Excerpt from The Science of Enlightenment (2005) by Shinzen Young (p. xv-xvii)
It took me quite a while to get to the point of publishing this book — many years actually. That may seem like a strange statement. How can someone not get the point of publishing something they themselves wrote? Let me explain.
A central notion of Buddhism is that there’s not a thing inside us called a self. One way to express that is to say that we are a colony of sub-personalities and each of those sub-personalities is in fact not a noun but a verb–a doing.
One of my doings is Shinzen the researcher. Shinzen the researcher is on a mission to “take the mist out of mysticism.” Contrary to what is often claimed, he believes that mystical experience can be described with the same rigor, precision, and quantified language that one would find in a successful scientific theory. In his opinion, formulating a clear description of mystical experience is a required prenuptial for the Marriage of the Millennium: the union of quantified science and contemplative spirituality. He hopes that eventually this odd couple will exuberantly make love, spawning a generation of offspring that precipitously improves the human condition.
Shinzen the researcher also believes that many meditation masters, current and past, have formulated their teachings with “less than full rigor” by making unwarranted, sweeping philosophical claims about the nature of objective reality based on their subjective experiences—claims that tend to offend scientists and, hence, impede the science-spiritually courtship.
Shinzen the researcher has a natural voice. It’s the style you would find in a graduate text on mathematics: definition, lemma, theorem, example, corollary, postulate, theorem. Here’s a sample of that voice:
It may be possible to model certain global patterns of brain physiology in ways that feel familiar to any trained scientist, i.e., equations in differential operators on scalar, vector, or tensor fields whose dependent variables can be quantified in terms of SI units and whose independent variables are time and space (where space equals ordinary space or some more esoteric differential manifold). It is perhaps even possible to derive those equations from first principles the way Navier-Stokes is derived from Cauchy continuity. In such fields, distinctive “flow regimes” are typically associated with relations on the parameters of the equations, i.e., F(Pj) → Q, where Q is qualitative change in field behavior. By qualitative change in field behavior, I mean things like the appearance of solitons or the disappearance of turbulence, etc. Through inverse methods, it may be possible to establish a correspondence between the presence of a certain parameter relation in the equations modeling a field in a brain and the presence of classical enlightenment in the owner of that brain. This would provide a way to physically quantify and mathematically describe (or perhaps even explain) various dimensions of spiritual enlightenment in a way that any trained scientist would feel comfortable with.
That’s not the voice you’ll be hearing in this book. This book is a record of a different Shinzen, Shinzen the dharma teacher, as he talks to students engaged in meditation practice. Shinzen the dharma teacher has no resistance at all to speaking with less than full rigor. He’s quite comfortable with words like God, Source, Spirit, or phrases like “the nature of nature.” In fact, his natural voice loves spouting the kind of stuff that makes scientists wince. Here’s an example of that voice:
The same cosmic forces that mold galaxies, stars, and atoms also mold each moment of self and world. The inner self and the outer scene are born in the cleft between expansion and contraction. By giving yourself to those forces, you become those forces, and through that, you experience a kind of immortality–you live in the breath and pulse of every animal, in the polarization of electrons and protons, in the interplay of the thermal expansion and self-gravity that molds stars, in the interplay of dark matter that holds galaxies together and dark energy that stretches space apart. Don’t be afraid to let expansion and contraction tear you apart, scattering you in many directions while ripping away the solid ground beneath you. Behind that seeming disorder is an ordering principle so primordial that it can never be disordered: father-God effortlessly expands while mother-God effortlessly contracts. The ultimate act of faith is to give yourself back to those forces, give yourself back to the Source of the world, and through that, become the kind of person who can optimally contribute to the Mending of the world.
Shinzen the hard-nosed researcher and Shinzen the poetic dharma teacher get along just fine. After all, they’re both just waves. Particles may bang together. Waves automatically integrate. Just one problem though. The researcher is a fussy perfectionist. He is very resistant to the notion of publishing anything that lacks full rigor. Spoken words return to silence from where they came from. Printed text sits around for centuries waiting for every tiny imprecision and incompleteness to be exposed.
So it took a while for me to see value in allowing my talks to be published in something close to their original spoken form.
This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing“. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.
I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.
(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.
(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. In contrast, annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noiseas well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.
Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious“, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂
~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~
(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)
Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing: Is Annealing the Key Condition for Successful Psychedelic Psychotherapy?
Abstract of the Talk:
Mystical-type experiences mediate the therapeutic benefit of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (Griffiths, 2016; Ross, 2016; Yaden, 2020). In this talk we will explore why this may be the case and how we might improve this effect. On the one hand we can interpret the effect of mystical-type experiences through the lens of belief and attitude change (Carhart-Harris and K. J. Friston, 2019). But beliefs that are not deeply felt are unlikely to have much of an effect. Why would mystical-type experiences in particular cause deeply felt belief changes? On the other hand, one can interpret the effect of these experiences to be healing at a low-level: they allow the reconfiguration of the microstructure of our experience in beneficial ways. The first lens suggests that these experiences change what we believe and think about, whereas the second lens suggests that the experiences change how we feel. In this talk we will unify these two lenses and argue that neural annealing (Johnson, 2019) underlies high-level changes in beliefs and attitudes as well as low-level microstructural healing of internal representations. This paradigm ties together the puzzling effects of mystical-type experiences by interpreting them as uniquely strong versions of neural annealing. We suggest that traumatic memories are indeed implemented with low-level microstructural dissonance in the internal representations (Gomez-Emilsson, 2017). Not only are they about something bad, they also feel bad. In turn, neural annealing targeted towards these internal representations can heal and transform them from dissonance-producing to consonance-producing. More so, neural annealing also enhances the information propagation fidelity of the nervous system, allowing the healed representations to update the state of the rest of the nervous system. This insight, along with careful study of annealing dynamics under psychedelics, can allow us to target the annealing process in order to heal these internal representations more effectively. We conclude with empirical predictions for what to look for in order to identify the signatures of successful neural annealing under psychedelics and suggest methods to piggyback on the natural well-trodden paths of beneficial annealing (e.g. meditation, yoga, music, creativity) to optimize such experiences.
Why This Is Important
There are two main reasons I think sharing this work as soon as possible with the world is very beneficial. The first is that it genuinely advances a new model for how to optimize psychedelic therapy. In particular, I think that being aware of this model can be very useful for people who intend to self-medicate with psychedelics. Although there is a vast literature for psychedelic psychotherapy, it is largely laced with metaphysical views, implicit background philosophical assumptions incompatible with science, and in my view, questionable ethics.
The second point is that this model can be used as an antidote to psychedelic brainwashing. If a friend of yours has been taking a lot of psychedelics (with or without a shaman) and now has a web of unfalsifiable beliefs that do not seem to help them, this presentation might work to help them understand what is going on in their mind. Additionally, once you understand how psychedelic annealing works, you can anticipate irrational belief changes based on the texture of the experience and proactively prevent them. Indeed, being showered with bliss consciousness by a DMT entity might be healing to your nervous system, but alas, it also anneals in you a conviction in the independent existence of such entities. With this presentation, the hope is that you can keep the healing while discarding the irrational beliefs (because you will now be able to see how they are implemented!). If we want to indeed create a truth-seeking psychonaut shanga (aka. a Super-Shulgin Academy) we *have to* have an adequate model of how exotic states of consciousness modify one’s belief networks. The penalty of not modeling this accurately leads to the loss of one’s critical faculties. I have seen it happen (see Appendix A & B), and I am not impressed. We can do better.
Model (1) has the problem that the researchers themselves are not exposed to the exotic states of consciousness, and as such, what they write and theorize about comes from second-hand accounts. More so, the bulk of the direct phenomenological information the participants gain access to is generally discarded as it goes through the low-dimensional information filters of standardized questionnaires. There is no real buildup of phenomenological information or an effort to integrate it across participants (participants don’t generally talk to each other). The model does excel at generating copious high-quality neuroimaging data.
Model (2) suffers from the problem that the idiosyncratic beliefs of the psychonaut tend to “anneal more deeply” (see the next slide for a more through description of this) with each trip. Unless they were to focus on the phenomenal character of the experience rather than the intentional content, what tends to happen is that specific high-level beliefs become energy sinks and they dominate the exploration. Recall how DMT’s world-sheet “crystallizes” around objects and ideas you can recognize. Thus, as you take psychedelics over and over, the realms of experience one goes to will tend to follow recurring themes along the lines of what the most successful energy sinks from previous experiences have been. The explorer usually does not develop technical models of the phenomenological effects, but rather, tends to focus on the metaphysical or philosophical implications of the experiences.
Model (3) is like that of a think tank. Ever since writing articles like How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD, we have received a lot of correspondence from pretty smart people who enjoy exploring exotic states of consciousness. The multi-year dialogue between us and them and each other has resulted in a lot of generative model building for which we can then get feedback. Grounded in common background philosophical assumptions and a drive towards phenomenological accuracy, the type of output of this model tends to look much more like The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences than either a neuroscience paper (model 1) or a book about the Earth Coincidence Control Office (model 2).
Which of these information-processing architectures would you use if you were trying to figure out the truth of how psychedelics work? If they were diagrams for a neural network architecture, which one do you think would model and integrate information most effectively? Ultimately, we should think of these models as complementary. But since model 3 is novel and largely unexplored, it might be sensible to pay attention to what it outputs.
(H/T Quintin Frerichs for this slide)
This slides illustrates the sort of topics and problems that a “Good Annealing Manual” would need to cover. As an integrated “energy management” strategy, such a manual would describe how to raise energy, how to dampen it, how to translate it from one domain into another, how to stabilize a state, how to get knocked out of an unhelpful limit cycle, and so on.
One of the interesting ideas of Steven Lehar is applying the duality between standing wave patterns and resonant modes of objects to the brain. 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.
A good algorithmic theory of cognition will collect, unify, and simplify a lot of things that look like odd psychological quirks, and recast them as deeply intertwined with, and naturally arising out of, how our brains process information. I’m optimistic that Symmetry Theory will be able to do just this- e.g.,
* Cognitive dissonance happens when two (or more) patterns in your head are battling for your neural real estate, and they’re incompatible– i.e., they’re collectively dissonant/asymmetrical.
* Denial is what happens when your brain attempts to isolate/quarantine such patterns, and is actively working to prevent this tug-of-war for neurons.
This model implies that your brain can evaluate the “internal consistency/harmony” of a neural pattern, and reject it if there’s a negative result- and also the “simulated relative compatibility/harmony” of two neural patterns, and try to keep them isolated if there’s a negative result. I’d suggest the best way to understand this is in terms of projective geometry, resonance, and symmetry: i.e., to evaluate a pattern’s “internal harmony” and whether it ‘runs well (is stable) on existing hardware’, the brain uses principles of resonance to apply certain geometric projections (high-dimensional-to-lower-dimensional transformations) to the pattern to see if the result is stable (unchanged, or predictably oscillating, or still strongly resonant) under these transforms. Stable patterns are allocated territory; unstable ones (=dangerous neural code) are not. The internal mechanics of this will vary across brain areas (based on the specific resonance profile of each area) and emotional states, which might contribute to how certain types of information tend to end up in certain brain regions. Likewise, this could explain how moods coordinate information processing– by changing the resonance landscape in the brain, thus preferentially selecting for certain classes of patterns over others. A core implication of this model is that different kinds of dissonance will drive different kinds of behavior (feel like different kinds of imperatives), and based on what action is needed, a mood may create (or be the creation of) a certain kind of dissonance.
Now applying annealing to the above, we hypothesize that: (1) On the one hand, at the implementation level neural annealing works as a method to reduce dissonance by escaping local minima. (2) On the other hand, at the computational level simulated annealing can be used as a method to reduce prediction errors (cf. message passing and belief propagation). We hypothesize that there is a kind of duality between these two levels of abstraction. We are very interested in cleanly formalizing it so it can be empirically tested. But the facts seem to suggest that there is something here. What this duality says is that for any transformation that you do to the resonance network there will be a corresponding effect on the belief network and vice versa. For example, in this light, you will always find that denial or cognitive dissonance will come along with the phenomenology of “resistance” in one of its many guises (such as muscle tension, feelings of viscosity, or hardness). If you can address the muscle tension directly with progressive relaxation (or yoga, massage, etc.) you will also be implicitly addressing the integration of information into your world-model. At the same time, you may use specific beliefs in order to relax specific muscles, and some aspects of meditation may involve doing this to an extent (e.g. “now is all there is” and “the self is illusory” are beliefs that would seem to result in particular patterns of mental and physical relaxation).
We might succinctly explain how a resonance network trying to minimize dissonance could implement the free energy principle. Namely, we could maximize “accuracy – complexity” in the following way: If complex models require complex networks of resonance to be implemented, then there might be an inherent dissonance cost to complexity. More symmetrical configurations lower this cost, which makes more compact and coherent models preferable. At the same time, to take care of the accuracy, prediction errors themselves might be implemented with dissonance (e.g. via out-of-phase communication between layers of the hierarchy). Together, these two effects favor both accurate and simple models.
An interesting contrast that illustrates this duality between the computational and implementational level of abstraction is that between the effects of DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Particularly, DMT seems to give rise to the chaotic generation of information and this can be seen in something as simple as the style of the tracer effects it induces (richly-colored flip-flopping between positive and negative afterimages). 5-MeO-DMT’s tracer effects are generally monochromatic and the same color as that of the input. (See: Modeling Psychedelic Tracers with QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit: The Tracer Replication Tool).
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.
On peak experiences such as those induced by 5-MeO-DMT, global coherence will generally have the effect of dissolving internal boundaries. In turn, due to the duality proposed, belief updating in the direction of extreme simplicity is very difficult to resist. Global annealing without sensorial chaos results in the minimization of model complexity; high accuracy is taken care of thanks to the low information content of the state. As a consequence, one experiences very high-valence, high-energy, high-symmetry states of consciousness that come along with belief updating towards ideas with close to zero information content.
The high-valence nature of the state can be very useful to heal dissonance in the network, so therapeutic benefits seem very promising (notwithstanding the somewhat forced belief updates the state induces).
Unfortunately a nearby attractor of the globally coherent states is when there are two incompatible coherent states competing with one another. This can result in extremely negative valence and belief updating in the direction of “everything being bad”.
We now see how the typical belief changes caused by these two drugs have a dual counterpart in how they feel. I am of the opinion that a commitment towards truth and careful attention to one’s state of mind can prevent (or at least substantially lessen) the epistemological failure modes of these drugs. But since this kind of model is not known by the general population, for most people these drugs do tend to act as “epistemological hand grenades”.
See Appendix A & B at the bottom of this article for examples of each of these failure modes.
