Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain: Rating, Ranking, and Comparing Peak Experiences Suggest the Existence of Long Tails for Bliss and Suffering

TL;DR

Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).

This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.

An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).

Contents

Introduction:

  1. Weber’s Law
  2. Why This Matters

General ideas:

  1. The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
    1. Personal Accounts
    2. Consciousness Expansion
    3. Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
    4. Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
  2. Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
    1. Normal World vs. Lognormal World
    2. Predictions of Lognormal World

Survey setup:

  1. Mechanical Turk
  2. Participant Composition
  3. Filtering Bots

Results:

  1. Appearance Base Rates
  2. Average Ratings
  3. Deference Graph of Top Experiences
    1. Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
    2. Triadic Analysis
  4. Latent Trait Ratings
  5. Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

Discussion:

  1. Key Pleasures Surfaced
    1. Birth of Children
    2. Falling in Love
    3. Travel/Vacation
    4. MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin
    5. Games of Chance Earnings
  2. Key Pains
    1. Kidney Stones/Migraines
    2. Childbirth
    3. Car Accidents
    4. Death of Father and Mother
  3. Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
    1. Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
  4. Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
  5. Additional Material
    1. Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
    2. Mixed States
    3. Qualia Formalism
  6. Notes

Introduction

Weber’s Law

Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.

There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:

In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.

In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.

We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.

As an intuition pump for what is to follow, we would like to highlight the empirical finding that brain activity follows a long-tail distribution (see: Statistical Analyses Support Power Law Distributions Found in Neuronal Avalanches, and Logarithmic Distributions Prove that Intrinsic Learning is Hebbian). The story where the “true valence scale” is a logarithmic compression is entirely consistent with the empirical long-tails of neural activity (in which “neural avalanches” account for a large fraction of overall brain activity).

The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:

  1. Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
  2. The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
  3. The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences

Why This Matters

Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.

Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.

General Ideas

The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain

true_pleasure_scale

True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.

true_pain_scale

True long-tail pain scale

As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).

“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.

Personal Accounts

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I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.

My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.

The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.

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DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?

Consciousness Expansion

What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.

Antoine's_Necklace_Iteration_2

Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss

As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.

Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:

Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures

On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:

The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.

9 Jhanas, Dhamma Wiki

There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.

insula

“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)

Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:

“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”

 

– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.

“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”

 

– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.

Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:

As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.

 

– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)

All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.

Now, how about the negative side?

Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches

“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”

Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)

Three pain-scale examples that illustrate the non-linearity of pain are: (1) the Schmidt sting pain index, (2) the Scoville scale, and (3) the KIP scale:

image

(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:

4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain]. 

[…]

7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.

[…]

11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.

Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?

[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”

Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!

[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.

Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.

 

Origin of STINGS!, interview of Justin O. Schmidt

If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.

Moving on…

(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are several qualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:

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I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be that hot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).

I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”

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Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches

(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:

The KIP scale

KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful
KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful
KIP-2 More persistent shadows
KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it
KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone
KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space
KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing”
KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted
KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works
KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in
KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.

The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.

Source: Keeping Track, by Cluster Busters

As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.

In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.

While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.

Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking

The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.

Normal World vs. Lognormal World

There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?

Predictions of Lognormal World

If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:

  • That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
  • That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
  • That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).

To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).


Survey Setup

The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.

I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).

I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.

Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition

The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):

age_distribution_no_bots

Age distribution

Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)

While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:

The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:

And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.

In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.

Preprocessing

Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.


Results

I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:

Appearance Base Rates

There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:

pleasure_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)

pain_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)

For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.

A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:

pleasure_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

pain_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of worst experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

Average ratings

Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:

For pain:

  1. Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
  2. Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
  3. Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
  4. Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
  5. Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
  6. Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
  7. Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
  8. Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
  9. Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
  10. Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
  11. Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57

(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).

And for pleasure:

  1. Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
  2. Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
  3. Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
  4. Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
  5. College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
  6. Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
  7. Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
  8. Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
  9. Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
  10. Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23

Deference Graph of Top Experiences

We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.

The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.

The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:

The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.

In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):

CodeCogsEqn

Rebalanced smoothed proportion

I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):

To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:

pleasure_97_balanced_2

Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

 

pain_network_97_balanced

Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:

pleasure_pagerank_97_

PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

pain_pagerank_97__

PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.

Triadic Analysis

With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).

In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:

triad_analysis

Left: 030T, Right: 030C (source)

The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:

In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.

Latent Trait Ratings

A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).

Interestingly, this strategy has also been used in other areas outside of actual tournaments, such as deriving university rankings based on the choices made by students admitted to more than one college (see: Revealed Preference Rankings of US Colleges and Universities).

I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.

To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:

pleasure_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

pain_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):

(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).

I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).

The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):

If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:

As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.

Discussion

Key Pleasures Surfaced

Birth of children

I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:

The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.

—————

I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.

—————

I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.

—————

I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.

No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.

Falling in Love

The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.

Travel/Vacation

The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.

MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin

It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).

Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.

About-two-thirds-of-participants-who-received-psilocybin-reported-a-mystical-experience

Games of Chance Earnings

Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.

Key Pains Surfaced

Kidney Stones and Migraines

The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)

Childbirth

Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.

Car accidents

Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.

Death of Father and Mother

This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.

Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:

Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors

After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).

In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:

  1. Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
  2. Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
  3. A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
  4. And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.

In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.

Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.

Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale

To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:

  1. The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
  2. The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
  3. The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
  4. The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.

In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.


Additional Material

Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain

Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:

First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.

And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.

Mixed States

We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.

Qualia Formalism

Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.

In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.


Notes:

* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).

**Base rate of mentions of worst experiences:

[('Father death', 19), ('Childbirth', 16), ('Grandmother death', 13), ('Mother death', 11), ('Car accident', 9), ('Kidney stone', 9), ('Migraine', 9), ('Romantic breakup', 9), ('Broken arm', 6), ('Broken leg', 6), ('Work failure', 6), ('Divorce', 5), ('Pet death', 5), ('Broken foot', 4), ('Broken ankle', 4), ('Broken hand', 4), ('Unspecified', 4), ('Friend death', 4), ('Sister death', 4), ('Skin burns', 3), ('Skin cut needing stitches', 3), ('Financial ruin', 3), ('Property loss', 3), ('Sprained ankle', 3), ('Gallstones', 3), ('Family breakup', 3), ('Divorce of parents', 3), ('C-section recovery', 3), ('Love failure', 2), ('Broken finger', 2), ('Unspecified fracture', 2), ('Broken ribs', 2), ('Unspecified family death', 2), ('Broken collarbone', 2), ('Grandfather death', 2), ('Unspecified illness', 2), ('Period pain', 2), ('Being cheated', 2), ('Financial loss', 2), ('Broken tooth', 2), ('Cousin death', 2), ('Relative with cancer', 2), ('Cluster headache', 2), ('Unspecified leg problem', 2), ('Root canal', 2), ('Back pain', 2), ('Broken nose', 2), ('Aunt death', 2), ('Wisdom teeth', 2), ('Cancer (eye)', 1), ('Appendix operation', 1), ('Dislocated elbow', 1), ('Concussion', 1), ('Mono', 1), ('Sexual assault', 1), ('Kidney infection', 1), ('Hemorrhoids', 1), ('Tattoo', 1), ('Unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('Unspecified lung problem', 1), ('Unspecified cancer', 1), ('Unspecified childhood sickness', 1), ('Broken jaw', 1), ('Broken elbow', 1), ('Thrown out back', 1), ('Lost sentimental item', 1), ('Abortion', 1), ('Ruptured kidney', 1), ('Big fall', 1), ('Torn knee', 1), ('Finger hit by hammer', 1), ('Injured thumb', 1), ('Brother in law death', 1), ('Knocked teeth', 1), ('Unspecified death', 1), ('Ripping off fingernail', 1), ('Personal anger', 1), ('Wrist pain', 1), ('Getting the wind knocked out', 1), ('Blown knee', 1), ('Burst appendix', 1), ('Tooth abscess', 1), ('Tendinitis', 1), ('Altruistic frustration', 1), ('Leg operation', 1), ('Gallbladder infection', 1), ('Broken wrist', 1), ('Stomach flu', 1), ('Running away from family', 1), ('Child beating', 1), ('Sinus infection', 1), ('Broken thumb', 1), ('Family abuse', 1), ('Miscarriage', 1), ('Tooth extraction', 1), ('Feeling like your soul is lost', 1), ('Homelessness', 1), ('Losing your religion', 1), ('Losing bike', 1), ('Family member in prison', 1), ('Crohn s disease', 1), ('Irritable bowel syndrome', 1), ('Family injured', 1), ('Unspecified chronic disease', 1), ('Fibromyalgia', 1), ('Blood clot in toe', 1), ('Infected c-section', 1), ('Suicide of lover', 1), ('Dental extraction', 1), ('Unspecified partner abuse', 1), ('Infertility', 1), ('Father in law death', 1), ('Broken neck', 1), ('Scratched cornea', 1), ('Swollen lymph nodes', 1), ('Sun burns', 1), ('Tooth ache', 1), ('Lost custody of children', 1), ('Unspecified accident', 1), ('Bike accident', 1), ('Broken hip', 1), ('Not being loved by partner', 1), ('Dog bite', 1), ('Broken skull', 1)]

Base rate of mentions of best experiences:

[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]

For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.

*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.

Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids

by Quintin Frerichs

Chronic Pain is a Massive, Debilitating Problem

“A new study by the CDC revealed that 50 million Americans (just under 20% of the age-adjusted adult population) suffered from chronic pain, which was defined as “pain on most days or every day in the past 6 months.” Nearly 20 million (about 7.5%) experienced high-impact chronic pain, defined as “limiting life or work activities on most days or every day in the past 6 months.”

Who Is Hurting? The Prevalence Of Chronic Pain In America

Using IHME’s GBD visualization tool, about 5% of total DALYs come from conditions associated with chronic pain (back pain, neck pain and self-harm), not to mention the implications pain has in a variety of other conditions, from osteoporosis to cancer.

The Most Effective Tool for Pain Management Carries its Own Significant Burdens

Opioids  are highly effective as analgesics for managing chronic and acute pain, and are the most widely used pain treatment[1]. However, consistent use of opioids results in tolerance, dependence, withdrawal and overdose, which claimed the lives of 47,600 people in 2017[2]. Furthermore, the CDC estimates the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse in the US is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.[4]

Finding a solution for opioids’ dark side would help millions enjoy life, reduce the global health burden by no less than 5%, avoid 10s of thousands of future deaths, and recover billions in lost productivity.

A solution may be to combine variable doses of Ibogaine, the active compound found in the Tabernanthe iboga shrub with safer classes of opioids. 

The proliferation of opioids (specifically, full mu-opioid agonists) has this laundry list of problems: tolerance, addiction, withdrawal, overdose and euphoria (if one chooses to see it as a negative side-effect). In an effort to wean off of opioids, several groups have sought to attack these symptoms. Non-opioid therapeutics include cannabidiol (CBD) and CA-008, a TRPV-1 agonist which acts on nociceptive c-fibers in the peripheral nervous system similarly to capsaicin. These tend to be less habit-forming than opioids (attributed to their lower affinity for nuclei in the mesolimbic system), but also less effective at offering relief from intense neuropathic pain[4]. Other attempts to tame opioids have been made, most of them having the reduction of pleasure as the main target. CARA Therapeutics has created a kappa-opioid agonist which acts selectively on receptors in the peripheral nervous system to “produce little to no CNS-mediated side effects that one sees with traditional CNS-acting mu opioids like nausea/vomiting, sedation, respiratory depression, abuse, addiction or euphoria”. NKTR-181, a novel full mu-opioid agonist, is more direct: “NKTR-181, a first-in-class opioid analgesic, is a new chemical entity (NCE) that is the first full mu-opioid agonist molecule designed to provide potent pain relief without the high levels of euphoria that can lead to abuse and addiction with standard opioids”. As it turns out, addiction and pleasure have a complex relationship; one is not reducible to the other[5]. Euphoria-inducing psychedelic drugs and the jhana states of meditative absorption seem to lack the addictive profile of opioids. Pleasure and habit become decoupled over time in the path of opioid addiction as well, one fading with the other stubbornly immovable. If we can have opioids that forego tolerance, addiction, withdrawal and overdose, but keep the euphoria, wouldn’t that be better?

Capsaicin_chemical_structure

Capsaicin (source)

Ibogaine has a history of being used for the treatment of opioid addiction, but it may also have interesting properties for producing safer opioids as well. While at high doses (1g+) it creates intense psychedelic effects, it also has interesting properties at both lower doses of 500-600mg and at ‘microdoses’ of around 50mg. Ibogaine is illegal in many countries, but unregulated in Mexico, legal in Brazil, Gabon, and Costa Rica, and on the prescription drug list in New Zealand and Canada. For a more in-depth review of the history of Ibogaine and its use in treatment, read this review on Pysmposia. 

In this case study, a patient who had been a long-term opioid user and recently transitioned to methadone (a replacement for harder opioids like heroin, but maintaining the full agonist mu-opioid method of action) was taken off methadone without withdrawal using increasing doses of Ibogaine (150mg, 300mg, 400mg, 500mg, 600mg). As the Ibogaine dose was increased, the methadone was halved each time. We could allow opioid users to substantially decrease their opioid intake without withdrawal, while continuing to use opioids for pain management. After a few applications at the 100-600mg level, users could be maintaining their usage at ¼ of their original intake. Then they could utilize “dirty maintenance”: taking 25-50mg of Ibogaine daily while using a much lower amount of the opioid they typically use. Microdosing ibogaine alone is also potentially mood-enhancing, and some former opioid users have employed “clean maintenance” (i.e. just Ibogaine), to reduce post-acute-withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

The reason these solutions work is because Ibogaine acts as an ‘anti-tolerance’ drug. It potentiates the effects of opioids and prevents patterns of tolerance and dependence from forming at the neurological level. When combined with full mu-opioid agonists, even in lower doses, this can pose a risk since the dose required to overdose could be more unpredictable with Ibogaine. A ‘best of both worlds’ solution would be to continue microdosing Ibogaine in conjunction with a partial mu-opioid agonist. Partial mu-opioid agonists prevent overdose by creating an upper-bound on activity at the opioid receptor and preventing the respiratory depression that causes death in full agonists.

Agonist_2

Full vs. partial agonists (source)

While existing partial mu-opioid agonists, such as the drug combo of buprenorphine and naloxone are used in opioid replacement therapy settings, they too lack euphoria-producing properties. With this new class of analgesics, patients could choose when to start, stop, and for how long to take their pain medication without fear, along with a depression-preventing hedonic enhancement. For more, see: On Hitting the Actual Target of Hedonic Tone.

A well-known example of a partial mu-opioid agonist is 7-hydroxymitragynine, the active compound in kratom. Brazil is the only country to not prohibitively schedule either kratom or Ibogaine, and so might be an option for conducting research into this new form of non-tolerance-inducing opioid mixture. In the United States, research is being done at DemeRX for approving Ibogaine through the FDA IND process for the detoxification of people afflicted with opioid addiction. Their success would also open the door to further innovation in Ibogaine-assisted pain treatments in the US.

Risks of Ibogaine

Unfortunately, Ibogaine has a harsher risk profile than most psychedelics, and has been associated with about 30 deaths due to cardiac complications. However, many researchers who have worked with Ibogaine for decades believe that these incidents can be minimized or even eliminated by standard medical practices like employing EKG screenings. Medical screenings should not only assess current heart health, but also in-system drugs, which can be potentiated by Ibogaine use, and can lead to unexpected overdose. In a population of drug users to be treated, higher incidences of poor heart health and the presence of other drugs likely contributed to a significant number of the cases of death recorded.

Mash et al. 2018 reviewed 191 cases of ibogaine therapy (all at Dr. Mash’s clinic on Saint Kitts) and found that there were no cases of cardiac-related death at doses used for interrupting addiction. Furthermore, Clear Sky Recovery has administered 1000s of Ibogaine sessions without a single fatality.

Iboga rescheduling in the US may be far off, but its potential shouldn’t be underestimated. As Hamilton Morris notes, Ibogaine is “alien technology”, with the potential to help us humans solve some of our greatest medical mysteries. For now, it’s enough to think that it might be able to a create stable, long-term pain medication with no risk of respiratory depression, tolerance, and minimal withdrawal. Along with risk-free… risk tolerant euphoria. Whether that sustainable euphoria will be available to all, remains to be seen.


[1] https://www.mayoclinic.org/chronic-pain-medication-decisions/art-20360371

[2] https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html

[3] https://www.moveforwardpt.com/resources/detail/7-staggering-statistics-about-america-s-opioid-epi

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1920543/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3782756/

Featured image source: What Is Iboga?

Treating Cluster Headaches Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines

by Quintin Frerichs

To extend this recent EA Forum Post, I wanted to share the results of Qualia Research Institute’s research into using tryptamines to abort and prevent cluster headaches. While the quotes and statistics contained here can provide some notion of the pain experienced by cluster headache sufferers, I think it is truly unimaginable. This report contains specific interventions to be pursued in both a philanthropic and for-profit business capacity. While for-profit options are beyond our scope, those interested in supporting philanthropic interventions should consider donating to ClusterBusters (the most important nonprofit dedicated to researching treatments for cluster headaches), or QRI (which does foundational research on ways to reduce intense suffering).

Mission: Instantly and safely abort cluster headaches and treat migraines, the #2 and #10 (respectively) most painful medical conditions according to NHS. Emphasis is placed on chronic cluster headaches, which account for as much as 80% of all clusters and currently lack an effective treatment option. 


