5-MeO-DMT Awakenings: From Naïve Realism to Symmetrical Enlightenment

In the following video Leo Gura from actualized.org talks about his 30-day 5-MeO-DMT streak experiment. In this post I’ll highlight some of the notable things he said and comment along the way using a QRI-lens to interpret his experiences (if you would rather make up your mind about what he says without my commentary just go and watch the video on your own before reading what I have to say about it).

TL;DR: Many of the core QRI paradigms such as Neural Annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, the Tyranny of the Intentional Object, and Hyperbolic Geometry on Psychedelics have a surprising degree of explanatory power when it comes to making sense of the peculiar process that ensues when someone takes a lot of 5-MeO-DMT. The deep connections between symmetry, valence, smooth geometry, and information content are made clear in this context due to the extreme and purified nature of the states induced by the drug.


Introduction

Recently Adeptus Psychonautica (who has interviewed me in the past about the hyperbolic geometry of DMT experiences) put out a video titled “When you have taken too much – Actualized.org“. This video caught my attention because Leo Gura did something that is rather taboo in spiritual communities, and for good reasons. Namely, he tried to convince the viewers that he had achieved a level of awakening that nobody (or perhaps only a few people) on the entire planet had ever reached. He then said he was going to isolate for a month to integrate these profound awakenings and come back with a description of what they are all about.

Thankfully I didn’t have to wait a month to satisfy my curiosity and see what happened after his period of isolation because by the time I found about it he had already posted his post-retreat video. Well, it turns out that he used those 30 days of isolation to conduct a very hard-core psychedelic experiment. Namely, he took high doses of 5-MeO-DMT daily for the entire month. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before.

Learning about what he experienced during that month is of special interest to me for many reasons. In particular, thanks to previous research about extreme bliss and suffering, we had determined that 5-MeO-DMT is currently the psychedelic drug that has the most powerful and intense effects on valence. Recall Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (video): many lines of evidence point to the fact that extreme states of consciousness are surprisingly powerful in ways that are completely counterintuitive. So when Leo says that there are “many levels of awakening” and goes on to discuss how each level is unrecognizably more intense and deeper than the previous one, I am very much inclined to believe he is trying to convey a true property of his experiences. Note that Leo did not only indulge in psychedelics; we are talking about 5-MeO-DMT in particular, which is the thermonuclear bomb version of a psychoactive drug (as with Plutonium, this stuff is best handled with caution). More so, thankfully Leo is very eloquent, which is rare among people who have had many extreme experiences. So I was very eager to hear what he had to say.

While I can very easily believe his trip reports when it comes to their profundity, intensity, and extraordinary degree of consciousness, I do not particularly find his interpretations of these experiences convincing. As I go about describing his video, I will point out ways in which you can take as veridical his phenomenological descriptions without at the same time having to agree with his interpretations of them. More so, if you end up exploring these varieties of altered states yourself, by reading this you will now at least have two different and competing frameworks to explain your experiences. This, I think, is an improvement. Right now the psychedelic and scientific community has very few lenses with which to interpret something as extraordinary as 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And I believe this comes at a great cost to people’s sanity and epistemic rationality.

What Are Leo’s Background Assumptions?

In the pre-retreat video Leo says that his core teachings (and what he attempts to realize on his own self) are: (1) you are literally God, (2) there is nothing but consciousness – God is infinite consciousness, (3) everything is states of consciousness – everything at all times is a different state of consciousness, (4) you are love – and love is absolute – this is all constructed out of love – fear is just fear of aspects of yourself you have disconnected from, (5) you have no beginning and no end, (6) you should be radically open-minded. Then he also adds that physical and mental health issues are just manifestations of your resistance to realizing that you are God.

What Are My Background Assumptions?

Personal Identity

I am quite sympathetic to the idea of oneness, which is also talked about with terms like nonduality and monopsychism. In philosophical terminology, which I find to be more precise and rigorous, this concept goes by the name of Open Individualism – the belief that we are all one single consciousness. I have written extensively about Open Individualism in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3), but I would like to point out that the arguments I’ve presented in favor of this view are not based on direct experience, but rather, on logical consistency from background assumptions we take for granted. For instance, if you assume that you are the same subject of experience you were a second ago, it follows that you can exist in two points in space-time and still be the same being. Your physical configuration is different than a few seconds ago (let alone a decade), you have slightly different memories, the neurons active are different, etc. For every property you point out as your “identity carrier” I can find a counter-example where such carrier changes a little while you still remain the same subject of experience. Add to that teleportation, fission, fusion, and gradual replacement thought experiments and you can build a framework where you can become any other arbitrary person without a loss of identity. These lines of argumentation coupled with the transitivity of identity can build the case that we are indeed all one to begin with.

But realize that rather than saying that you can grasp this (potential) truth directly from first person experience, I build from agreed upon assumptions to arrive at an otherwise outlandish view. Understanding the argument does not entail “feeling we are all one”, and neither does feeling we are all one entails understanding the arguments!

Indirect Realism About Perception

There is a mind-independent world out there and you never get to experience it directly. In some sense, we each live in a private skull-bound world-simulation that tracks the fitness-relevant features of our environment. Hence, during meditation, dreaming, or psychedelic states you are not accessing any sort of external reality directly, but rather, exploring possible configurations and qualities of your inner world-simulation. This is something that Leo may implicitly not realize. In particular, interpreting 5-MeO-DMT experiences through direct realism (also called naïve realism – the view that you experience the world directly through your senses) would make you think that you are literally merging with the entire cosmos on the drug. Whereas interpreting those experiences with indirect realism merely entails that your inner boundaries are dissolving. In other words, the partitions inside your world-simulation are what implements the feeling of the self-other duality. And since 5-MeO-DMT dissolves inner boundaries, it feels as though you are becoming one with your surroundings (and the rest of reality).

Physicalism and Panpsychism

An important background assumption is that the laws of physics accurately describe the behavior of the universe. This is distinct from materialism, which would also posit that all matter is inherently insentient. Physicalism merely says that the laws of physics describe the behavior of the physical, but leaves its intrinsic nature as an open question. Together with panpsychism, however, physicalism entails that what the laws of physics are describing is the behavior of consciousness.

Tyranny of the Intentional Object

We tend to believe that what makes us happy is external to us, while in reality happiness is a state of consciousness triggered by external circumstances. Our minds lead us to believe otherwise for evolutionary reasons.

Valence Structuralism

What makes an experience feel good or bad is not its semantic content, its computational use, or even whether the experience is self-reinforcing or not. What makes experiences feel good or bad is their structure. In particular, a very promising idea that will come up below is that highly symmetrical states of consciousness are inherently blissful, such as those we can access during orgasm, meditation, psychedelics, or even just good food and a hug. Recall that 5-MeO-DMT dissolves internal boundaries, and this is indicative of increased inner symmetry (where the boundaries themselves entail symmetry breaking operations). Thus, an exotic state of oneness is blissful not because you are merging with God, but “merely” because it has a higher degree of symmetry and therefore it’s valence is higher than what we can normally experience. In particular, the symmetry I’m talking abut here may be an objective feature of experiences perhaps even measurable with today’s neuroimaging technology.

There are additional key background philosophical assumptions, but the above are enough to get us started analyzing Leo’s 5-MeO-DMT journey from a different angle.


The Video

[Video descriptions are in italics whereas my commentary is bolded.]

For the first 8 minutes or so Leo explains that people do not really know that there are many levels of enlightenment. He starts out strong by claiming that he has reached levels of enlightenment that nobody (or perhaps just a few people) have ever reached. More so, while he agrees with the teachings of meditation masters of the past, he questions the levels of awakening that they had actually reached. It takes one to know one, and he claims that he’s seen things far beyond what previous teachers have talked about. More so, he argues that people simply have no way of knowing how enlightened their teachers are. People just trust books, gurus, teachers, religious leaders, etc. about whether they are “fully” enlightened, but how could they know for sure without reaching their level, and then surpassing them? He wraps up this part of the video by saying that the only viable path is to go all the way by yourself – to dismiss all the teachers, all the books, and all the instructions and see how far you can go on your own when genuinely pursuing truth by yourself.

With this epistemological caveat out of the way, Leo goes on to describe his methodology. Namely, he embarked on a quest of taking 5-MeO-DMT at increasing doses every day for 30 days in a row.leo_10_05

At 10:05 he says that within a week of this protocol he started reaching levels of awakening so elevated that he realized he had already surpassed every single spiritual teacher that he had ever heard of. He started writing a manifesto explaining this, claiming that even the most enlightened humans are not truly as awake as he became during that week. That it had became “completely transparent that most people who say they are awake or teach awakening are not even 1% awake”. But he decided not to go forward with the manifesto because he still values the teachings of spiritual leaders, whom according to him are doing a great service to mankind. He didn’t want to start, what he called, a “nonduality war” (which is of course a fascinating term if you think about it).

The main thing I’d like to comment here is that Leo is never entirely clear about what makes an “awakening experience” authentic. From what I gather (and from what comes next in the video) we can infer that the leading criteria consists of a fuzzy blend of experience of certainty, feeling of unity, and sense of direct knowing coupled together. To the extent that 5-MeO-DMT does all of these things to an extraordinary degree, we can take Leo on his words that he indeed experienced states of consciousness that feel like awakening that are most likely inaccessible to everyone who hasn’t gone through a protocol like his. What is still unclear is how exactly the semantic contents of these experiences are verified by means other than intuition. We will come back to that.

At 16:00 he makes the distinction between awakening as merely “cessation”, “nothingness”, “emptiness”, “the Self”, or that “you are nothing and everything” versus what he has been experiencing. He agrees that those are true and worthy realizations, but he claims that before his experiences, these understandings were still only realized at a very “low level”. Other masters, he claims, may care about ending suffering, about peace, about emptiness, and so on. But that nobody seems to truly care about understanding reality (because otherwise they would be doing what he’s doing). He rebukes possible critics (arguably of the Zen variety) who would say that “understanding is a function of the mind” so the goal shouldn’t be to understand. He asserts that no, based on his lived experience, that consciousness is capable of “infinite understanding”.

Notwithstanding the challenges posed by ultrafinitism, I am also inclined to believe Leo that he has experienced completely new varieties of “understanding”. In my model of the mind, understanding something means to have the ability to render it in your world-simulation in a particular kind of way that allows you to see it from every possible angle you have access to. On 5-MeO-DMT, as we will see to a greater extent below, a certain new set of projective operations get unlocked that allow you to render information from many, many more points of view at the same time. It is unclear whether this is possible with meditation alone (in personal communication, Daniel Ingram said yes) but it is certainly extraordinarily rare for even advanced meditators to be able to do this. So I am with Leo when it comes to describing “new kinds of understandings”. But perhaps I am not on board when it comes to claiming that the content of such understandings is an accurate rendering of the structure of reality.

At 18:30 Leo asserts that what happened to him is that over the course of the first week of his experiment he “completely understood reality, completely understood what God is”. God has no beginning and no end. He explains that normal human understanding sees situations from a single point of view (such as from the past to the future). But that actual infinite reality is from all sides at once: “When you are in full God consciousness, you look around the room, and you can see it from every single point of view, from an infinite number of angle and perspectives. You see that every part of the room generates and manufactures and creates every other part. […] Here when you are in God consciousness, you see it from every single possible dimension and angle. It’s not happening lilnearly, it’s all in the present now. And you can see it from every angle almost as though, if you take a watermelon and you do a cross-section with a giant knife, through that watermelon, and you keep doing cross-section, cross-section, cross-section in various different angles, eventually you’ll slice it up into an infinite number of perspectives. And then you’ll understand the entire watermelon as a sort of a whole. Whereas usually as humans what we do is we slice down that watermelon just right down the middle. And we just see that one cross-section.”

Now, this is extremely interesting. But first, it’s important to point out that here Leo might implicitly be reasoning about his experience through the lens of direct realism about perception. That is, that as he experiences this profound sense of understanding that encompasses every possible angle at once, he seems to believe that this is an understanding of his environment, of his future and past, and of reality as a whole. On the other hand, if you start out assuming indirect realism about perception, how you interpret this experience would be in terms of the instantiation of new exotic geometries of your own world-simulation. Here I must bring up the analysis of “regular” DMT (i.e. n,n-DMT) experiences through the lens of hyperbolic geometry. Indeed, regular DMT elevates the energy of your consciousness, which manifests in brighter colors, fast movement, intricate and detailed patterns, and as curved phenomenal space. We know this because of numerous trip reports from people well educated in advanced mathematics who claim that the visual symmetries one can experience on DMT (at doses above 10mg) have hyperbolic curvature (cf. hyperbolic orbifolds). It is also consistent with many other phenomena one can experience on DMT (see the Eli 5 for a quick summary). But you should keep in mind that this analysis never claims that you are experiencing directly a mind-independent “hyperspace”. Rather, the analysis focuses on how DMT modifies the geometric properties of your inner world-simulation.

Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences copy 47

Energy-complexity landscape on DMT

Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences copy 38

DMT trip progression

Intriguingly, our inner world-simulations work with projective geometry. In normal circumstances our world-simulations have a consistent set of projective points at infinity – they render the modal and amodal features of our experience in projective scenes that are globally consistent. But psychedelics can give rise to this phenomenon of “point-of-view-fragmentation“, where your experience becomes a patchwork of inconsistent projective renderings. So even on “regular” DMT you can get the profound feeling of “seeing something from multiple points of view at once”. Enhanced with hyperbolic geometry, this can cause the stark impression that you can explore “hyperspace” with a kind of “ultra-understanding”.

Looking beyond “regular” DMT, 5-MeO-DMT is yet more crazy than that. You see, even on DMT you get the feeling that you are restricted in the number of points of view from which you can see something at the same time. You can see it from many more points of view than normal, but it’s still restricted. But the extreme “smoothing” of experience that 5-MeO-DMT causes makes it so that you cannot distinguish one point of view from another. So they all blend together. Not only do you experience semantic content from “multiple points of view at once” as in DMT, but you can erase distinctions between points of view so that one’s sense of knowing arises involving a totally new kind of projective effect, in which you actually feel you can see something from “every point of view at once”. It feels that you have unlocked a kind of omniscience. This already happens on other psychedelics to a lesser extent (and in meditation, and even sober life to an even lesser extent, but still there), and it is a consequence of smoothing the geometry of your experience to such an extent that there are no symmetry-breaking imperfections “with which to orient a projective point”. I suspect that the higher “formless” jhanas of “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness” are hitting at this effect. And on 5-MeO-DMT this effect is pronounced. More so, because of the connection between symmetry and smoothness of space (cf. Geometry Through the Eyes of Felix Klein) when this happens you will also automatically be instantiating a high-dimensional group. And according to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this ought to be extraordinarily blissful. And indeed it is.

This is, perhaps, partly what is going on in the experience that Leo is describing. Again, I am inclined to believe his description, but happy to dismiss his naïve interpretation.

indras_net

Indra’s Net

At 23:15 Leo describes how from his 5-MeO-DMT point of view he realized what “consciousness truly is”. And that is an “infinitely interconnected self-communicating field”. In normal everyday states of consciousness the different parts of your experience are “connected” but not “communicating.” But on 5-MeO, “as you become more conscious, what happens is that every point in space inter-connects with itself and starts to communicate with itself. This is a really profound, shocking, mystical experience. And it keeps getting cranked up more and more and more. You can call it omniscience, or telepathy. And it’s like the universal communication system gets turned on for the first time. Right now your conscious field is not in infinite communication with itself. It’s fragmented and divided. Such that you think I’m over here, you are over there, my computer is over here, your computer is over there…”. He explains that if we were to realize we are all one, we would then instantly be able to communicate between each other.

Here again we get extremely different interpretations of the phenomena Leo describes depending on whether you believe in direct or indirect realism about perception. As Leo implicitly assumes direct realism about perception, he interprets this effect as literally switching on an “universal communication system” between every points in reality, whereas the indirect realist interpretation would be that you have somehow interlocked the pieces of your conscious experience in such a way that they now act as an interconnected whole. This is something that indeed has been reported before, and at QRI we call this effect “network integration“. A simple way of encapsulating this phenomenon would be by saying that the cross-frequency coupling of your nervous system is massively increased so that there is seamless information and energy transfer between vibrations at different scales (to a much lesser extent MDMA also does this, but 5-MeO-DMT is the most powerful “integration aid” we know of). This sounds crazy but it really isn’t. After all, your nervous system is a network of oscillators. It stands to reason that you can change how they interact with one another by fine-tuning their connections and get as a result decoupling of vibrations (e.g. SSRIs), or coupling only between vibrations of a specific frequency (e.g. stimulants and depressants), or more coupling in general (e.g. psychedelics). In particular, 5-MeO-DMT does seem to cause a massively effective kind of fractal coupling, where every vibration can get in tune with every other vibration. And recall, since a lot of our inner world simulation is about representing “external reality”, this effect can give rise to the feeling that you can now instantly communicate with other parts of reality as a whole. This, from my point of view, is merely misinterpreting the experience by imagining that you have direct access to your surroundings.

