so does express the spirit of what I want to propose today. And that is the impulse to use a creative and fun approach to drug design, letting your imagination run wild to avoid prematurely discarding one’s crazy ideas.
Notable Leads for Great Drug Combos
Over the last 10 years I’ve read many (many!) trip reports and have talked to hundreds of experienced psychonauts (see also: r/replications). It is largely thanks to a subset of these psychonauts, which for lack of a better term could be described as the subset of rational psychonauts, that I’ve been able to assemble empirically testable models for psychedelic phenomenology (some examples: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, Quantifying Bliss, How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD, etc.). Although my focus has largely been on the effects of individual drugs, I’ve become very cognizant of the fact that drug combinations can produce effects not accessible with individual substances. In other words, when it comes to mixing psychoactive substances, the sum is more often than not different from the sum of its parts. Some of these effects seem extremely significant both from a scientific and a philosophical point of view.
But first, an important disclaimer: mixing drugs is dangerous and you should never do it unless you really know what you are doing. The pile of celebrity deaths caused by multiple drug intoxication is only scratching the surface. Indeed, there are many combinations of drugs that are deadly even when the individual drugs taken on their own are relatively safe. For example, while 5-MeO-DMT is relatively safe when vaporized (save for egregiously negligent uses of the drug and the occasional drowning in one’s own vomit), taking 5-MeO-DMT orally in combination with an MAOI leads to extremely toxic reactions, such as severe hypertensive symptoms, overheating, and serotonin syndrome. Don’t do it. As a very rough guide for how mixtures of psychoactives behave, study the chart below.
Welcome to the practice of combining drugs. You may die. (source)
That said, just as drug combinations have a dangerous side, they also likely harbor hidden gems that are very safe, enjoyable, and mind-expanding in ways inaccessible via single drugs. As a general overview, some examples of the possible benefits of drug combinations include: (1) Enhanced euphoria, e.g. see speedball which is massively euphoric but also very dangerous, (2) reduced psychological discomfort (e.g. anxiolytics with psychedelics), (3) uniquely interesting effects, e.g. LSD + MDMA (see below), and (4) reduced physical side-effects and medical risks, e.g. calcium blockers to reduce MDMA neurotoxicity, 5HT2B antagonists to reduce cardiotoxicity of psychedelics, etc. as we’ll discuss. In addition, it is worth mentioning that from a therapeutic point of view, we also have the “more dakka effect“, where some conditions only respond to combining enough drugs (e.g. oncology). It’s possible chronic pain or severe depression may legitimately require multiple drugs to be adequately dealt with. Now let us examine in more detail some particularly interesting categories of drug combinations:
Psychedelics + Anxiolytics: According to many reports, phenibut in small doses seems to significantly reduce the anxiety that comes up on psychedelics. I am ambivalent about sharing this information given the fact that phenibut can become a huge problem for some people, but I think that on the whole it is wise for people to know that an over-the-counter “nootropic” can actually help avoid fear, discomfort, and panic attacks during a psychedelic experience.
Cannabis + Psychedelics: I generally find two kinds of psychedelic drug users. Those who cannot think of having a psychedelic trip without at some point smoking a joint, vaping, or eating a cannabis edible. And then those who would never dare to combine the two because they once had a terrifying experience with the combo. Interestingly, some of the people I’ve met over the years who seem to be able to easily handle massive doses of psychedelics (e.g. 500 micrograms of acid) respond terribly to weed, and especially badly if they are already tripping. Cannabis both modifies and potentiates psychedelic states of mind. It has a tendency to make the experience more conceptual rather than sensory or mystical. The combination also greatly increases the probability of getting stuck in time loops.
Empathogens + Psychedelics: One of the best descriptions of MDMA + LSD (also called candy-flipping) that I’ve found comes from Steven Lehar (emphasis added):
Under LSD and ecstasy I could see the flickering blur of visual generation most clearly. And I saw peculiar ornamental artifacts on all perceived objects, like a Fourier representation with the higher harmonics chopped off. LSD by itself creates sharply detailed ornamental artifacts, like a transparent overlay of an ornamental lattice or filigree pattern superimposed on the visual scene, especially in darkness. Ecstasy smooths out those sharp edges and blurs them into a creamy smooth rolling experience. I would sometimes feel some part of my world suddenly bulging out to greater magnification, like a fish-eye lens distortion appearing randomly in space, stretching everything in that portion of space like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.
Not everyone responds well to this combination, and given the nature of these substances, it seems likely that the dosages and the relative timing have a large influence on how the experience develops. I’ve heard three relatively “established” ways in which people use this combination. First, you have the school that says that you should take the MDMA at or slightly after the peak of the effects of LSD, that is 4-4:30h after taking it. The reasoning here is that you don’t want to be caught coming down from the MDMA while still having a long time to go on LSD since the acid could enhance the feelings of the comedown. The delayed gratification also pays-off by giving you several hours to face the problems you want to solve unaided and see how far you can get before the mood boost of MDMA gives you the determination to be contented with it.
The second school of thought about candy-flipping says that the biggest factor in how psychedelic experiences turn out is how they start. So what you want to do is take the MDMA 1 to 1:30 hours before the acid. This way, you only embark upon the inner journey when you are already in a really, really good chill state of mind. Some people report that the acid picks up the empathogenic quality of the state, amplifies it, and carries it on for much longer than if you had only taken MDMA alone.
There are many proponents and detractors to both of these schools. What I’ve seen more or less everyone agree on is to avoid taking substantial doses of LSD and MDMA (e.g. 200micrograms LSD + 120mg MDMA) at the same time. Apparently this is simply just too overwhelming and synergistic to be enjoyable, often causing a lot of nausea and palpitations.
The third school, however, is to take only a small dose of both at the same time. Say, 35micrograms LSD and 35mg MDMA. This apparently is an extremely positive combination. The experience is not mild due to the synergy, and it seems to provide an open, creative, level-headed mindset for many hours without much of a comedown or hangover. As with everything here, your mileage may vary.
