[Excerpt from The Secret of Scent (2006) by Luca Turin, pgs 108-111]
Some Strange Clues
It has been said,* correctly in my opinion, that theories define facts as much as the other way around. Nowhere is this more true than in structure-odour relations, where all knowledge is anecdotal. Anecdotal evidence has a sort of slippery, jelly-like quality to it, and theories are needed to congeal the stuff together into single, solid facts. ‘Anecdotal’ is often used as a pejorative term in scientific circles, meaning unreliable. In practice it often means isolated, and therefore hard to assess. Think of a new field of science as a large jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are discovered one by one, and at first they are unlikely to fit together to make a picture. Things can look distinctly unpromising, sometimes for decades. But if you can bear the pain of feeling stupid and the humiliation of being wrong, anecdotal evidence is the call of the wild, the surest sign of the undiscovered. Columbus set sail on the basis of anecdotal evidence. The Mayan hieroglyphs were deciphered using anecdotal evidence. Life-saving remedies based on plants, such as aspirin and digitalis, were found by scientists who paid attention to anecdotal evidence.
Scientific problems typically go through three phases. In the first phase, a few bold explorers discover a new land and map out its basic features. In the second phase, boatloads of immigrant scientists arrive and colonize the land. In the third phase, statues are erected on town squares, sometimes to the original discoverers, more often to the able administrators who build the roads and railways. Smell, as it happens, did not follow this pattern. Scientific colonies never thrived on this particular island. Every few years, a new set of scientists claims to have cleared the jungle, but their cities are eventually overgrown and get lost in the weeds.
In smell, the difficulty is compounded by two additional factors, one obvious, the other more subtle. The first is the supposed untrustworthiness of the smell sensation I’ve mentioned earlier which makes strong men and women doubt their own noses. The second is that when facts, especially anecdotal ones, remain unexplained for long enough, a kind of question fatigue sets in, and they become accepted without being understood. The situation brings to mind a quintessentially British cartoon I saw once where a dinosaur strides past a terraced house, and a couple see it from their living room. Wife: “What was that?” Husband: “Oh, just one of those Things.” The fact that we can smell functional groups is just such a Thing.
Functional groups, as we have seen, are the specific structures of one or more atoms that are responsible for the chemical behaviour of a substance. Examples are thiols (-SH), nitriles (-CN), and aldehydes (-C(=O)H). The little hyphen indicates that these groups are, of course, attached to something and that the Something varies hugely. But the remarkable thing is that the Something matters little to the smell of the molecules. What gives the game away, especially to the casual observer, is the fact that types of smell are named after chemical groups: sulphuraceous, nitrilic, aldehydic, corresponding respectively to -SH, -CN, -(H)C=O. This is particularly clear in the case of -SH. All molecules which contain an -SH group smell (a) strong and (b) reminiscent of rotten eggs.
Powdered Kala Namak (“black [really pink] salt”)
A word about the description ‘rotten eggs,’ since only a tiny minority of readers will be old enough to remember them. Eggs nowadays come with time stamps and serial numbers, so they seldom get a chance to rot. The rotten eggs smell is today more likely to be experienced in an oriental market (the durian fruit), by opening the gas tap on the stove (a small amount of an -SH compound is added to make sure we notice it), or best of all by going to an Indian store and asking for kala namak or ‘black salt’. Black salt, as its name does not indicate, is actually pink and is a type of rock salt that must come from Hell, as it contains ample amounts of Hell’s Kitchen smell, namely the HSH molecule. HSH is -SH repeated and smells bad twice over. Put some kala namak on your tongue and you will see what I mean. The first thing you will notice is that it reminds you mostly of a very intense hard-boiled egg smell. Clearly, eggs, even when fresh, are itching to fall apart. If you’ve done any chemistry at school, you will also recall the classroom when the teacher was making one of those stinks for which chemistry is famous. Beware though, the culinary satanism of kala namak is beguiling: a tiny amount in blackcurrant ice cream, strawberry daiquiris, coffee, and chocolate does wonders, as long as you don’t let anyone know you did it.
Do all -SH compounds smell identical then, i.e. of rotten eggs? Not a bit, actually: they smell of all manner of things, from grapefruit to garlic via blackcurrants, but they all have this sulphuraceous (i.e. from Hell) character. The grapefruit compound is particularly instructive. It is called pinanethiol. Thiol means -SH, so pinanethiol means pinane-SH.
Remove the -SH and the rest of the molecule (pinane) smells like pine needles, as it should, since pinane is a major component of turpentine oil, itself extracted from pine. Add the -SH back and, having smelled the pinane by itself and familiarized yourself with kala namak, you can clearly smell the parts of the molecule. That is to say you smell both the pine needles and the sulphur. Smell another very strong -SH compound like H₃C-SH, or methanethiol, for a few seconds till the nose (mercifully) tires of the hideous -SH smell, then go back to pinane-SH. Surprise! The sulphur note is now almost gone and the molecule no longer smells of pinane-SH, but instead smells of pinane tout court. This means that this molecule smells like the sum of its parts. In other words, -SH is a primary, though the other smells are not. But how does that work? How do we know what parts it’s made of? This, as we shall see, is the greatest mystery of smell. Looking for an answer will take us amazingly far afield.
* Paul Feyerabend, among others, convincingly argued this view in Against Method, required reading for those who believe the scientific method is something which can be written down and followed like a recipe.
On a recent conversation I had with Luca, I shared with him the fact that there are anti-tolerance drugs that can lessen (and even reverse) the physiological tolerance to drugs such as painkillers. He was seriously surprised by this fact. Despite spending a whole career studying biological regulatory systems, he had never in his life heard of anti-tolerance drugs in academia. Upon hearing this, he shared that in his experience, most of the innovation in science comes from people who work hands-on in the field, as this exposes them to a much broader evidential base than you would encounter when doing research in a strictly theoretical way.
Thus, he has learned far more about consciousness from psychonauts than he ever has from academic psychopharmacologists, and has learned more about electronics from radio amateurs than professional electrical engineers. In other words, the people who actually tinker with the inner mechanisms of the systems they’re interested in are the people to ask for “weird and novel phenomena”, rather than (only) those who study the field academically angling for a university post or a narrow job in the industry. Same, of course, with the science of smell: actually tinkering with aromachemicals can give rise to discoveries one may never stumble upon by merely studying scent receptors in a lab. Needless to say, the best outcomes will come from seamlessly blending both worlds; but for that to happen we will have to embrace phenomenological reports as acceptable leads for research in science.
“Break often – not like porcelain, but like waves.”
― Scherezade Siobhan
“Ideology has two meanings- actually, most social terms have two meanings, one for the traumatized and one for the non-traumatized.”
― Michael Vassar
“You know the old adage about monkeys typing into infinity, and the question about whether they would eventually produce Hamlet? I think that maybe we are those monkeys, and we’re producing countless Hamlets every single day.”
― Jacob Stephen
“Reality is very weird, no doubt. At the same time, it is easy to get wrong ‘what kind of weird’ reality is.”
― Matthew Barnett
“It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”
― W. Somerset Maugham
December 13th 2019
In a different timeline, I open a high-class experimental qualia-focused restaurant. There is only one kind of meal every month, and it is a challenge to finish it. Only 10% of people manage to do so. On March of 2022, the menu consists of:
A soup. A liter of (tap) water with a single mint leaf in it. Do not be deceived, this is not “spa water”. The amount of mint in it is exactly right below the perceptual threshold for the most discerning of tasters. Hence, you are guaranteed to (a) not be able to taste anything at all, while (b) fully knowing you are indeed drinking aromatic molecules from the mint leaf. Also, they give you a spoon and a straw. If you use the straw, you are “drinking your soup” while if you use the spoon you are “eating your soup”. Up to you. It’s a conceptual piece after all. Once -and only once- you finish it, they serve you the second course…
There are aromas and flavors out there in the state-space of qualia-triggering molecules that cancel each other out perfectly. The second course consists of a series of small hors d’oeuvres that are completely tasteless. If you can taste anything- e.g. a hint of garlic, or orange- it means the chef didn’t prepare it well. The flavors need to be perfectly balanced for them to be entirely tasteless. And once you are done, they bring you…
This thing they left on your table is akin to a wire puzzle, or one of those Hanayama pieces. They tell you that your third course consists of a tiny cookie hidden inside it. Average solving time: 25 minutes. 50% of people can’t solve it.
You are given a miniature 3D printed sugar statue reconstruction of someone who shares your name (as close as possible). Before eating it, you have to scream “There can be only one!” and consume your namesake in a single bite.
Trace minerals. They bring you this large metallic bowl with a tiny little bit of powder at the bottom; certainly no more than 50 or 60 milligrams of material. It contains half of your daily recommended dose of iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium. You can now finally know what these actually taste like. It turns out that the characteristic taste of your grandma’s famous tapioca dish was zinc. Moving on…
Negative food. You donate 300ml of blood.
Distilled saliva. You spit in a bowl a number of times. You are then given a little shot of perfectly tasteless and clean water. The water is chemically pure. However, it is the water in the saliva of the spit of another customer.
Double blind taste experiment. You are given a dish. The waiters do not know what it is. You do not know what it is. You have to write a 100-word report of what you think about this dish. This is actual science; the data is used by a research lab at some undisclosed university. There is something very Buddhist about this course – how much does your top-down model of what you are eating modify your perception of it? What if you do not assume an “essence” behind it – block that specific energy sink from robbing you of the experience of raw low-level sensation?
Sound control. Did you know that food tastes different in an airplane? Many factors contribute to this, but a major one is the constant background noise you can hear inside the aircraft. Turns out tastes change with specific sounds. The Qualia restaurant spent $500,000 dollars researching this (and publishing a number of peer-reviewed papers in the process). The output of that research is that you can now make chocolate taste like vanilla, and strawberry taste like melon – if only you play the proper sound at the right volume. And finally…
Stroboscopic taste – you put on a mouthpiece that entrains half of your tongue to a 30Hz electric seizure vibration while the other half is entrained to 17Hz. As you eat the Ice-cream of Victory (flavored with passionfruit, peanut, and anise) you realize that the flavors combine with the stroboscopic stimulation to create the hallucination of an entire meal replete with much more complex flavors. The beat patterns are tasty.
If you finish the entire thing (which usually takes about 5 hours total) they take a photograph of you and “keep it to themselves”. No, there is no “victory board”. They just want a picture of you.
5/5 | Would recommend.
January 6th 2020
Favorite essential oils at the moment: Freesia, Violet, and Pear. It turns out Freesia was a predominant note in Dior “Addict 2“, a perfume I fell in love with when I was a teen. Violet is “ethereal” in that it feels strangely anesthetizing (the ketamine of smells). Pear is lovely.
Some scent combinations “collapse categories” (e.g. too many flowers combined blend into “generic flowery”).
Others make unstable multi-phase blends (e.g. too many categories – spicy, citrus, minty, woody all at once).
Violet + Pear create a scent HEA.
An interesting blend with “emergent” characteristics: Freesia, Pear, Violet, Sunflower, Azalea, and Patchouli. Very high valence mixture that has a novel feeling that does not seem to come from the ingredients. #HighEntropyAlloy #HighEntropyScent
January 8th 2020
Careful with raising the “scent entropy” too high!
In sound and sight, it seems that there is an inverted U curve relationship between stimuli entropy and the entropy of the experiential response. White noise may be- objectively- the way to cram in as much information as possible into a waveform. But perceptually, white noise is more like its own (neutral valence, indifferent) tone. Likewise visually, if you crowd your images way too much you can’t actually understand its meaning and true complexity. Perceptual complexity response is maximized in the middle, where you achieve “peak useful entropy”.
More so, extremely entropic stimuli can be used to “mask” any input by adding a dose of white noise or visual static. That’s how you can degrade the valence of something when you don’t know what kind of unpleasant input you will get in advance. White noise drowns out both construction sounds and baby screams. It’s a “universal diluter”, so to speak.
And so it seems that this is the case with smells too. If you combine any 40 (42?) scented molecules that are as different as possible, you get as a result a generic smell with neutral valence that is not distinctive at all. If you make a different 40-scent mixture with completely different molecules, it also smells the same! They call it white noise scent, or “Laurax”*.
In other words, the “high-entropy alloys” of smell may only really pay off in the range of 5 to 15 different molecules, where (perhaps) we maximize the experiential “character” of the resulting fragrance.
Now, of course commercial perfumes in practice do have dozens if not hundreds of aromachemicals. But their absolute “scent entropy” is probably not that high. Why? First, the entropy is reduced by the fact that most perfumes do concentrate on a few core notes; the many other notes are usually small additions and tweaks. And second, the perfumes are usually made with relatively few categories of smells blended together (musky, citrus, and flower could be one, or green, ozonic, and non-citrus fruity another, and so on). Additionally, to get true white noise smell you need to also add negatively valenced scents, which are rarely used in actual perfumes. I do wonder, though, if the perfume industry has a sense of the “scent entropy” of their various perfumes, and if having a measure of it would perhaps improve their ability to hone in on blends that have unique emergent characters without relying entirely on heuristics and trial and error. Or how about a portable “scent-entropy-o-meter”? I bet it would find some very useful applications.
Of all the industries, I get the impression that the perfume industry is ahead of the curve when it comes to incorporating hedonistic utilitarian notes into its embedded ideology.
January 11th 2020
Cilantro tasting like soap to 10% of the population is just the tip of the iceberg.
January 13th 2020
What are your favorite perfumes?
(and if it’s not impossible to describe – why do you like them so much?)
Addict 2 by Dior Eros pur femme by Versace Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana
Oh god, what kind of person have I become?
January 14th 2020
Scent combinations with unusual emergent characters that are “more than the sum of their parts” I have discovered so far:
Violet + Pear
Rose + Orange
Honeydew Melon + Pomegranate
Freesia + Golden Hydrangea
In each of these cases, combining in roughly equivalent intensities (i.e. 50-50 ‘equipotent’ mixtures) seems to give rise to qualities that are not present in either of the two scents. This is relatively rare, IMO. If you combine, e.g. lilac and jasmine, you just get something that smells like “lilac and jasmine”. But the four combinations above seem- to me- to give rise to new exotic qualia varieties.
