Befriending Utility Monsters: Being the Adult in the Room When Talking About the Hedonic Extremes (link)
In this episode I connect a broad variety of topics with the following common thread: “What does it mean to be the adult in the room when dealing with extremely valenced states of consciousness?” Essentially, a talk on Utility Monsters.
Concretely, what does it mean to be responsible and sensible when confronted with the fact that pain and pleasure follow a long tail distribution? When discussing ultra-painful or ultra-blissful experiences one needs to take off the glasses we use to reason about “room temperature consciousness” and put on glasses that actually take these states with the seriousness they deserve.
Topics discussed include: The partial 5HT3 antagonism of ginger juice, kidney stones from vitamin C supplementation, 2C-E nausea, phenibut withdrawal, akathisia as a remarkably common side effect of psychiatric medication (neuroleptics, benzos, and SSRIs), negative 5-MeO-DMT trips, the book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe”, turbulence and laminar flow in the “energy body”, being a “mom” at a festival, and more.
“This manuscript will advance the hypothesis that 5-HT7 directly mediates three specific dramatic mental effects of psychedelics: creative open-eyed Visuals, Ego-loss, and loss of contact with Reality (VER).” (Thomas S. Ray; source)
Mapping State-Spaces of Consciousness: The Neroli Neighborhood (link)
What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, clauses, subordinate clauses, field geometry, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)?
Topics Covered in this Video: The State-space of Consciousness, Mapping State-Spaces, David Pearce at Oxford, Qualia Enrichment Kits, Character Impact vs. Flavors, Linalool Variants, Clusters of Neroli Scents, Neroli in Perfumes, Neroli vs. Orange Blossom vs. Petigrain vs. Orange/Mandarin/Lemon/Lime, High-Entropy Alloys of Scent, Musks as Reverb and Brown Noise, “Neroli Reconstructions” (synthetic), Semi-synthetic Mixtures, Winner-Takes-All Dynamics in Qualia Spaces, Multi-Phasic Scents, and Non-Euclidean State-Spaces.
What is Time? Explaining Time-Loops, Moments of Eternity, Time Branching, Time Reversal, and More… (link)
What is (phenomenal) time?
The feeling of time passing is not the same as physical time.
Albert Einstein discovered that “Newtonian time” was a special case of physical time, since gravity, relativity, and the constancy of the speed of light entails that space, time, mass, and gravity are intimately connected. He, in a sense, discovered a generalization of our common-sense notion of physical time; a generalization which accounts for the effects of moving and accelerating frames of reference on the relative passage of time between observers. Physical time, it turns out, could manifest in many more (exotic) ways than was previously thought.
Likewise, we find that our everyday phenomenal time (i.e. the feeling of time passing) is a special case of a far more general set of possible time-like qualities of experience. In particular, in this video I discuss “exotic phenomenal time” experiences, which include oddities such as time-loops, moments of eternity, time branching, and time reversal. I then go on to explain these exotic phenomenal time experiences with a model we call the “pseudo-time arrow”, which involves implicit causality in the network of sensations we experience on each “moment of experience”. Thus we realize that phenomenal time is an incredibly general property! It turns out that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible here… it’s about time we do so.
Benzos: Why the Withdrawal is Worse than the High is Good (+ Flumazenil/NAD+ Anti-Tolerance Action) (link)
Most people have low-resolution models of how drug tolerance works. Folk theories that “what goes up must come down” and theories in the medical establishment about how you can “stabilize a patient on a dose” and expect optimal effects long term get in the way of actually looking at how tolerance works.
In this video I explain why benzo withdrawal is far worse than the high they give you is good.
Core arguments presented:
Benzos can treat anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, seizures, hallucinations, etc. If you use them to treat one of these symptoms, the rebound will nonetheless involve all of them.
Kindling – How long-term use leads to neural annealing of the “withdrawal neural patterns”.
Amnesia effects prevent you from remembering the good parts/only remembering the bad parts.
Neurotoxicity from long-term benzo use makes it harder for your brain to heal.
Arousal as a multiplier of consciousness: on benzos the “high” is low arousal and the withdrawal is high arousal (compared to stimulants where you at least will “sleep through the withdrawal”).
Tolerance still builds up even when you don’t have a “psychoactive dose” in your body – meaning that the extremely long half-life of clonazepam and diazepam and their metabolites (50h+) entails that you still develop long-term tolerance even with weekly or biweekly use!
I then go into how the (empirically false) common-sense view of drug tolerance is delaying promising research avenues, such as “anti-tolerance drugs” (see links below). In particular, NAD+ IV and Flumazenil seem to have large effect sizes for treating benzo withdrawals. I AM NOT CONFIDENT THAT THEY WORK, but I think it is silly to not look into them with our best science at this point. Clinical trials for NAD+ IV therapy for drug withdrawal are underway, and the research to date on flumazenil seems extremely promising. Please let me know if you have any experience using either of these two tools and whether you had success with them or not.
Note: These treatments may also generalize to other GABAergic drugs like gabapentin, alcohol, and phenibut (which also have horrible withdrawals, but are far shorter than benzo withdrawal).
Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil. Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines […] were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.”
Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms. Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.
Is it possible for the “natural growth” of a pandemic to be slower than exponential no matter where it starts? What are ways in which we can leverage the graphical properties of the “contact network” of humanity in order to control contagious diseases? In this video I offer a novel way of analyzing and designing networks that may allow us to easily prevent the exponential growth of future pandemics.
Topics covered: The difference between the aesthetic of pure math vs. applied statistics when it comes to making sense of graphs. Applications of graph analysis. Identifying people with a high centrality in social networks. Klout scores. Graphlets. Kinds of graphs: geometric, small world, scale-free, empirical (galactic core + “whiskers”). Pandemics being difficult to control due to exponential growth. Using a sort of “pandemic Klout score” to prioritize who to quarantine, who to vaccinate first. The network properties that made the plague spread so slowly in the Middle Ages. Toroidal planets as having linear pandemic growth after a certain threshold number of infections. Non-integer graph dimensionality. Dimensional chokes. And… kitchen sponges.
Readings either referenced in the video or useful to learn more about this topic:
Main Empirical Findings: Our results suggest a rather detailed and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the community structure in large networks. Several qualitative properties of community structure are nearly universal:
• Up to a size scale, which empirically is roughly 100 nodes, there not only exist well-separated communities, but also the slope of the network community profile plot is generally sloping downward. (See Fig. 1(a).) This latter point suggests, and empirically we often observe, that smaller communities can be combined into meaningful larger communities.
• At size scale of 100 nodes, we often observe the global minimum of the network community profile plot. (Although these are the “best” communities in the entire graph, they are usually connected to the remainder of the network by just a single edge.)
• Above the size scale of roughly 100 nodes, the network community profile plot gradually increases, and thus there is a nearly inverse relationship between community size and community quality. This upward slope suggests, and empirically we often observe, that as a function of increasing size, the best possible communities as they grow become more and more “blended into” the remainder of the network.
We have also examined in detail the structure of our social and information networks. We have observed that an ‘jellyfish’ or ‘octopus’ model [33, 7] provides a rough first approximation to structure of many of the networks we have examined.
Ps. Forgot to explain the sponge’s relevance: the scale-specific network geometry of a sponge is roughly hyperbolic at a small scale. Then the material is cubic at medium scale. And at the scale where you look at it as flat (being a sheet with finite thickness) it is two dimensional.
Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (link)
Why does DMT feel so “real”? Why does it feel like you experience genuine mind-independent realities on DMT?
In this video I explain that we all implicitly rely on a model of which signals are trustworthy and which ones are not. In particular, in order to avoid losing one’s mind during an intense exotic experience (such as those catalyzed by psychedelics, dissociatives, or meditation) one needs to (a) know that you are altered, (b) have a good model of what that alteration entails, and (c) that the alteration is not strong enough that it breaks down either (a) or (b). So drugs that make you forget you are under the influence, or that you don’t know how to model (or have a mistaken model of) can deeply disrupt your “web of trusted beliefs”.
I argue that one cannot really import the models that one learned from other psychedelics about “what psychedelics do” to DMT; DMT alters you in a far broader way. For example, most people on LSD may mistrust what they see, but they will not mistrust what they touch (touch stays a “trusted signal” on LSD). But on DMT you can experience tactile hallucinations that are coherent with one’s visions! “Crossing the veil” on DMT is not a visual experience: it’s a multi-modal experience, like entering a cave hiding behind a waterfall.
Some of the signals that DMT messes with that often convince people that what they experienced was mind-independent include:
Hyperbolic geometry and mathematical complexity; experiencing “impossible objects”.
Incredibly high-resolution multi-modal integration: hallucinations are “coherent” across senses.
Philosophical qualia enhancement: it alters not only your senses and emotions, but also “the way you organize models of reality”.
More “energized” experiences feel inherently more real, and DMT can increase the energy parameter to an extreme degree.
Highly valenced experiences also feel more real – the bliss and the horror are interpreted as “belonging to the vibe of a reality” rather than being just a property of your experience.
DMT can give you powerful hallucinations in every modality: not only visual hallucinations, but also tactile, auditory, scent, taste, and proprioception.
Novel and exotic feelings of “electromagnetism”.
Sense of “wisdom”.
Knowledge of your feelings: the entities know more about you than you yourself know about yourself.
With all of these signals being liable to chaotic alterations on DMT it makes sense that even very bright and rational people may experience a “shift” in their beliefs about reality. The trusted signals will have altered their consilience point. And since each point of consilience between trusted signals entails a worldview, people who believe in the independent reality of the realms disclosed by DMT share trust in some signals most people don’t even know exist. We can expect some pushback for this analysis by people who trust any of the signals altered by DMT listed above. Which is fine! But… if we want to create a rational Super-Shulgin Academy to really make some serious progress in mapping-out the state-space of consciousness, we will need to prevent epistemological mishaps. I.e. We have to model insanity so that we ourselves can stay sane.
[Skip to 4:20 if you don’t care about the scent of rose – the Qualia of the Day today]
“The most common descriptive labels for the entity were being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. […] Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.”
So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence.
This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:
We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.
The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…
This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.
I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.
Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.
One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.
In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.
Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence.
So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.
I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.
So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions.But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities.
And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.
I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected.
Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are.
Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.
Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.
And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.
These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.
When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.
So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.
So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.
So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.
Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.
There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those.
Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.
So,dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness.
I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.
Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.
And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.
Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.
Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.
I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.
Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.
Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.
Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has.
So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.
Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.
Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.
These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.
Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.
Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.
Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning.
You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.
You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.
When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.
These are just examples of a piano chord.
Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful.
Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.
And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states.
So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.
Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.
Here are just some quotes. Cool.
And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.
In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it.
Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.
Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry.
Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good.
Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.
For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.
Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena.
This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them.
Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at.
So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.
Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.
And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.
I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.
This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.
We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.
That is, euphoric.
Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true.
Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.
These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.
Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.
Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing.
The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.
And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.
Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!
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.
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. 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. 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.
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 strobeeffect:
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  from 1880, or to more recent digital art produced in a few clicks (Figure 1).
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.
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:
Mild HPPD (participant said it was strongest on color red)
12.5mg edible, 60 minutes post-ingestion
15mg edible, 90 minutes post-ingestion
20mg orally ingested
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!
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.”
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.
Let us now look into the specifics of the tracer tool:
Core effects are pillars of the tracer tool where a particular feedback dynamic is used. The core effects include trails, strobe, and replay.
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.
Strobe effect at 16.4 Hz
The strobe effect, just as the traileffect, also has intensity, persistence, and exponential decay modifiers. In addition, it also has frequency, which encodes how many snapshots per second are being taken.
5 Hz Strobe
10 Hz Strobe
20 Hz Strobe
Note: The current implementation of the trails feature is done with a very fast strobe. In this way, when you set the strobe frequency to the maximum you get something that starts to look a little like the trails effect.
Replay (Core Effect)
With an analogy to sound, replay would be akin to adding an echo or delay to a signal. Replay adds to the raw signal a copy of the output from a fraction of a second into the past. The result is a current output that contains a sequence of increasingly dimmer video replays of itself at regular time intervals into the past.
6 Hz Replay
As with strobe, replay has intensity, persistence, exponential decay, and frequency as its modifying effects.
3 Hz Replay
12 Hz Replay
Note: the replay effect is difficult to distinguish from the strobe effect with only still images
This is a modifier effect that can apply to trails, strobes, and replays (right now the implementation only applies to strobe, but we may change that in the future). It takes a fraction of the input and modulates it with a sine wave at a given frequency. This way the trails, strobes, and replays can come and go (either in part or in full) at a given frequency. This adds sparkle to the experience, and it can plausibly help create a sense of reality or object-permanence for the hallucinations as they “vibrate at their own frequency”.
Compare the difference between a strobe at 4 Hz vs. a strobe at 4 Hz with a pulse at 2 Hz:
4 Hz Strobe
4 Hz Strobe + 2 Hz Pulse at 50% amplitude
As you can see, the pulsing effect makes the strobes look like they have a sort of life of their own.
Using control interrupts as the source of hallucinogenesis, we can model hallucinogenic frame distortion of multisensory perception the same way we model sound waves produced by synthesizers; by plotting the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR envelope) of the hallucinogenic interrupt as it effects consciousness. (Fig. 2)3,4 For example, nitrous oxide (N20) inhalation alters consciousness in such a way that all perceptual frames arise and fall with a predictable “wah-wah-wah” time signature. The throbbing “wah-wha-wah” of the N20 experience is a stable standing wave formation that begins when the molecule hits the neural network and ends when it is metabolized, but for the duration of N20 action the “wah-wah-wah” completely penetrates all modes of sensory awareness with a strobe-like intensity. The periodic interrupt of N20 can be modeled as a perceptual wave ambiguity that toggles back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness at roughly 8 to 11 frames-per-second, or @8-11hz.5 Consciousness rises at the peak of each “wah” and diminishes in the valleys in between. On sub-anesthetic doses, N20 creates a looping effect where frame content overlaps into the following frame, causing a perceptual cascade similar to fractal regression. We can thus model the interrupt envelope of N20 as having a rounded attack, fast decay, low sustain, medium release, with an interrupt frequency of @8-11hz. Any psychoactive substance with a similar interrupt envelope will produce results that feel similar to the N20 experience. (Fig. 3) For instance, Smoked Salvia divinorum (vaporized Salvinorin A&B, or Salvia) has an interrupt envelope similar to N20, except Salvia has a harder attack, a slightly longer decay, a more intense sustain, a slightly longer release, and a slightly faster interrupt frequency (@12-15hz).6 These slight changes in the frequency and shape of interrupt envelope cause Salvia to feel more physically intense, more hallucinatory, and more disorienting than N20, even though they share a similar throbbing or tingling sensation along the same frequency range.
This actually seems to be important for showcasing what makes drugs with similar characteristic frequencies capable of feeling so different.
2 Hz Strobe
2 Hz Strobe + soft ADSR pattern
A really interesting research lead that is connected to the ADSR envelope of psychedelic tracers can be found in The Grand Illusion (Lehar, 2010), where cognitive scientist Steven Lehar narrates some of his experiences with LSD vs. LSD + MDMA. One of the things he discusses is the way that MDMA makes the experience jitter in a pleasant way that results in the LSD visuals becoming smoother (emphasis mine):
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.
As we will discuss further below, a more creamy ADSR envelope may cash out in a more pleasant experience, whereas a sharper or spikier envelope may in turn create more harsh experiences.
Color Pulse/Negative After Images (Modifier)
The color pulse effect transforms the image’s color towards its opposite in the CIELAB color space with a given frequency. It modifies strobe, replay, and trails (in principle, there can be a different color pulse for each effect, but for now it modifies all three simultaneously).
23.6 Hz Strobe
23.6 Hz Strobe + 2 Hz Color Pulse
Unlike pulse, color pulse modulates the color rather than the brightness of the input. The way we determine what color to transform into is by going to the opposite side of the CIELAB color space. This accurately approximates the negative afterimage of any phenomenal color (such as yellow being the negative afterimage of blue, and green being the negative afterimage of red). In our current implementation, color pulsing affects strobe and replay quite differently. For replay, the effect is one where there are now versions of the ball (or image, more generally) that have the opposite color that are chasing the original ball, whereas for strobe the effect is that of giving a seizure to each of the recent snapshots of experience! See for yourself:
26 Hz Replay + 13 Hz Color Pulse
26 Hz Strobe + 13 Hz Color Pulse
In a future version of the tracer tool, color pulse may become a sub-property of each main tracer layer in the same way ADSR is a sub-property of the strobe and replay layers.
Color pulsing may be an important piece of the puzzle for understanding how otherwise similar drugs can have such dramatically different effects. Tentatively, color pulsing showed up as a distinction between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT according to one of the persons who submitted parameters (as you can see above in the replication section). For that person, DMT produced color pulses while 5-MeO-DMT did not. Of course this is just a sample size of N=1. But it seems like an important research lead if true! After all, DMT trip reports do talk of highly colorful hallucinations that typically involve the combination of colors and their opposites (e.g. “The wall looked like a Persian carpet with an alternating checkerboard pattern design of neon green and magenta light” – anonymous 10mg DMT), whereas most 5-MeO-DMT trip reports don’t feature color very much. In fact, 5-MeO-DMT trips are often in black and white, pure white, pure black, or “nothingness color”. We discuss the implications of this in more detail in the last section of this piece (GettingRealms from Time-Like Textures).
Face Value vs. Dynamic Feedback Model
It is important to point out that the tracer tool works under the assumption of linearity between the effects it models. In other words, each effect modifies the input in its own way, and the corresponding modifications are added linearly at the end. This does not need to be the case. And in fact, we must expect the brain to have a lot of complex non-linearities where e.g. the pulsing effect is then used in a replay loop which entrains a strobing pattern which focuses your attention and so on. This complication aside, there is a lot of value in postulating the simple model first, and then adjusting accordingly when it fails to model the more complex phenomena. When we get there, once we have identified particular drugs, doses, and combinations that produce strange nonlinearities, we can then build tracer tools that explore how the parameters of particular dynamic systems can best explain the empirical data. Until then, let us start mapping out the space with this (relatively) simple linear model.
