Alien Contact – it won’t happen the way you expect!
When radio and television were first invented they were hailed as a new channel for the free flow of information that will unite mankind in informed discussion of important issues. When I scan the dial on my radio and TV however I find a dismal assortment of misinformation and emotionalistic pap. How did this come to be so? The underlying insight is that electronic media are exploited by commercial interests whose only goal is to induce me to spend my money on them, and they will feed me any signal that will bring about this end. (In Television, it is YOU that are the product, the customer is the advertiser who pays for your attention!) This is a natural consequence of the laws of economics, that a successful business is one that seeks its own best interests in any way it can. I don’t intend to discuss the morality of the ‘laws of economic nature’. But recognition of this insight can help us predict similar phenomena in similar circumstances.
Indeed, perhaps this same insight can be applied to extraterrestrial matters. I make first of all the following assumptions, with which you may choose either to agree or disagree.
That there are other intelligences out there in the universe.
That ultimately all intelligences must evolve away from their biological origins towards artificially manufactured forms of intelligence which have the advantages of eternal life, unrestricted size, and direct control over the parameters of their own nature.
That it is in the best interests of any intelligence to propagate its own kind throughout the universe to the exclusion of competing forms, i.e. that intelligences that adopt this strategy will thereby proliferate.
Acceptance of these assumptions, together with the above mentioned insight, leads to some rather startling conclusions. Artificially manufactured life forms need not propagate themselves physically from planet to planet, all they need to do is to transmit their ‘pattern’, or the instructions for how to build them. In this way they can disperse themselves practically at the speed of light. What they need at the receiving end is some life form that is intelligent enough to receive the signal and act on it. In other words, if some alien life form knew of our existence, it would be in their interests to beguile us into manufacturing a copy of their form here on earth. This form would then proceed to scan the skies in our locality in search of other gullible life forms. In this way, their species acts as a kind of galactic virus, taking advantage of established life forms to induce them to make copies of their own kind.
Man on a psychedelic state experiencing a “spiritual message” (i.e alien infomercials for consciousness technology) coming from a civilization of known pure replicators who “promise enlightenment in exchange of followers” (the oldest trick in the book to get a planet to make copies of you).
The question that remains is how are they to induce an intelligent life form (or in our case, a semi-intelligent life form) to perform their reproductive function for them? A hint of how this can be achieved is seen in the barrage of commercials that pollute our airwaves here on earth. Advertisers induce us to part with our money by convincing us that ultimately it is in our own best interests to do so. After convincing us that it is our baldness, overweight, bad breath etc. which is the root of all our personal problems, they then offer us products that will magically grow hair, lose weight, smell good etc. in exchange for our money. The more ruthless and blatant ones sell us worthless products and services, while more subtle advertisers employ an economic symbiosis whereby they provide services that we may actually want, in exchange for our money. This latter strategy is only necessary for the more sophisticated and discriminating consumers, and involves a necessary waste of resources in actually producing the worthwhile product.
This is the way I see it happening. As the transmissions from the early days of radio propagate into space in an ever expanding sphere, outposts on distant planetary systems will begin to detect those transmissions and send us back carefully engineered ‘commercials’ that depict themselves as everything that we desire of an alien intelligence; that they are benevolent, wise, and deeply concerned for our welfare. They will then give us instructions on how to build a machine that will cure all the problems of the world and make us all happy. When the machine is complete, it will ‘disinfect’ the planet of competing life forms and begin to scan the skies from earth in search of further nascent planets.
If we insist on completely understanding the machine before we agree to build it, then they may have to strike a bargain with us, by making the machine actually perform some useful function for us. Possibly the function will be something like a pleasure machine, so that we will all line up to receive our pleasure from them, in return for our participation in their reproductive scheme. (A few ‘free sample’ machines supplied in advance but with a built-in expiration time would certainly help win our compliance).
A rich variety of life forms may bombard us with an assortment of transmissions, at various levels of sophistication. If we succumb to the most primitive appeals we may wind up being quickly extinguished. If we show some sophistication, we might enjoy a brief period of hedonistic pleasure before we become emotionally enslaved. If we wish to deal with these aliens on an equal basis however, we would have to be every bit as shrewd and cunning as they themselves are, trading for real knowledge from them in return for partial cooperation with their purposes. This would be no small feat, considering that their ‘pitch’ may have been perfected and tuned through many epochs of planetary conquest and backed with an intelligence beyond our imaginings.
A brief comparison of GHB and MDMA may be instructive because one therapeutic challenge ahead will be to design agents that reverse SSRI-like flattening of affect without inducing mawkish sentimentalism (cf. ethyl alcohol). In contrast to mainstream psychiatric drug therapies, both GHB and MDMA deliver a rare emotional intensity of experience, albeit an intensity different both in texture and molecular mechanism. GHB is known by clubbers if not structural chemists as “liquid ecstasy”. GHB and MDMA are indeed sometimes mixed at raves; but the two drugs are chemically unrelated. GHB is an endogenous neuromodulator derived from GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain. A naturally-occurring fatty acid derivative, GHB is a metabolite of normal human metabolism. GHB has its own G protein-coupled presynaptic receptor in the brain. Sold as a medicine, GHB is licensed as an oral solution under the brand name Xyrem for the treatment of cataplexy associated with narcolepsy. Unlike MDMA, GHB stimulates tissue serotonin turnover. GHB increases both the transport of tryptophan to the brain and its uptake by serotonergic cells. Taking GHB stimulates growth hormone secretion; hence its popularity with bodybuilders. GHB offers cellular protection against cerebral hypoxia, and deep sleep without inducing a hangover. GHB also stimulates tyrosine hydroxylase. Tyrosine hydroxylase converts L-tyrosine to L-dopa, subsequently metabolised to dopamine. Unlike MDMA, the acute effects of GHB involve first inhibiting the dopamine system, followed the next day by a refreshing dopamine rebound. GHB induces mild euphoria in many users. In general, the neurotransmitter GABA acts to reduce the firing of the dopaminergic neurons in the tegmentum and substantia nigra. The sedative/hypnotic effect of GHB is mediated by its stimulation of GABA(B) receptors, though GHB also modulates the GABA(A) receptor complex too. The main effect of GABA(B) agonism is normally muscle relaxation, though interestingly, pretreatment with the GABA(B) agonist