Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything

QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.



Mike writes:

This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.

A few takeaways:


  • Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
  • Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
  • Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
  • Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
  • Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
  • The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
  • Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
  • A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.

(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)

Harmonic Society (4/4): Art as Valence Modulation and Future Affective Language

The following essay* was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (buy issue).

The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.

Below you will find models 7 and 8, which conclude this series of posts. (See previous models: 1 & 2, 3 & 4, and 5 & 6).


7. Valence Modulation

What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill, despair and bliss? Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s treasure, and we have it a plenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and creates a bubbling celebration of life.

It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been trampled upon since the beginning of time.
Letter From Utopia by Nick Bostrom

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Photo by Andrés Silva (aka. El Capitán). Claudia Silva (in the picture).

We are now approaching the point at which we will finally start cooking with peanut oil, so to speak. We will finally start thinking about how to build extremely good art from first principles. The ‘Art as Valence Modulation’ model builds on top of the previous model where art involves messing with the brain’s energy parameter. To explain this model we need to introduce two additional concepts:

  1. Neural Annealing, and
  2. The Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV)

Neural annealing is a concept we developed at QRI to extend the entropic disintegration framework.[1] Namely, the most beneficial use of ‘energy’ is to direct it towards the brain’s natural harmonics in order to carve out the presence of a naturally blissful state in everyday life. This process works on a progression that goes like this:

  1. Energy application
  2. Entropic disintegration
  3. Search/self-reorganization
  4. Neural annealing

Together with neural annealing, STV provides an answer for why we experience intensely rewarding states of consciousness from art. Here is where some of the theories that we have been working on come into play. In particular, we hypothesize that when highly-energized states of consciousness follow an adequate cooling schedule, they can give rise to highly ordered states that are experienced as very pleasant and which can carve good attractor states into the brain in the long term. Making an analogy with metallurgy, with annealing, you can increase the regularity of the microscopic structure of metal by heating it above the recrystallization temperature and letting it cool. This results in changed material properties (such as reduced hardness and increased ductility). We hypothesize that something along these lines also takes place in brains. Neural annealing facilitates solving complex constraint satisfaction problems at the perceptual, emotional, and conceptual level. The higher energy enables quick search between possible configurations that satisfy as many constraints as possible (over- stepping the local maxima we are usually stuck within normal energy ranges), while the cooling process solidifies the best constraint satisfaction solutions. Critically, here the STV comes into play by proposing that the more regular the resulting neural structures are, the better they feel. Annealing smooths out inconsistencies and irregularities, which according to the STV are key sources of discomfort. Symmetry, in the form of smoothness and harmony, is why the process of annealing leaves you feeling great.

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Very high-valence annealed states of mind feel cosmic and profound in significance. Images by Adrián Regnier Chávez

In this light, art with lasting desirable mood effects does not only need to increase the energy parameter, but it also needs to know how to lower it at the right schedule in order to leave people annealed to a given desirable mindset. A lot of art that successfully raises the energy parameter nonetheless does not succeed in the ecosystem of human attention, because it does not let people cool off in the right way. More so, an excessively competitive memetic landscape that incentivizes maximum surprise tends to train people to experience too much fear of missing out to let them adequately consume art at the pace needed to leave you better off emotionally. There is genuine wisdom in going to museums with one’s smartphone turned off.

Where do we draw the line between healthy recreation and distraction? Some might say that art in the form of pictures is fine, but audiovisual is too much. Some may be fine with movies but not with VR. Others would be ok with videogames but perhaps not with drugs. Others perhaps would be ok with drugs but not with genetic modification of neuronal gene expression. Some would be ok with that but not with neural dust rewiring, and so on. The format, we would argue, is not what matters. But rather, what the annealing pattern is, which is actually what makes the effects of art stick in the long run (or not).

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Image by Joseph Matthias Young. It makes me think of the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic.

This way of seeing art is highly generative. It gives us a research lead for how to construct new grandiose and highly-effective art. More so, the model can itself be developed as an aesthetic of its own. Perhaps we could call it the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic. That is, an aesthetic that rewards distilling the essential reason why any aesthetic can feel good and meaningful. In the future, we might expect to see in stores “Hedonium Magazine” – which catalogues all of the peak-valence states that can be achieved with any method whatsoever, and sees the craft of perfecting neural annealing as itself the highest form of art. Here we transcend the post-modern ethos of giving each aesthetic its place in the garden of paradoxes. Yes, give each aesthetic its place, but do not let that prevent you from building a meta- narrative that ties together and clarifies the value-add of each aesthetic. No aesthetic is above being examined in terms of how it achieves neural annealing in those who consume it.

In turn, this model gives us a new understanding of what an “aesthetic” even is. According to it, an aesthetic is a system for long-term neural annealing. A one-off weird art piece might give rise to annealing and solidify random structures in your brain. An aesthetic is more than that. It is a collection of generator seeds for art pieces that give rise to a coherent form of neural annealing that is reinforced with each piece, no matter how different they may seem from one another on the surface.

A further property of neural annealing is that it is what enables you to fully experience a self-consistent worldview as if true. This bridges the gap between meaning and pleasure, and is at the core of the connection between valence and the experience of sacredness we discussed in model 4. According to model 7, sacred experiences are the result of driving the energy parameter of the brain above the recrystallization threshold and then having it cool down as it reorganizes the elements of a given target ontology and worldview. The result is an annealed mental state optimized to represent that worldview. The sense of global consistency makes the worldview feel good and true, almost as if you were able to smell truth with it. This model would say, thus, that the core mechanism behind every kind of sacred experience is the same. Which emotions, ontologies, and worldviews get annealed is what is different depending on set, setting, and aesthetic (i.e. how the energy sources and sinks were modified). But deep down, it is successful annealing that makes sacred experiences feel so compelling and good.

8. Affective Language: Harmonic Society

An idealised full-spectrum superintelligence will indeed be capable of an impartial “view from nowhere” or God’s-eye-view of the multiverse, a mathematically complete Theory Of Everything – as does modern theoretical physics, in aspiration if not achievement. But in virtue of its God’s-eye-view, full-spectrum superintelligence must also be hypersocial and supersentient: able to understand all possible first-person perspectives, the state-space of all possible minds in other Hubble volumes, other branches of the universal wavefunction (UWF) – and in other solar systems and galaxies if such beings exist within our cosmological horizon. Idealized at least, full-spectrum superintelligence will be able to understand and weigh the significance of all possible modes of experience irrespective of whether they have hitherto been recruited for information-signalling purposes.
David Pearce, in The Biointelligence Explosion (2012)

If we succeed at developing a science of art built on top of a modern science of consciousness, what should we do with it? What would the art of a wise post-scarcity and post-suffering society look like? As far I can tell, Utopia consists of both having the system in place to keep the lights on, while being able to use the surplus energy to power blissful experiences beyond the bounds of our current conceptions.

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Harmonic Society by ALGE

The vision of Harmonic Society is that of a particular type of post-suffering utopia that resolves to optimize for good art. Referencing the models of art we’ve built upon so far: Harmonic Society (1) knows there are stakes in art and hence sidesteps the traps of semantic deflation, (2) avoids runaway signaling and Cool Kid gridlock, (3) utilizes Hipsters to explore promising new frontiers, (4) has mastery over a diverse range of conceptions of the sacred, (5) systematically explores the state-space of consciousness, (6) has a scientific and precise understanding of the energy parameter of experience, and (7) has deep knowledge of how to induce arbitrary types of neural annealing. In addition to all of this, Harmonic Society has (8) a map of all high-level aesthetics, knows what they are useful for, and can instantiate them at will.

In Harmonic Society there is always a way to smoothly transition between seemingly irreconcilable aesthetics. It deeply understands the pros and cons of different aesthetics and knows how to apply them optimally both for instrumental purposes and hedonic value.

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Image by Michael Aaron Coleman

Nowadays a lot of people who could benefit from, e.g. going to art festivals, taking acid, subpack cuddle parties, participating in plays (i.e. exposing themselves to high-end aesthetic experiences), find it hard to do so, because it is difficult to get back to work once the weekend is over after experiencing incredible bliss. A rough solution to avoid residual incompatibility between the state you annealed over on the weekend with the mindset you need today for work would be to develop a mood organ[2] that instantly puts you into any mindset you want. But perhaps a more elegant solution is to have such an advanced and detailed map of the state-space of mindsets that smooth, painless, and synergistic transitory states between arbitrary modes of being are discovered.

Thus, one could one minute be on a 5-MeO-DMT-type white light conscious void ultra-blissful state, the next minute be on a perfectly functional MDMA-like state useful for socializing, the minute after moving to a highly-focused nootropic-like systematizing state, and so on. The aesthetic to foster here is a meta-aesthetic of avoiding sharp discontinuities between mindsets, and allowing you to transition between all known awesome aesthetics. In Harmonic Society the entire state-space of consciousness is your oyster.

A further thought about Harmonic Society is that a sufficiently advanced understanding of aesthetic experience might even revolutionize our understanding of identity.
For instance, a non-trivial sense of personal diachronic identity could arise if everyone
starts to identify with e.g. a different person-specific song. If we truly understood how
valence works and we had full access to our neurocircuitry, we could in a way embody a
given work of art and interact with others in a way that is consistent with the artistic
degrees of freedom our identity allows. This way, people’s interactions could perhaps be guaranteed to be positive. The combinatorial space of possible back-and-forth interactions does not need to be small, since high-energy allows for incredibly varied states. But nonetheless we could get to a point of understanding how valence works such that we could provably demonstrate that two persons with the right neural implementations will always have positive-sum interactions no matter what.

