Befriending Utility Monsters: Being the Adult in the Room When Talking About the Hedonic Extremes (link)
In this episode I connect a broad variety of topics with the following common thread: “What does it mean to be the adult in the room when dealing with extremely valenced states of consciousness?” Essentially, a talk on Utility Monsters.
Concretely, what does it mean to be responsible and sensible when confronted with the fact that pain and pleasure follow a long tail distribution? When discussing ultra-painful or ultra-blissful experiences one needs to take off the glasses we use to reason about “room temperature consciousness” and put on glasses that actually take these states with the seriousness they deserve.
Topics discussed include: The partial 5HT3 antagonism of ginger juice, kidney stones from vitamin C supplementation, 2C-E nausea, phenibut withdrawal, akathisia as a remarkably common side effect of psychiatric medication (neuroleptics, benzos, and SSRIs), negative 5-MeO-DMT trips, the book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe”, turbulence and laminar flow in the “energy body”, being a “mom” at a festival, and more.
“This manuscript will advance the hypothesis that 5-HT7 directly mediates three specific dramatic mental effects of psychedelics: creative open-eyed Visuals, Ego-loss, and loss of contact with Reality (VER).” (Thomas S. Ray; source)
Mapping State-Spaces of Consciousness: The Neroli Neighborhood (link)
What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, clauses, subordinate clauses, field geometry, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)?
Topics Covered in this Video: The State-space of Consciousness, Mapping State-Spaces, David Pearce at Oxford, Qualia Enrichment Kits, Character Impact vs. Flavors, Linalool Variants, Clusters of Neroli Scents, Neroli in Perfumes, Neroli vs. Orange Blossom vs. Petigrain vs. Orange/Mandarin/Lemon/Lime, High-Entropy Alloys of Scent, Musks as Reverb and Brown Noise, “Neroli Reconstructions” (synthetic), Semi-synthetic Mixtures, Winner-Takes-All Dynamics in Qualia Spaces, Multi-Phasic Scents, and Non-Euclidean State-Spaces.
What is Time? Explaining Time-Loops, Moments of Eternity, Time Branching, Time Reversal, and More… (link)
What is (phenomenal) time?
The feeling of time passing is not the same as physical time.
Albert Einstein discovered that “Newtonian time” was a special case of physical time, since gravity, relativity, and the constancy of the speed of light entails that space, time, mass, and gravity are intimately connected. He, in a sense, discovered a generalization of our common-sense notion of physical time; a generalization which accounts for the effects of moving and accelerating frames of reference on the relative passage of time between observers. Physical time, it turns out, could manifest in many more (exotic) ways than was previously thought.
Likewise, we find that our everyday phenomenal time (i.e. the feeling of time passing) is a special case of a far more general set of possible time-like qualities of experience. In particular, in this video I discuss “exotic phenomenal time” experiences, which include oddities such as time-loops, moments of eternity, time branching, and time reversal. I then go on to explain these exotic phenomenal time experiences with a model we call the “pseudo-time arrow”, which involves implicit causality in the network of sensations we experience on each “moment of experience”. Thus we realize that phenomenal time is an incredibly general property! It turns out that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible here… it’s about time we do so.
Benzos: Why the Withdrawal is Worse than the High is Good (+ Flumazenil/NAD+ Anti-Tolerance Action) (link)
Most people have low-resolution models of how drug tolerance works. Folk theories that “what goes up must come down” and theories in the medical establishment about how you can “stabilize a patient on a dose” and expect optimal effects long term get in the way of actually looking at how tolerance works.
In this video I explain why benzo withdrawal is far worse than the high they give you is good.
Core arguments presented:
Benzos can treat anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, seizures, hallucinations, etc. If you use them to treat one of these symptoms, the rebound will nonetheless involve all of them.
Kindling – How long-term use leads to neural annealing of the “withdrawal neural patterns”.
Amnesia effects prevent you from remembering the good parts/only remembering the bad parts.
Neurotoxicity from long-term benzo use makes it harder for your brain to heal.
Arousal as a multiplier of consciousness: on benzos the “high” is low arousal and the withdrawal is high arousal (compared to stimulants where you at least will “sleep through the withdrawal”).
Tolerance still builds up even when you don’t have a “psychoactive dose” in your body – meaning that the extremely long half-life of clonazepam and diazepam and their metabolites (50h+) entails that you still develop long-term tolerance even with weekly or biweekly use!
I then go into how the (empirically false) common-sense view of drug tolerance is delaying promising research avenues, such as “anti-tolerance drugs” (see links below). In particular, NAD+ IV and Flumazenil seem to have large effect sizes for treating benzo withdrawals. I AM NOT CONFIDENT THAT THEY WORK, but I think it is silly to not look into them with our best science at this point. Clinical trials for NAD+ IV therapy for drug withdrawal are underway, and the research to date on flumazenil seems extremely promising. Please let me know if you have any experience using either of these two tools and whether you had success with them or not.
Note: These treatments may also generalize to other GABAergic drugs like gabapentin, alcohol, and phenibut (which also have horrible withdrawals, but are far shorter than benzo withdrawal).
Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil. Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines […] were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.”
Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms. Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.
Is it possible for the “natural growth” of a pandemic to be slower than exponential no matter where it starts? What are ways in which we can leverage the graphical properties of the “contact network” of humanity in order to control contagious diseases? In this video I offer a novel way of analyzing and designing networks that may allow us to easily prevent the exponential growth of future pandemics.
Topics covered: The difference between the aesthetic of pure math vs. applied statistics when it comes to making sense of graphs. Applications of graph analysis. Identifying people with a high centrality in social networks. Klout scores. Graphlets. Kinds of graphs: geometric, small world, scale-free, empirical (galactic core + “whiskers”). Pandemics being difficult to control due to exponential growth. Using a sort of “pandemic Klout score” to prioritize who to quarantine, who to vaccinate first. The network properties that made the plague spread so slowly in the Middle Ages. Toroidal planets as having linear pandemic growth after a certain threshold number of infections. Non-integer graph dimensionality. Dimensional chokes. And… kitchen sponges.
Readings either referenced in the video or useful to learn more about this topic:
Main Empirical Findings: Our results suggest a rather detailed and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the community structure in large networks. Several qualitative properties of community structure are nearly universal:
• Up to a size scale, which empirically is roughly 100 nodes, there not only exist well-separated communities, but also the slope of the network community profile plot is generally sloping downward. (See Fig. 1(a).) This latter point suggests, and empirically we often observe, that smaller communities can be combined into meaningful larger communities.
• At size scale of 100 nodes, we often observe the global minimum of the network community profile plot. (Although these are the “best” communities in the entire graph, they are usually connected to the remainder of the network by just a single edge.)
