7 Recent Videos: Buddhist Annealing, Is This a Simulation?, The Purple Pill, DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT, Digital Sentience, Psychedelics and the Free Energy Principle, and Advanced Visions of Paradise

[Context: 3rd in a series of 7-video packages. See the previous two packages: 1st and 2nd]

[Featured image by Wendi Yan.]

Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (link)

This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing”. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.

I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.

(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.

(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. Whereas annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noise as well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.

Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious”, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂

~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~

(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)

[ps. correction – I wrote a 30 page document about my retreat, not a 50 word document]

Relevant Links:


Is This a Simulation? (link)

Will You Take the Simulation Pill?

Warning: Once You Take It There Is No Going Back.

Apologies for the Clickbait. I Can’t Say More Unless You Take the Pill With Me. 🙂

~Qualia of the Day: The Red Pill – With Your Consent, We Will Take It Together~

Relevant Links:


The Purple Pill: What Happens When You Take the Blue and the Red Pill at the Same Time? (link)

The Purple Pill is the pill that gives you both high hedonic tone and an unprejudiced open-ended approach to the pursuit of truth. For losing truth is to lose it all, but to lose it all is only bad because it makes you and others suffer in the wider universe.” – The Purple Pill (Qualia Computing)

In this talk I explain that the “Blue vs. Red Pill” trope relies on a false dichotomy. You don’t need to choose between depressive realism and comforting illusions. Put differently, you don’t need to choose between truth and happiness. High hedonic tone is not incompatible with one’s representational accuracy of causal structures. The world, and the existence of experiential heaven and hell, can be understood without curling into a ball and crying your way to sleep. More so, effective and persistent action towards the good requires that you don’t believe in this false dichotomy, for sustainable altruistic productivity necessitates both accurate models and positive motivations. Thus, the aspiring paradise engineer ought to be willing to take the Purple Pill to move onwards.

I advocate having a balanced portfolio of (1) efforts to minimize experiential hell, (2) techniques to increase the hedonic baseline sustainably, and (3) methods to reliably experience peak states of consciousness in a sane way.

I do not think that spending 100% of one’s time in “destroying hell” is a sustainable approach to life because it does not allow you to “reinvest” in the conditions that gave rise to one’s goodness to begin with (otherwise you become more of a martyr than an effective player in the field!). More so, the relationship between suffering and productivity is non-trivial, which means that to just helping people who suffer extremely does not generally pay off in terms of productive action towards the cause in the future. Hence, improving baseline is just as important: it is precisely what allows people to go from near zero productivity to a high level of productivity. Finally, the benefits of having access to reliable, pro-social ultra-blissful states of consciousness should not be underestimated. They are an important piece of the puzzle because they motivate the “animal self” and are deeply reassuring. Thus, as a “package”, I see a lot of potential in simultaneously reducing negative extremes, improving the baseline, and achieving new heights of bliss. This, to me, is what I see as the path forward.

Topics I cover span: Trungpa’s “Spiritual Materialism” (the attitude of using exalted states of consciousness to “decorate our ego”), optimization problems/reinvesting in the good, sane in-group/out-group dynamics, the game theory of virtue signaling, and the importance of having an explicit commitment to the wellbeing of all sentient beings (to prevent value drift).

~Qualia of the Day: Spiritual Materialism~

Relevant Links:

Thanks Mike Johnson and David Pearce for many conversations on this topic.


DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT: 12 Key Differences (link)

What are the differences between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT? And what gives rise to those differences? In this video we discuss 12 different ways to analyze the strange and unique effects of these substances. We go over the 9 lenses already discussed in Qualia Computing* and add three more.

Starting with three new lenses (5-MeO-DMT left/DMT right):

A) Global Coherence vs. Competing Clusters of Coherence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to a global coherent state (the so-called “unified energy field”), whereas DMT gives rise to an ecosystem of time-loops, each trying to capture as much of your attention as possible, which in turn results in coalition-building and evolution of patterns in the direction of being very “attention grabbing” (cf. reddit.com/r/place).

B) Really Positive or Really Negative Valence vs. Highly-Mixed Valence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to either a globally coherent state (high-valence) or two competing coherent states (negative-valence), whereas DMT tends to generate complex consonance/dissonance relationships between the clusters of coherence.

C) How they are different according the the Free Energy Principle: On 5-MeO-DMT the entire experience has to reinforce itself, whereas each cluster of coherence needs to model the rest of the experience in order to be reinforced by it on DMT. Thus 5-MeO-DMT makes experiences that express “the whole as the whole” whereas DMT makes each part of the experience represent the whole yet remains distinct.

And the original 9 lenses:

1) Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT.
2) Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT.
3) Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving.
4) Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it.
5) Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic.
6) Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it.
7) Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it.
8) Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes.
9) Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.

I also explain what is going on with the “Megaminx DMT worlds” and when DMT entities bully you into believing in their independent existence.

~Qualia of the Day: Rheoscopic Fluid~

Relevant Links:


Digital Sentience: Can Digital Computers Ever “Wake Up”? (link)

I start by acknowledging that most smart and well-informed people today believe that digital computers can be conscious. More so, they believe this for good reasons.

In general, 99.99% of the times when someone says that digital computers cannot be conscious they do so equipped with very bad arguments. This, of course, does not mean that all of these smart people who believe in digital sentience are right. In fact, I argue that they are making a critical yet entirely non-obvious mistake: they are not taking into account a sufficiently detailed set of constraints that any scientific theory of consciousness must satisfy. In this video I go over what those constraints are, and in what way they actually entail that digital sentience is literally impossible.

The talk is divided into three parts: (1) my philosophical journey, which I share in order to establish credibility, (2) classic issues in philosophy of mind, and (3) how we can solve all those issues with QRI’s theory of consciousness.

(Skip to 31:00 if you are not interested in my philosophical journey and you want to jump into the philosophy of mind right away).

(1) I’ve been hyper-philosophical all my life and have dedicated thousands of hours working on this topic: having discussions with people in the field, writings essays, studying qualia in all manners of exotic states of consciousness, and working through the implications of different philosophical background assumptions. I claim that QRI’s views here are indeed much more informed than anyone would assume if they just heard that we think digital computers cannot be conscious. In fact, most of us started out as hard-core computationalists and only switched sides once we fully grokked the limitations of that view! Until the age of 20 I was a huge proponent of digital sentience, and I planned my life around that very issue. So it was a big blow to find out that I was neglecting key pieces of the puzzle that David Pearce, and later Mike Johnson, brought up when I met them in person. In particular, they made me aware of the importance of the “phenomenal binding/boundary problem”; once I finally understood it, everything unraveled from there.

(2) We go over: Marr’s levels of analysis (and “interactions between levels”). The difference between functionalism, computationalism, causal structure, and physicalist theories of consciousness. The Chinese Room. Multiple Realizability. Epiphenomenalism. Why synchrony is not enough for binding. Multiple Drafts Theory of consciousness. And the difference between awareness and attention.

(3) We solve the boundary problem with topological segmentation: this allows us to also provide an explanation for what the causal properties of experience are. The integrated nature of fields can be recruited for computation. Topological boundaries are neither epiphenomenal nor frame-dependent. Thus, evolution stumbling upon holistic field behavior of topological pockets of the fields of physics would solve a lot of puzzles in philosophy of mind. In turn, since digital computers don’t use fields of physics for computation, they will never be unified subjects of experience no matter how you program them.

I also discuss issues with IIT’s solution to the binding problem (despite IIT’s whole aesthetic of irreducible causality, their solution makes binding epiphenomenal! The devil’s in the details: IIT says the Minimum Information Partition has “the highest claim of existence” but this leaves all non-minimal partitions untouched. It’s epiphenomenal and thus not actually useful for computation).

Thanks also to Andrew Zuckerman and other QRI folks for great recent discussions on this topic.

~Qualia of the Day: Dennett’s Intentional Stance~


Relevant Links/References:


Psychedelics and the Free Energy Principle: From REBUS to Indra’s Net (link)

Friston’s Free Energy Principle (FEP) is one of those ideas that seem to offer new perspectives on almost anything you point it at.

It seems to synthesize already very high-level ideas into an incredibly general and flexible conceptual framework. It brings together thermodynamics, probabilistic graphical models, information theory, evolution, and psychology. We could say that trying to apply the FEP to literally everything is not a bad idea: it may not explain it all, but we are bound to learn a lot from seeing when it fails.

So what is the FEP? In the words of Friston: “In short, the long-term (distal) imperative — of maintaining states within physiological bounds — translates into a short-term (proximal) avoidance of surprise. Surprise here relates not just to the current state, which cannot be changed, but also to movement from one state to another, which can change. This motion can be complicated and itinerant (wandering) provided that it revisits a small set of states, called a global random attractor, that are compatible with survival (for example, driving a car within a small margin of error). It is this motion that the free-energy principle optimizes.

Organisms that survive over time must minimize entropy injections from their environment, which means they need to minimize surprise, which unfortunately is computationally intractable, but the information theoretic construct of variational free-energy provides an upper bound on this ground truth surprise, meaning that minimizing it will indirectly minimize surprise. This cashes out in the need to maximize “accuracy – complexity” which prevents both overfitting and underfitting. In the video we go over some of the classical ideas surrounding the FEP: the dark room, active inference, explicit vs. implicit representations, and whether real dynamic systems can be decomposed into Markov blankets. Finally, we cover how the FEP naturally gives rise to predictive coding via hierarchical Bayesian models.

We then talk about Reduced BEliefs Under pSychedelics (REBUS) and explain how Carhart-Harris and Friston interpret psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain in light of the FEP. We then discuss Safron’s countermodel of Strengthened BEliefs Under pSychedelics (SEBUS) and the work coming out of Seth’s lab.

So, that’s how the FEP shows up in the literature today. But what about explaining not only belief changes and perceptual effects, but perhaps also getting into the actual weeds of the ultra bizarre things that happen on psychedelics?

I provide three novel ideas for how the FEP can explain features of exotic experiences:

(1) Dissonance-minimizing resonance networks would naturally balance model complexity due to an inherent “complexity cost” that shows up as dissonance and prediction error minimization when prediction errors give rise to out-of-phase interactions between the layers.

(2) Bayesian Energy Sinks: What you can recognize lowers the (physical) energy of one’s world-sheet. I then blend this with an analysis of symmetrical psychedelic thought-forms as energy-minimizing configurations. On net, we thus experience hybrid “semantic + symmetric” hallucinations.

(3) Indra’s Net: Each “competing cluster of coherence” needs to model its environment in order to synch up with it in a reinforcing way. This leads to attractor states where “everything reflects everything else”.

~Qualia of the Day: Indra’s Net~

Relevant Links:


Advanced Visions of Paradise: From Basic Hedonism to Paradise Engineering (link)

This video was recorded as a way for me to prepare for the speech I gave at the “QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise” (see livestream here). You can think of it as the significantly more in-depth (and higher audio quality!) version of that speech.

The core message of this video is: thinking wholesome, genuinely useful, and novel thoughts about how to build paradise is hard. Doing so without getting caught up in low-dimensional aesthetics and pre-conceptions is very challenging. Most of the “visions of paradise” we find in our culture, media, and art are projections of implicit aesthetics used for human coordination, rather than deeply thought-out and high-dimensional perspectives truly meant to elevate our understanding and inspire us to investigate the Mystery of reality. Aesthetics tend to put the cart before the horse: they tacitly come with a sense of what is good and what is real. Aesthetics are fast, parallel, and collective ways of judging the goodness or badness of images, ideas, and archetypes. They give rise to internal dissonance when you present to them things that don’t fit well with their previous judgements. And due to naïve realism about perception, these judgements are often experienced as “divine revelations”.

To disentangle ourselves from tacit low-dimensional aesthetics, and inspired by the work of Rob Burbea (cf. Soulmaking), I go over what aesthetics consist of: Eros, Psyche, and Logos. Then, to explore high-quality aesthetics relevant to paradise engineering, I go over 7 camps of a hypothetical “Superhappiness Festival”, each representing a different advanced aesthetic: Hedonism, Psychiatry, Wholesome, Paleo, Energy, Self-Organization, and Paradise Engineering. For didactic purposes I also assign a Buddhist Realm (cf. “Opening the Heart of Compassion” by Short & Lowenthal) to each of the camps.

Note: the Buddhist realms are a very general lens, so a more detailed exposition would point out how each of the camps manifests in each of the Buddhist realms. Don’t put too much stock on the precise mapping I present in this video.

~Qualia of the Day: Pure Lands~

Picture by Wendi Yan (wendiyan.com) “The Tower of Paradise Engineering” (also the featured image of this post / image to appear in the forthcoming QRI Book)

For context, here is the party invite/description:

Dear Everyone!

Science fiction and futurism have failed us. Simply put, there is a remarkable lack of exploration when it comes to the role that consciousness (and its exotic states) will play in the unfolding of intelligent agency on Earth. This, of course, is largely understandable: we simply lack adequate conceptual frameworks to make sense of the state-space of consciousness and its myriad properties. Alas, any vision of the future that neglects what we already know about the state-space of consciousness and its potential is, in the final analysis, “missing the point” entirely.

Exotic states of consciousness are consequential for two reasons: (1) they may provide unique computational benefits, and (2) they may have orders of magnitude more bliss, love, and feelings of inherent value.
As Nick Bostrom puts it in Letter From Utopia:

(1) “Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your way, and your journey will fail.

(2) “Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.”

In light of the above, let us for once try to be serious consciousness-aware futurists. Then, we must ask, what does paradise look like? What does it feel like? What kinds of exotic synesthetic thought-forms and hyper-dimensional gems populate and imbue the spacetime of awareness that makes up paradise?

Come and join us for an evening of qualia delights and great company: experience and make curious smells, try multi-sensory art installations, and listen to a presentation about what we call “Advanced Visions of Paradise”. Equipped with an enriched experience base and a novel conceptual toolkit, we look forward to have you share your own visions of paradise and discuss ways to bring them into reality.

Infinite Bliss!

Ps. If you are being invited to this event, that means that we value you as a friend of QRI ❤

Pss. Only come if you are fully vaccinated, please!

Key Links:

~Music: People were asking me about the playlist of yesterday’s party. The core idea behind this playlist was to emulate the sequence of aesthetics I talked about in the speech. Namely, the songs are ordered roughly so that each of the 7 camps gets about 1 hour, starting in camp Hedonism and going all the way to camp Paradise Engineering: QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise~


And that’s it for now!

Thank you for tuning in!

Infinite Bliss For All!

A Field Equation to Mend the World

Excerpt from The Science of Enlightenment (2005) by Shinzen Young (p. xv-xvii)

Author’s Preface

It took me quite a while to get to the point of publishing this book — many years actually. That may seem like a strange statement. How can someone not get the point of publishing something they themselves wrote? Let me explain.

A central notion of Buddhism is that there’s not a thing inside us called a self. One way to express that is to say that we are a colony of sub-personalities and each of those sub-personalities is in fact not a noun but a verb–a doing.

One of my doings is Shinzen the researcher. Shinzen the researcher is on a mission to “take the mist out of mysticism.” Contrary to what is often claimed, he believes that mystical experience can be described with the same rigor, precision, and quantified language that one would find in a successful scientific theory. In his opinion, formulating a clear description of mystical experience is a required prenuptial for the Marriage of the Millennium: the union of quantified science and contemplative spirituality. He hopes that eventually this odd couple will exuberantly make love, spawning a generation of offspring that precipitously improves the human condition.

Shinzen the researcher also believes that many meditation masters, current and past, have formulated their teachings with “less than full rigor” by making unwarranted, sweeping philosophical claims about the nature of objective reality based on their subjective experiences—claims that tend to offend scientists and, hence, impede the science-spiritually courtship.

Shinzen the researcher has a natural voice. It’s the style you would find in a graduate text on mathematics: definition, lemma, theorem, example, corollary, postulate, theorem. Here’s a sample of that voice:

It may be possible to model certain global patterns of brain physiology in ways that feel familiar to any trained scientist, i.e., equations in differential operators on scalar, vector, or tensor fields whose dependent variables can be quantified in terms of SI units and whose independent variables are time and space (where space equals ordinary space or some more esoteric differential manifold). It is perhaps even possible to derive those equations from first principles the way Navier-Stokes is derived from Cauchy continuity. In such fields, distinctive “flow regimes” are typically associated with relations on the parameters of the equations, i.e., F(Pj) → Q, where Q is qualitative change in field behavior. By qualitative change in field behavior, I mean things like the appearance of solitons or the disappearance of turbulence, etc. Through inverse methods, it may be possible to establish a correspondence between the presence of a certain parameter relation in the equations modeling a field in a brain and the presence of classical enlightenment in the owner of that brain. This would provide a way to physically quantify and mathematically describe (or perhaps even explain) various dimensions of spiritual enlightenment in a way that any trained scientist would feel comfortable with.

That’s not the voice you’ll be hearing in this book. This book is a record of a different Shinzen, Shinzen the dharma teacher, as he talks to students engaged in meditation practice. Shinzen the dharma teacher has no resistance at all to speaking with less than full rigor. He’s quite comfortable with words like God, Source, Spirit, or phrases like “the nature of nature.” In fact, his natural voice loves spouting the kind of stuff that makes scientists wince. Here’s an example of that voice:

The same cosmic forces that mold galaxies, stars, and atoms also mold each moment of self and world. The inner self and the outer scene are born in the cleft between expansion and contraction. By giving yourself to those forces, you become those forces, and through that, you experience a kind of immortality–you live in the breath and pulse of every animal, in the polarization of electrons and protons, in the interplay of the thermal expansion and self-gravity that molds stars, in the interplay of dark matter that holds galaxies together and dark energy that stretches space apart. Don’t be afraid to let expansion and contraction tear you apart, scattering you in many directions while ripping away the solid ground beneath you. Behind that seeming disorder is an ordering principle so primordial that it can never be disordered: father-God effortlessly expands while mother-God effortlessly contracts. The ultimate act of faith is to give yourself back to those forces, give yourself back to the Source of the world, and through that, become the kind of person who can optimally contribute to the Mending of the world.