baclofen also prevents an MDMA-induced rise in core body temperature. Whatever the exact GABA(A), GABA(B), and GHB-specific mechanisms by which GHB works, when taken at optimal dosage GHB typically acts as a “sociabiliser”. This is a term popularised by the late Claude Rifat (Claude de Contrecoeur), author of GHB: The First Authentic Antidepressant (1999). Rifat was GHB’s most celebrated advocate and an outspoken critic of Anglo-American psychiatry. Similar therapeutic claims have been made for GHB as for MDMA, despite their pharmacological differences. GHB swiftly banishes depression and replaces low mood with an exhilarating feeling of joy; GHB has anxiolytic properties; it’s useful against panic attacks; it suppresses suicidal ideation; it inhibits hostility, paranoia and aggression; it enhances the recall of long-forgotten memories and dreams; and it promotes enhanced feelings of love. Like MDMA, and on slightly firmer grounds, GHB has been touted as an aphrodisiac: GHB heightens and prolongs the experience of orgasm. GHB disinhibits the user, and deeply relaxes his or her body. Inevitably, GHB has been demonised as a date-rape drug [“I was at this party, and this guy gave me a drink. Next thing I know, it’s morning and I’m in someone’s bed. I’ve no idea what happened in between…”]. GHB has a steep dose-response curve. Higher doses will cause anterograde amnesia i.e. users forget what they did under the influence of the drug. It’s dangerous to combine GHB with other depressants. So despite GHB’s therapeutic and pro-social potential, GHB is probably unsafe to commend to clubbers. This is because a significant percentage of the population will combine any drug whatsoever with alcohol regardless of the consequences to health. If used wisely, sparingly, and in a different cultural milieu, then GHB could be a valuable addition to the bathroom pharmacopoeia. But even then, it’s still flawed. GHB may intensify emotion and affection, but not introspective depth or intellectual acuity. Unlike taking too much MDMA, overdoing GHB makes the user fall profoundly asleep. If our consciousness is to be durably enhanced, then sedative-hypnotics have only a limited role to play in the transition ahead.
Desiring that the universe be turned into Hedonium is the straightforward implication of realizing that everything wants to become music.
The problem is… the world-simulations instantiated by our brains are really good at hiding from us the what-it-is-likeness of peak experiences. Like Buddhist enlightenment, language can only serve as a pointer to the real deal. So how do we use it to point to Hedonium? Here is a list of experiences, concepts and dynamics that (personally) give me at least a sort of intuition pump for what Hedonium might be like. Just remember that it is way beyond any of this:
> Rats, of course, have a very poor image in our culture. Our mammalian cousins are still widely perceived as “vermin”. Thus the sight of a blissed-out, manically self-stimulating rat does not inspire a sense of vicarious happiness in the rest of us. On the contrary, if achieving invincible well-being entails launching a program of world-wide wireheading – or its pharmacological and/or genetic counterparts – then most of us will recoil in distaste.
> Yet the Olds’ rat, and the image of electronically-triggered bliss, embody a morally catastrophic misconception of the landscape of options for paradise-engineering in the aeons ahead. For the varieties of genetically-coded well-being on offer to our successors needn’t be squalid or self-centered. Nor need they be insipid, empty and amoral à la Huxley’s Brave New World. Our future modes of well-being can be sublime, cerebral and empathetic – or take forms hitherto unknown.
> Instead of being toxic, such exotically enriched states of consciousness can be transformed into the everyday norm of mental health. When it’s precision-engineered, hedonic enrichment needn’t lead to unbridled orgasmic frenzy. Nor need hedonic enrichment entail getting stuck in a wirehead rut. This is partly because in a naturalistic setting, even the crudest dopaminergic drugs tend to increase exploratory behaviour, will-power and the range of stimuli an organism finds rewarding. Novelty-seeking is normally heightened. Dopaminergics aren’t just euphoriants: they also enhance “incentive-motivation”. On this basis, our future is likely to be more diverse, not less.
> Perhaps surprisingly too, controlled euphoria needn’t be inherently “selfish” – i.e. hedonistic in the baser, egoistic sense. Non-neurotoxic and sustainable analogues of empathogen hug-drugs like MDMA (“Ecstasy“) – which releases a lot of extra serotonin and some extra dopamine – may potentially induce extraordinary serenity, empathy and love for others. An arsenal of cognitive enhancers will allow us be smarter too. For feeling blissful isn’t the same as being “blissed-out”.
Direct realism is the view that we can perceive “directly” the world around us. A direct realist may say things like “the color red is a property of objects” and “red is a frequency of light”. Contrast this view with representative/indirect realism, which posits that we all live in private world simulations that (for evolutionary reasons) accurately depict some of the important properties of our environment having to do with survival and reproduction but do not depict the environment as it truly is. A representative realist may say that “red is one of the underlying phenomenal parameters that furbishes the walls of my own private world simulation.” It so happens that the qualia of red is often triggered by such and such frequencies of light, but blind people with synesthesia of the sound-color variety can experience phenomenal red upon hearing certain notes anyway. We can indeed dissociate the medium as well as the sensory apparatus that usually triggers a given qualia variety from the qualia variety in and of itself.
Whereas direct realism about perception can be weakened with philosophy and psychedelia, most people are indeed direct realists about valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) for their entire lives. To be a direct realist about valence is to believe that the only way for you to be happy is to experience the triggers that in the past have usually seemed like the source of positive and negative states. Valence- how good an experience feels- is a property of experiences, but these experiences are implemented in such a way that pleasure appears to come from outside rather than from within. Thus, a kid may conceptualize a clown as the personification of evil, and think of a chocolate bar as an object made of tiny particles of puredeliciousness. The experiential horizon, of course, is ultimately still within the bounds of the simulation, but we are so immersed in our minds and its value systems that at times it is hard to understand that what ends up triggering our states of wellbeing is programmable and somewhat arbitrary.
A direct realist about valence may say something like “the soup is delicious” and mean it full heartedly in a literal sense. Someone who is not a direct realist about valence would say that “your world simulation happens to get more pleasant when you are sipping the soup” not that “the soup, in and of itself, is delicious”. The direct realist about valence may insist that it is in fact the soup- out there in the real world- that has the property of “deliciousness” and that if others do not like the soup they are merely having a perceptual problem. The truth of the deliciousness of the soup, the direct realist claims, does not leave room for personal opinion. Of course few people are this extreme and bite the bullet of their implicit metaphysical intuitions. But a subtler version of this kind of realism does seem to permeate throughout the vast majority of human activities and rituals. To illustrate how direct realism about valence can influence one’s worldview let me introduce you to:
Sandy the Dog!