Now on to the therapeutic applications: practicing loving-kindness meditation consistently for weeks before a trip seems to substantially change its phenomenal character. It feels that metta practice over time anneals a consonant metronome which can become massively amplified during a psychedelic experience. In turn, a brightly shinning metta metronome emits “healing waves of energy” within one’s world-simulation (I know how crazy this sounds!), which impact the contents of one’s subconscious in ways that reduces their internal dissonance.
Similar benefits can be obtained from other meditation practices, as long as their emphasis is on high-valence and coherent states of mind. See also: Buddhist Annealing (video).
Importantly, you can “work smart” if you manage to use the seeds of consonance as the nucleation sources for alignment cascades. This can heal at a very deep level, and it is what people are talking about when they say things like “all is love”.
A secular Good Annealing Manual would ideally have very detailed information for how to move around in the state-space of consciousness.
Apparently, equanimity is also highly beneficial during psychedelic experiences. But rather than merely repeating the mantras that everyone in the psychedelic community chants (“just let go”, “surrender”, “accept”), we can use a More Dakka approach and aim to maximize equanimity rather than merely invoking it. Taking psilocybin during a meditation retreat in which you do a lot of equanimity exercises will allow you to “let go” with much greater skill than what you could do in normal everyday life. As a result, one is able to “learn one’s lessons” with much greater ease and a lot less resistance. This, I think, is generally good. After all, the point is not to punish oneself, but to learn from one’s mistakes.
In turn, Shinzen Young says that experiencing pleasure with equanimity is very healing. By not grasping, one is letting the consonant waves propagate freely throughout one’s nervous system, which results in positive annealing. So a possible therapeutic modality might be to combine peak states together with high levels of equanimity. If we want to bump the therapeutic effect sizes of psychedelic psychotherapy, this is the sort of thing I consider to be very promising.
I conclude by providing some annealing targets that are generically good for one’s mental health. Practice them consistently before a psychedelic experience so that they can be the nucleation points of sane and hedonically beneficial psychedelic annealing. Being bathed by love is good. Being bathed by love and equanimity at the same time is even better. Being bathed by love and all Seven Factors of Awakening at the same time might be still even better. The ceiling of wholesome happiness is not currently known by science. It is probably much higher than we can imagine.
If you found this talk inspiring, generative, or clarifying for your own work, please cite it! If you want to see more work like this and help us transform the alchemy of consciousness into a chemistry of the mind, please consider donating to QRI. Every dollar takes us closer to being able to empirically test these models and use them to develop technology to alleviate suffering in bulk.
Appendix A: What Happens When You Take Too Much DMT – What Does Overfitting Look Like?
A case study of a psychiatrist case who self-medicated his depression with a regiment of 1g of DMT (along with MAOIs) and 4mg of clonazepam a day:
“On arrival, the patient was nonverbal, combative, and required six security guards to restrain him. When less restrictive measures failed, he was given propofol 1,000 mg IV, ketamine 500 mg IM, midazolam 5 mg IV, diazepam 20 mg IV, and fentanyl 4 mg IV with minimal effect.”
“Psychiatry was consulted after the patient’s delirium resolved and he was medically stabilized as he exhibited symptoms of mania and psychosis. He was pressured in his speech, hyperreligious, and delusional. He believed that demons were leeching into his soul and asked the medical staff for an exorcism. It was recommended that the patient be admitted to the behavioral health unit for mood stabilization.”
“He has been smoking it every day and night for the past 3 months that I know of. He sees these little beings everywhere and says they are trying to destroy his house pushing it over. He also says they spray mace and fairy dust and little balls in his face and other peoples too. He doesn’t believe that nobody else sees this happening, he says we have all been compromised and can’t be trusted. I’m worried about him and also his girlfriend that has to deal with him and he’s delusional. His daughter is scared to come home, his parents want to have him committed, and he doesn’t believe it has anything to do with dmt! He absolutely believes it is real.”
“He is always under the influence of DMT, he smokes it all day every day. He says it no longer makes him hallucinate like when he first tried it, now it just takes away pain . NOT TRUE!! it’s like now he believes that this altered state of mind is reality and he’s losing everything. He is even destroying his own house to get them out from behind the walls.the other night he stood up and started stabbing his ceiling saying he was going to get them. It’s very disturbing to see him like this.”
“He’s doing about the same. Last time I went to see him he was showing me how the moon was following him into his back yard and then back to the front yard . He also sees a bunch of drones in the sky that I can’t see. He still doesn’t believe that we can’t see the walls and countertops moving, or feel the fairy dust being sprayed in our faces.”
“It all culminated in one long, elaborate, and highly dramatic visionary experience in which I was essentially ‘recruited,’ initiated in some grand ceremony alongside a large group of others presumably in my same situation (which may have just been “actors” ). It was all part of some kind of vast organization, which could best be described as ‘universal consciousness transcendental cosmic hippie space religion.’ [Read Lehar’s warning against believing what the DMT entities tell you]. It all had a very attractive but vaguely cult-like Scientology kind of feel to it. They even had their own music (which was actually pretty cool; see my comments on “the director” in part 4 for more details), propaganda, regular meetings and rituals, the whole works. They even seemed to revere a deity of some sort, their version of The Source (more detail on that in part 5), but this whole experience was so full of illusion and misdirection that I have no idea what their ‘deity’ really was, nor their true relation to it.”
“I’ve gone on way to long already and need to start wrapping things up here, but long story short, in light of their new demands of allegiance, and through a separate series of bizarre synchronicities in ‘real life’ (what that means to me now, I have no idea) that I still can’t quite explain, I began to have some serious doubts and questions that needed answers. As I reflected on all that they had taught me, I began to realize that there were some major gaps in my knowledge, and that I had unwittingly filled in a lot of the blanks with my own speculation while assuming the picture I was being given was much more complete than it actually was. To summarize, over a series of increasingly confrontational and unpleasant experiences, I became less and less satisfied with their vague and evasive answers to my direct (and I think perfectly reasonable) questions, and we had something of a falling out, to put it very mildly. They eventually dropped all pretenses and flat-out turned on me, beginning a long period of harsh punishment.”
“The results weren’t pretty. Their facade began to crumble as I saw through more and more of what I now recognized as deceptive illusions. What truly lay behind it was hideous, repulsive, monstrously evil, relentlessly manipulative, filled with petty malicious intent, and not nearly as righteous, enlightened, or omnipotent as they pretended to be. I’m actually still pretty uncomfortable with going into detail regarding what followed, but suffice it to say that I’ve basically been to hell and back. They did everything they could to ‘punish’ me, and some of the things they came up with were uniquely and creatively traumatic. If they had put half as much effort and sophistication into ‘teaching’ me as they did into attacking and tormenting me, I probably would still be happily and obliviously under their control today, a fresh new convert of their admittedly impressive sci-fi space religion.”
“It took all the willpower I had just to stay focused and not become a completely broken wreck through all of this. Most of the ‘abilities’ I had acquired under their guidance gradually faded away over the course of a few weeks, with the exception of a number of lucid dream skills that I had picked up along the way. As I began to approach something resembling recovery, all kinds of memories and perspective started coming back to me that I had lost along the way (which may have been intentionally withheld from me). I felt like a toxic fog had been lifted from me, and everything looked so different now. I looked back on the last couple years of my life, especially the preceding four months or so, and was shocked to find that it wasn’t what I thought it was.”
“I had seen some mind-blowingly incredible things and progressed in so many ways in what I thought represented cognitive and spiritual development, but the consequences were now apparent. Without realizing it, my personality had changed so much, and not for the better. I had alienated myself from many of my close friends, my romantic relationship had suffered, I had been much more depressed than I wanted to admit, and I had spent way too much of my free time alone and in the dark, becoming obsessed with progressively darker and weirder esoteric knowledge. I had been able to maintain a token amount of social interaction, just enough to convince myself I was still ‘normal,’ but it frequently left me feeling drained, and bored with the mere ‘meat puppets’ in this material plane who were but a pale reflection of what existed beyond it.”
Appendix B: What Happens When You Take Too Much 5-MeO-DMT – What Does Underfitting Look Like?
Martin Ball: Another advocate of 5-MeO-DMT who claims that the highest truth is that we are all God, and that all of the hallucinatory content of DMT is egoic distraction from this truth (see what he thinks of Terence Mckenna). He, like many in this cluster, seems to believe that the only truth worth knowing about is oneness and that this can only be known directly, at first with 5-MeO-DMT, and then through a process of integration of the experiences into one’s everyday life. Here is an interview he did with Adeptus Psychonautica. Also, here is Leo talking to Martin (do you count one or two persons in that video?).
Insofar as non-duality is used as a mood-enhancer, it seems to be unreliable. Oneness can lead to bad trips of loneliness, a fact that tends to be brushed off by its advocates. My assessment is that this effect is the result of negative valence rather than an inherent effect of the concept (or truth?) of oneness. Shaman Oak‘s Bad LSD Experience – NIRVANA SUCKS video is a rather typical version of this effect and it highlights its true underlying cause: since he took the LSD during a comedown from cocaine, his entire trip was colored by the negative valence of that state. The world “felt inherently lonely” because it had depression qualia all over it. Amplified and magnified through the kaleidoscopic funhouse of LSD’s annealing dynamics, such a feeling of loneliness can look universal and omniprevalent “no matter how you look at it”. But if you were to replace that feeling with something blissful, then the concept of oneness would be experienced as wonderful and enlightening. It is always important to remember the Tyranny of the Intentional Object: ideas and beliefs seem to us as having inherent goodness or badness, but how this is implemented under the surface relies on hedonic tone/valence “painting” those ideas. As David Pearce likes to say, “take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself”.
Counterexamples: We do know a number of people who have used these compounds extensively and who do not seem to exhibit noticeable underfitting or overfitting. In particular, we have interviewed someone who took 5-MeO-DMT in high doses everyday for six months and who does not seem to suffer from any serious epistemological issues (they contacted me because they had read my analysis of Gura’s month-long experiment and wanted to share their even more extreme experience). The same person has extensive experience (including daily use for months) with DMT, Salvia, DPT and their combinations. They can still hold a technically demanding job and sustain a family despite this. Needless to say, such a level of psychological robustness is exceedingly rare.
Appendix C: The Abstract of the Other Talks
DMTX as a 21st Century Mystery School
A talk by Carl Hayden Smith
This talk will focus on the prospects of being one of the first participants in the world to try DMTX (X=Extended) at Imperial College London (ICL). After being part of the DMT phase 1 and phase 2 trials (over the last 5 years) this research now moves into a whole new level of immersion. During this experiment the peak of the DMT state will be extended thanks to a continuous intravenous drip feeding of the entheogen. This arguably turns this ancient medicine into a new form of technology. Early findings of the research from Chris Timmerman (ICL) suggests that nnDMT produces the same brain signature as the dreaming state. During the extended state we may be better able to explore the hypothesis from Andrew Gallimore that nnDMT actually opens up an entirely novel, orthogonal reality.
The DMTX experiment potentially means that nnDMT could become the base layer of our subjective reality, being combined, exponentially, with everything in life. What are the implications of this? Is there a danger that the psychedelic state is being overly romanticised and that DMTX could be regarded as a new form of bio chemical VR? How will DMTX help with the integration problem? Maybe the problem of bringing our insight back from the liminal space isn’t that these experiences defy verbalization, but that our languages are not yet sufficient enough to describe these experiences.
Increased cortical signal diversity during psychedelic states and visually realistic neural network models of hallucinations
A talk by Michael Schartner
Global states of consciousness – such as general anaesthesia or REM sleep – can be characterised by metrics of signal diversity, showing that diverse cortical activity is a hallmark of consciousness. We found that signal diversity is elevated in classical psychedelic states, possibly explained by a larger repertoire of brain states – which would be in line with reports about openness, novel associations and levelled salience of all experiences during psychedelic states. This coarse description of the brain as a dynamical system with various degrees of diversity in activity is only one dimension to characterise such global states of consciousness. Neural network models of visual perception and its pharmacological perturbation may provide a more mechanistic model, showing how the balanced integration of prior and sensory information into conscious perception is regulated by serotonin.
Note: I am still open to e.g. the external reality of DMT beings. I find it unlikely, but evidence could convince me otherwise. We are not dogmatic about the models we present. Rather, they simply are the current “best fit” for the available evidence in conjunction with parsimony considerations (yes, we could even say that this model is what minimizes our free energy!). Cheers!
Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M. et al. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Sci Rep7, 17661. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0
Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2018). The entropic brain -revisited. Neuropharmacology142, 167–178. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2018.03.010.
Carhart-Harris, R. L., and Friston, K. J. (2019). REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics. Pharmacol. Rev.71, 316–344. doi:10.1124/pr.118.017160.
Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Carducci, M. A., Umbricht, A., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., Cosimano, M. P., and Klinedinst, M. A. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 30(12), 1181–1197. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675513
Lehar, S. (1999). Harmonic Resonance Theory: An Alternative to the “Neuron Doctrine” Paradigm of Neurocomputation to Address Gestalt properties of perception. http://slehar.com/wwwRel/webstuff/hr1/hr1.html [Accessed April 30, 2021].
Luppi, A. I., Vohryzek, J., Kringelbach, M. L., Mediano, P. A. M., Craig, M. M., Adapa, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Pappas, I., Finoia, P., Williams, G. B., Allanson, J., Pickard, J. D., Menon, D. K., Atasoy, S., & Stamatakis, E. A. (2020). Connectome Harmonic Decomposition of Human Brain Dynamics Reveals a Landscape of Consciousness [Preprint]. Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.08.10.244459
Ross, S., Bossis, A., Guss, J., Agin-Liebes, G., Malone, T., Cohen, B., Mennenga, S. E., Belser, A., Kalliontzi, K., Babb, J., Su, Z., Corby, P., & Schmidt, B. L. (2016). Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 30(12), 1165–1180. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675512
Safron, A. (2020). “Strengthened Beliefs Under Psychedelics (SEBUS)? A Commentary on “REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics”” PsyArXiv. November 30. doi:10.31234/osf.io/zqh4b.
Yaden, D., and Griffiths, R. R. (2020) The Subjective Effects of Psychedelics Are Necessary for Their Enduring Therapeutic Effects. CS Pharmacol. Transl. Sci. 2021, 4, 2, 568–572 https://doi.org/10.1021/acsptsci.0c00194
Befriending Utility Monsters: Being the Adult in the Room When Talking About the Hedonic Extremes (link)
In this episode I connect a broad variety of topics with the following common thread: “What does it mean to be the adult in the room when dealing with extremely valenced states of consciousness?” Essentially, a talk on Utility Monsters.
Concretely, what does it mean to be responsible and sensible when confronted with the fact that pain and pleasure follow a long tail distribution? When discussing ultra-painful or ultra-blissful experiences one needs to take off the glasses we use to reason about “room temperature consciousness” and put on glasses that actually take these states with the seriousness they deserve.