Psychedelics + Dissociatives: Psychedelics and dissociatives have profound non-linear mixing effects. According to multiple sources, the right combination of LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination“. This is a state of consciousness in which you gain a great degree of conscious control over the contents of the hallucinated world, so that you can project your will by saying “let there be a chair in front of me” and you will see it manifest in exquisite detail. You can rotate, translate, invert, fibrate, and project the chair in any way you want, as if you were now able to use your brain as a very general game engine of consciousness. That said, even when this doesn’t happen, the combination of psychedelics and dissociatives is ridiculously synergistic. People report getting stuck in extremely energetic time-loops akin to those caused by psychedelics and cannabis, but more powerful (cf. trip report of DMT + nitrous oxide). Steven Lehar calls the effect where the presence of a psychedelic changes the quality of a dissociative as “dissociative coloring”. I’ve been amazed at the fact that there is no mistaking when someone has previously experienced LSD and nitrous together. You don’t get reactions like “it didn’t do much for me”. This combo usually has a special place in the memory of a person who has experienced it. Eyes brighten, curiosity sparks. I’ve been asked on multiple occasions “what do you think is going on with the strange synergy between LSD and nitrous?” Now, 5-MeO-DMT and DMT are very different, and the LSD + nitrous state seems to have some resemblance with the 5-MeO-DMT state. They share that strange feeling of becoming a kind of saturated resonance box. The feeling is one of becoming a vessel full of coordinated and coherent vibrations that unearth and dissolve internal boundaries and blockages. The process inherently blocks your ability to conceptualize in a dualistic way. The cognitive content of the state is better captured by a huge blinking sign that reads “THIS, THIS, THIS” on repeat rather than the more usual “that thing over there connected to this over here, modulated by what happens there” kind of cognitive state we are more familiar with. DMT on its own is very different than this, in that the mental formations and patterns of binding that emerge are extremely specific, detailed, and irreducibly complex. Not so on the upper ranges of the dissociative and psychedelic cocktail, where the resonance is profound and the asymmetries needed to store complex information are constantly smoothed out by the ongoing full-body bath of reverb. (cf. Neural Annealing).
Dissociatives + Empathogens: According to several trip reports and credible personal communications, taking ketamine while on MDMA can bring back “the magic” that one only ever experienced with MDMA the first few times using it. Also MDMA and nitrous have profound research-worthy synergy.
Potentiation: Shulgin reported that substances that don’t feel psychedelically active on their own may nonetheless potentiate the effects of other psychedelics. For instance:
(with 160 mg of MDPR followed at 2h by 100μg LSD) This proved to be almost too intoxicating, and a problem arose that had to have a solution. The entire research group was here, and all were following this same regimen. Two hours into the second half of the experiment a telephone call came that reminded me of a promise I had made to perform in a social afternoon with the viola in a string quartet. Why did I answer the phone? My entire experience was, over the course of about 20 minutes, pushed down to a fragile threshold, and I drove about 10 minutes to attend a swank afternoon event and played an early Beethoven and a middle Mozart with an untouched glass of expensive Merlot in front of me. I could always blame the booze. I declined the magnificent food spread, split, and returned to my own party. Safely home, and given 20 more minutes, I was back into a rolling +++ and I now know that the mind has a remarkable ability to control the particular place the psyche is in.
More common than the above, ayahuasca is intrinsically a drug combo primarily of the potentiation kind. As mentioned before, cannabis not only alters but also potentiates the effects of psychedelics. It is worth mentioning there is a community of people who believe that noopept (a cholinergic nootropic, see below) can potentiate MDMA. While there is some evidence that MDMA is itself mildly cholinergic– and thus provides a sense of mental clarity in addition to the loved-up feeling- too much cholinergic action tends to make people feel rigid, robotic, and hyper-cerebral. I am therefore personally skeptical of the benefits of combining something like noopept with MDMA, as the potentiation of some of its qualities may come at the cost of reduced emotional sensitivity. Why trade a feeling of renewed innocence and receptivity with calculating prowess? I doubt this is the best use of a roll.
Anti-tolerance Drugs: This is a category of combinations with tremendous potential to relieve suffering, to the extent that I think of it as a humanitarian tragedy that there are no concerted research efforts currently in this direction. Sufferers of chronic pain and treatment-resistance depression could make use of drugs that help them keep the tolerance to the drugs they depend upon for having a livable life under control. I know this has a lot of the ring of turtles all the way down (“when are you going to get the anti-tolerance drugs for anti-tolerance drugs? And then the anti-tolerance for anti-tolerance for…”) but I am sincere when I say that looking here may pay off in spades. Already we see ibogaine doing other-worldly magnificent things to cure addiction and reverse tolerance. Who knows what a large targeted research program with this focus may discover. Some examples of anti-tolerance drugs include proglumide, ibogaine, and black seed oil for opioids, and flumazenil for benzodiazepines.
Prevent Physical Side Effects: Epidemiological data suggests that chronic or heavy use of 5HT2B agonists may lead to heart valve disease (cf. Fen-Phen), which does not bode well for the long-term (as opposed to acute) safety of many psychedelic compounds. Now, neuroscientist Thomas Ray believes that 5HT2B may be necessary for some of the characteristic psychedelic action of entheogens, so blocking it altogether may come at the cost of eliminating the reason why the drug is interesting. That said, we do know that 5-MeO-DMT is profoundly psychedelic and yet has negligible 5HT2B activity. It would be very useful to know what happens when one combines psychedelics with heavy 5HT2B affinity, like 2C-B and DOB, with 5HT2B antagonists (usually prescription medicines). Would blocking 5HT2B agonism avoid cardiotoxicity? And what would the drug feel like then? Another interesting lead is the affinity of compounds like 2C-E and 2C-T-2 to the 5HT3 receptor, which is predominantly in the gut and modulates feelings like nausea. Additionally, since 5HT3 antagonists are antiemetic it really stands to reason that taking one before e.g. tripping on shrooms may give you a much less, ahem, visceral experience. Finally, I would like to explore the implications of the fact that of all of the compounds in Ray’s study the only one with significant affinity for calcium channels is MDMA. Would this be related to its neurotoxicity? And would taking a calcium channel blocker prevent it? It might still be wise regardless simply as a way to lessen the cardiac load of the compound.
Nootropic Stacks (cf. the Qualia Pill): Many people who explore nootropics make “stacks”. That is, rather than taking only piracetam, they might take a combination of piracetam, aniracetam, pramiracetam, coluracetam, and l-tyrosine. I suspect that this is popular because most nootropics are pretty mild and often hard to notice, and people want to be able to feel the effects. I generally do not think this is sensible, though, as we don’t understand these substances well enough. More so, branded “nootropic stacks” can have upwards of 30 different psychoactive substances crammed together in half a dozen pills you are supposed to take daily. While I do think there are likely gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of cognition-boosting chemicals, I simply do not see any way in which the current major brands of nootropic stacks could have done the type of research needed to find them. I therefore do not personally recommend you go out and try such combos, at least not until we know a lot more about how to do combinations properly. If you want to try nootropic stacks, I’d recommend you start with small doses of two or three well-researched nootropics at most and do your own research thoroughly before settling on a particular combination.
LSD + DMT Visual Replication
Psychedelics and Psychedelics: A classic psychedelic combo that I’ve heard a lot about is LSD + DMT. The state that emerges from this combination is apparently unique, though if you take enough DMT the LSD fades into the background. Apparently psychedelics tend to have a characteristic spectral effect on your brain’s harmonics (see: Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves on LSD), which manifests in the form of experiencing “vibes of different frequencies” specific to the drug you are taking. The case of LSD and DMT is very interesting, since their characteristic frequencies are sufficiently far apart (to put a number on it, LSD may be in the vicinity of 18Hz while DMT may be close to 30Hz) that they can be separated easily. You thus get a spectral effect of two peaks interfering with one another, oftentimes creating a powerful 3D grid of Moiré patterns, like a super-charged version of the “regular” DMT Chrysanthemum. As a method for spectral analysis, studying the beat patterns of psychedelic drug combos could go a long way in formulating a systematic characterization of their phenomenology. Speculatively, this may even allow us to come up with specific psychedelic drug cocktails that produce maximally consonant harmonious effects.
