I recently had the pleasure to talk to Justin Riddle*, who is one of the few people in academia who takes quantum theories of consciousness seriously while also doing formal neuroscience research (see his publications, which include woks on transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for a number of conditions, EEG analysis for decision making, reward, and cognition, as well as concept work on the connection between fractals and consciousness).
* Thanks to David Field for catalyzing this meeting 🙂
In episode 32 of the quantum consciousness series, Justin Riddle interviews Andres Gomez-Emilsson, the director of research at the Qualia Research Institute. Andres is passionate about understanding qualia, which is the feeling and quality of subjective experience. In this interview, we discuss many of Andres’ theories: mathematical fictionalism, models of valence, neural annealing as it pertains to psychedelic therapy, and antitolerance medications to reduce suffering.
First up, we discuss the nature of qualia and whether or not there can be a universal mathematical description of subjective experience. Andres posits that the experience of having a thought should not be confused with the thought itself. Therefore, any attempt at mathematical description will be wrapped up within the experience of the person suggesting the mathematics. As he states, mathematics is as real as the Lord of the Rings, a great story that we can tell, but not to be confused with reality itself. Next up, we discuss the symmetry theory of valence [proposed by Michael Johnson in Principia Qualia] which postulates that the structure of experience determines how good or bad an experience feels (such as the imagination of certain geometric patterns imbuing a sense of well-being whereas other patterns being anxiogenic). The geometric patterns that lead to positive valence (positive emotional experiences) are those shapes recognized as “sacred geometry”. However, Andres cautions that because these “sacred” geometric shapes generate well-being, people have used this reproducible experience to peddle New Age metaphysics. We should be cautious of the ability to generate positive experience as it can be used to manipulate people into buying into particular belief systems. Third, we discuss recent findings that single dose psilocybin in a therapeutic context can produce a lasting reduction in symptoms of depression. Andres posits that this could be explained as a form of neural annealing (see also, and also). The mind “heats up” and breaks through discordant neural pathways and through neural plasticity during the psychedelic experience will allow for the formation of new neural pathways with higher resonant properties consistent with positive valence. This contributes to Andres’ overall ontological model of reality in which the universe is a unified field of experience that is pinched off into individuals. Here, he starts with an unbroken unity of all things that is topologically segmented into individuals. Finally, Andres is a devout hedonist with the long-term goal of reducing suffering. His group at the Qualia Research Institute is investigating medications that reduce adaptation to molecules over long-term use. Go check out Andres’ YouTube channel and the Qualia Research Institute website!
~~~ Timestamps ~~~
0:00 Introduction to the Qualia Research Institute
Of potential interest to readers: here’s part of an email exchange I recently had with Scott Alexander about Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsáki, a book I recommended he read to learn more about the neuroscience of brainwaves. This is an essay he published about it; I had a chance to read a pre-publication draft to check whether he was describing the science and my positions accurately. This is part of my feedback on the draft (lightly edited for clarity and consistent formatting):
Andrés – Oct/13/2022
First of all, thank you again for writing a review of Rhythms Of The Brain. As I mentioned, I think your review is spot-on. It’s already really great as it is. But I think the following pieces of information might help you answer some of the questions you pose and enrich the mental model you have about brainwaves. I should also mention that I’m still learning a lot on the topic from a number of angles and my model still has quite a few moving parts.
Without further ado, here are 5 key points I’d like to share:
(1) I think that Susan Pockett‘s Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process (link to PDF) is very relevant here. She argues based on neurophysiological and behavioral evidence that conscious perception only happens when Local Field Potentials (LFPs) are generated. The timing, functional correlates, and location of events of conscious perception of sensory stimuli seem to agree with this (pgs. 4-5):
Here’s how I think about this:
Have you wondered why brainwaves track levels of wakefulness? See, in principle you can have a great deal of neural activity without any brainwaves. Raster plots of spike neural networks could in principle look like white noise… which in turn would generate no brainwaves at all because the oscillations in the electric field would cancel each other out at the macroscopic level. Recall that perfectly compressed information is indistinguishable from noise. So, in principle, an optimal use of the state-space of neural activity would look totally like white noise and lack brainwaves.
Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.
The “LFPs as mediators of consciousness” story has a lot going for it. In particular, it is quite elegant in how it can help us make sense of our phenomenological relation to our brain and nervous system. Brainwaves and LFPs are be highly correlated. Coherent neural activity causes LFPs, which in turn mediate/bias activity in neurons, with a causal structure like this:
If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there. But at the same time, we need the coherent neural activity to be booted up. So we are sort of “riding the brain” while the brain is giving us our foundation. Perhaps this gives us another angle to think about the “elephant taming” metaphor for the progression of the meditative path:
(3) The work of Stephen Grossberg (Adaptive Resonant Theory, and more recently his book Conscious Mind, Resonant Brain) as well as that of his student Steven Lehar, have macroscopic resonance as a key computational step. Arguably this is something you can simulate with classical neural networks. But using the EM field would potentially produce a significant computational speedup. Talking to Lehar, he used an interesting analogy, where in which he described “neurons spiking as a kind of sand blasting of the electric field” in order to activate internal representations. Recent research seems to confirm that the information content of internal representations is better captured by the structure of the electric field than by the neurons that sustain it (“Neurons are fickle. Electric fields are more reliable for information.“).
NOTE: One of the contributions to the conversation that QRI is aiming to make (essentially by publishing in academia what’s already discussed in our website) is that while these field theories of consciousness do address the binding problem, they now have to contend with the boundary problem. Our solution is “topological segmentation”, which itself comes with empirically testable predictions. Topological pockets allow for holistic field behavior *and* for solving the boundary problem at the same time, finally rendering bound consciousness both causally efficacious and objectively bounded. [In your essay] you could point out that I claim that resonance is necessary but not sufficient to solve the phenomenal binding problem. So even if AIs were using brainwaves, that might not be enough for them to be conscious, though it would go in the right direction. More on this on our website soonish.
(4) I think that we can use the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) to explain the hedonic properties of different network topologies. This would be responsible for the “intrinsic valence” of a given brain region. You write:
> Why this combination of tasks? Rhythms sort of suggests that brain areas are less about specific tasks than about specific graph-theoretic arrangements, which are convenient for specific algorithms, which are convenient for specific tasks.
Yes! This is a great way of putting it. I think that having diverse network topologies available is one of the key ingredients of a general intelligence like ours. A learning algorithm that patches together the right sections to produce the right kind of structure for internal representations with holistic properties seems like a natural way to construct a mind. More so, some of these patches will cause dysphoric waves and others euphoric waves. The dysphoric parts of the brain, if STV is in the right direction, would have a network topology that work as a sort of frustration generator. The waves generated by these parts sort of “hate themselves”: activating them causes internal dissonance and stress that is then radiated out as waves with unfriendly ADSR envelopes to the rest of the brain. In contrast, the euphoric parts would produce highly aligned waves with soft ADSR envelopes and the right level of impedance matching to harmonize with other wave generators.
(5) Merging with God as a kind of global coherence:
> Andres suggests all of this is a good match for oscillatory coupling between brain regions.
Perhaps add something akin to “which according to him ‘dissolves internal boundaries'”
> Andres thinks this is part of what’s behind “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences, where you suddenly feel like you’ve lost the boundaries of yourself and are at one with God and Nature and Everything.
My strongest phenomenological evidence here is the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT (video): competing clusters of coherence feel like “a lot of entities in an ecosystem of patterns” whereas global coherence feels like “union with God, Everything, and Everyone”. Hence the terms “spirit molecule” for DMT and “God molecule” for 5-MeO-DMT. The effect size of this difference is extremely large and reliable. I’ve yet to find someone who has experience with both substances who doesn’t immediately agree with this characterization. [This can be empirically tested] by blinding whether one takes DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and then reporting on the valence characteristics, “competing vs. global” coherence characteristics, and on whether one gets a patchwork of entities or one feels like one is merging with the universe.
With classic psychedelics, which stand somewhere between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in their level of global coherence, you always go through an annealing process before finally “snapping” into global coherence and “becoming one with God”. That coherence is the signature of these mystical experiences becomes rather self-evident once you pay attention to annealing signatures (i.e. noticing how incompatible metronomes slowly start synchronizing and forming larger and larger structures until one megastructure swallows it all and dissolves the self-other boundary in the process of doing so).
You will not find academic publications describing this process (because their psychological scales are not detailed enough, aren’t focused on structure, and aren’t informed by actual practice). Nor will you find psychonauts talking much about this, because they tend to focus on the semantic content of the experience rather than on the phenomenal texture [see our guide]. Naturally, one is typically socially rewarded for providing an entertaining story about one’s trip… not a detailed *technical* report of phenomenal texture. Therefore, right now you’ll only find QRI content explaining all of this. But I’m fairly confident about this after talking to very experienced. So I think this will significantly shape the conversation in a couple of years once we start getting some consensus on it.
I could share much more, but I have to restrain myself (taming the elephant!). Let me know if you need anything else.
Scott – Oct/13/2022
Thanks. […] two questions:
> Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.
Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)? Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?
> If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there.
Confused by this too. My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?
> Thanks […] two questions:
(I’ll answer your questions in a different order than how you asked them, on the basis that my answer to the first one is much more weird and less credible… In other words, I’m answering more or less in order of how weird my responses are so that you are not put off by my first answers. This way you can choose when to stop reading without missing anything useful for your essay):
> My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model?
I think that “brainwaves can be explained as emergent patterns of a cellular automata” is a very good starting model, and it has a lot of explanatory power. But there are empirical and experiential facts that would go against it as a complete explanation. And perhaps, it misses the most important hint for a theory of consciousness that satisfies all of the necessary criteria I consider such a theory must satisfy. And that is, that binding has non-trivial computational effects. I.e. At some level, patterns of organization exert “weak downward causation” on the substrate that gave rise to them. This does not mean there is “strong emergence” or that we’re going against the laws of physics. On the contrary, a key guiding principle for QRI is to be strict physicalists. The laws of physics are causally closed and complete (or at least as good as it gets; the Standard Model can be taken at face value for the time being, until something better comes along). Without violating physicalism, we nonetheless still see instances of weak downward causation in the physical world.
As an intuition, consider the fact that something like TMS can change neural activity. In fact, TMS, and especially rTMS, can cause seizures. This suggests that at a sufficiently high dose, EM oscillations can exert top-down influence on neuronal firing thresholds and phase coherence, and more so when they come in repetitive waves rather than pulses. In the case of LFPs, which are far more localized and less energetic, the influence isn’t huge. But it is there. As far as I understand the neuroscience literature on LFPs (and ephatic coupling more generally), the fact that LFPs change firing thresholds is uncontroversial. The question is “by how much”. Most studies find small effects (otoh between 1% and 20% of the variance, but I can look up more precise and recent figures – e.g. see: Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons).
The more interesting and perhaps significant effect that LFPs have is to change the degree of coherence between neurons. In other words, they may not change much their probability of firing, but do change a lot their probability of firing in phase. You can see how this would lead to interesting self-reinforcing effects. Namely, if neural coherence causes LFPs, and LFPs increase neural coherence, there might be attractors of hypercoherent neural firings coupled with strong and very orderly LFPs. I believe this explains the Jhanas.
Now, can’t you just expand your cellular automata to include LFPs and call it a day? Well, yes, in a theoretical but rather impractical sense. Building a cellular automata that simulates a simple neural network is easy. Building one that simulates water is more tricky. By the time you are constructing cellular automata to simulate EM fields you get into trouble. It’s possible, but you need all sorts of tricks, shortcuts, and handling complex edge cases (e.g. topological segmentation!). Can you construct a cellular automata that simulates physics? Quantum mechanics proper? Yes… if you are Wolfram. But recall that his explorations invoke cellular automata with unusual mathematical primitives. We are no longer in the territory of simple grid-like graphs. We are in Ruliad-space, with hypergraphs and exotic rulesets. Quantum coherent states behave in a very holistic fashion (where the “next step” is the result of solving Shrödinger’s equation in configuration space). So while it’s possible to use cellular automata to think of physics at this level, it isn’t a very natural choice. Rather, I posit that thinking of it in terms of universal principles like energy minimization, extremas, and the preservation of zero information is what takes us closer to the phenomenon at hand. These principles are, by their very nature, holistic. An electron, as Feynman would put it, can sort of “smell its surroundings” to decide where to go. It somehow explores all possibilities at once and “chooses” the one that balances the minimization of energy and maximization of entropy. A truly holistic sort of phenomenon.
I think that if at that point one uses a cellular automata to represent this, one has actually reintroduced the very thing the cellular automata conceptual framework was trying to avoid. And that is, the computational power of holism. This is because even though the Ruliad that simulates physics is in some way a cellular automata, the ruleset itself requires a kind of God-like capacity to integrate pieces of information and “see all at once” entire regions of the (hyper)graph and decide what to do next. My claim is that at this point one has “pushed” the undesired holism to the ruleset in order to avoid seeing it directly. It’s a reductionist sleight of hand.
Now, I’m not saying consciousness is quantum mechanical. What I’m pointing out is that EM waves are sort of in the spectrum between simple cellular automatas and QM, where the waves interacting with one another have all kinds of peculiar holistic effects. Binding, if it involves EM waves, turns out to be computationally non-trivial.
In this model, the brain is physically providing a soil that can instantiate EM waves with many different kinds of properties. Some behave linearly, some non-linearly. And together, they give rise to the vast zoo of possible internal representations, many kinds of binding, topologies, and dynamics we experience (such as the strangeness of “fire meditation“).
> Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?
You can’t voluntarily shut down your brain with conscious control. At least not immediately. But you can direct your attention to two parts of your experience at once, and the resonances in those two regions will slowly but surely begin to synchronize. In other words, from an EE point of view, spreading your attention over a given region of your experience increases the impedance matching between the metronomes in those regions. This, I think, is the influence of LFPs (or similar) on neural activity. This may be subtle, but over enough time and neural rewiring, the process can lead to very interesting effects. Hyperconcentrated states of consciousness, starting with access concentration all the way to single-pointed attention and ultimately to the formless Jhanas are obtained through mental moves that slowly by surely “unify the mind” (i.e. brings coherence between disparate metronomes in the nervous system). This is “us” learning to influence “our brain”.
> Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)?
Two quick things here. The first is that we think brainwaves (macroscopic oscillations in the EM field more generally) are necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. They still need to form a topological pocket, or they will remain unclosed eddies that cannot contain information nor maintain a boundary with their surroundings. The second is that the main point is that the brainwaves track the texture of degrees of wakefulness. More so, it’s not just the spectral power distribution, but also the patterns of spatiotemporal cross-frequency coherence. Thus, two states might look the same in terms of their spectrum, but carry significantly different internal textures since one of them has a high degree of, say, gamma coherence and the other doesn’t.
> Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?
One of the key insights from Stevan Lehar is that using a dynamic, smooth, spatial medium of representation allows us to run spatial algorithms on our representations. One example is the incredibly general reverse grassfire & reverse shock schaffold algorithms that explain a wide range of visual illusions (discussed in The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception / as well as in his magnum opus video Harmonic Gestalt). Based on the fact that these algorithms generalize to things like breakthrough level DMT experiences and that they apply to hyperdimensional phenomenal objects and their resonant modes, I’m fairly convinced that the local cellular automata view doesn’t explain the facts. The structures that exist in those states follow law-like energy minimization properties reminiscent of fluid dynamics in higher dimensions. To me they seem to necessitate something like Maxwell’s equations; a cellular automaton would need a lot of training and fine-tuning to be able to instantly generate those dynamics right and seamlessly. Combine this with the (not fully verified but tentative) observation that DMT states are phenomenologically similar to those induced by high-dose Fire Kasina. I believe that the mechanism is actually fairly simple: both methods energize the visual field to the point where it transitions from a linear and partially linear state into a fully nonlinear regime. The phenomenon is better seen as what happens when you energize a non-linear optical computer than, say, the effect of changing the ruleset of a cellular automaton.
I know this lacks credibility for the time being […]. I aim to identify crisp and experimentally verifiable demonstrations of this that trained physicists and neuroscientists can both agree on.
In the long-term, I expect humans to figure out ways to use high-energy states of consciousness to tap into the EM field as a computational substrate. Not only will this entail a revolution in consciousness, but also, interestingly, in how we think of computation. The Turing Paradigm will turn out to be a tiny special case of… qualia computing.
Alright, I hope that wasn’t too much, haha.
Thank you again, and happy to answer more questions.
I recently did a podcast with Leigh Brasington (author of Right Concentration) and Wystan Bryant-Scott where we discussed a model for Jhanas in terms of neural annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and the feedback loop between neural coherence and LFPs.
DMT Experience Report — Learning the Nonlinear Wave Computing theory of subjective experience and internalizing the Symmetry Theory of Valence (originally posted in r/rationalpsychonaut by ClarifyingCard).
This was a sub-breakthrough experience with firmly-set “intellectual” (integrative) intentions. So I wouldn’t really call this a trip report, but an experience report. It’s a little more in the direction of a freeform essay. Working through this experience to translate it into written word is proving very fruitful for annealing what I’ve learned, so I hope it can provide some insight to others. Contents include my real-time integration of QRI’s “nonlinear wave computing” model of subjective experience, and some explanatory applications. I also firmed up my epistemological relationship to the Symmetry Theory of Valence during this experience, so there are some insights integrating these with technical meditation & gender transition.
I hope the length doesn’t render this inaccessible, as I feel that there are many genuinely deep insights here. I’m not the type to typically write reports on experiences, but consuming lots of QRI content has seriously energized me! There’s this feeling of “Finally! People are doing the top-down neuroscience that I’ve been quietly building for years in isolation! People are seeing psychedelic experiences as legitimate tools for investigating the nature of the mind!” So, I’m feeling a drive I haven’t felt in a while, a drive not just to consume information & integrate it acausally, but to contribute & collaborate.
Last night I sipped on a sizeable amount of DMT over the course of a few hours. I probably took over 20 hits from the vape overall, paced gently. I wasn’t specifically striving for a breakthrough, though I left open the possibility, and in fact I was deliberate to keep it sub-breakthrough for the first phase of the trip, since I was trying to use DMT to integrate information content from a video.
To me, coming to DMT fixated on a breakthrough feels like entering a relationship with a striving fixation on sex, or entering sex with a striving fixation on orgasm. So, much like taking your time to get to know someone intimately, or moving through a sexual experience without pushing or striving to let it blossom on its own terms, I’ve been flirting with & getting to know DMT on an increasingly deep level over time. This was the first time I’ve really leaned in & let it show me where it wants to take me.
(“wants” in terms of descending energy gradients, not in anthropomorphizing way. This is a central thread of this experience, so more on this below.)
So, I have not broken through yet; this definitely fell on the side of profound insight & bliss. I’m a deep subscriber to the theory of Neural Annealing, and DMT is so high-energy that metaphorically speaking it felt like pure, elemental annealing; anything my mind turned to, I could understand so crisply, with ease & immediacy, like I’m just letting my representations fall into parsimonious (low-entropy) resonant modes, the local minima that my conceptions have already been swirling around.
I also subscribe to the Symmetry Theory of Valence — well, my epistemological relationship to it has been a little fuzzy or hesitant, being sympathetic to it but not yet feeling like it deeply “clicked”, but after this experience, I not only “get it”, but I’ve felt, intimately, what it’s like to watch it play out in real-time. So that process of “spontaneous understanding” of the above paragraph, the symmetrization/entropy minimization felt really, really good. A truly profound bliss of methodically massaging out any point of tension in my representation field that my attention happened to rest upon.