Topics discussed include: The partial 5HT3 antagonism of ginger juice, kidney stones from vitamin C supplementation, 2C-E nausea, phenibut withdrawal, akathisia as a remarkably common side effect of psychiatric medication (neuroleptics, benzos, and SSRIs), negative 5-MeO-DMT trips, the book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe”, turbulence and laminar flow in the “energy body”, being a “mom” at a festival, and more.
“This manuscript will advance the hypothesis that 5-HT7 directly mediates three specific dramatic mental effects of psychedelics: creative open-eyed Visuals, Ego-loss, and loss of contact with Reality (VER).” (Thomas S. Ray; source)
Mapping State-Spaces of Consciousness: The Neroli Neighborhood (link)
What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, clauses, subordinate clauses, field geometry, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)?
Topics Covered in this Video: The State-space of Consciousness, Mapping State-Spaces, David Pearce at Oxford, Qualia Enrichment Kits, Character Impact vs. Flavors, Linalool Variants, Clusters of Neroli Scents, Neroli in Perfumes, Neroli vs. Orange Blossom vs. Petigrain vs. Orange/Mandarin/Lemon/Lime, High-Entropy Alloys of Scent, Musks as Reverb and Brown Noise, “Neroli Reconstructions” (synthetic), Semi-synthetic Mixtures, Winner-Takes-All Dynamics in Qualia Spaces, Multi-Phasic Scents, and Non-Euclidean State-Spaces.
What is Time? Explaining Time-Loops, Moments of Eternity, Time Branching, Time Reversal, and More… (link)
What is (phenomenal) time?
The feeling of time passing is not the same as physical time.
Albert Einstein discovered that “Newtonian time” was a special case of physical time, since gravity, relativity, and the constancy of the speed of light entails that space, time, mass, and gravity are intimately connected. He, in a sense, discovered a generalization of our common-sense notion of physical time; a generalization which accounts for the effects of moving and accelerating frames of reference on the relative passage of time between observers. Physical time, it turns out, could manifest in many more (exotic) ways than was previously thought.
Likewise, we find that our everyday phenomenal time (i.e. the feeling of time passing) is a special case of a far more general set of possible time-like qualities of experience. In particular, in this video I discuss “exotic phenomenal time” experiences, which include oddities such as time-loops, moments of eternity, time branching, and time reversal. I then go on to explain these exotic phenomenal time experiences with a model we call the “pseudo-time arrow”, which involves implicit causality in the network of sensations we experience on each “moment of experience”. Thus we realize that phenomenal time is an incredibly general property! It turns out that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible here… it’s about time we do so.
Benzos: Why the Withdrawal is Worse than the High is Good (+ Flumazenil/NAD+ Anti-Tolerance Action) (link)
Most people have low-resolution models of how drug tolerance works. Folk theories that “what goes up must come down” and theories in the medical establishment about how you can “stabilize a patient on a dose” and expect optimal effects long term get in the way of actually looking at how tolerance works.
In this video I explain why benzo withdrawal is far worse than the high they give you is good.
Core arguments presented:
Benzos can treat anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, seizures, hallucinations, etc. If you use them to treat one of these symptoms, the rebound will nonetheless involve all of them.
Kindling – How long-term use leads to neural annealing of the “withdrawal neural patterns”.
Amnesia effects prevent you from remembering the good parts/only remembering the bad parts.
Neurotoxicity from long-term benzo use makes it harder for your brain to heal.
Arousal as a multiplier of consciousness: on benzos the “high” is low arousal and the withdrawal is high arousal (compared to stimulants where you at least will “sleep through the withdrawal”).
Tolerance still builds up even when you don’t have a “psychoactive dose” in your body – meaning that the extremely long half-life of clonazepam and diazepam and their metabolites (50h+) entails that you still develop long-term tolerance even with weekly or biweekly use!
I then go into how the (empirically false) common-sense view of drug tolerance is delaying promising research avenues, such as “anti-tolerance drugs” (see links below). In particular, NAD+ IV and Flumazenil seem to have large effect sizes for treating benzo withdrawals. I AM NOT CONFIDENT THAT THEY WORK, but I think it is silly to not look into them with our best science at this point. Clinical trials for NAD+ IV therapy for drug withdrawal are underway, and the research to date on flumazenil seems extremely promising. Please let me know if you have any experience using either of these two tools and whether you had success with them or not.
Note: These treatments may also generalize to other GABAergic drugs like gabapentin, alcohol, and phenibut (which also have horrible withdrawals, but are far shorter than benzo withdrawal).
Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil. Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines […] were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.”
Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms. Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.
Is it possible for the “natural growth” of a pandemic to be slower than exponential no matter where it starts? What are ways in which we can leverage the graphical properties of the “contact network” of humanity in order to control contagious diseases? In this video I offer a novel way of analyzing and designing networks that may allow us to easily prevent the exponential growth of future pandemics.
Topics covered: The difference between the aesthetic of pure math vs. applied statistics when it comes to making sense of graphs. Applications of graph analysis. Identifying people with a high centrality in social networks. Klout scores. Graphlets. Kinds of graphs: geometric, small world, scale-free, empirical (galactic core + “whiskers”). Pandemics being difficult to control due to exponential growth. Using a sort of “pandemic Klout score” to prioritize who to quarantine, who to vaccinate first. The network properties that made the plague spread so slowly in the Middle Ages. Toroidal planets as having linear pandemic growth after a certain threshold number of infections. Non-integer graph dimensionality. Dimensional chokes. And… kitchen sponges.
Readings either referenced in the video or useful to learn more about this topic:
Main Empirical Findings: Our results suggest a rather detailed and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the community structure in large networks. Several qualitative properties of community structure are nearly universal:
• Up to a size scale, which empirically is roughly 100 nodes, there not only exist well-separated communities, but also the slope of the network community profile plot is generally sloping downward. (See Fig. 1(a).) This latter point suggests, and empirically we often observe, that smaller communities can be combined into meaningful larger communities.
• At size scale of 100 nodes, we often observe the global minimum of the network community profile plot. (Although these are the “best” communities in the entire graph, they are usually connected to the remainder of the network by just a single edge.)
• Above the size scale of roughly 100 nodes, the network community profile plot gradually increases, and thus there is a nearly inverse relationship between community size and community quality. This upward slope suggests, and empirically we often observe, that as a function of increasing size, the best possible communities as they grow become more and more “blended into” the remainder of the network.
We have also examined in detail the structure of our social and information networks. We have observed that an ‘jellyfish’ or ‘octopus’ model [33, 7] provides a rough first approximation to structure of many of the networks we have examined.
Ps. Forgot to explain the sponge’s relevance: the scale-specific network geometry of a sponge is roughly hyperbolic at a small scale. Then the material is cubic at medium scale. And at the scale where you look at it as flat (being a sheet with finite thickness) it is two dimensional.
Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (link)
Why does DMT feel so “real”? Why does it feel like you experience genuine mind-independent realities on DMT?
In this video I explain that we all implicitly rely on a model of which signals are trustworthy and which ones are not. In particular, in order to avoid losing one’s mind during an intense exotic experience (such as those catalyzed by psychedelics, dissociatives, or meditation) one needs to (a) know that you are altered, (b) have a good model of what that alteration entails, and (c) that the alteration is not strong enough that it breaks down either (a) or (b). So drugs that make you forget you are under the influence, or that you don’t know how to model (or have a mistaken model of) can deeply disrupt your “web of trusted beliefs”.
I argue that one cannot really import the models that one learned from other psychedelics about “what psychedelics do” to DMT; DMT alters you in a far broader way. For example, most people on LSD may mistrust what they see, but they will not mistrust what they touch (touch stays a “trusted signal” on LSD). But on DMT you can experience tactile hallucinations that are coherent with one’s visions! “Crossing the veil” on DMT is not a visual experience: it’s a multi-modal experience, like entering a cave hiding behind a waterfall.
Some of the signals that DMT messes with that often convince people that what they experienced was mind-independent include:
Hyperbolic geometry and mathematical complexity; experiencing “impossible objects”.
Incredibly high-resolution multi-modal integration: hallucinations are “coherent” across senses.
Philosophical qualia enhancement: it alters not only your senses and emotions, but also “the way you organize models of reality”.
More “energized” experiences feel inherently more real, and DMT can increase the energy parameter to an extreme degree.
Highly valenced experiences also feel more real – the bliss and the horror are interpreted as “belonging to the vibe of a reality” rather than being just a property of your experience.
DMT can give you powerful hallucinations in every modality: not only visual hallucinations, but also tactile, auditory, scent, taste, and proprioception.
Novel and exotic feelings of “electromagnetism”.
Sense of “wisdom”.
Knowledge of your feelings: the entities know more about you than you yourself know about yourself.
With all of these signals being liable to chaotic alterations on DMT it makes sense that even very bright and rational people may experience a “shift” in their beliefs about reality. The trusted signals will have altered their consilience point. And since each point of consilience between trusted signals entails a worldview, people who believe in the independent reality of the realms disclosed by DMT share trust in some signals most people don’t even know exist. We can expect some pushback for this analysis by people who trust any of the signals altered by DMT listed above. Which is fine! But… if we want to create a rational Super-Shulgin Academy to really make some serious progress in mapping-out the state-space of consciousness, we will need to prevent epistemological mishaps. I.e. We have to model insanity so that we ourselves can stay sane.
[Skip to 4:20 if you don’t care about the scent of rose – the Qualia of the Day today]
“The most common descriptive labels for the entity were being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. […] Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.”
So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence.
This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:
We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.
The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…
This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.
I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.
Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.
One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.
In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.
Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence.
So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.
I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.
So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions.But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities.
And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.
I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected.
Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are.
Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.
Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.
And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.
These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.
When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.
So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.
So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.
So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.
Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.
There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those.
Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.
So,dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness.
I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.
Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.
And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.
Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.
Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.
I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.
Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.
Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.
Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has.
So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.
Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.
Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.
These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.
Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.
Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.
Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning.
You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.
You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.
When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.
These are just examples of a piano chord.
Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful.
Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.
And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states.
So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.
Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.
Here are just some quotes. Cool.
And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.
In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it.
Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.
Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry.
Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good.
Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.
For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.
Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena.
This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them.
Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at.
So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.
Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.
And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.
I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.
This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.
We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.
That is, euphoric.
Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true.
Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.
These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.
Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.
Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing.
The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.
And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.
Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!
We developed a new method for replicating psychedelic tracer effects in detail: the Tracer Replication Tool. This tool gives us a window into how the time-like texture of experience determines the state of consciousness we find ourselves in, which clarifies what makes both meditating and taking psychedelics such powerful state-switching activities. We discuss how the technique of using the tracer tool may find useful applications, such as allowing us to describe exotic “ineffable” experiences in clear language, standardize a scale of intensity of psychedelic drug effects (a.k.a. a “High-O-Meter”), help us quantify the synergy between different drugs, and test theories for what makes an experience feel good or bad such as the Symmetry Theory of Valence. The pilot data collected with this tool so far is suggestive of the following patterns: (1) THC and HPPD result in a smooth and faint trail effect. (2) The characteristic frequencies of the strobe and replay effects for 2C-B are slower than those of either DMT or 5-MeO-DMT. And, (3) whereas DMT comes with a strong color pulsing effect leading to very colorful visuals, 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to monochromatic tracer effects. We conclude by discussing the implications of these patterns in light of an analysis of experience that allows for a varying time-like texture. We hope to inspire the scientific community and curious psychonauts to use this tool to help us uncover more patterns.
Rhythmic activity in the brain is a staple of neuroscience. It shows up in spiking neurons, synchronous oscillations at the level of networks, global patterns of resonance and coherence in EEG recordings, and in many other places. The book Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsáki is a systematic review of what was known about these rhythms back in 2006. One of the things György talks about in this book is how a lot of neuroscience techniques focused on finding the neural correlates of perception tend to consider the variable activation of neurons from one trial to the next as noise. In experiments that look into how neurons respond to a specific stimulus, datasets are constructed that track the neuronal activity that stays the same across trials. That which changes is discarded as noise, and György argues that such “noise” is really where the information about the internal rhythms is to be found. We concur with the assessment that understanding these native rhythms is key for making sense of how the brain works. Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in this space is the method of Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave analysis (Atasoy et al., 2016). This way of analyzing fMRI data describes a “brain state” as, at least partly, consisting of a weighted sum of its resonant modes. This paradigm has been used with success for comparing brain states across widely different categories of experience: LSD, ketamine, and anesthesia, among others (Luppi et al., 2020).
These are exciting times for exploring the native rhythms of nervous systems in neuroscience. But what about their subjective quality? One would hope that we could connect a formal third-person view of these rhythms with their experiential component. Alas, at this point in time the behavioral and physiological component of brain rhythms is far better understood than the way in which they cash out in subjective qualities.
Could there be a way to make these rhythms easily visible to ourselves as scientists? One interesting lens through which to see psychedelics is in terms of the way they excite specific rhythm-generating networks. This lens would present psychedelic states as giving you a sense of what it feels like to have many of these rhythms simultaneously activated, thus having access to a wider repertoire of brain states (Atasoy et al., 2017).
But you don’t need psychedelics to realize there’s something fishy about the solidity of our perception. Intuitively, one may get the impression that normal everyday states of consciousness do not show the signatures of being the result of ensembles of rhythmic activity. That said, some would affirm that paying attention to the artifacts of our perception may in fact be a window into these rhythms. For example, Lehar’s Harmonic Resonance Theory of the gestalt properties of perception (Lehar, 1999) attempts to explain the characteristics of well known visual illusions (such as the Kanizsa triangle) with principles derived from the superposition of rhythmic activity.
Paying close attention to the act of observing an object over time has led some researchers to play with the idea that our experience of the world is best understood as music (Lloyd, 2013), for our feeling of a solid surrounding results from the interplay between finely coordinated sensations and acts of interpretation. Indeed, the fluidity of sensory impressions betrays our common-sense notion that we experience a solid and stable world. It often takes a perturbation out of our normal everyday state of consciousness to notice this. As an example here, we can point out that insight meditation practices peer into the illusion of solidity and continuity of our experience, whereas concentration meditation enhances these illusions (Ingram, 2018).
Arguably, like a fish who cannot notice water until it’s taken out of it, the stitching process by which our brain constructs reality is usually hidden from view. To be taken out of the water in this context would be to be in a state that allows you to notice the seams of one’s experience. To the extent that this normal stitching process breaks down in exotic states of consciousness, they are clearly useful for research in this domain. Thus we argue that the artifacts of perception in alien states of consciousness are not noise; they provide hints for how normal experience is constructed. In particular, we posit that “psychedelic tracers” (i.e. the cluster of persisting visual phenomena caused by hallucinogens) may be a window into how rhythmic feedback dynamics are used to control the content of our experience. For this reason, we have been interested in turning what until now has been qualitative descriptions and informal approximations of this phenomenon into concrete quantitative replications.