A final thought to add to this section concerns the fact that people respond differently to drugs. One can reason that if drug A affects 20% of people in a different way while drug B affects 10% of people in a different way, that A + B would lead to 4 different kinds of responses. More so, the more drugs you pile on top of each other, the more specific and individualized the response would be. I think that this is likely true in the general case, but I would argue that it is not universally true. A useful analogy here is with the way people respond to the scent of different molecules: you may lack the gene that encodes the receptor for a particular molecule, but perfumes usually have 30 or more scent-contributing molecules, so the experience of a perfume may be more similar between people than their experience of individual molecules. At the extreme, we have the phenomenon of “white noise scent” where once you mix 40+ molecules in equal (intensity-adjusted) proportions that span scent-space, it all starts smelling the same. The notion of “scent entropy” can be imported to drugs as well: I would expect a kind of inverted U-curve for “how idiosyncratic” the responses to drug combinations are as a function of the total entropy of the combo.
Drug Cocktails From First Principles
The way we aim to understand psychoactive substances at the Qualia Research Institute is in terms of the way they modify the neuroacoustic profile of the brain. And while this is what I see as the most promising approach moving forward, I believe that there is nonetheless a lot of low-hanging fruit at the receptor level of analysis.
The first time I’d thought of trying to emulate the effects of a drug using a cocktail of other drugs came up years ago when I found out that MDMA is likely neurotoxic. At the time I thought perhaps it was just a matter of getting the right dopaminergic, serotonergic, and oxytocinergic activity going for you to replicate the MDMA high. It’s a good thought, and some people have taken it to heart, such as the creators of “Poly”, an MDMA-like cocktail (cf. Kisspeptine). But as we’ll see, MDMA is more complex than that, and we may need to consider far more variables to make a “credible MDMA substitute”.
Looking beyond drug combos of only two or three drugs, and with a nod to concepts from the field of high-entropy alloys (HEAs), we could start thinking about the secret gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of “high-entropy drug combos”. But what kind of principles could we use to safely combine 5+ drugs? The full story will probably be much, much more complicated than the following approach, but it is still nonetheless worth exploring as a first pass. Namely, to break down each drug in terms of their receptor affinity profile and then use those affinities additively to create arbitrary “synthetic” receptor affinity profiles. There are many reasons why this might not work: receptor affinity may not work linearly or have a clear rule-based behavior. For instance, it is still unclear if a single drug that has affinity for key serotonin receptors (say 5HT2A, 5HT2B, and 5HT7) in addition to working as an NMDR antagonist would produce the same feeling of “synergistic action” as there is between psychedelics and dissociatives. More so, there could be additional intra-cellular signaling specific to each molecule, so that two molecules that work as agonists with the exact same 5HT2B affinity may have different downstream effects inside the neuron, and then those intracellular effects might have phenomenological properties of their own. But leaving all of those caveats and unknowns aside for a moment, what would it look like to create drug cocktails with this method?
True for both people and drugs!
After giving it some thought I realized that the problem can be reduced to a non-negative least squares (NNLS) optimization (non-negative because, as they say: “you can always take more drugs, but you cannot take less drugs”). It turns out there are already open source implementations of algorithms that solve this optimization problem (for both R and Python)*. So I downloaded the data from the famous Thomas Ray study of psychedelic receptor affinity and played with the data and the non-negative least squares method in a Jupyter notebook for a bit. The first thing I tried was to create a compound like 2C-B but better. Under dubious- but not entirely random- assumptions, I set the desired receptor affinity to be that of 2C-B but with the following modifications: to have the 5HT2B affinity be as low as possible in order to minimize cardiotoxicity concerns, and borrow from MDMA’s unique profile the hypothesis that the Imidazoline receptor is related to heart-opening effects. Additionally, I modified the receptor profile so that the drug would give you more focus than 2C-B by having a higher affinity for the dopamine receptors. To top it off, I racked up the desired receptor affinity for 5HT7, as it has been implicated in providing the more utterly mind-blowing power of psychedelics. I entered these modifications into the NNLS optimizer and the output I got was**:
I see, so since 2C-B is still the backbone of the desired affinity pattern, it appears in high proportion in the mixture as a kind of “base” on top of which the modifications are made. It makes sense that 5-MeO-DMT would come next as it is pretty selective for 5HT7 (remember, the most literally mind-blowing chemical), and MDMA would follow due to the desire for Imidazoline affinity. That by the way, is also probably partly why the formula contains a pinch of Mescaline, to round up that Imidazoline for good measure. I then decided to relax the 5HT7 requirement and instead increase the 5HT6 and 5HT5A, and got the following formula:
And this now looks pretty different. After playing like this for a while, it occurred to me to use this technique to basically try to reconstruct a drug using a non-negative linear combination of the remaining drugs available. Imagine for example that you are stuck in quarantine at your house and you don’t have any 2C-B to kill time (I know! Very relatable isn’t it?), but you do somehow happen to have an assortment of hundreds of other unscheduled random research chemicals. Could you combine them in such a way that you approximate the effects of 2C-B? Well, let’s see.
Here are the “drug reconstructions” the method derives (again, please, don’t try this at home):
I am pleasantly surprised to see the formulas actually do seem pretty intuitive to me. Take for example the DIPT reconstruction. The top two ingredients are 5-MeO-DIPT and DPT, which are the two closest structural analogues of DIPT in the dataset. Or take the one for DOB: this is the amphetamine version of 2C-B, so it makes sense that both an amphetamine psychedelic (Aleph-2) and 2C-B would make up the top two ingredients. Or consider 5-MeO-DMT, with its most prominent ingredient being 5-MeO-TMT, which is one carbon atom away in terms of structure. Or see how Mescaline’s heart-opening effects are well represented by its reconstruction with MDMA and MDA, while TMA contributes the receptor affinity characteristic of the trimethoxy class of functional groups, along with another Mescaline-like phenethylamine, 4C-T-2. Alas, here is where an imperfect understanding of drug interactions could come and bite us in the ass: if 4C-T-2 is anything like 2C-T-2, it might have some MAOI action, which could be potentially very dangerous to combine with compounds like MDMA. Needless to say, before you go out and try these crazy drug cocktails, we first need a thorough understanding of each drug well beyond just its affinity to “only” 30 or so receptors.