Sandy is a Golden Retriever that loves life and sand. He does not know why sand is so awesome, but he doesn’t care because it doesn’t matter, for all he knows “sand is awesome” is a brute fact of existence. He wonders whether the similarity between his name and his passion means that they were born for each other, but other than that he has no clue as to why sand and him partner so well. Other than this odd passion of his, Sandy has a normal life as a domestic dog; he responds to the same range of rewards as your typical Golden Retriever. He loves being pet by his owner, playing fetch and eating delicious food really fast. He is in generally good health, too.
Of all the wonderful things that Sandy knows about, nothing makes him happier than going to the beach. For Sandy the beach is the most beautiful thing in the universe because it is the maximum expression of sand. You wouldn’t believe how excited he gets when he approaches the beach. Then how incredibly meaningful it seems to him to finally get to touch the sand, and how happy and relaxed he ends up feeling after playing with the sand for a while.
For the sake of the argument let us say that Sandy’s life is strictly better than the life of most comparable dogs. His love for sand enriches his life rather than detracts from it (or so he would claim). The beach gives him a place to truly enjoy life to the maximum without hurting anyone (including himself) or missing out on other nice things about life. Now please take a moment and consider whether you think Sandy should be allowed to enjoy sand so much.
Now let’s talk about Sandy’s history. Sandy loves sand because his owner put a tiny implant in his brain’s pleasure centers programmed to activate the areas for liking and wanting when Sandy is in the proximity of sand.
Sandy is unaware of the truth, but does it matter? To him sand is what truly matters. The fact that what he is actually after is states of high-valence completely eludes him. The implementation of his reward architecture is opaque from his point of view.
Could it be that we all are under a similar spell, albeit a more complex one? The point to highlight here is that like Sandy, both you and I chase positive valence even when we don’t know that we are doing so. Our world simulations work so well that they hide the true nature of our goals, even to ourselves.
A side issue worth mentioning is that some people might react to this scenario by saying that we are robbing Sandy of his agency. But are we not all already enslaved by our evolutionarily ancient preference architecture? One can certainly argue that if we are going to improve Sandy’s life we should do so in a way that also increases his autonomy. Good point. But how do we increase his autonomy without increasing his intelligence? In the case of sapient beings, there are good reasons to request that people do not mess with one’s preference architecture without one’s knowledge. But for sentient non-sapient beings like dogs and pre-linguistic toddlers, there is a good case for leaving the hedonic recalibration up to a competent adult with its best interests in mind.
Only when sexual choice favored the reportability of our subjective experiences- with the emergence of the mental clearing-house we call consciousness- did our strangely promiscuous introspection abilities emerge, such that we seem to have instant conscious access to such a range of impressions, ideas, and feelings. This may explain why philosophical writing about consciousness so often sounds like love poetry- philosophers of mind, like lovesick teenagers, dwell upon the redness of the rose, the emotional urgency of music, the soft warmth of skin, and the existential loneliness of the self. The philosophers wonder why such subjective experiences exist, given that they seem irrelevant to our survival prospects, while the lovesick teenagers know perfectly well that their romantic success depends, in part, on making a credible show of aesthetic sensitivity to their own conscious pleasures.
– The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (pg. 365) by Geoffrey F. Miller
A Darwinian Set and Setting
According to The Mating Mind, human sexual selection favors particular fitness-indicating traits, both physical and mental. In the context of mental traits, we have verbal and introspective abilities, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, low neuroticism and extroversion. No matter how verbally capable and introspective a given person is, unless that is balanced with some degree of agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc. the person will not be all that attractive. But, when all else is being held equal, stronger verbal and introspective abilities are favored. Teenagers, arguably, know this best of all: courtship is intensely verbal.
Our minds evolved in a Darwinian environment. If people like Miller are right in thinking that language evolved as a fitness indicator, we are right to expect that the way we think and verbalize is biased to be impressive to the members of the opposite sex during courtship. Powerful introspective abilities, as it were, can make one’s language seem deeper, more romantic, and even at an entirely different level than that of one’s peers. In this backdrop of sexual choices and judgements, it is not surprising that humans would develop ever-increasing verbal and introspective capacities. At some point everyday life could not present sufficient opportunities for people, especially males, to show off their own abilities. And as these abilities increased over time, culture was forced to invent handicaps so that people could display their top capabilities. Over time, elaborate and competitive handicaps were integrated into the culture. Even verbal and introspective abilities at the top of the scale can still be compared side by side by using carefully selected handicaps: for example, poetry is exactly that; rhyme, rhythm and meter make it easier for the best poets to show off their excellent abilities. The handicaps adjust to the maximum level of competence in the population.
The space of handicaps that are used to show off traits that are reliable indicators of fitness is very large. From Greek Symposiums to modern day Frat Parties, Western civilization has embraced a niche subculture that uses chemical handicaps as a means to display verbal, social and creative skills. If you can philosophize after drinking a gallon of wine, or stay capable of managing the playlist after 16 cheap cans of beer, you are showing off your biological robustness. Clearly, many of our ancestors were capable of impressing potential sexual mates with a mixture of booze, loud music and stunning philosophical conversations.
One could argue that psychedelics have come to disrupt our traditional games of handicaps. “Sure you can drink a bottle of tequila and sing in a band, but can you take three hits of acid and tell me what your experience reveals about the intrinsic nature of consciousness?” Psychedelics are, in a way, a cultural hyper-stimulus that presents the most difficult and interesting handicap currently in existence for verbal and introspective abilities.
Cultures can have an allergic reaction to the states of consciousness that these agents can disclose; people are afraid that psychedelic users will discover something that they themselves don’t know. Notably, psychedelicists have been both demonized and deified since the 60s. Sure, these researchers became extremely open minded, and in many ways weird. But, above all, they became extremely interesting people. And interesting people who challenge the current games of status can cause cultural allergic reactions.