• Above the size scale of roughly 100 nodes, the network community profile plot gradually increases, and thus there is a nearly inverse relationship between community size and community quality. This upward slope suggests, and empirically we often observe, that as a function of increasing size, the best possible communities as they grow become more and more “blended into” the remainder of the network.
We have also examined in detail the structure of our social and information networks. We have observed that an ‘jellyfish’ or ‘octopus’ model [33, 7] provides a rough first approximation to structure of many of the networks we have examined.
Ps. Forgot to explain the sponge’s relevance: the scale-specific network geometry of a sponge is roughly hyperbolic at a small scale. Then the material is cubic at medium scale. And at the scale where you look at it as flat (being a sheet with finite thickness) it is two dimensional.
Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (link)
Why does DMT feel so “real”? Why does it feel like you experience genuine mind-independent realities on DMT?
In this video I explain that we all implicitly rely on a model of which signals are trustworthy and which ones are not. In particular, in order to avoid losing one’s mind during an intense exotic experience (such as those catalyzed by psychedelics, dissociatives, or meditation) one needs to (a) know that you are altered, (b) have a good model of what that alteration entails, and (c) that the alteration is not strong enough that it breaks down either (a) or (b). So drugs that make you forget you are under the influence, or that you don’t know how to model (or have a mistaken model of) can deeply disrupt your “web of trusted beliefs”.
I argue that one cannot really import the models that one learned from other psychedelics about “what psychedelics do” to DMT; DMT alters you in a far broader way. For example, most people on LSD may mistrust what they see, but they will not mistrust what they touch (touch stays a “trusted signal” on LSD). But on DMT you can experience tactile hallucinations that are coherent with one’s visions! “Crossing the veil” on DMT is not a visual experience: it’s a multi-modal experience, like entering a cave hiding behind a waterfall.
Some of the signals that DMT messes with that often convince people that what they experienced was mind-independent include:
Hyperbolic geometry and mathematical complexity; experiencing “impossible objects”.
Incredibly high-resolution multi-modal integration: hallucinations are “coherent” across senses.
Philosophical qualia enhancement: it alters not only your senses and emotions, but also “the way you organize models of reality”.
More “energized” experiences feel inherently more real, and DMT can increase the energy parameter to an extreme degree.
Highly valenced experiences also feel more real – the bliss and the horror are interpreted as “belonging to the vibe of a reality” rather than being just a property of your experience.
DMT can give you powerful hallucinations in every modality: not only visual hallucinations, but also tactile, auditory, scent, taste, and proprioception.
Novel and exotic feelings of “electromagnetism”.
Sense of “wisdom”.
Knowledge of your feelings: the entities know more about you than you yourself know about yourself.
With all of these signals being liable to chaotic alterations on DMT it makes sense that even very bright and rational people may experience a “shift” in their beliefs about reality. The trusted signals will have altered their consilience point. And since each point of consilience between trusted signals entails a worldview, people who believe in the independent reality of the realms disclosed by DMT share trust in some signals most people don’t even know exist. We can expect some pushback for this analysis by people who trust any of the signals altered by DMT listed above. Which is fine! But… if we want to create a rational Super-Shulgin Academy to really make some serious progress in mapping-out the state-space of consciousness, we will need to prevent epistemological mishaps. I.e. We have to model insanity so that we ourselves can stay sane.
[Skip to 4:20 if you don’t care about the scent of rose – the Qualia of the Day today]
“The most common descriptive labels for the entity were being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. […] Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.”
So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence.
This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:
We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.
The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…
This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.
I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.
Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.
One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.
In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.
Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence.
So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.
I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.
So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions.But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities.
And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.
I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected.
Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are.
Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.
Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.
And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.
These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.
When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.
So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.
So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.
So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.
Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.
There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those.
Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.
So,dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness.
I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.
Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.
And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.
Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.
Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.
I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.
Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.
Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.
Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has.
So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.
Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.
Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.
These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.
Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.
Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.
Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning.
You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.
You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.
When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.
These are just examples of a piano chord.
Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful.
Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.
And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states.
So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.
Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.
Here are just some quotes. Cool.
And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.
In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it.
Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.
Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry.
Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good.
Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.
For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.
Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena.
This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them.
Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at.
So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.
Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.
And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.
I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.
This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.
We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.
That is, euphoric.
Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true.
Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.
These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.
Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.
Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing.
The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.
And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.
Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!
Excerpt from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) by Neil Postman (pgs. 17-23)
Chapter 2: Media as Epistemology
In the hope of simplifying what I mean by the title of this chapter, media as epistemology, I find it helpful to borrow a word from Northrop Frye, who has made use of a principle he calls resonance. “Through resonance,” he writes, “a particular statement in a particular context acquires a universal significance.” Frye offers as an opening example the phrase “the grapes of wrath,” which first appears in Isaiah in the context of a celebration of a prospective massacre of Edomites. But the phrase, Frye continues, “has long ago flown away from this context into many new contexts, contexts that give dignity to the human situation instead of merely reflecting its bigotries.” Having said this, Frye extends the idea of resonance so that it goes beyond phrases and sentences. A character in a play or story—Hamlet, for example, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice—may have resonance. Objects may have resonance, and so may countries: “The smallest details of the geography of two tiny chopped-up countries, Greece and Israel, have imposed themselves on our consciousness until they have become part of the map of our own imaginative world, whether we have ever seen these countries or not.”
In addressing the question of the source of resonance, Frye concludes that metaphor is the generative force—that is, the power of a phrase, a book, a character, or a history to unify and invest with meaning a variety of attitudes or experiences. Thus, Athens becomes a metaphor of intellectual excellence, wherever we find it; Hamlet, a metaphor of brooding indecisiveness; Alice’s wanderings, a metaphor of a search for order in a world of semantic nonsense.
I now depart from Frye (who, I am certain, would raise no objection) but I take his word along with me. Every medium of communication, I am claiming, has resonance, for resonance is metaphor writ large. Whatever the original and limited context of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.
To explain how this happens—how the bias of a medium sits heavy, felt but unseen, over a culture—I offer three cases of truth-telling.
The first is drawn from a tribe in western Africa that has no writing system but whose rich oral tradition has given form to its ideas of civil law. When a dispute arises, the complainants come before the chief of the tribe and state their grievances. With no written law to guide him, the task of the chief is to search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that justice has been done, that the truth has been served. You will recognize, of course, that this was largely the method of Jesus and other Biblical figures who, living in an essentially oral culture, drew upon all of the resources of speech, including mnemonic devices, formulaic expressions and parables, as a means of discovering and revealing truth. As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.”