Now, not every reconstruction makes sense to me, and really only a few substances have what I would call a descent mean squared error. See the receptor affinity tables below for examples of both successful and unsuccessful reconstructions (only non-zero entries shown):
2C-T-2: Error of 1.31
DOB: Error of 1.51
Aleph-2: Error of 1.85
2C-B: Error of 2.34
2C-B-fly: Error of 2.76
Ibogaine: Error of 7.05
MDMA: Error of 7.06
DOB and 2C-T-2 have some of the lowest errors in the sample, meaning that their reconstructions are pretty good, while Ibogaine and MDMA have two of the worst error rates, and their reconstructions are still obviously pretty far from the goal. Naturally, if we were ever to test this method in the lab (with e.g. a drug discrimination paradigm) we would probably start with the most accurate reconstructions first. For instance, train rats to distinguish between 2C-B and DOB, and see if administering the (2C-B-containing) “DOB reconstruction” makes the rats think they got DOB rather than 2C-B.
Master Druggist (Synapse? Dendrite?)
I would like to conclude this essay with an interesting speculation: what if we developed drug combos like we develop perfumes? It is my appreciation that it takes a very high level of intelligence, domain expertise, and psychological robustness to be able to contribute usefully to the field of psychonautics. Sasha Shulgin spent over 30 years taking hundreds of completely new drugs, and I would very much trust his judgement about what makes a great psychedelic drug combo than I would trust a random BlueLight or Erowid user. (As an aside: Shulgin was extremely cautious in his approach, but he certainly wasn’t doing some of the low-hanging fruit on safety, such as wearing a heart monitor or measuring his blood pressure when taking a new drug, for starters. Future systematic psychonautic work should also record as much biometric data as is feasible). You wouldn’t put on a perfume made by someone who has only ever worn Axe, would you? Training a “Nose” takes up to 7 years, and it involves becoming deeply familiar with the scent of a long list of molecules, accords, and perfumes. Likewise, I’d expect that in order to be qualified to find extremely good drug combinations, one would first need to become familiar with the effect of many different individual drugs, “natural drug accords” (e.g. peyote), and designed drug cocktails. Only once you have an intuitive sense of how e.g. the sigma receptor interacts with the 5HT1A receptor would I trust your judgement about adding a pinch of agmatine to your already convoluted mixture of 20 psychoactive substances. A Super-Shulgin Academy could train people to be professional drug cocktail makers (if perfumers are called “Noses” would we call Super-Shulgin certified cocktail makers “Dendrites”?). As discussed above, this assumes that we can do this safely, which I suspect will be possible once we map out the space of dangerous combinations and receptors we shouldn’t mess with to avoid side effects like cardiotoxicity (e.g. 5HT2B, 5HT3A, calcium channels, etc.).
You come to the master cocktail designer with a general concept for a new recreational drug, and they would come up with activity profiles that best evoke those feelings. The Dendrite would select from hundreds or thousands*** of pure chemicals and accords to create your unique cocktail. As is the case with Noses in the perfume industry, a Dendrite would tend to have a set of about one to two hundred “frequently used” compounds, and a dozen or so “signature” ones they’re deeply familiar with and that usually reveal who the Druggist is, if found in large proportions in the end product. Of course there would be “house favorites” (e.g. the classic “ambroxan bomb” of Dior fragrances for men) and chemical fads (e.g. the wide adoption of Iso E Super in 90s perfumes). Every year would come with a new season of amazing, safe, and uniquely interesting recreational drug cocktails.
Iso E Super
In perfumery you find both natural and synthetic “accords”: “Violet reconstructions” attempt to emulate the smell of violet but in a much more long-lasting, storable, and versatile way. Good Dendrites would not only use “natural accords” such as “peyote” or “marijuana plant” but would also make their own, aided with computer models and datasets of trip reports along with their own first person experiences. In both perfumery and professional drug cocktail making we would study accords packed with combos of qualia-triggering chemicals, and a Dendrite could be known not only for making good final products, but for making excellent accords with predictable and desirable effects.
To finalize the analogy (and this article) we could also discuss the way in which perfumes feel “broad spectrum” thanks to being constructed by combining “top, heart, and base notes”. Roughly speaking, top notes tend to “feel higher frequency” (such as citric scents) while base notes tend to “feel low frequency” (such as woody scents), not unlike how a symphony will tend to combine sounds across the spectrum. The most interesting, voluptuous, and commercially viable combos would also probably have a broad spectrum of activity. They would be anxiolytic, exciting, relaxing, trippy, and empathogenic to various degrees all at once. They would combine fast, slow, and spiritual euphoria in a single power punch of qualia cornucopia. As such, each drug cocktail made this way would entail an entire worldview – a whole realm currently hidden in the vast state-space of consciousness.
* For an intuition: recall from linear algebra that a basis of n linearly independent vectors span an n-dimensional vector space. When the vector that you are trying to reconstruct is not in the span of your basis, the best you can do is to project your vector to the nearest hyperplane of the spanning space. Adding the constraint that you can only make non-negative linear combinations with your basis vectors, you find that the span will look like an ‘inverted pyramid’, and the least-squares solution will be the point of that inverted pyramid that is closest to your desired vector. This is why most of the reconstructions only use a subset of the available drugs in the dataset. In most cases, the desired vector (i.e. affinity profile in this case) will be outside of the inverted pyramid of the non-negative span, and the closest hyperplane will be a linear combination of only a subset of the building blocks- those which span that particular hyperplane. I.e. the solution is the projection to the nearest hyperplane segment covering the non-negative span. This is what the NNLS method is doing under the hood.
** Note: It’s important to point out that these are not dosages. The coefficients provided by the non-negative least squares method apply to the normalized affinity “npKi“, which is the receptor affinity normalized by the highest affinity among the receptors. The coefficients will be correlated with “proportion of a standard active dose” but there will be an error caused by the pretty tricky confounder that molecules vary in their “breadth of affinity”. Additionally: the psychoactivity of each receptor is not the same, we are not considering saturation effects, the difference between partial and full agonists is not taken into account, downstream effects are ignored, etc. etc. Needless to say, there is still quite some work to be done to transform these coefficients into meaningful dosages.
*** List of Psychoactive Drugs a professional Dendrite would be expected to be familiar with:
About 3% of the population is anosmic, meaning that they cannot perceive scents. An additional 10% have some kind of smell or taste disorder. Sadly, scent perception thins out with age due to many causes*; about 23% of people over the age of 40 report some degree of impairment, with nearly 40% of people over the age of 80 reporting either absent or severely reduced capacity to perceive smells.
If you can experience scents in a normal way, count yourself lucky, for you have access to a qualia variety with an incredible aesthetic potential. If not, I’m sorry; let’s hope that stem cell therapy used to restore smell in mice can be generalized to humans. Regardless, hopefully the following thoughts on the artistic potential of scents won’t fall on deaf ears (or should we say, anosmic noses?).
Imagine that all humans were congenitally anosmic. Akin to David Pearce’s allegory of the blind rationalists, let’s picture a world in which the only way to experience scent qualia was through the use of some arcane technology, like weird drugs, occult magic, or carefully aimed transcranial ultrasound stimulation. Since the qualia would not be triggered by a conventional sense, people would not be under the illusion that it maps to external objects. It would be understood as a strictly internal phenomenon, like imagination or sense of humor. With such an interpretive blank slate, how would people make sense of scent qualia?