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Identity in Harmonic Society: The aesthetic of understanding the valence of every possible state of consciousness and how to translate what matters between them. (Picture: Symbol of Open, Empty, Closed Individualism from Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029, Continuity Camp)

Conclusion

As the guiding premise of this essay we started out assuming that there are real and substantial stakes in art. It sure is all fun and games to think that anything goes in art until your landscape of cultural meaning is polluted with replicator strategies and attention-zapping exploits that lead to long-term neuropsychological problems and anneal false and neurotic metaphysics. Understanding art matters.

I would make the claim that a new science of valence, i.e. a new science of pleasure, pain, love, hate, and indeed transcendent bliss, can be a new rallying flag for cultural value. Rather than the messy consilience patchwork between different aesthetics we have today, we might in the future indeed find a true and real grounding for the meaning of beauty and bliss. Contrary to the conservative spirit often associated with calls to reinvigorate an objective sense of beauty, here we arrive at a theory of art that would very well appreciate experiences as outlandish as DMT breakthroughs. This theory of art appreciates such states not “just as much” as fine art, but indeed as far more valuable and implicated in what matters than most of everyday life. For art, meditation, psychedelics, and philosophy all share the fact that they are messing with the energy parameter of experience in powerful ways that can be used to achieve much better and globally-consistent brain states. Understanding that the effects of art can be very strong and life-changing is one thing, but knowing the mechanism of action behind those changes comes with entirely new possibilities and responsibilities. We invite you to consider what this entails, and to join us in envisioning a future Harmonic Society constructed with full knowledge of neural annealing.


[1] It is worth mentioning that Steven Lehar used annealing to describe the subjective progression of his ketamine experiences in his book The Grand Illusion: A Psychonautical Odyssey Into the Depths of Human Experience. [October 2019 – Edit: Carhart-Harris and Friston wrote a paper together in which they discussed annealing in the context of psychedelic research (see summary). The paper was published in July, two months after I submitted this essay to Art Against Art in May of 2019. We are delighted to see independent convergence on this concept and its importance.]

[2] The Penfield Mood Organ is a technology described in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick that allows the user to instantly tune into any of hundreds of possible moods via direct cerebral stimulation. Some example moods include “3. The desire to dial other moods”, “481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future”, “594. Pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters”, and “888. The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”.



Glossary

Cool Kids: Someone who is well-rounded and uses strategic mediocrity in order to entice people to show their peacock feathers. At its extreme, Cool Kids become the leaders of artistic gangs who corner the marketplace of aesthetic attention.

Hipster: Someone who enjoys art and media that seems too obscure to care about. Typically, the preferred aesthetics of a Hipster are highly detailed and focus on specific favored attributes at the expense of well-roundedness. A Hipster does not only have opinions about what is enjoyable, but also about how to enjoy it and why.

Nerd: Someone who wants to figure out what is true, especially as it applies to technical and formal systems. A philosophy nerd, for instance, compulsively tries to figure out ultimate truth.

Minimax art strategies: A strategy for making art that tries to be the best on a narrow set of attributes while neglecting well-roundedness. This is sometimes adaptive and some- times maladaptive.

L1/L2 normalization: Using mean absolute error (L1) favors minimax strategies vs. using mean squared error (L2) which favors well-rounded strategies.



Special thanks to: Michael Johnson, Romeo Stevens, Liam Brereton, Duncan Wilson, Victor Ochikubo, and David Pearce for their thoughts and feedback.



* The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

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Eno, B. (2012). ‘What is Art actually for?’. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/XIVfwDJ-kDk
Stanley, J. (n.d.). Philosophy of Language in the Twentieth Century. Retrieved from http://thatmarcusfamily.org/philosophy/Course_Websites/Readings/Stanley%20 -%20Language%20in%2020th%20Century.pdf
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Zizek, S. (2019). on #MeToo movement. How to Watch the News, episode 02. RT. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ai_UAPaoEW4
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Lilly, J. C. (1975). Simulations of God : the science of belief. Berkeley, Ca: Ronin. Lilly, J. C. (1974). [Programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer.] The human biocomputer. Theory and experiments. (2nd ed.). London: Abacus. Wilber, K. (2007). Integral spirituality : a startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Boston, Mass.: Integral Books.
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Johnson, M. (2018). The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models | Opentheory.net. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from website: https://opentheory.net/2018/12/the-neuroscience-of-meditation/
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Carhart-Harris, R. L., Leech, R., Hellyer, P. J., Shanahan, M., Feilding, A., Tagliazucchi, E., … Nutt, D. (2014). The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020
Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Kringelbach, M. L., Deco, G., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0
Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I., & Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nature Communications, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10340
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Harmonic Society (3/4): Art as State-Space Exploration and Energy Parameter Modulation

The following essay* was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue). Below you will find models 5 and 6 (out of 8), which are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute. (See models 1 & 2, and 3 & 4).

I will wrap up this series next week with something many readers would know to expect – an explanation for how art is connected to valence. Stay tuned!


5. State-Space Exploration

The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.
Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.
– Ken Mogi in The Qualia Manifesto (1998)

Is there anything beyond the sacred? Yes. This model of art posits that one key feature of art is the pursuit of novel experiences that challenge preconceptions of what is possible to experience. The state-space[1] of possible experiences is unfathomably vast, and mundane everyday human experiences are restricted to a tiny corner of this enormous behemoth. As they say, “you won’t know if you like it until you try it”. Applying that logic to the exploration of the state-space of consciousness would encourage us to open our horizons and become receptive to the possibility that there are true gems of experience waiting to be found in exotic regions of this space.

Now, it is easy for some people to fetishize the exotic for novelty’s sake. But contrary to popular belief, novelty is not intrinsically valuable. Taking into account previous discussions (especially models 2 and 3 above), we can interpret artistic explorations that push the boundary of our knowledge about what can be experienced as a sophisticated form of signaling genetic fitness. In particular, mastery over novel modes of experience shows that you have the mental and physical power to devote copious amounts of resources to exploration, for only one in a thousand attempts at discovering something new results in something that other people can appreciate. It is thus the case that a lot of novelty creation is aimed at courtship rather than being driven by a genuine passion for knowledge.

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Left style source: Adrián Regnier Chávez. Right style source: Carpet by ALGE

That said, what is out there hidden in the state-space of consciousness beggars belief. Anyone who is exploring that vast space in an intelligent way will sooner or later find incredible things. But how do we explore this space intelligently? A systematic exploration of possible images, for instance, could involve taking a picture and changing one pixel at a time. But as we all know, the Library of Babel is almost completely devoid of meaningful books. At least relative to its size. A much better way of exploring the space (inspired by Steerable Pyramid and Deep Dream-type algorithms) would be to sample possible images with an intelligent method, such as training generative neural networks on previous works of art, and then asking them to hallucinate possible images while constraining the neural layers you identify with the aesthetic quality of the images. Style transfer techniques and similar methods can result in images sampled from a given aesthetic, rather than from e.g. a particular low-level feature set (e.g. a type of edges) or a set of high-level semantic content (e.g. cars, people, dogs, etc.).

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Left style source: blue balloons in a living room. Right style source: collection of blankets by ALGE

Exploring the space of possible images is an extremely small sub-problem of exploring the state-space of consciousness. But I think the analogy is useful as a general idea. Now, how vast is the state-space of consciousness? Well, it tends to be larger than you think, even when you take that fact into account. I will coin that fact as Gomez-Emilsson’s Law. Every time you think you know how vast the state-space of consciousness is, you will be surprised to find out you are wrong if you choose to dig deeper.

Consider what happens when someone takes LSD. Most people expect that they will simply get to experience new sensations like brighter colors, tracers, or synesthesia. This is true to a point, for light doses. But on medium doses, in addition to exploring the state-space of sensory configurations, one also experiences new aesthetics, which this model would define as ways of organizing a lot of sensations in ways that feel right. More so, an aesthetic is also a way of delivering uninhibited sensations in a way that feels good at the level of the whole experience, from moment to moment. Most people have no clue that there is a vast space of possibilities here.

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Illustrates “state-space of beach rocks” by unknown artist at Sombrio Beach in Vancouver. Photo: Julia Pope

On higher doses, people are surprised to find an even more general way of exploring the state-space of consciousness. Namely, one instantiates alternate games. The DMT “vibe” that people report can be thought of as more than a “context switch”. It is, rather, a more radical change that we could describe as a “game switch”. The “Jester” that people talk about regarding DMT experiences is an archetype that the mind uses to signal the “rule violation” quality of the state. There is so much going on that one’s experience splits into multiple games at once trying to find some common ground, and this feeling of game-incompatibility feels very alien. A sort of anti-virus system in the mind is triggered at that point, and labels the inconsistency with a feeling of weirdness so that you know not to update your actions based on the (currently globally inconsistent) experience of multiple superimposed games. Rule violation through fast changes in implicit games of social status causes you to interpret what is going on as having extreme stakes. Interacting with DMT Aliens, Gods, Elves, etc. feels like the upper limit of potential social status transfer that your world simulation affords (like meeting a president or a king). The state-space of consciousness contains all of these alternate games and metagames, and we have not even begun to catalogue them. This is all to say: seen in this light, the era of art has just begun.

Like the previous models, this one also gives rise to an aesthetic of its own. I call this the aesthetic of “Rainbow God”. This is the meta-belief that we gain value by understanding and experiencing extremely novel states of consciousness. Ultimate bliss, according to this aesthetic, is not a bland monotone state, but rather, is a state that incorporates within it an extraordinary variety of types of qualia. Posthuman aesthetics will not only show up in the form of intense feelings, but also in the form of extremely “rainbow-ey” experiences. The concept of a full-spectrum intelligence (an intelligence capable of instantiating any qualia at will) plays an important role in this aesthetic. Thus, the full-spectrum artists of the future will have access to a qualia pallet in an experience editor[2] that includes human qualia like sight, touch, scent, emotions, thought-episodes, etc. It will also include qualia only found in insects, fish, mollusks, people tripping, people having seizures, novel neurocircuitry, etc. The asymptote of incorporating all possible varieties of qualia into a single experience is the final realization of Rainbow God, the ultimate state of knowledge and beauty according to this aesthetic.

