QC Coronavirus Edition: Preventing Pandemics by Living on Toroidal Planets and Other Cocktail Napkin Ideas

Here is what we’ve gotta do.

I want every strategy we’ve got on Near Earth Object Collision, OK?

Any ideas, any programs, anything you’ve sketched on a pizza box or a cocktail napkin…

Armageddon (1998 film, when NASA realizes that there are 18 days left before the asteroid hits the Earth)

This Whole Thing

On January 20th someone shared, in a facebook group that I’m a part of, four facts about an emerging viral infection in China: (1) high death rate, (2) high contagion rate, (3) long incubation periods, and (4) the fact that it appeared uncontained. Despite the (at the time) relatively low number of cases, those four facts did not seem to paint a pretty picture of what was about to happen.

This was immediately alarming to a lot of people in my circles, and for good reason. Matthew Barnett, Justin Shovelain, Dony Christie, and Louis Francini sounded alarms as early as mid-January, and the rest of the EA and rationalist cluster followed suit. It makes sense people in this cluster would be concerned early on, as many of them have looked at global catastrophic risk scenarios for years, and were already well aware that the world was unequipped to deal with an infectious disease with all of the above four properties. Pandemic preparedness programs have so far relied on luck. For instance, in his 2015 TED talk “The next outbreak? We’re not readyBill Gates uses as an example the 2013 Ebola outbreak: “The problem wasn’t that there was a system that didn’t work well enough. The problem was that we didn’t have a system at all.” Accordingly, that particular outbreak didn’t become a disaster because of sheer luck: the disease only becomes contagious when you are already very sick and it didn’t hit a major urban area, so containing it was possible. But this time around we don’t seem to have the same luck.

Since, I’ve seen many thought leaders I respect succumb to focusing on this topic: Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Paul Graham, Tyler Cohen, Sarah Constantine, Scott Alexander, Scott Aaronson, Joscha Bach, Ryan Carey, William EdenRobert Wilbin, etc. etc. Not to mention the way these people are publicly responding to each other and building a parallel narrative on a higher level of complexity than most everybody else****. These and many other well respected intellectuals have been going on and on about the situation for over a month now. An exponentially growing curve in its early stages may not be alarming to most people, but it certainly was to people like this (Ps. 3Blue1Brown, Kurzgezagt, and Mark Rober also recently joined the conversation).

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Image by Evan Gaensbauer (March 2020 Dank EA Memes banner)

This all adds up to a vibe of countdown to Armageddon: “X days until hospitals are overwhelmed, Y days until a million people die, Z days until a vaccine will be found”. In line with this perceived, if not frighteningly real, urgency, we’ve seen countless facebook groups, subreddits, and forums scouting for novel ideas and projects to help above and beyond what the governments of the world are already doing (e.g. Covid19RiskApp, Give Directly Response, Covid Accelerator [of technology to decelerate the spread [possibly a terrible or brilliant branding]], List of Predictors, and Corona Variolation).

march_19_2020_spread_pandemic

As of March 20 2020

I personally gave a lot of thought to pandemics several years ago (in college I was on the fence between working on pandemic prevention and consciousness research as a career), so my immediate thought when learning about the virus and its properties was “we are screwed, this can’t be contained with how the world is currently set up”. While containment might have been possible at the very beginning with some luck, it very quickly becomes unmanageable. That said, I’d like to explore here ways in which the world could be realistically modified in order to contain, mitigate, and ultimately reverse the spread of novel contagious diseases including this one. After all, the WHO director general said on March 9th: “The rule of the game is: never give up.” So, well, let’s give it some more thought. I hence offer my ‘sketches on a cocktail napkin’ type of ideas in case they find any application:

Introduction

Let us start by breaking down “social networks” into (1) contact networks, and (2) information networks:

  1. Contact networks are weighted undirected graphs where each node is a person and each edge encodes the frequency and intensity of the contact between the people it connects.*
  2. Information networks are weighted directed graphs that encode the amount of information transmission that there is between pairs of people. To a large extent, contact networks are subsets of information networks.**

Contact networks are what matters for modeling infectious disease transmission. Despite the constitutionally granted freedom of assembly, one can posit that if the risks to the public are high enough, it is justified to place some constraints on the nature and properties of contact networks. In a free society that truly grasps the danger of pandemics and is determined to squash them at the very beginning, contact networks might require some degree of top-down control. Perhaps, if we are serious about future pandemic prevention, we could re-conceptualize freedom of assembly as pertaining to information, rather than contact, networks.***d3297191270ea5bca8db652e977a6d57

So in what ways could a contact network be pandemic-safe? As an intuition pump for what I’ll be discussing further below, I’d like you to consider what it might be like to live in the original “HaloRingworld (and Ringworld too). Assume that unrestricted travel in Halo is limited to land roaming with a maximum speed, and that in order to use a spacecraft or tube across an arc of the circle, you need to be thoroughly tested and quarantined in-between. With these constraints, we would naturally infer that the structure of the contact network of the people in this world would be embedded in the ring itself. Meaning that if an infectious disease originates somewhere on the Ringworld, containing its spread would be as easy as blocking movement on two small fronts around the epicenter of the outbreak. This even allows you to control and ultimately fully suppress diseases with long incubation periods. It is a matter of estimating how long the incubation period is, and quarantining the entire region of “furthest possible transmissibility”.

More so, given the overall circular geometry of the world, after a brief period of quadratic growth of the epidemic (as concentric circles expand around the epicenter)  one would expect to see a threshold after which there is merely linear growth in the number of cases as a function of time!

Network Geometry as a Containment Strategy

To a first approximation, the single most important problem to overcome for containment is the exponential growth of the early stages of an outbreak. Of course in some cases an exponential growth is not itself the problem: and R0 = 1.001 leads to exponential growth, but it is still so slow that it can be easily dealt with. Likewise, a sub-exponential growth can still be unruly, as in a polynomial growth with an exponent of 20. But to a first approximation, I would argue that if you can get rid of exponential growth you can manage an outbreak. The example above of a Ringworld shows that exponential growth in contact networks can be slowed all the way down to linear growth at relatively early stages. Similarly, “thin” toroidal planets would also enable easy containment of outbreaks (Anders Sandberg‘s amazing work on the physics of toroidal planets finally pays off! It remains to be seen when his work on stacking high-dimensional polytopes finds real-world applications).

torusdonut2-thumb (1)

Toroidal World

But we don’t have to go all the way to high sci-fi scenarios to encounter sub-exponential growth of infections in human contact networks. You see, the black death happened at a time when the contact network of humanity had a quasi-quadratic structure at the largest of scales. Villages almost certainly had a scale-free structure (e.g. the priest touching everyone once a week and the lone serf perhaps only interacting with two people a week), but once you look at the structure at scales above the village, you would find routes between neighboring villages weaving a planar graph with a 2D Euclidean geometry. The trade routes, though, provided an exception, and in the end they turned out to be key for the spread of the plague. That said, in the absence of cars, trains, or airplanes, the maximum speed of transmission was seriously limited. Historians can tell when different parts of Europe got the plague because it really took a long time to spread; we are talking about years rather than weeks.1920px-1346-1353_spread_of_the_Black_Death_in_Europe_map.svg

So imagine having a contact network structure characteristic of the medieval times, but with an information network structure akin to the ones we currently have. Then controlling the black plague would be a piece of cake! You would simply need to close central trade routes, track down which villages are already infected, and put a perimeter around them.

Ok, so how do we generalize this idea to the modern times in a realistic way? I think we should perhaps think outside the box here. Remember, the core intention here is to make the spread of an infectious disease not behave in an exponential way at the beginning so that we can “segment out” the part of the network affected (i.e. quarantine) because the “surface area” of the region is not very large. Now, most analysis of disease spread on networks focus on analyzing how realistic-like network features affect disease spread. For example, clustering coefficients, the steepness of the slope of power law networks, the distribution of in-betweenness centrality of the nodes, and so on.

In a perhaps high-modernist style approach to network engineering, one can ask how the spread of a disease would change depending on alterations we could make to the network. The simplest real world case is the reasoning behind adding travel restrictions, which aim to block the spread between very large clusters (i.e. countries) and the closing of schools, universities, and large gatherings, which decrease the interconnectivity of each region of the network. A slightly more sophisticated version of this approach would be to come up with a “Pandemic Klout Score” for each person based on the their “network influence” and pay them to quarantine early on during an outbreak.

I actually worked at Klout as an intern in 2010, and my contributions were mostly on the (unfortunately slightly evil because it’s marketing) following problem: “How do you maximize the spread of a commercial campaign by giving free products to people?” Klout had what they called “perks” which was how they made money. They had contracts with other companies to give free products to “influencers” so that they talked about the perks on their social media accounts. To maximize the spread of a commercial campaign meant to distribute perks in such a way that the largest number of people made mentions of the campaign on their networks (including people who didn’t receive the free products). This is how they measured success- at least when I was there- and what the companies paid them for.

The “basic approach” would be simply to distribute the perks to people with the highest Klout scores, with the additional constraint that those people were influential on the relevant topic (e.g. if you had a popular Twitter account about “beauty and personal care” you might be a prime candidate to get a free “anti-aging sunscreen stick”, or whatever) . But since you can’t actually, you know, entice Justin Bieber (the person with the highest Klout score for several years) with a free Virgin America flight and expect him to either care or talk about it on his Twitter feed, the problem ends up being substantially more complex than just “give people with high Klout the free products”. I am under an NDA about the specific algorithms and research I conducted there. But I mention this because the problem of pandemic prevention could in some sense be thought of as the inverse of the problem Klout was trying to solve. Namely, how you use the node features of the network in order to minimize the spread of a contagious disease. The low-hanging fruit idea here can be to simply allot money to pay people with high Pandemic Klout Scores to stay home or cut their human touch in half whenever an outbreak arises. I would expect this to be significantly better at reducing the reproductive rate of a contagious disease than choosing people at random (or even just based on how many people they interact with on a daily basis).

That said, given the risks and costs involved with pandemics, especially in the long term in light of bioterrorism, we should not close off the possibility of making drastic changes to humanity’s contact network for the sake of our collective wellbeing. That is, merely asking some people to stay home may not be enough. We should contemplate what it would really take to be able to fully contain any future pandemic.