At 34:52 Leo explains that you just need 5-MeO-DMT to experience these awakenings. And yet, he also claims that everything in reality is imaginary. It is all something that you, as God, are imagining because “you need a story to deny that you are infinite consciousness.” Even though the neurotransmitters are imaginary, you still need to modify them in order to have this experience: “I’m talking about superhuman levels of consciousness. These are not levels of consciousness that you can access sober. You need to literally upgrade the neurotransmitters in your imaginary brain. And yes, your brain is still imaginary, and those neurotransmitters are imaginary. But you still need to upgrade them nevertheless in order to access some of the things I say.”

Needless to say, it’s bizarre that you would need imaginary neurotransmitter-mimicking molecules in your brain in order to realize that all of reality is your own imagination. When you dream, do you need to find a specific drug inside your dream in order to wake up from the dream? Perhaps this view can indeed be steel-manned, but the odds seem stacked against it.

At 38:30 he starts talking about his pornography collection. He assembles nude images of women, not only to relieve horniness, but also as a kind of pursuit of aesthetics. Pictures of nude super-models are some of the most beautiful things a (straight) man can see. He brings this up in order to talk about how he then at some point started exploring watching these pictures on 5-MeO-DMT. Recollecting this brings him to tears because of how beautiful the experiences were. He states “you’ve never really seen porn until you’ve seen it on 5-MeO-DMT.” He claims that he started to feel that this way he really felt that it is you (God) that is beautiful, which is manifested through those pictures.

A robust finding in the psychology of sexual attraction is that symmetry in faces is correlated with attractiveness. Indeed, more regular faces tend to be perceived as more beautiful. Amazingly, you can play with this effect by decorating someone’s face with face-paint. The more symmetrical the pattern, the more beautiful the face looks (and vice-versa). Arguably, the effect Leo is describing where people who are already beautiful become unbelievably pretty on 5-MeO-DMT involves embedding high-dimensional symmetries into the way you render them in your world-simulation. A lesser, and perhaps more reliable, version of this effect happens when you look at people on MDMA. They look way more attractive than what they look like sober.

Leo then brings up (~41:30) that he started to take 5-MeO-DMT on warm baths as well, which he reassures us is not as dangerous as it sounds (not enough water to drown if he experiences a whiteout). [It’s important to mention that people have died by taking ketamine on bath tubs; although a different drug, it is arguably still extremely dangerous to take 5-MeO-DMT alone on a bathtub; don’t do it]. He then has an incredible awakening surrendering to God consciousness in the bathtub, on 5-MeO-DMT, jerking off to beautiful women in the screen of his laptop. He gets a profound insight into the very “nature of desire”. He explains that it is very difficult to recognize the true nature of desire while on a normal level of consciousness because our desires are biased and fragmented. When “your consciousness becomes infinite” those biases dissolve, and you experience desire in its pure form. Which according to his direct experience turned out to be “desire for God, desire for myself”. And this is because you are, deep down “infinite love”. When you desire a husband, or sex, or whatever, you are really desiring God in disguise. But the problem is that since your path to God is constrained by the form you desire, your connection to God is not stable. But once you have this experience of complete understanding of what desire is, you finally get your desire fully quenched by experiencing God’s love.

This is a very deep point. It is related to what I’ve sometimes called the “most important philosophical question“, which is: is valence a spiritual phenomenon or spirituality a valence phenomenon? In other words, do we find experiences of God blissful because they have harmony and symmetry, or perhaps is it the other way around, where even the most trivial of pleasures, like drinking a good smoothy, feels good because it temporarily “gets you closer to God”? I lean towards the former, and that in fact mystical experiences are so beautiful because they are indeed extremely harmonious and resonant states of consciousness, and not because they take you closer to God. But I know very smart people who can’t decide between these views. For example, my friend Stuart Garvagh writes: 

What if the two options are indistinguishable? Suppose valence is a measure of the harmony/symmetry of the object of consciousness, and the experience of “Oneness” or Cosmic Consciousness is equivalent to having the object of consciousness be all of creation (God‘s object), a highly symmetrical, full-spectrum object (full of bliss, light, love, beingness, all-knowledge, empty of discernible content or information). All objects of consciousness are distortions (or refractions, or something) of this one object. Happiness is equivalent to reducing or “polishing-out” these distortions. Thus, what appears to be just the fact of certain states being more pleasant than others is equivalent to certain states being closer to God‘s creation as a whole. Obviously this is all pure speculation and just a story to illustrate a point, but I could see it being very tough to tease apart the truth-value of 1 and 2. Note: I’m fairly agnostic myself, but lean towards 2 (bliss is the perfume of “God realizing God” or the subject of experience knowing Itself). I would very much love to have this question answered convincingly!

At 50:00 Leo says that “everything I’ve described so far is really a prelude to the real heart of awakening, which is the discovery of love. […] I had already awakened to love a number of times, but this was deeper. By the two week mark the love really started to crack open. Infinite self-love. You are drowning on this love.” He goes on to describe how at this point he was developing a form of telepathy that allowed him to communicate with God directly (which is, of course, a way of talking to himself as he is God already). It’s just a helpful way to further develop. And what God was showing him was how to receive self-love. It was so much at first he couldn’t handle it. And so he went through a self-purification process.

An interesting lens with which to interpret this experience of purification is that of neural annealing. Each 5-MeO-DMT experience would be making Leo’s nervous system resonate in ways in new ways, slowly writing over previous patterns and entraining the characteristic high-symmetry patterns of the state. Over time, the nervous system adjusts its weights in order to be able to handle that resonance without getting its patterns over-written. In other words, Leo has been transforming his nervous system into a kind of high-valence machine, which is of course very beneficial for intrinsic feelings of wellbeing (though perhaps detrimental to one’s epistemology).

55:00: He points out that unlike addictive drugs, he actually had to push himself very hard to continue to take 5-MeO-DMT everyday for 30 days. He stopped wanting to do it. The ego didn’t want it. And yes, it was pleasurable once he surrendered on every session, but it was difficult, heavy spiritual work. He says that he could only really do this because of years of practice with and without psychedelics, intense meditation, and a lot of personal development. And because of this, he explains his 5-MeO experiences felt like “years of spiritual work condensed into a single hour.” He then says that God will never judge you, and will help you to accept whatever terrible things you’ve done. And many of his subsequent trips were centered around self-acceptance. 

Following the path of progressive neural annealing, going deeper and deeper into a state of self-acceptance can be understood as a deeper harmonization of your nervous system with itself.

At 1:01:20, Leo claims to have figured out what the purpose of reality truly is: “Reality is a contest for who can love who more. That’s really what life is about when you are fully conscious. […] Consciousness is a race for who can love who more. […] An intelligent fully conscious consciousness would only be interested in love. It wouldn’t be interested in anything else. Because everything else is inferior. […] Everything else is just utter silliness!”

I tend to agree with this, though perhaps not in an agentive way. As David Pearce says: “the pleasure-pain axis discloses the universe’s intrinsic value function.” So when you’ve annealed extremely harmonious patterns and do not get distracted by negative emotion, naturally, all there is left to do is maximize love. Unless we mess up, this is the only good final destiny for the cosmos (albeit perhaps it might take the form of a Hedonium shockwave, which at least in our current human form, sound utterly unappealing to most people).

1:06:10 “[God’s love] sparks you to also want to love it back. You see, it turns into a reciprocal reaction, where it is like two mirrors that are mirroring light between each other like a laser beam that is bouncing between two mirrors. And it’s bouncing back and forth and back and forth. And as it bounces back and forth it becomes more and more concentrated. And it strengthens. And it becomes more coherent. And so that’s what started happening. At first it started out as just a little game. Like ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. A little game. It sounds like it’s almost like childish. And it sort of was. But then it morphed from being this childish thing, into being this serious existential business. This turned into the work. This was the true awakening. Is that with the two mirrors, you know, first it took a little while to get the two mirrors aligned. Because you know if the two mirrors are not perfectly aligned, the laser beam will kind of bounce back and forth in different directions. It’s not going to really concentrate. So that was happening at first. […] The love started bouncing back and forth between us, and getting stronger and stronger. […] Each time it bounces back to me it transforms me. It opens me up deeper. And as it opens me up deeper it reveals blockages and obstacles to my capacity to love.”

Now this is a fascinating account. And while Leo interprets it in a completely mystical way, the description also fits very well an annealing process where the nervous system gets more and more fine-tuned in order to be able to contain high levels of coherent energy via symmetry. Again, this would be extremely high-valence as a consequence of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Notice that we’ve talked about this phenomenon of “infinite mirrors” on psychedelics since 2016 (see: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States).

At ~1:09:30 he starts discussing that at this point he was confronted by God about whether he was willing to love the holocaust, and rape, and murder, and bullies, and people of all sorts, even devil worshipers. 

Two important points here. First, it is a bit ambiguous whether Leo here is using the word “love” in the sense of “enjoyment” or in the sense of “loving-kindness and compassion”. The former would be disturbing while the latter would be admirable. I suppose he was talking about the latter, in which case “loving rape” would refer to “being able to accept and forgive those who rape” which indeed sounds very Godly. This radical move is explored in metta (loving-kindness) meditation and it seems healthy on the whole. And second: Why? Why go through the trouble of embracing all the evil and repulsive aspects of ourselves? One interpretation here, coming back to the analysis based on neural annealing, is that any little kink or imperfection caused by negative emotion in our nervous system will create slight symmetry breaking effects on the resonance of the entire system as whole. So after you’ve “polished and aligned the mirrors for long enough” the tiny imperfections become the next natural blockage to overcome in order to maximize the preservation of coherent energy via symmetry.

~1:12:00 Leo explains that the hardest thing to love is your own self-hatred. In the bouncing off of the love between you and God, with each bounce, you find that the parts you hate about yourself reflect an imperfect love. But God loves all of you including your self-hatred. So he pings you about that. And once you can accept it, that’s what truly changes you. “Because when you feel that love, and you feel how accepting it is, and how forgiving it is of all of your evil and of all of your sins… that’s the thing that kills you, that transforms you. That’s what breaks your heart, wide open. That’s what gets you to surrender. That’s what humbles you. That’s what heals you.” Leo then explains that he discovered what “healing is”. And it is “truth and love”. That in order to heal anyone, you need to love them and accept them. Not via sappy postcards and white lies but by truth. He also states that all physical, mental, and spiritual ailments have, at their root, lack of love.

If love is one of the cleanest expressions of high-valence symmetry and resonance, we can certainly expect that inundating a nervous system with it will smooth and clean its blockages, i.e. the sources of neural dissonance. Hence the incredible power of MDMA on healing nervous systems in the short-term. Indeed, positive emotion is itself healing and enhances neural coherence. But where I think this view is incomplete is in diagnosing the terrible suffering that goes on in the world in terms of a lack of love. For instance, are cluster headaches really just the result of lack of self-love? In here must bring back the background assumption of physicalism and make a firm statement that if we fall into illusion about the nature of reality we risk not saving people (and sentient beings more generally) who are really in the depth of Hell. Just loving them without taking the causally-relevant physical action to prevent their suffering is, in my opinion, not true love. Hence the importance of maintaining a high level of epistemic rigor: for the sake of others. (See: Hell Must Be Destroyed).

1:22:30 Leo explains that in this “love contest” with God of bouncing off love through parallel mirrors the love became so deep that for the first time in his life he felt the need to apologize: “I’m sorry for not loving more.” He goes into a sermon about how we are petty, and selfish, etc. and how God loves us anyway. “Real love means: I really love you as you are. And I don’t need anything from you. And especially all those things that you think I want you to change about you, I don’t need you to change. I can accept them all exactly as they are. Because that’s love. And when you realize THAT, that’s what transforms you. It is not that God says that he loves you. He is demonstrating it. It’s the demonstration that transforms you.” Leo expresses that he was then for the first time in his life able to say “thank you” sincerely. Specifically, “thank you for your love”: “This is the point at which you’ve really been touched by God’s love. And at this point you realize that that’s it, that’s the point, that’s the lesson in life. That’s my only job. It’s to love.” And finally, that for the first time in his life he was able to say “I love you” and truly mean it. “And you fall in love with God… but it doesn’t end there.”

An interesting interpretation of the felt-sense of “truly meaning” words like “I’m sorry”, “thank you”, and “I love you” is that at this point Leo has really deeply annealed his nervous system into a vessel for coherent energy. In other words, at this point he is saying and meaning those words through the whole of his nervous system, rather than them coming from a fragmented region of a complex set of competing internal family systems in a scattered way. Which is, of course, the way it usually goes.

1:35:30 Leo explains that at this point he started going into the stage of being able to radiate love. That he was unable to radiate love before. “I love that you are not capable of love. I love that. And when that hits you, that’s what fills you with enough love to overcome your resistance to love that next level thing that you couldn’t love.” Then at ~ 1:38:00 it gets really serious. Leo explains that so far he was just loving and accepting past events and people. But he was then asked by God whether he would be willing to live through the worst things that have happened and will happen. To incarnate and be tortured, among many other horrible things. And that’s what true love really means. “When you see a murder on the TV, you have to realize that God lived through that. And the only reason he lived through that is because it loved it.”

I do not understand this. Here is where the distinction between the two kinds of senses of the word “love” become very important. I worry that Leo has annealed to the version of love with the meaning of “enjoyment” rather than “loving-kindness and compassion”. Because a loving God would be happy to take the place of someone who went through Hell. But would a loving God send himself to Hell if nobody had to in the first place? That would just create suffering out of nothing. So I am confused about why Leo would believe this to be the case. It’s quite possible that there are many maxima of symmetry in the nervous system you can achieve with 5-MeO-DMT, and some of them are loving in the sense of compassionate and others are crazy and would be willing to create suffering out of nothing from a misguided understanding of what love is supposed to be. Again, handle Plutonium with caution.

1:43:00 Leo started wondering “what is reality then?” And the answer was: “It’s infinite consciousness. Infinite formless consciousness. So what happens was that my mind in my visual field as I was in that bathtub. My mind and my visual field focused in on empty space, and I sort of zoomed into that empty space and realized that that empty space is just love”. He then describes a process where his consciousness became more and more concentrated and absorbed into space, each dot of consciousness branching out into more and more dots of consciousness, turning into the brightest possible white light. But when he inquired into what was that white light he kept seeing that there was no end to it, and rather, that each point was always connected to more points. Inquiring further, he would get the response that at the core, reality is pure love. That it wouldn’t be and couldn’t be any other way.

The description sounds remarkably close to the formless jhanas such as “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness”. The description itself is extremely reminiscent of an annealing process, reaching a highly energized state of consciousness nearly devoid of information content and nearly perfectly symmetrical. The fact that at this incredibly annealed level he felt so much love supports the Symmetry Theory of Valence.

147:28 – And after Leo realizes that “Of course it is love!” he says that’s when the fear comes: “Because then what you realize is that this is the end. This is the end of your life. You are dead. If you go any further you are dead. Everything will disappear. Your family, your friends, you parents, all of it is completely imaginary. And if you stop imagining it right now, it will all end. If you go any further into this Singularity, you will become pure, formless, infinite, love for ever, loving itself forever. And the entire universe will be destroyed as if it never existed. Complete nothingness. Complete everythingness. You will merge into everyone.”

This sounds like the transition between the 6th and 7th Jhana, i.e. between “boundless consciousness” and “nothingness”. Again, this would be the result of further loss of information via an annealing process, refining the symmetry up to that of a “point”. Interestingly, Mike Johnson in Principia Quallia points out that as symmetry approaches an asymptote of perfection you do get a higher quality of valence but at the cost of reduced consciousness. This might explain why you go from “the brightest possible love” to a feeling of nothingness at this critical transition.