In what follows we will showcase the value of a psychophysics toolkit we developed at the Qualia Research Institute called the Tracer Replication Tool for modeling psychedelic tracer phenomenology. Although we will focus on psychedelic experiences, this tool can have a much broader set of applications. For example, we show how the tool can be used to visualize and quantify the severity of HPPD, which currently has a very qualitative, and imprecise at best, diagnostic criteria. Likewise, the tool has the potential to bring together the complex clinical presentation of visual disturbances such as palinopsia, photopsia, oscillopsia, visual snow, and other conditions, into a coherent framework. Perhaps, speculatively, the connection between all these visual disturbances is to be found in the dysregulation of the rhythms of the visual control systems, which is what the tracer tool sets out to quantify.
The only attempt of arriving at quantitative replications of psychedelic tracers in the scientific literature we are aware of is by (Dubois & VanRullen, 2011). They used multiple-exposure stroboscopic photography in order to depict video scenes. They then asked many people who have had LSD experiences to identify the strobe frequency that best approximated their tracers (which on average was in the 15-20 Hz range).
As we will see, our model for psychedelic tracers is more detailed: it has multiple persistence of vision effects that combine together into a complex tracer. For this reason, the kind of tracers used in Dubois & VanRullen turn out to be a special case of our tool, which we call the strobeeffect:
LSD users perceive a series of discrete positive afterimages in the wake of moving objects, a percept that has been likened to a multiple-exposure stroboscopic photograph, somewhat akin to Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs  from 1880, or to more recent digital art produced in a few clicks (Figure 1).
By using a wider set of effects, the Tracer Replication Tool might give us hints about how psychedelics disrupt native rhythms given how they affect the processing of perceptual information at a granular level.
Before we provide the full set of tracer effects along with their associated vocabulary, let us jump into the preliminary psychedelic replications we have obtained thanks to this tool.
Over the years since I’ve run the Qualia Computing blog, I’ve received many messages from people who, for lack of a better term, we could call rational psychonauts. This should not be too surprising, with pieces like “How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD” and “5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses”, the site has become a bit of a Schelling point for people who like to blend computational reasoning and the study of exotic states of consciousness. These rational psychonauts are people who not only are well acquainted with exotic states of consciousness, but also like to use a scientific and rational lens to make sense of such states. In particular, people in this cluster often ask me to send them experiments to try out next time they take a psychedelic substance. I certainly never encourage them to take drugs, but under the assumption they will do so anyway, I sometimes send them tasks to do. Thus, once we had a prototype for the tracer tool, I already had a set of more than willing anonymous pilot participants. I sent them the link to the tool along with some brief instructions. Namely:
Look at the ball for a few minutes in state X (where X can be any substance, meditation, etc.). Then as soon as you come down, try to fiddle with the parameters on the left until the simulated tracer looks as close as possible to how you experienced it in the state. When you are ready, simply click “submit parameters” and add info about what the state you were in was at the time. In the case of HPPD, just try your best to replicate the tracer (I know it gets confusing when we talk about the tracers of the simulated tracers, but try to ignore those and just replicate the tracer of the original input).
Without further ado, here are the resulting replications I received:
Mild HPPD (participant said it was strongest on color red)
12.5mg edible, 60 minutes post-ingestion
15mg edible, 90 minutes post-ingestion
20mg orally ingested
Notice how although the replication of the higher dosage is more mild in a way, they both share the presence of a strobe effect at roughly 5.5 Hz!
The higher dose has a complex mixture of effects, including 40 Hz color pulsing (positive and negative afterimages mixed together), 22 Hz replay, and 27 Hz strobe. I’ll note that the participant included the following comment: “Aside from extremely fast tracers, the white space consisted of pixelated fractals. Color was abundant.”
As we will discuss further below, it is worth noting that at least in this sample, there are no color pulsing effects present (which is unlike “regular” DMT).
Drug Combination: Mescaline + ETH-LAD
125μg ETH-LAD + 2 teaspoons of San Pedro powder
The above is the only datapoint we have so far from the combination of psychoactive substances. The participant took 125μg of ETH-LAD, and then two and a half hours later 2 teaspoons of San Pedro powder. The replication is of the way the ball looked like 5 hours after taking the first drug.
Let us now look into the specifics of the tracer tool:
Core effects are pillars of the tracer tool where a particular feedback dynamic is used. The core effects include trails, strobe, and replay.
A modifier effect is one that plays with a core effect and alters it in some way. We will talk along the way about the modifying effects of persistence, intensity, and frequency, and then have a separate section to talk in more detail about the modifier effects of envelope (ADSR), pulse, and color pulse.
Trails (Core Effect)
This is perhaps the most basic effect. Making an analogy with sound, trails are akin to a soft reverb with no delay:
The three settings for trails are: persistence, intensity, and exponential decay (which is binary in the current implementation and otherwise takes on the value of linear decay). Persistence determines how quickly the tracer vanishes, whereas intensity is a constant multiplier for the entire trail. Thus, by changing those parameters you can choose between e.g. a long but dim trail or a short but bright trail.
High persistence / low intensity
Low persistence / high intensity
The exponential decay parameter slightly changes how quickly the brightness goes down; when it’s on, the trails go down more smoothly (cf. gamma correction).
Without exponential decay
With exponential decay
Strobe (Core Effect)
The strobe effect takes snapshots of the input at regular intervals. It works like chronophotography, and it is perhaps what most people think about when you first talk about visual tracers. It is the effect that Dubois & VanRullen used to find that LSD produces visual tracers at ~15-20 Hz.
Strobe effect at 16.4 Hz
The strobe effect, just as the traileffect, also has intensity, persistence, and exponential decay modifiers. In addition, it also has frequency, which encodes how many snapshots per second are being taken.
5 Hz Strobe
10 Hz Strobe
20 Hz Strobe
Note: The current implementation of the trails feature is done with a very fast strobe. In this way, when you set the strobe frequency to the maximum you get something that starts to look a little like the trails effect.
Replay (Core Effect)
With an analogy to sound, replay would be akin to adding an echo or delay to a signal. Replay adds to the raw signal a copy of the output from a fraction of a second into the past. The result is a current output that contains a sequence of increasingly dimmer video replays of itself at regular time intervals into the past.
6 Hz Replay
As with strobe, replay has intensity, persistence, exponential decay, and frequency as its modifying effects.
3 Hz Replay
12 Hz Replay
Note: the replay effect is difficult to distinguish from the strobe effect with only still images
This is a modifier effect that can apply to trails, strobes, and replays (right now the implementation only applies to strobe, but we may change that in the future). It takes a fraction of the input and modulates it with a sine wave at a given frequency. This way the trails, strobes, and replays can come and go (either in part or in full) at a given frequency. This adds sparkle to the experience, and it can plausibly help create a sense of reality or object-permanence for the hallucinations as they “vibrate at their own frequency”.
Compare the difference between a strobe at 4 Hz vs. a strobe at 4 Hz with a pulse at 2 Hz:
4 Hz Strobe
4 Hz Strobe + 2 Hz Pulse at 50% amplitude
As you can see, the pulsing effect makes the strobes look like they have a sort of life of their own.
Using control interrupts as the source of hallucinogenesis, we can model hallucinogenic frame distortion of multisensory perception the same way we model sound waves produced by synthesizers; by plotting the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR envelope) of the hallucinogenic interrupt as it effects consciousness. (Fig. 2)3,4 For example, nitrous oxide (N20) inhalation alters consciousness in such a way that all perceptual frames arise and fall with a predictable “wah-wah-wah” time signature. The throbbing “wah-wha-wah” of the N20 experience is a stable standing wave formation that begins when the molecule hits the neural network and ends when it is metabolized, but for the duration of N20 action the “wah-wah-wah” completely penetrates all modes of sensory awareness with a strobe-like intensity. The periodic interrupt of N20 can be modeled as a perceptual wave ambiguity that toggles back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness at roughly 8 to 11 frames-per-second, or @8-11hz.5 Consciousness rises at the peak of each “wah” and diminishes in the valleys in between. On sub-anesthetic doses, N20 creates a looping effect where frame content overlaps into the following frame, causing a perceptual cascade similar to fractal regression. We can thus model the interrupt envelope of N20 as having a rounded attack, fast decay, low sustain, medium release, with an interrupt frequency of @8-11hz. Any psychoactive substance with a similar interrupt envelope will produce results that feel similar to the N20 experience. (Fig. 3) For instance, Smoked Salvia divinorum (vaporized Salvinorin A&B, or Salvia) has an interrupt envelope similar to N20, except Salvia has a harder attack, a slightly longer decay, a more intense sustain, a slightly longer release, and a slightly faster interrupt frequency (@12-15hz).6 These slight changes in the frequency and shape of interrupt envelope cause Salvia to feel more physically intense, more hallucinatory, and more disorienting than N20, even though they share a similar throbbing or tingling sensation along the same frequency range.
This actually seems to be important for showcasing what makes drugs with similar characteristic frequencies capable of feeling so different.
2 Hz Strobe
2 Hz Strobe + soft ADSR pattern
A really interesting research lead that is connected to the ADSR envelope of psychedelic tracers can be found in The Grand Illusion (Lehar, 2010), where cognitive scientist Steven Lehar narrates some of his experiences with LSD vs. LSD + MDMA. One of the things he discusses is the way that MDMA makes the experience jitter in a pleasant way that results in the LSD visuals becoming smoother (emphasis mine):
Under LSD and ecstasy I could see the flickering blur of visual generation most clearly. And I saw peculiar ornamental artifacts on all perceived objects, like a Fourier representation with the higher harmonics chopped off. LSD by itself creates sharply detailed ornamental artifacts, like a transparent overlay of an ornamental lattice or filigree pattern superimposed on the visual scene, especially in darkness. Ecstasy smooths out those sharp edges and blurs them into a creamy smooth rolling experience.
As we will discuss further below, a more creamy ADSR envelope may cash out in a more pleasant experience, whereas a sharper or spikier envelope may in turn create more harsh experiences.
Color Pulse/Negative After Images (Modifier)
The color pulse effect transforms the image’s color towards its opposite in the CIELAB color space with a given frequency. It modifies strobe, replay, and trails (in principle, there can be a different color pulse for each effect, but for now it modifies all three simultaneously).
23.6 Hz Strobe
23.6 Hz Strobe + 2 Hz Color Pulse
Unlike pulse, color pulse modulates the color rather than the brightness of the input. The way we determine what color to transform into is by going to the opposite side of the CIELAB color space. This accurately approximates the negative afterimage of any phenomenal color (such as yellow being the negative afterimage of blue, and green being the negative afterimage of red). In our current implementation, color pulsing affects strobe and replay quite differently. For replay, the effect is one where there are now versions of the ball (or image, more generally) that have the opposite color that are chasing the original ball, whereas for strobe the effect is that of giving a seizure to each of the recent snapshots of experience! See for yourself:
26 Hz Replay + 13 Hz Color Pulse
26 Hz Strobe + 13 Hz Color Pulse
In a future version of the tracer tool, color pulse may become a sub-property of each main tracer layer in the same way ADSR is a sub-property of the strobe and replay layers.
Color pulsing may be an important piece of the puzzle for understanding how otherwise similar drugs can have such dramatically different effects. Tentatively, color pulsing showed up as a distinction between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT according to one of the persons who submitted parameters (as you can see above in the replication section). For that person, DMT produced color pulses while 5-MeO-DMT did not. Of course this is just a sample size of N=1. But it seems like an important research lead if true! After all, DMT trip reports do talk of highly colorful hallucinations that typically involve the combination of colors and their opposites (e.g. “The wall looked like a Persian carpet with an alternating checkerboard pattern design of neon green and magenta light” – anonymous 10mg DMT), whereas most 5-MeO-DMT trip reports don’t feature color very much. In fact, 5-MeO-DMT trips are often in black and white, pure white, pure black, or “nothingness color”. We discuss the implications of this in more detail in the last section of this piece (GettingRealms from Time-Like Textures).
Face Value vs. Dynamic Feedback Model
It is important to point out that the tracer tool works under the assumption of linearity between the effects it models. In other words, each effect modifies the input in its own way, and the corresponding modifications are added linearly at the end. This does not need to be the case. And in fact, we must expect the brain to have a lot of complex non-linearities where e.g. the pulsing effect is then used in a replay loop which entrains a strobing pattern which focuses your attention and so on. This complication aside, there is a lot of value in postulating the simple model first, and then adjusting accordingly when it fails to model the more complex phenomena. When we get there, once we have identified particular drugs, doses, and combinations that produce strange nonlinearities, we can then build tracer tools that explore how the parameters of particular dynamic systems can best explain the empirical data. Until then, let us start mapping out the space with this (relatively) simple linear model.
I would like to highlight the fact that using the tracer tool can be very educational. Familiarizing yourself with the effects and their modifications will allow you to be able to describe in detail psychedelic tracers even without having to use the tool again. For instance, I find myself now able to describe what kind of tracer effect appears on any given replication or trippy video. For example, now that you have read about them, can you tell us what is going on in the following gifs?:
The Explanatory Power of the Time-Like Texture of Experience
Exotic Phenomenal Time
We have previously suggested that tracers in the most general sense (i.e. including tracers for emotions, thoughts, and all sensory modalities in addition to visual experience) are very important for understanding the time distortions one experiences in exotic states of consciousness. The overall idea is that the aspect of our experience that gives rise to the feeling of time passing is the result of implicit causality in the network of local binding connections, which we call the pseudo-time arrow (see a recent presentation about it). Don’t worry about the details, though. All you need to know is that here we model phenomenal time as the direction along which causality flows within one’s experience. And because this is a statistical property of our experience, it turns out that phenomenal time ends up being very malleable; it admits of “exotic phenomenal time” variants:
This framework can articulate what is going on when you experience crazy psychedelic states such as moments of eternity, time branching, time looping, and so on. Now, even these are just some of the possible ways in which the network of local binding connections can give rise to exotic phenomenal time experiences. In reality, because the pseudo-time arrow emerges at a statistical level in the network, one can have all manners of local pseudo-time arrows nested in complex ways, as briefly discussed in the presentation:
I will end by speculating: I just walked you through seven types of exotic phenomenal time, but if indeed [the experience of time] can be explained in terms of causality in a graph, then there are many other exotic phenomenal times we can construct. This is especially so when we consider the space of possible hybrid phenomenal times. For instance, where in some regions in the network we may find time looping, some other region might be a moment of eternity, and perhaps another region is branching, and you know, if you have a very big experience, there is no reason why you wouldn’t be able to segment different regions of it for different types of phenomenal time. This is not unlike, perhaps, how we think of Feynman diagrams, where this part of it here is moving forwards in time, this part here is doing a loop, this part here is branching… I think a lot of the topologies we see here could be used to represent completely new [hybrid] exotic phenomenal times.