Keep that thought in your mind. Having a fresh look (or sniff) at scent qualia- devoid of its common associations and cultural imports- can give us a way to think in new ways about the artistic potential of this aspect of experience.
Perfumery as an Art Form
Last year we presented QRI‘s take on art: Harmonic Society is an essay published in a Berlin-based art magazine that exposes 8 models for what art can be about (see parts 2, 3, 4; video presentation). These models can also be used as generators of creative applications of qualia varieties. Here we’ll discuss how perfumes could be seen through the lens of each of these models.
1. Semantic Deflation
The semantic deflation model of art claims that the first step you need to take to understand art is to recognize that it lacks an essence. There are no strict necessary and sufficient conditions that something needs to meet in order to be art. The meaning of the term is ultimately conventional: it has more of a family resemblance pattern of usage than a precise logic-bound set of criteria. Applying this model to perfumery, we would have that:
There is no such thing as a “perfume” in and of itself.
There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be called a perfume.
The resulting aesthetic from this model is one that sees the art of perfumery as the eternal search for trying to push the boundary for what a “perfume can be”.
Some examples of this aesthetic seemingly playing out in the open include perfumes that smell like: popcorn, lobster, linen and Air Aroma‘s new fragrance that recreates “the scent of an Apple product being opened for the first time.”
You see, smells are at times used in a slightly evil way. In the case of commercial perfumes, part of the optimization function includes generating envy in others. Conspicuous consumption and brand worship are some of the ways in which our mating mind has recruited scents. In a sense, I would love to explore ways in which scent-based art can deliver high-valence results without at the same time reinforcing consumerism and zero-sum fashion arms races. In brief:
There is unfortunately an in-built zero-sum mindset to status-focused scent design.
The “game” is easy to rationalize when you are a “winner”, but it is depressive for people who perceive themselves as the “losers”.
One of the core weapons of this game is the creation of envy with perceived exclusivity and inflated sense of quality (e.g massively overpriced fragrances).
“Cool Kids” are people who translate new ideas into massively consumable products.
Cool Kids in perfumery will always want to claim that they have the exclusive “secret sauce” to explain the price.
The existence of such “secret sauce” is often justified based on appeals to tradition, taste, status, experience, brand, and/or science.
Cool Kids make sure that the product is “novel enough” – not too out there that only weird people would love it, but also not too bland and unoriginal that the general public will be bored by it.
Expensive perfumes have to be at least somewhat distinctive – even if that makes them suboptimal. You’ll see that Fragrantica is full of reviews that complain that such and such perfume is in fact “too generic”. The reason is that if you are paying large sums of money for a smell, the only way it will pay off in terms of social signaling is if people can in fact notice what you are wearing.
A particularly noteworthy example of this dynamic might be the case of Aventus Creed. It is by no means a weird fragrance (it’s certainly not a “toast” or “popcorn” perfume), but people who are very into perfumes do agree that when it first came out “it smelled like nothing that had ever existed before.” If you read the Fragrantica reviews you’ll see what I’m talking about. It also happens to be an insanely expensive fragrance for no apparent reason. It’s therefore a great tool for conspicuous consumption, masterfully crafted by a Cool Kid aiming for mass appeal.
Aventus Creed clones
I personally own an “Aventus Creed clone“, meaning that it is a perfume that smells very similar to the original but can cost a fraction of the price. Aventus costs $400 while the one I own is under $20. I like it, but if it is anything like the original, I can’t imagine it being that good to justify the price tag on its qualia merits alone. In terms of phenomenology, as far as I can tell, Aventus innovated by mixing pineapple scent with the scent of birch bark. This does make it characteristic, true, but is it really $400 worth of characteristic? No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So this one might be a clear case of a mating mind perfume over-rating in action (P.S. I’m on the lookout for more perfumes with inflated scores that have cheap clones in order to study this phenomenon more closely).
Taken to the extreme, attempts at creating maximally erotic scents draw inspiration from literal human sexual organs. Secretions Magnifiques by Etas Libre d’Orange, for example, recreates the smell of semen with seaweed, milk, iris, coconut, opoponax, and sandalwood. It has a score of 1.88 out of 5 based on 890 votes, perhaps because it smells kind of bad. It sports reviews like:
“Smell of sweat, sewage and semen. Each sniff is an offense and an ordeal, a probation of resistance. Impossible to do a complete test – full wear, I only got 3 sprays on my wrist and 5 min. after doing this review I rubbed my wrist with soap like there was no tomorrow.” – marcel2782, at Fragrantica.com
Scent of semen
“Patented blend of human pheromones including Androstadienone, Androstenol, Androstenone and Androsterone”
Sent of vagina
Scent of sex
Needless to say, playing out the erotic in scent form is a delicate matter that requires a fine balance between numerous forces. For example, the smell of Classic Blue by David Beckham can smell a bit like a male crotch, but it also smells like pineapple, grapefruit, and clary sage. This allows for plausible deniability and erotic versatility. Even if you are attracted to men, as long as you are not sexually aroused you will probably just notice its fruity notes. But if you are in the heat of passion, it will probably smell very sexy. The same with numerous women’s perfumes, such as Eros by Versace and Guilty by Gucci.
A final thought on the aphrodisiac power of fragrances: you may notice that the vast majority of fragrances that are advertised with campaigns with erotic undertones are primarily geared towards a heterosexual audience. With rare exceptions, even perfume ads that are suggestively homoerotic still seem to work around a heterosexual premise.
I suspect that indeed there are statistical-level differences in what turns people on, not only between genders, but between the shades of sexual orientation. After all, some academic theories of sexual orientation do suggest that pheromone-based arousal differences contribute to which gender a person is attracted to. I posit that from a scientific point of view, if the matter were to be studied rigorously, we would indeed find differences at a statistical aggregate level on what fragrances turn people on depending on their gender and sexual orientation. Although this remains a contentious topic, I think that it is a shame that it has not been explored in any rigorous way. Aphrodisiac scents can be life-enriching; gay people might be underserved in the eroticism-of-aroma department. Pragmatically, it would be good for gay people to know which fragrance will load the dice in their favor when going out clubbing. A concrete example is that if indeed gay men do not like the scent of straight men (and instead prefer the scent of other gay men) then it may not be a good idea to wear typical male pheromone perfumes for a night out. Take note: at least according to a Fragrantica forum entry from someone in Indonesia, the main “gay fragrances” there are: Thierry Mugler by A*Men, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, Power by Kenzo, 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, and Magnetism by Escada.
3. Creation of New Social Contexts
The core idea of this model is that art can be understood as a tool to create new social contexts. Beyond the sex appeal of expensive perfumes due to their status implications, perfumes can also be used to invent new interpersonal gestalts. As Kevin Simler argues in Ads Don’t Work That Way, advertisement modifies the landscape of cultural meaning, which in part is responsible for the ways products allow you to communicate information about yourself to others.