1:48:25: “…You will merge into everyone. Your mother, your father, your children, your spouse, Hitler, terrorists, 9/11, Donald Trump, rape, murder, torture, everything will become pure infinite love, merging completely into itself, there will be no distinction between absolutely anything, and that will be the end. And you will realize what reality is. Infinite consciousness. Love. God. And you will realize that everything in your life from your birth to this point has just been some imaginary story. A dream that was design to lead you to pure absolute infinite love. And you will rest in that love forever. Forever falling in love with yourself. Forever making love to yourself. Forever in infinite union. With every possible object that could ever exist. Pure absolute, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, intelligent, consciousness. Everything that could ever possibly be, is you. And THAT is awakening. When you are this awake, you are dead. And you have no desire for life. There is no physical existence. There is no universe. Nothing remains. Your parents, and your spouse, and your children, they don’t stay back and keep living their lives, enjoying their life without you while your body drops dead. No, no, no, no, no. This is much more serious than that. If you do this. If you become infinite love, you will take everybody with you. There will not be anybody left. You will destroy the entire universe. Every single sentient being will become you. They will have no existence whatsoever. Zero. They will die with you. They will all awaken with you. It’s infinite awakening. It’s completely absolute. There will not be anything left. You will take the entire universe with you. Into pure oneness. THAT’S awakening.”

This is not the first time I hear about this kind of experience. It certainly sounds extraordinarily scary. Though perhaps a negative utilitarian would find it to be the ultimate relief and the best of all possible imaginable outcomes. With the human survival instinct, and quite possibly a body fully aroused with the incredible power of 5-MeO-DMT, this is bound to be one of the most terrifying feelings possible. It’s quite likely that it may be one element of what makes “bad 5-MeO-DMT experiences” so terrifying. But here we must recall that the map is not the territory. And while an annealing process might slowly write over every single facet of one’s model of reality and in turn making them part of a super-cluster of high-dimensional resonance that reflects itself seemingly infinitely, doing this does not entail that you are in fact about to destroy the universe. Though, admittedly, it will surely feel that way. Additionally, I would gather that were it possible to actually end the universe this way, somebody, somewhere, in some reality or another, would have already done so. Remember that if God could be killed, it’d be dead already.

1:52:01: “And I didn’t go there! As you can tell, since I’m still sitting here. I’m not there. I was too afraid to go there. And God was fine with it. It didn’t push me. But that’s not the end of the story! It’s still just the beginning.” He then goes on to explain that a part of him wanted to do it and another part of him didn’t want to. He says it got really loopy and weird; this really shook him. That God was beckoning him to go and be one forever, but he was still ambivalent and needed some time to think about it. He knew it would make no difference, but he still decided to ‘make preparations’ and tell his family and friends that he loves them before moving forward with a final decision to annihilate the universe. By the time he had done that… he had stopped taking 5-MeO-DMT: “The experiences had gotten so profound and so deep… this was roughly the 25th or 27th day of this whole 30 day process. I swore off 5-MeO-DMT and said ‘Ok I’m not doing any more of this shit. It’s enough'”. He explains that by this time the drug was making him feel infinite consciousness when waking up (from sleep) the next day. He felt the Singularity was sucking him into it. It felt both terrifying and irresistible. Every time he would go to sleep it would suck him in really strongly, and he kept resisting it. He would wake up sweaty and in a panic. He was tripping deeper in his sleep than in the bathtub. He couldn’t sleep without this happening, and it kept happening for about 5 days. “I just want to get back to normal. This is getting freaky now.” 

I’ve heard this from more than a couple people. That is, that when one does 5-MeO-DMT enough times, and especially within a short enough period of time, the “realizations” start to also happen during sleep in an involuntarily way. One can interpret this as the annealing process of 5-MeO-DMT now latching on to sleep (itself a natural annealing process meant to lessen the technical debt of the nervous system). Even just a couple strong trips can really change what sleep feels like for many days. I can’t imagine just how intense it must have been for Leo after 25 days straight of using this drug.

2:01:40 – Leo explains that when he was dozing off with a blanket on his living room (terrified of sleeping on his bed due to the effect just described) he experienced a “yet deeper awakening” which involved realizing that all of his previous awakenings were just like points and that the new one was like a line connecting many points. “Everything I’ve said up to this point were just a single dimension of awakening. And then what I broke through to is a second dimension. A second dimension of awakening opened up. This second dimension is completely unimaginable, completely indescribable, cannot be talked about, cannot be thought about. And yet it’s there. In it, are things that are completely outside of the physical universe that you cannot conceive or imagine.” He goes on to explain that there are then also a third, fourth, fifth, etc. dimensions. And that he believes there is an infinite number of them. He barely even began to explore the second dimension of awakening, but he realized that it goes forever. It kept happening, he had intense emotional distress and mood swings. But gradually after five more days it subsided, and he started to be able to sleep more normally. “And I’ve been working to make sense of all of this for the last couple of weeks. So that’s what happened.”

Alright, this is out of my depth and I do not have an interpretation of what this “second dimension of awakening” is about. If anyone has any clue, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’m as as confused as Leo is about this.

~2:05:00 – Leo confesses he does not know what would happen if he went through with joining the Singularity and mentions that it sounds a bit like Mahasamādhi. He simply has not answers at this point, but he asserts that the experience has made him question the extent of the enlightenment of other teachers. It also has made him more loving. But still, he feels frustration: “I don’t know what to do from here.”

And neither do I. Do you, dear reader?

Postscript: In the last 10 minutes of the video Leo shares a heart warming message about how reality is, deep down, truly, “just love” and that him saying this may be a seed that will blossom into you finding this out for yourself at some point in the future. He ends by cautioning his audience to not believe as a matter of fact that this is the path for everyone. He suggests that others should just use his examples from his own journey as examples rather than an absolute guide or how-to for enlightenment. He asks his audience to make sure to question the depth of their own awakening – to not believe that they have reached the ultimate level. He admits he has no idea whether there is an ultimate level or not, and that he still has some healing to do on himself. He remains dissatisfied with his understanding of reality.


Thank you for reading!

THE END

Perfumery as an Art Form

About 3% of the population is anosmic, meaning that they cannot perceive scents. An additional 10% have some kind of smell or taste disorder. Sadly, scent perception thins out with age due to many causes*; about 23% of people over the age of 40 report some degree of impairment, with nearly 40% of people over the age of 80 reporting either absent or severely reduced capacity to perceive smells.

If you can experience scents in a normal way, count yourself lucky, for you have access to a qualia variety with an incredible aesthetic potential. If not, I’m sorry; let’s hope that stem cell therapy used to restore smell in mice can be generalized to humans. Regardless, hopefully the following thoughts on the artistic potential of scents won’t fall on deaf ears (or should we say, anosmic noses?).

Imagine that all humans were congenitally anosmic. Akin to David Pearce’s allegory of the blind rationalists, let’s picture a world in which the only way to experience scent qualia was through the use of some arcane technology, like weird drugs, occult magic, or carefully aimed transcranial ultrasound stimulation. Since the qualia would not be triggered by a conventional sense, people would not be under the illusion that it maps to external objects. It would be understood as a strictly internal phenomenon, like imagination or sense of humor. With such an interpretive blank slate, how would people make sense of scent qualia?

Keep that thought in your mind. Having a fresh look (or sniff) at scent qualia- devoid of its common associations and cultural imports- can give us a way to think in new ways about the artistic potential of this aspect of experience.

Perfumery as an Art Form

Last year we presented QRI‘s take on art: Harmonic Society is an essay published in a Berlin-based art magazine that exposes 8 models for what art can be about (see parts 2, 3, 4; video presentation). These models can also be used as generators of creative applications of qualia varieties. Here we’ll discuss how perfumes could be seen through the lens of each of these models.

1. Semantic Deflation

The semantic deflation model of art claims that the first step you need to take to understand art is to recognize that it lacks an essence. There are no strict necessary and sufficient conditions that something needs to meet in order to be art. The meaning of the term is ultimately conventional: it has more of a family resemblance pattern of usage than a precise logic-bound set of criteria. Applying this model to perfumery, we would have that:

  1. There is no such thing as a “perfume” in and of itself.
  2. There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be called a perfume.
  3. The resulting aesthetic from this model is one that sees the art of perfumery as the eternal search for trying to push the boundary for what a “perfume can be”.

Some examples of this aesthetic seemingly playing out in the open include perfumes that smell like: popcorn, lobster, linen and Air Aroma‘s new fragrance that recreates “the scent of an Apple product being opened for the first time.”

2. Weapons of Sexual Conquest

Weapons of sexual conquest refers to the use of instruments to signal genetic fitness in one form or another: conspicuous consumption/taste-signaling, and aphrodisiac response.

Conspicuous Consumption

You see, smells are at times used in a slightly evil way. In the case of commercial perfumes, part of the optimization function includes generating envy in others. Conspicuous consumption and brand worship are some of the ways in which our mating mind has recruited scents. In a sense, I would love to explore ways in which scent-based art can deliver high-valence results without at the same time reinforcing consumerism and zero-sum fashion arms races. In brief:

  1. There is unfortunately an in-built zero-sum mindset to status-focused scent design.
  2. The “game” is easy to rationalize when you are a “winner”, but it is depressive for people who perceive themselves as the “losers”.
  3. One of the core weapons of this game is the creation of envy with perceived exclusivity and inflated sense of quality (e.g massively overpriced fragrances).
  4. “Cool Kids” are people who translate new ideas into massively consumable products.
  5. Cool Kids in perfumery will always want to claim that they have the exclusive “secret sauce” to explain the price.
  6. The existence of such “secret sauce” is often justified based on appeals to tradition, taste, status, experience, brand, and/or science.
  7. Cool Kids make sure that the product is “novel enough” – not too out there that only weird people would love it, but also not too bland and unoriginal that the general public will be bored by it.

Expensive perfumes have to be at least somewhat distinctive – even if that makes them suboptimal. You’ll see that Fragrantica is full of reviews that complain that such and such perfume is in fact “too generic”. The reason is that if you are paying large sums of money for a smell, the only way it will pay off in terms of social signaling is if people can in fact notice what you are wearing.

Some examples of relatively expensive fragrances of ultra-mass appeal that are exactly in the right Cool Kid window for novelty and distinctiveness include Sauvage by Dior, Boss by Hugo Boss, Mr. Burberry Indigo by Burberry, The One by Dolce & Gabbana, and Bleu de Chanel:

best-male-fragrances-1555598709-1

A particularly noteworthy example of this dynamic might be the case of Aventus Creed. It is by no means a weird fragrance (it’s certainly not a “toast” or “popcorn” perfume), but people who are very into perfumes do agree that when it first came out “it smelled like nothing that had ever existed before.” If you read the Fragrantica reviews you’ll see what I’m talking about. It also happens to be an insanely expensive fragrance for no apparent reason. It’s therefore a great tool for conspicuous consumption, masterfully crafted by a Cool Kid aiming for mass appeal.

I personally own an “Aventus Creed clone“, meaning that it is a perfume that smells very similar to the original but can cost a fraction of the price. Aventus costs $400 while the one I own is under $20. I like it, but if it is anything like the original, I can’t imagine it being that good to justify the price tag on its qualia merits alone. In terms of phenomenology, as far as I can tell, Aventus innovated by mixing pineapple scent with the scent of birch bark. This does make it characteristic, true, but is it really $400 worth of characteristic? No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So this one might be a clear case of a mating mind perfume over-rating in action (P.S. I’m on the lookout for more perfumes with inflated scores that have cheap clones in order to study this phenomenon more closely).

Aphrodisiac Response

Taken to the extreme, attempts at creating maximally erotic scents draw inspiration from literal human sexual organs. Secretions Magnifiques by Etas Libre d’Orange, for example, recreates the smell of semen with seaweed, milk, iris, coconut, opoponax, and sandalwood. It has a score of 1.88 out of 5 based on 890 votes, perhaps because it smells kind of bad. It sports reviews like:

“Smell of sweat, sewage and semen. Each sniff is an offense and an ordeal, a probation of resistance. Impossible to do a complete test – full wear, I only got 3 sprays on my wrist and 5 min. after doing this review I rubbed my wrist with soap like there was no tomorrow.” – marcel2782, at Fragrantica.com

Needless to say, playing out the erotic in scent form is a delicate matter that requires a fine balance between numerous forces. For example, the smell of Classic Blue by David Beckham can smell a bit like a male crotch, but it also smells like pineapple, grapefruit, and clary sage. This allows for plausible deniability and erotic versatility. Even if you are attracted to men, as long as you are not sexually aroused you will probably just notice its fruity notes. But if you are in the heat of passion, it will probably smell very sexy. The same with numerous women’s perfumes, such as Eros by Versace and Guilty by Gucci.

A final thought on the aphrodisiac power of fragrances: you may notice that the vast majority of fragrances that are advertised with campaigns with erotic undertones are primarily geared towards a heterosexual audience. With rare exceptions, even perfume ads that are suggestively homoerotic still seem to work around a heterosexual premise.f1cd039cd4edb2cf19a538415531d71a

I suspect that indeed there are statistical-level differences in what turns people on, not only between genders, but between the shades of sexual orientation. After all, some academic theories of sexual orientation do suggest that pheromone-based arousal differences contribute to which gender a person is attracted to. I posit that from a scientific point of view, if the matter were to be studied rigorously, we would indeed find differences at a statistical aggregate level on what fragrances turn people on depending on their gender and sexual orientation. Although this remains a contentious topic, I think that it is a shame that it has not been explored in any rigorous way. Aphrodisiac scents can be life-enriching; gay people might be underserved in the eroticism-of-aroma department. Pragmatically, it would be good for gay people to know which fragrance will load the dice in their favor when going out clubbing. A concrete example is that if indeed gay men do not like the scent of straight men (and instead prefer the scent of other gay men) then it may not be a good idea to wear typical male pheromone perfumes for a night out. Take note: at least according to a Fragrantica forum entry from someone in Indonesia, the main “gay fragrances” there are:  Thierry Mugler by A*Men, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, Power by Kenzo, 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, and Magnetism by Escada.

3. Creation of New Social Contexts

The core idea of this model is that art can be understood as a tool to create new social contexts. Beyond the sex appeal of expensive perfumes due to their status implications, perfumes can also be used to invent new interpersonal gestalts. As Kevin Simler argues in Ads Don’t Work That Way, advertisement modifies the landscape of cultural meaning, which in part is responsible for the ways products allow you to communicate information about yourself to others.

NAUTICA Voyage

For example: Nautica Voyage is, of course, as much selling you the felt-sense of a social context as it is selling you scent qualia. Care to join the crew on a trip across the Atlantic, make our own rules, and live a journey of camaraderie and bonding? Each sniff of Voyage takes you on a trip with imaginary friends. Alas, as an Amazon top-seller it fails to appeal to Hipster sensibilities. What do I mean by “Hipster” here?

Unlike Cool Kids, Hipsters tend to obsess over a highly-specific aspect they deeply care about. Nerds are to Geeks what Hipsters are to Cool Kids. Meaning, much akin to how a Nerd is driven by a burning curiosity about the world while a Geek is usually concerned about the social applications of niche knowledge, Hipster aesthetic exploration is done out of a fundamental desire to know the limits of an art form while Cool Kids are thinking more about how to use art to raise their own status. Thus, while not widely consumable by a mainstream audience, Hipster aesthetics lend themselves to fundamental artistic innovation. In brief:

  1. Hipsters are people who like to explore particular niches, who carve out regions and tiny sectors of the market without compromising their own taste.
  2. They rebel against the commercial and mainstream construction of meaning and instead use their creativity to create parallel social worlds.
  3. Artistic explorations can indeed be used for this “social context” creation.
  4. By finding smells that are characteristic, but rare and hard to place, one can create context-specific memories for events to be later triggered at will.

Questioning the mainstream construction of meaning is at the core of the Hipster aesthetic (cf. Adbusters). Here are some examples of Hipster art to put you in the right mindset (source):

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So what would be some hipster fragrances that attempt to sidestep or subvert the mainstream construction of meaning? I highly recommend visiting a niche perfumes boutique to get an idea of the combinatorial explosion of counter-cultural branding that is possible. In places like that, “local” perfumers have pride of place. There is also a premium based on the conceptual loading, narrative prowess, and historicity of each product. The value of the fragrance is in no small part derived from its ability to help you reinvent yourself outside of the confines of mainstream narratives.