Given the diversity of ways in which phenomenal time can be expressed in an experience, I will start talking about the patterns encoded in the pseudo-time arrow as the time-like texture of experience. This way, rather than assuming that one’s sense of time is globally consistent in a given way (e.g. as in “I am fully inside a time-loop”), we can discuss how various patches and components of one’s experience have this or that time-like texture (e.g. “my visual field was looping, but my proprioception was strobing and my thoughts felt timeless”).
As a generic effect, all psychedelics seem to increase the duration of qualia in one’s experiential field, leading to a buildup of energy. But the precise shape this takes matters a lot, and it is certainly different between drugs. An example pointed above is how LSD and DMT seem to produce strobe and replay patterns of markedly different frequencies. For DMT, the spatial and temporal frequency of the visual hallucinations is usually described as “very high”. Based on the replications thus far, along with personal reports from a musician I trust, DMT’s “characteristic frequency” seems to be in the 25 to 30 Hz range. In contrast, LSD’s frequency is more in the range of 15 to 20 Hz: both Dubois & VanRullen’s LSD tracer study and subjective reports I’ve gathered over the years point to the hallucinations of acid having this rough frequency. Hence, the very building blocks of reality of a high-dose DMT breakthrough experience consist of tiny time-loops and strobe effects interacting with one another, weaving together a hallucinated world with surprising levels of detail and intense freshness of experience (as all the time loops are “young” due to their short duration). Really, when you take a small dose of DMT and you see the walls tessellating into wallpaper groups, notice how each of the tiny “bricks” that make up the tessellation is itself a time loop of sorts! It is not a stretch to describe a DMT experience as a kind of complex Darwinian ecosystem of tiny coalition-based time loop clusters bidding for your attention (cf. Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences).
Taking this paradigm seriously allows us to interpret psychoactive effects at a high level in novel ways. For example, these are some of the general patterns we have identified so far:
Psychedelics tend to have strong replay and strobe effects
HPPD, cannabis, and dissociatives seem to have a much smoother trail effect
MDMA and 5-MeO-DMT have characteristically creamy ADSR envelope effects
Using the sound metaphor to restate the above, psychedelics introduce beats and recursion, dissociatives introduce reverb, and empathogens/valence drugs may affect the temporal blur of one’s experience. Thus, we arrive at a model of psychoactive substances that makes sense of their effects in the language of signal processing rather than neurotransmitters and functional localization. This sheds a lot of clarity on the mysterious and bizarre state-spaces of consciousness disclosed by psychoactive drugs and paves the way for a principled way of predicting the way drug combinations may give rise to synergistic effects (more on that below). More so, it lends credence to the patternceutical paradigm of drug effects.
Meditation: Insight and Concentration Practices
The pseudo-time arrow paradigm suggests that one of the ways in which meditative practices can switch one’s state of consciousness is by disrupting sober time-like textures and enabling exotic time-like textures not available to the sober mind (see also: The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models (Johnson, 2018)). My personal experience with meditative practices is limited, but I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing some strange effects so far. In particular, I would say that concentration practices seem to give rise to experiences with long and stable pseudo-time arrows – a peacefulness in which nothing is happening yet the flow of time is constant and rather uneventful. The phenomenal time of highly focused states of mind may be full of reverb, but I do not think it has crazy time loops. Moments of eternity and timelessness may be present at the limit here (e.g. moments of eternity and Jhanas may be deeply connected), though I will need more personal experience to say this with confidence.
On the other hand, insight practices such as noting meditation may have more of a replay and strobe effect. In particular, this may happen as a result of three core effects from this kind of meditation: (1) it stops you from dissipating energy across long narratives, (2) it recaptures the energy you were going to use for a longer narrative to feed the noting process instead, and (3) it entrains the rhythm of noting. This in turn (a) energizes a regular constant-frequency pattern (the frequency of noting) and (b) reduces the energy of every other rhythm, which in turn (c) canalizes sensory stimulation energy towards the brain’s noting frequency and all of its harmonics, which eventually leads to a high-frequency energized state of consciousness whose building blocks are tiny time-loops. These can synchronize and create experiences with characteristic time-like textures made up of such tiny energized loops. Hence, noting practice above some level of skill (e.g. with a noting frequency above 3 Hz) can be DMT-like to an extent (in light of thinking of DMT realms as made up of energized high-frequency mini-time-loops).
These experiences characterized by intense tracer effects are in a similar space as the strange temporal distortions that happen when you are dizzy (like when you stand up too fast or hyperventilate). The “loss of context” that results from this effect is due to the longest replay loops becoming too short to contain the necessary information to “keep you in the loop about what is going on”. Hence the confusion about who or what you are, what you are doing, and how you got here that happens when you are near passing out from standing up too quickly. That confusion takes place in an otherwise highly detailed and intense high-energy and high-frequency “rush” made of tiny time loops.
Thus, one of the gateways into altered states of consciousness via meditation with noting can be summarized as what happens when you induce a self-reinforcing pattern of strobing, replay, and pulsing that fully captures your attention. This process builds up a lot of energy, which one can only wield up to a point. When one fails to control it, the state decays into a series of tracer patterns that use the clean loop as its background reference. As this happens, one experiences a world whose building blocks are beautiful tiny jewels of attention, slowly decaying as one loses the ability to stay focused. The decay process also seems to do something good when properly orchestrated. Namely, as the decay process begins, one naturally experiences a Cambrian explosion of qualia critters eager to feed off of the negentropy generated, as thought-forms need attention to survive. This whole process, one could argue, lends phenomenological credence to the paradigm of neural annealing, where one’s brain uses a heating and cooling schedule to entrain brain-wide harmony.
In other words, with something like a noting practice, one ends up creating a world simulation whose building blocks are all embedded in a very tight time-loop, a wind-up universe of concentrated awareness. Perhaps we are going too far with this explanation. Either way, we really feel that thinking in terms of these generalized tracer dynamic patterns is an exciting new conceptual toolkit that allows us to describe the quality of exotic experiences that were hard to pinpoint before.
Three Exciting Possible Applications of the Tracer Tool: High-O-Meter, Synergy Quotient, and Harmonic World-Building
How high are you? It is often difficult to put a number on this question. But once we have established the parameters for different drugs (e.g. characterized DMT as living in a region of the parameter-space that is of higher frequency than LSD, etc.) we can show a series of gifs to someone and ask them to point at the one that best shows what tracers looked like at the peak of their experience. This way we can quickly estimate how high they got (at least visually) with a very simple question.
For example, we may find that the “modal response” to 50, 100, 200, and 300 micrograms of LSD looks as follow:
Simulated tracer for 50 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 100 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 200 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 300 μg of LSD
If this works, we would be able to sort research participants into one of these ranges just by asking them to point at the image that best captures their experience. Similar tools for other modalities could be used to obtain a global “highness score” meaningful across people.
(2) Synergy Quotient (orthogonality vs. synergy vs. suppression vs. harmonization)
What happens when you combine psychoactive drugs together? We have previously discussed in great detail what happens when you take combos of drugs from various categories (see: Making Amazing Recreational Drug Cocktails), but admit that there are huge puzzles and unknowns in this space. Of note is that some combinations give rise to synergistic effects (e.g. psychedelics and dissociatives), others blunt each other’s action (e.g. agmatine and nootropics), while yet others seem to create competing effects due to some kind of mutually-exclusive qualities of experience (e.g. salvia and DMT, a.k.a. “drugfights”). For an illustrative example of the third category, famous psychonaut D. M. Turner reports:
I smoked 30 mg. of DMT in three tokes, followed immediately by 650 mcg. of Salvinorin that I had preloaded in a separate pipe.
The effects were felt almost immediately. The first thing I noticed was a grid of crosshatch patterns. I had perceived something similar when using 2C-B with mushrooms, which I believed to be the result of using two psychedelics that were not compatible with each other. However, in this case the patterns were defined to a much sharper degree, and it seemed apparent that these two substances affect consciousness in differing ways that are not synchronistic when used together. Both the Salvia and DMT entities seemed to have been taken entirely off guard and had not been expecting this confrontation. These entities seemingly paid no attention to me as their attention was entirely fixed on each other. It soon became apparent that the two were going to battle, vying to determine who would have control of my consciousness.
We think that the tracer tool can be useful to quantify the degree of interaction between two drugs. For instance, say that drug A produces a robust 10 Hz replay effect, whereas drug B produces a 7 Hz Strobing effect. Would drug A + drug B cause a tracer that blends these two facets, or does it produce something different? If the combination’s tracers are different than the sum of its parts, how large is this difference? And can this difference be identified with a particular recursive stacking of effects, or as the result of a nonlinear interaction between dynamic systems? We believe that this line of research may be very illuminating.
Drug A + Drug B (“orthogonal”)
Drug A + Drug B (“suppression”)
Drug A + Drug B (“synergy”)
Drug A + Drug B (“harmonization”)
In the above example, we show what various possibilities for the result of drug combos may be. “Orthogonal” effects mean that the resulting tracer is the sum of the tracers of each drug, “suppression” means that one drug’s effect reduces the effect of the other, “synergy” means that the resulting effects are stronger than you’d expect by just linearly adding the effects of each drug, and “harmonization” refers to the possible slight-retuning of the characteristic frequency of each drug’s effect that allows for a consonant blending. How strongly the combo is from the predicted effect based on each drug would determine the synergy quotient of the pair.
A few possible (tentative) examples: alcohol + psychedelics give rise to orthogonal effects, opiates and psychedelics result in effect suppression, dissociatives and psychedelics result in strong synergy (not unlike what you get when you stack reverb and looping in music), and MDMA and psychedelics might result in harmonized tracers (hence the creamy and harmonious visuals of candy-flipping). We would love to see research tackling this question.
(3) Harmonic World-Building
Tinnitus is usually loud and distracting, but in addition, it can also be annoying and unpleasant. At QRI, we posit that the precise pattern of tinnitus—not only its loudness—has implications for how bad it is for someone’s mental health: dissonant and chaotic tinnitus might be worse than consonant and harmonious patterns, for instance.
In a similar vein, we think that the particular tracer patterns, over and above just their intensity, of perceptual conditions like HPPD probably matter for how the condition affects you at a cognitive, perceptual, and emotional level. Concretely, we would like to study how valence is related to one’s particular tracer patterns: we think that when psychedelic tracers feel good, that such positive valence may show up in the form of (a) harmonious relationships between the components of the effects, and (b) a sort of creaminness in the way the tracers come over time (as shown in the MDMA + LSD trip report by Steven Lehar).
We take seriously the possibility that something akin to the rules of harmony in music (see: Tuning Timbre Spectrum Scale by William Sethares) will have a showing in the way resonance in any experiential field cashes out into valence. In other words, the way patterns of resonance in the brain combine might be responsible for whether the experience feels good or bad. In particular, under psychedelics and other high-energy states of consciousness, one’s visual field is capable of instantiating visions of both tremendous beauty and tremendous terror. It is as if in high-energy regimes, one’s visual field acquires the capacity for creating pleasure and pain of its own (albeit “visual” in flavor!). While sober, one can get something akin to this effect, though only mildly in comparison: you can experience beautiful patterns by staring at a smooth strobe with eyes closed, or experience unpleasant reactions when the strobe shines at irregular intervals. The quality of the self-generated light-show in energized states of consciousness (such as a psychedelic experience) will likely have an impact on one’s sense of wellbeing. Is one’s inner light show all irregular, uncoordinated, sharp, and jarring? Or is it smooth, clean, robust, and soft? Based on the Symmetry Theory of Valence, one can anticipate that one’s tracer phenomenology feels good when it expresses or approximates regular geometries and bad when the implied geometries are irregular or disjointed.
Dissonant emergent pattern
Consonant emergent pattern
The creaminess of smooth ADSR envelopes would likewise prevent sensory and emotional dissonance by virtue of softening spikes of sensations. This, of course, is ultimately an empirical question. Let’s investigate it!
Final Thoughts: Getting Realms from Time-Like Textures
The complexity and information content of one’s state of consciousness as induced by a substance may depend on what fits in the repertoire of time-like textures of the state. For example, some states might be much more prone to generate quasi-crystals as opposed to crystals, as we argued in DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT (Gomez Emilsson, 2020).
What are these crystals? One of the characteristic spatial effects of psychedelics is that they lower the symmetry detection threshold. This gives rise to the beautiful tessellations (at times Euclidean, at times hyperbolic (Gomez Emilsson, 2016)) everyone talks about. Analogously in time, psychedelics are notorious for creating time loops (cf. Going Loopy (Alexander, 2014)). In a deeper sense these are, we might argue, two facets of the same underlying effect. Namely, the creation of, for lack of a better term, qualia crystals. We can be cautious about assigning an ontological interpretation to qualia crystals; all we are proposing here is to accept them as phenomenological artifacts that tie together a lot of these experiential qualities. These gems of qualia come in many flavors, but they all express at least one symmetry in a clean and deep way. Whereas our experience of the world is usually made of a complex distribution of (tiny) qualia crystals which form the macroscopic time-like texture of our mind, we find in exotic states of consciousness the possibility of experiencing the refined, pure version. Timothy Leary in The Psychedelic Experience describes what he believes is the key existential conundrum close to the peak of an ecstatic trip:
Is it better to be part of the sugar or to taste the sugar?
In line with the neural annealing frame (Johnson, 2019), there is a very real sense in which slightly past the peak of a psychedelic experience you will find some of the largest, purest, most refined qualia crystals (at least relative to the human norm). And what this looks like will depend a lot on what the available building blocks are! The diversity of these building blocks makes the time-like texture of experience triggered by different drugs dramatically variable.
Some of the realms of experience are made with a time-like texture of interlocking time loops of different frequencies allowing you to experience the sense of “a big other”. In some other realms, the time loops are all aligned with each other, which makes self-other distinctions hard to represent and reason about. The various flavors for the felt sense of non-duality, for example, may correspond to different ways in which strobes, replays, pulse, etc. align perfectly to dissolve the internal boundaries used as building blocks to represent duality. At the extreme of “unification”, such as the state found in the 5-MeO-DMT breakthrough, one “becomes” a metronome whose tune is reflected faithfully everywhere in one’s experience, such that there is nothing else to interface with. Hence, one becomes “invisible to oneself”. To be in a state of near total oneness may entail the feeling of nothingness for this reason (thus the highest Jhanas being “nothingness” and “neither nothing nor something”).
This overall interpretative frame of exotic states as the result of time-like textures may show up empirically, too. One of the exciting early results, as mentioned above, is the report that while DMT creates complex positive and negative after-image dynamics full of color and polarity, the tracers on 5-MeO-DMT are monochromatic, meaning that one only experiences their positive after-image.