For example: Nautica Voyage is, of course, as much selling you the felt-sense of a social context as it is selling you scent qualia. Care to join the crew on a trip across the Atlantic, make our own rules, and live a journey of camaraderie and bonding? Each sniff of Voyage takes you on a trip with imaginary friends. Alas, as an Amazon top-seller it fails to appeal to Hipster sensibilities. What do I mean by “Hipster” here?
Unlike Cool Kids, Hipsters tend to obsess over a highly-specific aspect they deeply care about. Nerds are to Geeks what Hipsters are to Cool Kids. Meaning, much akin to how a Nerd is driven by a burning curiosity about the world while a Geek is usually concerned about the social applications of niche knowledge, Hipster aesthetic exploration is done out of a fundamental desire to know the limits of an art form while Cool Kids are thinking more about how to use art to raise their own status. Thus, while not widely consumable by a mainstream audience, Hipster aesthetics lend themselves to fundamental artistic innovation. In brief:
Hipsters are people who like to explore particular niches, who carve out regions and tiny sectors of the market without compromising their own taste.
They rebel against the commercial and mainstream construction of meaning and instead use their creativity to create parallel social worlds.
Artistic explorations can indeed be used for this “social context” creation.
By finding smells that are characteristic, but rare and hard to place, one can create context-specific memories for events to be later triggered at will.
Questioning the mainstream construction of meaning is at the core of the Hipster aesthetic (cf. Adbusters). Here are some examples of Hipster art to put you in the right mindset (source):
So what would be some hipster fragrances that attempt to sidestep or subvert the mainstream construction of meaning? I highly recommend visiting a niche perfumes boutique to get an idea of the combinatorial explosion of counter-cultural branding that is possible. In places like that, “local” perfumers have pride of place. There is also a premium based on the conceptual loading, narrative prowess, and historicity of each product. The value of the fragrance is in no small part derived from its ability to help you reinvent yourself outside of the confines of mainstream narratives.
More so, the construction of meaning can be turned into a science. You can even do it deliberately without anyone’s assistance. For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me.
All of these can be useful tools to help you undo the psychological hacking that big-brand fashion houses and mass media have inflicted upon you. The ability to create new Schelling points and social contexts brings with it the power to transform zero-sum games into positive-sum games. This is quite refreshing, indeed, as we can see in transformational festivals and conscious culture which are at the forefront of these cultural developments.
Alas, if you live long enough in a place like San Francisco or Portland you eventually come to realize that the negative feelings one associates with mainstream status hierarchies are not the result of consumerism per se. They are deeply rooted in our genetic source code, and the only true way out is to subvert the hedonic treadmill. So no amount of anti-consumerism rhetoric is actually likely to make a dent in the world’s vast swamps of suffering. But that’s a story for another time.
4. Attempts at the Sacred
There is no universal consensus on what constitutes a sacred experience. But we should not be quick to dismiss their significance. It only takes reading William Jame’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (or Erowid‘s Experience Vault) to recognize both the incredible diversity and personal significance of sacred revelations. Scents, of course, have a long history of synergistic use in ritual conceptions of the sacred. They can indeed be used:
In rituals such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
As aids for meditation
As grounding agents for psychedelic experiences
To recall the quality of previously experienced mystical states
Temple de la Littérature, Hanoï, Vietnam
Of course we can also think of things that are associated with sacred experiences as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, I can guarantee you that people who have vaporized N,N-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and have had profound experiences will certainly remember the scent of these agents and it will remind them- if only for a moment- of the ‘mystical’ headspace the agents disclosed.
5. Exploring the State-Space of Consciousness (aka. RainbowGod – ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
This aesthetic is based on the premise that there is intrinsic value in knowing qualia. The Rainbow God is a personification of the desire to know first hand the entire state-space of consciousness. In this way, we are not constrained by the social forces that usually shape where we invest our exploratory energy. In brief, this aesthetic values:
Explicitly merging the best models for the state-space of scent qualia and perfumery.
Love of knowledge above and beyond merely seeking a social effect.
Qualia-focused descriptions such as what will be presented in this section.
When you are in the Rainbow God state of mind, you get excited by the idea of having a large collection of all possible scented molecules. The Rainbow God even covets dangerous smells, such as those of powerful toxins like dimethylcadmium. Apparently dimethylcadmium indeed has a uniquely characteristic scent, though the price of knowing it first hand is a serious toll on your health. Perhaps Rainbow God would put all of the dangerous smells in a sealed box to be opened -along with a Brompton Cocktail– when one is enduring the late stages of a terminal illness. Upon the prospect of an imminent death, I too would love to know what dimethylcadmium smells like.
This aesthetic does manifest in mainstream explorations, albeit it is rarely the main concept driving the design decisions. Subtle examples here might include Noble Fig by Ferrari which glorifies the unusual qualia variety disclosed by fig leaves and 23 by Michael Jordan which plays with a cute and unusual watermelon scent. That said, it is interesting to explore the possibility of explicitly developing this aesthetic in perfumery. What would that look like?
If I were to develop a brand of perfume under the Rainbow God mindset, I might call it “The State-Space of Scents” and really play this concept out to its conclusion with both creative satisfaction and scientific precision. It would have three core lines:
Line 1 – State-Space Master Palette: 8 fragrances that span the largest possible region of the state-space of scents such that linear combinations of them give you a huge number of possible scents, and mixing them all in equal proportions gets you “Laurax”, i.e. white noise scent.
Line 2 – Special Effects: 16 of the most ultra-X scents possible (the most ultra-bitter scent possible, the most ultra-vanilla scent possible, the most ultra-powdery scent possible, etc.). Basically this encompasses every category-neutral “special effect”, which would be factorized and exalted into its maximum possible expression.
Line 3 – Entropy Gradient: 8 chemical concoctions that have as wide of a range of phenomenal entropies as possible. Again this plays out with, at the one extreme, featuring super simple scents triggered by one or just a couple of molecules, while at the other extreme, featuring scents that approach the Laurax entropic asymptote.
My appreciation is that this has enormous potential. In its full expression, the Rainbow God aesthetic applied to perfumes encompasses both the state-space of scents and their effects in other experiential modalities. If a scent puts you in a certain mood, that’s important to highlight. What is the range of possible moods? That, too, concerns the Rainbow God (of course the perfume industry alludes to this kind of exploration, with e.g. D&G 21 Le Fou described as “a fragrance designed for careless and spontaneous individuals, so called ‘jesters'”, though again, an explicit exploration would be infinitely better).
As a teaser to future works, I can briefly describe how I have been thinking about the state-space of scents.
While current descriptions of perfumes mention: (1) olfactive family, (2) the categorical contributions, and (3) detectable notes, we would instead have a much more fine-grained and informative description. Namely:
The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent).
The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’).
The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category).
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).
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).
Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually).
Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.).
We will go into much more detail about this in a future article specifically about the state-space of scents. And I don’t mean just breaking down a scent in terms of its chemical profile: Octyl butyrate, isoamyl propionate, and aldehyde C9, etc. I’m talking about a radical re-frame for what scents even are and the space in which they live. Stay tuned!