 

I. Problem:

 

“Even child birth is 1/10th the pain of a cluster headache, seriously this name needs to change… call it ultra super migraine.” (source)

  • A back of the envelope calculation indicates there are roughly 14 thousand people enduring a cluster headache right now.[1]
  • 14.2% of US adults 18 or older reported having migraine or severe headache in the previous 3 months in the 2012 NHIS. The overall age-adjusted 3-month prevalence of migraine in females was 19.1% and in males 9.0%, but varied substantially depending on age. (source)
  • Current treatments are either ineffective, costly, unsafe, or some combination of the three. The most effective treatments available for cluster headaches include oxygen, which requires the patient to carry an oxygen tank with them at all times, and triptans, which can be used a maximum of three times daily (an issue for chronic sufferers especially) and have side effects from pain to heart attack and stroke. The most effective treatments for migraines include triptans and opioids (which have high addiction potential). Emgality, a more promising treatment for episodic cluster headaches, has recently entered the market, but its long-term risk profile and efficacy have not yet been established. 
  • Bob Wold founded “Cluster Busters” in 2002 with the explicit purpose of trying to get psychedelics to be prescription medication (see his lecture Treating Cluster Headaches with Psychedelics). He tried over 75 different prescription medications and was at the end of the rope when he found psychedelics could be helpful:
  • As noted in this Qualia Computing article, the survey surfaced that about 83% of all cluster headaches are experienced by 20% of the sufferers, most of which are classified as ‘chronic’. No existing medication has been approved for use to treat chronic cluster headaches. Vaporizing DMT could be the first such treatment, offering instant relief for cluster headaches as often as they arise in a (potentially large) percentage of sufferers.

 

II. Solution:

One of the most incredible experiences of my life was when I first aborted a CH [cluster headache] with DMT. That feeling of going from a place of excruciating pain…and feeling the pain fizzle away and die in a matter of seconds” (source)

It is known by a majority of cluster headache sufferers that psychedelics can be highly effective treatments. Due to the legal status of psychedelics, no randomized controlled trial (RCT) has been conducted, but analysis has been done on online forum responses and anonymous surveys, and interviews have been recorded. Evidence from these reports points to a number of important factors: tryptamines (the class of psychedelics which includes compounds like N,N-DMT and psilocybin, the active chemical in ‘magic mushrooms’) seem especially effective, sub-psychoactive and non-psychedelic doses can be therapeutic, and psychedelics can also decrease the frequency of headaches on long time horizons. While smoking/vaporizing is the fastest method of administration available, information from a private correspondence suggests that the FDA may be averse to approving inhalants. Intramuscular administration, utilizing Rick Strassman’s protocol, could be an alternative that would achieve rapid relief without the use of an inhalation device[2]. Since the pain being experienced is so severe, having a faster method of administration is critical. 

From the relevant academic literature:

  • The indoleamine hallucinogens, psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide, and lysergic acid amide, were comparable to or more efficacious than most conventional medications. These agents were also perceived to shorten/abort a cluster period and bring chronic cluster headache into remission more so than conventional medications.” (source)
  • Also, for DMT, it was suggested that singular or infrequent dosage could have potential long-term beneficial effects on headache disorders: ‘Even a single dose, or perhaps a couple, can be a lifelong benefit.’” (source)
  • “Of interest, an open-label study found that similar compounds (2-bromo-LSD) without psychedelic effect were promising for this purpose” (source)

From online surveys: 

  • A survey of members of online cluster headache forums revealed that 68% of respondents who used tryptamines had a 4 or 5 out of 5 relief. 5 indicates “completely eliminated the cluster headaches”. 
  • This survey again suggests that the main barrier to use is lack of access and hallucinogenic effects. As we found in an interview with an anonymous sufferer (see below), hallucinogenic effects may be avoidable. 
no_use_cluster_headache_difficulty_acquiring

Difficulty getting. 0 – Extremely easy to acquire, 5 – Nearly impossible to acquire

no_use_cluster_headache_legal_concern

Legal risk. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned

no_use_cluster_headache_side_effect_concern

Side effects. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned

From interviews with cluster headache sufferers who have tried N,N-DMT:


III. Philanthropic Opportunities

Due to the Schedule I status of psychedelics in the United States, pursuing this intervention in the US will not be feasible for a number of years (see Section IV for more information on pursuing FDA approval for DMT for cluster headaches/migraines). 

A possible solution would be to create an online education campaign publicizing the results of this report to cluster headache sufferers, designated as ‘information-only’, and pursuing the use of psychedelics to treat cluster headaches and migraines in countries where tryptamines are legal, including Brazil, Jamaica and the Netherlands. In addition, given the gravity of the disorder, it could be cost-effective to fly patients to such countries for months at a time.

While we believe that traditional metrics such as the QALY do not accurately capture the suffering caused by a cluster headache (see upcoming post on the true pain/pleasure scale), a rough QALY calculation would be as follows (focusing on chronic cluster headache sufferers rather than average, since they compromise up to 83% of total headaches[3]):

  1. Facebook AD campaign:
    1. An estimated 370,000 Americans suffer from cluster headaches, 68% of whom are on Facebook[4] (=251,000). About 15% of these suffer from chronic cluster headaches (=37,740). According to Sprout Social, the average estimated cost per click of an ad campaign is $1.72. Assuming 1/10 who click are cluster headache sufferers, to reach all chronic sufferers would take (ballpark) $650,000.
    2. Assuming about 30% of those who view the ad will pursue the treatment (rough estimate-those who put 2 or less on survey results for questions of legality, difficulty to acquire etc.) and that in 68% of cases it cured or nearly cured their clusters (based on survey results), then the resulting increase in QALYs would be (37,740 people * 0.3 * 0.68) * [0.760 (QALY coefficient) * 1 QALY – ( -0.429 (QALY coefficient)* (0.47QALY)) [5]] = $650,000/7, 404QALY = $87.70 per QALY.  
    3. These ads could also be targeted to users in countries where psilocybin and DMT are legal for use recreationally, increasing conversion rate. Further targeting could be done on Facebook groups (and other social media groups) which are associated with cluster headache treatment

IV. For-profit Opportunities 

The recent emergence of psychedelics in for-profit business settings also affords the opportunity for entrepreneurs to seek legal rescheduling of N,N-DMT in the US for the purpose of treating cluster headaches and/or migraines. Below is an outline of the process of navigating the FDA IND process, which could result in a change in legal status: 

Market Size:

‘Orphan disease’ status:  

There are two main classifications of cluster headaches, chronic and episodic. Episodic cluster headaches are characterized by periods of headaches (up to 8 times per day) of a week to a full year, which remit for periods from a month up to a year. Chronic cluster headaches, on the other hand, either last for longer than a year or have remittance periods of less than a month[6]. A meta-analysis from the NIH estimates that cluster headaches affect 124/100,000 in the U.S., meaning an estimated 370,000 people suffer from cluster headaches a year[7]. Of these, about 15%, or 60,000, suffer from chronic cluster headaches.

The FDA grants ‘orphan disease’ status to diseases which affect fewer than 200,000 persons in the U.S per year, and offers incentives to those pursuing treatments through the FDA’s IND process for such diseases, such as longer periods of exclusivity (monopoly on drug manufacture and sale) for the treatment after approval.  

  • The global market for migraine drugs (which encompasses cluster headache drugs) in 2017 was $1.7 billion.
    • Healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraine are estimated to be as high as $36 billion annually in the U.S. Current estimates of cluster headaches’ annual cost in the U.S. is ~$3.5 billion.
  • Share of market
    • 5 years after launch (with FDA approval, with a 5-year monopoly) – serve 20% of chronic migraine sufferers (800,000), serve 20% of cluster headache sufferers (40,000)
      • Platform’s average annual revenue per patient (migraines): $452/patient/year
        • Tryptapens – $20
        • 1g of DMT is ~$100, approximately 50 doses (although an anecdote indicate 3mg may be sufficient). Compare to triptans, at ~$115 per 9 doses. Assuming 20% markup: 
          • Chronic migraines at 20mg doses: $120/g*0.02g/dose*15 doses/month *12 months = $432/patient/year.
      • Platform’s average annual revenue per patient (cluster headache): $344/patient/year-low estimate, $6932/patient/year – high estimate
        • Tryptapen – $20
        • There is significant variance in frequency of cluster headaches: estimates range from [$120/g*0.02g/dose*30 doses/month *3 months = $324, $120/g*0.02g/dose*120 doses/month*12 months = $6912/patient/year].
      • Annual revenue, 5 years after launch: $13.6M [low cluster headache estimate] – $344M [high cluster headache estimate]
      •  Annual revenue, 5 years after launch (migraines): $344M 
    • The 5-year (or more, if ‘orphan disease’ status is gained) monopoly provided by the FDA would allow for further R&D, and as-yet undetermined projects. Some promising directions:

Why now?

  • FDA on track to approve MDMA therapy in 2021, psilocybin therapy in 2022
    1. FDA approval will catalyze a large increase in demand for psychedelic services
    2. There is sufficient evidence to attempt bringing DMT for headaches through the FDA process as it becomes increasingly open to psychedelic interventions
  • Reasons to start before FDA approval of MDMA and psilocybin:
    1. A “psychedelic renaissance” is underway: funding for psychedelic research has skyrocketed, and multiple psychedelic decriminalization initiatives (1, 2) have recently passed. Riding the current wave of activist and public support is advantageous to our efforts. 
    2. More time to build relationship with the FDA (important for seeking DMT clearance)
    3. More time to build relationships with organizations currently seeking FDA approval for therapeutic uses of psychedelics (MAPS & Compass Pathways)

Challenges: 

Regulatory:

  • Taking on the FDA IND process can be challenging and high risk from an investment standpoint. The average cost of successfully completing Phase 1-3 trials (after which the drug can be rescheduled and approved for medical use) is $100m, requires about 9-11 years and has a 6.7% success rate (private correspondence). 
    • The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has recently raised $26.7M for Phase 3 MDMA trials alone[8]. Total, MAPS has spent in the ballpark of $30M. If Phase 3 trials demonstrate statistically-significant results, MDMA could be selectively rescheduled for use in therapeutic settings, but would require subsequent Phase 4 trials. 
  • The FDA is risk-averse and has incurred backlash from their last notable rescheduling of fentanyl in 1985[9]. Convincing the FDA to pursue rescheduling for treatment of a relatively rare disease with other available medications will likely be difficult. 
  • The success or failure of MAPS in receiving approval for MDMA will be crucial for defining the regulatory landscape for other psychedelics. Should they fail, bringing another similar substance through the process may prove much more difficult. 

Competition: 

  • As discussed in Section I, most available migraine and cluster headache drugs are ineffective, expensive, and/or have heavy risk profiles. Emgality, a new migraine drug approved last month, has received FDA ‘breakthrough therapy’ status for its ability to decrease the frequency of episodic cluster headaches and has shown promise as a palliative for migraines as well[10]. Emgality has not been approved for use in treating chronic cluster headaches, however, and does not achieve the same rapidity of administration as the DMT vape pen (see Section III). Thus, our solution is still critical for relieving symptoms instantly, and maintains the advantage of being eligible to treat chronic cluster headaches, an ‘orphan disease’. 

Business model: 

  • We would design studies to fulfill the three-step FDA drug review process:
    1. Phase 1 studies (typically involve 20 to 80 people).
    2. Phase 2 studies (typically involve a few dozen to about 300 people).
    3. Phase 3 studies (typically involve several hundred to about 3,000 people).

Use of Funds

  • Expenses for research and operations staff
    • Technicians 
    • Analysis consultants
    • Researchers with clinical experience
    • Legal counsel (paperwork)
  • Phase 1 FDA trial (our connections to expertise in the field would reduce the cost compared to average Phase 1 trials)

Data on Cost of Trials

The following information is from the MDMA/PTSD Trials led by MAPS. However, the treatment for PTSD involves: multiple therapy sessions and an MDMA-trained psychotherapist. Therapy sessions also last 6-8 hours. Presumably, some of these costs would not apply to a DMT/CH trial, so we expect trials for DMT/CH to be cheaper than the MDMA/PTSD Trials.

However, cluster headaches are not well suited to the therapeutic environment that is used to treat mental health conditions (they arise unpredictably, and require instant relief). This means there are likely significant cost-saving opportunities in the experimental design protocol.  

Summary of costs for MAPS IND Process:

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 12.34.09 AM


[1] Assume a world population of 7.7 billion people, and 53 out of 100,000 yearly prevalence suffering from this. Going by public health records, we see that the average number of cluster headache attacks that a sufferer experiences is about 30 a year (with a huge variance, where some people get only about 5 a year and some get them multiple times a day). Attacks last on average 1 hour (but range from 20 minutes to 3 hours). Hence, the number of people currently experiencing a CH is: 0.00053*7,700,000,000*(30/(24*365)) = 13,976.03 ~= 14 thousand

[2] Perspectives on DMT Research

[3] According to survey

[4] https://www.facebook.com/business/help/1461718327429941

[5]  For chronic sufferers, an average of between 1-8 CH per day, 1-4 hours per CH, for ~0.47 years/year having CH

[6] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cluster-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20352080

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18422717

[8] https://maps.org/research/mdma/ptsd/phase3/timeline

[9] https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/schedules/orangebook/orangebook.pdf

[10] https://investor.lilly.com/news-releases/news-release-details/fda-approves-emgalityr-galcanezumab-gnlm-first-and-only

Cluster Headache Frequency Follows a Long-Tail Distribution

[Warning: Disturbing content ahead. Why talk about it? This is an ethically very serious topic and it deserves more attention. But please beware that thinking about this might be bad for one’s mental health.]


One of the key insights that shows why Effective Altruism is so important is that the positive effect on the world that results from donating to various charities follows a long-tail distribution:

health interventionsCost-effectiveness of health interventions as found in the Disease Controls Priorities Project 2. See “The moral imperative towards cost-effectiveness in global health” by Toby Ord for more explanation. [Taken from: The world’s biggest problems and why they’re not what first comes to mind]

It is for this, among other, reasons why focusing on the best interventions really pays off. Where else can we expect long-tails to appear?


In Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace we discussed how introducing a new metric into the Effective Altruist ecosystem could shed light on neglected cost-effective interventions. We presented the Hell-Index:

A country’s Hell-Index could be defined as the yearly total of people-seconds in pain and suffering that are at or above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent)*. This index captures the intuition that intense suffering can be in some ways qualitatively different and more serious than lesser suffering in a way that isn’t really captured by a linear pain scale.

In a future article we will discuss how the quality of suffering as a function of different medical and psychological conditions very likely follows a long-tail distribution. That is, some conditions such as Cluster Headaches (which affect about 1 in 1000 people worldwide) produce pain that is orders of magnitude worse than the pain experienced in other kinds of medical conditions, such as migraines (which are themselves already described as orders of magnitude worse than tension headaches). In other words, a 0-10 pain-scale is better thought of as a logarithmic compression of the true levels of pain rather than a linear scale. So concentrating on the worst conditions could really pay off for reducing suffering in bulk amounts.

Now: the long-tailed nature of suffering may extend beyond the quality of suffering, and show up also in its quantity. That is, the frequency with which people experience episodes of intense suffering, even among those who experience the same kind of suffering, is unlikely to be normally distributed.

Intuitively, one may think that how much suffering people endure on a given year follows a normal distribution. This intuition says that if the median number of hell-seconds people endure in a year is, say, 1,000, then people who are at the 90% percentile of hell-seconds experienced per year will be experiencing something like 1,500 or at most 2,000. If suffering follows a long-tail distribution, in reality the 90% percentile might be experiencing something more akin to 10,000 hell-seconds per year, the 99% percentile something akin to 100,000, and the 99.9% something akin to 1,000,000. If true, such a heavy skew of the distribution would suggest that we should concentrate our energies on addressing the problems of the people who are unlucky to be on the upper ranges, rather than be overly concerned with “the typical person”*.

Unfortunately, I come to share the bad news that suffering probably follows a very long-tail distribution:

It is generally acknowledged that Cluster Headaches are some of the most painful experiences that people endure. Having a single Cluster Headache, lasting anywhere between 15 minutes to 4 hours, is already an ethically unacceptable situation that should never happen to begin with. It is disheartening to know that 1 in 1,000 people experience such extreme pain. But the truth of the matter is yet much worse than we intuitively think…

We recently analyzed a survey** of Cluster Headache patients that was conducted with the intention of determining the reasons why sufferers do or do not use psychedelics to relieve their pain. As it turns out, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT all get rid of Cluster Headaches in a majority of sufferers. Given the safety profile of these agents, it is insane to think that there are millions of people suffering needlessly from this condition who could be nearly-instantly cured with something as simple as growing and eating some magic mushrooms.

We will get back to this in more depth in later articles, but for the time being what we want to highlight is the responses to the question “About how many cluster headaches do you get in a typical year?”.

After cleaning the data***, we end up with 270 participants. We then ranked the values from smallest to largest, and visualize them:

270_ranked

Honestly I am a bit suspicious of the very top numbers (I do not know how you can fit 25,000 Cluster Headaches in a year, so perhaps the participant interpreted the question as “lifetime number of Cluster Headaches”). So, just to be safe, we cut the top 20 highest numbers and visualize the bottom 250 values:

first_250_

This is clearly a long-tail distribution. And since many people online do claim to have 3 or more Cluster Headaches a day, I am inclined to believe this curve. To zoom in on some parts of the distribution, here are some additional histograms that focus on the lower percentiles:

If we take the logarithm of the number of yearly Cluster Headaches, the distribution looks remarkably normal:

log_of_estimated_total_half_bins_till_12

Natural log of the responses to the question “About how many cluster headaches do you get in a typical year?”

Using a Shapiro-Wilk normalcy test does not rule out a Gaussian distribution (p >0.05). Although this in no way shows that that the distribution is log-normal (which would require more specialized statistical analysis), it is at least suggestive of it.

I should also point out that the distribution is really close to the 80/20 Pareto principle – we see that the top 20% of the participants contain about 83% of the CH incidents per year. Below you will find the percent of the total number of incidents accounted for by the bottom x% of the respondents:

  1. The bottom 10% accounts for .06% of incidents
  2. The bottom 20% accounts for 0.36% of incidents
  3. The bottom 30% accounts for .95% of incidents
  4. The bottom 40% accounts for 1.82% of incidents
  5. The bottom 50% accounts for 3.17% of incidents
  6. The bottom 60% accounts for 5.54% of incidents
  7. The bottom 70% accounts for 9.56% of incidents
  8. The bottom 80% accounts for 17% of incidents
  9. The bottom 90% accounts for 30% of incidents
  10. The bottom 95% accounts for 43% of incidents

Below we also include the number of yearly Cluster Headaches experiences at different percentiles:

  1. 10% percentile experiences 5 CH/year
  2. 20% percentile experiences 17 CH/year
  3. 30% percentile experiences 30 CH/year
  4. 40% percentile experiences 45 CH/year
  5. 50% percentile experiences 70 CH/year
  6. 60% percentile experiences 105 CH/year
  7. 70% percentile experiences 200 CH/year
  8. 80% percentile experiences 365 CH/year
  9. 90% percentile experiences 730 CH/year
  10. 95% percentile experiences 1095 CH/year
  11. 98% percentile experiences 2190 CH/year

I believe that this information is crucial to consider when assessing cost-effective interventions to help people who endure intense suffering.