Shinzen the hard-nosed researcher and Shinzen the poetic dharma teacher get along just fine. After all, they’re both just waves. Particles may bang together. Waves automatically integrate. Just one problem though. The researcher is a fussy perfectionist. He is very resistant to the notion of publishing anything that lacks full rigor. Spoken words return to silence from where they came from. Printed text sits around for centuries waiting for every tiny imprecision and incompleteness to be exposed.

So it took a while for me to see value in allowing my talks to be published in something close to their original spoken form.


See also:


This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing“. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.

I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.

(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.

(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. In contrast, annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noise as well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.

Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious“, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂

~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~

(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)

What Happens When You Ask Questions to the DMT Entities?

Josikinz recently posted a wonderful video on Youtube titled Psychedelic Entities – broken down and described. I really appreciate the use of high-quality psychedelic replication art throughout the video in order to illustrate what they are talking about. I recommend watching the whole video; below an excerpt that discusses what happens when you try to ask these entities questions (starting at 10:53):


Representations of the Subconscious

This personality type can take any visible form. Subjectively interpreted as the autonomous controller behind the continuous generation of the details of the person’s current experience. This entity is also often felt to simultaneously control one’s current perspective, personality, and internally stored model of reality. When interacted with, this category of entity can often possess the abilities to allow them to directly alter and manipulate one’s current experiences. In terms of their motives, they commonly want to teach or guide the person and will seemingly operate under the assumption that they know what is best for them. However, although a relatively common experience, it still cannot be known whether this type of autonomous entity is genuinely an experience of directly communicating with the so-called subconscious mind, and what that would even mean if it were the case. Or if it is perhaps merely a hallucinatory approximation that simply behaves in a convincing manner.

Representations of the Self

This personality type can be described as a direct copy of one’s own personality. It can take any physical form, but when conversed with it clearly adopts an identical vocabulary and set of mannerisms to one’s own consciousness. This entity will often take on similar appearance to oneself, but could theoretically take on any other appearance too. During this experience, there is also a distinct feeling that one’s own consciousness is somehow being mirrored or duplicated into the hallucinated autonomous entity that is being interacted with.

Personal Commentary

Ok, so, to wrap this video up, and at the risk of alienating a certain subsection of my audience, I’d just like to make a few points regarding the beliefs that commonly surround psychedelic entities, and my personal opinion on those viewpoints.

Within the psychonaut community and DMT users in particular, autonomous entities are commonly viewed as one of the most captivating aspects of the psychedelic experience.

They are often shrouded in esoteric mystery. To the point that a significant potion of the people who encounter them will go as far as to assert that these experiences are not simply fabrications of the mind, but rather beings from another world that exist independently of the human brain. This is a viewpoint that was originally popularized in mainstream culture by the likes of Terence McKenna, who famously theorized that the machine elves he encountered under the influence of DMT were either extraterrestrial in nature, interdimensional beings from a higher plane of existence, time-traveling humans from the future, or an ecology of souls that apparently includes both our ancestors and those who are yet to be born. As far as I can tell, the most common reasonings behind this viewpoint are that the experience of encountering these entities is often interpreted as feeling more realistic and well-defined than that of any sober experience the person has ever had. Alongside this, there is often a sense that the encounter itself is so incomprehensibly complex and other-worldly that there is simply no possible way that the human brain could generate such an experience on its own.

In regards to this particular notion, it is then sometimes asserted that consciousness must be an antenna of sorts that receives either all or some of its subjective experiences from that of an unknown interdimensional source. Furthermore, the source of this received input is sometimes said to be adjustable depending on the person’s brain state. With substances such as psychedelics simply “tuning” our consciousness into the analogous equivalent of a different radio station or TV channel. This is an idea that was once again further popularized by Terence McKenna, who is famously quoted as saying: “I don’t believe that consciousness is generated in the brain anymore than TV programs are made inside my TV. The box is too small.”

Now, while I can personally empathize with the reasons why some people may be drawn into these conclusions after the often earth-shattering experience of a DMT trip or other high-level psychedelic experience, I do not personally believe that autonomous entities are anything more than the profound, but ultimately hallucinated, products of the subconscious mind. Instead, I am quite sure that they are simply the psychedelic equivalent of the various characters and beings that most people commonly encounter within their dreams. Although it could be argued that autonomous entities are too characteristically different from that of dream characters to possibly be a result of the same neurological processes, I think that these differences in their appearance and behavior are largely the results of the many other psychedelic effects that are simultaneously occurring during these encounters. The most notable of which is geometry, which causes the hallucination to be comprised by the other-worldly shapes and patterns that provide autonomous entities with their distinctly hyperspatial perspective. Alongside this, various other subjective effects such as synesthesia, machinescapes, recursion, time distortion, and transpersonal states can all potentially synergize into an experience that is easy to misinterpret as something occurring outside of the human mind.

In my personal opinion, if autonomous entities were truly something that exists beyond the human mind, I think there would likely be a single verifiable case of them conveying information to a person that they did not already know or could not have come to the conclusion of within that moment. This would also likely be testable to some degree, which has led myself and my close friends to casually experiment with asking DMT entities a variety of questions over the years [emphasis mine]. These questions have included math problems, metaphysical questions, philosophical questions, and queries pertaining to the general nature of beings inhabiting their particular world. However, each attempt at doing so has resulted in the entities simply ignoring the question, arrogantly scoffing at the absurdity of us asking them such a trivial thing, or replying with vague ambiguous wording that the person’s own mind could have easily come up with. This has even been the case when the entities are presenting themselves as vastly more complex, knowledgeable, and powerful than the humans that they are interacting with.

Now, just to clarify, while I do believe that autonomous entities are results of similar processes to that of dream characters, I also don’t want to be reductive and downplay the often overwhelmingly profound nature of this experience. For example, within the moments that the entities are presenting themselves, I believe that to varying degrees they are genuinely conscious agents that the brain is simulating alongside our own. It does not seem unreasonable to me that if the brain can simulate one conscious agent within everyday sobriety, that within certain extenuating circumstances, such as mental illnesses, dream states, and hallucinogenic experiences, it could also temporarily allocate resources into simultaneously simulating other conscious agents.

I also think that it is sort of interesting that many autonomous entities would pass the Turing Test if interviewed. And I find this particularly fascinating in conjunction with the knowledge that the entities also commonly present themselves as representative embodiments of various aspects of the subconscious mind, which suggests to me that at least to some extent this experience may therefore allow people to directly interact with and communicate with various facets of their consciousness in a manner that would otherwise be entirely impossible without the use of hallucinogenic substances.


See also:

Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing

The folks at QRI have recently given a string of presentations. Before I jump to the main topic of this article, I will briefly mention a few of these presentations that are likely to be of interest to the reader. Quintin Frerichs recently presented about Neural Annealing at the Wellcome Center for Human Neuroimaging at UCL. I recently presented about Mapping the Heaven Realms at the SSC/ACX online meetup organized by Joshua Fox. Also, a few weeks ago I participated in the U.S. Transhumanist Party Virtual Enlightenment Salon (the live conversation was so engaging we ended up talking for four hours). And finally, as the main topic of this article, the talk I gave at the Oxford Psychedelic Society on May 6th, 2021:

Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing: Is Annealing the Key Condition for Successful Psychedelic Psychotherapy?

Abstract of the Talk:

Mystical-type experiences mediate the therapeutic benefit of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (Griffiths, 2016; Ross, 2016; Yaden, 2020). In this talk we will explore why this may be the case and how we might improve this effect. On the one hand we can interpret the effect of mystical-type experiences through the lens of belief and attitude change (Carhart-Harris and K. J. Friston, 2019). But beliefs that are not deeply felt are unlikely to have much of an effect. Why would mystical-type experiences in particular cause deeply felt belief changes? On the other hand, one can interpret the effect of these experiences to be healing at a low-level: they allow the reconfiguration of the microstructure of our experience in beneficial ways. The first lens suggests that these experiences change what we believe and think about, whereas the second lens suggests that the experiences change how we feel. In this talk we will unify these two lenses and argue that neural annealing (Johnson, 2019) underlies high-level changes in beliefs and attitudes as well as low-level microstructural healing of internal representations. This paradigm ties together the puzzling effects of mystical-type experiences by interpreting them as uniquely strong versions of neural annealing. We suggest that traumatic memories are indeed implemented with low-level microstructural dissonance in the internal representations (Gomez-Emilsson, 2017). Not only are they about something bad, they also feel bad. In turn, neural annealing targeted towards these internal representations can heal and transform them from dissonance-producing to consonance-producing. More so, neural annealing also enhances the information propagation fidelity of the nervous system, allowing the healed representations to update the state of the rest of the nervous system. This insight, along with careful study of annealing dynamics under psychedelics, can allow us to target the annealing process in order to heal these internal representations more effectively. We conclude with empirical predictions for what to look for in order to identify the signatures of successful neural annealing under psychedelics and suggest methods to piggyback on the natural well-trodden paths of beneficial annealing (e.g. meditation, yoga, music, creativity) to optimize such experiences.


Why This Is Important

There are two main reasons I think sharing this work as soon as possible with the world is very beneficial. The first is that it genuinely advances a new model for how to optimize psychedelic therapy. In particular, I think that being aware of this model can be very useful for people who intend to self-medicate with psychedelics. Although there is a vast literature for psychedelic psychotherapy, it is largely laced with metaphysical views, implicit background philosophical assumptions incompatible with science, and in my view, questionable ethics.

The second point is that this model can be used as an antidote to psychedelic brainwashing. If a friend of yours has been taking a lot of psychedelics (with or without a shaman) and now has a web of unfalsifiable beliefs that do not seem to help them, this presentation might work to help them understand what is going on in their mind. Additionally, once you understand how psychedelic annealing works, you can anticipate irrational belief changes based on the texture of the experience and proactively prevent them. Indeed, being showered with bliss consciousness by a DMT entity might be healing to your nervous system, but alas, it also anneals in you a conviction in the independent existence of such entities. With this presentation, the hope is that you can keep the healing while discarding the irrational beliefs (because you will now be able to see how they are implemented!). If we want to indeed create a truth-seeking psychonaut shanga (aka. a Super-Shulgin Academy) we *have to* have an adequate model of how exotic states of consciousness modify one’s belief networks. The penalty of not modeling this accurately leads to the loss of one’s critical faculties. I have seen it happen (see Appendix A & B), and I am not impressed. We can do better.

Without further ado, here is the video:

And here are the slides (with some light comments along the way on the topics that have not been previously discussed):


Many thanks to the Oxford Psychedelic Society for the invitation to give this talk. 🙂

Model (1) has the problem that the researchers themselves are not exposed to the exotic states of consciousness, and as such, what they write and theorize about comes from second-hand accounts. More so, the bulk of the direct phenomenological information the participants gain access to is generally discarded as it goes through the low-dimensional information filters of standardized questionnaires. There is no real buildup of phenomenological information or an effort to integrate it across participants (participants don’t generally talk to each other). The model does excel at generating copious high-quality neuroimaging data.

Model (2) suffers from the problem that the idiosyncratic beliefs of the psychonaut tend to “anneal more deeply” (see the next slide for a more through description of this) with each trip. Unless they were to focus on the phenomenal character of the experience rather than the intentional content, what tends to happen is that specific high-level beliefs become energy sinks and they dominate the exploration. Recall how DMT’s world-sheet “crystallizes” around objects and ideas you can recognize. Thus, as you take psychedelics over and over, the realms of experience one goes to will tend to follow recurring themes along the lines of what the most successful energy sinks from previous experiences have been. The explorer usually does not develop technical models of the phenomenological effects, but rather, tends to focus on the metaphysical or philosophical implications of the experiences.

Model (3) is like that of a think tank. Ever since writing articles like How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD, we have received a lot of correspondence from pretty smart people who enjoy exploring exotic states of consciousness. The multi-year dialogue between us and them and each other has resulted in a lot of generative model building for which we can then get feedback. Grounded in common background philosophical assumptions and a drive towards phenomenological accuracy, the type of output of this model tends to look much more like The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences than either a neuroscience paper (model 1) or a book about the Earth Coincidence Control Office (model 2).

Which of these information-processing architectures would you use if you were trying to figure out the truth of how psychedelics work? If they were diagrams for a neural network architecture, which one do you think would model and integrate information most effectively? Ultimately, we should think of these models as complementary. But since model 3 is novel and largely unexplored, it might be sensible to pay attention to what it outputs.

(H/T Quintin Frerichs for this slide)

This slides illustrates the sort of topics and problems that a “Good Annealing Manual” would need to cover. As an integrated “energy management” strategy, such a manual would describe how to raise energy, how to dampen it, how to translate it from one domain into another, how to stabilize a state, how to get knocked out of an unhelpful limit cycle, and so on.

(H/T Quintin Frerichs for this slide)

Note: I should have cited Michael Schartner’s work (and more generally the work coming out of Anil Seth‘s lab which applies the predictive processing paradigm and neural network feature visualization to model the effects of psychedelics). Apologies for this omission. Importantly, all of that work (in addition to REBUS and SEBUS) lives at the computational level of analysis. What QRI is bringing into the picture is how the implementation level based on principles of harmonic resonance and the Symmetry Theory of Valence underlie predictive processing. More on this below.

One of the interesting ideas of Steven Lehar is applying the duality between standing wave patterns and resonant modes of objects to the brain. A lot of psychedelic phenomenology suggests that there is a duality between the vibe of the state and the geometric layout of the multi-modal hallucinations. In other words, each phenomenal object has a corresponding way of vibrating, and this is experienced as a holistic signature of such objects. (cf. Resonance and vibration of [phenomenal] objects). (See also: Hearing the shape of a drum).

In the context of this presentation, the most important idea of this slide is that the duality between standing wave patterns and the vibe of the experience showcases how symmetry and valence are related. Blissful “heavenly realms” on DMT are constructed in ways where the resonance of the phenomenal objects with each other is consonant and their structure is symmetrical. Likewise, the screechy and painful quality of the DMT “hell realms” comes along with asymmetries, discontinuities, and missing components in the phenomenal objects that make up experiences. The overall vibe of the space is the result of the intrinsic vibratory modes of each phenomenal object in addition to each of the possible interactions between them (weighted by their phenomenal distance). An analogy readily comes to mind of an orchestra and the challenges that come with making it sound consonant.

From Mike’s Why we seek out pleasure:

A good algorithmic theory of cognition will collect, unify, and simplify a lot of things that look like odd psychological quirks, and recast them as deeply intertwined with, and naturally arising out of, how our brains process information. I’m optimistic that Symmetry Theory will be able to do just this- e.g.,

* Cognitive dissonance happens when two (or more) patterns in your head are battling for your neural real estate, and they’re incompatible– i.e., they’re collectively dissonant/asymmetrical.

* Denial is what happens when your brain attempts to isolate/quarantine such patterns, and is actively working to prevent this tug-of-war for neurons.

This model implies that your brain can evaluate the “internal consistency/harmony” of a neural pattern, and reject it if there’s a negative result- and also the “simulated relative compatibility/harmony” of two neural patterns, and try to keep them isolated if there’s a negative result. I’d suggest the best way to understand this is in terms of projective geometry, resonance, and symmetry: i.e., to evaluate a pattern’s “internal harmony” and whether it ‘runs well (is stable) on existing hardware’, the brain uses principles of resonance to apply certain geometric projections (high-dimensional-to-lower-dimensional transformations) to the pattern to see if the result is stable (unchanged, or predictably oscillating, or still strongly resonant) under these transforms. Stable patterns are allocated territory; unstable ones (=dangerous neural code) are not. The internal mechanics of this will vary across brain areas (based on the specific resonance profile of each area) and emotional states, which might contribute to how certain types of information tend to end up in certain brain regions. Likewise, this could explain how moods coordinate information processing– by changing the resonance landscape in the brain, thus preferentially selecting for certain classes of patterns over others. A core implication of this model is that different kinds of dissonance will drive different kinds of behavior (feel like different kinds of imperatives), and based on what action is needed, a mood may create (or be the creation of) a certain kind of dissonance.


Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation, Michael Johnson (2017)

Now applying annealing to the above, we hypothesize that: (1) On the one hand, at the implementation level neural annealing works as a method to reduce dissonance by escaping local minima. (2) On the other hand, at the computational level simulated annealing can be used as a method to reduce prediction errors (cf. message passing and belief propagation). We hypothesize that there is a kind of duality between these two levels of abstraction. We are very interested in cleanly formalizing it so it can be empirically tested. But the facts seem to suggest that there is something here. What this duality says is that for any transformation that you do to the resonance network there will be a corresponding effect on the belief network and vice versa. For example, in this light, you will always find that denial or cognitive dissonance will come along with the phenomenology of “resistance” in one of its many guises (such as muscle tension, feelings of viscosity, or hardness). If you can address the muscle tension directly with progressive relaxation (or yoga, massage, etc.) you will also be implicitly addressing the integration of information into your world-model. At the same time, you may use specific beliefs in order to relax specific muscles, and some aspects of meditation may involve doing this to an extent (e.g. “now is all there is” and “the self is illusory” are beliefs that would seem to result in particular patterns of mental and physical relaxation).

We might succinctly explain how a resonance network trying to minimize dissonance could implement the free energy principle. Namely, we could maximize “accuracy – complexity” in the following way: If complex models require complex networks of resonance to be implemented, then there might be an inherent dissonance cost to complexity. More symmetrical configurations lower this cost, which makes more compact and coherent models preferable. At the same time, to take care of the accuracy, prediction errors themselves might be implemented with dissonance (e.g. via out-of-phase communication between layers of the hierarchy). Together, these two effects favor both accurate and simple models.

An interesting contrast that illustrates this duality between the computational and implementational level of abstraction is that between the effects of DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Particularly, DMT seems to give rise to the chaotic generation of information and this can be seen in something as simple as the style of the tracer effects it induces (richly-colored flip-flopping between positive and negative afterimages). 5-MeO-DMT’s tracer effects are generally monochromatic and the same color as that of the input. (See: Modeling Psychedelic Tracers with QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit: The Tracer Replication Tool).