In terms of large-scale network geometry rather than just dealing with one node at a time, perhaps the key point to make is that we should really not fetishize and romanticize the “six degrees of separation” that results from the small world-like structure of the modern human contact network. Yes, “it’s a small world after all“, but you forgot to mention “and that’s what will get us all killed in the end.” Let’s not allow misguided network idealism to murder grandma. We need to make the contact network a large world, and save the small world exclusively for the information network.Screen-Shot-2012-04-05-at-19.26.38

Intuitively, it is precisely the small world-like property of our contact network that allows us to: meet many new people on a regular basis, collaborate with people around the world, be able to attend large gatherings, raves, and festivals, and travel care-free across the planet. Meaning, most people might think that changing the contact network structure to make it pandemic-proof would come at the cost of sacrificing what makes society so interesting and worth living in. I would disagree. I think that such a line of thinking is just the result of a failure of the imagination. We can, I posit, have contact networks that allow you to do all of that and yet be pandemic-proof. I will argue that with intelligent top-down network engineering you can in fact achieve this. Here is my case:

Scale-Dependent Geometry

The main concept that one needs to understand for my argument is that the options for large-scale network structure go far beyond the textbook examples of small worlds, scale-free, random, planar graphs, etc. In fact, one can create all kinds of fascinating hybrid networks where the properties vary by region and scale. The examples I am about to show you play with the notion of scale-dependent geometry. Meaning that the network properties depend on the number of interconnected nodes that you are considering. In particular, I’ll break down networks in terms of their micro (1 to 1,000 nodes), meso (1,000 to 1,000,000 nodes), and macro (1,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 or more nodes) structure:

QLE_ELQ

QLE and ELQ

QLE

The first example is one where the structure of the network leads to quadratic spread on the micro level, linear spread on the meso level, and exponential spread on the macro level. We achieve this by having the nodes arranged along a rectangular grid at the micro level. As one zooms out, the grid hits a limit on two fronts so that the advancement of an infection disease will start growing linearly as it only has two directions to grow in (for the sake of symmetry you can glue the two fronts to make a tube, for a meso network structure akin to that of a toroidal planet). Finally, at the largest scale this network looks like a binary tree, where the growth can reach an exponential rate.

The same scheme will apply to all of the following networks. That is, the letters indicate the ordering of the types of growth for the micro, meso, and macro scale. What I will instead focus on is explaining the advantages of these structures. In this case- the case of QLE- the primary advantage is that the spread can be entirely contained by cutting connections around the epicenter. And the best part is that even if you hit the exponential scale (i.e. you start spreading from “one arm to another”) you will still have long periods of linear growth as each “arm” will grow linearly, so cutting it will remain an option at any point. The “surface area of the spread” will remain tiny relative to the size of the network.

ELQ

A very nice property of this network is that you can have “villages” of up to 1,000 people where everyone can interact with and touch each other. Within each of these villages you have super efficient in-person information transmission and contact hedonism without restrictions. Then each of these villages would be connected to two neighboring villages, perhaps not unlike how kids in grade school often make friends with other kids in the grades immediately above and below (and only rarely with grades that are further apart). The spread of disease would very quickly engulf each village, but thankfully that would be it. After that you would have a very slow village-by-village take-over that could be stopped by ‘cutting’ the contact channels between two pairs of villages (or four if you started at an intersection of the macro structural grid). More so, you could conceive of a “conveyor belt” approach where every month half of the village moves in one direction while the other one stays put. This way over the course of years you would still be able to get to know tens of thousands of people, party like crazy in raves touching everybody, and be able to retain long-term friendships by coordinating with them to either move or stay. And you could do all of this while living in a pandemic-proof world!

LQE_EQL

LQE

This one is perhaps the least viable because it relies on most persons only having contact with two people. That said, the spread would start very, very slowly, and so it might be ideal for the worst possible pandemics. At the macro level the network looks like high-dimensional cardboard boxes, where each “cardboard side” is glued at the edge with one or multiple other sides.

A “continuous” version of LQE could use hyperbolic geometry at the macro level, such as what you get when you sneak a pentagon here and there in an otherwise rectangular grid so that locally you have a square spread, which slowly turns into an exponential spread as you begin swallowing pentagons. (Or a few heptagons in a grid of hexagons).

EQL

This one is pretty similar to ELQ, and you can do pretty much the same things I mentioned about ELQ. The main difference is that this structure is safer at the macro level but riskier at the meso level. So if you expect diseases to be really really contagious, then this structure might prevent “the end of the world” but it might be somewhat susceptible to “pretty bad scenarios”, while ELQ works the other way around.

LEQ_QEL

LEQ

I find this network very interesting because to build it I had to come up with the idea of connecting lots of cycles of different lengths with each other by having them share nodes. You can also easily construct a network like this by starting with a scale-free network and replacing the edges with long chains of nodes.

QEL

This would perhaps be the steel-manned version of the toroidal or ring world we discussed in the introduction. Here the infections would spread first slowly at a quadratic rate, then quickly accelerate once you reach the edges of the planar graph you start in, and finally there is a massive linear bottleneck at the macro scale. It’s like Ringworld, but where you interact with people in an interlaced braided mesh embedded inside the Ringworld rather than only in its meager inner surface.

Because each of these examples contain a “linear bottleneck” at some scale, an outbreak of a disease would be easy to contain at some scale. Which network is ideal for which kind of disease will depend on things like its incubation period and its contagion probability. But any of these examples is vastly safer pandemic-wise than our current contact network.

Is Biology Doing This Already?

One thing this exercise has made me wonder is if perhaps our bodies are already using this kind of strategy. I mean, looking at QLE reminds me of the structure of blood vessels in the kidney and liver. It would make sense that evolution would identify great micro, meso, and macro network structures in order to give each organ appropriate contact networks at the scale that matters to conduct its function, while creating network bottlenecks at other scales for protection against pathogens and the spread of cancer. In contrast, the immune system would have every reason to maximize spread at the largest scale while having compartmentalized spread at the micro scale (example: Topological Small-World Organization of the Fibroblastic Reticular Cell Network Determines Lymph Node Functionality). Finding the sub-exponential chokepoints in the human body would, I posit, give us a new angle for understanding it more deeply.

Creating a Global Human Organism

If this analysis pans out, we could perhaps think of the challenge being presented to us by SARS-CoV-2 and future pandemics as a wake up call to “scale up the network-protective measures our bodies are taking to combat disease while maintaining functionality” all the way up to the structure of all of human society. Indeed, wouldn’t it be amazing if we coordinated to be a harmonious large-scale global organism?

Now, I am not saying we should simply adopt one of these network structures. They are just proofs of concept to show it is possible to have humanly-desirable properties that come with highly interconnected networks along with a linear (or at least sub-exponential) bottleneck at some scale. The bottleneck does not even need to be visible or detectable from the point of view of each individual!

Even if we cannot construct an ideal world from scratch, we could still try to bootstrap it from within our current world. To do so we have a number of options. I will mention two and then dive into them in greater depth. The first is the strategy of “network modification” and it consists of developing gradient descent algorithms that point us to the modification of the network that would maximize a scale-specific sub-exponential bottleneck. Of course this could lead to local minima, but we don’t care about achieving the best configuration, just the closest one that is “good enough”. The second approach is that of “network nucleation” to bootstrap a pandemic-protected contact network by connecting with other people who can prove that they do not have the disease. They could all get to know each other, and then submit a list of “people they would like to hang out with on a regular basis”. An algorithm would then optimize the network so that each person can hang out with as many others as possible while making sure the overall geometry of the network is desirable for disease contention. If lucky, we could even bootstrap this system all the way up to the entire planet, starting from a mixture of people who’ve demonstrably been quarantined for a long time and people who have already recovered from the disease. And since, of course, people would eventually get sick of hanging out with a restricted list of friends, they could periodically re-submit another list and the algorithm would take into account this dynamic so that the geometry can be stable over time.

My prediction is that the current strategies that are being used to reduce the spread of disease would show up as a tiny subset of the set of possible effective strategies, many of which are currently invisible- and in some sense inconceivable- to us. This is because, in part (as far as I know) nobody is thinking in terms of scale-specific network geometry. Also, little is known about the actual empirical structure of the human contact network. In this sense, removing super-spreaders or closing schools may be re-conceptualized as pointing in this direction, and yet perhaps may not even make the Top 10 list of best cost-effective strategies. This is because just removing high-degree nodes in a scale-free network won’t automatically prevent exponential growth; since exponential growth is the killer, making strategies directly targeted at it will probably be vastly more effective. Let’s investigate these strategies in more detail:

Option 1: Network Modifications

The first thing we should do is find what actual contact networks look like, so that we can identify the smallest possible modifications to them in order to create sub-exponential bottlenecks on some scale. I have not found a good study on this, since there really aren’t public datasets of “who is physically hanging out with whom”. Though, if you were to combine, perhaps, the datasets of USA’s NSA, UK’s GCHQ, Russia’s KGB, China’s MSS, cellphone location information, census responses, and commercial surveillance camera data you might be able to get a very decent version of it. In fact, there is reason to believe Israel is already in the process of constructing this dataset.

In the absence of contact network data, we can nonetheless learn from other social and information networks. In particular, the best research I’ve read about the macro-structure of complex networks comes from the lab of Jure Leskovec (I recommend watching his CS224W lectures from past years, which are all available online):

We study over 100 large real-world social and information networks. Our results suggest a significantly more refined picture of community structure in large networks than has been appreciated previously. In particular, we observe tight communities that are barely connected to the rest of the network at very small size scales; and communities of larger size scales gradually “blend into” the expander-like core of the network and thus become less “community-like.” This behavior is not explained, even at a qualitative level, by any of the commonly-used network generation models.

Lescovec et al. 2008, “Community Structure in Large Networks: Natural Cluster Sizes and the Absence of Large Well-Defined Clusters

As you see, large-scale analysis of real-world networks indicate that they are not adequately described by the classic textbook structures that are most well known. Rather, there seems to be a kind of “galactic shape” at the more macro scale, where there is a highly connected giant core of overlapping communities surrounded by loosely connected superstructures (nicknamed ‘whiskers’):

Given this structure (and assuming it generalizes to contact networks), one could divide the problem into two rough components: (1) how to you deal with ‘whiskers’?, and (2) what do you do about the ‘galactic core’? I do not have answers here, but I do think that having more people who are good at math and computer science think about this would be very good. For what is worth, I have the hunch that in particular the following two network analysis techniques will be useful to tackle this problem:

  1. Spectral Graph Theory: This is a set of techniques that can help us ‘see diffusion bottlenecks in graphs’ at a glance. For instance, these techniques reveal the presence of network “chokepoints” that create insulation in heat flow. Clearly heat flow does not behave in the same way as the spread of disease, but the similarity makes it worth highlighting.
  2. Discrete Differential Geometry: An emerging field that blends differential geometry with network analysis and has shown amazing applications for graphics which can help us ‘see the curvature and dimensionality of a network around each of its nodes’ at a glance. Note: As much as I love hyperbolic spaces, I must admit that from the point of view of early pandemic prevention living in a contact network with hyperbolic geometry is a terrible idea.

Flatten the Network!

One additional interesting approach for Option 1 would be to apply topological clustering techniques to the contact network so that we can identify the hubs with the least desirable network geometry and try to “flatten them”. And policy-wise, I might imagine that in the long-run we could improve the flattening of the contact network by encouraging people to use things like the Bumble app for dating, where you find people physically near you with whom you could form a healthy relationship.