This alone may go a long way in explaining why the visual character of these two drugs is so distinct at their upper ranges. Namely, because DMT gives rise to complex checkerboard grid-patterns of overly-saturated colors intermingling with their polar opposites, whereas on 5-MeO-DMT, one often experiences an incredibly bright white light, or even a sense of translucid empty space, but no colors! The paradigm of using tracer patterns to make sense of states of consciousness would here suggest that a “breakthrough” experience can be interpreted as what happens when one’s world is saturated with the time-like texture characteristic of the tracer pattern of either drug. The realms of experience these agents disclose are the universes that you get when the building blocks of reality are those specific time loops and attention dynamics, leaving no room for anything that does not follow those “phenomenal time constraints”. When the dose is low, this manifests as just a gloss over one’s otherwise normal experience, a mere modifier on top of one’s sober reality. But when the dose is large, these time loops and attention dynamics drive the very way one’s mind constructs our whole sense of the world.
In this light, rather than thinking of exotic states of mind as places (as the “realm” metaphor alludes to), one can imagine conceptualizing them as ways of making sense of time. When you smoke salvia, you make sense of time in a salvia kind of way, which involves looping back chaotically in a way that typically results in losing the normal plot altogether and instead exotic narratives better fitted for the salvia attentional dynamics end up dominating the world-building process of the mind. Hence you end up in “salvia land”. Which is what you remember best. But the salvia land one ends up in is only a circumstantial part of the true story. The fundamental generator that is upstream of this realm would be the overall tracer pattern, the time-like texture of the experience: the neuroacoustic effect of salvia. He who controls the time-like texture of experience, controls the world-building process of the mind. Thus the paramount importance of understanding tracer patterns.
Do you want to collaborate on this project?
The Tracer Replication Tool is the first of a series of research tools we are creating at QRI specifically designed with psychedelic phenomenology in mind. The spirit of this enterprise is to identify the ways in which psychedelic states of consciousness can enhance the information processing of the mind in some ways. Rather than focusing on how information processing is impaired, we develop these tools with the goal of finding the ways in which it is enhanced (cf. psychedelic cryptography (Gomez Emilsson, 2015), psychedelic problem solving (Harman, 1966)). We take very seriously high-quality trips reports from rational psychonauts, which help us ideate tasks that are likely to show large effect sizes. Thus, rather than bringing traditional psychometric tools to the psychedelic space, we think that developing the tools to assess the psychedelic state in its own terms is more likely to provide novel and significant insights. We would love to have academic researchers include some of these tasks in their own study designs. Becoming familiar with the Tracer Replication Tool takes less than 10 minutes, and based on the pilot results, operating it during a psychedelic experience is possible for a good fraction of people under the influence of these substances. It would be amazing to have tracer replications included in psychedelic studies to come. If you are involved in psychedelic research and would like to use the Tracer Replication Tool or learn more about the toolkit we are developing please reach out to us! We would love to hear from you.
For Participants and Volunteers
There are several ways you can help this project. As a beta tester participant, you can use the tracer tool to replicate tracers that you yourself have experienced. There are three categories here (which you can specify at the point of submission when using the tool):
Retroactively: If you have experienced visuals tracers in the past and think you can remember them accurately (or at least recognize them when you see them), you can play with the Tracer Replication Tool and submit the parameters that best match your memory of the tracers you experienced.
Post-Trip: If you are planning on taking a psychedelic in the near future* and want to submit a datapoint from your experience, open the tracer tool during the trip and look at the bouncing ball (and other animations). While staring at the center of the animation for about a minute, try to get a clear picture of what the tracers look like. We encourage you to play with the color, speed, and animation type while you are in the state so that you see how tracers react to different visual inputs. Then as soon as possible after the trip is over, come back to the tool and find the tracer parameters that best replicate what you saw.
Within Trip: If you are familiar with the tracer tool parameters so that you can tell in real time whether you are experiencing strobing, replays, color pulsing, etc. then you may want to try to replicate the tracers you are seeing in real time. We recognize that this has the problem that the tracer replications will have psychedelic tracers of themselves, and that they get in the way of the tracers you are trying to reproduce. That said, the early reports we have received state that it is actually easier to do a good job at replicating the tracers while in the state than after it. So we also welcome submissions of this type.
The case of HPPD and other non-drug induced tracers could be considered in this frame as well. For instance, we have been made aware that during the meditation practice of Fire Kasina, one experiences many pronounced tracers of various kinds. Thus, if you are currently experiencing meditation-induced tracers, you can submit parameters of the within trip kind. If you saw the bouncing ball (or other animations) during the meditation but have now exited your state, then you could submit a datapoint of the post-trip kind. And if you only have the recollection of tracers but did not see the ball at the time, then submit a retroactive datapoint. Likewise, HPPD and other tracer phenomena may come and go and their intensity may wax and wane, so these categories are also useful in such cases.
Please sign up to the QRI mailing list if you want to stay informed about the development of QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit. We also want to emphasize, as we note in the Special Thanks section below, that this tool could not have been made without our amazing QRI volunteers. We are very eager to work with anyone with technical skills useful for this and related projects. If you would like to help us build these tools and advance our collective understanding of exotic states of consciousness, please get in touch. For more QRI volunteer projects see our volunteer page.
 A significant message of the book is that it is useful to conceptualize these rhythms as being the result of endogenous pattern-generating networks specialized to create specific frequencies, envelopes, and types of synchronization.
 “There are only two sources that control the firing patterns of a neuron at any time: an input from outside the brain and self-organized activity. These two sources of synchronization forces often compete with each other (Cycle 9). If cognition derives from the brain, this self-organized activity is its most likely source. Ensemble synchrony of neurons should therefore reflect the combination of some selected physical features of the world and the brain’s interpretation of those features. Even if the stimulus is invariant, the brain state is not. From this perspective, the most interesting thing we can learn about the brain is how its self-generated internal states, the potential source of cognition, are brought about. Extracting the variant, that is, brain-generated features, including the temporal relation between neural assemblies and assembly members, from the invariant features evoked by the physical world might provide clues about the brain’s perspective on its environment. Yes, this is the information we routinely throw away with stimulus-locked averaging.” (Buzsáki, 2006)
*Disclaimer: We are not encouraging anyone to ingest psychoactive substances.
Special Thanks to: Lawrence Wu for implementing the current version of the tool. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, and Mike Johnson for a lot of useful ideas, conversations, and keeping the project afloat. To Robin Goins and Alex Zhao for getting a head start in implementing an earlier version of the tool. To the QRI team for encouragement and many discussions. And to the anonymous rational psychonauts and the HPPD sufferer for contributing pilot data with visual replications of their own experiences.
Buzsáki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford University Press.
Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I., & Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nature Communications, 7(1), 10340. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10340
Luppi, A. I., Vohryzek, J., Kringelbach, M. L., Mediano, P. A. M., Craig, M. M., Adapa, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Pappas, I., Finoia, P., Williams, G. B., Allanson, J., Pickard, J. D., Menon, D. K., Atasoy, S., & Stamatakis, E. A. (2020). Connectome Harmonic Decomposition of Human Brain Dynamics Reveals a Landscape of Consciousness [Preprint]. Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.08.10.244459
Rudrauf, D., Lutz, A., Cosmelli, D., Lachaux, J.-P., & Le Van Quyen, M. (2003). From autopoiesis to neurophenomenology: Francisco Varela’s exploration of the biophysics of being. Biological Research, 36(1). https://doi.org/10.4067/S0716-97602003000100005
Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Kringelbach, M. L., Deco, G., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 17661. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0
(Organizational) Questions About the Qualia Research Institute
What type of organization is QRI?
QRI is a nonprofit research group studying consciousness based in San Francisco, California. We are a registered 501(c)(3) organization.
What is the relationship between QRI, Qualia Computing, and Opentheory?
Qualia Computing and Opentheory are the personal blogs of QRI co-founders Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Michael Johnson, respectively. While QRI was in its early stages, all original QRI research was initially published on these two platforms. However, from August 2020 onward, this is shifting to a unified pipeline centered on QRI’s website.
Is QRI affiliated with an academic institution or university?
Although QRI does collaborate regularly with university researchers and laboratories, we are an independent research organization. Put simply, QRI is independent because we didn’t believe we could build the organization we wanted and needed to build within the very real constraints of academia. These constraints include institutional pressure to work on conventional projects, to optimize for publication metrics, and to clear various byzantine bureaucratic hurdles. It also includes professional and social pressure to maintain continuity with old research paradigms, to do research within an academic silo, and to pretend to be personally ignorant of altered states of consciousness. It’s not that good research cannot happen under these conditions, but we believe good consciousness research happens despite the conditions in academia, not because of them, and the best use of resources is to build something better outside of them.
How does QRI align with the values of EA?
Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that uses evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good. QRI believes this aesthetic is necessary and important for creating a good future. We also believe that if we want to do the most good,foundational research on the nature of the good is of critical importance. Two frames we offer are Qualia Formalism and Sentientism. Qualia Formalism is the claim that experience has a precise mathematical description, that a formal account of experience should be the goal of consciousness research. Sentientism is the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. We believe EA is enriched by both Qualia Formalism and Sentientism.
What would QRI do with $10 billion?
Currently, QRI is a geographically distributed organization with access to commercial-grade neuroimaging equipment. The first thing we’d do with $10 billion is set up a physical headquarters for QRI and buy professional-grade neuroimaging devices (fMRI, MEG, PET, etc.) and neurostimulation equipment. We’d also hire teams of full-time physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, chemists, philosophers, and artists. We’ve accomplished a great deal on a shoestring budget, but it would be hard to overestimate how significant being able to build deep technical teams and related infrastructure around core research threads would be for us (and, we believe, for the growing field of consciousness research). Scaling is always a process and we estimate our ‘room for funding’ over the next year is roughly ~$10 million. However, if we had sufficiently deep long-term commitments, we believe we could successfully scale both our organization and research paradigm into a first-principles approach for decisively diagnosing and curing most forms of mental illness. We would continue to run studies and experiments, collect interesting data about exotic and altered states of consciousness, pioneer new technologies that help eliminate involuntary suffering, and develop novel ways to enable conscious beings to safely explore the state-space of consciousness.
Questions About Our Research Approach
What differentiates QRI from other research groups studying consciousness?
The first major difference is that QRI breaks down “solving consciousness” into discrete subtasks; we’re clear about what we’re trying to do, which ontologies are relevant for this task, and what a proper solution will look like. This may sound like a small thing, but an enormous amount of energy is wasted in philosophy by not being clear about these things. This lets us “actually get to work.”
Second, our focus on valence is rare in the field of consciousness studies. A core bottleneck in understanding consciousness is determining what its ‘natural kinds’ are: terms which carve reality at the joints. We believe emotional valence (the pleasantness/unpleasantness of an experience) is one such natural kind, and this gives us a huge amount of information about phenomenology. It also offers a clean bridge for interfacing with (and improving upon) the best neuroscience.
Third, QRI takes exotic states of consciousness extremely seriously whereas most research groups do not. An analogy we make here is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to people before the scientific enlightenment thinking that they can understand the nature of energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while completely ignoring extreme states such as what’s happening in the sun, black holes, plasma, or superfluid helium. QRI considers exotic states of consciousness as extremely important datapoints for reverse-engineering the underlying formalism for consciousness.
Lastly, we have a focus on precise, empirically testable predictions, which is rare in philosophy of mind. Any good theory of consciousness should also contribute to advancements in neuroscience. Likewise, any good theory of neuroscience should contribute to novel, bold, falsifiable predictions, and blueprints for useful things, such as new forms of therapy. Having such a full-stack approach to consciousness which does each of those two things is thus an important marker that “something interesting is going on here” and is simply very useful for testing and improving theory.
What methodologies are you using? How do you actually do research?
QRI has three core areas of research: philosophy, neuroscience, and neurotechnology
Philosophy: Our philosophy research is grounded in the eight problems of consciousness. This divide-and-conquer approach lets us explore each subproblem independently, while being confident that when all piecemeal solutions are added back together, they will constitute a full solution to consciousness.
Neuroscience: We’ve done original synthesis work on combining several cutting-edge theories of neuroscience (the free energy principle, the entropic brain, and connectome-specific harmonic waves) into a unified theory of Bayesian emotional updating; we’ve also built the world’s first first-principles method for quantifying emotional valence from fMRI. More generally, we focus on collecting high valence neuroimaging datasets and developing algorithms to analyze, quantify, and visualize them. We also do extensive psychophysics research, focusing on both the fine-grained cognitive-emotional effects of altered states, and how different types of sounds, pictures, body vibrations, and forms of stimulation correspond with low and high valence states of consciousness.
Neurotechnology: We engage in both experimentation-driven exploration, tracking the phenomenological effects of various interventions, as well as theory-driven development. In particular, we’re prototyping a line of neurofeedback tools to help treat mental health disorders.
What does QRI hope to do over the next 5 years? Next 20 years?
Over the next five years, we intend to further our neurotechnology to the point that we can treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), especially treatment-resistant PTSD. We intend to empirically verify or falsify the symmetry theory of valence. If it is falsified, we will search for a new theory that ties together all of the empirical evidence we have discovered. We aim to create an Effective Altruist cause area regarding the reduction of intense suffering as well as the study of very high valence states of consciousness.
Over the next 20 years, we intend to become a world-class research center where we can put the discipline of “paradise engineering” (as described by philosopher David Pearce) on firm academic grounds.
Questions About Our Mission
How can understanding the science of consciousness make the world a better place?
Understanding consciousness would improve the world in a tremendous number of ways. One obvious outcome would be the ability to better predict what types of beings are conscious—from locked-in patients to animals to pre-linguistic humans—and what their experiences might be like.
We also think it’s useful to break down the benefits of understanding consciousness in three ways: reducing the amount of extreme suffering in the world, increasing the baseline well-being of conscious beings, and achieving new heights for what conscious states are possible to experience.
Without a good theory of valence, many neurological disorders will remain completely intractable. Disorders such as fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), migraines, and cluster headaches are all currently medical puzzles and yet have incredibly negative effects on people’s livelihoods. We think that a mathematical theory of valence will explain why these things feel so bad and what the shortest path for getting rid of them looks like. Besides valence-related disorders, nearly all mental health disorders, from clinical depression and PTSD to schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, will become better understood as we discover the structure of conscious experience.
We also believe that many (though not all) of the zero-sum games people play are the products of inner states of dissatisfaction and suffering. Broadly speaking, people who have a surplus of cognitive and emotional energy tend to play more positive sum games, are more interested in cooperation, and are very motivated to do so. We think that studying states such as those induced by MDMA that combine both high valence and a prosocial behavior mindset can radically alter the game theoretical landscape of the world for the better.
What is the end goal of QRI? What does QRI’s perfect world look like?