We hypothesize that DMT’s effects at the implementation level can be understood as the result of competing clusters of coherence across the hierarchy, whereas the main attractors of 5-MeO-DMT seem to involve global coherence. Modulating the average synaptic path length in a system of coupled oscillators can give rise to this sort of effect. By randomly adding connections to a network of coupled oscillators one first sees an emergent state of many competing patches of synchrony, and then, after a threshold is crossed, one starts seeing global synchrony emerge. Despite both drugs making the brain “more interconnected”, the slight difference in just how interconnected it makes it, may be the difference between the colorful chaos of DMT and the peaceful nothingness of 5-MeO-DMT.

The competing clusters of coherence across the hierarchy can evolve to adapt to each other. The DMT realm is more of an ecosystem than it is a state per se (ex: Hyperspace Lexicon). And due to the duality between dissonance minimization and prediction error minimization, avoiding updating one’s belief in the direction of these realms being real causes intense cognitive dissonance. Some level of belief updating to fit the content of the hallucinations might be very difficult to resist. Indeed, the forced coherence across the layers of the hierarchy would be bypassing one’s normal ability to resist information coming from the lower layers.

On peak experiences such as those induced by 5-MeO-DMT, global coherence will generally have the effect of dissolving internal boundaries. In turn, due to the duality proposed, belief updating in the direction of extreme simplicity is very difficult to resist. Global annealing without sensorial chaos results in the minimization of model complexity; high accuracy is taken care of thanks to the low information content of the state. As a consequence, one experiences very high-valence, high-energy, high-symmetry states of consciousness that come along with belief updating towards ideas with close to zero information content.

The high-valence nature of the state can be very useful to heal dissonance in the network, so therapeutic benefits seem very promising (notwithstanding the somewhat forced belief updates the state induces).

Unfortunately a nearby attractor of the globally coherent states is when there are two incompatible coherent states competing with one another. This can result in extremely negative valence and belief updating in the direction of “everything being bad”.

We now see how the typical belief changes caused by these two drugs have a dual counterpart in how they feel. I am of the opinion that a commitment towards truth and careful attention to one’s state of mind can prevent (or at least substantially lessen) the epistemological failure modes of these drugs. But since this kind of model is not known by the general population, for most people these drugs do tend to act as “epistemological hand grenades”.

See Appendix A & B at the bottom of this article for examples of each of these failure modes.

Now on to the therapeutic applications: practicing loving-kindness meditation consistently for weeks before a trip seems to substantially change its phenomenal character. It feels that metta practice over time anneals a consonant metronome which can become massively amplified during a psychedelic experience. In turn, a brightly shinning metta metronome emits “healing waves of energy” within one’s world-simulation (I know how crazy this sounds!), which impact the contents of one’s subconscious in ways that reduces their internal dissonance.

Similar benefits can be obtained from other meditation practices, as long as their emphasis is on high-valence and coherent states of mind. See also: Buddhist Annealing (video).

Importantly, you can “work smart” if you manage to use the seeds of consonance as the nucleation sources for alignment cascades. This can heal at a very deep level, and it is what people are talking about when they say things like “all is love”.

A secular Good Annealing Manual would ideally have very detailed information for how to move around in the state-space of consciousness.

Apparently, equanimity is also highly beneficial during psychedelic experiences. But rather than merely repeating the mantras that everyone in the psychedelic community chants (“just let go”, “surrender”, “accept”), we can use a More Dakka approach and aim to maximize equanimity rather than merely invoking it. Taking psilocybin during a meditation retreat in which you do a lot of equanimity exercises will allow you to “let go” with much greater skill than what you could do in normal everyday life. As a result, one is able to “learn one’s lessons” with much greater ease and a lot less resistance. This, I think, is generally good. After all, the point is not to punish oneself, but to learn from one’s mistakes.

In turn, Shinzen Young says that experiencing pleasure with equanimity is very healing. By not grasping, one is letting the consonant waves propagate freely throughout one’s nervous system, which results in positive annealing. So a possible therapeutic modality might be to combine peak states together with high levels of equanimity. If we want to bump the therapeutic effect sizes of psychedelic psychotherapy, this is the sort of thing I consider to be very promising.

I conclude by providing some annealing targets that are generically good for one’s mental health. Practice them consistently before a psychedelic experience so that they can be the nucleation points of sane and hedonically beneficial psychedelic annealing. Being bathed by love is good. Being bathed by love and equanimity at the same time is even better. Being bathed by love and all Seven Factors of Awakening at the same time might be still even better. The ceiling of wholesome happiness is not currently known by science. It is probably much higher than we can imagine.

If you found this talk inspiring, generative, or clarifying for your own work, please cite it! If you want to see more work like this and help us transform the alchemy of consciousness into a chemistry of the mind, please consider donating to QRI. Every dollar takes us closer to being able to empirically test these models and use them to develop technology to alleviate suffering in bulk.

Thank you!!!


Appendix A: What Happens When You Take Too Much DMT – What Does Overfitting Look Like?

  • A case study of a psychiatrist case who self-medicated his depression with a regiment of 1g of DMT (along with MAOIs) and 4mg of clonazepam a day:
    • “On arrival, the patient was nonverbal, combative, and required six security guards to restrain him. When less restrictive measures failed, he was given propofol 1,000 mg IV, ketamine 500 mg IM, midazolam 5 mg IV, diazepam 20 mg IV, and fentanyl 4 mg IV with minimal effect.”
    • “Psychiatry was consulted after the patient’s delirium resolved and he was medically stabilized as he exhibited symptoms of mania and psychosis. He was pressured in his speech, hyperreligious, and delusional. He believed that demons were leeching into his soul and asked the medical staff for an exorcism. It was recommended that the patient be admitted to the behavioral health unit for mood stabilization.”
  • How can I help my friend understand that what he is seeing is a side effect of smoking DMT on a daily basis? (from Quora – note: it is impossible for me to verify the accuracy of this report). From the comment thread:
    • “He has been smoking it every day and night for the past 3 months that I know of. He sees these little beings everywhere and says they are trying to destroy his house pushing it over. He also says they spray mace and fairy dust and little balls in his face and other peoples too. He doesn’t believe that nobody else sees this happening, he says we have all been compromised and can’t be trusted. I’m worried about him and also his girlfriend that has to deal with him and he’s delusional. His daughter is scared to come home, his parents want to have him committed, and he doesn’t believe it has anything to do with dmt! He absolutely believes it is real.”
    • “He is always under the influence of DMT, he smokes it all day every day. He says it no longer makes him hallucinate like when he first tried it, now it just takes away pain . NOT TRUE!! it’s like now he believes that this altered state of mind is reality and he’s losing everything. He is even destroying his own house to get them out from behind the walls.the other night he stood up and started stabbing his ceiling saying he was going to get them. It’s very disturbing to see him like this.”
    • “He’s doing about the same. Last time I went to see him he was showing me how the moon was following him into his back yard and then back to the front yard . He also sees a bunch of drones in the sky that I can’t see. He still doesn’t believe that we can’t see the walls and countertops moving, or feel the fairy dust being sprayed in our faces.”
  • The YouTube channel C.U.E. COMPREHENSIVELY UNCOVERING EVIDENCE seems to exemplify quite accurately what DMT-induced overfitting looks like (e.g. see his DMT-informed numerological musings)
  • Reddit user ClockJoule: see an interview with him about his daily DMT use and the beliefs that he developed as a consequence: Magic Mushroom Cloud – THE MAN WHO SMOKED DMT FOR 120 DAYS STRAIGHT.
  • [Report(s)] A warning to my fellow psychonauts regarding hyperspace entities (wall of text alert!) – excerpt:
    • “It all culminated in one long, elaborate, and highly dramatic visionary experience in which I was essentially ‘recruited,’ initiated in some grand ceremony alongside a large group of others presumably in my same situation (which may have just been “actors” ). It was all part of some kind of vast organization, which could best be described as ‘universal consciousness transcendental cosmic hippie space religion.’ [Read Lehar’s warning against believing what the DMT entities tell you]. It all had a very attractive but vaguely cult-like Scientology kind of feel to it. They even had their own music (which was actually pretty cool; see my comments on “the director” in part 4 for more details), propaganda, regular meetings and rituals, the whole works. They even seemed to revere a deity of some sort, their version of The Source (more detail on that in part 5), but this whole experience was so full of illusion and misdirection that I have no idea what their ‘deity’ really was, nor their true relation to it.”
    • “I’ve gone on way to long already and need to start wrapping things up here, but long story short, in light of their new demands of allegiance, and through a separate series of bizarre synchronicities in ‘real life’ (what that means to me now, I have no idea) that I still can’t quite explain, I began to have some serious doubts and questions that needed answers. As I reflected on all that they had taught me, I began to realize that there were some major gaps in my knowledge, and that I had unwittingly filled in a lot of the blanks with my own speculation while assuming the picture I was being given was much more complete than it actually was. To summarize, over a series of increasingly confrontational and unpleasant experiences, I became less and less satisfied with their vague and evasive answers to my direct (and I think perfectly reasonable) questions, and we had something of a falling out, to put it very mildly. They eventually dropped all pretenses and flat-out turned on me, beginning a long period of harsh punishment.”
    • “The results weren’t pretty. Their facade began to crumble as I saw through more and more of what I now recognized as deceptive illusions. What truly lay behind it was hideous, repulsive, monstrously evil, relentlessly manipulative, filled with petty malicious intent, and not nearly as righteous, enlightened, or omnipotent as they pretended to be. I’m actually still pretty uncomfortable with going into detail regarding what followed, but suffice it to say that I’ve basically been to hell and back. They did everything they could to ‘punish’ me, and some of the things they came up with were uniquely and creatively traumatic. If they had put half as much effort and sophistication into ‘teaching’ me as they did into attacking and tormenting me, I probably would still be happily and obliviously under their control today, a fresh new convert of their admittedly impressive sci-fi space religion.”
    • “It took all the willpower I had just to stay focused and not become a completely broken wreck through all of this. Most of the ‘abilities’ I had acquired under their guidance gradually faded away over the course of a few weeks, with the exception of a number of lucid dream skills that I had picked up along the way. As I began to approach something resembling recovery, all kinds of memories and perspective started coming back to me that I had lost along the way (which may have been intentionally withheld from me). I felt like a toxic fog had been lifted from me, and everything looked so different now. I looked back on the last couple years of my life, especially the preceding four months or so, and was shocked to find that it wasn’t what I thought it was.”
    • “I had seen some mind-blowingly incredible things and progressed in so many ways in what I thought represented cognitive and spiritual development, but the consequences were now apparent. Without realizing it, my personality had changed so much, and not for the better. I had alienated myself from many of my close friends, my romantic relationship had suffered, I had been much more depressed than I wanted to admit, and I had spent way too much of my free time alone and in the dark, becoming obsessed with progressively darker and weirder esoteric knowledge. I had been able to maintain a token amount of social interaction, just enough to convince myself I was still ‘normal,’ but it frequently left me feeling drained, and bored with the mere ‘meat puppets’ in this material plane who were but a pale reflection of what existed beyond it.”

Appendix B: What Happens When You Take Too Much 5-MeO-DMT – What Does Underfitting Look Like?

While I agree that oneness is really important (and indeed I have written extensively about philosophy of personal identity and I generally advocate for Open Individualism), I do not think that realizing we are God is going to solve everything. In particular, we still need ruthlessly pragmatic solutions to the problem of intense suffering.

Insofar as non-duality is used as a mood-enhancer, it seems to be unreliable. Oneness can lead to bad trips of loneliness, a fact that tends to be brushed off by its advocates. My assessment is that this effect is the result of negative valence rather than an inherent effect of the concept (or truth?) of oneness. Shaman Oak‘s Bad LSD Experience – NIRVANA SUCKS video is a rather typical version of this effect and it highlights its true underlying cause: since he took the LSD during a comedown from cocaine, his entire trip was colored by the negative valence of that state. The world “felt inherently lonely” because it had depression qualia all over it. Amplified and magnified through the kaleidoscopic funhouse of LSD’s annealing dynamics, such a feeling of loneliness can look universal and omniprevalent “no matter how you look at it”. But if you were to replace that feeling with something blissful, then the concept of oneness would be experienced as wonderful and enlightening. It is always important to remember the Tyranny of the Intentional Object: ideas and beliefs seem to us as having inherent goodness or badness, but how this is implemented under the surface relies on hedonic tone/valence “painting” those ideas. As David Pearce likes to say, “take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself”.

Counterexamples: We do know a number of people who have used these compounds extensively and who do not seem to exhibit noticeable underfitting or overfitting. In particular, we have interviewed someone who took 5-MeO-DMT in high doses everyday for six months and who does not seem to suffer from any serious epistemological issues (they contacted me because they had read my analysis of Gura’s month-long experiment and wanted to share their even more extreme experience). The same person has extensive experience (including daily use for months) with DMT, Salvia, DPT and their combinations. They can still hold a technically demanding job and sustain a family despite this. Needless to say, such a level of psychological robustness is exceedingly rare.

Appendix C: The Abstract of the Other Talks

DMTX as a 21st Century Mystery School

A talk by Carl Hayden Smith

This talk will focus on the prospects of being one of the first participants in the world to try DMTX (X=Extended) at Imperial College London (ICL). After being part of the DMT phase 1 and phase 2 trials (over the last 5 years) this research now moves into a whole new level of immersion. During this experiment the peak of the DMT state will be extended thanks to a continuous intravenous drip feeding of the entheogen. This arguably turns this ancient medicine into a new form of technology. Early findings of the research from Chris Timmerman (ICL) suggests that nnDMT produces the same brain signature as the dreaming state. During the extended state we may be better able to explore the hypothesis from Andrew Gallimore that nnDMT actually opens up an entirely novel, orthogonal reality.

The DMTX experiment potentially means that nnDMT could become the base layer of our subjective reality, being combined, exponentially, with everything in life. What are the implications of this? Is there a danger that the psychedelic state is being overly romanticised and that DMTX could be regarded as a new form of bio chemical VR? How will DMTX help with the integration problem? Maybe the problem of bringing our insight back from the liminal space isn’t that these experiences defy verbalization, but that our languages are not yet sufficient enough to describe these experiences.

Increased cortical signal diversity during psychedelic states and visually realistic neural network models of hallucinations

A talk by Michael Schartner

Global states of consciousness – such as general anaesthesia or REM sleep – can be characterised by metrics of signal diversity, showing that diverse cortical activity is a hallmark of consciousness. We found that signal diversity is elevated in classical psychedelic states, possibly explained by a larger repertoire of brain states – which would be in line with reports about openness, novel associations and levelled salience of all experiences during psychedelic states. This coarse description of the brain as a dynamical system with various degrees of diversity in activity is only one dimension to characterise such global states of consciousness. Neural network models of visual perception and its pharmacological perturbation may provide a more mechanistic model, showing how the balanced integration of prior and sensory information into conscious perception is regulated by serotonin.


Note: I am still open to e.g. the external reality of DMT beings. I find it unlikely, but evidence could convince me otherwise. We are not dogmatic about the models we present. Rather, they simply are the current “best fit” for the available evidence in conjunction with parsimony considerations (yes, we could even say that this model is what minimizes our free energy!). Cheers!


References (abstract & talk; Chicago Style):

Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I. and Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nat Commun 7, 10340. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10340

Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M. et al. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Sci Rep 7, 17661. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0

Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2018). The entropic brain -revisited. Neuropharmacology142, 167–178. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2018.03.010.

Carhart-Harris, R. L., and Friston, K. J. (2019). REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics. Pharmacol. Rev.71, 316–344. doi:10.1124/pr.118.017160.

Gomez-Emilsson, A. (2017). Quantifying Bliss. https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/06/18/quantifying-bliss-talk-summary/ [Accessed April 30, 2021].

Gomez-Emilsson, A. (2020). Modeling Psychedelic Tracers with QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit: The Tracer Replication Tool. Qualia Computing. https://qualiacomputing.com/2020/10/09/modeling-psychedelic-tracers-with-qris-psychophysics-toolkit-the-tracer-replication-tool/

Gomez-Emilsson, A. (2020). 5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses. https://qualiacomputing.com/2020/07/01/5-meo-dmt-vs-nn-dmt-the-9-lenses/ [Accessed April 30, 2021].

Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Carducci, M. A., Umbricht, A., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., Cosimano, M. P., and Klinedinst, M. A. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England)30(12), 1181–1197. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675513

Johnson, M. E. (2016). Principia Qualia. https://opentheory.net/PrincipiaQualia.pdf [Accessed April 30, 2021].

Johnson, M. E. (2017). Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation https://opentheory.net/2017/05/why-we-seek-out-pleasure-the-symmetry-theory-of-homeostatic-regulation [Accessed April 30, 2021].

Johnson, M. E. (2019). Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything. https://opentheory.net/2019/11/neural-annealing-toward-a-neural-theory-of-everything/ [Accessed April 30, 2021].

Lehar, S. (1999). Harmonic Resonance Theory: An Alternative to the “Neuron Doctrine” Paradigm of Neurocomputation to Address Gestalt properties of perception. http://slehar.com/wwwRel/webstuff/hr1/hr1.html [Accessed April 30, 2021].

Luppi, A. I., Vohryzek, J., Kringelbach, M. L., Mediano, P. A. M., Craig, M. M., Adapa, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Pappas, I., Finoia, P., Williams, G. B., Allanson, J., Pickard, J. D., Menon, D. K., Atasoy, S., & Stamatakis, E. A. (2020). Connectome Harmonic Decomposition of Human Brain Dynamics Reveals a Landscape of Consciousness [Preprint]. Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.08.10.244459

Ross, S., Bossis, A., Guss, J., Agin-Liebes, G., Malone, T., Cohen, B., Mennenga, S. E., Belser, A., Kalliontzi, K., Babb, J., Su, Z., Corby, P., & Schmidt, B. L. (2016). Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England)30(12), 1165–1180. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675512

Safron, A. (2020). “Strengthened Beliefs Under Psychedelics (SEBUS)? A Commentary on “REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics”” PsyArXiv. November 30. doi:10.31234/osf.io/zqh4b.