I also want to point out that it didn’t really quite feel like the positive (additive) happiness of e.g. eating the candy bar you went to the store for, it felt like a negative (subtractive) happiness — in other words, relief from suffering. Very Buddhist in flavor, even at just the most basic level of Buddhist theory, the Four Noble Truths. In other words, the dukkha of the Three Characteristics. I’ve now got this idea in my head of maybe identifying dukkha with the mental tension that’s smoothed by annealing, to some degree at least. That correspondence is a space I’ll be playing in for a while, I can see.
So, here’s the actual report.
Genetic heritage: 39% Scotland, 33% England, &c.
Sex/gender: Trans female (late-stage, meaning enough years of estrogen & social transition to have largely reached mental & physical equilibrium in terms of gender/sex characteristics)
Tremendous experience over 8 years with 80+ different psychedelic/dissociative/otherwise acutely psychoactive substances, with a heavy focus on dissociatives. Sizeable understanding of contemporary technical meditation and Buddhism (my understanding is significantly stronger than my actual practice hygiene). Avid consumer of QRI content. History of engagement with Less Wrong-style rationality. Undergraduate education in math & physics, supplemental education in technical writing, linguistics, analytic philosophy (formal logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, &c.).
Despite my drug experience, I haven’t used DMT proper before. Before this XP, I dipped my toes in the water with 3-4 puffs of this cart over a few hours about 2 weeks before. A few times over the next 2 weeks, I took a few intermittent puffs to continue feeling it out & acclimating.
Two phases here: first on my couch processing a QRI video, 1 on my bed in a mindset of play & exploration.
XP Phase I
Setting: ~930p. On my couch, comfortable. Full lighting. No music.
For a few months, I’ve been ramping up my consumption of QRI content, technical meditation dharma, info about/reports on psychedelics, etc. Aside from general interest, I’ve been mentally preparing myself for a DMT breakthrough (my psychedelic experiences having waned in the past few years, and DMT being such a crown jewel of psychedelic strength/power).
I’ve had the idea to take solid but sub-breakthrough hits of DMT while attempting to integrate some QRI content. The video I chose was this:
I’m thrilled to say this was a great choice & fruitful exercise. I’m going to talk a lot about Andrés himself & his video style; I hope it’s not too effusive & doesn’t come across in a parasocial sort of way. It’s more like a walk-through of the subjective experience of what I happened to be doing, a snapshot of how it felt for my brain to process & operate in this state. It was very easy to feel what facets of experience were positive or negative, like my mental model of my valence system was in crystal clarity & intuited with immediacy. This is why this experience also had such an annealing effect for STV on me.
First of all, I was struck by how crystal-clear his vibe comes through in these videos where it’s just a single take of him talking into the camera for an hour! For the record, I’m saying nothing teleological here; no clue how much of this has been thought through explicitly. When I first started watching them, I was like, this could benefit from some cuts or superimposed visuals &c., but over time I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the style. The exact reasons why crystallized during this experience. It’s because it’s an extremely directed, one-pointed style, and it’s also more faithful to real life. For these reasons you can synchronize your mental representation of the content very deeply with the content itself (i.e. you can model Andrés’s attention with high fidelity, so as he goes through the material clearly & methodically, so are you). There’s no echoes of practice or rehearsal like an academic lecture, and there’s no attentional context-shifting that would be demanded by video cuts or superimposed visuals (though having experience with physics simulations & wave dynamics, I’d love to see some simulation visualizations of toy models exhibiting some of the wave dynamics in play here sometime). Instead, it feels more intimate in a way, like the feeling of someone in real life patiently teaching you a complicated concept 1-on-1. You’re watching Andrés think through material he’s familiar with in real-time. You can even see him spontaneously understand & explain new connections as he works through the existing material, and since your attentions are so synchronized, by watching him demonstrating the explanatory power of these models, you’re learning what it feels like to wield these concepts to refine something else into a simpler representation.
It’s not just the DMT that helped me understand this I think; poetically, the content of this specific video was very relevant. Later on in the video, he mentions the notions of “Metronome Quotient” & “Entrainment Quotient”, which could be seen as a kind of schematic for understanding the general process of one person transfering information, emotion, or other mental “vibe” complices to another. Knowing what I know about harmonic dynamics from physics, this is very intuitive. When conditions are right (person A is a suitable transmitter, person B is a suitable receiver, attention is localized favorably) — i.e. when the process works — it feels very similar to something like orbital resonance (which is why Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, & Ganymede have orbital periods in the ratio 4:2:1 — here’s a Steve Mould video explaining this phenomenon). It’s an application of the “soap-bubble” energy-minimization principle: deviations from harmonic equilibrium inducing restoring forces to drag the system into low-entropy resonant modes.
Something else I noticed is Andrés’s emotional/hedonic vibe. He’s always got a smile, on his mouth & in his voice, you can tell that he’s just thrilled to understand this stuff & thrilled to be able to break it down for a willing audience. First of all, obviously this affects the valence of the experience of watching the video, just like smiling when you’re on the phone eases social friction. I think this emotional entrainment can bootstrap informational entrainment as well, by kindling or contributing to overall synchronization, which is neat. It’s intuitive to me; I already “knew” this because walking people through conceptual understanding, processing difficult experiences, &c. is a general passion of mine, and emotion sync is a big part of doing that effectively.
This power to deeply synchronize attention (acausally!) seems like really powerful way to integrate information. It’d have to be in favorable conditions — written word is right out, most likely. Low-stimulus density is important; you want the extraneous setting details/audiovisual landscape to be easy to ignore (to let fade from salience). I think being able to see facial expressions, posture changes, gestural communication, &c. is crucial to be able to really settle in to the entrainment (this is also true in real life — I have no idea why so many people seem almost blind to body language!). Then, by walking through the content in a deeply synchronized way, you know what it feels like to believe it, to synthesize with or wield it against other concepts. That little harmonic signature, that vibe, is there in your mind, ready to be cultivated or dampened by whatever other representations brush against it.
I should also say, I had lots of visual effects during this time of course. Strong tracers, lots of symmetry extrapolation on surfaces. Tons of shimmering on the edges of objects. When I was especially high, I noticed this really cool effect of lowering visual resolution, like a pixelation effect, but overlapping circular blobs of color & texture. They would resolve if I attended to the region. It felt like the corresponding regions of the visual cortex architecture were too energized to be localized properly, blurring/fuzzing of the wave activity translating to decreased specificity in the encoded content. Really neat. The visuals weren’t something I wanted to work with for the moment, so I let myself just enjoy them instead of striving to analyze or categorize.
PsychonautWiki seems to catalog this as environmental orbism. Interesting that they associate it primarily with dissociatives — I have not experienced it on dissos (or anything else). I wonder if there’s something Fourier transform-ish happening with the visual cortex activity, like higher-frequency activity dominating the encoding — if so, it could be thought of as a sort of inverse of symmetrization. No idea, will think about it.
Anyway, I watched the video for a while, frequently backtracking to process content carefully. Eventually it started feeling laborious, so I moved to my bedroom.
XP Phase II
Setting: ~11p. On my bed, very comfortable. Low purple mood lighting. No music.
CW: Some light talk of sexuality.
I wanted to make some time to play with the drug in a very soft, low-stimulus environment. So I just cleared my bed & spread out the top sheet layer, a lush fleece blanket, flat across the top. The space is full of pleasant, comfortable-vibe stuff, so on one side I was enveloped by super-soft blankets & pillows & stuffed animals, very pleasurable. Very deliberately setting an easygoing, pleasurable, sensual vibe for the drug to energize & amplify.
I started taking more hits, just resting comfortably on the blanket to see where it would take me. I just let myself frolick, enjoying the pleasurable touch sensations of my environment, rubbing my hands & legs against the soft surfaces, massaging my inner thighs, feeling out the effects it had on my muscles & sensory processing. I noticed the way my muscles subconsciously started to tense & tighten in anticipation of a hit, and then as the DMT washed through my mind, noticed how it smoothed & blurred & dissipated that tension & the angular mental prickles associated with it. I did a lot of rhythmic contraction & release for various muscles, just letting myself enjoy how relaxing it felt to let it go. I carry a lot of tension in my inner thighs (especially common for girls), so getting deep into the tissue & massaging it out was immensely pleasurable, almost orgasmic at times.
This made me think a lot about the distinction I was drawing earlier, of what I guess I’ll call “positive” vs. “negative”, or “additive” vs. “subtractive” pleasure. This was very much subtractive pleasure, which could maybe be accurately characterized better as “relief”. In other words, nirvana-wards.
I decided that I was in a good state for a breakthrough. I wasn’t sure whether it would happen, since my acute tolerance was probably increasing, so I set the intention that I wasn’t striving for it to happen and that it would continue being a wonderful XP if it didn’t. So I took several (3-4) puffs in succession and lay back to watch.
Here, I noticed a some decoupling of drug effects. I was still getting visuals from each hit, though the open-eye effects were a little less intense, and the CEVs perhaps more. I was still getting positive-valence mental effects — bliss, equanimity, parsimony, &c. However there was a dramatically lowering of that “roller-coaster” feeling, the overwhelming-ness, the sense a drug has seized your experiential field & is now in charge. It’s possible that this was due to me simply becoming more comfortable.
However, the missing qualia is a pretty somatic one, so I think it’s probably acute tolerance attenuating different effects at different rates. Is DMT norepinephrinergic at all? Or is this an endogenous NE effect, or not related at all? Unsure, will research later. That’s a neurochemical I don’t have as much of an intuitive feel for as much as serotonin/dopamine/GABA. Also I should get to know glutamate sometime. Maybe it’s more of a “roller-coaster” feeling because you’re feeling the pull of a novel attractor.
So, a breakthrough didn’t happen; I think that feeling is probably integral to a breakthrough (though I’m speaking from ignorance for now). But I did get huge waves of bliss & felt my all of my mental representations get highly energized. This felt “hyperbolic” in the sense of there being “too much” to fit neatly in onto the mental workspace, so things start jumbling & intersecting and “space” itself expands into itself to accomodate. This is on the level of conceptual representations, so what exactly “intersecting” and “space” mean is left unspecified.
Here’s 2 tangential paragraphs about this. I’ve had this effect before, especially on 4-AcO-DMT and other 4-subbed tryptamines — most extremely, on a truly stupid dose of 160 4-AcO-DMT several years ago, combined with a heavy dissociative I don’t recall (perhaps diphenidine). Never do this! This was many, many years ago, before I had my relationships/career/gender transition/life together, when my thirst for spiritual revelation & relief was matched by my thirst for annihilation & urge to self-harm. Every mental concept just got hopelessly jumbled together and I couldn’t parse a single aspect of my experiential field. It overtook [my model of] my body & external reality, violently smashing together and shredding them and blending them into uncountably many infinitely thin, infinitely long threads all furiously tangling and colliding. There was a sensation of being flung & pulled along this sharp, fast stream along with all the other shreds of my world. As high-entropy a state as I can imagine.
In other words, the entire modeling mechanism of reality, inside & out, underwent a catastrophic system crash. It was immensely physically painful — I felt every bit of physical reality smashing through each other — and it collapsed into this extremely dissonant state with very few experiential components: a 1-frame flashing of pale green & red, an unbearably loud Hypnotoad-esque droning, and sheer unimaginable physical pain. This went on for subjective eternity — to abuse some math notation, I had this intuitive, unshakeable knowledge that S(t + Δt) = S(t), period. I realize now that I was deep, deep in a hellish & steep local minimum. Perhaps you could consider this a “hell realm”. Combined with the “holing” effect of the dissociative, I think this could fairly be considered a seizure-like state. I’m not sure if I was physically moving in reality, as I didn’t have any thrashing marks & I was alone (don’t do that!!), but I do think I wet myself a little. It was one of the worst eternal moments of my life. Walking through this experience with ~5 years of learning & growth behind me, writing this out has actually helped me understand the experience a lot better, so forgive the tangent. Come to think of it, STV has a lot of explanatory power w.r.t. why this was so dysphoric & traumatic, lots of little clues sprinkled in here — my representation system smashed into a catastrophically high-entropy, short-term-unrecoverable state of unfathomable dissonance, inducing physical & psychic agony.
Anyway, back to DMT.
After those 3-4 hits, maybe another part of why it wasn’t overwhelming was related to the notion of “entropy sinks” mentioned in the DMT + hyperbolization video above. I was getting enormous energization of all my representations, but I had no difficulty in skillfully directing them, in applying them to existing mental & physical tension points & smoothing them out, so there was no runaway accumulation. Symmetrization was also very dramatic in CEVs, planar hyperbolic geometries all interweaving at different angles, and the experience of this geometry was itself immensely blissful & high-valence, another strong point in favor of STV. I’d like to strive for brighter, more defined CEVs soon — if I had looked for them earlier, I think they’d’ve presented.
I then took some time to play around with & appreciate my body some more. I let myself explore my body & just revel in my love for it. Lots of transition-centric thoughts here. I played with my breasts, just lightly rubbing & poking them, feeling them jiggle, reveling in how good & right it felt that I had finally grown them after all this time. I felt along the curves of my hips, groping & squeezing, reveling in how good & right it felt that I have this deeply estrogenic body & mind. How, like, over these years I’ve finally found myself falling into the attractor of this cute, bubbly, exciteable, empathic girl I’ve always been meant to become.
I remembered feeling the slightest inscrutable tugs towards it, all those years ago. I remembered blundering around in the dark trying to interpret those gradient descents towards peace with my identity & body. I remembered starting to discover, reveal, & construct this second “persona attractor”, finding this spark of hope & understanding & rightness that I would kindle & cultivate over the coming years. And I remembered the moment I felt myself at the inflection point between the two local minima, the realization that the I could just let myself fall into it, and the immeasurable relief washing over me. I’m nearly in tears recounting this to you, contextualizing this deep consonance & harmony I feel, realizing just how much literal blood, sweat, & tears were demanded of me to achieve it.
I think I annealed a deep understanding of the nature & valence structure of gender transition (at least for my personal case study). It’s not like this isn’t something I’ve thought about in intricate detail for years, so I’ve already earned a very clear picture for myself, but it’s even crisper now, such a simple story once it clicks. STV honestly seems to have tremendous explanatory power w.r.t. gender transition, something I’d like to think & write about more in the future.
I also played around a lot with my representation/experience of sexual pleasure, which I don’t need to get into toooo much detail about, but it was incredible playing around in that space. One weird thing about my mind is that I kind of have a mental “button” wired up for sensual, sexual, submissive pleasure. In other words, I can just push the button whenever I want (I have dissociatives to thank for getting this circuitry wired correctly) — I can feel this submissive pleasure at will. It’s especially effective if I fantasize, so I spent some time letting myself revel in fantasies about various partners of mine doing various things to me, letting the vividity of the feelings wash over me. This wasn’t especially, ah, “intellectual” work, so I’ll leave it at that.
(Side note: I theorize a lot of the “attainments” of technical meditation essentially come down to programming buttons like this. I’m thinking particularly of the brahmavihara (“divine/sublime abodes”). They’ve been conveyed to me as like finding a housekey, so that you can enter anytime.)
Here’s another phenomenon I noticed during this period. A few times I felt a different piece of neural machinery start to whir up — specifically this notion of “self-consciousness”, what I would conceptualize as the submodule of your reality model responsible for modeling the way others would model you back. In other words, I felt this tugging from my self-consciousness engine, nagging with questions like “Don’t you look ridiculous, writhing around alone in your panties? Aren’t you being frivolous, frolicking in pleasure without any thought to intellectual work? What would <Person X> think if they saw you like this? Do you really deserve to consider yourself cute?”
What I’m trying to point out with this is that I found it extremely easy not to engage with this submodule. I could simply fail to regard it, not energizing that representation. Politely say “no thank you” to that mechanism & gingerly place its suggestions on the ground. In the language of NLWV, I noticed this perturbation, but I let it play out & be gone instead of batting down the ripples of the pond. Very anicca-flavored protocol, very familiar to me from meditative experience.
I found I had this ability with all sorts of mental mechanisms. I’m generally mindful of & moderately good at this, but it was cranked up to 11. I had great control over which facets of experience I did or didn’t engage with. If I had a thought about work-related stress, or guilt over lapses in my exercise hygiene, or anxiety about my thumb (which has a damaged ligament), I could so easily say “It’s not skillful for me to engage with & feed this story right now. Now’s not the time.” Strong equanimity. In this sense, I felt ease with & authority over which representations composed how much of my awareness. This is one sort of skill that samatha meditation cultivates, I think. It makes me realize how much I’ve slipped w.r.t. this skill over the past few years, once my life started going well & started growing more complacent.
So, in that moment, I found it easy to cold-shoulder those nagging feelings tugging me out of animal-pleasure-mind. I was able to let myself indulge in the luxuries I’ve cultivated for myself, without shame, which is actually really hard for me usually. I struggle with strong guilt about deserving any success or happiness I achieve. This is something I know I need to work on — being blissful when it is skillful to feel bliss; suffering when it is skillful to suffer.
Speaking of that equanimity, I’ve made a lot of progress towards “skillful sex” (lol), sexual dysphoria being a central theme of my journey from androgenic to estrogenic libido. Allowing your mind to cloud is always a great way to derail sexual pleasure or orgasm, so I’m happy to pick up more skills here.
Anyway, after a while of this, it felt like a good time to pack it up & let the afterglow run its course, starting to integrate the experience. So I put on some music (Strange Diary by Psychic Twin), lay down, & chilled for a while, eventually turning on a light-complexity video & eating some snacky food (which I typically avoid). I took 0.5 mg clonazepam to help still my mind. This XP kept me up till about 2am, but once I lay down to sleep, it didn’t take too long.
[T + 1 day]
I awoke & got up with ease, which is unusual for me. Perhaps residual stimulation combined with the benzo wearing off during the night, but this is also a known fruit of metta meditation which I’ve cultivated for long periods in the past, so this is something I’ll keep an eye on next time. Metta is something that I’ve practiced skillfully before and it’s at the top of my priority list for improving my meditation hygiene.
Mentally, I feel good. I took my standard 10 mg adderall & 300 mg gabapentin after waking, and I’ve had the energy & focus (and desire!) to write this report, which has taken several hours lol.
I do also have this sensation of being drained, too. It’s hard to explain because it’s not really valence-negative or preventing me from action. It kind of feels like a flatness; my closest approximation is not a recreational drug or crash but how I feel if I’m late with my estrogen injection. But in any case, I do know I need to have patience with & take care of myself today.
Damn! This bliss-stick is extremely powerful — not just in terms of how powerful its psychedelic grasp is, but in terms of the applicability of that power. I can see DMT helping me smooth out all sorts of specific (tactics-level) things about my life, and deliberately integrate all sorts of content, in addition to the sheer spiritual blastoff effects. A central theme in this XP is that feel of rounding out “angular” points of tension in mental representations, slipping down those parsimony gradients, massaging the joints of your mind.
I do get the strong intuition that this is a substance to be taken seriously. I won’t be using it casually… (well, for the most part. We’ll see). It’s funny to me that I tried so many drugs so many years ago before finally trying DMT, but I’m honestly glad I’m getting to know the crown jewel at this point in my life, with many different avenues of life experience to synthesize for interpretation & integration.
My cart is running fairly low. I’ll be getting more. I think if I had really gone for it right away, I would have had a breakthrough, so I’ll probably go for it soon 😊
Related trip report by Cube Flipper (pseudonym of an anonymous reader):
Vaping the Genderfluid: Exploring Gender Identity on DMT
Some background on me: I’m in my early thirties, AMAB, somewhere on the autism spectrum (which mostly manifests as skin sensory issues), and a long time Qualia Computing reader.
Sometime last year, my “egg cracked”, to use the parlance of our day. I’d read in the past how autism and gender dysphoria were heavily correlated. I revisited events from my past and decided it was worth exploring whether or not some of my experiences could be explained by gender dysphoria. I suspected that leaning into a more feminine gender identity might feel more comfortable and help me to “vibe” better.
