Over a year ago in a meditation retreat, fear came up as an emotion I had to work with. In order to deal with it, my subconscious brought to my awareness scents that it found could counteract fear in its most essential form. What are these? Well, it started with banana! Have you ever smelled a banana and felt fear? No way! Unless you’ve had a bad experience with bananas before, just noticing the fruity, sweet, bouncy scent of a banana is somehow quite opposite to the mindspace that fear tends to induce. What else? Jasmine, honeydew melon, vanilla, honeysuckle… All of these scents felt very antithetical to fear during the meditation. Down the line, I realized mint and ylang-ylang could also work.
A few days after the retreat I got to work and made the first draft of a scent that combined all of these elements. The result was a bit underwhelming: it smelled like the classic bubblegum scent (not what I had in mind). Tuneups with carrot seed oil, patchouli, and bergamot didn’t really make it better. I still thought the basic concept was sound, but I shelved the project for the time being.
Six months ago I gave it another try. Ambroxan, isobutavan, coconut, and neroli added some additional fear-extinguishing nuances (especially the coconut). But it became a really tricky balancing act – with all of those essential and fragrance oils the interactions quickly multiplied, and sooner or later I found myself nearing the flowery-fruity equivalent of “Laurax” (white noise scent) and the effect became blunted. I made a batch of the best version that came out of that series of experiments (which ended up having a good dose of freesia), and distributed some of it in little bottles to friends and family as a gift. I also sent one to Daniel Ingram, who sampled it with his wife. Their reviews:
*Daniel’s wife: Bubblegum fruit punch.
*Daniel: This reminds me of some fragrance from a soap store in a mall in the 1990’s, like Body Shop shampoo, almost like Johnson’s baby shampoo, so I would call it Bright Pink Mall Shampoo.
I personally liked it, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was still far from what my subconscious truly had in mind. Fearless 2.0 was a nice fruity flowery vanilla scent, but it failed to reach the true potential of the concept.
About a week ago I decided to pick this up again. Now I had a mindset of removing rather than adding; the aim became that of simplifying the scent to the point where I would achieve the effect I had experienced during meditation but with the least number of ingredients possible. Being far more acquainted now than I was last year with how pure molecules interact with each other, this final version of the scent is primarily made of synthetics: 4 essential oils and a total of 10 individual aromachemicals, carefully balanced to achieve the desired effect with no bells and whistles. I can say that after a year since this concept came to me and about a hundred experiments, I am now satisfied. Well, it could still benefit from some tuneups, but as they say, only God is perfect.
Fearless 3.0 is, to a first approximation, the “triple point” between the vibes of (1) ylang-ylang, (2) mint, and (3) vanilla. Of course to soften it, blend it, volumize it, and amplify the synergy, tricks must be used, so it’s not as simple as just mixing those three scents together. But you’ll get the idea: Ylang-ylang already has facets of banana and jasmine (though a pinch of amyl acetate definitely adds to the fearlessness of the scent). Ylang-ylang’s contribution is one of adding sweet euphoric entropy. Mint works as a source of coolness; when dosed properly you can’t tell it’s there, but its effect is marvelously refreshing. And vanilla, well, vanilla is like the butter of scents. Together, you have a strangely refreshing white-yellow flowery scent it’s hard to have too much of. It’s calming and energizing at the same time.
I kid you not, this scent has now made it into my liminal world; I had an entire night where dream after dream were drenched and suffused with it. And indeed, they were all happy, joyous, and free from fear.
I won’t disclose the precise formula, since I might end up using this as part of a line of scents, possibly to fund consciousness research. But I am very happy to share the broad outline with you all, as I just did.
Thank you for reading, and may you all find your fearless state!
Some of you might remember me. I was one of the moderators here for half a decade or so until my life got busy enough that it became difficult to keep up.
I have a small fragrance line myself and I occasionally make fragrances for other brands. Occasionally websites like Fragrantica and Now Smell This will write articles about my fragrances. I’m by no means a famous perfumer, but… I’ve worked enough as a perfumer to have insight into how fragrances are made.
The average person doesn’t really think about what’s actually in their fragrances any more than the average person really considers what flavors blend together to make up the taste of cola. (As a side note, you can make a passable cola flavor out of orange, lime, cinnamon, lemon, nutmeg, and coriander). When people do start thinking about it, they inevitably come across fragrance notes.
Fragrance notes are both incredibly useful and completely misleading because notes are not ingredients! Notes are the impressions that the fragrance creator thinks a lay person might get from smelling the fragrance. They aren’t necessarily the ingredients used in the fragrance, and also, (this is another important bit), they’re not necessarily even what the perfumer was attempting to make the fragrance smell like.
There’s a fundamental misconception on the part of most consumers. Most consumers think that fragrances are made largely from familiar materials. Orange, lemon, jasmine, rose, birch leaves, lily of the valley, etc. Ok, maybe most people realize that most fragrances contain synthetic materials, but there’s quite often an implicit assumption that the synthetics are a synthetic version of a natural material. In other words, that the synthetic is an attempt to recreate a smell that is found in nature and that all (or at least most) of the smells in a modern fragrance can be reproduced with naturals. I suppose that if you asked someone “do you think that all synthetics are an attempt to recreate a natural smell?” they would think about it and quickly come to the conclusion that this doesn’t really make sense, but most people haven’t actually stopped and thought about it. I see evidence of this assumption all over the place online:
“I’m looking for all natural version of [fragrance X].”
“I’m looking for a less synthetic version of Sauvage.”
“Can someone tell me which essential oils I can mix together to make an aquatic smell like Cool Water?”
It’s really only pretty recently that there has been any real visibility (to the general public) into what materials go into a commercial fragrance, so this is an understandable point of view.
It’s very, very wrong, though.
We need to take a giant step back and clarify some things.
Natural oils (essential oils/absolute oils/SCO2 extracts/etc.) are typically made up of dozens to hundreds of different materials [typically distributed in a long-tail]. They’re like miniature perfumes in and of themselves with top notes, heart notes, and base notes. They’re complex and beautiful, but they can only be manipulated in a limited way. They’re like photographs.