Here are some additional results from the survey.

cluster_headache_tryptamine_use

The following graphs are about the beliefs and attitudes of Cluster Headache sufferers who do not use tryptamines (LSD, psilocybin, DMT, etc.) to treat their condition:

 

I think it is fair to say that the survey shows that one of the biggest barriers preventing CH patients from using tryptamines to treat their condition is simply the difficulty of acquiring them. Since a number of interviews we’ve conducted have shown that even sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT can abort cluster headaches (writeup coming soon), more education could easily address the barrier of being concerned about hallucinogenic side effects. The social stigma seems like a minor problem, and the legal implications (the hardest to change, perhaps), are a big concern to about half of the participants (ratings of 4 or 5/5). Hence the importance of passing new laws allowing people with this condition to use them without repercussions.

Do CH sufferers who do not use tryptamines think they would work?

no_use_cluster_headache_belief_in_effectiveness

And do they work? Here is what the CH sufferers who do use them say:

use_cluster_headache_effective

Effectiveness

use_cluster_headache_kind

Tryptamines used

If we interpret a 2 or 3 in the 0 to 5 scale as an equivalent to a “maybe”, and a 4 or 5 as a “yes” to the question “do they work?” we see a big difference between non-users beliefs in their effectiveness and their reported effectiveness by users. 24% of people who use tryptamines to treat their CHs report that “They have completely eliminated the cluster headaches” and in total 68% mark it as either a 4 or a 5 in the scale (which we can interpret as “working” even if not “completely eliminating them”). This is compared to only 30% of non-users who believe the tryptamines would work. This large discrepancy also suggests that outreach and education could help sufferers give this approach a try.

Finally, we also looked at whether the users and non-users had different number of incidents per year (reasoning that perhaps those who experience more incidents would be more desperate to try legally and socially risky treatments). We notices that there is a very slight difference in the mean (and mean-log) for the number of CH incidents a year between the 20% of sufferers who treat their CHs with tryptamines and those who don’t. I won’t report the difference in the mean because the skew of the distribution makes such a metric deceptive, but the log-mean of yearly incidents of tryptamine users is 4.73 whereas for all the rest it is 4.10 (which reaches statistical significance of p < 0.05 based on a t-test). That said, we don’t think this is a very practically relevant difference. The distributions look roughly the same:

tryptamine_vs_non_tryptamine_users

The similarity between these two distributions also suggests that there is a long way to go to make sure that those who are the worse off get prompt access to tryptamines.

The End.


See also https://clusterbusters.org/, which is an organization that aims to make psychedelics legally available to people who suffer from this condition. Please consider donating to them to help this very important cause. Also consider donating to MAPS which is championing the use of psychedelics for mental health applications. Finally, consider also donating to organizations that care and strategize about how to reduce intense suffering, such as: QRI, FRIOPIS, and The Neuroethics Foundation.


*There are instrumental considerations here – if experiencing more than, say, 5,000 hell-seconds in a year is very likely to make you depressed and ineffective, then it might pay-off to also spend resources on keeping as many people as possible below that level. In particular, to be an effective Effective Altruist it pays off not to be heavily depressed and nihilistic.

**Thanks to Harlan Stewart for taking the initiative to conduct this survey. He advertised it on the Facebook groups and subreddits of Cluster Headache sufferers and got 371 responses.

***Some people provided numerical answers, which we used directly. Some other people provided ranges, in which case we used the middle point between the values provided (e.g. “200 to 300” was coded as “250”). Some people provided lower bounds, in which case we simply used such lower bound (e.g. “500+” was coded as “500”). We discarded the data of people who didn’t provide an answer in any of those formats – which left 270 participants. A more strict analysis that uses *only* the numerical responses results in the same observations listed above (e.g. the distribution is equally long-tailed and it appears to be log-normal).


[Cross-posted in Effective Altruism Forum]

Ephemerisle: Health Homeostasis, Worldview Annealing, and the Long-Tails of Serious Fun

Idealism leads to realism if it is strictly thought out.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (from Notebooks, 1914-1916)

I just came back from spending a week on the water at Mandeville Point (~18 kilometers from Stockton, California), at a yearly gathering called Ephemerisle. Below I will share some thoughts, insights, and takeaways from this experience.


Introduction

Ephemerisle is an event first conceived as a social experiment to investigate how the construction of autonomous floating nation-states could work in practice. The history of Ephemerisle is full of interesting lessons in how ideologies react when subjected to the acid bath of reality (cf. mini-documentary about the first iteration of the event). Over the years, this event has evolved from a wild, loosely organized libertarian congregation of like-minded individuals with no central planning, no rules, and no taxes, into a -somewhat- tamer, loosely organized libertarian congregation with central planning, rules, taxes, insurance, and heavy legal waivers that you need to sign when boarding islands and vessels. Despite the introduction of rules and legal waivers, the overall vibe of the place is one of freedom, intellectual intensity, and a spirit of giving.

To gain a sense of the scale of the event I’d recommend looking at drone footage over the years: 2015, 2016, 20172018, and 2019. Compared to Burning Man, this is a relatively tiny event, with a crowd that reaches up to perhaps as many as 600 people throughout the week, the equivalent of only 1% of the population of Black Rock City. In absolute terms, however, it is certainly very impressive to see that many people organized into a superorganism capable of delivering the basic survival needs for hundreds of persons in such an inhospitable environment, along with the luxuries of dance floors, sound systems, massage bunks, and trippy art.

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Ephemerisle 2019 – Credit: Sameer Halai

The captain of the ship in which I camped said that “the slogan of Ephemerisle should be ‘Figure It Out'”. Indeed, this event falls in the same category as Burning Man when it comes to the degree of self-reliance that it demands from each participant. Burning Man, as noted before, could very well be called “the annual meeting of the recreational logistics community”. Ephemerisle takes all of the hassle and preparation needed for Burning Man, doubles it, adds an extra dose of uncertainty, and sprinkles it with a number of challenges unique to living on the water for a week.

map_of_ephemerisle.png

Location of Ephemerisle 2019

Indeed, attending Ephemerisle is not a simple task. The starting section of the Ephemerisle survival guide reads:

The first thing to realize about Ephemerisle is that it is not a festival. There are no tickets, no gates, and no central authority whatsoever. But Ephemerisle is on the water, which makes attending a very non-trivial task.

 

You are responsible for getting yourself to and from the event site and for everything you’ll need to live there and survive for your stay. There are few to no resources adjacent to the event site, and none on the water. Think carefully about what you’ll need, and plan ahead!

So, given the time, effort, resources, knowhow, and social connections needed to be able to attend, who actually ends up going to Ephemerisle?

Participants

Like Burning Man, the people at Ephemerisle are not representative of the general population.

Stating the obvious, the mean conscientiousness, openness to experience, and general intelligence of participants are all significantly above the mean relative to the general population. I might add that, based on many conversations I had, it seemed that the following qualities are also significantly more common relative to the general population: graduate studies, social skills, physical fitness, cryptocurrency investments, and of course, number of yachts owned.

What stuck with me was not only the average intelligence of the participants, but also the high density of particularly brilliant people doing impressive work of their own in fields such as nanotechnology, computational biology, machine learning, cryonics, innovation in politics, and many other heavy-duty intellectual fields. I lost count of the number of serial entrepreneurs, people with PhDs in STEM fields from MIT, and advanced meditators working on developing transformative technologies.

I asked people who have been to many Ephemerisles how to explain this unusual density of spiky people, and the answer seems to be a mixture of self-selection and founder effects. First, it takes some degree of agency and determination to choose to attend this event and do all the things you need to do to make it happen. And second, a large number of people attend via invitation from well-established boats and islands, which in turn were seeded by very impressive persons from the late 2000s/early 2010s Bay Area super-cluster of people working on seasteading, longevity, AI safety, and transhumanism. Taken together, these two factors make Ephemerisle a natural Schelling point for energetic people doing cool things to find one another.

If I were to cluster the population of Ephemerisle this year, I’d intuitively estimate that 35% of people are in the broad people-cluster of scientists, libertarians, anarchists programmers, entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency developers, Bay Area rationalists, and psychedelic users. 30% are people in the broad cluster of artists, off-the-grid environmentalists, Oregon ecosystem-oriented hippies, and psychedelic users. 20% are people who live physically nearby, who own a boat, and for whom it is relatively convenient to attend. 10% are people with a festival-oriented lifestyle (to the point that their main activity is to go from festival to festival), and the remaining 5% are real-life hard-core sailors who help trouble-shoot the most difficult problems that (inevitably) arise during the event.

2015_247163_678530625582401_7376498231060972633_n

Ephemerisle 2015

But Why?

Why are people willing to spend so much time and energy into making an event like this happen? Why not stay at home or go to a club, where the chances of drowning, breaking bones, and getting sepsis from exposing open wounds to delta water are orders of magnitude lower? Why bother to learn knotsanchoring, and how to handle a fire on your boat when you could instead learn to use a remote control, watch TV, and order a pizza? Why the need to carry bucketloads of water to and from different boats for hours at a time when you could simply drink tap water from the comfort of a vacation timeshare apartment? And if you are attending to meet smart people working on cool projects, why not go to a conference or visit an academic department?

I would claim that the thirst for adventure, fear of missing out, and ideological excitement can only go so far in explaining over-the-top events like Ephemerisle. To bridge the explanatory gap here we will need something more. This is why I will offer two analytic angles for explaining high-effort events like Ephemerisle: (1) Health Homeostasis (condition-dependence-based fitness signaling), and (2) Worldview Annealing (as a cure to adultification and the regeneration of a positive internal mental representation of one’s conception of humanity). Let me explain:

Health Homeostasis

This analytic angle comes from evolutionary psychology. In particular, genetic fitness signaling dynamics may explain why some people may have the urge to do wild and risky things when they are exceptionally smart and healthy. The concept of “condition-dependance” comes handy here:

Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well. (Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, from Glossary, pg. 437)

From a gene’s eye view, it makes no sense for genetically robust individuals to spend one’s healthy years in relative security, for one would have no way to advertise one’s good genes relative to average specimens in such conditions. In a sense, doing complex and risky activities is a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Therefore, from the point of view of one’s genes, self-interest might (metaphorically) reason: “I have all this health and energy laying around, better don’t let it go to waste and use it to signal genetic fitness instead” (see: An Infinite Variety of Waste).

3990374059_b09f8987c8_b

Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Christopher Rasch

This could be summarized with a general principle I call Health Homeostasis, which posits that among sexually-reproducing species who engage in fitness displays, we can expect that individuals will have a “desired level of health”. If they notice that they are below that level of health, they will increase the time and resources focused on regenerating health. And if they notice that they are above that level of health, they will instead reduce the time and resources focused on regenerating health, and engage in costly genetic fitness signaling displays. Perhaps events like Burning Man and Ephemerisle have an element of this going on. They are appealing to people who have too much health and for whom the standard ways of signaling fitness simply won’t cut it. They need health-diminishing activities in bulk. They need challenges where they can display physical endurance while exercising their powers of creativity. And this is why, all considered, these events are so sexy.

I should add here that I am not suggesting that this explanation implies that participants are doing this consciously. Executing an adaption rarely involves conscious planning and strategizing. All it requires is following the gradient of what feels right and good.

Introspect, dear reader, about the times where you have felt the most alive. Have you, perhaps, not experienced them during risky situations? When you felt that “this could be a real danger to other people”? When by luck or grace you happened to be willing and able to do something few others could have done? This is what I am talking about. This feeling of reality and authenticity may very well be a good proxy for the process of down-regulating your health. And this is what it looks like for health homeostasis to be at play.

Worldview Annealing

This event was- to be open and real with you- quite moving to me. I struggle to give words to some of the feelings, intuitions, and thoughts that I experienced towards the end of my stay. The situations in which I found myself made me feel new sensations about the possibilities hidden in humanity and the unfolding of intelligence on this planet. It felt mystical and significant. It’s as if we were glimpsing the birth of a new stage for humanity.

Something akin to this happened to me at Burning Man a few years ago (with a slightly different flavor). How do I explain it? Someone I met there shared the view that at Ephemerisle we are experiencing a certain kind of “chemistry of consciousness” that is unique to the space. That collectively, in a space of this sort, we all resonate with a set of ideals, conscious efforts, and love that makes the whole environment vibrate with a unique quality of consciousness tuning the participants to a new level.

Perhaps! We could very well throw the towel and declare victory to mysterianism at this point! Alas, this is not the path that Qualia Computing has ever taken before.

So how can we explain the deep emotional feelings induced by Ephemerisle and events akin?

Here is the big picture idea: There are elements about the experience there that give rise to “heightened states of consciousness” for many hours at a time. This can be explained largely due to the build-up of semantically-neutral energy thanks to the high-density of surprising stimuli (cf. free-energy principle, entropic disintegration, and neural annealing). Over the course of several days, such build-up of semantically neutral energy enables neural search processes that solve constraint satisfaction problems that have to incorporate the fact that hundreds of human volunteers can come together to peacefully construct a mini-world in a treacherous environment, all for the benefit and enjoyment of others. Integrating this experienced fact can lead to the felt-sense that the world could be better, much better. That we could create heaven-worlds for each other. That the future could be a place of loving-kindness energized with electrifying creativity and positive energy. By the end of the event, one’s cynical internal representations of humanity have been replaced -to an extent anyhow- by optimistic and loving thought-forms. It is hard to see the creation of such a beautiful thing without shifting one’s priors about the real world.

It is important to realize that changing one’s deep representations of high-level concepts such as humanity and the world can have far-reaching ramifications. The emotional valence that is attached to our big-picture ideals can determine how we see the world. A somewhat far-fetched but ultimately accurate analogy could be made with Rubik’s cubes: Imagine that a “perfect state of the world” is equivalent to a “completely solved Rubik’s cube”. In addition to the degree to which you are close to a fully-solved state, you also have preferences about the aesthetics of the colors of the cube. But ultimately, you care more about the cube being solved than you care about the cube having pretty stickers.

Now, let’s say that we start with a completely scrambled state, which you feel very bad about. If you feel hopeless about being able to unscramble it, you can focus on improving the look of the stickers. The stickers could be more pretty and that will briefly make you feel good, but you will know that doing any surface modification still does not help in rearranging the entire cube so that it is in a solved state. The analogy here is: changing the look of the stickers is akin to many of the band-aid solutions we use in our life. We try to make ourselves feel better by doing superficial things like changing our cars, our appearance, and our job titles. But deep down, none of that addresses the deeper sources of dissatisfaction. The cube of our life remains in an unsolved- if more outwardly pretty- state.

There could also be uncertainty about how far you are from the perfectly solved state. Especially when you are unfamiliar with the algorithms that work for solving the cube, you will find that there are configurations that give the impression of high disorder that are in fact close to getting the cube solved. And then there are situations that seem close to the goal line of a completely solved cube that still require a lot more work to figure all out. The same could be with the state of our lives.

Now, what do I mean with a perfectly solved cube? I’m referring to a sense that “everything is as it should be”. I would argue that for many people, the very idea that humanity cannot get its shit together is a deep source of discomfort. Changing jobs, romantic partners, living situations, and perhaps even political parties do little to address this deep problem. They could be thought of as akin to trying to make the Rubik’s cube more pretty by decorating the stickers.

Experiences where one gets a sense that humanity, if properly focused, could indeed get its shit together might have a much deeper emotional effect on people than one might intuitively realize. All you may need is a proof of concept to create a glimmer of hope. All you need is someone showing you a video of speedcubing for you to realize that there is a short path from the state of your cube to a fully-solved state. And this can be exhilarating and deeply moving.

Now, for this to take place, we need to be on a flexible state of mind. Hence the importance of art, meditation, philosophy, and psychedelics in conjunction with the unfamiliar space. This is the recipe for annealing a big picture change of mind -a reframing of humanity, its possibilities, and one’s place in it. It indeed requires multiple days of iterations of changes of one’s mental representations. Here, meditation, art, psychedelics, and philosophy synergize with the scene in order to raise the brain’s energy parameter. The scene adds a lot of novelty: confrontation with the necessities for survival, extended exposure to people who are smarter and more competent than you along multiple dimensions, high temperatures, new wildlife (spiders and wasps), large amounts of water, wobbly platforms and ships, odd shapes and weird objects abundant in the platforms, etc.

This all results in what we might call worldview annealing. That is, the high energy state repeatedly cooled and re-heated over several days enables the fast search over alternate representations of the world. Worldview annealing gives rise to novel ways of seeing the world and one’s relationship with it.* And this is, perhaps, the underlying reason why people report having durable psychological benefits from doing things like attending Burning Man and similar events (see graphs below for statistics about transformative experiences at Burning Man; I intuit that Ephemerisle might be similar in this regard).

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At the end of an event like this, you may very well feel exhausted and totally partied out, but if worldview annealing successfully took place, you will be able to tell that something deep and inward shifted in a good direction. You now have a felt-sense for what a different and better world could be like.

Can such an effect be scaleable? Hopefully many more people can experience it in the future. Perhaps we need to open-source the essential features of that kind of event so that others can take advantage of these key properties and export its benefits elsewhere. And thus we encounter the concept of “Serious Fun”.

Serious Fun

In the last few years I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of paradise engineering. This comes up a lot when contemplating the coming centuries in light of David Pearce‘s Hedonistic Imperative, which posits that humanity will ultimately get rid of suffering by tackling its genetic roots. Now, it is true that the bulk of what will make our posthuman paradise a paradise is to be found in the quality of experience of our descendants rather than in their external environment. But for our Darwinian minds to contemplate what paradise might look like we usually need to evoke images that give us good feelings in our current state. For example, images of people cooperating to generate incredible experiences! Indeed, saying “in the future we will all be genetically endowed with negligible mu-opioid receptor down-regulation” does not sound nearly as exciting as saying “we will all be incredibly sexy, live our lives in massive cuddle puddles, be on the brink of orgasm, and have mind-blowing levels of intelligence and loving-kindness” (note: the wise would be advised to choose the first option, for the second does not guarantee sustainable happiness while the first one does). To tickle our imagination and inspire motivation it is indeed a good idea to trigger visions that engage our current reward architecture (even if we know that we are responding to Darwinian triggers and that a true paradise has more to do with brain configurations than external conditions).