An accord is more about getting rid of the individually distinguishable component scents. The end result, however, is one of a “generic” scent within a given category (or subcategory). For example “white flower accord” or “citrus accord” are common. And although you can distinguish between two citrus accords, they don’t really have unique character – at least not more than e.g. various kinds of brown noise have a unique character. The combinations I’m mentioning are not just ways of creating a category blend so that other elements of the perfume can be more noticeable. Rather, they are on their own uniquely characteristic, much like other pure essential oils.
If you mix a wide enough variety of flowers you inevitably get a flower accord. To get a new qualia type emergent you need something else. (I should add I’m new to the field and have a lot to learn).
I’m developing a way of explaining what a scent is like at a glance with relatively few parameters. One of them is category entropy, meaning how close a given category in the scent is to the maximally blended version of it (i.e. a fully generic “flowery” scent has maximum category entropy).
Then another parameter is the “global entropy” which describes how close the scent is to total white noise scent.
So we start by saying e.g. perfume X is “50% of the way to white noise scent and its distribution of core categories is 30% woody, 30% floral, 20% fruity, and 20% citrus”, then we zoom in to each category and describe its category entropy and salient notes: “the floral entropy is 40%, and the 60% remaining is shared in equal measure between rose and azalea” (repeat for each category).
Additionally, another important thing to add is if there are “note to note interactions”, which in my (limited) experience happens with some pairs. Maybe 10% of them, but I don’t know for sure. But you could describe them with lines between individual notes in a diagram. To round it all out, you also would point out the note accords that work as “phases” in the overall scent (drawing inspiration from high entropy alloys – an alloy that does not make a single crystal structure is called “multiphasic”). E.g. mango + patchouli + cinnamon + jasmine tends to produce two phases, a mango + cinnamon phase that toggles in your attention with the jasmine + patchouli phase. Finally, we would also note “valence inversion” effects that happen when there are combos of scents that when placed together give rise to a flipped valence (also a rare effect, IME).
For a slightly higher level of resolution, we would break down each category into subcategories and then describe the entropy of each. E.g. a floral perfume could be 80% of the way to maximum floral entropy in the “white flower” subcategory but only 10% of the way to maximum entropy in the “powdery flower” category.
This would allow us, I think, to put our finger on many scents that are hard to describe otherwise. Indeed, a lot of sophisticated perfumes, IMO, are playing a lot with different shades of high entropy, so talking about them in terms of notes like jasmine or amber is very misleading. It’s like calling a certain kind of brown noise “closest to a guitar sound” because one lacks words for describing noise profiles.
January 23rd 2020
So we know that we can get “white noise smell” by combining 42 scents of completely different kinds at the same time. This maxes out the “scent entropy” (aka. “Laurax”).
If you combine 42 different flower scents, however, you get a maximally generic “flowery scent”. I call this “category collapse”.
Now some scents have what I call “special effects”, which are category-neutral qualities. An example is the ‘bitterness’ of grapefruit, which although is often associated with fruits, can occur in entirely different categories too.
So I thought: what if we try to combine scents from as many categories as possible that all share the same special effects? I call this “scent factorization”. Namely, you try to get “special effect + Laurax” by canceling out everything but the special effect.
I believe this actually works. Example:
A factorization of “bitter-sweetness” can be obtained by mixing:
In this case you will see that geranium is almost like “the grapefruit of flowers” in that it is flowery in nature but still shares the same “bitter” quality as grapefruit (albeit at a different frequency – yes scent frequencies are a thing, but that’s a story for another time). Likewise, cedar-wood is the most grapefruit-like wood I’ve smelled.
Another interesting factorization is that of “creaminess”:
Coconut + Fig + Vanilla + Almond + Sandalwood
In this case, again, you’ll see that sandalwood is the most “creamy” of all woods (as far as I have tried), fig is the most creamy of all fruits, and so on.
But this is just the start. What other scent factorizations could we try? I’d say we could aim to have the special effects of “ozonic”, “green”, “ethereal”, “powdery”, “acrid”, “cloying”, and so on factorized. Each deserves to become its own perfume in my up and coming new line of high end perfumes called “The State-Space of Scents” (for the consciousness connoisseur).
February 2nd 2020
The Qualia Review – Episode 1: Women’s Perfumes (Part 1):
The Qualia Review – Episode 1: Women’s Perfumes (Part 2)
The Qualia Review is a tongue-in-cheek program where you will get non-expert opinions about the quality of experiences by people who really care about consciousness:
In each episode, Andrés Gómez Emilsson (qualiacomputing.com) reviews a particular qualia variety (i.e. category of experience) with a co-host (in this episode Victor Ochikubo).
In this first episode we review women’s perfumes. In particular, we review (from worst to best):
La Panthére by Cartiere (EDT) By Invitation by Michael Bublé (EDP) Guilty by Gucci (EDT) Brit Rhythm by Burberry (EDT) Jolie Fleur Bleue by Tory Burch (EDP) Rose Goldea by Bvlgari (EDP) Daisy Love by Marc Jacobs (EDT) Valentino by Valentino (EDP) Amazing Grace Ballet Rose by Philosophy (EDT) Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana (EDT) Eros by Versace (EDT)
You will notice that this is unlike any other review of perfumes. This is because the review here provided addresses the following three aspects of scents:
A qualia-focused account (i.e. entropy, categories, special effects, etc.)
What kind of person would enjoy wearing this perfume (mood-congruence, personality, etc.)
The social signaling that the perfume entails (sexual signaling, genetic fitness signaling, etc.)
In particular, (1) describes scents in terms of:
A) The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent)
B) The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’)
C) The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category)
D) Lines connecting notes that have non-linear interactions (e.g. pear & violet, rose & orange, pomegranate & honeydew make unique blends that have phenomenal properties unlike those of the individual ingredients)
E) Lines connecting notes that form separate “phases” across categories (e.g. with a mixture of mango, sandalwood, rose, lemon, and cinnamon you get three phases rather than a global consistent smell – mango + cinnamon, and lemon + sandalwood, with rose staying its own distinct scent)
F) Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually)
G) Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.)
Thus, we share an entirely new angle on how to describe the ineffable. Namely, the hard-to-put-your-finger-on elusive subjective quality of scents can finally be grounded in terms we can all understand (with a modicum of shared background assumptions).
Hope you enjoy! Happy scent qualia!
February 5th 2020
Three scents that are surprisingly similar to strawberry (based on my personal experience with essential oils):
In fact, following the “scent factorization” concept – if you make a mixture of these three scents the resulting oil smells almost exactly like strawberry cake. Strange!
February 9th 2020
I love this video! The idea that the information content in a perfume could possibly fit so much phenomenal detail is enticing, albeit perhaps a bit optimistic.
In the interest of honesty, out of the 15 or so women’s perfumes I’ve experienced deeply so far, La Panthere by Cartier is the worst by quite a long shot.
I don’t mean this to troll! I am serious. I still don’t quite know why I feel it as so unpleasant. I think it has to do with its very high entropy quotient, and the fact that it centers around gardenia, which is my least favorite flower. It feels predatory – and perhaps the perfumist did succeed at telling a story. Too bad I aim to reprogram the biosphere so that predation is a long-forgotten nightmare of our ancestral Darwinian environment of adaptedness. So long! We should aim to transform scent exploration from its current state of commercialism mixed in with weapons of sexual conquest, and push it into new frontiers… the exploration of the state-space of consciousness, valence research, perhaps even energy parameter modulation! The future of scent qualia research is wide open.
The Qualia Review – Episode 2: Men’s Perfumes
The Qualia Review is a tongue-in-cheek program where you will get non-expert opinions about the quality of experiences by people who really care about consciousness:
In each episode, Andrés Gómez Emilsson (qualiacomputing.com) reviews a particular qualia variety (i.e. category of experience) with a co-host (in this episode Victor Ochikubo).
In this second episode we review men’s perfumes. In particular, we review (by order of appearance):
CK2 by Calvin Klein (EDT) Pasha de Cartier Edition Noir by Cartier (EDT) Virtu by Vince Camuto (EDT) 21 Le Fou by Dolce & Gabbana (EDT) Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier (EDT) Scuderia Ferrari Light Essence Bright by Ferrari (EDT) Jimmy Choo Man Blue by Jimmy Choo (EDT) 1 Million by Paco Rabanne (EDT) Terre D’Hermes by Hermes (EDT) Invictus by Paco Rabanne (EDT) Bleu De Chanel by Chanel (EDP)
In this episode we also discuss the way in which an enriched conception of art could helps us reformulate the artistic potential of perfumes. We make allusions to the 8 models of art discussed in a previous video:
It’s very sad that there is a huge paywall for scent qualia. It’s your birthright to know what they smell like!
February 11th 2020
~120 essential oils and ~40 perfumes (ordered by categories and general character).
This is the dataset my brain has been training over to interpret the state-space of scent qualia for the last month and a half. This is still amateur level – but I can nonetheless confidently say that I now understand scent qualia at least 50% better than I did last year.
I would still appreciate specific suggestions for essential oils or perfumes to get that are very unusual or characteristic. I continue to be surprised by the uniqueness of oils, fragrances, and mixtures I haven’t tried before.
Also: drastic income inequality is a massive tragedy, no doubt. But why are people not talking about qualia inequality? I wish everyone was as qualia-rich as I am right now. I’m happy to share some scents with people who feel qualia-deprived; just come to the Bay and give me a call. 🙂
Ps. Peony is an incredibly versatile low-entropy flower scent with a creamy strawberry-like effect. I kept reading about how this or that perfume has peony in it, but it really took me owning an essential oil of it to grok the type of qualia peony is all about. Someday there will be a monument built to celebrate the qualia variety disclosed by peony formulas. I’m pretty sure of this.
February 14th 2020
People say “a blind buy” when they talk of buying a perfume they haven’t smelled. Shouldn’t it be more appropriate to say an “anosmic buy”?
February 18th 2020
In order to survive the apocalypse, having a “blue” fragrance on hand will become very useful. I suggest “Nautica Voyage“.
Very interesting! Two followup questions: (1) does it replicate on a larger sample size? and (2) is the baserate of different sexual orientations of anosmic people statistically different than those of the general population?
Gay men showed a strong preference for the body odour of other gay men in the scientific test of how the natural scent of someone’s body can contribute to the choice of a partner.
Although previous studies have shown that body odour plays a role in making heterosexual men or women attractive to members of the opposite sex, this is the first study that has investigated its role in sexual orientation. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, a non-profit research institute, said the findings underline the importance of natural odours in determining a sexual partner whatever the sexual orientation of the person involved.
“Our findings support the contention that gender preference has a biological component that is reflected in both the production of different body odours and in the perception of and response to body odours,” Dr Wysocki said.
February 25th 2020
Review of Shalimar Eau de Parfum by Guerlain for women:
February 27th 2020
Jasmine, Tuberose, and Gardenia: the Dark Triad of White Flowers. Beware! They are treacherous, envious, and guileful. DO NOT TRUST. They will ruin your perfume with their high-entropy indolic ‘broad spectrum scent noise’. Deranged, distracting, and disingenuous. #FlowerProblems
March 12th 2020
Why you should not insufflate ketamine: (1) it can irreversibly damage your bladder and cause very serious untreatable chronic pain, (2) it can damage your liver, also very painful, but above all (3) it will slowly degrade your ability to experience scents! Not worth it IMO!
Cocaine is well known for causing anosmia in regular users. I suspect we are going to see a wave of anosmic people as ketamine becomes more popular. Don’t be a victim. “Remember kids, don’t insufflate drugs – either eat them or inject them” would be my DARE go-to phrase.
March 16th 2020
Running out of hand sanitizer but you are fab and have a perfume collection? Use some cheap perfume instead! It’s usually 70+% alcohol.
Factoring in the loss of precious qualia would make this epidemic even worse. This year I’ve finally begun appreciating the state-space of scents. I’m heartbroken to learn about this effect. So much qualia in potentia that might be lost!
March 23rd 2020
We should emphasize the possibly of life-long loss of smell in order to get more young adults onboard with strict social distancing measures. A 20-something person might not fear a fever, but they may fear “having less sexy sex and enjoying food less for the rest of their lives”.
March 26th 2020
Sense of smell over the years. People under 40: please do yourself a favor and get some nice scents so you enjoy them while you are still sensitive to them. It’s always a tragedy not to use a qualia variety and then lose it. #qualia #scent #aging #valence #bliss #WeAreTheQualia
March 29th 2020
This is the future – in 2010 I was saying that in the long run humanity will need to adopt entirely new and seemingly extreme measures against contagious diseases.
Nasal filters (aka. “nose condoms”) were one of the ideas I was considering at the time. Reality is now catching up with fiction.
Why adopt extreme measures? Because we haven’t seen anything yet. The possibility of rational virus design and the political will to invest in innovative weapons means that sooner or later we will encounter things with a case fatality rate > 80% and R0 > 4. Nothing short of large-scale contact network engineering and the widespread use of tech like nasal filters can really work against those long-tail risks.
Perhaps in the future going out without nasal filters will be considered as reckless as today it’s considered having unprotected sex with a random stranger. #NasalFilter #TheNewMask #PM2point5
April 8th 2020
Summer 2020 Unisex Perfume Recommendations:
1. Bright Neroli – Ferrari (amazing sharpness and cute Sicilian dry-down)
2. Monserrat – Bruno Fazzolari (incredible grapefruit punch and bitter-sweet resonance)
3. Born – Adidas (a cheap but highly rewarding lavender rhubarb scent).
April 21st 2020
Haven’t posted about scents in a while; I’m still actively researching this fascinating qualia variety (better do so while I still have scent qualia, which may of course go away if/when I acquire COVID-19).
I’ve developed a lot of new vocabulary to talk about scents. In particular, I like to break down a scent in terms of entropy (how close to ‘white noise scent’ it is), category distribution (% woody, citric, fruity, etc.), category-specific entropy (e.g. 70% of the way to ‘generic flowery’), specific notes (e.g. 10% rose), and of course, “special effects” (such as “creamy”, “powdery”, “bitter”, etc.).
A recent “special effect” I’ve explored is the rather peculiar feeling that the scent is “flammable”. For example, gasoline has it, and so does ethanol. It is similar to the feeling you get when you inhale nitrous oxide. A kind of fascinating gas-like intoxicated state that produces spatiotemporal confusion and a sense of resonance. Of the scents I currently have access to, 100% pure Neroli essential oil strongly triggers this particular special effect. Neroli has that strange “flammable” quality, perhaps an octave or two in pitch higher relative to gasoline. It’s equally enthralling as the smell of gasoline (for those who like it) but much more dinner-party-friendly.