Specialty bases are typically made up of dozens of individual ingredients, some natural, some man-made, some that exist in nature, some that didn’t exist until they were created in a lab in the 60s. Basically, the sky is the limit. You generally don’t know exactly what’s in them, but they’re produced by suppliers that you can be pretty sure will still be making them in 20 years. Sometimes, they’re direct attempts to reproduce (or improve upon) a natural smell, for reasons of cost, safety, or performance. Sometimes, they’re just a novel smell, like Givaudan‘s aquatic smelling Ultrazur base. These are like computer generated images [or Photoshop filters].
Isolates are ingredients made of a single molecule. They can be naturally derived or lab-made. They can exist in nature or not. They have names like linalool, coumarin, limonene, ambroxide [better known as ambroxan – the qualia of the day in this video and one of my favorite aromachemicals], methyl dihydrojasmonate and you can describe and find the chemical formula for them. A lot of them have trade names that are shorter and refer to one company’s version. E.g. Hedione is a trade name for methyl dihydrojasmonate. Quite often, isolates can also be found in natural oils. Natural lavender oil is typically ~42% linalyl actate and ~40% linalool [note: lavender oil with more linalyl acetate relative to linalool tends to smell “dryer” and “dustier”]. When composing fragrances, I’ll use linalool and linalyl acetate as isolates as well. Sometimes I’ll use them to “tune” other ingredients that already contain them, but not in the quantities I want (like lavender [e.g. “LAVENDER OIL 40/42 has fresh, herbal, clean, aromatic nuances. The numbers in Lavender 40/42 indicate the linalyl acetate content; in this case, they indicate the product contains 40%-42% of linalyl acetate. Lavender 40/42 is generally a blend of various lavenders in order to get a consistent scent from batch to batch, with processors adding linalyl acetate to cover the smell of camphor or borneol components of a given lavender.“]). Sometimes I’ll use them to add a sweet, floral character to completely unrelated materials. If natural oils are like photographs and bases are like CGI, isolates are like paints. You have the most control, but it takes the most skill to turn them into something beautiful and complex.
This is an example formula for a “cologne” accord that was composed by Givaudan. It’s by no means a finished fragrance, but most everyone would recognize the smell. It’s a fresh, slightly sweet, slightly bitter, slightly green smell that often finds its way into men’s fresh fragrances in one way or another (though that’s not to say that this exact formula does).
Florhydral – 10
Exaltolide Total – 10
Ultrazur – 15
Peonile – 60
Petitgrain oil -70
Ethylene Brassylate – 90
Aurantiol Pure – 100
Geranyl Acetate – 120
Linalyl Acetate – 220
Dihydro Myrcenol – 305
Lets take a look at these ingredients one by one:
Florhydral is the trade name for an isolate. It is a floralizer that can add a sort of fresh, green, floral note to fragrances. It is not found in nature.
Exaltolide is another single molecule, a white musk. It’s very delicately animalic, with the characteristic smell of a white musk. It’s been used as a reference white musk because it’s so typical of the “white musk” family.
Ultrazur is a specialty base from Givaudan. It’s marine smelling, more oceanic than the Calone 1951 found in Cool Water. By itself, in concentration, it reminds me very much of fabric softener.
Peonile is another “not found in nature” molecule. It has a sort of rosy, sort of geranium-like, sort of peony-like, sort of grapefruit-like odor and acts as a volumizer and fixative. Odor descriptions that call to mind an assortment of known materials are fairly common, but it’s important to note that they don’t mean that it smells like x+y+z. It just means that they have facets that are reminiscent of these materials in some way.
Petitgrain oil is a natural oil made from the greenery of a citrus tree. Usually from orange trees, but varieties from mandarin, lemon, and all sorts of other citrus are also available.
Ethylene brassylate is a sweet, floral, white musk that can smell a touch old fashioned to some people by itself, or in really high concentrations. It’s still a fairly clean musk, however. Yet another single molecule.
Aurantiol is a very, very commonly used material in fragrances, particularly men’s fragrances. It’s a single molecule (more or less). Aurantiol is a Schiff Base, which is a class of materials that you get when you combine an aldehyde and an amine and they react with each other. Most amines don’t smell very good, but one of them, something called methyl anthranilate, does. It’s found in white florals, particularly neroli [see: The Neroli Neighborhood for a deep dive into the neroli vibe], as well as grapes. Artificial grape flavor is basically methyl anthranilate. Hydroxycitronellal is an aldehyde that is often said to smell as close as any single material does to Lily of the Valley. When they’re mixed together and heated, you get water and a very thick, highlighter yellow colored schiff base that smells like a more mild version of methyl anthranilate. It’s sweet, long-lasting, and reminiscent of orange blossom/neroli and grape.
Geranyl acetate is the acetate version of geraniol. It’s a single molecule that is literally found in hundreds of natural oils. Everything from oregano and thyme to ylang ylang, rose, geranium and neroli, to fir needle and frankincense. It’s everywhere (much like linalool and linalyl actetate [note: in addition to lavender, also petitgrain, neroli, and bergamot all have very high concentrations of both linalool and linalyl acetate at the same time]). It’s sweet, fruity-floral, and vaguely green smelling. It also has a smell that I think of as the “acetate smell,” which can make it smell “chemically” to some people in isolation, even though it’s found everywhere in nature.
Linalyl acetate is another material like geranyl acetate that’s found all over the place in nature. Natural lavender oil is ~42% linalyl acetate. It’s also found in most of the natural oils I mentioned for geranyl actetate. The description for it is also very similar to geranyl acetate, but it’s more lavendery and less rosy. I really like this material and use it when I want to add an ethereal fruity/floral sweetness to a composition.
Dihydromyrcenol is aggressively fresh, cold, and almost harsh. It’s somewhat reminiscent of citrus and lavender. Mostly, though, it smells like laundry detergent. It was used to scent laundry detergent for years before it made it into fine fragrance. At first it was used in tiny doses, but by the 1980s it was being used much more prominently. Something like 10% of the formula of Drakkar Noir was dihydromyrcenol [and apparently also the fragrance super-star of the 90s Calvin Klein One]. It’s found in trace amounts in nature, but nothing natural really smells prominently of it.