More so, the construction of meaning can be turned into a science. You can even do it deliberately without anyone’s assistance. For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me.

All of these can be useful tools to help you undo the psychological hacking that big-brand fashion houses and mass media have inflicted upon you. The ability to create new Schelling points and social contexts brings with it the power to transform zero-sum games into positive-sum games. This is quite refreshing, indeed, as we can see in transformational festivals and conscious culture which are at the forefront of these cultural developments.

Alas, if you live long enough in a place like San Francisco or Portland you eventually come to realize that the negative feelings one associates with mainstream status hierarchies are not the result of consumerism per se. They are deeply rooted in our genetic source code, and the only true way out is to subvert the hedonic treadmill. So no amount of anti-consumerism rhetoric is actually likely to make a dent in the world’s vast swamps of suffering. But that’s a story for another time.

4. Attempts at the Sacred

There is no universal consensus on what constitutes a sacred experience. But we should not be quick to dismiss their significance. It only takes reading William Jame’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (or Erowid‘s Experience Vault) to recognize both the incredible diversity and personal significance of sacred revelations. Scents, of course, have a long history of synergistic use in ritual conceptions of the sacred. They can indeed be used:

  1. In rituals such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
  2. As aids for meditation
  3. For prayer
  4. As grounding agents for psychedelic experiences
  5. To recall the quality of previously experienced mystical states

Of course we can also think of things that are associated with sacred experiences as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, I can guarantee you that people who have vaporized N,N-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and have had profound experiences will certainly remember the scent of these agents and it will remind them- if only for a moment- of the ‘mystical’ headspace the agents disclosed.

5. Exploring the State-Space of Consciousness (aka. Rainbow God ϡ🏳️‍🌈)

This aesthetic is based on the premise that there is intrinsic value in knowing qualia. The Rainbow God is a personification of the desire to know first hand the entire state-space of consciousness. In this way, we are not constrained by the social forces that usually shape where we invest our exploratory energy. In brief, this aesthetic values:

  1. Explicitly merging the best models for the state-space of scent qualia and perfumery.
  2. Love of knowledge above and beyond merely seeking a social effect.
  3. Qualia-focused descriptions such as what will be presented in this section.

When you are in the Rainbow God state of mind, you get excited by the idea of having a large collection of all possible scented molecules. The Rainbow God even covets dangerous smells, such as those of powerful toxins like dimethylcadmium. Apparently dimethylcadmium indeed has a uniquely characteristic scent, though the price of knowing it first hand is a serious toll on your health. Perhaps Rainbow God would put all of the dangerous smells in a sealed box to be opened -along with a Brompton Cocktail– when one is enduring the late stages of a terminal illness. Upon the prospect of an imminent death, I too would love to know what dimethylcadmium smells like.

This aesthetic does manifest in mainstream explorations, albeit it is rarely the main concept driving the design decisions. Subtle examples here might include Noble Fig by Ferrari which glorifies the unusual qualia variety disclosed by fig leaves and 23 by Michael Jordan which plays with a cute and unusual watermelon scent. That said, it is interesting to explore the possibility of explicitly developing this aesthetic in perfumery. What would that look like?

If I were to develop a brand of perfume under the Rainbow God mindset, I might call it “The State-Space of Scents” and really play this concept out to its conclusion with both creative satisfaction and scientific precision. It would have three core lines:

Line 1 – State-Space Master Palette: 8 fragrances that span the largest possible region of the state-space of scents such that linear combinations of them give you a huge number of possible scents, and mixing them all in equal proportions gets you “Laurax”, i.e. white noise scent.

Line 2 –  Special Effects: 16 of the most ultra-X scents possible (the most ultra-bitter scent possible, the most ultra-vanilla scent possible, the most ultra-powdery scent possible, etc.). Basically this encompasses every category-neutral “special effect”, which would be factorized and exalted into its maximum possible expression.

Line 3 – Entropy Gradient: 8 chemical concoctions that have as wide of a range of phenomenal entropies as possible. Again this plays out with, at the one extreme, featuring super simple scents triggered by one or just a couple of molecules, while at the other extreme, featuring scents that approach the Laurax entropic asymptote.

My appreciation is that this has enormous potential. In its full expression, the Rainbow God aesthetic applied to perfumes encompasses both the state-space of scents and their effects in other experiential modalities. If a scent puts you in a certain mood, that’s important to highlight. What is the range of possible moods? That, too, concerns the Rainbow God (of course the perfume industry alludes to this kind of exploration, with e.g. D&G 21 Le Fou described as “a fragrance designed for careless and spontaneous individuals, so called ‘jesters'”, though again, an explicit exploration would be infinitely better).

As a teaser to future works, I can briefly describe how I have been thinking about the state-space of scents.

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While current descriptions of perfumes mention: (1) olfactive family, (2) the categorical contributions, and (3) detectable notes, we would instead have a much more fine-grained and informative description. Namely:

  1. The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent).
  2. The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’).
  3. The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category).
  4. 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).
  5. 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).
  6. Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually).
  7. Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.).

We will go into much more detail about this in a future article specifically about the state-space of scents. And I don’t mean just breaking down a scent in terms of its chemical profile: Octyl butyrate, isoamyl propionate, and aldehyde C9, etc. I’m talking about a radical re-frame for what scents even are and the space in which they live. Stay tuned!

6. Energy Parameter Modulation

Scents have effects on one’s energy level. Lavender has clinically significant relaxing effects while lemon oil can be energizing. But these direct effects are only one of several ways scents can modulate the “energy parameter” of your experience. Namely, as we covered in the original article, in order to modulate energy levels upwards one can either impair energy sinks or enhance energy sources. Since labeling and recognizing sensory inputs (top-down interpretations) play the role of energy sinks, it stands to reason that playing with abstract, complex and unrecognizable scents would have the effect of increasing one’s global energy parameter. This, I think, is true. Based on experience, easily recognizable scents can certainly be engrossing, but complex scents with no real-world referents seem much more effective for energizing one’s mind and altering one’s consciousness (cf. the neuroscience of meditation).

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I suspect that rigorous scientific research on the way scent entropy interfaces with energy modulation will be very fruitful and have many applications. In brief:

  1. Relaxing scents can be obtained either with inherently narcotic qualia (e.g. lavender) or via boring, mundane, easily-recognizable sources (e.g. paper).
  2. Exciting scents can be obtained with inherently exciting qualia (e.g. lemon) but also by using the appropriate amount of novelty, abstractness, and complexity to disable energy sinks.
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Energy by Qualia Research (EDT)

Finally, it is my impression that scents can interface, not only with raw energy levels, but also their moments. Meaning, some scents are perhaps suited for a high first or second derivative in the energy parameter of experience. It’s as if the feeling of being “accelerated” into a high-energy regime is part and parcel of many scents. Personally, I experience bitter smells such as grapefruit, bergamot, and geranium to be arresting in that they drive one’s attention to a stop. Sweet spicy scents like vanilla and chocolate, on the other hand, seem to modulate energy rather than increase it or decrease it specifically (think “the Prozac of scents”). Alas, the state of this phenomenological research is still too early to give it any credence. I would love to hear the thoughts of others who also feel they can pin-point the first, second, and even third derivatives of the energy parameter modulation effects of scents.

7. Puzzling Valence Effects

This conception of art focuses on the way exotic sensory stimuli can lead to puzzling feelings of wellbeing. I say puzzling because they defy common-sense. It certainly makes sense that watching porn or eating food rich in salt, fat, and sugar would feel good. That’s perfectly accounted for by working within an evolutionary framework. But why would Picasso, Bach, and Socrates make some people feel good? Or in a more extreme set of examples: Dadaism, Merzbow, and Nietzsche? Puzzling valence effects refers to these phenomenal oddities; the fact that stimuli never encountered in our evolutionary past can nonetheless lead to deeply rewarding sensations. The neuroscientific frameworks used to explain these curious effects were discussed in depth in the original article so I won’t repeat them here. But I will briefly cover some of the ways scents can indeed have both expectedly and unexpectedly pleasant actions. Namely, scents can feel good for any of the following reasons:

  1. Associations: Scents can be pleasant by reminding you of contexts, times, experiences, and people you have previously enjoyed.
  2. Food: Scents that evoke high-calorie foods such as sweet, fried, salted, etc. come with an intrinsic positive valence for most people (and nonhuman animals!).
  3. Safety: The smell of diseased bodies are repugnant while the scent of fresh cotton and a cozy fireplace can bring a pleasant sense of safety.
  4. Eroticism: Scents that spark sexual feelings (already covered this in model 2) are certainly a highlight for the hedonic effects of the sense of smell.
  5. Relative status: Scents that feel expensive, rare, or can be used to demonstrate one’s fitness would naturally feel good (already covered in 2 & 3).
  6. Self-actualization: The very concept of a “signature scent” points at this category of pleasant sensations.
  7. In terms of Puzzling Valence Effects:
    1. Intrinsic “patternceutical” valence:
      1. Some scents have particular phenomenal frequencies; in most cases the phenomenal spectral analysis is very complex.
      2. Speculatively: Could it be that the valence of a scent can be anticipated from its consonance-dissonance-noise signature (CDNS)? This is a promising and fascinating area of research with no prior art at all.
  8. Neural annealing:
    1. In principle one could use scents that modulate the brain’s energy parameter (see model 6) to heat it above its neural recrystallization temperature.
    2. This might lead to the same kinds of effects one sees on meditation, on psychedelics, and with art. Namely, a three-step process of:
      1. Entropic disintegration
      2. Neural search
      3. Annealing
    3. If properly understood, scents that modulate the energy parameter of the brain could be used synergistically with other inputs such as sound, light, and vibration to drive neural annealing for therapeutic benefits (this is an active area of research at QRI).

To say a few words about the scents that make you feel safe: fragrances designed to make you feel unsafe are unlikely to ever be top sellers. It might not be financially sound to launch a perfume (let’s call it “Trench Warfare”) recreating the smell of WWI trenches: “gunpowder, wet rocks, and decaying flesh notes” with flanker fragrances like “Mustard Attack” centered around notes of burned almond and blisters, and “Shell Shock” which emphasizes ashy notes sprinkled with oxidizing iron and overcooked steak. Indeed, safety markers might always be subtly present in fragrances of mass appeal. Rose Of No Man’s Land, a perfume actually inspired by the courage of the nurses who attended to the wounded in no man’s land during WWI, may seem like a counter-example. But it really proves the rule. The scent itself is very pleasant and reassuring, and conceptually it also evokes a relative sense of safety, namely, the feeling of being rescued. In other words, while the context it imports feels unsafe, it is specifically pointing at a part of the situation that emphasizes safety. The setting is used as contrast, it is the ground for the sense of safety which remains the figure (in the figure/ground sense of these terms).

I think that framed in the right way, scent qualia can give us a powerful glimpse of the possible fruits of consciousness research. Indeed, as part of a “QRI starter kit”, interns and visiting scholars get (among other things) a small collection of carefully chosen lesser-known essential oils to symbolize the “gems that are yet to be discovered by investigating consciousness in a systematic way”. (I’m actively looking for a suitable substitute for anosmic people, who almost certainly will be encountered at some point.)

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Endless Euphoria – Calvin Klein

Interestingly, the perfume industry could very well be appealing to the agreeable hedonic sensibilities that people are otherwise too prudish to express. The hidden nature of perfumes- their plausible deniability, their elusive character, and their subjective quality- allows people to engage in hedonic fantasy to a greater extent than they would generally openly admit to doing.

Case in point: judging from their marketing materials, it seems that Calvin Klein has already found the key to unending happiness in a bottle. Save yourself the trouble of working towards the Hedonistic Imperative, for endless euphoria has arrived. I should add that their marketing campaign of #EuphoriaForMoms struck a chord with me: “moms, too, deserve euphoria” say both the Hedonistic Imperative and Calvin Klein in unison. According to online reviewers, the ingredients of endless euphoria are:

endless_euphoria_ingredients

Take note – these are the ingredients of endless euphoria!

If only I had known! It must be the violet.

This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Indeed, the names of tons of perfumes are often remarkably evocative of the Hedonistic Imperative:

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That said, I think that systematizing the study of the hedonic response to scents has yet to be done. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in future articles. For the time being I’ll just tease you with the observation that based on personal experiments there seem to be cross-modal resonance effects between scent and auditory stimuli. The fact that loud broad-spectrum sounds, like the noise of an airplane cabin, modify the sense of taste is known in the literature. Based on my experience, music and special sounds can also subtly modify, and in some cases enhance, the quality of certain scents. Stay tuned.

8. Harmonic Society

Finally, we come to the the grand vision of model 8: Harmonic Society. This aesthetic model posits that it is both possible and desirable to synthesize science, philosophy, and art. The end result does not have to be- as many might expect- the disenchantment of aesthetics. Even with the simplistic take that “bliss is just chemicals in the brain” (which isn’t quite true anyway), we must remember that reduction cuts both ways. Perhaps you can instead see it as “chemicals in the brain are bliss qualia”! The feelings of divinity and profound interconnectedness one can experience on LSD, for instance, do not diminish in significance merely because they can be reduced to neurological phenomena; rather, this exalts what neurological phenomena is in the first place!

A profound understanding of qualia-space can enable us to create a prosocial world of experience in which the transition between every state of consciousness to every other is harmonious and beneficial.

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Applied to the art of scent qualia, the principles of Harmonic Society would point us in the direction of deeply investigating the state-space of scents in order to find clusters of fragrances (or scent qualia, more specifically) that have smooth transitions between them.



* Causes of anosmia – lots of things could harm your precious capacity to experience scent qualia:

(Featured image: source)

Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything

QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.



Mike writes:

This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.

A few takeaways:


  • Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
  • Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
  • Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
  • Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
  • Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
  • The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
  • Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
  • A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.

(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)

Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain: Rating, Ranking, and Comparing Peak Experiences Suggest the Existence of Long Tails for Bliss and Suffering

TL;DR

Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).

This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.

An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).

Contents

Introduction:

  1. Weber’s Law
  2. Why This Matters

General ideas:

  1. The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
    1. Personal Accounts
    2. Consciousness Expansion
    3. Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
    4. Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
  2. Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
    1. Normal World vs. Lognormal World
    2. Predictions of Lognormal World

Survey setup:

  1. Mechanical Turk
  2. Participant Composition
  3. Filtering Bots

Results:

  1. Appearance Base Rates
  2. Average Ratings
  3. Deference Graph of Top Experiences
    1. Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
    2. Triadic Analysis
  4. Latent Trait Ratings
  5. Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

Discussion:

  1. Key Pleasures Surfaced
    1. Birth of Children
    2. Falling in Love
    3. Travel/Vacation
    4. MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin
    5. Games of Chance Earnings
  2. Key Pains
    1. Kidney Stones/Migraines
    2. Childbirth
    3. Car Accidents
    4. Death of Father and Mother
  3. Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
    1. Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
  4. Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
  5. Additional Material
    1. Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
    2. Mixed States
    3. Qualia Formalism
  6. Notes

Introduction

Weber’s Law

Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.

There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:

In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.

In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.

We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.

As an intuition pump for what is to follow, we would like to highlight the empirical finding that brain activity follows a long-tail distribution (see: Statistical Analyses Support Power Law Distributions Found in Neuronal Avalanches, and Logarithmic Distributions Prove that Intrinsic Learning is Hebbian). The story where the “true valence scale” is a logarithmic compression is entirely consistent with the empirical long-tails of neural activity (in which “neural avalanches” account for a large fraction of overall brain activity).

The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:

  1. Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
  2. The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
  3. The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences

Why This Matters

Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.

Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.

General Ideas

The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain

true_pleasure_scale

True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.

true_pain_scale

True long-tail pain scale

As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).

“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.

Personal Accounts

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I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.

My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.

The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.

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DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?

Consciousness Expansion

What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.

Antoine's_Necklace_Iteration_2

Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss

As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.

Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:

Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures

On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:

The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.

9 Jhanas, Dhamma Wiki

There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.

insula

“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)

Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:

“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”

 

– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.

“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”

 

– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.

Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:

As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.

 

– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)

All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.

Now, how about the negative side?

Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches

“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”

Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)

Three pain-scale examples that illustrate the non-linearity of pain are: (1) the Schmidt sting pain index, (2) the Scoville scale, and (3) the KIP scale:

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(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:

4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain]. 

[…]

7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.

[…]

11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.

Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?

[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”

Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!

[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.

Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.

 

Origin of STINGS!, interview of Justin O. Schmidt

If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.