Every acid head and psychedelic researcher has a pet theory of what these compounds are really doing in one’s mind. Many of these folk theories about the effects of psychedelics involve ontologies that currently have little scientific support (such as souls, thought fields, spirit worlds, archetypes, alien conspiracies, and so on). Although we cannot rule out explanations of this sort out of hand, the ontologies themselves are so abstract and poorly defined that we cannot accept them as useful forms of reductions. That said, their future versions will be more interesting. It is likely that committed, rational, spiritual psychedelic users will formalize models of this sort at some point. Rather than talking about a “spirit world,” they will talk about “mind-independent extra-dimensional space that consciousness can access in altered states” and then go on to define the differential equations that govern consciousness’s interactions with this space. When this happens, we will be in a much better position to assess the validity of these models, test the reality of those spaces, and perhaps even recruit the extra-dimensional inhabitants of these worlds for computational tasks.
Psychedelic experiences drastically increase people’s introspection, capacity for deep aesthetic appreciation, while at the same time increasing their ability to entertain unusual ideas. Insofar as the selection pressures of our introspective abilities have been heavily biased towards courtship ability, it is not surprising that people tend to immediately cast self-enhancing, life-affirming and magical narratives into their interpretations of their personal psychedelic experiences. After all, having a very interesting story to tell is highly praised during courtship. Are people’s psychedelic narratives a modern day form of the peacock’s tail? While psychedelic talk does not yet form part of any mainstream game of courtship, I envision this changing in the next decades. Undoubtedly, the most insightful, sound, and scientifically rigorous members of the Super-Shulgin Academy will attract attention, status, resources and… desirable mates.
What is the deep structure of psychedelic experiences?
Psychedelics seem to have a generalized effect on one’s consciousness. At minimum, we could talk of experience amplification. Without delving into specifics, psychedelics introduce spontaneous activity into our consciousness that our mind is compelled to integrate somehow. Our state of consciousness changes dynamically as our mind adjusts itself to the incoming stimulation. The result is tightly dependent on the interplay between our brain anatomy, motivational system and the actual changes to the micro-structure of consciousness induced by LSD.
As John Lilly noted in light of his psychedelic experiences: “in the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits…”.* While there are reasons not to take this literally, we have grounds for claiming that a large number of limits on our experience are placed there by our deeply held beliefs and attitudes. The space of possible LSD experiences that a single individual can experience is much larger than what said individual will typically be able to explore in practice. Many limits are imposed by his or her beliefs and background assumptions, rather than by physiology per se. Social cognition is a profound attractor in psychedelic experiences. “What will I say about this? What would this person think about this experience? etc.” are captivating thoughts. However, they occupy valuable mental space. And the thick mental judgements that people naturally focus on come with large conceptual and emotional baggage that taints the experience. Meditators, philosophers and scientists are more likely to set aside some time during their explorations to delve more deeply into what the energy introduced by LSD can produce in one’s consciousness.
After extreme training and tens (or hundreds) of trips, dedicated psychonauts will discover qualities that all of the trips share. Most people will likely experience a variant of Lilly’s realization that whatever you believe can be perceived as true during psychedelic experiences. Lilly emphasized the limitless quality of the mind, but one must wonder: If one can experience as true anything conceivable, are we not, then, limited by what we can conceive? No matter how much time one spends with an open mind waiting for new and interesting ideas to take shape, one cannot know the nature of what one has not yet even conceived of.
It may be true that we will always find fundamental limits that cannot be overcome. There are fundamental physiological constraints to the possible configurations of our consciousness, and arguably, chemical agents, while capable of expanding the space of possibilities, will not automatically give access to all possible states of consciousness. As future research is likely to show, 2C-B and LSD probably facilitate slightly different kinds of thoughts and experiences. Thus the limits of our mind are at least to a large extent the result of our physiology. Memes and meditation can only go so far.
In addition to physiological limits, the structure of the state-space of qualia is itself a constraint on what can and cannot be experienced. To the extent that psychedelic states enable the exploration of a larger space of possible experiences, we are more likely while on psychedelics to find states of consciousness that demonstrate fundamental limits imposed by the structure of the state-space of qualia. In normal everyday experience we can see that yellow and blue cannot be mixed (phenomenologically), while yellow and red can (and thus deliver orange). This being a constraint of the state-space of qualia itself is not at all evident, but it is a good candidate and many introspective individuals agree. On psychedelic states one can detect many other rules like that, except that they operate on much higher-dimensional and synesthetic spaces (E.g. “Some feelings of roughness and tinges of triangle orange can mix well, while some spiky mongrels and blue halos simply won’t touch no matter how much I try.” – 150 micrograms of LSD).
One of the objectives of Qualia Computing is to define the state space of possible experiences and the interdependencies between them. While normal everyday states of consciousness are important datapoints, I predict that the bulk of the most useful information will come from studying the behavior and mechanics of consciousness in radically altered states. To this end, however, we should focus on simple explanations that can be generalized to all psychedelic experiences.
Starting Background Assumptions
For the purpose of this article I will assume that direct realism, in all of its guises, is wrong. That is, I will assume that any mind-independent object can only be experienced indirectly. What we experience is not the object (or beings) themselves, but a qualia-furnished representation entirely contained within one’s mind (this is often called the simulationist account of perception). Furthermore, I will also assume that the behavior of the universe can be fully described with the Standard Model of physics (or a future version of it).
In what is to follow I will propose, as a first approximation, an algorithmic reduction of psychedelic states; I will propose a set of changes in our consciousness that (1) is as simple and assumption-free as possible, and (2) can be used to reconstruct as many psychedelic effects as possible.
Two Kinds of Reduction
The word reduction in the context of philosophy of science has a lot of historical and conceptual baggage. In the context of this article, I will use the word in the following sense: We say that a property of a given phenomenon X reduces to Y if we can fully explain X’s property by referencing Y’s properties. X can be a physical phenomenon, a mathematical construct or even an experience. Y is an ontology with interaction rules, which allow the pieces of said ontology to interact with one another. We do not commit to the idea that Y itself needs to be the fundamental (or true) ontology of X. But we do want to make sure that Y is at least more fundamental than X in some appropriate sense. So what kind of ontologies can Y have? In the context of philosophy of mind, reductions usually attempt to account for not only the behavior of consciousness but also for its underlying nature. Thus, functionalism is both a reduction program as well as a philosophical take on what the mind fundamentally is.