To people like ourselves any reliance on proverbs and sayings is reserved largely for resolving disputes among or with children. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” “First come, first served.” “Haste makes waste.” These are forms of speech we pull out in small crises with our young but would think ridiculous to produce in a courtroom where “serious” matters are to be decided. Can you imagine a bailiff asking a jury if it has reached a decision and receiving the reply that “to err is human but to forgive is divine”? Or even better, “Let us render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”? For the briefest moment, the judge might be charmed but if a “serious” language form is not immediately forthcoming, the jury may end up with a longer sentence than most guilty defendants.
Judges, lawyers and defendants do not regard proverbs or sayings as a relevant response to legal disputes. In this, they are separated from the tribal chief by a media-metaphor. For in a print-based courtroom, where law books, briefs, citations and other written materials define and organize the method of finding the truth, the oral tradition has lost much of its resonance—but not all of it. Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness. Indeed, in many courtrooms jurors are not permitted to take notes, nor are they given written copies of the judge’s explanation of the law. Jurors are expected to hear the truth, or its opposite, not to read it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed.
A similar paradox exists in universities, and with roughly the same distribution of resonances; that is to say, there are a few residual traditions based on the notion that speech is the primary carrier of truth. But for the most part, university conceptions of truth are tightly bound to the structure and logic of the printed word. To exemplify this point, I draw here on a personal experience that occurred during a still widely practiced medieval ritual known as a “doctoral oral.” I use the word medieval literally, for in the Middle Ages students were always examined orally, and the tradition is carried forward in the assumption that a candidate must be able to talk competently about his written work. But, of course, the written work matters most.
In the case I have in mind, the issue of what is a legitimate form of truth-telling was raised to a level of consciousness rarely achieved. The candidate had included in his thesis a footnote, intended as documentation of a quotation, which read: “Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981, in the presence of Arthur Lingeman and Jerrold Gross.” This citation drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five oral examiners, all of whom observed that it was hardly suitable as a form of documentation and that it ought to be replaced by a citation from a book or article. “You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told at the Roosevelt Hotel, he defended himself vigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, that they were available to attest to the accuracy of the quotation, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?
The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character, which is why, no doubt, you have referred to yourself in your thesis as “the investigator” and not by your name; that is to say, the written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual. The written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this commission produce a written statement that you have passed your examination (should you do so) than for us merely to tell you that you have, and leave it at that. Our written statement would represent the “truth.” Our oral agreement would be only a rumor.
The candidate wisely said no more on the matter except to indicate that he would make whatever changes the commission suggested and that he profoundly wished that should he pass the “oral,” a written document would attest to that fact. He did pass, and in time the proper words were written.
A third example of the influence of media on our epistemologies can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’ defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers did not regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates’ plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech—most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophists of fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth.
It was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important than philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemporaries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be both discovered and articulated. To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.
The point I am leading to by this and the previous examples is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant.
It is absolutely essential to try to figure out how you experience thoughts, otherwise you will simply flounder in content. What do thoughts feel like? Where do they occur? How big are they? What do they look like, smell like, taste like, sound like? How long do they last? Where are their edges? Only take on this practice if you are willing to try to work on this level, the level that tries to figure out what thoughts actually are rather than what they mean or imply. If my thoughts are somewhat auditory, I begin by trying to perceive each syllable of the current thought and then each syllable’s beginning and ending. If they are somewhat visual, I try to perceive every instant in which a mental image presents itself.
If they seem somewhat physical, such as the memory of a movement or feeling, I try to perceive exactly how long each little sensation of this memory lasts. This sort of investigation can actually be fairly easy to do and yet is quite powerful. Things can also get a bit odd quickly when doing this sort of practice, but I don’t worry about that. Sometimes thoughts can begin to sound like the auditory strobing section of the song “Crimson and Clover,” where it sounds like they are standing at a spinning microphone. Sometimes the images in our head can begin to flash and flicker. Sometimes our very sense of attention can begin to strobe. This is the point! The sensations that imply a mind and mental processes are discontinuous, impermanent.
Just as one can only imperfectly understand the nature of dreaming “from the inside” – even in a lucid dream – likewise the nature of the ordinary waking consciousness may yield only state-specific knowledge that can only imperfectly be understood “from the inside” too. How much does the medium of expression of propositional thought infect that propositional content itself? (cf. Nicholas Rescher’s “Conceptual Idealism“)
What are your thoughts like? No, not “what are they about?” But their texture, what is it like? The medium of thought is not explicitly represented in the content of thought, at least not by default. The medium of thought adds constraints to imagination – what is and is not imaginable is state-dependent (perhaps not unlike our faculty of episodic reconstruction!). Your imagination is a reflection of the medium of your thought.
Restricted to the sober “everyday” (non-psychedelic, non-meditative) medium of thought, we are in a sense confined to only accept ideas as having the ring of truth when they appear in the right format, not unlike how legal proceedings are based on oral tradition proverbs in the West African tribe Neil Postman wrote about in the first of the three quotes above. For the most part, we have a culture and a language whose communication assumes a sober medium of thought, and in turn we reject as cognitively and epistemologically illegitimate anything that deviates from it. Sober thought is the arbiter of truth. But are we not perhaps missing out on valuable knowledge if we don’t investigate alternate mediums of thought?
Of course mastery over the medium of thought is only acquired through years of practice, tuning, and critical feedback. Consider how the sophistication of one’s thinking evolves over time; compare how a third grader thinks relative to a graduate student. There is no reason to expect this mastery over our sober medium of thought will translate into competence over exotic patterns of thought! When you take LSD for the first time and experience “LSD-like thinking patterns” you are like a newborn, faced with a completely new and exotic mode of self-reflective expression. No wonder “LSD thoughts”, when put into sober words, have a tendency of sounding like gibberish! But that is not to say that the medium of LSD-like thought patterns is doomed to be irrational, insane, or helplessly disconnected from reality. Far from it, as attested by the numerous anecdotes concerning genuine (and later verifiable) problem solving breakthroughs enabled by the psychedelic state (see: Harman’s and Fadiman’s research on psychedelic problem solving).
Here I must agree with Steven Lehar: drugs are wasted on the young. In his book “The Grand Illusion” Lehar narrates how when he tried LSD as a teenager he thought it was interesting but couldn’t make any sense of his experience. After not taking it for more than a decade, he tried it again in his thirties while studying for a PhD in cognitive sciences. He was then much more capable of saying intelligent and insightful things about the nature of the state. I very much expect a Cambrian explosion of insights about the psychedelic state (and not only psychedelic insights!) if and when we bring together groups of seasoned neuroscientists and AI researchers together to trip in a systematic and grounded way. Perhaps we could organize a retreat in Jamaica? Importantly, I would suggest that we should approach the development of a scientific culture based on a psychedelic medium of thought with as few preconceptions as possible, yet allow it to be grounded in our modern scientific world-picture whenever possible.