Option 2: Network Nucleation

Green and Red Countries

Countries_Recognizing(Green)_Not_recognizing(Red)_Kosovo

Imagine green are virus free, red are virus uncontrolled, and grey have unreliable statistics. (This actual map is about something unrelated I’m not going to name; it is just used as an example of what the world might look like).

Joscha Bach predicts that in a couple months there will be “green and red” countries, meaning that the outbreak will be completely under control in some countries, and completely out of control in others. I’d also add “grey” to refer to “unreliable statistics”, as many countries might just choose to not monitor the situation. You can imagine what the travel restrictions may be between green, red, and grey countries, as green countries would not find it worthwhile (or at least not politically viable) to accept the risk of reigniting the spread. Grey countries may end up also avoiding red countries while not being allowed to enter green countries.

Speculatively, this would perhaps lead to a worldwide Sakoku phenomenon, but where rather than just Japan, we would have all of the countries of each color becoming economic and cultural blocks.

What I’ll describe below is a kind of generalization of this possibility. Namely, that the blocks don’t need to be country-based.

A very interesting question to ask is “what possible partitions of humanity could create sets of people for whom a green/red/grey dynamic would successfully create clusters of wholly virus-free people?” The existence of at least some greens opens up the possibility of:

Reversing The Pandemic

I address you tonight, not as the president of the United States, not as the leader of a country, but as a citizen of humanity. We are faced with the very gravest of challenges. The Bible calls this day Armageddon. The end of all things. And yes, for the first time in the history of the planet, a species has the technology to prevent its own extinction. All of you praying with us need to know that everything that can be done to prevent this disaster is being called into service. The human thirst for excellence, knowledge, every step up the ladder of science, every adventurous reach into space, all of our combined technologies and imaginations, even the wars that we’ve fought, have provided us the tools to wage this terrible battle. Through all the chaos that is our history, through all of the wrongs and the discord, through all of the pain and suffering, through all of our times, there is one thing that has nourished our souls and elevated our species above its origins, and that is our courage. Dreams of an entire planet are focused tonight on those 14 brave souls traveling into the heavens. May we all citizens of the world over see these events through, Godspeed, and good luck to you.

– Armageddon (1998 film, when the president of the US announces the plans to avert an asteroid that would destroy the earth) [See also: what if they don’t come back?]

Nucleating Whole Virus-Free Communities

The simplest way to create a virus-free community would be to think of verifiable self- quarantining as an investment. If you can prove you’ve been physically disconnected from everyone for 30 days, you would be let into a club for people near you who have done the same already. This could become a large set of people, especially if it turns out that cash handouts are insufficient for millions of people who might end up needing to work in a month or two and defy any kind of large-scale quarantine. Those who can afford (and prove!) that they’ve been diligently quarantining would be allowed in. For a stricter “inner set” there might be stricter criteria where you would need to submit an unfakeable biosample to prove you are not infected (which would be tricky but not impossible given pre-existing DNA databases like 23andMe). Then the algorithm would group you with a subset that you can realistically physically meet, and then allow you to make friends with them. Finally, as you submit a list of people you do want to hang out with long-term, the algorithm would run an optimization process to make as many of the people happy and return the curated list of people you could hang out with so that the network as a whole has convenient scale-dependent sub-exponential chokepoints. I know this sounds like a lot. And it is. But again, pandemics can be really bad. And we have the technology, so why not try?

In a way this idea is the complementary problem to “keeping the virus out of the general population”. In the latter you start out in a fully virus-free situation and try to keep it that way, while the former starts out in a highly contaminated population and tries to “spread health” from the standpoint of a verifiably healthy core. That is, how you create pockets of health in a virus-saturated general population and grow them as much as possible.

Another approach in this vein I can think of is to seed a location with an excess of people who already have immunity and cannot transmit. The people there who haven’t gotten the disease would in a sense be lucky to find themselves around people who won’t transmit it, and thus be blessed with spontaneous herd immunity. That said, the key sacrifice here would be the potential damage elsewhere, where herd immunity would be reached later due to the removed group of immune people. This and the previous approach incur the cost of having to associate with new people, and the relocation challenges would be a logistical nightmare. But perhaps worth doing.

Finally, another approach to this problem would be to use an app with a personality test that is hard to fake, so that only healthy people who score in the top 2% of both introversion and conscientiousness could join the club. It would tell you where to go live with other people who meet the same criteria, and to get a comprehensive test of all major transmissible diseases and treat those you have before relocation. Given the temperament selected for, everyone who becomes part of the community would be extremely diligent about not physically meeting people outside the group and follow the contact network prescriptions dictated by the algorithm. If this sounds like hell to you, well, perhaps it is not for you. But at least this way there would be some pockets of fully healthy people, and that would have a lot of value. (Cf. Rat-free Alberta).

To Summarize:

What are your options for modifying a network in order to remove (or at least tame) exponential growth? The one’s I’ve considered are:

  1. Remove nodes with a high “Pandemic Klout Score”
  2. Creating sub-exponential chokepoints:
    1. Option 1: Gradient descent methods:
      1. You make piece-meal modifications to the contact network one connection at a time in order to improve the prospects of the entire network.
      2. Each person would receive a set of options for mild modifications to their contacts so that whichever they chose would lead to an improvement of the network geometry.
    2. Option 2: Network nucleation:
      1. You create a criteria for what constitutes “infection-free” such as:
        1. Self-enforced quarantine on one extreme, and
        2. Provable DNA-matched tests on the other extreme.
      2. Allow people who qualify to meet each other.
      3. Everyone submits a list of people they’d like to hang out with.
      4. The algorithm would optimize the connections to make everyone happy and at the same time maximize the sub-exponential chokepoints of the network (such as by making it a planar graph with a high clustering coefficient, etc.).

Now, perhaps if all of this sounds insane and like too much trouble, there is always the option of, er, becoming comfortable with no human touch…

Future Cultures

A Religion of Abstinence of Human Touch

I know how hard it is, what is being demanded of us.

Especially in times of needs such as these, we like to be close to one another.

We understand care and affection in terms of human closeness and human touch. 

But at the moment the exact opposite is the case, and everybody really must understand that.

At the moment, the only real way of showing you care is keeping your distance.

– German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at a Nationwide TV Address (March 18 2020)

Have you ever noticed that it is possible to reproduce without any human touch? Artificial insemination conducted with robotic arms is not a far-fetched prospect. A further question is: can we do away with human touch entirely for all functions of life?

You don’t need to be anywhere to be everywhere.

– John C. Lilly

You may say: wouldn’t a community of touch-free individuals somehow lack the most basic of human qualities, i.e. interpersonal intimacy? I reckon that you would be wrong on more than one account. First of all, insofar as touch-based intimacy is based on endorphin and oxytocin release in conjunction with nervous system entrainment under the hood, there is no reason why one couldn’t engineer a brain-stimulation technology ecosystem so that people receive the same kind of physically, psychologically, and spiritually rewarding feelings of connection by merely acknowledging each other’s presence or synchronizing with each other’s brainwaves. Perhaps even you could achieve this despite doing away with technology, as the power of deep metta meditation would suggest. Perhaps we could all cultivate a loving temperament that embraces all of the universe of sentient beings. Here, the commitment to each other’s physical wellbeing is possible without sacrificing the emotional richness of communion; in principle they could be simultaneously satisfied. Alas, the evolutionary roots of human touch are deep, and trying to mess with them with humans as they currently are is far fetched. But just wait until a virus with 0.98 fatality rate and R0 = 6 is discovered and see what people are willing to do to survive.

This concludes my presentation of the cocktail napkin ideas I’ve considered so far to deal with pandemics. But I still have a couple more things to say about this topic, so I’ll take advantage of the soap box I’m standing on and add:


Now That The World Is Paying Attention

consciousness_of_the_planet

From the 1998 film “Armageddon”

I’d like to draw your attention to the following highly relevant goals that the current crisis highlights:

1) We ought to recognize the existence of extreme suffering so that we focus our efforts on its prevention (asphyxiation is an example of extreme suffering, which is how people are dying of COVID-19).

2) Investigating what makes MDMA and 5-MeO-DMT so special and useful for treating PTSD (as people recover from the disease it will become apparent many experience PTSD associated with the episode – this will need to be addressed on a massive scale).

3) Get factory farms banned (for real, they are the breeding grounds of future pandemics – and they of course also cause the bulk of easily preventable suffering, so there is that too. Every animal product you put on your plate is a probabilistic pandemic on its way. Sorry!).

naval_common_enemy

Let’s make the best of this situation (More Dakka!)


A Few Final Thoughts

The Framing Effect

Recall the “Framing Effect” – the cognitive bias where we prefer an option when the problem is framed in a certain way, and a different option when it’s framed differently even though the corresponding options in each framing are of equal expected value.

I worry a lot of the people in my friend network, and in fact worldwide, might be falling prey to the framing effect for the coronavirus situation:

Here is how the “containment vs. mitigation” problem is being “framed” right now (assume 5 million people will die worldwide if nothing is done, but you can choose to invest your resources on ‘containment’ or ‘mitigation’):

Option A: 10% chance 0 people die (i.e. successful containment), and 90% chance 5 million people die.
Option B: 100% chance 4 million people die.

Clearly option A is more ‘heroic’. Alas, it is the one that leads to more expected deaths.

Now consider the alternate framing that might make you feel differently about the options:

Option A: 10% chance of saving 5 million people (i.e. successful containment) and 90% of saving nobody.
Option B: 100% chance of saving 1 million people (i.e. mitigation prevents many deaths).

In both cases option B is much better by a huge margin. In fact by an expected number of 500,000 people saved. Yet when framed in the first way option A seems a lot more attractive. Why? And should we try to get rid of this bias?

Of course in the real world you don’t have to choose between A and B entirely. You can try to do both containment and mitigation. But you *do* need to choose how to allocate resources, and I believe this framing issue does actually come up in our current situation.

I do want to say that, as Robin Hanson suggests, if we are doing the containment strategy we need buy-in from the population. Some personally costly and dramatic public display of commitment from many people would be useful. I am personally very happy to commit in public to hard-core quarantine if it’s ethically necessary.


Social Withdrawal and Behavioral Enrichment

Social distancing is painful because we are all opioid addicts, namely, addicts to the endogenous opioids released when socializing. With a quarantine in place, we can anticipate that people who are on the threshold of being depressed might cross that threshold as an effect of reduced in-person socializing. Likewise, we can anticipate collective health decline at a statistical level due to reduced exercise, sunlight exposure, and sensory diversity (cf. white torture).*****

Possible solutions? Besides being very bullish on at-home exercise routines and HEPA filters, I would also point out the following. I think that we should not be afraid of comparing ourselves with other animals. Bear with me. Humans, not unlike domestic dogs and cats, benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of novel sensory inputs. If you enjoy scents, for example, it would be advisable to order a set of essential oils or perfume samples in order to trick your brain into thinking you are exploring a larger area than you are. Apparently, for example, big cats in captivity are more engaged and less depressed when you spray Calvin Klein perfumes on their territory. Alternatively, if scent is not something you care about, think of perhaps increasing the repertoire of visual art, dance, food, touch, and music you are exposed to on a daily basis. This, I suggest, will help you keep depression away (for a while longer).