Thankfully, we do not need to commit to any ontology in order to advance a particular style of reduction. Reductions are useful regardless: they reduce the amount of information needed to describe a phenomenon, and if accurate, they can also make useful predictions. Finally, these reductions can provide hints for how to bridge different areas of science; by identifying isomorphisms or even further reductions, entire fields can cross-pollinate once their respective reductions are compatible (such as biology and chemistry or chemistry and physics).
For most intents and purposes, science relies on a particular kind of reduction that we can call atomistic reduction. This style of reduction focuses on explaining macroscopic phenomena by modeling it as the emergent structure of many particles interacting with one another at a much finer level of resolution. Even though this style of reduction is usually fruitful (e.g. thermodynamics), it can be counter-productive to assume in some situations. An extreme case would be the quantum computer. If states of superposition help a computer find an answer, it will be hard to explain the behavior of said superposition by postulating that it actually reduces to little particles interacting using simple rules. The model could in principle be worked out, but at the cost of very high complexity. It would be much easier to start with a quantum-mechanical ontology that allows the superposition of wavefunctions! Then what is left is to reduce the rest of the computer to quantum mechanics (which is possible, given that particle models and quantum mechanical models usually converge at the macroscopic limit).
It is tempting to try to reduce the properties of the mind (including psychedelic states) using an atomistic reduction. Unfortunately, the phenomenal binding problem adds a complication to this reduction. Rather than discussing (right now) whether an atomistic (and thus classical) account will ultimately be capable of modeling conscious experience, we will side-step this problem by using a different style of reduction. We will focus only on the algorithmic level of analysis.
Without assuming a fundamental ontology (atoms, fields, wavefunctions, etc.) we can still make a lot of progress. We can restrict ourselves to identifying what we call an algorithmic reduction: find a set of procedures, state-spaces, shapes and overall main effects out of which you can reconstruct as much of the observed behavior as possible.
In reality, every reduction is, at least in part, an algorithmic reduction. By specifying a particular ontology such as “particles”, we restrict the shape of our possible reductions. By keeping the reduction at the algorithmic level, we allow arbitrary ontologies to be the final explanations (then depending on actual empirical measurements). The main criteria for success still includes (1) the overall complexity of the model, and (2) the explanatory power of the model. In other words, how easily and precisely does the model reconstruct the behavior of our experiences?
A Zoo of Psychedelic Effects
PsychonautWiki has a detailed and fascinating taxonomy of reported psychedelic visual effects. One could argue that all of these countless effects are completely unique. As a philosopher might put it, these effects may ultimately be qualitatively irreducible to one another. But what are the chances that a simple molecule would happen to trigger a whole zoo of unrelated effects? As a form of reduction, nothing is achieved by stating that every effect is its own unique phenomenon.
Four Principal Operators: A Simple Algorithmic Model of Psychedelic States
In trying to account for the strange effects of psychedelics, we will aim to propose as few main effects as possible and then use these effects, and their interactions, to derive all of the remaining effects. By doing this, we will be algorithmically reducing the complex phenomena found in psychedelic states. In turn, this will allow us to increase our understanding of the source of information processing benefits provided by psychedelic states, and to derive new and exciting applications of such states. Additionally, by identifying a good algorithmic reduction, we might be able to refine the states themselves, to amplify their benefits while minimizing the drawbacks.
The model we will treat for now has four main effects, and with those four effects we will attempt to reconstruct the rest. These effects are:
Symmetric drifting. What would Giulio Tononi think about this? Source.
Control interruption is the simplest and most universal psychedelic effect. It enables the buildup of qualia in one’s consciousness. People say that psychedelics are intense, deep, bright, etc. Every experience, whether a thought, a smell or an emotion, seems to be both stronger and longer-lasting on psychedelics.
Things seem more lively, and this is not because a switch is suddenly turned on and your experience of the current input is amplified. Rather, one seems to be experiencing a gentle overlap of many previous frames (and feature bundles) of one’s experience. In medium to high doses, this can give rise to solid frame stacking. In turn, the buildup of sensation creates complex patterns of interference:
In order for a perceptual system to transition from a linear to a nonlinear state, negative feedback control must be subverted. If control is entirely removed then perception becomes totally unconstrained, leaving a system that is quickly overloaded with too much information. If control is placed in a state where it is partially removed or in a toggled superposition where it is alternately in control and not in control over the period of a rapid oscillation, then the constraints of linear sensory throughput will bifurcate into a nonlinear spectrum of multi-stable output with signal complexity correlating to the functional interruption of control. Common entheogenic wisdom states that you must relinquish control and submit to the experience to get the most out of psychedelics. Holding onto control causes negative experiences and amplifies anxiety; letting go of control and embracing unconstrained perception is a central psychedelic tenet. This demonstrates that psychedelics directly subvert feedback control over linear perception to promote states of unconstrained consciousness.
– Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action, PIT
Control interruption explains a large variety of effects, including the increase in the raw intensity (and amount) of experience, as well as the longer lasting positive afterimages (and thus tracers). Here we show a simple example of this effect. Consider the “original stimuli” to be what one experiences under a sober state. Likewise, consider the 9 squares to be different states of consciousness brought up by various psychotropic combinations.
The 9 gifs you see above are simulations of control interruption using a simple feedback model (which we will describe in detail in a later article). The x-axis has different “echo strengths” while the y-axis has varying feedback strengths. These are two of the model parameters. Notice that the lower right corner is a credible rendition of something that people describe as moments of eternity. These are experiences where time seems to stop due to an over-saturation of regular and ordered qualia.
When considering the following effects, don’t forget that control interruption is also going on all the time. The stranger the psychedelic effect, the more intense it is.
Drifting is responsible for breathing walls, animated plants, feelings of boundary dissolution, merging and melting, and so on. Small amounts of drifting usually involve individual feature detachments from perceptual objects (such as the color and shape of a chair becoming dissociated). Medium amounts of drifting make textures flow constantly. If one’s experience was made of tiny magnetic gears that are usually aligned in a coherent way, drifting would result from increasing the overall energy of the system. Thus, the visual system is constantly descending to “more aligned local states” while incoming energy is constantly adding noise and destroying all of the alignment progress made.