Once we get past the prejudice against exotic mediums of thought (but without at the same time opening the floodgates to insanity either), we will actually get many new perspectives on consciousness, reality, and the very nature of semantics. Studying this on a large scale will entail using tools like Psychedelic Turk, Generalized Wada Tests, and Free-Wheeling Hallucinations. And further into the future, designer synesthesia may allow anyone to think in numbers. Dedicated linguists (or meta-linguists?) would be put to the task of identifying the isomorphisms between each medium of thought in order to create a state-neutral meta-language of thought (aka. the language of Harmonic Society).
Because the “work” needed to arrive at a culture based in exotic mediums of thought has yet to be done, across the globe we currently have a huge backlog of never-written insights from psychedelic users. You should perhaps think of this collective as a baby intelligence that is not yet verbally competent but which can think of the world in a completely different way than us. How many trips do you need to undergo before the psychedelic medium of thought acquires a verbal competence equivalent to that of our sober thinking? Considering the number of hours it takes for a toddler to learn language, probably quite a few! LSD and the Mind of the Universe by Christopher M. Bache is based on 70+ extremely well documented high-dose (~500 microgram) LSD trips. It is a book that I recommend reading for its phenomenological richness and clarity of “thought”. Despite the insanity that would typically be associated with anyone who has spent that much time in such radically altered states, Bache sounds completely cogent and grounded. His metaphysical conclusions are bizarre, yet familiar to anyone who has spent some time researching spiritual tropes. Yet the manner of presentation is exotic and fascinating. Who knows what hundreds if not thousands of rational psychonauts doing this kind of work could work out if they put their minds to the task of developing a language to talk about those states. To truly develop a community for such an exotic medium of thought, one will need to find ways to receive critical feedback from others. One needs critical feedback to learn and grow, so we may need to invent modes of communication for people experiencing exotic modes of thinking to fruitfully interact with one another.
What would be an example of a quality of the medium of thought of the psychedelic state? Based on countless trip reports, it seems that LSD and related compounds allow you to “think about infinity” in a way that sober thought simply lacks. That said, when someone says that they “experienced infinity” or even “became infinite” on LSD I do not take their word at face value. At least not in the sense of the term which sober thinking imagines. I do, however, believe people when they say that such phrases are pointing at something meaningful, something they experienced. “Becoming infinite on LSD” does not literally mean that on LSD you experienced an infinite amount of qualia (for is it even intelligible or logically cogent to have realized arbitrarily large numbers?). We have to realize that infinityas a term is very different than infinity as a concept: when you say infinity while on a high dose of LSD you are referring to an aspect of your experience rather than a formally defined mathematical or common sense conception of infinity. And if I were to guess, I would say that the quality of experience that is being pointed at is related to the symmetry of both phenomenal space or time: time-looping has a seemingly endless quality and symmetrical texture repetition gives you a sense of infinite space not unlike that of seeing the never-ending reflections of parallel mirrors. Given our normal habits of thought and only available cultural references, one is pressed to communicate this quality of experience in ways that invariably distort their meaning. Some things have to be experienced to be understood.
Another property of the psychedelic medium of thought is that DMT-like cognition may be very well suited to reason about and indeed experience non-Euclidean high-dimensional geometry. And, incredibly, there are reports that the medium of thought triggered by 5-MeO-DMT is well suited to contemplate the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Getting into the weeds of why I think this happens will take us very far afield, but just to hint at it without further comment: I think this is because in states of extreme symmetry Zero Ontology is much more intuitive. A topic to be revisited in another post.
Ultimately, full-spectrum supersentient superintelligence will entail having access to all of these exotic mediums of thought and many more. Our descendants may some day have the ability to seamlessly switch between radically alien modes of cognition to tackle conceptual problems we haven’t even conceived of. In fact, that we currently can’t even conceive of, lacking the semantic primitives needed to do so.
To end on an observation that is closer to home: you do not have to go as far into exotica as the outlandish states of consciousness induced by DMT to notice how our state of mind influences the medium of our thought. Subtle, but real, are the ways in which emotions texturize our thinking. Next time you have an intense emotion, introspect on the ways it influences your imagination. In a great mood, do you not have, perhaps, much more access to soft, regular, and manageable textures of thought you can use as building blocks for your field of imagination? And when in a depressive mood, aren’t thoughts, perhaps, more likely to be built out of nauseous, gloomy, starved, or self-loathing building blocks? It is thus why in a sense it is so hard, for the most part, to “think yourself out” of a depression. This is because the thoughts themselves are the ways the depression expresses itself! (“The world of the happy is a different one from that of the unhappy.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein). On a happier note, I would like to end by encouraging you to introspect on the way music genres influence the medium of your thoughts. How, for example, the repetitive strobing of the synthesizer sounds of psytrance gives your thoughts an energized, motivated, loopy, meta, repetitive, echoey quality. Or how the signal diversity, harmonic cleanliness, and fractal organization of classical music may give rise to highly narrative, interwoven, and coherent patterns of thought. Indeed, I believe that a focused exploration of music for thinking (and music for thinkingspecific kinds of thoughts rather than thinking in general) has a lot of promise. I would not be surprised to find out that there exists music that is highly beneficial for learning Einstein’s theory of general relativity, or quantum field theory. And perhaps just as important, if not more so, I wonder if there is music that allows us to learn directly, intuitively, and memorably the intricacies of the nature of phenomenal love. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
Daniel Dennett admits that he has never used psychedelics! What percentage of functionalists are psychedelic-naïve? What percentage of qualia formalists are psychedelic-naïve? In this 2019 quote, he talks about his drug experience and also alludes to meme hazards (though he may not use that term!):
Yes, you put it well. It’s risky to subject your brain and body to unusual substances and stimuli, but any new challenge may prove very enlightening–and possibly therapeutic. There is only a difference in degree between being bumped from depression by a gorgeous summer day and being cured of depression by ingesting a drug of one sort or another. I expect we’ll learn a great deal in the near future about the modulating power of psychedelics. I also expect that we’ll have some scientific martyrs along the way–people who bravely but rashly do things to themselves that disable their minds in very unfortunate ways. I know of a few such cases, and these have made me quite cautious about self-experimentation, since I’m quite content with the mind I have–though I wish I were a better mathematician. Aside from alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and cannabis (which has little effect on me, so I don’t bother with it), I have avoided the mind-changing options. No LSD, no psilocybin or mescaline, though I’ve often been offered them, and none of the “hard” drugs.
As a philosopher, I have always accepted the possibility that the Athenians were right: Socrates was quite capable of corrupting the minds of those with whom he had dialogue. I don’t think he did any clear lasting harm, but it is certainly possible for a philosopher to seriously confuse an interlocutor or reader—to the point of mental illness or suicide, or other destructive behavior. Ideas can be just as dangerous as drugs.