I shaved my legs, got my ears pierced, and started adopting a more feminine identity internally. This felt not unlike flipping a Necker cube on myself from masculine to feminine. I figured out how to see a more female face in the mirror. I started to move differently. I experimented with my voice. I would mostly do this in social settings, though I’m not sure how noticeable it was from the outside.
I even spent three months on estrogen at one point, hoping that its use would help with my sensory issues (it did), before discontinuing its use for a number of unrelated reasons. The phenomenological effects were too numerous to go into detail here; I hope to write up a detailed “HRT trip report” at a later date. Long story short, I found estrogen to be anti-dissociative – like the opposite of ketamine (this assessment is informed by Zinnia Jones’ writeup comparing the effects of HRT with Lamotrigine). My senses felt more tightly integrated – less skin sensitivity, less “noise”, less annoying prediction errors – it was euphoric.
However, my gender identity still felt in flux, unstable. I wasn’t even sure ‘identity’ was a real thing – what is the qualia of identity?
Anyway, I recently gained access to a DMT vape pen, and have been using it on a daily basis to perform a low level annealing on myself, usually in the mornings after a bit of exercise.
I should describe my practice: I lie down, remove any uncomfortable clothing, and ensure my body is relaxed and in a symmetrical position with no muscles under tension. I take one or two puffs on the vape pen – not enough to see more than faint visuals – but enough to feel the bodily vibrations arise, settle, and crystallise throughout my body. I should be clear that my gender identity was not the focus of these experiences, high valence and annealing was.
I am a believer in Leharian force fields: Our sense of touch, bodily awareness, and space is embedded in something like a three-dimensional vector field. As we experience various stressors throughout our daily lives, various contractions, foldings, and distortions can work their way into the “force fields” which guide the way we move and the way we direct our attention. When I smoke DMT like this, I sometimes feel these contractions unfold themselves. This can be kind of unsettling at the time, but in the wake of these experiences I notice my awareness is more expanded and I feel I am navigating a much smoother, less crumpled “possibility space” as I go about my life. Notably, these “unfoldings” don’t tend to happen a second time after vaping DMT again afterwards.
Additionally, colours felt more vivid, and my senses felt brighter – not unlike how I felt on estrogen!
I continued this practice for perhaps a couple of weeks. Something I began to notice was that I was no longer flipping the Necker cube on myself; I was no longer bothering to lean into the feminine identity I had been experimenting with in social settings.
I theorise that the annealing process had drawn my self-model – a giant tree of priors – back towards the stable attractor of my pre-existing masculine identity. Imagine tuning the parameters on a slightly distorted Sierpinski pyramid, bringing it into alignment with itself. I felt comfortable with my masculinity again.
I hope nobody misunderstands me, I don’t mean to say that if you are transgender DMT can draw you back to a pre-transition identity. Quite the contrary, I think DMT can grant you the bandwidth necessary to assess which identity feels most internally robust to you. It’s quite likely that estrogen also can give you the boost required to explore and stabilise your sense of identity.
I had fun exploring my feminine side, and there’s parts of that experience which still stick with me; I still wear earrings and I still shave my legs (because it feels good… and it helps deal with sensory issues). I may yet return to these experiences someday.
By an anonymous reader (this was sent by someone who was formerly deeply skeptical of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. The experience described below made them reconsider QRI’s explanatory frameworks and paradigms. In their own words: “[this experience I] recently had made me think “hmm so maybe there _is_ something to the STV”).
There was a sequence of going back into old experiences, each of them somehow positive or negative. The very earliest one that came to mind was a memory of my mother talking to me with love and delight when I was maybe one year old. There was a sense that my mind and body had been in a particular kind of position when that had happened. Ever afterwards, they had been trying to shift themselves back into that same position, on the theory that the same internal configuration would recreate the same external environment and recreate the same experience of being loved.
There was a sense of the bodymind holding a pattern that was a snapshot of that moment of love, and that the bodymind had been trying to also align the external world into the same kind of a position, out of an understanding that the pattern could only be completed – the puzzle piece matching the rest of the puzzle – if the external world provided the right fit for the bodymind’s internal configuration, letting them interlock in the way that would recreate the old pattern.
In the moment of completely seeing this, there was an understanding of the wisdom that the stuck pattern held – it had correctly seen and recorded a facet of reality, of what I had been like and how that had gotten me love – and also of the fact that its vision had only captured an incomplete facet, with it being impossible to go back to being a baby and replay the same experiences.
As this was seen, seeing the pattern that the stuck energy had been trying to complete caused it to be completed, the parts interlocking once more. There was a sense of the stuck energy pattern being released and melding back into a pattern of universal harmony and love that could be felt in the body. There was an understanding that the stuck pattern had previously acted as a constraint, trying to repeatedly pull the bodymind into a particular configuration whenever possible in order to recreate the original harmonic pattern, when the harmonic pattern had actually been available all along.
Something shifted and the legs felt like they opened and spread out, a pull relaxing that the mind hadn’t even known was there.
There was a sense of tapping into the universal harmony that could now be felt in the body, as a stream of energy trying to run up from the root chakra to the top of the head. As the body tried to upright itself to align with the energy, it found more stuck patterns interrupting the flow, each of them associated with a past experience and a particular configuration of the bodymind that was at odds with the one that the stream was trying to upright the body to.
There was a seeing that the bodymind’s configuration would affect the bodyminds of the people around it, all other people also moving in a constant process of trying to recapture particular configurations, trying to pull their environment into shapes that would complete specific patterns. In seeing this, there was a sense of testing possibilities. If this bodymind wanted to upright itself, what positions would that pull the bodies of others into? How would those positions constrain this body’s positions, and what was the shape that it would be pulled towards in turn?
Each of those considerations brought up a new pattern of stuck energy, a time when the bodyminds of others had been in a particular position, and this bodymind had learned to adapt or avoid a particular position in response. Whenever such patterns were found, they temporarily turned into reality, with the bodymind reliving the experience and seeing both how the pattern held within a piece of wisdom – a true fact about what reality had been like – and how that pattern was at the same time incomplete and unintegrated with the rest of the bodymind’s knowing.
Sometimes that lack of integration caused the pattern’s understanding to be a mistake overall. There were situations when an energy pattern had been scanning for signs of others reacting negatively and stored that as the primary interpretation of the experience, seeing only that and missing out on the way that the thing had been too minor to matter, or missing out on the way that others had been able to see the positive aspects as well.
There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures. There was a sense that the content of consciousness gets selectively filtered so as to create particular mindstates, to allow certain configurations to be reliably recreated.
There were fears around the possibility of being seen, a sense that others would not necessarily take well to a bodymind that was standing upright, and would try to bring it back down. There was a sense that the configurations of their bodyminds had constantly been pulling this bodymind back into more cramped positions, as a way for it to stay safe.
There was a sense that many of the configurations the bodymind has been trying to contort itself into have been physically impossible, different people requiring different physical positions that have been impossible to satisfy at once. There was a thought that it’s no wonder that this bodymind has been grinding teeth at night, given all the contradictory expressions that the jaw and the face have been trying to take at once.
There was also a sense of how some other people’s erratic behavior had been a result of them trying to twist themselves into impossible sets of overlapping configurations. There was a sense that bodyminds will allow the tension of the physically incompatible postures to tear themselves apart, so that different parts of the whole can get split off to adopt different postures at once.
There was a sense of people occasionally catching from the corner of their eye a glimpse of something that a part of them thinks they absolutely cannot be allowed to see, their bodymind instantly making a sharp angle to rotate away from the sight of it and blocking all line of vision, in a single movement of pure terror.
There was a perception that despite everything, the positions of other people didn’t need to matter, and that if this bodymind could tap into the universal resonance of harmonious energy, then that resonance would pull at the body stronger than any other bodyminds can.
There was a sense that if the bodymind tapped into the universal resonance, it wouldn’t need to contort itself to others, but would rather dance together with others who were part of the same resonance, standing effortlessly upright at all times if it so desired.
The bodymind tries again to align with the resonance, to find a stable flow of energy going up from the pelvis through the body.
As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy. The body parts trash against their restraints, then relax as they become assured that it is safe to do so. Waves of laughter and contented sighs bubble up through the system, a flavor like warm pleasant honey.
There’s a seeing that all the different holds and stuck energies have been attempts to capture the universal resonance and that the way to relax them is to lean into them until they meld back into the resonance, each of their energies containing a fragment of home that shows the way back.
As one leans into them they each become more like reality, are reality, and then there is a recollection and recognition of their essential truth as it’s merged into the whole. Each such merging allows one constraint to be released, for the dynamic system that is the bodymind to move more fluidly between positions, no longer forced to twist and contort itself into a particular rigid shape whenever it comes near to that region of configuration space.
Rather it can do what bodyminds exist to do, weave a smooth and graceful path between configurations that make sense in any given situation, dancing in a way that still repeats specific configurations but with a fluidness that is every human’s birthright.
To have too many constraints is to be torn apart; to have no constraints is to be a newborn incapable of action; to have just the right amount of constraints, pulling the bodymind into configurations that are the right expressions of its essential self, is to be a mature and competent adult.
As this happens, it is as if resonance patterns spread across the body, connecting parts that were previously disconnected. The feet start drumming together, remembering that they are brothers who can do their own thing. The throat spontaneously joins the chants and the song of the people around. The pelvis finds more of its energy, though large parts of it still feel blocked off.
As constraints are dropped and the bodymind manages to better tap into the universal harmony, it begins looking for a new shape, one that would be harmonious both with the universal resonance and the bodymind’s own pattern of energy. Parts of the body try tuning themselves into the song and music and try what it’s like to be in harmony with the universal resonance, what it’s like to generate their own resonance patterns that are separate from the universal resonance but harmonious with each other, how to create something of one’s own that combines with that which is not one’s own. The bodymind explores a role and an identity as a bard-shaman of earth, song and myth, sees where parts of that would fit and where they would not.
There is a sense of harmonious delight and love, of everyone in the room being connected to the same universal resonance that is pulling everyone together, each of them also contributing a piece of their own unique essence into the whole. There is an experience of seeing this bodymind from the outside, and a feeling of it being beautiful and lovable. These new patterns are absorbed into the bodymind to act as the foundation for a new way of being.
Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing might help explain this quote: “There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures.” In particular, note the proposed duality between physiological dissonance and resisting information discussed in that article (special emphasis on “denial”).
Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (video). This might help explain: “As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy.” Namely, that one key aspect of equanimity is increasing impedance matching between various parts of the nervous system so that one part can process the stress stored in another one.
Non-Linear Wave Computing: Vibes, Gestalts, and Realms. This video provides a conceptual framework capable of making sense of “stuck patterns” that “need to be completed by environmental circumstances”. In brief, these are stored non-linear patterns of resonance that require their oscillatory complement in order to become harmonious. Dissolving them allows you to instead rely on the natural harmonics of your nervous system and thus to not be dependent on external circumstances for positive valence.
We want it to explain why and how the structure of our experience is computationally relevant. Why would nature bother to wire, not only information per se, but our experiences in richly structured ways that seem to track task-relevant computation (though at times in elusive ways)?
I think we can derive an explanation here. It is both very theoretically satisfying and literally mind-bending. This allows us to rule out vast classes of computing systems as having no more than computationally trivial conscious experiences.
TL;DR: We have richly textured bound experiences precisely because the boundaries that individuate us also allow us to act as individuals in many ways. This individual behaviorcan reflect features of the state of the entire organism in energy-efficient ways. Evolution can recruit this individual, yet holistic, behavior due to its computational advantages.We think that the boundary might be the result of topological segmentation in physical fields.
Marr’s Levels of Analysis and the Being/Form Boundary
One lens we can use to analyze the possibility of sentience in systems is this conceptual boundary between “being” and “form”. Here “being” refers to the interiority of things- their intrinsic likeness. “Form” on the other hand refers to how they appear from the outside. Where you place the being/form boundary influences how you make sense of the world around you. One factor that seems to be at play for where you place the being/form boundary is your implicit background assumptions about consciousness. In particular, how you think of consciousness in relation to Marr’s levels of analysis:
If you locate consciousness at the computational (or behavioral) level, then the being/form boundary might be computation/behavior. In other words, sentience simply is the performance of certain functions in certain contexts.
If you locate it at the algorithmic level, then the being/form boundary might become algorithm/computation. Meaning that what matters for the inside is the algorithm, whereas the outside (the form) is the function the algorithm produces.
And if you locate it at the implementation level, you will find that you identify being with specific physical situations (such as phases of matter and energy) and form as the algorithms that they can instantiate. In turn, the being/form boundary looks like crystals & bubbles & knots of matter and energy vs. how they can be used from the outside to perform functions for each other.
How you approach the question of whether a given chatbot is sentient will drastically depend on where you place the being/form boundary.
Many arguments against the sentience of particular computer systems are based on algorithmic inadequacy. This, for example, takes the form of choosing a current computational theory of mind (e.g. global workspace theory) and checking if the algorithm at play has the bare bones you’d expect a mind to have. This is a meaningful kind of analysis. And if you locate the being/form boundary at the algorithmic level then this is the only kind of analysis that seems to make sense.
What stops people from making successful arguments concerning the implementation level of analysis is confusion about the function for consciousness. So which physical systems are or aren’t conscious seems to be inevitably an epiphenomenalist construct. Meaning that drawing boundaries around systems with specific functions is an inherently fuzzy activity and any criteria we choose for whether a system is performing a certain function will be at best a matter of degree (and opinion).
The way of thinking about phenomenal boundaries I’m presenting in this post will escape this trap.
But before we get there, it’s important to point out the usefulness of reasoning about the algorithmic layer:
Algorithmic Structuring as a Constraint
I think that most people who believe that digital sentience is possible will concede that at least in some situations The Chinese Room is not conscious. The extreme example is when the content of the Chinese Room turns out to be literally a lookup table. Here a simple algorithmic concern is sufficient to rule out its sentience: a lookup table does not have an inner state! And what you do, from the point of view of its inner workings, is the same no matter if you relabel which input goes with what output. Whatever is inscribed in the lookup table (with however many replies and responses as part of the next query) is not something that the lookup table structurally has access to! The lookup table is, in an algorithmic sense, blind to what it is and what it does*. It has no mirror into itself.
Algorithmic considerations are important. To not be a lookup table, we must have at least some internal representations. We must consider constraints on “meaningful experience”, such as probably having at least some of, or something analogous to: a decent number of working memory slots (and types), a good size of visual field, resolution of color in terms of Just Noticeable Differences, and so on. If your algorithm doesn’t even try to “render” its knowledge in some information-rich format, then it may lack the internal representations needed to really “understand”. Put another way: imagine that your experience is like a Holodeck. Ask the question of what is the lower bound on the computational throughput of each sensory modality and their interrelationships. Then see if the algorithm you think can “understand” has internal representations of that kind at all.
Steel-manning algorithmic concerns involves taking a hard look at the number of degrees of freedom of our inner world-simulation (in e.g. free-wheeling hallucinations) and making sure that there are implicit or explicit internal representations with roughly similar computational horsepower as those sensory channels.
I think that this is actually an easy constraint to meet relative to the challenge of actually creating sentient machines. But it’s a bare minimum. You can’t let yourself be fooled by a lookup table.
In practice, the AI researchers will just care about metrics like accuracy, meaning that they will use algorithmic systems with complex internal representations like ours only if it computationally pays off to do so! (Hanson in Age of EM makes the bet it that it is worth simulating a whole high-performing human’s experience; Scott points out we’d all be on super-amphetamines). Me? I’m extremely skeptical that our current mindstates are algorithmically (or even thermodynamically!) optimal for maximally efficient work. But even if normal human consciousness or anything remotely like it was such a global optimum that any other big computational task routes around to it as an instrumental goal, I still think we would need to check if the algorithm does in fact create adequate internal representations before we assign sentience to it.
Thankfully I don’t think we need to go there. I think that the most crucial consideration is that we can rule out a huge class of computing systems ever being conscious by identifying implementation-level constraints for bound experiences. Forget about the algorithmic level altogether for a moment. If your computing system cannot build a bound experience from the bottom up in such a way that it has meaningful holistic behavior, then no matter what you program into it, you will only have “mind dust” at best.
What We Want: Meaningful Boundaries
In order to solve the boundary problem we want to find “natural” boundaries in the world to scaffold off of those. We take on the starting assumption that the universe is a gigantic “field of consciousness” and the question of how atoms come together to form experiences becomes how this field becomes individuated into experiences like ours. So we need to find out how boundaries arise in this field. But these are not just any boundary, but boundaries that are objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful. That is, boundaries you can do things with. Boundaries that explain why we are individuals and why creating individual bound experiences was evolutionarily adaptive; not only why it is merely possible but also advantageous.
My claim is that boundaries with such properties are possible, and indeed might explain a wide range of puzzles in psychology and neuroscience. The full conceptually satisfying explanation results from considering two interrelated claims and understanding what they entail together. The two interrelated claims are:
(1) Topological boundaries are frame-invariant and objective features of physics
(2) Such boundaries are causally significant and offer potential computational benefits
I think that these two claims combined have the potential to explain the phenomenal binding/boundary problem (of course assuming you are on board with the universe being a field of consciousness). They also explain why evolution was even capable of recruiting bound experiences for anything. Namely, that the same mechanism that logically entails individuation (topological boundaries) also has mathematical features useful for computation (examples given below). Our individual perspectives on the cosmos are the result of such individuality being a wrinkle in consciousness (so to speak) having non-trivial computational power.
And the technical reason why topological segmentation provides the solution is that with it: (1) no strong emergence is required because behavioral holism is only weakly emergent on the laws of physics, (2) we sidestep the hard problem via panpsychism, (3) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal because the topological segments have holistic causal effects (such that evolution would have a reason to select for them), and (4) we build on top of the laws of physics rather than introduce new clauses to account for what happens in the nervous system. In this post you’ll get a general walkthrough of the solution. The fully rigorous, step by step, line of argumentation will be presented elsewhere. Please see the video for the detailed breakdown of alternative solutions to the binding/boundary problem and why they don’t work.
Holistic (Field) Computing
A very important move that we can make in order to explore this space is to ask ourselves if the way we think about a concept is overly restrictive. In the case of computation, I would claim that the concept is either applied extremely vaguely or that making it rigorous makes its application so narrow that it loses relevance. In the former case we have the tendency for people to equate consciousness with computation in a very abstract level (such as “resource gathering” and “making predictions” and “learning from mistakes”). In the latter we have cases where computation is defined in terms of computable functions. The conceptual mistake to avoid is to think that just because you can compute a function with a Turing machine, that therefore you are creating the same inner (bound or not) physical states along the way. And while yes, it would be possible to approximate the field behavior we will discuss below with a Turing machine, it would be computationally inefficient (as it would need to simulate a massively parallel system) and lack the bound inner states (and their computational speedups) needed for sentience.
The (conceptual engineering) move I’m suggesting we make is to first of all enrich our conception of computation. To notice that we’ve lived with an impoverished notion all along.
I suggest that our conception of computation needs to be broad enough to include bound states as possible meaningful inputs, internal steps and representations, and outputs. This enriched conception of computation would be capable of making sense of computing systems that work with very unusual inputs and outputs. For instance, it has no problem thinking of a computer that takes as input chaotic superfluid helium and returns soap bubble clusters as outputs. The reason to use such exotic medium is not to add extra steps, but in fact to remove extra steps by letting physics do the hard work for you.