6. Energy Parameter Modulation

SeifertSurfaces

Seifert Surfaces by Paul Nylander

People say they have weird and novel experiences with art, but by a large margin, the novelty itself is not the focus of what matters in people’s reports. Rather, people especially talk about having experiences that are not only novel and unusual, but also characterized by heightened states of consciousness. For example, when people “get art” they report being inspired, amazed, surprised, enthralled, or even shocked. These states seem to have in common a quality of high-energy in one form or another. Although possible, it is rare to talk about art as purposefully sedating, boring, anesthetizing, or numbing. That’s the exception. In general, art as diverse as Japanoise and Jodorowsky have in common the quality of heightening, and not only changing, one’s state.

At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI) we take very seriously the notion that experience has an energy parameter. In psychology-speak, nearby concepts include emotional arousal and activation level, though these tend to have more physiological than phenomenological connotations. In contrast, we hold that you can indeed experience very high levels of conscious energy without at the same time experiencing the physiological responses that are usually associated with high arousal (such as high heart-rate, high breath-rate, high blood pressure, sweating, etc.). Likewise, it is not the case that only traditionally high-arousal emotions (such as being excited, thrilled, fearful, anxious, etc.) come in high-energy forms. Indeed, it is possible to experience states of relaxation, serenity, equanimity, and peacefulness in extremely energetic forms(!), as happens in the concentration-based altered states of consciousness called “Jhanas” in the Buddhist tradition.

Here it is relevant for me to bring up the fact that my colleague Mike Johnson recently wrote about the neuroscience of meditation. He discussed how to make sense of the acute and long-term effects of meditation through the lens of modern neuroscience paradigms, and then found a way to tie them together into an overarching theory. For the sake of brevity I will schematically outline some of the key features of the paradigms he integrated:

  1. Free Energy Principle (Karl Friston, 2010):
    1. The brain is trying to minimize expected future surprise by building high-level models of sensory input
    2. When a model says that the input is very unlikely, our brain propagates an error signal in the form of excess energy
    3. This energy motivates the search for a better model, for which the previously surprising input is now expected
  2. Entropic Disintegration (Robin Carhart Harris, 2014):
    1. Psychedelics elevate the “neural temperature” of the brain, meaning that they increase the entropy/disorder present in neural circuits
    2. One’s everyday mode of consciousness relies on learned neural patterns solidified over years, which at times can be chronically maladaptive
    3. By “raising the temperature” of our neural circuits, maladaptive neural circuits, especially “egoic structures” in the default-mode network (DMN), disintegrate
    4. This enables you to “start from scratch” and form new, more adaptive, neural patterns
  3. Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves (Selen Atasoy, 2016):
    1. Physical systems with excitation-inhibition wavefronts have harmonic modes
    2. By mapping out the connectome of a brain (white and grey matter tracks) and using empirically-derived excitation-inhibition differential equations of neural activity, one can infer the electromagnetic resonant modes of a given brain
    3. Using this technique, it was found empirically that psychedelics increase the amplitude of connectome-specific harmonic waves across the spectrum, and in particular, the amplitude delta is higher on the upper ranges of the spectrum

Tying together these frameworks we see that (a) the brain responds to surprise in an excitatory way which gives rise to a process of search for better models, (b) there is a sense of neural energy for which increasing it gives rise to the disintegration of pre-existing patterns, and (c) there is a sense of actually physical energy in the brain tied together with its resonant modes, which are variable depending on one’s state of consciousness. To bring all of these frameworks together, we can interpret them in terms of energy sources and energy sinks:

  1. Energy Sources: surprises, sensory stimulation
  2. Energy Sinks: passage of time (decay factor), semantic content (crystallization around explanatory representations), pre-existing attitudes

At a high-level, we could describe the relevance of these frameworks for art as follows: For art to energize you it needs to either reduce the influence of energy sinks and/or increase the amount of energy from energy sources.

The numerous tricks of the craft of different kinds of art can be reinterpreted in this framework. For example, a lot of artistic advice for a broad audience focuses on making sure that there is a twist you are introducing in an otherwise familiar space. Even subtle surprises (colors being out of place, unusual garments, implausible actions, perspective mixups, etc.) will propagate a prediction error and heighten the energy available in one’s state. This will make you experience the rest of the piece in a more energized and impactful form. Now, to sustain the heightened energy parameter, it is important to avoid making it easy for the brain to redirect the energy to a large energy sink. If the perceptual mistake one makes is one you are familiar with and have experienced before, you might end up diverting the newly available energy towards reinforcing an attitude you developed about that perceptual mistake (e.g. word tricks could trigger anxiety about not being a good reader rather than helping you stay in an energized state).

This paradigm also puts in a different light, and makes sense of, the criticisms often raised against pieces perceived as Kitsch, Camp, and Cliché, or other aesthetics centered around the over-use of a given artistic trick. Art can fail to sufficiently energize your state by failing to introduce a large enough surprise. If you can immediately grasp the full scope of the novelty introduced by a given piece (even if you are misapprehending the input!) you can quickly categorize your experience into a pre-existing bucket and skip the intended energized state. This functions as an energy sink, and hence you fail to stay energized.

This is just a piece of the full story here, for energy sinks are not completely reliable. There is a phenomenon called semantic satiation, where a pattern of rapid and regular repetition of words, images, and concepts makes them feel meaningless. So even the most cliché of art can indeed get the job done of energizing your state of consciousness, by presenting many versions of the same thing in flashes at a sufficiently high rate (I’m not saying this is necessarily pleasant, but it might be effective!). On the flip side, if what you are after is the maximization of a particular meaning in e.g. a commercial, you will find there is a Goldilocks Zone for the number of times you should present the core concept/image to the audience; too few and the meaning will be weak, too many and you’ll trigger semantic satiation by overwhelming the energy sinks of the audience.

Schematically, there are three broad ways of inhibiting energy sinks to allow the buildup of what we call “semantically neutral energy”. You can:

  1. Disable,
  2. Overwhelm, or
  3. Avoid them

Let me elaborate. First, you can disable energy sinks by switching to unfamiliar contexts (e.g. it is harder worrying about work while on a screen-free beach, at a museum… or at Burning Man). Also, disabling energy sinks can happen in states of exhaustion, fasting, intoxication, or other states of mind that impair some of the normal functions of the brain. Second, as we saw, semantic satiation would be an example of overwhelming energy sinks, but there are many other ways of doing so, such as increasing the intensity of input above a certain threshold. And third, avoiding energy sinks involves things like setting the intention to focus your attention on a meditation object and refocus on it every time you get distracted. Alternatively, one can load a given energy sink with negative implications and learn to avoid it via negative feedback (e.g. when a standard interpretive framework is frowned upon by a social group).

Most drugs and activities could be described in terms of their characteristic effect on energy sources and sinks.[3] But only some of these drugs and activities are “broadband energy enhancers”, in the sense that the energy they give rise to is transferable to a broad range of mental and physical activities. This is what sets meditation, trance-inducing music/dancing, psychedelics, philosophy, and art apart from other energizing activities. Those methods in particular allow energized states to be sustained for long periods of time, and they give rise to novel sensations exclusive to the high-energy regions of the state-space of consciousness.

A note on psychedelics here is in order. There is indeed something very peculiar that psychedelics do to the energy sources that to my knowledge is not done by the other broad-band energy enhancers. Psychedelics make energy sources echo! They change the neuroacoustics of the brain, which favors temporally repeating patterns in a delayed-echo fashion along with a slower decay function for experience over time.[4] Thus, visual tracers and the amplification of music appreciation during a psychedelic trip are both expressions of the same underlying principle: the brain is more resonant. The fact that this effect is distinct from what art, meditation, philosophy, or strobes have to offer makes psychedelics synergistic and complementary with the other methods. After all, it is hard to ignore the gazillion subjective reports of enhanced aesthetic appreciation experienced on even small doses of psychedelics.

For the above reasons, I think this model has a lot of explanatory power. To recap, this model of art says that increasing the energy parameter of one’s consciousness is the success condition of art. It explains the repeating trance-inducing quality of music, the need for balance between predictability and surprise, common craft advice, and the existence of higher aesthetics. In turn, this model implies that art can be done in a wrong way. Art that is uninspiring, insipid, unexciting, irrelevant, etc. could be understood as art that fails to raise the energy parameter of those who experience it. And indeed, the higher the form of the art, the more it allows for the buildup of semantically-neutral energy.



[1] The term “state-space” refers to a very general concept that identifies the set of all possible configurations of a given system (of equations, machines, experiences, etc.) and the ways in which these configurations can transition from to another.

[2] As a proof of concept: According to cognitive scientist Steven Lehar, combining LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination”, which is a state of mind where one gains the ability to edit the contents of one’s experience at will (“You can say ‘give me a table’ and a table will appear right in front of you as real as a solid table”).

[3] For example, anti-psychotic drugs are broad-band energy sink enhancers, psychedelics are broad-band energy source enhancers, classic stimulants (such as amphetamines) are narrow-band energy source enhancers, classical depressants (such as benzodiazepines) are narrow-band energy sink enhancers.

[4] In one account proposed by “Psychedelic Information Theory” (James Kent), psychedelics achieve the tracing/echo effect by disabling an energy sink. The control interrupt model of psychedelic action says that there are natural inhibitory processes that prevent features of our current experience from building up over time. Psychedelics are thought to chemically interrupt inhibitory control signals from the cortex, which are constantly preventing the build-up of qualia. In this account, what you are paying attention to is in fact the part of the sensory input that is being inhibited the least. Interrupting the inhibitory “control signal” gives rise to echoes of previous states across the board that you intrinsically attend to whether you like it or not.