So now that I’ve explained all the materials, let’s take a look at the formula. Here are some observations:
Natural oils from recognizable sources only make up 7% of the accord. There are other materials that are found in nature, but they’re all isolates, one alien smelling-molecule refined from a more familiar-smelling material. More than half of the formula is made from 2 molecules [once again, long-tails]. More than 90% is made from 8. The amounts of materials used can vary wildly. Material strength is in no way consistent.
The perfumer who composed this formula painted the majority of the formula in broad strokes from single molecule aromachemicals and then filled in depth and details with natural petitgrain oil, and tiny amounts of a specialty base (ultrazur) and a powerful aldehyde (florhydral).
I didn’t compose this, and I can’t speak for the perfumer who did, but I can imagine how it might have been composed. I’ll walk you through how I’m imagining the perfumer’s process:
I imagine the accord was inspired by petitgrain, but the perfumer wanted something fresher and more stylized and abstract, in the same way a graphic designer might prefer a stylized logo to a photo. Dihydromyrcenol is fresh and powerful, but also cold and harsh and almost bitter. It’s a good compliment to petitgrain, but right off the bat, I know it’s not going to be suitable by itself unless I’m trying to just modify the smell of petitgrain a little bit by adding a teeny tiny bit dihydromyrcenol. It needs some cushion, something to cut the harshness. Geranyl acetate and linalyl acetate add a niche cushioning effect, can be used liberally, and are both found in petitgrain, so they’ll go well with it. By itself, that composition is still cold and bitter. It needs a bit more warmth, but not a candy-like warmth. Something keeping in line with the petitgrain. Aurantiol is the obvious choice. The scent of orange tree leaves goes well with the scent of the orange blossoms that nestle amongst them. In keeping with the “more abstract” theme though, we don’t want to just dump neroli or orange blossom absolute into this. Too much complexity can leave a composition smelling muddled [see quote below for more on this], and we want the bitter, fresh, green petitgrain to be the star of the show here, not the neroli. Plus, neroli is quite expensive and not as long-lasting as aurantiol. We add the aurantiol for warmth. The peonile for volume and some white musks for depth. It’s pretty common to use multiple musks in a fragrance because many people are anosmic to some musks, so you want to make sure they’re able to smell at least one of them.
Then as finishing touches, we add a hint of Ultrazur, which adds a bit of modern sophistication and florhydral, which in tiny amounts adds a bit of a dewy, natural, green smell to the composition.
This composition isn’t about taking familiar smells and mixing them together like some sort of fruit salad with hunks of this and hunks of that. It’s about taking an idea and enhancing aspects of it, rebalancing it until it fits the vision. It’s more like painting than making a collage. It’s not necessarily as detailed or accurate, but it’s not supposed to be. Degas wasn’t trying to create photorealistic ballerinas. Van Gogh wasn’t trying to accurately render the night sky. They were trying to evoke an impression. Perfumers are the same way.
If that fragrance doesn’t smell like realistic rose/jasmine/cedar/etc., chances are, it wasn’t intended to. The perfumer wasn’t trying to make a realistic jasmine and failing, the perfumer was trying to make an entirely new smell that just has aspects that are jasmine-like.
Breaking it apart into notes is actually counterproductive in a lot of ways.
…but that’s a subject for another post.
In response to the Reddit r/DIYfragrance question: “Lavender + Lemon + Rose accord – How would you use a lavender + lemon + rose accord? I like that combo a lot – a narcotic acidic mix with powerful mood-lifting properties. But as soon as I use patchouli, ginger, or even chamomile as the base notes for the composition, the magic of the accord gets drowned out by the base. I’m curious how more experienced DIY fragrance makers would go about harnessing the magic of that accord by blending it with things that enhance rather than detract from it. Thank you in advance 🙂“
I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and say that it sounds like you’re using essential oils rather than individual aromachemicals for your accords.
If that does happen to be the case, that’s your issue. It’s not that there’s anything specific about Rose/Lemon/Lavender that doesn’t play nice with other scents. It’s that essential oils inherently get “muddy” when you start to mix more than a few together.
Essential oils are a complex combination of hundreds of individual aromachemicals. They’re almost like finished fragrances unto themselves. I look at them like jellybeans. One jellybean tastes like whatever flavor it’s supposed to taste like. Two or three jellybeans can taste like a fun combination of flavors.
But have you ever tried popping a handful of jellybeans? The flavors all muddle together and create this generic sort of fruity sweetness that doesn’t really taste like anything in specific. It’s the flavor equivalent of swirling together a bunch of colors until you get brown.
Same with essential oils. For example, lemon and lime essential oil share a ton of common ingredients, mostly terpenes like limonene, pinene, terpinene, Myrcene, etc. But anyone who has smelled lemon and lime knows that they smell very distinct. This is because they have slightly different proportions of these ingredients. Lemon might have 70% limonene, 10% pinene, and 15% terpinene whereas lime has 50% limonene, 5% pinene and 10% terpinene. When you blend them together, these distinct proportions are lost, and with them, their characteristic smells.
Same goes for mixing other different oils: ginger for example also contains a lot of the same terpenes that lemon contains. But it also has a big dose of camphene and zingiberene which give it the characteristic sharp ginger bite. But when you mix ginger with lemon, it throws off the delicate balance of terpenes in the lemon and thus muddies the character. Same with patchouli: lots of patchoulol and guaiene, but also lots of terpenes found in lemon. Same with chamomile: lots of ethereal esters but also lots of terpenes.
In fact, it’s hard to find essential oils that don’t muddy the balance of lemon. Lavender happens to have a fairly close balance of terpenes (in addition to the characteristic lavender combination of Linalool and Linalyl Acetate). And rose is almost all alcohols.
Basically, with each essential oil you add, you also add a large list of other oils you can’t add without muddying your scent. And with lavender/lemon/rose, there’s really not much room to explore if you’re using essential oils only.
And there’s the rub: if you really want to explore enhancing your scent, you need to get more granular and start using individual aromachemicals rather than entire essential oils into themselves.