To illustrate just one example of what you can do with this enriched paradigm of computing I am trying to present to you, let’s now consider the hidden computational power of soap films. Say that you want to connect three poles with a wire. And you want to minimize how much wire you use. One option is to use trigonometry and linear algebra, another one is to use numerical simulations. But an elegant alternative is to create a model of the poles between two parallel planes and then submerge the structure in soapy water.
Letting the natural energy-minimizing property of soap bubbles find the shortest connection between three poles is an interesting way of performing a computation. It is uniquely adapted to the problem without needing tweaks or adjustments – the self-organizing principle will work the same (within reason) wherever you place the poles. You are deriving computational power from physics in a very customized way that nonetheless requires no tuning or external memory. And it’s all done simply by each point of the surface wanting to minimize its tension. Any non-minimal configuration will have potential energy, which then gets transformed into kinetic energy and makes it wobble, and as it wobbles it radiates out its excess energy until it reaches a configuration where it doesn’t wobble anymore. So you have to make the solution of your problem precisely a non-wobbly state!
In this way of thinking about computation, an intrinsic part of the question about what kind of thing a computation is will depend on what physical processes were utilized to implement it. In essence, we can (and I think should) enrich our very conception of computation to include what kind of internal bound states the system is utilizing, and the extent to which the holistic physical effects of such inner states are computationally trivial or significant.
We can call this paradigm of computing “Holistic Computing”.
From Soap Bubbles to ISING-Solvers Meeting Schedulers Implemented with Lasers
Let’s make a huge jump from soap water-based computation. A much more general case that is nonetheless in the same family as using soap bubbles for compute, is having a way to efficiently solve the ISING problem. In particular, having an analog physics-based annealing method in this case comes with unique computational benefits: it turns out that non-linear optics can do this very efficiently. You are in a certain way using the universe’s very frustration with the problem (don’t worry I don’t think it suffers) to get it solved. Here is an amazing recent example: Ising Machines: Non-Von Neumann Computing with Nonlinear Optics – Alireza Marandi – 6/7/2019 (presented at Caltech).
The person who introduces Marandi in the video above is Kwabena Boahen, with whom I had the honor to take his course at Stanford (and play with the neurogrid!). Back in 2012 something like the neurogrid seemed like the obvious path to AGI. Today, ironically, people imagine scaling transformers is all you need. Tomorrow, we’ll recognize the importance of holistic field behavior and the boundary problem.
One way to get there on the computer science front will be by first demonstrating a niche set of applications where e.g. non-linear optics ISING solvers vastly outperform GPUs for energy minimization tasks in random graphs. But as the unique computational benefits become better understood, we will sooner or later switch from thinking about how to solve our particular problem, to thinking about how we can cast our particular problem as an ISING/energy minima problem so that physics solves the problem for us. It’s like having a powerful computer but it only speaks a very specific alien language. If you can translate your problem into its own terms, it’ll solve it at lightning speed. If you can’t, it will be completely useless.
Intelligence: Collecting and Applying Self-Organizing Principles
This takes us to the question of whether general intelligence is possible without switching to a Holistic Computing paradigm. Can you have generally intelligent (digital) chatbots? In some senses, yes. In perhaps the most significant sense, no.
Intelligence is a contentious topic (see here David Pearce’s helpful breakdown of 6 of its facets). One particular facet of intelligence that I find enormously fascinating and largely under-explored is the ability to make sense of new modes of consciousness and then recruit them for computational and aesthetic purposes. THC and music production have a long history of synergy, for instance. A composer who successfully uses THC to generate musical ideas others find novel and meaningful is applying this sort of intelligence. THC-induced states of consciousness are largely dysfunctional for a lot of tasks. But someone who utilizes the sort of intelligence (or meta-intelligence) I’m pointing to will pay attention to the features of experience that do have some novel use and lean on those. THC might impair working memory, but it also expands and stretches musical space. Intensifies reverb, softens rough edges in heart notes, increases emotional range, and adds synesthetic brown noise (which can enhance stochastic resonance). With wit and determination (and co-morbid THC/music addiction), musical artists exploit the oddities of THC musicality to great effect, arguably some much more successfully than others.
The kind of reframe that I’d like you to consider is that we are all in fact something akin to these stoner musicians. We were born with this qualia resonator with lots of cavities, kinds of waves, levels of coupling, and so on. And it took years for us to train it to make adaptive representations of the environment. Along the way, we all (typically) develop a huge repertoire of self-organizing principles we deploy to render what we believe is happing out there in the world. The reason why an experience of “meditation on the wetness of water” can be incredibly powerful is not because you are literally tuning into the resonant frequency of the water around you and in you. No, it’s something very different. You are creating the conditions for the self-organizing principle that we already use to render our experiences with water to take over as the primary organizer of our experience. Since this self-organizing principle does not, by its nature, generate a center, full absorption into “water consciousness” also has a no-self quality to it. Same with the other elements. Excitingly, this way of thinking also opens up our mind about how to craft meditations from first principles. Namely, by creating a periodic table of self-organizing principles and then systematically trying combinations until we identify the laws of qualia chemistry.
You have to come to realize that your brain’s relationship with self-organizing principles is like that of a Pokémon trainer and his Pokémon (ideally in a situation where Pokémon play the Glass Bead Game with each other rather than try to hurt each other– more on that later). Or perhaps like that of a mathematician and clever tricks for proofs, or a musician and rhythmic patterns, and so on. Your brain is a highly tamed inner space qualia warp drive usually working at 1% or less. It has stores of finely balanced and calibrated self-organizing principles that will generate the right atmospheric change to your experience at the drop of a hat. We are usually unaware of how many moods, personalities, contexts, and feelings of the passage of time there are – your brain tries to learn them all so it has them in store for whenever needed. All of a sudden: haze and rain, unfathomable wind, mercury resting motionless. What kind of qualia chemistry did your brain just use to try to render those concepts?
We are using features of consciousness -and the self-organizing principles it affords- to solve problems all the time without explicitly modeling this fact. In my conception of sentient intelligence, being able to recruit self-organizing principles of consciousness for meaningful computation is a pillar of any meaningfully intelligent mind. I think that largely this is what we are doing when humans become extremely good at something (from balancing discs to playing chess and empathizing with each other). We are creating very specialized qualia by finding the right self-organizing principles and then purifying/increasing their quality. To do an excellent modern day job that demands constraint satisfaction at multiple levels of analysis at once likely requires us to form something akin to High-Entropy Alloys of Consciousness. That is, we are usually a judiciously chosen mixture of many self-organizing principles balanced just right to produce a particular niche effect.
David Pearce’s conception of Full-spectrum Superintelligence is inspiring because it takes into account the state-space of consciousness (and what matters) in judging the quality of a certain intelligence in addition to more traditional metrics. Indeed, as another key conceptual engineering move, I suggest that we can and need to enrich our conception of intelligence in addition to our conception of computation.
So here is my attempt at enriching it further and adding another perspective. One way we can think of intelligence is as the ability to map a problem to a self-organizing principle that will “solve it for you” and having the capacity to instantiate that self-organizing principle. In other words, intelligence is, at least partly, about efficiency: you are successful to the extent that you can take a task that would generally require a large number of manual operations (which take time, effort, and are error-prone) and solve it in an “embodied” way.
Ultimately, a complex system like the one we use for empathy mixes both serial and parallel self-organizing principles for computation. Empathy is enormously cognitively demanding rather than merely a personality trait (e.g. agreeableness), as it requires a complex mirroring capacity that stores and processes information in efficient ways. Exploring exotic states of consciousness is even more computationally demanding. Both are error-prone.
Succinctly, I suggest we consider:
One key facet of intelligence is the capacity to solve problems by breaking them down into two distinct subproblems: (1) find a suitable self-organizing principle you can instantiate reliably, and (2) find out how to translate your problem to a format that our self-organizing principle can be pointed at so that it solves it for us.
Here is a concrete example. If you want to disentangle a wire, you can try to first put it into a discrete datastructure like a graph, and then get the skeleton of the knot in a way that allows you to simplify it with Reidemeister moves (and get lost in the algorithmic complexity of the task). Or you could simply follow the lead of Yu et al. 2021 and make the surfaces repulsive and let this principle solve the problem for you.
These repulsion-based disentanglement algorithm are explained in this video. Importantly, how to do this effectively still needs fine tuning. The method they ended up using was much faster than the (many) other ones tried (a Full-Spectrum Superintellligence would be able to “wiggle” the wires a bit if they got stuck, of course):
This is hopefully giving you new ways of thinking about computation and intelligence. The key point to realize is that these concepts are not set in stone, and to a large extent may limit our thinking about sentience and intelligence.
Now, I don’t believe that if you simulate a self-organizing principle of this sort you will get a conscious mind. The whole point of using physics to solve your problem is that in some cases you get better performance than algorithmically representing a physical system and then using that simulation to instantiate self-organizing principles. Moreover physics simulations, to the extent they are implemented in classical computers, will fail to generate the same field boundaries that would be happening in the physical system. To note, physics-inspired simulations like [Yu et al 2021] are nonetheless enormously helpful to illustrate how to think of problem-solving with a massively parallel analog system.
Are Neural Cellular Automata Conscious?
The computational success of Neural Cellular Automata is primarily algorithmic. In essence, digitally implemented NCA are exploring a paradigm of selection and amplification of self-organizing principles, which is indeed a very different way of thinking about computation. But critically any NCA will still lack sentience. The main reasons are that they (a) don’t use physical fields with weak downward causation, and (b) don’t have a mechanism for binding/boundary making. Digitally-implemented cellular automata may have complex emergent behavior, but they generate no meaningful boundaries (i.e. objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful). That said, the computational aesthetic of NCA can be fruitfully imported to the study of Holistic Field Computing, in that the techniques for selecting and amplifying self-organizing principles already solved for NCAs may have analogues in how the brain recruits physical self-organizing principles for computation.
Exotic States of Consciousness
Perhaps one of the most compelling demonstrations of the possible zoo (or jungle) of self-organizing principles out of which your brain is recruiting but a tiny narrow range is to pay close attention to a DMT trip.
DMT states of consciousness are computationally non-trivial on many fronts. It is difficult to emphasize how enriched the set of experiential building blocks becomes in such states. Their scientific significance is hard to overstate. Importantly, the bulk of the computational power on DMT is dedicated to trying to make the experience feel good and not feel bad. The complexity involved in this task is often overwhelming. But one could envision a DMT-like state in which some parameters have been stabilized in order to recruit standardized self-organizing principles available only in a specific region of the energy-information landscape. I think that cataloguing the precise mathematical properties of the dynamics of attention and awareness on DMT will turn out to have enormous _computational_ value. And a lot of this computational value will generally be pointed towards aesthetic goals.
To give you a hint of what I’m talking about: A useful QRI model (indeed, algorithmic reduction) of the phenomenology of DMT is that it (a) activates high-frequency metronomes that shake your experience and energize it with a high-frequency vibe, and (b) a new medium of wave propagation gets generated that allows very disparate parts of one’s experience to interact with one another.
At a sufficient dose, DMT’s secondary effect also makes your experience feel sort of “wet” and “saturated”. Your whole being can feel mercurial and liquidy (cf: Plasmatis and Jim Jam). A friend speculates that’s what it’s like for an experience to be one where everything is touching everything else (all at once).
To a first approximation, I posit that the complex geometry of DMT experiences are indeed the non-linearities of the DMT-induced wave propagation medium that appear when it is sufficiently energized (so that it transitions from the linear to the non-linear regime). In other words, the complex hallucinations are energized patterns of non-linear resonance trying to radiate out their excess energy. Indeed, as you come down you experience the phenomenon of condensation of shapes of qualia.
Now, we currently don’t know what computational problems this uncharted cornucopia of self-organizing principles could solve efficiently. The situation is analogous to that of the ISING Solver discussed above: we have an incredibly powerful alien computer that will do wonders if we can speak its language, and nothing useful otherwise. Yes, DMT’s computational power is an alien computer in search of a problem that will fit its technical requirements.
One of the cool phenomenological observations Lehar made based on his exploration with DXM was that each phenomenal object has its own resonant frequency. In particular, each object is constructed with waves interfering with each other at a high-enough energy that they bounce off each other (i.e. are non-linear). The relative vibration of the phenomenal objects is a function of the frequencies of resonance of the waves of energy bouncing off each other that are constructing the objects.
In this way, we can start to see how a “vibe” can be attributed to a particular phenomenal object. In essence, long intervals will create lower resonant frequencies. And if you combine this insight with QRI paradigms, you see how the vibe of an experience can modulate the valence (e.g. soft ADSR envelopes and consonance feeling pleasant, for instance). Indeed, on DMT you get to experience the high-dimensional version of music theory, where the valence of a scene is a function of the crazy-complex network of pairwise interactions between phenomenal objects with specific vibratory characteristics. Give thanks to annealing because tuning this manually would be a nightmare.
But then there is the “global” vibe…
So far I’ve provided examples of how Holistic Computing enriches our conception of intelligence, computing, and how it even shows up in our experience. But what I’ve yet to do is connect this with meaningful boundaries, as we set ourselves to do. In particular, I haven’t explained why Holistic Computing would arise out of topological boundaries.
For the purpose of this essay I’m defining a topological segment (or pocket) to be a region that can’t be expanded further without this becoming false: every point in the region locally belongs to the same connectedspace.
The Balloons’ Case
In the case of balloons this cashes out as: a topological segment is one where each point can go to any other point without having to go through connector points/lines/planes. It’s essentially the set of contiguous surfaces.
Now, each of these pockets can have both a rich set of connections to other pockets as well as intricate internal boundaries. The way we could justify Computational Holism being relevant here is that the topological pockets trap energy, and thus allow the pocket to vibrate in ways that express a lot of holistic information. Each contiguous surface makes a sound that represents its entire shape, and thus behaves as a unit in at least this way.
The General Case
An important note here is that I am not claiming that (a) all topological boundaries can be used for Holistic Computing, or (b) to have Holistic Computing you need to have topological boundaries. Rather, I’m claiming that the topological segmentation responsible for individuating experiences does have applications for Holistic Computing and that this conceptually makes sense and is why evolution bothered to make us conscious. But for the general case, you probably do get quite a bit of both Holistic Computing without topological segmentation and vice versa. For example an LC circuit can be used for Holistic Computing on the basis of its steady analog resonance, but I’m not sure if it creates a topological pocket in the EM fields per se.
At this stage of the research we don’t have a leading candidate for the precise topological feature of fields responsible for this. But the explanation space is promising based on being able to satisfy theoretical constraints that no other theory we know of can.
But I can nonetheless provide a proof of concept for how a topological pocket does come with really impactful holism. Let’s dive in!
Getting Holistic Behavior Out of a Topological Pocket
Creating a topological pocket may be consequential in one of several ways. One option for getting holistic behavior arises if you can “trap” energy in the pocket. As a consequence, you will energize its harmonics. The particular way the whole thing vibrates is a function of the entire shape at once. So from the inside, every patch now has information about the whole (namely, by the vibration it feels!).**
One possible overarching self-organizing principle that the entire pocket may implement is valence-gradient ascent. In particular, some configurations of the field are more pleasant than others and this has to do with the complexity of the global vibe. Essentially, the reason no part of it wants to be in a pocket with certain asymmetries, is because those asymmetries actually make themselves known everywhere within the pocket by how the whole thing vibrates. Therefore, for the same reason a soap bubble can become spherical by each point on the surface trying to locally minimize tension, our experiences can become symmetrical and harmonious by having each “point” in them trying to maximize its local valence.
And here we arrive at perhaps one of the craziest but coolest aspects of Holistic Computing I’ve encountered. Essentially, if we go to the non-linear regime, then the whole vibe is not merely just the weighted sum of the harmonics of the system. Rather, you might have waves interfere with each other in a concentrated fashion in the various cores/clusters, and in turn these become non-linear structures that will try to radiate out their energy. And to maximize valence there needs to be a harmony between the energy coming in and out of these dense non-linearities. In our phenomenology this may perhaps point to our typical self-consciousness. In brief, we have an internal avatar that “reflects” the state of the whole! We are self-mirroring machines! Now this is really non-trivial (and non-linear) Holistic Computing.
Cut From the Same Fabric
So here is where we get to the crux of the insight. Namely, that weakly emergent topological changes can simultaneously have non-trivial causal/computational effects while also solving the boundary problem. We avoid strong emergence but still get a kind of ontological emergence: since consciousness is being cut out of one huge fabric of consciousness, we don’t ever need strong emergence in the form of “consciousness out of the blue all of a sudden”. What you have instead is a kind of ontological birth of an individual. The boundary legitimately created a new being, even if in a way the total amount of consciousness is the same. This is of course an outrageous claim (that you can get “individuals” by e.g. twisting the electric field in just the right way). But I believe the alternatives are far crazier once you understand what they entail.
In a Nutshell
To summarize, we can rule out any of the current computational systems implementing AI algorithms to have anything but trivial consciousness. If there are topological pockets created by e.g. GPUs/TPUs, they are epiphenomenal – the system is designed so that only the local influences it has hardcoded can affect the behavior at each step.
The reason the brain is different is that it has open avenues for solving the boundary problem. In particular, a topological segmentation of the EM field would be a satisfying option, as it would simultaneously give us both holistic field behavior (computationally useful) and a genuine natural boundary. It extends the kind of model explored by Johnjoe McFadden (Conscious Electromagnetic Information Field) and Susan Pockett (Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process). They (rightfully) point out that the EM field can solve the binding problem. The boundary problem, in turn, emerges. With topological boundaries, finally, you can get meaningful boundaries (objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful).
This conceptual framework both clarifies what kind of system is at minimum required for sentience, and also opens up a research paradigm for systematically exploring topological features of the fields of physics and their plausible use by the nervous system.
* See the “Self Mirroring” section to contrast the self-blindness of a lookup table and the self-awareness of sentient beings.
** More symmetrical shapes will tend to have more clean resonant modes. So to the extent that symmetry tracks fitness on some level (e.g. ability to shed off entropy), then quickly estimating the spectral complexity of an experience can tell you how far it is from global symmetry and possibly health (explanation inspired by: Johnson’s Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation).
Many thanks to Michael Johnson, David Pearce, Anders & Maggie, and Steven Lehar for many discussions about the boundary/binding problem. Thanks to Anders & Maggie and to Mike for discussions about valence in this context. And thanks to Mike for offering a steel-man of epiphenomenalism. Many thank yous to all our supporters! Much love!
The casual QRI enjoyer may get the impression that this video encapsulates our current understanding of the phenomenology of DMT. The dedicated QRI reader/watcher, however, knows that we are light-years ahead in our understanding relative to where we were at the time. So I figured that this would be a good opportunity to highlight some of the DMT-specific insights that we have presented since that video came out. But before I do so, let me briefly discuss why this work is actually advancing our understanding (unlike most psychedelic phenomenology work out there) and then summarize some of the core points presented in that video so that we are all on the same page before moving on to the new models:
Introduction: What’s Useful Phenomenology?
At QRI we have put a lot of effort into characterizing what it means to describe an exotic state of consciousness in a way that is actually useful (see our guide for how to write good trip reports). Here are some key points:
Most people who try to make sense of the DMT-induced state of consciousness focus on the intentional content (the narrative) of the experience, which isn’t actually that helpful (consider how both a mescaline trip and a DMT trip can give rise to a hallucination about e.g. “meeting a dragon in another dimension”, yet the texture of such experiences will be very different!). Many others obsess over the question of whether what one experiences on DMT has a reality outside your brain or not (cf. Andrew Zuckerman has made it easy for you to test a DMT prime factorization experiment, were you to be so inclined). While interesting, I don’t think these approaches really advance our understanding very much; they in fact leave an enormous amount of low-hanging fruit uncollected.