Anyway, with this “flammable” special effect in mind, I’ve been exploring what can be added to it in order to create beautiful scents. Last night I found a combination that made me really happy. It consists of equal (intensity-adjusted) parts of:
Orange essential oil
Lime essential oil
Pear essential oil
It is sweet, sour, and gasoline-like in an unexpectedly euphoric way. I highly recommend this quale. I very much like its vibe. Meet me there.
April 28th 2020
First I tried essential oils. Then I tried perfumes. Now I’m entering a third phase in my “scent literacy” journey: pure molecules.
I have 50 pure perfume ingredients in an air-tight container now. And I have been trying out a couple each day in a systematic way in order to map out the state-space of scents.
One core insight so far:
Essential oils are extremely rough approximations for “building blocks” of scents. Perfume notes are often described in terms of fruits, woods, flowers, animalic sources, etc. But “apple” is not a natural unit of scent qualia. Although there is a general “apple vibe”, in reality that vibe can come from any of 20 or so different molecules. Additionally, many molecules that have an apple vibe do not even appear in biological apples (and vice versa). I’ve so far tried two apple-vibe molecules:
Alpha Damascone: The smell of a dried out green apple, slightly past its prime, unsweetened and with trace amounts of beeswax wrapper stuck to its skin.
5-octen-1-ol: The smell of extremely mild refrigerated apple sauce, slightly waxy, reminiscent of sandalwood, and at a slightly higher “phenomenal frequency” than damascone.
In other words, I’m learning that pure molecules are indeed more “simple” than essential oils by far. They feel very specific and low-dimensional rather than voluptuous and scenic. But despite their relative simplicity, they are still not “categorically pure”. A single molecule can smell woody, fruity, and camphorous all at the same time. Part of the story is likely that a single molecule can have a broad spectrum of receptor affinities. But even if only one scent receptor were to be activated, perhaps the resulting experience would also not be uni-categorical.
The fascinating implication here is that scents that feel very uni-categorical (e.g. pear essential oil being unequivocally “fruity” with no hint of floral or woody) are more likely to be compositions of many molecules!
Each uni-categorical accord is made by mixing many molecules that all share the same “main vibe” but have different “secondary traits”. This way the accord lets the secondary traits “cancel out in white noise scent” while the main vibe is additively compounded into a broad-spectrum power-punch of a single category, like fruity (reminiscent of “scent factorization”, which I’ve described in previous posts).
May 2nd 2020
“You don’t need to be phenomenally rich in order to be phenomenally rich!”
I’m an advocate of high-dose behavioral enrichment (I talk about it at 22:16):
Ellena will dip a touche into a molecule called isobutyl phenylacetate, which smells vaguely chemical and nothing else, and another into a synthetic molecule whose common chemical name is ethyl vanillin. (A rich gourmandy vanilla molecule, its IUPAC name is 3-methoxy-4-hydroxy benzaldehyde, and it is the heart of Shalimar.) He puts the touches together and hands them to you. Chocolate appears in the air. “My métier is to find shortcuts to express as strongly as possible a smell. For chocolate, nature uses 800 molecules, minimum. I use two.” He hands you four touches, vanillin + natural essences of cinnamon, orange, and lime—each of these has the full olfactory range of the original material—and you smell an utterly realistic Coca-Cola. “With me,” says Ellena, “one plus one equals three. When I add two things, you get much more than two things.”
He will hand you a touche that he has sprayed with a molecule called nonenol cis-6, which by itself smells of honeydew melon or fresh water from a stream. He’ll then hand you a second touche with a natural lemon on it, direct you to hold them together now, and suddenly before you appears an olfactory hologram of an absolutely mesmerizing lemon sorbet.
The explicit point was not to create a thing but an illusion of that thing, an olfactory alchemy. The point of Nil was not to create a green mango but the illusion of a green mango.
Junior perfumers discover that Vetiver Huile Essentielle from Haiti smells like a Third World dirt floor and Vetiver Bourbon from Isle de la Réunion smells like a Third World dirt floor with cigar butts. (They hope to do something wonderful with the cigar butts.) They learn, as Ellena knew from decades of work, how to create the illusion of the scent of freesia with two simple molecules, both synthetics: ionone beta + linalool. And orange blossom: linalool + anthranylate de methyl, which by itself smells like aspirin. The classic Guerlain perfumes often used a molecule called styrex, which smells of olive oil pooled on a table in a chemical factory. Add phenylethylic alcohol and you get lilac. Add the smell of corpse (indoles), you get a much richer lilac. And you can give your lilac, freesia, and orange blossom a variety of metallic edges: Add allyl amyl glycolate, you get a cold metal freesia. Add amyl salycilate, and you get a freesia with the smell of a metal kitchen sink dusted with Ajax powder. Aldehyde C-12 lauric adds an iron with a bit of starch still on it.
May 8th 2020
Excerpt from Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s 2008 perfume guide:
The last decade has seen the unfortunate flourishing of a dismal genre, the fragrances for men and women who do not like fragrance and suspect that none of their friends do either. The result has been a slew of apologetic, bloodless, gray, whippet-like, shivering little things that are probably impossible, and certainly pointless, to tell apart. All fragrances whose name involves the words energy, blue, sport, turbo, fresh, or acier in any order or combination belong to this genre. This is stuff for the generic guy wishing to meet a generic girl to have generic offspring. It has nothing to do with any other pleasure than that of merging with the crowd. My fondest hope is everyone will stop buying them and the genre will perish. Just say no.
Lastly, and by way of contrast, remember that perfume is foremost a luxury, among the cheapest, comparable to a taxi ride or a glass of bubbly in its power to lift the mood without causing subsidence the morning after. Wear it for yourself.
– Luca Turin in PERFUMES: THE A-Z GUIDE (2008)
May 13th 2020
The perfume Tommy Girl just registered as an outlier to my nose. It registers as high in valence as Bleu de Chanel and Bright Neroli by Ferrari. Extraordinary perfume. 10/10 #ScentQualia
May 27th 2020
The Rainbow God Experience
One of the most interesting lines of evidence pointing in the direction of the Symmetry Theory of Valence is how in the neighborhood of the peak of high-energy neural annealing events one can often glimpse states of consciousness with a characteristic “full-spectrum of qualia” property.
This may happen nearing the peak of a strong LSD trip, during intense Jhanic concentration, Fire Kasina practice, or even just spontaneously (though extremely rarely).
At the actual peak of the annealing process you are likely to arrive at a “moment of eternity“- itself extremely high-valence- where the symmetry is so complete that it becomes impossible to distinguish between self and other, before and after, or even left and right (this is a phenomenal property of peak valence states, and not proof of Open Individualism and non-duality per se, even though most people tend to interpret such experiences that way).
The “Rainbow God” phenomena lives at the edge of such peak valence states.
Timothy Leary in “The Psychedelic Experience” says that as you approach the highest bardo you are given the choice between “tasting sugar” and “being the sugar”.
The former is close to the peak of the annealing process, where there is enough asymmetry in the state for you to be able to encode information and distinguish between past and future, self and other, etc. and thus able to experience a projective world-simulation and the illusion of a self that “experiences it”. At the top of the annealing process, however, the extreme symmetry does not allow you to do that. The valence is almost certainly higher, though the degree of consciousness is arguably lower. You are “the sugar” rather than “tasting the sugar” (i.e. you are luminosity rather than a constructed world-simulation “experiencing luminosity”).
Stunningly, this edge between perfect symmetry and its surroundings in configuration space often shows extreme levels of qualia diversity. This is an empirical observation you can verify for yourself (or you can trust me, find others who have experienced it, or derive it from first principles).
What is it like? At this boundary between quasi-perfect symmetry and perfect symmetry you experience rainbows with all the phenomenal colors in the CIELAB color space (and perhaps some other colors that you only see in heaven, like blue-yellow and red-green, which require enough energy to overcome the lateral-inhibition opponent process going on in the cortex at all other times). You experience a sense of “all possible temporalities”. A sense of “all possible scents”. And a sense of all possible spatial relationships at once.
If you get any closer to the peak of annealing, the rainbows collapse into luminosity, the scents into a sense of presence, the temporalities into a sense of eternal now, and the possible feelings of space into a projective-less “view from nowhere”. The combination of all qualia values of each qualia variety somehow, incredibly, seem to add to zero. But not any kind of zero. A special “Zero” perhaps equivalent to “no information but awake”. (Cf. David Pearce’s Zero Ontology for a possible grounding of this state in fundamental physics.)
Yes, this is very much a real state of consciousness. It is profound, and extremely important.
I call it the “Rainbow God” state of mind. I do not know how to reliably induce it, but I do know that it is likely to have extremely deep computational, ethical, and experiential properties capable of advancing our understanding of the nature of the state-space of consciousness. I just figured you should know this exists.
Really excellent presentation about the biological and physical underpinnings of scent. It’s a bit on the long end (50 minutes) but you can get 80% of it by just watching the first 12 minutes. It’s really good! So much information…
For instance: did you know there are about 400,000 scented flower species in the world? I struggle to come up with more than 30 flowers off the top of my head (up from 5 just less than a year ago). The remaining 399,970? Who knows what they smell like. We don’t have words for these smells… is it “rose” or “jasmine” smell? Good luck using that kind of ontology describing the space of possible flower smells.
Also: it turns out that volatile molecules don’t diffuse very effectively. So that’s why you get “whiffs” of scents – for the most part, in the wild, air is a very non-homogeneous gas, with all kinds of pockets with specific linear combinations of aromachemicals. Hence why holding two essential oils side by side doesn’t give rise to a proper mixture between them. You need to literally mix the oils and then smell the mixed result if you want to actually know what the combination is like. Otherwise you will get a whiff of one, a whiff of the other, etc. with a Poisson-like distribution. This also reminds me that: we have an olfactory bulb in each nostril! So if you apply one scent in one nostril and another scent in the other nostril, you will get a kind of “bi-scent rivalry” [binosmic?] similar to what you get when you see one image with the left eye and one image with the right eye (i.e. “binocular rivalry”).
I do think that “digital smell” is possible (unlike the presenter). But it will require us to describe each molecule in terms of their ADSR patterns for each of the basic scent qualities (that is, to describe how the sweetness develops across time – its attack, decay, sustain, and release – and do the same for each core qualia scent dimension). Without taking into account the ADSR envelope for each molecule, the mixtures will be uneven.
The lowest-hanging fruit would be to use a non-negative least squares regression that minimizes the error for the envelope of each of the core qualia scent dimensions. Hence, the molecular spectrum is not enough – the non-negative least squares requires pattern-matching across the entire temporal envelope of each dimension. IF we do this – then digital smells might be possible after all (IMO!).
June 3rd 2020
There are a TON of questions whose real answer is: “Bleu De Chanel”. Think about it.
That’s how VAST the multiverse is.
“Bleu De Chanel” spans eons and eons of subjective time – the grapefruit/incense/amber vibe ringing on and on throughout eternity. That’s how large it ALL is.
You can get a powerfully believable Smirnoff Lime impression with as little as a few drops of citral and aldehyde C-12 in an ethanol + water mixture. Amazing what passes as a “fine drink” these days.
“At least add some linalool to make it worth it” – would be my recommendation.
Note to self: by virtue of their sharp smell, aldehydes are powerful high-frequency psychoactives.
June 6th 2020
Note to self: Smelling a bunch of aldehydes over and over for several days in a row causes bad headaches. Use them only occasionally from now on.
June 13th 2020
I asked a DMT being about the nature of scent qualia. Its response: “One hint: are you sure it’s only one kind of qualia?”
An insight came like a lightning bolt. Yes! Two types:
Aromachemicals that are “character impact”
Totally different state-spaces!
Luca Turin, the quantum neurobiologist who has done research on the vibration theory of olfaction (showing “we can smell functional groups”) told me that if perfumes are tomato soups, the money is in “making the best cream” rather than in the “tomatoes”. Character impact!
Examples of character impact molecules:
Examples of flavor-like vibe molecules:
June 20th 2020
Magenta: The Non-Spectral Color
An important point of confusion about qualia to which I offer a clarification:
The qualia you experience as a result of light coming into your eyes can be logically and empirically dissociated from physical light. Color qualia, just as much as visual texture qualia, can be triggered by auditory stimuli in people with synesthesia, or people tripping. More so, you don’t even need light to ‘see’ in your dreams. Visual qualia is ultimately not intrinsically tied to physical light. Phenomenal light, as it were, is a particular spatial qualia that we use to ‘illuminate’ our inner world simulations. Yet this illumination is not based on photons.
Hence the mystery of magenta: phenomenal colors don’t always map on to frequencies of light. Even leaving aside the issue of metamerism, magenta itself is a ‘non-spectral color’ because you need to combine at minimum two frequencies of light to trigger that color qualia in your visual field (namely, a combination of the upper and lower frequencies you can detect).
Why do we experience color qualia from light, then? This is not out of logical necessity, but rather, because it happens to have the appropriate information processing properties for the mapping to be evolutionarily advantageous. The state-space of color and visual texture happen to have useful isomorphisms to the structure of visual data. But there is nothing to suggest they are the best at representing ‘projective data-structures’.
In fact, I strongly suspect that once we master free-wheeling hallucinations and qualia control techniques, we will discover new applications of exotic qualia varieties for information processing purposes. Such as, for instance, using complex synesthetic representations of natural numbers that make it easy to ‘feel’ whether a 10-digit number is prime or not.
Anyhow, this all informs the kind of answer I might give to the question “what is it like to be a bat?”. In particular, it compels me to say that for all we know echolocation information is represented with scent qualia. We simply don’t know enough about the information-theoretic properties of state-spaces of qualia varieties to make an educated guess for what kind of qualia is best at representing echolocation information.
And more so, even if you were to train a human to use echolocation from birth, there is no guarantee that the qualia varieties and the associated state-spaces their brain would recruit for that task would have anything to do with bat echolocation qualia. So the problem has more moving parts than is usually assumed.
June 28th 2020
“Son, there is something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time, but only now I’m brave enough to do so: I just don’t think aromatic Fougères are a good fit for you. Based on my experience, I think Chypres would fit you better. Or even some woody citruses. Not Fougères.”