Featured image credit: Seifert Surfaces by Paul Nylander

* Originally titled: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

The Psychobiology of Subcultures

Evolutionary qualia suggests our inner world-simulations are not merely painted with different colors, but have different soundtracks, aesthetics, narrative themes, and walk-on character status. Cilantro tasting like soap to ~10% of people is merely the canary in the coal-mine. Our differences in qualia (and consciousness more broadly) probably involve modes of experience you and I don’t even know exist.


Excerpt from Global Brain (2000) by Howard Bloom (Pgs. 143 – 146). [Emphasis mine]

Our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed, they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure […] varies seven-fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia […], is not found at all in one in four people. The primary visual cortex can vary three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala (it is responsible for our fears and loves) can vary two-fold in volume – as can something called our hippocampus (involved in memory). Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume.

 

– Dr. John Robert Skoyles

Thanks to Plato, we have what purport to be records of the conversations of a human Cuisinart of concepts, an eclectic sage whose roughly fifty-year-long intellectual life bracketed the Periclean Golden Age (443-429 B.C.). This all-purpose conceptual chopper and blender was that son of a socially high-placed family, Socrates. Experts and neophytes agree that it’s impossible to tell how many of the words Plato ascribes to this self-appointed gadfly were authentic and how many were simply Plato’s way of getting his own notions into the public eye. But one thing is generally accepted as accurate – the names of the folks from whom Socrates extracted opinions before shredding them with the quiz mastering which now bears his name (Socratic dialogue). The cast of characters palavering with Socrates in Plato’s Dialogs, says learned reasoning, was too well known in Athens for Plato to have fudged.

Just who were the fonts of learned conversation whose wisdom Socrates whipped and whirled? Socrates’ interlocutors were frequently famous thinkers from distant cities, each of which specialized in a different manner of plucking goods from its surroundings and injecting them into the circulatory system through which the trade of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea swirled. Socrates was a student of Anaxagoras, who came from the Ionian city of Clazomenae on the coast of today’s Turkey. He was also a disciple of Archelaus, another Ionian import. The Socratic dialogues Plato “chronicled” included those with Protagoras from the Balkan city of Abdera, Hippias from Peloponnesian Elis, Parmenides from Italy’s Elea, and Gorgias from Sicily’s Leontini. Each visiting intellect had been shaped by contact with a unique group of surrounding tribes, and by the exigencies imposed on city structure, domestic habit, and vested interest by distinctive forms of enterprise. One result: each arrival presented a philosophy which appealed to a very different configuration of the human mind.

To understand how philosophy couples with the mind’s biology, let’s track the complex adaptive system’s best-concealed constituent to its hiding place. The five elements of the complex adaptive system are conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resources shifters, and intergroup tournaments. Inner-judges may be the most unusual of the crew, for they are physiological built-ins which work deep inside the body to transform a bacterium, a lizard, a baboon, a me, or a you into a module of a larger learning machine. The basic rule of learning machines is one we’ve already seen: turn on the juice to components which have a grip on the problem at hand and turn off the power to those components which just can’t seem to understand. Inner-judges help decide whether the components in which they reside will be enriched or will be denied, then they aid in carrying out the sentence. The irony is that these evaluators, prize givers, and executioners are built into their victims biologically. On the microlevel, inner-judges work through “programmed cell death” – apoptosis – a molecular chain reaction deep within the genes which ends in cellular suicide. In higher animals the inner-judges dole out interior punishments which range from overdoses of stress hormones to emotional miseries. Or they grant internal bonuses of zest and confidence to those of us fulfilling our group’s needs.

When we feel like kicking ourselves around the block or curling up and disappearing, our condemnation comes from inner-judges like guilt and shame. What’s a good deal harder to realize is that behind the scenes our inner-judges sicken us and dumb us down quite literally. If they sense we’re a drag on the collective intelligence, inner-judges down shift our immune system and neurochemically cloud our ability to perceive. They induce a narcotic haze by swamping our system with endorphins, the body’s self-produced equivalent of morphine*. And they flood us with glucocorticoids which kill off both brain cells and lymphocytes – critical cells in our fight against disease.

Inner-judges measure our contribution to the social learning machine by two yardsticks: (1) our personal sense of mastery; and (2) the hints we get from those around us telling us whether they want us eagerly or couldn’t care less if we disappeared like a blackhead from the face of decent society.

Mastery is a useful gauge. It measures whether we’re coping with the trials tossed our way, and whether our example can help steer others in their trip through choppy seas. Popularity is an equally practical yardstick. It measures the extent to which we’re feeding others’ physical, organizational, and/or emotional needs.

Nestled deep within our neuroendocrine complex, inner-judges operate on a sliding scale. By adjusting our mix of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, or the balance between the gloomy right and sunny left side of the brain, they shift us from fear to daring, from misery to happiness, from grouchiness to charm, from timid silence to expansive speech, from deflation to elation, from pain to ecstasy, from confusion to insight, and from listlessness to lust or to the resolute pursuit of goals.

Some of us are born with inner-judges whose verdicts are perpetually harsh. The result is depression, shyness, and heightened susceptibility to pain. Others arrive from the womb with inner-judges preset to treat us generously, endowing us with energy, few inhibitions, a deep sense of security, and little sense of guilt or shame. But most of us are in the middle – our inner-judges sentence us sternly or magnanimously depending on the snugness with which we fit our social network’s needs.

Those born with inner-judges excessively lenient or severe have taught us much about the secrets of mental and emotional diversity. Harvard University researcher Jerome Kagan has probably never heard the term “inner-judges,” yet he may have done more than any other psychologist to uncover their capabilities. To understand what Kagan hath wrought, a background briefing is in order.

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The early-twentieth-century psychoanalytic thinker Carl Jung, says Kagan, originated the concept of introverted and extroverted personalities. Jung also believed that each had a slightly different brain structure. Kagan feels that in his own way, he has proven Jung right. He’s found that 10 to 15 percent of infants are born with a tendency to be fearful and withdrawn, while another 10 to 15 percent are born with a flair for dauntless spontaneity. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, Kagan performed numerous experiments and accumulated large amounts of data demonstrating his concept’s validity.

He refers to facts like these:

  • In studies of Japanese and American newborns, some infants took the removal of the nipple from their mouths calmly, while others went into emotional fits. The babies as yet had had no opportunity to learn these reactions from their parents. The tendencies were those they’d brought with them from the isolation of the uterus. At fourteen months, the babies who’d been easily upset at birth were still so oversensitive that they often broke out crying when the sight of a stranger loomed. On another test, babies who became upset at birth when they were switched suddenly from water to a sugar solution squalled hysterically at the age of one or two when their mothers left the room, but babies who had taken the change in beverage casually did not. In addition, a study of 113 children showed that those who had a hard time handling the unexpected when they were one year old were still shy and withdrawn by the time they reached six.
  • This tendency toward variation in personality was not limited to human beings. According to Kagan, it appeared in dogs, mice, rats, wolves, cats, cows, monkeys, and paradise fish. Some of these animals were fascinated by novelty. Others were terrified by anything the least bit out of place.
  • Fifteen percent of cats steered clear of strangers and even avoided attacking rats. This was remarkably close to the percentage of humans frozen by anxiety attacks.

Kagan traces these differences to genes, which can help set off a lifelong domino effect in the brain. The production of key manufacturing enzyme for the stimulant norepinephrine, says Kagan, is controlled by a single pair of genes, making norepinephrine levels highly heritable. Norepinephrine – which is also a potent stress hormone – shows up very early in the development of the embryo, making the hippocampus oversensitive to the unfamiliar, and hyperactivating the amygdala, which jolts us with the warning signal we call fear. The hippocampus and amygdala – as we’ve seen earlier – are central shapers of the memory bank we call reality. They are also key to the inner-judges’ machinery.

[…]

Later in life the products of a prebirth norepinephrine cascade are timid children, who, in carefully controlled studies, are alert to slight changes in tones or brightness of light that other children miss. In other words, these children literally see and hear their world in ways others would not recognize. According to Kagan, the constitutionally frightened are endowed with a limbic system hair-triggered to curse them with a sense of imminent catastrophe. As a consequence, shy children attempt to escape punishment by hiding from everyday events which threaten to torment them hideously. Uninhibited children, on the opposite end of the scale, have underaroused limbic systems and demand a deluge of entertainment to dodge boredom’s intolerability. Their craving for excitement can sometimes wear their parents to a frazzle.

Kagan’s shy children are condemned to solitude and pain by hanging judges in their own biology. Kagan’s uninhibited kids are gifted with indulgent inner-judges predisposed by the limbic system to offer such unearned rewards as boldness and social dexterity. But most of the animals and humans Kagan has studied avoid these two extremes. Seventy percent remain in the middle, their inner-judges handing out positive and negative verdicts according to the rules of the learning machine.fflkm4309e031


*”Endorphin” is a contraption of the term “endogenous morphine.



See also:

Harmonic Society (2/4): Art as Schelling Point Creation and the Pursuit of Sacred Experiences

The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue). Below you will find models 3 and 4 (out of 8). I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all of them (see part 1/4).


3. Schelling Point Creation

[Psychoanalysis teaches us:] When somebody complains, always be careful and try to find, identify, what type of additional pleasure, satisfaction, does the act of complaining itself bring to you. We all, when we complain, almost always, find a perverse satisfaction in the act of complaining itself.
– Slavoj Zizek (2019)

I certainly feel compelled to complain about the tyranny of genetic fitness signaling in art. That said, people who excel at games who are not played by many people will have an incentive to undermine the popular games and frame their favorite game as somehow superior. Why are Hipsters and Nerds allied against Cool Kids? Because the Cool Kids can decide on a whim that the games the Hipsters and Nerds play are uncool and not worthy of public fitness displays. Even if they happen to be of superb quality!

In many cases, the exploration of uncommon games can give rise to major innovations, so there is a utilitarian reason to promote some degree of exploration outside of the aesthetics that most people can enjoy.