So let’s think about wonderful external conditions to evoke a sense of paradise. I like to think of large groups of people engaged in serious planning and strategizing to create amazing experiences for even larger groups of people. Burning Man and Ephemerisle are a proof of concept of what could end up becoming super-fun events of civilizational proportions. And here is where we start wondering: what makes such events possible? What is the distribution of effort, time, resources, etc. contributed by each participant that is needed for Serious Fun to take place? My hunch is that to make this work in real life, the distribution needs to have a long-tail:

The Long-Tails of Serious Fun

It is interesting to ponder the idea that the distribution of the total contribution per participant in events like this has a long tail. In the most simplistic case the distribution could be a power law. As it turns out, many phenomena that are usually described with power laws don’t really fit power laws when closely examined.** Now, whether the “true distribution” of the contribution per participant follows a log-normal, ZipfPareto distribution, or one of the general Lévy distributions is an open question. But for the time being, what I want to emphasize is the long-tailed nature of it. In particular, the fact that there seems to be a small cluster of individuals who contribute massively to the event, followed by a larger group that contributes a lot, followed by a large minority who contribute more than they consume, followed by a majority who come to the event and mostly enjoy what others brought with them. Nothing inherently wrong with this, for after all, the people who contribute the most tend to truly enjoy giving, believe in the ideals of the event, and earn the respect of others. That said, it should be noted that if the distribution is too skewed it may lead to burnout among the most active members, which does not bode well for the sustainability of the event.

Although statistics for Ephemerisle are lacking, we can again use as an example people’s responses to the Burning Man Census:

burning_man_participant_expenses

Burning Man expenses (other than ticket cost). The exact wording of the question in the online survey was, “How much did you spend this year to go to Black Rock City and return, including fuel, camp dues, food, lodging, airfare, supplies, etc. (but not including your ticket to the event)? If you shared expenses with a group, only include the portion of expenses that you contributed. Give your best estimate in USD.” (source)

The above results are represented with too few bins to really be able to tell what kind of long-tail distribution they follows. However, it is pretty clear that we are looking at a very skewed distribution that does not at all look like a normal/Gaussian distribution. I really wish they had included one more option (e.g. $20,000+) so that we could see the number of people who are really (economically) invested in the event. In addition, another key question that would shed light on the long-tailed nature of the event would be “How many hours did you spend preparing/building/helping others/driving/cooking for others/etc.?” Again, I’d expect a very skewed distribution in the responses to such a question.

As we begin to think about how we can plan the creation of heaven worlds (i.e. large-scale projects of fun) we should consider the long-tailed nature of the contribution distribution per participant. My hunch is that we can perhaps determine whether an event is even possible by estimating how skewed the distribution needs to be to make it happen. On one extreme we have events such as “a picnic at the local park” where the event can realistically take place even if most people do roughly the same amount of work (save for perhaps the organizer who post the event details online and coordinate setting up the chairs and coolers). On the other extreme, we could imagine an actual Seasteading event out in the open ocean, or a festival at the very cusp of Mount Diablo, or even something extreme like a party at the Lagrangian between the Earth and the moon, where we would need a group of people to come together and intensely collaborate for many months and spend millions of dollars on providing the basic infrastructure for the event. In-between these two extremes you could find events like community-led concerts, regional Burns, Ephemerisle, and Burning Man proper. Whether a pie-in-the-sky idea like Ephemerisle ever actually gets to happen may be a matter of the event having the right long-tail skew that makes it possible for actual humans to carry it out. In some sense, I suspect that Ephemerisle is right at the edge of impossibility, while Burning Man proper may have more slack and hence can afford to be substantially bigger.

equipot

Lagrangian party?

What other amazing events are there that are “just barely impossible”? And what events will become possible as soon as we discover new techniques, ideologies, and cultural norms to make the distribution needed to make them happen just barely less skewed than impossible? This might be a very generative question to ask if you want to invent “the next Burning Man”.

A final thread to pull here concerns to allometric scaling properties of large events (cf. allometric analysis of Chinese cities). Due to economies of scale, there are thresholds for the number of participants at an event at which some utilities become rentable. Thus, there could also be many un-imagined crazy events that simply require a threshold number of participants to become possible. For example, perhaps a tunnel-based event at a beach is impossible with 100 participants but completely realistic with 500. Who knows! It’s an interesting thing to wonder about.

Anyhow, I invite you to think more about these ideas… perhaps this way you will help us invent the next iteration of paradise on earth.

The End.

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Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Liz Henry



* This can be used in order to treat the problems associated with psychological adultification. You see, most of the people alive today have some degree of psychological trauma associated with adultification. Acting free and childish is something that we can only really do in a context where we feel like we’ve earned the right to do so. So many highly conscientious people need to nearly kill themselves for the wellbeing of others to feel like they can deserve the right to feel care-free and innocent again. Guess what? Ephemerisle does not have a shortage of ways for you to do prodigious amounts of work to show how much you love others. Hence, perhaps, it is a place where some exceedingly responsible people can finally feel deserving of a relaxed, care-free, time.

** I am using here power laws to point at the general property of long-tailedness. In reality many other similar distributions tend to fit the data better than power laws, among which the log-normal distribution is commonly a superior fit (see: So You Think You Have a Power Law — Well Isn’t That Special?).


Notes:

  1. Featured image source.
  2. I know that the sense of the words idealism and realism in the header quote by Wittgenstein are inappropriate here. I am just amused that the quote happens to be a great fit for this essay if the senses are interpreted within a different context. In true libertarian fashion: Deal with it.

Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace

An approach to doing good is to come up with a metric for what constitutes good or bad, and then trying to do things that will optimally increase or decrease such metric, as the case may be.

If you do this, you have to be careful about what metric you choose.

If you have an ontology where you measure good by “number of people who feel benefited by you”, you might end up doing things like sending everyone you can a doughnut with a signed note. If instead your metric is “number of people classified as poor” you might do best to focus on interventions that get people just over the hump of poverty as defined by your scale. And so on.

Conscientious and systematic altruists tend to see problems with metrics like those above. They realize that “people impressed” and “being poor according to an economic metric” are not metrics that really carve nature at its joints.

Dissatisfied with misleading metrics, one then tends to look closer at the world and arrive at metrics that take into account the length of different lives, their quality, their instrumental effect in the world, how much are they exactly being benefited by the intervention relative to other cost-effective alternatives, and so on. And that’s how you get things like Quality Adjusted Life-Years (QALY), micromorts, and the happiness index.

This is, I think, all moving in the right direction. Metrics that make an effort to carve nature at its joints can provide new lenses to see the world. And looking through those lenses tends to generate novel angles and approaches to do a lot of good.


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This is why today I will suggest we consider a new metric: The Hell-Index.

A country’s Hell-Index could be defined as the yearly total of people-seconds in pain and suffering that are at or above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent)*. This index captures the intuition that intense suffering can be in some ways qualitatively different and more serious than lesser suffering in a way that isn’t really captured by a linear pain scale.

What does this metric suggest we should do to make the world better? Here is an idea (told as if narrated from the future):


Between 2030 and 2050 it was very common for people to wear Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces. People had an incredible variety of custom-fit aesthetic and practical additives to their necklaces. But in every single one of them, you could rest assured, you would find a couple of doses of each of these agents:

  1. N,N-DMT (in case of Cluster Headaches)
  2. Quetiapine (in case of severe acute psychosis)
  3. Benzocaine + menthol (for very painful stings)
  4. Ketamine (for severe suicidal feelings)
  5. Microdosed Ibogaine + cocktail of partial mu-opioid agonists (for acute severe physical pain and panic attack, e.g.. kidney stones)

Some other people would get additional things like:

  1. Beta blocker (to take right after a traumatic event)
  2. Agmatine (to take in case you suspect of having being brainwashed recently), and
  3. Caffeine (if you absolutely need to operate heavy machinery and you are sleep-deprived)

In all cases, the antidote needed would be administered as soon as requested by the wearer. And the wearer would request the antidote as indicated by a very short test done with an app to determine the need for it.

But why? What’s this all about?

The Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace contents were chosen based on a cost-benefit analysis for how to reduce the world’s Hell-Index as much as possible. Cluster-headaches, kidney stones, bad stings, severe psychotic episodes, suicidal depression, panic attacks, and many types of acute physical pain turned out to account for a surprisingly large percentage of each country’s Hell-Index. And in many of these cases, a substantial amount of the suffering was experienced before medical help could be able to arrive to the scene and do anything about it. A lot of that intense suffering happened to be tightly concentrated in acute episodes rather than in chronic problems (save for some notable examples). And by incredible luck, it turned out that there were simple antidotes to most of these states of agony, all of them small enough to fit in a single light necklace. So it was determined that subsidizing Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces was a no-brainer as a cost-effective altruistic intervention.


By 2050 safe and cheap genetic vaccines against almost all of these unpleasant states of consciousness had been discovered. This, in turn, made the use of the Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces unnecessary. But many who benefited from it- who had been unlucky enough to have needed it- kept it on for many years. The piece was thought of as a symbol to commemorate humanity’s progress in the destruction of hell. An achievement certainly worth celebrating.



* Admittedly, a more refined index would also distinguish between the intensity of different types of pain/suffering above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent). Such index would try to integrate a fair “total amount of hellish qualia” by adding up the pain of each state weighted by its most likely “true intensity” as determined by a model, and then do so for each model you have and weight the contribution of each model by its likelihood. E.g. do both a quadratic and an exponential conversion of values in the 0 to 10 visual analogue scale into dolors per second, and then do a likelihood-weighted average to combine those results into a final value.

Low-Dose Ibogaine + Opioids: A Possible Treatment for Chronic Pain, Schizophrenia, and Depression?

Excerpt from Ibogaine in the 21st Century: Boosters, Tune-ups and Maintenance by Ibogaine treatment experts Patrick K. Kroupa and Hattie Wells


“Dirty” Maintenance

For some, abstinence from narcotic analgesics is not a reality-based goal. Many chronic pain patients are really not going to cast off their crutches [sic], light up some medical marijuana and dance in the meadow, after ibogaine.

In addition to chronic-pain patients, there are many people who are using narcotic analgesics to self-medicate a variety of comorbid conditions. In some cases a “successful” detox from opiates means that somebody can look forward to a lifetime’s worth of maintenance on neuroleptics.

Given the choice between opiates and neuroleptics, there is no simple answer, but the side-effects of current anti-psychotic medications can be devastating. When you compare the quality of someone’s life when they are controlling schizophrenia, for example, through the use of opiates (which tend to have extremely mild side effects) vs. the qualify of life attained using sanctioned medicines (usually neuroleptics, with Cogentin to alleviate some of the side-effects anti-psychotics produce), it is entirely possible, even probable, that the person is happier with the opiates.

Ibogaine is remarkably effective in addressing one of the primary problems in any sort of opiate or opioid maintenance: tolerance. Over time, individuals find they must do extremely high doses of their medications in order to achieve any effect whatsoever.

WARNING: the following category should be considered highly experimental. There is a complete lack of published scientific data regarding the following examples. The difference between 50mg and 500mg is extremely significant and quite possibly fatal. Ibogaine potentiates the analgesic effect of opiates and opioids.

Individual 1: Male, mid-30’s, in good health, who has experienced full-blown resets using ibogaine HCl in the past. His average daily intake was 20Mgs oxycodone and 4–6Mgs hydromorphone (Dilaudid), which he is prescribed for pain management.

By using a very low-dose regimen of 25–50Mgs of ibogaine HCl on a daily basis, he was able to taper down to a point at which 3.75Mg of oxycodone is subjectively providing him with identical pain relief.

He began by taking 25Mg ibogaine HCl per day, and was able to immediately halve his intake of narcotic analgesics with no withdrawal symptoms or discomfort whatsoever. After 6 days he increased the ibogaine HCl to 40Mg, and at week two, he went up to 50Mg a day of ibogaine HCl. After 22 days of ibogaine maintenance, he took a ten day break, before returning to 50Mg which he presently takes every other day. His intake of oxycodone has remained consistent at 3.75Mg/day.

In his own words, “The goal with adding ibogaine to the oxycodone is to minimize if not end the need for it [oxycodone] for pain management. The HCl seems to help with the pain, or at least gives me awareness to take better care of my body by stretching, drinking more water and to get outside for exercise and sunshine.

Most importantly the HCl has given me a feeling of well being and feeling comfortable in my place in the universe, allowing me to process through a depression I have been suffering from. I feel GREAT. The darkness has lifted, the impending doom is cast away! The low dose regimen has also been extremely helpful in musical inspiration; songs I had half-written are coming to completion and new songs are being created. There is a distinct connection between ibo and rhythm/melody, and further underscores for me the important aspect of music in the Bwiti ceremonies.

Individual 2: Female, early 40s, overall good health but suffering from anorexia, has been physically dependent on narcotic analgesics for 19 years. Her use started with heroin and eventually shifted to methadone maintenance and finally hydromorphone (Dilaudid). She has extreme fear and dislike of “tripping” and has repeatedly refused to take a full-blown ibogaine reset.

Her average daily intake was 28Mg of hydromorphone which she “cold-shakes” (breaks down the pills in a cooker so they can be injected) and IVs.

She began by doing 35Mg of ibogaine HCl and was immediately able to stop injecting the hydromorphone and obtained similar analgesia from 24Mg of Dilaudid. Over a period of five days she maintained on 35Mg of ibogaine HCl while continuously decreasing the hydromorphone, which she was taking orally, as prescribed. After five days she was on 16Mg of hydromorphone.

At the start of day 8 she began attending psychotherapy. Over the next two weeks she gradually increased her intake of ibogaine HCl to 50Mg/day, and decreased hydromorphone to 6Mg. On day 19, she took a 10 day break from ibogaine HCl, and her hydromorphone intake rose back to 12Mg/daily (oral), before tapering back down to 6Mg/day within hours of restarting ibogaine maintenance at 35Mg.

At six months out, this cycle appears to be consistent. She takes a break from ibogaine maintenance every 20 days. Slowly drifts from 6Mg/day of hydromorphone, up to 12Mg, before restarting ibogaine at 35Mg/day, at which point she drops back to 6Mg—which appears to be her comfort zone—while gradually increasing ibogaine HCl to 50Mg/day.

She has plans to try a 500Mg dose of ibogaine HCl, and attempt complete cessation of narcotic analgesics.


See also: Low-Dose Ibogaine for Hedonic Tone Augmentation, Anti-Tolerance Drugs, and On Hitting the Actual Target of Hedonic Tone for more up-to-date information.

AI Alignment Podcast: On Consciousness, Qualia, and Meaning with Mike Johnson and Andrés Gómez Emilsson

Lucas Perry from the Future of Life Institute recently interviewed my co-founder Mike Johnson and I in his AI Alignment podcast. Here is the full transcript:


Lucas: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the AI Alignment Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry, and today we’ll be speaking with Andrés Gomez Emilsson and Mike Johnson from the Qualia Research Institute. In this episode, we discuss the Qualia Research Institute’s mission and core philosophy. We get into the differences between and arguments for and against functionalism and qualia realism. We discuss definitions of consciousness, how consciousness might be causal, we explore Marr’s Levels of Analysis, we discuss the Symmetry Theory of Valence. We also get into identity and consciousness, and the world, the is-out problem, what this all means for AI alignment and building beautiful futures.

And then end on some fun bits, exploring the potentially large amounts of qualia hidden away in cosmological events, and whether or not our universe is something more like heaven or hell. And remember, if you find this podcast interesting or useful, remember to like, comment, subscribe, and follow us on your preferred listening platform. You can continue to help make this podcast better by participating in a very short survey linked in the description of wherever you might find this podcast. It really helps. Andrés is a consciousness researcher at QRI and is also the Co-founder and President of the Stanford Transhumanist Association. He has a Master’s in Computational Psychology from Stanford. Mike is Executive Director at QRI and is also a co-founder.

He is interested in neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and complexity theory. And so, without further ado, I give you Mike Johnson and Andrés Gomez Emilsson. So, Mike and Andrés, thank you so much for coming on. Really excited about this conversation and there’s definitely a ton for us to get into here.

Andrés: Thank you so much for having us. It’s a pleasure.

Mike: Yeah, glad to be here.

Lucas: Let’s start off just talking to provide some background about the Qualia Research Institute. If you guys could explain a little bit, your perspective of the mission and base philosophy and vision that you guys have at QRI. If you could share that, that would be great.

Andrés: Yeah, for sure. I think one important point is there’s some people that think that really what matters might have to do with performing particular types of algorithms, or achieving external goals in the world. Broadly speaking, we tend to focus on experience as the source of value, and if you assume that experience is a source of value, then really mapping out what is the set of possible experiences, what are their computational properties, and above all, how good or bad they feel seems like an ethical and theoretical priority to actually make progress on how to systematically figure out what it is that we should be doing.

Mike: I’ll just add to that, this thing called consciousness seems pretty confusing and strange. We think of it as pre-paradigmatic, much like alchemy. Our vision for what we’re doing is to systematize it and to do to consciousness research what chemistry did to alchemy.

Lucas: To sort of summarize this, you guys are attempting to be very clear about phenomenology. You want to provide a formal structure for understanding and also being able to infer phenomenological states in people. So you guys are realists about consciousness?

Mike: Yes, absolutely.

Lucas: Let’s go ahead and lay some conceptual foundations. On your website, you guys describe QRI’s full stack, so the kinds of metaphysical and philosophical assumptions that you guys are holding to while you’re on this endeavor to mathematically capture consciousness.