July 16th 2020
I love smelling dirty every once in a while.
July 19th 2020
If you have a prejudice against the smell of single molecules because they are “too simple” and you need some “entourage effect” balanced blend “only nature can provide”… try smelling Agrumen Aldehyde Light. A single molecule that smells like a full perfume!
Soapy lime herbal!
July 22nd 2020
Freesia is 90% linalool and 3% beta-ionol. I suppose that’s why my 50%/50% mixtures weren’t quite Freesia-like.
July 24th 2020
Vimalakīrti then asked the bodhisattvas from the Host of Fragrances [world], “How does Accumulation of Fragrances Tathāgata explain the Dharma?”
Those bodhisattvas said, “In our land the Tathāgata* explains [the Dharma] without words. He simply uses the host of fragrances to make the gods and humans enter into the practice of the Vinaya. The bodhisattvas each sit beneath fragrant trees, smelling such wondrous fragrances, from which they attain the ‘samādhi of the repository of all virtues.’ Those who attain this samādhi all become replete in the merits of the bodhisattva.”
– Chapter X – The Buddha Accumulation Of Fragrances
[*Tathāgata is an honorable name for the Buddha of a realm.]
July 30th 2020
Emergent scents – when you combine two or more aromachemical cocktails and you get as a result a scent that is different than the sum of its parts.
I have in the past found a number of essential oil combinations that do this (pear + violet, pomegranate + honeydew, lemon + lavender). But I figured that it’s much better to try to identify clear cases of this phenomenon by combining pure molecules.
So this little “research program” I have going on is to find pairs of aromachemicals and then mix them in many different ratios and smell the results (usually dissolved in ethanol at a concentration of ~20%). So far, it seems that about ~25% of pairs of molecules I’ve tried result in emergent scents. Here are some specific examples (please feel free to try at home and verify!!):
1) Humulene + d-limonene: Humulene smells herbal and earthy, d-limonene smells like orange or mandarin. When the ratio is ~4:1 I get an emergent scent that I can only describe as “classic chewing gum flavor”, completely distinct and phenomenally richer than the ingredients alone.
2) Linalool + beta-ionone: linalool smells like a very gasoline-like volatile version of a flower scent, beta-ionone is the classic “violet scent” molecule. When combined in 9:1 ratio I get an emergent scent that is like that of a citrus version of freesia or peony.
3) Humulene + vanillin: vanillin is the smell of vanilla, which is watery at the onset (attack and decay) and creamy on the second half (sustain and release). When combined in 1:1 ratio you get a completely new scent that feels close to a dried out old tobacco Cuban cigar blended with coffee liqueur.
That last one is also relatively close to the classic combination of vanilla + vetiver. Luca Turin told me that the perfume called Habanita is precisely playing with a vanilla/vetiver combo, which at first sniff comes across as a completely new and unrecognizable (yet very pleasant) scent. He said that a wonderful metaphor for this phenomenon is like the song Loro by Gismonti, where in the second half the piano and the flute play in such a synchronized fashion that you get the impression that there’s a new instrument involved. I’ve been smelling vanilla/vetiver while listening to this song. It’s quite beautiful.
Humulene combined with d-limonene create an emergent “missing fundamental” type olfactory illusion of classical chewing gum flavor. It only works when Humulene is between 70% and 90% of the mixture (before adding ethyl alcohol). Cleanest example of “emergent scent” I’ve found.
Humulene is a simple scent of the category “earthy”, roughly similar to a vetiver essential oil but “one octave higher”. It also has a very mild musky undertone.
D-limonene is an orange/lemon-like scent. Extremely common in perfumery. Chances are something you ate today has it.
July 31st 2020
The simplest example I can think of to illustrate what an “emergent scent” is comes from the auditory illusion called “the missing fundamental”.
If you play 200 hertz together with 300 hertz and 400 hertz you will hallucinate an emergent 100 hertz tone.
The 100 Hz tone is not there! But it is quite real in your experience.
Of course if you are very acquainted with this auditory effect, you might notice the fundamental (100hz) is a bit fainter than expected, and infer it’s an illusion. But it is nonetheless very much present in your experience.
Likewise, when you smell Humulene + Vanillin at a 1:1 ratio you will get a third smell that emerges as a sort of gestalt that “bridges together” the two underlying notes.
You can probably infer the input scent is made up of two notes if you are really experienced with this kind of phenomenon. But the third note, the gestalt, does not disappear when you have “reduced” it to the two underlying notes. It’s still there. Thus, really, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I like my coffee how I like my perfumes: with the fewest chemicals needed to cause the desired effect.
As an aside, learning about emergent effects in low-entropy perfume recipes makes me think that there could probably be a job for “scent simplification”. Namely, take something like cacao, with hundreds of molecules contributing to its characteristic scent. The question is: what is the minimum viable number of aromachemicals you can use to replicate it (within a Just Noticeable Difference unit)?
I suspect most natural scents that come from a complex entourage effect have relatively minimalistic reconstructions. A question that also emerges is: what is the most complex scent? I.e. what is the smell whose minimum reconstruction has the maximum number of molecular diversity?
[It’s important to distinguish between molecular entropy and phenomenal entropy. A solution of Agrumen Aldehyde Light and ethanol has low molecular entropy but pretty high phenomenal entropy, whereas a “lime accord” made of tens of molecules could be high in molecular entropy yet low in phenomenal entropy because it smells very cleanly like a ‘single note’]
A master perfumer like Ellena has memorized hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes for manufacturing smells. Many complex natural scents can be conjured with only a few ingredients. The scent of freesia, he explained, is created by combining two simple molecules: beta-ionone and linalool, both synthetics. (To give freesia a cold, metallic edge, a touch of allyl amyl glycolate is added.) The smell of orange blossom is made by combining linalool and methyl anthranilate, which smells like Concord grapes.
In my presence, Ellena once dipped a touche into a molecule called isobutyl phenal acetate, which has a purely chemical smell, and another touche into vanillin, a synthetic version of vanilla. He placed the two paper strips together, waved them, and chocolate appeared in the air. “My métier is to find shortcuts to express as strongly as possible a smell,” he explained. “For chocolate, nature uses eight hundred molecules. I use two.” He handed me four touches—vanillin plus the natural essences of cinnamon, orange, and lime. The combined smell was a precise simulation of Coca-Cola. “With me, one plus one equals three,” Ellena said. “When I add two things, you get much more than two things.”
Imagine you have been a musician for your village all your life. You play drums and acoustic guitar and you have never heard modern music. One day you are gifted an iPod and you listen for the first time to the crazy sounds of psychedelic trance. For the first time in your life you experience the wonders of reverb, flanging, distortions, and FM-synthesis. Surely this gives you a sense that your conception of music only tapped into a tiny fraction of what had always been possible.
An analogy could be made with smells: having tried essential oils one gets the impression of understanding what is possible in the realm of scents. But one day you discover Galaxolide, hedione, and eso E super. Like reverb and FM-synthesis in sound, these compounds are capable of giving surreal, unexpected, and space-warping properties to scents (much like reverb in sound, they are character impact molecules, meaning that they modify the presentation of other scents more than contributing a ‘flavor’ of their own).
Galaxolide in particular is something you have probably smelled, either in perfumes or detergents, but it really only becomes clear just how insane of a substance it is when you smell it raw. I associate it with “DMT Realm Aesthetics” – like a smell coming from another planet where hyperdimensional experiences are common everyday events, and the world of the arts uses exotic phenomenal time routinely. It has a vibe I can only describe as “having already always been here yet just arrived”. It’s probably what traveling in time feels like when you are in a transcendent Bardo between lifetimes.
Pellwall describes galaxolide thus: “Galaxolide is an isochroman musk, that has an odour profile that is liked by most people and is similar to a macrocyclic musk. It is strong, clean smelling and a good fixative. It combines well with other musks and is often used in combinations.”
In wikipedia, they describe the scent as: “a synthetic musk with a clean sweet musky floral woody odor”.
I think the musk-like quality accounts for maybe 60% of its effect. But I swear there is something much more special about it than just a clean musk. It has a kind of time-dilation effect, and it seems to my nose as a “musk but high-dimensional”. Perhaps it’s musk + the harmonics of musk. So while other musks are just a single note, galaxolide is like the feeling of a musky accordion.
I’ll write about my setup for doing this kind of research, but suffice to say that it’s super cheap if you know what you are doing. Each experiment (i.e. a little bottle with a few ml of a new combination in precise proportions) costs me about ~30 cents to make, all things considered (the cost of the materials, the ethanol, the pipettes, the bottle).
I highly recommend just getting a 2ml sample vial. It can cost as little as $2.16 (plus shipment) here: Galaxolide.
Other stellar molecules to try out to expand your conception of what’s possible:
Linalool, dihydro linalool, alpha-damascone, damascenone, helional, C-16 aldehyde (strawberry), agrumen aldehyde light, farnesene, nerolione, and alpha-ionone. All of that can cost you as little as $30. Not a bad price for expanding your “sense of what’s possible”.
I so wish I had a “DMT-smell accord” to use as a note in perfume compositions.
There is this one here meant to evoke the hallucinogenic state, but reportedly it has nothing to do with the actual scent of DMT, which I find very disappointing. I will try to find the way to emulate the scent of it – I suspect that linalyl acetate and coranol could be part of the compounds making up that accord. I’ll let you know if I manage to make anything vaguely resemblant of that scent.
August 14th 2020
Lemon Lavender World
One of the first essential oil combinations I fixated upon was that of lemon plus lavender. You could say it is the “speedball” equivalent of essential oil combos, for it relaxes and excites at the same time. I figured that trying to “understand” the “lemon-lavender world” would be a good exercise in the quest of mapping out the state-space of scents.
Lemon Lavender experiments
I currently have six different lemon essential oils from different brands and places, and seven lavender essential oils. To my surprise, the variability is very substantial. The lemon essential oils range from extremely sour and astringent to sweet and waxy. The lavenders I have also have many different qualities: some are very oily and flavorful, while others are particularly camphorous. Which of the qualities are “essential” for lemon and lavender is surely a matter of convention, though I also think they point to roughly objective attractors – the citrus sharpness of lemon rings high and has a cascading sourness that can be used for waking up the senses, whereas lavender has a narcotic entrancing reverb effect. My quest to understand, and ultimately create, lemon lavender smells was not defined in terms of merely reconstructing the standard natural smells, but as an attempt at understanding how these two qualities interact at the phenomenal level.
The diversity of lemon and lavender oils means that the space of possible combinations is even larger. Of the 42 possible combinations of one lavender oil and one lemon oil I have some are far more blissful and rich than others. I picked a few of my favorite ones to use as “model lemon-lavenders” to try to emulate.
Starting in the spirit that in order to deeply understand a scent I have to be able to construct it from scratch- so that I understand how each piece contributes to the whole- I set myself the goal of creating both lemon and lavender accords and then exploring their combinations. All starting from raw aromachemical ingredients, of course:
Making a Lemon Accord
I have always wanted to know what makes citrus fruits smell the way they do. Empirically, both isomers of limonene are a key piece of the puzzle. For instance, both lemon and mandarin oil have upwards of 80% limonene. Alas, if you smell limonene alone, you will notice it is somewhat one-dimensional in character. It IS pointing in the direction of “citrus” quite clearly, but on its own is indisputably too simple to evoke a real lemon scent.
I had a false start: aldehydes. Aldehyde C-8 through C-15 are all “extremely high-pitch scents”. They give a sharp edge to perfumes like Chanel No. 5 and the like. But they are very hard to use – partly because they are extremely potent. So for a couple of days I worked with combinations of citral and aldehydes that had, though a somewhat citric quality, mostly headache-inducing effects. I ended this series of experiments when I got a headache that lasted 24 hours (this goes to show how far I am willing to go to understand that sweet, sweet lemon qualia).
Taking a step back, I decided to explore a different angle. Valencene (note the great name) is very similar to limonene, except slightly lower in pitch. When mixed in equal proportions with limonene one gets a richer, more believable citrus scent – both molecules seem to say the same thing but in a slightly different voice, which results in a kind of chorus effect (unlike merely doubling the volume of a single voice). Alas, at this point the scent is still a bit flat, and not particularly lemon-like relative to near-enemy citrus fruits like the good old orange, mandarin, or grapefruit.
I recall being very puzzled by the scent of lime, as it seems like a kind of “super lemon” when it comes to its high-pitched sour and astringent character. And no matter how much I tried mixing citrus-like aromachemicals, I found it hard to get any hint of lime in the results. That is until I discovered that lime oil has a great deal of alpha- and beta-pinene. These are molecules that are primarily found in trees (in pines!) and smell very woody. As it turns out, to turn a citrus smell into an outright lime scent you need to add woody molecules. In retrospect, this was always hidden in the name: Lemon + Pine = Lime. After having this insight, I realized that even lemon requires a bit of alpha- and beta-pinene to distinguish it from orange scent.
After a lot of trial and error, the most convincing minimalistic lemon scent I identified is (numbers represent parts):
3 D-Limonene 3 Valencene 1 Citral 2 Linalool 1 Alpha-Pinene 1 Beta-Pinene 1 Nerolione (optional; for a rindy effect)
Making a Lavender Accord
This turned out to be more difficult than making a lemon accord. I think this is not only me: I also own two “fragrance oils” (those products that are advertised in the same context as essential oils, yet in the fine print reveal they are not at all natural, and instead are synthetic reconstructions) of lavender, and neither of the two smell anything like lavender. So I wouldn’t be the first to fail.
Linalool is a key ingredient of lavender, making up about 30% to 50% of most lavender essential oils. This is a very powerful aromachemical that seems to work as a gasoline-like fuel amplifier and modifier for any other scent (“there is no boring ten-carbon alcohol” – Luca Turin). It is also one of the things that makes lavender so narcotic and entrancing. On its own it is already quite interesting. But it is only one of the voices in lavender.
Then you have linalyl acetate, which makes up between 0% and 30% of lavender oil, depending on the species, place of origin, and time of harvest. Linalyl acetate has a “dry” quality, which I associate with “salt” (in fact if you just add this to the lemon accord above you get a smell I would describe as “salted margarita cocktail”). Alpha and beta pinene also play a role in lavender.