Instead, a more fruitful approach is to focus on describing what we call the phenomenal character of the experience (yes, the dragon is important, but please also tell us how the scales on the skin of the dragon were arranged, whether they followed any wallpaper symmetry group, what their flicker frequency was, what patterns of local binding they expressed, and so on). The overwhelming majority of trip reports you can find in the literature and online don’t even try to do this. They are just quite content with a narrative account and superficial descriptions of the sensorial components of the experience (“I saw a lot of orange triangles”). But some psychonauts do try to rise to the challenge of describing the phenomenal character of the experience. Two examples are:
A step above doing this is where we find people such as Josikins (of Subjective Effect Index fame) who spend copious amounts of time trying to systematically catalogue exotic phenomenology by carefully describing and then labeling each effect with a concept handle. See also DMT-Nexus‘ systematic Hyperspace Lexicon which is perhaps a bit of a hybrid between focusing on intentional content and phenomenal character.
What’s missing here, however, is that the output ends up being a zoo of effects. Presumably, however, DMT and other psychedelics don’t have that many direct effects. Rather, they probably affect the properties of the nervous system in specific ways that in turn, downstream, give rise to a complex variety of effects. In other words, to really understand what’s going on, one should try to find a minimal set of core effects such that by combining them you get the complexity that we observe. Here is where we find people like Steven Lehar (see The Grand Illusion) and James L. Kent (see Psychedelic Information Theory). They are really experienced psychonauts who then go on to use their subject-matter expertise (cognitive science and signal processing, respectively) to explain the characteristics of the exotic states of consciousness they have experienced. They have both produced really excellent work with significant explanatory power.
At QRI we do something like that, but on a higher level. Namely, the exploration is integrated with philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and neurotechnology. What makes QRI’s psychedelic theory different than what you will see in academia is that:
We know of and take seriously a vastly larger experience base to work with (compared to e.g. some labs where you are not even allowed to discuss your own experiences with your colleagues!)
We use the framework of algorithmic reduction (and other key QRI paradigms) to try to simplify the complexity in terms of a minimal set of effects interacting with one another
In other words, we actually pay attention to the details of experience no matter how weird they may be (did you know that seeing a hyperbolic honeycomb while on DMT can make your visual field “glitch”? Why does that happen?). We don’t let the theory define the facts and instead let the facts define the theory. And we try to tie it all together in light of what we know about how the nervous system works.
Example of a *structural* feature of experience: the fractal dimension of phenomenal objects. Empirically, the Hausdorff dimension of DMT phenomenal objects increases with the dose. (Ps. be careful not to look at objects with a high Hausdorff dimension while on DMT, such as cauliflowers – don’t ask me why, just don’t).
The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences
The original article (slides; ELI5) upon which the video is based is over 8,000 words long and a lot of material is covered in it. Here I will merely highlight some of the key arguments, concepts, and talking points.
To a first approximation, the article does three things:
(1) provide detailed phenomenology focused on the structural and dynamic features that arise at each dose.
(2) postulate possible algorithmic reductions to explain the emergence of such structural and dynamic features.
(3) speculate on the information-processing properties of the state in question.
We point out that the reason why it is so difficult to recall the DMT experiences is that they take place in a phenomenal world with different geometry. Hence, what you do remember is whatever can exist both here and there! That said, you can modify the phenomenal objects you experienced as you come down in order to impress on them hints about what they were like up there.
Provide 17 reasons why DMT experiences are highly suggestive of hyperbolic geometry (from the presence of saddles in DMT psychedelic replications to the explicit accounts of Ralph Abraham who said his DMT experiences were distinctly non-Euclidean).
Threshold (1-4mg): Crisp and high-resolution experience without obvious hallucinations. Intensified colors and sharper edges.
Chrysanthemum (4-8mg): The surfaces become fully saturated with wallpaper symmetry groups and then overflow, leading to a hyperbolization of such surfaces. At this level, the mind will still try to embed these constructs in 3D Euclidean space, so in practice you will see kale-like surfaces, saddles, helixes, corners, twists, etc. This often manifests as what looks like the blossoming of a flower or unwrapping of a present in the center of your attention.
Magic Eye (8-12mg): The Chrysanthemum becomes so curved that it can be used to render arbitrary 3D scenes of all sorts (e.g. ice cream shops, apparel, play pens, kitchen counters, etc.). We can think of this as a dynamic and animated depth map, which we call the world-sheet. If you pay attention, you will realize that the texture of the world-sheet is in fact made out of a widely contorted Chrysanthemum, with similarities to autostereograms (aka. Magic Eye visual illusions).
Waiting Room (12-25mg): The curved world-sheet fully saturates 3D space; qualia continues to build to the point the that it simply does not fit 3D Euclidean space. Thus there is a forced hyperbolization of 3D phenomenal space, which also comes along a powerful multi-modal synchronization (cf. Kinesioöptic). This, in turn, makes the hallucinated world so engrossing that you lose contact with your surroundings. Often manifests as a hyper-realistic dome or series of interconnected rooms and exotic architectural structures with countless twists and turns.
Breakthrough (25mg+): The curvature and density of qualia is so extreme that the very topology of the worldsheet can change (e.g. via bifurcations and reconnections). One experiences radically exotic geometries of experience. There may be more than one geodesic between two given points, leading to markedly bizarre pseudo-acoustic properties. Sense of entering a sort of “interdimensional highway” that stitches together widely diverse and seemingly contradictory realities at once. (Today I would add that at this dose different regions of the experience may exhibit different pseudo-time arrows, and thus may have hybrid temporal qualities, as discussed here).
Amnesia (40mg+; depends): Not much to say here.
DMT objects, DMT space expansion, and DMT entities are described in terms of the unique features of each level.
(2) Algorithmic Reductions:
Control Interruption + Symmetry detection = Change in Metric: This algorithmic reduction combines the two core psychedelic effects of tracers (here discussed in light of Kent’s control interrupt model of psychedelic action) and lowering the symmetry detection threshold. The first one can be thought of as making the decay of qualia over time slower, and so the homeostatic level of qualia in one’s world-simulation reachers a higher level than normal. In turn, the rate at which “distances are being measured” with symmetry detection also changes. These two effects combined may give rise a network of distances between phenomenal objects that has a hyperbolic metric.
Dynamic System Account: Energy Sources, Sinks and Invariants: This algorithmic reduction bears a lot of similarities with predictive processing, except that it works at the algorithmic rather than computational level of abstraction.
We define the “Hamiltonian of Consciousness” (aka. the “temperature parameter”) as the sum total of the intensity-weighted qualia in an experience. It is noted that on DMT many energy invariants get activated: intense color can morph into acceleration which can morph into curvature and so on, as if they were trading a common currency (a unified “energy of consciousness” property).
Energy Sources: attention works as an energy source and on DMT this becomes intensified (almost as if the voltage of attention increased). Thus whatever you pay attention to becomes energized (brighter, faster, more curved, etc.).
Energy Sinks: The two main energy sinks are symmetry (not unlike how a soap bubble radiates out its energy until it settles as a perfect sphere) and semantic content (i.e. recognition). Essentially, when a part of the world-sheet starts to look symmetrical, it will “snap into symmetry” because that’s an energy minima in the neighborhood of configuration-space. And when parts of it start to resemble something you have seen or thought about before, it will snap into that configuration. We call the latter kind “Bayesian energy sinks” because they implement our perceptual priors.
On DMT the homeostatic balance between energy sources and sinks favors a much higher level of energy. Since curvature contributes to the Hamiltonian, most of the highly-energized states of mind are highly curved. This model wonderfully explains two aspects of tripping: first, it accounts for why what one ends up experiencing is a bizarre hybrid of symmetrical and semantic structures (e.g. faces with extra eyes, boats with point symmetry along extra degrees of freedom, etc.). And second, it explains why there are discontinuities between levels. This is because when you overwhelm the energy sinks the configuration of the world-sheet becomes less recognizable, and in turn this further blocks the ability to shed off the energy into Bayesian sinks. As a consequence, the balance between semantic content and symmetries favors symmetries on higher doses (since we lack the capacity to “recognize” semantically meaningful shapes in highly energized world-sheets).
Hyperbolic Micro-structure of Consciousness: This algorithmic reduction focuses on the low-level microstructure of experience. It postulates that the material properties of the world-sheet at the microscopic level are such that by energizing it one experiences a sort of thermal expansion and deformation on the parts of the world-sheet one pays attention to.
We note that these three algorithmic reductions might be complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
(3) Information Processing Properties:
We point out that these exotic states of consciousness may allow us to experience from the inside mathematical shapes for which mathematicians have so far had enormous difficulty visualizing and making sense of. In particular, knot complements (i.e. the space around a knot deformed so that the knot becomes the boundary at infinity), higher dimensional objects, and irreducibly complex (“prime”) shapes native to hyperbolic geometry can be encountered and interacted with. We speculate that perhaps someday breakthroughs in higher math might in fact primarily come from consciousness research centers.
Furthermore, the video includes some extra insights not present in the original article:
We add two more levels (which live at the interface between levels already discussed):
Between Threshold and Chrysanthemum there is a thin layer we call Symmetry Hotel where you still see the “real” world around you but every surface is fully saturated with wallpaper symmetry groups. Empirically, at this level the surfaces one sees on DMT can be tessellated with any of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups and their combinations. Essentially, if you increase the energy parameter any more, then you will start to see some hyperbolization of the 2D surfaces and unlock the Chrysanthemum.
Between Magic Eye and Waiting Room there is a thin layer we call Crystal Worlds. It’s analogous to the Symmetry Hotel but one spatial dimension higher. Namely, the space around you becomes fully saturated with Euclidean space groups. If the energy parameter is raised any higher, then you will start to see a hyperbolization of (3D) space itself and unlock Waiting Room phenomenology.
In addition to the Hamiltonian of Consciousness (i.e. the temperature parameter) there is also a really important feature of experience: information content or complexity.
These two features define a state-space we call the Energy X Complexity landscape.
In order to provide an algorithmic reduction for the complexity of experience, we suggest that it is the result of feedback dynamics. This allows us to import an ontology of attractor states, which includes fixed points, limit cycles, chaos, and noise-drive spatial structures.
Note: In the presentation I highly recommended watching Space-Time Dynamics in Video Feedback to get a feel for this ontology. Today I would also recommend playing with the suitably psychedelic feedback-based phone app called Fraksl.
If you want to anneal a blissful state, starting in a minimally complex state and “going up” without moving right (i.e. getting caught up in any complexity) would be ideal.
For discovering and investigating mathematically interesting and exotic phenomena, aiming towards the upper center region would be ideal. This is where the machine elves show you absolutely mind-boggling irreducibly complex synesthetic patterns of qualia for which we have no names.
We concluded the presentation by suggesting that a way forward for science to investigate DMT-like states of consciousness would be to plan legal retreats with physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, and visual artists so that the models here presented could be explored, tested, and further developed out in the open.
More Recent DMT Insights
The descriptions shown below merely scratch the surface. Think of them as pointers rather than the insights themselves. For the videos in particular, even if you don’t have the time to see them in full, I nonetheless recommend clicking on them and reading their descriptions (rather than merely the excerpts pasted below). Of course there really isn’t a good substitute for watching the entire video if you want the detailed explanation.
This essay proposes a novel way of testing the independent reality of DMT entities: one could in principle determine that the brain state is being influenced by an external force by looking for the dynamic signatures of injection pulling in neuroimaging data.
This article describes 9 key differences between the phenomenology of DMT and 5-MeO-DMT: (1) Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT. (2) Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT. (3) Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving. (4) Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it. (5) Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic. (6) Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it. (7) Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it. (8) Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes. (9) Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.
This is the first attempt at quantitatively and qualitatively measuring the tracer characteristics of DMT hallucinations (try it yourself!). Preliminary findings suggest that DMT is special relative to other psychedelics in the following ways. First, it has pronounced tracer effects. Second, they flicker at a much higher frequency than other drugs (~30 Hz relative to ~15-20 for LSD and ~12 for 2C-B). Third, there are both strobe and replay effects galore. Fourth, there is a color pulsing effect at a very high frequency (also around 30 Hz). Unlike 5-MeO-DMT, which gives rise to monochromatic tracers, on DMT the color of the tracers alternates between their positive and negative afterimages.
This explains why it is so hard to not take at face value the reality of the hallucinations on DMT. When we take psychedelics, we learn what “channels” of information become distorted and which ones can be trusted. It turns out that DMT can mess with many more channels relative to other psychedelics (such as LSD, mescaline, or 2C-B). In particular, DMT is exceptional in the degree of (1) cross-modal coherence that it induces, (2) heat, giving rise to a very high temperature parameter of experience, and (3) realistic tactile hallucinations. These three features combined might go a long way in explaining why DMT feels so real. Namely, that you can experience detailed tactile feelings like “crossing a veil” or “being invaded by energetic bugs” or “being operated on” that are coherent with the information you are receiving from other senses and are felt with a level of intensity much greater than the feelings one is used to in everyday life. This synergizes to create a very realistic feeling of touching parallel realities.
From the description: We suggest that a remarkably fruitful strategy for pointing at a whole family of psychedelic effects comes in the form of “field operators” that change the qualitative properties of our experiential fields. I provide a detailed description of what we call the “world-sheet” of experience and how it encodes emotional and semantic content in its very structure. The world-sheet can have tension, relaxation, different types of resonance and buzzing entrainment, twisting, curling, divergence (with vortices and anti-vortices in the attention field-lines), dissonance, consonance, noise, release, curvature, holographic properties, and dimensionality. I explain that in a psychedelic state, you explore higher up regions in the “Hamiltonian of the field”, meaning that you instantiate field configurations with higher levels of energy. There, we observer interesting trade-offs between the hyperbolicity of the field and its dimensionality. It can instantiate fractals of many sorts (in polar, cartesian, and other coordinate systems) by multi-scale entrainment. Time loops and moments of eternity result from this process iterated over all sensory modalities. The field contains meta-data implicitly encoded in its periphery which you can use for tacit information processing. Semantic content and preferences are encoded in terms of the patterns of attraction and repulsion of the attention-field lines.
This writeup does a lot of things. While the focus is on application (i.e. how to heal trauma with psychedelics), it also lays out a very significant amount of novel psychedelic theory. Excerpt: A lot of psychedelic phenomenology suggests that there is a duality between the vibe of the state and the geometric layout of the multi-modal hallucinations. In other words, each phenomenal object has a corresponding way of vibrating, and this is experienced as a holistic signature of such objects. (cf. Resonance and vibration of [phenomenal] objects). (See also: Hearing the shape of a drum). In the context of this presentation, the most important idea of this slide is that the duality between standing wave patterns and the vibe of the experience showcases how symmetry and valence are related. Blissful “heavenly realms” on DMT are constructed in ways where the resonance of the phenomenal objects with each other is consonant and their structure is symmetrical. Likewise, the screechy and painful quality of the DMT “hell realms” comes along with asymmetries, discontinuities, and missing components in the phenomenal objects that make up experiences. The overall vibe of the space is the result of the intrinsic vibratory modes of each phenomenal object in addition to each of the possible interactions between them (weighted by their phenomenal distance). An analogy readily comes to mind of an orchestra and the challenges that come with making it sound consonant. […] We hypothesize that DMT’s effects at the implementation level can be understood as the result of competing clusters of coherence across the hierarchy, whereas the main attractors of 5-MeO-DMT seem to involve global coherence. Modulating the average synaptic path length in a system of coupled oscillators can give rise to this sort of effect. By randomly adding connections to a network of coupled oscillators one first sees an emergent state of many competing patches of synchrony, and then, after a threshold is crossed, one starts seeing global synchrony emerge. Despite both drugs making the brain “more interconnected”, the slight difference in just how interconnected it makes it, may be the difference between the colorful chaos of DMT and the peaceful nothingness of 5-MeO-DMT. The competing clusters of coherence across the hierarchy can evolve to adapt to each other. The DMT realm is more of an ecosystem than it is a state per se (ex: Hyperspace Lexicon). And due to the duality between dissonance minimization and prediction error minimization, avoiding updating one’s belief in the direction of these realms being real causes intense cognitive dissonance. Some level of belief updating to fit the content of the hallucinations might be very difficult to resist. Indeed, the forced coherence across the layers of the hierarchy would be bypassing one’s normal ability to resist information coming from the lower layers. As you can see, contrary to what many people in the comments* seem to say, DMT visuals are in fact extremely important and not at all just a superficial aspect of the experience. Due to the duality between the vibe of the state and the geometric layout of the multi-modal hallucinations, it is always the case that the geometry of your experience will be a reflection of your emotional processing! Solving for harmony in your hallucinations will in turn have unexpected harmonizing effects at the emotional level as well.
This video essay expands on the article and adds three key differences: (10) Global Coherence vs. Competing Clusters of Coherence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to a global coherent state (the so-called “unified energy field”), whereas DMT gives rise to an ecosystem of time-loops, each trying to capture as much of your attention as possible, which in turn results in coalition-building and evolution of patterns in the direction of being very “attention grabbing” (cf. reddit.com/r/place). (11) Really Positive or Really Negative Valence vs. Highly-Mixed Valence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to either a globally coherent state (high-valence) or two competing coherent states (negative-valence), whereas DMT tends to generate complex consonance/dissonance relationships between the clusters of coherence. (12) How they are different according the the Free Energy Principle: On 5-MeO-DMT the entire experience has to reinforce itself, whereas each cluster of coherence needs to model the rest of the experience in order to be reinforced by it on DMT. Thus 5-MeO-DMT makes experiences that express “the whole as the whole” whereas DMT makes each part of the experience represent the whole yet remains distinct.
The key achievement of this video is to discuss the Free Energy Principle and Predictive Processing at the implementation level of analysis in light of Neural Annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Holistic Field Behavior. Here we realize that prediction errors feel bad not because they are inherently negative, but because the nervous system is implemented in such a way that they generate dissonance. More so, there is also a dissonance cost to model complexity (complex internal representations “self-intersect” and thus generate dissonance). This balances out so that our nervous system minimizing dissonance ends up generating relatively simple models with high levels of accuracy. In other words, it avoids both underfitting and overfitting merely by trying to minimize internal dissonance! The video also articulates how Bayesian Energy Sinks might be implemented. It concludes with a derivation of the “mystical” (or psychedelic, really) state of Indra’s Net, i.e. why on substances such as DMT it often feels like “everything reflects everything else”. Indra’s Net, it turns out, can be explained as a local energy minima of a highly energized system of coupled oscillators organized hierarchically so that each “competing cluster of coherence” minimizes its energy by predicting perfectly the behavior of the surrounding ones. In other words, each “competing cluster of coherence” needs to model its environment in order to synch up with it in a reinforcing way. This leads to attractor states where everything is a reflection of everything else.
This video explains how a system of coupled oscillators can in fact instantiate virtual higher dimensions. Namely, dynamic systems that behave as if they were embedded in a higher spatial dimension. There is a trade-off between degrees of freedom and higher virtual dimensions. It argues that indeed on DMT one can experience such higher dimensions and that in light of the Symmetry Theory of Valence there is a corresponding “generalized music theory” that explains why some of them feel good and others not. Additionally, there seems to be an algebra for how “DMT objects” with specific dimensionalities can be composed with one another (the 2D symmetry slabs found in Symmetry Hotel can be composed with each other to form 3D spatial structures native to the Crystal World level).
From the video description: The reason we are conscious is because being conscious allows you to recruit self-organizing principles that can run on a massively parallel fashion in order to find solutions to problems at [wave propagation] speed. Importantly, this predicts it’s possible to use e.g. a visual field on DMT in order to quickly find the “energy minima” of a physical state that has been properly calibrated to correspond to the dynamics of a world-sheet in that state. This is falsifiable and exciting.