Mike: I would say ‘full stack’ talks about how we do philosophy of mind, we do neuroscience, and we’re just getting into neurotechnology with the thought that yeah, if you have a better theory of consciousness, you should be able to have a better theory about the brain. And if you have a better theory about the brain, you should be able to build cooler stuff than you could otherwise. But starting with the philosophy, there’s this conception of qualia of formalism; the idea that phenomenology can be precisely represented mathematically. You borrow the goal from Giulio Tononi’s IIT. We don’t necessarily agree with the specific math involved, but the goal of constructing a mathematical object that is isomorphic to a systems phenomenology would be the correct approach if you want to formalize phenomenology.

And then from there, one of the big questions in how you even start is, what’s the simplest starting point? And here, I think one of our big innovations that is not seen at any other research group is we’ve started with emotional valence and pleasure. We think these are not only very ethically important, but also just literally the easiest place to start reverse engineering.

Lucas: Right, and so this view is also colored by physicalism and quality of structuralism and valence realism. Could you explain some of those things in a non-jargony way?

Mike: Sure. Quality of formalism is this idea that math is the right language to talk about qualia in, and that we can get a precise answer. This is another way of saying that we’re realists about consciousness much as people can be realists about electromagnetism. We’re also valence realists. This refers to how we believe emotional valence, or pain and pleasure, the goodness or badness of an experience. We think this is a natural kind. This concept carves reality at the joints. We have some further thoughts on how to define this mathematically as well.

Lucas: So you guys are physicalists, so you think that basically the causal structure of the world is best understood by physics and that consciousness was always part of the game engine of the universe from the beginning. Ontologically, it was basic and always there in the same sense that the other forces of nature were already in the game engine since the beginning?

Mike: Yeah, I would say so. I personally like the frame of dual aspect monism, but I would also step back a little bit and say there’s two attractors in this discussion. One is the physicalist attractor, and that’s QRI. Another would be the functionalist/computationalist attractor. I think a lot of AI researchers are in this attractor and this is a pretty deep question of, if we want to try to understand what value is, or what’s really going on, or if we want to try to reverse engineer phenomenology, do we pay attention to bits or atoms? What’s more real; bits or atoms?

Lucas: That’s an excellent question. Scientific reductionism here I think is very interesting. Could you guys go ahead and unpack though the skeptics position of your view and broadly adjudicate the merits of each view?

Andrés: Maybe a really important frame here is called Marr’s Levels of Analyses. David Marr was a cognitive scientist, wrote a really influential book in the ’80s called On Vision where he basically creates a schema for how to understand knowledge about, in this particular case, how you actually make sense of the world visually. The framework goes as follows: you have three ways in which you can describe an information processing system. First of all, the computational/behavioral level. What that is about is understanding the input-output mapping of an information processing system. Part of it is also understanding the run-time complexity of the system and under what conditions it’s able to perform its actions. Here an analogy would be with an abacus, for example.

On the computational/behavioral level, what an abacus can do is add, subtract, multiply, divide, and if you’re really creative you can also exponentiate and do other interesting things. Then you have the algorithmic level of analysis, which is a little bit more detailed, and in a sense more constrained. What the algorithm level of analysis is about is figuring out what are the internal representations and possible manipulations of those representations such that you get the input output of mapping described by the first layer. Here you have an interesting relationship where understanding the first layer doesn’t fully constrain the second one. That is to say, there are many systems that have the same input output mapping but that under the hood uses different algorithms.

In the case of the abacus, an algorithm might be something whenever you want to add a number you just push a bead. Whenever you’re done with a row, you push all of the beads backs and then you add a bead in the row underneath. And finally, you have the implementation level of analysis, and that is, what is the system actually made of? How is it constructed? All of these different levels ultimately also map onto different theories of consciousness, and that is basically where in the stack you associate consciousness, or being, or “what matters”. So, for example, behaviorists in the ’50s, they may associate consciousness, if they give any credibility to that term, with the behavioral level. They don’t really care what’s happening inside as long as you have extended pattern of reinforcement learning over many iterations.

What matters is basically how you’re behaving and that’s the crux of who you are. A functionalist will actually care about what algorithms you’re running, how is it that you’re actually transforming the input into the output. Functionalists generally do care about, for example, brain imaging, they do care about the high level algorithms that the brain is running, and generally will be very interested in figuring out these algorithms and generalize them in fields like machine learning and digital neural networks and so on. A physicalist associate consciousness at the implementation level of analysis. How the system is physically constructed, has bearings on what is it like to be that system.

Lucas: So, you guys haven’t said that this was your favorite approach, but if people are familiar with David Chalmers, these seem to be the easy problems, right? And functionalists are interested in just the easy problems and some of them will actually just try to explain consciousness away, right?

Mike: Yeah, I would say so. And I think to try to condense some of the criticism we have of functionalism, I would claim that it looks like a theory of consciousness and can feel like a theory of consciousness, but it may not actually do what we need a theory of consciousness to do; specify which exact phenomenological states are present.

Lucas: Is there not some conceptual partitioning that we need to do between functionalists who believe in qualia or consciousness, and those that are illusionists or want to explain it away or think that it’s a myth?

Mike: I think that there is that partition, and I guess there is a question of how principled the partition you can be, or whether if you chase the ideas down as far as you can, the partition collapses. Either consciousness is a thing that is real in some fundamental sense and I think you can get there with physicalism, or consciousness is more of a process, a leaky abstraction. I think functionalism naturally tugs in that direction. For example, Brian Tomasik has followed this line of reasoning and come to the conclusion of analytic functionalism, which is trying to explain away consciousness.

Lucas: What is your guys’s working definition of consciousness and what does it mean to say that consciousness is real.

Mike: It is a word that’s overloaded. It’s used in many contexts. I would frame it as what it feels like to be something, and something is conscious if there is something it feels like to be that thing.

Andrés: It’s important also to highlight some of its properties. As Mike pointed out, “consciousness” is used in many different ways. There’s like eight definitions for the word consciousness, and honestly, all of them are really interesting. Some of them are more fundamental than others and we tend to focus on the more fundamental side of the spectrum for the word. A sense that would be very not fundamental would be consciousness in the sense of social awareness or something like that. We actually think of consciousness much more in terms of qualia; what is it like to be something? What is it like to exist? Some of the key properties of consciousness are as follows: First of all, we do think it exists.

Second, in some sense it has causal power in the sense that the fact that we are conscious matters for evolution, evolution made us conscious for a reason that it’s actually doing some computational legwork that would be maybe possible to do, but just not as efficient or not as conveniently as it is possible with consciousness. Then also you have the property of qualia, the fact that we can experience sights, and colors, and tactile sensations, and thoughts experiences, and emotions, and so on, and all of these are in completely different worlds, and in a sense they are, but they have the property that they can be part of a unified experience that can experience color at the same time as experiencing sound. That sends those different types of sensations, we describe them as the category of consciousness because they can be experienced together.

And finally, you have unity, the fact that you have the capability of experiencing many qualia simultaneously. That’s generally a very strong claim to make, but we think you need to acknowledge and take seriously its unity.

Lucas: What are your guys’s intuition pumps for thinking why consciousness exists as a thing? Why is there a qualia?

Andrés: There’s the metaphysical question of why consciousness exists to begin within. That’s something I would like to punt for the time being. There’s also the question of why was it recruited for information processing purposes in animals? The intuition here is that there are various contrasts that you can have within experience, which can serve a computational role. So, there may be a very deep reason why color qualia or visual qualia is used for information processing associated with sight, and why tactile qualia is associated with information processing useful for touching and making haptic representations, and that might have to do with the actual map of how all the qualia values are related to each other. Obviously, you have all of these edge cases, people who are seeing synesthetic.

They may open their eyes and they experience sounds associated with colors, and people tend to think of those as abnormal. I would flip it around and say that we are all synesthetic, it’s just that the synesthesia that we have in general is very evolutionarily adaptive. The reason why you experience colors when you open your eyes is that that type of qualia is really well suited to represent geometrically a projective space. That’s something that naturally comes out of representing the world with the sensory apparatus like eyes. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways of doing it. It’s possible that you could have an offshoot of humans that whenever they opened their eyes, they experience sound and they use that very well to represent the visual world.

But we may very well be in a local maxima of how different types of qualia are used to represent and do certain types of computations in a very well-suited way. It’s like the intuition behind why we’re conscious, is that all of these different contrasts in the structure of the relationship of possible qualia values has computational implications, and there’s actual ways of using this contrast in very computationally effective ways.

Lucas: So, just to channel the functionalist here, wouldn’t he just say that everything you just said about qualia could be fully reducible to input output and algorithmic information processing? So, why do we need this extra property of qualia?

Andrés: There’s this article, I believe is by Brian Tomasik that basically says, flavors of consciousness are flavors of computation. It might be very useful to do that exercise, where basically you identify color qualia as just a certain type of computation and it may very well be that the geometric structure of color is actually just a particular algorithmic structure, that whenever you have a particular type of algorithmic information processing, you get these geometric state-space. In the case of color, that’s a Euclidean three-dimensional space. In the case of tactile or smell qualia, it might be a much more complicated space, but then it’s in a sense implied by the algorithms that we run. There is a number of good arguments there.

The general approach to how to tackle them is that when it comes down to actually defining what algorithms a given system is running, you will hit a wall when you try to formalize exactly how to do it. So, one example is, how do you determine the scope of an algorithm? When you’re analyzing a physical system and you’re trying to identify what algorithm it is running, are you allowed to basically contemplate 1,000 atoms? Are you allowed to contemplate a million atoms? Where is a natural boundary for you to say, “Whatever is inside here can be part of the same algorithm, but whatever is outside of it can’t.” And, there really isn’t a frame-invariant way of making those decisions. On the other hand, if you ask to see a qualia with actual physical states, there is a frame-invariant way of describing what the system is.

Mike: So, a couple of years ago I posted a piece giving a critique of functionalism and one of the examples that I brought up was, if I have a bag of popcorn and I shake the bag of popcorn, did I just torture someone? Did I just run a whole brain emulation of some horrible experience, or did I not? There’s not really an objective way to determine which algorithms a physical system is objectively running. So this is a kind of an unanswerable question from the perspective of functionalism, whereas with the physical theory of consciousness, it would have a clear answer.

Andrés: Another metaphor here is, let’s say you’re at a park enjoying an ice cream. In this system that I created that has, let’s say isomorphic algorithms to whatever is going on in your brain, the particular algorithms that your brain is running in that precise moment within a functionalist paradigm maps onto a metal ball rolling down one of the paths within these machine in a straight line, not touching anything else. So there’s actually not much going on. According to functionalism, that would have to be equivalent and it would actually be generating your experience. Now the weird thing there is that you could actually break the machine, you could do a lot of things and the behavior of the ball would not change.

Meaning that within functionalism, and to actually understand what a system is doing, you need to understand the counter-factuals of the system. You need to understand, what would the system be doing if the input had been different? And all of a sudden, you end with this very, very gnarly problem of defining, well, how do you actually objectively decide what is the boundary of the system? Even some of these particular states that allegedly are very complicated, the system looks extremely simple, and you can remove a lot of parts without actually modifying its behavior. Then that casts in question whether there is an objective boundary, any known arbitrary boundary that you can draw around the system and say, “Yeah, this is equivalent to what’s going on in your brain,” right now.

This has a very heavy bearing on the binding problem. The binding problem for those who haven’t heard of it is basically, how is it possible that 100 billion neurons just because they’re skull-bound, spatially distributed, how is it possible that they simultaneously contribute to a unified experience as opposed to, for example, neurons in your brain and neurons in my brain contributing to a unified experience? You hit a lot of problems like what is the speed of propagation of information for different states within the brain? I’ll leave it at that for the time being.

Lucas: I would just like to be careful about this intuition here that experience is unified. I think that the intuition pump for that is direct phenomenological experience like experience seems unified, but experience also seems a lot of different ways that aren’t necessarily descriptive of reality, right?

Andrés: You can think of it as different levels of sophistication, where you may start out with a very naive understanding of the world, where you confuse your experience for the world itself. A very large percentage of people perceive the world and in a sense think that they are experiencing the world directly, whereas all the evidence indicates that actually you’re experiencing an internal representation. You can go and dream, you can hallucinate, you can enter interesting meditative states, and those don’t map to external states of the world.

There’s this transition that happens when you realize that in some sense you’re experiencing a world simulation created by your brain, and of course, you’re fooled by it in countless ways, especially when it comes to emotional things that we look at a person and we might have an intuition of what type of person that person is, and that if we’re not careful, we can confuse our intuition, we can confuse our feelings with truth as if we were actually able to sense their souls, so to speak, rather than, “Hey, I’m running some complicated models on people-space and trying to carve out who they are.” There’s definitely a lot of ways in which experience is very deceptive, but here I would actually make an important distinction.

When it comes to intentional content, and intentional content is basically what the experience is about, for example, if you’re looking at a chair, there’s the quality of chairness, the fact that you understand the meaning of chair and so on. That is usually a very deceptive part of experience. There’s another way of looking at experience that I would say is not deceptive, which is the phenomenal character of experience; how it presents itself. You can be deceived about basically what the experience is about, but you cannot be deceived about how you’re having the experience, how you’re experiencing it. You can infer based on a number of experiences that the only way for you to even actually experience a given phenomenal object is to incorporate a lot of that information into a unified representation.

But also, if you just pay attention to your experience that you can simultaneously place your attention in two spots of your visual field and make them harmonized. That’s a phenomenal character and I would say that there’s a strong case to be made to not doubt that property.

Lucas: I’m trying to do my best to channel the functionalist. I think he or she would say, “Okay, so what? That’s just more information processing, and i’ll bite the bullet on the binding problem. I still need some more time to figure that out. So what? It seems like these people who believe in qualia have an even tougher job of trying to explain this extra spooky quality in the world that’s different from all the other physical phenomenon that science has gone into.” It also seems to violate Occam’s razor or a principle of lightness where one’s metaphysics or ontology would want to assume the least amount of extra properties or entities in order to try to explain the world. I’m just really trying to tease out your best arguments here for qualia realism as we do have this current state of things in AI alignment where most people it seems would either try to explain away consciousness, would say it’s an illusion, or they’re anti-realist about qualia.

Mike: That’s a really good question, a really good frame. And I would say our strongest argument revolves around predictive power. Just like centuries ago, you could absolutely be a skeptic about, shall we say, electromagnetism realism. And you could say, “Yeah, I mean there is this thing we call static, and there’s this thing we call lightning, and there’s this thing we call load stones or magnets, but all these things are distinct. And to think that there’s some unifying frame, some deep structure of the universe that would tie all these things together and highly compress these phenomenon, that’s crazy talk.” And so, this is a viable position today to say that about consciousness, that it’s not yet clear whether consciousness has deep structure, but we’re assuming it does, and we think that unlocks a lot of predictive power.

We should be able to make predictions that are both more concise and compressed and crisp than others, and we should be able to make predictions that no one else can.

Lucas: So what is the most powerful here about what you guys are doing? Is it the specific theories and assumptions which you take are falsifiable?

Mike: Yeah.

Lucas: If we can make predictive assessments of these things, which are either leaky abstractions or are qualia, how would we even then be able to arrive at a realist or anti-realist view about qualia?

Mike: So, one frame on this is, it could be that one could explain a lot of things about observed behavior and implicit phenomenology through a purely functionalist or computationalist lens, but maybe for a given system it might take 10 terabytes. And if you can get there in a much simpler way, if you can explain it in terms of three elegant equations instead of 10 terabytes, then it wouldn’t be proof that there exists some crystal clear deep structure at work. But it would be very suggestive. Marr’s Levels of Analysis are pretty helpful here, where a functionalist might actually be very skeptical of consciousness mattering at all because it would say, “Hey, if you’re identifying consciousness at the implementation level of analysis, how could that have any bearing on how we are talking about, how we understand the world, how we’d behave?

Since the implementational level is kind of epiphenomenal from the point of view of the algorithm. How can an algorithm know its own implementation, all it can maybe figure out its own algorithm, and it’s identity would be constrained to its own algorithmic structure.” But that’s not quite true. In fact, there is bearings on one level of analysis onto another, meaning in some cases the implementation level of analysis doesn’t actually matter for the algorithm, but in some cases it does. So, if you were implementing a computer, let’s say with water, you have the option of maybe implementing a Turing machine with water buckets and in that case, okay, the implementation level of analysis goes out the window in terms of it doesn’t really help you understand the algorithm.

But if how you’re using water to implement algorithms is by basically creating this system of adding waves in buckets of different shapes, with different resonant modes, then the implementation level of analysis actually matters a whole lot for what algorithms are … finely tuned to be very effective in that substrate. In the case of consciousness and how we behave, we do think properties of the substrate have a lot of bearings on what algorithms we actually run. A functionalist should actually start caring about consciousness if the properties of consciousness makes the algorithms more efficient, more powerful.

Lucas: But what if qualia and consciousness are substantive real things? What if the epiphenomenonalist true and is like smoke rising from computation and it doesn’t have any causal efficacy?

Mike: To offer a re-frame on this, I like this frame of dual aspect monism better. There seems to be an implicit value judgment on epiphenomenalism. It’s seen as this very bad thing if a theory implies qualia as epiphenomenal. Just to put cards on the table, I think Andrés and I differ a little bit on how we see these things, although I think our ideas also mesh up well. But I would say that under the frame of something like dual aspect monism, that there’s actually one thing that exists, and it has two projections or shadows. And one projection is the physical world such as we can tell, and then the other projection is phenomenology, subjective experience. These are just two sides of the same coin and neither is epiphenomenal to the other. It’s literally just two different angles on the same thing.

And in that sense, qualia values and physical values are really talking about the same thing when you get down to it.

Lucas: Okay. So does this all begin with this move that Descartes makes, where he tries to produce a perfectly rational philosophy or worldview by making no assumptions and then starting with experience? Is this the kind of thing that you guys are doing in taking consciousness or qualia to be something real or serious?

Mike: I can just speak for myself here, but I would say my intuition comes from two places. One is staring deep into the beast of functionalism and realizing that it doesn’t lead to a clear answer. My model is that it just is this thing that looks like an answer but can never even in theory be an answer to how consciousness works. And if we deny consciousness, then we’re left in a tricky place with ethics and moral value. It also seems to leave value on the table in terms of predictions, that if we can assume consciousness as real and make better predictions, then that’s evidence that we should do that.