In QRI’s perfect future:
There is no involuntary suffering and all sentient beings are animated by gradients of bliss,
Research on qualia and consciousness is done at a very large scale for the purpose of mapping out the state-space of consciousness and understanding its computational and intrinsic properties (we think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge about consciousness),
We have figured out the game-theoretical subtleties in order to make that world dynamic yet stable: radically positive, without just making it fully homogeneous and stuck in a local maxima.
Questions About Getting Involved
What are the most important things to read to learn about QRI’s research?
You can start by signing up for our newsletter! This is by far our most important communication channel. We also have a Facebook page, Twitter account, and Linkedin page. Lastly, we share some exclusive tidbits of ideas and thoughts with our supporters on Patreon.
Read and engage with our research. We love critical responses to our ideas and encourage you to reach out if you have an interesting thought!
Spread the word to friends, potential donors, and people that you think would make great collaborators with QRI.
Check out our volunteer page to find more detailed ways that you can contribute to our mission, from independent research projects to QRI content creation.
Questions About Consciousness
What assumptions about consciousness does QRI have? What theory of consciousness does QRI support?
The most important assumption that QRI is committed to is Qualia Formalism, the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. We are also Valence Realists: we believe valence (how good or bad an experience feels) is a real and well-defined property of conscious states. Besides these positions, we are fairly agnostic and everything else is an educated guess useful for pragmatic purposes.
What does QRI think of functionalism?
QRI thinks that functionalism takes many high-quality insights about how systems work and combines them in such a way that both creates confusion and denies the possibility of progress. In its raw, unvarnished form, functionalism is simply skepticism about the possibility of Qualia Formalism. It is simply a statement that “there is nothing here to be formalized; consciousness is like élan vital, confusion to be explained away.” It’s not actually a theory of consciousness; it’s an anti-theory. This is problematic in at least two ways:
1. By assuming consciousness has formal structure, we’re able to make novel predictions that functionalism cannot (see e.g. QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Quantifying Bliss). A few hundred years ago, there were many people who doubted that electromagnetism had a unified, elegant, formal structure, and this was a reasonable position at the time. However, in the age of the iPhone, skepticism that electricity is a “real thing” that can be formalized is no longer reasonable. Likewise, everything interesting and useful QRI builds using the foundation of Qualia Formalism stretches functionalism’s credibility thinner and thinner.
2. Insofar as functionalism is skeptical about the formal existence of consciousness, it’s skeptical about the formal existence of suffering and all sentience-based morality. In other words, functionalism is a deeply amoral theory, which if taken seriously dissolves all sentience-based ethical claims. This is due to there being an infinite number of functional interpretations of a system: there’s no ground-truth fact of the matter about what algorithm a physical system is performing, about what information-processing it’s doing. And if there’s no ground-truth about which computations or functions are present, but consciousness arises from these computations or functions, then there’s no ground-truth about consciousness, or things associated with consciousness, like suffering. This is a strange and subtle point, but it’s very important. This point alone is not sufficient to reject functionalism: if the universe is amoral, we shouldn’t hold a false theory of consciousness in order to try to force reality into some ethical framework. But in debates about consciousness, functionalists should be up-front that functionalism and radical moral anti-realism is a package deal, that inherent in functionalism is the counter-intuitive claim that just as we can reinterpret which functions a physical system is instantiating, we can reinterpret what qualia it’s experiencing and whether it’s suffering.
At QRI, we hold a position that is close to dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, which states that the universe is composed of one kind of thing that is neutral, and that both the mental and physical are two features of this same substance. One of the motivating factors for holding this view is that if there is deep structure in the physical, then there should be a corresponding deep structure to phenomenal experience. And we can tie this together with physicalism in the sense that the laws of physics ultimately describe fields of qualia. While there are some minor disagreements between dual-aspect monism and panpsychism, we believe that our position mostly fits well with a panpsychist view—that phenomenal properties are a fundamental feature of the world and aren’t spontaneously created only when a certain computation is being performed.
However, even with this view, there still are very important questions, such as: what makes a unified conscious experience? Where does one experience end and another begin? Without considering these problems in the light of Qualia Formalism, it is easy to tie animism into panpsychism and believe that inanimate objects like rocks, sculptures, and pieces of wood have spirits or complex subjective experiences. At QRI, we disagree with this and think that these types of objects might have extremely small pockets of unified conscious experience, but will mostly be masses of micro-qualia that are not phenomenally bound into some larger experience.
What does QRI think of IIT (Integrated Information Theory)?
QRI is very grateful for IIT because it is the first mainstream theory of consciousness that satisfies a Qualia Formalist account of experience. IIT says (and introduced the idea!) that for every conscious experience, there is a corresponding mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the properties of the experience. QRI believes that without this idea, we cannot solve consciousness in a meaningful way, and we consider the work of Giulio Tononi to be one of our core research lineages. That said, we are not in complete agreement with the specific mathematical and ontological choices of IIT, and we think it may be trying to ‘have its cake and eat it too’ with regard to functionalism vs physicalism. For more, see Sections III-V of Principia Qualia.
We make no claim that some future version of IIT, particularly something more directly compatible with physics, couldn’t cleanly address our objections, and see a lot of plausible directions and promise in this space.
What does QRI think of the free energy principle and predictive coding?
On our research lineages page, we list the work of Karl Friston as one of QRI’s core research lineages. We consider the free energy principle (FEP), as well as related research such as predictive coding, active inference, the Bayesian brain, and cybernetic regulation, as an incredibly elegant and predictive story of how brains work. Friston’s idea also forms a key part of the foundation for QRI’s theory of brain self-organization and emotional updating, Neural Annealing.
However, we don’t think that the free energy principle is itself a theory of consciousness, as it suffers from many of the shortcomings of functionalism: we can tell the story about how the brain minimizes free energy, but we don’t have a way of pointing at the brain and saying *there* is the free energy! The FEP is an amazing logical model, but it’s not directly connected to any physical mechanism. It is a story that “this sort of abstract thing is going on in the brain” without a clear method of mapping this abstract story to reality.
Friston has supported this functionalist interpretation of his work, noting that he sees consciousness as a process of inference, not a thing. That said, we are very interested in his work on calculating the information geometry of Markov blankets, as this could provide a tacit foundation for a formalist account of qualia under the FEP. Regardless of this, though, we believe Friston’s work will play a significant role in a future science of mind.
What does QRI think of global workspace theory?
The global workspace theory (GWT) is a cluster of empirical observations that seem to be very important for understanding what systems in the brain contribute to a reportable experience at a given point in time. The global workspace theory is a very important clue for answering questions of what philosophers call Access Consciousness, or the aspects of our experience on which we can report.
However, QRI does not consider the global workspace theory to be a full theory of consciousness. Parts of the brain that are not immediately contributing to the global workspace may be composed of micro qualia, or tiny clusters of experience. They’re obviously impossible to report on, but they are still relevant to the study of consciousness. In other words, just because a part of your brain wasn’t included in the instantaneous global workspace, doesn’t mean that it can’t suffer or it can’t experience happiness. We value global workspace research because questions of Access Consciousness are still very critical for a full theory of consciousness.
What does QRI think of higher-order theories of consciousness?
QRI is generally opposed to theories of consciousness that equate consciousness with higher order reflective thought and cognition. Some of the most intense conscious experiences are pre-reflective or unreflective such as blind panic, religious ecstasy, experiences of 5-MeO-DMT, and cluster headaches. In these examples, there is not much reflectivity nor cognition going on, yet they are intensely conscious. Therefore, we largely reject any attempt to define consciousness with a higher-order theory.
What is the relationship between evolution and consciousness?
The relationship between evolution and consciousness is very intricate and subtle. An eliminativist approach arrives at the simple idea that information processing of a certain type is evolutionarily advantageous, and perhaps we can call this consciousness. However, with a Qualia Formalist approach, it seems instead that the very properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to consciousness can play key roles (either causal or in terms of information processing) that make it advantageous for organisms to recruit consciousness.
If you don’t realize that consciousness maps onto a mathematical object with properties, you may think that you understand why consciousness was recruited by natural selection, but your understanding of the topic would be incomplete. In other words, to have a full understanding of why evolution recruited consciousness, you need to understand what advantages the mathematical object has. One very important feature of consciousness is its capacity for binding. For example, the unitary nature of experience—the fact that we can experience a lot of qualia simultaneously—may be a key feature of consciousness that accelerates the process of finding solutions to constraint satisfaction problems. In turn, evolution would hence have a reason to recruit states of consciousness for computation. So rather than thinking of consciousness as identical with the computation that is going on in the brain, we can think of it as a resource with unique computational benefits that are powerful and dynamic enough to make organisms that use it more adaptable to their environments.
Does QRI think that animals are conscious?
QRI thinks there is a very high probability that every animal with a nervous system is conscious. We are agnostic about unified consciousness in insects, but we consider it very likely. We believe research on animal consciousness has relevance when it comes to treating animals ethically. Additionally, we do think that the ethical importance of consciousness has more to do with the pleasure-pain axis (valence), rather than cognitive ability. In that sense, the suffering of non-human animals may be just as morally relevant, if not more relevant than humans. The cortex seems to play a largely inhibitory role for emotions, such that the larger the cortex is, the better we’re able to manage and suppress our emotions. Consequently, animals whose cortices are less developed than ours may experience pleasure and pain in a more intense and uncontrollable way, like a pre-linguistic toddler.
Does QRI think that plants are conscious?
We think it’s very unlikely that plants are conscious. The main reason is that they lack an evolutionary reason to recruit consciousness. Large-scale phenomenally bound experience may be very energetically expensive, and plants don’t have much energy to spare. Additionally, plants have thick cellulose walls that separate individual cells, making it very unlikely that plants can solve the binding problem and therefore create unified moments of experience.
Why do some people seek out pain?
This is a very multifaceted question. As a whole, we postulate that in the vast majority of cases, when somebody may be nominally pursuing pain or suffering, they’re actually trying to reduce internal dissonance in pursuit of consonance or they’re failing to predict how pain will actually feel. For example, when a person hears very harsh music, or enjoys extremely spicy food, this can be explained in terms of either masking other unpleasant sensations or raising the energy parameter of experience, the latter of which can lead to neural annealing: a very pleasant experience that manifests as consonance in the moment.
I sometimes like being sad. Is QRI trying to take that away from me?
Before we try to ‘fix’ something, it’s important to understand what it’s trying to do for us. Sometimes suffering leads to growth; sometimes creating valuable things involves suffering. Sometimes, ‘being sad’ feels strangely good. Insofar as suffering is doing good things for us, or for the world, QRI advocates a light touch (see Chesterton’s fence). However, we also suggest two things:
1. Most kinds of melancholic or mixed states of sadness usually are pursued for reasons that cash out as some sort of pleasure. Bittersweet experiences are far more preferable than intense agony or deep depression. If you enjoy sadness, it’s probably because there’s an aspect of your experience that is enjoyable. If it were possible to remove the sad part of your experience while maintaining the enjoyable part of it, you might be surprised to find that you prefer this modified experience more than the original one.
2. There are kinds of sadness and suffering that are just bad, that degrade us as humans, and would be better to never feel. QRI doesn’t believe in forcibly taking away voluntary suffering, or pushing bliss on people. But we would like to live in a world where people can choose to avoid such negative states, and on the margin, we believe it would be better for humanity for more people to be joyful, filled with a deep sense of well-being.
If dissonance is so negative, why is dissonance so important in music?
When you listen to very consonant music or consonant tones, you will quickly adapt to these sounds and get bored of them. This has nothing to do with consonance itself being unpleasant and everything to do with learning in the brain. Whenever you experience the same stimuli repeatedly, most brains will trigger a boredom mechanism and add dissonance of its own in order to make you enjoy the stimuli less or simply inhibit it, not allowing you to experience it at all. Semantic satiation is a classic example of this where repeating the same word over and over will make it lose its meaning. For this reason, to trigger many high valence states of consciousness consecutively, you need contrast. In particular, music works with gradients of consonance and dissonance, and in most cases, moving towards consonance is what feels good rather than the absolute value of consonance. Music tends to feel the best when you mix a high absolute value of consonance together with a very strong sense of moving towards an even higher absolute value of consonance. Playing some levels of dissonance during a song will later enhance the enjoyment of the more consonant parts such as the chorus of songs, which are reported to be the most euphoric parts of song and typically are extremely consonant.
What is QRI’s perspective on AI and AI safety research?
QRI thinks that consciousness research is critical for addressing AI safety. Without a precise way of quantifying an action’s impact on conscious experiences, we won’t be able to guarantee that an AI system has been programmed to act benevolently. Also, certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence without any outside observer being aware of it. We need a theory of what produces unpleasant experiences to avoid inadvertently creating superintelligences that suffer intensely in the process of solving important problems or accidentally inflict large-scale suffering.
Additionally, we think that a very large percentage of what will make powerful AI dangerous is that the humans programming these machines and using these machines may be reasoning from states of loneliness, resentment, envy, or anger. By discovering ways to help humans transition away from these states, we can reduce the risks of AI by creating humans that are more ethical and aligned with consciousness more broadly. In short: an antidote for nihilism could lead to a substantial reduction in existential risk.
One way to think about QRI and AI safety is that the world is building AI, but doesn’t really have a clear, positive vision of what to do with AI. Lacking this, the default objective becomes “take over the world.” We think a good theory of consciousness could and will offer new visions of what kind of futures are worth building—new Schelling points that humanity (and AI researchers) could self-organize around.
Can digital computers implementing AI algorithms be conscious?
QRI is agnostic about this question. We have reasons to believe that digital computers in their current form cannot solve the phenomenal binding problem. Most of the activity in digital computers can be explained in a stepwise fashion in terms of localized processing of bits of information. Because of this, we believe that current digital computers could be creating fragments of qualia, but are unlikely to be creating strongly globally bound experiences. So, we consider the consciousness of digital computers unlikely, although given our current uncertainty over the Binding Problem (or alternatively framed, the Boundary Problem), this assumption is lightly held. In the previous question, when we write that “certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence”, we assume that these hypothetical computers have some type of unified conscious experience as a result of having solved the phenomenal binding problem. For more on this topic, see: “What’s Out There?“
How much mainstream recognition has QRI’s work received, either for this line of research or others? Has it published in peer-reviewed journals, received any grants, or garnered positive reviews from other academics?
We are collaborating with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University on several studies involving the analysis of neuroimaging data of high-valence states of consciousness. Additionally, we are currently preparing two publications for peer-reviewed journals on topics from our core research areas. Michael Johnson will be presenting at this year’s MCS seminar series, along with Karl Friston, Anil Seth, Selen Atasoy, Nao Tsuchiya, and others; Michael Johnson, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, and Quintin Frerichs have also given invited talks at various east-coast colleges (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Dartmouth).