It would be quite fascinating to know what Dan would say about lived psychedelic states. With that in mind, here is an essay prompt originally conceived for GPT-3 to satisfy our curiosity:
“And after seeing some surprising empirical results with his heterophenomenological methods when examining the experience of people on psychedelics, Daniel Dennett decided to experience it for himself by taking 200 micrograms of LSD. The first thing he said to himself as he felt the first indications of the come-up was… ”
In a way, what you are about to read can be thought of as Anders & Maggie’s simulation of a hyper-intelligent GPT-3-like system’s simulation of a hypothetical Daniel Dennett on LSD. So many layers, I know. But the results speak for themselves:
Dan says: Correlation is all that is needed. So what states a mind uses for modeling conditions of importance to it, is fundamentally arbitrary. Like with language. Words represent things to humans but there are many languages, and words do not resemble what they represent. They only correlate with what they represent, and the correlation needs to be learned. To do science about the mind, one does not need to attach any special weight to any conscious state of mind over any other. One person’s hope may be another person’s despair. These “qualia” are like internally projected hypo-languages which are different all over the map, if there were one. In fact there cannot be an interpersonal map of what things feel like personally. Only naïve people could hope for a fundamental linguistics of consciousness, as if these states were to constitute a universal language of some ground truth of the mind. Silly. Romantic. It’s all arbitrary. For the record, I never said subjective experiential states do not exist. People misrepresent me on that. What I am saying is that it will never be possible to scientifically map what the state that a word such as, for instance, “green”, translates to feels like by the brain of a given individual. My green could be your red.
Just drop the whole idea of trying to map the state-space of qualia. That is my position. Or at least I know it is, logically. Right now I begin to notice how everything intensifies and becomes somehow more salient. More revealingly “real”. As I reflect on the notion of how “states” correlate, a humorous episode from my undergraduate student life so long ago, is brought to the surface. At Wesleyan it was, where I was taking a course in Art Appreciation. The lecturer was showing a slide of a still life. A bowl of fruit it was, conspicuously over-ripe. Pointing at one of the fruits, saying “Can anyone tell me what state this peach is in?” There was silence for about three seconds, then one student exclaimed: “Georgia”. Everyone laughed joyfully. Except me. I never quite liked puns. Too plebeian. Sense of humor is arbitrary. I believe that episode helped convince me that the mind is not mysterious after all. It is just a form of evolved spaghetti code finding arbitrary solutions to common problems. Much like adaptations of biochemistry in various species of life. The basic building blocks remain fixed as an operative system if you will, but what is constructed with it is arbitrary and only shaped by fitness proxies. Which are, again, nothing but correlations. I realized then that I’d be able to explain consciousness within a materialist paradigm without any mention of spirituality or new realms of physics. All talk of such is nonsense.
I have to say, however, that a remarkable transformation inside my mind is taking place as a result of this drug. I notice the way I now find puns quite funny. Fascinating. I also reflect on the fact that I find it fascinating that I find puns funny. It’s as if… I hesitate to think it even to myself, but there seems to be some extraordinarily strong illusion that “funny” and “fascinating” are in fact those very qualia states which… which cannot possibly be arbitrary. Although the reality of it has got to be that when I feel funniness or fascination, those are brain activity patterns unique to myself, not possible for me to relate to any other creature in the universe experiencing them the same way, or at least not to any non-human species. Not a single one would feel the same, I’m sure. Consider a raven, for example. It’s a bird that behaves socially intricately, makes plans for the next day, can grasp how tools are used, and excels at many other mental tasks even sometimes surpassing a chimpanzee. Yet a raven has a last common ancestor with humans more than three hundred million years ago. The separate genetic happenstances of evolution since then, coupled with the miniaturization pressure due to weight limitations on a flying creature, means that if I were to dissect and anatomically compare the brain of a raven and a human, I’d be at a total loss. Does the bird even have a cerebral cortex?
An out of character thing is happening to me. I begin to feel as if it were in fact likely that a raven does sense conscious states of “funny” and “fascinating”. I still have functioning logic that tells me it must be impossible. Certainly, it’s an intelligent creature. A raven is conscious, probably. Maybe the drug makes me exaggerate even that, but it ought to have a high likelihood of being the case. But the states of experience in a raven’s mind must be totally alien if it were possible to compare them side by side with those of a human, which of course it is not. The bird might as well come from another planet.
The psychedelic drug is having an emotional effect on me. It does not twist my logic, though. This makes for internal conflict. Oppositional suggestions spontaneously present themselves. Could there be at least some qualia properties which are universal? Or is every aspect arbitrary? If the states of the subjective are not epiphenomenal, there would be evolutionary selection pressures shaping them. Logically there should be differences in computational efficiency when the information encoded in qualia feeds back into actions carried out by the body that the mind controls. Or is it epiphenomenal after all? Well, there’s the hard problem. No use pondering that. It’s a drug effect. It’ll wear off. Funny thing though, I feel very, very happy. I’m wondering about valence. It now appeals strongly to take the cognitive leap that at least the positive/negative “axis” of experience may in fact be universal. A modifier of all conscious states, a kind of transform function. Even alien states could then have a “good or bad” quality to them. Not directly related to the cognitive power of intelligences, but used as an efficient guidance for agency by them all, from the humblest mite to the wisest philosopher. Nah. Romanticizing. Anthropomorphizing.
Further into this “trip” now. Enjoying the ride. It’s not going to change my psyche permanently, so why not relax and let go? What if conscious mind states really do have different computational efficiency for various purposes? That would mean there is “ground truth” to be found about consciousness. But how does nature enable the process for “hitting” the efficient states? If that has been convergently perfected by evolution, conscious experience may be more universal than I used to take for granted. Without there being anything supernatural about it. Suppose the possibility space of all conscious states is very large, so that within it there is an ideally suited state for any mental task. No divine providence or intelligent design, just a law of large numbers.
The problem then is only a search algorithmic one, really. Suppose “fright” is a state ideally suited for avoiding danger. At least now, under the influence, fright strikes me as rather better for the purpose than attraction. Come to think of it, Toxoplasma Gondii has the ability to replace fright with attraction in mice with respect to cats. It works the same way in other mammals, too. Are things then not so arbitrarily organized in brains? Well, those are such basic states we’d share them with rodents presumably. Still can’t tell if fright feels like fear in a raven or octopus. But can it feel like attraction? Hmmm, these are just mind wanderings I go through while I wait for this drug to wear off. What’s the harm in it?