Interestingly, a lot of lavender oils also have up to 10% of camphor, which contributes to its narcotic get-well-soon cozy quality. Alas, it is hard to work with this material, and it always smells too synthetic to me. I found that instead I could double-down on beta-pinene, which is more camphorous than alpha-pinene (which is more earthy), and does the job quite nicely.
Finally, centifoleather, farnesene, and various alcohols like coranol can give “flavor” to the accord. In the end, I’ve settled on a minimalistic (but I think effective) arrangement. It does not quite hit the flavor of lavender, but I think does a good job at evoking its “character impact”:
Ultimately, adding these two accords (and their variations) together does not always produce the best results, as some aromachemicals are repeated and the proportions that give rise to the desired interactions can be scrambled by the combination. This, by the way, is a general reason why synthetic combinations span a much larger space of possible scents. In brief, because to make reconstructions with natural oils you are constrained by non-negative least squares methods, and many combinations may simply be inaccessible that way.
Lemon Accord Experiments
Anyhow – with the combination, I found that adding some character impact molecules like abroxan and helional was important to create a “bridge” between the two phenomenal characters. Alpha-ionol also seems to do something good here that is hard to put your finger on. But I think it’s that it adds the right kind of waxy rindy effect (which it has some of) in a way that does not make the mixture feel “dry” (which more classically citrus waxy smells like nerolione inevitably do). So the end result has some of these three molecules.
I am happy to say that the best lemon lavender reconstruction so far is about as good as the median natural lemon lavender mixture. It is not as good as the best lemon lavender oil mixture, though, but it is a start. I still expect to perfect it quite a bit before unleashing it into the world.
Ladies and gentleman, I present to you Lemon Lavender World:
Imagine that you were tasked with creating a molecule to represent the spirit of California. I think that I would just glue together two MDMA molecules and call it a day.
It turns out Californidine is indeed a real molecule, named after the California Poppy. I am still wrapping my head around the fact that Californidine can be described as two MDMA molecules sharing the nitrogen atom and with the end of the carbon chain of each MDMA molecule bonded at the 2-position of the benzene ring of the other one (minus a hydrogen atom). Interestingly, this compound has no psychedelic or empathogenic action. At best, it can be described as a very mild and unreliable relaxing agent of “herbal strength” akin to the active ingredients of chamomile, valerian, or ashwagandha. So, joining two powerful heart-openers gives rise to a mild sleep-inducer? Perhaps this is a metaphor for something.
Californidine and MDMA
But that’s not what I want to talk to you about today. While gluing together psychoactive molecules may not have a (cartoonishly) desirable additive effect, doing so does express the spirit of what I want to propose today. And that is the impulse to use a creative and fun approach to drug design, letting your imagination run wild to avoid prematurely discarding one’s crazy ideas.
Notable Leads for Great Drug Combos
Over the last 10 years I’ve read many (many!) trip reports and have talked to hundreds of experienced psychonauts (see also: r/replications). It is largely thanks to a subset of these psychonauts, which for lack of a better term could be described as the subset of rational psychonauts, that I’ve been able to assemble empirically testable models for psychedelic phenomenology (some examples: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, Quantifying Bliss, How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD, etc.). Although my focus has largely been on the effects of individual drugs, I’ve become very cognizant of the fact that drug combinations can produce effects not accessible with individual substances. In other words, when it comes to mixing psychoactive substances, the sum is more often than not different from the sum of its parts. Some of these effects seem extremely significant both from a scientific and a philosophical point of view.
But first, an important disclaimer: mixing drugs is dangerous and you should never do it unless you really know what you are doing. The pile of celebrity deaths caused by multiple drug intoxication is only scratching the surface. Indeed, there are many combinations of drugs that are deadly even when the individual drugs taken on their own are relatively safe. For example, while 5-MeO-DMT is relatively safe when vaporized (save for egregiously negligent uses of the drug and the occasional drowning in one’s own vomit), taking 5-MeO-DMT orally in combination with an MAOI leads to extremely toxic reactions, such as severe hypertensive symptoms, overheating, and serotonin syndrome. Don’t do it. As a very rough guide for how mixtures of psychoactives behave, study the chart below.
Welcome to the practice of combining drugs. You may die. (source)
That said, just as drug combinations have a dangerous side, they also likely harbor hidden gems that are very safe, enjoyable, and mind-expanding in ways inaccessible via single drugs. As a general overview, some examples of the possible benefits of drug combinations include: (1) Enhanced euphoria, e.g. see speedball which is massively euphoric but also very dangerous, (2) reduced psychological discomfort (e.g. anxiolytics with psychedelics), (3) uniquely interesting effects, e.g. LSD + MDMA (see below), and (4) reduced physical side-effects and medical risks, e.g. calcium blockers to reduce MDMA neurotoxicity, 5HT2B antagonists to reduce cardiotoxicity of psychedelics, etc. as we’ll discuss. In addition, it is worth mentioning that from a therapeutic point of view, we also have the “more dakka effect“, where some conditions only respond to combining enough drugs (e.g. oncology). It’s possible chronic pain or severe depression may legitimately require multiple drugs to be adequately dealt with. Now let us examine in more detail some particularly interesting categories of drug combinations:
Psychedelics + Anxiolytics: According to many reports, phenibut in small doses seems to significantly reduce the anxiety that comes up on psychedelics. I am ambivalent about sharing this information given the fact that phenibut can become a huge problem for some people, but I think that on the whole it is wise for people to know that an over-the-counter “nootropic” can actually help avoid fear, discomfort, and panic attacks during a psychedelic experience.
Cannabis + Psychedelics: I generally find two kinds of psychedelic drug users. Those who cannot think of having a psychedelic trip without at some point smoking a joint, vaping, or eating a cannabis edible. And then those who would never dare to combine the two because they once had a terrifying experience with the combo. Interestingly, some of the people I’ve met over the years who seem to be able to easily handle massive doses of psychedelics (e.g. 500 micrograms of acid) respond terribly to weed, and especially badly if they are already tripping. Cannabis both modifies and potentiates psychedelic states of mind. It has a tendency to make the experience more conceptual rather than sensory or mystical. The combination also greatly increases the probability of getting stuck in time loops.
Empathogens + Psychedelics: One of the best descriptions of MDMA + LSD (also called candy-flipping) that I’ve found comes from Steven Lehar (emphasis added):
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. I would sometimes feel some part of my world suddenly bulging out to greater magnification, like a fish-eye lens distortion appearing randomly in space, stretching everything in that portion of space like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.
Not everyone responds well to this combination, and given the nature of these substances, it seems likely that the dosages and the relative timing have a large influence on how the experience develops. I’ve heard three relatively “established” ways in which people use this combination. First, you have the school that says that you should take the MDMA at or slightly after the peak of the effects of LSD, that is 4-4:30h after taking it. The reasoning here is that you don’t want to be caught coming down from the MDMA while still having a long time to go on LSD since the acid could enhance the feelings of the comedown. The delayed gratification also pays-off by giving you several hours to face the problems you want to solve unaided and see how far you can get before the mood boost of MDMA gives you the determination to be contented with it.
The second school of thought about candy-flipping says that the biggest factor in how psychedelic experiences turn out is how they start. So what you want to do is take the MDMA 1 to 1:30 hours before the acid. This way, you only embark upon the inner journey when you are already in a really, really good chill state of mind. Some people report that the acid picks up the empathogenic quality of the state, amplifies it, and carries it on for much longer than if you had only taken MDMA alone.
There are many proponents and detractors to both of these schools. What I’ve seen more or less everyone agree on is to avoid taking substantial doses of LSD and MDMA (e.g. 200micrograms LSD + 120mg MDMA) at the same time. Apparently this is simply just too overwhelming and synergistic to be enjoyable, often causing a lot of nausea and palpitations.
The third school, however, is to take only a small dose of both at the same time. Say, 35micrograms LSD and 35mg MDMA. This apparently is an extremely positive combination. The experience is not mild due to the synergy, and it seems to provide an open, creative, level-headed mindset for many hours without much of a comedown or hangover. As with everything here, your mileage may vary.
Psychedelics + Dissociatives: Psychedelics and dissociatives have profound non-linear mixing effects. According to multiple sources, the right combination of LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination“. This is a state of consciousness in which you gain a great degree of conscious control over the contents of the hallucinated world, so that you can project your will by saying “let there be a chair in front of me” and you will see it manifest in exquisite detail. You can rotate, translate, invert, fibrate, and project the chair in any way you want, as if you were now able to use your brain as a very general game engine of consciousness. That said, even when this doesn’t happen, the combination of psychedelics and dissociatives is ridiculously synergistic. People report getting stuck in extremely energetic time-loops akin to those caused by psychedelics and cannabis, but more powerful (cf. trip report of DMT + nitrous oxide). Steven Lehar calls the effect where the presence of a psychedelic changes the quality of a dissociative as “dissociative coloring”. I’ve been amazed at the fact that there is no mistaking when someone has previously experienced LSD and nitrous together. You don’t get reactions like “it didn’t do much for me”. This combo usually has a special place in the memory of a person who has experienced it. Eyes brighten, curiosity sparks. I’ve been asked on multiple occasions “what do you think is going on with the strange synergy between LSD and nitrous?” Now, 5-MeO-DMT and DMT are very different, and the LSD + nitrous state seems to have some resemblance with the 5-MeO-DMT state. They share that strange feeling of becoming a kind of saturated resonance box. The feeling is one of becoming a vessel full of coordinated and coherent vibrations that unearth and dissolve internal boundaries and blockages. The process inherently blocks your ability to conceptualize in a dualistic way. The cognitive content of the state is better captured by a huge blinking sign that reads “THIS, THIS, THIS” on repeat rather than the more usual “that thing over there connected to this over here, modulated by what happens there” kind of cognitive state we are more familiar with. DMT on its own is very different than this, in that the mental formations and patterns of binding that emerge are extremely specific, detailed, and irreducibly complex. Not so on the upper ranges of the dissociative and psychedelic cocktail, where the resonance is profound and the asymmetries needed to store complex information are constantly smoothed out by the ongoing full-body bath of reverb. (cf. Neural Annealing).
Dissociatives + Empathogens: According to several trip reports and credible personal communications, taking ketamine while on MDMA can bring back “the magic” that one only ever experienced with MDMA the first few times using it. Also MDMA and nitrous have profound research-worthy synergy.
Potentiation: Shulgin reported that substances that don’t feel psychedelically active on their own may nonetheless potentiate the effects of other psychedelics. For instance:
(with 160 mg of MDPR followed at 2h by 100μg LSD) This proved to be almost too intoxicating, and a problem arose that had to have a solution. The entire research group was here, and all were following this same regimen. Two hours into the second half of the experiment a telephone call came that reminded me of a promise I had made to perform in a social afternoon with the viola in a string quartet. Why did I answer the phone? My entire experience was, over the course of about 20 minutes, pushed down to a fragile threshold, and I drove about 10 minutes to attend a swank afternoon event and played an early Beethoven and a middle Mozart with an untouched glass of expensive Merlot in front of me. I could always blame the booze. I declined the magnificent food spread, split, and returned to my own party. Safely home, and given 20 more minutes, I was back into a rolling +++ and I now know that the mind has a remarkable ability to control the particular place the psyche is in.
More common than the above, ayahuasca is intrinsically a drug combo primarily of the potentiation kind. As mentioned before, cannabis not only alters but also potentiates the effects of psychedelics. It is worth mentioning there is a community of people who believe that noopept (a cholinergic nootropic, see below) can potentiate MDMA. While there is some evidence that MDMA is itself mildly cholinergic– and thus provides a sense of mental clarity in addition to the loved-up feeling- too much cholinergic action tends to make people feel rigid, robotic, and hyper-cerebral. I am therefore personally skeptical of the benefits of combining something like noopept with MDMA, as the potentiation of some of its qualities may come at the cost of reduced emotional sensitivity. Why trade a feeling of renewed innocence and receptivity with calculating prowess? I doubt this is the best use of a roll.
Anti-tolerance Drugs: This is a category of combinations with tremendous potential to relieve suffering, to the extent that I think of it as a humanitarian tragedy that there are no concerted research efforts currently in this direction. Sufferers of chronic pain and treatment-resistance depression could make use of drugs that help them keep the tolerance to the drugs they depend upon for having a livable life under control. I know this has a lot of the ring of turtles all the way down (“when are you going to get the anti-tolerance drugs for anti-tolerance drugs? And then the anti-tolerance for anti-tolerance for…”) but I am sincere when I say that looking here may pay off in spades. Already we see ibogaine doing other-worldly magnificent things to cure addiction and reverse tolerance. Who knows what a large targeted research program with this focus may discover. Some examples of anti-tolerance drugs include proglumide, ibogaine, and black seed oil for opioids, and flumazenil for benzodiazepines.
Prevent Physical Side Effects: Epidemiological data suggests that chronic or heavy use of 5HT2B agonists may lead to heart valve disease (cf. Fen-Phen), which does not bode well for the long-term (as opposed to acute) safety of many psychedelic compounds. Now, neuroscientist Thomas Ray believes that 5HT2B may be necessary for some of the characteristic psychedelic action of entheogens, so blocking it altogether may come at the cost of eliminating the reason why the drug is interesting. That said, we do know that 5-MeO-DMT is profoundly psychedelic and yet has negligible 5HT2B activity. It would be very useful to know what happens when one combines psychedelics with heavy 5HT2B affinity, like 2C-B and DOB, with 5HT2B antagonists (usually prescription medicines). Would blocking 5HT2B agonism avoid cardiotoxicity? And what would the drug feel like then? Another interesting lead is the affinity of compounds like 2C-E and 2C-T-2 to the 5HT3 receptor, which is predominantly in the gut and modulates feelings like nausea. Additionally, since 5HT3 antagonists are antiemetic it really stands to reason that taking one before e.g. tripping on shrooms may give you a much less, ahem, visceral experience. Finally, I would like to explore the implications of the fact that of all of the compounds in Ray’s study the only one with significant affinity for calcium channels is MDMA. Would this be related to its neurotoxicity? And would taking a calcium channel blocker prevent it? It might still be wise regardless simply as a way to lessen the cardiac load of the compound.