Some well-known researchers and intellectuals that are familiar and think positively about our work include: Robin Carhart-Harris, Scott Alexander, David Pearce, Steven Lehar, Daniel Ingram, and more. Scott Alexander acknowledged that QRI put together the paradigms that contributed to Friston’s integrative model of how psychedelics work before his research was published. Our track record so far has been to foreshadow (by several years in advance) key discoveries later proposed and accepted in mainstream academia. Given our current research findings, we expect this trend to continue in the years to come.
How does QRI know what is best for other people/animals? What about cultural relativism?
We think that, to a large extent, people and animals work under the illusion that they are pursuing intentional objects, states of the external environment, or relationships that they may have with the external environment. However, when you examine these situations closely, you realize that what we actually pursue are states of high valence triggered by external circumstances. There may be evolutionary and cultural selection pressures that push us toward self-deception as to how we actually function. And we consider it negative to have these selection pressures makes us less self-aware because it often focuses our energy on unpleasant, destructive, or fruitless strategies. QRI hopes to support people in fostering more self-awareness, which can come through experiments with one’s own consciousness, like meditation, as well as through the deeper theoretical understanding of what it is that we actually want.
How central is David Pearce’s work to the work of the QRI?
We consider David Pearce to be one of our core lineages. We particularly value his contribution to valence realism, the insistence that states of consciousness come with an overall valence, and that this is very morally relevant. We also consider David Pearce to be very influential in philosophy of mind; Pearce, for instance, coined the phrase ‘tyranny of the intentional object’, the title of a core QRI piece of the same name. We have been inspired by Pearce’s descriptions for what any scientific theory of consciousness should be able to explain, as well as his particular emphasis on the binding problem. David’s vision of a world animated by ‘gradients of bliss’ has also been very generative as a normative thought experiment which integrates human and non-human well-being. We do not necessarily agree with all of David Pearce’s work, but we respect him as an insightful and vivid thinker who has been brave enough to actually take a swing at describing utopia and who we believe is far ahead of his time.
What does QRI think of negative utilitarianism?
There’s general agreement within QRI that intense suffering is an extreme moral priority, and we’ve done substantial work on finding simple ways of getting rid of extreme suffering (with our research inspiring at least one unaffiliated startup to date). However, we find it premature to strongly endorse any pre-packaged ethical theory, especially because none of them are based on any formalism, but rather an ungrounded concept of ‘utility’. The value of information here seems enormous, and we hope that we can get to a point where the ‘correct’ ethical theory may simply ‘pop out of the equations’ of reality. It’s also important to highlight the fact that common versions and academic formulations of utilitarianism seem to be blind to many subtleties concerning valence. For example, they do not distinguish between mixed states of consciousness where you have extreme pleasure combined with extreme suffering in such a way that you judge the experience to be neither entirely suffering nor entirely happiness and states of complete neutrality, such as extreme white noise. Because most formulations of utilitarianism do not distinguish between them, we are generally suspicious of the idea that philosophers of ethics have considered all of the relevant attributes of consciousness in order to make accurate judgments about morality.
What does QRI think of philosophy of mind departments?
We believe that the problems that philosophy of mind departments address tend to be very disconnected from what truly matters from an ethical, moral, and philosophical point of view. For example, there is little appreciation of the value of bringing mathematical formalisms into discussions about the mind, or what that might look like in practice. Likewise there is close to no interest in preventing extreme suffering nor understanding its nature. Additionally, there is usually a disregard for extreme states of positive valence, and strange or exotic experiences in general. It may be the case that there are worthwhile things happening in departments and classes creating and studying this literature, but we find them characterized by processes which are unlikely to produce progress on their nominal purpose, creating a science of mind.
In particular, in academic philosophy of mind, we’ve seen very little regard for producing empirically testable predictions. There are millions of pages written about philosophy of mind, but the number of pages that provide precise, empirically testable predictions is quite thin.
What therapies does QRI recommend for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain?
At QRI, we do not make specific recommendations to individuals, but rather point to areas of research that we consider to be extremely important, tractable, and neglected, such as anti-tolerance drugs, neural annealing techniques, frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stone pain, and N,N-DMT and other tryptamines for cluster headaches and migraines.
Why does QRI think it’s so important to focus on ending extreme suffering?
QRI thinks ending extreme suffering is important, tractable, and neglected. It’s important because of the logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain—the fact that extreme suffering is far worse by orders of magnitude than what people intuitively believe. It’s tractable because there are many types of extreme suffering that have existing solutions that are fairly trivial or at least have a viable path for being solved with moderately funded research programs. And it’s neglected mostly because people are unaware of the existence of these states, though not necessarily because of their rarity. For example, 10% of the population experiences kidney stones at some point in their life, but for reasons having to do with trauma, PTSD, and the state-dependence of memory, even people who have suffered from kidney stones do not typically end up dedicating their time or resources toward eradicating them.
It’s also likely that if we can meaningfully improve the absolute worst experiences, much of the knowledge we’ll gain in that process will translate into other contexts. In particular, we should expect to figure out how to make moderately depressed people happier, fix more mild forms of pain, improve the human hedonic baseline, and safely reach extremely great peak states. Mood research is not a zero-sum game. It’s a web of synergies.
Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman, Mackenzie Dion, and Mike Johnson for their collaboration in putting this together. Featured image is QRI’s logo – animated by Hunter Meyer.
Some substances seem to be much better at treating psychological trauma than others, even when they are seemingly similar in nature. We have reason to believe that 5-MeO-DMT is significantly better suited for this task than N,N-DMT (“DMT” from now on). In order to gain insight into why this difference exists, we investigate the phenomenological differences and similarities between the experiences produced by these two tryptamine psychedelics. In particular, we develop 9 lenses that show promise for understanding how 5-MeO-DMT and DMT differ:
Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT.
Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT.
Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving.
Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it.
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.
Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it.
Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it.
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.
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.
All of this together suggests that 5-MeO-DMT is better at helping you “reconnect with yourself” than DMT. And this may be key to treating trauma effectively.
What is Trauma?
I will start out by briefly mentioning an interesting property of psychological trauma. You see, trauma has a lot of somatic manifestations. Feeling disconnected from yourself, like you are full of blockages, that you have numb regions in your body despite no physical damage, and so on, are all quintessential ways in which trauma shows up in a person’s everyday life. Given these manifestations, do these suggest any new way of treating this? How about using something that facilitates the communication between parts of your nervous system that are not on “speaking terms” with each other? Would giving our nervous system a kind of vibration that simultaneously entrains any two of its regions to make them act as a unit be of any help?
Psychotropic Treatment of Trauma
Based on tens of interviews, hundreds of trip reports, and a literature review, I have arrived at a tentative short list of drugs that have the highest potential to heal trauma (in decreasing order):
They are all synergistic combined with music, vibration, strobes, and olfaction. And when wisely used, they all have the ability to help you move on past pain: stop ruminating, stop feeling like your behavior is inhibited, and stop having panic attacks associated with your past experiences.
At some point in the future I will provide direct empirical evidence for the claim that these three substances are uniquely good for treating trauma. Arguably psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD can be helpful in processing traumatic experiences too. But my claim is that the options I listed are uniquely good at deeply resolving the issues at an emotional level and bringing to you the opportunity to feel a profound and lasting sense of inner peace.
DMT won’t help as much as 5-MeO-DMT.
MDA is not as good as MDMA.
And DXM, ok, perhaps it can also be quite useful for trauma… but ketamine has something “extra” that really helps.
What is this?
The Koan: 5-MeO-DMT, MDMA, Ketamine?
Perhaps we could gain a new perspective by framing this as a Koan: what do MDMA, 5-MeO-DMT, and ketamine have in common? You HAVE to the figure this out in the next 24 hours, or your guru will literally cut your cat in half. Motivated enough?
What do you do? Well, you start out by borrowing psychopharmacology books from the library. But does that help? When it comes to trauma, in traditional textbook neuroscience MDMA is at best just a footnote. Ketamine is not even mentioned for the most part, unless the book is hip, but even then it will be mentioned in the chapter about anaesthetics and painkillers; its psychoactive effects will be glossed over as “emergent phenomena”. No! What are you doing? Wasn’t John C. Lilly already talking about the far-out, extraordinarily bizarre, perhaps even literally inter-dimensional properties of “vitamin K” way back in the 70s? Then why is my 2007 “Drugs and the Brain” textbook so totally lacking in any kind of genuine phenomenological insight about this stuff?
And what about 5-MeO-DMT? You are lucky if the term appears even once in your $800 textbook. And if it does indeed appear, you can bet it will also be in a footnote, this time concerning matters such as “psychoactive animals”, “other tryptamines”, and “mesoamerican entheogens”. You will neither see 5-MeO-DMT mentioned in a personal identity philosophy textbook, nor in a neuroscience treatise on “neural synchrony”, nor in the part of academia focused on “innovation in the treatment of mental illness”.
It is sad to admit, but the official main-lined level of interest in the three most promising therapeutic tools for trauma listed above is a matter of sorting and assembling footnotes.
I am exaggerating a bit, of course.
MDMA’s therapeutic potential is gaining traction thanks to the tireless work of MAPS. S-Ketamine is now approved as an anti-depressant. And while 5-MeO-DMT is gaining popularity at a glacial pace, it is at this point by no means a secret. An increasing number of vocal members of the psychedelic community have been talking about 5-MeO-DMT for some years. People who have publicly emphasized how different five is from other psychedelics include Hamilton Morris, James Oroc, Martin Ball, Leo Gura, and Rak Razam. But what we still lack is rigorous scientific backing for these claims. After all, everyone is likely to want to sell their aesthetic preferences as universal truths about beauty and bliss, right? Thankfully, there are some early scientific indications already:
The above graph comes from a 2018 study that investigated the therapeutic effects of 5-MeO-DMT-containing toad venom relative to psilocybin. The dose used (the amount of buffo venom vaporized) had an estimated content of 5-7mg of 5-MeO-DMT, and the researchers classified 75% of the resulting experiences as meeting the criteria for a “complete mystical experience”. It measured people’s level of response with the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ30), and as you can see from the graph above, in every category 5-MeO-DMT seems to be more powerful than psilocybin. The level of effectiveness was indeed found to be higher than all but the highest dose of psilocybin, and chances are that the study couldn’t show it was more effective than that because it was underpowered to detect it, and not because there is no difference (in other words, the sample size was not large enough for the difference between high-dose psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT to reach statistical significance). Also bear in mind the key difference that the trip lasts under 20 minutes in total, meaning that even if the trip fails to produce full effects, you can still afford to try it again ten more times in the same time interval that it would have taken you to experience a full psilocybin trip. More so, it is important to point out that the dose of 5-MeO-DMT taken by the participants of this study is considered to be at the edge between “light” and “common” in PsychonautWiki’s entry on the drug*. Indeed, for many people the “breakthrough” tends to happen around 10mg, and I’ve heard of people using up to 30mg of it at a time. (Beware: if you ever try this – please don’t jump straight to a high dose, as this can cause serious trauma as a result.) Therefore, I think it is reasonable to expect that future studies will confirm what anecdotal data is currently screaming: that 5-MeO-DMT is more “powerful” and “mystical” in its effects than psilocybin, LSD, DMT, 2C-B, and all the rest.
But what this “power” and “mysticism” exactly amounts to still lacks clear and useful definitions. More so, is there any concrete reason why 5-MeO-DMT may be also superior at healing trauma relative to, eg. LSD or psilocybin? Technically, one could currently argue that since the presentation of “complete mystical states” is a mediating factor in whether psilocybin has long-lasting psychological benefits, that 5-MeO-DMT is more effective simply because it has a higher probability of causing this effect. But I would argue that the texture of 5-MeO-DMT peak experiences is different and not only just more intense, and that the way in which it is different matters for its therapeutic value.
To investigate this particular difference, we now move on to examining the phenomenological difference between 5-MeO-DMT and DMT.
5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses
My experience is that a reasonable ~20% of people I talk to who have a long-standing interest in psychedelics have heard about 5-MeO-DMT’s special properties. However, only a much smaller percentage of people have actually tried it. At Qualia Computing we have talked about its exceptionalphenomenologicalproperties a number of times. Yet it remains that most readers who reach out have not themselves experienced it. Hence I have not really had access to quality trip reports in order to say anything meaningful about the way in which it is different from DMT.
Thankfully, I’ve recently interviewed someone who has a decent level of experience with 5-MeO-DMT (20+ trips), along with a significant level of experience with vaporized DMT (100+ trips), and is also acquainted with the combination (10+ trips with both substances at once).
Given the incredibly intense psychoactive effects of 5-MeO-DMT (both for good and bad), most people struggle to put into words anything meaningful about the state. That said, as it has been the case with a number of other states of consciousness (e.g. LSD, DMT, and MDMA) I feel compelled to try to offer a sane, rational, agnostic, and pragmatic description of its phenomenology. In particular, I think that 5-MeO-DMT’s unique trauma-healing potential really deserves a close look. I believe that it sheds light on a wide range of topics of interest such as neural annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and the pseudo-time arrow (video). With this in mind, I inquired with my interviewee about the differences between N,N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Together, after a lengthy open-ended discussion, we found the following ways to compare them:
1. Space vs. Form
One of the first things that stands out when you take DMT at even small doses is the way in which colors get intensified. This is a special case of a very generalizable effect: in fact, every perceptual feature you can point to is enhanced while on DMT, from the sharpness of edges and pointy things to the feeling of movement and rotation. The interviewee indeed said that a brain on DMT “becomes a powerful qualia machine“.
After trying 5-MeO-DMT for the first time, most people already familiar with DMT mention something along the lines of “I was surprised that I didn’t see many colors.” The visual component of five is rarely very colorful; if color appears, it is in the form of a golden or sometimes light faint magenta or green hue. For the most part, the visual component of the experience is black and/or white. At times, one can see rainbow halos, but like rare subatomic particles, on 5-MeO-DMT rainbow colors come in and out of the vacuum, as if somehow equivalent to it. The bulk of the visuals manifest in a dazzling sense of spaciousness, as if there was a cosmic paint called “transparent/translucent”. The space often feels immeasurable due to a lack of a reference frame from which to make a judgement in terms of known comparisons. But what inevitably stands out is that the space seems large, uniform, harmonious, smooth, and luminous. Somatic feelings blend with this space, and the uniformity and symmetry of it allows for energy to seamlessly move throughout it. It really is a remarkable effect, one which can easily give rise to the felt-sense of Open Individualism. Yet, despite the engrossingly engaging character of these feelings, there is very little narrative complexity in sight.
Who knew that empty space could be so much fun? That you could fit so much love and bliss in an (experiential) vacuum? More so, the more you are able to relax into it, the more you embrace the waves of equanimity, the more you allow the space to become perfectly smooth and seamless… the more blissful it all gets!**