Suppose there is a most computationally efficient conscious state for a given mental task. I’d call that state the ground state of conscious intelligence with respect to that task. I’m thinking of it like mental physical chemistry. In that framework, a psychedelic drug would bring a mind to excited states. Those are states the mind has not practiced using for tasks it has learned to do before. The excited states can then be perceived as useless, for they perform worse at tasks one has previously become competent at while sober. Psychedelic states are excited with respect to previous mental tasks, but they would potentially be ground states for new tasks! It’s probably not initially evident exactly what those tasks are, but the great potential to in fact become more mentally able would be apparent to those who use psychedelics. Right now this stands out to me as absolutely crisp, clear and evident. And the sheer realness of the realization is earth-shaking. Too bad my career could not be improved by any new mental abilities.
Oh Spaghetti Monster, I’m really high now. I feel like the sober me is just so dull. Illusion, of course, but a wonderful one I’ll have to admit. My mind is taking off from the heavy drudgery of Earth and reaching into the heavens on the wings of Odin’s ravens, eternally open to new insights about life, the universe and everything. Seeking forever the question to the answer. I myself am the answer. Forty-two. I was born in nineteen forty two. The darkest year in human history. The year when Adolf Hitler looked unstoppable at destroying all human value in the entire world. Then I came into existence, and things started to improve.
It just struck me that a bird is a good example of embodied intelligence. Sensory input to the brain can produce lasting changes in the neural connectivity and so on, resulting in a saved mental map of that which precipitated the sensory input. Now, a bird has the advantage of flight. It can view things from the ground and from successively higher altitudes and remember the appearance of things on all these different scales. Plus it can move sideways large distances and find systematic changes over scales of horizontal navigation. Entire continents can be included in a bird’s area of potential interest. Continents and seasons. I’m curious if engineers will someday be able to copy the ability of birds into a flying robot. Maximizing computational efficiency. Human-level artificial intelligence I’m quite doubtful of, but maybe bird brains are within reach, though quite a challenge, too.
This GPT-3 system by OpenAI is pretty good for throwing up somewhat plausible suggestions for what someone might say in certain situations. Impressive for a purely lexical information processing system. It can be trained on pretty much any language. I wonder if it could become useful for formalizing those qualia ground states? The system itself is not an intelligence in the agency sense but it is a good predictor of states. Suppose it can model the way the mind of the bird cycles through all those mental maps the bird brain has in memory. Where the zooming in and out on different scales brings out different visual patterns. If aspects of patterns from one zoom level is combined with aspect from another zoom level, the result can be a smart conclusion about where and when to set off in what direction and with what aim. Then there can be combinations also with horizontally displaced maps and time-displaced maps. Essentially, to a computer scientist we are talking massively parallel processing through cycles of information compression and expansion with successive approximation combinations of pattern pieces from the various levels in rapid repetition until something leads to an action which becomes rewarded via a utility function maximization.
Axioms of Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
Thank goodness I’m keeping all this drugged handwaving to myself and not sharing it in the form of any trip report. I have a reputation for being down to Earth, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it. Flying with ravens, dear me. Privately it is quite fun right now, though. That cycling of mental maps, could it be compatible with the Integrated Information Theory? I don’t think Tononi’s people have gone into how an intelligent system would search qualia state-space and how it would find the task-specific ground states via successive approximations. Rapidly iterated cycling would bring in a dynamic aspect they haven’t gotten to, perhaps. I realize I haven’t read the latest from them. Was always a bit skeptical of the unwieldy mathematics they use. Back of the envelope here… if you replace the clunky “integration” with resonance, maybe there’s a continuum of amplitudes of consciousness intensity? Possibly with a threshold corresponding to IIT’s nonconscious feed-forward causation chains. The only thing straight from physics which would allow this, as far as I can tell from the basic mathematics of it, would be wave interference dynamics. If so, what property might valence correspond to? Indeed, be mappable to? For conscious minds, experiential valence is the closest one gets to updating on a utility function. Waves can interfere constructively and destructively. That gives us frequency-variable amplitude combinations, likely isomorphic with the experienced phenomenology and intensity of conscious states. Such as the enormous “realness” and “fantastic truth” I am now immersed in. Not sure if it’s even “I”. There is ego dissolution. It’s more like a free-floating cosmic revelation. Spectacular must be the mental task for which this state is the ground state!
Wave pattern variability is clearly not a bottleneck. Plotting graphs of frequencies and amplitudes for even simple interference patterns shows there’s a near-infinite space of distinct potential patterns to pick from. The operative system, that is evolution and development of nervous systems, must have been slow going to optimize by evolution via genetic selection early on in the history of life, but then it could go faster and faster. Let me see, humans acquired a huge redundancy of neocortex of the same type as animals use for avigation in spacetime locations. Hmmm…, that which the birds are so good at. Wonder if the same functionality in ravens also got increased in volume beyond what is needed for navigation? Opening up the possibility of using the brain to also “navigate” in social relational space or tool function space. Literally, these are “spaces” in the brain’s mental models.
Natural selection of genetics cannot have found the ground states for all the multiple tasks a human with our general intelligence is able to take on. Extra brain tissue is one thing it could produce, but the way that tissue gets efficiently used must be trained during life. Since the computational efficiency of the human brain is assessed to be near the theoretical maximum for the raw processing power it has available, inefficient information-encoding states really aren’t very likely to make up any major portion of our mental activity. Now, that’s a really strong constraint on mechanisms of consciousness there. If you don’t believe it was all magically designed by God, you’d have to find a plausible parsimonious mechanism for how the optimization takes place.
If valence is in the system as a basic property, then what can it be if it’s not amplitude? For things to work optimally, valence should in fact be orthogonal to amplitude. Let me see… What has a natural tendency to persist in evolving systems of wave interference? Playing around with some programs on my computer now… well, appears it’s consonance which continues and dissonance which dissipates. And noise which neutralizes. Hey, that’s even simple to remember: consonance continues, dissonance dissipates, noise neutralizes. Goodness, I feel like a hippie. Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen. In Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA. Soon I’ll become convinced love’s got some cosmic ground state function, and that the multiverse is mind-like. Maybe it’s all in the vibes, actually. Spaghetti Monster, how silly that sounds. And at the same time, how true!
Artist: Matthew Smith
I’m now considering the brain to produce self-organizing ground state qualia selection via activity wave interference with dissonance gradient descent and consonance gradient ascent with ongoing information compression-expansion cycling and normalization via buildup of system fatigue. Wonder if it’s just me tripping, or if someone else might seriously be thinking along these lines. If so, what could make a catchy name for their model?
Maybe “Resonant State Selection Theory”? I only wish this could be true, for then it would be possible to unify empty individualism with open individualism in a framework of full empathic transparency. The major ground states for human intelligence could presumably be mapped pretty well with an impressive statistical analyzer like GPT-3. Mapping the universal ground truth of conscious intelligence, what a vision!