Nootropic Stacks (cf. the Qualia Pill): Many people who explore nootropics make “stacks”. That is, rather than taking only piracetam, they might take a combination of piracetam, aniracetam, pramiracetam, coluracetam, and l-tyrosine. I suspect that this is popular because most nootropics are pretty mild and often hard to notice, and people want to be able to feel the effects. I generally do not think this is sensible, though, as we don’t understand these substances well enough. More so, branded “nootropic stacks” can have upwards of 30 different psychoactive substances crammed together in half a dozen pills you are supposed to take daily. While I do think there are likely gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of cognition-boosting chemicals, I simply do not see any way in which the current major brands of nootropic stacks could have done the type of research needed to find them. I therefore do not personally recommend you go out and try such combos, at least not until we know a lot more about how to do combinations properly. If you want to try nootropic stacks, I’d recommend you start with small doses of two or three well-researched nootropics at most and do your own research thoroughly before settling on a particular combination.
LSD + DMT Visual Replication
Psychedelics and Psychedelics: A classic psychedelic combo that I’ve heard a lot about is LSD + DMT. The state that emerges from this combination is apparently unique, though if you take enough DMT the LSD fades into the background. Apparently psychedelics tend to have a characteristic spectral effect on your brain’s harmonics (see: Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves on LSD), which manifests in the form of experiencing “vibes of different frequencies” specific to the drug you are taking. The case of LSD and DMT is very interesting, since their characteristic frequencies are sufficiently far apart (to put a number on it, LSD may be in the vicinity of 18Hz while DMT may be close to 30Hz) that they can be separated easily. You thus get a spectral effect of two peaks interfering with one another, oftentimes creating a powerful 3D grid of Moiré patterns, like a super-charged version of the “regular” DMT Chrysanthemum. As a method for spectral analysis, studying the beat patterns of psychedelic drug combos could go a long way in formulating a systematic characterization of their phenomenology. Speculatively, this may even allow us to come up with specific psychedelic drug cocktails that produce maximally consonant harmonious effects.
A final thought to add to this section concerns the fact that people respond differently to drugs. One can reason that if drug A affects 20% of people in a different way while drug B affects 10% of people in a different way, that A + B would lead to 4 different kinds of responses. More so, the more drugs you pile on top of each other, the more specific and individualized the response would be. I think that this is likely true in the general case, but I would argue that it is not universally true. A useful analogy here is with the way people respond to the scent of different molecules: you may lack the gene that encodes the receptor for a particular molecule, but perfumes usually have 30 or more scent-contributing molecules, so the experience of a perfume may be more similar between people than their experience of individual molecules. At the extreme, we have the phenomenon of “white noise scent” where once you mix 40+ molecules in equal (intensity-adjusted) proportions that span scent-space, it all starts smelling the same. The notion of “scent entropy” can be imported to drugs as well: I would expect a kind of inverted U-curve for “how idiosyncratic” the responses to drug combinations are as a function of the total entropy of the combo.
Drug Cocktails From First Principles
The way we aim to understand psychoactive substances at the Qualia Research Institute is in terms of the way they modify the neuroacoustic profile of the brain. And while this is what I see as the most promising approach moving forward, I believe that there is nonetheless a lot of low-hanging fruit at the receptor level of analysis.
The first time I’d thought of trying to emulate the effects of a drug using a cocktail of other drugs came up years ago when I found out that MDMA is likely neurotoxic. At the time I thought perhaps it was just a matter of getting the right dopaminergic, serotonergic, and oxytocinergic activity going for you to replicate the MDMA high. It’s a good thought, and some people have taken it to heart, such as the creators of “Poly”, an MDMA-like cocktail (cf. Kisspeptine). But as we’ll see, MDMA is more complex than that, and we may need to consider far more variables to make a “credible MDMA substitute”.
Looking beyond drug combos of only two or three drugs, and with a nod to concepts from the field of high-entropy alloys (HEAs), we could start thinking about the secret gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of “high-entropy drug combos”. But what kind of principles could we use to safely combine 5+ drugs? The full story will probably be much, much more complicated than the following approach, but it is still nonetheless worth exploring as a first pass. Namely, to break down each drug in terms of their receptor affinity profile and then use those affinities additively to create arbitrary “synthetic” receptor affinity profiles. There are many reasons why this might not work: receptor affinity may not work linearly or have a clear rule-based behavior. For instance, it is still unclear if a single drug that has affinity for key serotonin receptors (say 5HT2A, 5HT2B, and 5HT7) in addition to working as an NMDR antagonist would produce the same feeling of “synergistic action” as there is between psychedelics and dissociatives. More so, there could be additional intra-cellular signaling specific to each molecule, so that two molecules that work as agonists with the exact same 5HT2B affinity may have different downstream effects inside the neuron, and then those intracellular effects might have phenomenological properties of their own. But leaving all of those caveats and unknowns aside for a moment, what would it look like to create drug cocktails with this method?
True for both people and drugs!
After giving it some thought I realized that the problem can be reduced to a non-negative least squares (NNLS) optimization (non-negative because, as they say: “you can always take more drugs, but you cannot take less drugs”). It turns out there are already open source implementations of algorithms that solve this optimization problem (for both R and Python)*. So I downloaded the data from the famous Thomas Ray study of psychedelic receptor affinity and played with the data and the non-negative least squares method in a Jupyter notebook for a bit. The first thing I tried was to create a compound like 2C-B but better. Under dubious- but not entirely random- assumptions, I set the desired receptor affinity to be that of 2C-B but with the following modifications: to have the 5HT2B affinity be as low as possible in order to minimize cardiotoxicity concerns, and borrow from MDMA’s unique profile the hypothesis that the Imidazoline receptor is related to heart-opening effects. Additionally, I modified the receptor profile so that the drug would give you more focus than 2C-B by having a higher affinity for the dopamine receptors. To top it off, I racked up the desired receptor affinity for 5HT7, as it has been implicated in providing the more utterly mind-blowing power of psychedelics. I entered these modifications into the NNLS optimizer and the output I got was**:
I see, so since 2C-B is still the backbone of the desired affinity pattern, it appears in high proportion in the mixture as a kind of “base” on top of which the modifications are made. It makes sense that 5-MeO-DMT would come next as it is pretty selective for 5HT7 (remember, the most literally mind-blowing chemical), and MDMA would follow due to the desire for Imidazoline affinity. That by the way, is also probably partly why the formula contains a pinch of Mescaline, to round up that Imidazoline for good measure. I then decided to relax the 5HT7 requirement and instead increase the 5HT6 and 5HT5A, and got the following formula:
And this now looks pretty different. After playing like this for a while, it occurred to me to use this technique to basically try to reconstruct a drug using a non-negative linear combination of the remaining drugs available. Imagine for example that you are stuck in quarantine at your house and you don’t have any 2C-B to kill time (I know! Very relatable isn’t it?), but you do somehow happen to have an assortment of hundreds of other unscheduled random research chemicals. Could you combine them in such a way that you approximate the effects of 2C-B? Well, let’s see.
Here are the “drug reconstructions” the method derives (again, please, don’t try this at home):
I am pleasantly surprised to see the formulas actually do seem pretty intuitive to me. Take for example the DIPT reconstruction. The top two ingredients are 5-MeO-DIPT and DPT, which are the two closest structural analogues of DIPT in the dataset. Or take the one for DOB: this is the amphetamine version of 2C-B, so it makes sense that both an amphetamine psychedelic (Aleph-2) and 2C-B would make up the top two ingredients. Or consider 5-MeO-DMT, with its most prominent ingredient being 5-MeO-TMT, which is one carbon atom away in terms of structure. Or see how Mescaline’s heart-opening effects are well represented by its reconstruction with MDMA and MDA, while TMA contributes the receptor affinity characteristic of the trimethoxy class of functional groups, along with another Mescaline-like phenethylamine, 4C-T-2. Alas, here is where an imperfect understanding of drug interactions could come and bite us in the ass: if 4C-T-2 is anything like 2C-T-2, it might have some MAOI action, which could be potentially very dangerous to combine with compounds like MDMA. Needless to say, before you go out and try these crazy drug cocktails, we first need a thorough understanding of each drug well beyond just its affinity to “only” 30 or so receptors.
Now, not every reconstruction makes sense to me, and really only a few substances have what I would call a descent mean squared error. See the receptor affinity tables below for examples of both successful and unsuccessful reconstructions (only non-zero entries shown):
2C-T-2: Error of 1.31
DOB: Error of 1.51
Aleph-2: Error of 1.85
2C-B: Error of 2.34
2C-B-fly: Error of 2.76
Ibogaine: Error of 7.05
MDMA: Error of 7.06
DOB and 2C-T-2 have some of the lowest errors in the sample, meaning that their reconstructions are pretty good, while Ibogaine and MDMA have two of the worst error rates, and their reconstructions are still obviously pretty far from the goal. Naturally, if we were ever to test this method in the lab (with e.g. a drug discrimination paradigm) we would probably start with the most accurate reconstructions first. For instance, train rats to distinguish between 2C-B and DOB, and see if administering the (2C-B-containing) “DOB reconstruction” makes the rats think they got DOB rather than 2C-B.
Master Druggist (Synapse? Dendrite?)
I would like to conclude this essay with an interesting speculation: what if we developed drug combos like we develop perfumes? It is my appreciation that it takes a very high level of intelligence, domain expertise, and psychological robustness to be able to contribute usefully to the field of psychonautics. Sasha Shulgin spent over 30 years taking hundreds of completely new drugs, and I would very much trust his judgement about what makes a great psychedelic drug combo than I would trust a random BlueLight or Erowid user. (As an aside: Shulgin was extremely cautious in his approach, but he certainly wasn’t doing some of the low-hanging fruit on safety, such as wearing a heart monitor or measuring his blood pressure when taking a new drug, for starters. Future systematic psychonautic work should also record as much biometric data as is feasible). You wouldn’t put on a perfume made by someone who has only ever worn Axe, would you? Training a “Nose” takes up to 7 years, and it involves becoming deeply familiar with the scent of a long list of molecules, accords, and perfumes. Likewise, I’d expect that in order to be qualified to find extremely good drug combinations, one would first need to become familiar with the effect of many different individual drugs, “natural drug accords” (e.g. peyote), and designed drug cocktails. Only once you have an intuitive sense of how e.g. the sigma receptor interacts with the 5HT1A receptor would I trust your judgement about adding a pinch of agmatine to your already convoluted mixture of 20 psychoactive substances. A Super-Shulgin Academy could train people to be professional drug cocktail makers (if perfumers are called “Noses” would we call Super-Shulgin certified cocktail makers “Dendrites”?). As discussed above, this assumes that we can do this safely, which I suspect will be possible once we map out the space of dangerous combinations and receptors we shouldn’t mess with to avoid side effects like cardiotoxicity (e.g. 5HT2B, 5HT3A, calcium channels, etc.).
You come to the master cocktail designer with a general concept for a new recreational drug, and they would come up with activity profiles that best evoke those feelings. The Dendrite would select from hundreds or thousands*** of pure chemicals and accords to create your unique cocktail. As is the case with Noses in the perfume industry, a Dendrite would tend to have a set of about one to two hundred “frequently used” compounds, and a dozen or so “signature” ones they’re deeply familiar with and that usually reveal who the Druggist is, if found in large proportions in the end product. Of course there would be “house favorites” (e.g. the classic “ambroxan bomb” of Dior fragrances for men) and chemical fads (e.g. the wide adoption of Iso E Super in 90s perfumes). Every year would come with a new season of amazing, safe, and uniquely interesting recreational drug cocktails.
Iso E Super
In perfumery you find both natural and synthetic “accords”: “Violet reconstructions” attempt to emulate the smell of violet but in a much more long-lasting, storable, and versatile way. Good Dendrites would not only use “natural accords” such as “peyote” or “marijuana plant” but would also make their own, aided with computer models and datasets of trip reports along with their own first person experiences. In both perfumery and professional drug cocktail making we would study accords packed with combos of qualia-triggering chemicals, and a Dendrite could be known not only for making good final products, but for making excellent accords with predictable and desirable effects.
To finalize the analogy (and this article) we could also discuss the way in which perfumes feel “broad spectrum” thanks to being constructed by combining “top, heart, and base notes”. Roughly speaking, top notes tend to “feel higher frequency” (such as citric scents) while base notes tend to “feel low frequency” (such as woody scents), not unlike how a symphony will tend to combine sounds across the spectrum. The most interesting, voluptuous, and commercially viable combos would also probably have a broad spectrum of activity. They would be anxiolytic, exciting, relaxing, trippy, and empathogenic to various degrees all at once. They would combine fast, slow, and spiritual euphoria in a single power punch of qualia cornucopia. As such, each drug cocktail made this way would entail an entire worldview – a whole realm currently hidden in the vast state-space of consciousness.
* For an intuition: recall from linear algebra that a basis of n linearly independent vectors span an n-dimensional vector space. When the vector that you are trying to reconstruct is not in the span of your basis, the best you can do is to project your vector to the nearest hyperplane of the spanning space. Adding the constraint that you can only make non-negative linear combinations with your basis vectors, you find that the span will look like an ‘inverted pyramid’, and the least-squares solution will be the point of that inverted pyramid that is closest to your desired vector. This is why most of the reconstructions only use a subset of the available drugs in the dataset. In most cases, the desired vector (i.e. affinity profile in this case) will be outside of the inverted pyramid of the non-negative span, and the closest hyperplane will be a linear combination of only a subset of the building blocks- those which span that particular hyperplane. I.e. the solution is the projection to the nearest hyperplane segment covering the non-negative span. This is what the NNLS method is doing under the hood.
** Note: It’s important to point out that these are not dosages. The coefficients provided by the non-negative least squares method apply to the normalized affinity “npKi“, which is the receptor affinity normalized by the highest affinity among the receptors. The coefficients will be correlated with “proportion of a standard active dose” but there will be an error caused by the pretty tricky confounder that molecules vary in their “breadth of affinity”. Additionally: the psychoactivity of each receptor is not the same, we are not considering saturation effects, the difference between partial and full agonists is not taken into account, downstream effects are ignored, etc. etc. Needless to say, there is still quite some work to be done to transform these coefficients into meaningful dosages.