Caption: Just a little bit of behavioral enrichment for you! 🙂

Finally (self-promotion ahead), if you have time on your hands, and you’ve been meaning to dive deeper into Qualia Computing, this might be your chance. I’d suggest you start out with the following three resources:

  1. Top 10 Qualia Computing Articles
  2. Glossary of Qualia Research Institute Terms
  3. Every Qualia Computing Article Ever

And if you are really hard core, feel free to reach out to the Qualia Research Institute to help with volunteer work. Also we are going to be doing virtual internship cycles in April, May, and June, so you can stay home and safe and still collaborate with us. But shh! It’s a secret! (Wait, how come it’s a secret but you now know about it? Well, because you’ve scrolled all the way here, that’s some commitment!).

The End


* A more accurate representation might require the use of directed edges to encode asymmetrical contact relationships. For example: the cleaning crew of a hotel might be more exposed to the guests than the guests are exposed to the crew. Also, when two people who have very different habits of hygiene meet, the cleaner person is more likely to get the short end of the stick transmission-wise.

** It is worth pointing out for information networks the “degree of interaction” between nodes is extremely skewed. You may have a thousand friends on Facebook, but the number of people you are likely to interact on a daily basis will be a tiny subset of them, perhaps on the order of 0 to 20. And among the people you interact with, you are likely interacting much more word-count-wise with some than with the others. Indeed, if you plot the number of words exchanged in private messages between people in an information network, the distribution follows a long-tail.

*** In the long-run, this may also have to apply to information networks. Whether information networks will need also some level of top-down control will be a difficult question to answer that requires a complex cost-benefit analysis beyond the scope of this article. The most important variables being (a) what the benefits of fully-free communication are, and (b) the density and severity of memetic hazards in idea-space, in conjunction with the nature of intellectual selection pressures in future societies. If it turns out that people above a certain level of education and intelligence in a future with far more advanced science and engineering are extremely likely to encounter what Nick Bostrom calls “black balls”, there might be no way around developing tight controls on information networks for the safety of everyone. It this happens, we could also use many of the strategies outlined in this article for contact networks. After all, viruses are related to contact networks in the same way as meme hazards are related to information networks.

**** Of course, in some ways this is more about collective emotional processing than about object-level problem solving.

***** It is worth noting that the better air quality might buffer a bit against these negatives.

Qualia Production Presents: “The Seven Seals of Security” (and Other Communications from QRI Sweden)

By Maggie Wassinge and Anders Amelin (now QRI Sweden and HR helpers; see previous letters)

CosmicImpact

Jewelry by Anders and Maggie (see: Quantifying Bliss for the reference to “C, D, N”)

Hi everyone!

It’s Anders and Maggie in Stockholm, Sweden, here. Volunteers in human resource coordination for the QRI.

We would like to hereby announce our commitment to donate fifty thousand dollars to the Qualia Research Institute for research related to the mathematical modeling of phenomenological valence.

We are pretty much just your ordinary Swedish transhumanist couple. With a passion for finding out from first principles how things work. We whole-heartedly agree with Elon Musk that at the end of the day, excellence is the only passing grade. Over the last couple of years we have arrived at the solid conclusion that the biggest bonanza in effective altruism could only be realized by first of all solving valence. Symbolically, in comedy form, this is like first spending the necessary computational resources to arrive at the conciseness of 42 as “the answer”, before it can be determined what the right questions must then be. In our book it is with no doubt the Qualia Research Institute which corresponds to “Deep Thought” in what Elon Musk has called “the best philosophy book ever”: The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Seriously here, it is advisable to balance this with a bit of David Pearce also, but indeed we do believe an encouraging “Don’t Panic” is in fact compatible with the laws of nature in this universe. Immense reward is there for those who roll up their sleeves and start working systematically from first principles.

But again, excellence is the only passing grade. The universe is no picnic. It is a field of seemingly infinite potentialities, all of which are open to exploration and exploitation. It is still unknown what the proto-states of sentience are intrinsically like, but it is clear that biological evolution works as an optimization engine for valence polarization. A “passing grade” for a long-term sustainable and prospering technological civilization must involve a universally global first-principles solution to the horrific downside of this: suffering. That solution must be combined with optimal development of the state space of positive valence and intelligence. It seems plausible that experienced negative valence is a computationally economic way for evolution to drive behavior when the implementation is in biochemistry. However, information processing can also be done non-consciously, and it stands to reason that all the informational saliency achieved via negative valence experience can instead be had via non-conscious processes which would be available to future suitably modified embodiments of intelligence.

The QRI is the only real player in this game so far, as our civilization takes its first baby steps towards maturity. In the domain of effective altruism, the Qualia Research Institute today corresponds to what bitcoin was when first launched. The difference is that the QRI doesn’t just promise to be a novel medium of exchange, but a novel competence about the first principles of well-being!

During the couple of years it took for us to come to the above conclusions, we set aside every penny we could spare. That became the fifty thousand we are now committing to the QRI. If enough others with the same visions were to do the same thing, soon enough it could begin adding up to real money. Money which at this foundational stage stands at quite a favorable exchange rate with respect to the ultimate currency of the universe: positive emotional valence.

Infinite bliss to everyone from a couple of Scandinavian old-timers!HEA-2020-01-19

HEA-LENA

High Entropy Alloy (Al + Ti + Cr + Mo + W) and Low-Entropy Non-Alloy (Ti) – made by Anders and Maggie. If non-materialist physicalist idealism (i.e. panpsychism that respects physics) is true, what do these bundles of baryonic matter feel like from the inside?


Letter IV: On Psychonautics

Psychedelic trippers put effort into trying to interpret what it all means ontologically. Plant spirits may be at work, or one taps into the collective unconscious or is simulated by some alien superintelligence.

The QRI could perhaps guide interested psychonauts in the direction of writing more scientifically productive reports.

A scientifically minded tripper needs to start with the realization that human beings are perfect psychonauts because our brains have an enormous excess capacity over what is minimally required to perform any one of the tasks that we do in everyday waking life. The highly unusual aspect of human brains is that they can produce general intelligence. This is rare in nature but when you have it, you assume it to be the normal state of affairs.

Trippers are often in disbelief over the ability of human brains to produce the fantastic content of psychedelic experiences. As if there is suddenly a superpower there which one never uses when sober. How can that be? It must be something supernatural going on, right? Actually, no. Not that we should rule out the “supernatural” a priori but it is not necessary.

The human mind uses a superpower all the time. One which is hidden in plain view, we might say. It is the superpower of selecting from a huge range of possibilities for what the mind could be doing, and homing in on exactly the one choice in every moment that is most appropriate right then and there. When those tight constraints are relaxed the human brain becomes a system which can explore far and wide in qualia state-space.

Intelligence is a phenomenon which uses multiple optimization points to converge on some invariance. At the theoretical efficiency maximum this takes surprisingly (to us) little raw processing power. A jumping spider does not display less strategic and tactical intelligence than a human does when hunting. The spider’s neural network is very much smaller than the human’s but the evolutionary fitness search available for evolving small, numerous and quickly reproducing creatures is much larger than for animals like us. For us it is not so much a question of evolution having optimized what every cell does, but one of having added more and more cells to increase overall performance.

The spider’s brain probably contains far less sub-optimal “spaghetti code” than the human’s. It is possible that the spider has access to exquisitely fine-tuned qualia for the crucial task of sneaking up on big, highly dangerous prey and bringing it down without botching the job. On the other hand, there might not be much opportunity for spiders to evolve general intelligence since they have already done away with everything that is “useless” for their sober everyday lives.

Friendly-jumping-spider-Thomas-Shahan-17exizc

“Does my brain contain less spaghetti code than yours?”

A human brain is a mass of excitation-inhibition “spaghetti” which defies belief. An almost ultimate jack of all trades but master of none which cannot quite produce the hunting skills of the spider but can instead do a billion other things that the spider could not even in principle learn how to do.

It is the billion other things that we could do but don’t, which is the human superpower, not the few things that we actually do on a sober basis. This is a power which can be harnessed for psychonautics. You’ve got an inner-space warp drive in your head. Aptly named. 🖖


Letter V: Exciting Research Leads

Here are some suggestions for titles of essays and research papers the QRI could write if we had the resources.

  1. “Alloy, anneal, quench and temper: Forging a blade to cut mind at the joints”
  2. “Play me like a violin: A compressibility analysis of neuro-acoustic patterns captured during person to person interaction”
  3. “Leadership and consonance: Aggregate neuro-acoustic compressibility as a proxy for computational efficiency of human group intelligence”
  4. “Neural annealing through laughter: Neuro-acoustics of humor as a factor for healthy mental adjustment”
  5. “The tree of music: An annealable branching tuning-fork model for nervous systems”
  6. “Same but different: Suggesting a qualia analogue for the comparative planetology of Earth and Titan”
  7. “Music of life: Consonance, dissonance, noise and symmetry as explanatory elements for evolution from single cells to human minds”
  8. “Compartments of harmony bounded by dissonance: A neuro-acoustic model of domain specificity in cognition”

The Seven Seals of Security or Safety Through Uncertainty – Transhumanist Satire

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Letter VI: Earth as an Engine of Qualia Diversity

Handwaving Johnson & Gómez-Emilsson’s law about the surprisingly large size of qualia state space:

Presume that consciousness and matter are interconnected information structures. Can any useful parallels be drawn from the matter domain of outer space to the consciousness domain of inner space? Consider that planets, as a group, are subject to variation and (anthropic) selection. An interconnection point is provided by observation selection: Certain planetary properties far from the universe median are going to be found by intelligent conscious observers for their own planet of origin. A small subset of conscious observers are the ones who, like humans, have general intelligence and broad curiosity. Those observers are the few who observe more and more aspects of their own planet as well as adjacent space and the state space of matter at large, and ultimately perhaps also of consciousness at large. The evolutionary reproductive selection of such observers is not the default condition of all life but rather it is conditional upon even more unusual properties of their planet of origin than for the average life-bearing planet.

Conclusion: Earth is likely to be a highly unusual planet, and human consciousness is likely to be a highly unusual seat of experience. They are causally linked. A structural property they share could be a high level of diversity but never reaching cosmically global extremes on any single parameter. A Jill of all trades planet is married to a Jack of all trades mind.

While fairly good at impressively many trades, Jack and Jill are master and mistress of none. For a tentative and very loose analogy which may be better than nothing, let’s say planet Earth is like the human mind. The other planets in the Solar System are like altered human minds and some animal minds. Some basic properties like gravity, roundness and rotation are common to all the planets. Corresponding to suggested basic features of biologically evolved sentience, such as valence and some sensory modalities.