Simler, K. (2013). Neurons Gone Wild. Melting Asphalt. https://meltingasphalt.com/neurons-gone-wild/ [Accessed April 30, 2021].

Wu, L., Gomez-Emilsson, A., and Zuckerman, A. (2020). QRI Psychophysics Toolkit, Qualia Research Institutehttps://psychophysics.qualiaresearchinstitute.org

Yaden, D., and Griffiths, R. R. (2020) The Subjective Effects of Psychedelics Are Necessary for Their Enduring Therapeutic Effects. CS Pharmacol. Transl. Sci. 2021, 4, 2, 568–572 https://doi.org/10.1021/acsptsci.0c00194

Welcoming Steven Lehar as a QRI Lineage

by Andrés Gómez Emilsson

Who Is Steven Lehar?

Steven Lehar is many things. A proponent of indirect realism about perception. A champion of analog neural computation based on principles of harmonic resonance. And one of the most insightful and rational psychonauts of all times. His worldview packs a powerful punch of synergistic ideas, and reading his work is a psychoactive experience on multiple levels. Here are some of the highlights that made us decide to include Steven Lehar as a QRI lineage:

“[W]e are living in a scale model, and the scale of the model shrinks progressively with depth, just like a museum diorama, or a theatre set. And at the back plane the scale shrinks to zero, at least in the depth dimension, where everything beyond a certain distance appears flat, as if painted on the dome of the sky. But it only looks that way. It’s an illusion. We know that the world isn’t really warped like that.” Reprinted with permission from “Cartoon Epistemology” by Steven Lehar, p. 12.

Indirect Realism About Perception

Let’s start with indirect realism. This view is often referred to as inferential realismabout perception or representationalism. In simple terms, this view states that all of what you experience (and have ever experienced) exists as an internal representation inside your brain. The representation is absolutely real, but it is not itself the same as the world outside of you. Many people have realized this throughout history such as Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, and John Smythies. Today, the view continues to find proponents such as David Pearce, Donald Hoffman, and Antti Revonsuo. Thus, Lehar has never been alone in advocating for indirect realism. But what Lehar has contributed to the conversation is very substantial: he developed an exquisite map of the geometry and composition of our internal world-simulation that explains it in a way that you will not find anywhere else.

“So visual data is expressed in the visual representation, body posture is represented in the proprioceptive representation, and motor planning is computed in a global motor planning space. But all are coupled to form a single visual/proprioceptive/motor space, which is the space that we experience.” Reprinted with permission from “Cartoon Epistemology” by Steven Lehar, p. 62.

In the world of Steven Lehar, what we are is an analog volumetric bubble of phenomenal qualities made out of several layers interacting with one another (in the image above, the three circles on the left can be thought of as separate layers that combine into the circle on the right). To visualize the shape of our experience (indeed, the shape of us) he often makes an analogy with a diorama: our experience is shaped like a semi-sphere with variable scale. It is finite in volume, yet its peculiar sort of two-and-a-half-dimensional geometry allows it to represent both objects really close and really far at the same time.

In your bubble of experience, things in the distance appear both smaller and appropriately scaled. Indeed, “the point at infinity” is not infinitely far away! It merely represents an infinite distance via a projective trick, but the representation itself is of a finite size! Lehar argues that our experience is not 3D Euclidean, but rather non-Euclidean close to the homunculi (the empty head from which you look out into the world-simulation) and becomes more Euclidean the further away from this head you go.

“A: At first, an infant sees its own hand balloon up to double its size whenever its hand approaches its face. B: Eventually the infant re-maps the scale of its experienced space, allowing the hand to zoom up in sensory size while remaining constant in perceived size. C: But the infant still sees its mother balloon up from a tiny figure in the distance to an all-encompassing form, until D: it learns to re-map even that more distant space to maintain a constant perceived size, although the world outside the window continues to appear as a miniature scale model.” Reprinted with permission from “The Boundaries of Human Knowledge” by Steven Lehar, p. 69.

In some sense, to be a human is to embody a sack of meat. But if we pay really close attention and want to convey the actual structure of our experience, we end up saying that to be a human is to be this weirdly-shaped diorama-like world-simulation! You are not in the Matrix. You are the Matrix, my friend!

Lehar has cultivated and shaped an entire garden of phenomenological insights that emerge when you try to describe “the world” in this way. Just to give an example, a recurring theme in Lehar’s writings is that of “perceptual shadows.” In our world-simulation, we have incredible ray-tracing algorithms that simulate the way light scatters off objects. So we are acquainted with shadows that exist due to the absence of light. But there is also another kind of shadow, which is created when reality is represented using projective geometry: perceptual shadows are the shadows cast by the objects around you when they occlude the objects behind them. A large part of what makes our world-simulation so incredibly compelling is that it deals with missing information in very elegant ways. To understand how it does this, a key insight that Lehar provides is that our world-simulation contains both modal and amodal representations. The modal representations are what we traditionally associate with the senses: colors, sounds, touch, and so on. The amodal representations refer to the implicit geometric layout of the contents of our experience, which remain “dark” until you illuminate them with sensory modalities. This dichotomy allows us to understand why perceptual shadows don’t make objects truly disappear from our world-simulation (as long as we have developed object permanence, that is). The seamless handling of the perceptual shadows caused by occlusions showcases this fact: our phenomenal space contains amodal volumetric representations in addition to the visual “surface representations” we are familiar with. In other words, our inner world-simulation keeps track of rigid bodies even when we can’t see them directly!

A number of spheres floating in space, expressed as modal front surfaces and amodal volumes. If all of the modal surfaces point back towards a single viewpoint, that configuration of modal surfaces itself implies the presence of that viewpoint.” Reprinted with permission from “The Boundaries of Human Knowledge” by Steven Lehar, p. 36.

Another interesting nugget of insight is that in Lehar’s world, forces inside the world-simulation bias your motor actions and this is what renders and implements desire and disgust. In other words, there is something unexpectedly literal about saying that you are “attracted” to someone or something, or that an object or person “repulses” you! The way these forces are implemented can be conceptualized as fields that encode “how you would move at each point”. This proprioception is what guides the movement of our inner amodal avatar and how we plan sequences of actions.

“Motor computation takes the form of spatial field-like forces in that space, that bend the body-image homunculus into different postures.” Reprinted with permission from “Cartoon Epistemology” by Steven Lehar, p. 51F.

Lehar makes us realize that as we navigate our environment, we move along something like a liquid membrane amenable to what feels like volitional influence, which guides our movement. This “force field” lives at the interface between our motor sensations and the volumetric representation of the external environment, and it works as a map between these two modes of experience.

The entire representation is robust in response to the vast majority of common actions we can take. The amodal representations of our environment get projected adequately as we move around and take on a new point of view. Many aspects of our world are rendered as invariant relative to body movement, head movement, or eye movement, and this is one of the ways in which our world-simulation instantiates a realistic experience of (perceptual) object permanence.

Ultimately, Steven Lehar is championing a steelmanned version of indirect realism which goes into much more precise phenomenological detail than any of its predecessors.

One may perhaps complain that Lehar is merely “stating the obvious.” Although indirect realism is a view that in many circles is widely shared and assumed, making it explicit still holds a lot of value. Indeed, Lehar points out that in the majority of the world, there seems to be an unrecognized level of variation in how much direct realism is implicitly believed. I used to be under the impression that most smart people who think about these questions automatically arrive at a view in the space of indirect realism about perception. But Lehar points out that in reality, we see both implicit and explicit direct realism even in places as “advanced” as neuroscience departments. Lehar’s visual demonstrations of indirect realism do an amazing job pointing at this unstated disagreement; indeed, the person sitting right next to you at a conference may in fact be an implicit direct realist about perception! No wonder you were never able to agree on what consciousness is.

The fact that so many people turn out to be unreflective direct realists about perception brings to mind Scott Alexander’s discussion on missing developmental stages (2015; see excerpt in Appendix A). In the piece, Scott Alexander lists four types of understanding that are obvious in retrospect but very commonly missed: “1. Ability to distinguish ‘the things my brain tells me’ from ‘reality’”, “2. Ability to model other people as having really different mind-designs from theirs”, “3. Ability to think probabilistically and tolerate uncertainty”, and “4. Understanding the idea of trade-offs.” In this light, a lot of Steven Lehar’s work focuses on trying to upgrade philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience so that people in those fields intuitively understand the first ability Alexander outlines. Lehar’s corpus is like a remedial class for the slow students of philosophy, if you will—helping them through the whole developmental process by making it easier to digest. Thus, Lehar’s work can help us systematically update all kinds of philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific arguments by exposing them to a high level of clarity and rigor concerning indirect realism. This process clarifies a huge amount of confusion and paradoxes many people in these fields are often consumed by.

In practice, if you listen to the questions in the Q&A portion of panels about consciousness at conferences, or read between the lines in journals of philosophy, neuroscience, and even AI, you will find that a large proportion of the speakers, writers, and attendees do work under the assumption of direct realism about perception. Even if only 30% of people at science conferences are implicit direct realists (which would be a conservative estimate), we would still expect no shortage of resistance and controversy when indirect realism is brought up. My personal experience is that often at these events, it is precisely when the conversation starts to get very good and become high quality that someone who doesn’t “get it” inevitably derails the conversation with questions typical of a direct realist. And while diversity of opinion can at times be an asset, my experience is that the most satisfying, useful, and consequential conversations are precisely those that take place between people who share almost all background philosophical assumptions. This more often than not gives me the impression that grouping people who are at similar developmental levels (in the realm of philosophy) would likely generate more useful discussions. Not that it isn’t fun to get people with widely different points of view together and get them all mixed up: it is always fascinating to observe the dialectical turbulence that ensues. But a serious investigation calls for more explicit foundational agreement on many levels. As much as I actively enjoy the state of consciousness induced by attending The Science of Consciousness (Gomez Emilsson, 2016a) conference (and delight in its unlikely yet amazing cultural products), I cannot shake off the impression that there is a lot of friction in conversations caused by the vast mismatches between the background assumptions of the participants. A conference that brings together over a thousand participants interested in consciousness from disciplines like philosophy, psychology, and artificial intelligence without any filter for background assumptions is a wonderful recipe for a trippy time. One would hope it could also generate conversations where consensus is achieved. It is in contexts like this where the tireless work of Steven Lehar—explaining in astonishing detail the various components and properties of our experience (and its peculiar artifacts) in order to make it as clear as possible that all we ever experience is an inner world-simulation—is extremely valuable at the community level. Seriously, printing massive copies of Lehar’s Cartoon Epistemology (2003) and installing them in a hall of the conference lobby would be an excellent way to increase the quality and clarity of the discussions.

This fact alone makes him someone we are happy to include as part of our lineages. Having “Lehar-aware” conversations about consciousness often takes people to the next level quickly. At QRI, we want to endorse having these ideas in the background along with the key insights obtained from each of the other lineages when creating the conditions for a qualia formalist science of consciousness (Gomez Emilsson, 2018a). 

But wait, there is more!

Analog Neural Computation Using Principles of Harmonic Resonance

The very heart of Lehar’s work outlines how harmonic resonance shows up as a principle of self-organization in the mind.

“A: A periodic banded pattern revealed by chemical staining emerges in a developing embryo, due to a chemical harmonic resonance whose standing waves mark the embryonic tissue for future growth. B: This chemical harmonic resonance has been identified as the mechanism behind the formation of patterns in animal skins, as well as for the periodicity in the vertebrae of vertebrates, the bilateral symmetry of the body plan, as well as the periodicity of the bones in the limbs and fingers. C: Murray shows the connection between chemical and vibrational standing waves by replicating the patterns of leopard spots and zebra stripes in the standing wave resonances in a vibrating steel sheet cut in the form of an animal skin.” Reprinted from “Harmonic Resonance Theory” by Steven Lehar.

Steven Lehar argued against the (at the time) prevailing neuron doctrine of neural computation which states that the contents of our experience are the result of the activity of highly discrete and individualized neurons that “encode” high-level features (such as a “grandma cell”). Importantly, Lehar points out that there is a key distinction between “rendering” an experience and merely “encoding” it. If you look for neurons that get activated if and only if a certain experience is happening you will be inadvertently mapping out how the brain encodes information rather than how it renders it. Failing to make this distinction will trap you in a worldview that is extremely hard to square with phenomenological facts. Of note is that our internal representations are flexible, a fact that the neuron doctrine finds really difficult to account for. As he puts it in “Harmonic Resonance Theory”:

There are several properties of the harmonic resonance model that are suggestive of human recognition. Unlike a rigid template, the pattern defined by a standing wave representation is elastic and adaptive. This can be seen in the manner that the spatial patterns of animal skins are defined. The parameters of the reaction-diffusion that distinguish between the spots and stripes of the tiger, zebra, leopard, and giraffe are encoded as general rules for the generation of those patterns rather than as a spatial template of any one such pattern. For example if a spot or stripe were to be fixed at one point as the pattern was emerging, the rest of the pattern would redistribute itself to adapt to that fixed feature while maintaining the general character of the encoded pattern. This invariance in the representation allows one set of parameters to generate an infinite variety of exemplars of any particular pattern type, or to adapt most flexibly to any fixed constraints or boundary conditions. (Lehar, 1999)

This flexibility of our internal representations is essential for understanding how the brain solves the “binding problem”: how is it possible that distributed neuron firings can simultaneously contribute to a unified internal representation? Indeed, Lehar takes the binding problem seriously and his solution involves resonance across spatial and temporal levels. This way, one can get representations that “lock in” low-level features to the high-level phenomenal objects that integrate them. In turn, our world-simulation works in a holistic fashion: every part of it pulls and pushes every other part of it. He explains it well in this interview:

Q: What would be the new paradigm in neuroscience? 

A: The first thing that it will change is our concept of how the brain works. Right now we are in a neuro-reductionist era where people are making probes ever smaller and smaller to read into tinier and tinier parts of the brain and read the signal there and try to make some kind of sense out of it. The paradigm that they are thinking is discrete connections between individual neurons mediated by synapses. And separate individual signals going every different direction. What we see in consciousness is a much more holistic process. Something like water seeking its own level in a vessel, where the final state of the water depends on every position of every other molecule. If you change one portion, scoop out some water in one place or dump some in some other place, every single molecule in the bath quickly readjusts itself in order to seek a new level. It is a different paradigm of computation. It is what the gestaltists proposed: field theories of mind, not in the terms of fields of mental energy propagating out into the world, but fields of physical energy in the brain interacting with each other in a holistic manner the way that water seeks its own level in a vessel. (Sandu, 2016)

In Lehar’s world, the three-dimensional volumetric representations that we experience “around us” are internal representations made with a hierarchy of patterns of resonance which are mode-locked with one another. From the tiniest detail to the broadest outline, when we experience a phenomenal object as “rigid”, we are in fact experiencing a complex network of resonating patterns locked in place as a stable “solution” of a network of tuned oscillators. In other words, the binding problem is solved explicitly by hierarchical resonance at all levels. This model can explain many of the bizarre effects of psychedelics (which we’ll discuss further below) in terms of a decoupling between the resonance of the different levels! Or as Lehar would put it, “everything on LSD looks like a Fourier representation with the high-frequencies chopped off”, meaning that the fine details that would usually cancel out the broad repeating patterns of low-frequency resonance are desynchronized, and thus objects look as if they were filled with symmetrical and resonating filigree patterns!

Since Lehar worked on “Harmonic Resonance Theory,” there have been many advancements in neuroscience and the field of AI. In particular, two very noteworthy connections should be highlighted. The first is the work of Selen Atasoy (who is also one of QRI’s lineages) on connectome-specific harmonic waves (2016). Atasoy, like Lehar, identified principles of harmonic resonance in physics and biology (such as Murray’s leopard spots and zebra stripes in the standing waves of vibrating sheets of steel) and decided to apply them to the brain. Unlike Lehar, Atasoy found an empirically measurable aspect of the brain amenable to this kind of modeling: the connectome. Thus, Atasoy’s work enables the study of the standing waves that Lehar hinted at qualitatively, but now in an empirical and quantitative way.

“(a) Laplace eigenfunctions revealing the mechanical vibrations of rectangular metal plates (1st row)—first demonstrated by Ernst Chladni as patterns formed by sand on vibrating metal plates—and metal plates shaped as mammalian skin (2nd row) resembling different mammalian coat patterns for different frequency vibrations [sic] as well as electron orbits of the hydrogen atom computed by time-independent Schrödinger’s wave function (3rd row)—shown with increasing energy from left to right—and patterns emerging in electromagnetic interactions between laser-excited ion crystals (last row) (images adapted from). (b) Workflow for the construction of macroscale connectome model. The graph representation was formed by connecting each node sampled from the cortical surface with its immediate local neighbours and by further including the long-range connections between the end points of the cortico-cortical and thalamo-cortical fibres. (c) Examples from the 20 lowest frequency connectome harmonics. Left: wave number. Right: spatial patterns of synchronous oscillations estimated by the eigenvectors of the connectome Laplacian.” Reprinted from “Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves” in Nature Communications by Selen Atasoy et al.

In this way, the work of Atasoy and Lehar can be thought of as complementary rather than redundant: Lehar brings the phenomenological observations and arguments whereas Atasoy comes up with the precise empirical quantitative paradigm. Along these lines, we can already see possible extensions of this work. Namely, as we find more core structural scaffolds of the nervous system, we can examine them in light of a paradigm of harmonic resonance by building high-definition structural models, empirically extracting their corresponding wave equations, and then numerically approximating the emergent resonant modes of such structures. The beauty of this paradigm is that suddenly, large amounts of self-organizing complexity can be compressed in terms of weighted sums of harmonic resonant modes. At QRI, we consider this general paradigm to be extremely promising and endorse exploring how the overlap between these two great researchers leads to novel models of neural computation. 