Moving on…

(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are several qualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:

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I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be that hot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).

I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”

07e7c9915f52b1945603f0c83a48e4fe

Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches

(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:

The KIP scale

KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful
KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful
KIP-2 More persistent shadows
KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it
KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone
KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space
KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing”
KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted
KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works
KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in
KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.

The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.

Source: Keeping Track, by Cluster Busters

As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.

In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.

While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.

Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking

The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.

Normal World vs. Lognormal World

There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?

Predictions of Lognormal World

If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:

  • That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
  • That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
  • That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).

To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).


Survey Setup

The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.

I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).

I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.

Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition

The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):

age_distribution_no_bots

Age distribution

Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)

While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:

The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:

And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.

In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.

Preprocessing

Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.


Results

I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:

Appearance Base Rates

There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:

pleasure_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)

pain_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)

For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.

A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:

pleasure_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

pain_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of worst experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

Average ratings

Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:

For pain:

  1. Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
  2. Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
  3. Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
  4. Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
  5. Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
  6. Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
  7. Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
  8. Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
  9. Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
  10. Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
  11. Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57

(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).

And for pleasure:

  1. Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
  2. Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
  3. Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
  4. Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
  5. College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
  6. Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
  7. Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
  8. Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
  9. Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
  10. Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23

Deference Graph of Top Experiences

We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.

The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.

The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:

The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.

In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):

CodeCogsEqn

Rebalanced smoothed proportion

I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):

To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:

pleasure_97_balanced_2

Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

 

pain_network_97_balanced

Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:

pleasure_pagerank_97_

PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

pain_pagerank_97__

PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.

Triadic Analysis

With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).

In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:

triad_analysis

Left: 030T, Right: 030C (source)

The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:

In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.

Latent Trait Ratings

A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).

Interestingly, this strategy has also been used in other areas outside of actual tournaments, such as deriving university rankings based on the choices made by students admitted to more than one college (see: Revealed Preference Rankings of US Colleges and Universities).

I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.

To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:

pleasure_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

pain_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):

(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).

I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).

The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):

If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:

As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.

Discussion

Key Pleasures Surfaced

Birth of children

I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:

The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.

—————

I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.

—————

I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.

—————

I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.

No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.

Falling in Love

The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.

Travel/Vacation

The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.

MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin

It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).

Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.

About-two-thirds-of-participants-who-received-psilocybin-reported-a-mystical-experience

Games of Chance Earnings

Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.

Key Pains Surfaced

Kidney Stones and Migraines

The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)

Childbirth

Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.

Car accidents

Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.

Death of Father and Mother

This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.

Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:

Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors

After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).

In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:

  1. Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
  2. Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
  3. A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
  4. And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.

In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.

Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.

Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale

To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:

  1. The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
  2. The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
  3. The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
  4. The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.

In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.


Additional Material

Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain

Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:

First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.

And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.

Mixed States

We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.

Qualia Formalism

Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.

In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.


Notes:

* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).

**Base rate of mentions of worst experiences:

[('Father death', 19), ('Childbirth', 16), ('Grandmother death', 13), ('Mother death', 11), ('Car accident', 9), ('Kidney stone', 9), ('Migraine', 9), ('Romantic breakup', 9), ('Broken arm', 6), ('Broken leg', 6), ('Work failure', 6), ('Divorce', 5), ('Pet death', 5), ('Broken foot', 4), ('Broken ankle', 4), ('Broken hand', 4), ('Unspecified', 4), ('Friend death', 4), ('Sister death', 4), ('Skin burns', 3), ('Skin cut needing stitches', 3), ('Financial ruin', 3), ('Property loss', 3), ('Sprained ankle', 3), ('Gallstones', 3), ('Family breakup', 3), ('Divorce of parents', 3), ('C-section recovery', 3), ('Love failure', 2), ('Broken finger', 2), ('Unspecified fracture', 2), ('Broken ribs', 2), ('Unspecified family death', 2), ('Broken collarbone', 2), ('Grandfather death', 2), ('Unspecified illness', 2), ('Period pain', 2), ('Being cheated', 2), ('Financial loss', 2), ('Broken tooth', 2), ('Cousin death', 2), ('Relative with cancer', 2), ('Cluster headache', 2), ('Unspecified leg problem', 2), ('Root canal', 2), ('Back pain', 2), ('Broken nose', 2), ('Aunt death', 2), ('Wisdom teeth', 2), ('Cancer (eye)', 1), ('Appendix operation', 1), ('Dislocated elbow', 1), ('Concussion', 1), ('Mono', 1), ('Sexual assault', 1), ('Kidney infection', 1), ('Hemorrhoids', 1), ('Tattoo', 1), ('Unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('Unspecified lung problem', 1), ('Unspecified cancer', 1), ('Unspecified childhood sickness', 1), ('Broken jaw', 1), ('Broken elbow', 1), ('Thrown out back', 1), ('Lost sentimental item', 1), ('Abortion', 1), ('Ruptured kidney', 1), ('Big fall', 1), ('Torn knee', 1), ('Finger hit by hammer', 1), ('Injured thumb', 1), ('Brother in law death', 1), ('Knocked teeth', 1), ('Unspecified death', 1), ('Ripping off fingernail', 1), ('Personal anger', 1), ('Wrist pain', 1), ('Getting the wind knocked out', 1), ('Blown knee', 1), ('Burst appendix', 1), ('Tooth abscess', 1), ('Tendinitis', 1), ('Altruistic frustration', 1), ('Leg operation', 1), ('Gallbladder infection', 1), ('Broken wrist', 1), ('Stomach flu', 1), ('Running away from family', 1), ('Child beating', 1), ('Sinus infection', 1), ('Broken thumb', 1), ('Family abuse', 1), ('Miscarriage', 1), ('Tooth extraction', 1), ('Feeling like your soul is lost', 1), ('Homelessness', 1), ('Losing your religion', 1), ('Losing bike', 1), ('Family member in prison', 1), ('Crohn s disease', 1), ('Irritable bowel syndrome', 1), ('Family injured', 1), ('Unspecified chronic disease', 1), ('Fibromyalgia', 1), ('Blood clot in toe', 1), ('Infected c-section', 1), ('Suicide of lover', 1), ('Dental extraction', 1), ('Unspecified partner abuse', 1), ('Infertility', 1), ('Father in law death', 1), ('Broken neck', 1), ('Scratched cornea', 1), ('Swollen lymph nodes', 1), ('Sun burns', 1), ('Tooth ache', 1), ('Lost custody of children', 1), ('Unspecified accident', 1), ('Bike accident', 1), ('Broken hip', 1), ('Not being loved by partner', 1), ('Dog bite', 1), ('Broken skull', 1)]

Base rate of mentions of best experiences:

[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]

For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.

*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.

Against Fetishizing Cortical Neurons: Prioritizing Humans As Instrumentally Rational

In response to: [Partially Retracted] Cortical Neuron Number Matches Intuitive Perceptions Of Moral Value Across Animals (see also: 1, 2), and The Cognitive Chain of Being: A New Approach to Animal Rights


Some errors are ethically catastrophic. Prioritizing the prevention of suffering based on the number of cortical neurons of the brains that would generate such suffering might be one of them.

We should avoid jumping to conclusions. It is possible that moral significance will ultimately be revealed to be based on capacity to suffer and experience joy, which is related to the limbic system, pleasure centers, and thalamus rather than the capacity to verbalize and cogitate, which is related to number of cortical neurons. People’s perceptions and intuitions are likely to be biased towards over-valuing intelligence because that’s something that got ingrained into our perception of value due to sexual and kin selection.

If QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence is correct, most intense and (dis)valuable experiences will turn out to be very simple in structure (even if very high energy-wise). Complexity of neural architecture is correlated with potential for intelligence and complex states. But it is not necessary for emotionally powerful experiences. The cortex, after all, plays majorly an inhibitory role in the brain. Emotion centers, on the other hand, are excitatory, evolutionarily ancient and phylogenetically preserved across the animal kingdom (e.g. even octopodes enjoy MDMA). Based on this, uninhibited base emotions are likely to feel roughly the same (or close to the same) in human and nonhuman animals alike.

What about an animals’ capacity to inhibit base emotions? As John Lilly’s studies indicate, the thickness of an animal’s cortex is correlated with its emotional control. A macaque in panic is more impulsive and violent than a chimpanzee in panic, which in turn is more impulsive and violent than a human in panic. The same goes for humans with different cortical sizes. Hence, sadly, there is a good chance that pigs, dogs, birds, and cows experience emotions more- rather than less- intensely. Their emotions may not be as ‘subtle’ and multilayered, but why would that matter for ethics? Raw panic is worse than subtle poetic melancholia and other ‘valued (i.e. fetishized) human emotions’. Again, we overvalue such subtle emotions as a side effect of the specific sexual selection pressures experienced in our recent evolutionary history, rather than for good well-thought-out reasons.

In this age of ethical emergencies (aka. the Darwinian age), I would like to offer the suggestion of enforcing pleasure center activation in factory farm animals as a precondition for having them raised for meat or dairy. Likewise, such should be done in nonhuman animal studies that focus on things other than the brain. Why not wirehead rats who are being studied for kidney failure? It won’t matter for that area of research… but it will certainly matter for the subjective wellbeing of the rats in question.

A relevant side note here would concern another human bias in addition to the fetishization of cortical neurons. Namely, our positive bias towards cute animals due to mirror neuron activation. Cuteness and neoteny are attractive to humans for good evolutionary reasons, but this is a perceptual bias rather than the result of careful moral reasoning. The fact that humans perceive pandas as cute hardly justifies letting millions of sentient beings suffer in exchange for “saving the panda” (cf. Should We Let Pandas Go Extinct?*).

Really what we need is what Mike Johnson has pointed at in his blog for ages: objective measures of species’ specific valence landscapes.

My dark hunch: the life of some animals is simply not worth living no matter their environmental conditions. Crickets- the consciousnesses science of 2050 could reveal- are 100% driven by dissonance and never experience pleasure. If so, let’s fix them or phase them out.

Finally, also consider: Cluster headaches are 10,000sX more painful than other medical conditions. Given this extreme outlier in humans, we could infer that there are good odds that there are other kinds of ultra-high-intensity suffering lurking in species’ specific diseases. Morally, it ought to be key to identify these cases and treat them as our priority. Focusing on cortical neurons instead would be a- possibly ethically catastrophic- red herring.


* This is not to say that it is desirable for the panda to go extinct. It is a question of opportunity cost. It might make sense to put efforts instead in sequencing the DNA of the entire panda population and consider rebooting it sometime in the future.

An Infinite Variety of Waste

Excerpt from The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2000) by Geoffrey Miller (pg. 128-129)

Zahavi’s handicap principle and the idea of condition-dependence* are different perspectives on the same thing. The handicap idea emphasizes that sexual ornaments and courtship behaviors must be costly in order to be reliable fitness indicators. Their cost can take almost any form. They can increase risk from predators by making an animal more conspicuous with bright colors. They can increase risk from germs by impairing an animal’s immune system (which many sex hormones do). They can burn up vast amounts of time and energy, like bird song. They can demand a huge effort to obtain a small gift of meat, as in human tribal hunting.

As with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption principle, the form of the cost does not matter much. What matters is the prodigious waste. The waste is what keeps the fitness indicators honest. The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures. From the viewpoint of “survival of the fittest,” the waste looks mad and pointless and maladaptive. Human courtship even looks wasteful from the viewpoint of sexual selection for non-generic benefits, because, as we shall see, the act of love considered most romantic are often those that cost the giver the most, but that bring the smallest material benefits to the receiver. However, from the viewpoint of fitness indicator theory, this waste is the most efficient and reliable way to discover someone’s fitness. Where you see conspicuous waste in nature, sexual choice has often been at work.

Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste. Male humpback whales waste their energies with half-hour-long, hundred-decibel songs that they repeat all day long during the breeding season. Male weaverbirds waste their time constructing ornamental nests. Male stag beetles waste the matter and energy from their food growing huge mandibles. Male elephant seals waste a thousand pounds of their fat per breeding season fighting other elephant seals. Male lions waste countless calories copulating thirty times a day with female lions before the females will conceive. Male humans waste their time and energy getting graduate degrees, writing books, playing sports, fighting other men, painting pictures, playing jazz, and founding religious cults. These may not be conscious sexual strategies, but the underlying motivations for “achievement” and “status”- even in preference to material sources- were probably shaped by sexual selection. (Of course, the wasteful displays that seemed attractive during courtship may no longer be valued if they persist after offspring arrive- there is a trade-off between parental responsibilities and conspicuous display.)

The handicap principle suggests that in each case, sexual selection cares much more about the prodigious magnitude of the waste than about its precise form. Once the decision-making mechanisms of sexual choice get their necessary information about fitness from a sexual display, everything else about the display is just a matter of taste. This interplay between waste and taste gives evolution a lot of elbow room. In fact, every species with sexual ornaments can be viewed as a different variety of sexually selected waste. Without so many varieties of sexual waste, our planet would not be the host of so many species.


* (from Glossary, pg. 437) Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well.

Utilitronium Shockwaves vs. Gradients of Bliss

Excerpt from On utilitronium shockwaves versus gradients of bliss by David Pearce


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Utilitronium Shockwave: Turn your local Galaxy Super-Cluster into a Full-Spectrum Orgasm in 9 easy civilizational steps.

Why is the idea of life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss attractive, at least to some of us, whereas the prospect of utilitronium leaves almost everyone cold? One reason is the anticipated loss of self: if one’s matter and energy were converted into utilitronium, then intuitively the intense undifferentiated bliss wouldn’t be me. By contrast, even a radical recalibration of one’s hedonic set-point intuitively preserves the greater part of one’s values, memories and existing preference architecture: in short, personal identity. Whether such preservation of self would really obtain if life were animated by gradients of bliss, and whether such notional continuity is ethically significant, and whether the notion of an enduring metaphysical ego is even intellectually coherent, is another matter. Regardless of our answers to such questions, there is a tension between our divergent response to the prospect of cosmos-wide utilitronium and intelligent bliss. People rarely complain that e.g. orgasmic sexual ecstasy lasts too long, and that regrettably they lose their sense of personal identity while orgasm lasts. On the contrary: behavioural evidence strongly suggests that most men in particular reckon sexual bliss is too short-lived and infrequent. Indeed if such sexual bliss were available indefinitely, and if it were characterised by an intensity orders of magnitude greater than the best human orgasms, then would anyone – should anyone – wish such ecstasy to stop? Subjectively, utilitronium presumably feels more sublime than sexual bliss, or even whole-body orgasm. Granted the feasibility of such heavenly bliss, is viewing the history of life on Earth to date as mere stepping-stones to cosmic nirvana really so outrageous?

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Is attachment to your sense of self keeping you from embracing hedonium? Stop ‘Selfing’ with these 3 buddhist-approved Techniques!

For the foreseeable future, however, even strict classical utilitarians must work for information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss rather than raw undifferentiated pleasure. Classical hedonistic utilitarianism was originally formulated as an ethic for legislators, not biologists or computer scientists. Conceived in this light, the felicific calculus has been treated as infeasible. Yet a disguised implication of a classical utilitarian ethic in an era of mature biotechnology may be that we should be seeking to convert the world into utilitronium, generally assumed to be relatively homogenous matter and energy optimised for raw bliss. The “shockwave” in utilitronium shockwave alludes to our hypothetical obligation to launch von Neumann probes propagating this hyper-valuable state of matter and energy at, or nearly at, the velocity of light across our Galaxy, then our Local Cluster, and then our Local Supercluster. And beyond? Well, politics is the art of the possible. The accelerating expansion of the universe would seem to make further utilitronium propagation infeasible even with utopian technologies. Such pessimism assumes our existing understanding of theoretical physics is correct; but theoretical cosmology is currently in a state of flux.

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Utilitronium Shockwave? (cf. Hedonium)

Naively, the theoretical feasibility of utilitronium shockwave is too remote to sorry about. This question might seem a mere philosophical curiosity. But not so. Complications of uncertain outcome aside, any rate of time discounting indistinguishable from zero is ethically unacceptable for the ethical utilitarian. So on the face of it, the technical feasibility of a utilitronium shockwave makes working for its adoption ethically mandatory even if the prospect is centuries or millennia distant.

Existential Risk? Utilitarian ethics and speculative cosmology might seem far removed. But perhaps the only credible candidate naturalising value has seemingly apocalyptic implications that have never (to my knowledge) been explored in the scholarly literature. And can we seriously hope to be effective altruists in the absence of serviceable model of Reality?