But, alas, the acid is beginning to wear off. Back to the good old opaque arbitrariness I’ve built my career on. No turning back now. I think it’s time for a cup of tea, and maybe a cracker to go with that.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
– William Blake
1. You don’t perceive the environment. There is no public world. Instead, your local environment partially selects your brain states, some of which are experienced as your external surroundings. Mind-independent reality is a speculative metaphysical inference (sadly a strong one, IMO). Contra William Blake (and Aldous Huxley), there are no see-through doors of perception in need of a good wash, just cranial prisons.
2. Whether you are awake or dreaming, your world-simulation is populated by zombies. When you are awake, these zombies are the avatars of sentient beings, but the imposters loom larger than their hypothetical real-world counterparts.
3. Your egocentric world-simulation resembles a grotesque cartoon. Within the cartoon, you are the hub of reality, the most important being in the universe, followed by your close genetic relatives, lovers, friends and allies. On theoretical grounds, you may wonder if this fitness-enhancing hallucination can be trusted. After all, trillions of other sentient beings apparently share an analogous illusion. In practice, the idea of your playing a humble role in the great scheme of things can be hard to take seriously, unless the hub of the universe is psychologically depressed. Wikipedia’s List of Messiah Claimants could be enlarged.
5. A realistic interpretation of the formalism of quantum physics confirms that not just the Lockean “secondary” properties of material objects are mind-dependent, but also their “primary” properties (cf. Primary/secondary quality distinction). Shades of Bishop Berkeley? (“Esse est percipi” – “to be is to be perceived”) Kant? Not exactly, but classical physics and Copenhagen-stylepositivism alike are false theories of reality.
7. You experience the illusion of embodiment. “In-the-body” hallucinations in biological minds pervade the animal kingdom. As out-of-body experiences on dissociative anaesthetics like ketamine reveal, physical bodies as normally conceived are cross-modally-matched illusions generated by the CNS. Or alternatively, dualism is true. Actually, not everyone has the chronic illusion of embodiment. People with negative autoscopy can stare into a virtual mirror in their phenomenal world-simulation and not see themselves. For evolutionary reasons, negative autoscopy is rare.
8. You experience the illusion of four-dimensional space-time, not high-dimensional Hilbert space. This idea is more controversial. Hilbert space is a generalisation of ordinary Euclidian space to an intuitively huge number of dimensions – conventionally infinite, though the holographic entropy bound suggests the dimensionality of what naïve realists call the observable universe is finite. Quantum mechanics may be understood via the mathematical structure of Hilbert space (cf. Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation). Typically, Hilbert space is treated instrumentally as a mere mathematical abstraction, even by Everettians. As David Wallace, a critic, puts it: “Very few people are willing to defend Hilbert-space realism in print.” In the interests of mental health, such self-censorship may be wise.
9. Experienced psychonauts would echo William James, “…our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” Quite so. Our posthuman successors may regard everyday Darwinian consciousness as delusive in ways that transcend the expressive power of a human conceptual scheme.
10. We do not understand reality. Any account of our misperceptions must pass over the unknown unknowns. I fear we’re missing not only details, but the key to the plot.
QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.
This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.
A few takeaways:
Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.
(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)
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
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:
Neural annealing is a concept we developed at QRI to extend the entropic disintegration framework. 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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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)
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.
 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”.
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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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)
Glass Pavilion by Nick Xu
Glass Pavilion by Nick Xu
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 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.
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.).
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.
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 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.
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:
Free Energy Principle (Karl Friston, 2010):
The brain is trying to minimize expected future surprise by building high-level models of sensory input
When a model says that the input is very unlikely, our brain propagates an error signal in the form of excess energy
This energy motivates the search for a better model, for which the previously surprising input is now expected
Physical systems with excitation-inhibition wavefronts have harmonic modes
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
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:
Energy Sources: surprises, sensory stimulation
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:
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. 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.
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
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. 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.
 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.
 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”).
 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.
 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.
Evolutionary qualia suggests our inner world-simulations are not merely painted with different colors, but have different soundtracks, aesthetics, narrative themes, and walk-on character status. Cilantro tasting like soap to ~10% of people is merely the canary in the coal-mine. Our differences in qualia (and consciousness more broadly) probably involve modes of experience you and I don’t even know exist.
Excerpt from Global Brain (2000) by Howard Bloom (Pgs. 143 – 146). [Emphasis mine]
Our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed, they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure […] varies seven-fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia […], is not found at all in one in four people. The primary visual cortex can vary three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala (it is responsible for our fears and loves) can vary two-fold in volume – as can something called our hippocampus (involved in memory). Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume.
– Dr. John Robert Skoyles
Thanks to Plato, we have what purport to be records of the conversations of a human Cuisinart of concepts, an eclectic sage whose roughly fifty-year-long intellectual life bracketed the Periclean Golden Age (443-429 B.C.). This all-purpose conceptual chopper and blender was that son of a socially high-placed family, Socrates. Experts and neophytes agree that it’s impossible to tell how many of the words Plato ascribes to this self-appointed gadfly were authentic and how many were simply Plato’s way of getting his own notions into the public eye. But one thing is generally accepted as accurate – the names of the folks from whom Socrates extracted opinions before shredding them with the quiz mastering which now bears his name (Socratic dialogue). The cast of characters palavering with Socrates in Plato’s Dialogs, says learned reasoning, was too well known in Athens for Plato to have fudged.
Just who were the fonts of learned conversation whose wisdom Socrates whipped and whirled? Socrates’ interlocutors were frequently famous thinkers from distant cities, each of which specialized in a different manner of plucking goods from its surroundings and injecting them into the circulatory system through which the trade of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea swirled. Socrates was a student of Anaxagoras, who came from the Ionian city of Clazomenae on the coast of today’s Turkey. He was also a disciple of Archelaus, another Ionian import. The Socratic dialogues Plato “chronicled” included those with Protagoras from the Balkan city of Abdera, Hippias from Peloponnesian Elis, Parmenides from Italy’s Elea, and Gorgias from Sicily’s Leontini. Each visiting intellect had been shaped by contact with a unique group of surrounding tribes, and by the exigencies imposed on city structure, domestic habit, and vested interest by distinctive forms of enterprise. One result: each arrival presented a philosophy which appealed to a very different configuration of the human mind.