If you’re dead set on using essential oils only, check out www.2pih.com/ingredients.php: I put together a resource with about 200 different essential oils and their constituent ingredients. You want to find ones that use either entirely different ingredient sets than what are found in your main accord (which will be difficult because you’ve really covered a broad swath of ingredients with your combination), or find ones whose common ingredients are in similar proportion (which will also be difficult).
On the other hand, if you’re already using individual aromachemicals and your description of the accord is more abstract than literal, then you probably know all of this, so my apologies for the presumption, and I hope this comment is helpful for anyone else reading this.
One of the most interesting findings in psychology is that cross-modal coherence makes things feel more real (e.g. see “Cross-modal coherence enhances claims of pattern presence“). This is a sophisticated way of saying that when something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and smells like a duck, it most certainly feels like it is a real duck.
On a similar vein, Shinzen Young points out that suffering often has various components: an inner imagery component, a physical component, and an emotional component. If you can keep them from mingling and becoming an experience that integrates all of these components at once (i.e. that is cross-modally coherent) you will be preventing most of the suffering from being actualized.
Now, applying this lens to the task of crafting real-looking Halloween costumes, it stands to reason that if you add a costume-consistent dimension of smell you will in turn be perceived as more real thanks to the resulting cross-modal coherence. Or, at the very least, you will be able to enjoy the signaling benefits of this new variety of artistic waste (especially for the more pricy or laborious scents).
Without further ado, here are some costume ideas for this Halloween along with their recommended cross-modally coherent scent, for which I am definitely not getting kickbacks. Really, I’m just sharing scents I like (I only talk about scents I’ve personally smelled, except for calone which I look forward to trying but am too scared to own for reasons you’ll see below, and the scent of LSD which I have not been honored to experience yet):
Oceanic: Sea Creature, Sailor, Pirate
You can go with a classic marine/aquatic cultural reference like Nautica Voyage as a blanket sea-themed Halloween costume addition. Squids, octopi, and whales are all fitting. This perfume has the advantage that its apple and green nuances won’t make you suffocate with too many marine notes.
Le Male in turn may work well for anything sailor-themed (especially if some degree of homoeroticism is welcomed).
Or for a pirate, you can add a smell of rum, either by dousing yourself in actual rum and letting it dry, or using a perfume with notes of rum like Christian Audigier For Him.
Finally, perhaps a more raw elemental and unvarnished approach would be to use calone. Without the surrounding harmonizing notes that come with the perfumes above, the way calone is described suggests it’s perceived as a definite classic “sea-breeze” smell by most (e.g. “It has an intense Marine, ozonic, sea-like smell. Pretty unique note, it can produce floral overtones. There can be a fruit aspect of melon/watermelon but it is very negligible to me.” – source). Importantly, calone is said to be extremely potent. Thus, improperly diluted, using it on your costume might make the entire place smell like a seafood restaurant, and likely not a good one at that. Then again, you could dress up as a rundown seafood restaurant.
Dune / Golem / Earth-themed elemental
Going for an easily-recognizable super-hit in the fragrance world, Terre d’Hermes Hermès for men would be a natural Schelling point for cosplays reenacting a life in vast dry landscapes evocative of Dune/Blade Runner 2049/Tatooine. Now, a very high percentage of that perfume is Iso E-Super, which by the way smells delicious in its neat form. So a much more affordable and perhaps aesthetically pure choice is to get it raw and spray it on a scarf or turban and vibe with your imaginary dry sandy homeworld.
On the wet-end of the spectrum, a little geosmin (the smell of wet earth) can give realism to a just-created Golem creature. As with calone, you will have to carefully dilute this one because it is really potent. Alternatively, you could get Demeter’s Dirt.
Fahrenheit Dior for men, either EDT or EDP, has the same gasoline note, or Shalimar by Guerlain (EDP in particular; I recommend using the EDT instead if you plan to dress up as a vanilla pudding). They all have a clear gasoline note, but smell fantastic otherwise.
Slowdive by Hiram Green is by far the most beautiful honey smell I’ve encountered to date.
Get some “Liquid Smoke“, mix with ethanol, and spray on your costume and you’re good to go. Alternatively, get Hyde also by Hiram Green for a remarkably harmonious rendition of a devilish smokey scent you can actually wear.
Personally, I don’t think there is anything more angelic than the smell of ambroxan, so get a bottle of it, dilute it and spray liberally on your wings. Alternatively, the grace inherent in the divine nature of ambroxan also means that any of these will have a touch of the angelic in them.
Late 2020 I explored how vanilla interacts with other scents. This exercise showed me that vanilla and orange scents can have a beautiful love affair. Taking it further, trying to enhance the synergy between these two notes, I arrived at the following synthetic reconstruction of the orange creamsicle quale:
3 – Orange Oil Valencene
3 – Vanillin
2 – Isobutavan
2 – Dihydrolinalool
1 – D-Limonene
1 – Brahmanol
(36 – Ethanol)
Or if you want to just get one ready-made, I can vouch that Eternal Essences’ orange creamsicle fragrance oil really hits the spot for this particular quale. Use these tools and you will be taken seriously as a bona fide orange-creamsicle-human hybrid.
That said, the only people for whom this smell will likely land will be those who were non-anosmic youngsters in the 80s and who are still non-anosmic today, namely, Generation X people. Make sure to invite some of them to your party.
Die-Hard Inner Circle OG 60s Hippie
And finally, if you want to go one step above your generic tie-dye hippy (such as an actual member of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the sort of people who literally do thumbprints of LSD), then an idea would be to douse yourself with something that literally smells like LSD. Yes, it turns out LSD has a smell. And Sigma Aldrich sells samples of an LSD-smelling substance (“Substitute for controlled substances in the training of narcotics detector dogs. Mimics the odor of LSD”).
And that’s it for now! I hope you have a wonderful and cross-modally coherent Halloween!