I would like to highlight the fact that using the tracer tool can be very educational. Familiarizing yourself with the effects and their modifications will allow you to be able to describe in detail psychedelic tracers even without having to use the tool again. For instance, I find myself now able to describe what kind of tracer effect appears on any given replication or trippy video. For example, now that you have read about them, can you tell us what is going on in the following gifs?:
The Explanatory Power of the Time-Like Texture of Experience
Exotic Phenomenal Time
We have previously suggested that tracers in the most general sense (i.e. including tracers for emotions, thoughts, and all sensory modalities in addition to visual experience) are very important for understanding the time distortions one experiences in exotic states of consciousness. The overall idea is that the aspect of our experience that gives rise to the feeling of time passing is the result of implicit causality in the network of local binding connections, which we call the pseudo-time arrow (see a recent presentation about it). Don’t worry about the details, though. All you need to know is that here we model phenomenal time as the direction along which causality flows within one’s experience. And because this is a statistical property of our experience, it turns out that phenomenal time ends up being very malleable; it admits of “exotic phenomenal time” variants:
This framework can articulate what is going on when you experience crazy psychedelic states such as moments of eternity, time branching, time looping, and so on. Now, even these are just some of the possible ways in which the network of local binding connections can give rise to exotic phenomenal time experiences. In reality, because the pseudo-time arrow emerges at a statistical level in the network, one can have all manners of local pseudo-time arrows nested in complex ways, as briefly discussed in the presentation:
I will end by speculating: I just walked you through seven types of exotic phenomenal time, but if indeed [the experience of time] can be explained in terms of causality in a graph, then there are many other exotic phenomenal times we can construct. This is especially so when we consider the space of possible hybrid phenomenal times. For instance, where in some regions in the network we may find time looping, some other region might be a moment of eternity, and perhaps another region is branching, and you know, if you have a very big experience, there is no reason why you wouldn’t be able to segment different regions of it for different types of phenomenal time. This is not unlike, perhaps, how we think of Feynman diagrams, where this part of it here is moving forwards in time, this part here is doing a loop, this part here is branching… I think a lot of the topologies we see here could be used to represent completely new [hybrid] exotic phenomenal times.
Given the diversity of ways in which phenomenal time can be expressed in an experience, I will start talking about the patterns encoded in the pseudo-time arrow as the time-like texture of experience. This way, rather than assuming that one’s sense of time is globally consistent in a given way (e.g. as in “I am fully inside a time-loop”), we can discuss how various patches and components of one’s experience have this or that time-like texture (e.g. “my visual field was looping, but my proprioception was strobing and my thoughts felt timeless”).
As a generic effect, all psychedelics seem to increase the duration of qualia in one’s experiential field, leading to a buildup of energy. But the precise shape this takes matters a lot, and it is certainly different between drugs. An example pointed above is how LSD and DMT seem to produce strobe and replay patterns of markedly different frequencies. For DMT, the spatial and temporal frequency of the visual hallucinations is usually described as “very high”. Based on the replications thus far, along with personal reports from a musician I trust, DMT’s “characteristic frequency” seems to be in the 25 to 30 Hz range. In contrast, LSD’s frequency is more in the range of 15 to 20 Hz: both Dubois & VanRullen’s LSD tracer study and subjective reports I’ve gathered over the years point to the hallucinations of acid having this rough frequency. Hence, the very building blocks of reality of a high-dose DMT breakthrough experience consist of tiny time-loops and strobe effects interacting with one another, weaving together a hallucinated world with surprising levels of detail and intense freshness of experience (as all the time loops are “young” due to their short duration). Really, when you take a small dose of DMT and you see the walls tessellating into wallpaper groups, notice how each of the tiny “bricks” that make up the tessellation is itself a time loop of sorts! It is not a stretch to describe a DMT experience as a kind of complex Darwinian ecosystem of tiny coalition-based time loop clusters bidding for your attention (cf. Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences).
Taking this paradigm seriously allows us to interpret psychoactive effects at a high level in novel ways. For example, these are some of the general patterns we have identified so far:
Psychedelics tend to have strong replay and strobe effects
HPPD, cannabis, and dissociatives seem to have a much smoother trail effect
MDMA and 5-MeO-DMT have characteristically creamy ADSR envelope effects
Using the sound metaphor to restate the above, psychedelics introduce beats and recursion, dissociatives introduce reverb, and empathogens/valence drugs may affect the temporal blur of one’s experience. Thus, we arrive at a model of psychoactive substances that makes sense of their effects in the language of signal processing rather than neurotransmitters and functional localization. This sheds a lot of clarity on the mysterious and bizarre state-spaces of consciousness disclosed by psychoactive drugs and paves the way for a principled way of predicting the way drug combinations may give rise to synergistic effects (more on that below). More so, it lends credence to the patternceutical paradigm of drug effects.
Meditation: Insight and Concentration Practices
The pseudo-time arrow paradigm suggests that one of the ways in which meditative practices can switch one’s state of consciousness is by disrupting sober time-like textures and enabling exotic time-like textures not available to the sober mind (see also: The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models (Johnson, 2018)). My personal experience with meditative practices is limited, but I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing some strange effects so far. In particular, I would say that concentration practices seem to give rise to experiences with long and stable pseudo-time arrows – a peacefulness in which nothing is happening yet the flow of time is constant and rather uneventful. The phenomenal time of highly focused states of mind may be full of reverb, but I do not think it has crazy time loops. Moments of eternity and timelessness may be present at the limit here (e.g. moments of eternity and Jhanas may be deeply connected), though I will need more personal experience to say this with confidence.
On the other hand, insight practices such as noting meditation may have more of a replay and strobe effect. In particular, this may happen as a result of three core effects from this kind of meditation: (1) it stops you from dissipating energy across long narratives, (2) it recaptures the energy you were going to use for a longer narrative to feed the noting process instead, and (3) it entrains the rhythm of noting. This in turn (a) energizes a regular constant-frequency pattern (the frequency of noting) and (b) reduces the energy of every other rhythm, which in turn (c) canalizes sensory stimulation energy towards the brain’s noting frequency and all of its harmonics, which eventually leads to a high-frequency energized state of consciousness whose building blocks are tiny time-loops. These can synchronize and create experiences with characteristic time-like textures made up of such tiny energized loops. Hence, noting practice above some level of skill (e.g. with a noting frequency above 3 Hz) can be DMT-like to an extent (in light of thinking of DMT realms as made up of energized high-frequency mini-time-loops).
These experiences characterized by intense tracer effects are in a similar space as the strange temporal distortions that happen when you are dizzy (like when you stand up too fast or hyperventilate). The “loss of context” that results from this effect is due to the longest replay loops becoming too short to contain the necessary information to “keep you in the loop about what is going on”. Hence the confusion about who or what you are, what you are doing, and how you got here that happens when you are near passing out from standing up too quickly. That confusion takes place in an otherwise highly detailed and intense high-energy and high-frequency “rush” made of tiny time loops.
Thus, one of the gateways into altered states of consciousness via meditation with noting can be summarized as what happens when you induce a self-reinforcing pattern of strobing, replay, and pulsing that fully captures your attention. This process builds up a lot of energy, which one can only wield up to a point. When one fails to control it, the state decays into a series of tracer patterns that use the clean loop as its background reference. As this happens, one experiences a world whose building blocks are beautiful tiny jewels of attention, slowly decaying as one loses the ability to stay focused. The decay process also seems to do something good when properly orchestrated. Namely, as the decay process begins, one naturally experiences a Cambrian explosion of qualia critters eager to feed off of the negentropy generated, as thought-forms need attention to survive. This whole process, one could argue, lends phenomenological credence to the paradigm of neural annealing, where one’s brain uses a heating and cooling schedule to entrain brain-wide harmony.
In other words, with something like a noting practice, one ends up creating a world simulation whose building blocks are all embedded in a very tight time-loop, a wind-up universe of concentrated awareness. Perhaps we are going too far with this explanation. Either way, we really feel that thinking in terms of these generalized tracer dynamic patterns is an exciting new conceptual toolkit that allows us to describe the quality of exotic experiences that were hard to pinpoint before.
Three Exciting Possible Applications of the Tracer Tool: High-O-Meter, Synergy Quotient, and Harmonic World-Building
How high are you? It is often difficult to put a number on this question. But once we have established the parameters for different drugs (e.g. characterized DMT as living in a region of the parameter-space that is of higher frequency than LSD, etc.) we can show a series of gifs to someone and ask them to point at the one that best shows what tracers looked like at the peak of their experience. This way we can quickly estimate how high they got (at least visually) with a very simple question.
For example, we may find that the “modal response” to 50, 100, 200, and 300 micrograms of LSD looks as follow:
Simulated tracer for 50 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 100 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 200 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 300 μg of LSD
If this works, we would be able to sort research participants into one of these ranges just by asking them to point at the image that best captures their experience. Similar tools for other modalities could be used to obtain a global “highness score” meaningful across people.
(2) Synergy Quotient (orthogonality vs. synergy vs. suppression vs. harmonization)
What happens when you combine psychoactive drugs together? We have previously discussed in great detail what happens when you take combos of drugs from various categories (see: Making Amazing Recreational Drug Cocktails), but admit that there are huge puzzles and unknowns in this space. Of note is that some combinations give rise to synergistic effects (e.g. psychedelics and dissociatives), others blunt each other’s action (e.g. agmatine and nootropics), while yet others seem to create competing effects due to some kind of mutually-exclusive qualities of experience (e.g. salvia and DMT, a.k.a. “drugfights”). For an illustrative example of the third category, famous psychonaut D. M. Turner reports:
I smoked 30 mg. of DMT in three tokes, followed immediately by 650 mcg. of Salvinorin that I had preloaded in a separate pipe.
The effects were felt almost immediately. The first thing I noticed was a grid of crosshatch patterns. I had perceived something similar when using 2C-B with mushrooms, which I believed to be the result of using two psychedelics that were not compatible with each other. However, in this case the patterns were defined to a much sharper degree, and it seemed apparent that these two substances affect consciousness in differing ways that are not synchronistic when used together. Both the Salvia and DMT entities seemed to have been taken entirely off guard and had not been expecting this confrontation. These entities seemingly paid no attention to me as their attention was entirely fixed on each other. It soon became apparent that the two were going to battle, vying to determine who would have control of my consciousness.
We think that the tracer tool can be useful to quantify the degree of interaction between two drugs. For instance, say that drug A produces a robust 10 Hz replay effect, whereas drug B produces a 7 Hz Strobing effect. Would drug A + drug B cause a tracer that blends these two facets, or does it produce something different? If the combination’s tracers are different than the sum of its parts, how large is this difference? And can this difference be identified with a particular recursive stacking of effects, or as the result of a nonlinear interaction between dynamic systems? We believe that this line of research may be very illuminating.
Drug A + Drug B (“orthogonal”)
Drug A + Drug B (“suppression”)
Drug A + Drug B (“synergy”)
Drug A + Drug B (“harmonization”)
In the above example, we show what various possibilities for the result of drug combos may be. “Orthogonal” effects mean that the resulting tracer is the sum of the tracers of each drug, “suppression” means that one drug’s effect reduces the effect of the other, “synergy” means that the resulting effects are stronger than you’d expect by just linearly adding the effects of each drug, and “harmonization” refers to the possible slight-retuning of the characteristic frequency of each drug’s effect that allows for a consonant blending. How strongly the combo is from the predicted effect based on each drug would determine the synergy quotient of the pair.
A few possible (tentative) examples: alcohol + psychedelics give rise to orthogonal effects, opiates and psychedelics result in effect suppression, dissociatives and psychedelics result in strong synergy (not unlike what you get when you stack reverb and looping in music), and MDMA and psychedelics might result in harmonized tracers (hence the creamy and harmonious visuals of candy-flipping). We would love to see research tackling this question.
(3) Harmonic World-Building
Tinnitus is usually loud and distracting, but in addition, it can also be annoying and unpleasant. At QRI, we posit that the precise pattern of tinnitus—not only its loudness—has implications for how bad it is for someone’s mental health: dissonant and chaotic tinnitus might be worse than consonant and harmonious patterns, for instance.
In a similar vein, we think that the particular tracer patterns, over and above just their intensity, of perceptual conditions like HPPD probably matter for how the condition affects you at a cognitive, perceptual, and emotional level. Concretely, we would like to study how valence is related to one’s particular tracer patterns: we think that when psychedelic tracers feel good, that such positive valence may show up in the form of (a) harmonious relationships between the components of the effects, and (b) a sort of creaminness in the way the tracers come over time (as shown in the MDMA + LSD trip report by Steven Lehar).
We take seriously the possibility that something akin to the rules of harmony in music (see: Tuning Timbre Spectrum Scale by William Sethares) will have a showing in the way resonance in any experiential field cashes out into valence. In other words, the way patterns of resonance in the brain combine might be responsible for whether the experience feels good or bad. In particular, under psychedelics and other high-energy states of consciousness, one’s visual field is capable of instantiating visions of both tremendous beauty and tremendous terror. It is as if in high-energy regimes, one’s visual field acquires the capacity for creating pleasure and pain of its own (albeit “visual” in flavor!). While sober, one can get something akin to this effect, though only mildly in comparison: you can experience beautiful patterns by staring at a smooth strobe with eyes closed, or experience unpleasant reactions when the strobe shines at irregular intervals. The quality of the self-generated light-show in energized states of consciousness (such as a psychedelic experience) will likely have an impact on one’s sense of wellbeing. Is one’s inner light show all irregular, uncoordinated, sharp, and jarring? Or is it smooth, clean, robust, and soft? Based on the Symmetry Theory of Valence, one can anticipate that one’s tracer phenomenology feels good when it expresses or approximates regular geometries and bad when the implied geometries are irregular or disjointed.
Dissonant emergent pattern
Consonant emergent pattern
The creaminess of smooth ADSR envelopes would likewise prevent sensory and emotional dissonance by virtue of softening spikes of sensations. This, of course, is ultimately an empirical question. Let’s investigate it!
Final Thoughts: Getting Realms from Time-Like Textures
The complexity and information content of one’s state of consciousness as induced by a substance may depend on what fits in the repertoire of time-like textures of the state. For example, some states might be much more prone to generate quasi-crystals as opposed to crystals, as we argued in DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT (Gomez Emilsson, 2020).
What are these crystals? One of the characteristic spatial effects of psychedelics is that they lower the symmetry detection threshold. This gives rise to the beautiful tessellations (at times Euclidean, at times hyperbolic (Gomez Emilsson, 2016)) everyone talks about. Analogously in time, psychedelics are notorious for creating time loops (cf. Going Loopy (Alexander, 2014)). In a deeper sense these are, we might argue, two facets of the same underlying effect. Namely, the creation of, for lack of a better term, qualia crystals. We can be cautious about assigning an ontological interpretation to qualia crystals; all we are proposing here is to accept them as phenomenological artifacts that tie together a lot of these experiential qualities. These gems of qualia come in many flavors, but they all express at least one symmetry in a clean and deep way. Whereas our experience of the world is usually made of a complex distribution of (tiny) qualia crystals which form the macroscopic time-like texture of our mind, we find in exotic states of consciousness the possibility of experiencing the refined, pure version. Timothy Leary in The Psychedelic Experience describes what he believes is the key existential conundrum close to the peak of an ecstatic trip:
Is it better to be part of the sugar or to taste the sugar?
In line with the neural annealing frame (Johnson, 2019), there is a very real sense in which slightly past the peak of a psychedelic experience you will find some of the largest, purest, most refined qualia crystals (at least relative to the human norm). And what this looks like will depend a lot on what the available building blocks are! The diversity of these building blocks makes the time-like texture of experience triggered by different drugs dramatically variable.
Some of the realms of experience are made with a time-like texture of interlocking time loops of different frequencies allowing you to experience the sense of “a big other”. In some other realms, the time loops are all aligned with each other, which makes self-other distinctions hard to represent and reason about. The various flavors for the felt sense of non-duality, for example, may correspond to different ways in which strobes, replays, pulse, etc. align perfectly to dissolve the internal boundaries used as building blocks to represent duality. At the extreme of “unification”, such as the state found in the 5-MeO-DMT breakthrough, one “becomes” a metronome whose tune is reflected faithfully everywhere in one’s experience, such that there is nothing else to interface with. Hence, one becomes “invisible to oneself”. To be in a state of near total oneness may entail the feeling of nothingness for this reason (thus the highest Jhanas being “nothingness” and “neither nothing nor something”).
This overall interpretative frame of exotic states as the result of time-like textures may show up empirically, too. One of the exciting early results, as mentioned above, is the report that while DMT creates complex positive and negative after-image dynamics full of color and polarity, the tracers on 5-MeO-DMT are monochromatic, meaning that one only experiences their positive after-image.
This alone may go a long way in explaining why the visual character of these two drugs is so distinct at their upper ranges. Namely, because DMT gives rise to complex checkerboard grid-patterns of overly-saturated colors intermingling with their polar opposites, whereas on 5-MeO-DMT, one often experiences an incredibly bright white light, or even a sense of translucid empty space, but no colors! The paradigm of using tracer patterns to make sense of states of consciousness would here suggest that a “breakthrough” experience can be interpreted as what happens when one’s world is saturated with the time-like texture characteristic of the tracer pattern of either drug. The realms of experience these agents disclose are the universes that you get when the building blocks of reality are those specific time loops and attention dynamics, leaving no room for anything that does not follow those “phenomenal time constraints”. When the dose is low, this manifests as just a gloss over one’s otherwise normal experience, a mere modifier on top of one’s sober reality. But when the dose is large, these time loops and attention dynamics drive the very way one’s mind constructs our whole sense of the world.
In this light, rather than thinking of exotic states of mind as places (as the “realm” metaphor alludes to), one can imagine conceptualizing them as ways of making sense of time. When you smoke salvia, you make sense of time in a salvia kind of way, which involves looping back chaotically in a way that typically results in losing the normal plot altogether and instead exotic narratives better fitted for the salvia attentional dynamics end up dominating the world-building process of the mind. Hence you end up in “salvia land”. Which is what you remember best. But the salvia land one ends up in is only a circumstantial part of the true story. The fundamental generator that is upstream of this realm would be the overall tracer pattern, the time-like texture of the experience: the neuroacoustic effect of salvia. He who controls the time-like texture of experience, controls the world-building process of the mind. Thus the paramount importance of understanding tracer patterns.