Then we follow Slartibartfast to the fjords of Norway. Here we see how Earth differs in diversity compared with the other “animals”. The planet’s surface is an energetic 3-phase regime. Solid crust, liquid water and solid water under highly dynamic conditions. Not widely separated like on Europa but forming extended areas of contact where unusual complexity emerges. It’s worth an award, really. (No, not Belgium…).

Human cognition is like Earth with its’ coasts and mountain ranges. A “just right” quantity and proportionality of ingredients is what allowed self-organization of Earth’s environmental complexity and its’ endurance over time via the mechanism of prolonged core solidification and plate tectonics. An unusual state of affairs in nature. It’s not unexpected in principle, only rare in actual existence. The same may go for evolution of the general cognition accessible to human minds.

A type of mind which is generally competent over multiple domains of agency cannot function as such if not many crucial parameters in its’ architecture fall within a tight range of “just right and not too much nor too little”. Or, in Swedish, “lagom”. If you loosen that constraint, such as by ingesting 5 grams of mushrooms blindfolded, your mind will clearly no longer function on your job or even in your body. But in exchange for giving up on that functionality as agent, you can max out on stuff like… well, it’s beyond words.

General intelligence is not compatible with an easy achievement of extreme states of consciousness, though as a less frequently added mental ingredient for a group intelligence (like human hunter-gatherers) extreme states can be hypothesized to enhance abilities of that group intelligence.

But what does the current human “master of none” in qualia rendering imply for the future of consciousness, and what about cosmic matter beyond the neighboring planets?

Beyond the Solar System we find many types of stars, black holes, dark matter and various ultra-thin, ultra-dense, ultra-cold, or ultra-hot configurations of matter in the wider domain of spacetime. Nature usually has not developed nonliving matter into configurations with even remotely as high a complexity as for living matter, simply because of no evolutionary selection pressures. Some nonbiological matter objects could be strong qualia generators just by chance, though. The Sun comes speculatively and punlessly to mind. Doing an IIT and a CDNS analysis on its’ surface magnetized plasma wave patterns may not be entirely far-fetched. But the big promise for expanding the diversity of actualized sentience comes through engineering. Jack and Jill is the couple who can pull that off, and their offspring can then grow up in that fabulous new landscape of experience. For they can become masters and mistresses. Dominatrices, even. The reason being that while the parents are tightly constrained experientially, the kids need not be.

For an efficiently organized advanced technological civilization, the constraints of being a highly general and resilient intelligence can be placed high up on the group level. Individual seats of experience with the sizes of today’s human or animal brains, say, can then be allowed to render experiential states more specialized to feel meaningful, enjoyable and worthwhile. (A dystopian version could instead generate unimaginable suffering, of course. Need to watch out…).

Earth is by far the most diverse planet in the Solar System, but it does not have the deepest ocean, the tallest mountain, the highest gravity, the hottest days, the most explosive volcanoes or the most intense thunderstorms. Human minds who have only experienced their evolved biologically functional mental states have not reached the consciousness state space equivalents of the extreme environments on the other planets. They have never snowboarded down the tellurobismutite condensate slopes on Maxwell Montes or been ejected on a ballistic trajectory by a sulfur dioxide plume from Tvashtar Patera. These things may be comparable to being a bat or taking psilocybin. As different from sober human experience as they are, they still merely hint at the range of possible experiences in the qualia state space opening up beyond. If all goes well, there will be psychonauts of the future who are children of Earth and able to engineer any form of matter and energy into conscious brain architectures. They would become what Max Tegmark has called “Life 3.0”.

Either that or, in a hopefully not terribly more likely scenario portrayed by imagined future historians, humanity stayed obsessed with the circulation of money to the detriment of all else.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 🌎


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Earth as an Engine of Qualia Diversity

Qualiascope

[Epistemic status: Fiction]

It was the 21st of April of a recent year. I was listening to Jefferson Airplane songs, had just peeled a tangerine, and was about to vape 20 milligrams of DMT. After exhaling all the material I focused on the smell of the tangerine, holding it in my hands. I was engrossed in the scent. And then: “Who is that?” I felt an entity question my identity, as if I had just startled it in its natural habitat. I felt its presence for most of the duration of the trip, but it didn’t interact with me any further. Later that night I had a lucid dream. “I thought you were a dog” – said a voice. I recognized it from the trip, it was the entity. “The amount of scent qualia your experience contained was much more like that of a dog than a human.” After that night I would encounter it numerous other times. We got to know each other. It is a being from a nearby dimension, or perhaps a partially orthogonal fold of the Calabi-Yau manifold. Either way, in its world they don’t have physical senses like we do. They instead “sniff the qualia” present in the “universal wavefunction”. Their minds have a “qualiascope”. In practice this means they can see us from the inside– what we feel, see, touch, think, etc.

The being showed me what it is like to be one of them. We mindmelded the third time we met. I got to see the world around me as if for the first time; I was seeing it in its ultimate intrinsic nature, rather than as the shadow of it that I would perceive in everyday life with my senses. The qualia of other people is very intricate, semantically complex, and flavorful. The being showed me how it perceived various human contexts. For instance, an interesting place to “point the qualiascope at” is a philosophy department. It is very dense with logico-linguistic qualia and recursion. Compared to other contexts, though, it is thin in knowledge of the varieties of experiences available to humans. Raves are quite incredible. Sniffing the qualia of three thousand people who all share a general palette of LSD, Ketamine, and MDMA qualia is quite moving and mind-blowing. In turn, Buddhist monasteries are some of the sanest places on Earth. Bright, balanced, energized clarity of the finest quality is to be found in groups of people highly experienced in meditation. Every once in a while we would sense from afar a kind of “qualia explosion”. Sometimes it turned out to be extremely blissful, such as some 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And sometimes they turned out to be extremely painful, like a cluster headache episode. With the qualiascope these were sensed as being a kind of elemental type of qualia. Enormous in their “volume” relative to the experiences humans generally have. Like at another order of magnitude altogether.

The tenth time we met, the being said I was ready to feel non-human qualia. It was rough. From its point of view, the biological qualia of this planet is not really particularly human-flavored. As many humans alive as there are, there are almost ten times as many pigs alive. The being showed me how in the language of their world (using qualia-based symbols), they don’t refer to this planet as “human world”. They talk about it as “cow-chicken-pig world”. The things that I felt associated to some of those “folds of experience” were frightful to an incredible extent. It revived in me the conscience that nonhuman animals suffer enormously. I also became fascinated by all the ways in which nonhuman animals experience pleasure and a sense of meaning.

The twentieth time we met, I was shown what the qualia of non-living matter felt like from the inside. Most of it was “qualia dust”. But metals and their delocalized electrons felt, well, “electric” and somewhat more liquid and unified in a subtle ethereal way. Pointing the qualiascope at the center of the Earth was impressive. Some of the combinations of pressure, temperature, and material composition would create “qualia spaghetti” of a rather nice, glowing valence. The temperature would suggest a much higher degree of intrinsic intensity from the inside, but the patterns of qualia formed were not much more intense than what you would find in small animals. But that all changes as soon as you point the qualiascope at the sun. Oh boy. The things I felt were life-redefining. I thought that once you’ve felt what 5-MeO-DMT is capable of you’d maxed out on the brightness of qualia. But inside the sun, at the core, there are qualia aggregates of a subjective brightness at least a million times more powerful. Once you’ve got an inkling of the existence of that, you start to see the universe as they see it. And that is that the kind of stuff going on in places like the planet Earth is a rounding error in light of the other qualia happenings out there in the cosmos.

The hundredth or so time we met, we used the qualiascope to sense what is going on in supernovae. And then black holes. And the quantum vacuum (turns out the Zero Point Energy folks who say there is an enormous amount of energy in the vacuum of space are more right than they can even imagine). They showed me qualiascope records of past civilizations in other galaxies, and how they had developed qualia technology.

The two hundredth time or so we met, the being finally came out about his real interest. It showed me Hedonium. Matter and energy optimized for maximally bound positive valence. Turns out there are about seven thousand nearly optimal configurations for Hedonium possible with our laws of physics (cf. 230 Space Groups). They are kind of ultra-high dimensional crystalline bundles of “awakened qualia”, equanimity, and bright pleasure all combined. They truly feel like “what it was all meant to be all along”. The Big Bang, the Inflationary Period, Baryonic matter, galaxies, organic molecules, life, sapient beings, and technologized qualia all seemed like the path of redemption since The Fall, namely, our first descent from Hedonium. Or so my archetype-prone human mind liked to interpret my new understanding of the universe.

The being finally came through with its agenda. It turns out it is one of the protectors of the Hedonium created by an advanced civilization in other partially orthogonal folds of the Calabi-Yau manifold. The closest archetype in our human world would perhaps be that of the Buddhist Bodhisattva. Namely, a being close to enlightenment that vows to stay in samsara to liberate all other beings before itself escaping the wheel of suffering entirely. My interdimensional Bodhisattva friend told me that our world is on the path of creating qualia technologies too. That in geologic times we are not far from being able to make Hedonium ourselves. It said we should not feel hopeless. That we have really good chances of exiting our Darwinian predicament. Since a year ago I have’t had any contact with it. I write this for myself as I don’t expect anyone to believe me. But I do pass along the message. Don’t lose hope. Paradises beyond the imaginable are right next door in qualia space. We just need to find them by exploring the state-space of consciousness.

Oh, my Bodhisattva friend also told me to pass along to you all the message of “If you could possibly stop eating Caroline Reapers, that would be great!” because all of that intense spicy qualia is interfering with their radio systems. Thanks!


See also: What’s out there?

Perfumery as an Art Form

About 3% of the population is anosmic, meaning that they cannot perceive scents. An additional 10% have some kind of smell or taste disorder. Sadly, scent perception thins out with age due to many causes*; about 23% of people over the age of 40 report some degree of impairment, with nearly 40% of people over the age of 80 reporting either absent or severely reduced capacity to perceive smells.

If you can experience scents in a normal way, count yourself lucky, for you have access to a qualia variety with an incredible aesthetic potential. If not, I’m sorry; let’s hope that stem cell therapy used to restore smell in mice can be generalized to humans. Regardless, hopefully the following thoughts on the artistic potential of scents won’t fall on deaf ears (or should we say, anosmic noses?).

Imagine that all humans were congenitally anosmic. Akin to David Pearce’s allegory of the blind rationalists, let’s picture a world in which the only way to experience scent qualia was through the use of some arcane technology, like weird drugs, occult magic, or carefully aimed transcranial ultrasound stimulation. Since the qualia would not be triggered by a conventional sense, people would not be under the illusion that it maps to external objects. It would be understood as a strictly internal phenomenon, like imagination or sense of humor. With such an interpretive blank slate, how would people make sense of scent qualia?