Lucas: Isn’t that just an argument that it would be potentially epistemically useful for ethics if we could have predictive power about consciousness?

Mike: Yeah. So, let’s assume that it’s 100 years, or 500 years, or 1,000 years in the future, and we’ve finally cracked consciousness. We’ve finally solved it. My open question is, what does the solution look like? If we’re functionalists, what does the solution look like? If we’re physicalists, what does the solution look like? And we can expand this to ethics as well.

Lucas: Just as a conceptual clarification, the functionalists are also physicalists though, right?

Andrés: There is two senses of the word physicalism here. So if there’s physicalism in the sense of like a theory of the universe, that the behavior of matter and energy, what happens in the universe is exhaustively described by the laws of physics, or future physics, there is also physicalism in the sense of understanding consciousness in contrast to functionalism. David Pearce, I think, would describe it as non-materialist physicalist idealism. There’s definitely a very close relationship between that phrasing and dual aspect monism. I can briefly unpack it. Basically non materialist is not saying that the stuff of the world is fundamentally unconscious. That’s something that materialism claims, that what the world is made of is not conscious, is raw matter so to speak.

Andrés: Physicalist, again in the sense of the laws of physics exhaustively describe behavior and idealist in the sense of what makes up the world is qualia or consciousness. The big picture view is that the actual substrate of the universe of quantum fields are fields of qualia.

Lucas: So Mike, you were saying that in the future when we potentially have a solution to the problem of consciousness, that in the end, the functionalists with algorithms and explanations of say all of the easy problems, all of the mechanisms behind the things that we call consciousness, you think that that project will ultimately fail?

Mike: I do believe that, and I guess my gentle challenge to functionalists would be to sketch out a vision of what a satisfying answer to consciousness would be, whether it’s completely explaining it a way or completely explaining it. If in 500 years you go to the local bookstore and you check out consciousness 101, and just flip through it, you look at the headlines and the chapter list and the pictures, what do you see? I think we have an answer as formalists, but I would be very interested in getting the functionalists state on this.

Lucas: All right, so you guys have this belief in the ability to formalize our understanding of consciousness, is this actually contingent on realism or anti realism?

Mike: It is implicitly dependent on realism, that consciousness is real enough to be describable mathematically in a precise sense. And actually that would be my definition of realism, that something is real if we can describe it exactly with mathematics and it is instantiated in the universe. I think the idea of connecting math and consciousness is very core to formalism.

Lucas: What’s particularly interesting here are the you’re making falsifiable claims about phenomenological states. It’s good and exciting that your Symmetry Theory of Valence, which we can get into now has falsifiable aspects. So do you guys want to describe here your Symmetry Theory of Valence and how this fits in and as a consequence of your valence realism?

Andrés: Sure, yeah. I think like one of the key places where this has bearings on is and understanding what is it that we actually want and what is it that we actually like and enjoy. That will be answered in an agent way. So basically you think of agents as entities who spin out possibilities for what actions to take and then they have a way of sorting them by expected utility and then carrying them out. A lot of people may associate what we want or what we like or what we care about at that level, the agent level, whereas we think actually the true source of value is more low level than that. That there’s something else that we’re actually using in order to implement agentive behavior. There’s ways of experiencing value that are completely separated from agents. You don’t actually need to be generating possible actions and evaluating them and enacting them for there to be value or for you to actually be able to enjoy something.

So what we’re examining here is actually what is the lower level property that gives rise even to agentive behavior that underlies every other aspect of experience. These would be a valence and specifically valence gradients. The general claim is that we are set up in such a way that we are basically climbing the valence gradient. This is not true in every situation, but it’s mostly true and it’s definitely mostly true in animals. And then the question becomes what implements valence gradients. Perhaps your intuition is this extraordinary fact that things that have nothing to do with our evolutionary past nonetheless can feel good or bad. So it’s understandable that if you hear somebody scream, you may get nervous or anxious or fearful or if you hear somebody laugh you may feel happy.

That makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, but why would the sound of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, the Bart, which creates these very intense screeching sounds, that is not even within like the vocal range of humans, it’s just really bizarre, never encountered before in our evolutionary past and nonetheless, it has an extraordinarily negative valence. That’s like a hint that valence has to do with patterns, it’s not just goals and actions and utility functions, but the actual pattern of your experience may determine valence. The same goes for a SUBPAC, is this technology that basically renders sounds between 10 and 100 hertz and some of them feel really good, some of them feel pretty unnerving, some of them are anxiety producing and it’s like why would that be the case? Especially when you’re getting two types of input that have nothing to do with our evolutionary past.

It seems that there’s ways of triggering high and low valence states just based on the structure of your experience. The last example I’ll give is very weird states of consciousness like meditation or psychedelics that seem to come with extraordinarily intense and novel forms of experiencing significance or a sense of bliss or pain. And again, they don’t seem to have much semantic content per se or rather the semantic content is not the core reason why they feel that they’re bad. It has to do more with a particular structure that they induce in experience.

Mike: There are many ways to talk about where pain and pleasure come from. We can talk about it in terms of neuro chemicals, opioids, dopamine. We can talk about it in terms of pleasure centers in the brain, in terms of goals and preferences and getting what you want, but all these have counterexamples. All of these have some points that you can follow the thread back to which will beg the question. I think the only way to explain emotional valence, pain and pleasure, that doesn’t beg the question is to explain it in terms of some patterns within phenomenology, just intrinsically feel good and some intrinsically feel bad. To touch back on the formalism brain, this would be saying that if we have a mathematical object that is isomorphic to your phenomenology, to what it feels like to be you, then some pattern or property of this object will refer to or will sort of intrinsically encode you are emotional valence, how pleasant or unpleasant this experiences.

That’s the valence formalism aspect that we’ve come to.

Lucas: So given the valence realism, the view is this intrinsic pleasure, pain axis of the world and this is sort of challenging I guess David Pearce’s view. There are things in experience which are just clearly good seeming or bad seeming. Will MacAskill called these pre theoretic properties we might ascribe to certain kinds of experiential aspects, like they’re just good or bad. So with this valence realism view, this potentiality in this goodness or badness whose nature is sort of self intimatingly disclosed in the physics and in the world since the beginning and now it’s unfolding and expressing itself more so and the universe is sort of coming to life, and embedded somewhere deep within the universe’s structure are these intrinsically good or intrinsically bad valances which complex computational systems and maybe other stuff has access to.

Andrés: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And I would perhaps emphasize that it’s not only pre-theoretical, it’s pre-agentive, you don’t even need an agent for there to be valence.

Lucas: Right. Okay. This is going to be a good point I think for getting into these other more specific hairy philosophical problems. Could you go ahead and unpack a little bit more this view that pleasure or pain is self intimatingly good or bad that just by existing and experiential relation with the thing its nature is disclosed. Brian Tomasik here, and I think functionalists would say there’s just another reinforcement learning algorithm somewhere before that is just evaluating these phenomenological states. They’re not intrinsically or bad, that’s just what it feels like to be the kind of agent who has that belief.

Andrés: Sure. There’s definitely many angles from which to see this. One of them is by basically realizing that liking, wanting and learning are possible to dissociate, and in particular you’re going to have reinforcement without an associated positive valence. You can have also positive valence without reinforcement or learning. Generally they are correlated but they are different things. My understanding is a lot of people who may think of valence as something we believe matters because you are the type of agent that has a utility function and a reinforcement function. If that was the case, we would expect valence to melt away in states that are non agentive, we wouldn’t necessarily see it. And also that it would be intrinsically tied to intentional content, the aboutness of experience. A very strong counter example is that somebody may claim that really what they truly want this to be academically successful or something like that.

They think of the reward function as intrinsically tied to getting a degree or something like that. I would call that to some extent illusory, that if you actually look at how those preferences are being implemented, that deep down there would be valence gradients happening there. One way to show this would be let’s say the person on the graduation day, you give them an opioid antagonist. The person will subjectively feel that the day is meaningless, you’ve removed the pleasant cream of the experience that they were actually looking for, that they thought all along was tied in with intentional content with the fact of graduating but in fact it was the hedonic gloss that they were after, and that’s kind of like one intuition pump part there.

Lucas: These core problem areas that you’ve identified in Principia Qualia, would you just like to briefly touch on those?

Mike: Yeah, trying to break the problem down into modular pieces with the idea that if we can decompose the problem correctly then the sub problems become much easier than the overall problem and if you collect all the solutions to the sub problem than in aggregate, you get a full solution to the problem of consciousness. So I’ve split things up into the metaphysics, the math and the interpretation. The first question is what metaphysics do you even start with? What ontology do you even try to approach the problem? And we’ve chosen the ontology of physics that can objectively map onto reality in a way that computation can not. Then there’s this question of, okay, so you have your core ontology in this case physics, and then there’s this question of what counts, what actively contributes to consciousness? Do we look at electrons, electromagnetic fields, quarks?

This is an unanswered question. We have hypotheses but we don’t have an answer. Moving into the math, conscious system seemed to have boundaries, if something’s happening inside my head it can directly contribute to my conscious experience. But even if we put our heads together, literally speaking, your consciousness doesn’t bleed over into mine, there seems to be a boundary. So one way of framing this is the boundary problem and one way it’s framing it is the binding problem, and these are just two sides of the same coin. There’s this big puzzle of how do you draw the boundaries of a subject experience. IIT is set up to approach consciousness in itself through this lens that has a certain style of answer, style of approach. We don’t necessarily need to take that approach, but it’s a intellectual landmark. Then we get into things like the state-space problem and the topology of information problem.

If we figured out our basic ontology of what we think is a good starting point and of that stuff, what actively contributes to consciousness, and then we can figure out some principled way to draw a boundary around, okay, this is conscious experience A and this conscious experience B, and they don’t overlap. So you have a bunch of the information inside the boundary. Then there’s this math question of how do you rearrange it into a mathematical object that is isomorphic to what that stuff feels like. And again, IIT has an approach to this, we don’t necessarily ascribe to the exact approach but it’s good to be aware of. There’s also the interpretation problem, which is actually very near and dear to what QRI is working on and this is the concept of if you had a mathematical object that represented what it feels like to be you, how would we even start to figure out what it meant?

Lucas: This is also where the falsifiability comes in, right? If we have the mathematical object and we’re able to formally translate that into phenomenological states, then people can self report on predictions, right?

Mike: Yes. I don’t necessarily fully trust self reports as being the gold standard. I think maybe evolution is tricky sometimes and can lead to inaccurate self report, but at the same time it’s probably pretty good, and it’s the best we have for validating predictions.

Andrés: A lot of this gets easier if we assume that maybe we can be wrong in an absolute sense but we’re often pretty well calibrated to judge relative differences. Maybe you ask me how I’m doing on a scale of one to ten and I say seven and the reality is a five, maybe that’s a problem, but at the same time I like chocolate and if you give me some chocolate and I eat it and that improves my subjective experience and I would expect us to be well calibrated in terms of evaluating whether something is better or worse.

Lucas: There’s this view here though that the brain is not like a classical computer, that it is more like a resonant instrument.

Mike: Yeah. Maybe an analogy here it could be pretty useful. There’s this researcher William Sethares who basically figured out the way to quantify the mutual dissonance between pairs of notes. It turns out that it’s not very hard, all you need to do is add up the pairwise dissonance between every harmonic of the notes. And what that gives you is that if you take for example a major key and you compute the average dissonance between pairs of notes within that major key it’s going to be pretty good on average. And if you take the average dissonance of a minor key it’s going to be higher. So in a sense what distinguishes the minor and a major key is in the combinatorial space of possible permutations of notes, how frequently are they dissonant versus consonant.

That’s a very ground truth mathematical feature of a musical instrument and that’s going to be different from one instrument to the next. With that as a backdrop, we think of the brain and in particular valence in a very similar light that the brain has natural resonant modes and emotions may seem externally complicated. When you’re having a very complicated emotion and we ask you to describe it it’s almost like trying to describe a moment in a symphony, this very complicated composition and how do you even go about it. But deep down the reason why a particular frame sounds pleasant or unpleasant within music is ultimately tractable to the additive per wise dissonance of all of those harmonics. And likewise for a given state of consciousness we suspect that very similar to music the average pairwise dissonance between the harmonics present on a given point in time will be strongly related to how unpleasant the experience is.

These are electromagnetic waves and it’s not exactly like a static or it’s not exactly a standing wave either, but it gets really close to it. So basically what this is saying is there’s this excitation inhibition wave function and that happens statistically across macroscopic regions of the brain. There’s only a discrete number of ways in which that way we can fit an integer number of times in the brain. We’ll give you a link to the actual visualizations for what this looks like. There’s like a concrete example, one of the harmonics with the lowest frequency is basically a very simple one where interviewer hemispheres are alternatingly more excited versus inhibited. So that will be a low frequency harmonic because it is very spatially large waves, an alternating pattern of excitation. Much higher frequency harmonics are much more detailed and obviously hard to describe, but visually generally speaking, the spatial regions that are activated versus inhibited are these very thin wave fronts.

It’s not a mechanical wave as such, it’s a electromagnetic wave. So it would actually be the electric potential in each of these regions of the brain fluctuates, and within this paradigm on any given point in time you can describe a brain state as a weighted sum of all of its harmonics, and what that weighted sum looks like depends on your state of consciousness.

Lucas: Sorry, I’m getting a little caught up here on enjoying resonant sounds and then also the valence realism. The view isn’t that all minds will enjoy resonant things because happiness is like a fundamental valence thing of the world and all brains who come out of evolution should probably enjoy resonance.

Mike: It’s less about the stimulus, it’s less about the exact signal and it’s more about the effect of the signal on our brains. The resonance that matters, the resonance that counts, or the harmony that counts we’d say, or in a precisely technical term, the consonance that counts is the stuff that happens inside our brains. Empirically speaking most signals that involve a lot of harmony create more internal consonance in these natural brain harmonics than for example, dissonant stimuli. But the stuff that counts is inside the head, not the stuff that is going in our ears.

Just to be clear about QRI’s move here, Selen Atasoy has put forth this connectome-specific harmonic wave model and what we’ve done is combined it with our symmetry theory of valence and said this is sort of a way of basically getting a Fourier transform of where the energy is in terms of frequencies of brainwaves in a much cleaner way than has been available through EEG. Basically we can evaluate this data set for harmony. How much harmony is there in a brain, with the link to the Symmetry Theory of Valence then it should be a very good proxy for how pleasant it is to be that brain.

Lucas: Wonderful.

Andrés: In this context, yeah, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be much more fundamental. There’s probably many ways of generating states of consciousness that are in a sense completely unnatural that are not based on the harmonics of the brain, but we suspect the bulk of the differences in states of consciousness would cash out in differences in brain harmonics because that’s a very efficient way of modulating the symmetry of the state.

Mike: Basically, music can be thought of as a very sophisticated way to hack our brains into a state of greater consonance, greater harmony.

Lucas: All right. People should check out your Principia Qualia, which is the work that you’ve done that captures a lot of this well. Is there anywhere else that you’d like to refer people to for the specifics?

Mike: Principia qualia covers the philosophical framework and the symmetry theory of valence. Andrés has written deeply about this connectome-specific harmonic wave frame and the name of that piece is Quantifying Bliss.

Lucas: Great. I would love to be able to quantify bliss and instantiate it everywhere. Let’s jump in here into a few problems and framings of consciousness. I’m just curious to see if you guys have any comments on ,the first is what you call the real problem of consciousness and the second one is what David Chalmers calls the Meta problem of consciousness. Would you like to go ahead and start off here with just this real problem of consciousness?

Mike: Yeah. So this gets to something we were talking about previously, is consciousness real or is it not? Is it something to be explained or to be explained away? This cashes out in terms of is it something that can be formalized or is it intrinsically fuzzy? I’m calling this the real problem of consciousness, and a lot depends on the answer to this. There are so many different ways to approach consciousness and hundreds, perhaps thousands of different carvings of the problem, panpsychism, we have dualism, we have non materialist physicalism and so on. I think essentially the core distinction, all of these theories sort themselves into two buckets, and that’s is consciousness real enough to formalize exactly or not. This frame is perhaps the most useful frame to use to evaluate theories of consciousness.

Lucas: And then there’s a Meta problem of consciousness which is quite funny, it’s basically like why have we been talking about consciousness for the past hour and what’s all this stuff about qualia and happiness and sadness? Why do people make claims about consciousness? Why does it seem to us that there is maybe something like a hard problem of consciousness, why is it that we experience phenomenological states? Why isn’t everything going on with the lights off?

Mike: I think this is a very clever move by David Chalmers. It’s a way to try to unify the field and get people to talk to each other, which is not so easy in the field. The Meta problem of consciousness doesn’t necessarily solve anything but it tries to inclusively start the conversation.

Andrés: The common move that people make here is all of these crazy things that we think about consciousness and talk about consciousness, that’s just any information processing system modeling its own attentional dynamics. That’s one illusionist frame, but even within qualia realist, qualia formalist paradigm, you still have the question of why do we even think or self reflect about consciousness. You could very well think of consciousness as being computationally relevant, you need to have consciousness and so on, but still lacking introspective access. You could have these complicated conscious information processing systems, but they don’t necessarily self reflect on the quality of their own consciousness. That property is important to model and make sense of.

We have a few formalisms that may give rise to some insight into how self reflectivity happens and in particular how is it possible to model the entirety of your state of consciousness in a given phenomenal object. These ties in with the notion of a homonculei, if the overall valence of your consciousness is actually a signal traditionally used for fitness evaluation, detecting basically when are you in existential risk to yourself or when there’s like reproductive opportunities that you may be missing out on, that it makes sense for there to be a general thermostat of the overall experience where you can just look at it and you get a a sense of the overall well being of the entire experience added together in such a way that you experienced them all at once.

I think like a lot of the puzzlement has to do with that internal self model of the overall well being of the experience, which is something that we are evolutionarily incentivized to actually summarize and be able to see at a glance.

Lucas: So, some people have a view where human beings are conscious and they assume everyone else is conscious and they think that the only place for value to reside is within consciousness, and that a world without consciousness is actually a world without any meaning or value. Even if we think that say philosophical zombies or people who are functionally identical to us but with no qualia or phenomenological states or experiential states, even if we think that those are conceivable, then it would seem that there would be no value in a world of p-zombies. So I guess my question is why does phenomenology matter? Why does the phenomenological modality of pain and pleasure or valence have some sort of special ethical or experiential status unlike qualia like red or blue?