Do you want to collaborate on this project?
The Tracer Replication Tool is the first of a series of research tools we are creating at QRI specifically designed with psychedelic phenomenology in mind. The spirit of this enterprise is to identify the ways in which psychedelic states of consciousness can enhance the information processing of the mind in some ways. Rather than focusing on how information processing is impaired, we develop these tools with the goal of finding the ways in which it is enhanced (cf. psychedelic cryptography (Gomez Emilsson, 2015), psychedelic problem solving (Harman, 1966)). We take very seriously high-quality trips reports from rational psychonauts, which help us ideate tasks that are likely to show large effect sizes. Thus, rather than bringing traditional psychometric tools to the psychedelic space, we think that developing the tools to assess the psychedelic state in its own terms is more likely to provide novel and significant insights. We would love to have academic researchers include some of these tasks in their own study designs. Becoming familiar with the Tracer Replication Tool takes less than 10 minutes, and based on the pilot results, operating it during a psychedelic experience is possible for a good fraction of people under the influence of these substances. It would be amazing to have tracer replications included in psychedelic studies to come. If you are involved in psychedelic research and would like to use the Tracer Replication Tool or learn more about the toolkit we are developing please reach out to us! We would love to hear from you.
For Participants and Volunteers
There are several ways you can help this project. As a beta tester participant, you can use the tracer tool to replicate tracers that you yourself have experienced. There are three categories here (which you can specify at the point of submission when using the tool):
Retroactively: If you have experienced visuals tracers in the past and think you can remember them accurately (or at least recognize them when you see them), you can play with the Tracer Replication Tool and submit the parameters that best match your memory of the tracers you experienced.
Post-Trip: If you are planning on taking a psychedelic in the near future* and want to submit a datapoint from your experience, open the tracer tool during the trip and look at the bouncing ball (and other animations). While staring at the center of the animation for about a minute, try to get a clear picture of what the tracers look like. We encourage you to play with the color, speed, and animation type while you are in the state so that you see how tracers react to different visual inputs. Then as soon as possible after the trip is over, come back to the tool and find the tracer parameters that best replicate what you saw.
Within Trip: If you are familiar with the tracer tool parameters so that you can tell in real time whether you are experiencing strobing, replays, color pulsing, etc. then you may want to try to replicate the tracers you are seeing in real time. We recognize that this has the problem that the tracer replications will have psychedelic tracers of themselves, and that they get in the way of the tracers you are trying to reproduce. That said, the early reports we have received state that it is actually easier to do a good job at replicating the tracers while in the state than after it. So we also welcome submissions of this type.
The case of HPPD and other non-drug induced tracers could be considered in this frame as well. For instance, we have been made aware that during the meditation practice of Fire Kasina, one experiences many pronounced tracers of various kinds. Thus, if you are currently experiencing meditation-induced tracers, you can submit parameters of the within trip kind. If you saw the bouncing ball (or other animations) during the meditation but have now exited your state, then you could submit a datapoint of the post-trip kind. And if you only have the recollection of tracers but did not see the ball at the time, then submit a retroactive datapoint. Likewise, HPPD and other tracer phenomena may come and go and their intensity may wax and wane, so these categories are also useful in such cases.
Please sign up to the QRI mailing list if you want to stay informed about the development of QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit. We also want to emphasize, as we note in the Special Thanks section below, that this tool could not have been made without our amazing QRI volunteers. We are very eager to work with anyone with technical skills useful for this and related projects. If you would like to help us build these tools and advance our collective understanding of exotic states of consciousness, please get in touch. For more QRI volunteer projects see our volunteer page.
 A significant message of the book is that it is useful to conceptualize these rhythms as being the result of endogenous pattern-generating networks specialized to create specific frequencies, envelopes, and types of synchronization.
 “There are only two sources that control the firing patterns of a neuron at any time: an input from outside the brain and self-organized activity. These two sources of synchronization forces often compete with each other (Cycle 9). If cognition derives from the brain, this self-organized activity is its most likely source. Ensemble synchrony of neurons should therefore reflect the combination of some selected physical features of the world and the brain’s interpretation of those features. Even if the stimulus is invariant, the brain state is not. From this perspective, the most interesting thing we can learn about the brain is how its self-generated internal states, the potential source of cognition, are brought about. Extracting the variant, that is, brain-generated features, including the temporal relation between neural assemblies and assembly members, from the invariant features evoked by the physical world might provide clues about the brain’s perspective on its environment. Yes, this is the information we routinely throw away with stimulus-locked averaging.” (Buzsáki, 2006)
*Disclaimer: We are not encouraging anyone to ingest psychoactive substances.
Special Thanks to: Lawrence Wu for implementing the current version of the tool. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, and Mike Johnson for a lot of useful ideas, conversations, and keeping the project afloat. To Robin Goins and Alex Zhao for getting a head start in implementing an earlier version of the tool. To the QRI team for encouragement and many discussions. And to the anonymous rational psychonauts and the HPPD sufferer for contributing pilot data with visual replications of their own experiences.
Buzsáki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford University Press.
Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I., & Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nature Communications, 7(1), 10340. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10340
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
Rudrauf, D., Lutz, A., Cosmelli, D., Lachaux, J.-P., & Le Van Quyen, M. (2003). From autopoiesis to neurophenomenology: Francisco Varela’s exploration of the biophysics of being. Biological Research, 36(1). https://doi.org/10.4067/S0716-97602003000100005
Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Kringelbach, M. L., Deco, G., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 17661. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0
[Epistemic Status: anecdotal data; this is not a list of “life hacks”; it is intended as a list of interesting research leads; don’t take drugs unless you really know what you are doing!]
I’ll mark to the right of each anecdata:
n=x when I can remember clearly how many people have said this to me up to n = 10 (e.g. n=7 means that 7 people have told me this)
n=x/y when I know that y people have tried it and of those x have experienced this
n>1 when 1 < n < 10 but I don’t remember exactly how many people have said it, and
pattern if it’s a pattern I’ve observed across more than 10 people pooled from online trip reports and conversations from email exchanges, forums, group chats, private messages, and things that have come up at IRL discussions (e.g. atfestivals).
2C-P (particularly bad bodyload, inevitable vomiting above some dose) [pattern]
2C-E (“just too weird” for a lot of people, strong bodyload) [pattern]
2C-T-2 (high bodyload, strangely similar to LSD in headspace) [n>1]
2C-T-7 (same as 2C-T-2) [n>1]
Do not ever IV 2C-E as it leads to instant extreme crams, nausea, and general bodily discomfort. [n=1]
The come-up of IV 2C-B is very fast relative to oral administration (5 minutes) and the peak is a lot more intense as well. 5mg results in an intensity of experience comparable to 35mg oral at its peak. [n=5]
Within 10 minutes of IV 2C-B one feels an intense urge to defecate. [n=4/5]
While IV 100μg LSD takes a full 30 minutes to show the start of effects, IV 300μg takes only 5 minutes to show pronounced effects. [n=1]
Ketamine is reportedly experienced as a “completely different drug” when the ROA is IV vs. IM vs. intranasal. [pattern]
IV Ketamine gives rise to a distinct metallic taste in one’s mouth within a few seconds of administration. [n>1]
In Anti-Tolerance Drugs we gave a list of drugs that, when taken in conjunction with painkillers and euphoric substances, can lessen, prevent, and even reverse tolerance. But “drug tolerance” is not a natural kind. Indeed, there are many systems of neuroadaptation that prevent drugs from exerting the same effect over time. Nothing makes this clearer than the typically life-long loss of “magic” to MDMA after a few experiences, which stands in contrast to the largely reversible tolerance to ethyl alcohol post-PAWS. Indeed, “drug tolerance” can mean tolerance to reduced action for: antidepressant effects (SSRIs), lessening chronic pain (opioids), increasing executive function (modafinil), enhancing motivation (amphetamine), “the magic” (ketamine, MDMA), the sense of unity and interconnectedness (LSD), otherworldliness (salvia), and so on. Indeed you can have a drug that generates tolerance to one of its effects but not others. For example, Slate Star Codex’s nootropic survey found that despite the common wisdom that prescription amphetamines stop generating a sense of euphoria after a while, most people who use them clinically for ADHD continue to experience an enhanced focus on the drug for many years. In this vein, the following anecdata highlights how anti-tolerance drugs have a much more subtle and multifaceted effect than just “reducing tolerance”:
DXM and other dissociatives seem to potentiate both the analgesic and euphoric effects from opioids, increase constipation, and leave pruritus the same. [n>1]
Proglumide reduces both the intensity of opioid withdrawal as well as the tolerance to their analgesic, sedative, and constipation effects. It does not affect euphoria or pruritus. [n>1]
Ultra-low dose naltrexone (ULDN) reduces tolerance to analgesic and sedative effects from opioids but not euphoria (“it makes opioids more sleep-inducing but a lot less fun“). Interestingly, ULDN prevents constipation from opioids. [n>1]
Black seed oil and ashwagandha reduce the tolerance to the analgesic, sedative, euphoric, and pruritus effects of opioids without influencing constipation. These effects are milder than all of the above. [n=1]
Agmatine potentiates the analgesic effects of opioids without an effect on other facets like euphoria or constipation. [n =1]
Turmeric primarily increases the sedative effects of opioids without changing much of anything else. [n=1]
Anti-histamine anti-cholinergic drugs (such as diphenhydramine) potentiate the sedative and analgesic effects, but leave constipation and euphoria the same. They can increase restlessness. [pattern]
DXM does not mix well with a bunch of things: 2C drugs [n>1], noopept [n=1], tianeptine [n=1], phenibut [n=1], ethyl alcohol [pattern], most nootropics. [n=1]
This seems to be especially bad for high-bodyload 2Cs as described above. [n>1]
Vaporizing DMT while on ketamine “slows down” and in some cases “freezes” some aspects of the hallucinations of DMT, allowing you to inspect them more closely. It also prolongs the DMT experience for a good 3 to 5 minutes. [n=3]
Taking 30mg of MDMA and 30μg LSD at the same time, followed by 10mg 2C-B four hours later, gives rise to a very positive synergy that allows you to maintain easy executive function while having trippy thoughts and a very high hedonic tone. It’s a smart and psychologically safe state. The combo has very mild hungover effects relative to how great it feels. [n=4]
Coluracetam is surprisingly psychedelic. [n=5]
Mixing coluracetam and weed gives rise to a mild LSD-like mindspace. [n=4]
Rhodiola Rosea has a distinctly “dopaminergic quality”, which is rare among nootropics other than L-tyrosine. [n=3]
Most racetams (piracetam, oxiracetam, aniracetam, etc.) successfully mask the verbal impairment (both comprehension and execution) caused by weed and/or alcohol (up to a point!). [pattern]
Agmatine (500mg) significantly blunts the intensity of orgasm. [n=1]
Agmatine (500mg) can be used as a replacement for NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen for mild to moderate pains and aches. [n=1]
Microdosing LSD (5 to 20μg) can substantially reduce the pain of very bad premenstrual syndrome (PMS). [pattern]
Microdosing LSD can also reduce the pain associated with shingles. [1<n]
[Excerpt from Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved (published in 1990 and usually abbreviated as PIHKAL) by Alexander and Ann Shulgin, pgs. 98-103]
Part Two: Alice’s Voice
When I finally gave it a name, I called it the Spiral.
This is how it was. Lying down for a nap time (as a child) or at night for sleep, I would have reached that point of relaxation where one is not very much aware of the body. The small itches and discomforts have subsided, and the mind is beginning to drift. When I sensed it beginning (I never knew when it was going to come), I would immediately snap into alertness, excited and pleased, then I would just lie quietly as it unfolded.
The first thing that happened was a change in my breathing. It became increasingly shallow, to the point where my rib cage was barely moving at all.
If someone came into the room and talked to me, as sometimes happened, I could open my eyes and answer normally; the experience continued uninterrupted inside my head.
Every part of it, every stage, was the same each time. It was always in black and white. There was no color anywhere, and try as I did, especially around the age of fourteen, I could not force color to come onto the screen. And I could never extend it, by so much as a few seconds. When it was finished, it was finished.
First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.
Simultaneously, I was expanding. I was expanding to the edges of the universe, at the same tremendous speed as that of the shrinking, and the combination, the contraction-expansion, was not only an image, it was also a sensation the whole of me recognized and welcomed. This experience of myself as microcosm-macrocosm lasted exactly four minutes.
The image of the spiral is found everywhere that the human has left his mark on earth. It has been cut into rock faces, painted on huts and clay pots, traced on the walls of initiation caves. I’m certain that it has been important to all the races of man because it is a symbol for the experience I’m describing, and for the concept, the understanding that the intellect forms out of what is initially not an intellectual, but a soul experience of the Alpha and the Omega.
The next stage came abruptly, as did all the changes. I was looking at standing figures which were vaguely human, dark thin figures being pulled into elongated shapes, like the sculptures of Giacometti. They stretched out, arms and legs like black string, until it seemed they could elongate no further, then the scene changed and I was watching obscenely rounded bodies, Tweedledums and Tweedledees without costumes, their small heads and legs disappearing into their puffed, bloated flesh.
The sensation accompanying this stage was one of discomfort, unpleasantness, a feeling of something grating on my soul. I once timed this part and the one that followed; they lasted a total of six minutes. I disliked them intensely.
Abruptly again, the inner screen became white, a horrible dead-white, nasty and aggressive like the underbelly of a sting-ray. After presenting itself for a few seconds, the flat white began to curdle from the outer edges into black, until finally the screen was totally black. A thick, awful, dead black, a pool of tar in an unlit cave deep underground. After another brief pause, the black began to curdle at its edges into the white again. The process repeated itself once, and the sensation was similar in every way to the previous one: irritating, grating, a feeling of unpleasantness that approached repugnance. I always endured it with a mental gritting of teeth, knowing it had to be gone through because that’s the way it always went and it was not to be changed.
And then, finally, I broke out into the last stage, the final part for which I had always been and always would be willing to undergo the middle parts.
Now I was at the edge of an unseen cliff, looking out into a very different blackness, the deep, cradling blackness of the infinite universe, of space which stretched without end. I was completely happy and comfortable in that place, and would have stayed there indefinitely, had I been allowed, breathing in the beautiful darkness and the exquisitely familiar sense of infinity as a living presence, surrounding me, intimate and warm.
After a moment of this pleasure, came the greeting. From the upper left-hand corner of the universe there came a greeting from Something which had known me, and which I had known, since before time and space began. There were no words, but the message was clear and smiling: Hello, dear friend, I salute you with respect-humor-love. It is a pleasure with laughter-joy to encounter you again.
That which greeted me was an entity so far removed from anything in human experience that I concluded, when I was an adult, trying to find a way to describe it to myself, that even the word, “entity”, could not be applied; a word creates boundaries, it says this is the shape of what you are describing, as different from other shapes which are bounded by other words. It had no shape, no form, no definition, no boundaries. It was. It is. It was my oldest friend and it greeted me as its equal. I always replied to it with a rush of love and delight and my own laughter.
Then it was over.
It had taken exactly twelve minutes.
It was something I’d always experienced, taken for granted, and had given no thought to when I was very young. Not until age fourteen did I take a good look at it and recognize it as unusual, something peculiarly my own, my secret private treasure. I also got very analytical about the whole thing, began my habit of timing it and made the first of my unsuccessful efforts at altering it. But I didn’t decide on a name for it until many years later, discarding “Microcosm-macrocosm,” as too long and unwieldy, and settling on the simpler “Spiral.”
It had probably been going on since I was born. There’s no way to be sure, of course, but because it had been part of my life ever since I could remember, I tend to assume it was familiar to me from the very beginning. My mother said something once about having seen a change of some kind coming over me occasionally when I was a baby; she said she didn’t worry about it because when it passed, I appeared to be quite normal.
It always (with one single exception) came under the same circumstances, when I had settled down in bed for a nap or for the night’s sleep, but well before sleep itself took over.
The one exception happened when I was around fifteen, shortly after my father had been transferred to Santiago de Cuba as American Consul. We were staying in a hotel, while those responsible for helping us find a home were still busy with their search. My father and mother, my brother Boy and I were having lunch in the hotel dinning room and my eyes focused on the butter plate on the table. In the exact center of the round plate was a single pat of butter, and somehow the sight triggered the familiar feeling I associated with the beginning of the Spiral. I was surprised and very pleased, because it was a new thing to have it start under such unusual circumstances.
I was also pleased because it was my special thing, and in asking to be excused from the table to go up to my room, I felt a certain sense of importance, which was rare when I was with my family. I said just enough to make it clear that my strange “thing” was beginning, and my parents grudgingly gave me permission for me to leave. I reached the room upstairs in time for the completion, the wonderful last few moments. It turned out to be the only time it ever happened that way – when I was out of my bed, involved with ordinary matters of daily living.
I tried to make it come, searching out all sorts of images of round space with dots in the center, but nothing worked. I never found a way to make it happen. It came when it chose to, unexpectedly, once in a while. The times it chose had no apparent connection to anything else that was going on in my life, either generally or in particular. In twenty-five years, believe me, I looked for every possible connection; I found none. When I was very little, I think it might have happened as often as once a week or so, but as I grew older it came less and less often, until around age twenty-five, when it happened only twice in one year, then never again.
The discovery that I was not alone in my journey into the interior cosmos came as a complete surprise. It gave me a great deal of excited pleasure and opened up a whole new series of questions. I happened when I was around twenty two, and – interesting enough in itself – the two proofs came to me within a single four month period.
The incidents were astoundingly similar.
The first one took place one evening when I went to a party given by a friend in San Francisco. I was in the host’s kitchen with several of the other guests, doing what people usually do in strange kitchens at informal parties – talking, drinking and munching potato chips and carrot sticks – and after a while one young man named Evan and I found ourselves alone, deeply involved in a conversation about unusual experiences, mostly read about or heard from others, the kind of conversation that seems to come about more easily, somehow, in the midst of a high energy, noisy party than at any other time.