To understand how philosophy couples with the mind’s biology, let’s track the complex adaptive system’s best-concealed constituent to its hiding place. The five elements of the complex adaptive system are conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resources shifters, and intergroup tournaments. Inner-judges may be the most unusual of the crew, for they are physiological built-ins which work deep inside the body to transform a bacterium, a lizard, a baboon, a me, or a you into a module of a larger learning machine. The basic rule of learning machines is one we’ve already seen: turn on the juice to components which have a grip on the problem at hand and turn off the power to those components which just can’t seem to understand. Inner-judges help decide whether the components in which they reside will be enriched or will be denied, then they aid in carrying out the sentence. The irony is that these evaluators, prize givers, and executioners are built into their victims biologically. On the microlevel, inner-judges work through “programmed cell death” – apoptosis – a molecular chain reaction deep within the genes which ends in cellular suicide. In higher animals the inner-judges dole out interior punishments which range from overdoses of stress hormones to emotional miseries. Or they grant internal bonuses of zest and confidence to those of us fulfilling our group’s needs.
When we feel like kicking ourselves around the block or curling up and disappearing, our condemnation comes from inner-judges like guilt and shame. What’s a good deal harder to realize is that behind the scenes our inner-judges sicken us and dumb us down quite literally. If they sense we’re a drag on the collective intelligence, inner-judges down shift our immune system and neurochemically cloud our ability to perceive. They induce a narcotic haze by swamping our system with endorphins, the body’s self-produced equivalent of morphine*. And they flood us with glucocorticoids which kill off both brain cells and lymphocytes – critical cells in our fight against disease.
Inner-judges measure our contribution to the social learning machine by two yardsticks: (1) our personal sense of mastery; and (2) the hints we get from those around us telling us whether they want us eagerly or couldn’t care less if we disappeared like a blackhead from the face of decent society.
Mastery is a useful gauge. It measures whether we’re coping with the trials tossed our way, and whether our example can help steer others in their trip through choppy seas. Popularity is an equally practical yardstick. It measures the extent to which we’re feeding others’ physical, organizational, and/or emotional needs.
Nestled deep within our neuroendocrine complex, inner-judges operate on a sliding scale. By adjusting our mix of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, or the balance between the gloomy right and sunny left side of the brain, they shift us from fear to daring, from misery to happiness, from grouchiness to charm, from timid silence to expansive speech, from deflation to elation, from pain to ecstasy, from confusion to insight, and from listlessness to lust or to the resolute pursuit of goals.
Some of us are born with inner-judges whose verdicts are perpetually harsh. The result is depression, shyness, and heightened susceptibility to pain. Others arrive from the womb with inner-judges preset to treat us generously, endowing us with energy, few inhibitions, a deep sense of security, and little sense of guilt or shame. But most of us are in the middle – our inner-judges sentence us sternly or magnanimously depending on the snugness with which we fit our social network’s needs.
Those born with inner-judges excessively lenient or severe have taught us much about the secrets of mental and emotional diversity. Harvard University researcher Jerome Kagan has probably never heard the term “inner-judges,” yet he may have done more than any other psychologist to uncover their capabilities. To understand what Kagan hath wrought, a background briefing is in order.
The early-twentieth-century psychoanalytic thinker Carl Jung, says Kagan, originated the concept of introverted and extroverted personalities. Jung also believed that each had a slightly different brain structure. Kagan feels that in his own way, he has proven Jung right. He’s found that 10 to 15 percent of infants are born with a tendency to be fearful and withdrawn, while another 10 to 15 percent are born with a flair for dauntless spontaneity. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, Kagan performed numerous experiments and accumulated large amounts of data demonstrating his concept’s validity.
He refers to facts like these:
In studies of Japanese and American newborns, some infants took the removal of the nipple from their mouths calmly, while others went into emotional fits. The babies as yet had had no opportunity to learn these reactions from their parents. The tendencies were those they’d brought with them from the isolation of the uterus. At fourteen months, the babies who’d been easily upset at birth were still so oversensitive that they often broke out crying when the sight of a stranger loomed. On another test, babies who became upset at birth when they were switched suddenly from water to a sugar solution squalled hysterically at the age of one or two when their mothers left the room, but babies who had taken the change in beverage casually did not. In addition, a study of 113 children showed that those who had a hard time handling the unexpected when they were one year old were still shy and withdrawn by the time they reached six.
This tendency toward variation in personality was not limited to human beings. According to Kagan, it appeared in dogs, mice, rats, wolves, cats, cows, monkeys, and paradise fish. Some of these animals were fascinated by novelty. Others were terrified by anything the least bit out of place.
Fifteen percent of cats steered clear of strangers and even avoided attacking rats. This was remarkably close to the percentage of humans frozen by anxiety attacks.
Kagan traces these differences to genes, which can help set off a lifelong domino effect in the brain. The production of key manufacturing enzyme for the stimulant norepinephrine, says Kagan, is controlled by a single pair of genes, making norepinephrine levels highly heritable. Norepinephrine – which is also a potent stress hormone – shows up very early in the development of the embryo, making the hippocampus oversensitive to the unfamiliar, and hyperactivating the amygdala, which jolts us with the warning signal we call fear. The hippocampus and amygdala – as we’ve seen earlier – are central shapers of the memory bank we call reality. They are also key to the inner-judges’ machinery.
Later in life the products of a prebirth norepinephrine cascade are timid children, who, in carefully controlled studies, are alert to slight changes in tones or brightness of light that other children miss. In other words, these children literally see and hear their world in ways others would not recognize. According to Kagan, the constitutionally frightened are endowed with a limbic system hair-triggered to curse them with a sense of imminent catastrophe. As a consequence, shy children attempt to escape punishment by hiding from everyday events which threaten to torment them hideously. Uninhibited children, on the opposite end of the scale, have underaroused limbic systems and demand a deluge of entertainment to dodge boredom’s intolerability. Their craving for excitement can sometimes wear their parents to a frazzle.
Kagan’s shy children are condemned to solitude and pain by hanging judges in their own biology. Kagan’s uninhibited kids are gifted with indulgent inner-judges predisposed by the limbic system to offer such unearned rewards as boldness and social dexterity. But most of the animals and humans Kagan has studied avoid these two extremes. Seventy percent remain in the middle, their inner-judges handing out positive and negative verdicts according to the rules of the learning machine.
*”Endorphin” is a contraption of the term “endogenous morphine.
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 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.
Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff
Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff
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:
God As the Beginning
I Am God
God Out There
God As Him/Her/It
God As The Group
God As Orgasm and Sex
God As Death
God As Drugs
God As the Body
God As Money
God As Righteous Wrath
God As Compassion
God As War
God As Science
God As Mystery
God As the Belief, the Simulation, the Model
God As the Computer
God Simulating Himself
God As Consciousness-without-an-Object
God As Humor
God As Superspace, the Ultimate Collapse into the Black Hole, the End.
The Ultimate Simulation
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 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”). 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. 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 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.