6. Energy Parameter Modulation
Scents have effects on one’s energy level. Lavender has clinically significant relaxing effects while lemon oil can be energizing. But these direct effects are only one of several ways scents can modulate the “energy parameter” of your experience. Namely, as we covered in the original article, in order to modulate energy levels upwards one can either impair energy sinks or enhance energy sources. Since labeling and recognizing sensory inputs (top-down interpretations) play the role of energy sinks, it stands to reason that playing with abstract, complex and unrecognizable scents would have the effect of increasing one’s global energy parameter. This, I think, is true. Based on experience, easily recognizable scents can certainly be engrossing, but complex scents with no real-world referents seem much more effective for energizing one’s mind and altering one’s consciousness (cf. the neuroscience of meditation).
I suspect that rigorous scientific research on the way scent entropy interfaces with energy modulation will be very fruitful and have many applications. In brief:
Relaxing scents can be obtained either with inherently narcotic qualia (e.g. lavender) or via boring, mundane, easily-recognizable sources (e.g. paper).
Exciting scents can be obtained with inherently exciting qualia (e.g. lemon) but also by using the appropriate amount of novelty, abstractness, and complexity to disable energy sinks.
Energy by Qualia Research (EDT)
Finally, it is my impression that scents can interface, not only with raw energy levels, but also their moments. Meaning, some scents are perhaps suited for a high first or second derivative in the energy parameter of experience. It’s as if the feeling of being “accelerated” into a high-energy regime is part and parcel of many scents. Personally, I experience bitter smells such as grapefruit, bergamot, and geranium to be arresting in that they drive one’s attention to a stop. Sweet spicy scents like vanilla and chocolate, on the other hand, seem to modulate energy rather than increase it or decrease it specifically (think “the Prozac of scents”). Alas, the state of this phenomenological research is still too early to give it any credence. I would love to hear the thoughts of others who also feel they can pin-point the first, second, and even third derivatives of the energy parameter modulation effects of scents.
7. Puzzling Valence Effects
This conception of art focuses on the way exotic sensory stimuli can lead to puzzling feelings of wellbeing. I say puzzling because they defy common-sense. It certainly makes sense that watching porn or eating food rich in salt, fat, and sugar would feel good. That’s perfectly accounted for by working within an evolutionary framework. But why would Picasso, Bach, and Socrates make some people feel good? Or in a more extreme set of examples: Dadaism, Merzbow, and Nietzsche? Puzzling valence effects refers to these phenomenal oddities; the fact that stimuli never encountered in our evolutionary past can nonetheless lead to deeply rewarding sensations. The neuroscientific frameworks used to explain these curious effects were discussed in depth in the original article so I won’t repeat them here. But I will briefly cover some of the ways scents can indeed have both expectedly and unexpectedly pleasant actions. Namely, scents can feel good for any of the following reasons:
Associations: Scents can be pleasant by reminding you of contexts, times, experiences, and people you have previously enjoyed.
Food: Scents that evoke high-calorie foods such as sweet, fried, salted, etc. come with an intrinsic positive valence for most people (and nonhuman animals!).
Safety: The smell of diseased bodies are repugnant while the scent of fresh cotton and a cozy fireplace can bring a pleasant sense of safety.
Eroticism: Scents that spark sexual feelings (already covered this in model 2) are certainly a highlight for the hedonic effects of the sense of smell.
Relative status: Scents that feel expensive, rare, or can be used to demonstrate one’s fitness would naturally feel good (already covered in 2 & 3).
Self-actualization: The very concept of a “signature scent” points at this category of pleasant sensations.
In principle one could use scents that modulate the brain’s energy parameter (see model 6) to heat it above its neural recrystallization temperature.
This might lead to the same kinds of effects one sees on meditation, on psychedelics, and with art. Namely, a three-step process of:
If properly understood, scents that modulate the energy parameter of the brain could be used synergistically with other inputs such as sound, light, and vibration to drive neural annealing for therapeutic benefits (this is an active area of research at QRI).
To say a few words about the scents that make you feel safe: fragrances designed to make you feel unsafe are unlikely to ever be top sellers. It might not be financially sound to launch a perfume (let’s call it “Trench Warfare”) recreating the smell of WWI trenches: “gunpowder, wet rocks, and decaying flesh notes” with flanker fragrances like “Mustard Attack” centered around notes of burned almond and blisters, and “Shell Shock” which emphasizes ashy notes sprinkled with oxidizing iron and overcooked steak. Indeed, safety markers might always be subtly present in fragrances of mass appeal. Rose Of No Man’s Land, a perfume actually inspired by the courage of the nurses who attended to the wounded in no man’s land during WWI, may seem like a counter-example. But it really proves the rule. The scent itself is very pleasant and reassuring, and conceptually it also evokes a relative sense of safety, namely, the feeling of being rescued. In other words, while the context it imports feels unsafe, it is specifically pointing at a part of the situation that emphasizes safety. The setting is used as contrast, it is the ground for the sense of safety which remains the figure (in the figure/ground sense of these terms).
I think that framed in the right way, scent qualia can give us a powerful glimpse of the possible fruits of consciousness research. Indeed, as part of a “QRI starter kit”, interns and visiting scholars get (among other things) a small collection of carefully chosen lesser-known essential oils to symbolize the “gems that are yet to be discovered by investigating consciousness in a systematic way”. (I’m actively looking for a suitable substitute for anosmic people, who almost certainly will be encountered at some point.)
Endless Euphoria – Calvin Klein
Interestingly, the perfume industry could very well be appealing to the agreeable hedonic sensibilities that people are otherwise too prudish to express. The hidden nature of perfumes- their plausible deniability, their elusive character, and their subjective quality- allows people to engage in hedonic fantasy to a greater extent than they would generally openly admit to doing.
Case in point: judging from their marketing materials, it seems that Calvin Klein has already found the key to unending happiness in a bottle. Save yourself the trouble of working towards the Hedonistic Imperative, for endless euphoria has arrived. I should add that their marketing campaign of #EuphoriaForMoms struck a chord with me: “moms, too, deserve euphoria” say both the Hedonistic Imperative and Calvin Klein in unison. According to online reviewers, the ingredients of endless euphoria are:
Take note – these are the ingredients of endless euphoria!
If only I had known! It must be the violet.
This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Indeed, the names of tons of perfumes are often remarkably evocative of the Hedonistic Imperative:
That said, I think that systematizing the study of the hedonic response to scents has yet to be done. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in future articles. For the time being I’ll just tease you with the observation that based on personal experiments there seem to be cross-modal resonance effects between scent and auditory stimuli. The fact that loud broad-spectrum sounds, like the noise of an airplane cabin, modify the sense of taste is known in the literature. Based on my experience, music and special sounds can also subtly modify, and in some cases enhance, the quality of certain scents. Stay tuned.