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All-New “Life”! – Now animated by gradients of bliss. Pain-free!

Should existential risk reduction be the primary goal of: a) negative utilitarians? b) classical hedonistic utilitarians? c) preference utilitarians? All, or none, of the above? The answer is far from obvious. For example, one might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans – or our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans – or rather our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume. Conceptions of the meaning of the term “existential risk” differ. Compare David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been” with Nick Bostrom’s “Astronomical Waste“. Here at least, we will use the life-affirming sense of the term. Does negative utilitarianism or classical utilitarianism represent the greater threat to intelligent life in the cosmos? Arguably, we have our long-term existential risk-assessment back-to-front. A negative utilitarian believes that once intelligent agents have phased out the biology of suffering, all our ethical duties have been discharged. But the classical utilitarian seems ethically committed to converting all accessible matter and energy – not least human and nonhuman animals – into relatively homogeneous matter optimised for maximum bliss: “utilitronium”.

Ramifications? Severe curtailment of personal liberties in the name of Existential Risk Reduction is certainly conceivable. Assume, for example, that the technical knowledge of how to create and deploy readily transmissible, 100% lethal, delayed-action weaponised pathogens leaks into the public domain. Only the most Orwellian measures – a perpetual global totalitarianism – could hope to prevent their use, whether by a misanthrope or an idealist. Such measures would most likely fail. By contrast, constitutively happy people would be incapable of envisaging the development and use of such a doomsday agent. The biology of suffering in intelligent agents is a deep underlying source of existential risk – and one that can potentially be overcome.

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Gradients of Bliss world in a Hedonium Universe? – “Central Realm of the Densely-Packed.”

A theoretically inelegant but pragmatically effective compromise solution might be to initiate a utilitronium shockwave that propagates outside the biosphere – or realm of posthuman civilisation. The world within our cosmological horizon could then be tiled with utilitronium with the exception of a negligible island (or archipelago) of minds animated “merely” by gradients of intelligent bliss. One advantage of this hybrid option is that most refusniks would (presumably) be indifferent to the fate of inert matter and energy outside their lifeworld. Ask someone today whether they’d mind if some anonymous rock on the far side of the moon were converted into utilitronium and they’d most likely shrug.

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Shrugging at the prospect of hedonium rocks on the moon.

In future, gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences could well be a design feature of the post-human mind. However, I don’t think intracranial self-stimulation is consistent with intelligence or critical insight. This is because it is uniformly rewarding. Intelligence depends on informational sensitivity to positive and negative stimuli – even if “negative” posthuman hedonic dips are richer and higher than the human hedonic ceiling.

In contrast to life animated by gradients of bliss, the prospect of utilitronium cannot motivate. Or rather the prospect can motivate only a rare kind of hyper-systematiser drawn to its simplicity and elegance. The dips of intelligent bliss need not be deep […] Everyday hedonic tone could be orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible now. But will such well-being be orgasmic? Orgasmic bliss lacks – in the jargon of academic philosophy – an “intentional object”. So presumably there will be selection pressure against any predisposition to enjoy 24/7 orgasms. By contrast, information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss can be adaptive – and hence sustainable indefinitely, allowing universe maintenance: responsible stewardship of Hubble volume.

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Can Life and Hedonium get Married? Express your eternal love with Hedonium Jewelry! Made of 99.99% Pure Bliss! (Guaranteed by Hilbert Space Hamiltonian Assay – Lab Tested Hedonium!)

At any rate, posthumans may regard even human “peak experiences” as indescribably dull by comparison.


Image credit for the Buddhist monk picture “Is”: Alex William Hoffman.

Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (1/2)

[Epistemic Status: Fiction; see related non-fiction Burning Man articles – 1, 2, 3. See part 2/2 here.]

Preface

What follows is the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?” Hope this sparks interesting thoughts.


The interdependent nature of knowledge is such that for you to truly understand anything, you must understand everything first.

– Alex Alamy, founder of Camp State-Space of Consciousness

The year is 2029 and Burning Man season is upon us. You’ve been there once before, but you feel like you gravitated a lot towards the art in deep playa and neglected the theme-camps that surrounded you. For instance, you didn’t even visit your neighbors despite the fact that they had giant marble statues hung up from a transparent dome visible from the street, and a picture of Shiva having sex with a rhino at the entrance. In retrospect you wonder “why didn’t I at least come by and say hi? The place looked so inviting!” This year you are determined to change that by investigating in detail one theme-camp every day, in addition to enjoying the company of your campmates and exploring the deep playa the rest of the time.

Sunday: Arrival

You arrive on Sunday evening after a 16-hour drive. Eight of those hours involved being in the line. And of those, you spent four of them manually pushing your car while a dust storm was in full force (your car’s battery died because you used it to power up speakers to blast the latest Lady Gaga album, but forgot that doing this could drain it completely if you left your engine off). After the dust cleared, the first neighbor in the line without an electric car helped you jump-start the car, which worked fine from then on. After that rough start, you are now settling in your little pod, keeping hydrated, and eating the left-over fried rice that one of your campmates cooked for everyone who helped build the shade structures. You decide to call it a night and rest. After all, you have seven full days of Burning Man ahead of you…

Monday: Camp Microlife

You wake up slightly groggy and disoriented. Like last year- you are now aware- the first day of the Burn is usually a little slow and difficult on the body as it acclimatizes to the new environment. You take it easy and wake up at 11AM, help campmates with their tents and structures, attend the camp meeting, eat bunches of fruit mixed in with Soylent Cereal®, and take a nap. At 6PM you feel rested and ready to start exploring. Your first stop is right next door, a place called Camp Microlife (formerly known as Longevity Camp).

Burning Man is said to be dangerous. Indeed, a well-known piece of advice people like to throw at each other is to only do one stupid thing at a time. If you take shrooms, don’t try to climb a giant sculpture. If you are drunk, don’t go for a walk without a camelback. If you are going to oversee the safety of a fire, don’t do so while being heavily sleep deprived. And if you go to the Orgy Dome, don’t do so while on MDMA. Just common sense things, right? You would be surprised how people tend to stack dangerous activities on top of each other at Burning Man. And you’d be even more surprised how despite this, the number of serious accidents is incredibly low. In fact, it is a marvel why more people don’t die at Burning Man, given the expectations that you can realistically place on 80,000 Homo Sapiens in the desert for an entire week. It takes a lot of effort distributed across many people to reach this level of relative safety.

The low injury statistic at Burning Man is something to applaud. That said, before 2020 there wasn’t much awareness about the fact that the environmental hazards of Burning Man had measurable effects on the rate of aging of the body. Camp Longevity was thus founded in order to help people minimize this effect by focusing on interventions that would give you the largest bang for your buck. Their welcoming sign at the entrance reads:

This camp is dedicated to the task of identifying the most cost-effective way of reducing the number of micromorts (cf. microlives) that you are expending at Burning Man. We will take a picture of your skin in controlled lighting conditions in order to determine the amount of melanin in your skin, and measure your height, BMI, and lung capacity. Then based on actuarial tables we will give you custom harm-reduction help, ranging from gifting you optimal sunscreen, to magnesium supplements & earplugs, to providing free high-quality masks and even nose-filters as part of a pilot program (did I mention that you are encouraged to enroll in a study to see whether nose-filters are as effective as dust masks at preventing lung aging from the dust?).

They have both a no-nonsense set of recommendations and a more creative “R&D” side, in which they are piloting wacky solutions to “microlife loss prevention.” For instance, they had nose-filters they could give you if you participated in a study (well, they would give them to you regardless but they would encourage you to sign up). They also had an instant-cooling system in their camp that you could use if you were over-heating (or felt like it, anyhow). Under the assumption that MDMA neurotoxicity and body strain is partly caused by hyperthemia, they hoped to incorporate this device as a harm reduction strategy at Zendos around the world. On your way out they handed you UV-protecting arm sleeves, which they had in bulk quantities, and were giving out to passersby.

At night, you visit some of the core attractions in Esplanade, and take a ride to deep playa on the Mayan Warrior, which is still going strong after 17 years of Burning Man. On your way back you stop at a space cowboy-themed bar, and have two drinks- Mr. Walker on Glowing Rocks– before calling it a night.

Tuesday: Camp State-Space of Consciousness

On Tuesday you wake up at 9AM, stretch, shower, and socialize for half an hour while eating a handful of bananas with copious amounts of almond butter. You check out the Man, the Temple, and random artwork you find on the way to and from. You eat quesadillas at Mexican Grill, and by 5PM, you return to camp and rest for ninety minutes before going out at 7PM with two friends. Tonight is a “trip night”.

Camp State-Space of Consciousness (formerly known as Rainbow God) is devoted to a made-up religion called Divine Spectralism. This religion postulates that the maximum expression of divinity is in its full-spectrum (aka. rainbow) form. God may have infinite faces, but some of them display its glory more fully, clearly, and lucidly. In their theology, God realized is tasteless and flavorless. But that’s an asymptote that’s impossible to talk about. Around it, approaching the event horizon, we see God diffractions that express all of the possible flavors, colors, thought-forms, space and time qualities, etc. of consciousness. That is, God Realized is surrounded by a full-spectrum of all varieties of experience. This region of the multiverse corresponds to the highest heavens, the rainbow worlds; these are the closest you can get to the fullest expression of God while being able to support sapience and self-awareness.

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In order to transcend our world- grey and dull relative to rainbow worlds-, we must move towards the universal gradient of synthesis, which incorporates, in each successive moment of experience, more diversity of experiential qualities (aka. qualia). Up there in the upper heavens everyone has a full-spectrum enjoyment body, which allows them to create-imagine-animate massive worlds of experience populated with maximally-encompassing narratives. They pack tremendous amounts of smell, taste, warmth, music, echolocation, and uncountably many other flavors of experience we humans don’t have words for in highly energetic forms. The result is not just an impressive “painting of experience”; there is something special and magical that happens when you start piecing together all of the varieties of experience in a giant thought-form. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts. One unlocks the ability to recombine the complementary parts of experience and get purified God consciousness. They even claim that you don’t really understand a given qualia (e.g. cinnamon scent) until you can put it in the context of all of the values of its variety (in this case all scents). And you don’t really understand a given variety (e.g. scents) until you see it in the context of all varieties (e.g. scents, colors, tactile sensations, etc.). So we don’t truly understand anything until we understand everything. That is not to say that ignorance doesn’t come in gradients, though.

Buddhists came across this phenomenon long time ago. They encountered states of consciousness where they had an intensified divine connection in conjunction with full-spectrum experiences. They called it the rainbow body. It is interesting that they knew about it but they didn’t develop techniques specifically aimed at it. Instead, they merely thought of it as a side-effect of good and deliberate practice, or maybe a gift liable to become a distraction. The Divine Spectralists, in contrast, claim to investigate this phenomenon scientifically. They will tell you that they have found a causal connection between full-spectrum practices and increased spirituality.

 

The camp is organized along the lines of a hexagon, with a large central rectangular tarp. This shape defines seven regions: one corner for each of the “top 6 senses” (sight, hearing, touch, taste, scent, and proprioception) and a central space called the “global workspace.”*

You, being the intrepid scientific psychonaut that you are, of course decide to visit this camp while on acid. You take 150 micrograms before heading out. This camp has been around for five years, and it has grown into a core Burning Man attraction. Your friends tell you that if you took acid you should definitely go check it out. So you and two of your friends- Galaxy Fox and Astro Burrito– make the walk towards it, which takes long enough for the acid to start kicking in.

As you approach the entrance you notice people playing with LED-illuminated hula hoops. That is not unexpected, since after all, Burning Man is the DIY LED Mecca of the world (cf. Ring Theory). But there is something particularly unusual about these hula hoops. The tracers left by the bright LEDs given your psychedelic state are not only stunning, they are also somehow encoding words and images. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” – you ask Galaxy Fox, who is sitting you during this 12 hour trip. “You mean the hula hoops? They are cool, aren’t they?” – she responds. “Yes, but you see the things they are saying? It’s saying:

You are the Chosen One, The One who will deliver the message. A message of hope for those who choose to hear it. And a warning for those who do not.

Are you not seeing that?” – you say. “Nah, man, you trippin’, I see no message there, dude.” – she says. But for you this is undeniable. As it turns out, these hula hoops were programmed to encode messages only readable by people on psychedelics; they use a technique called psychedelic cryptography. To illustrate how these hula hoops look, see the video below (tracer effect applied to LED hula hoops). In brief, they take advantage of the longer-than-normal decay of qualia on psychedelics. This way they can “paint over time” pictures that only people with pronounced persistence of vision can really detect. Shocked and intrigued, you start exploring the camp.

You learn about the made-up religion with a video they play and a few girls who answer questions about it. From your point of view this feels extremely cultish, but you are not sure whether it is your state or the actual camp. So you ask your friends if they also feel the same as you, considering they are sober judges of what’s going on. One of them says yes, and one of them says no, which isn’t very helpful. You decide to stop worrying about whether they will brainwash you and take it on good faith that they are at least doing their best at pointing you towards interesting ideas to consider.

You are fascinated by the made-up religion, and thinking about it in your state activates in you very intense feelings that are hard to put into words. At times you get convinced that you can perform psi feats and feel like you are connecting to the minds and feelings of the people around you… that God’s light is being reflected and refracted throughout everyone in the camp. Then again, you realize this is exactly what the environment is meant to suggest and exalt as much as possible, not to speak of the suggestibility of LSD states.

The camp’s center has a large rectangular tent, and when you come in you see that one of the walls is completely covered with LEDs stacked along three layers (each of the layers is capable of 7 bright primary colors, and their combinations). This artwork is called “The Fourth Wall”, and it is a large LED display optimized for psychedelic cryptography. The “hidden messages” cycle over several minutes. It displays messages written by people walking by who draw them on a tablet connected to the lights. It also shows bizarre super trippy patterns of all kinds, along with what looks like psychophysics experiments. Every once in a while it displays a live video of yourself from a corner (it takes you a moment, but you manage to locate the camera, which is behind you). The symbolism startles, as you realize that only on psychedelics you are able to realize that you are being secretly watched. Sober people passing by just see pretty lights, and a few local features of the pictures, but unlike people on a couple blotters of acid, they don’t see the entire pictures there. Interestingly, this way people on psychedelics can coordinate with each other in surprising ways. The message sometimes says “all move to the blue corner” and from the point of view of someone sober it’s like suddenly half of the room makes the telepathic decision to move together towards one corner. Doing fun things with psychedelic cryptography is an art-form. Making an analogy to a county fair, the whole range of games and prototypes in this section could accurately be described as being of the type that says “you have to be at least this high to play this game”.

You now decide to take a look at the music corner. The place is a dome shaped in a peculiar way that increases both the resonance and reverb of the space. That on its own would make it a cool experience, but the fact that those effects are massively amplified with a network of microphones and speakers that subtly generate feedback without blowing up makes it an over-the-top experience. The auditory effect is confusing and mentally scrambling to an exaggerated degree. The 3D sound effects can generate the impression of entire worlds in movement. These music and sound geeks have been working for years on being able to represent events in a sort of musical-ray-tracing engine with custom software. They can generate the illusion of the reverb fingerprint of arbitrary spaces, and hence create for you the illusion that you are inside a car, or inside a church, or inside an infinite tunnel. In addition, they use doppler effects to change the impression of how fast things are moving, and in particular, to create the illusion that the shape of the universe is changing and that information is propagating relativistically. Did I mention one of the people involved in this installation is a famous physicist? And did I mention the sound booth is managed by a robotic dog?

 

This place plays weird music. You know of weird music, but this music here is weird music. In fact the thing these guys have been working on for a while is a computational approach to figuring out which combinations of sounds will weird you out as much as possible. It learns over the course of 15 minutes or so using eye-tracking and biosignals it gets from a headband you put on when you enter their sound dome. The music tries to drive you towards the edge between chaos and predictability. It parametrically identifies how quickly to change its degree of predictability in order to assault your attention with hyper-dopaminergic attention-grabbing mood-setting sounds. The music is so mesmerizing that it has developed a sort of fame for being able to halt fights in the Playa. Taking an angry campmate there is certainly going to distract them for no less than 30 minutes, and give them a chance to approach whatever problem they are dealing with from a different angle.