This line of reasoning gives rise to a new interpretation for what a Hipster is. To be a Hipster is not, as popularly believed, to merely desire the uncommonly desired. The whole thrust of hipsterism is a promise of superior quality in at least some actually relevant area, even at the cost of severely reduced quality across the board. (Using an analogy from the field of statistics: Cool Kids favor L2 normalization[1] as it signal-boosts people who are well-rounded, whereas Hipsters and Nerds favor L1 normalization which improves the outlook for imbalanced minimax strategies).

Many people believe that all Hipsters are Cool Kids. Many believe something slightly weaker, which is that to be a Cool Kid you also need to be a Hipster. But in fact this is absolutely not the case, and it is a category error to think otherwise. Cool Kids and Hipsters were correlated when being Hipster had mainstream appeal. That is, Hipsters were cool when Cool Kids used to challenge people to show how Hipster they could be. But this should not be in any way an indication that Hipster aesthetics are intrinsically related to Cool Kids, for the same reason that e.g. Country Music, Normcore, or Bolshevik aesthetics are not intrinsically invented by Cool Kids. Hipsters are individual contributors to the frontier of culture. Indeed, it is rare to find a place that produces genuinely innovative content while also being saturated with Cool Kids.

Cool Kids, in large quantities, eventually form cliques that become voting blocs. These frustrate innovation by fully orthogonalizing what is socially cool from what is socially valuable. A Hipster under those circumstances tends to feel stifled. Cool Kids tend to be above-average in openness to experience, but they are rarely in the top 2% of openness to experience – more like one standard deviation above the mean. This is because they need to be open enough to look at new trends but also sufficiently closed to be able to relate to the bulk of the consumers of new trends. Genuine Hipsters are usually above the 98th percentile of openness to experience. In turn, the sexual attraction of some people is focused on this particular trait, and Hipsters compete at signaling it to the highest extent possible. In the process, they discover interesting things. But this does not mean they can sustainably stay cool in the eyes of the average person.

High openness to experience allows you to appreciate minimax players. It allows you to accept artists who are ridiculously good at making a specific point but lack talent in every other respect. Ultimately, the innovations produced by these extreme artistic explorations sometimes radically transform social reality.

In “Ads Don’t Work That Way”, Kevin Simler discusses how advertisement’s power is not through direct persuasion, but through shaping the landscape of cultural meaning. You don’t bring a 6-pack of Coronas to a party because the ads have subconsciously conditioned you to think that this beer in particular is more likely to make you and your friends feel like you are a chill group. Rather, you buy it in order to signal the fact that you see yourself as a chill person, and to bring that mindset to those who see you bring the product. It is by virtue of common knowledge that ads can do this; if every single person received a different custom-made AI-powered neural net ad, ads would stop having the function of shaping the landscape of cultural meaning, and perhaps lose a significant portion of their power.

Art, likewise, can also change the landscape of cultural meaning. In contrast to ads, art might perhaps be described as high-bandwidth low-distribution as opposed to high-distribution low-bandwidth. And to the extent that Hipsters discover new aesthetics, they are a big source of novel cultural Schelling points for subcultures to form around.

4. Creating Sacred Experiences

Art could be the next religion – Alex Grey

Below you will find an example of a piece that aims to create a sacred experience, which I recently encountered at the Santa Cruz Regional Burn. It is called Mementomorium, and it is a mixture of a sensory-deprivation-chamber and a symbolic self-burial experience crafted in order to simulate your own death and to attempt to see your life in its finitude. This art piece plays with one’s experience of time and sense of mortality, and helps you cut through delusion in order to re-interpret one’s time on earth as finite and priceless.

Why is the above art? Cool Kids might find this too morbid, and Hipsters are likely to see
it as too real. So what is the thrust behind artistic visions like the above?

Sacred experiences are an aspect of social and phenomenological reality. Art, it turns out, is deeply entwined with such sacredness. Now, much has been said about the sublime in relation to art. What else is there to say?

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. – George Bernard Shaw

Contrary to the three previous models, here the culminating emotion that is sought is not the vindication of self, but rather, the elicitation of a sense of self-transcendence. This 4th model would say that art creates some of the most valuable experiences there are, because it makes us experience a sense of transcendence. And relative to the previous three models, this model is the first to consider art as involved in the quest of finding the ultimate answer, as opposed to merely providing incremental benefits to humanity.

Cutting to the chase, let us jump right into a list of possible intentional sources for phenomenal sacredness (i.e. the possible targets of art according to this model). From John Lilly’s “Simulations of God”, below you find the most common types of self-transcendence catalogued:

  1. God As the Beginning
  2. I Am God
  3. God Out There
  4. God As Him/Her/It
  5. God As The Group
  6. God As Orgasm and Sex
  7. God As Death
  8. God As Drugs
  9. God As the Body
  10. God As Money
  11. God As Righteous Wrath
  12. God As Compassion
  13. God As War
  14. God As Science
  15. God As Mystery
  16. God As the Belief, the Simulation, the Model
  17. God As the Computer
  18. God Simulating Himself
  19. God As Consciousness-without-an-Object
  20. God As Humor
  21. God As Superspace, the Ultimate Collapse into the Black Hole, the End.
  22. The Ultimate Simulation
  23. God As the Diad

According to John Lilly’s view, each of us lives in a world simulation (whether this is generated by our brains or by a higher power is something Lilly himself went back and forth on for decades). He makes the case that our world simulation is run by a hierarchical chain of programs and meta-programs. One’s locus of control[2] is what he calls the Self Meta-Programmer, which is roughly equivalent to the ego (or at least a healthy one with high levels of self-control). Implicitly, however, the Self Meta-Programmer is subordinated to something higher, something he calls the Supra-Self Meta-Programmer (SSMP for short; see: “Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer”).[3] Our SSMPs are responsible for our notions of a higher power, higher values, and higher purpose. One’s religion is determined by the SSMPs to which one is subordinated. In Lilly’s view, it is one’s SSMPs that give rise to one’s understand- ing of God. And as the list above shows, there are many possible versions of God. That is, there are many possible meta-programmings for what the highest power, value, and purpose might be. In light of this, art as the pursuit of sacred experiences would not be restricted to a particular view of God. Rather, it encapsulates every possible notion of God – where the art that hits hardest is the art that resonates the most with one’s implicit conception of God.

A parallel here could be made with adult developmental models (such as those of Wilber’s Integral Theory, Kegan’s Evolving Self, Common’s and Richard’s Model of Hierarchical Complexity, etc.). At each level of development, one’s conception of the highest value transcends and includes those of the developmental stages below. Let’s take for example Integral Theory’s levels 4, 5, and 6. Level 4, aka. “Amber” (ethno- or nation-centric, values rules, discipline, faith in transcendent God or preordained high- er order, socially conservative, etc.) would derive a sense of sacredness from religious imagery, a nationalist spirit, and art that fosters traditional values. Level 5, aka. “Orange” (values science and rationality, democracy, individualism, materialism, entrepreneurship, etc.) gets off on experiences that bring about a reductionist scientific world picture compatible with self-reliance (“the world is made of atoms, and this, rather than being tragic, is an opportunity to have fine-grained control over the elements”). And Level 6, aka. “Green” (values pluralism and equality, multiple points of view, no true reality, embraces paradox, considers civil rights and environmentalism to be the frontier of culture, etc.) would find art projects that highlight the multiplicity of perspectives to be key to a sense of the sacred.[4] In this framework we can explain people’s negative reaction to art as a misfit between the developmental level of the target audience and the developmental level of the person who gets to experience it. Art targeted to people in a higher level of development than oneself will be perceived as heretical (e.g. postmodern art from the point of view of a traditionalist monotheist), while art targeted to people on a lower level of development than oneself will be perceived as childish or naïve (e.g. traditional religious iconography from the point of view of a scientific rationalist humanist). We could thus predict that if there are even higher developmental levels above ours, we will most likely think of the art targeted to them as deeply troubling.

The core quality of the experience is the feeling and recognition that oneness is truth. – Martin Ball on 5-MeO-DMT

At the upper levels of development, one could argue, we find sacredness based on concepts like pure consciousness, emptiness, and the clear white light of the void, etc. Famously, psychedelics, and in particular 5-MeO-DMT, seem to trigger direct experiences of this type of sacredness, which, according to its proponents, encapsulates all other kinds of transcendence within. If this is so, then we could anticipate that agents like 5-MeO-DMT will play an important role in the future of art as more people climb the ladder of adult psychological development.

On a social level, art as the pursuit of the sacred can be interpreted as an adaptive behavior aimed at taming envy. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is (artistically or other- wise) capable of diverting a group’s energy away from tasks that need to be done for individual and collective survival. When done in excess, wasteful displays of fitness make communities suffer. Runaway signaling has serious drawbacks, and sacred experiences seem to calm people down a bit, especially if the sense of sacredness comes along with social reassurance in the form of being able to hang out together without having to compete all the time, for Christ’s sake! Ahem. To be chill with one another.

As we saw with the previous models, this one, too, has its own aesthetic. The aesthetic of the model would perhaps manifest in the form of a museum that caters to every possible sense of sacredness. From aboriginal shamanism to monotheistic conservativism to punk rock concerts to transhumanism, this aesthetic recognizes the fact that sacredness is catalyzed by many different inputs depending on the psychological traits of the people who consume it.



[1] L1 and L2 normalization are ways of talking about how to describe the distance between points in a given space. L2 takes into account the mean squared difference along each dimension, whereas L1 simply uses the average difference in each dimension. If one is thinking about an ideal art piece within a given aesthetic, then using L2 would penalize very heavily exemplars that deviate from the archetype and generally favor well-roundedness, whereas an L1 normalization would accept large differences from the ideal along several dimensions as long as at least a fraction of the dimensions are very good.