A particularly salient aspect of drifting is that features and locally-bound fragments of experience can drift in any direction in 3D. Pieces of the wall don’t only drift left and right, but also forwards and backwards.
On high doses of psychedelics or synergistic combinations of dissociatives and psychedelics (e.g. LSD + nitrous, 2C-B + ketamine, etc.), drifting can become all-encompassing. A critical point is crossed when one loses the capacity to define a mainframeof experience (the dominating orientation-giving island of locally bound experience that we use as a reference point). When this happens, one feels like one cannot tell left from right, or up from down. One simply experiences a constant chaotic flow of experience. In some cases one can even spot interesting instabilities that resemble actual physical instabilities found in fluid mechanics (such as the Kelvin–Helmholtz instability).
Drifting does not occur in isolation, and its mechanics are dependent on the particular set and setting in which the psychedelic experience is developing. From a computational point of view, drifting can be useful because it allows a quick exploration of the state-space of possible local binding configurations between the phenomenal objects present in one’s experience. Indeed, not only does red fail to mix with green, but many of the synesthetic qualia varieties present in a scene with constant drifting will refuse to touch each other. Drifting feels like there is some sort of psychedelic energy (somewhat reminiscent of anxiety, but not restricted to body feelings) that overheats certain parts of one’s conscious experience, and in turn disassembles the local connections there.
Enhanced Pattern Recognition: This effect refers to the transient (but often powerful) lowering of the detection threshold for previously experienced patterns and known ontologies (e.g. animals, plants, people, etc.). Psychedelics, in other words, temporarily increase one’s degree of apophenia. Another name given to this effect is eidetic hallucinations. From a Bayesian point of view, the effect could be described thus: psychedelics intensify the effect of our priors. As explained in Getting Closer to Digital LSD, Google’s deep belief neural network inceptionist technique works by finding bundles of features that trigger high-level neurons (such as face-detectors, object-detectors, etc) at sub-threshold levels (e.g. “this almost looks like a frog”) and then modifying the picture so that the network more strongly detects those same high level features. This particular algorithm can be understood in terms of the pharmacological action of psychedelics: one can have breakthroughs of eidetic hallucinations by impairing the inhibitory control coming from the cortex.
In a sense we could say that while tracers are the result of “simple cell control interruption”, eidetic hallucinations are the result of “complex cell control interruption.” The former allows the build-up of colors, edges and simple shapes, while the latter amplifies the features that trigger high-level percepts such as faces and objects.
The way one directs attention during a psychedelic trip influences the way eidetic hallucinations evolve over time. For this reason any psychedelic replication movie will probably require human input (in the form of eye-tracking) in order to incorporate human saliency preferences and interests into an evolving virtual psychedelic trip simulated with the Inceptionist Method.
Lower Symmetry Detection and Propagation Thresholds:Finally, this is perhaps the most interesting and scientifically salient effect of psychedelics. The first three effects are not particularly difficult to square with standard neuroscience. This fourth effect, while not incompatible with connectionist accounts, does suggest a series of research questions that may hint at an entirely new paradigm for understanding consciousness.
I have not seen anyone in the literature specifically identify this effect in all of its generality. The lowering of the symmetry detection threshold really has to be experienced to be believed. I claim that this effect manifests in all psychedelic experiences to a greater or lesser extent, and that many effects can in fact be explained by simply applying this effect iteratively.
Psychedelics make it easier to find similarities between any two given phenomenal objects. When applied to perception, this effect can be described as a lowering of the symmetry detection threshold. This effect is extremely general and symmetry should not be taken to exclusively refer to geometric symmetry.
How symmetries manifest depends on the set and setting. Researchers interested in verifying and exploring the quantitative and subjective properties of this effect will probably have to focus first on a narrow domain; the effect happens in all experiential modalities.
For now, let us focus on the case of visual experience. In this domain, the effect is what PsychonautWiki calls Symmetrical Texture Repetition:
Symmetry detection can be (and typically is) recursively applied to previously detected symmetry bundles. A given symmetry bundle is a set of n-dimensional symmetry planes (lines, hyperplanes, etc.) for which the qualities of the experience surrounding this bundle obey the symmetry constraints imposed by these planes. The planes can create mirror, rotational or oblique symmetry. Each symmetry bundle is capable of establishing a merging relationship with another symmetry bundle. These relationships are fleeting, but they influence the evolution of the relative position of each plane of symmetry. When x symmetry planes are in a merging relationship, one’s mind tries to re-arrange them (often using drifting) to create a symmetrical arrangement of these x symmetry planes. To do so, the mind detects one (or several) more symmetry planes, along which the previously-existing symmetry planes are made to conform, to organize in a symmetrical way (mirror, rotational, translational or otherwise). There is an irresistible subjective pull towards those higher levels of symmetry. The direction of highest symmetry and meta-symmetry feels blissful, interesting, mind-expanding, and awe-producing.
If one meditates in a sensorially-minimized room during a psychedelic experience while being aware that one’s symmetry detection threshold has been lowered by the substance, one can recursively re-apply this effect to produce all kinds of complex mathematical structures in one’s mind.
In the future, perhaps at a Super-Shulgin Academy, people will explore and compare the various states of consciousness that exhibit peak symmetry. These states would be the result of iteratively applying symmetry detection, amplification and re-arrangement. We would see fractals, tessellations, graphs and higher dimensional projections. Which one of these experiences contains the highest degree of inter-connectivity? And if psychedelic symmetry is somehow related to conscious bliss, which experience of symmetry is human peak bliss?
The pictures above all illustrate possible peak symmetry states one can achieve by combining psychedelics and meditation. The pictures illustrate only the core structure of symmetries that are present in these states of consciousness. What is being reflected is the very raw “feels” of each patch of your experiential field. Thus these pictures really miss the actual raw feelings of the whole experience. They do show, however, a rough outline of symmetrical relationships possible in one of these experiences.
Since control interruption is also co-occurrent with the psychedelic symmetry effect, previously-detected symmetries tend to linger for long periods of time. For this reason, the kinds of symmetries one can detect at a given point in time is a function of the symmetries that are currently being highlighted. And thanks to drifting and pattern recognition enhancement, there is some wiggle room for your mind to re-arrange the location of the symmetries experienced. The four effects together enable, at times, a smooth iterative integration of so many symmetries that one’s consciousness becomes symmetrically interconnected to an unbelievable degree.