Why does red or blue not disclose some sort of intrinsic value in the same way that my suffering does or my bliss does or the suffering or bliss of other people?

Mike: My intuition is also that consciousness is necessary for value. Nick Bostrom has this wonderful quote in super intelligence that we should be wary of building a Disneyland with no children, some technological wonderland that is filled with marvels of function but doesn’t have any subjective experience, doesn’t have anyone to enjoy it basically. I would just say that I think that most AI safety research is focused around making sure there is a Disneyland, making sure, for example, that we don’t just get turned into something like paperclips. But there’s this other problem, making sure there are children, making sure there are subjective experiences around to enjoy the future. I would say that there aren’t many live research threads on this problem and I see QRI as a live research thread on how to make sure there is subject experience in the future.

Probably a can of worms there, but as your question about in pleasure, I may pass that to my colleague Andrés.

Andrés: Nothing terribly satisfying here. I would go with David Pearce’s view that these properties of experience are self intimating and to the extent that you do believe in value, it will come up as the natural focal points for value, especially if you’re allowed to basically probe the quality of your experience where in many states you believe that the reason why you like something is for intentional content. Again, the case of graduating or it could be the the case of getting a promotion or one of those things that a lot of people associate, with feeling great, but if you actually probe the quality of experience, you will realize that there is this component of it which is its hedonic gloss and you can manipulate it directly again with things like opiate antagonists and if the symmetry theory of valence is true, potentially also by directly modulating the consonance and dissonance of the brain harmonics, in which case the hedonic gloss would change in peculiar ways.

When it comes to consilience, when it comes to many different points of view, agreeing on what aspect of the experience is what brings value to it, it seems to be the hedonic gloss.

Lucas: So in terms of qualia and valence realism, would the causal properties of qualia be the thing that would show any arbitrary mind the self-intimating nature of how good or bad an experience is, and in the space of all possible minds, what is the correct epistemological mechanism for evaluating the moral status of experiential or qualitative states?

Mike: So first of all, I would say that my focus so far has mostly been on describing what is and not what ought. I think that we can talk about valence without necessarily talking about ethics, but if we can talk about valence clearly, that certainly makes some questions in ethics and some frameworks in ethics make much more or less than. So the better we can clearly describe and purely descriptively talk about consciousness, the easier I think a lot of these ethical questions get. I’m trying hard not to privilege any ethical theory. I want to talk about reality. I want to talk about what exists, what’s real and what the structure of what exists is, and I think if we succeed at that then all these other questions about ethics and morality get much, much easier. I do think that there is an implicit should wrapped up in questions about valence, but I do think that’s another leap.

You can accept the valence is real without necessarily accepting that optimizing valence is an ethical imperative. I personally think, yes, it is very ethically important, but it is possible to take a purely descriptive frame to valence, that whether or not this also discloses, as David Pearce said, the utility function of the universe. That is another question and can be decomposed.

Andrés: One framing here too is that we do suspect valence is going to be the thing that matters up on any mind if you probe it in the right way in order to achieve reflective equilibrium. There’s the biggest example of a talk and neuro scientist was giving at some point, there was something off and everybody seemed to be a little bit anxious or irritated and nobody knew why and then one of the conference organizers suddenly came up to the presenter and did something to the microphone and then everything sounded way better and everybody was way happier. There was these very sorrow hissing pattern caused by some malfunction of the microphone and it was making everybody irritated, they just didn’t realize that was the source of the irritation, and when it got fixed then you know everybody’s like, “Oh, that’s why I was feeling upset.”

We will find that to be the case over and over when it comes to improving valence. So like somebody in the year 2050 might come up to one of the connectome-specific harmonic wave clinics, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” but if you put them through the scanner we identify your 17th and 19th harmonic in a state of dissonance. We cancel 17th to make it more clean, and then the person who will say all of a sudden like, “Yeah, my problem is fixed. How did you do that?” So I think it’s going to be a lot like that, that the things that puzzle us about why do I prefer these, why do I think this is worse, will all of a sudden become crystal clear from the point of view of valence gradients objectively measured.

Mike: One of my favorite phrases in this context is what you can measure you can manage and if we can actually find the source of dissonance in a brain, then yeah, we can resolve it, and this could open the door for maybe honestly a lot of amazing things, making the human condition just intrinsically better. Also maybe a lot of worrying things, being able to directly manipulate emotions may not necessarily be socially positive on all fronts.

Lucas: So I guess here we can begin to jump into AI alignment and qualia. So we’re building AI systems and they’re getting pretty strong and they’re going to keep getting stronger potentially creating a superintelligence by the end of the century and consciousness and qualia seems to be along the ride for now. So I’d like to discuss a little bit here about more specific places in AI alignment where these views might inform it and direct it.

Mike: Yeah, I would share three problems of AI safety. There’s the technical problem, how do you make a self improving agent that is also predictable and safe. This is a very difficult technical problem. First of all to even make the agent but second of all especially to make it safe, especially if it becomes smarter than we are. There’s also the political problem, even if you have the best technical solution in the world and the sufficiently good technical solution doesn’t mean that it will be put into action in a sane way if we’re not in a reasonable political system. But I would say the third problem is what QRI is most focused on and that’s the philosophical problem. What are we even trying to do here? What is the optimal relationship between AI and humanity and also a couple of specific details here. First of all I think nihilism is absolutely an existential threat and if we can find some antidotes to nihilism through some advanced valence technology that could be enormously helpful for reducing X-risk.

Lucas: What kind of nihilism or are you talking about here, like nihilism about morality and meaning?

Mike: Yes, I would say so, and just personal nihilism that it feels like nothing matters, so why not do risky things?

Lucas: Whose quote is it, the philosophers question like should you just kill yourself? That’s the yawning abyss of nihilism inviting you in.

Andrés: Albert Camus. The only real philosophical question is whether to commit suicide, whereas how I think of it is the real philosophical question is how to make love last, bringing value to the existence, and if you have value on tap, then the question of whether to kill yourself or not seems really nonsensical.

Lucas: For sure.

Mike: We could also say that right now there aren’t many good shelling points for global coordination. People talk about having global coordination and building AGI would be a great thing but we’re a little light on the details of how to do that. If the clear, comprehensive, useful, practical understanding of consciousness can be built, then this may sort of embody or generate new shelling points that the larger world could self organize around. If we can give people a clear understanding of what is and what could be, then I think we will get a better future that actually gets built.

Lucas: Yeah. Showing what is and what could be is immensely important and powerful. So moving forward with AI alignment as we’re building these more and more complex systems, there’s this needed distinction between unconscious and conscious information processing, if we’re interested in the morality and ethics of suffering and joy and other conscious states. How do you guys see the science of consciousness here, actually being able to distinguish between unconscious and conscious information processing systems?

Mike: There are a few frames here. One is that, yeah, it does seem like the brain does some processing in consciousness and some processing outside of consciousness. And what’s up with that, this could be sort of an interesting frame to explore in terms of avoiding things like mind crime in the AGI or AI space that if there are certain computations which are painful then don’t do them in a way that would be associated with consciousness. It would be very good to have rules of thumb here for how to do that. One interesting could be in the future we might not just have compilers which optimize for speed of processing or minimization of dependent libraries and so on, but could optimize for the valence of the computation on certain hardware. This of course gets into complex questions about computationalism, how hardware dependent this compiler would be and so on.

I think it’s an interesting and important long-term frame.

Lucas: So just illustrate here I think the ways in which solving or better understanding consciousness will inform AI alignment from present day until super intelligence and beyond.

Mike: I think there’s a lot of confusion about consciousness and a lot of confusion about what kind of thing the value problem is in AI Safety, and there are some novel approaches on the horizon. I was speaking with Stuart Armstrong the last EA global and he had some great things to share about his model fragments paradigm. I think this is the right direction. It’s sort of understanding, yeah, human preferences are insane. Just they’re not a consistent formal system.

Lucas: Yeah, we contain multitudes.

Mike: Yes, yes. So first of all understanding what generates them seems valuable. So there’s this frame in AI safety we call the complexity value thesis. I believe Eliezer came up with it in a post on Lesswrong. It’s this frame where human value is very fragile in that it can be thought of as a small area, perhaps even almost a point in a very high dimensional space, say a thousand dimensions. If we go any distance in any direction from this tiny point in this high dimensional space, then we quickly get to something that we wouldn’t think of as very valuable. And maybe if we leave everything the same and take away freedom, this paints a pretty sobering picture of how difficult AI alignment will be.

I think this is perhaps arguably the source of a lot of worry in the community, that not only do we need to make machines that won’t just immediately kill us, but that will preserve our position in this very, very high dimensional space well enough that we keep the same trajectory and that possibly if we move at all, then we may enter a totally different trajectory, that we in 2019 wouldn’t think of as having any value. So this problem becomes very, very intractable. I would just say that there is an alternative frame. The phrasing that I’m playing around with here it is instead of the complexity of value thesis, the unity of value thesis, it could be that many of the things that we find valuable, eating ice cream, living in a just society, having a wonderful interaction with a loved one, all of these have the same underlying neural substrate and empirically this is what affective neuroscience is finding.

Eating a chocolate bar activates same brain regions as a transcendental religious experience. So maybe there’s some sort of elegant compression that can be made and that actually things aren’t so starkly strict. We’re not sort of this point in a super high dimensional space and if we leave the point, then everything of value is trashed forever, but maybe there’s some sort of convergent process that we can follow that we can essentialize. We can make this list of 100 things that humanity values and maybe they all have in common positive valence, and positive valence can sort of be reverse engineered. And to some people this feels like a very scary dystopic scenario – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – but at the same time there’s a lot of complexity here.

One core frame that the idea of qualia formalism and valence realism can offer AI safety is that maybe the actual goal is somewhat different than the complexity of value thesis puts forward. Maybe the actual goal is different and in fact easier. I think this could directly inform how we spend our resources on the problem space.

Lucas: Yeah, I was going to say that there exists standing tension between this view of the complexity of all preferences and values that human beings have and then the valence realist view which says that what’s ultimately good or certain experiential or hedonic states. I’m interested and curious about if this valence view is true, whether it’s all just going to turn into hedonium in the end.

Mike: I’m personally a fan of continuity. I think that if we do things right we’ll have plenty of time to get things right and also if we do things wrong then we’ll have plenty of time for things to be wrong. So I’m personally not a fan of big unilateral moves, it’s just getting back to this question of can understanding what is help us, clearly yes.

Andrés: Yeah. I guess one view is we could say preserve optionality and learn what is, and then from there hopefully we’ll be able to better inform oughts and with maintained optionality we’ll be able to choose the right thing. But that will require a cosmic level of coordination.

Mike: Sure. An interesting frame here is whole brain emulation. So whole brain emulation is sort of a frame built around functionalism and it’s a seductive frame I would say. If whole brain emulations wouldn’t necessarily have the same qualia based on hardware considerations as the original humans, there could be some weird lock in effects where if the majority of society turned themselves into p-zombies then it may be hard to go back on that.

Lucas: Yeah. All right. We’re just getting to the end here, I appreciate all of this. You guys have been tremendous and I really enjoyed this. I want to talk about identity in AI alignment. This sort of taxonomy that you’ve developed about open individualism and closed individualism and all of these other things. Would you like to touch on that and talk about implications here in AI alignment as you see it?

Andrés: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. The taxonomy comes from Daniel Kolak, a philosopher and mathematician. It’s a pretty good taxonomy and basically it’s like open individualism, that’s the view that a lot of meditators and mystics and people who take psychedelics often ascribe to, which is that we’re all one consciousness. Another frame is that our true identity is the light of consciousness, so to speak. So it doesn’t matter in what form it manifests, it’s always the same fundamental ground of being. Then you have the common sense view, it’s called closed individualism. You start existing when you’re born, you stop existing when you die. You’re just this segment. Some religions actually extend that into the future or past with reincarnation or maybe with heaven.

It’s the belief in ontological distinction between you and others while at the same time there is ontological continuity from one moment to the next within you. Finally you have this view that’s called empty individualism, which is that you’re just a moment of experience. That’s fairly common among physicists and a lot of people who’ve tried to formalize consciousness, often they converged on empty individualism. I think a lot of theories of ethics and rationality, like the veil of ignorance as a guide or like how do you define rational decision-making as maximizing the expected utility of yourself as an agent, all of those seem to implicitly be based on closed individualism and they’re not necessarily questioning it very much.

On the other hand, if the sense of individual identity of closed individualism doesn’t actually carve nature at its joints as a Buddhist might say, the feeling of continuity of being a separate unique entity is an illusory construction of your phenomenology that casts in a completely different light how to approach rationality itself and even self interest, right? If you start identifying with the light of consciousness rather than your particular instantiation, you will probably care a lot more about what happens to pigs in factory farms because … In so far as they are conscious they are you in a fundamental way. It matters a lot in terms of how to carve out different possible futures, especially when you get into these very tricky situations like, well what if there is mind melding or what if there is the possibility of making perfect copies of yourself?

All of these edge cases are really problematic from the common sense view of identity, but they’re not really a problem from an open individualist or empty individualist point of view. With all of this said, I do personally think there’s probably a way of combining open individualism with valence realism that gives rise to the next step in human rationality where we’re actually trying to really understand what the universe wants, so to speak. But I would say that there is a very tricky aspect here that has to do with game theory. We evolved to believe in close individualism. The fact that it’s evolutionarily adaptive is obviously not an argument for it being fundamentally true, but it does seem to be some kind of an evolutionarily stable point to believe of yourself as who you can affect the most directly in a causal way, if you define your boundary that way.

That basically gives you focus on the actual degrees of freedom that you do have, and if you think of a society of open individualists, everybody’s altruistically maximally contributing to the universal consciousness, and then you have one close individualist who is just selfishly trying to acquire power just for itself, you can imagine that one view would have a tremendous evolutionary advantage in that context. So I’m not one who just naively advocates for open individualism unreflectively. I think we still have to work out to the game theory of it, how to make it evolutionarily stable and also how to make it ethical. Open question, I do think it’s important to think about and if you take consciousness very seriously, especially within physicalism, that usually will cast huge doubts on the common sense view of identity.

It doesn’t seem like a very plausible view if you actually tried to formalize consciousness.

Mike: The game theory aspect is very interesting. You can think of closed individualism as something evolutionists produced that allows an agent to coordinate very closely with its past and future ourselves. Maybe we can say a little bit about why we’re not by default all empty individualists or open individualists. Empty individualism seems to have a problem where if every slice of conscious experience is its own thing, then why should you even coordinate with your past and future self because they’re not the same as you. So that leads to a problem of defection, and open individualism is everything is the same being so to speak than … As Andrés mentioned that allows free riders, if people are defecting, it doesn’t allow altruist punishment or any way to stop the free ride. There’s interesting game theory here and it also just feeds into the question of how we define our identity in the age of AI, the age of cloning, the age of mind uploading.

This gets very, very tricky very quickly depending on one’s theory of identity. They’re opening themselves up to getting hacked in different ways and so different theories of identity allow different forms of hacking.

Andrés: Yeah, which could be sometimes that’s really good and sometimes really bad. I would make the prediction that not necessarily open individualism in its full fledged form but a weaker sense of identity than closed individualism is likely going to be highly adaptive in the future as people basically have the ability to modify their state of consciousness in much more radical ways. People who just identify with narrow sense of identity will just be in their shells, not try to disturb the local attractor too much. That itself is not necessarily very advantageous. If the things on offer are actually really good, both hedonically and intelligence wise.

I do suspect basically people who are somewhat more open to basically identify with consciousness or at least identify with a broader sense of identity, they will be the people who will be doing more substantial progress, pushing the boundary and creating new cooperation and coordination technology.

Lucas: Wow, I love all that. Seeing closed individualism for what it was has had a tremendous impact on my life and this whole question of identity I think is largely confused for a lot of people. At the beginning you said that open individualism says that we are all one consciousness or something like this, right? For me in identity I’d like to move beyond all distinctions of sameness or differenceness. To say like, oh, we’re all one consciousness to me seems to say we’re all one electromagnetism, which is really to say the consciousness is like an independent feature or property of the world that’s just sort of a ground part of the world and when the world produces agents, consciousness is just an empty identityless property that comes along for the ride.

The same way in which it would be nonsense to say, “Oh, I am these specific atoms, I am just the forces of nature that are bounded within my skin and body” That would be nonsense. In the same way in sense of what we were discussing with consciousness there was the binding problem of the person, the discreteness of the person. Where does the person really begin or end? It seems like these different kinds of individualism have, as you said, epistemic and functional use, but they also, in my view, create a ton of epistemic problems, ethical issues, and in terms of the valence theory, if quality is actually something good or bad, then as David Pearce says, it’s really just an epistemological problem that you don’t have access to other brain states in order to see the self intimating nature of what it’s like to be that thing in that moment.

There’s a sense in which i want to reject all identity as arbitrary and I want to do that in an ultimate way, but then in the conventional way, I agree with you guys that there are these functional and epistemic issues that closed individualism seems to remedy somewhat and is why evolution, I guess selected for it, it’s good for gene propagation and being selfish. But once one sees AI as just a new method of instantiating bliss, it doesn’t matter where the bliss is. Bliss is bliss and there’s no such thing as your bliss or anyone else’s bliss. Bliss is like its own independent feature or property and you don’t really begin or end anywhere. You are like an expression of a 13.7 billion year old system that’s playing out.

The universe is just peopleing all of us at the same time, and when you get this view and you see you as just sort of like the super thin slice of the evolution of consciousness and life, for me it’s like why do I really need to propagate my information into the future? Like I really don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the information of anyone really that exists today. We want to preserve all of the good stuff and propagate those in the future, but people who seek a immortality through AI or seek any kind of continuation of what they believe to be their self is, I just see that all as misguided and I see it as wasting potentially better futures by trying to bring Windows 7 into the world of Windows 10.