[2] One’s locus of control is the part of our experience that comes with a felt sense of agency. That is, what feels like is in charge of determining the direction of one’s attention, intention, and behavior. Typically, a person’s locus of control is tied to their sense of self – or ego – but this is not true in the general case (as demonstrated by the shattered locus of control present in schizophrenia, and absent locus of control during states of depersonalization and derealization).

[3] According to John Lilly, a Supraself-Metaprogramer is an agent outside our locus of control that runs below our threshold of awareness and which ‘codes’ Supraself-Metaprograms. In turn, Supraself-Metaprograms are the mental “programs” that determine our sense of the highest values, which we typically inherit from our culture, influence from others, implicit historical beliefs, and so on.

[4] The colors of Integral Theory: Ken Wilber’s Integral theory was developed by identifying the commonalities among many different types of adult developmental models, spiritual stage maps, and meditation progression systems. The progression could broadly be described as a generalized expansion of the circle of compassion and increased acceptance of complexity. The color associated with each level is arranged from low-frequency to high-frequency parts of the spectrum. Specifically, infrared – archaic, magenta – tribal, red – warrior, amber – traditional, orange – modern, green – postmodern, teal/turquoise – integral, ultraviolet – post-integral.


Featured image credit: Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff

* The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

Harmonic Society (1/4): Art as Family Resemblance + Cool Kid Theory

Note – The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue).

The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.

Below you will find the abstract, introduction, and the first 2 (out of 8) models of art. I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all 8 of them.



Contemporary writing about art is in exactly the same place as writing about nature was before Darwin came along. Before Darwin there was no single intellectual matrix upon which to fix all of these impressions and ideas. There was no way of organizing all of that information. And this seems to me to be the situation we are in with the arts, as well.

 

– Brian Eno, “What is Art Actually For?” (2012)

Abstract

We start by assuming that there are real stakes in art. This motivates the analysis of this subject matter, and it focuses where we place our gaze. We examine a total of eight models for “what art might be about”, divided into two groups. The first group of four are some of the most compelling contemporary models, which derive their strength from fields such as philosophy of language, economics, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. These models are: (1) art as a word only definable in a family resemblance way with no necessary or sufficient features, (2) art as social signaling of desirable genetic characteristics, (3) art as Schelling point creation, and (4) art as the cultivation of sacred experiences. These four models, however enlightening, nonetheless only account for what David Marr might describe as the computational level of abstraction while leaving the algorithmic and implementation levels of abstraction unexamined. They explain what art is about in terms of why it exists and what its coarse effects are, but not the nature of its internal representations or its implementation. Hence we propose a second group of four models in order to get a “full-stack” view of art. These models are: (5) art as a tool for exploring the state-space of consciousness, (6) art as a method for changing the energy parameter of experience, (7) art as activities that induce neuronal annealing (which implements novel valence modulation, i.e. surprising pain/pleasure effects), and (8) art as an early prototype of a future affective language that will allow diverse states of consciousness to make sense of each other. These frameworks address how art interfaces with consciousness and how its key valuable features might be implemented neurologically. We conclude with a brief look at how embracing these new paradigms could, in principle, lead to the creation of a society free from suffering and interpersonal misunderstanding. Such a society, aka. Harmonic Society, would be designed with the effect of guaranteeing positive valence interactions using principles from a post-Galilean science of consciousness.

Introduction

We shall start this essay by making the assumption that there are real and substantial stakes when it comes to art. Not all of my readers will agree with this point, and those who do might in fact secretly worry that they are overvaluing art for selfish reasons. I come here to suggest that there could be very real and substantial stakes in art, and that to realize this you do not need to buy into sentimentalism, fanaticism, wishful thinking, or traditionalist attitudes. You could start with the sheer amount of human attention that is devoted to art in one way or another. Art seems to make a lot of people do things, and do them with a lot of their energy and focus. Indeed, many people point at their intimations with art as personally defining moments. Some say their best self is expressed in their creation, consumption, or participation in art. So what is all of this fuss about?

Alas, most things of grand significance have been analyzed by countless people. The sheer magnitude of certain human activity is not a justification for caring about it at the margin, considering the often corresponding sheer magnitude of other people already analyzing and scientifically probing the field. That is, of course, unless you have a reason to think that you have something that everyone else has been missing all this time. And this is the case for you and me right now. The new perspectives on art on this essay come from thinking very deeply about consciousness, qualia, and the possible implementations of the pleasure-pain axis, aka. valence. We will see how investigating these questions cashes out in novel insights about art. In turn, these models, as well as the empirically testable predictions they generate, might have the ability to reframe what is going on with art in a way that allows us to predict how and when it will bring about good and desirable effects.

The 8 Models

  1. Art as family resemblance (Semantic Deflation)
  2. Art as Signaling (Cool Kid Theory)
  3. Art as Schelling-point creation (a few Hipster-theoretical considerations)
  4. Art as cultivating sacred experiences (self-transcendence and highest values)
  5. Art as exploring the state-space of consciousness (ϡ☀♘🏳️‍🌈♬♠ヅ)
  6. Art as something that mess with the energy parameter of your mind ()
  7. Art as puzzling valence effects (emotional salience and annealing as key ingredients)
  8. Art as a system of affective communication: a protolanguage to communicate information about worthwhile qualia (which culminates in Harmonic Society).

Models 1 through 4 are already present in the memetic ecosystem of today. They focus on external aspects of art, such as why it reproduces and how it impacts social behavior. From the point of view of Marr’s levels of analysis, these four models focus on the behavioral/computational level of analysis.[1] Namely, what art looks like from the outside, and how it reproduces. Models 5 through 8 are novel perspectives that arise out of examining artistic experiences in light of Marr’s algorithmic and implementation-level accounts of consciousness. That is, how the internal information-processing and implementational features of brains give rise to art. In turn, these four models give rise to a new understanding for when art does or does not do its job.

1. Semantic Deflation

This model says that asking “what is art?” is, more often than not, an utterly confused question. Perhaps in antiquity it would make sense to talk about the essence of art, expecting there to be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art. According to the semantic deflation model of art, starting out with the expectation of finding a crisp set of requirements for something to be art is starting off on the wrong foot, for believing that there is an essence of art is to simply not pay attention to the large set of inconsistent use cases for that word, which challenges the existence of such an essence.

The semantic deflation model is supported by key insights from 20th Century philosophy of language, such as found in the works of Russell, Frege, Carnap, Quine, and especially those of the late Wittgenstein. Of particular relevance when it comes to defining art we could point at Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. Developed in his book Philosophical Investigations, the concept of family resemblance posits that many words which seem at first to point at something with a core essence are, in fact, pointing to referents which have overlapping similarities but no universally shared attributes.

Like the concept of a game, which refers to activities as diverse as checkers and cellular automata, and which cannot be easily defined in terms of e.g. point systems, physical movement, number of players, etc., we likewise cannot expect art to be definable in terms of media, intent, social effects, or craft. All we can aspire to is to identify common and characteristic features.

According to this view, the models of art that take objective beauty seriously on Platonic or traditionalist grounds are fundamentally misguided. Callbacks to retraditionalize society to preserve its past – more genuine – aesthetics are perceived as parodies of themselves, trying to undo an intrinsically irreversible process of cultural learning. Nowadays few people seriously believe that art should be conceived of as a tool exclusively for the glorification of traditional values and religious symbolism. It is also not fashionable to think of art in sincere non-ironic ways. Those who wish to earnestly engage with art must remind themselves that the days in which its meaning could be grounded on universally agreed definitions is gone.

Although sobering and clarifying, I argue that this view leaves a lot of value on the table. Sure, art has no common essence, but that does not mean that all of the uses of the word are pointing at things of equal value. Semantic deflation does not provide us with guidance for identifying and promoting good art. Indeed, as Wittgenstein might put it, “[p]hilosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.” (Philosophical Investigations, pg.49).

Interestingly, the semantic deflation model of art can itself be conceived of as an aesthetic. This aesthetic rewards those who can help others transcend narrow conceptions of what art is. Exemplary movements like Dadaism and Pop Art could be thought of as pushing the aesthetic of semantic deflation to the limit.

Art is what you can get away with.” – Andy Warhol.

But what if there is something worth preserving, reifying, and defining clearly in art? Semantic deflation should perhaps be thought of as a first step in figuring out what is valuable about art, rather than a final destination. To move beyond it, one should avoid reviving a naïve essentialist view of art, and instead identify conceptual focal points that genuinely enrich our conception of art. Rather than destroying preconceptions, we could instead refactor, discover, and build new and enlightened ones. Transcending absolutist deflationary views of art is indeed more appealing when there is an alternative in sight that is both better and more real than what you get by merely deconstructing and breaking down naïve views. And this is what we will attempt to do as we move on to other models of art.

2. Cool Kid Theory

In his book “The Mating Mind”, Geoffrey Miller discusses art in light of evolutionary psychology. In this view, art, rather than being a thing, is a culturally sanctioned activity devised to allow people to display their genetic fitness, by showing off above-average features of their phenotypes. Art is, in this view, at its core, an outlet for courtship. Incredible performances like those of Liszt and Rachmaninoff are not just for the pleasure of music. The incredible difficulty of performing the musical compositions is itself the show. The difficulty is not a side-effect of discovering new soundscape frontiers that produce blissful and extraordinary experiences to degrees that couldn’t be possible without the difficulty of execution. Rather, the difficulty of performing the musical pieces is part and parcel of what makes them so extraordinary. They are indeed erotic displays of fitness traits (cf. Lisztomania) crafted to cause an impression in fertile ground.

Indeed, we are constructed in such a way that we can emotionally hack and be hacked by others to assess each others’ suitability as potential family, friends, and neighbors. Unfakeable fitness displays typically require prodigious amounts of waste. As Geoffrey puts it: “Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste.” (The Mating Mind, pg. 128. cf. An Infinite Variety of Waste) Only extremely fit organisms can afford to spend resources on non-survival tasks.