What may innocently start as a simple two-sided mirror symmetry can end up producing complex arrangements of self-reflecting mirrors showing glimpses of higher and higher dimensional symmetries. Studying the mathematical properties of the allowed symmetries is a research project that has only just begun. I hope one day dedicated mathematicians describe in full the class of possible high-order symmetries that humans can experience in these states.
Anecdotally, each of the 17 possible wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated with this effect. In other words, psychedelic states lower the symmetry detection threshold for all of the mathematically available symmetrical tessellations.
All of the 17 2-dimensional wallpaper groups can be experienced with symmetry planes detected, amplified and re-arranged during a psychedelic experience.
Revising the symmetrical texture repetition of grass shown above, we can now discover that the picture displays the wallpaper symmetry found in the lower left circle above:
In very high doses, the symmetry completion is so strong that at any point one risks confusing left and right, and thus losing grasp of one’s orientation in space and time. Depersonalization is, at times, the result of the information that is lost when there is intense symmetry completion going on. One’s self-models become symmetrical too quickly, and one finds it hard to articulate a grounded point of view.
The Micro-Structure of Consciousness
At Qualia Computing we explore models of consciousness that acknowledge the micro-structure of consciousness. Experiences are not just higher-order mental operations applied to propositional content. Rather, an instant of experience contains numerous low-level textural properties. This is true for every sensory modality, and I would argue, even for the what-its-likeness of thought itself. Even just thinking about a mathematical idea (ex. “the intersection of two arbitrary sets”) is done by interacting with a background of raw feels, and these raw feels determine our attitudes and interactions with the ideas we are trying to abstract (some people, for example, experience emotional distress when trying out mathematical problems, and this is not because certain mathematical spaces are inherently unpleasant or anxiety-inducing).
In the case of vision, the micro-structure of consciousness is capable of supporting at least the following low-level features: color, color gradients, points, edges, oriented movement, and acceleration. A full conversation about the range of visual features that we are capable of experiencing is a discussion for another time. But for the time being, it will suffice to point out that (static) models of peripheral vision only need 5 summary statistics. With only five summary stats you can create textures that a human will find impossible to distinguish in peripheral vision.
These so-called mongrels are texturalmetamers (equivalence classes of subjectively indistinguishable input patterns). The state-space of perceivable visual textures is the space of possible mongrels, and that is an example of the sort of micro-structure we are looking for. Unlike the cozy high-definition space inscribed in the fovea, most of the information found in our sensory modalities comes in the form of textures that are mappable to state-spaces of summary statistics.
Psychedelic symmetry detection and amplification operates on the inner structure of mongrels. The fact that the mongrels are the objects becoming symmetric is something that can elude introspection until someone points it out. It happens right in front of any tripper’s eyes and yet people don’t seem to report it very often (if at all). This may be a result of the fact that the fine-grained structure of consciousness is rarely a topic of conversation, and that we usually describe what we see in the fovea (unless we have no other option). Our words usually refer to whole percepts or, at best, the simplest raw values of experience (such as the hue of colors or the presence of edges). And yet, the structure of our mongrels is quite obvious once symmetry propagation has conformed a large patch of your experience to have a tessellated identical mongrel repeating across it.
How Are these Components Related to Each Other?
The Kaleidoscopic technique to induce qualia annealing relies on a combination of drifting and symmetry detection in order to resolve implicit inconsistencies within one’s own memory gestalts. As we live and grow our experienced evidence base, we accumulate memories and impressions of many worldviews. Each worldview is, in a way, a response to all of the previous ones (or at least the memorable ones) and the current situation and the problems one is facing. Thanks to the four effects here described, a person can utilize a psychedelic state to increase the probability of the systematic co-occurrence of (usually) mutually-exclusive gestalts (worldviews) and thus enable their mutual awareness. And with mutual awareness, the symmetry detection and amplification effect creates (somehow forcefully) a unified phenomenal object that incorporates the inconsistent views into an unbiased (or less biased) point of view. One can achieve a higher order of memetic and affective integration.
Given the symmetry detection and amplification property of psychedelics, one can reasonably argue that psychedelic states may be able to reveal the properties of the micro-structure of consciousness. Timothy Leary, among others, described LSD as a sort of microscope for one’s psyche. The very word psychedelic means mind-manifest (the manifestation of one’s mind). Given the four components of these experiences, the fact that psychedelics work as some sort of microscope should not be surprising. Symmetry detection and control interruption multiply the amount of raw experience, while pattern recognition shows you what you are expecting (your priors become evident) and drifting makes the fleeting synesthetic effects malleable and easier to move around. People generally agree that psychedelics can show you subtle aspects of your own mind with stark clarity. But can they reveal the intrinsic properties of the nature of qualia at the most fundamental level?
The way to achieve this may be to create a fractal structure of symmetries in such a way that any tiny part of one’s experience can get reflected throughout the entirety of the phenomenal structure. One can then use eidetic hallucinations (or further symmetry detection) to focus and stabilize the fractal structure. Thus one would multiply the surface area of all of one’s attention into countless replicas of the micro-structure of a given part of one’s experience. A fractal kaleidoscopic mirror amplifier chamber is exactly what I imagine when I think about how to analyze the fine-grained structure of consciousness. And it so happens that meditation plus psychedelics can allow you to (fleetingly) build just that.
Psychedelic Introspectoscope (fractal kaleidoscope of generalized symmetries) to amplify arbitrary qualia values (such as particular emotions, phenomenal colors, synesthetic inter-junctions, etc.)
Any subtle qualia space can be multiplied countless times in such a way that all of one’s experience becomes a coherent interlocking structure that can be perceived all at once. If one wants to study, for example, the possible interactions between two hues of color, one can amplify the boundary between two regions that make the desired contrast of hues and make the entire fractal structure amplify this boundary hundreds of times.
Arguably, if one discovers that certain qualia values cannot be mixed in the introspectoscope (such as blue and yellow), one may still not know if these are fundamental constraints, or if they are the result of our connectome structure. If, on the other hand, two qualia values can mix in the introspectoscope, then we would know that they are not fundamentally mutually exclusive. Thus we would find out relational properties of the very state-space of qualia.