*** List of Psychoactive Drugs a professional Dendrite would be expected to be familiar with:
It was the 21st of April of a recent year. I was listening to Jefferson Airplane songs, had just peeled a tangerine, and was about to vape 20 milligrams of DMT. After exhaling all the material I focused on the smell of the tangerine, holding it in my hands. I was engrossed in the scent. And then: “Who is that?” I felt an entity question my identity, as if I had just startled it in its natural habitat. I felt its presence for most of the duration of the trip, but it didn’t interact with me any further. Later that night I had a lucid dream. “I thought you were a dog” – said a voice. I recognized it from the trip, it was the entity. “The amount of scent qualia your experience contained was much more like that of a dog than a human.” After that night I would encounter it numerous other times. We got to know each other. It is a being from a nearby dimension, or perhaps a partially orthogonal fold of the Calabi-Yau manifold. Either way, in its world they don’t have physical senses like we do. They instead “sniff the qualia” present in the “universal wavefunction”. Their minds have a “qualiascope”. In practice this means they can see us from the inside– what we feel, see, touch, think, etc.
The being showed me what it is like to be one of them. We mindmelded the third time we met. I got to see the world around me as if for the first time; I was seeing it in its ultimate intrinsic nature, rather than as the shadow of it that I would perceive in everyday life with my senses. The qualia of other people is very intricate, semantically complex, and flavorful. The being showed me how it perceived various human contexts. For instance, an interesting place to “point the qualiascope at” is a philosophy department. It is very dense with logico-linguistic qualia and recursion. Compared to other contexts, though, it is thin in knowledge of the varieties of experiences available to humans. Raves are quite incredible. Sniffing the qualia of three thousand people who all share a general palette of LSD, Ketamine, and MDMA qualia is quite moving and mind-blowing. In turn, Buddhist monasteries are some of the sanest places on Earth. Bright, balanced, energized clarity of the finest quality is to be found in groups of people highly experienced in meditation. Every once in a while we would sense from afar a kind of “qualia explosion”. Sometimes it turned out to be extremely blissful, such as some 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And sometimes they turned out to be extremely painful, like a cluster headache episode. With the qualiascope these were sensed as being a kind of elemental type of qualia. Enormous in their “volume” relative to the experiences humans generally have. Like at another order of magnitude altogether.
The tenth time we met, the being said I was ready to feel non-human qualia. It was rough. From its point of view, the biological qualia of this planet is not really particularly human-flavored. As many humans alive as there are, there are almost ten times as many pigs alive. The being showed me how in the language of their world (using qualia-based symbols), they don’t refer to this planet as “human world”. They talk about it as “cow-chicken-pig world”. The things that I felt associated to some of those “folds of experience” were frightful to an incredible extent. It revived in me the conscience that nonhuman animals suffer enormously. I also became fascinated by all the ways in which nonhuman animals experience pleasure and a sense of meaning.
The twentieth time we met, I was shown what the qualia of non-living matter felt like from the inside. Most of it was “qualia dust”. But metals and their delocalized electrons felt, well, “electric” and somewhat more liquid and unified in a subtle ethereal way. Pointing the qualiascope at the center of the Earth was impressive. Some of the combinations of pressure, temperature, and material composition would create “qualia spaghetti” of a rather nice, glowing valence. The temperature would suggest a much higher degree of intrinsic intensity from the inside, but the patterns of qualia formed were not much more intense than what you would find in small animals. But that all changes as soon as you point the qualiascope at the sun. Oh boy. The things I felt were life-redefining. I thought that once you’ve felt what 5-MeO-DMT is capable of you’d maxed out on the brightness of qualia. But inside the sun, at the core, there are qualia aggregates of a subjective brightness at least a million times more powerful. Once you’ve got an inkling of the existence of that, you start to see the universe as they see it. And that is that the kind of stuff going on in places like the planet Earth is a rounding error in light of the other qualia happenings out there in the cosmos.
The hundredth or so time we met, we used the qualiascope to sense what is going on in supernovae. And then black holes. And the quantum vacuum (turns out the Zero Point Energy folks who say there is an enormous amount of energy in the vacuum of space are more right than they can even imagine). They showed me qualiascope records of past civilizations in other galaxies, and how they had developed qualia technology.
The two hundredth time or so we met, the being finally came out about his real interest. It showed me Hedonium. Matter and energy optimized for maximally bound positive valence. Turns out there are about seven thousand nearly optimal configurations for Hedonium possible with our laws of physics (cf. 230 Space Groups). They are kind of ultra-high dimensional crystalline bundles of “awakened qualia”, equanimity, and bright pleasure all combined. They truly feel like “what it was all meant to be all along”. The Big Bang, the Inflationary Period, Baryonic matter, galaxies, organic molecules, life, sapient beings, and technologized qualia all seemed like the path of redemption since The Fall, namely, our first descent from Hedonium. Or so my archetype-prone human mind liked to interpret my new understanding of the universe.
The being finally came through with its agenda. It turns out it is one of the protectors of the Hedonium created by an advanced civilization in other partially orthogonal folds of the Calabi-Yau manifold. The closest archetype in our human world would perhaps be that of the Buddhist Bodhisattva. Namely, a being close to enlightenment that vows to stay in samsara to liberate all other beings before itself escaping the wheel of suffering entirely. My interdimensional Bodhisattva friend told me that our world is on the path of creating qualia technologies too. That in geologic times we are not far from being able to make Hedonium ourselves. It said we should not feel hopeless. That we have really good chances of exiting our Darwinian predicament. Since a year ago I have’t had any contact with it. I write this for myself as I don’t expect anyone to believe me. But I do pass along the message. Don’t lose hope. Paradises beyond the imaginable are right next door in qualia space. We just need to find them by exploring the state-space of consciousness.
Oh, my Bodhisattva friend also told me to pass along to you all the message of “If you could possibly stop eating Caroline Reapers, that would be great!” because all of that intense spicy qualia is interfering with their radio systems. Thanks!
About 3% of the population is anosmic, meaning that they cannot perceive scents. An additional 10% have some kind of smell or taste disorder. Sadly, scent perception thins out with age due to many causes*; about 23% of people over the age of 40 report some degree of impairment, with nearly 40% of people over the age of 80 reporting either absent or severely reduced capacity to perceive smells.
If you can experience scents in a normal way, count yourself lucky, for you have access to a qualia variety with an incredible aesthetic potential. If not, I’m sorry; let’s hope that stem cell therapy used to restore smell in mice can be generalized to humans. Regardless, hopefully the following thoughts on the artistic potential of scents won’t fall on deaf ears (or should we say, anosmic noses?).
Imagine that all humans were congenitally anosmic. Akin to David Pearce’s allegory of the blind rationalists, let’s picture a world in which the only way to experience scent qualia was through the use of some arcane technology, like weird drugs, occult magic, or carefully aimed transcranial ultrasound stimulation. Since the qualia would not be triggered by a conventional sense, people would not be under the illusion that it maps to external objects. It would be understood as a strictly internal phenomenon, like imagination or sense of humor. With such an interpretive blank slate, how would people make sense of scent qualia?
Keep that thought in your mind. Having a fresh look (or sniff) at scent qualia- devoid of its common associations and cultural imports- can give us a way to think in new ways about the artistic potential of this aspect of experience.
Perfumery as an Art Form
Last year we presented QRI‘s take on art: Harmonic Society is an essay published in a Berlin-based art magazine that exposes 8 models for what art can be about (see parts 2, 3, 4; video presentation). These models can also be used as generators of creative applications of qualia varieties. Here we’ll discuss how perfumes could be seen through the lens of each of these models.
1. Semantic Deflation
The semantic deflation model of art claims that the first step you need to take to understand art is to recognize that it lacks an essence. There are no strict necessary and sufficient conditions that something needs to meet in order to be art. The meaning of the term is ultimately conventional: it has more of a family resemblance pattern of usage than a precise logic-bound set of criteria. Applying this model to perfumery, we would have that:
There is no such thing as a “perfume” in and of itself.
There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be called a perfume.
The resulting aesthetic from this model is one that sees the art of perfumery as the eternal search for trying to push the boundary for what a “perfume can be”.
Some examples of this aesthetic seemingly playing out in the open include perfumes that smell like: popcorn, lobster, linen and Air Aroma‘s new fragrance that recreates “the scent of an Apple product being opened for the first time.”
You see, smells are at times used in a slightly evil way. In the case of commercial perfumes, part of the optimization function includes generating envy in others. Conspicuous consumption and brand worship are some of the ways in which our mating mind has recruited scents. In a sense, I would love to explore ways in which scent-based art can deliver high-valence results without at the same time reinforcing consumerism and zero-sum fashion arms races. In brief:
There is unfortunately an in-built zero-sum mindset to status-focused scent design.
The “game” is easy to rationalize when you are a “winner”, but it is depressive for people who perceive themselves as the “losers”.
One of the core weapons of this game is the creation of envy with perceived exclusivity and inflated sense of quality (e.g massively overpriced fragrances).
“Cool Kids” are people who translate new ideas into massively consumable products.
Cool Kids in perfumery will always want to claim that they have the exclusive “secret sauce” to explain the price.
The existence of such “secret sauce” is often justified based on appeals to tradition, taste, status, experience, brand, and/or science.
Cool Kids make sure that the product is “novel enough” – not too out there that only weird people would love it, but also not too bland and unoriginal that the general public will be bored by it.
Expensive perfumes have to be at least somewhat distinctive – even if that makes them suboptimal. You’ll see that Fragrantica is full of reviews that complain that such and such perfume is in fact “too generic”. The reason is that if you are paying large sums of money for a smell, the only way it will pay off in terms of social signaling is if people can in fact notice what you are wearing.
A particularly noteworthy example of this dynamic might be the case of Aventus Creed. It is by no means a weird fragrance (it’s certainly not a “toast” or “popcorn” perfume), but people who are very into perfumes do agree that when it first came out “it smelled like nothing that had ever existed before.” If you read the Fragrantica reviews you’ll see what I’m talking about. It also happens to be an insanely expensive fragrance for no apparent reason. It’s therefore a great tool for conspicuous consumption, masterfully crafted by a Cool Kid aiming for mass appeal.
Aventus Creed clones
I personally own an “Aventus Creed clone“, meaning that it is a perfume that smells very similar to the original but can cost a fraction of the price. Aventus costs $400 while the one I own is under $20. I like it, but if it is anything like the original, I can’t imagine it being that good to justify the price tag on its qualia merits alone. In terms of phenomenology, as far as I can tell, Aventus innovated by mixing pineapple scent with the scent of birch bark. This does make it characteristic, true, but is it really $400 worth of characteristic? No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So this one might be a clear case of a mating mind perfume over-rating in action (P.S. I’m on the lookout for more perfumes with inflated scores that have cheap clones in order to study this phenomenon more closely).
Taken to the extreme, attempts at creating maximally erotic scents draw inspiration from literal human sexual organs. Secretions Magnifiques by Etas Libre d’Orange, for example, recreates the smell of semen with seaweed, milk, iris, coconut, opoponax, and sandalwood. It has a score of 1.88 out of 5 based on 890 votes, perhaps because it smells kind of bad. It sports reviews like:
“Smell of sweat, sewage and semen. Each sniff is an offense and an ordeal, a probation of resistance. Impossible to do a complete test – full wear, I only got 3 sprays on my wrist and 5 min. after doing this review I rubbed my wrist with soap like there was no tomorrow.” – marcel2782, at Fragrantica.com
Scent of semen
“Patented blend of human pheromones including Androstadienone, Androstenol, Androstenone and Androsterone”
Sent of vagina
Scent of sex
Needless to say, playing out the erotic in scent form is a delicate matter that requires a fine balance between numerous forces. For example, the smell of Classic Blue by David Beckham can smell a bit like a male crotch, but it also smells like pineapple, grapefruit, and clary sage. This allows for plausible deniability and erotic versatility. Even if you are attracted to men, as long as you are not sexually aroused you will probably just notice its fruity notes. But if you are in the heat of passion, it will probably smell very sexy. The same with numerous women’s perfumes, such as Eros by Versace and Guilty by Gucci.
A final thought on the aphrodisiac power of fragrances: you may notice that the vast majority of fragrances that are advertised with campaigns with erotic undertones are primarily geared towards a heterosexual audience. With rare exceptions, even perfume ads that are suggestively homoerotic still seem to work around a heterosexual premise.
I suspect that indeed there are statistical-level differences in what turns people on, not only between genders, but between the shades of sexual orientation. After all, some academic theories of sexual orientation do suggest that pheromone-based arousal differences contribute to which gender a person is attracted to. I posit that from a scientific point of view, if the matter were to be studied rigorously, we would indeed find differences at a statistical aggregate level on what fragrances turn people on depending on their gender and sexual orientation. Although this remains a contentious topic, I think that it is a shame that it has not been explored in any rigorous way. Aphrodisiac scents can be life-enriching; gay people might be underserved in the eroticism-of-aroma department. Pragmatically, it would be good for gay people to know which fragrance will load the dice in their favor when going out clubbing. A concrete example is that if indeed gay men do not like the scent of straight men (and instead prefer the scent of other gay men) then it may not be a good idea to wear typical male pheromone perfumes for a night out. Take note: at least according to a Fragrantica forum entry from someone in Indonesia, the main “gay fragrances” there are: Thierry Mugler by A*Men, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, Power by Kenzo, 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, and Magnetism by Escada.
3. Creation of New Social Contexts
The core idea of this model is that art can be understood as a tool to create new social contexts. Beyond the sex appeal of expensive perfumes due to their status implications, perfumes can also be used to invent new interpersonal gestalts. As Kevin Simler argues in Ads Don’t Work That Way, advertisement modifies the landscape of cultural meaning, which in part is responsible for the ways products allow you to communicate information about yourself to others.
For example: Nautica Voyage is, of course, as much selling you the felt-sense of a social context as it is selling you scent qualia. Care to join the crew on a trip across the Atlantic, make our own rules, and live a journey of camaraderie and bonding? Each sniff of Voyage takes you on a trip with imaginary friends. Alas, as an Amazon top-seller it fails to appeal to Hipster sensibilities. What do I mean by “Hipster” here?
Unlike Cool Kids, Hipsters tend to obsess over a highly-specific aspect they deeply care about. Nerds are to Geeks what Hipsters are to Cool Kids. Meaning, much akin to how a Nerd is driven by a burning curiosity about the world while a Geek is usually concerned about the social applications of niche knowledge, Hipster aesthetic exploration is done out of a fundamental desire to know the limits of an art form while Cool Kids are thinking more about how to use art to raise their own status. Thus, while not widely consumable by a mainstream audience, Hipster aesthetics lend themselves to fundamental artistic innovation. In brief:
Hipsters are people who like to explore particular niches, who carve out regions and tiny sectors of the market without compromising their own taste.