Mike: This all gets very muddy when we try to merge human level psychological drives and concepts and adaptations with a fundamental physics level description of what is. I don’t have a clear answer. I would say that it would be great to identify with consciousness itself, but at the same time, that’s not necessarily super easy if you’re suffering from depression or anxiety. So I just think that this is going to be an ongoing negotiation within society and just hopefully we can figure out ways in which everyone can move.

Andrés: There’s an article I wrote it, I just called it consciousness versus replicators. That kind of gets to the heart of this issue, but that sounds a little bit like good and evil, but it really isn’t. The true enemy here is replication for replication’s sake. On the other hand, the only way in which we can ultimately benefit consciousness, at least in a plausible, evolutionarily stable way is through replication. We need to find the balance between replication and benefit of consciousness that makes the whole system stable, good for consciousness and resistant against the factors.

Mike: I would like to say that I really enjoy Max Tegmark’s general frame of you leaving this mathematical universe. One re-frame of what we were just talking about in these terms are there are patterns which have to do with identity and have to do with valence and have to do with many other things. The grand goal is to understand what makes a pattern good or bad and optimize our light cone for those sorts of patterns. This may have some counter intuitive things, maybe closed individualism is actually a very adaptive thing, in the long term it builds robust societies. Could be that that’s not true but I just think that taking the mathematical frame and the long term frame is a very generative approach.

Lucas: Absolutely. Great. I just want to finish up here on two fun things. It seems like good and bad are real in your view. Do we live in heaven or hell?

Mike: Lot of quips that come to mind here. Hell is other people, or nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. My pet theory I should say is that we live in something that is perhaps close to heaven as is physically possible. The best of all possible worlds.

Lucas: I don’t always feel that way but why do you think that?

Mike: This gets through the weeds of theories about consciousness. It’s this idea that we tend to think of consciousness on the human scale. Is the human condition good or bad, is the balance of human experience on the good end, the heavenly end or the hellish end. If we do have an objective theory of consciousness, we should be able to point it at things that are not human and even things that are not biological. It may seem like a type error to do this but we should be able to point it at stars and black holes and quantum fuzz. My pet theory, which is totally not validated, but it is falsifiable, and this gets into Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis, it could be that if we tally up the good valence and the bad valence in the universe, that first of all, the human stuff might just be a rounding error.

Most of the value, in this value the positive and negative valence is found elsewhere, not in humanity. And second of all, I have this list in the last appendix of Principia Qualia as well, where could massive amounts of consciousness be hiding in the cosmological sense. I’m very suspicious that the big bang starts with a very symmetrical state, I’ll just leave it there. In a utilitarian sense, if you want to get a sense of whether we live in a place closer to heaven or hell we should actually get a good theory of consciousness and we should point to things that are not humans and cosmological scale events or objects would be very interesting to point it at. This will give a much better clear answer as to whether we live in somewhere closer to heaven or hell than human intuition.

Lucas: All right, great. You guys have been super generous with your time and I’ve really enjoyed this and learned a lot. Is there anything else you guys would like to wrap up on?

Mike: Just I would like to say, yeah, thank you so much for the interview and reaching out and making this happen. It’s been really fun on our side too.

Andrés: Yeah, I think wonderful questions and it’s very rare for an interviewer to have non conventional views of identity to begin with, so it was really fun, really appreciate it.

Lucas: Would you guys like to go ahead and plug anything? What’s the best place to follow you guys, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, website?

Mike: Our website is qualiaresearchinstitute.org and we’re working on getting a PayPal donate button out but in the meantime you can send us some crypto. We’re building out the organization and if you want to read our stuff a lot of it is linked from the website and you can also read my stuff at my blog, opentheory.net and Andrés’ is @qualiacomputing.com.

Lucas: If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe, give it a like or share it on your preferred social media platform. We’ll be back again soon with another episode in the AI Alignment series.


Featured image credit: Alex Grey

The Meaning Machine

Excerpt from Every Cradle Is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (2014) by Sarah Perry

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?

– Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia 

I believe that we should be very cautious about creating conscious beings, and I believe that the ideal number of conscious beings (and perhaps even living beings) in the universe is probably zero, for the good of those beings themselves.

Since suffering and misery are inescapable parts of life, if we are to justify creating life there must be something that outweighs suffering and misery within the space of universal judgements. Candidates generally fall into two categories. The first category is essentially hedonist: pleasure or good experiences are said to outnumber or outweigh bad experiences. This is the objection Bryan Caplan is making with his Free Disposal argument, discussed in the first chapter; assuming preferentism (that people choose what is good for them), and assuming that people have free choice in the relevant arenas, people would merely commit suicide if it were not true that the pleasure of life outweighs the suffering. And since only a million people per year commit suicide, creating life is obviously the right choice. A more subtle variation of this argument does not rely on suicide, but on a sort of imaginary survey: most people would probably report that their lives are worth living, that the good outweighs the bad, and therefore it must.

The second category of responses is that there is something valuable and meaningful about life that makes it worth living even if the bad vastly outweighs the good. In the previous chapter, we explored and categorized some of the things that people find meaningful, noting how these change according to circumstance and over time. One of the most salient features of the things that make life seem meaningful is that they frequently rely on illusion: the illusion of unchanging permanence, of a future state of happiness, of one’s ability to affect the world. It is my view that the sense of meaningfulness is itself an illusion, a cognitive phenomenon that is very adaptive for individuals and groups. This illusion is maintained by communities in order to organize the behavior of individuals, in part by easing their suffering.

One response to this is to counter that meaning is not an illusion- that there is real value in the world beyond what is experienced by living beings. Unfortunately, the proposed real and true meanings are often difficult to express in words to others who do not sense their truth. The feeling that life is meaningful is a pre-rational sensory perception that is widely shared. However, the specific meanings that people find satisfying and convincing are disparate and often contradictory. These underlying realities should make us question whether the sense that life is meaningful- or that some specific meaning can be found in life- is a true observation, or merely an illusion. The very adaptiveness of this belief, even if it were not true, must also make us suspect its veracity. The meaning realist has the further problem that no specific meaning is held by a majority of humanity; if there is one true meaning, then whatever it is, the majority of people’s lives go very badly because they do not perceive it.

Another response is that while meanings vary, it is enough that almost everyone finds some meaning in life. In other words, that sense that life is meaningful is enough to justify life, and the myriad meanings found and elaborated by individuals are all, in fact, the meaning of life. This seems to be the most common position articulated in modern post-Christian Western societies: if a person finds his life to be meaningful, then it is meaningful- even if different people find contradictory meanings in life. One person might find a sense of meaning in fighting for equality, another in ethno-nationalism, and they are both right.

This second response is actually a variation on hedonism, in that the experience of meaning, rather than the experience of pleasure, provides value. According to this view, a life of overwhelming suffering but with a deep experience of meaning might be better than a life of joy and pleasure that is internally felt to be meaningless. But ultimately, divorced from the meaning realism of the first response, this grounds meaning in subjective experience; the sense of meaning becomes another form of pleasure. The modern ideas that it is up to each individual to find meaning in life, and that this meaning justifies life, means accepting a meaning-based Experience Machine.

The things that we find to be meaningful are, in fact, miniature Experience Machines. They rely on illusion and filter the information that reaches us so that we may continue to feel that life is meaningful, or continue to search for meaning in life if it is missing. They are very useful; they help us organize our behavior, coordinate with others, and manage our emotions. In a practical sense they often make the suffering of life bearable; but, once they are recognized to be illusions, they cannot justify suffering in an abstract sense any more than pleasure can.

We need not jump into a Nozickian Experience Machine to get pleasure and a sense of meaning from intricate illusions. The Reverse Experience Machine experiment is close to the illusion we find ourselves in- if we found out we were in an Experience Machine already, would we choose to leave it for the real world? Institutions, religions, social communities, and even individual people function as Experience Machines, creating and maintaining illusions that help us feel that life is worthwhile. A meaning realist would reject the Experience Machine, but to be consistent he must also reject those aspects of life that use illusion or information filters to provide meaning. A meaning subjectivist has little ground to reject the Experience Machine. This has implications for the justification of life’s misery based on meaningfulness.


Excerpt from SUPERHAPPINESS: Ten Objections To Radical Mood-Enrichment by David Pearce

The ‘EXPERIENCE MACHINE’ objection [to engineering superhappiness with genetic technologies]

According to this objection, the prospect of “artificially” ratcheting up our hedonic set-point via biotech interventions just amounts to a version of Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick’s hypothetical Experience Machine. Recall the short section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) where Nozick purportedly refutes ethical hedonism by asking us to imagine a utopian machine that can induce experiences of anything at all in its users at will. A full-blown Experience Machine will presumably provide superauthenticity too: its users might even congratulate themselves on having opted to remain plugged into the real world – having wisely rejected the blandishments of Experience Machine evangelists and their escapist fantasies. At any rate, given this hypothetical opportunity to witness all our dreams coming true, then most of us wouldn’t take it. Our rejection shows that we value far more than mere experiences. Sure, runs this objection, millennial neuroscience may be able to create experiences millions of times more wonderful than anything open to Darwinian minds. But so what? It’s mind-independent facts in the real world that matter – and matter in some sense to us – not false happiness.

POSSIBLE RESPONSE

This Objection isn’t fanciful. In future, technologies akin to Experience Machines will probably be technically feasible, perhaps combining immersive VR, neural nanobots and a rewiring of the pleasure centres. Such technologies may conceivably become widely available or even ubiquitous – though whether their global use could ever be sociologically and evolutionarily stable for a whole population is problematic. [If you do think Experience Machines may become ubiquitous, then you might wonder (shades of the Simulation Argument) whether statistically you’re most probably plugged into one already. This hypothesis is more compelling if you’re a life-loving optimist who thinks you’re living in the best of all possible worlds than if you’re a depressive Darwinian convinced you’re living in the unspeakably squalid basement.]

However, feasible or otherwise, Experience Machines aren’t the kind of hedonic engineering technology we’re discussing here. Genetically recalibrating our hedonic treadmill at progressively more exalted settings needn’t promote the growth of escapist fantasy worlds. Measured, incremental increase in normal hedonic tone can allow (post-)humans to engage with the world – and each other – no less intimately than before; and possibly more so. By contrast, it’s contemporary social anxiety disorders and clinical depression that are associated with behavioural suppression and withdrawal. Other things being equal, a progressively happier population will also be more socially involved – with each other and with consensus reality. At present, it’s notable that the happiest people tend to lead the fullest social lives; conversely, depressives tend to be lonely and socially isolated. Posthuman mental superhealth may indeed be inconceivably different from the world of the happiest beings alive today: meaning-saturated and vibrantly authentic to a degree we physiologically can’t imagine. Yet this wonderful outcome won’t be – or at least it needn’t be – explicable because our descendants are escapists plugged into Experience Machines, but instead because posthuman life is intrinsically wonderful.

Perhaps. The above response to the Experience Machine objection is simplistic. It oversimplifies the issues because for a whole range of phenomena, there is simply no mind-independent fact of the matter that could potentially justify Experience Machine-style objections – and deter the future use of Experience Machine-like technologies for fear of our losing touch with Reality. Compare, say, mathematical beauty with artistic beauty. If you are a mathematician, then you want not merely to experience the epiphany of solving an important equation or devising an elegant proof of a mathematical theorem. You also want that solution or proof to be really true in some deep platonic sense. But if you create, say, a sculpture or a painting, then its beauty (or conversely, its ugliness) is inescapably in the eye of the beholder; there is no mind-independent truth beyond the subjective response of one’s audience. For an aesthete who longs to experience phenomenal beauty, there simply isn’t any fact of the matter beyond the quality of experience itself. The beauty is no less real, and it certainly seems to be a fact of the world; but it is subjective. If so, then why not create the substrates of posthuman superbeauty rather than mere artistic prettiness?

There’s also a sense in which our brains already are (dysfunctional) Experience Machines. Consider dreaming. Should one take drugs to suppress REM sleep because our dreams aren’t true? Or when awake, should one’s enjoyment of a beautiful sunset be dimmed by the knowledge that secondary properties like colour are mind-dependent? [Quantum theory suggests that classical macroscopic “primary” properties as normally conceived are mind-dependent too; but that’s another story] If you had been born a monochromat who sees the world only in different shades of grey, then as a hard-nosed scientific rationalist, should you reject colour vision gene therapy on the grounds that phenomenal colours are fake – and grass isn’t intrinsically green? No, by common consent visual experience enriches us, even if, strictly speaking, we are creating reality rather than simulating and/or perceiving it. Or to give another example: what if neural enhancement technologies could controllably modify our aesthetic filters so we could see 80-year-old women as sexier than 20-year-old women? Is this perception false or inauthentic? Intuitively, perhaps so. But actually, the perception is no more or less authentic than seeing 20-year-old women of prime reproductive potential as sexier. Evolution has biased our existing perceptual filters in ways that maximised the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment; but in future, we can optimise the well-being of their bodily vehicles (i.e. us). Gradients of well-being billions of times richer than anything humans experience are neither more nor less genuine than the greenness of grass (or the allure of Marilyn Monroe). Could such states become as common as grass? Again, I suspect so; but speculation is cheap.


Analysis

Sarah Perry argues that we already live in a meaning-based Experience Machine. David Pearce reminds us that our experience of the world is itself just a phenomenal representation of a mind-independent quantum mess, and that what makes us feel good or bad is merely a reflection of what increases or decreases the inclusive fitness of our genes. In both cases, Nozick’s Experience Machine thought-experiment is turned on its head. Namely, that if we value life, we are inescapably already agreeing to living on an Experience Machine of sorts.

It is hard for me not to roll my eyes when someone says “I am not looking for happiness; I’m looking for meaning.” Although perhaps not obvious to everyone, the way in which your world-simulation is implemented is such that activities that foster the inclusive fitness of your genes feel good, while those that bring fewer future copies of your genes generally feel bad. Thanks to our neocortex, we are able to “encephalize” our deep primal emotions and render them in conjunction with (and indeed phenomenally embedded in) high-dimensional state spaces of consciousness. Key predictors of inclusive fitness such as social status, environmental stability, and the mutational load of one’s tribe are not explicitly rendered in our experience as “beneficial for your inclusive fitness.” Rather, they are rendered in a concrete simulation-congruent form (i.e. as meaningful), such as being a good person, having a home, and being able to tune in to highly evolved aesthetics, respectively. Indeed, we are adaptation executers rather than utility optimizers; the causal effect of our aesthetic preferences (e.g. preferring to think of ourselves as “meaning-seeking” rather than “pleasure-seeking”) is not legible from our subjective vintage point. But… the inherent entwining of meaning and valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) is crystal clear as soon as we mess with one’s psychopharmacology, for people who fetishize meaning are not immune to mu-opioid antagonists. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to enjoy either a personal meaning, a sense of community, or even higher art while on the opioid-antagonist naltrexone. Likewise, isn’t it strange that psychedelics and empathogens seem to simultaneously increase depth of meaning and capacity for pleasure? Indeed, realizing that subjective meaning is implemented with valence gradients has extraordinary explanatory power. For this reason, it is thus clear that, as David Pearce likes to say, “if you take care of happiness, the meaning of life will take care of itself.”

What about anti-natalism? My take on anti-natalism is pretty standard for a negative leaning utilitarian and transhumanist. Namely, that selection pressures against any proclivity to self-limit human reproduction guarantees that the psychological traits that bring about hard anti-natalist views will not sustain themselves over time. If one impartially cares about the wellbeing of sentient beings, one should take into account how evolution works. Advocating for gradients of intelligent bliss rather than non-existence could satisfy anti-natalists’ craving for the absence of suffering while also being compatible with an understanding of the reality of selection pressures. Tongue-in-cheek, I thus advocate for antinatalists to have lots of children, and for pro-natalists to have no children at all. More seriously, the real solution is to develop and promote “Triple-S genetic counseling” so that every child that is born is emancipated from the agony of his or her- otherwise inevitable- future suffering.


See also: The Tyranny of the Intentional Object, Open Individualism and Antinatalism, The Purple Pill, and Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators

Low-Dose Ibogaine for Hedonic Tone Augmentation

Excerpt from Tools of Titans (ps. 119-120) by Tim Ferriss (2017)

Biochemically, Why Is Ibogaine So Oddly Effective?

“[Ibogaine isn’t] just masking the withdrawal like a substitution drug would. For example, if somebody on heroin takes methadone, they won’t have withdrawal for a period of time, but as soon as the methadone leaves the system, the withdrawal comes back. This is not something that happens on ibogaine. You take ibogaine, and the withdrawal is gone – 90% of the withdrawal is completely gone. That’s telling us that the ibogaine is actually changing the receptor to the way it was before the person started using. It’s actually restructuring and healing it. Ibogaine appears to affect almost every major class of neurotransmitter, primarily via NMDA, serotonin, sigma, and nicotinic receptors. A prominent ibogaine researcher, Dr. Kenneth Alper [of New York University School of Medicine], has stated in presentations that certain aspects of ibogaine defy traditional paradigms in pharmacology.”

Tim Ferriss: “I have noticed that microdosing seemed to increase my happiness ‘set point’ by 5 to 10%, to peg a number on my subjective experience. This persists for several days after consumption. Preliminarily, the effect appears to relate to up-regulation of mu-opioid receptors. From one study: ‘…in vivo evidence has been provided for the possible interaction of ibogaine with μ-opioid receptor following its metabolism to noribogaine.’*”

Martin: “[In treating chemical dependency] it’s opiate-specific. We have seen some benefits for certain psychiatric medications, but not for benzodiazepine or alcohol withdrawal. These two withdrawals are actually dangerous. When somebody gets the shakes, it’s DT (delirium tremens) and that can be deadly. So, it’s a very delicate process and somebody who’s physically addicted to alcohol should not take ibogaine. They need to detox first, and then they can take ibogaine for the psychological and the anti-addictive benefits.”


* Bhargava, Hemendra N., Ying-Jun Cao, and Guo-Min Zhao. “Effects of ibogaine and noribogaine on the antinociceptive action of μ-, δ-, and κ-opioid receptor agonists in mice.” Brain research 752, no. 1 (1997): 234-238


See also: Anti-Tolerance Drugs, On Hitting the Actual Target of Hedonic Tone, and A Novel Approach to Detoxification from Methadone Using Low, Repeated, and Cumulative Administering of Ibogaine (from Psychedelic Science 2017).