You move on to the camp’s “scented room”, which has a large repertoire of scented objects and essential oils. Starting with the stereotypically obligatory patchouli (as in, if you don’t have patchouli in your kit of scent qualia, what are you even doing?)  – more seriously, the repertoire of scents is enormous, with a box with more than 5,000 scents collected over the years, including uncommon scents like cypress, palmarosa, ylang ylang, durian, acetone, cork, jojoba, and boutique scents like digestive enzymes and a synthesized “old book smell”-mimicking mixture. You didn’t even know that old books smell could be chemically identified, but now you do. You notice that some of the scents resonate with your state, and others almost, kind of, sober you up to an extent.

Perhaps the most interesting, and daring, of all of the scents there is the LSD-scent vial. “Do not get confused”-the attendant tells you- “this vial is LSD-free, but it smells like LSD.” You reply: “I thought LSD was odorless.” She says: “Most people have no idea it has a smell because there is so little LSD, weight-wise, in blotters that there is not enough of it to build enough scent for you to smell it… but dogs can smell it. What this vial contains is what is used to train dogs to detect LSD.” You smell the vial: “Uh, it’s a bit tangy?” She says: “Yeah, some say that. Others mention it reminds them of the smell of DMT to an extent, and others point out its metallic tones.” You ask her – “wait, wouldn’t search dogs get crazy about this, then? Isn’t this a liability for the camp?”. To which she replies: “There’s a funny story here. The first year we brought this scent to the playa we were stopped by a cop for a random search during the trip from Reno. A dog sniffed out the vial right away. It took literally about 5 seconds for the dogs to find it. We were careful not to have anything illegal on us, though, so that’s the only thing they found. They wanted to press charges for the vial even though we claimed it was not LSD. Later they got from the lab the result that the vial had actual LSD in it. This, of course, majorly surprised us. By having the paper trail of how we got the vial, and it having a serial number, and us hiring an independent lab to test it which confirmed it had no LSD, we and the Burner community at large discovered that lab tests were being forged. This revealed that the rumors were true, that there really were some people faking lab results, and they were making a lot of money off of this. This is currently unraveling, and the courts are now going back, historically, and dropping the charges from people harmed by faked lab results over the years. A number of burners we know are getting their charges dropped for this reason.” You think about it, for a moment, and reply: “I guess I didn’t realize there was so much power in having something that is genuinely, provably, fake, since it can be used to expose people who claim to be able to recognize the authentic ones.”

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State-space of scent qualia (adapted from: Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization; Castro, Ramanathan, Chennubhotla. 2013; link)

The camp has a corner dedicated to conducting perception experiments. The experiments are not just idle fun and games, they tell you. Three peer-reviewed papers have been published so far testing hypotheses about psychedelic visual and auditory perception with the data gathered here. You got excited by the prospect of helping science, and confided with the person there that you were currently on 150 micrograms of LSD. Unfortunately how the system works is that you have to go there sober first and sign an anonymous consent form in which you agree to be shown images and audio (some of it possibly R-rated) both today and in the future, so that you could then go back another day and re-do the tests while high on psychedelics. They still allowed you to try the experiments, though, but they said that in cases like yours they would not collect the data gathered.

The experiments were strange and most didn’t make much intuitive sense. For example, in some tests you had to guess “which of the 3 textures is the odd-one-out”, which they told you was used to identify which summary statistics your visual field becomes more or less capable of differentiating on psychedelics. Another experiment would show you ambiguous images and you had to guess what was in them. Interestingly, this was another way in which psychedelic cryptography was being developed, but rather than being based on tracers, it was based on semantics. That is, someone on acid might look at the picture and say “that’s clearly a banana” while someone sober would say “that’s obviously the back of a Jeep”, and if you get creative, you can send secret messages this way.

Your favorite experiment felt very much like a video-game. It was engaging and fun; it had a pleasing effect on your mood for some reason. The task involved looking at the screen of a tablet that displays patterns with wallpaper symmetries shifting along a symmetry element (see below) and identify “the region that is moving at a different rate.”** They told you that this was one of the tasks that exhibited the strongest difference between people sober and on psychedelics; the reduced symmetry detection threshold in combination with increased entrainment potential made this particularly easy for people tripping.

 

 

 

After playing the symmetry detection game for 10 minutes, you decide to move on. The last section you check out at the camp invites you to go into a “world of tactile textures” by entering a large air-conditioned hexayurt with an airlock separating the inside from the windy exterior. The textures, of course, were selected for their experiential richness, but one additional important constraint had to be applied: they had to be MOOP-free. Or at least generate MOOP that is heavy and easy to pick up (hence the airlock). The people inside talk of having “alien cuddles” which is where a handful of people in underwear make a cuddle puddle with all of the pillows, and pretend to be a single alien being with unusual skin having sex with itself. They invite you to join in, and you do. The boundary-dissolving aspect of the LSD experience makes this an incredibly confusing and compelling scenario; you don’t really know where your body starts and where it begins, and gosh, you had no idea synthetic reptile scales and cellophane-wrapped cotton could feel so sexy on your bare skin.

 

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There, in the middle of the cuddle puddle with strangers, you come to an interesting realization. From their point of view of Divine Spectralism, Burning Man is wonderful because it functions as an efficient and intelligent search algorithm for exploring new regions of the state-space of consciousness. It feeds the bottom line of the Camp’s religion and its core prescriptions: to put on the map even the most outlandish of experiences.

Exhausted but satisfied, you reconvene with your friends and start heading back to camp. On your way out, you see the secret hula hoop messages are now saying:

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

You ask one of the hula hoopers why the message changed. She tells you “a prankster got a hold of our controls earlier today, and was feeding them Tool lyrics, but we found it and we are back to the regular programming.”

When you arrive to your camp, you eat a couple MealCubes, drink electrolytes, and force yourself to take a power nap to recharge, but fail due to the still-ongoing acid stimulation. You give up trying to sleep and give in to the music that is blasting next door. You dance to the soundtrack of The Wandering Earth; the neighboring camp is a smallish sound-camp specializing in retro songs and soundtracks of the 2010s. At 2AM you go out and see the Man with your friends, as you hadn’t seen it at night yet. When you come back, at 3AM, you come by a little tea house offering herbal drinks. You see a friend from a different camp there and decide to talk to him about the nature of phenomenal time. It feels like this day has lasted for ages. You also try to process your experience in Camp State-Space of Consciousness. You keep talking with your friend until the sun is about to rise. You don’t go to sleep until 6AM, but then you sleep all day until roughly 6PM.

Wednesday: Camp Valence

Thankfully this was the only day that it rained. There was some rain on and off while you were asleep, and it remained cloudy throughout the day. You figure that you rested so well in part because the temperature didn’t go up as high as it usually does. Due to global warming, now each Burn is, statistically speaking, a little hotter than the previous one. Interestingly, this hasn’t dissuaded people from attending. That said, a serious discussion is underway about the possibility of re-locating Burning Man, and where to do it after it is actually inhospitable to humans. By then, people say, all humans will have more important problems to deal with, and with this, they rationalize not thinking about how to answer the question of where to move Burning Man. Either way, you want to make sure you can squeeze this experience for learning, growth, and fun as much as you can, and you appreciate the time you have in here. You think about the far future. You think about the State-Space of Consciousness, Divine Spectralism, the way textures feel and how to even go about making a language for them, and you think about holograms… something tells you holograms hold some kind of key to “the puzzle of reality”. Perhaps the acid is still in some ways making your thought-patterns less ego-oriented, and so “early” today (7PM) it feels like your mental clarity and sense of spiritual relaxation is something you can take from your trip to Burning Man back home. This alone would have made the visit to Black Rock City worthwhile- you think to yourself. But there is still a lot of the week left for you. There are so many options, so what should you explore next?

You decide that today you are going to take MDMA and ketamine. Both of these substances are things you do not take more than once every two years, and you only ever take them in moderate doses. You decided ahead of time that if there was a particularly cold day at Burning Man this year you would take MDMA that evening since, presumably, that day would have been less taxing to your body. In addition, you had been wondering what MDMA plus ketamine felt like for ages. Tonight you will take reasonable doses for both of these drugs. 85mg of MDMA and about 100mg for ketamine (two 50mg doses spread out over the course of an hour). Together with the ecstasy powder, you swallow the latest neuroscience-backed anti-“MDMA neurotoxicity” tablets, dissolved in your electrolyte water. You ask Astro Burrito for suggestions about where to go. You tell him you took an empathogen and you want something peaceful and relaxed. Another campmate overhears your conversation and says: “If you are taking MDMA, I might recommend Camp Valence, because those Burners are trying to optimize your pleasure in all sorts of ways.” So that’s where you’ll head next. Once you are finished eating a Tasty Bite you just heated up in a communal pan.

Whereas the previous Camp felt “orgiastic” and pagan (in retrospect), this one feels like a much more curated display of experiences. The Camp State-Space of Consciousness would have you be exposed to the wilderness of all possible experiences and have you make sense of it all for yourself. But Camp Valence seems to have a different overall aesthetic, and philosophy. They seem to be optimizing for softness, intimacy, centeredness, homeliness, and emotional availability.

They have a large enclosed space covered with blankets, and small tables with candles and soft pastel-colored LEDs. Some people are sitting and talking calmly. Others are resting on the floor and cuddling with blankets with each other. Some people are meditating with headphones. Yet others in an adjacent room are doing naked yoga. There is also a pod that fits four people lying down which is sound-proof, presumably to experience sensory deprivation. There is plentiful cucumber water, and lavender cookies.

Someone approaches you in a friendly, non-threatening way, and asks you if you want to hear about the place. He gives you the option to just see it for yourself and chill undisturbed. You allow yourself the option to say yes, and he takes you to an adjacent room separated by a curtain. He is dressed with a long-sleeved tie-dye shirt, a green velvety vest, and comfy pajama pants. He also has a little bit of make-up on, which gives his face a kind of cute bird-like quality. You are not gay or bi, but you somehow feel like you are hanging out with a really cool and cute guy. Well, it’s hard to separate the way the MDMA is making you feel from the environment, but you could swear there is something super friendly about this guy. He tells you that the camp was founded three years ago by a serial entrepreneur disappointed with the economic incentives of modern society. You ask if he could share more about it, but he is interrupted when a girl dressed in a black and blue (or is it white and gold?) dress made of silk and pvc comes in. She is wearing a “cloud hat” (which looks like cotton candy but is actually just cotton), and you feel the urge to touch it. She says yes, but to be careful not to pull too hard – “we don’t want cotton MOOP, like last year with the cotton incident.”

The two people you are hanging out with say that there is a joke that is making its rounds in Camp Valence. It goes like this: “What is the most fun you can have in Las Vegas legally?” Intuitively it would be something along the lines of: “Wake up early, go to the casinos, eat fancy food, get drunk, go to a show, admire the giant buildings and statues, go shopping, and sleep late in the night after a nightcap cocktail.” In contrast, the real, objective, answer goes like this: “You check-in into a fancy and quiet hotel (e.g. the Wynn or the Four Seasons), leave your stuff there, then go to the closest weed dispensary and get at least 10mg of THC in edible form, then go to the closest pharmacy and buy 2 bottles of DXM hydrobromide pills (typically 20X15mg each) for a total of 600mg of DXM. Also buy some earplugs and an eye mask there. Then go back to your hotel, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, get yourself comfortable, take all of the DXM, and 45 minutes later eat the edible. Close the curtains, and put your earplugs and eye mask on. Over the course of the next several hours you will fall into an intense free-wheeling hallucination where you can learn a lot of fascinating properties about your mind and disclose new varieties of experience. That should keep you entertained for the next 10 hours, and then you will think about it and be amazed for the rest of your vacation. Welcome to Las Vegas, hope you have a fun stay!”

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You ask bird-boy if he could continue describing the origin story of the camp. The cloud girl also knows about it, so they take turns filling you in: The person who started the camp founded a few startups in Silicon Valley, made a lot of money, and then opened an establishment in Las Vegas called “Valence Palace.” This place would somehow manage to get permits to use things like rapid thermal exchange devices to literally cool people off (and possibly prevent neurotoxicity in party-goers, as Camp Microlife would remind you), host algorithmically designed sound baths, provide God Helmet therapy, and organize overpriced nootropics tastings. This last one turned out to be all the rage in 2023-2025, and several other establishments around the world started copying the idea. This guy, they explain, somehow masterminded his way into marketing coluracetam in an upper-class status-signaling kind of way (rather than the drug nerd niche kind of way which everyone assumed was the only market for the thing). He marketed it as a high-end product in the form of a subtle experience. For a lot of rich youngsters and people courting each other it was exciting to go out to an official-looking place in Las Vegas and pay large amounts of money to sip water laced with coluracetam (of all things). Turns out this compound had very few side-effects in the vast majority of people, and temporarily increased people’s memory, visual signal-to-noise ratio, and appreciation (but not enjoyment) of music. It is the sort of thing that only refined minds could really notice and pick up an interest in (or at least that’s how this gentleman would market it). People were dying to show off to their friends how they, too, could have an opinion about what it felt like to go to the nootropics tasting at the Valence Palace. It didn’t signal the same sort of defiance of authority that on some level psychedelics tend to evoke. Nootropics tastings served a market of people with high openness to experience but not quite the intellectual disagreeableness to take psychedelics or seek experiences outside of mainstream channels. Curiously, thanks to the competitive dynamics between dopamine and acetylcholine, taking coluracetam would kill your urge to gamble and drink. Indeed, it worked as a sort of anti-addictive drug, protecting you from all the vices on offer in other Las Vegas establishments.

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Coluracetam

Anyhow, he claimed that this and his other Valence Palace experiences were genuinely valuable from a hedonic point of view. That unlike typical Las Vegas entertainment, they did not leave you dissatisfied. They had a positive area under the curve effect, rather than illusory front-loaded pleasure followed by long streaks of mundane disappointment. And Yelp reviews of the place showed it was far better, in terms of customer satisfaction, than what casinos and even oxygen bars could offer.

Of course Las Vegas would have none of this. What he called the Dopaminergic Cartel- which profits from short-term illusory and addictive pleasures- couldn’t tolerate the presence of an organization whose actual goal was the maximization of pleasure and satisfaction in the customer. As a result of the increased popularity of nootropics tastings, and the anti-addictive effects of coluracetam, large casinos detected a significant drop in earnings from high rollers. They saw the Valence Palace as a defector against their craving-based business model. So they had to kick his establishment out of the Strip, manufacture claims on him, cancel him, and destroy his future. The poor guy ended up five million dollars in personal debt. He took them to court for defamation, and thanks to legal discovery uncovered an underground collusion between casinos and aripiprazole manufacturers, which soon became national news. The casinos counter-sued, also for defamation, but dropped their charges once the media had quieted down about the aripiprazole scandal. A couple years later he managed to get his money back with the help of an LED company. It’s a long story, they tell you, and you can find it all on Youtube Blue when you are bored and back in civilization. For now all you need to know is that the founder said that Burning Man is a safe haven which the Dopaminergic Cartel hasn’t yet touched. This is all thanks to the decommodification principle, and the persistent efforts to enforce it in every way possible.

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Aripiprazole

Camp Valence has an underlying philosophy that traces its roots back to David Pearce, Effective Altruism, and further back to Bentham, and even Buddha. The universe has an in-built utility function, and to follow the path of goodness is to (1) recognize that value is not relative, (2) that human values are provincial and distorted versions of ultimate value, and (3) to start listening, really listening, to what the universe prefers. Intrinsic value is encoded in the shape of a state of consciousness. What mystics, meditators, and hippies have all been saying for ages is true – the point of life is to live in harmony. But what is harmony, exactly? How does it manifest in precise, empirically measurable ways in terms of brain states and, more generally, configurations of matter and energy? Deep down, they claim, value is grounded in the nature of quantum fields, and the way the universal wavefunction interferes with itself. The highest expression of God, as it were, is not the one that incorporates the most diverse range of qualia, but rather, the one that incorporates the largest amount of coherent energy in a state of harmony. It so happens, they tell you, that the full-spectrum experiences that are catalyzed at places like Camp State-Space of Consciousness have as a side-effect large-scale harmonious coherence. Alas, there are far more direct and effective ways of achieving this. Thus, Divine Spectralism is not entirely true, but it is also not entirely wrong; it holds a kernel of truth… a piece of the puzzle. The full puzzle, though, can only be solved if you put your ear to the ground and listen carefully for what the universe really wants.