Keep that thought in your mind. Having a fresh look (or sniff) at scent qualia- devoid of its common associations and cultural imports- can give us a way to think in new ways about the artistic potential of this aspect of experience.

Perfumery as an Art Form

Last year we presented QRI‘s take on art: Harmonic Society is an essay published in a Berlin-based art magazine that exposes 8 models for what art can be about (see parts 2, 3, 4; video presentation). These models can also be used as generators of creative applications of qualia varieties. Here we’ll discuss how perfumes could be seen through the lens of each of these models.

1. Semantic Deflation

The semantic deflation model of art claims that the first step you need to take to understand art is to recognize that it lacks an essence. There are no strict necessary and sufficient conditions that something needs to meet in order to be art. The meaning of the term is ultimately conventional: it has more of a family resemblance pattern of usage than a precise logic-bound set of criteria. Applying this model to perfumery, we would have that:

  1. There is no such thing as a “perfume” in and of itself.
  2. There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be called a perfume.
  3. The resulting aesthetic from this model is one that sees the art of perfumery as the eternal search for trying to push the boundary for what a “perfume can be”.

Some examples of this aesthetic seemingly playing out in the open include perfumes that smell like: popcorn, lobster, linen and Air Aroma‘s new fragrance that recreates “the scent of an Apple product being opened for the first time.”

2. Weapons of Sexual Conquest

Weapons of sexual conquest refers to the use of instruments to signal genetic fitness in one form or another: conspicuous consumption/taste-signaling, and aphrodisiac response.

Conspicuous Consumption

You see, smells are at times used in a slightly evil way. In the case of commercial perfumes, part of the optimization function includes generating envy in others. Conspicuous consumption and brand worship are some of the ways in which our mating mind has recruited scents. In a sense, I would love to explore ways in which scent-based art can deliver high-valence results without at the same time reinforcing consumerism and zero-sum fashion arms races. In brief:

  1. There is unfortunately an in-built zero-sum mindset to status-focused scent design.
  2. The “game” is easy to rationalize when you are a “winner”, but it is depressive for people who perceive themselves as the “losers”.
  3. One of the core weapons of this game is the creation of envy with perceived exclusivity and inflated sense of quality (e.g massively overpriced fragrances).
  4. “Cool Kids” are people who translate new ideas into massively consumable products.
  5. Cool Kids in perfumery will always want to claim that they have the exclusive “secret sauce” to explain the price.
  6. The existence of such “secret sauce” is often justified based on appeals to tradition, taste, status, experience, brand, and/or science.
  7. Cool Kids make sure that the product is “novel enough” – not too out there that only weird people would love it, but also not too bland and unoriginal that the general public will be bored by it.

Expensive perfumes have to be at least somewhat distinctive – even if that makes them suboptimal. You’ll see that Fragrantica is full of reviews that complain that such and such perfume is in fact “too generic”. The reason is that if you are paying large sums of money for a smell, the only way it will pay off in terms of social signaling is if people can in fact notice what you are wearing.

Some examples of relatively expensive fragrances of ultra-mass appeal that are exactly in the right Cool Kid window for novelty and distinctiveness include Sauvage by Dior, Boss by Hugo Boss, Mr. Burberry Indigo by Burberry, The One by Dolce & Gabbana, and Bleu de Chanel:

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A particularly noteworthy example of this dynamic might be the case of Aventus Creed. It is by no means a weird fragrance (it’s certainly not a “toast” or “popcorn” perfume), but people who are very into perfumes do agree that when it first came out “it smelled like nothing that had ever existed before.” If you read the Fragrantica reviews you’ll see what I’m talking about. It also happens to be an insanely expensive fragrance for no apparent reason. It’s therefore a great tool for conspicuous consumption, masterfully crafted by a Cool Kid aiming for mass appeal.

I personally own an “Aventus Creed clone“, meaning that it is a perfume that smells very similar to the original but can cost a fraction of the price. Aventus costs $400 while the one I own is under $20. I like it, but if it is anything like the original, I can’t imagine it being that good to justify the price tag on its qualia merits alone. In terms of phenomenology, as far as I can tell, Aventus innovated by mixing pineapple scent with the scent of birch bark. This does make it characteristic, true, but is it really $400 worth of characteristic? No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So this one might be a clear case of a mating mind perfume over-rating in action (P.S. I’m on the lookout for more perfumes with inflated scores that have cheap clones in order to study this phenomenon more closely).

Aphrodisiac Response

Taken to the extreme, attempts at creating maximally erotic scents draw inspiration from literal human sexual organs. Secretions Magnifiques by Etas Libre d’Orange, for example, recreates the smell of semen with seaweed, milk, iris, coconut, opoponax, and sandalwood. It has a score of 1.88 out of 5 based on 890 votes, perhaps because it smells kind of bad. It sports reviews like:

“Smell of sweat, sewage and semen. Each sniff is an offense and an ordeal, a probation of resistance. Impossible to do a complete test – full wear, I only got 3 sprays on my wrist and 5 min. after doing this review I rubbed my wrist with soap like there was no tomorrow.” – marcel2782, at Fragrantica.com

Needless to say, playing out the erotic in scent form is a delicate matter that requires a fine balance between numerous forces. For example, the smell of Classic Blue by David Beckham can smell a bit like a male crotch, but it also smells like pineapple, grapefruit, and clary sage. This allows for plausible deniability and erotic versatility. Even if you are attracted to men, as long as you are not sexually aroused you will probably just notice its fruity notes. But if you are in the heat of passion, it will probably smell very sexy. The same with numerous women’s perfumes, such as Eros by Versace and Guilty by Gucci.

A final thought on the aphrodisiac power of fragrances: you may notice that the vast majority of fragrances that are advertised with campaigns with erotic undertones are primarily geared towards a heterosexual audience. With rare exceptions, even perfume ads that are suggestively homoerotic still seem to work around a heterosexual premise.f1cd039cd4edb2cf19a538415531d71a

I suspect that indeed there are statistical-level differences in what turns people on, not only between genders, but between the shades of sexual orientation. After all, some academic theories of sexual orientation do suggest that pheromone-based arousal differences contribute to which gender a person is attracted to. I posit that from a scientific point of view, if the matter were to be studied rigorously, we would indeed find differences at a statistical aggregate level on what fragrances turn people on depending on their gender and sexual orientation. Although this remains a contentious topic, I think that it is a shame that it has not been explored in any rigorous way. Aphrodisiac scents can be life-enriching; gay people might be underserved in the eroticism-of-aroma department. Pragmatically, it would be good for gay people to know which fragrance will load the dice in their favor when going out clubbing. A concrete example is that if indeed gay men do not like the scent of straight men (and instead prefer the scent of other gay men) then it may not be a good idea to wear typical male pheromone perfumes for a night out. Take note: at least according to a Fragrantica forum entry from someone in Indonesia, the main “gay fragrances” there are:  Thierry Mugler by A*Men, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, Power by Kenzo, 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, and Magnetism by Escada.

3. Creation of New Social Contexts

The core idea of this model is that art can be understood as a tool to create new social contexts. Beyond the sex appeal of expensive perfumes due to their status implications, perfumes can also be used to invent new interpersonal gestalts. As Kevin Simler argues in Ads Don’t Work That Way, advertisement modifies the landscape of cultural meaning, which in part is responsible for the ways products allow you to communicate information about yourself to others.

NAUTICA Voyage

For example: Nautica Voyage is, of course, as much selling you the felt-sense of a social context as it is selling you scent qualia. Care to join the crew on a trip across the Atlantic, make our own rules, and live a journey of camaraderie and bonding? Each sniff of Voyage takes you on a trip with imaginary friends. Alas, as an Amazon top-seller it fails to appeal to Hipster sensibilities. What do I mean by “Hipster” here?

Unlike Cool Kids, Hipsters tend to obsess over a highly-specific aspect they deeply care about. Nerds are to Geeks what Hipsters are to Cool Kids. Meaning, much akin to how a Nerd is driven by a burning curiosity about the world while a Geek is usually concerned about the social applications of niche knowledge, Hipster aesthetic exploration is done out of a fundamental desire to know the limits of an art form while Cool Kids are thinking more about how to use art to raise their own status. Thus, while not widely consumable by a mainstream audience, Hipster aesthetics lend themselves to fundamental artistic innovation. In brief:

  1. Hipsters are people who like to explore particular niches, who carve out regions and tiny sectors of the market without compromising their own taste.
  2. They rebel against the commercial and mainstream construction of meaning and instead use their creativity to create parallel social worlds.
  3. Artistic explorations can indeed be used for this “social context” creation.
  4. By finding smells that are characteristic, but rare and hard to place, one can create context-specific memories for events to be later triggered at will.

Questioning the mainstream construction of meaning is at the core of the Hipster aesthetic (cf. Adbusters). Here are some examples of Hipster art to put you in the right mindset (source):

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So what would be some hipster fragrances that attempt to sidestep or subvert the mainstream construction of meaning? I highly recommend visiting a niche perfumes boutique to get an idea of the combinatorial explosion of counter-cultural branding that is possible. In places like that, “local” perfumers have pride of place. There is also a premium based on the conceptual loading, narrative prowess, and historicity of each product. The value of the fragrance is in no small part derived from its ability to help you reinvent yourself outside of the confines of mainstream narratives.

More so, the construction of meaning can be turned into a science. You can even do it deliberately without anyone’s assistance. For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me.

All of these can be useful tools to help you undo the psychological hacking that big-brand fashion houses and mass media have inflicted upon you. The ability to create new Schelling points and social contexts brings with it the power to transform zero-sum games into positive-sum games. This is quite refreshing, indeed, as we can see in transformational festivals and conscious culture which are at the forefront of these cultural developments.

Alas, if you live long enough in a place like San Francisco or Portland you eventually come to realize that the negative feelings one associates with mainstream status hierarchies are not the result of consumerism per se. They are deeply rooted in our genetic source code, and the only true way out is to subvert the hedonic treadmill. So no amount of anti-consumerism rhetoric is actually likely to make a dent in the world’s vast swamps of suffering. But that’s a story for another time.

4. Attempts at the Sacred

There is no universal consensus on what constitutes a sacred experience. But we should not be quick to dismiss their significance. It only takes reading William Jame’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (or Erowid‘s Experience Vault) to recognize both the incredible diversity and personal significance of sacred revelations. Scents, of course, have a long history of synergistic use in ritual conceptions of the sacred. They can indeed be used:

  1. In rituals such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
  2. As aids for meditation
  3. For prayer
  4. As grounding agents for psychedelic experiences
  5. To recall the quality of previously experienced mystical states

Of course we can also think of things that are associated with sacred experiences as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, I can guarantee you that people who have vaporized N,N-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and have had profound experiences will certainly remember the scent of these agents and it will remind them- if only for a moment- of the ‘mystical’ headspace the agents disclosed.