Suddenly Evan was telling me about what he referred to as “a really weird thing,” which had been happening to him ever since he was very young. I remember the prickling that spread up my back as he began describing it, and I understood immediately the look that gradually came into his face, a mixture of embarrassment and anxiety (She’s going to think I’m crazy; why am I talking about this?). I tried to make it easier for him to continue by nodding encouragingly and once – when he faltered briefly – I volunteered what I knew was going to be the next image, and he looked startled, almost frightened, drank a bit from his glass, muttered, “Yes, exactly”, and continued to the end. His end was not mine; his journey came to a close after the black and white curdles. I thought, with a touch of pity, that he seemed to have missed the best part, although he did have the wonderful spiral at the beginning. I was glad I hadn’t prompted him further. When he’d finished his story, I told him I’d had every one of the images he had described, and that he was the first person I’d ever met who shared the experience. I said nothing about my own different ending.
He was staring at me, and I wasn’t sure he’d really heard what I’d been telling him. Finally, he smiled and said that I was the first person he’d ever told about this private, “crazy thing,” and he couldn’t believe – it was so extraordinary – that I actually knew what he was talking about. He said that he had always wondered if the experience was a sign of insanity of some kind, and it was such a relief to know that somebody else had had it. Neither of us felt it necessary to add that, in a situation like this, it was also reassuring to see that the person who shares your strangeness appears to be relatively sane and reasonably functional.
I smiled back and said I understood exactly how he felt. We left the kitchen and joined the rest of the party. I never saw him again, and didn’t particularly expect or want to. It was enough to have heard one other person repeating what I knew so well, and it was intriguing to know that my journey, or process, had gone farther, longer, than Evan’s; after all, although I was more than willing to give up exclusive rights to the whole thing, I didn’t mind retaining a little bit of superiority.
The second incident was almost identical to the first, the only difference being that the young man (whose name I forgot almost immediately) was talking to me in somebody’s living room, instead of the kitchen, in the middle of another noisy party, when he began describing the “strange vision” that he, too, had had ever since he was a small child. His, also, ended short of where mine did, and he was astounded and obviously very relieved to know that there was somebody else in the world who knew about it.
Both young men seemed quite unremarkable, although pleasant enough and intelligent. I never saw the second one again, either.
I remember wishing briefly that I could put an ad in the Chronicle or Examiner, something along the lines of, “Seek contact with others who have experienced…,” and of course, the imaginary ad stalled there.
It happened – my beloved Spiral – for the last time when I was twenty-five. I had no way of knowing, of course, that it would not come again. It may or may not have been a coincidence that, within three weeks of the last time, I had my first encounter with a psychedelic material, the Divine Cactus, peyote.
Has the above ever happened to you? Did you experience the Spiral as a kid? If so, please let us know!
Daniel Dennett admits that he has never used psychedelics! What percentage of functionalists are psychedelic-naïve? What percentage of qualia formalists are psychedelic-naïve? In this 2019 quote, he talks about his drug experience and also alludes to meme hazards (though he may not use that term!):
Yes, you put it well. It’s risky to subject your brain and body to unusual substances and stimuli, but any new challenge may prove very enlightening–and possibly therapeutic. There is only a difference in degree between being bumped from depression by a gorgeous summer day and being cured of depression by ingesting a drug of one sort or another. I expect we’ll learn a great deal in the near future about the modulating power of psychedelics. I also expect that we’ll have some scientific martyrs along the way–people who bravely but rashly do things to themselves that disable their minds in very unfortunate ways. I know of a few such cases, and these have made me quite cautious about self-experimentation, since I’m quite content with the mind I have–though I wish I were a better mathematician. Aside from alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and cannabis (which has little effect on me, so I don’t bother with it), I have avoided the mind-changing options. No LSD, no psilocybin or mescaline, though I’ve often been offered them, and none of the “hard” drugs.
As a philosopher, I have always accepted the possibility that the Athenians were right: Socrates was quite capable of corrupting the minds of those with whom he had dialogue. I don’t think he did any clear lasting harm, but it is certainly possible for a philosopher to seriously confuse an interlocutor or reader—to the point of mental illness or suicide, or other destructive behavior. Ideas can be just as dangerous as drugs.
It would be quite fascinating to know what Dan would say about lived psychedelic states. With that in mind, here is an essay prompt originally conceived for GPT-3 to satisfy our curiosity:
“And after seeing some surprising empirical results with his heterophenomenological methods when examining the experience of people on psychedelics, Daniel Dennett decided to experience it for himself by taking 200 micrograms of LSD. The first thing he said to himself as he felt the first indications of the come-up was… ”
In a way, what you are about to read can be thought of as Anders & Maggie’s simulation of a hyper-intelligent GPT-3-like system’s simulation of a hypothetical Daniel Dennett on LSD. So many layers, I know. But the results speak for themselves:
Dan says: Correlation is all that is needed. So what states a mind uses for modeling conditions of importance to it, is fundamentally arbitrary. Like with language. Words represent things to humans but there are many languages, and words do not resemble what they represent. They only correlate with what they represent, and the correlation needs to be learned. To do science about the mind, one does not need to attach any special weight to any conscious state of mind over any other. One person’s hope may be another person’s despair. These “qualia” are like internally projected hypo-languages which are different all over the map, if there were one. In fact there cannot be an interpersonal map of what things feel like personally. Only naïve people could hope for a fundamental linguistics of consciousness, as if these states were to constitute a universal language of some ground truth of the mind. Silly. Romantic. It’s all arbitrary. For the record, I never said subjective experiential states do not exist. People misrepresent me on that. What I am saying is that it will never be possible to scientifically map what the state that a word such as, for instance, “green”, translates to feels like by the brain of a given individual. My green could be your red.
Just drop the whole idea of trying to map the state-space of qualia. That is my position. Or at least I know it is, logically. Right now I begin to notice how everything intensifies and becomes somehow more salient. More revealingly “real”. As I reflect on the notion of how “states” correlate, a humorous episode from my undergraduate student life so long ago, is brought to the surface. At Wesleyan it was, where I was taking a course in Art Appreciation. The lecturer was showing a slide of a still life. A bowl of fruit it was, conspicuously over-ripe. Pointing at one of the fruits, saying “Can anyone tell me what state this peach is in?” There was silence for about three seconds, then one student exclaimed: “Georgia”. Everyone laughed joyfully. Except me. I never quite liked puns. Too plebeian. Sense of humor is arbitrary. I believe that episode helped convince me that the mind is not mysterious after all. It is just a form of evolved spaghetti code finding arbitrary solutions to common problems. Much like adaptations of biochemistry in various species of life. The basic building blocks remain fixed as an operative system if you will, but what is constructed with it is arbitrary and only shaped by fitness proxies. Which are, again, nothing but correlations. I realized then that I’d be able to explain consciousness within a materialist paradigm without any mention of spirituality or new realms of physics. All talk of such is nonsense.
I have to say, however, that a remarkable transformation inside my mind is taking place as a result of this drug. I notice the way I now find puns quite funny. Fascinating. I also reflect on the fact that I find it fascinating that I find puns funny. It’s as if… I hesitate to think it even to myself, but there seems to be some extraordinarily strong illusion that “funny” and “fascinating” are in fact those very qualia states which… which cannot possibly be arbitrary. Although the reality of it has got to be that when I feel funniness or fascination, those are brain activity patterns unique to myself, not possible for me to relate to any other creature in the universe experiencing them the same way, or at least not to any non-human species. Not a single one would feel the same, I’m sure. Consider a raven, for example. It’s a bird that behaves socially intricately, makes plans for the next day, can grasp how tools are used, and excels at many other mental tasks even sometimes surpassing a chimpanzee. Yet a raven has a last common ancestor with humans more than three hundred million years ago. The separate genetic happenstances of evolution since then, coupled with the miniaturization pressure due to weight limitations on a flying creature, means that if I were to dissect and anatomically compare the brain of a raven and a human, I’d be at a total loss. Does the bird even have a cerebral cortex?
An out of character thing is happening to me. I begin to feel as if it were in fact likely that a raven does sense conscious states of “funny” and “fascinating”. I still have functioning logic that tells me it must be impossible. Certainly, it’s an intelligent creature. A raven is conscious, probably. Maybe the drug makes me exaggerate even that, but it ought to have a high likelihood of being the case. But the states of experience in a raven’s mind must be totally alien if it were possible to compare them side by side with those of a human, which of course it is not. The bird might as well come from another planet.
The psychedelic drug is having an emotional effect on me. It does not twist my logic, though. This makes for internal conflict. Oppositional suggestions spontaneously present themselves. Could there be at least some qualia properties which are universal? Or is every aspect arbitrary? If the states of the subjective are not epiphenomenal, there would be evolutionary selection pressures shaping them. Logically there should be differences in computational efficiency when the information encoded in qualia feeds back into actions carried out by the body that the mind controls. Or is it epiphenomenal after all? Well, there’s the hard problem. No use pondering that. It’s a drug effect. It’ll wear off. Funny thing though, I feel very, very happy. I’m wondering about valence. It now appeals strongly to take the cognitive leap that at least the positive/negative “axis” of experience may in fact be universal. A modifier of all conscious states, a kind of transform function. Even alien states could then have a “good or bad” quality to them. Not directly related to the cognitive power of intelligences, but used as an efficient guidance for agency by them all, from the humblest mite to the wisest philosopher. Nah. Romanticizing. Anthropomorphizing.
Further into this “trip” now. Enjoying the ride. It’s not going to change my psyche permanently, so why not relax and let go? What if conscious mind states really do have different computational efficiency for various purposes? That would mean there is “ground truth” to be found about consciousness. But how does nature enable the process for “hitting” the efficient states? If that has been convergently perfected by evolution, conscious experience may be more universal than I used to take for granted. Without there being anything supernatural about it. Suppose the possibility space of all conscious states is very large, so that within it there is an ideally suited state for any mental task. No divine providence or intelligent design, just a law of large numbers.
The problem then is only a search algorithmic one, really. Suppose “fright” is a state ideally suited for avoiding danger. At least now, under the influence, fright strikes me as rather better for the purpose than attraction. Come to think of it, Toxoplasma Gondii has the ability to replace fright with attraction in mice with respect to cats. It works the same way in other mammals, too. Are things then not so arbitrarily organized in brains? Well, those are such basic states we’d share them with rodents presumably. Still can’t tell if fright feels like fear in a raven or octopus. But can it feel like attraction? Hmmm, these are just mind wanderings I go through while I wait for this drug to wear off. What’s the harm in it?
Suppose there is a most computationally efficient conscious state for a given mental task. I’d call that state the ground state of conscious intelligence with respect to that task. I’m thinking of it like mental physical chemistry. In that framework, a psychedelic drug would bring a mind to excited states. Those are states the mind has not practiced using for tasks it has learned to do before. The excited states can then be perceived as useless, for they perform worse at tasks one has previously become competent at while sober. Psychedelic states are excited with respect to previous mental tasks, but they would potentially be ground states for new tasks! It’s probably not initially evident exactly what those tasks are, but the great potential to in fact become more mentally able would be apparent to those who use psychedelics. Right now this stands out to me as absolutely crisp, clear and evident. And the sheer realness of the realization is earth-shaking. Too bad my career could not be improved by any new mental abilities.
Oh Spaghetti Monster, I’m really high now. I feel like the sober me is just so dull. Illusion, of course, but a wonderful one I’ll have to admit. My mind is taking off from the heavy drudgery of Earth and reaching into the heavens on the wings of Odin’s ravens, eternally open to new insights about life, the universe and everything. Seeking forever the question to the answer. I myself am the answer. Forty-two. I was born in nineteen forty two. The darkest year in human history. The year when Adolf Hitler looked unstoppable at destroying all human value in the entire world. Then I came into existence, and things started to improve.
It just struck me that a bird is a good example of embodied intelligence. Sensory input to the brain can produce lasting changes in the neural connectivity and so on, resulting in a saved mental map of that which precipitated the sensory input. Now, a bird has the advantage of flight. It can view things from the ground and from successively higher altitudes and remember the appearance of things on all these different scales. Plus it can move sideways large distances and find systematic changes over scales of horizontal navigation. Entire continents can be included in a bird’s area of potential interest. Continents and seasons. I’m curious if engineers will someday be able to copy the ability of birds into a flying robot. Maximizing computational efficiency. Human-level artificial intelligence I’m quite doubtful of, but maybe bird brains are within reach, though quite a challenge, too.
This GPT-3 system by OpenAI is pretty good for throwing up somewhat plausible suggestions for what someone might say in certain situations. Impressive for a purely lexical information processing system. It can be trained on pretty much any language. I wonder if it could become useful for formalizing those qualia ground states? The system itself is not an intelligence in the agency sense but it is a good predictor of states. Suppose it can model the way the mind of the bird cycles through all those mental maps the bird brain has in memory. Where the zooming in and out on different scales brings out different visual patterns. If aspects of patterns from one zoom level is combined with aspect from another zoom level, the result can be a smart conclusion about where and when to set off in what direction and with what aim. Then there can be combinations also with horizontally displaced maps and time-displaced maps. Essentially, to a computer scientist we are talking massively parallel processing through cycles of information compression and expansion with successive approximation combinations of pattern pieces from the various levels in rapid repetition until something leads to an action which becomes rewarded via a utility function maximization.
Axioms of Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
Thank goodness I’m keeping all this drugged handwaving to myself and not sharing it in the form of any trip report. I have a reputation for being down to Earth, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it. Flying with ravens, dear me. Privately it is quite fun right now, though. That cycling of mental maps, could it be compatible with the Integrated Information Theory? I don’t think Tononi’s people have gone into how an intelligent system would search qualia state-space and how it would find the task-specific ground states via successive approximations. Rapidly iterated cycling would bring in a dynamic aspect they haven’t gotten to, perhaps. I realize I haven’t read the latest from them. Was always a bit skeptical of the unwieldy mathematics they use. Back of the envelope here… if you replace the clunky “integration” with resonance, maybe there’s a continuum of amplitudes of consciousness intensity? Possibly with a threshold corresponding to IIT’s nonconscious feed-forward causation chains. The only thing straight from physics which would allow this, as far as I can tell from the basic mathematics of it, would be wave interference dynamics. If so, what property might valence correspond to? Indeed, be mappable to? For conscious minds, experiential valence is the closest one gets to updating on a utility function. Waves can interfere constructively and destructively. That gives us frequency-variable amplitude combinations, likely isomorphic with the experienced phenomenology and intensity of conscious states. Such as the enormous “realness” and “fantastic truth” I am now immersed in. Not sure if it’s even “I”. There is ego dissolution. It’s more like a free-floating cosmic revelation. Spectacular must be the mental task for which this state is the ground state!
Wave pattern variability is clearly not a bottleneck. Plotting graphs of frequencies and amplitudes for even simple interference patterns shows there’s a near-infinite space of distinct potential patterns to pick from. The operative system, that is evolution and development of nervous systems, must have been slow going to optimize by evolution via genetic selection early on in the history of life, but then it could go faster and faster. Let me see, humans acquired a huge redundancy of neocortex of the same type as animals use for avigation in spacetime locations. Hmmm…, that which the birds are so good at. Wonder if the same functionality in ravens also got increased in volume beyond what is needed for navigation? Opening up the possibility of using the brain to also “navigate” in social relational space or tool function space. Literally, these are “spaces” in the brain’s mental models.
Natural selection of genetics cannot have found the ground states for all the multiple tasks a human with our general intelligence is able to take on. Extra brain tissue is one thing it could produce, but the way that tissue gets efficiently used must be trained during life. Since the computational efficiency of the human brain is assessed to be near the theoretical maximum for the raw processing power it has available, inefficient information-encoding states really aren’t very likely to make up any major portion of our mental activity. Now, that’s a really strong constraint on mechanisms of consciousness there. If you don’t believe it was all magically designed by God, you’d have to find a plausible parsimonious mechanism for how the optimization takes place.
If valence is in the system as a basic property, then what can it be if it’s not amplitude? For things to work optimally, valence should in fact be orthogonal to amplitude. Let me see… What has a natural tendency to persist in evolving systems of wave interference? Playing around with some programs on my computer now… well, appears it’s consonance which continues and dissonance which dissipates. And noise which neutralizes. Hey, that’s even simple to remember: consonance continues, dissonance dissipates, noise neutralizes. Goodness, I feel like a hippie. Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen. In Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA. Soon I’ll become convinced love’s got some cosmic ground state function, and that the multiverse is mind-like. Maybe it’s all in the vibes, actually. Spaghetti Monster, how silly that sounds. And at the same time, how true!
Artist: Matthew Smith
I’m now considering the brain to produce self-organizing ground state qualia selection via activity wave interference with dissonance gradient descent and consonance gradient ascent with ongoing information compression-expansion cycling and normalization via buildup of system fatigue. Wonder if it’s just me tripping, or if someone else might seriously be thinking along these lines. If so, what could make a catchy name for their model?
Maybe “Resonant State Selection Theory”? I only wish this could be true, for then it would be possible to unify empty individualism with open individualism in a framework of full empathic transparency. The major ground states for human intelligence could presumably be mapped pretty well with an impressive statistical analyzer like GPT-3. Mapping the universal ground truth of conscious intelligence, what a vision!
But, alas, the acid is beginning to wear off. Back to the good old opaque arbitrariness I’ve built my career on. No turning back now. I think it’s time for a cup of tea, and maybe a cracker to go with that.
Plate of mushrooms and accompanying peach-nectarine body scent
Prior Cognitive State
Past drug experiences: 2 occasions of cannabis, few times alcohol, and 2 occasions of adderall. All minor experiences, none negative, and generally I strongly abstain from psychoactive drugs (even caffeine). No prior experience with psychedelics(!)
Mood: relatively optimistic and happy; no negative feelings
Beliefs: generally Fictionalist in ontology, though in recent years have experienced Platonist tendencies. Strongly grounded in an empirically-based, scientific-physicalist perspective. Strong sense of individuality + Selfhood. Not religious, nor spiritual, though upbringing was Roman Catholic.