[Context: This is a guide to writing useful trip reports. If you read the trip report archives of Erowid, Bluelight, and PsychonautWiki, you notice a wide range of styles, interpretative lenses, and focus. We believe that a few relatively simple considerations can drastically improve the usefulness of written reports in ways that can open up novel research directions. This document is meant to extend and complement the Subjective Effect Index of PsychonautWiki in order to maximize the scientific utility of the written reports. If unconvinced of the importance of writing high quality reports, we recommend first reading David Pearce’s “Their Scientific Significance is Hard to Overstate”.]
The first few trip reports you write may not be very detailed, but you will improve over time. It is best to adopt a growth mindset when it comes to translating exotic forms of thinking into sober thinking others can understand. If learning to speak takes years and mastering a new human language in adulthood takes just as long, why would competence in translating psychedelic patterns of thought be something you acquire on the first trip? Thus, it is no surprise that practice and patience are essential ingredients to becoming a psychonaut that is capable of sharing scientifically useful information to the world at large.
So how do you write a useful trip report? Let us start with perhaps the single most important instruction.
Focusing on the Phenomenal Character, Rather than on the Intentional Content of the Experience
The first and most important instruction is to focus on the phenomenal character as opposed to the intentional content of the experience. The intentional content of an experience is what the experience is about, whereas its phenomenal character is what it feels like. While it is worthwhile to discuss the content of your thoughts at a narrative level (e.g. you hallucinated being in an art museum where giant ladybugs were performing in a jazz quartet), the narrative alone will not be very useful to anyone. This is because a narrative description of what your trip was about drastically underdetermines what the experience felt like.
Hence, it is critical to enrich any narrative description with an account of the texture and structure of your experience. People often say things such as: “I went to DMT hell” or “I experienced an LSD paradise”. But what if you probe these statements further? What made the “DMT hell” so unpleasant? What made the “LSD paradise” so blissful? Most people, when asked, tend to be overly focused on saying things along the lines of: “Well, I was meeting angels and strange creatures” or “there were people sobbing”, and they think that this explains why the experience was unpleasant or blissful. You have to understand that when explaining why a certain narrative felt a certain way, you cannot ultimately rely on more narrative. At some point, the explanation should be grounded by the texture of the experience rather than the experience’s narrative. Instead of those previous stories, we think a more useful description would be: “There’s this 3D matrix of resonance that created a lot of green-magenta Moiré patterns, and the sense of harmony and bliss seems to have come from that texture of my experience, and that texture is what made me interpret where I was as a kind of Heaven Realm.” The reason why the angels you saw felt so loving and benevolent comes down to the particular texture of your experience expressing that emotional palette. In other words, the angel is an expression of that sense of harmony and not the other way around.
An analogy is that if you’re listening to pleasurable music, you may hear guitar or piano sounds. The specific instruments definitely matter, but the bulk of what’s making the sound so pleasant and comforting may actually be thereverb quality of the music. Think of the angel like the sound of a guitar. The angel, like the guitar sound, has its own specific qualities (a certain vibe). But in addition to seeing an angel, your entire subjective experience contains this reverb pattern of reverberating (phenomenal) space-time. A phenomenal space-time that feels really wonderful will make you feel like you are in heaven.
Image made by Matthew Smith
Thus, we recommend that you pay attention to the nature of the phenomenal space and time you experienced and do two things:
Try to describe it in as much detail as possible in the language of frequency, dimensionality, fractality, reverb, etc.
Explain how the texture of the phenomenal space you inhabited influenced your emotions and semantic interpretations of what was going on.
Try to reverse-engineer the generators of your experience.
A very simple example would be if you were experiencing some kind of strobing effect, like seeing flickering lights. If so, it would be ideal to figure out the frequency of those lights. QRI developed a psychophysics tool to help people quantitatively measure the visual effects of psychoactive substances. Ideally, you can use this tool while experiencing exotic state of consciousness (such as DMT or the states induced by a Fire Kasina retreat), so that you can confidently report (for example) that you experienced a 20 Hz strobing effect.
Left: 10hz replay. Right: 7hz strobe.
Likewise, if you are experiencing replay effects and you enter a thought loop (cf. short-term memory tracers), it’s very helpful if you can tell how big the loop is instead of saying “I was stuck in a loop”. Was the loop a fraction of a second or was it an elaborate narrative that you were circling around over the course of minutes? Those feel very different even though they are both technically thought loops.
Here is a very concrete example: imagine that your DMT trip looked like this lightshow from 2:27 to 5:12.
What would you say about it? A lot of people would become overly focused on explaining that at around 4:20, amazing lights felt like an angel, or that it was “richly colored and bright”. But the sort of information we believe is more helpful comes when you can point out simple and plausible ways the experience might have been constructed out of elementary building blocks. In this case, we refer you to one of the Youtube comments: “It is unbelievable that such a magnificent show could be made with just 5 lasers!”. Indeed! Most people would be mesmerized by the light show, come up with some elaborate narrative for “what happened” and go about their day without ever realizing that the entirety of the visual content was generated by just five sources of light fixed in place the whole time! Now that is the sort of obvious-in-retrospect observation that can help us make tangible progress. For instance, it only took one clever math student to notice “oh dear, the walls of the DMT palace I’m in are tessellated by heptagons” to kick-start the explanation space where DMT’s odd effects involve an alteration to the curvature of phenomenal space and time (see: The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences). A lot of big insights start with seemingly innocent observations that are obvious in retrospect.
Examples of Statements That Do a Good Job Describing Phenomenal Character
The tracer effects clearly had replays equally spaced apart, calculated around 14hz with the tracer tool. I could make out three replays with precision, but there might have been four or five counting faint ones I couldn’t always see.
Whenever I would focus on my breath my visual field seemed to express a Kelvin–Helmholtz instability: thanks to tactile-visual synesthesia, the sensation of each breath would manifest as disturbances in my visual field, which in turn seemed to have a higher density than their surroundings, and this would give rise to turbulent flow very similar to the Kelvin–Helmholtz instability simulations I’ve seen online.
The left part of my visual field had a vertical wall I was attending to with peripheral vision. The wall felt like it was about 1 meter to my left and at a right angle. This hallucinated wall was vibrating at around 8hz and it had two alternating layers that looked about 1cm apart, one blue and one yellow. Their colors were alternating at about half the speed at which the wall was vibrating.