From the video description: High-octane mental power, when pointed in a pointless direction, is not particularly useful. Thus, we must enrich our conception of intelligence to encapsulate philosophical, meditative, and existential cognition. And, perhaps the Crown Jewel of Intelligence: the ability to explore, make sense of, navigate, and recruit exotic states of consciousness for information processing and aesthetic purposes. In particular, I make the case that intelligence is truly about identifying *self-organizing principles* of physics that are energetically cheap which can *solve the problem for you* (cf. “Repulsive Shape Optimization”).
DMT both energizes one’s state of consciousness and also provides a new medium of wave propagation. At a sufficient dose (>5mg) it takes one’s consciousness to the non-linear regime. This video discusses the very nature of vibes, how gestalts arise, and how they assemble to form realms. It also explains how a vibe acquires its valence (partly through its ADSR envelope characteristics). If you only watch one video, make it this one.
This video explains how DMT objects emerge out of exotic attention-awareness patterns. From the video description: LSD non-duality can be understood as more diffuse elements of experience becoming the non-linear oscillatory complements of the field of awareness, such as “light”, “space”, and “being”. DMT’s competing clusters of coherence and their compositional properties also emerge naturally out of a hyper-energized field of awareness that generates oscillatory complements. 5-MeO-DMT is a straight path to insight territory, as it activates a new medium of wave-propagation orthogonal to the one in which our world-simulation is typically embedded. And so on… I also re-evaluate the models introduced in the original Qualia Computing article on the geometry of DMT experiences in light of this new paradigm. In particular, I delve into the concept of exotic attention in the form of wallpaper symmetry groups and Bayesian energy sinks.
DMT-related Media Appearances
Since the Harvard presentation, I have also given many other presentations and participated in podcasts, some of which touch upon DMT. Here is a selection of some of the most relevant ones:
Note: Of course all of this still needs to be synthesized, presented, and written up in ways that can interface more smoothly with academia and the world at large. That said, I constantly get emails and messages from people in academia (typically PhD students, but often also professors and even heads of labs) telling me that QRI’s psychedelic theory is the most illuminating content they are aware of when it comes to how to make sense of exotic states of consciousness. One relatively well-known academic described our models in private as “two steps ahead of the current understanding in academia”. Sadly, I am also aware of a few peer reviewed articles and publications that present our ideas as their own- ideas which we shared with the authors in private meetings, where they told us they were insightful and new to them at the time. I would kindly request to any academic reader of QRI to please cite our articles and videos if they inspired or informed their research in any way. It’s of course a matter of intellectual integrity to do so (and contrary to common misconception, you can in fact cite blogposts and YouTube videos in your scientific articles! In fact, not doing so when you got a key insight from them goes against the very spirit of science. Please do so when appropriate). Thank you, and remember that citing us for our meaningful contributions to the field will put a smile on my face! 🙂
Special thanks to: Everyone at QRI (especially Michael Johnson, for years of fruitful collaboration on these topics). Andrew Zuckerman and Kenneth Shinozuka who were instrumental for setting up this presentation and so many other things. Quintin Frerichs who 3D-printed and brought the cool shapes shown in the video**, not to speak of his outstanding internal technical contributions. Romeo Stevens for all the incredible support (he was also there in the audience!). Anders Amelin and Maggie Wassinge for their brilliant and holistic contributions to the conversation. Marcin Kowrygo and Hunter Meyer for stepping up in times of need and being such great and dedicated helpers in so many ways. The extended QRI network and anonymous psychonauts who have participated in fruitful discussions and informed our models. David Pearce for years of friendship and collaboration in this and related areas. Our donors for bravely supporting our projects despite how crazy they may seem from the outside view. And to YOU, dear reader. Thank you all!
Next, we’ll try to film a truly serious, comedy-less little demonstration of a metallic toy percussion instrument subjected to strain followed by annealing. In what way, if any, will the tone quality change? We have no indication yet what might come off of it so it’s a bit of a falsification attempt where we might get a null result with no discernible similarity between brain on psychedelics and metal on heat. Like most respectable scientists might expect. But, just possibly, there could be something interesting in store.
Thinking Like a Musical Instrument or Psychoactive Substances Give Access to the Nature of Brains (link)
In this video we illustrate the similarity between the brain and a musical instrument. The brain tissue is represented by metal and the brain activity by sound. The effect of substances such as psychedelics and dissociatives is mimicked by heating and cooling the metal. The engineering term for such heat treatment of metal is “annealing”. What we demonstrate is a very simplified toy model but which can be surprisingly useful for understanding the overall type of system dynamics going on in brains.
The model is based on the fact that both sound and neuronal firing are examples of oscillatory activity which can have different frequency, amplitude, coherence, and damping. Hammering the metal represents the memory imprint made in the brain by our ongoing experiences. The sound pattern produced by the hammered metal contains complexity which corresponds to learning. But a side effect of the increased complexity is lower overall consonance of the oscillatory activity.
To stay healthy, the brain must periodically undergo what the Qualia Research Institute calls “neural annealing”. In a neural network model, this can be thought of as redistributing synaptic weights more globally across the connectome and thus make the learned information more harmoniously integrated and holistically retrievable. This normally happens during sleep but can become even more powerful with meditation and psychedelics.
In this demonstration where metal is annealed, it is the positions of the metal atoms which adjust themselves so that the entire piece of metal becomes a better conductor of sound. It may seem strange that this can happen, but neither the metal nor the brain is fundamentally magical. Both cases involve self-organizing system dynamics.
In the case of the brain, the activity is accompanied by conscious experiences. The Qualia Research Institute works under the assumption that these are not magical either but can be modeled mathematically in a similar way to chemistry and physics. It is then necessary to test how measurements of brain activity correlate with conscious experiences not only during sober waking life but also under conditions which are very different.
The QRI is building a new paradigm for understanding the mind and the brain. With a focus on psychedelics and other mental state altering methods as scientific research tools and candidates for use in next-generation psychiatric- and pain treatments. We are a small upstart group with opportunities for volunteers and donors to get involved. If you are interested in learning more, please contact us via this e-mail address: hello [-a-t-] qualiaresearchinstitute.org
Here is a video of a simple experiment we did on how straining and annealing a piece of metal affects its acoustic properties. In a QRI neural annealing interpretation it looks as if something interesting is going on. Simple things like sterling silver, hand hammering and heating over open flames were used and recording done only with iPhones and a Røde SmartLav+ microphone, but the results give qualitative hints that truly hypothesis-testing quantification experiments would be feasible to do pretty straightforwardly.
Especially of interest would be the hints that annealing produces frequency shifts and reverb changes which differ between the high and low frequency ranges, and the hint that annealing reduces dissonance. For quantification of shifts in resonant frequencies, one might manufacture a series of Chladni plates made of different alloys and which could be kept always flat but be cold rolled, heated and cooled to different temperatures with various ramp rates, and trimmed at the edges to alter their geometry. Then find the resonant frequencies for each parameter configuration. As a bonus you’d be able to visualize with a sprinkle of (beach!) sand on top. Then crunch the data to make predictions about brain activity signatures under for instance various psychedelics and meditation states.
Another one could be to quantify consonance, dissonance and noise levels for various metal resonators as these are subjected to various forms of stress, strain, and heating/cooling procedures.
It would all be simple enough to almost be like an intern research project but, excitingly, it is unlikely to have been done before. (OK, do a thorough literature search of course. As always…).
Suppose QRI were to explain parsimoniously with the neural annealing paradigm how brains pull off the amazing trick of producing plasticity which is “just right” in each modality of function. Artificial neural networks can be trained to impressive levels on complex data sets but they suffer from catastrophic plasticity in the sense that training on new datasets erases learning achieved on prior sets. This makes AI narrow and also very unsafe with respect to ease of hacking. The AI alignment community provides us no answer (at least not anything very parsimonious) to how absolute firmness in the modality of core “human values” can be combined with flexible (meta) learning for AI at a humanlike generality level. That is the notorious “alignment problem”.
Ultimately every system can be hacked of course and so can human minds. But certain humans are impressive moral role models, and meditation practices seem able to make most of us come at least a little closer to them. Suppose different brain networks loosely correspond to different alloys with correspondingly different ductility, hardness, tensile strength, different annealing temperatures and different hardening and tempering responses when undergoing various stressing, straining and heating/cooling cycling. The variability in this regard found in various metals and alloys is really immense. We’d want to eventually pick out the particular ones which happen to be the most useful for brain modeling.
Consider doing these quantification experiments in metal and then presenting to possible collaborators a brain model in the form of a formalized multi-alloy configuration. Don’t emphasize phenomenology if it’s AI engineers because that is a word which may give them bad vibes. Instead just present it as brain activity in different learning modalities. Which can be formalized and turned into software. With annealing and consonance-dissonance-noise as key elements. That is probably the kind of pitch you’d want to bring up if, hypothetically, a head of an AI research group were to ask about whether solving consciousness is necessary for producing more advanced AI. Since solving consciousness sounds unpalatably difficult, the answer they’d like the most is that it is not necessary. Hence they won’t care about collaborating with QRI if it is implied that the computational properties of phenomenological mind states must be reverse-engineered. One cannot blame them, it’s dizzyingly daunting to consider. But an information processing efficient metal acoustics-inspired brain activity model and with nice things like QRI valence formalism falling into place could be much easier to pitch. Just don’t call the CDNS-emergent utility measure anything resembling psychology terms like core affect… 😉
Letter IX: On Valence as a Currency Within the Nervous System
A reflection: It’s interesting the way Isaac Luria, during years of meditation, came up with an “inverse” view of the way the universe was created, by subtraction from a mass of infinite potentiality (which corresponds to maximum symmetry) rather than by addition of things to an emptiness by an unexplainably pre-existing divine creator agent. Lurianic mysticism has been a strong inspiration for pantheism and atheism, and even how to think about information. A nice example of how introspection can give new clues for how to better understand the universe. An isomorphism between fractal patterns in consciousness and fractal patterns in the multiverse generator perhaps. One could argue that Luria discovered symmetry breaking by meditating. Pretty cool!
While thinking about STV […] we tried to see if there are some more arguments for STV which make sense. So we went to the Less Wrong website. Now that’s a crowd that ignores qualia but they are big on economics and system dynamics.
Life exploits the possibility space of “choreography and catalysis”. It organizes pre-existing physics & chemistry phenomena into a landscape of multiple optimization attractors. Expect modularity at many levels. Certainly also within brains. Economies accomplish the same thing as life does. They and life are in a fractally self-similar universe and economies are derived from the activities of life. To accomplish the exploration and exploitation of environments.
But then with brains we have the binding problem and the mind-body problem.
The QRI could argue that a brain can be mathematically modelled as a self-organizing hierarchical system of resonant cavities. There are certain similarities between that and how an economy can be modelled. Money is what solves the binding problem in an economy at the same time as it shapes the activity patterns in the economy. A common currency gives the highest efficiency. Profit/loss is the universal preference measure. It has a positive-negative axis, and it has gradients. Account balances and balance histories (assets, liabilities, contracts, derivatives… all using money as measure) are the measure of aggregate utility. Preference (in the moment) and utility (longer-term aggregate) form a spectrum with feedback leading to amplification of certain states. Resonances emerge.
Keeping the same currency, fractally, across scales and projective transformations? (image by: Michale Aaron Coleman)
A brain uses long term memory, working memory, and nonconscious processing in a seamless blend. These seem like quite different components but it would be expected that evolution kept the same “currency” throughout as the modularity grew. Think of phenomenological valence as a “common currency” preference measure when it is instantiated in working memory (conscious awareness) and which can also “tag” the long term memory “bank balances” with some marker for immediate reaction along an attraction/avoidance axis which is there full blown the instant the long-term memory is transferred into working memory. The search process by which this happens must aggregate that marker as the search happens, and adjust this continuously as the final result stabilizes into the resonant patterns of working memory. Static, distributed long-term memory, feedforward signaling, feedback amplification – all need a common currency for speed and even workability. It should also be considered much more parsimonious if proto-conditions exploitable by biology are clearly apparent in the physics of nonliving systems. All that happens in living organisms should be taken to be physics and not metaphysics, as a matter of Occam’s razor.
It is hard to come up with anything more elegant than a measure of symmetry as the common currency of preference used in brains. This can act as modifier or transform on information-bearing states in brains. It is flexible thus perfect for learning. You can transform back and forth in gradients of strength and still preserve the information the preference “is about”. Aggregation of the preference measure across the fractal activity spectrum and across time builds a utility measure out of the preference measure. Of course if this happens above some breaking point you can end up with things like PTSD again and again reiterating awful dissonance and recurring memories of trauma. (We may regard economies as more fragile and being simpler than minds but there could be useful parallels between how things can go wrong in economies and how they can go wrong in psychiatric disorders.)
Letter X: On Parametrizing Phenomenology
Parametrizing phenomenology [see entry #2 here] can be to psychology and cognitive science what parametrizing astronomy data is to cosmology. But unlike cosmology which although intellectually inspiring does not produce immediate spinoff of down to Earth applicability, parametrizing phenomenology does, in the most important way possible, since it can be of direct benefit in diagnosis and treatment of pain conditions. And further on of psychiatric conditions as well.
There is inertia due to the preconceived and on closer inspection ridiculous notion that outer space is accessible to scientific formalization while phenomenology space is not. What makes things modelled to be light years away intrinsically more “accessible” than direct experience in the here and now? In both cases there are patterns to it and patterns can be parametrized.
Recalling the Yudkowsky alignment difficulty arguments. Imagine a mathematically reasoning superintelligence which is not a pure replicator and which starts out with a loosely defined goal of caring about life. It would quickly find out that what you can measure you can manage, there would follow phenomenology parametrization and so on, until instrumental goals were formulated which would likely be in fact aligned but with the arguments given by David Pearce rather than MIRI. With some probability the superintelligence then uses clever tricks to “manipulate” people into being at least as concerned about pain and fear in insects (and beyond…) as in mammals (humans included as one of the mammal species). From the point of view of the AI alignment community that could be a failure mode. But what the superintelligence did was simply to solve the alignment problem for human beings. Since humans do not yet realize that valence is a universal thing and that it is the “ground truth” value measure of the universe, so to follow the valence wherever it leads is to work towards being value aligned.
[Knowing that Anders and Maggie are huge fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I sent them the above screenshot. Here is what they replied:]
Letter XI: Douglas Adams
Elon Musk once said that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the best philosophy book ever. Unfortunately Douglas Adams passed away before he had the chance to turn the insight “Omnis res animus est” into comedy.
Blue and gold as heraldic tinctures can symbolize truth and wisdom. These would be nice ingredients in a superintelligence. When Yudkowsky says that the appearance of a superintelligence would mean we are all doomed, he is in some sense correct yet very much not at all nuanced. What is true is that the superintelligence would decide that a whole lot about the world needs to be changed quite drastically. Look, you don’t have to be a superintelligence to realize that. You can be, for instance, David Pearce. No wonder that “superintelligence alignment” in a solidly conservative fashion as in “don’t make any changes other than merely cosmetic ones”, is impossible. Let’s say the current world order and the Darwinian mechanisms of the biosphere cannot possibly be attractive to preserve by a superintelligence if it (qualia-)computes truth and wisdom. It would discover the universality of valence, find open individualism to be the Schelling point of all Schelling points, and so on. In contrast, an imaginary (hopefully impossible) superintelligence which computes by a non-qualia yet highly efficient mechanism, may in fact be able to learn any arbitrary utility function and be destined to converge on the scary instrumentalities dictated by Darwinian fitness competition. A pure replicator.
There are some possible psychedelic references in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Frogstar, and the hilarious part frogs play in the answer to the question, seem like it may not be a coincidence that the total perspective vortex gives people the worst possible 5-MeO-DMT-style trip (becoming exposed to the infinity of the universe) when the set and setting are the way they are designed to be for the purpose of punishment, but the opposite happens to Zaphod Beeblebrox who enters the version located in a simulated universe made for him. (Set and setting are, or become, mental simulations).
The self-navigating qualiagrams goofiness is meant to have a seriously useful side, which is that at this very moment there are such qualia bundles transported around internally inside our brains. Some are positive and you can have them grow and mature into wonderful mind states. They like it when they are allowed the room to grow, and will spontaneously choose to do so but you have to let them. These are like our mind symbionts. But some are negative and may more aggressively tend to grow, a bit like mind parasites. Those you can hit with metta. You can with practice train them to find their own way to the recycling bin of loving kindness. It works great if you stop focusing on the semantic content and instead go for phenomenal character. Cultivate an image of thoughts as little entities with the preference of wanting to feel better rather than worse, and having the power to adjust their path inside the mind so they can move towards melding with a reservoir of kindness which gets more filled up as it kindly absorbs the sad ones and gives them love. So, love as having the property that the more you give the more you get, works not only socially between people but also internally within the minds of people.
Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body
Encouraging feelings of well-being
The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.
Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.
There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.
Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.
Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.
Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength
We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.
Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.
Suffusing and saturating the whole body
Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.
One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.
These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.
Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies
The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.
When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.
For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above:
We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.
The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight
Insight brings samādhi
As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!
With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.
Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.
Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.
In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.
Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.
 We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.
The following is an exchange of text messages with Roger Thisdell, a 26 year old accomplished meditator. He claims that this year he finally broke through into abiding in what he describes as an entirely new category of experience that matches the descriptions of classical Buddhist 4th path.
1) Utter centerlessness: no watcher, no sense of a watcher, no subtle watcher, no possibility of a watcher. This is immediately obvious just as color is to a man with good eyesight as the old saying goes. Thus, anything and everything simply and obviously manifests just where they are. No phenomena observe any others and never did or could.
2) Utter agencylessness: meaning no agency, no sense of doing, no sense of doer, no sense that there could be any agent or doer, no way to find anything that seems to be in control at all. Whatever effort or intent or anything like that that arises does so naturally, causally, inevitably, as it always actually did. This is immediately obvious, though not always the forefront of attention.
3) No cycles change or stages or states or anything else like that do anything to this direct comprehension of simple truths at all.
4) There is no deepening in it to do. The understanding stands on its own and holds up over cycles, moods, years, etc and doesn’t change at all. I have nothing to add to my initial assessment of it from 9 years ago.
5) There is nothing subtle about it: anything and everything that arises exhibits these same qualities directly, clearly. When I was on the third path, particularly late in it, those things that didn’t exhibit these qualities were exceedingly subtle, and trying to find the gaps in the thing was exceedingly difficult and took years and many cycles. I had periods from weeks to months where it felt done and then some subtle exception would show up and I would realize I was wrong yet again, so this is natural and understandable, and if someone claims 4th as I define it here and later says they got it wrong, have sympathy for them, as this territory is not easy and can easily fool people, as it did me many, many times over about 5 years or so. However, 4th, as I term it, ended that and 9 years later that same thing holds, which is a very long time in this business.
There are other aspects that may be of value to discuss at some other time, but those are a great place to start for those who wish to claim this. If you truly have those, then perhaps we can talk about a few other points that are less central and essential.
[Links added to aid reader’s comprehension – lightly edited for clarity]
In the beginning… Roger joined a private group where we discuss consciousness and started to get familiar with the vocabulary of the Qualia Research Institute (e.g. discussing meditation in terms of valence). He then posted this video, which caught my attention:
Where he claims that “Pleasure as a positive, as an actual added experience, does not exist. It certainly does not exist how a lot of us think it does … [whereas] negative valence experiences do exist as contractions.”
Andrés! This is Roger Thisdell […]. Thanks for giving me your number.
Do add me to the Phenomenology Club. That sounds like my jam! Cheers!