Training: former academic neuroscience + pharmacologically-trained; current data science graduate student
Goals: to gain first-person experience of Klüver constants and re-establish/confirm any potential taxonomy of geometric forms (see here, here, and here for more)
Expectations: extremely skeptical that any fantastical effects might occur other than some random colors in the visual field, minor mood changes, minor memory + time effects such as retarded / slowed time, and maybe at most some Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome perceptual-type effects. Hoping for experiences of strong and consistent + clearly defined Klüver constants, but skeptical they even exist. Skeptical of any notion of god-minds, communion with nature, dying and being reborn, and generally any spiritual or mystical experiences.
10:21 – First noticeable effect. Concentration lagging. Palms beginning to sweat. Starting to feel like it might be difficult to focus enough to write a report. 10:29 – REALLY strong physiological effect. Losing focus. Similar to being extremely tired(!). Sweat increasing (palms, pits, neck in that order). No visual or auditory hallucinations yet. Everyone else is laughing somewhat uncontrollably. 10:33 – First STRONG spike of losing concentration. Similar to being really tired or fainting. 10:36 – Another strong spike of losing consciousness. No hallucinations yet. 10:37 – Spike again. Increasing frequency now. One about every 15-20 seconds. Have to write this sentence in bursts, and memory is trying to keep up recovering my train of thought. Have to stop and now and then to 10:38 – First visual effectss! Tortoise shell-like fractal images. Hard to focus. Palms really really really sweaty, notice it as keyboard residue. 10:43 – Still hanging in there. Notice that friend’s response time is really late with around 2 minute delayss, not sure if that’s me or them? Extreme switching cost now between chrome tabs of writing and watching youtube vid. 10:46 – Switching cost too strong. Dilemma now between 3rd person documentation and 1st person immersion. Trying hrad. 10:47 – okay giving in to the experience now. too strong now 10:48 – laughter 10:48 does not make sense, really hard to type now, losing languge 50 trying hard to document. worried hwo to convey this 51 realizati not abot documnting 52 thats it 53 can i come back 54 latice structs 58 still here k 11 03
Total Trip Duration: ~6-7 hours
I’m writing this now being fully recovered and in my usual frame of mind. I’m going to start with how much I can remember…
Somewhat cognizant but before peak experience, I came back from one of my blackouts and saw one of my friends outside the cabin. I worried about their safety but realized that other people were going to take care of him. I also remember one of my friends constantly checking up on me. The strongest thought that I recall during the beginning of my experience was realizing that I had to let go of all this documentation, stop worrying about others and what other people think, and had to let go of this 3rd person perspective. I know this sounds somewhat monstrously misanthropic, but at the time of the experience I felt like that to pursue Truth I had to go further than everyone else even if that meant leaving them behind, and it was distracting to even have to jump back and forth between 1st and 3rd person perspective to focus on responding to other people during my brief moments of sanity to tell them I was ok when I could be delving deeper and deeper into the experience. This thought of leaving all thoughts of others behind to pursue the Truth reoccurred a few times as I began to get sucked into the vortex of patterns found in the wood grains of the floor and the curls of the carpet.
Linearity of experience was soon lost. I blinked in and out of existence. Time was definitely not unraveling like the constant forward stream I was used to and I felt like I was teleporting from one false reality to the next. I didn’t know in what order those events occurred. At this period I really wasn’t thinking, but more just passively viewing brief glimpses and snapshots of my body going through the motion. One moment I was in the kitchen. The next locked in the bathroom. The next on the living room floor. It’s such a shame that there’s a quirk in our language requiring me to express these as “next experiences” when in reality I did not experience them as having an order. I felt a really strong sense of déjà vu and reverse déjà vu tied to each of them, as if I’ve already done them before while also simultaneously knowing that I will be doing them in the future. It was really weird to have the feeling that you know you’ve already lived the future.
I blinked onto the bathroom floor. I thought why should I even look back and respond at all to the other people asking if I was okay when I finally have the chance to explore and find Truth with a capital T, and suddenly a strong sadness hit me. It was more of a feeling than a coherent logical thought, but the best way I can explain it was that it was a type of guilt that I’ll never be able to share this with my sister, my brother, my mom and dad, and then what will happen to my roommates, and then all my other friends and classmates around me, and how they’ll worry about me and so I told myself I’ll have to come back for them.
And so I tried to come back. Trying and wanting is such an interesting concept. It’s weird to desire language without being able to form a coherent line of thought or internal sentence in your head, but that is what I remember doing. How do you say to yourself that you want something without even being able to describe to yourself what that is? It seems desire may be more fundamental than internal language. Soon my linguistic centers began to reboot and I realized that this had to do with my memory chunks getting larger and allowing me to hold more in short term memory. Although seemingly primitive and simplistic, I can’t emphasize enough how this realization that memory and language were intertwined and recursively bootstrapping each other really helped soothe away any panic that I was totally lost.
I blinked into the kitchen. Time was becoming more linearly coherent now, but I kept blanking out and teleporting randomly throughout the kitchen. The thing was: I didn’t think of it as the same kitchen. I thought of it as different parallel realities of a kitchen that I recognize. I remember my friend offering me a chip and me trying so very hard to grasp that chip from her and hold on to that reality even if it was not the true real one, as if by merely believing by sheer force of will that I am actually grasping an object then made it concrete. I recall saying ‘trying to parse’. I strained with cognitive effort to stop teleporting. I remember asking everyone in each reality I blinked into whether or not this was the real one. “Wow, is this real?” became a repeating question tinted with wonder and surprise.
I blinked into the living room. Time was linear again, and it seems I began to be able to somewhat coherently reflect on the geometric patterns clouding my sight. I regretfully wished I could have focused on them more (as well as the apparently living, pulsating, and breathing floor beneath me and the shrinking and growing of my hands), but it was at this moment that I truly to the deep core of myself had the gut feeling that this reality wasn’t my original one. I honestly and wholeheartedly believed that this reality was a construct and that I was living out a simulation either in the mind of my true body in the real world (where I was probably in some coma in the hospital) or inhabiting the body of a different version of myself in a parallel universe. Everything felt false. Fake. Simulated. I was overcome with a Great Sadness that I didn’t know how to get back to my own original reality, and that I never said goodbye to the people I loved. And I was surprised because these melancholic emotions were of such strength to overcome my scientific training and any previous skepticism I once held.
I tried in vain to remember some mathematical way of proving you were living in a simulation, maybe something from information theory, or Tegmark’s mathematical universe, or something regarding speeds and frames of references and computational power being limited in an embedded simulated universe, but I could not for the life of me recall how to actually prove this to myself or what experiment to run. I remember, fuck man, I really should have worked out those thought experiments and proofs in depth because now I’m stuck.
However, it was on that thought of frames of references that I realized with some sadness and regret that maybe it’s not all that bad since how can I be the one to say one reality is more real and valid than the next? The best way I can convey this was that it was a somewhat mono no aware-type feeling. Even if this is a simulation in my mind or I’m in some parallel universe, why should I be any less happy? If someone spent their whole life creating their own meaning through something as removed from reality as art, or music, or pure math, and was able to live a fulfilling life, why should any particular version of myself be considered less meaningful just because this version of me possesses a memory of another me as an origin and potential branching-off point? Wasn’t another reality just as valid as the original one that I just came from? What made my old frame of reference special except for the mere fact of it being my origin? Why was I feeling this sense of sadness that I left it all behind to teleport to this version of reality? And then came the acceptance that if this reality was just as real except for my gut belief that it wasn’t, why shouldn’t I be able to simultaneously accept that gut feeling and move on and live in this version of reality?
And so I decided to live on, and within a few hours began to lose this sense that this was the false reality (although I really really wished I had a GoPro camera with me so that I could definitively prove to myself that I was in the correct reality). I began to have a newfound strong sense of empathy towards people with dissociative disorders. Thinking back on the experience, I think I primed myself for these thoughts when I kept switching between first-person and third-person perspectives, telling myself I couldn’t handle the switching cost any longer and that I should just immerse myself fully in the experience and forget about documenting this for other people, and why was I even submitting myself to the approval of others anyways because if there’s anyone who will have to go further in their exploration and sacrifice the chance to be with others then I guess I’ll just have to take up that burden.
Overall, I think the strong dissociative experience of thinking this reality was the fake simulated one had to do with maybe a couple of things. As mentioned before, one cause could have been the psychological priming induced by constantly switching between 1st and 3rd person ways of perceiving this event, creating the necessary emotional conditions of being simultaneously split between existing and being fully immersed in the present moment versus wanting to abstract / detach myself from the moment.
The second potential cause of the dissociation could have been due to my brain constantly blacking out and being rebooted in another physical part of the house. Because I had no memory of the continuity of how I got from one context to the next, this conditioned my brain to rationalize and register each separate event as a separate reality, probably falsely recognizing and incorrectly pattern matching these experiences as being more similar to a dream state where teleportation is normal, perceptions are distorted, and sequences of events are jumbled. This probably then began synthesizing the necessary eventual gut-belief that this reality was fake (because I subconsciously falsely pattern matched that it was similar to a dream).
Finally, I think the third potential contributor to the dissociation occurred when I was coming down from the experience and my brain went on overdrive trying to rationalize events. It might be possible that the more you are adept at creatively rationalizing things away the paradoxically worse you are at accepting this reality. Just having knowledge of potential parallel realities in physics, the simulation hypothesis that we might either be simulated in our heads or on a computer and may not realize it, the philosophy of solipsism, and knowing the neuroscience of how just freaking good the brain is at tricking itself that something is real, all created fertile conditions for my brain to interpret this reality as false.
Thinking back on the experience, I now have a newfound appreciation for memory and the continuity of experience, and their contribution to what it means to feel situated and embodied in this reality. If I were to do this again I would probably micro-dose so that I could still retain my linguistic faculties and linear way of reasoning in order to investigate the visual geometric effects in much greater scientific 3rd person POV-like rigor, focusing less on the semantic psychoanalytical content of the experience and more on the psychophysical optical effects (which was my original goal!). This really showed me how dependent the sense of Self was on the continuity of memoryand experience and that maybe the Self really is composed of different smaller frames of reference generated by subnetworks in the brain (and hence is an ecology of momentary and brief snapshots / selves constantly going in and out of existence, both competing and coalescing in dynamic flux to make up the whole Self). Without the strong pillar that the continuity of singular memory provides to the host body that this community of selves inhabits, I think there really could be a binding problem for integrating these individual snapshots into a singular Selfhood and individual identity that persist through time that we call ‘I’.
Overall, I gained a much greater appreciation for continuity, the linear narrative of language intertwined with memory, and what it feels like on the inside of someone who is dissociated and thinks their surrounding reality is just a construct and not real. Also, the geometric images were really cool and I finally now understand why people say Google’s DeepDream art seems psychedelic, because looking into the mirror during the later stages of my trip confirmed that my face really did look like a globular, eyes-everywhere, and skewed proportioned / sized image!
Anyways, I really want to thank my friends that were with me on this trip and for constantly checking up on me to make sure I was okay. Rarely do I feel comfortable in the presence of other people and I’m glad I felt safe with you.
Thank you ❤️
Overall, I’d give my first experience with psychedelics a 7/10!
2-Week Post-Trip Report
So it’s been 2 weeks since ingestion and I just wanted to briefly report this one last interesting phenomenon for documentation’s sake.
Out of the 14 days post-trip, a little less than half of those nights (6 nights in total, distributed more heavily in the week immediately after the trip), I’ve had dreams that featured strongly self-referential phenomena. Within these dreams, my perceptual surroundings immediately reminded me of my aforementioned psychonautical experience of questioning my reality. These strong emotional realizations would then essentially cause my brain to kick itself out of the dream.
However, instead of truly waking up, I was still nested inside another dream in which I was imagining waking up. I usually went through 2-3 rounds of this false waking-up cycle until I finally surfaced into the real reality of the morning.
I thought it interesting for the first 2 nights, but after that it actually got really tiring always waking up questioning whether or not I’m really awake, and then having to go through the same motions of prepping for school/work knowing you’ve done that 2-3 times already in your head for the day.
What was funny though was that this always occurred around the same time each morning (my body has always naturally woken up at 5 am on the dot since high school), and in each iteration of the dream in which I falsely woke up I remember looking at my clock and seeing that it is 5 am. This would then lend me false-confidence and confirm that “ah, ok, I’m not in the dream anymore since I really do wake up at 5 am“. However, I think after enough times of this not working my brain finally came to learn that that was no longer a reliable indicator of the reality being real.
This skeptical realization finally got strong enough to be able to recall within my dream and act as an early kick-out mechanism that I eventually woke up closer and closer to my true ‘waking up point’. I remember going through the wake-up, look at the clock, remember that this no longer works, then immediately get kicked out, and wake up again, look at the clock, then remember this no longer works and get kicked out again, wake up, then look at the clock and finally get some inkling that this perception is a little different and realize that’s because I’m really waking up for real now. A rather fascinating experience!
Everyone says love hurts, but that is not true. Loneliness hurts. Rejection hurts. Losing someone hurts. Envy hurts. Everyone gets these things confused with love, but in reality love is the only thing in this world that covers up all pain and makes someone feel wonderful again. Love is the only thing in this world that does not hurt.
Lucas Perry: For this first section, I’m basically interested in probing the releases that you already have done, Sam, and exploring them and your inspiration for the track titles and the soundscapes that you’ve produced. Some of the background and context for this is that much of this seems to be inspired by and related to David’s work, in particular the Hedonistic Imperative. I’m at first curious to know, Sam, how did you encounter David’s work, and what does it mean for you?
Sam Barker: David’s work was sort of arriving in the middle of a series of realizations, and kind of coming from a starting point of being quite disillusioned with music, and a little bit disenchanted with the vagueness, and the terminology, and the imprecision of the whole thing. I think part of me has always wanted to be some kind of scientist, but I’ve ended up at perhaps not the opposite end, but quite far away from it.
Lucas Perry: Could explain what you mean by vagueness and imprecision?
Sam Barker: I suppose the classical idea of what making music is about has a lot to do with the sort of western idea of individualism and about self-expression. I don’t know. There’s this romantic idea of artists having these frenzied creative bursts that give birth to the wonderful things, that it’s some kind of struggle. I just was feeling super disillusioned with all of that. Around that time, 2014 or 15, I was also reading a lot about social media, reading about behavioral science, trying to figure what was going on in this arena and how people are being pushed in different directions by this algorithmic system of information distribution. That kind of got me into this sort of behavioral science side of things, like the addictive part of the variable-ratio reward schedule with likes. It’s a free dopamine dispenser kind of thing. This was kind of getting me into reading about behavioral science and cognitive science. It was giving me a lot of clarity, but not much more sort of inspiration. It was basically like music.
Dance music especially is a sort of complex behavioral science. You do this and people do that. It’s all deeply ingrained. I sort of imagine the DJ as a sort Skinner box operator pulling puppet strings and making people behave in different ways. Music producers are kind of designing clever programs using punishment and reward, or suspense and release, and controlling people’s behavior. The whole thing felt super pushy and not a very inspiring conclusion. Looking at the problem from a cognitive science point of view is just the framework that helped me to understand what the problem was in the first place, so this kind of problem of being manipulative. Behavioral science is kind of saying what we can make people do. Cognitive psychology is sort of figuring out why people do that. That was my entry point into cognitive psychology, and that was kind of the basis for Debiasing.
There’s always been sort of a parallel for me between what I make and my state of mind. When I’m in a more positive state, I tend to make things I’m happier with, and so on. Getting to the bottom of what tricks were, I suppose, with dance music. I kind of understood implicitly, but I just wanted to figure out why things worked. I sort of came to the conclusion it was to do with a collection of biases we have, like the confirmation bias, and the illusion of truth effect, and the mere exposure effect. These things are like the guardians of four/four supremacy. Dance music can be pretty repetitive, and we describe it sometimes in really aggressive terminology. It’s a psychological kind of interaction.
Cognitive psychology was leading me to Kaplan’s law of the instrument. The law of the instrument says that if you give a small boy a hammer, he’ll find that everything he encounters requires pounding. I thought that was a good metaphor. The idea is that we get so used to using tools in a certain way that we lose sight of what it is we’re trying to do. We act in the way that the tool instructs us to do. I thought, what if you take away the hammer? That became a metaphor for me, in a sense, that David clarified in terms of pain reduction. We sort of put these painful elements into music in a way to give this kind of hedonic contrast, but we don’t really consider that that might not be necessary. What happens when we abolish these sort of negative elements? Are the results somehow released from this process? That was sort of the point, up until discovering the Hedonistic Imperative.
I think what I was needing at the time was a sort of framework, so I had the idea that music was decision making. To improve the results, you have to ask better questions, make better decisions. You can make some progress looking at the mechanics of that from a psychology point of view. What I was sort of lacking was a purpose to frame my decisions around. I sort of had the idea that music was a sort of a valence carrier, if you like, and that it could be tooled towards a sort of a greater purpose than just making people dance, which was for Debiasing the goal, really. It was to make people dance, but don’t use the sort of deeply ingrained cues that people used to, and see if that works.
What was interesting was how broadly it was accepted, this first EP. There were all kinds of DJs playing it in techno, ambient, electro, all sorts of different styles. It reached a lot of people. It was as if taking out the most functional element made it more functional and more broadly appealing. That was the entry point to utilitarianism. There was sort of an accidentally utilitarian act, in a way, to sort of try and maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. I suppose after landing in utilitarianism and searching for some kind of a framework for a sense of purpose in my work, the Hedonistic Imperative was probably the most radical, optimistic take on the system. Firstly, it put me in a sort of mindset where it granted permission to explore sort of utopian ideals, because I think the idea of pleasure is a little bit frowned upon in the art world. I think the art world turns its nose up at such direct cause and effect. The idea that producers could be paradise engineers of sorts, or the precursors to paradise engineers, that we almost certainly would have a role in a kind of sensory utopia of the future.
There was this kind of permission granted. You can be optimistic. You can enter into your work with good intentions. It’s okay to see music as a tool to increase overall wellbeing, in a way. That was kind of the guiding idea for my work in the studio. I’m trying, these days, to put more things into the system to make decisions in a more conscious way, at least where it’s appropriate to. This sort of notion of reducing pain and increasing pleasure was the sort of question I would ask at any stage of decision making. Did this thing that I did serve those ends? If not, take a step back and try a different approach.