The second development that is important to point out is how advancements in artificial neural networks seem to have brought back the neuron doctrine with a vengeance. You get the impression that feature visualization techniques (Olah et al., 2017) allow us to make sense of what each neuron in a network “does.” Recent work at OpenAI takes this further and identifies recurring principles of self-organization that emerge in artificial neural networks (i.e. circuit motifs (Olah et al., 2020)).

The key to make sense of this is to recall the distinction between encoding and rendering. In Lehar’s world, populations of neurons that implement specific kinds of pattern recognition are in fact tuned resonators. Think of these resonators as having the function of adding clamps or pinches to a vibrating Chladni plate: the actual experience being rendered is the pattern of standing waves that emerge from the pinched plate, not the pinches themselves. While there is an extremely detailed correspondence between the content of experience and these clamps, what the experience is requires the pattern of standing waves to happen. Thus, insofar as artificial neural networks do not bring about such standing waves, they will simply and forever fail to render the contents of any experience.

“A: A bank of tuned resonators tuned to the frequency of three specific standing wave patterns are coupled to the plate to behave as feature detectors, that become active whenever their pattern of standing waves is present on the plate. B: The system automatically performs reification with recognition, for the activation of any of the resonators regenerates its characteristic standing wave pattern back on the plate. C: If the plate is resting on rubber ridges in the form of one of the standing wave patterns, the ridges behave as an input pattern, forcing the resonance on the plate to conform to the pattern of the input.” Reprinted with permission from “Harmonic Resonance Theory” by Steven Lehar.

Naturally, this is a testable view, since we can in principle manipulate the standing wave patterns directly (with e.g. transcranial magnetic stimulation). At QRI, we expect that in the future, this distinction will be extremely important. Without it, we would be at risk of thinking that specific computations done in digital computers entail qualia even though there is in fact no “rendering of experience” going on at all in the computational system as a whole.

A final note on this discussion is that Steven Lehar also has a theory of aesthetics. Foreshadowing the Symmetry Theory of Valence, first suggested by Johnson (2016), Lehar proposes a theory of aesthetics based on principles of harmonic resonance that explains our preference for symmetrical patterns. See the excerpt below titled “A Psycho-Aesthetic Hypothesis” in Appendix A. Thus, another key parallel between Lehar’s work and our models at QRI is that we have a non-standard interpretation of neuroanatomical functional localization. In particular, we think that the impression that “pleasure is what goes on in the pleasure centers” is at least in part an artifact of our measuring tools. As Michael Johnson postulates, the reason why activating the pleasure centers feels good is because they are strategically positioned in such a way that you get large-scale (consonant) resonance across the brain. In other words, the pleasure centers are “tuning knobs” for global synchrony in the brain! Thus, they are a kind of “master clamp” for harmonic resonance in the brain. What feels good is such resonance and not the activation of the pleasure centers per se. Don’t expect to find “beauty” in a single neuron; both Lehar and QRI will be quick to point out that beauty is a holistic property of a holistic system!

But wait, there is more!

Rational Psychonaut

Steven Lehar is a rational psychonaut: many of his insights are the result of paying close attention to the way specific aspects of experience break down under various states of consciousness. More so, Lehar’s clarity about indirect realism makes him a rather unusual and valuable psychonaut. As he points out, when you take a psychedelic you either “discover a new and deeply mysterious portal to a parallel dimension of reality like John Lilly, Timothy Leary, and Terrence Mackenna” or you realize that the features of your inner world-simulation are changing in ways that give the impression that alternate realities exist (Lehar, 2019). In other words, implicit theories of perception influence how one interprets alien state-spaces of consciousness! For example, even Albert Hoffman seemed to have been working under the implicit assumption of direct realism about perception:

If one continues with the conception of reality as a product of sender and receiver, then the entry of another reality under the influence of LSD may be explained by the fact that the brain, the seat of the receiver, becomes biochemically altered. The receiver is thereby tuned into another wavelength than that corresponding to normal, everyday reality. Since the endless variety and diversity of the universe correspond to infinitely many different wavelengths, depending on the adjustment of the receiver, many different realities, including the respective ego, can become conscious. (Hofmann, 1980)

Talking about psychedelic states of consciousness in light of indirect realism is really refreshing. Now, I am not saying that productive discussions within a direct realism framework cannot be had. But we often find that many unproductive discussions are the result of having a (implicit) direct realist and an (implicit) indirect realist analyze psychedelic experiences without knowing that they don’t share the same key background philosophical assumption. And this is the state of the discourse today! This muddled situation manifests all the way into presentations at the Psychedelic Science and Horizons conferences, for example, where presentations typically straddle between these views. The ambiguity tends to be better received by the audience; leaving implicit background assumptions unchallenged avoids conflict but slows down progress. So the state of the discourse is one where ambiguity about this is rewarded! No wonder the field is so confused and confusing. And in turn we find ourselves endlessly debating the “external reality” of DMT elves rather than moving on to talk about more productive questions such as the geometry, valence, and computational properties of the hallucinated worlds (Gomez Emilsson, 2019).

Of course in reality there are many “middle points” between direct and indirect realism with regards to models of psychedelic action. A hybrid view that a lot of people seem to implicitly hold is one where all we ever experience are the contents of our internal world-simulation, but that some “channels” of this inner world-simulation can be mode-locked with external “subtle” phenomena (e.g. explaining “contact high” as a “subtle body resonance between people”). That said, applying Occam’s razor, it is rational to first try to explain the zoo of psychedelic effects (Gomez Emilsson, 2016b) in terms of changes to the parameters of our inner world-simulation, and only when we cannot explain some phenomena, return to alternative explanation spaces. What Steven Lehar and other rational psychonauts highlight is that the original psychedelic visionaries seemed to have “given up” too quickly on an indirect realist model (or perhaps they were always implicit direct realists on some level). It is refreshing and reassuring to read Lehar’s comments about having experienced things like “out of body experiences,” “bilocation,” “fragmentation of the point of view,” “telepathy,” and so on and yet continue to interpret these phenomena in light of parameter changes inside a world-simulation. It shows that one can indeed stay rational, analytical, and grounded even after experiencing the extremely exotic states of consciousness psychoactives can trigger.

In his book The Grand Illusion (2010), Lehar walks us through his journey as a psychonaut. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this work is one of the absolute best pieces of content concerning the phenomenology of altered states of consciousness induced by psychoactive drugs. The entire book is filled with keen, poignant, and crisp observations which are “obvious in retrospect” yet easy to miss in the moment. To name a few:

  1. Point of view fragmentation is a phenomenon that happens on psychedelics where your visual field segments into various parts, each with its own projective point of perspective. Lehar explains that one can modulate this phenomenon by the extent to which one relaxes and unfocuses versus how much one moves around and interacts with the world: “This discovery greatly enhanced my ability to explore the deeper spaces of consciousness revealed by the drug, while providing an insurance against the natural panic that tends to arise with the dissolution of the self, and the world around you. It allowed me to descend into the depths of the experience while maintaining a life line back to consensual reality, like a spelunker descending into the bowels of the deep underground cavern of my mind, while always able to return safely to the surface. And what a splendid and magnificent cavern it was that I discovered within my mind!” (p. 23-24). 
  2. Lehar’s ideas about annealing in the context of ketamine foreshadowed QRI’s framework of neural annealing (Johnson, 2019) and Carhart-Harris’ model of entropic disintegration (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014) by many years: “The totally confused clamped-down experience described above, applies only to the first phase of the Ketamine high. After maybe a dozen or so Ketamine experiences, I began to see a larger pattern in it, as whatever it was that clamped my thoughts slowly began to loosen its grip during the time course of each trip, and my thoughts gradually felt ever more freedom of motion, as first (metaphorically speaking) I could move my hands and feet, then my arms and legs, then my head, and eventually my whole body was released from the grip of the drug and slowly returned to normal integrated consciousness. The last stages, just before a rather abrupt and stepwise return to normal awareness, were the most emotionally powerful and stupendously magnificent, as the largest chunks of reality finally coalesced into an integrated experience” (p. 81).
  3. According to Lehar, MDMA’s nystagmus is just a special case of a more general jittering that MDMA causes in one’s inner world-simulation across the board: “[T]here is a kind of jitteriness across the whole visual field. And this jitteriness is so pronounced that it can manifest itself in your eyeballs, that jitter back and forth at a blinding speed. If you relax, and just let the jitters take over, the oscillations of your eyes will blur the whole scene into a peculiar double image. But if you concentrate, and focus, the ocular jitter can be made to subside, and thus become less noticeable or bothersome. One of my friends got the ocular jitters so bad that he could not control them, and that prevented him from having a good time. That was the last time he took ecstasy. I however found it enchanting. And I analyzed that subtle jitteriness more carefully. It was not caused exclusively by jittering of the eyeball, but different objects in the perceived world also seemed to jitter endlessly between alternate states. In fact, all perceived objects jittered in this manner, creating a fuzzy blur between alternate states. This was interesting for a psychonaut! It seemed to me that I could see the mechanism of my visual brain sweeping out the image of my experience right before my eyes, like the flying spot of light that paints the television picture on the glowing phosphor screen. The refresh rate of my visual mechanism had slowed to such a point as to make this sweep visible to me” (p. 60).
  4. Lehar offers a unique interpretation of how LSD and MDMA interact with one another which is compatible with our model of negative valence as neural dissonance (Gomez Emilsson, 2017a): “Under LSD and ecstasy I could see the flickering blur of visual generation most clearly. And I saw peculiar ornamental artifacts on all perceived objects, like a Fourier representation with the higher harmonics chopped off. LSD by itself creates sharply detailed ornamental artifacts, like a transparent overlay of an ornamental lattice or filigree pattern superimposed on the visual scene, especially in darkness. Ecstasy smooths out those sharp edges and blurs them into a creamy smooth rolling experience” (p. 61).
  5. Lehar identified a family of states of consciousness where the content of experience is modifiable at will. He coined the term “Free-wheeling hallucinations” to refer to this state (hear his description in an interview). And see my detailed discussion (Gomez Emilsson, 2021) about free-wheeling hallucinations. Here’s the original quote: “[DXM] gives you the power to produce full free-wheeling hallucinations on demand! You can experience virtually anything you want, if you can just imagine it! Those of you who are familiar with the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, the ability to have startlingly real and vibrant dreams which can also be brought under voluntary control, already know of this wonderous capacity of the human mind, to build complete synthetic hallucinated worlds of visual experience every bit as vivid and apparently real as the waking world. If nothing else, this should clearly clinch the case for the World In Your Head” (p. 63-64).

And so much more. So, do me a favor and next time you experience a free-wheeling hallucination, please construct a virtual Steven Lehar and let him guide you through its parameter space! “Move the force-field flow over here into there and ta-da, you get this vortex effect! Now create a box and try to listen to it! Use that sound to shape this chair over here – doesn’t it become more box-like? How fascinating, isn’t it?” In fact, why not construct a whole “museum of the mind” in one’s free-wheeling hallucination? A kind of Disneyland but for exotic phenomenal objects! If you do this, please say hi to Steve from us!

Adjacent to his work as a rational psychonaut, Lehar produced a fascinating essay on the topic of alien contact (Lehar, n.d.). I consider that piece to be a wonderful “memetic vaccine” against some of the possible failure modes of psychonautical investigation. As it turns out, an explosive combination of implicit direct realism, high-energy, high-definition experience, and the natural human need to feel really important makes it so that a large fraction of people who experiment with DMT end up believing that they are contacting entities from another dimension. Now, we know that Lehar interprets such experiences of alien contact to be all “in your head.” But even if they weren’t, Lehar urges caution! He argues that even if the elves were mind-independent, you probably wouldn’t want to ally with them. Why? Because they are likely to be extremely persuasive marketeers rather than actual helpers or saviors. Lehar is not persuaded by the Siren Calls of the DMT machine elves and neither should you be. Else, we may simply end up doing the bidding of these creatures, which would more likely than not result in preparing the conditions for their replication (see Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators (Gomez Emilsson, 2017b)). Now that’s some serious resolve for being “the adult in the room” of psychonauts!

Virtual Reality panel: Paavo Pylkannen, Steve Lehar, Maria Sanchez-Vives at Towards the Science of Consciousness 2006. Reprinted with permission from “Photos from Tucson 2006” by David Chalmers.

Miscellaneous

Lehar’s world is really vast, and what we have outlined above just scratches the surface of the musings of a great thinker (see Clifford Algebra: A visual introduction (Lehar, 2014)). In reality, Lehar has given thought to pretty much every area of philosophy (for Lehar’s views on eternalism vs. presentism, see the “Frozen Time” excerpt in Appendix A). A stark example for me that demonstrates how vast his sphere of thought is and how far it reaches is that when I first contacted him, I mentioned that I was thinking of ways to represent 3D hyperbolic space with gradient index optics (Gomez Emilsson, 2018b). In turn, he mentioned that he had already also considered something similar and that I could in fact find an old discussion of his in one of his books about the topic (see: picture below). This exchange, among others, is what made me feel that QRI and Lehar are indeed really hanging out on the same wavelength across many dimensions of thought.

“Standing wave resonance patterns viewed in cross-section of an infinite bounded sphere in which  the refractive index varies with distance from the center, reaching infinite refractive index (zero wave propagation velocity) at the bounding surface of the sphere. A: Concentric pattern. B: Linear perspective pattern. C: Checkerboard pattern. D: Hexagonal pattern. E: Higher harmonics on a hexagonal pattern. F: Higher harmonics on a checkerboard pattern.” Reprinted with permission from Harmonic Resonance in the Brain, Chapter 3, Figure 3.15 p. 34 (not available online) by Steven Lehar.

How the Work of Steven Lehar Interacts with Other QRI Lineages

David Pearce would point out that hedonic tone is an extremely important aspect of our world-simulation! You see, the rabbit hole goes deeper. If you are repulsed by the idea of indirect realism about perception because it makes you feel like a prisoner of your mind, it will turn out that you are now under the spell of an implicit direct realism about the connection between ideas and hedonic tone. In a happy and ecstatic state, you can in fact experience the idea of the world in your head as rather funny, curious, and perhaps even comforting! So the way in which ideas get represented includes a whole gamut of shades of affect that “paint” them. From hilarity to existential dread, the affective component of experience is coercive in how it shapes our interpretations of reality. Thinking about deep questions can give you the impression that the world is scary and unsettling or mysterious and amazing, all depending on your mood. The task of paradise engineering is not to be realized by modifying the external world (or at least that’s not at the heart of the transformation). Rather, it is about zoning in on the affective texture of experience and finding functional substitutes devoid of misery. Really, in this light, paradise engineering is just extremely advanced interior design.

Similarly, we find a lot of overlap and complementarity between Lehar’s work and other QRI lineages. As we continue to weave together these diverse models of neural computation, we expect to see a lot of synergy emerge. In time, we will outline how each component of the ecosystem synergizes with the rest. For now, please join me in welcoming Steven Lehar to our lineages! Welcome, Steven!

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman for providing comments and edits to this essay. Also thanks to Anders Amelin and Maggie Wassinge for pointing out the lineage-worthy contributions of Steven Lehar.

References

Alexander, S. (2015). What Developmental Milestones Are You Missing?. Slate Star Codex. https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/11/03/what-developmental-milestones-are-you-missing/

Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I., & Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nature communications, 7(1), 1-10.

Carhart-Harris R. L., Leech R., Hellyer P. J., Shanahan M., Feilding A., Tagliazucchi E., et al. (2014). The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:20. 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020 

Gomez Emilsson, A. (2016). Qualia Computing in Tucson: The Magic Analogy. Qualia Computing. https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/05/01/qualia-computing-in-tucson-the-magic-analogy/

Gomez Emilsson A. (2016). Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States. Qualia Computing. https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/06/20/algorithmic-reduction-of-psychedelic-states/

Gomez Emilsson, A. (2017). Quantifying Bliss. Qualia Research Institute. https://www.qualiaresearchinstitute.org/s/Quantifying-Bliss.pdf

Gomez Emilsson, A. (2017). The Universal Plot: Part I – Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. Qualia Research Institute. https://www.qualiaresearchinstitute.org/s/The_Universal_Plot__Part_I___Consciousness_vs__Pure_Replicators.pdf

Gomez Emilsson, A. (2018). Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply: Reflections on The Science of Consciousness 2018. Qualia Computing. https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/05/01/qualia-computing-in-tucson-the-magic-analogy/

Gomez Emilsson, A. (2018). Materializing Hyperbolic Spaces with Gradient-Index Optics and One-Way Mirrors. Qualia Computing. https://qualiacomputing.com/2018/08/19/materializing-hyperbolic-spaces-with-gradient-index-optics-and-one-way-mirrors/

Gomez Emilsson, A. (2019). The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (@Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club). Qualia Research Institute YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/loCBvaj4eSg

Gomez Emilsson, A. (2021). Free-Wheeling Hallucinations: Be the Free-Willed God of Your Inner World-Simulation. Andrés Gómez Emilsson YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/o1wjDOwXjY4

Hofmann, A. (1980). LSD: my problem child. Psychedelic Reflections, 24.