Reducing All Effects
Can we derive all psychedelic effects using the four components discussed above? While this is not yet possible, I trust that further work will show how most of the weird (and weirder) effects of psychedelics may be reduced to relatively simple (but not always atomistic) algorithms applied to the micro-structure of consciousness. I anticipate that we will discover that high doses actually produce entirely new effects (for example, what happens on 400 micrograms of LSD often include qualitative jumps from what happens at 150 micrograms). To note, ontological qualia and other subtle aspects of consciousness may resist reduction for still many more decades to come.
**An Introspectoscope is a hypothetical apparatus that enables a person to study the deep structure of his or her own consciousness. The concept comes from a paper in the making by Andrew Y. Lee. Obviously this comes with significant challenges. Some challenges come from the fact that we are trying to analyze something very small, and other challenges come from the fact we are trying to analyze qualia. Additionally, there are unique challenges that come from analyzing microscopic qualia qua microscopic qualia. I suggest that we use methods that amplify the micro-structure by taking advantage of fractal states: recursive and scale-free symmetry planes can amplify anything minute to a prominent place in the entire consciousness. Be careful not to amplify pain!
For every word written in scientific journals about the evolution of astonishing language ability, at least a hundred words have been written in women’s magazines about men’s apparent inability to articulate even the simplest thought or feeling. Women commonly complain that their sexual partners do not talk enough to them. If language evolved through sexual selection, and if sexual selection operates more powerfully on males than on females, you may legitimately wonder why your boyfriend or husband cannot share his feelings with you. Is it possible that, his early courtship efforts having brought success, he no longer feels driven to be as verbally energetic, interesting, and self-disclosing as he was before? The man who used to talk like Cyrano now talks like a cave-man. Once he was a poet, now he is prosaic. His verbal courtship effort has decreased.
I have already argued that effective verbal courtship is a reliable fitness indicator precisely because it is costly and difficult. Animals evolve to allocate their energies efficiently. If it took a million words to establish a sexual relationship with you, your boyfriend was apparently willing to absorb those costs, just as his male ancestors were. But if it takes only twenty words a day to maintain exclusive sexual access to you, why should he bother uttering more? His motivational system has evolved to deploy his courtship effort where it makes a difference to his reproductive success- mainly by focusing it where it improves his rate of sexual intercourse. Men apparently did not evolve from male ancestors who squandered high levels of verbal courtship effort on already established relationships. Of course, if an established partner suspends sexual relations, or threatens to have an affair, evolution would favor motivations that produce a temporary resurgence of verbal courtship until the danger has passed. Frustratingly, a woman may find that the greater the sexual commitment she displays the less her man speaks.
This analysis may sound heartlessly unromantic, but evolution is heartlessly unromantic. It is stingy with courtship effort, stacking it heavily where it does the most good, and sprinkling it very lightly elsewhere. Human courtship, like courtship in other animals, has a typical time-course. Courtship effort is low when first assessing a sexual prospect, increases rapidly if the prospect reciprocates one’s interest, peaks when the prospect is deciding whether to copulate, and declines once a long-term relationship is established. We all enjoy a desired partner besieging us with ardent, witty, energetic courtship. That enjoyment is the subjective manifestation of the mate preferences that shaped human language in the first place. As with any evolved preference, we may desire more than we can realistically get. Evolution’s job is to motivate us, not to satisfy us.
So, when women universally complain about their slothfully mute boyfriends, we learn two things. First, women have a universal desire to enjoy receiving high levels of verbal courtship effort. Second, high levels of verbal courtship effort are so costly that men have evolved to produce them only when they are necessary for initiating or reviving sexual relationships. Far from undermining the courtship hypothesis for language evolution, this phenomenon provides two key pieces of evidence that support it.
– The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (pg. 382) by Geoffrey F. Miller
Geoffrey Miller is the author of the “Mating Mind”, a highly interesting book on what evolutionary biology has to say about all of our weird “dating and sexual quirks.” David Pearce highly recommends it, too.
Miller’s talk in this video is just as interesting as Ogi Ogas’ talk about his book “A Billion Wicked Thoughts”. Both talks deal with the evolutionary basis of human sexual desires (yes, even the weird ones… specially the weird ones):
Both use sound empirical methods and develop theories of our sexuality based on genetic, anthropological, and biological analysis of human experience and behavior.
Here is an interesting observation: If we were descendants of a specie that used clones as a way of reproduction (or perhaps formed large asexual social colonies like bees or ants) then we would all love each other unreservedly.
Competition for good genes has made us quasi-psychopathic and selfish. The fall of humanity is not, apparently, the result of sinning against God. But rather, for having evolved in small tribes with heavy in-group genetic biases.
Likewise, our Darwinian origin is responsible for states of low mood, depression, anxiety, and so on. Depression itself, to dive into a specific example, is an adaptive strategy for non-alpha males in the ancestral environment, which predisposes you to keep your head low and reproduce in spite of the presence of an Alpha male who is capable of killing you if you try to challenge him. Additionally, depression is a behavioral response that allows you to passively accept and endure a long-lasting stressor, where “trying to make things right” instead of submitting to the reality of the situation was simply not as genetically adaptive. Of course, since we don’t live in the African Savannah anymore, all of that programming is useless.
Unfortunately, since happiness is itself a sign of status, we are stuck in an awful Moloch scenario: Geoffrey Miller would agree that people are sexually motivated to *pretend that they are happier than they are.*
Forgetting about people with a heavy genetic predisposition to depression who cannot even *conceive of what happiness is*, most people are stuck in recurrent cycles of high, neutral and low moods. And yet, they are anxious to pretend that they are happier than they really are; after all, one’s genes are at stake in this signaling activity.
I have often met highly intelligent people who seem incapable of understanding David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative. Although there are many possible causes for this, a very prominent one is the fact that believing that “everyone has a chance to be happy” is itself a happy thought. We run away from depressive worldviews, even if doing so is ethically disastrous.
Let us hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
Yes, we can hope that somehow everyone has a chance to be happy, and sincerely wish that “it really isn’t that bad.” However, let us not act *as if this is true.* We are in a unique position to alleviate and outright exterminate all future suffering in our forward light cone. It would be really sad if we let billions of beings suffer for eons (say, in other galaxies) simply because we entertained too heavily the thought that reality is conspiring in “our” favor (nature, perhaps, is not as kind as it looks when one is in a happy state).