The ceiling was tessellated with a highly detailed texture organized along the 632 wallpaper symmetry group. More so, this tessellation was dynamic, in that all of the shapes were shifting and morphing. In sequence, a symmetry element type would be selected by attention (such as all of the copies of the 6-rotational symmetry element) and each repeating region of the texture in the entire ceiling would change by the rotation around the copy of the symmetry element that corresponds to it (example). Then another symmetry element would be selected and the pattern would morph by rotation around that new symmetry element, and so on. This lasted for about 1 minute and it faded as soon as I turned on some music.
By selecting features of my hallucinatory environment and attending to them, I could make them grow and in a way “reify them”, meaning that they would feel more and more real and vibrant the more I paid attention to them. I noticed that I could transform the walls of the hallucinated environment into glass walls with a peculiar property: when light goes through the wall in one direction it becomes lighter and when it goes in the other direction it becomes darker. This resulted in the room being filled with what I later recognized to be cohomology fractals.
I was able to more easily separate the various “facets” of essential oils. In particular, rather than experiencing lemongrass as just a “unified block” (a single feeling of “herbal citrus scent”), I could break it down into three independent facets: a sharp citrus scent with peaks of sensation (probably citral or d-limonene), a soft and smooth alcoholic character impact background (probably neral and linalool), and an earthy almost clove-like spice facet (probably centered around myrcene). It was noteworthy that these facets were far more cleanly separate than normal yet by focusing on any two of them at once I could blend them independently in a sort of “qualia chemistry”. It felt like each perfume in turn could be used to experience 5 or 6 different compositions depending on how I would attend and try to merge its different facets all inside of my mind!
My sense of time passing seemed to be constructed out of three distinct elements interacting with one another. One was based on the rate at which the color scheme evolved. The other two were based on the pulsing of visual sensations, which constructed the scene in a manner consistent with a temporal raster plot. The “vertical time” would take about two seconds to complete a cycle, whereas the “horizontal time” would be incredibly fast, doing perhaps a hundred cycles per second. The raster plot had adjustable height and width and this allowed me to visualize (much akin to an actual raster plot) how rhythms in my mind were coupled despite having frequencies at different orders of magnitude: the vertical direction would represent changes across hundreds of milliseconds whereas the horizontal direction would visualize rhythms going on at just a few milliseconds as long as they repeated for long enough.
Of course, psychedelic trips are intensely personal experiences. It is in the nature of psychedelic states to connect intellectual content with deep personal emotional processing. Nonetheless, when it comes to contributing to the commons with high-quality trip reports, you can lessen the impact of personal matters. Without ever mentioning that “it was about your grandmother”, you can just focus instead on the phenomenal character of your trip and provide the bulk of information to the scientific community. Of course, if there was something about the texture of the experience that made your emotional processing easier or harder, you should ideally point that out. But at no point do you need to delve into the specifics of your social circumstance.
Write It Like a Book Report
Think about the task of writing a trip report in the same way you would write a book report in middle school. The teacher assigns a book to read and then they provide a guide for writing your book report with the help of some basic questions everyone needs to answer. This is so that you do not forget to provide some of the critical information needed to interpret your report. We recommend reflecting on these questions and writing their answers before the trip so that your report of the set and setting that gave rise to the trip is not influenced post-hoc by the contents of the trip. Let’s apply this “write it like a book report” framing to reporting exotic experiences. Please provide:
At the bare minimum, start by including basic demographic information: approximate age, gender, height, weight, genetics (national origin might be a good approximation, e.g. half-Mexican half-Icelandic), and health conditions.
Set and Setting Information
In addition to demographic information, make sure to include set and setting information: drug, dose, when it was taken, what method of intake was used (ingestion, smoking, etc.), social context, sleep deprivation status (well rested, just had a 20 minute nap after an all-nighter, etc.) how many times you have taken this drug and at what doses, time of the year, indoors/outdoors, and what the weather was like at the time.
After that, here are six basic questions that should ideally be addressed in every trip report:
1. Background Philosophical Assumptions
The most important thing is to start with clarity about what you believe. Most people have background beliefs that govern the way they think about reality even though they don’t really notice them most of the time. These assumptions will heavily influence what happens on a psychedelic trip. What are your background philosophical assumptions? What do you believe? Why do you believe what you believe? In particular, we suggest that you mention:
Recent Media Consumption
What people and media have influenced you the most? For example, recently reading a lot of Alan Watts books versus Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics may lead to very different experiences on LSD. Your recent media exposure cannot be neglected. And this is less about volume than about influence: you may have read a single quote a year ago that you still think about when showering while the daily consumption of your favorite television show is barely noticed by your subconscious. Therefore, share, most of all, how the media you’ve been consuming is influencing how you think about life, the universe, and everything else.
Direct vs Indirect Realism
Probably the most important belief to address is your stance on direct versus indirect realism about perception. If you read a lot of trip reports, many seem to be implicitly assuming direct realism about perception. This means that people believe they can access the world directly. When they see a flower breathe in and out, they may interpret this experience as the result of being given access to another set of frequencies of light or aspects of reality that we usually ignore. For example, Albert Hoffman seems to have thought about LSD in this way: in the last chapter of LSD: My Problem Child, Hoffman speculates:
“If one continues with the conception of reality as a product of sender and receiver, then the entry of another reality under the influence of LSD may be explained by the fact that the brain, the seat of the receiver, becomes biochemically altered. The receiver is thereby tuned into another wavelength than that corresponding to normal, everyday reality. Since the endless variety and diversity of the universe correspond to infinitely many different wavelengths, depending on the adjustment of the receiver, many different realities, including the respective ego, can become conscious.”
One gets the impression that Hoffman really believed that LSD’s trippy visuals were revealing true information about the environment around us rather than telling us, perhaps, something about the way our brains construct a world-simulation we confuse for reality itself. This is not to say that one cannot in fact notice true details about the environment with LSD, but we can conceive of this as a trade-off between forms of attending to and processing the environment through our normal conventional senses rather than as being given access to new sense organs yet uncharted by science. This is an important distinction.