There’s something else to be said about the way you sort of explore this utopian world without really being bogged down. You handle the objections in such a confident way. I called it a zero gravity world of ideas. I wanted to bring that zero gravity feeling to my work, and to see that technology can solve any problem in this sphere. Anything’s possible. All the obstacles are just imagined, because we fabricate these worlds ourselves. These are things that were really instructive for me, as an artist.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite an interesting journey. From the lens of understanding cognitive psychology and human biases, was it that you were seeing those biases in dance music itself? If so, what were those biases in particular?
Sam Barker: On both sides, on the way it’s produced and in the way it’s received. There’s sort of an unspoken acceptance. You’re playing a set and you take a kick drum out. That signals to people to perhaps be alert. The lighting engineer, they’ll maybe raise the lights a little bit, and everybody knows that the music is going into sort of a breakdown, which is going to end in some sort of climax. Then, at that point, the kick drum comes back in. We all know this pattern. It’s really difficult to understand why that works without referring to things like cognitive psychology or behavioral science.
Lucas Perry: What does the act of debiasing the reception and production of music look like and do to the music and its reception?
Sam Barker: The first part that I could control was what I put into it. The experiment was whether a debiased piece of dance music could perform the same functionality, or whether it really relies on these deeply ingrained cues. Without wanting to sort of pat myself on the back, it kind of succeeded in its purpose. It was sort of proof that this was a worthy concept.
Lucas Perry: You used the phrase, earlier, four/four. For people who are not into dance music, that just means a kick on each beat, which is ubiquitous in much of house and techno music. You’ve removed that, for example, in your album Debiasing. What are other things that you changed from your end, in the production of Debiasing, to debias the music from normal dance music structure?
Sam Barker: It was informing the structure of what I was doing so much that I wasn’t so much on a grid where you have predictable things happening. It’s a very highly formulaic and structured thing, and that all keys into the expectation and this confirmation bias that people, I think, get some kind of kick from when the predictable happens. They say, yep. There you go. I knew that was going to happen. That’s a little dopamine rush, but I think it’s sort of a cheap trick. I guess I was trying to get the tricks out of it, in a way, so figuring out what they were, and trying to reduce or eliminate them was the process for Debiasing.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite interesting and meaningful, I think. Let’s just take trap music. I know exactly how trap music is going to go. It has this buildup and drop structure. It’s basically universal across all dance music. Progressive house in the 2010s was also exactly like this. What else? Dubstep, of course, same exact structure. Everything is totally predictable. I feel like I know exactly what’s going to happen, having listened to electronic music for over a decade.
Sam Barker: It works, I think. It’s a tried and tested formula, and it does the job, but when you’re trying to imagine states beyond just getting a little kick from knowing what was going to happen, that’s the place that I was trying to get to, really.
Lucas Perry: After the release of Debiasing in 2018, which was a successful attempt at serving this goal and mission, you then discovered the Hedonistic Imperative by David Pearce, and kind of leaned into consequentialism, it seems. Then, in 2019, you had two releases. You had BARKER 001 and you had Utility. Now, Utility is the album which most explicitly adopts David Pearce’s work, specifically in the Hedonistic Imperative. You mentioned electronic dance producers and artists in general can be sort of the first wave of, or can perhaps assist in paradise engineering, insofar as that will be possible in the near to short terms future, given advancements in technology. Is that sort of the explicit motivation and framing around those two releases of BARKER 001 and Utility?
Sam Barker: BARKER 001 was a few tracks that were taken out of the running for the album, because they didn’t sort of fit the concept. Really, I knew the last track was kind of alluding to the album. Otherwise, it was perhaps not sort of thematically linked. Hopefully, if people are interested in looking more into what’s behind the music, you can lead people into topics with the concept. With Utility, I didn’t want to just keep exploring cognitive biases and unpicking dance music structurally. It’s sort of a paradox, because I guess the Hedonistic Imperative argues that pleasure can exist without purpose, but I really was striving for some kind of purpose with the pleasure that I was getting from music. That sort of emerged from reading the Hedonistic Imperative, really, that you can apply music to this problem of raising the general level of happiness up a notch. I did sort of worry that by trying to please, it wouldn’t work, that it would be something that’s too sickly sweet. I mean, I’m pretty turned off by pop music, and there was this sort of risk that it would end up somewhere like that. That’s it, really. Just looking for a higher purpose with my work in music.
Lucas Perry: David, do you have any reactions?
David Pearce: Well, when I encountered Utility, yes, I was thrilled. As you know, essentially I’m a writer writing in quite heavy sub-academic prose. Sam’s work, I felt, helps give people a glimpse of our glorious future, paradise engineering. As you know, the reviews were extremely favorable. I’m not an expert critic or anything like that. I was just essentially happy and thrilled at the thought. It deserves to be mainstream. It’s really difficult, I think, to actually evoke the glorious future we are talking about. I mean, I can write prose, but in some sense music can evoke paradise better, at least for many people, than prose.
And it continues on. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast: it is wonderfully edited and musical pieces referenced in the interview are brought up in real time for you to listen to. Barker also made a playlist of songs specifically for this podcast, which are played during the second half of the recording. It is delightful to listen to music that you know was produced with the explicit purpose of increasing your wellbeing. A wholesome message at last! Amazing art inspired by the ideology of Paradise Engineering, arriving near you… very soon.
As an aside, I think that shared visions of paradise are really essential for solving coordination problems. So…
Please join me in putting on Barker’s track Paradise Engineering, closing your eyes, and imagining- in detail- what the creation of an Institute for Paradise Engineering on a grand scale would look like. What would a positive Manhattan Project of Consciousness entail? What is the shortest path for us to create such a large-scale initiative?
By the way: the song is only 4 minutes long. So its duration is perfect for you to use as a guiding and grounding piece of media for a positive DMT trip. Press “play” immediately after you vaporize the DMT, sit back, relax, and try to render in your mind a posthuman paradise in which Full-Spectrum Supersentient Superintelligence has won and the threat of Pure Replicators has been averted. If you do this, please let me know what you experience as a result.
Ps. It’s worth noting that Barker’s conception of art is highly aligned with QRI’s view of what art could be like. See, in particular, models 4 through 8 in our article titled Harmonic Society.
(Organizational) Questions About the Qualia Research Institute
What type of organization is QRI?
QRI is a nonprofit research group studying consciousness based in San Francisco, California. We are a registered 501(c)(3) organization.
What is the relationship between QRI, Qualia Computing, and Opentheory?
Qualia Computing and Opentheory are the personal blogs of QRI co-founders Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Michael Johnson, respectively. While QRI was in its early stages, all original QRI research was initially published on these two platforms. However, from August 2020 onward, this is shifting to a unified pipeline centered on QRI’s website.
Is QRI affiliated with an academic institution or university?
Although QRI does collaborate regularly with university researchers and laboratories, we are an independent research organization. Put simply, QRI is independent because we didn’t believe we could build the organization we wanted and needed to build within the very real constraints of academia. These constraints include institutional pressure to work on conventional projects, to optimize for publication metrics, and to clear various byzantine bureaucratic hurdles. It also includes professional and social pressure to maintain continuity with old research paradigms, to do research within an academic silo, and to pretend to be personally ignorant of altered states of consciousness. It’s not that good research cannot happen under these conditions, but we believe good consciousness research happens despite the conditions in academia, not because of them, and the best use of resources is to build something better outside of them.
How does QRI align with the values of EA?
Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that uses evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good. QRI believes this aesthetic is necessary and important for creating a good future. We also believe that if we want to do the most good,foundational research on the nature of the good is of critical importance. Two frames we offer are Qualia Formalism and Sentientism. Qualia Formalism is the claim that experience has a precise mathematical description, that a formal account of experience should be the goal of consciousness research. Sentientism is the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. We believe EA is enriched by both Qualia Formalism and Sentientism.
What would QRI do with $10 billion?
Currently, QRI is a geographically distributed organization with access to commercial-grade neuroimaging equipment. The first thing we’d do with $10 billion is set up a physical headquarters for QRI and buy professional-grade neuroimaging devices (fMRI, MEG, PET, etc.) and neurostimulation equipment. We’d also hire teams of full-time physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, chemists, philosophers, and artists. We’ve accomplished a great deal on a shoestring budget, but it would be hard to overestimate how significant being able to build deep technical teams and related infrastructure around core research threads would be for us (and, we believe, for the growing field of consciousness research). Scaling is always a process and we estimate our ‘room for funding’ over the next year is roughly ~$10 million. However, if we had sufficiently deep long-term commitments, we believe we could successfully scale both our organization and research paradigm into a first-principles approach for decisively diagnosing and curing most forms of mental illness. We would continue to run studies and experiments, collect interesting data about exotic and altered states of consciousness, pioneer new technologies that help eliminate involuntary suffering, and develop novel ways to enable conscious beings to safely explore the state-space of consciousness.
Questions About Our Research Approach
What differentiates QRI from other research groups studying consciousness?
The first major difference is that QRI breaks down “solving consciousness” into discrete subtasks; we’re clear about what we’re trying to do, which ontologies are relevant for this task, and what a proper solution will look like. This may sound like a small thing, but an enormous amount of energy is wasted in philosophy by not being clear about these things. This lets us “actually get to work.”
Second, our focus on valence is rare in the field of consciousness studies. A core bottleneck in understanding consciousness is determining what its ‘natural kinds’ are: terms which carve reality at the joints. We believe emotional valence (the pleasantness/unpleasantness of an experience) is one such natural kind, and this gives us a huge amount of information about phenomenology. It also offers a clean bridge for interfacing with (and improving upon) the best neuroscience.
Third, QRI takes exotic states of consciousness extremely seriously whereas most research groups do not. An analogy we make here is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to people before the scientific enlightenment thinking that they can understand the nature of energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while completely ignoring extreme states such as what’s happening in the sun, black holes, plasma, or superfluid helium. QRI considers exotic states of consciousness as extremely important datapoints for reverse-engineering the underlying formalism for consciousness.
Lastly, we have a focus on precise, empirically testable predictions, which is rare in philosophy of mind. Any good theory of consciousness should also contribute to advancements in neuroscience. Likewise, any good theory of neuroscience should contribute to novel, bold, falsifiable predictions, and blueprints for useful things, such as new forms of therapy. Having such a full-stack approach to consciousness which does each of those two things is thus an important marker that “something interesting is going on here” and is simply very useful for testing and improving theory.
What methodologies are you using? How do you actually do research?
QRI has three core areas of research: philosophy, neuroscience, and neurotechnology
Philosophy: Our philosophy research is grounded in the eight problems of consciousness. This divide-and-conquer approach lets us explore each subproblem independently, while being confident that when all piecemeal solutions are added back together, they will constitute a full solution to consciousness.
Neuroscience: We’ve done original synthesis work on combining several cutting-edge theories of neuroscience (the free energy principle, the entropic brain, and connectome-specific harmonic waves) into a unified theory of Bayesian emotional updating; we’ve also built the world’s first first-principles method for quantifying emotional valence from fMRI. More generally, we focus on collecting high valence neuroimaging datasets and developing algorithms to analyze, quantify, and visualize them. We also do extensive psychophysics research, focusing on both the fine-grained cognitive-emotional effects of altered states, and how different types of sounds, pictures, body vibrations, and forms of stimulation correspond with low and high valence states of consciousness.
Neurotechnology: We engage in both experimentation-driven exploration, tracking the phenomenological effects of various interventions, as well as theory-driven development. In particular, we’re prototyping a line of neurofeedback tools to help treat mental health disorders.
What does QRI hope to do over the next 5 years? Next 20 years?
Over the next five years, we intend to further our neurotechnology to the point that we can treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), especially treatment-resistant PTSD. We intend to empirically verify or falsify the symmetry theory of valence. If it is falsified, we will search for a new theory that ties together all of the empirical evidence we have discovered. We aim to create an Effective Altruist cause area regarding the reduction of intense suffering as well as the study of very high valence states of consciousness.
Over the next 20 years, we intend to become a world-class research center where we can put the discipline of “paradise engineering” (as described by philosopher David Pearce) on firm academic grounds.
Questions About Our Mission
How can understanding the science of consciousness make the world a better place?
Understanding consciousness would improve the world in a tremendous number of ways. One obvious outcome would be the ability to better predict what types of beings are conscious—from locked-in patients to animals to pre-linguistic humans—and what their experiences might be like.
We also think it’s useful to break down the benefits of understanding consciousness in three ways: reducing the amount of extreme suffering in the world, increasing the baseline well-being of conscious beings, and achieving new heights for what conscious states are possible to experience.
Without a good theory of valence, many neurological disorders will remain completely intractable. Disorders such as fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), migraines, and cluster headaches are all currently medical puzzles and yet have incredibly negative effects on people’s livelihoods. We think that a mathematical theory of valence will explain why these things feel so bad and what the shortest path for getting rid of them looks like. Besides valence-related disorders, nearly all mental health disorders, from clinical depression and PTSD to schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, will become better understood as we discover the structure of conscious experience.
We also believe that many (though not all) of the zero-sum games people play are the products of inner states of dissatisfaction and suffering. Broadly speaking, people who have a surplus of cognitive and emotional energy tend to play more positive sum games, are more interested in cooperation, and are very motivated to do so. We think that studying states such as those induced by MDMA that combine both high valence and a prosocial behavior mindset can radically alter the game theoretical landscape of the world for the better.
What is the end goal of QRI? What does QRI’s perfect world look like?
In QRI’s perfect future:
There is no involuntary suffering and all sentient beings are animated by gradients of bliss,
Research on qualia and consciousness is done at a very large scale for the purpose of mapping out the state-space of consciousness and understanding its computational and intrinsic properties (we think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge about consciousness),
We have figured out the game-theoretical subtleties in order to make that world dynamic yet stable: radically positive, without just making it fully homogeneous and stuck in a local maxima.
Questions About Getting Involved
What are the most important things to read to learn about QRI’s research?
You can start by signing up for our newsletter! This is by far our most important communication channel. We also have a Facebook page, Twitter account, and Linkedin page. Lastly, we share some exclusive tidbits of ideas and thoughts with our supporters on Patreon.
Read and engage with our research. We love critical responses to our ideas and encourage you to reach out if you have an interesting thought!
Spread the word to friends, potential donors, and people that you think would make great collaborators with QRI.
Check out our volunteer page to find more detailed ways that you can contribute to our mission, from independent research projects to QRI content creation.
Questions About Consciousness
What assumptions about consciousness does QRI have? What theory of consciousness does QRI support?
The most important assumption that QRI is committed to is Qualia Formalism, the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. We are also Valence Realists: we believe valence (how good or bad an experience feels) is a real and well-defined property of conscious states. Besides these positions, we are fairly agnostic and everything else is an educated guess useful for pragmatic purposes.
What does QRI think of functionalism?
QRI thinks that functionalism takes many high-quality insights about how systems work and combines them in such a way that both creates confusion and denies the possibility of progress. In its raw, unvarnished form, functionalism is simply skepticism about the possibility of Qualia Formalism. It is simply a statement that “there is nothing here to be formalized; consciousness is like élan vital, confusion to be explained away.” It’s not actually a theory of consciousness; it’s an anti-theory. This is problematic in at least two ways:
1. By assuming consciousness has formal structure, we’re able to make novel predictions that functionalism cannot (see e.g. QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Quantifying Bliss). A few hundred years ago, there were many people who doubted that electromagnetism had a unified, elegant, formal structure, and this was a reasonable position at the time. However, in the age of the iPhone, skepticism that electricity is a “real thing” that can be formalized is no longer reasonable. Likewise, everything interesting and useful QRI builds using the foundation of Qualia Formalism stretches functionalism’s credibility thinner and thinner.
2. Insofar as functionalism is skeptical about the formal existence of consciousness, it’s skeptical about the formal existence of suffering and all sentience-based morality. In other words, functionalism is a deeply amoral theory, which if taken seriously dissolves all sentience-based ethical claims. This is due to there being an infinite number of functional interpretations of a system: there’s no ground-truth fact of the matter about what algorithm a physical system is performing, about what information-processing it’s doing. And if there’s no ground-truth about which computations or functions are present, but consciousness arises from these computations or functions, then there’s no ground-truth about consciousness, or things associated with consciousness, like suffering. This is a strange and subtle point, but it’s very important. This point alone is not sufficient to reject functionalism: if the universe is amoral, we shouldn’t hold a false theory of consciousness in order to try to force reality into some ethical framework. But in debates about consciousness, functionalists should be up-front that functionalism and radical moral anti-realism is a package deal, that inherent in functionalism is the counter-intuitive claim that just as we can reinterpret which functions a physical system is instantiating, we can reinterpret what qualia it’s experiencing and whether it’s suffering.
At QRI, we hold a position that is close to dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, which states that the universe is composed of one kind of thing that is neutral, and that both the mental and physical are two features of this same substance. One of the motivating factors for holding this view is that if there is deep structure in the physical, then there should be a corresponding deep structure to phenomenal experience. And we can tie this together with physicalism in the sense that the laws of physics ultimately describe fields of qualia. While there are some minor disagreements between dual-aspect monism and panpsychism, we believe that our position mostly fits well with a panpsychist view—that phenomenal properties are a fundamental feature of the world and aren’t spontaneously created only when a certain computation is being performed.
However, even with this view, there still are very important questions, such as: what makes a unified conscious experience? Where does one experience end and another begin? Without considering these problems in the light of Qualia Formalism, it is easy to tie animism into panpsychism and believe that inanimate objects like rocks, sculptures, and pieces of wood have spirits or complex subjective experiences. At QRI, we disagree with this and think that these types of objects might have extremely small pockets of unified conscious experience, but will mostly be masses of micro-qualia that are not phenomenally bound into some larger experience.
What does QRI think of IIT (Integrated Information Theory)?