8. Harmonic Society
Finally, we come to the the grand vision of model 8: Harmonic Society. This aesthetic model posits that it is both possible and desirable to synthesize science, philosophy, and art. The end result does not have to be- as many might expect- the disenchantment of aesthetics. Even with the simplistic take that “bliss is just chemicals in the brain” (which isn’t quite true anyway), we must remember that reduction cuts both ways. Perhaps you can instead see it as “chemicals in the brain are bliss qualia”! The feelings of divinity and profound interconnectedness one can experience on LSD, for instance, do not diminish in significance merely because they can be reduced to neurological phenomena; rather, this exalts what neurological phenomena is in the first place!
A profound understanding of qualia-space can enable us to create a prosocial world of experience in which the transition between every state of consciousness to every other is harmonious and beneficial.
Applied to the art of scent qualia, the principles of Harmonic Society would point us in the direction of deeply investigating the state-space of scents in order to find clusters of fragrances (or scent qualia, more specifically) that have smooth transitions between them.
QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.
This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.
A few takeaways:
Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.
(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)
In the mid 1980s, somewhere around the month of April, Shura received a phone call from a gentleman who introduced himself as Senhor Giorgio Paros, a businessman from Brazil. He said, “I am here in the Bay Area to consult with an American company, and also to see you, Doctor Shura, on a very important matter.”
Shura replied, “Well, Senhor — excuse me, could you repeat your name?”
The man gave his last name again and added, “Please call me Senhor Giorgio, Sir. In Brazil, we do not use surname very much. I would like also to bring with me a very good friend, Doctor Hector, the former Assistant Secretary of Housing and Transportation of Brazil, if that would be acceptable?”
Shura told me later, “He obviously didn’t want to go into details on the phone, so I thought, what the heck, maybe you wouldn’t mind making a few sandwiches for lunch tomorrow, and I invited them over. Is that okay with you?”
I laughed, “Sure. It sounds pretty intriguing, with a former — what was it? — assistant minister of something for Brazil, right?”
“Yeah”, said Shura, “Transportation, I think he said. Sounds as if it might be interesting. And if it turns out to be a total dud, it’ll only have cost us a couple of hours and a bit of lunch.”
Well, it’s hard not to be impressed by a minister of anything of any country, when you get down to it. Of course, this one’s a Former, which isn’t as good as a Presently, and he was only an Assistant, not the Main Man, but so what! Former Assistant Minister of anything coming to lunch is still pretty good, if you’re an ordinary run-of-the-mill social climber. Besides, it should make a good dining-out story, if nothing else.
The next day, shortly after noon, the Boys from Brazil arrived with a bunch of flowers for the hostess, both of them carrying serious briefcases.
The businessman, Giorgio, was a big, burly character who looked like an aging stormtrooper, with thinning hair and pale blue, penetrating eyes.
We sat down on the patio and talked, exchanging the necessary pieces of basic information. Sr. Giorgio, it turned out, had long been a major player in Brazil radio as the owner of several stations, and was now moving into television. Despite the faintly threatening first impression, particularly when he scowled over some remembered annoyance, Giorgio gradually emerged as something of a pussycat, a bit sentimental and rather romantic in a way peculiar to Brazilians (as we were to discover later).
Giorgio’s friend, Dr. Hector, was a small-boned man in his late sixties who seemed, at first, rather quiet for a politician; a bit self-effacing, in fact. But as the afternoon wore on, as we all became increasingly familiar with each other’s faces and voices, Dr. Hector relaxed and smiled more often, and we began to understand his peculiar charm, the mixture of sincerity — sometimes approaching intensity — and humor which must have served him well in his government post.
But that’s getting ahead of my tale. Back to the first few minutes of the meeting.
As I carried out plates of sandwiches to the patio, Giorgio was saying “Even in the banks, they list customers under their first names! Yes, believe it, this is so!”
I didn’t have to look at Shura to know what the expression on his face was: polite skepticism, mixed with frank amusement.
I can’t believe that, either. Must be a bit of exaggeration somewhere. But it does make a great Third World anecdote!
I brought out a large pitcher of iced tea and some bottles of Calistoga water, then sat down and prepared to listen.
As background to their not-yet specified proposition, Giorgio told us a story. It seems that, several years earlier, an American gentleman we will call Borch, who had relocated to Rio de Janeiro, and who could not fully explain to anyone’s satisfaction why he was unable to return to the United States, married a wealthy Brazilian lady, and produced a couple of children. Then he moved his entire family to an island in the Caribbean whose authorities were notoriously friendly and accommodating towards foreigners with money, and within a few months, all his upper class acquaintances in Rio had received invitations to a new health spa. The brochure emphasized a kind of therapy not usually offered by spas: psychological, with emphasis on the resolving of marital discord and problems like alcoholism.
The Brazilians poured into the new spa. Every Wednesday, the owner, Mr. Borch, would bring out two vials from his private refrigerator. The fluid in the first vial was red; that in the second, yellow. Each client was given a carefully measured amount from one or the other of the vials, served in a beautifully designed miniature goblet, a small crystal bowl cradled in a network of pewter. Borch referred to the medicine as The Essence, and refused to further identify it.
The effect of the Essence medicine was astonishing, Giorgio told us. “You had a feeling that God had entered your soul, and all was peace inside you,” he said, “If you looked at somebody, you felt love for him, compassion, you understand? For married couples, it was miraculous. All the emotions — yes? — the feelings they had in the past for each other; all these returned, just like the day of their marriage.”
Shura and I listened to the account in fascinated silence, but both of us were beginning to feel the pressure of questions needing to be asked, and I actually had my mouth open to say something, when Dr. Hector spoke up for the first time since the story began, and stunned us back into listening.
“Once, when I had expressed myself to Mr. Borch again,” the greysuited little gentleman said, “about wishing to know what was in the Essence, he told me that I could have faith in its value and its purity, because it had been created by one of the world’s most respected scientists, a chemist called Alexander Borodin, and that it was not necessary for me to know anything else.”
“Oh, my God!” I breathed, then laughed.
Shura protested, “I’ve never heard of anyone named Borch, and I certainly never supplied him with any drug!”
Giorgio gestured impatiently, “Yes, yes, Hector and I decided this ourselves — that you had nothing to do with it — when we investigated and found out who you were.”
I wonder if he uses the word, “investigated,” in the same way we would use it. Sort of implies private detectives and all that sort of thing. Maybe better not to know.
One burning question had arisen in my mind, and I decided now was the time to get an answer, before the conversation got any more complicated. I leaned forward in my chair and asked, looking from one to the other, “How much did these clients pay for the miraculous spa treatment, if you don’t mind my curiosity?”
“Most of us paid twenty-five thousand dollars per week,” said Giorgio.
Shura and I looked at each other, eyes wide.
“Oog,” I said, brilliantly.
“Sounds like a pretty good scam,” said Shura, nodding his appreciation.
“In the last week at the spa,” said Hector, “Giorgio and I managed to divert some of our Essence medicine, and we took the sample with us when we left. We had it analyzed in the United States. It was a drug called MDMA.”