Fashion, too, in this light, is a sort of collective activity of systematic waste. Keeping up with the latest trends shows that you have a lot of free time (which, contrary to popular belief, is perceived as more sexy than the alternative). Only the wealthy, disciplined, or well-organized can manage to sustain energy- and time-consuming hobbies for years and years.

This theory of art has a problem, though, which is that on its own it does not explain art as a cultural institution. We could very well imagine that aesthetics-based displays of genetic fitness would be circumscribed to individual efforts but in practice we see groups of people coming together to work out the potentialities, possibilities, limits, and implications of particular aesthetics. We don’t only generate extraordinarily wasteful works of art ourselves, but do so contextually within art movements and aesthetic languages. Why is this?

I believe there is a layer of organization above individual signaling displays. To fully grasp it, we need to talk about what I have named “Cool Kid Theory”. This theory postulates that above-average and particularly well-rounded individuals, aka. Cool Kids, figure out ways of enticing others to show their peacock feathers, so to speak. Being a Cool Kid is not to excel oneself, but rather, to have the precise kind of strategic mediocrity that gives others the urge to show how they can improve upon your craft. At its extreme, a Cool Kid commands a group of people who practice a particular type of craft, which ultimately becomes an artistic gang. If you are a Cool Kid you can decide who is cool and who is not by choosing what challenges to measure the performance of people with.

Who wants to be a Cool Kid? The answer is, for the most part, anyone who can get away with it. It is so evolutionarily adaptive to be a Cool Kid that we have a number of psychological programs that can be triggered with a sequence of social cues that can make almost anyone into a Cool Kid.

Part and parcel of being a Cool Kid is to know how to induce the fear of missing out in others. It is about detecting when a particular challenge is headed towards an imminent dead end and course-correct to keep people engaged.

Here is an example. If you ever encounter a group of dancers in public transportation, you will notice that there is a Cool Kid who binds them together. The Cool Kid selects for people who have unique talents, and collectively accumulates a solidly impressive bag of tricks. Everyone in the group takes turns showing their best trick. For instance, the group might have someone who sings, someone who plays an instrument, and someone who owns a subwoofer (sometimes that’s all it takes). You might also see that there is a guy who can do the weird elbow twist thingy, the one who can break dance and do nine spins on his back, the one who can beat-box to the tune of the song, and the one who moonwalks while playing a harmonica. An effective Cool Kid is one who can corral all of these specialists and be the artistic glue who controls the overarching aesthetic. And this aesthetic is what defines a set of challenges used for impressive fitness displays.

The art world can be thus conceived of as a large super-cluster of Cool Kid gangs cornering the economy of attention. The competitive nature of Cool Kids is sure to produce a constant stream of novel stimuli, endlessly varied trends and fashions, as well as competitive and indeed sometimes even virulent attacks between aesthetics. For he who controls the aesthetic, controls your ability to be popular.

To be continued…



[1] Marr’s levels of analysis is a framework to analyze information-processing systems. First we have the computational level, which describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. This level is concerned with questions like what the system is capable of, and how quickly it can succeed at it. Second is the algorithmic level of analysis, which focuses on the internal representations and operations used to transform the inputs into the outputs. And third is the implementation level of analysis, which is concerned with the physical realization of the algorithms described in the second level.

Typical N,N-DMT Trip Progression According to an Anonymous Reader

I recently had the chance to interview someone who’s had 50+ vaporized N,N-DMT experiences. The person in question (who wishes to remain anonymous) is extremely smart, philosophically literate, and has a PhD in a STEM field from a top US university. Based on the interview notes I took, I wrote down what the progression of a “typical” experience looks like. The anonymous reader confirmed that this description provides an accurate account.


Progression for Waiting Room or Breakthrough-level DMT experiences (15-40mg range):

Onset stage (1-20 seconds): Psychedelic Molting – Sharpening of colors and edges, the world acquires a secondary layer (as if the world is “molting”), and then this second layer becomes unified and starts to resonate across the entire field of experience.pGIFjd3

Early come-up (20-40 seconds): The Hyper-Edge Capacitor – Visual field gets saturated with the Chrysanthemum, which starts to give way to 3D shapes. At this point a center of high-dimensional correlations between planes of experience starts bubbling up correlated subspaces for later use: planes, then 3D spaces, then hyper-planes, etc. And as these “high-dimensional Lego pieces” are made, they start becoming the elements of the scene (the walls, the objects, the space, the sense of presence, etc.).

Middle come-up (40-80 seconds): Crystal Worlds – In this phase of the experience there are a lot of “Buddhist no-self universes” of perfect resonance along many axes. Cave worlds, column worlds, pentagonal tiling of mirror chambers worlds, transparent blinds oceanic worlds, etc. There is a feeling that “these worlds exist independently of you” and that they are kinds of high-grade meditative states achievable by highly-attained monks and beings from other dimensions. They are sterile in some sense, though, which is that they lack evolution. They are attractor points of high-dimensional resonance. Insanely beautiful and ecstatic but also not perfect (for reasons that are hard to articulate).

Late come-up (80-100 seconds): Hyperbolic Gear World – At this point you start to see high-dimensional hyperbolic mechanisms. One intuitively feels that the state has too much energy to be contained in a Crystal World, which gives rise to stitching parallel Crystal Worlds into a unified hyperbolic world-sheet. Incredibly, this world-sheet is precise and seamless. The information contained in it is highly-specific. At this point number theory, hyperbolic geometry, and high-dimensional dynamics start to be very relevant. Irreducibly complex mathematical interlocking objects appear in very crisp and precise ways (it’s not just a fuzzy but intense impression of precision – it is a precise experience of precision clockwork machinery). 3D gear mechanisms with a prime-number of teeth that only repeat when they make as many cycles as the minimum common multiple of all the gears may show up, scenes with ‘plasma consciousness’ contained in hyperbolically-folded cavities with laminar color flow arise, spontaneous chaotic symmetry breaking devices arranged in the form of complex vibrating metallic flowers will materialize, etc. These devices also build on each other’s innovations. They can swap elements to become more interesting, more complex, more energetic, more hypnotizing, and more pleasurable than before.

Plateau (100-180 seconds): DMT Tykes – One starts to hallucinate things that are higher up in the visual hierarchy. “DMT Tykes” (another name for “DMT elves”) are humanoid forms that start to appear at this point. They are ever-evolving, and constructed of a high-dimensional hyperbolic world-sheet made of networks of interlocking Rabbit-Duck bistable percepts. In some sense the entities you see are not the DMT Tykes themselves. Instead, it feels like there are still higher-dimensional entities that interface with the space you’re at and it is those entities that control the rendered humanoid bistable percepts. The devices you saw in the immediately preceding stage (Hyperbolic Gear World) are revealed to be artifacts created by these higher-dimensional beings. As reported by others before, this space gives off the impression of being a gallery, a museum, a factory, or some kind of scientific testing facility, where entities are trying out new qualia configurations to study their properties: how they feel, what they can be used for, what it is like to experience them as a human being, etc. They are trying to compel you to take these things seriously, to see through how groundbreaking they would be for humans. Whenever one is too overwhelmed with the information presented (common misgivings are of the sort: “this is too much for a simple human” or “too beautiful, I don’t deserve this” or “what if people find out I know this?”) the experience becomes calming and things that you recognize as a human start being presented: jungles, hedonically-charged human scenes, locations, archetypes, stories about the origin of humanity, etc. And when one feels ready again to look at the complex machinery then there is this sense that the entities will continue to show you more and more of the irreducibly complex phenomenal objects native to that space.

Early comedown (180-240 seconds): High-Dimensional Breakdown – Entities may become a bit desperate to make sure they have sent along the most important information. The intensity starts subsiding and there is a lot of revisiting of earlier stages, gathering of essential insights, and decisions made about what to definitely try to bring back to one’s baseline state. Often one fears that one’s brain will never get back to normal during the earlier parts, but at this point one recognizes that there is a downward trend and that it’s all going to be ok after all. Paranoia, if present beforehand, starts to subside at this point. In terms of narrative, at this point one is usually coming to terms with what the experience will mean for your everyday life, whether you believe that the entities were real, and whether all of this was just a hallucination. The intuitive understanding that even if it is all just in your mind it still contained information of very high-value is clear at this stage (but may subside if you don’t properly encode it). Key undeniable facts of the experience at this point are: (1) there are heights of bliss and pain way outside of the range of human experience, (2) there are heights of mathematical complexity possible to experience directly that are beyond the scope of normal human cognition, and (3) there are types of qualia that matter both for intelligence and wellbeing that exist but humans are utterly clueless about. Disregarding the veracity of the entities or the literal interpretations of the experience, these three facts are straightforward to acknowledge at this stage of the trip.

Late comedown (240-360 seconds): Psychedelic Dampening – There is a clear sense that some of the information you were able to easily see and grock earlier in the experience is completely inaccessible now. You lose contact with what felt like higher forms of intelligence but you still see a lot of interesting patterns and complex geometry that you somehow realize is not as important as what happened just before. Even though it still feels like you are “very high”, it feels like one’s unique privileged access to information about consciousness is gone and that what you could discover now would not belong to the same level of “scientific breakthrough” as what you experienced before.

After-effects (360-600 seconds): Fast Sobering Up – Thinking about meta-narratives is very common at this stage, just like it is on traditional psychedelics. Things like “Where is the human world headed? What kind of consciousness will we experience as our default mode in 100 years from now? What will happen once scientists, engineers, and mathematicians start to do systematic research on the mathematics of the irreducibly-complex phenomenal objects at the peak of the experience? Etc.” Somewhere in along this stage the world finally becomes solidly uni-layered and then it just feels like a low dose of shrooms for a couple more minutes, at most.