5. Exploring the State-Space of Consciousness (aka. Rainbow God ϡ🏳️‍🌈)

This aesthetic is based on the premise that there is intrinsic value in knowing qualia. The Rainbow God is a personification of the desire to know first hand the entire state-space of consciousness. In this way, we are not constrained by the social forces that usually shape where we invest our exploratory energy. In brief, this aesthetic values:

  1. Explicitly merging the best models for the state-space of scent qualia and perfumery.
  2. Love of knowledge above and beyond merely seeking a social effect.
  3. Qualia-focused descriptions such as what will be presented in this section.

When you are in the Rainbow God state of mind, you get excited by the idea of having a large collection of all possible scented molecules. The Rainbow God even covets dangerous smells, such as those of powerful toxins like dimethylcadmium. Apparently dimethylcadmium indeed has a uniquely characteristic scent, though the price of knowing it first hand is a serious toll on your health. Perhaps Rainbow God would put all of the dangerous smells in a sealed box to be opened -along with a Brompton Cocktail– when one is enduring the late stages of a terminal illness. Upon the prospect of an imminent death, I too would love to know what dimethylcadmium smells like.

This aesthetic does manifest in mainstream explorations, albeit it is rarely the main concept driving the design decisions. Subtle examples here might include Noble Fig by Ferrari which glorifies the unusual qualia variety disclosed by fig leaves and 23 by Michael Jordan which plays with a cute and unusual watermelon scent. That said, it is interesting to explore the possibility of explicitly developing this aesthetic in perfumery. What would that look like?

If I were to develop a brand of perfume under the Rainbow God mindset, I might call it “The State-Space of Scents” and really play this concept out to its conclusion with both creative satisfaction and scientific precision. It would have three core lines:

Line 1 – State-Space Master Palette: 8 fragrances that span the largest possible region of the state-space of scents such that linear combinations of them give you a huge number of possible scents, and mixing them all in equal proportions gets you “Laurax”, i.e. white noise scent.

Line 2 –  Special Effects: 16 of the most ultra-X scents possible (the most ultra-bitter scent possible, the most ultra-vanilla scent possible, the most ultra-powdery scent possible, etc.). Basically this encompasses every category-neutral “special effect”, which would be factorized and exalted into its maximum possible expression.

Line 3 – Entropy Gradient: 8 chemical concoctions that have as wide of a range of phenomenal entropies as possible. Again this plays out with, at the one extreme, featuring super simple scents triggered by one or just a couple of molecules, while at the other extreme, featuring scents that approach the Laurax entropic asymptote.

My appreciation is that this has enormous potential. In its full expression, the Rainbow God aesthetic applied to perfumes encompasses both the state-space of scents and their effects in other experiential modalities. If a scent puts you in a certain mood, that’s important to highlight. What is the range of possible moods? That, too, concerns the Rainbow God (of course the perfume industry alludes to this kind of exploration, with e.g. D&G 21 Le Fou described as “a fragrance designed for careless and spontaneous individuals, so called ‘jesters'”, though again, an explicit exploration would be infinitely better).

As a teaser to future works, I can briefly describe how I have been thinking about the state-space of scents.

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While current descriptions of perfumes mention: (1) olfactive family, (2) the categorical contributions, and (3) detectable notes, we would instead have a much more fine-grained and informative description. Namely:

  1. The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent).
  2. The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’).
  3. The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category).
  4. Lines connecting notes that have non-linear interactions (e.g. pear & violet, rose & orange, pomegranate & honeydew make unique blends that have phenomenal properties unlike those of the individual ingredients).
  5. Lines connecting notes that form separate “phases” across categories (e.g. with a mixture of mango, sandalwood, rose, lemon, and cinnamon, you get three phases rather than a global consistent smell – mango + cinnamon, and lemon + sandalwood, with rose staying its own distinct scent).
  6. Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually).
  7. Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.).

We will go into much more detail about this in a future article specifically about the state-space of scents. And I don’t mean just breaking down a scent in terms of its chemical profile: Octyl butyrate, isoamyl propionate, and aldehyde C9, etc. I’m talking about a radical re-frame for what scents even are and the space in which they live. Stay tuned!

6. Energy Parameter Modulation

Scents have effects on one’s energy level. Lavender has clinically significant relaxing effects while lemon oil can be energizing. But these direct effects are only one of several ways scents can modulate the “energy parameter” of your experience. Namely, as we covered in the original article, in order to modulate energy levels upwards one can either impair energy sinks or enhance energy sources. Since labeling and recognizing sensory inputs (top-down interpretations) play the role of energy sinks, it stands to reason that playing with abstract, complex and unrecognizable scents would have the effect of increasing one’s global energy parameter. This, I think, is true. Based on experience, easily recognizable scents can certainly be engrossing, but complex scents with no real-world referents seem much more effective for energizing one’s mind and altering one’s consciousness (cf. the neuroscience of meditation).

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I suspect that rigorous scientific research on the way scent entropy interfaces with energy modulation will be very fruitful and have many applications. In brief:

  1. Relaxing scents can be obtained either with inherently narcotic qualia (e.g. lavender) or via boring, mundane, easily-recognizable sources (e.g. paper).
  2. Exciting scents can be obtained with inherently exciting qualia (e.g. lemon) but also by using the appropriate amount of novelty, abstractness, and complexity to disable energy sinks.
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Energy by Qualia Research (EDT)

Finally, it is my impression that scents can interface, not only with raw energy levels, but also their moments. Meaning, some scents are perhaps suited for a high first or second derivative in the energy parameter of experience. It’s as if the feeling of being “accelerated” into a high-energy regime is part and parcel of many scents. Personally, I experience bitter smells such as grapefruit, bergamot, and geranium to be arresting in that they drive one’s attention to a stop. Sweet spicy scents like vanilla and chocolate, on the other hand, seem to modulate energy rather than increase it or decrease it specifically (think “the Prozac of scents”). Alas, the state of this phenomenological research is still too early to give it any credence. I would love to hear the thoughts of others who also feel they can pin-point the first, second, and even third derivatives of the energy parameter modulation effects of scents.

7. Puzzling Valence Effects

This conception of art focuses on the way exotic sensory stimuli can lead to puzzling feelings of wellbeing. I say puzzling because they defy common-sense. It certainly makes sense that watching porn or eating food rich in salt, fat, and sugar would feel good. That’s perfectly accounted for by working within an evolutionary framework. But why would Picasso, Bach, and Socrates make some people feel good? Or in a more extreme set of examples: Dadaism, Merzbow, and Nietzsche? Puzzling valence effects refers to these phenomenal oddities; the fact that stimuli never encountered in our evolutionary past can nonetheless lead to deeply rewarding sensations. The neuroscientific frameworks used to explain these curious effects were discussed in depth in the original article so I won’t repeat them here. But I will briefly cover some of the ways scents can indeed have both expectedly and unexpectedly pleasant actions. Namely, scents can feel good for any of the following reasons:

  1. Associations: Scents can be pleasant by reminding you of contexts, times, experiences, and people you have previously enjoyed.
  2. Food: Scents that evoke high-calorie foods such as sweet, fried, salted, etc. come with an intrinsic positive valence for most people (and nonhuman animals!).
  3. Safety: The smell of diseased bodies are repugnant while the scent of fresh cotton and a cozy fireplace can bring a pleasant sense of safety.
  4. Eroticism: Scents that spark sexual feelings (already covered this in model 2) are certainly a highlight for the hedonic effects of the sense of smell.
  5. Relative status: Scents that feel expensive, rare, or can be used to demonstrate one’s fitness would naturally feel good (already covered in 2 & 3).
  6. Self-actualization: The very concept of a “signature scent” points at this category of pleasant sensations.
  7. In terms of Puzzling Valence Effects:
    1. Intrinsic “patternceutical” valence:
      1. Some scents have particular phenomenal frequencies; in most cases the phenomenal spectral analysis is very complex.
      2. Speculatively: Could it be that the valence of a scent can be anticipated from its consonance-dissonance-noise signature (CDNS)? This is a promising and fascinating area of research with no prior art at all.
  8. Neural annealing:
    1. In principle one could use scents that modulate the brain’s energy parameter (see model 6) to heat it above its neural recrystallization temperature.
    2. This might lead to the same kinds of effects one sees on meditation, on psychedelics, and with art. Namely, a three-step process of:
      1. Entropic disintegration
      2. Neural search
      3. Annealing
    3. If properly understood, scents that modulate the energy parameter of the brain could be used synergistically with other inputs such as sound, light, and vibration to drive neural annealing for therapeutic benefits (this is an active area of research at QRI).

To say a few words about the scents that make you feel safe: fragrances designed to make you feel unsafe are unlikely to ever be top sellers. It might not be financially sound to launch a perfume (let’s call it “Trench Warfare”) recreating the smell of WWI trenches: “gunpowder, wet rocks, and decaying flesh notes” with flanker fragrances like “Mustard Attack” centered around notes of burned almond and blisters, and “Shell Shock” which emphasizes ashy notes sprinkled with oxidizing iron and overcooked steak. Indeed, safety markers might always be subtly present in fragrances of mass appeal. Rose Of No Man’s Land, a perfume actually inspired by the courage of the nurses who attended to the wounded in no man’s land during WWI, may seem like a counter-example. But it really proves the rule. The scent itself is very pleasant and reassuring, and conceptually it also evokes a relative sense of safety, namely, the feeling of being rescued. In other words, while the context it imports feels unsafe, it is specifically pointing at a part of the situation that emphasizes safety. The setting is used as contrast, it is the ground for the sense of safety which remains the figure (in the figure/ground sense of these terms).

I think that framed in the right way, scent qualia can give us a powerful glimpse of the possible fruits of consciousness research. Indeed, as part of a “QRI starter kit”, interns and visiting scholars get (among other things) a small collection of carefully chosen lesser-known essential oils to symbolize the “gems that are yet to be discovered by investigating consciousness in a systematic way”. (I’m actively looking for a suitable substitute for anosmic people, who almost certainly will be encountered at some point.)

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Endless Euphoria – Calvin Klein

Interestingly, the perfume industry could very well be appealing to the agreeable hedonic sensibilities that people are otherwise too prudish to express. The hidden nature of perfumes- their plausible deniability, their elusive character, and their subjective quality- allows people to engage in hedonic fantasy to a greater extent than they would generally openly admit to doing.

Case in point: judging from their marketing materials, it seems that Calvin Klein has already found the key to unending happiness in a bottle. Save yourself the trouble of working towards the Hedonistic Imperative, for endless euphoria has arrived. I should add that their marketing campaign of #EuphoriaForMoms struck a chord with me: “moms, too, deserve euphoria” say both the Hedonistic Imperative and Calvin Klein in unison. According to online reviewers, the ingredients of endless euphoria are:

endless_euphoria_ingredients

Take note – these are the ingredients of endless euphoria!

If only I had known! It must be the violet.