We should note that variants of direct realism about perception can be steelmanned to some extent. For example, you may look at a tree on a psychedelic and see a mythological creature embedded into the tree. When you come down, you can also verify it by observing that the tree actually kind of resembles the creature you saw on your trip and shows up when you’re not tripping. Once you notice that sort of thing, you cannot unsee it. And maybe other sober people might also see it too once you point it out. In other words, psychedelics will very likely, within some parameters, allow you to see patterns in the real world that you may be missing out on otherwise. It doesn’t mean that you’re perceiving the world directly through a new sense organ. It just means you’re processing that information in a slightly different way.
We would generally suggest to approach a trip report with an indirect realism mindset, where you assume, until proven otherwise, that you are experiencing states of your own internal world-simulation. This allows you to have much better clarity about many strange phenomena. For example, if you feel that you are somehow entangled with your environment, you would in this lens interpret that feeling as an entanglement with yourself. You are just entangled with a part of yourself that you usually interpret as being the external environment.
Indeed, one of the trickiest things about life that we don’t realize for the most part is that the very sense of an external environment itself is part of your internal world-simulation. So for your trip report, make sure to point out if you are interpreting your experience through this lens, the lens of direct realism, or perhaps a hybrid lens (where some aspects are perceived directly and some aren’t).
2. Emotional and Cognitive State
What is your background emotional and cognitive state like? What is your preferred cognitive style? For example, do you naturally have a high baseline well-being or are you more melancholic? Do you identify as a people person or are you a mathematician with no interest in people? It’s actually quite important to note and can result in quite different experiences.
Observing Your Emotions
Paying attention to how emotions are expressed on psychedelics is one of the most important things you can do. People regularly project their emotions onto the nature of reality. Be mindful of this as a failure mode. It’s helpful advice both for better phenomenology and psychologically to try to notice the way emotions manifest in your world-simulation. Emotions will be modifying the way your attention is directed, and noticing this can allow you to gain some control over this process. You can tell the difference between physical suffering and mental suffering in terms of whether these patterns have dissonance located in your (phenomenal) body or in the part of your experiential field that represents thoughts.
It sounds kind of strange. When we’re caught up in mental suffering, we usually don’t realize that it’s a type of unpleasant sensation or dissonance. It is not ineffable. There’s actually a location, region, or subcomponent of the phenomenal field that is vibrating in a strange and unpleasant way. In many ways, noticing how emotions modify the structure of either your felt-sense of your body or your thought patterns will prevent you from being controlled by the emotions without you knowing it.
It’s very important to notice this, and noting this can be helpful for avoiding a bad experience. Often, the reason why you feel terrible in your psychedelic state is not because you realized a big, deep truth about reality or due to anything bad you did. It is frequently the case that you entered some kind of dissonant attractor, and there’s probably a way out of it.
Often, one is advised to “let go and embrace whatever is happening”. This advice does allow you to reduce that dissonance and lessen the grip that mental or physical suffering has on you. It allows you to let it just vibrate on its own for a while without you feeding it energy. And that is helpful. We think it’s even more helpful if you can diagnose the source of dissonance and address it directly. Thus, at an even deeper level, “disengage from dissonant patterns” is better advice than “just let go” because there are some states where letting go is actually a bad idea. If you’re actually very close to making a psychological or intellectual breakthrough, letting go is probably not optimal. Instead, have the mindset of being gentle to yourself by letting go of the dissonant component of the experience rather than its intentional content.
3. Temporal Progression
What was the overall temporal progression of the experience? Draw a graph where the x-axis is time and the y-axis is a variable you want to track, such as “intensity of effects”, “brightness of visual field”, or “emotional valence” and update the graph every half hour. This will help you remember where you were at each stage of the trip and allow you to place your thoughts and ideas along the timeline.
Right after the trip, spend some time making sense of the general structure of what you experienced. That is, identify what kind of arc or main stages the trip involved. Outline how your beliefs and emotions changed throughout each of the stages. Try to recall how long each physical hour felt like (e.g. “1st hour felt like 90 minutes, 2nd hour felt like two hours, 3rd hour felt like two hours, etc”).
Example graph of self-reported valence over time. You can also label points and sections of the graph and then describe them in more detail in your written report. Image by Andrew Zuckerman.
4. The Theme
Was the trip primarily philosophical, self-introspective, investigative, or focused on emotional processing? Go into as much detail as you feel comfortable. Obviously, there are going to be very personal things, so record only as much as feels comfortable or useful to you.
What did you learn about valence? What was the connection between the way the trip unfolded, the quality of each level, and the various thoughts and feelings? How did those contribute to a sense of well being, despair, or neutrality?
We’re very interested in confirming the idea that it feels really good when all your attention centers are synchronized and flickering at the same frequency. If that was the case, then please let us know. If it wasn’t, also please let us know!
6. Qualia and Binding Patterns
In what way did the trip allow you to experience qualia that you have never experienced before (like impossible colors)? Let’s say that you experienced a new combination of touch and auditory sensations. This is really significant! Don’t overlook it, note it down! During the trip, if you’re experiencing new qualia, do as much as you can to explore and investigate it by testing when it arises, when it dissolves, and what actions, if any, can multiply or intensify it.
Buddhists have names for a lot of the novel qualia that arise during meditation. One of those is equanimity. Equanimity feels like something; it’s not just a word. There’s actually a facet of experience that corresponds to it. Likewise, on psychedelics you probably experience a ton of new qualia. We need a glossary for uniquely-psychedelic qualia!
In addition to novel qualia, notice and report any novel patterns of binding. This is about how sensations become coupled together or dissociate in unexpected ways—how sensations are linked together in phenomenal time and space to form coherent phenomenal objects. A special case of “exotic patterns of binding” is synesthesia, where two or more of the sensory modalities become coupled together (such as experiencing phenomenal objects that are sound-touch hybrids). But patterns of binding can also be exotic even when they are expressed within the same modality, such as how the visual field seems to acquire extra virtual dimensions on DMT. We would also consider alterations of the sense of space and time as the result of exotic patterns of binding. So, this is a very general effect with many possible manifestations. If you notice anything of this sort, pay attention to it! How were your sensations bound or unbound in ways that are unusual? Be as detailed as possible.