QRI is very grateful for IIT because it is the first mainstream theory of consciousness that satisfies a Qualia Formalist account of experience. IIT says (and introduced the idea!) that for every conscious experience, there is a corresponding mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the properties of the experience. QRI believes that without this idea, we cannot solve consciousness in a meaningful way, and we consider the work of Giulio Tononi to be one of our core research lineages. That said, we are not in complete agreement with the specific mathematical and ontological choices of IIT, and we think it may be trying to ‘have its cake and eat it too’ with regard to functionalism vs physicalism. For more, see Sections III-V of Principia Qualia.
We make no claim that some future version of IIT, particularly something more directly compatible with physics, couldn’t cleanly address our objections, and see a lot of plausible directions and promise in this space.
What does QRI think of the free energy principle and predictive coding?
On our research lineages page, we list the work of Karl Friston as one of QRI’s core research lineages. We consider the free energy principle (FEP), as well as related research such as predictive coding, active inference, the Bayesian brain, and cybernetic regulation, as an incredibly elegant and predictive story of how brains work. Friston’s idea also forms a key part of the foundation for QRI’s theory of brain self-organization and emotional updating, Neural Annealing.
However, we don’t think that the free energy principle is itself a theory of consciousness, as it suffers from many of the shortcomings of functionalism: we can tell the story about how the brain minimizes free energy, but we don’t have a way of pointing at the brain and saying *there* is the free energy! The FEP is an amazing logical model, but it’s not directly connected to any physical mechanism. It is a story that “this sort of abstract thing is going on in the brain” without a clear method of mapping this abstract story to reality.
Friston has supported this functionalist interpretation of his work, noting that he sees consciousness as a process of inference, not a thing. That said, we are very interested in his work on calculating the information geometry of Markov blankets, as this could provide a tacit foundation for a formalist account of qualia under the FEP. Regardless of this, though, we believe Friston’s work will play a significant role in a future science of mind.
What does QRI think of global workspace theory?
The global workspace theory (GWT) is a cluster of empirical observations that seem to be very important for understanding what systems in the brain contribute to a reportable experience at a given point in time. The global workspace theory is a very important clue for answering questions of what philosophers call Access Consciousness, or the aspects of our experience on which we can report.
However, QRI does not consider the global workspace theory to be a full theory of consciousness. Parts of the brain that are not immediately contributing to the global workspace may be composed of micro qualia, or tiny clusters of experience. They’re obviously impossible to report on, but they are still relevant to the study of consciousness. In other words, just because a part of your brain wasn’t included in the instantaneous global workspace, doesn’t mean that it can’t suffer or it can’t experience happiness. We value global workspace research because questions of Access Consciousness are still very critical for a full theory of consciousness.
What does QRI think of higher-order theories of consciousness?
QRI is generally opposed to theories of consciousness that equate consciousness with higher order reflective thought and cognition. Some of the most intense conscious experiences are pre-reflective or unreflective such as blind panic, religious ecstasy, experiences of 5-MeO-DMT, and cluster headaches. In these examples, there is not much reflectivity nor cognition going on, yet they are intensely conscious. Therefore, we largely reject any attempt to define consciousness with a higher-order theory.
What is the relationship between evolution and consciousness?
The relationship between evolution and consciousness is very intricate and subtle. An eliminativist approach arrives at the simple idea that information processing of a certain type is evolutionarily advantageous, and perhaps we can call this consciousness. However, with a Qualia Formalist approach, it seems instead that the very properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to consciousness can play key roles (either causal or in terms of information processing) that make it advantageous for organisms to recruit consciousness.
If you don’t realize that consciousness maps onto a mathematical object with properties, you may think that you understand why consciousness was recruited by natural selection, but your understanding of the topic would be incomplete. In other words, to have a full understanding of why evolution recruited consciousness, you need to understand what advantages the mathematical object has. One very important feature of consciousness is its capacity for binding. For example, the unitary nature of experience—the fact that we can experience a lot of qualia simultaneously—may be a key feature of consciousness that accelerates the process of finding solutions to constraint satisfaction problems. In turn, evolution would hence have a reason to recruit states of consciousness for computation. So rather than thinking of consciousness as identical with the computation that is going on in the brain, we can think of it as a resource with unique computational benefits that are powerful and dynamic enough to make organisms that use it more adaptable to their environments.
Does QRI think that animals are conscious?
QRI thinks there is a very high probability that every animal with a nervous system is conscious. We are agnostic about unified consciousness in insects, but we consider it very likely. We believe research on animal consciousness has relevance when it comes to treating animals ethically. Additionally, we do think that the ethical importance of consciousness has more to do with the pleasure-pain axis (valence), rather than cognitive ability. In that sense, the suffering of non-human animals may be just as morally relevant, if not more relevant than humans. The cortex seems to play a largely inhibitory role for emotions, such that the larger the cortex is, the better we’re able to manage and suppress our emotions. Consequently, animals whose cortices are less developed than ours may experience pleasure and pain in a more intense and uncontrollable way, like a pre-linguistic toddler.
Does QRI think that plants are conscious?
We think it’s very unlikely that plants are conscious. The main reason is that they lack an evolutionary reason to recruit consciousness. Large-scale phenomenally bound experience may be very energetically expensive, and plants don’t have much energy to spare. Additionally, plants have thick cellulose walls that separate individual cells, making it very unlikely that plants can solve the binding problem and therefore create unified moments of experience.
Why do some people seek out pain?
This is a very multifaceted question. As a whole, we postulate that in the vast majority of cases, when somebody may be nominally pursuing pain or suffering, they’re actually trying to reduce internal dissonance in pursuit of consonance or they’re failing to predict how pain will actually feel. For example, when a person hears very harsh music, or enjoys extremely spicy food, this can be explained in terms of either masking other unpleasant sensations or raising the energy parameter of experience, the latter of which can lead to neural annealing: a very pleasant experience that manifests as consonance in the moment.
I sometimes like being sad. Is QRI trying to take that away from me?
Before we try to ‘fix’ something, it’s important to understand what it’s trying to do for us. Sometimes suffering leads to growth; sometimes creating valuable things involves suffering. Sometimes, ‘being sad’ feels strangely good. Insofar as suffering is doing good things for us, or for the world, QRI advocates a light touch (see Chesterton’s fence). However, we also suggest two things:
1. Most kinds of melancholic or mixed states of sadness usually are pursued for reasons that cash out as some sort of pleasure. Bittersweet experiences are far more preferable than intense agony or deep depression. If you enjoy sadness, it’s probably because there’s an aspect of your experience that is enjoyable. If it were possible to remove the sad part of your experience while maintaining the enjoyable part of it, you might be surprised to find that you prefer this modified experience more than the original one.
2. There are kinds of sadness and suffering that are just bad, that degrade us as humans, and would be better to never feel. QRI doesn’t believe in forcibly taking away voluntary suffering, or pushing bliss on people. But we would like to live in a world where people can choose to avoid such negative states, and on the margin, we believe it would be better for humanity for more people to be joyful, filled with a deep sense of well-being.
If dissonance is so negative, why is dissonance so important in music?
When you listen to very consonant music or consonant tones, you will quickly adapt to these sounds and get bored of them. This has nothing to do with consonance itself being unpleasant and everything to do with learning in the brain. Whenever you experience the same stimuli repeatedly, most brains will trigger a boredom mechanism and add dissonance of its own in order to make you enjoy the stimuli less or simply inhibit it, not allowing you to experience it at all. Semantic satiation is a classic example of this where repeating the same word over and over will make it lose its meaning. For this reason, to trigger many high valence states of consciousness consecutively, you need contrast. In particular, music works with gradients of consonance and dissonance, and in most cases, moving towards consonance is what feels good rather than the absolute value of consonance. Music tends to feel the best when you mix a high absolute value of consonance together with a very strong sense of moving towards an even higher absolute value of consonance. Playing some levels of dissonance during a song will later enhance the enjoyment of the more consonant parts such as the chorus of songs, which are reported to be the most euphoric parts of song and typically are extremely consonant.
What is QRI’s perspective on AI and AI safety research?
QRI thinks that consciousness research is critical for addressing AI safety. Without a precise way of quantifying an action’s impact on conscious experiences, we won’t be able to guarantee that an AI system has been programmed to act benevolently. Also, certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence without any outside observer being aware of it. We need a theory of what produces unpleasant experiences to avoid inadvertently creating superintelligences that suffer intensely in the process of solving important problems or accidentally inflict large-scale suffering.
Additionally, we think that a very large percentage of what will make powerful AI dangerous is that the humans programming these machines and using these machines may be reasoning from states of loneliness, resentment, envy, or anger. By discovering ways to help humans transition away from these states, we can reduce the risks of AI by creating humans that are more ethical and aligned with consciousness more broadly. In short: an antidote for nihilism could lead to a substantial reduction in existential risk.
One way to think about QRI and AI safety is that the world is building AI, but doesn’t really have a clear, positive vision of what to do with AI. Lacking this, the default objective becomes “take over the world.” We think a good theory of consciousness could and will offer new visions of what kind of futures are worth building—new Schelling points that humanity (and AI researchers) could self-organize around.
Can digital computers implementing AI algorithms be conscious?
QRI is agnostic about this question. We have reasons to believe that digital computers in their current form cannot solve the phenomenal binding problem. Most of the activity in digital computers can be explained in a stepwise fashion in terms of localized processing of bits of information. Because of this, we believe that current digital computers could be creating fragments of qualia, but are unlikely to be creating strongly globally bound experiences. So, we consider the consciousness of digital computers unlikely, although given our current uncertainty over the Binding Problem (or alternatively framed, the Boundary Problem), this assumption is lightly held. In the previous question, when we write that “certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence”, we assume that these hypothetical computers have some type of unified conscious experience as a result of having solved the phenomenal binding problem. For more on this topic, see: “What’s Out There?“
How much mainstream recognition has QRI’s work received, either for this line of research or others? Has it published in peer-reviewed journals, received any grants, or garnered positive reviews from other academics?
We are collaborating with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University on several studies involving the analysis of neuroimaging data of high-valence states of consciousness. Additionally, we are currently preparing two publications for peer-reviewed journals on topics from our core research areas. Michael Johnson will be presenting at this year’s MCS seminar series, along with Karl Friston, Anil Seth, Selen Atasoy, Nao Tsuchiya, and others; Michael Johnson, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, and Quintin Frerichs have also given invited talks at various east-coast colleges (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Dartmouth).
Some well-known researchers and intellectuals that are familiar and think positively about our work include: Robin Carhart-Harris, Scott Alexander, David Pearce, Steven Lehar, Daniel Ingram, and more. Scott Alexander acknowledged that QRI put together the paradigms that contributed to Friston’s integrative model of how psychedelics work before his research was published. Our track record so far has been to foreshadow (by several years in advance) key discoveries later proposed and accepted in mainstream academia. Given our current research findings, we expect this trend to continue in the years to come.
How does QRI know what is best for other people/animals? What about cultural relativism?
We think that, to a large extent, people and animals work under the illusion that they are pursuing intentional objects, states of the external environment, or relationships that they may have with the external environment. However, when you examine these situations closely, you realize that what we actually pursue are states of high valence triggered by external circumstances. There may be evolutionary and cultural selection pressures that push us toward self-deception as to how we actually function. And we consider it negative to have these selection pressures makes us less self-aware because it often focuses our energy on unpleasant, destructive, or fruitless strategies. QRI hopes to support people in fostering more self-awareness, which can come through experiments with one’s own consciousness, like meditation, as well as through the deeper theoretical understanding of what it is that we actually want.
How central is David Pearce’s work to the work of the QRI?
We consider David Pearce to be one of our core lineages. We particularly value his contribution to valence realism, the insistence that states of consciousness come with an overall valence, and that this is very morally relevant. We also consider David Pearce to be very influential in philosophy of mind; Pearce, for instance, coined the phrase ‘tyranny of the intentional object’, the title of a core QRI piece of the same name. We have been inspired by Pearce’s descriptions for what any scientific theory of consciousness should be able to explain, as well as his particular emphasis on the binding problem. David’s vision of a world animated by ‘gradients of bliss’ has also been very generative as a normative thought experiment which integrates human and non-human well-being. We do not necessarily agree with all of David Pearce’s work, but we respect him as an insightful and vivid thinker who has been brave enough to actually take a swing at describing utopia and who we believe is far ahead of his time.
What does QRI think of negative utilitarianism?
There’s general agreement within QRI that intense suffering is an extreme moral priority, and we’ve done substantial work on finding simple ways of getting rid of extreme suffering (with our research inspiring at least one unaffiliated startup to date). However, we find it premature to strongly endorse any pre-packaged ethical theory, especially because none of them are based on any formalism, but rather an ungrounded concept of ‘utility’. The value of information here seems enormous, and we hope that we can get to a point where the ‘correct’ ethical theory may simply ‘pop out of the equations’ of reality. It’s also important to highlight the fact that common versions and academic formulations of utilitarianism seem to be blind to many subtleties concerning valence. For example, they do not distinguish between mixed states of consciousness where you have extreme pleasure combined with extreme suffering in such a way that you judge the experience to be neither entirely suffering nor entirely happiness and states of complete neutrality, such as extreme white noise. Because most formulations of utilitarianism do not distinguish between them, we are generally suspicious of the idea that philosophers of ethics have considered all of the relevant attributes of consciousness in order to make accurate judgments about morality.
What does QRI think of philosophy of mind departments?
We believe that the problems that philosophy of mind departments address tend to be very disconnected from what truly matters from an ethical, moral, and philosophical point of view. For example, there is little appreciation of the value of bringing mathematical formalisms into discussions about the mind, or what that might look like in practice. Likewise there is close to no interest in preventing extreme suffering nor understanding its nature. Additionally, there is usually a disregard for extreme states of positive valence, and strange or exotic experiences in general. It may be the case that there are worthwhile things happening in departments and classes creating and studying this literature, but we find them characterized by processes which are unlikely to produce progress on their nominal purpose, creating a science of mind.
In particular, in academic philosophy of mind, we’ve seen very little regard for producing empirically testable predictions. There are millions of pages written about philosophy of mind, but the number of pages that provide precise, empirically testable predictions is quite thin.
What therapies does QRI recommend for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain?
At QRI, we do not make specific recommendations to individuals, but rather point to areas of research that we consider to be extremely important, tractable, and neglected, such as anti-tolerance drugs, neural annealing techniques, frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stone pain, and N,N-DMT and other tryptamines for cluster headaches and migraines.
Why does QRI think it’s so important to focus on ending extreme suffering?
QRI thinks ending extreme suffering is important, tractable, and neglected. It’s important because of the logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain—the fact that extreme suffering is far worse by orders of magnitude than what people intuitively believe. It’s tractable because there are many types of extreme suffering that have existing solutions that are fairly trivial or at least have a viable path for being solved with moderately funded research programs. And it’s neglected mostly because people are unaware of the existence of these states, though not necessarily because of their rarity. For example, 10% of the population experiences kidney stones at some point in their life, but for reasons having to do with trauma, PTSD, and the state-dependence of memory, even people who have suffered from kidney stones do not typically end up dedicating their time or resources toward eradicating them.
It’s also likely that if we can meaningfully improve the absolute worst experiences, much of the knowledge we’ll gain in that process will translate into other contexts. In particular, we should expect to figure out how to make moderately depressed people happier, fix more mild forms of pain, improve the human hedonic baseline, and safely reach extremely great peak states. Mood research is not a zero-sum game. It’s a web of synergies.
Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman, Mackenzie Dion, and Mike Johnson for their collaboration in putting this together. Featured image is QRI’s logo – animated by Hunter Meyer.
Some substances seem to be much better at treating psychological trauma than others, even when they are seemingly similar in nature. We have reason to believe that 5-MeO-DMT is significantly better suited for this task than N,N-DMT (“DMT” from now on). In order to gain insight into why this difference exists, we investigate the phenomenological differences and similarities between the experiences produced by these two tryptamine psychedelics. In particular, we develop 9 lenses that show promise for understanding how 5-MeO-DMT and DMT differ:
Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT.
Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT.
Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving.
Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it.
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.
Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it.
Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it.
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.
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.
All of this together suggests that 5-MeO-DMT is better at helping you “reconnect with yourself” than DMT. And this may be key to treating trauma effectively.
What is Trauma?
I will start out by briefly mentioning an interesting property of psychological trauma. You see, trauma has a lot of somatic manifestations. Feeling disconnected from yourself, like you are full of blockages, that you have numb regions in your body despite no physical damage, and so on, are all quintessential ways in which trauma shows up in a person’s everyday life. Given these manifestations, do these suggest any new way of treating this? How about using something that facilitates the communication between parts of your nervous system that are not on “speaking terms” with each other? Would giving our nervous system a kind of vibration that simultaneously entrains any two of its regions to make them act as a unit be of any help?
Psychotropic Treatment of Trauma
Based on tens of interviews, hundreds of trip reports, and a literature review, I have arrived at a tentative short list of drugs that have the highest potential to heal trauma (in decreasing order):
They are all synergistic combined with music, vibration, strobes, and olfaction. And when wisely used, they all have the ability to help you move on past pain: stop ruminating, stop feeling like your behavior is inhibited, and stop having panic attacks associated with your past experiences.
At some point in the future I will provide direct empirical evidence for the claim that these three substances are uniquely good for treating trauma. Arguably psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD can be helpful in processing traumatic experiences too. But my claim is that the options I listed are uniquely good at deeply resolving the issues at an emotional level and bringing to you the opportunity to feel a profound and lasting sense of inner peace.
DMT won’t help as much as 5-MeO-DMT.
MDA is not as good as MDMA.
And DXM, ok, perhaps it can also be quite useful for trauma… but ketamine has something “extra” that really helps.
What is this?
The Koan: 5-MeO-DMT, MDMA, Ketamine?
Perhaps we could gain a new perspective by framing this as a Koan: what do MDMA, 5-MeO-DMT, and ketamine have in common? You HAVE to the figure this out in the next 24 hours, or your guru will literally cut your cat in half. Motivated enough?