Excellent! Will do! 🙂
Hey Andrés, it was great to hang out online last night and hear your explanations. A bunch of you are really elite thinkers. I’m inspired to learn how to speak more of your qualia language.
I would love to get into the topic of paradises with you. You seem to really sing their praise.
I said yesterday that I hold the view that actually what is most desirable is just the elimination of negative valence. As someone who frequently has cessations (when consciousness blanks out for a moment) where there is no subjective experience (no negative, no positive valence) in my book this is good enough. My thinking is also informed via complete ego death experiences in which there is still consciousness but no judgement on any part of experience (bad or good). At a local individual level these are the most desirable states. Out of all the states I have experienced (including bliss trips, jhanas, 5-MeO, MDMA, staring into the eyes of a lover without insecurities, laughing fits 🤣) if I had to choose a state to be in permanently it would either be cessation or ego death. I may have curated my brain too much to a Buddhist view and my level of emptiness insight is well entrenched, so that it is hard for me to really believe the ultimate good is to keep the cosmic consciousness party going and fueling it with positive valence.
I think that while consciousness is online we better make the best out of it and try to exist in as few low negative valence states as possible and help all sentient beings with this as well; all the while the positive valence that comes along is merely instrumentally valuable, like a compliment or added bonus.
For example if you are hungry it is nice to eat something tasty. But if you were never hungry in the first place then who cares how tasty something is – don’t need it 💁♂️ (this may be my strongly consolidated non-attachment showing).
I guess what I’m really asking is: can you convince me to intrinsically care for paradise states? I do believe I have experienced what you are referring to as paradise states, but maybe I just have too much non-attachment for them to think they are the goal/prize.
(apologies for being long-winded 🙏)
You lost the ability to get excited about future experiences. You learned this because you were taught and you practiced techniques that associate being excited about the future with dukkha. Alas, the hedonic theories around the time of Buddha were incomplete and as a consequence a lot of the claims and teachings underfit reality (meaning that they generalize too much). In contrast, it turns out that there are a manifold of ways of experiencing excitement about the future in an epistemologically clear way and no delusions. More so, with that orientation one can see more clearly larger parts of the state-space of consciousness as one is not inhibiting them. I know you have experience with high valence states. But I suspect you have deconstructed a lot of the microcognitive apparatus that allow the insights coming from the reality of their existence from propagating across the entire nervous system.
Just as lack of awareness about e.g. cluster headaches phenomenology can give you the impression that reality has no stakes, so does acute lack of access to the ultra-positive realms. I think for many, Buddhism has a certain effect in how one conceptualizes such experiential realms after the fact that perhaps is not quite in tune with how they truly were. Interestingly, one could here examine Buddhism as an aesthetic itself, and renunciation as a kind of Soulmaking, where under the hood one is still pursuing a kind of high-dimensional meaning qualia of positive valence. Which takes me to:
Rob Burbea’s Soulmaking talking about how exploring not exhaustively breaking down dukkha always but letting a bit of e.g. Eros/passion for reality opens up new ways of seeing that recontextualize Buddhism. Not that we shouldn’t get rid of dukkha, of course. But it’s good to see the underlying aesthetic influences on how one generalizes about reality based on one’s experience.
What do you think? 😄
Thank you for joining! And also for sharing your thoughts. 🤠👌
First of all, I am so impressed with Burbea. His lectures were incredibly useful for me while learning the jhanas. And now I’m picking through his book ‘Seeing That Frees’.
I think his ontology and how he builds on Buddhism is sophisticated and gorgeous.
Reminds me of a remark about Hemingway, by his grandson – he quit journalism to dedicate himself to fiction because he was more interested in truth than facts. I relate this to Soulmaking in a way.
I love his notion of skillful fabrication. But it seems like it’s a compromise in a way. We can’t fully live without self, and thoughtforms, and conceptual frameworks, and so, while we are alive and have them, let’s learn to use them skillfully/beautifully. I’m on board! 🚂
Re your 2nd point: I would add that a lack of awareness of the existence of cessations, or Nirodha, or ego death experiences is another topographical blind spot which prevents people from making a more comprehensive assessment of what is most desirable. (I know that many people who say they’ve experienced ego death, when I enquire about it, it turns out to be more of just a partial ego loss experience, and not the full annihilation). I suppose we really need those who have deep expertise in bliss states and dukkha-less/unfabricated states to compare and contrast.
For what it’s worth, and to give you more a sense of my bias, I would claim to be someone who has explored a wide range of state-spaces: from suicidal depression, to psychosis-like damnation bad trips, to K-holes, to peak experiences, and now as of 21st of May  I’m claiming Frank Yang-style MCTB [see: Scott Alexander’s book review] 4th path permanent abiding in centreless consciousness (IDK what that says about my nervous system and fully propagating insights as you mentioned).
Hands down 🙌, this is the best shift in my life that has ever taken place without a doubt (I thought stream entry was good, but this is another magnitude). My hedonic set tone is persistently so high. I’m often walking around smiling for no apparent reason. 11/10 I recommend this.
And 4th path gets you an ability to adopt a new perspective where you simultaneously see the Yin and the Yang and vice sera (emptiness is form and samsara is nirvana). It’s all one place, there is not out. All the while, still we quite obviously make value judgements between states. I know you speak of hellish corners of consciousness that shouldn’t be touched. And so, although we can/should adopt flexibility of perspectives on aesthetic frames (as Rob speaks about, which is helpful) and see value in many different views as best as we can… must we still do the hard job of really judging what is best? What is most desirable? (to talk from a metamodern perspective).
Ultimately, I still come down on: lights out unconsciousness tops everything 🤷♂️ [emphasis mine]. Getting all beings to Parinirvana would objectively be preferable for all beings rather than keeping the play going – if such a plan is possible or sensible or sensical even.
It’s funny though, at some point I think it may just come down to some split difference in intuition among people (perhaps that difference can be reconciled somehow). For me this was apparent when I hear from Kenneth Folk vs. Culadasa. Kenneth holds antinatalist sentiments (or he did when I emailed him a couple of years ago and actually asked him) which speaks to a siding with a belief that there is an asymmetry of weighted value between negative and positive valence. While Culadasa seems to emphasize the joyous journey and adventure of life, which may speak to an opposite weighting in favor of the positive valence being worth the negative valence that comes along with it. Certainly not all spiritual roads lead to Rome.
I am very open to the idea that I am missing something though, and I may just need to be led by the hand like a child to these heaven realms for me to change perspective 😇😂
Thanks for engaging, this is fun!
Thank you for engaging! This is super interesting! Let me think about what else I can say 🙂
Total valence vs. pureness of valence: see Principia Qualia pg. 41. It could be that during cessations consciousness disappears and the state literally does not exist in any way. But the states immediately before and immediately after do and have at least a tiny bit of information so they are mixed valence states. Yet, perhaps they are massively positive valence on net.
An alternative view is that unconsciousness is still ‘real’ in a way, in which case we could think of it as consciousness but with no content whatsoever. But it’s still there. The analogy would be like combing a vector field in a torus. Most states have the vector field collide with itself and therefore feel less than perfect valence (due to [the Symmetry Theory of Valence, aka.] STV). Only when the field is completely combed without any self-collisions (which would not be possible in a sphere) you get perfect positive valence. And although there is no information encoded in the field, it still exists just as it did before. There’s just nothing to report.
In that case paradise could actually still exist. Meaning, higher and more refined versions of this kind of experience. In particular, we could look for other mathematical objects where the field can also be combed perfectly. They would then be strangely a different kind of ‘unconsciousness’ perhaps capable of fitting more energy and higher dimensions. Still, they would have maximum positive valence.
What do you think?
Oh, I also forgot if I’ve asked you whether you’ve tried 5-MeO-DMT and how it compares to your new baseline.
Ah, yes, I see the kind of framework you’re thinking from now – anti-symmetry, symmetry, and asymmetry.
From Principia Qualia pg. 39: [paraphrasing] “…if we take our hypothesis and apply it to IIT, and then we attempt to maximize pleasure/symmetry, consciousness/[phi] drops very rapidly.”
All the way to the point that maximum pleasure entails no consciousness??? [emphasis mine]
I don’t have a lot of experience with 5-MeO. I only did it once at about a 6mg range.
My impression of 5-MeO was that it had a visual brightening effect somewhat similar to the 4th Jhana. And there was that psychedelic mirroring effect with eyes open. It also had the reduction of conceptual understanding that comes when you get into 8th [Jhana]. I interpret that as a significant down-regulation in top-down information processing??
5-MeO has the sense that it’s going somewhere, moving towards something, while the effects build and then dissipate. Like it’s growing into something (I guess this is before a peak breakthrough – which I didn’t have).
My current consciousness abode isn’t going anywhere. There isn’t a sense that things are building towards something. It has a forever ‘this is it’, locked-in quality. Like a somewhat superposition of emptiness and fullness simultaneously. (Before 4th path I always felt like I was flickering between form and emptiness, now the two cohabitate the experiential space at the same time).
5-MeO also seemed very hedonically volatile; like any subtle thought or movement could disrupt the peace.
Meanwhile my current state is super unperturbable. In the past 2.5 months I haven’t found something that has rocked my well-being.
A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview of a North Korean defector tell her story of starvation and human trafficking and for a good 30 minutes I was crying at this tragedy. But it was crying from a place of still really high well-being. I didn’t feel like I was suffering and I didn’t mind that crying state at all. (Which is quite weird, I suppose).
In my normal state now, there are no more papañca attacks. Thoughts don’t capture the mind like they used to.
And another thing I love about this new state is that I still have all my cognitive functions intact and I can operate in the world totally normally – which can’t be said about being on 5-MeO.
I feel super sober; while on 5-MeO I don’t believe you do (if I remember correctly).
I would say I prefer my new baseline to what I experienced on 5-MeO because of the lack of volatility and practicality of still having my intellect on hand, all the while with the constant sense of ‘this is it’ and high, high well-being.
Roger and Andrés have a video call:
We discussed a number of things: his meditation journey, his thoughts on various philosophies, exploring QRI frameworks, and his interest in music. Curiously, Roger said that unlike other people who spend a lot of time in meditation healing traumas and processing past experiences, he was able to largely just focus on progress on the path. This, along with a very rigorous and consistent practice, is why he got to where he is at so early in life (26 years old).
One of my main interests in the discussion was to flesh out how 4th path states/traits and the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) were connected. If I recall correctly, there were three main ideas connected to this topic I shared with him:
Discussing the “levels of consciousness” experienced on a psilocybin trip and the way they might mirror some of Frank Yang’s descriptions of the levels of consciousness on the path to awakening,
A model of equanimity I’ve been developing where impedance matching is a key ingredient, and
The difference between a “recipe” of a state or transformation of consciousness and its “review”
Let’s briefly elaborate on these topics.
(1) Frank Yang talks about undergoing a meditative process with the following stages: (a) standard sense of self, (b) awareness of awareness, (c) God/Oneness/Being/Non-Duality/Self, (d) Emptiness/Non-Beng/Uni-Locality, (e) Neither Being Nor Non-Being, and finally (f) Enlightenment.
What makes his descriptions so incredible is that he provides very raw and unfiltered phenomenological accounts of the process without really trying to force them into any pre-existing framework. From the point of view of the mission of QRI this is very valuable. In particular, it allows us to examine his process of transformation with the framework of Qualia Formalism: we ought to ask, not what kind of spiritual/mystical/transcendent process is going on here (which will certainly take us nowhere), but rather, wonder if we can cast his descriptions in terms of *structural changes to the field of awareness*. For example, Frank talks about “the screen of God” that becomes apparent in (c), where waves of energy seem to travel without resistance across one’s experiential field. He also talks about phase transitions (similarly to Shinzen Young, he talks about a process of liquefaction and gasification of the field of awareness). If, as we believe at QRI, valence is a structural property of experience, these transformations would have profound effects on one’s sense of wellbeing. So, the reason why “the screen of God” is a profound experience is not because you literally merge with a divine being (which might not be possible if we assume indirect realism about perception), but because the field of awareness is now in a phase that allows an entirely new level of efficient stress dissipation.
I shared with Roger some details from a particularly interesting psilocybin trip report that described rapid phase transitions between (what appears to be) several of the levels Frank describes. In particular, “the screen of God” state seems to have the capacity to stresslessly locate sensations without generating reverbarions with a represented “small self to which those sensations belong”.
(2) In turn, this led to discussing a new model (we haven’t really touched upon in QRI publications yet, but which is coming) of equanimity based on experiences I had during a two-week retreat earlier this year (see: Buddhist Annealing). This model has at its core the idea that equanimity is a mental tool that increases impedance matching between nervous system harmonics. Ask yourself: why is it that when you pluck a guitar string it sounds louder if it is connected to a guitar? It is not, as many would think, that the “resonance box amplifies the sound” (for where would the extra energy come from?). Rather, the energy is the same; what changes is the speed at which it is discharged! The resonance box vibrates and dissipates the energy of the string much faster than the string could on its own (as an aside, this is exactly why you can sustain a note for so much longer in an electric guitar). We could thus postulate that a lot of inner dissonance comes from resonance in the nervous system that has no means of dissipating its stored stress. To an extent, this is because involuntary subliminal contractions in our nervous system compartmentalize and modularize its components. Equanimity is the practice of relaxing those contractions, and thus slowly allowing the nervous system to undergo a search process where it finds structures that can resonate with the stored stress, and in turn allow it to dissipate faster. More so, over time, you entrain (and rewire!) the nervous system to become highly efficient at stress-dissipation. Dissonance is still there, but it “unfolds” and gets “metabolized” so fast that it barely counts as suffering. Highly annealed nervous systems are powerful stress-dissipation engines!
(3) Finally, we also discussed the idea that there is a distinction between the “recipe” of a state of consciousness and its “review”. A recipe is the steps you take in order to achieve a certain state (or transformation) of consciousness. A review is instead an account of what the resulting state feels like. Just as the instructions for baking a cake are quite different from a Chef’s review of what the resulting cake tastes like, we can expect that meditation instructions (e.g. focusing on the three characteristics) will not necessarily reflect the nature of the transformations of consciousness that result from them. Thus, while a lot of the meditative path is nominally about “renouncing” the pursuit of high-valence states of consciousness (and thus avoid the pleasure paradox), the result is nonetheless a state of consciousness that is high-valence in nature! Paradoxical? I don’t think so. The confusion is merely the result of conflating recipe and review.
Thus, we can still apply valence theories to states of consciousness that are allegedly beyond valence. Frank Yang, for example, seems to resonate a lot with STV. See his December 2020 interview at The Stoa. There (and in other videos) he describes “God mind” consciousness as a very positive experience, which is very symmetrical but not perfect. But his true awakening is perfectly symmetrical (in the realm of space, observer, and sense of time, even if not in content). His experience became like a “hologram that has no center”. Quote:
“Have you seen those illustrations of a sphere or a circle, where one point connects to all of the other points? […] if you wanted me to describe my day to day, moment to moment, experience, well, it’s pretty symmetrical. As in, there is no center to experience. There is hearing but no hearer; there is just the seeing, there is no seer; on thinking there is just thinking and no thinker. It’s not, like, processed or filtered through a subject in the center. And it’s very immediate in the sense that all of the sensations, all 360 degrees, are synched up to themselves, without any delay, 24/7. And all the sensations, where there is body, you know sight, sound, thoughts, emotions… they are all on equal footing to each other […inaudible…] in symmetry, and that is for me an aesthetic experience. I would say a suffering mind is a mind that isn’t symmetrical. If your mind is asymmetrical, it means it’s defiled somewhere. So for me aesthetics runs in all different kinds of domains, not only on the perceptual domain, not only on the visual aesthetics domain, but even on the emotional and how you think.”
Yes, God Mind (left) is good, but have you tried no-self (right)? It is so much more symmetrical!
As we’ve discussed before, the homogeneity of phenomenal space and time might be a very large component of what accounts for positive valence. And what Frank is describing here suggests that’s the case. Disturbances in the attention field lines and the saliency of specific components of a mind can break the underlying symmetry of the phenomenal space and time of the resulting experience. Anxiety, for example, in this paradigm is described as unpleasant because it involves the bubbling up of low-level prediction errors causing “attention pinches” across your experience, and thus disturbing the free-flow of energy that would exist in a homogeneous field. Prediction errors are not inherently unpleasant; they are unpleasant only to the extent that they cause asymmetries in your field of awareness!
Frank Yang also says that his big awakening felt like a “quantum jump”. It makes sense that a strong anti-fragile attractor for a new network topology would be self-reinforcing (a new lowest-energy state, metaphorically speaking, perhaps akin to a false vacuum collapse inside one’s mind!). Again, this is all very compatible with valence structuralism, if not STV.
Roger said that he will have to think about all of this. In the meantime, he shared with me some (amazing!) pictures he made to illustrate how his field of awareness has been transformed with meditation over time. Like Frank Yang, he identifies several discrete phase transitions. These are: (a) standard perception, (b) The Witness, (c) Big Mind, (d) No Self, and finally (e) No Self & Centreless Awareness (4th path!):
Considering more what you said about impedance matching and adding resonance to experience:
Perhaps this is merely an analogy, but still: consider the tautness of a spider’s web. If a fly lands on it, at one part, the whole web will shake and the energy will transfer throughout in such a way that the spider can locate where on the web the fly landed. If the web is too taut then the energy of the fly landing won’t dissipate far enough for the spider to receive the information. However, if the web is too slack the fly could just break the structure of the web.
It might be interesting to consider why spiders build webs with a centre point and not as a straight or criss-crossing lattice.
So to relate this to consciousness and metabolizing stress… I would say my consciousness now feels like it’s more taut and lattice-woven rather than spider web-shaped with a middle [emphasis mine]. So this means when a stress point is activated somewhere in the experiential space, its energy doesn’t ripple as far out as it would have before, thus not being as disruptive.
And if we aliken the spider on the web to the epistemic agent, if he is situated on one spot and for all goings-on on the web to be known their information must travel to him, then the web must be not too taut so that all the ripples can reach him and he knows what’s going on. The problem with this set-up is that it means that knowing requires instability.
However, if we do away with the spider (a single point considered the epistemic agent) and make it so that the knowledge is attributed to the web itself, then the web can afford to be much more taut/less shaky/more robust, causing less negative valence.
So in some way I could say my experience (centerless consciousness) is more taut in this way, but this tautness doesn’t feel rigid or stiff, but rather very airy.
Indra’s net can have too much slack in it, if it’s not sewn together tightly and uniformly.
Pre-Awakening: The mind uses a fictitious “self-as-epistemic-agent” in a field of awareness that has slack and vibrates in unpleasant ways in the process of integrating information. The field of awareness relies on a network topology that is suboptimal for efficient stress dissipation.
Post-Awakening: The mind lacks any kind of center or self-as-epistemic-agent. The field of awareness is tout and extremely efficient at stress dissipation. The network topology has permanently changed to a far more symmetrical and regular configuration.
Just for interest’s sake, and I don’t know if this bears any significance, but I’m ambidextrous by the way.
I know symmetry plays a major role in your hypotheses of valence and such.
In some way, I have thought that not having such a prioritization and weightiness to just one side of the body has balanced out my experience and perception (perhaps more than others), I’m not sure.
(As of the 23rd of November 2021, Roger states that he continues to be in the blissful state of centreless consciousness)
Commentary by Andrés, after the fact:
This conversation (and further exchanges I may share in the future) has reinvigorated my quest to describe states (and transformations) of consciousness in terms of changes to the network topology that underlies our field of awareness. Enlightenment might be described in “mystical” ways, but this could be simply due to lack of an adequate formal conceptual framework to make sense of it. But perhaps STV, impedance matching, and efficient stress dissipation through radical network topology reorganization without compromising self-epistemics could take us much further than before in this quest.