This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Indeed, the names of tons of perfumes are often remarkably evocative of the Hedonistic Imperative:

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That said, I think that systematizing the study of the hedonic response to scents has yet to be done. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in future articles. For the time being I’ll just tease you with the observation that based on personal experiments there seem to be cross-modal resonance effects between scent and auditory stimuli. The fact that loud broad-spectrum sounds, like the noise of an airplane cabin, modify the sense of taste is known in the literature. Based on my experience, music and special sounds can also subtly modify, and in some cases enhance, the quality of certain scents. Stay tuned.

8. Harmonic Society

Finally, we come to the the grand vision of model 8: Harmonic Society. This aesthetic model posits that it is both possible and desirable to synthesize science, philosophy, and art. The end result does not have to be- as many might expect- the disenchantment of aesthetics. Even with the simplistic take that “bliss is just chemicals in the brain” (which isn’t quite true anyway), we must remember that reduction cuts both ways. Perhaps you can instead see it as “chemicals in the brain are bliss qualia”! The feelings of divinity and profound interconnectedness one can experience on LSD, for instance, do not diminish in significance merely because they can be reduced to neurological phenomena; rather, this exalts what neurological phenomena is in the first place!

A profound understanding of qualia-space can enable us to create a prosocial world of experience in which the transition between every state of consciousness to every other is harmonious and beneficial.

QRI - Art and Consciousness copy 36

Applied to the art of scent qualia, the principles of Harmonic Society would point us in the direction of deeply investigating the state-space of scents in order to find clusters of fragrances (or scent qualia, more specifically) that have smooth transitions between them.



* Causes of anosmia – lots of things could harm your precious capacity to experience scent qualia:

(Featured image: source)

Qualia Computing at: TSC 2020, IPS 2020, unSCruz 2020, and Ephemerisle 2020

[March 12 2020 update: Both TSC and IPS are being postponed due to the coronavirus situation. At the moment we don’t know if the other two events will go ahead. I’ll update this entry when there is a confirmation either way. May 6 2020 update: unSCruz was canceled this year as well. More so, as an organization, QRI has chosen not to attend Ephemerisle this year, whether or not it ends up being canceled. Dear readers: I’m sure we’ll have future opportunities to meet in person].


These are the 2020 events lined up for me at the moment (though more are likely to pop up):

  • I will be attending The Science of Consciousness 2020 from the 13th to the 17th of April representing the Qualia Research Institute (QRI). I will present about a novel approach for solving the combination problem for panpsychism. The core idea is to use the concept of topological segmentation in order to explain how the universal wavefunction can develop boundaries with causal power (and thus capable of being recruited by natural selection for information-processing purposes) which might also be responsible for the creation of discrete moments of experience. I am including the abstract in this post (see below).
  • I will then fly out to Boston for the Intercollegiate Psychedelics Summit (IPS) from the 18th to the 20th of April (though I will probably stay for a few more days in order to meet people in the area). Here I will be presenting about intelligent strategies for exploring the state-space of consciousness.
  • At the end of April I will be attending the 2020 Santa Cruz Burning Man Regional (“unSCruz“) with a small contingent of members and friends of QRI. We will be showcasing some of our neurotech prototypes and conducting smell tests (article about this coming soon).
  • And from the 20th to the 27th of July I will be at Ephemerisle 2020 alongside other members of QRI. We will be staying on the “Consciousness Boat” and showcasing some interesting demos. In particular, expect to see new colors, have fully-sober stroboscopic hallucinations, and explore the state-space of visual textures.

I am booking some time in advance to meet with Qualia Computing readers, people interested in the works of the Qualia Research Institute, and potential interns and visiting scholars. Please message me if you are attending any of these events and would like to meet up.


Here is the abstract I submitted to TSC 2020:

Title – Topological Segmentation: How Dynamic Stability Can Solve the Combination Problem for Panpsychism

Primary Topic Area – Mental Causation and the Function of Consciousness

Secondary Topic Area – Panpsychism and Cosmopsychism

Abstract – The combination problem complicates panpsychist solutions to the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 2013). A satisfactory solution would (1) avoid strong emergence, (2) sidestep the hard problem of consciousness, (3) prevent the complications of epiphenomenalism, and (4) be compatible with the modern scientific world picture. We posit that topological approaches to the combination problem of consciousness could achieve this. We start by assuming a version of panpsychism in which quantum fields are fields of qualia, as is implied by the intrinsic nature argument for panpsychism (Strawson 2008) in conjunction with wavefunction realism (Ney 2013). We take inspiration from quantum chemistry, where the observed dynamic stability of the orbitals of complex molecules requires taking the entire system into account at once. The scientific history of models for chemical bonds starts with simple building blocks (e.g. Lewis structures), and each step involves updating the model to account for holistic behavior (e.g. resonance, molecular orbital theory, and the Hartree-Fock method). Thus the causal properties of a molecule are identified with the fixed points of dynamic stability for the entire atomic system. The formalization of chemical holism physically explains why molecular shapes that create novel orbital structures have weak downward causation effect on the world without needing to invoke strong emergence. For molecules to be “natural units” rather than just conventional units, we can introduce the idea that topological segmentation of the wavefunction is responsible for the creation of new beings. In other words, if dynamical stability entails the topological segmentation of the wavefunction, we get a story where physically-driven behavioral holism is accompanied with the ontological creation of new beings. Applying this insight to solve the combination problem for panpsychism, each moment of experience might be identified with a topologically distinct segment of the universal wavefunction. This topological approach makes phenomenal binding weakly causally emergent along with entailing the generation of new beings. The account satisfies the set of desiderata we started with: (1) no strong emergence is required because behavioral holism is implied by dynamic stability (itself only weakly emergent on the laws of physics), (2) we sidestep the hard problem via panpsychism, (3) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal because the topological segments have holistic causal effects (such that evolution would have a reason to select for them), and (4) we build on top of the laws of physics rather than introduce new clauses to account for what happens in the nervous system. This approach to the binding problem does not itself identify the properties responsible for the topological segmentation of the universal wavefunction that creates distinct moments of experience. But it does tell us where to look. In particular, we posit that both quantum coherence and entanglement networks may have the precise desirable properties of dynamical stability accompanied with topological segmentation. Hence experimental paradigms such as probing the CNS at femtosecond timescales to find a structural match between quantum coherence and local binding (Pearce 2014) could empirically validate our solution to the combination problem for panpsychism.

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See Also:

Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything

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



Mike writes:

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

A few takeaways:


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

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

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

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

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

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


7. Valence Modulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Affective Language: Harmonic Society

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

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

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Harmonic Society by ALGE

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

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

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Image by Michael Aaron Coleman

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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



Glossary

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

References:
Eno, B. (2012). ‘What is Art actually for?’. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/XIVfwDJ-kDk
Stanley, J. (n.d.). Philosophy of Language in the Twentieth Century. Retrieved from http://thatmarcusfamily.org/philosophy/Course_Websites/Readings/Stanley%20 -%20Language%20in%2020th%20Century.pdf
Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Philosophische Untersuchungen. Oxford, England: Macmillan.
Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Lisztomania. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisztomania [Accessed 16 May 2019].
Miller, G. F. (2001). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York: Anchor Books.
Zizek, S. (2019). on #MeToo movement. How to Watch the News, episode 02. RT. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ai_UAPaoEW4
Oleg. (2019). Mementomorium. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Mementomorium.org website: https://www.mementomorium.org/
Lilly, J. C. (1975). Simulations of God : the science of belief. Berkeley, Ca: Ronin. Lilly, J. C. (1974). [Programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer.] The human biocomputer. Theory and experiments. (2nd ed.). London: Abacus. Wilber, K. (2007). Integral spirituality : a startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Boston, Mass.: Integral Books.
Kegan, R. (2001). The evolving self : problem and process in human development. Cambridge Harvard University Press London.
Commons, M. (2008). Introduction to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity and Its Relationship to Postformal Action. World Futures. 64. 305-320. 10.1080/02604020802301105.
Falkenstein, E. (2010). Why Envy Dominates Greed. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Blogspot.com website: https://falkenblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/why-envy-dominates-greed.html
Moji, K. (1998). The Qualia Manifesto. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Qualia-manifesto.com website: http://www.qualia-manifesto.com/manifesto.html
Borges, J. L. (1944). The Library of Babel (La Biblioteca de Babel), Buenos Aires: Editorial Sur
SleepyE. (2016). DMT Trip: Jester Entity Occurrence From Viewer. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmVA1755ffM
Gómez Emilsson, A. Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2). (2019, April 9). Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Qualia Computing website: https://qualiacomputing.com/2019/04/08/burning-man-theme-camps- of-the-year-2029-from-replicator-to-rainbow-god-2-2/
Johnson, M. (2018). The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models | Opentheory.net. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from website: https://opentheory.net/2018/12/the-neuroscience-of-meditation/
Johnson, M., (2016). Principia Qualia: Blueprint for a new science v1. Retrieved from http://opentheory.net/PrincipiaQualia.pdf
Friston, K. (2010). The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(2), 127–138. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2787
Schmidhuber, J. (2009) Simple Algorithmic Theory of Subjective Beauty, Novelty, Surprise, Interestingness, Attention, Curiosity, Creativity, Art, Science, Music, Jokes. Journal of SICE 48(1), 21-32
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Leech, R., Hellyer, P. J., Shanahan, M., Feilding, A., Tagliazucchi, E., … Nutt, D. (2014). The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020
Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Kringelbach, M. L., Deco, G., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0
Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I., & Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nature Communications, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10340
Kanungo, R., & Lambert, W. E. (1963). Semantic satiation and meaningfulness. The American Journal of Psychology, 76(3), 421-428.
Gómez Emilsson, A., (2016). The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences: Symmetries, Sheets, and Saddled Scenes. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Qualia Com- puting website: https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/12/12/the-hyperbolic-geometry-of-dmt-experiences/
Bostrom, N. (2008). Letter from Utopia. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.2202/1941-6008.1025
Dick, P. K. (1968), Do androids dream of electric sheep? Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday Pearce, D.(1995) The Hedonistic Imperative. Retrieved May 16 2019 from: https://www.hedweb.com/hedab.htm
Lehar, S., (2010) The Grand Illusion: A psychonautical odyssey into the depths of human experience, Retrieved May 26 2019 from: http://cns-alumni.bu.edu/~slehar/GrandIllusion.pdf
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Kent, J. L. (2010). Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, Chapter 05, ‘The Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action’. PIT Press, Seattle.

Harmonic Society (3/4): Art as State-Space Exploration and Energy Parameter Modulation

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

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


5. State-Space Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Energy Parameter Modulation

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Seifert Surfaces by Paul Nylander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Featured image credit: Seifert Surfaces by Paul Nylander

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

The Psychobiology of Subcultures

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


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

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

 

– Dr. John Robert Skoyles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He refers to facts like these:

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

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

[…]

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

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


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



See also:

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

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


3. Schelling Point Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Creating Sacred Experiences

Art could be the next religion – Alex Grey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Featured image credit: Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff

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