Baseline (600 seconds onwards): Re-Grounding Stage – You start wondering what that was all about. The realization that you came back to normal again so quickly is likely to make you feel like you should have not been so afraid to try out the experience to begin with. At the same time, you also may feel a strong pull towards not experiencing that for a while (depends – some people feel braver at this point and redo the experience). In most circumstances one will feel a mood boost for several hours (up to days) for two reasons. First is the sense of significance and profundity in the form of gratitude and the feeling of being special that such an experience confers. And second, there seems to be an essentially physiological response to having gone through such an intense experience without getting harmed (if one wasn’t harmed, of course). Perhaps the annealing frame is adequate in this context. Namely, that the experience somehow smoothed out a lot of pinch points and imperfections latent in one’s psyche. The fear of “the worst that could happen to me” subsides and one experiences a sense of connection to other humans that is significantly above baseline.

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.

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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.

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“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:

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(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.

Realms as Interpretive Lenses

How people in different (Buddhist) realms interpret pain:

1) Heavenly Realm / God Realm: Pain is impermanent. It’s a trick of the mind. A method to help us wake up and realize who we truly are. [said while peacefully unaware of actual pain due to the formidable amounts of pleasure and distractions on hand]

2) Asura Realm / Titan Realm: Pain is a tool to succeed. It is a challenge to be overcome at a personal level, and a weapon to be used against one’s enemies. If I didn’t suffer intensely for the things that I achieved, would they mean anything? [said while experiencing intense cravings for social recognition and the need to feel superbly significant]

3) Animal Realm: Pain is the separation from my pleasures of the day to day. My morning coffee, interrupted by a call. My conversations with a friend, when someone’s bad luck is brought up. The annoying commercials in-between the chunks of TV I like. [said while snoozing the alarm for the 4th time in a row]

4) Hell Realm: Pain is reality in and of itself. Life is suffering. And if it isn’t at the moment, that’s just temporary good luck. Happiness is merely the absence of suffering; happiness is therefore as good as nonexistence. [said while waiting in the ER while experiencing a kidney stone] 

5) Hungry Ghost Realm: Pain is realizing that only 10 out of the 15 people who RSVP’ed to my party showed up. It is the feeling of noticing that the Pringles are almost gone. The feeling that you get when you make out with someone and only get to 2nd base when you could have gotten to 3rd or 4th. [said while scrolling Reddit for the 3rd hour in a row].

6) Human Realm: Pain is a healthy signaling mechanism. When you look at it scientifically, it is just a negative reinforcement signal that propagates throughout your nervous system in order to prevent the chain of causes that led to the current state. It’s nothing to worry about, just as you shouldn’t worry about the weather or the shape of the solar system. [said while dispassionately reading a neuroscience textbook].


See also: Traps of the God Realm and The Penfield Mood Organ

5-MeO-DMT Trip Report by Anonymous Reader

Dose: Two 7mg hits separated by about 15 minutes.

Context: The writer of this trip report suffers from anhedonia. One of the main motivations for trying 5-MeO-DMT was to see if it could help with such anhedonia.


Oh my god. The emotion. Pure intense pain. The situation was so moving. I knew I was in a state where I couldn’t not empathize with the pain. Coming out of it I felt like I was being let in on the lesson. My social barriers weren’t formed yet and I felt like we’re all melded in one family of empathized minds. There was no hiding or not acknowledging the immensity of pain. The lesson was “This is what is possible. This is what is happening to someone. This is very serious.” But it wasn’t just that recognition. There was a social experience, almost like an induction.

The come up was physically pleasant but very fast and then became very negative and high intensity. I think if I had my normal connection to my body, I’d be gripping the chair arm in pain and grunting, possibly weeping, but one thing I noticed about the experience was that there was a lack of strength to any aversions or fears or rejections, let alone expressions thereof. In ordinary sober life, something that negative would lead me to react with aversion.

Unlike the (less) painful experience of eating habanero peppers, I regarded the experience very sincere and true. Ordinarily I’m very wary of fanaticism and sentimentalism and social pressures and tragedies of the commons etc… to the point of social and emotional non-participation in society. I realize this is pathological so I try to get past my social cynicism and inhibition. This experience definitely put me right into a state of embracing a social consensus and I had very little ability to squirm or object to whatever indoctrination I could have seen it as. From the outside a social experience looks like indoctrination, but from the inside it is genuine and true. Beneath fanaticism is genuine empathy and significance, and I realized this when coming out and crying and sighing and making other social expressions at the message I had just received, having the sense of empathy transcend all social transactions of which I’m cynical.

There was a sense of magnetism and attraction both to this blazing core of serious suffering in the peak of the experience and the beautiful blue drawing undercurrents of the high valence, lovely come down, which lasted a good 15 minutes. The content of the experience was very unified and simple. “General” is the word that I think best describes the content. It includes the ontologies normally attributed to specific concepts. It includes these but isn’t reduced to them. Very general state of thinking. “Feeling” might be a good word for the general state underlying particular “thoughts.” And perhaps it was this general freedom which added to the impression that it broke through my social cynicisms.

The part that stood out for me was the emotion. I’ve never experienced emotion that strong before and it was useful to be reminded of what emotions feel like. There are levels of intensity and depth of emotion that mustn’t be forgotten. I dream of the life where I can tap into an infinite river of significance-rich, intense emotion. I felt in the trip an endlessly self-powering current of pure emotional energy blasting away (negative in the peak) and then undertows of deep oceanic bliss emotions of wellbeing and peace in the come down. Sometimes when I’m coming off a long, multi-day fast with a meal and my hormones and neurotransmitters are changing I feel emotional. Sometimes when I’ve gone a long time without hearing music and I play some great Bach cantata really loudly, I feel a bit of that moving emotional significance again. Interestingly I didn’t really separate the intensity from the significance during the trip. They felt one and the same. All meaning and sense of echoes and ramifications and contexts seemed to simply be unified in that general unified blazing entity of pure undifferentiated intensity. Yet, it didn’t feel insignificant, even though it lacked more specific content.

I think this might help with suffering because it does two things. One is that in my experience one has little choice to resist. Embracing an experience rather than struggling with it prevents unnecessary suffering. It also gives a state of pure, undifferentiated feeling which sort of envelops pain. This is good because it shows you the “unreality” of your thoughts. When you’re in an emotional state there’s a feeling behind the thoughts and different thoughts come in to support that feeling, but contending with them individually only multiplies them. It’s easier to just address the entire feeling at once. It’s hard to say how bad that experience was when all my aversion and struggling and resisting and fighting were disabled… I couldn’t protest the experience—does that cause me to infer in my memories that it must not have been worthy of resistance and therefore dispose me to take more when really it would be suffering that I would otherwise resist and avoid in the future? All I can say was that coming out of it I was very grateful, and not grateful that it was over but grateful that I had seen such truth for the sake of truth, and then the comedown incidentally turned nice and quite pleasant.

The come-off felt very slow and beautiful. Imagine taffy hanging over a rotating disk, like a lazy Susan. It felt like I was this taffy and passing beneath me was this undertow and after a delay it would pull me under in a pulse of pleasure. Or say there’s a car and a string tied to it and on the other end your tooth, and as soon as you’d have a thought the car would start running with that string and as the slack gets pulled with the car you might get distracted but then you’d eventually have your tooth pulled and you’d have your attention brought back to a string you might not have realized was there all the time. That’s what the long delayed slow crescendo pleasantnesses of the comedown of it would do for all kinds of thoughts and images and experiential events. To find out after a long delay that all this time a thought you had several seconds ago is still going on is quite reassuring—well, in this case it was. And these tooth pulls were quite pleasurable for some reason. And along with it came the bodily sensation of being magnetically drawn toward this thing.


Since going on an SSRI in 2015 (which I discontinued after 10 months in 2015), I’ve suffered chronic anhedonia (note that this paragraph was written over a week after the experience, where most of the report was written the day after, such as the exclamatory first sentences “Oh my god. The emotion,” which I was able to express because my body was still giving me a fresh enough memory of the experience from the night before. I’ve since lost emotional connection/recollection of the experience). I find I do suffer, but I lack any sense of it mattering. In particular, there’s a lack of a coordination between my frontal lobes and my limbic system (and SSRI’s can reduce the connectivity between the limbic system and the cortex… kind of like a mild chemical frontal lobotomy…), so any complex understanding of things like life situations or future plans or anything that takes the “high road” in the fear/emotional response through the cortex, get’s processed by the cortex but not communicated to the limbic system. So I can suffer, and I can verbally understand I’m suffering, but I can’t see why that matters or why I should do anything about it. I can’t emotionally reason. I can’t envision things that excite me. I can’t come up with reasons to alleviate ongoing anxiety like I used to. Before the SSRI, I’d have a pessimistic or anxious or sad thought and then I’d intervene with reasoning and “take perspective” and realize why things are ok after all or why something IS worth doing. None of that thinking reasoning gets through now. It seems only very immediate physical things with little dependence on the cortex get a somewhat appropriate level of emotional arousal out of me, like a car accident or crudely apprehended social threats/stress. I also have lots of indecision and waste time in dull thought loops. My thoughts lack emotional potency and they fail to support decision making. The experience of 5-MeO-DMT reminded me that suffering does matter, that things do matter, there is emotional significance. Because of the state depends of memory, I can’t really access that much, though in the days following the experience my body did find a certain posture that would trigger a strong recollection of the experience. It feels like I’m in flatland and this experience is in the third dimension, the dimension of emotional significance, and my frameworks presently don’t allow me much access to these memories, but I am grateful for the experience and the long come down which allowed me to take into my cortex the verbal/generic memories of the fact emotional stuff is real, and is out there. It restored hope and reminded me of the goal of getting out of this anhedonia. It’s better to live in hope and some optimism, even if success is futile. Just look at very old or obese people who still take care of their appearance with grooming.


See also: Trip reports by anonymous Qualia Computing readers for LSD2C-B, and 4-AcO-DMT.