Mythologically, Camp Valence posits that someday in the future there will be something like Effective Altruism, but rather than focused on suffering- because there will be none of it left- it will focus on creating large projects with huge positive hedonic payoffs for the largest number of sentient beings possible. They don’t call it hedonium, because they want to retain individualized motivational architectures. They agree with David Pearce in “creating a universal welfare world where beings are animated by gradients of bliss” rather than aiming for raw undifferentiated bliss.

In a future where suffering is made physiologically impossible via gene editing, and the game-theory is taken care of such that cooperating is the evolutionarily stable equilibrium, what remains to be done competitively is to try to discover new ways to create glory and awe and delight and open-ended infinite games.

You thank them for the explanation, and you wish you could have recorded the conversation as it seemed of general interest. Alas, this is Burning Man, and as a friend once suggested, whatever happens here gets uploaded to the collective human unconscious anyway.

You walk to another room and notice a stand with many vials and powders. Like Camp State-Space of Consciousness, Camp Valence also has scents. But unlike the multi-faceted and comprehensive repertoire of Rainbow God, the scents in Camp Valence are not selected to catalyze a full-spectrum experience; they concentrate on the scents that generate the most palpable changes in one’s sense of wellbeing. They have blends of hedonically-charged scents that are made to specifically either calm you or make you hyper in a good way. You ask for the relaxing one, and you get something that fits perfectly with your empathogenic state. “Gosh, whoever designed this smell must have been rolling, too.” The attendant mentions that the most interesting thing you could do at the camp is to try out their God Helmet device. She points at one of the corners where you see two people wearing eye-masks and helmets full of wires. The attendant says that they will be done in about five minutes and you can be next. You mention that you took MDMA about two hours ago, and ask if it’s ok to mix the God Helmet with it. She winks and says “well, didn’t you notice the synergy between your state and the scent you just tried? The God Helmet is that way, too. We have many configurations that are designed specifically for a given state of consciousness. My favorite by far is the empathogenic one.”

Indeed many people show up to Camp Valence while on some empathogen or another. The people who set up the camp only take psychedelics at Burning Man due to concerns over the deleterious long-term effects of molly. Of course they are acquainted with the state, or otherwise they wouldn’t have found a way to tune the God helmet to perfectly synergize with your mind. You see the girl push a button that says “Ambrosia” and right after that you get lost into a literal world of bliss. You’ve taken larger doses of MDMA before, and you estimate that the combination of your moderate dose (85mg) with the helmet is making you feel what 200mg of MDMA feels like at its hedonic peak before palpitations and other side-effects start to set in. An all-around feeling of wellbeing and maximum enjoyment. The shape of your attention field-lines experiences interesting changes; you feel like your awareness field is a smooth toroidal powerhouse of pleasure energy. You spontaneously think of your deceased maternal grandfather, and realize you can only have good thoughts about him. Even if you were to try, you couldn’t have a single negative thing to say about him on this state. You feel his love and unconditional acceptance from afar, as if beamed through an etheric field. You yourself feel like a star of happiness– perhaps your dead relatives are seeing you from heaven due to how bright you are shining? This thought seems compelling in your state. Soon enough, your turn is over, and you take the helmet off. You still feel better than how you felt before you put it on; it’s as if this thing energized your mind, whose electromagnetic nature is now evident to you. The device did something that “boosted” your state. It now rests at a pleasant level that you associate with taking ~130mg of MDMA. They say this will also extend your state, and to drink a shot of vodka if you want your state to quiet down (e.g. in order to sleep).

You thank everyone you talked to, you tell them you love them (“we get that often”- they say- “but we know it’s true, thank you, we love you too!”), give everyone a big hug, and part ways.

You go back to your camp, hydrate, eat a couple oranges and mixed nuts, go to your tent and take a large ketamine bump, followed by another one 10 minutes later. You are propelled upwards in a tunnel of light that guides you throughout the known universe until you arrive at a giant ball of life energy. The experience is overwhelming, and hard to decipher. You think about what makes Camp Valence and Rainbow God different. What are the differences and similarities? Are you stealing fire from the Gods by having these experiences and remembering the insights that unfold from them? The giant ball of life energy feels like it is calling you, and approaches you roaring with incredible loudness- yet the sound comes out muffled, as if going through a low-pass filter. You intuitively sense that if you were to approach it too closely, you would cease to be a separate being, as it would absorb you into universal consciousness. Scared for your ego-narrative, you hesitate and hover around it, trying to make sense of it. After twenty five minutes you come down. Exhausted, you fall asleep.


Stay tuned for part 2/2.


*Pun credit: Christian Lains

**Credit for psychophysics symmetry experiment stimuli creation to Nick Xu. He generated images that I used to conduct a psychophysics experiment at Burning Man in 2017. He made images where wallpaper symmetry groups would flip along their symmetry elements. All except a single symmetry element would change at the same rate, while one of them would be moving either slightly faster or slower. People on psychedelics seemed to be faster at pointing out the “defect” in the animation. More research is needed to replicate this effect and explain how it works.

Featured Image: source. Rainbow DJ Dog GIF: source.

Cooling It Down To Partying It Up

A relatively recent hypothesis for the neurotoxicity associated with MDMA is that it causes the brain to over-heat (see: 1, 2, 3). This would make the sorts of environments in which people take it particularly hazardous (hot raves, nightclubs, warm baths, and wild sex).

I really hope this is the core main reason for MDMA’s long-term deleterious effects.

Why?

Because then the damage would be completely preventable! In particular, I would point you to the athletic performance-enhancing technology developed at Stanford in 2012 that uses rapid thermal exchange devices (aka. “the cooling glove”*) in order to cool your blood and allow you to compete at a higher level. This is an extremely efficient method to keep the temperature of your whole body (including your brain!) within a healthy range.

Sadly, the device is likely to get banned for athletic purposes (it would be, some say, an unfair advantage if some teams have access to the cooling glove and others don’t). Sports are, of course, completely inconsequential, so the fact that the device is likely to get banned for this application shouldn’t matter. Yet it does, because as a result many people seem to be losing interest in this line of research.

Maybe, I would posit, the device could be resurrected as part of a modern harm-reduction strategy. Imagine night-clubs with a chill-out space stocked with dozens of cooling gloves. Party for 30 minutes, cool down for 10 minutes, repeat. If this could allow people to take MDMA once every month for the rest of their lives without enduring the brain damage that doing this usually causes… wouldn’t that be wonderful? I would expect it to also be highly beneficial for the benevolence of culture and the overall mental health of our society.

And this is all to say: Who would have known… that “being cool” was the key to partying for the rest of your life? Cool it down and party it up!


*For a skeptical take on the device, see: Better Than Steroids? The hype behind Stanford’s magic “cooling glove” for athletes. And a comeback article that extends its use to more serious applications: Cooling glove developed by Stanford researchers helps athletes and patients.

Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project

The term “Transhumanism” has many senses. It is a social movement, a philosophy, a set of technologies, and a conceptual rallying flag. David Pearce pins down the core sentiment behind the term like this:

If we get things right, the future of life in the universe can be wonderful beyond the bounds of human imagination: a “triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness.

– David Pearce, in The 3 Supers

The concept of a “triple S” civilization is very widely applicable. For example, one can imagine future smart homes designed with it in mind. Such smart homes would have features to increase your longevity (HEPA filters, humidity control, mold detectors, etc.), increase your intelligence (adaptive noise-canceling, optimal lighting, smart foods), and happiness (mood-congruent lighting, music, aromas, etc.). Since there are trade-offs between these dimensions, one could specify how much one values each of them in advance, and the smart home would be tasked with maximizing a utility function based on a weighted average between the three S’s.

Likewise, one could apply the “triple S” concept to medical care, lifestyle choices, career development, governance, education, etc. In particular, one could argue that a key driver for the realization of a triple S civilization would be what I’d like to call “triple S genetic counseling.” In brief, this is counseling for prospective parents in order to minimize the risks of harming one’s children by being oblivious to the possible genetic risk for having a reduced longevity, intelligence, or happiness. Likewise, in the more forward-looking transhumanist side of the equation, triple S genetic counseling would allow parents to load the genetic dice in their kid’s favor in order to make them as happy, long-lived, and smart as possible.

Genetic counseling, as an industry, is indeed about to explode (cf. Nature’s recent article: Prospective parents should be prepared for a surge in genetic data). Predictably, there will be a significant fraction of society that will question the ethics of e.g. preimplantation genetic diagnosis for psychological traits. In practice, parents who are able to afford it will power ahead, for few prospective parents truly don’t care about the (probabilistic) well-being of their future offspring. My personal worry is not so much that this won’t happen, but that the emphasis will be narrow and misguided. In particular, both predicting health and intelligence based on sequenced genomes are very active areas of research. I worry that happiness will be (relatively) neglected. Hence the importance of emphasizing all three S’s.

In truth, I think that predicting the hedonic set-point of one’s potential future kids (i.e. the average level of genetically-determined happiness) is a relatively more important project than predicting IQ (cf. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligenceBGI). In addition, I anticipate that genetic-based models that predict a person’s hedonic set-point will be much more accurate than those that predict IQ. As it turns out, IQ is extremely polygenetic, with predictors diffused across the entire genome, and it is a very evolutionary recent axis of variance across the population. Predictors of hedonic-set point (such as the “pain-knob gene” SCN9A and it’s variants), on the other hand, are ancient and evolutionarily preserved across the phylogenetic tree. This makes baseline happiness a likely candidate for having a straight-forward universal physiological implementation throughout the human population. Hence my prediction that polygenetic scores of hedonic-set point will be much more precise than those for IQ (or even longevity).

Given all of the above, I would posit that a great place to start would be to develop a model that predicts hedonic set-point using all of the relevant SNPs offered by 23andMe*.  Not only would this be “low-hanging fruit” in the field of genetic counseling, it may also be a project that is way up there, close to the top of the “to do” list in Effective Altruism (cf. Cause X; Google Hedonics).

I thought about this because I saw that 23andMe reports on health predispositions based on single SNPs. From a utilitarian point of view, of particular interest are SNPs related to the SCN9A gene. For example, I found that 23andMe has the rs6746030 SNP, which some studies show can account for a percentage of the variance associated with pain in Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. The allele combination A/A is bad, making you more prone to experience pain intensely. This is just one SNP, though, and there ought to be a lot of other relevant SNPs, not only of the SCN9A gene but elsewhere too (e.g. involved in MAO enzymes, neuroplasticity, and pleasure centers innervation).

Concretely, the task would involve making two models and then combining them:

The first model uses people’s responses to 23andMe surveys to come up with a good estimate of a person’s hedonic set-point. Looking at some of the questions they ask, I would argue that there are more than enough dimensions to model how people vary in their hedonic set-point. They ask about things such as perception of pain, perception of spiciness, difficulty sleeping, stress levels, whether exercise is pleasant, etc. From a data science point of view, the challenge here is that number of responses provided by each participant is very variable; some power users respond to every question (and there are hundreds and hundreds), while most people respond to a few questions only, and a substantial minority respond to no questions at all. Most likely, the distribution of responses per participant follows a power law. So the model to build here has to be resilient against absent data. This is not an insurmountable problem, though, considering the existence of Bayesian Networks, PGMs, and statistical paradigms like Item Response Theory. For this reason, the model would need to both predict the most likely hedonic set-point of each participant, and provide confidence intervals specific to the participant based on the quality and relevance of the questions answered.

The second model would involve clustering and dimensionality reduction applied to the SNPs that are likely to be relevant for hedonic set-point. For example, one dimension would likely be a cluster of SNPs that are associated with “maximum intensity of pain”, another might be “how quickly pain subsides once it’s stimulated”, another “how much does pleasure counter-balance pain”, and so on. Each of these dimensions is likely to be determined by different neural circuits, and interact in non-linear ways, so they deserve their own separate dimension.

And finally, one would make a third model that combines the two models above, which predicts the hedonic set-point of a person derived from the first model using the genetic dimensions found by the second model. If you are an up-and-coming geneticist, I would like to nudge you in the direction of looking into this. As a side effect, you might as well get filthy rich in the process, as the genetic counseling field explodes in the next decade.


Bonus Content: What About Us?

Admittedly, many people will note that predicting a fraction of the variance of people’s hedonic set point with commercial DNA testing products will only really alleviate suffering in the medium to long term. The people who will benefit from this technology haven’t been born yet. In the meantime, what do we do about the people who currently have low hedonic set-points? Here is a creative, politically incorrect, and enticing idea:

Let’s predict which recreational drugs have the best cost-benefit profile for individuals based on their genetic makeup.

It is no secret that people react differently to drugs. 23andMe, among others, is currently doing research to predict your particular reaction to a drug based on your genetic makeup (cf. 23andMe can now tell you how you’ll react to 50+ common drugs). Unfortunately for people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other hedonic tone illnesses, most psychiatric drugs are rather subtle and relatively ineffective. No wonder, compared to heroin, an SSRI is not likely to make you feel particularly great. As David Pearce argued in his essay Future Opioids, there is substantial evidence that many people who become addicts are driven to take recreational substances due to the fact that their endogenous opioid system is dysfunctional (e.g. they may have bad variants of opioid receptors, too many endorphin-degrading enzymes, etc.). The problem with giving people hard drugs is not that they don’t work in the short term; it is that they tend to backfire in the long-term and have cumulative negative health effects. As an aside, from the pharmaceutical angle, my main interest is the development of Anti-tolerance Drugs, which would allow hard drugs to work as mood-enhancers indefinitely.

This is not to say that there aren’t lucky people for whom the cost-benefit ratio of taking hard drugs is, in fact, rather beneficial. In what admittedly must have been a tongue-in-cheek marketing move, in the year 2010 the genetic interpretation company Knome (now part of Tute Genomics) studied Ozzy Osbourne‘s entire genome in order to determine how on earth he has been able to stay alive despite the gobs and gobs of drugs he’s taken throughout his life. Ozzy himself:

“I was curious, [g]iven the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol…you name it—there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.”

Ozzy Osbourne’s Genome (Scientific American, 2010)

Tentatively, Knome scientists said, Ozzy’s capacity to drink entire bottles of Whisky and Gin combined with bowlfuls of cocaine and multiple packs of cigarettes over the course of… breakfast… without ending up in the hospital may be due to novel mutations in his alcohol dehydrogenase gene (ADH4), as well as, potentially, the gene that codes for CLTCL1, a protein responsible for the intake of extra-cellular material into the cell’s inside. These are wild speculations, to be clear, but the general idea is brilliant.

Indeed, not everyone reacts in the same way to recreational drugs. A recent massive study on the health effects of alcohol funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cf. No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health) suggests that alcohol is bad for one’s health at every dosage. This goes against the common wisdom backed up with numerous studies that light-drinkers (~1 alcohol unit a day) live longer and healthier lives than teetotalers. The new study suggests that this is not a causal effect of alcohol. Rather, it so happens that a large fraction of teetotalers are precisely the kind of people who react very badly to alcohol as a matter of poor metabolism. Hence, teetotalers are not unhealthy because they avoid alcohol; they avoid alcohol because they are unhealthy, which explains their shorter life expectancy on average. That said, the study did show that 1 alcohol unit a day is, although damaging, very minimally so:

Anyhow, the world’s cultural fascination with alcohol is bizarre to me, considering the existence of drugs that have a much better hedonic and cost-benefit profile (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects). Perhaps finding out with genetic testing that you are likely to be an above-average alcohol metabolizer might be good to lessen your worry about having a couple of drinks now and then. But the much bigger opportunity here would be to allow you to find drugs that you are particularly compatible with. For example, a genetic test might determine based on a polygenetic score that you might benefit a whole lot from taking small amounts of e.g. Khat  (or some such obscure and relatively benign euphoriant). That is, that your genetic make-up is such that Khat will be motivation enhancing, empathy-increasing, good for your heart and lungs, reduce the rate of dopamine neuron death, etc. while at the same time producing little to no hangovers, no irritability, no sleep issues, or social dysfunction. Even though you may have thought that you are “not an uppers person”, perhaps that’s because, genetically, every other upper you have ever tried is objectively terrible for your health. But Khat wouldn’t be. Wouldn’t this information be useful? Indeed, I would posit, this might be a great step in the right direction in order to achieve the goal of  Wireheading Done Right.


*23andMe is here used as a shorthand for services in general like this (including Ancestry, Counsyl, Natera, etc.)

Featured image credit: source.