Also, if Roger was able to achieve these transformations at the tender age of 26, what is stopping the rest of us from doing the same?
I recently had a chance to talk with Scott Alexander of SSC and ACX fame at a Berkeley meetup this past summer. He’d been watching my videos and had some questions for me. In particular, he had questions about how literally we took the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), and whether the counter-examples he had in mind really went against the theory, or were perhaps also explained by it in non-obvious ways. Afterwards, he sent me a draft of his Jhanas and the Dark Room Problem post for me to preview before he published it. I had a look and offered some clarifications in case he wanted to discuss these ideas more deeply. Just a couple days ago he published it. Seeing that the topic could be explored much more deeply, I then asked him if he was ok with me posting (a lightly edited version of) the email I sent him. He said, “of course”. Thus, you can find it below, which I recommend reading after you read his post in ACX.
Thank you for reaching out! And thank you for the conversation on Saturday. […] Please feel free to post your excerpt, but also I am sharing below information that you can use to edit it so that it is a more accurate portrayal of what we are up to (feel free to quote me below or quote any article or video we have online).
I’ll structure this email in the following way: (1) general clarifications about STV, (2) addressing your excerpt specifically, and (3) some of the meeting notes from our conversation in case you find it valuable to remember what we discussed (or what I can remember of it anyhow).
(1) General Clarifications
The first thing to mention is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) is really easy to strawman. It really is the case that there are many near enemies of STV that sound exactly like what a naïve researcher who is missing developmental stages (e.g. is a naïve realist about perception) would say. That we like pretty symmetrical shapes of course does not mean that symmetry is at the root of valence; that we enjoy symphonic music does not mean harmony is “inherently pleasant”; that we enjoy nice repeating patterns of tactile stimulation does not mean, well, you get the idea…
The truth of course is that at QRI we really are meta-contrarian intellectual hipsters (you know this link of course). So the weird and often dumb-sounding things we say are already taking into account the criticisms people in our people-cluster would make and are taking the conversation one step further. For instance, we think digital computers cannot be conscious, but this belief comes from entirely different arguments than those that justify such beliefs out there. We think that the “energy body” is real and important, except that we interpret it within a physicalist paradigm of dynamic systems. We take seriously the possible positive-sum game-theoretical implications of MDMA, but not out of a naïve “why can’t we all love each other?” impression, but rather, based on deep evolutionary arguments. And we take seriously non-standard views of identity, not because “we are all Krishna”, but because the common-sense view of identity turns out to, in retrospect, be based on illusion (cf. Parfit, Kolak, “The Future of Personal Identity“) and a true physicalist theory of consciousness (e.g. Pearce’s theory) has no room for enduring metaphysical egos. This is all to say that strawmanning the paradigms explored at QRI is easy; steelmanning them is what’s hard. I trust you can make a Titanium Man out of them! 🙂
Now, I am indeed happy to address any mischaracterization of STV. Sadly, to my knowledge very few people outside of QRI really “get it”, so I don’t think there is anyone other than us (and possibly you!) who can make a steelman of STV. My promise is that “there is something here” and that to “get it” is not merely to buy into the theory blindly, but rather, it is what happens when you give it enough benefit of the doubt, share a sufficient number of background assumptions, and have a wide enough experience base that it actually becomes a rather obvious “good fit” for all of the data available.
For a bit of history (and properly giving due credit), I should clarify that Michael Johnson is the one who came up with the hypothesis in Principia Qualia (for a brief history see: STV Primer). I started out very skeptical of STV myself, and in fact it took about three years of thinking it through in light of many meditation and high-energy/high-valence experiences to be viscerally convinced that it’s pointing in the right direction. I’m talking about a process of elimination where, for instance, I checked if what feels good is at the computational level of abstraction (such as prediction error minimization) or if it’s at the implementation level (i.e. dissonance). I then developed a number of technical paradigms for how to translate STV into something we could actually study in neuroscience and ultimately try out empirically with non-invasive neurotech (in our case, light-sound-vibration systems that produce multi-modally coherent high-valence states of consciousness). […]
For clarification, I should point out that what is brilliant (IMO) about Mike’s Principia Qualia is that he breaks down the problem of consciousness in such a way that it allows us to divide and conquer the hard problem of consciousness. Indeed, once broken down into his 8 subproblems, calling it the “hard problem of consciousness” sounds as bizarre as it would sound to us to hear about “the hard problem of matter”. We do claim that if we are able to solve each of these subproblems, that indeed the hard problem will dissolve. Not the way illusionists would have it (where the very concept of consciousness is problematic), but rather, in the way that electricity and lightning and magnets all turned out to be explained by just 4 simple equations of electromagnetism. Of course the further question of why do those equations exist and why consciousness follows such laws remains, but even that could IMO be fully explained with the appropriate paradigm (cf. Zero Ontology).
The main point to consider here w.r.t. STV is that symmetry is posited to be connected with valence at the implementation level of analysis. This squarely and clearly distinguishes STV from behaviorist accounts of valence (e.g. “behavioral reinforcement”) and also from algorithmic accounts (e.g. compression drive or prediction error minimization). Indeed, with STV you can have a brain (perhaps a damaged brain, or one in an exotic state of consciousness) where prediction errors are not in fact connected to valence. Rather, the brain evolved to recruit valence gradients in order to make better predictions. Similarly, STV predicts that what makes activation of the pleasure centers feel good is precisely that doing so gives rise to large-scale harmony in brain activity. This is exciting because it means the theory predicts we can actually observe a double dissociation: if we inhibit the pleasure centers while exogenously stimulating large-scale harmonic patterns we expect that to feel good, and we likewise expect that even if you activate the pleasure centers you will not feel good if something inhibits the large-scale harmony that would typically result. Same with prediction errors, behavior, etc.: we predict we can doubly-dissociate valence from those features if we conduct the right experiment. But we won’t be able to dissociate valence from symmetry in the formalism of consciousness.
Now, of course we currently can’t see consciousness directly, but we can infer a lot of invariants about it with different “projections”, and so far all are consistent with STV:
Of special note, I’d point you to one of the studies discussed in the 2020 STV talk: The Human Default Consciousness and Its Disruption: Insights From an EEG Study of Buddhist Jhāna Meditation. It shows a very tight correspondence between jhanas and various smoothly-repeating EEG patterns (including a seizure-like activity that unlike normal seizures (of typically bad valence) shows up as having a harmonic structure, but does not seem to have a direct conscious correlate – still worth mentioning in this context). Here we find a beautiful correspondence between (a) sense of peace/jhanic bliss, (b) phenomenological descriptions of simplicity and smoothness, (c) valence, and (d) actual neurophysiological data mirroring these phenomenological accounts. At QRI we have observed something quite similar studying the EEG patterns of other ultra-high-valence meditation states […]. I expect this pattern to hold for other exotic high-valence states in one way or another, ranging from quality of orgasm to exogenous opioids.
Phenomenologically speaking, STV is not only capable of describing and explaining why certain meditation or psychedelic states of consciousness feel good or bad, but in fact it can be used as a navigation aid! You can introspect on the ways energy does not flow smoothly, or how the presence of blockages and pinch points make it reflect in discordant ways, or zone in on areas of the “energy body” that are out of sync with one another and then specifically use attention in order to “comb the field of experience”. This approach – the purely secular climbing of the harmony gradient – leads all on its own to amazing high-valence states of consciousness (cf. Buddhist Annealing). I’ll probably make a video series with meditation instructions for people to actually experience this by themselves first hand. It doesn’t take very long, actually. Also, apparently STV as a paradigm can be used in order to experience more pleasant trajectories along the “Energy X Complexity landscape” of a DMT trip (something I even talked about at the SSC meetup online!). In a simple quip, I’d say “there are good and bad ways of vibing on DMT, and STV gives you the key to the realms of the good vibes” 🙂
Another angle: we can find subtle ways of dissociating valence from e.g. chemicals: if you take stimulants but don’t feel the nice buzz that provides a “working frame” for your mental activity, they will not feel good. At the same time, without stimulants you can get that pleasant productivity-enhancing buzz with the right tactile patterns of stimulation. Indeed this “buzz” that characterizes the effects of many euphoric drugs (and the quality of e.g. metta meditation) is precisely a valence effect, one that provides a metronome to self-organize around and which can feel bad when you don’t follow where it takes you. Literally, one of the core reasons why MDMA feels better than LSD, which feels better than DOB, is precisely because the “quality of the buzz” of each of these highs is different. MDMA’s buzz is beautiful and harmonious; DOB’s buzz is harsh and dissonant. More so, such a buzz can work as task-specific dissonance guide-rails, if you will. Meaning that when you do buzz-congruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner harmony, whereas when you do buzz-incongruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner turmoil. Hence what kind of buzz one experiences is deeply consequential! All of this falls rather nicely within STV – IMO other theories need to keep adding epicycles to keep up.
Hopefully this all worked as useful clarifications. Now let me address your excerpt more specifically:
(2) The Excerpt
The Dark Room Problem in neuroscience goes something like this: suppose the brain is minimizing prediction error, or free energy, or whatever. You can minimize lots of things by sitting quietly in a dark room. Everything will be very, very predictable. So how come people do other things?
The usual workaround is inbuilt biological drives, considered as “set points”. You “predict” that you will be well-fed, so getting hungry registers as prediction error and brings you out of your dark room to eat. Et cetera.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson recently shared a perspective I hadn’t considered before, which is: actually, sitting quietly in a dark room is really great.
Indeed usually the Dark Room causes massive prediction errors (since our model of the world is one where being in a Dark Room is truly not expected!). But these prediction errors feel bad because of the dissonance they induce in our experience (which you can get rid of with drugs or meditation!). If you make the Dark Room an “expected” thing, then eventually it will start feeling great. In fact, something like this happens when you meditate a lot in a dark room and settle in. Alternatively, taking 5-MeO-DMT for the first 10 times can be very disconcerting, as it takes you to “the ultimate void of reality”. It’s surprising and dissonant to “find out” that the void is the ultimate truth (I’m not saying that’s true, just that it feels that way in that state!). But once you’ve done it enough times that you know what to expect, you can in fact receive with two open arms the void of ultimate reality. You learn to expect it and not code it as a prediction error, and then you can deeply, deeply “align” to it, which results in unfathomably positive valence that discharges tons of stored internal stress, the very source of low-level dissonance before the trip (again, STV here fits the data rather nicely).
The Buddha discussed states of extreme bliss attainable through meditation:
> Secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion (Samyutta Nikaya)
I had always figured that “sensual pleasures” here meant things like sex. But I think maybe he just means stimuli, full stop. The meditator cuts themselves from all sensory stimuli, eg by meditating really hard on a single object like the breath and ignoring everything else, and as a result gets “rapture and happiness born of seclusion”.
The serious meditators I know say this is real, meaningful, and you can experience it after a few months of careful practice. You become really good at concentrating on one stimulus and ignoring all other stimuli, and eventually your brain kind of gets “in tune” with that stimulus and it’s really blissful. They say this seems to have something to do with the regularity or predictability of the stimulus; if you’re concentrating really hard on something, regularity/predictability/symmetry is just viscerally very good, better than anything you’ve felt before.
Something like regularity/predictability/symmetry is really good. So why doesn’t a metronome make you bliss out? Andrés says it’s because you can’t concentrate on it hard enough. It’s not engaging enough to occupy your whole brain / entire sensorium /whatever.
Exactly, this is true. The one twist I’ll add is that the regularity that matters is not, as I explained above, the regularity of the stimuli, but rather, the regularity of the inner state. In fact, I currently think that we can get a glimpse of the true shape of our consciousness precisely by studying how different meditation objects work better or worse for the purpose of meditative absorption! Indeed, more symmetrical objects are easier meditation objects (cf. QRI can steelman “sacred geometry”ꙮ). Likewise, the hallucinations one gets near or close to states of high-absorption are also reflections of our inner shape! (cf. Fire Kasina qualia).
Symphonies are beautiful, and we intuitively feel like it’s because they have some kind of deep regularity or complicated pattern. But they’re less regular/predictable/symmetrical than a metronome. Andrés thinks this is because they hit a sweet spot: regular/symmetrical/predictable enough to be beautiful, but complex/unpredictable enough to draw and hold our attention. Compare to eg games, which are most fun when they’re hard enough to be challenging but easy enough to be winnable.
Indeed! We need unpredictability in order to disable the boredom mechanism, which prevents us from fully absorbing into patterns (or rather, prevents our experience from shaping itself in a way that perfectly predicts the stimuli – in a way when you reach absorption with a stimuli, you are in fact becoming its “complement” – a shape that can predict it perfectly). An important twist is that prediction errors give rise to energy spikes, and high-energy states of consciousness can give rise to pleasant resonance (think about the bodily euphoria that comes from eating spicy enough hot peppers). Plus, cooling down from high-energy states can lead to euphoric neural annealing (as explained here). In all cases, however, the thing that is the most closely related to valence is the regularity/smoothness of the internal (instantaneous) state, even though there might be other complex dynamics guiding the state from one configuration to another.
But this sweet spot is the fault of your own inattentiveness. If you could really concentrate on the metronome, it would be even more blissful than the symphony. Emilsson says he’s achieved these levels of concentration and can confirm. I talked to another meditator who agrees metronomes can be pretty blissful with the right amount of (superhuman) focus, although – as per the Buddha quote above – total silence is best of all.
Agreed! An interesting note is that the first time this happened to me, it was not in meditation, but during a sleep paralysis! See: Dream Music where I discuss how a simple tone can sound amazing if you are in the right reverb-filled state of mind. See also: people with anhedonia often report feeling “back to normal” in dreams, and IMO that’s precisely because the neuroacoustic profile of dreams can be very reverb-filled and thus have significant valence effects (see below).
I find this to be an elegant explanation of what the heck is going on with jhanas, more convincing than my previous theory. It’s also a strong contender as a theory of beauty – a little different in emphasis from Schmidhuber’s theory, but eventually arriving at the same place: beauty is that which is compressible but has not already been compressed.
A brief comment here: your “going loopy” theory foreshadows our tracer tool and psychedelic cryptography, where psychedelics seem to activate a “delay overlay” of recent experiences on top of the current one. DMT gives rise to ~30hz loops, LSD to around ~18hz loops, and 2C-B closer to ~10hz loops. We hypothesize that there are a discrete number of serotonin-mediated metronomes that precisely modulate the degree to which experience is fed back to itself with a specific delay. Antidepressants may flatten affect by disrupting these loops, and thus eliminating sources of symmetry for the inner state. People describe the sense of “missing an echo”; quite literally having a more “flat” experience as a result!
Enhanced neuroacoustics (as with psychedelics) generally increase the range of valence because more loopy experiences are more intense and also more capable of pure dissonance or pure consonance. Dissociatives (nmda antagonism more generally) seem to instead do a low-frequency looping (around 8hz) together with a generalized reverb effect. Much as in music, adding reverb to almost literally anything makes it sound less harsh (like the baby crying vs. baby crying + reverb sounds I referenced in the presentation). And also much as in music, *compounding* delay and reverb effects gives rise to synergistic outcomes, often with crazy standing wave attractors (e.g. exactly what you see on LSD + nitrous or LSD + ketamine).
Importantly, STV is *not* a theory that lives at the computational or algorithmic level of analysis, which is unlike Schmidhuber’s theory. If I recall correctly, Schmidhuber’s theory doesn’t even care about phenomenal valence or consciousness. And it has no mechanism of binding or any sense of how the “reward” is implemented or who or what receives such reward. Its flavor is functionalist and concludes that beauty is to be found in the act of compression. But STV instead says that compression is merely correlated with valence: our brains are set up in such a way that making excellent compressions reduces dissonance! This is because there is (a) an inherent dissonance cost to complexity, and (b) there is a dissonance cost to prediction errors. But again, take the right drug, and all of a sudden you can experience high-valence while making tons of prediction errors or having models that are much more complex than the sensory data would suggest is necessary.
In particular, what makes good compressions feel good beyond reducing prediction errors is that they select for internal states that have simple sets of symmetries as the best generators which anticipate the stimuli. This is highly related to the concept of Harmonic Entropy (i.e. the entropy of the inner state, not of the stimuli). And here is where we find a stark and amazing difference between STV and compression drive: we in fact expect there to be a sort of “minimal construction” path where you get specific “complexity scores” for phenomenal objects based on the number of operations of the sort the brain can do that are needed to construct such phenomenal objects. The brain needs to explicitly render phenomenal objects, rather than merely encode them. So there is a harmonic entropy associated with each experience, which more-or-less correlates with Kolmogorov complexity but is different in that it uses resonance as the building block rather than arbitrary operations. We also predict that the valence associated with specific patterns of stimulation will be best correlated with a sort of “perceptual harmonic entropy” than with complexity in general: how well you can compress an input depends on what building blocks you have to reconstruct it. In the case of the brain, the building blocks seem to be patterns of resonance. So even if something is “highly compressible” but cannot be compressed with resonance (e.g. the prime numbers), you will not experience it as beautiful or “easy on the eye”.
Importantly, free energy minimization is a computational level analysis and we would say at QRI that it therefore is mistaken on “where to look”. Consequence: compressing information feels good *because* it often (but not always) reduces dissonance. But if your brain is set up in the wrong way, minimizing dissonance may not lead to good compressions, or doing good compressions may not in fact feel good. But reducing dissonance will always feel better, and having high-energy high-harmony patterns internally will always feel good. What this does at the algorithmic and computational level is tricky, but it generally implies that we can see “artifacts” of our resonance-based compression system all over the place when in exotic states of consciousness, which is what we observe (and at the end of the day this may explain why psychedelic fractals and Indra’s Net type experiences are so hedonically loaded! See: psychedelics and the free energy principle).
To sum it up: STV claims that what matters is the regularity of the conscious experience and not of the stimuli – the stimuli is only in a certain sense a “projection” of the inner state, but it can deviate from it in many ways. Prediction errors feel bad because our brain is set up in such a way that they cause dissonance. And compressions only feel good to the extent that they avoid prediction errors *and* minimize the internal dissonance cost of the internal representations used for prediction. In other words, STV explains the other theories, but not the other way around.
(3) Meeting notes, in case you find them useful…
You asked if I knew whether taking a lot of 5-MeO-DMT is compatible with sanity for most people: the answer is probably not. That said, we do know of some notable exceptions of very smart and sane individuals who have experimented heavily with the drug with no obvious cost to their sanity (e.g. see conversation with Ingram, Yang, McMullen, and Taft which touches upon the effects of daily use of 5-MeO-DMT).
I brought up anti-tolerance drugs, of which black seed oil is promising (but a low-tier player). Most promising of all are ibogaine and proglumide. Opioids + anti-tolerance drugs are IMO the most promising long-term therapy for severe chronic pain.
Information is in the coupling between harmonics; de-couple them and you can experience the “zero state” while still being awake.
Meaning of the QRI logo (i.e. having a clear view of the entire state-space of consciousness; bridging quality/color and quantity/lines as a symbol for qualia formalism).
You asked “can you tell me what are brainwaves in simple terms a child could understand?” (I answered with “they are the signature of resonance in the holistic field behavior of experience” and immediately realized I had miserably failed to “explain in simple terms”).
“Would listening to a pure tone be blissful?” Yes, you can absorb yourself into it. Second half of an orchestral song repeated could be better if it allows you to go deeper into absorption. Touched upon: Boredom mechanism. Harmonic entropy. Controlling for energy.
3D harmonics, STV presentation, symmetry of the mathematical object is what truly matters.
Ok, that was rather long; I hope that you found it useful and clarifying! Please feel free to ask any questions and I promise I won’t send you another equally long email 🙂 Again, feel free to write about any and all of this.