They rebel against the commercial and mainstream construction of meaning and instead use their creativity to create parallel social worlds.
Artistic explorations can indeed be used for this “social context” creation.
By finding smells that are characteristic, but rare and hard to place, one can create context-specific memories for events to be later triggered at will.
Questioning the mainstream construction of meaning is at the core of the Hipster aesthetic (cf. Adbusters). Here are some examples of Hipster art to put you in the right mindset (source):
So what would be some hipster fragrances that attempt to sidestep or subvert the mainstream construction of meaning? I highly recommend visiting a niche perfumes boutique to get an idea of the combinatorial explosion of counter-cultural branding that is possible. In places like that, “local” perfumers have pride of place. There is also a premium based on the conceptual loading, narrative prowess, and historicity of each product. The value of the fragrance is in no small part derived from its ability to help you reinvent yourself outside of the confines of mainstream narratives.
More so, the construction of meaning can be turned into a science. You can even do it deliberately without anyone’s assistance. For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me.
All of these can be useful tools to help you undo the psychological hacking that big-brand fashion houses and mass media have inflicted upon you. The ability to create new Schelling points and social contexts brings with it the power to transform zero-sum games into positive-sum games. This is quite refreshing, indeed, as we can see in transformational festivals and conscious culture which are at the forefront of these cultural developments.
Alas, if you live long enough in a place like San Francisco or Portland you eventually come to realize that the negative feelings one associates with mainstream status hierarchies are not the result of consumerism per se. They are deeply rooted in our genetic source code, and the only true way out is to subvert the hedonic treadmill. So no amount of anti-consumerism rhetoric is actually likely to make a dent in the world’s vast swamps of suffering. But that’s a story for another time.
4. Attempts at the Sacred
There is no universal consensus on what constitutes a sacred experience. But we should not be quick to dismiss their significance. It only takes reading William Jame’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (or Erowid‘s Experience Vault) to recognize both the incredible diversity and personal significance of sacred revelations. Scents, of course, have a long history of synergistic use in ritual conceptions of the sacred. They can indeed be used:
In rituals such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
As aids for meditation
As grounding agents for psychedelic experiences
To recall the quality of previously experienced mystical states
Temple de la Littérature, Hanoï, Vietnam
Of course we can also think of things that are associated with sacred experiences as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, I can guarantee you that people who have vaporized N,N-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and have had profound experiences will certainly remember the scent of these agents and it will remind them- if only for a moment- of the ‘mystical’ headspace the agents disclosed.
5. Exploring the State-Space of Consciousness (aka. RainbowGod – ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
This aesthetic is based on the premise that there is intrinsic value in knowing qualia. The Rainbow God is a personification of the desire to know first hand the entire state-space of consciousness. In this way, we are not constrained by the social forces that usually shape where we invest our exploratory energy. In brief, this aesthetic values:
Explicitly merging the best models for the state-space of scent qualia and perfumery.
Love of knowledge above and beyond merely seeking a social effect.
Qualia-focused descriptions such as what will be presented in this section.
When you are in the Rainbow God state of mind, you get excited by the idea of having a large collection of all possible scented molecules. The Rainbow God even covets dangerous smells, such as those of powerful toxins like dimethylcadmium. Apparently dimethylcadmium indeed has a uniquely characteristic scent, though the price of knowing it first hand is a serious toll on your health. Perhaps Rainbow God would put all of the dangerous smells in a sealed box to be opened -along with a Brompton Cocktail– when one is enduring the late stages of a terminal illness. Upon the prospect of an imminent death, I too would love to know what dimethylcadmium smells like.
This aesthetic does manifest in mainstream explorations, albeit it is rarely the main concept driving the design decisions. Subtle examples here might include Noble Fig by Ferrari which glorifies the unusual qualia variety disclosed by fig leaves and 23 by Michael Jordan which plays with a cute and unusual watermelon scent. That said, it is interesting to explore the possibility of explicitly developing this aesthetic in perfumery. What would that look like?
If I were to develop a brand of perfume under the Rainbow God mindset, I might call it “The State-Space of Scents” and really play this concept out to its conclusion with both creative satisfaction and scientific precision. It would have three core lines:
Line 1 – State-Space Master Palette: 8 fragrances that span the largest possible region of the state-space of scents such that linear combinations of them give you a huge number of possible scents, and mixing them all in equal proportions gets you “Laurax”, i.e. white noise scent.
Line 2 – Special Effects: 16 of the most ultra-X scents possible (the most ultra-bitter scent possible, the most ultra-vanilla scent possible, the most ultra-powdery scent possible, etc.). Basically this encompasses every category-neutral “special effect”, which would be factorized and exalted into its maximum possible expression.
Line 3 – Entropy Gradient: 8 chemical concoctions that have as wide of a range of phenomenal entropies as possible. Again this plays out with, at the one extreme, featuring super simple scents triggered by one or just a couple of molecules, while at the other extreme, featuring scents that approach the Laurax entropic asymptote.
My appreciation is that this has enormous potential. In its full expression, the Rainbow God aesthetic applied to perfumes encompasses both the state-space of scents and their effects in other experiential modalities. If a scent puts you in a certain mood, that’s important to highlight. What is the range of possible moods? That, too, concerns the Rainbow God (of course the perfume industry alludes to this kind of exploration, with e.g. D&G 21 Le Fou described as “a fragrance designed for careless and spontaneous individuals, so called ‘jesters'”, though again, an explicit exploration would be infinitely better).
As a teaser to future works, I can briefly describe how I have been thinking about the state-space of scents.
While current descriptions of perfumes mention: (1) olfactive family, (2) the categorical contributions, and (3) detectable notes, we would instead have a much more fine-grained and informative description. Namely:
The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent).
The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’).
The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category).
Lines connecting notes that have non-linear interactions (e.g. pear & violet, rose & orange, pomegranate & honeydew make unique blends that have phenomenal properties unlike those of the individual ingredients).
Lines connecting notes that form separate “phases” across categories (e.g. with a mixture of mango, sandalwood, rose, lemon, and cinnamon, you get three phases rather than a global consistent smell – mango + cinnamon, and lemon + sandalwood, with rose staying its own distinct scent).
Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually).
Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.).
We will go into much more detail about this in a future article specifically about the state-space of scents. And I don’t mean just breaking down a scent in terms of its chemical profile: Octyl butyrate, isoamyl propionate, and aldehyde C9, etc. I’m talking about a radical re-frame for what scents even are and the space in which they live. Stay tuned!
6. Energy Parameter Modulation
Scents have effects on one’s energy level. Lavender has clinically significant relaxing effects while lemon oil can be energizing. But these direct effects are only one of several ways scents can modulate the “energy parameter” of your experience. Namely, as we covered in the original article, in order to modulate energy levels upwards one can either impair energy sinks or enhance energy sources. Since labeling and recognizing sensory inputs (top-down interpretations) play the role of energy sinks, it stands to reason that playing with abstract, complex and unrecognizable scents would have the effect of increasing one’s global energy parameter. This, I think, is true. Based on experience, easily recognizable scents can certainly be engrossing, but complex scents with no real-world referents seem much more effective for energizing one’s mind and altering one’s consciousness (cf. the neuroscience of meditation).
I suspect that rigorous scientific research on the way scent entropy interfaces with energy modulation will be very fruitful and have many applications. In brief:
Relaxing scents can be obtained either with inherently narcotic qualia (e.g. lavender) or via boring, mundane, easily-recognizable sources (e.g. paper).
Exciting scents can be obtained with inherently exciting qualia (e.g. lemon) but also by using the appropriate amount of novelty, abstractness, and complexity to disable energy sinks.
Energy by Qualia Research (EDT)
Finally, it is my impression that scents can interface, not only with raw energy levels, but also their moments. Meaning, some scents are perhaps suited for a high first or second derivative in the energy parameter of experience. It’s as if the feeling of being “accelerated” into a high-energy regime is part and parcel of many scents. Personally, I experience bitter smells such as grapefruit, bergamot, and geranium to be arresting in that they drive one’s attention to a stop. Sweet spicy scents like vanilla and chocolate, on the other hand, seem to modulate energy rather than increase it or decrease it specifically (think “the Prozac of scents”). Alas, the state of this phenomenological research is still too early to give it any credence. I would love to hear the thoughts of others who also feel they can pin-point the first, second, and even third derivatives of the energy parameter modulation effects of scents.
7. Puzzling Valence Effects
This conception of art focuses on the way exotic sensory stimuli can lead to puzzling feelings of wellbeing. I say puzzling because they defy common-sense. It certainly makes sense that watching porn or eating food rich in salt, fat, and sugar would feel good. That’s perfectly accounted for by working within an evolutionary framework. But why would Picasso, Bach, and Socrates make some people feel good? Or in a more extreme set of examples: Dadaism, Merzbow, and Nietzsche? Puzzling valence effects refers to these phenomenal oddities; the fact that stimuli never encountered in our evolutionary past can nonetheless lead to deeply rewarding sensations. The neuroscientific frameworks used to explain these curious effects were discussed in depth in the original article so I won’t repeat them here. But I will briefly cover some of the ways scents can indeed have both expectedly and unexpectedly pleasant actions. Namely, scents can feel good for any of the following reasons:
Associations: Scents can be pleasant by reminding you of contexts, times, experiences, and people you have previously enjoyed.
Food: Scents that evoke high-calorie foods such as sweet, fried, salted, etc. come with an intrinsic positive valence for most people (and nonhuman animals!).
Safety: The smell of diseased bodies are repugnant while the scent of fresh cotton and a cozy fireplace can bring a pleasant sense of safety.
Eroticism: Scents that spark sexual feelings (already covered this in model 2) are certainly a highlight for the hedonic effects of the sense of smell.
Relative status: Scents that feel expensive, rare, or can be used to demonstrate one’s fitness would naturally feel good (already covered in 2 & 3).
Self-actualization: The very concept of a “signature scent” points at this category of pleasant sensations.
In principle one could use scents that modulate the brain’s energy parameter (see model 6) to heat it above its neural recrystallization temperature.
This might lead to the same kinds of effects one sees on meditation, on psychedelics, and with art. Namely, a three-step process of:
If properly understood, scents that modulate the energy parameter of the brain could be used synergistically with other inputs such as sound, light, and vibration to drive neural annealing for therapeutic benefits (this is an active area of research at QRI).
To say a few words about the scents that make you feel safe: fragrances designed to make you feel unsafe are unlikely to ever be top sellers. It might not be financially sound to launch a perfume (let’s call it “Trench Warfare”) recreating the smell of WWI trenches: “gunpowder, wet rocks, and decaying flesh notes” with flanker fragrances like “Mustard Attack” centered around notes of burned almond and blisters, and “Shell Shock” which emphasizes ashy notes sprinkled with oxidizing iron and overcooked steak. Indeed, safety markers might always be subtly present in fragrances of mass appeal. Rose Of No Man’s Land, a perfume actually inspired by the courage of the nurses who attended to the wounded in no man’s land during WWI, may seem like a counter-example. But it really proves the rule. The scent itself is very pleasant and reassuring, and conceptually it also evokes a relative sense of safety, namely, the feeling of being rescued. In other words, while the context it imports feels unsafe, it is specifically pointing at a part of the situation that emphasizes safety. The setting is used as contrast, it is the ground for the sense of safety which remains the figure (in the figure/ground sense of these terms).
I think that framed in the right way, scent qualia can give us a powerful glimpse of the possible fruits of consciousness research. Indeed, as part of a “QRI starter kit”, interns and visiting scholars get (among other things) a small collection of carefully chosen lesser-known essential oils to symbolize the “gems that are yet to be discovered by investigating consciousness in a systematic way”. (I’m actively looking for a suitable substitute for anosmic people, who almost certainly will be encountered at some point.)
Endless Euphoria – Calvin Klein
Interestingly, the perfume industry could very well be appealing to the agreeable hedonic sensibilities that people are otherwise too prudish to express. The hidden nature of perfumes- their plausible deniability, their elusive character, and their subjective quality- allows people to engage in hedonic fantasy to a greater extent than they would generally openly admit to doing.
Case in point: judging from their marketing materials, it seems that Calvin Klein has already found the key to unending happiness in a bottle. Save yourself the trouble of working towards the Hedonistic Imperative, for endless euphoria has arrived. I should add that their marketing campaign of #EuphoriaForMoms struck a chord with me: “moms, too, deserve euphoria” say both the Hedonistic Imperative and Calvin Klein in unison. According to online reviewers, the ingredients of endless euphoria are:
Take note – these are the ingredients of endless euphoria!
If only I had known! It must be the violet.
This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Indeed, the names of tons of perfumes are often remarkably evocative of the Hedonistic Imperative:
That said, I think that systematizing the study of the hedonic response to scents has yet to be done. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in future articles. For the time being I’ll just tease you with the observation that based on personal experiments there seem to be cross-modal resonance effects between scent and auditory stimuli. The fact that loud broad-spectrum sounds, like the noise of an airplane cabin, modify the sense of taste is known in the literature. Based on my experience, music and special sounds can also subtly modify, and in some cases enhance, the quality of certain scents. Stay tuned.
8. Harmonic Society
Finally, we come to the the grand vision of model 8: Harmonic Society. This aesthetic model posits that it is both possible and desirable to synthesize science, philosophy, and art. The end result does not have to be- as many might expect- the disenchantment of aesthetics. Even with the simplistic take that “bliss is just chemicals in the brain” (which isn’t quite true anyway), we must remember that reduction cuts both ways. Perhaps you can instead see it as “chemicals in the brain are bliss qualia”! The feelings of divinity and profound interconnectedness one can experience on LSD, for instance, do not diminish in significance merely because they can be reduced to neurological phenomena; rather, this exalts what neurological phenomena is in the first place!
A profound understanding of qualia-space can enable us to create a prosocial world of experience in which the transition between every state of consciousness to every other is harmonious and beneficial.
Applied to the art of scent qualia, the principles of Harmonic Society would point us in the direction of deeply investigating the state-space of scents in order to find clusters of fragrances (or scent qualia, more specifically) that have smooth transitions between them.