Johnson, M. (2016). Principia Qualia. Open Theory. https://opentheory.net/PrincipiaQualia.pdf

Johnson, M. (2019). Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything. Qualia Research Institute. https://www.qualiaresearchinstitute.org/s/Neural-Annealing.pdf

Lehar, S. (1999). Harmonic Resonance Theory: An Alternative to the “Neuron Doctrine” Paradigm of Neurocomputation to Address Gestalt properties of perception. Steven Lehar’s Homepage. http://slehar.com/wwwRel/webstuff/hr1/hr1.html

Lehar, S. (2002). The Function of Conscious Experience: An Analogical Paradigm of Perception and Behavior. Steven Lehar’s Homepage. http://slehar.com/wwwRel/webstuff/consc1/consc1a.html

Lehar, S. (2003). Cartoon Epistemology. Steven Lehar’s Homepage. http://slehar.com/wwwRel//cartoonepist/cartoonepist62.html

Lehar, S. (2004). The Boundaries of Human Knowledge: A Phenomenological Epistemology or Waking Up in a Strange Place. Steven Lehar’s Homepage. http://slehar.com/wwwRel/webstuff/book2/Boundaries.html

Lehar, S. (2014). Clifford Algebra: A visual introduction. Steven Lehar’s Blog. https://slehar.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/clifford-algebra-a-visual-introduction/

Lehar, S. (2010). The Grand Illusion: A psychonautical odyssey into the depths of human experience. Steven Lehar’s Homepage. http://slehar.com/wwwRel/GrandIllusion.pdf

Lehar, S. (2019, November 30). Steven Lehar – Do We Live in the Real World? (@Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club). Zuck This YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/WPZ9WMvtbi0

Lehar, S. (n. d.). Alien Contact- it won’t happen the way you expect!. Steven Lehar’s Homepage. http://slehar.com/wwwRel/webstuff/space/aliens.html

Lehar, S. (n. d.) The Two Worlds of Reality. Steven Lehar’s Homepage. http://slehar.com/wwwRel//webstuff/book/chap1.html

Olah, C., Mordvintsev, A., Schubert, L. (2017). Feature Visualization: How neural networks build up their understanding of images. Distill. https://distill.pub/2017/feature-visualization/

Olah, C., Cammarata, N., Schubert, L., Goh, G., Petrov, M., Carter, S. (2020). Zoom In: An Introduction to Circuits. Distill. https://distill.pub/2020/circuits/zoom-in/

Sandu, Alin. (2016, February 7). Nondualita – STEVEN LEHAR  [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/JQ51vrnbAHA

Appendix A: Excerpts

The Dimensions of Conscious Experience 

Quote from page 21 of “The Function of Conscious Experience” by Steve Lehar:

Once we accept the fact that the world of visual consciousness is a pattern of energy in our physical brain, we can begin to examine that conscious experience to see what it might tell us about its neurophysiological correlate. The practice of phenomenology for investigating mental function was more popular before modern neuroscience introduced a new concept of neurocomputation that seems inconsistent with phenomenological observation. (Vernon 1937, 1952, Gregory 1981, Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1998, Smythies 1953, 1988, 1994, 1999, Koffka 1935, Köhler 1924) The most basic and salient fact of visual consciousness is that it appears as a three-dimensional spatial structure (Vernon 1952, p. 81- 92). More specifically, the phenomenal world is composed of solid volumes, bounded by colored surfaces, embedded in a spatial void. Every point on every visible surface is perceived at an explicit spatial location in three-dimensions (Clark 1993), and all of the visible points on a perceived object like a cube or a sphere, or this page, are perceived simultaneously in the form of continuous surfaces in depth. The perception of multiple transparent surfaces, as well as the experience of empty space between the observer and a visible surface, reveals that multiple depth values can be perceived at any spatial location. The information content of perception can therefore be characterized as a three-dimensional volumetric data structure in which every point can encode either the experience of transparency, or the experience of a perceived color at that location. Since perceived color is expressed in the three dimensions of hue, intensity, and saturation, the perceived world can be expressed as a six-dimensional manifold (Clark 1993), with three spatial and three color dimensions.

The Cartesian Theatre and the Homunculus Problem 

Quote from pages 21-22 of “The Function of Conscious Experience” by Steve Lehar:

This “picture-in-the-head” or “Cartesian theatre” concept of visual representation has been criticized on the grounds that there would have to be a miniature observer to view this miniature internal scene, resulting in an infinite regress of observers within observers. However this argument is invalid, for there is no need for an internal observer of the scene, since the internal representation is simply a data structure like any other data in a computer, except that this data is expressed in spatial form. If the existence of a spatial data structure required a homunculus to view it, the same objection would also apply to symbolic or verbal information in the brain, i.e. epistemic as opposed to sensory perception, which would also require a homunculus to read or interpret that data. In fact any information encoded in the brain needs only to be available to other internal processes rather than to a miniature copy of the whole brain. To deny the spatial nature of the perceptual representation is to deny the spatial nature so clearly evident in the world we perceive around us. To paraphrase Descartes, it is not only the existence of myself that is verified by the fact that I think, but when I experience the vivid spatial presence of objects in the phenomenal world, those objects are certain to exist, at least in the form of a subjective experience, with properties as I experience them to have, i.e. location, spatial extension, color, and shape. I think them, therefore they exist. All that remains uncertain is whether those percepts exist also as objective external objects as well as internal perceptual ones, and whether their perceived properties correspond to objective properties. But their existence in my internal perceptual world is beyond question if I experience them, even if only as a hallucination.

Frozen Time

Quote from pages 67-68 of “The Boundaries of Human Knowledge: A Phenomenological Epistemology or Waking Up in a Strange Place” by Steven Lehar:

If time were a frozen dimension as proposed above, that would do considerable violence to our everyday notions of causality, and thereby radically alter our view of all causal explanations. For example the first, most basic feature of causality is that matter that exists has a tendency to continue to exist. (unless it happens to decay into energy, which then also continues to exist) In frozen space-time, this means that particles of matter no longer appear as points moving through empty space, but they become long spaghetti strands extending continuously through the time dimension. The causal property of persistence has thereby been transformed into a geometrical or structural feature in frozen spacetime, something like the logic of static structures, whereby a block will never be found hanging unsupported in space, but must always be supported by other blocks that rest on still other blocks all the way down to the supporting ground. Likewise, the explanation for the logic of evolution is dramatically altered when viewed in frozen spacetime. It can no longer be said that if an organism adapts to its environment it will continue to propagate, otherwise it will go extinct. Instead, we would have to say that there are many parallel and branching threads of life from the first living thing stretching on toward the future, together with countless side-branches of life that peter out because they don’t stretch forward in time toward the future, but break up into disorganized lifeless matter. The conventional causal explanation becomes as tautological in frozen spacetime as saying that the only branches of a tree that grow to great heights are those that grow upward, otherwise they never grow to great heights. A causal law has been transformed into a structural feature of the time-line of life. I do not propose that the static formulation of frozen space-time is necessarily more correct or veridical than the conventional flowing time explanation, but rather that there is no way in principle for us to comprehend something as fundamental as time, and the frozen time explanation may well be just as far from the ‘truth’ as the conventional flowing time explanation. The point is that there can be alternative explanations of reality that are as profoundly different in their assumptions and their manner of explaining that reality as are the flowing and frozen time explanations, and yet they are also in some sense equivalent, because the structural laws of the frozen time explanation correspond exactly to the causal law of the flowing time explanation, although expressed in a completely different form. So it may be that the realist explanation of the world in terms of flowing time and causality is both an accurate reflection of the causal laws of the noumenal world, while at the same time being as fundamentally different and thus ‘wrong’ in its expression of those laws as the difference between the flowing-time and the frozen-time explanations of reality. Thus the realist and the idealist are both right, our perception of the dimensions of reality are both an accurate reflection of the world as it really is, as must necessarily be the case for perception to be evolutionarily adaptive, and at the same time there is truly nothing we can know about the true nature of the noumenal world as it really is, it may be as different from our phenomenal experience as is the frozen spacetime world to the flowing-time causal world.

A Psycho-Aesthetic Hypothesis

Quote from The Two Worlds of Reality by Steven Lehar:

The harmonic resonance theory of neurocomputation also accounts for a number of other aspects of human experience which have never found a satisfactory explanation elsewhere. For the most prominent characteristics of harmonic resonance are symmetry and periodicity of the standing wave patterns both in space and in time. It turns out that symmetry and periodicity have very special significance in human experience, for these properties are ubiquitous in human aesthetics, as seen in the symmetrical and periodic patterns of design used in all cultures throughout human history to decorate clothing, pots, tools and other artifacts, especially items of special symbolic or religious significance. Symmetry and periodicity are also prominent features of architecture, music, poetry, rhythm, and dance. In chapter 11 I propose a psycho-aesthetic hypothesis, whereby any principles of aesthetics that are found to be universal across all human cultures, are thereby indicative of properties that are fundamental to the human mind itself, rather than a cultural heritage. I propose therefore that the symmetry and periodicity in art and music are aesthetically pleasing exactly because they are easily encoded in the periodic basis function offered by the harmonic resonance representation.

Besides providing collateral support for the harmonic resonance theory, the psycho-aesthetic hypothesis can be inverted to identify even more properties of mental function than those revealed by phenomenological analysis alone. For the primitives of the visual arts, music, and dance, can be seen as evidence for the nature of visual, auditory, and motor primitives in the brain. This in turn suggests a periodic basis set in perception, in the nature of a Fourier code. The advantage of a periodic basis set is that when a match is found to an input pattern, the periodic basis set automatically extrapolates that pattern outward in space and time, reifying the unseen portions of the pattern on the basis of the sample present in the input. This perceptual extrapolation explains the amodal completion of hidden portions of perceived objects and surfaces in the world. Evidence for this periodic basis set can be seen even in the abstract world of mathematics, where the periodicity inherent in the number line reflects an attempt to quantify the world in terms of periodic patterns. This insight serves to unite the fields of science and aesthetics, and reveals mathematics as a more abstracted refinement of the same principles observed in the visual and musical arts, which in turn are merely a more abstracted refinement of the principles behind visual and auditory perception, as discussed in chapter 11. The harmonic resonance theory also offers an explanation for one of the most enduring mysteries of human experience, which is the question of why resonances in musical instruments and the rhythmic beating of drums have such a powerful ability to evoke the deepest emotional response in the human soul. I propose that the musical instrument represents man’s first modest success at replicating the physical principle behind biological computation, and the strong emotional response evoked by these inanimate resonances reflects an unconscious recognition of the essential affinity between mind and music.

What Developmental Milestones Are You Missing?:

Quote from What Developmental Milestones Are You Missing? by Scott Alexander:

I remember reading through Korzybski’s giant blue book of General Semantics, full of labyrinthine diagrams and promises that if only you understood this, you would engage with the world totally differently, you’d be a new man armed with invincible cognitive weapons. And the key insight, maybe the only insight, was “the map is not the territory”, which seems utterly banal.

But this is a self-environment distinction of exactly the sort that children learn in development. It’s dividing your own representation of the world from the world itself; it’s about as clear a reference to theory of mind as you could ask for. Korzybski considered it a revelation when he discovered it; thousands of other people found it helpful and started a movement around it; I conclude that these people were missing a piece of theory-of-mind and Korzybski gave it to them. Not the whole deal, of course. Just a piece. But a piece of something big and fundamental, so abstract and difficult to teach that it required that whole nine-hundred-something page book to cram it in.

Collecting Qualia Souvenirs

The Tracer Tool is available here.


Andrew Zuckerman (Zuck) recently presented at IPN’s[1] PsychedelX[2] conference about QRI’s Tracer Tool:

Video description: How can we bring back information from conscious states, especially from exotic and altered states of consciousness? This talk covers Qualia Research Institute’s tracer replication tool and how we can turn what until now has been qualitative descriptions and informal approximations of the psychedelic tracer phenomenon into concrete quantitative replications.

I think that Zuck does a great job at walking you through the features of the tool. If you watch the video you will understand the difference between trails, replays, and strobes. You will get an intuitive feel for what color pulsing means. It will teach you how ADSR envelopes affect tracer effects. And it will give you a sense of how we can use the Tracer Tool to quantify how high you are, how synergistic drugs are, and how valenced a given tracer pattern is. Of course this is explained in the original writeup (linked above), but Zuck’s presentation might be more appropriate if you don’t have the time to read 10,000 words. I recommend it highly.

Qualia Souvenirs

One of the concepts that Zuck introduces in his presentation is that of a qualia souvenir. Just like how it is very nice to bring back a keychain with a picture of the place of your vacation as a souvenir, perhaps we could generalize this notion to include experiences as a whole. That is, how do we create a souvenir for an experience? As Zuck points out, taking a picture while on a psychedelic simply won’t do. You need to capture the quality of your experience, rather than merely the content of the inputs at the time.

With the Tracer Tool (and tools we will be sharing in the future) you can do just that. Well, you can at least replicate a component of your experience. And little by little, as we develop the tools to replicate more and more such components, we will slowly get to the point where you can genuinely recreate a snapshot of your psychedelic experience (or at least to the extent that images and sounds can evoke its nature).

Make It Social

One of the features of the Tracer Tool that I failed to emphasize in the original writeup was that we put a lot of effort into making the submissions shareable. There are several ways you could do this, in fact. The simplest is to fiddle with the parameters until you get an accurate tracer replication and then click on “Start Recording Video” and then click “Stop Recording Video” when you have captured what you want. Then it’s as simple as clicking on “View/Download Video” and then on “Download”. You’ll get a .webm file, which is supported by most large image-sharing sites (e.g gfycat.com). And if you want or need it in a .gif format (e.g. to share it on Facebook), you can use a free online converter.

Alternatively, you can click “Share Parameters” and copy the JSON that is displayed. You can then share it with your friends, who will click on “Import Parameters” and paste the JSON you gave them. The advantage of this method versus the previous one is that you can edit others’ qualia souvenirs and work together to create specific effects. It is also a way for you to “save” your work if you are not quite done and want to continue fiddling with the parameters later on, but don’t want to lose the work you have already put into it.

This is all to say: Make it social! It’s easy! Add tracer replications to your trip reports. Share them in social media. Use them to help your doctor understand the severity of your HPPD. Share them with friends and family (well, maybe not family, lest you want Grandma to know intimate phenomenological details of your LSD trip – there’s every kind of family, you know?). And so on. Let’s normalize psychedelic tracers!

Side-By-Side

A recent improvement to the tool that Zuck mentions in the video is the fact that we now display two bouncing balls rather than just one. This is in order to mitigate the problem that when you are tripping, the simulated tracers will get in the way of the actual tracers. And while this is still a bit of a problem, having one bouncing ball without simulated tracers can be really helpful when fiddling with the parameters on psychedelics:

Side-by-side: left side with tracers, right side without tracers.

We got a trip report from someone who took 100μg LSD who used the tool once we had added the second ball. This person said that the second ball was extremely helpful and that it allowed them to confidently estimate the replay frequency (14.5Hz):

100μg LSD 4 hours after dosing

It’s satisfying to see someone being confident about the replay frequency. The 14.5Hz in this case is not too far off from the 15-20Hz range previously estimated for LSD. And the best part is that this was done during the trip and in real time. The person who submitted this datapoint specifically said that it was very clear that the effect was one of replay rather than strobe, and that they were able to accurately estimate the replay frequency by adjusting the spacing so that there would be a match between the simulated trail effects on the left with the real trail effects on the right. We expect this to be a skill very amenable to training and we hope the psychonautic community starts paying attention to it.

Tracer Tool on Psychedelic YouTube

I recently found a really interesting YouTube channel: Junk Bond Trader (JBT for short). I found it by looking for quality 5-MeO-DMT trip reports and I thought that his video about it was good enough for me to look deeper into his work.

One of the things I really enjoy about his style is that he describes the quality of his altered states in a very matter-of-fact way without taking the experience at face value. He also has a chill demeanor, epistemologically optimistic and curious rather than stuck in a wall of confusion or vibing in mysterianism. This is quite rare in Psychedelic YouTube. Exaggerating a little, I find that psychedelic-adjacent personalities tend to undergo changes that end up being difficult to square with the sort of slow and humble attention to detail needed for science and serious phenomenology. Perhaps we can think of this in terms of archetypes. When someone starts to explore psychedelics they often begin by embodying the archetype of the explorer. Namely, being driven by curiosity about what’s out there in the state-space of consciousness. After a number of powerful experiences, the driving archetype often shifts. The direct exposure to high-energy high-integration states of mind tends to anneal a new self-concept. The archetype they embody tends to drift to things like the psychedelic mystic, priest, educator, messiah, warrior, evangelist, shaman, prophet, counselor, or healer. It is rare to see someone who after many such exposures remains in the explorer wavelength; undoubtedly one of the most useful archetypes for science. In addition to an explorer, JBT is also a synthesizer in that he makes detailed analyses pointing out the common features across many experiences. For instance, I loved his retrospective analysis of about 40 DMT trips (see: part 1, 2, 3, & 4).

Steven Lehar is right, psychedelic experiences are harder to dissect when one is young and impressionable. It is quite likely that the best phenomenological reports will come from people who are at least 30 years old and who have a wealth of crystallized knowledge to use in order to describe their experiences. Speaking of which, I would say that Steven is also someone who successfully maintained the archetype of explorer throughout his psychedelic explorations without lapsing into any other less helpful archetype. But more than that, Lehar is also a synthesizer, and above all a scientist. At QRI we very much value his contributions and, contra modern academia, take seriously the sort of epistemology he employed. Namely, investigating the phenomenal character of (exotic) experiences in order to probe the principles by which perception operates. More generally, the psychedelic archetypes we consider to be priceless for qualia research are those of the explorer, synthesizer, philosopher, scientist, and engineer. Let’s get more of those and less shamans, evangelists, prophets, etc.

Back to JBT, I would highly recommend his Coffee Trip Report video on the basis that… it is really funny. But perhaps most relevant for our purposes at the moment, he recorded a video while on 200μg + 36mg 2C-B (warning: for most people this would be a very strong combined dose) and at 45:40 he started talking about the nature of the tracer effects of this combo:

“These trails are no fucking joke you guys. Some of the coolest visuals I’ve ever had in my life. […] Can I see through my eyelids? I can see around me, what the fuck? Dude, that’s freaking me out. [Waves hand in front of face with eyes closed]. There it is again! Wow. How does that work? […] These visuals are awesome, you’ll have to take my word for it. […] Everything looks alive, you know? It is not so much morphy as with mushrooms, but everything is jumpy, it’s got an energy to it. It’s all pulsing at the same frequency. These trails are… they honestly last two or three seconds. It’s not even funny at this point. It’s ridiculous. I thought I knew trails… I thought I knew trails! I didn’t know fucking trails. I’m afraid to do this again. I was seeing through my eyelids earlier… I’ve gotta look back at that footage. I mean, I obviously wasn’t looking through my eyelids, I know that. But I thought I was, I thought I was, I was that convinced. It’s weird, you go in and out of confusion, and it coincides with the intensity of the hallucinations. It’s like the more confused I get, the more intense the visuals get. So just when things start going good I can’t articulate it. I’m very conscious and lucid during all of this experience, and I’ll be able to recall it all. […] These trails are so over the top. Every little movement stains the air forever. […] Really weird, really strong visuals. Everything looks alive. Which is really cool. I feel like my ceiling is wet. That popcorn ceiling looks wet. It has this weird gloss over it. It looks cool. What can I say, it looks awesome. I could sit here all night staring at my fucking ceiling.”

Given these comments about the trail effects he was experiencing I decided to reach out to him to congratulate him for the quality psychedelic content and also ask him if he would be kind enough to try to replicate the tracers he saw using the Tracer Tool. And he did! He can now share with us a qualia souvenir from his trip! Here is what the tracers looked like:

He left this comment on the submission: “Though it was 5 weeks later, I made a specific note of the tracers in a live trip report video, and committed it to memory at that point because they were so unusually vivid. I chose black because the trail was specifically dark black.” – Junk Bond Trader (see the parameters[3]).

Just a few days ago, JBT gave a shoutout to QRI, my channel, and the Tracer Tool in a video (between 2:35 and 5:20). Thank you JBT! I particularly liked that he remarks on the fact that we use Shia LaBeouf’s “Just Do It!” green screen as the default animation for our custom tracer editor.[4]

Just Do It! Make Your Dreams Come True! (Remix) – with JBT’s Qualia Souvenir Tracers

An important note is that in his shoutout JBT makes it sound like this is all just me, but in reality what is going on at QRI is a huge team effort. In the psychophysics front in particular I would like to mention that Lawrence Wu and Zuck are the main people pushing the envelope and I am immensely grateful for all the hard work they are doing for this project. This also wouldn’t be possible without the many discussions with people at QRI and the broader community of friends of the organization.

I believe that Adeptus Psychonautica, whom I also like and respect, will give the Tracer Tool a try and discuss it in his channel soon! He interviewed me over a year ago and I think that he is also very much of an explorer. A particularly nice thing about his channel is that he reviews psychedelic retreat and healing centers. This is unusual; most people find it psychologically difficult to say anything bad about the place or the people who facilitated an e.g. ayahuasca ceremony for them. The perceived sacredness of the ritual makes any review other than a glowing recommendation feel sacrilegious. Adeptus Psychonautica has been around the psychedelic retreat block enough that he can really map out all the ways in which specific psychedelic retreat centers fail to meet their full potential. This is highly appreciated. I personally would take my sweet time in selecting the right place to experience something as valenced as an ayahuasca trip, so his reviews add a lot of value on that front. Thank you Adeptus!

Akin to these two YouTubers, if you have the ability to promote the Tracer Tool to audiences that are likely to try it, please be our guest! We would love to get more data so we can share the results with the world.

From Psychedelic Renaissance to Psychedelic Enlightenment

One of the things that I love about the fact that JBT tried the tool and talked about it on his channel is that it shows that research feedback loops can be closed online and in places as distracted and unfocused as YouTube. It hints at a new possible model for decentralized scientific research of exotic states of consciousness. Even if small in percentage, a dedicated group of online rational psychonauts able and willing to try each other’s experiments and discuss them openly might very well accelerate our understanding of these states at a pace that is faster than academia or the R&D departments of relevant industries (such as pharma). How many potential Steven Lehars are out there just waiting for the right legal landscape to share their experiences and analyses with others alike? I am excited to see how the online rational psychonautic community evolves in the coming years. I anticipate substantial paradigmatic developments, and we hope that QRI contributes to this process. In the long term, it is still unclear where most of the discoveries in this field will take place. On one extreme a hyper-centralized Manhattan Project of Consciousness could leapfrog all current research, and on the other extreme we have anonymous and decentralized Psychedelic Turk scenarios where access to exotic states of mind (both from the inside and the outside) is a sort of utility at the mercy of market forces. In the middle, perhaps we have semi-decentralized conglomerates of researchers building on each other’s work. If so, I look forward to an emergent science-oriented psychedelic intelligentsia of excellent trip reporters on YouTube in the next few years.

What Data Are We Most Interested In?

The combinatorial space of possible drug cocktails is really large and poorly mapped out. Of particular note, however, is the exotic effects caused by mixing psychedelics and dissociatives. Given the reports that there is a profound synergy between psychedelics and dissociatives (and that this combination is not generally particularly unsafe), we expect there to be really interesting tracers to report and we have no submissions of the sort so far. In particular, we expect to find synergy (rather than orthogonality or suppression) between these classes of drugs, and we would love to quantify the extent of this synergy (anecdotally it is really strong). If you are the sort of person who does not get noticeable tracers on LSD, perhaps try adding a little ketamine and see if that helps. Chances are, you will be like JBT, saying something along the lines of “I thought I knew tracers… I didn’t know **** tracers!”.

It would also be really good to see tracer data for candy-flipping (and MDMA combinations more broadly). We suspect that MDMA will generally have interesting ADSR envelopes. So if you have candy-flipped in the past or you intend do to so in the future please consider donating a couple minutes of your time to submit a datapoint! Remember, you can share it with your friends as a qualia souvenir!

Finally, we would love to have more DMT and 5-MeO-DMT submissions. We are interested in checking if the differences we have found between them can be replicated. In particular, we are told that 5-MeO-DMT produces monochromatic tracers whereas DMT produces richly-colored tracers that flicker between positive and negative after-images. If this turns out to be true, it would be really significant from a scientific point of view:

Apropos Psychedelic YouTube

With over a quarter million views as of March of 2021, The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (@Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club) is perhaps the most viewed piece of QRI content. Thus, the comment section perhaps gives us a snapshot of how the existing (pre-Galilean!) memes surrounding the psychedelic community make sense of this work. Doing a cursory semantic clustering analysis, I would say that most of the comments tend to fit into one of the following groups:

  1. Comments from people who admit to having tried DMT tend to say that “this is the best description of DMT phenomenology I have ever seen”.
  2. Comments complaining about the poor audio quality.
  3. Comments saying I should go on Joe Rogan (e.g. “Very captivating and well formulated. We need to have jamie pull this up.” is the most upvoted comment, with 1.7K upvotes).
  4. Comments stating that the DMT entities are real and that I should take higher doses to confirm that.
  5. Comments complaining that “visuals are not what matters about the experience” and that I’m “missing the point” for paying attention to them.
  6. Weird miscellaneous comments like claiming that the video is a proof that there is a conspiracy from Harvard trying to convince the world that DMT is not a true spiritual molecule.
  7. Fun one-liners (my favorite is “Massachusetts Institute of Tryptamines”).

Let me briefly comment on each of these clusters:

For (1): I am always happy to hear from psychonauts that our work at QRI is clarifying and illuminating. I get a lot of emails and messages saying this, and it honestly makes me happy and keeps me motivated to go on. An example of this would be one of the most upvoted comments:

This video combined with the article probably explained more of the dmt trip than all the trip reports I’ve read which is a lot. The levels, with the doses! Now I know I landed squarely in the Magic Eye. The symmetry hotel is a great explanation too. I find it interesting that I had an experience of divine consciousness on level three rather than level six; perhaps it was just a foretaste? Truly informative, this is what psychonauts need to hear.


YouTube user johnnysandiegoable

For (2): Yes, we know, sorry! We did what we could to stitch together the audio from my phone and the audio from the camera (which was way in the back). The wireless mic we had planned to use malfunctioned at the last minute and I wasn’t very mindful about the fact that the phone would produce the best audio. I know I should have stayed closer to the podium for most of the talk. That said, if you hear the presentation with headphones and are willing to increase the volume for the quiet parts, you can still make out every word. So, admittedly, the comments are exaggerating a bit just how unlistenable it is. ^_^

For (3): Joe, if you are reading this, I’m game! Bring it on! I think that it is entirely possible that we will have a great conversation.

For (4): I have indeed said before that we think it is unlikely that one makes true contact with mind-independent entities while tripping on DMT. Of course we welcome evidence to the contrary, and we have even suggested novel methods by which this could be tested. But I do want to say that unlike other accounts of the DMT phenomenology, the way we argue for the likely internal (“fully in your head”) interpretation does not in any way dismiss the specific reasons why such experiences are so compelling. It is not only that the experience feels very real (indeed, what does that even mean?) but that it has a series of properties that makes the hallucinations stand out as uniquely believable relative to other psychedelics. In the Harvard presentation I mention the idea that the dimensionality of the experience is so high that in a way one does experience a sort of superintelligence while on DMT. In such states, we genuinely get to experience much more information at once and render intricate connections in ways that would make connoisseurs of complex thoughts extremely jealous. Alas, this has yet to be fine-tuned for any kind of useful computational purpose. Yet, in terms of raw information bandwidth, the state has tremendous potential. So we could say, that on DMT you do get to experience a sort of higher intelligence; it is just that it is a higher intelligence of your own making, and we lack an adequate narrative within sober states of mind to make sense of what this experience means. Hence we tend to converge on easy-to-explain and relatable metaphors. Saying that one met with an advanced alien intelligence is somehow easier to convey than describing in detail the sequence of point-of-view fragmentation operations that bootstrapped the multi-perspectival state of mind you experienced. More so, in a recent video, I explained that DMT has some additional properties that make the hallucinations it induces extremely believable. Of particular note I point out that on DMT one experiences:

  • Multi-modal coherence where touch, sight, and sound hallucinations are synchronized,
  • An extremely high temperature parameter leading to the melting of the phenomenal self, and
  • Tactile hallucinations, which add a layer of “reality” to the experience.

These and other features are the reason why DMT experiences feel so “real” and hard to dismiss as mere hallucinations. Rational psychonauts are advised to pay close attention to this in order to avoid developing delusions with repeated administrations.

For (5): Look, we understand. It is obviously the case that the visual effects are a tiny component of the experience, but consider just how difficult it is going to be to describe every single aspect of the experience. I am sure you have heard the expression “learn to walk before you learn to run” (or in this case, learn to walk before you learn to fly, or perhaps more appropriately, to learn to walk before you learn how to operate an alien spaceship with sixteen thousand levers interlinked in unknown ways). In brief, the path that will take us to the point where we can fully characterize a DMT trip will start with developing an extremely crisp and precise vocabulary and research methodology to describe the simplest low-level effects. It is surprising how much we can in fact say about a DMT trip by allusions to attractors in feedback systems and hyperbolic symmetry groups even if this turns out to only get at a small fraction of what makes such experiences interesting. We have to start with the basics; that is what we are doing here.

For (6): This is at least somewhat expected. Recall that DMT tends to make you overfit data. Conspiratorial thinking is a classic form of overfitting. Without a rational framework and grounding exercises, DMT users will generally develop increasingly overfit models of reality.

For (7): Well, keep them coming!

Future Developments

I want to conclude by mentioning that we have ambitious plans for QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit (of which the Tracer Tool is but the first of many tools to come). We are in the process of developing many more experimental tools and paradigms specifically designed to rigorously quantify and characterize the information-processing features of exotic states of mind. Fancifully, imagine an “experience editor” where you can recreate arbitrary experiences from first principles. To name one possibility here, consider Distill’s Self-Organizing Textures: visual textures are hard to put into words, but easy to tell apart. Hence, odd-one-out paradigms in conjunction with generative methods (i.e. texture synthesis) can allow us to pin-point exactly how psychedelics affect our perception of mongrels. In the long run, we want to characterize the circuit motifs emergent out of the neural architecture of the human brain, and we expect this work to be extremely useful for that pursuit. Stay tuned!


[1] From their website: The Intercollegiate Psychedelics Network (IPN) is a youth-led garden organization dedicated to the development of students into the next generation of diverse and interdisciplinary leaders in the field of psychedelics. We envision a future where safe, legal, and equitable access to psychedelic healing creates a more just, peaceful and connected world. [e.g. see PennPsychedelics].

[2] From their website: PsychedelX is a student talk program featuring 20 minute talks from students around the globe with novel, impactful, and interdisciplinary ideas that will shake up the psychedelic discourse. From February 22nd – 27th [2021], watch their presentations on YouTube to expand your understanding of psychedelics and their role in our world today.

[3] If you want to see Junk Bond Trader’s tracer go to the Tracer Tool, click “Import Paramters”, and then paste: {“animation”:”unlitBallGravity”,”speed”:”1.65″,”trailOn”:true,”trailIntensity”:”70″,”trailTimeFactor”:”78″,”trailExponential”:true,”strobeOn”:true,”strobeFrequency”:”14.7″,”strobeIntensity”:”83″,”strobeTimeFactor”:”76″,”strobeExponential”:true,”strobeAdsr”:false,”replayOn”:false,”replayFrequency”:”11″,”replayIntensity”:”68″,”replayTimeFactor”:”75″,”replayExponential”:true,”replayAdsr”:false,”pulseOn”:false,”pulseFrequency”:”1.6″,”pulseAmplitude”:”50″,”pulseColor”:false,”pulseColorAmplitude”:”100″,”maxTracers”:”154″,”color”:”#000000″}

[4] Thanks to Lawrence Wu for that.

7 Recent Videos: Rational Analysis of 5-MeO-DMT, Utility Monsters, Neroli, Phenomenal Time, Benzo Withdrawal, Scale-Specific Network Geometry, and Why DMT Feels So Real

5-MeO-DMT: A Rational Analysis at Last (link)

Topics covered: Non-Duality, Symmetry, Valence, Neural Annealing, and Topological Segmentation.

See also:


Befriending Utility Monsters: Being the Adult in the Room When Talking About the Hedonic Extremes (link)

In this episode I connect a broad variety of topics with the following common thread: “What does it mean to be the adult in the room when dealing with extremely valenced states of consciousness?” Essentially, a talk on Utility Monsters.

Concretely, what does it mean to be responsible and sensible when confronted with the fact that pain and pleasure follow a long tail distribution? When discussing ultra-painful or ultra-blissful experiences one needs to take off the glasses we use to reason about “room temperature consciousness” and put on glasses that actually take these states with the seriousness they deserve.

Topics discussed include: The partial 5HT3 antagonism of ginger juice, kidney stones from vitamin C supplementation, 2C-E nausea, phenibut withdrawal, akathisia as a remarkably common side effect of psychiatric medication (neuroleptics, benzos, and SSRIs), negative 5-MeO-DMT trips, the book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe”, turbulence and laminar flow in the “energy body”, being a “mom” at a festival, and more.

Further readings on these topics:


Mapping State-Spaces of Consciousness: The Neroli Neighborhood (link)

What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, clauses, subordinate clauses, field geometry, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)?

Topics Covered in this Video: The State-space of Consciousness, Mapping State-Spaces, David Pearce at Oxford, Qualia Enrichment Kits, Character Impact vs. Flavors, Linalool Variants, Clusters of Neroli Scents, Neroli in Perfumes, Neroli vs. Orange Blossom vs. Petigrain vs. Orange/Mandarin/Lemon/Lime, High-Entropy Alloys of Scent, Musks as Reverb and Brown Noise, “Neroli Reconstructions” (synthetic), Semi-synthetic Mixtures, Winner-Takes-All Dynamics in Qualia Spaces, Multi-Phasic Scents, and Non-Euclidean State-Spaces.

Neroli Reconstruction Example:

4 – Linalool
3 – Linalyl Acetate
3 – Valencene
3 – Beta Pinene
2 – Nerolione
2 – Nerolidol
2 – Geraniol Coeur
2 – Hedione
2 – Farnesene
1 – D-Limonene
1 – Nerol
1 – Ambercore
1 – Linalool Oxyde
70 – Ethanol

Further readings:


What is Time? Explaining Time-Loops, Moments of Eternity, Time Branching, Time Reversal, and More… (link)

What is (phenomenal) time?

The feeling of time passing is not the same as physical time.

Albert Einstein discovered that “Newtonian time” was a special case of physical time, since gravity, relativity, and the constancy of the speed of light entails that space, time, mass, and gravity are intimately connected. He, in a sense, discovered a generalization of our common-sense notion of physical time; a generalization which accounts for the effects of moving and accelerating frames of reference on the relative passage of time between observers. Physical time, it turns out, could manifest in many more (exotic) ways than was previously thought.

Likewise, we find that our everyday phenomenal time (i.e. the feeling of time passing) is a special case of a far more general set of possible time-like qualities of experience. In particular, in this video I discuss “exotic phenomenal time” experiences, which include oddities such as time-loops, moments of eternity, time branching, and time reversal. I then go on to explain these exotic phenomenal time experiences with a model we call the “pseudo-time arrow”, which involves implicit causality in the network of sensations we experience on each “moment of experience”. Thus we realize that phenomenal time is an incredibly general property! It turns out that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible here… it’s about time we do so.

Further readings on this topic:


Benzos: Why the Withdrawal is Worse than the High is Good (+ Flumazenil/NAD+ Anti-Tolerance Action) (link)

Most people have low-resolution models of how drug tolerance works. Folk theories that “what goes up must come down” and theories in the medical establishment about how you can “stabilize a patient on a dose” and expect optimal effects long term get in the way of actually looking at how tolerance works.

In this video I explain why benzo withdrawal is far worse than the high they give you is good.

Core arguments presented:

  1. Benzos can treat anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, seizures, hallucinations, etc. If you use them to treat one of these symptoms, the rebound will nonetheless involve all of them.
  2. Kindling – How long-term use leads to neural annealing of the “withdrawal neural patterns”.
  3. Amnesia effects prevent you from remembering the good parts/only remembering the bad parts.
  4. Neurotoxicity from long-term benzo use makes it harder for your brain to heal.
  5. Arousal as a multiplier of consciousness: on benzos the “high” is low arousal and the withdrawal is high arousal (compared to stimulants where you at least will “sleep through the withdrawal”).
  6. Tolerance still builds up even when you don’t have a “psychoactive dose” in your body – meaning that the extremely long half-life of clonazepam and diazepam and their metabolites (50h+) entails that you still develop long-term tolerance even with weekly or biweekly use!

I then go into how the (empirically false) common-sense view of drug tolerance is delaying promising research avenues, such as “anti-tolerance drugs” (see links below). In particular, NAD+ IV and Flumazenil seem to have large effect sizes for treating benzo withdrawals. I AM NOT CONFIDENT THAT THEY WORK, but I think it is silly to not look into them with our best science at this point. Clinical trials for NAD+ IV therapy for drug withdrawal are underway, and the research to date on flumazenil seems extremely promising. Please let me know if you have any experience using either of these two tools and whether you had success with them or not.

Note: These treatments may also generalize to other GABAergic drugs like gabapentin, alcohol, and phenibut (which also have horrible withdrawals, but are far shorter than benzo withdrawal).

Further readings:

Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil.[14] Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines […] were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.[15]”

Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms.[16] Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.[17]

Source: Flumazenil: Treatment for benzodiazepine dependence & tolerance

Scale-Specific Network Geometry (link)

Is it possible for the “natural growth” of a pandemic to be slower than exponential no matter where it starts? What are ways in which we can leverage the graphical properties of the “contact network” of humanity in order to control contagious diseases? In this video I offer a novel way of analyzing and designing networks that may allow us to easily prevent the exponential growth of future pandemics.

Topics covered: The difference between the aesthetic of pure math vs. applied statistics when it comes to making sense of graphs. Applications of graph analysis. Identifying people with a high centrality in social networks. Klout scores. Graphlets. Kinds of graphs: geometric, small world, scale-free, empirical (galactic core + “whiskers”). Pandemics being difficult to control due to exponential growth. Using a sort of “pandemic Klout score” to prioritize who to quarantine, who to vaccinate first. The network properties that made the plague spread so slowly in the Middle Ages. Toroidal planets as having linear pandemic growth after a certain threshold number of infections. Non-integer graph dimensionality. Dimensional chokes. And… kitchen sponges.

Readings either referenced in the video or useful to learn more about this topic:

Leskovec’s paper (the last link above):

Main Empirical Findings: Our results suggest a rather detailed and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the community structure in large networks. Several qualitative properties of community structure are nearly universal:

• Up to a size scale, which empirically is roughly 100 nodes, there not only exist well-separated communities, but also the slope of the network community profile plot is generally sloping downward. (See Fig. 1(a).) This latter point suggests, and empirically we often observe, that smaller communities can be combined into meaningful larger communities.

• At size scale of 100 nodes, we often observe the global minimum of the network community profile plot. (Although these are the “best” communities in the entire graph, they are usually connected to the remainder of the network by just a single edge.)

• Above the size scale of roughly 100 nodes, the network community profile plot gradually increases, and thus there is a nearly inverse relationship between community size and community quality. This upward slope suggests, and empirically we often observe, that as a function of increasing size, the best possible communities as they grow become more and more “blended into” the remainder of the network.

We have also examined in detail the structure of our social and information networks. We have observed that an ‘jellyfish’ or ‘octopus’ model [33, 7] provides a rough first approximation to structure of many of the networks we have examined.

Ps. Forgot to explain the sponge’s relevance: the scale-specific network geometry of a sponge is roughly hyperbolic at a small scale. Then the material is cubic at medium scale. And at the scale where you look at it as flat (being a sheet with finite thickness) it is two dimensional.


Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (link)

Why does DMT feel so “real”? Why does it feel like you experience genuine mind-independent realities on DMT?

In this video I explain that we all implicitly rely on a model of which signals are trustworthy and which ones are not. In particular, in order to avoid losing one’s mind during an intense exotic experience (such as those catalyzed by psychedelics, dissociatives, or meditation) one needs to (a) know that you are altered, (b) have a good model of what that alteration entails, and (c) that the alteration is not strong enough that it breaks down either (a) or (b). So drugs that make you forget you are under the influence, or that you don’t know how to model (or have a mistaken model of) can deeply disrupt your “web of trusted beliefs”.

I argue that one cannot really import the models that one learned from other psychedelics about “what psychedelics do” to DMT; DMT alters you in a far broader way. For example, most people on LSD may mistrust what they see, but they will not mistrust what they touch (touch stays a “trusted signal” on LSD). But on DMT you can experience tactile hallucinations that are coherent with one’s visions! “Crossing the veil” on DMT is not a visual experience: it’s a multi-modal experience, like entering a cave hiding behind a waterfall.

Some of the signals that DMT messes with that often convince people that what they experienced was mind-independent include:

  1. Hyperbolic geometry and mathematical complexity; experiencing “impossible objects”.
  2. Incredibly high-resolution multi-modal integration: hallucinations are “coherent” across senses.
  3. Philosophical qualia enhancement: it alters not only your senses and emotions, but also “the way you organize models of reality”.
  4. More “energized” experiences feel inherently more real, and DMT can increase the energy parameter to an extreme degree.
  5. Highly valenced experiences also feel more real – the bliss and the horror are interpreted as “belonging to the vibe of a reality” rather than being just a property of your experience.
  6. DMT can give you powerful hallucinations in every modality: not only visual hallucinations, but also tactile, auditory, scent, taste, and proprioception.
  7. Novel and exotic feelings of “electromagnetism”.
  8. Sense of “wisdom”.
  9. Knowledge of your feelings: the entities know more about you than you yourself know about yourself.

With all of these signals being liable to chaotic alterations on DMT it makes sense that even very bright and rational people may experience a “shift” in their beliefs about reality. The trusted signals will have altered their consilience point. And since each point of consilience between trusted signals entails a worldview, people who believe in the independent reality of the realms disclosed by DMT share trust in some signals most people don’t even know exist. We can expect some pushback for this analysis by people who trust any of the signals altered by DMT listed above. Which is fine! But… if we want to create a rational Super-Shulgin Academy to really make some serious progress in mapping-out the state-space of consciousness, we will need to prevent epistemological mishaps. I.e. We have to model insanity so that we ourselves can stay sane.

[Skip to 4:20 if you don’t care about the scent of rose – the Qualia of the Day today]

Further readings:

“The most common descriptive labels for the entity were being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. […] Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.”

Source: Survey of entity encounter experiences occasioned by inhaled N,N-dimethyltryptamine: Phenomenology, interpretation, and enduring effects

That’s it for now!

Please feel free to suggest topics for future videos!

Infinite bliss!

– Andrés

The Symmetry Theory of Valence: 2020 Presentation

Presentation Given at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London by Andrés Gómez Emilsson (December 8th 2020)

 www.qualiaresearchinstitute.org

Transcribed with otter.ai. Edited for grammar and clarity by Mackenzie Dion.

Watch the talk on our Youtube channel.


So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence. 

This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:

We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.

The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…

This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.

I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.

Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.

One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.

In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.

Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence. 

So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.

I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.

So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions. But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities. 

And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.

I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected. 

Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are. 

Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.

Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.

And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.

These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.

When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.

Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.

So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.

So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.

So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.

Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.

There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those. 

Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.

So, dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness. 

I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.

Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.

And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.

Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.

Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.

I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.

Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.

Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.

Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has. 

Interestingly, this also can be used to describe the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. We think DMT tends to have a lot more information content. 

So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.

Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.

Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.

I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.

These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.

Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.

Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.

Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning. 

You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.

You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.

When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.

These are just examples of a piano chord.

Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful. 

Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.

And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states. 

So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.

Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.

Here are just some quotes. Cool.

And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.

In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it. 

Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.

Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry. 

Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good. 

Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.

For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.

Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena. 

This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them. 

Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at. 

So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.

Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.

And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.

I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.

This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.

We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.

That is, euphoric.

Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true. 

Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.

These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.

Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.

Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing. 

The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.

And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.

Thank you so much.


* BART sound, Baby Crying, Baby Crying w/ Reverb

** Consonance – Noise – Dissonance – Mixed Spectra


Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!

Modeling Psychedelic Tracers with QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit: The Tracer Replication Tool

Try it yourself!


By Andrés Gómez Emilsson (see special thanks)

TL;DR

We developed a new method for replicating psychedelic tracer effects in detail: the Tracer Replication Tool. This tool gives us a window into how the time-like texture of experience determines the state of consciousness we find ourselves in, which clarifies what makes both meditating and taking psychedelics such powerful state-switching activities. We discuss how the technique of using the tracer tool may find useful applications, such as allowing us to describe exotic “ineffable” experiences in clear language, standardize a scale of intensity of psychedelic drug effects (a.k.a. a “High-O-Meter”), help us quantify the synergy between different drugs, and test theories for what makes an experience feel good or bad such as the Symmetry Theory of Valence. The pilot data collected with this tool so far is suggestive of the following patterns: (1) THC and HPPD result in a smooth and faint trail effect. (2) The characteristic frequencies of the strobe and replay effects for 2C-B are slower than those of either DMT or 5-MeO-DMT. And, (3) whereas DMT comes with a strong color pulsing effect leading to very colorful visuals, 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to monochromatic tracer effects. We conclude by discussing the implications of these patterns in light of an analysis of experience that allows for a varying time-like texture. We hope to inspire the scientific community and curious psychonauts to use this tool to help us uncover more patterns.

Introduction

Rhythmic activity in the brain is a staple of neuroscience. It shows up in spiking neurons, synchronous oscillations at the level of networks, global patterns of resonance and coherence in EEG recordings, and in many other places. The book Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsáki is a systematic review of what was known about these rhythms back in 2006.[1] One of the things György talks about in this book is how a lot of neuroscience techniques focused on finding the neural correlates of perception tend to consider the variable activation of neurons from one trial to the next as noise. In experiments that look into how neurons respond to a specific stimulus, datasets are constructed that track the neuronal activity that stays the same across trials. That which changes is discarded as noise, and György argues that such “noise” is really where the information about the internal rhythms is to be found.[2] We concur with the assessment that understanding these native rhythms is key for making sense of how the brain works. Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in this space is the method of Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave analysis (Atasoy et al., 2016). This way of analyzing fMRI data describes a “brain state” as, at least partly, consisting of a weighted sum of its resonant modes. This paradigm has been used with success for comparing brain states across widely different categories of experience: LSD, ketamine, and anesthesia, among others (Luppi et al., 2020).

These are exciting times for exploring the native rhythms of nervous systems in neuroscience. But what about their subjective quality? One would hope that we could connect a formal third-person view of these rhythms with their experiential component. Alas, at this point in time the behavioral and physiological component of brain rhythms is far better understood than the way in which they cash out in subjective qualities.

Could there be a way to make these rhythms easily visible to ourselves as scientists? One interesting lens through which to see psychedelics is in terms of the way they excite specific rhythm-generating networks. This lens would present psychedelic states as giving you a sense of what it feels like to have many of these rhythms simultaneously activated, thus having access to a wider repertoire of brain states (Atasoy et al., 2017).

But you don’t need psychedelics to realize there’s something fishy about the solidity of our perception. Intuitively, one may get the impression that normal everyday states of consciousness do not show the signatures of being the result of ensembles of rhythmic activity. That said, some would affirm that paying attention to the artifacts of our perception may in fact be a window into these rhythms. For example, Lehar’s Harmonic Resonance Theory of the gestalt properties of perception (Lehar, 1999) attempts to explain the characteristics of well known visual illusions (such as the Kanizsa triangle) with principles derived from the superposition of rhythmic activity.

Kanizsa Triangles

Paying close attention to the act of observing an object over time has led some researchers to play with the idea that our experience of the world is best understood as music (Lloyd, 2013), for our feeling of a solid surrounding results from the interplay between finely coordinated sensations and acts of interpretation. Indeed, the fluidity of sensory impressions betrays our common-sense notion that we experience a solid and stable world. It often takes a perturbation out of our normal everyday state of consciousness to notice this. As an example here, we can point out that insight meditation practices peer into the illusion of solidity and continuity of our experience, whereas concentration meditation enhances these illusions (Ingram, 2018).

Arguably, like a fish who cannot notice water until it’s taken out of it, the stitching process by which our brain constructs reality is usually hidden from view. To be taken out of the water in this context would be to be in a state that allows you to notice the seams of one’s experience. To the extent that this normal stitching process breaks down in exotic states of consciousness, they are clearly useful for research in this domain. Thus we argue that the artifacts of perception in alien states of consciousness are not noise; they provide hints for how normal experience is constructed. In particular, we posit that “psychedelic tracers” (i.e. the cluster of persisting visual phenomena caused by hallucinogens) may be a window into how rhythmic feedback dynamics are used to control the content of our experience. For this reason, we have been interested in turning what until now has been qualitative descriptions and informal approximations of this phenomenon into concrete quantitative replications.

In what follows we will showcase the value of a psychophysics toolkit we developed at the Qualia Research Institute called the Tracer Replication Tool for modeling psychedelic tracer phenomenology. Although we will focus on psychedelic experiences, this tool can have a much broader set of applications. For example, we show how the tool can be used to visualize and quantify the severity of HPPD, which currently has a very qualitative, and imprecise at best, diagnostic criteria. Likewise, the tool has the potential to bring together the complex clinical presentation of visual disturbances such as palinopsia, photopsia, oscillopsia, visual snow, and other conditions, into a coherent framework. Perhaps, speculatively, the connection between all these visual disturbances is to be found in the dysregulation of the rhythms of the visual control systems, which is what the tracer tool sets out to quantify.

The only attempt of arriving at quantitative replications of psychedelic tracers in the scientific literature we are aware of is by (Dubois & VanRullen, 2011). They used multiple-exposure stroboscopic photography in order to depict video scenes. They then asked many people who have had LSD experiences to identify the strobe frequency that best approximated their tracers (which on average was in the 15-20 Hz range).

As we will see, our model for psychedelic tracers is more detailed: it has multiple persistence of vision effects that combine together into a complex tracer. For this reason, the kind of tracers used in Dubois & VanRullen turn out to be a special case of our tool, which we call the strobe effect:

LSD users perceive a series of discrete positive afterimages in the wake of moving objects, a percept that has been likened to a multiple-exposure stroboscopic photograph, somewhat akin to Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs [5] from 1880, or to more recent digital art produced in a few clicks (Figure 1).


Visual Trails: Do the Doors of Perception Open Periodically? by Dubois & VanRullen
Multiple-exposure stroboscopic photograph. (source)

By using a wider set of effects, the Tracer Replication Tool might give us hints about how psychedelics disrupt native rhythms given how they affect the processing of perceptual information at a granular level.

Before we provide the full set of tracer effects along with their associated vocabulary, let us jump into the preliminary psychedelic replications we have obtained thanks to this tool.

Psychedelic Replications

Over the years since I’ve run the Qualia Computing blog, I’ve received many messages from people who, for lack of a better term, we could call rational psychonauts. This should not be too surprising, with pieces like “How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD” and “5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses”, the site has become a bit of a Schelling point for people who like to blend computational reasoning and the study of exotic states of consciousness. These rational psychonauts are people who not only are well acquainted with exotic states of consciousness, but also like to use a scientific and rational lens to make sense of such states. In particular, people in this cluster often ask me to send them experiments to try out next time they take a psychedelic substance. I certainly never encourage them to take drugs, but under the assumption they will do so anyway, I sometimes send them tasks to do. Thus, once we had a prototype for the tracer tool, I already had a set of more than willing anonymous pilot participants. I sent them the link to the tool along with some brief instructions. Namely:

Look at the ball for a few minutes in state X (where X can be any substance, meditation, etc.). Then as soon as you come down, try to fiddle with the parameters on the left until the simulated tracer looks as close as possible to how you experienced it in the state. When you are ready, simply click “submit parameters” and add info about what the state you were in was at the time. In the case of HPPD, just try your best to replicate the tracer (I know it gets confusing when we talk about the tracers of the simulated tracers, but try to ignore those and just replicate the tracer of the original input).

Without further ado, here are the resulting replications I received:

HPPD

Mild HPPD (participant said it was strongest on color red)

THC

12.5mg edible, 60 minutes post-ingestion
15mg edible, 90 minutes post-ingestion

2C-B

20mg orally ingested
12mg “gummed”

Notice how although the replication of the higher dosage is more mild in a way, they both share the presence of a strobe effect at roughly 5.5 Hz!

DMT

5mg vaped
10mg vaped
20mg vaped

The higher dose has a complex mixture of effects, including 40 Hz color pulsing (positive and negative afterimages mixed together), 22 Hz replay, and 27 Hz strobe. I’ll note that the participant included the following comment: “Aside from extremely fast tracers, the white space consisted of pixelated fractals. Color was abundant.”

5-MeO-DMT

5mg vaped
10mg vaped

As we will discuss further below, it is worth noting that at least in this sample, there are no color pulsing effects present (which is unlike “regular” DMT).

Drug Combination: Mescaline + ETH-LAD

125μg ETH-LAD + 2 teaspoons of San Pedro powder

The above is the only datapoint we have so far from the combination of psychoactive substances. The participant took 125μg of ETH-LAD, and then two and a half hours later 2 teaspoons of San Pedro powder. The replication is of the way the ball looked like 5 hours after taking the first drug.

Definitions

Let us now look into the specifics of the tracer tool:

Core Effects

Core effects are pillars of the tracer tool where a particular feedback dynamic is used. The core effects include trails, strobe, and replay.

Modifiers

A modifier effect is one that plays with a core effect and alters it in some way. We will talk along the way about the modifying effects of persistence, intensity, and frequency, and then have a separate section to talk in more detail about the modifier effects of envelope (ADSR), pulse, and color pulse.

Trails (Core Effect)

This is perhaps the most basic effect. Making an analogy with sound, trails are akin to a soft reverb with no delay:

The three settings for trails are: persistence, intensity, and exponential decay (which is binary in the current implementation and otherwise takes on the value of linear decay). Persistence determines how quickly the tracer vanishes, whereas intensity is a constant multiplier for the entire trail. Thus, by changing those parameters you can choose between e.g. a long but dim trail or a short but bright trail.

High persistence / low intensity

Low persistence / high intensity

The exponential decay parameter slightly changes how quickly the brightness goes down; when it’s on, the trails go down more smoothly (cf. gamma correction).

Without exponential decay

With exponential decay

Strobe (Core Effect)

The strobe effect takes snapshots of the input at regular intervals. It works like chronophotography, and it is perhaps what most people think about when you first talk about visual tracers. It is the effect that Dubois & VanRullen used to find that LSD produces visual tracers at ~15-20 Hz.