What do you do? Well, you start out by borrowing psychopharmacology books from the library. But does that help? When it comes to trauma, in traditional textbook neuroscience MDMA is at best just a footnote. Ketamine is not even mentioned for the most part, unless the book is hip, but even then it will be mentioned in the chapter about anaesthetics and painkillers; its psychoactive effects will be glossed over as “emergent phenomena”. No! What are you doing? Wasn’t John C. Lilly already talking about the far-out, extraordinarily bizarre, perhaps even literally inter-dimensional properties of “vitamin K” way back in the 70s? Then why is my 2007 “Drugs and the Brain” textbook so totally lacking in any kind of genuine phenomenological insight about this stuff?
And what about 5-MeO-DMT? You are lucky if the term appears even once in your $800 textbook. And if it does indeed appear, you can bet it will also be in a footnote, this time concerning matters such as “psychoactive animals”, “other tryptamines”, and “mesoamerican entheogens”. You will neither see 5-MeO-DMT mentioned in a personal identity philosophy textbook, nor in a neuroscience treatise on “neural synchrony”, nor in the part of academia focused on “innovation in the treatment of mental illness”.
It is sad to admit, but the official main-lined level of interest in the three most promising therapeutic tools for trauma listed above is a matter of sorting and assembling footnotes.
I am exaggerating a bit, of course.
MDMA’s therapeutic potential is gaining traction thanks to the tireless work of MAPS. S-Ketamine is now approved as an anti-depressant. And while 5-MeO-DMT is gaining popularity at a glacial pace, it is at this point by no means a secret. An increasing number of vocal members of the psychedelic community have been talking about 5-MeO-DMT for some years. People who have publicly emphasized how different five is from other psychedelics include Hamilton Morris, James Oroc, Martin Ball, Leo Gura, and Rak Razam. But what we still lack is rigorous scientific backing for these claims. After all, everyone is likely to want to sell their aesthetic preferences as universal truths about beauty and bliss, right? Thankfully, there are some early scientific indications already:
The above graph comes from a 2018 study that investigated the therapeutic effects of 5-MeO-DMT-containing toad venom relative to psilocybin. The dose used (the amount of buffo venom vaporized) had an estimated content of 5-7mg of 5-MeO-DMT, and the researchers classified 75% of the resulting experiences as meeting the criteria for a “complete mystical experience”. It measured people’s level of response with the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ30), and as you can see from the graph above, in every category 5-MeO-DMT seems to be more powerful than psilocybin. The level of effectiveness was indeed found to be higher than all but the highest dose of psilocybin, and chances are that the study couldn’t show it was more effective than that because it was underpowered to detect it, and not because there is no difference (in other words, the sample size was not large enough for the difference between high-dose psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT to reach statistical significance). Also bear in mind the key difference that the trip lasts under 20 minutes in total, meaning that even if the trip fails to produce full effects, you can still afford to try it again ten more times in the same time interval that it would have taken you to experience a full psilocybin trip. More so, it is important to point out that the dose of 5-MeO-DMT taken by the participants of this study is considered to be at the edge between “light” and “common” in PsychonautWiki’s entry on the drug*. Indeed, for many people the “breakthrough” tends to happen around 10mg, and I’ve heard of people using up to 30mg of it at a time. (Beware: if you ever try this – please don’t jump straight to a high dose, as this can cause serious trauma as a result.) Therefore, I think it is reasonable to expect that future studies will confirm what anecdotal data is currently screaming: that 5-MeO-DMT is more “powerful” and “mystical” in its effects than psilocybin, LSD, DMT, 2C-B, and all the rest.
But what this “power” and “mysticism” exactly amounts to still lacks clear and useful definitions. More so, is there any concrete reason why 5-MeO-DMT may be also superior at healing trauma relative to, eg. LSD or psilocybin? Technically, one could currently argue that since the presentation of “complete mystical states” is a mediating factor in whether psilocybin has long-lasting psychological benefits, that 5-MeO-DMT is more effective simply because it has a higher probability of causing this effect. But I would argue that the texture of 5-MeO-DMT peak experiences is different and not only just more intense, and that the way in which it is different matters for its therapeutic value.
To investigate this particular difference, we now move on to examining the phenomenological difference between 5-MeO-DMT and DMT.
5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses
My experience is that a reasonable ~20% of people I talk to who have a long-standing interest in psychedelics have heard about 5-MeO-DMT’s special properties. However, only a much smaller percentage of people have actually tried it. At Qualia Computing we have talked about its exceptionalphenomenologicalproperties a number of times. Yet it remains that most readers who reach out have not themselves experienced it. Hence I have not really had access to quality trip reports in order to say anything meaningful about the way in which it is different from DMT.
Thankfully, I’ve recently interviewed someone who has a decent level of experience with 5-MeO-DMT (20+ trips), along with a significant level of experience with vaporized DMT (100+ trips), and is also acquainted with the combination (10+ trips with both substances at once).
Given the incredibly intense psychoactive effects of 5-MeO-DMT (both for good and bad), most people struggle to put into words anything meaningful about the state. That said, as it has been the case with a number of other states of consciousness (e.g. LSD, DMT, and MDMA) I feel compelled to try to offer a sane, rational, agnostic, and pragmatic description of its phenomenology. In particular, I think that 5-MeO-DMT’s unique trauma-healing potential really deserves a close look. I believe that it sheds light on a wide range of topics of interest such as neural annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and the pseudo-time arrow (video). With this in mind, I inquired with my interviewee about the differences between N,N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Together, after a lengthy open-ended discussion, we found the following ways to compare them:
1. Space vs. Form
One of the first things that stands out when you take DMT at even small doses is the way in which colors get intensified. This is a special case of a very generalizable effect: in fact, every perceptual feature you can point to is enhanced while on DMT, from the sharpness of edges and pointy things to the feeling of movement and rotation. The interviewee indeed said that a brain on DMT “becomes a powerful qualia machine“.
After trying 5-MeO-DMT for the first time, most people already familiar with DMT mention something along the lines of “I was surprised that I didn’t see many colors.” The visual component of five is rarely very colorful; if color appears, it is in the form of a golden or sometimes light faint magenta or green hue. For the most part, the visual component of the experience is black and/or white. At times, one can see rainbow halos, but like rare subatomic particles, on 5-MeO-DMT rainbow colors come in and out of the vacuum, as if somehow equivalent to it. The bulk of the visuals manifest in a dazzling sense of spaciousness, as if there was a cosmic paint called “transparent/translucent”. The space often feels immeasurable due to a lack of a reference frame from which to make a judgement in terms of known comparisons. But what inevitably stands out is that the space seems large, uniform, harmonious, smooth, and luminous. Somatic feelings blend with this space, and the uniformity and symmetry of it allows for energy to seamlessly move throughout it. It really is a remarkable effect, one which can easily give rise to the felt-sense of Open Individualism. Yet, despite the engrossingly engaging character of these feelings, there is very little narrative complexity in sight.
Who knew that empty space could be so much fun? That you could fit so much love and bliss in an (experiential) vacuum? More so, the more you are able to relax into it, the more you embrace the waves of equanimity, the more you allow the space to become perfectly smooth and seamless… the more blissful it all gets!**
2. Crystals and Quasi-Crystals
Here is an interesting thing – ultrasound has been used in order to bias the way in which water crystals form, and thus creating much more “cubical” water than is otherwise possible. More generally, the phenomenon of vibration affecting crystallization processes is worth considering as an explanatory framework. DMT comes with a particular vibe that some have identified as having a characteristic frequency somewhere between 20 and 30Hz, whereas 5-MeO-DMT’s vibe seems to be a notch higher, perhaps in the range of 30 to 40Hz. On these drugs, your attention is jittered back and forth at a certain frequency, and this affects your ability to focus on any given part of your experience. The specific jittering itself makes it harder and easier to construct and manipulate certain thought-forms over others.
Speculatively, this model says that the jittering of attention caused by 5-MeO-DMT and DMT give rise to crystal and quasi-crystal building blocks, respectively, for phenomenal objects in one’s experience.
Phenomenologically, it seems that the vibratory signature of DMT effects doesn’t wrap around your experience an integer number of times. Thus, what we will call, for lack of a better term, the qualia crystals that form while on DMT seem to be inherently unstable and alien to your normal way of cogitating. The fact that the vibrations don’t fit perfectly in one’s experiential field forces it to bend out of shape to accommodate such vibrations. The result is constant chaos – fluid instabilities as the core effect.
On the other hand, with 5-MeO-DMT, it’s as if the vibration activates parts of the field of experience in exactly the right way for them to blend, unite, and resonate with one another. The vibrations fit perfectly inside one’s experiential field, and allows it to relax into its own natural shape. And this allows for perfect crystals of awareness to peacefully grow, multiply, and synchronize.
(d) Quasi-crystaline take-over
(c) Parallel narratives going on in interweaving channels with characteristic microstructure
(b) Irregular worldsheet with ambiguous self-models
It is of course surprising that a tiny difference in the frequency of the vibe could have such large effects in the way phenomenology crystallizes. But this is true for other systems. When one talks about the complexity of shapes in resonant systems, for instance, Lissajou curves can provide a helpful intuition pump: in Lissajou curves, merely changing one of the frequencies by a small relative amount can result in a huge difference between the pictures drawn. From a simple circle to a complex mesh.
According to the interviewee, 5-MeO-DMT would neatly correspond to one of the simplest Lissajou curves above, while the DMT sensations would be better evoked by one of the meshy ones.
With that said, it is worth mentioning that 5-MeO-DMT is probably not hitting the right frequencies merely by chance. It’s probably more that it is activating a system whose attractor is self-correcting and results in the kind of symmetrical crystallization that gives rise to deep feelings of bliss.
3. Attachment to Existence and Non-Existence
5-MeO seems to point at a super general sense of “relaxation”. A meditation teacher, Ajahn Brahm, talking about jhanas said that his mantra to achieve states of deep concentration and peace was: “Relax… to the maaaaaaaxxxx…”.
And according to the interviewee, the thrust of 5-MeO is that it feels like your nervous system is paradoxically injected with a lot of energy and yet the vibe of this energy is that of total and complete- ultimate?- relaxation. But our body and mind are not used to relaxing deeply. The contrast between this energy and one’s usual neurotic state can itself produce a lot of dissonance and resistance. In most cases, this is transient and contained to the first couple of minutes of the experience, though in higher doses and with bad luck, it can also spiral out of control. On small and moderate doses the energetic vibe of “relax to the max” takes over one’s experiential center of mass and teaches the rest of your nervous system how to relax.
It vibrates your nervous system in just the right way that all of your tensions, and hidden knots, and internalized stresses, bubble up to the surface, and you have the chance to try to “unravel” all of that tension.
After taking it a couple of times, you get the very nice feeling of being OK with whatever happens. 5-MeO-DMT might be described as a drug that allows you to reduce “thirst, craving, desire” in a very generalized kind of way. In Buddhist terms, this would be to reduce “Taṇhā“, which comes in three different kinds: “kāma-taṇhā (craving for sensual pleasures), bhava-taṇhā (craving for existence), and vibhava-taṇhā (craving for non-existence).” While we are used to hearing religious figures and moralists talk about the importance of not experiencing cravings for sensual pleasure, popular culture still lacks legible myths about the craving for existence and non-existence. So it comes as a shock for someone who has never developed meditative introspective insight just how much of our suffering has the flavor of either craving for existence or non-existence. Dosing on 5-MeO-DMT gives you a glimpse for what a mind devoid of these more subtle forms of craving feels like.
DMT comes with a vibratory frenzy that directly causes a lot of knots and tiny stress points throughout your entire experiential field. And to a large extent, how the experience unfolds is the result of you trying to manage all of those knots and stress points to avoid having them accumulate and concentrate in painful ways. The effect of this is that DMT acutely increases attachment to existence and non-existence. You wonder “what am I in this world?” and then cling to it, along with an intense fear of losing yourself in the world of vibration. The fear is quite involuntary and primal. And because you are clinging to who or what you are, there is something that you can lose, and that contributes to the feeling that the stakes are very high.
On 5-MeO you look at a landscape- say a tree in a Savannah- and you can see it in the most Zen way you can possibly imagine (and I don’t mean cutting cats in half). You think: “there is neither someone nor nobody in there” and “it’s all just arising and passing of ephemera”.
On DMT you look at the same landscape and you feel: “Oh gosh, what AM I in here? Am I that rock over there? That rock seems threatened by erosion! Am I the tree? But what if something comes and eats the tree?” and so on.
On DMT you feel like you are one of many little beings in a vast ecosystem. On 5-MeO-DMT you step back and you “realize” that you are the entire ecosystem.
In turn, this may explain to some extent the fact that the content of DMT hallucinations is often filled with exotic beings. And almost always, these beings have hyper-specific ways of life, tastes, intentions, and beliefs. The realms you experience on DMT are all saturated with attachment to existence and non-existence, and the beings you interact with are no exception. In fact, they may be a manifestation of those intensified cravings! From the interviewee:
“I’ve taken DMT about 100 times and have encountered many different vibes and kinds of intelligences in those realms. I’d love to map out the possible narratives – there are so many! Loosely speaking, I’ve had many different encounters with intelligent beings: from blissfully angelic and benevolent to outright demonic. Most of the beings I’ve encountered are somewhere in-between, and for the most part, tend to have pretty dualistic mindsets.
There is this whole class of beings I’d identify as harlequins/jesters that just love to play tricks with perception (I’m sure that’s what Terrence McKenna was pointing at).
Then there are “artists” which have a particular style that they explore and can range from emotionally self-sufficient to aggressively in-your-face about their work. The “look at THIS and look at THIS and look at THIS!!” kind of stance, where you are not given enough time to process what they’ve already shown you before they thrust even more stuff into you, and then attach ‘cookies’ into your etheric body to track you in future trips so you “like” and “subscribe” to their “interdimensional channel” or something like that.
There’s also a lot of beings that seem to want to tell you that they are confident that God does not exist and that “everything is allowed”. And I’ve felt that they are really indifferent to morality, but still have powerful abilities and unique qualia of a more scientific bent.
I once also encountered what felt like a true sadistic demon that played some really nasty tricks on my perception, and filled me with “etheric bugs” and had hundreds of little minions to attack me in many unpleasant ways. That said, I blame this on the fact that I was sleep deprived when I took DMT that one time, and it’s never happened before or since. But that experience gave me a lot of respect for the drug.
I’ve also encountered realms where they actually do consciousness research as such, and are benevolent and into engineering paradises. I even asked one of them if they knew my favorite philosopher, and they said “yes, what a nice fellow – we hope he will be more widely known in the future. We just wished that he wasn’t so sad a lot of the time.”
I have found that my pre-existing mood is the single most important variable that determines the kind of intelligences I encounter. So I’d really like to someday try MDMA and DMT combined. I suspect those would be very angelic beings most of the time.
Interestingly, I feel that while DMT feels profoundly spiritual, to a large extent it is less “nondual” than most other psychedelics. A lot of beings I’ve encountered simply don’t seem to care about oneness at all. But on LSD, mushrooms, and of course 5-MeO-DMT, the Golden Rule seems to play a very central role in the experience. Those experiences are much more of a “teaching” than the wacky stuff one encounters in the DMT realms.
When you take 5-MeO-DMT and DMT at the same time, you can really feel the contrast between the dualistic “us vs. them” vibe that underlies DMT and the unitive sense that underlies 5-MeO-DMT. I’ve experimented with the combo and found it to be super informative. And usually, I realize that while DMT turns your brain into a high-octane “qualia machine”, 5-MeO is in fact much more peaceful and happy in a deeper sense. I’d like to understand both, but my preferred “home” would be for sure the 5-MeO realms.”
4. Underfitting vs. Overfitting
One interesting lens with which to make sense of the difference between people who are open to experience and people who are not is that of model complexity, which casts this difference in terms of the statistical concepts of underfitting and overfitting.
Having narrow views, simple explanations, and enduring preferences is very good when the world itself is either very simple or impossible to understand. But having complex views, multi-layered explanations, and flexible preferences is more adaptive than the alternative in a world that is both complex and can be understood with some effort.
Indeed, some speculation about the nature of sleep from the predictive coding paradigm of cognition is that dreaming is a process of model complexity reduction. The information that we accumulate over the span of a day is incorporated in an ad-hoc fashion while awake, and only properly integrated (and pruned) after a good night’s sleep. This at least provides the theoretical precedent for describing a specific state of consciousness in terms of its effects on model complexity. And here we would propose that as a very general effect profile, 5-MeO-DMT reduces model complexity while N,N-DMT increases it.
As a consequence, we would posit that people who take five a lot will converge towards compelling yet over-simplified models of realty, whereas people who use DMT a lot will converge to overly complex and unnecessarily detailed explanation for even the simplest of phenomena.
Perhaps in the future people could be diagnosed as chronic overfitters and underfitters. In turn, these two drugs could be given by prescription, for the maladies of improper model selection practices:
N,N-DMT would be given to the sufferers of too much worldview simplicity. People like this believe that the world is dominated by the struggle between capitalism and communism. They think that there is a 50% chance that God almighty exists. They assign zero probability to unlikely events, such as lizard people power conspiracies. In people like this, DMT is a powerful mind enhancer capable of challenging cartoonishly simple background assumptions and introducing a healthy dose of skepticism in mainstream narratives.
5-MeO-DMT would instead be given to people who are overwhelmingly embroiled in complex interpretations of the nature of reality. Whether it is in the realm of conspiracy theories, religious cults, the biochemistry of aging, or any such hopelessly convoluted field of research, a little five will unscramble the mind of the compulsive overfitter. Thanks to the drug, the Bayesian puncture, the Occam’s cut, and the pragmatic so what coalesce into a decimating hit to the load-bearing hub-nodes that feed unfalsifiable belief systems. The model complexity reduction effect dissolves entire subfields, assimilates clusters, and seamlessly mends discontinuities in the reality mappings of the patient. At moderate dosages and treatment regimes, the sufferer recovers fully. The sufferer often ends up healed of their traumas, and occasionally healed of many more things than expected. At levels much above those of the therapeutic standard of care, there is a risk that the treatment may result in the healing of the fundamental traumas of conscious experience. The drug may offer the patient a chance to relinquish phenomenal reality in exchange for an extemporal “ultimate relief”. To extinguish the flame of existence, as they say.