A Meta Consideration
We suggest that you do not get caught up in the obligation to report things during the experience. Or worse, to believe that in order to be a good trip reporter you have to be able to write everything in real time. Trying to write your trip report in real time is likely to make you feel quite miserable! This is because whether we like it or not, we derive a lot of our self-worth from our feeling of verbal competence. So when you are under the influence of something as powerful as LSD and your verbal skills break down, the feeling that you “are not yourself anymore” gives you a sense of personal failure. But this will only arise if you begin your trip with the expectation that you will be able to report on it in real time. Instead, acknowledge that you will probably be terrible at verbalizing on psychedelics and instead focus your energy on remembering the properties of the state in non-verbal ways. Don’t feel compelled to write extensively because that’s going to be difficult. Just take note of the time or make a drawing or mark that you will understand later.
We do recommend recording the experience as much as you can (short of showing yourself on camera handling or consuming the chemical… don’t do that!). Recording the entirety of your experience unobtrusively in the background may be really helpful for reconstructing what happened afterwards. We have heard that not doing this is a common regret, especially for trips involving high doses where you genuinely wonder what was happening around you in consensus reality (if anything, the footage will help ground you in the certainty that at least the God that visited you wasn’t emitting regular photons that were visible to other people in the room). If you’re comfortable with it, leave at least an audio recording on.
We encourage you to record any important ideas, especially if you suspect that there’s any chance you may forget them. Take your insights seriously. They matter. Don’t feel that you lack the qualifications nor the background for your insights to matter. You are in a very exotic state that’s largely unexplored. What you are experiencing probably matters immensely for the collective understanding of humanity.
Additional Resources for Writing High-Quality Trip Reports
If you’d like some inspiration, here are examples of great trip reports:
Special thanks to Mackenzie Dion and Andrew Zuckerman for their feedback, suggestions, and copious edits to this document.
 In fact, we would claim that the mechanism by which “seeing people sob” feels sad can be explained by how this narrative element influences the texture of your experience.
 Beware that it is very loud right before 2:27.
 The ideal units to report would be degrees, depth, and location within one’s visual field. In practice, most people will be better at reporting estimates of distances gauged as if they were physical distances out there in the world. In the future we will provide conversion tables to unify the units of phenomenological reporting.
 Thanks to Ryan Ragnar for providing the analogy between trip reports and middle school book reports.
 Skip demographic data if you do not feel comfortable sharing it. It will be helpful in order to identify idiosyncratic responses to psychedelics and other compounds, but privacy is also very important. Share approximate information if that makes you feel more comfortable (e.g. “between 20 and 25 years old” rather than “21 years and 3 months old”).
 Steven Lehar’s “Cartoon Epistemology” provides a great visual demonstration and argument for indirect realism about perception.
Excerpt from “Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent” by Jean-Claude Ellena (pgs. 36-38)
To help beginners memorize odors, different perfume companies have created various classifications. The one I provide is based around nine categories of odor.
Flowers. They are subdivided into five groups.
Rose Flowers: This group, which includes rose e.o., geranium e.o., and the odor of hyacinth, lily of the valley, and peony, is characterized by the fragrance of two components of these flowers – phenylethyl alcohol and geraniol.
White Flowers: This group is determined by the combination of two molecules – methyl anthranilate and indole – that characterize the absolutes of orange flower, jasmine, and tuberose, but also the aromas of sweet pea, gardenia, and honeysuckle.
Yellow Flowers: This group is defined by the presence of ionone beta, a molecule produced by the breakdown of the pigment carotene, which is responsible for the color of flowers like freesia and wallflower, extracts of which are in cassia absolute and osmanthus absolute.
Exotic or Spiced Flowers: This group is defined by the combination of benzyl salicylate and eugenol, which is present in the odor of carnations and lilies and as a component in ylang-ylang e.o.
Anise Flowers: This group includes mimosa absolute and the odors of lilac and wisteria. They are created using anisic aldehyde or heliotropin.
Animal Products. They are subdivided into three groups.
Ambers: Labdanum absolute, cistus e.o.
Castoreums: Castoreum absolute, birch tree e.o.
Civets: Civet, skatole, indole.
Marine Products: Seaweed absolute, calone.
In addition to this classification, I recommend another system for identifying odors. To make it easier to memorize and to conceptualize “odor” as an object, I use words associated with another sense, in particular the sense of touch. So I say of an odor that it is hard, soft, cold, hot, velvety, dry, flat, sharp, silky, prickly, gentle, thin, heavy, light, harsh, fragile, oily, greasy, and so forth.
So the vocabulary specific to olfaction consists of words for aromatic objects (soap, sweet, cigar, etc.), of names of flowers (jasmine, lilac, lily of the valley, etc.), of the names of chemical molecules (linalool, benzyl acetate, hexenol, etc.), or of their function (salicylate, aldehyde, etc.), and of words drawn from other senses.
However, what distinguishes the vocabulary of the perfumer from that of laypeople is the choice of a common language based on the training provided in perfumery schools and the discussions between perfumers and experts within the profession. This linguistic community creates a consensus around certain perceptual features. For the perfumer, soap, aldehyde, jasmine, nail varnish, rose, leather, wood, bonbon, and so forth are terms that describe the odor and not the object that produces it. A lily of the valley can be described as “jasmine”, as can a fragrance, a washing powder, and so on. For the perfumer, the word “jasmine” refers to an olfactory experience, which can be very different from the fragrance given off by jasmine flowers. For the professional, therefore, the vocabulary of odors no longer brings to mind the image of the source but a mental picture of the odor. The perfumer thus invents the object of his science; he invents odor, and that is the source of his creativity.
 e.o.: abbreviation for essential oil.
See also these articles that discuss the state-space of scents:
Finally, Luca Turin has recently been putting out videos discussing specific categories of scents by describing the history and use of classic aromachemicals that belong to each of these categories (highly recommended):
[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: