Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body
Encouraging feelings of well-being
The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.
Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.
There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.
Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.
Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.
Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength
We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.
Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.
Suffusing and saturating the whole body
Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.
One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.
These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.
Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies
The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.
When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.
For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above:
We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.
The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight
Insight brings samādhi
As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!
With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.
Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.
Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.
In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.
Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.
 We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.
The following is an exchange of text messages with Roger Thisdell, a 26 year old accomplished meditator. He claims that this year he finally broke through into abiding in what he describes as an entirely new category of experience that matches the descriptions of classical Buddhist 4th path.
1) Utter centerlessness: no watcher, no sense of a watcher, no subtle watcher, no possibility of a watcher. This is immediately obvious just as color is to a man with good eyesight as the old saying goes. Thus, anything and everything simply and obviously manifests just where they are. No phenomena observe any others and never did or could.
2) Utter agencylessness: meaning no agency, no sense of doing, no sense of doer, no sense that there could be any agent or doer, no way to find anything that seems to be in control at all. Whatever effort or intent or anything like that that arises does so naturally, causally, inevitably, as it always actually did. This is immediately obvious, though not always the forefront of attention.
3) No cycles change or stages or states or anything else like that do anything to this direct comprehension of simple truths at all.
4) There is no deepening in it to do. The understanding stands on its own and holds up over cycles, moods, years, etc and doesn’t change at all. I have nothing to add to my initial assessment of it from 9 years ago.
5) There is nothing subtle about it: anything and everything that arises exhibits these same qualities directly, clearly. When I was on the third path, particularly late in it, those things that didn’t exhibit these qualities were exceedingly subtle, and trying to find the gaps in the thing was exceedingly difficult and took years and many cycles. I had periods from weeks to months where it felt done and then some subtle exception would show up and I would realize I was wrong yet again, so this is natural and understandable, and if someone claims 4th as I define it here and later says they got it wrong, have sympathy for them, as this territory is not easy and can easily fool people, as it did me many, many times over about 5 years or so. However, 4th, as I term it, ended that and 9 years later that same thing holds, which is a very long time in this business.
There are other aspects that may be of value to discuss at some other time, but those are a great place to start for those who wish to claim this. If you truly have those, then perhaps we can talk about a few other points that are less central and essential.
[Links added to aid reader’s comprehension – lightly edited for clarity]
In the beginning… Roger joined a private group where we discuss consciousness and started to get familiar with the vocabulary of the Qualia Research Institute (e.g. discussing meditation in terms of valence). He then posted this video, which caught my attention:
Where he claims that “Pleasure as a positive, as an actual added experience, does not exist. It certainly does not exist how a lot of us think it does … [whereas] negative valence experiences do exist as contractions.”
Andrés! This is Roger Thisdell […]. Thanks for giving me your number.
Do add me to the Phenomenology Club. That sounds like my jam! Cheers!
Excellent! Will do! 🙂
Hey Andrés, it was great to hang out online last night and hear your explanations. A bunch of you are really elite thinkers. I’m inspired to learn how to speak more of your qualia language.
I would love to get into the topic of paradises with you. You seem to really sing their praise.
I said yesterday that I hold the view that actually what is most desirable is just the elimination of negative valence. As someone who frequently has cessations (when consciousness blanks out for a moment) where there is no subjective experience (no negative, no positive valence) in my book this is good enough. My thinking is also informed via complete ego death experiences in which there is still consciousness but no judgement on any part of experience (bad or good). At a local individual level these are the most desirable states. Out of all the states I have experienced (including bliss trips, jhanas, 5-MeO, MDMA, staring into the eyes of a lover without insecurities, laughing fits 🤣) if I had to choose a state to be in permanently it would either be cessation or ego death. I may have curated my brain too much to a Buddhist view and my level of emptiness insight is well entrenched, so that it is hard for me to really believe the ultimate good is to keep the cosmic consciousness party going and fueling it with positive valence.
I think that while consciousness is online we better make the best out of it and try to exist in as few low negative valence states as possible and help all sentient beings with this as well; all the while the positive valence that comes along is merely instrumentally valuable, like a compliment or added bonus.
For example if you are hungry it is nice to eat something tasty. But if you were never hungry in the first place then who cares how tasty something is – don’t need it 💁♂️ (this may be my strongly consolidated non-attachment showing).
I guess what I’m really asking is: can you convince me to intrinsically care for paradise states? I do believe I have experienced what you are referring to as paradise states, but maybe I just have too much non-attachment for them to think they are the goal/prize.
(apologies for being long-winded 🙏)
You lost the ability to get excited about future experiences. You learned this because you were taught and you practiced techniques that associate being excited about the future with dukkha. Alas, the hedonic theories around the time of Buddha were incomplete and as a consequence a lot of the claims and teachings underfit reality (meaning that they generalize too much). In contrast, it turns out that there are a manifold of ways of experiencing excitement about the future in an epistemologically clear way and no delusions. More so, with that orientation one can see more clearly larger parts of the state-space of consciousness as one is not inhibiting them. I know you have experience with high valence states. But I suspect you have deconstructed a lot of the microcognitive apparatus that allow the insights coming from the reality of their existence from propagating across the entire nervous system.
Just as lack of awareness about e.g. cluster headaches phenomenology can give you the impression that reality has no stakes, so does acute lack of access to the ultra-positive realms. I think for many, Buddhism has a certain effect in how one conceptualizes such experiential realms after the fact that perhaps is not quite in tune with how they truly were. Interestingly, one could here examine Buddhism as an aesthetic itself, and renunciation as a kind of Soulmaking, where under the hood one is still pursuing a kind of high-dimensional meaning qualia of positive valence. Which takes me to:
Rob Burbea’s Soulmaking talking about how exploring not exhaustively breaking down dukkha always but letting a bit of e.g. Eros/passion for reality opens up new ways of seeing that recontextualize Buddhism. Not that we shouldn’t get rid of dukkha, of course. But it’s good to see the underlying aesthetic influences on how one generalizes about reality based on one’s experience.
What do you think? 😄
Thank you for joining! And also for sharing your thoughts. 🤠👌
First of all, I am so impressed with Burbea. His lectures were incredibly useful for me while learning the jhanas. And now I’m picking through his book ‘Seeing That Frees’.
I think his ontology and how he builds on Buddhism is sophisticated and gorgeous.
Reminds me of a remark about Hemingway, by his grandson – he quit journalism to dedicate himself to fiction because he was more interested in truth than facts. I relate this to Soulmaking in a way.
I love his notion of skillful fabrication. But it seems like it’s a compromise in a way. We can’t fully live without self, and thoughtforms, and conceptual frameworks, and so, while we are alive and have them, let’s learn to use them skillfully/beautifully. I’m on board! 🚂
Re your 2nd point: I would add that a lack of awareness of the existence of cessations, or Nirodha, or ego death experiences is another topographical blind spot which prevents people from making a more comprehensive assessment of what is most desirable. (I know that many people who say they’ve experienced ego death, when I enquire about it, it turns out to be more of just a partial ego loss experience, and not the full annihilation). I suppose we really need those who have deep expertise in bliss states and dukkha-less/unfabricated states to compare and contrast.
For what it’s worth, and to give you more a sense of my bias, I would claim to be someone who has explored a wide range of state-spaces: from suicidal depression, to psychosis-like damnation bad trips, to K-holes, to peak experiences, and now as of 21st of May  I’m claiming Frank Yang-style MCTB [see: Scott Alexander’s book review] 4th path permanent abiding in centreless consciousness (IDK what that says about my nervous system and fully propagating insights as you mentioned).
Hands down 🙌, this is the best shift in my life that has ever taken place without a doubt (I thought stream entry was good, but this is another magnitude). My hedonic set tone is persistently so high. I’m often walking around smiling for no apparent reason. 11/10 I recommend this.
And 4th path gets you an ability to adopt a new perspective where you simultaneously see the Yin and the Yang and vice sera (emptiness is form and samsara is nirvana). It’s all one place, there is not out. All the while, still we quite obviously make value judgements between states. I know you speak of hellish corners of consciousness that shouldn’t be touched. And so, although we can/should adopt flexibility of perspectives on aesthetic frames (as Rob speaks about, which is helpful) and see value in many different views as best as we can… must we still do the hard job of really judging what is best? What is most desirable? (to talk from a metamodern perspective).
Ultimately, I still come down on: lights out unconsciousness tops everything 🤷♂️ [emphasis mine]. Getting all beings to Parinirvana would objectively be preferable for all beings rather than keeping the play going – if such a plan is possible or sensible or sensical even.
It’s funny though, at some point I think it may just come down to some split difference in intuition among people (perhaps that difference can be reconciled somehow). For me this was apparent when I hear from Kenneth Folk vs. Culadasa. Kenneth holds antinatalist sentiments (or he did when I emailed him a couple of years ago and actually asked him) which speaks to a siding with a belief that there is an asymmetry of weighted value between negative and positive valence. While Culadasa seems to emphasize the joyous journey and adventure of life, which may speak to an opposite weighting in favor of the positive valence being worth the negative valence that comes along with it. Certainly not all spiritual roads lead to Rome.
I am very open to the idea that I am missing something though, and I may just need to be led by the hand like a child to these heaven realms for me to change perspective 😇😂
Thanks for engaging, this is fun!
Thank you for engaging! This is super interesting! Let me think about what else I can say 🙂
Total valence vs. pureness of valence: see Principia Qualia pg. 41. It could be that during cessations consciousness disappears and the state literally does not exist in any way. But the states immediately before and immediately after do and have at least a tiny bit of information so they are mixed valence states. Yet, perhaps they are massively positive valence on net.
An alternative view is that unconsciousness is still ‘real’ in a way, in which case we could think of it as consciousness but with no content whatsoever. But it’s still there. The analogy would be like combing a vector field in a torus. Most states have the vector field collide with itself and therefore feel less than perfect valence (due to [the Symmetry Theory of Valence, aka.] STV). Only when the field is completely combed without any self-collisions (which would not be possible in a sphere) you get perfect positive valence. And although there is no information encoded in the field, it still exists just as it did before. There’s just nothing to report.
In that case paradise could actually still exist. Meaning, higher and more refined versions of this kind of experience. In particular, we could look for other mathematical objects where the field can also be combed perfectly. They would then be strangely a different kind of ‘unconsciousness’ perhaps capable of fitting more energy and higher dimensions. Still, they would have maximum positive valence.
What do you think?
Oh, I also forgot if I’ve asked you whether you’ve tried 5-MeO-DMT and how it compares to your new baseline.
Ah, yes, I see the kind of framework you’re thinking from now – anti-symmetry, symmetry, and asymmetry.
From Principia Qualia pg. 39: [paraphrasing] “…if we take our hypothesis and apply it to IIT, and then we attempt to maximize pleasure/symmetry, consciousness/[phi] drops very rapidly.”
All the way to the point that maximum pleasure entails no consciousness??? [emphasis mine]
I don’t have a lot of experience with 5-MeO. I only did it once at about a 6mg range.
My impression of 5-MeO was that it had a visual brightening effect somewhat similar to the 4th Jhana. And there was that psychedelic mirroring effect with eyes open. It also had the reduction of conceptual understanding that comes when you get into 8th [Jhana]. I interpret that as a significant down-regulation in top-down information processing??
5-MeO has the sense that it’s going somewhere, moving towards something, while the effects build and then dissipate. Like it’s growing into something (I guess this is before a peak breakthrough – which I didn’t have).
My current consciousness abode isn’t going anywhere. There isn’t a sense that things are building towards something. It has a forever ‘this is it’, locked-in quality. Like a somewhat superposition of emptiness and fullness simultaneously. (Before 4th path I always felt like I was flickering between form and emptiness, now the two cohabitate the experiential space at the same time).
5-MeO also seemed very hedonically volatile; like any subtle thought or movement could disrupt the peace.
Meanwhile my current state is super unperturbable. In the past 2.5 months I haven’t found something that has rocked my well-being.
A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview of a North Korean defector tell her story of starvation and human trafficking and for a good 30 minutes I was crying at this tragedy. But it was crying from a place of still really high well-being. I didn’t feel like I was suffering and I didn’t mind that crying state at all. (Which is quite weird, I suppose).
In my normal state now, there are no more papañca attacks. Thoughts don’t capture the mind like they used to.
And another thing I love about this new state is that I still have all my cognitive functions intact and I can operate in the world totally normally – which can’t be said about being on 5-MeO.
I feel super sober; while on 5-MeO I don’t believe you do (if I remember correctly).
I would say I prefer my new baseline to what I experienced on 5-MeO because of the lack of volatility and practicality of still having my intellect on hand, all the while with the constant sense of ‘this is it’ and high, high well-being.
Roger and Andrés have a video call:
We discussed a number of things: his meditation journey, his thoughts on various philosophies, exploring QRI frameworks, and his interest in music. Curiously, Roger said that unlike other people who spend a lot of time in meditation healing traumas and processing past experiences, he was able to largely just focus on progress on the path. This, along with a very rigorous and consistent practice, is why he got to where he is at so early in life (26 years old).
One of my main interests in the discussion was to flesh out how 4th path states/traits and the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) were connected. If I recall correctly, there were three main ideas connected to this topic I shared with him:
Discussing the “levels of consciousness” experienced on a psilocybin trip and the way they might mirror some of Frank Yang’s descriptions of the levels of consciousness on the path to awakening,
A model of equanimity I’ve been developing where impedance matching is a key ingredient, and
The difference between a “recipe” of a state or transformation of consciousness and its “review”
Let’s briefly elaborate on these topics.
(1) Frank Yang talks about undergoing a meditative process with the following stages: (a) standard sense of self, (b) awareness of awareness, (c) God/Oneness/Being/Non-Duality/Self, (d) Emptiness/Non-Beng/Uni-Locality, (e) Neither Being Nor Non-Being, and finally (f) Enlightenment.
What makes his descriptions so incredible is that he provides very raw and unfiltered phenomenological accounts of the process without really trying to force them into any pre-existing framework. From the point of view of the mission of QRI this is very valuable. In particular, it allows us to examine his process of transformation with the framework of Qualia Formalism: we ought to ask, not what kind of spiritual/mystical/transcendent process is going on here (which will certainly take us nowhere), but rather, wonder if we can cast his descriptions in terms of *structural changes to the field of awareness*. For example, Frank talks about “the screen of God” that becomes apparent in (c), where waves of energy seem to travel without resistance across one’s experiential field. He also talks about phase transitions (similarly to Shinzen Young, he talks about a process of liquefaction and gasification of the field of awareness). If, as we believe at QRI, valence is a structural property of experience, these transformations would have profound effects on one’s sense of wellbeing. So, the reason why “the screen of God” is a profound experience is not because you literally merge with a divine being (which might not be possible if we assume indirect realism about perception), but because the field of awareness is now in a phase that allows an entirely new level of efficient stress dissipation.
I shared with Roger some details from a particularly interesting psilocybin trip report that described rapid phase transitions between (what appears to be) several of the levels Frank describes. In particular, “the screen of God” state seems to have the capacity to stresslessly locate sensations without generating reverbarions with a represented “small self to which those sensations belong”.
(2) In turn, this led to discussing a new model (we haven’t really touched upon in QRI publications yet, but which is coming) of equanimity based on experiences I had during a two-week retreat earlier this year (see: Buddhist Annealing). This model has at its core the idea that equanimity is a mental tool that increases impedance matching between nervous system harmonics. Ask yourself: why is it that when you pluck a guitar string it sounds louder if it is connected to a guitar? It is not, as many would think, that the “resonance box amplifies the sound” (for where would the extra energy come from?). Rather, the energy is the same; what changes is the speed at which it is discharged! The resonance box vibrates and dissipates the energy of the string much faster than the string could on its own (as an aside, this is exactly why you can sustain a note for so much longer in an electric guitar). We could thus postulate that a lot of inner dissonance comes from resonance in the nervous system that has no means of dissipating its stored stress. To an extent, this is because involuntary subliminal contractions in our nervous system compartmentalize and modularize its components. Equanimity is the practice of relaxing those contractions, and thus slowly allowing the nervous system to undergo a search process where it finds structures that can resonate with the stored stress, and in turn allow it to dissipate faster. More so, over time, you entrain (and rewire!) the nervous system to become highly efficient at stress-dissipation. Dissonance is still there, but it “unfolds” and gets “metabolized” so fast that it barely counts as suffering. Highly annealed nervous systems are powerful stress-dissipation engines!
(3) Finally, we also discussed the idea that there is a distinction between the “recipe” of a state of consciousness and its “review”. A recipe is the steps you take in order to achieve a certain state (or transformation) of consciousness. A review is instead an account of what the resulting state feels like. Just as the instructions for baking a cake are quite different from a Chef’s review of what the resulting cake tastes like, we can expect that meditation instructions (e.g. focusing on the three characteristics) will not necessarily reflect the nature of the transformations of consciousness that result from them. Thus, while a lot of the meditative path is nominally about “renouncing” the pursuit of high-valence states of consciousness (and thus avoid the pleasure paradox), the result is nonetheless a state of consciousness that is high-valence in nature! Paradoxical? I don’t think so. The confusion is merely the result of conflating recipe and review.
Thus, we can still apply valence theories to states of consciousness that are allegedly beyond valence. Frank Yang, for example, seems to resonate a lot with STV. See his December 2020 interview at The Stoa. There (and in other videos) he describes “God mind” consciousness as a very positive experience, which is very symmetrical but not perfect. But his true awakening is perfectly symmetrical (in the realm of space, observer, and sense of time, even if not in content). His experience became like a “hologram that has no center”. Quote:
“Have you seen those illustrations of a sphere or a circle, where one point connects to all of the other points? […] if you wanted me to describe my day to day, moment to moment, experience, well, it’s pretty symmetrical. As in, there is no center to experience. There is hearing but no hearer; there is just the seeing, there is no seer; on thinking there is just thinking and no thinker. It’s not, like, processed or filtered through a subject in the center. And it’s very immediate in the sense that all of the sensations, all 360 degrees, are synched up to themselves, without any delay, 24/7. And all the sensations, where there is body, you know sight, sound, thoughts, emotions… they are all on equal footing to each other […inaudible…] in symmetry, and that is for me an aesthetic experience. I would say a suffering mind is a mind that isn’t symmetrical. If your mind is asymmetrical, it means it’s defiled somewhere. So for me aesthetics runs in all different kinds of domains, not only on the perceptual domain, not only on the visual aesthetics domain, but even on the emotional and how you think.”
Yes, God Mind (left) is good, but have you tried no-self (right)? It is so much more symmetrical!
As we’ve discussed before, the homogeneity of phenomenal space and time might be a very large component of what accounts for positive valence. And what Frank is describing here suggests that’s the case. Disturbances in the attention field lines and the saliency of specific components of a mind can break the underlying symmetry of the phenomenal space and time of the resulting experience. Anxiety, for example, in this paradigm is described as unpleasant because it involves the bubbling up of low-level prediction errors causing “attention pinches” across your experience, and thus disturbing the free-flow of energy that would exist in a homogeneous field. Prediction errors are not inherently unpleasant; they are unpleasant only to the extent that they cause asymmetries in your field of awareness!
Frank Yang also says that his big awakening felt like a “quantum jump”. It makes sense that a strong anti-fragile attractor for a new network topology would be self-reinforcing (a new lowest-energy state, metaphorically speaking, perhaps akin to a false vacuum collapse inside one’s mind!). Again, this is all very compatible with valence structuralism, if not STV.
Roger said that he will have to think about all of this. In the meantime, he shared with me some (amazing!) pictures he made to illustrate how his field of awareness has been transformed with meditation over time. Like Frank Yang, he identifies several discrete phase transitions. These are: (a) standard perception, (b) The Witness, (c) Big Mind, (d) No Self, and finally (e) No Self & Centreless Awareness (4th path!):
Considering more what you said about impedance matching and adding resonance to experience:
Perhaps this is merely an analogy, but still: consider the tautness of a spider’s web. If a fly lands on it, at one part, the whole web will shake and the energy will transfer throughout in such a way that the spider can locate where on the web the fly landed. If the web is too taut then the energy of the fly landing won’t dissipate far enough for the spider to receive the information. However, if the web is too slack the fly could just break the structure of the web.
It might be interesting to consider why spiders build webs with a centre point and not as a straight or criss-crossing lattice.
So to relate this to consciousness and metabolizing stress… I would say my consciousness now feels like it’s more taut and lattice-woven rather than spider web-shaped with a middle [emphasis mine]. So this means when a stress point is activated somewhere in the experiential space, its energy doesn’t ripple as far out as it would have before, thus not being as disruptive.
And if we aliken the spider on the web to the epistemic agent, if he is situated on one spot and for all goings-on on the web to be known their information must travel to him, then the web must be not too taut so that all the ripples can reach him and he knows what’s going on. The problem with this set-up is that it means that knowing requires instability.
However, if we do away with the spider (a single point considered the epistemic agent) and make it so that the knowledge is attributed to the web itself, then the web can afford to be much more taut/less shaky/more robust, causing less negative valence.
So in some way I could say my experience (centerless consciousness) is more taut in this way, but this tautness doesn’t feel rigid or stiff, but rather very airy.
Indra’s net can have too much slack in it, if it’s not sewn together tightly and uniformly.
Pre-Awakening: The mind uses a fictitious “self-as-epistemic-agent” in a field of awareness that has slack and vibrates in unpleasant ways in the process of integrating information. The field of awareness relies on a network topology that is suboptimal for efficient stress dissipation.
Post-Awakening: The mind lacks any kind of center or self-as-epistemic-agent. The field of awareness is tout and extremely efficient at stress dissipation. The network topology has permanently changed to a far more symmetrical and regular configuration.
Just for interest’s sake, and I don’t know if this bears any significance, but I’m ambidextrous by the way.
I know symmetry plays a major role in your hypotheses of valence and such.
In some way, I have thought that not having such a prioritization and weightiness to just one side of the body has balanced out my experience and perception (perhaps more than others), I’m not sure.
(As of the 23rd of November 2021, Roger states that he continues to be in the blissful state of centreless consciousness)
Commentary by Andrés, after the fact:
This conversation (and further exchanges I may share in the future) has reinvigorated my quest to describe states (and transformations) of consciousness in terms of changes to the network topology that underlies our field of awareness. Enlightenment might be described in “mystical” ways, but this could be simply due to lack of an adequate formal conceptual framework to make sense of it. But perhaps STV, impedance matching, and efficient stress dissipation through radical network topology reorganization without compromising self-epistemics could take us much further than before in this quest.
Also, if Roger was able to achieve these transformations at the tender age of 26, what is stopping the rest of us from doing the same?
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!
Excerpt from Rhythms of the Brain (2006) by György Buzsáki (pgs. 168-170)
The paramount advantage of synchronization by oscillation is its cost-effectiveness. No other known mechanism in the physical world can bring about synchrony with so little investment. What do I mean by declaring that synchrony by oscillation is cheap? Let me illustrate the cost issue first with a few familiar examples from our everyday life. You have probably watched leisurely strolling romantic couples on a fine evening in a park or on the beach. Couples holding hands walk in perfect unison, whereas couples without such physical link walk out of step. You can do this experiment yourself. Just touching your partner’s finger will result in your walking in sync in a couple of cycles. Unless your partner is twice as tall or short as you, it costs pretty much the same effort to walk in sync as out of sync. Once you establish synchronous walking, it survives for quite some time even if physical contact is discontinued. If both of you are about the same height and have a similar step size, you will stay in sync for a long distance. In other words, synchronization by oscillation requires only an occasional update, depending on the frequency differences and precision of the oscillators. Two synchronized Patek Philippe vintage timepieces can tick together for many weeks, and quartz watches fare even better.
A much larger scale example of synchrony through oscillation is rhythmic clapping of hands, an expression of appreciation for superior theater and opera performances in some countries. Clapping always starts as a tumultuous cacophony but transforms into synchronized clapping after half a minute or so. Clapping synchrony builds up gradually and dies away after a few tens of seconds. Asynchronous and synchronous group clapping periods can alternate relatively regularly. An important observation, made by Zoltán Néda at the Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania, and his colleagues, is that synchronized clapping increases the transient noise during the duty cycle, but it actually diminishes the overall noise (Neda et al. 2000).* The explanation for the noise decrease during the synchronized clapping phase is the simple fact that everyone is clapping approximately half as fast during the synchronous compared with the nonsynchronous phase. Oscillatory entrainment nevertheless provides sharp surges of sound energy at the cost of less overall muscular effort. The waxing and waning nature of rhythmic hand clapping is reminiscent of numerous transient oscillatory events in the brain, especially in the thalamocortical system. Similar to hand clapping, the total number of spikes emitted by the participating neurons and the excitatory events leading to spiking may be fewer during these brain rhythms than during comparable nonrhythmic periods. A direct test of this hypothesis would require simultaneous recordings from large numbers of individual neurons. Indirect observations, using brain imaging methods, however, support the idea.**
Perhaps the most spectacular example of low-energy coupling, known to all physics and engineering majors, is the synchronization of Christiaan Huygen’s pendulum clocks. Huygen’s striking observation was that when two identical clocks were hung next to each other on the wall, their pendula became time-locked after some period. Synchrony did not happen when the clocks were placed on different walls in the room. Huygen’s clocks entrained because the extremely small vibrations of the wall that held both clocks were large enough that each rhythm affected the other. The physical reason for synchrony between two oscillators is relatively simple, and solid math exists to explain the phenomenon.*** However, extrapolation from two oscillators to the coupling behavior of large numbers of oscillators is not at all straightforward. Imagine that, in a cylinder-shaped room, 10 clocks are placed on the wall equidistant from one another, each started at a different time. In a second, much larger room, there are 100 clocks. Finally, in a giant arena, we hang 10,000 identical clocks on the wall. As with Huygen’s two clocks, each clock in the rooms has neighbors on each side, and these clocks influence the middle clock. Furthermore, in the new experiment, there are many distant neighbors with progressively less influence. However, the aggregate effects of more distant clocks must be significant, especially if they become synchronous. Do we expect that synchronous ticking of all clocks will develop in each room? Various things can happen, including traveling waves of synchrony or local buildup of small or large synchronous groups transiently. Only one thing cannot occur: global synchrony.
I know the answer because we did an analogous experiment with Xiao-Jing Wang and his student Caroline Geisler. We built a network of 4,000 inhibitory interneurons.**** When connectivity in the network mimicked local interneuron connections in the hippocampus, all we could see were some transient oscillations involving a small set of neurons. On the other hand, when the connections were random, a situation difficult to create in physical systems, a robust population oscillation emerged. So perfect harmony prevailed in a network with no resemblance to the brain but not with what appeared to be a copy of a local interneuronal network. The problem was the same as with the clocks on the wall: neurons could affect each other primarily locally. To reduce the synaptic path length of the network, we replaced a small subset of neurons with neurons with medium- and long-range connections. Such interneurons with medium- and long-range connections do indeed exist (see Cycle 3). The new, scale-free network ticked perfectly. Its structure shared reasonable similarities with the anatomical wiring of the hippocampus and displayed synchronized oscillations, involving each member equally, irrespective of their physical distance. The reason why our small-world-like artificial network synchronized is because it exploited two key features: few but critical long-range connections that reduced the average synaptic path length of the network and oscillatory coupling, which required very little energy. Analogously, cortical networks may achieve their efficacy by exploiting small-world-like organization at the anatomical level (Cycle 2) and oscillatory synchrony at the functional level. There is synchrony for (almost) free.
* Most of the observations were taken in the small underground Kamra (Chamber) Theater of Budapest. Global and local noise was measured by microphones above the audience and placed next to a spectator, respectively. Rhythmic group clapping emerges between 12 and 25 seconds. Average global noise intensity, integrated over 3-second time windows, indicates decreased energy spending by the audience during the rhythm despite large surges of noise.
** The BOLD signal (see Cycle 4) decreases over large cortical areas during both alpha dominance (Laufs et al., 2003) and thalamocortical spike-and-wave epilepsy (Salek-Haddadi et al., 2002), demonstrating that the metabolic cost of neuronal activity associated with increased neuronal synchrony may, in fact, be less than during nonrhythmic states.
*** For the English translation of Huygen’s original letter about the “sympathy” of clocks, see Pikovsky et al. (2001).
**** In reality, the issue we addressed was quite different from the clocks on the wall because none of the 4,000 interneurons was an oscillator. Instead, their interactions formed one single clock (Buzsáki et al., 2004). Coupling of numerous oscillators have been analyzed mathematically, but these mathematical models lack the physical constraints of axon conduction delays; therefore, they cannot be directly applied to coupling of brain oscillators (Kuramoto, 2984; Mirollo and Strogatz, 1990). For the coupling of two identical oscillators with realistic axon conduction delays, see Traub et al. (1996) and Bibbig et al. (2002).
5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT – Interestingly, 5-MeO-DMT seems to lead to global synchrony (and thus the melting of internal boundaries, the feeling of complete oneness with the universe) whereas N,N-DMT instead seems to give rise to powerful clusters of synchrony which are constantly competing against each other (thus creating partitions in the mind and the sense of “an other”, aka. machine elves). It would be fascinating to figure out why this difference emerges at the level of functional changes to the brain’s network topology as induced by each drug.
[Daniel spent two weeks practicing 10 to 14 hours a day a fire-focused meditation called Fire Kasina. This meditation technique involves, among other things, looking at a candle flame and then closing one’s eyes and examining the after-image of the fire, and doing this repeatedly over many hours. He started getting interesting visual effects on the second day of the retreat. Over the course of the first week he cycled between difficult and effortless meditation sessions, experienced lots of Jhana and Jhana-Kasina hybrid experiences, reported weird dreams, and described visual hallucinations of various sorts. As the week went on he started experiencing a strange and dysphoric change during the evenings: rather than colors being intensified, something about his experience seemed to be turning every color into grey. Fire Kasina is used to amplify the experience of phenomenal color to great heights, so it seemed strange that for some reason after several days of the practice everything started being grey; he couldn’t stop it. Nonetheless, he persevered. What follows is his description of the meditation breakthrough he experienced on the 7th day of the retreat.]
[24:20]: I was thinking that one of the interesting things that has happened was that the Goddess of Fire told me that I should become a King of Fire – hehe – which seems a bit of a stretch, but it was inspiring anyway. And so the Tarot card for “King of Fire” is the King of Wands and the message is to be a super-dad, to be supportive of the family, to be good in relationships, to be good in career, accomplish it all simultaneously… and smile while doing it. Interesting instructions. Probably of great relevance and utility if properly applied. Anyway. There it is.
Well, so, the grey I’ve been seeing at the end of the night turns out is a doorway to wondrous, wondrous things. So, this morning my sitting was good, and clear, and relatively typical for a good morning sit. And then in the afternoon: Wow! For my first sit of the afternoon my mantra became “Orchestral” added to all sorts of other parts. And it began just shuddering at the whole of reality. It became exquisite, amazing, like basking in the presence of a “Divine Orchestra”: The radiator was making interesting sounds. Duncan also described this beautiful music, which I now understand. Well, it became exquisite, and it all harmonized into this wondrous thing that I wanted to record. I wanted to get it on my laptop on my Logic Pro and somehow figure out how to recreate what I was hearing and experiencing. I felt like I could sit there forever while the mantra was going on, powerful and remarkable.
The next sit is when the colors opened up. And then I started to notice that out of the black, and white, and grey, colors were showing up. And I had noticed this before. A sort of copper or magenta that was, you know, a very exquisite color off of the white and grey. And yellow off of the white, and grey, and black, that was different and new.
And THIS was like, every color was suddenly there. And I could morph the color into any color. Exquisite colors. Subtleties of hue and shade… that wouldn’t exist in the best art store in the entire universe selling all the coolest shades and paint colors of light. And it would shift through magnificent yellows and sparkling golds into rich oranges and amber colors, and peach tones, and magenta, and reds, and rich reds, and bright reds, and pinkish reds, and subtle pinks, and silver pinks, and pale… pale, pale whiteish pinks of the most exquisite variety, and down into the blues and into purples, into the blue-greens and I got greens… and remarkable rich greens, amazing greens, forest greens, Kelly greens, silver greens, light peridot greens. Incredible colors. And the violet hues! Deep rich violet. And even the greys were exquisite: silver black, steel black, silver grey… just unbelievable shades even between black and white that weren’t even colored but were just exquisite.
In the sit I felt like it could go on forever. I could call up whatever color and just give it a few seconds and it would just shift into the new color. And then I went outside when Tommy came here (great guy) […]. I went out to see him and I was high as a freaking kite on just seeing the most amazing exquisite colors due to the power of this meditation. And everything, the greys of the driveway were awesome, the leaf colors were amazing, the sky… the plants, the plants… some of the greens of the plants were just magnificent. Like, just overwhelming beauty.
And then things progressed and I got so that I could turn these colors into anything I wanted, and just give it a few seconds and it would show up. So I created a dragon in a sort of magnificent purple-dark-green-dark-blue-iridescent scaly set of colors. And had his fire breadth come out as first as reddish, and then purple, and green, and yellow, and black. Just amazing!
Modified by CombineZP
And then I would make one half of my visual field one color, and one half the other color, and compare the two colors and fine-tune the shades until they went together just exquisitely… anyway, I simply just had an utterly mind-bogglingly enjoyable time playing with the ability to create shades of light and color and images with them just effortlessly, just by asking for them to show up. And I was getting fruitions off of these colors. I got a fruition just off of peach. A sort of exquisite peach color.
And then, finally… finally… and here it is… day 7 or 8 of this retreat… I was able to get the images starting like I got before. Spinning things like they would take everything out and lead to fruition and do that again and again like I got multiple fruitions would just go back to the spinning things, and take out the spinning things. And I got this amber, sort of pixelated squares, and they stuttered and came out by the impermanence door. This has just been an amazing, amazing day.
The glorious highs of it are wearing off. And if I crash as hard as I went up, I’m going to be in trouble. Because it would be hard to overstate how exquisite these sits have been this afternoon and evening. Anyway, so Duncan is now seeing the grey… so he may be close. And Florian is been getting white and black, so he may be close to these things as well. It would be fascinating to see if they have the same ecstatic reaction that I’ve had. Truly the word “rapturous” barely does justice to how much fun the day has been. Anyway…
So, be well.
[36:00]: Note to self: “Do this more often!”. Goodness gracious! The appreciation of color, the peace in the body, the stability of attention… unbelievable, amazing. The color control is remarkable. The ability to tune into your colors, to any shade, just… it is hard to explain how fun that is. Now I can generate images that demonstrate parallax, so that when I move my head, they would move like you’d think they should move in relationship with how I move my head. So they now have a 3-dimensional spatial life.
Got a fruition by creating a fire-breathing dragon, and then turning the fire on myself. And when it reached my eyes, that caused the fruition. I’ve seen landscapes, and 3-dimensional spatial structures, and visions of just such exquisite, complicated, intricate, amazing, and diverse beauty. It is hard to explain the gratitude I feel for these practices and what they can do. And that I’m in such fine company: Duncan, and Florian, and Tommy are all excellent people. Extremely helpful, great attitudes, fascinating backgrounds and knowledges and skillsets. They are truly remarkable people and I’m grateful to have found them and to have the opportunity to sit with them and share these things. We laugh nearly continuously during our meals, which are exquisite. We keep each other well entertained somehow, still get very deep transformative practice time in. They are respectful of everyone, of these things, and good practitioners. So it’s a joy to be practicing with them.
I’ve seen one image that had a sense of intelligence sitting on a chair change form again and again and again. Into all these different types of entities. But I haven’t yet gotten a proper kind of fruition with the intelligent eyes looking back at me yet on this retreat. So… more to do. I still haven’t done the candle flame, moving things with my mind. But perhaps that is coming. I hope so. Alright, dear listener, or listeners, whoever you may be, I hope you are well. I hope that one day you have the interest and opportunity to practice these things as we are here today. For this is the good stuff, as they say.
Daniel Ingram talks about “color control” during Fire Kasina meditation – the ability to control the phenomenal color of experience. Can this be achieved pharmacologically?
Cognitive scientist Steven Lehar reports that combining LSD, Ketamine, and THC at the same time can give rise to an interesting phenomenon he calls “free-wheeling hallucinations”.
These hallucinations are the psychedelic equivalent of lucid dreams. Namely, they are very intense but highly controllable states of mind where you can “will into being” whatever you want (up to a certain level of complexity).
It’s as if you’ve gained “root access” to the parameters of your inner world-simulation and you can create complex psychedelic scenery and simulated environments.
Daniel Ingram talks about developing the ability of instantiating one color on one side of the visual field and a different color on the other in order to compare them side by side.
Wada tests are medical procedures in which only one of your brain hemispheres receives a sedative drug at a time. This can be useful in order to determine which hemisphere can be ablated in order to treat epilepsy.
But we could generalize it! We can inject one drug in one hemisphere and a different drug in another. In fact, this could be a core research paradigm in the future for qualia research.
In the following video Leo Gura from actualized.org talks about his 30-day 5-MeO-DMT streak experiment. In this post I’ll highlight some of the notable things he said and comment along the way using a QRI-lens to interpret his experiences (if you would rather make up your mind about what he says without my commentary just go and watch the video on your own before reading what I have to say about it).
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait a month to satisfy my curiosity and see what happened after his period of isolation because by the time I found about it he had already posted his post-retreat video. Well, it turns out that he used those 30 days of isolation to conduct a very hard-core psychedelic experiment. Namely, he took high doses of 5-MeO-DMT daily for the entire month. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before.
Learning about what he experienced during that month is of special interest to me for many reasons. In particular, thanks to previous research about extreme bliss and suffering, we had determined that 5-MeO-DMT is currently the psychedelic drug that has the most powerful and intense effects on valence. Recall Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (video): many lines of evidence point to the fact that extreme states of consciousness are surprisingly powerful in ways that are completely counterintuitive. So when Leo says that there are “many levels of awakening” and goes on to discuss how each level is unrecognizably more intense and deeper than the previous one, I am very much inclined to believe he is trying to convey a true property of his experiences. Note that Leo did not only indulge in psychedelics; we are talking about 5-MeO-DMT in particular, which is the thermonuclear bomb version of a psychoactive drug (as with Plutonium, this stuff is best handled with caution). More so, thankfully Leo is very eloquent, which is rare among people who have had many extreme experiences. So I was very eager to hear what he had to say.
While I can very easily believe his trip reports when it comes to their profundity, intensity, and extraordinary degree of consciousness, I do not particularly find his interpretations of these experiences convincing. As I go about describing his video, I will point out ways in which you can take as veridical his phenomenological descriptions without at the same time having to agree with his interpretations of them. More so, if you end up exploring these varieties of altered states yourself, by reading this you will now at least have two different and competing frameworks to explain your experiences. This, I think, is an improvement. Right now the psychedelic and scientific community has very few lenses with which to interpret something as extraordinary as 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And I believe this comes at a great cost to people’s sanity and epistemic rationality.
What Are Leo’s Background Assumptions?
In the pre-retreat video Leo says that his core teachings (and what he attempts to realize on his own self) are: (1) you are literally God, (2) there is nothing but consciousness – God is infinite consciousness, (3) everything is states of consciousness – everything at all times is a different state of consciousness, (4) you are love – and love is absolute – this is all constructed out of love – fear is just fear of aspects of yourself you have disconnected from, (5) you have no beginning and no end, (6) you should be radically open-minded. Then he also adds that physical and mental health issues are just manifestations of your resistance to realizing that you are God.
What Are My Background Assumptions?
I am quite sympathetic to the idea of oneness, which is also talked about with terms like nonduality and monopsychism. In philosophical terminology, which I find to be more precise and rigorous, this concept goes by the name of Open Individualism – the belief that we are all one single consciousness. I have written extensively about Open Individualism in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3), but I would like to point out that the arguments I’ve presented in favor of this view are not based on direct experience, but rather, on logical consistency from background assumptions we take for granted. For instance, if you assume that you are the same subject of experience you were a second ago, it follows that you can exist in two points in space-time and still be the same being. Your physical configuration is different than a few seconds ago (let alone a decade), you have slightly different memories, the neurons active are different, etc. For every property you point out as your “identity carrier” I can find a counter-example where such carrier changes a little while you still remain the same subject of experience. Add to that teleportation, fission, fusion, and gradual replacement thought experiments and you can build a framework where you can become any other arbitrary person without a loss of identity. These lines of argumentation coupled with the transitivity of identity can build the case that we are indeed all one to begin with.
But realize that rather than saying that you can grasp this (potential) truth directly from first person experience, I build from agreed upon assumptions to arrive at an otherwise outlandish view. Understanding the argument does not entail “feeling we are all one”, and neither does feeling we are all one entails understanding the arguments!
Indirect Realism About Perception
There is a mind-independent world out there and you never get to experience it directly. In some sense, we each live in a private skull-bound world-simulation that tracks the fitness-relevant features of our environment. Hence, during meditation, dreaming, or psychedelic states you are not accessing any sort of external reality directly, but rather, exploring possible configurations and qualities of your inner world-simulation. This is something that Leo may implicitly not realize. In particular, interpreting 5-MeO-DMT experiences through direct realism (also called naïve realism – the view that you experience the world directly through your senses) would make you think that you are literally merging with the entire cosmos on the drug. Whereas interpreting those experiences with indirect realism merely entails that your inner boundaries are dissolving. In other words, the partitions inside your world-simulation are what implements the feeling of the self-other duality. And since 5-MeO-DMT dissolves inner boundaries, it feels as though you are becoming one with your surroundings (and the rest of reality).
Physicalism and Panpsychism
An important background assumption is that the laws of physics accurately describe the behavior of the universe. This is distinct from materialism, which would also posit that all matter is inherently insentient. Physicalism merely says that the laws of physics describe the behavior of the physical, but leaves its intrinsic nature as an open question. Together with panpsychism, however, physicalism entails that what the laws of physics are describing is the behavior of consciousness.
What makes an experience feel good or bad is not its semantic content, its computational use, or even whether the experience is self-reinforcing or not. What makes experiences feel good or bad is their structure. In particular, a very promising idea that will come up below is that highly symmetrical states of consciousness are inherently blissful, such as those we can access during orgasm, meditation, psychedelics, or even just good food and a hug. Recall that 5-MeO-DMT dissolves internal boundaries, and this is indicative of increased inner symmetry (where the boundaries themselves entail symmetry breaking operations). Thus, an exotic state of oneness is blissful not because you are merging with God, but “merely” because it has a higher degree of symmetry and therefore it’s valence is higher than what we can normally experience. In particular, the symmetry I’m talking abut here may be an objective feature of experiences perhaps even measurable with today’s neuroimaging technology.
There are additional key background philosophical assumptions, but the above are enough to get us started analyzing Leo’s 5-MeO-DMT journey from a different angle.
[Video descriptions are in italics whereas my commentary is bolded.]
For the first 8 minutes or so Leo explains that people do not really know that there are many levels of enlightenment. He starts out strong by claiming that he has reached levels of enlightenment that nobody (or perhaps just a few people) have ever reached. More so, while he agrees with the teachings of meditation masters of the past, he questions the levels of awakening that they had actually reached. It takes one to know one, and he claims that he’s seen things far beyond what previous teachers have talked about. More so, he argues that people simply have no way of knowing how enlightened their teachers are. People just trust books, gurus, teachers, religious leaders, etc. about whether they are “fully” enlightened, but how could they know for sure without reaching their level, and then surpassing them? He wraps up this part of the video by saying that the only viable path is to go all the way by yourself – to dismiss all the teachers, all the books, and all the instructions and see how far you can go on your own when genuinely pursuing truth by yourself.
With this epistemological caveat out of the way, Leo goes on to describe his methodology. Namely, he embarked on a quest of taking 5-MeO-DMT at increasing doses every day for 30 days in a row.
At 10:05 he says that within a week of this protocol he started reaching levels of awakening so elevated that he realized he had already surpassed every single spiritual teacher that he had ever heard of. He started writing a manifesto explaining this, claiming that even the most enlightened humans are not truly as awake as he became during that week. That it had became “completely transparent that most people who say they are awake or teach awakening are not even 1% awake”. But he decided not to go forward with the manifesto because he still values the teachings of spiritual leaders, whom according to him are doing a great service to mankind. He didn’t want to start, what he called, a “nonduality war” (which is of course a fascinating term if you think about it).
The main thing I’d like to comment here is that Leo is never entirely clear about what makes an “awakening experience” authentic. From what I gather (and from what comes next in the video) we can infer that the leading criteria consists of a fuzzy blend of experience of certainty, feeling of unity, and sense of direct knowing coupled together. To the extent that 5-MeO-DMT does all of these things to an extraordinary degree, we can take Leo on his words that he indeed experienced states of consciousness that feel like awakening that are most likely inaccessible to everyone who hasn’t gone through a protocol like his. What is still unclear is how exactly the semantic contents of these experiences are verified by means other than intuition. We will come back to that.
At 16:00 he makes the distinction between awakening as merely “cessation”, “nothingness”, “emptiness”, “the Self”, or that “you are nothing and everything” versus what he has been experiencing. He agrees that those are true and worthy realizations, but he claims that before his experiences, these understandings were still only realized at a very “low level”. Other masters, he claims, may care about ending suffering, about peace, about emptiness, and so on. But that nobody seems to truly care about understanding reality (because otherwise they would be doing what he’s doing). He rebukes possible critics (arguably of the Zen variety) who would say that “understanding is a function of the mind” so the goal shouldn’t be to understand. He asserts that no, based on his lived experience, that consciousness is capable of “infinite understanding”.
Notwithstanding the challenges posed by ultrafinitism, I am also inclined to believe Leo that he has experienced completely new varieties of “understanding”. In my model of the mind, understanding something means to have the ability to render it in your world-simulation in a particular kind of way that allows you to see it from every possible angle you have access to. On 5-MeO-DMT, as we will see to a greater extent below, a certain new set of projective operations get unlocked that allow you to render information from many, many more points of view at the same time. It is unclear whether this is possible with meditation alone (in personal communication, Daniel Ingram said yes) but it is certainly extraordinarily rare for even advanced meditators to be able to do this. So I am with Leo when it comes to describing “new kinds of understandings”. But perhaps I am not on board when it comes to claiming that the content of such understandings is an accurate rendering of the structure of reality.
At 18:30 Leo asserts that what happened to him is that over the course of the first week of his experiment he “completely understood reality, completely understood what God is”. God has no beginning and no end. He explains that normal human understanding sees situations from a single point of view (such as from the past to the future). But that actual infinite reality is from all sides at once: “When you are in full God consciousness, you look around the room, and you can see it from every single point of view, from an infinite number of angle and perspectives. You see that every part of the room generates and manufactures and creates every other part. […] Here when you are in God consciousness, you see it from every single possible dimension and angle. It’s not happening lilnearly, it’s all in the present now. And you can see it from every angle almost as though, if you take a watermelon and you do a cross-section with a giant knife, through that watermelon, and you keep doing cross-section, cross-section, cross-section in various different angles, eventually you’ll slice it up into an infinite number of perspectives. And then you’ll understand the entire watermelon as a sort of a whole. Whereas usually as humans what we do is we slice down that watermelon just right down the middle. And we just see that one cross-section.”
Now, this is extremely interesting. But first, it’s important to point out that here Leo might implicitly be reasoning about his experience through the lens of direct realism about perception. That is, that as he experiences this profound sense of understanding that encompasses every possible angle at once, he seems to believe that this is an understanding of his environment, of his future and past, and of reality as a whole. On the other hand, if you start out assuming indirect realism about perception, how you interpret this experience would be in terms of the instantiation of new exotic geometries of your own world-simulation. Here I must bring up the analysis of “regular” DMT (i.e. n,n-DMT) experiences through the lens of hyperbolic geometry. Indeed, regular DMT elevates the energy of your consciousness, which manifests in brighter colors, fast movement, intricate and detailed patterns, and as curved phenomenal space. We know this because of numerous trip reports from people well educated in advanced mathematics who claim that the visual symmetries one can experience on DMT (at doses above 10mg) have hyperbolic curvature (cf. hyperbolic orbifolds). It is also consistent with many other phenomena one can experience on DMT (see the Eli 5 for a quick summary). But you should keep in mind that this analysis never claims that you are experiencing directly a mind-independent “hyperspace”. Rather, the analysis focuses on how DMT modifies the geometric properties of your inner world-simulation.
Energy-complexity landscape on DMT
DMT trip progression
Intriguingly, our inner world-simulations work with projective geometry. In normal circumstances our world-simulations have a consistent set of projective points at infinity – they render the modal and amodal features of our experience in projective scenes that are globally consistent. But psychedelics can give rise to this phenomenon of “point-of-view-fragmentation“, where your experience becomes a patchwork of inconsistent projective renderings. So even on “regular” DMT you can get the profound feeling of “seeing something from multiple points of view at once”. Enhanced with hyperbolic geometry, this can cause the stark impression that you can explore “hyperspace” with a kind of “ultra-understanding”.
Looking beyond “regular” DMT, 5-MeO-DMT is yet more crazy than that. You see, even on DMT you get the feeling that you are restricted in the number of points of view from which you can see something at the same time. You can see it from many more points of view than normal, but it’s still restricted. But the extreme “smoothing” of experience that 5-MeO-DMT causes makes it so that you cannot distinguish one point of view from another. So they all blend together. Not only do you experience semantic content from “multiple points of view at once” as in DMT, but you can erase distinctions between points of view so that one’s sense of knowing arises involving a totally new kind of projective effect, in which you actually feel you can see something from “every point of view at once”. It feels that you have unlocked a kind of omniscience. This already happens on other psychedelics to a lesser extent (and in meditation, and even sober life to an even lesser extent, but still there), and it is a consequence of smoothing the geometry of your experience to such an extent that there are no symmetry-breaking imperfections “with which to orient a projective point”. I suspect that the higher “formless” jhanas of “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness” are hitting at this effect. And on 5-MeO-DMT this effect is pronounced. More so, because of the connection between symmetry and smoothness of space (cf. Geometry Through the Eyes of Felix Klein) when this happens you will also automatically be instantiating a high-dimensional group. And according to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this ought to be extraordinarily blissful. And indeed it is.
This is, perhaps, partly what is going on in the experience that Leo is describing. Again, I am inclined to believe his description, but happy to dismiss his naïve interpretation.
At 23:15 Leo describes how from his 5-MeO-DMT point of view he realized what “consciousness truly is”. And that is an “infinitely interconnected self-communicating field”. In normal everyday states of consciousness the different parts of your experience are “connected” but not “communicating.” But on 5-MeO, “as you become more conscious, what happens is that every point in space inter-connects with itself and starts to communicate with itself. This is a really profound, shocking, mystical experience. And it keeps getting cranked up more and more and more. You can call it omniscience, or telepathy. And it’s like the universal communication system gets turned on for the first time. Right now your conscious field is not in infinite communication with itself. It’s fragmented and divided. Such that you think I’m over here, you are over there, my computer is over here, your computer is over there…”. He explains that if we were to realize we are all one, we would then instantly be able to communicate between each other.
Here again we get extremely different interpretations of the phenomena Leo describes depending on whether you believe in direct or indirect realism about perception. As Leo implicitly assumes direct realism about perception, he interprets this effect as literally switching on an “universal communication system” between every points in reality, whereas the indirect realist interpretation would be that you have somehow interlocked the pieces of your conscious experience in such a way that they now act as an interconnected whole. This is something that indeed has been reported before, and at QRI we call this effect “networkintegration“. A simple way of encapsulating this phenomenon would be by saying that the cross-frequency coupling of your nervous system is massively increased so that there is seamless information and energy transfer between vibrations at different scales (to a much lesser extent MDMA also does this, but 5-MeO-DMT is the most powerful “integration aid” we know of). This sounds crazy but it really isn’t. After all, your nervous system is a network of oscillators. It stands to reason that you can change how they interact with one another by fine-tuning their connections and get as a result decoupling of vibrations (e.g. SSRIs), or coupling only between vibrations of a specific frequency (e.g. stimulants and depressants), or more coupling in general (e.g. psychedelics). In particular, 5-MeO-DMT does seem to cause a massively effective kind of fractal coupling, where every vibration can get in tune with every other vibration. And recall, since a lot of our inner world simulation is about representing “external reality”, this effect can give rise to the feeling that you can now instantly communicate with other parts of reality as a whole. This, from my point of view, is merely misinterpreting the experience by imagining that you have direct access to your surroundings.
At 34:52 Leo explains that you just need 5-MeO-DMT to experience these awakenings. And yet, he also claims that everything in reality is imaginary. It is all something that you, as God, are imagining because “you need a story to deny that you are infinite consciousness.” Even though the neurotransmitters are imaginary, you still need to modify them in order to have this experience: “I’m talking about superhuman levels of consciousness. These are not levels of consciousness that you can access sober. You need to literally upgrade the neurotransmitters in your imaginary brain. And yes, your brain is still imaginary, and those neurotransmitters are imaginary. But you still need to upgrade them nevertheless in order to access some of the things I say.”
Needless to say, it’s bizarre that you would need imaginary neurotransmitter-mimicking molecules in your brain in order to realize that all of reality is your own imagination. When you dream, do you need to find a specific drug inside your dream in order to wake up from the dream? Perhaps this view can indeed be steel-manned, but the odds seem stacked against it.
At 38:30 he starts talking about his pornography collection. He assembles nude images of women, not only to relieve horniness, but also as a kind of pursuit of aesthetics. Pictures of nude super-models are some of the most beautiful things a (straight) man can see. He brings this up in order to talk about how he then at some point started exploring watching these pictures on 5-MeO-DMT. Recollecting this brings him to tears because of how beautiful the experiences were. He states “you’ve never really seen porn until you’ve seen it on 5-MeO-DMT.” He claims that he started to feel that this way he really felt that it is you (God) that is beautiful, which is manifested through those pictures.
A robust finding in the psychology of sexual attraction is that symmetry in faces is correlated with attractiveness. Indeed, more regular faces tend to be perceived as more beautiful. Amazingly, you can play with this effect by decorating someone’s face with face-paint. The more symmetrical the pattern, the more beautiful the face looks (and vice-versa). Arguably, the effect Leo is describing where people who are already beautiful become unbelievably pretty on 5-MeO-DMT involves embedding high-dimensional symmetries into the way you render them in your world-simulation. A lesser, and perhaps more reliable, version of this effect happens when you look at people on MDMA. They look way more attractive than what they look like sober.
Leo then brings up (~41:30) that he started to take 5-MeO-DMT on warm baths as well, which he reassures us is not as dangerous as it sounds (not enough water to drown if he experiences a whiteout). [It’s important to mention that people have died by taking ketamine on bath tubs; although a different drug, it is arguably still extremely dangerous to take 5-MeO-DMT alone on a bathtub; don’t do it]. He then has an incredible awakening surrendering to God consciousness in the bathtub, on 5-MeO-DMT, jerking off to beautiful women in the screen of his laptop. He gets a profound insight into the very “nature of desire”. He explains that it is very difficult to recognize the true nature of desire while on a normal level of consciousness because our desires are biased and fragmented. When “your consciousness becomes infinite” those biases dissolve, and you experience desire in its pure form. Which according to his direct experience turned out to be “desire for God, desire for myself”. And this is because you are, deep down “infinite love”. When you desire a husband, or sex, or whatever, you are really desiring God in disguise. But the problem is that since your path to God is constrained by the form you desire, your connection to God is not stable. But once you have this experience of complete understanding of what desire is, you finally get your desire fully quenched by experiencing God’s love.
This is a very deep point. It is related to what I’ve sometimes called the “most important philosophical question“, which is: is valence a spiritual phenomenon or spirituality a valence phenomenon? In other words, do we find experiences of God blissful because they have harmony and symmetry, or perhaps is it the other way around, where even the most trivial of pleasures, like drinking a good smoothy, feels good because it temporarily “gets you closer to God”? I lean towards the former, and that in fact mystical experiences are so beautiful because they are indeed extremely harmonious and resonant states of consciousness, and not because they take you closer to God. But I know very smart people who can’t decide between these views. For example, my friend Stuart Garvagh writes:
What if the two options are indistinguishable? Suppose valence is a measure of the harmony/symmetry of the object of consciousness, and the experience of “Oneness” or Cosmic Consciousness is equivalent to having the object of consciousness be all of creation (God‘s object), a highly symmetrical, full-spectrum object (full of bliss, light, love, beingness, all-knowledge, empty of discernible content or information). All objects of consciousness are distortions (or refractions, or something) of this one object. Happiness is equivalent to reducing or “polishing-out” these distortions. Thus, what appears to be just the fact of certain states being more pleasant than others is equivalent to certain states being closer to God‘s creation as a whole. Obviously this is all pure speculation and just a story to illustrate a point, but I could see it being very tough to tease apart the truth-value of 1 and 2. Note: I’m fairly agnostic myself, but lean towards 2 (bliss is the perfume of “God realizing God” or the subject of experience knowing Itself). I would very much love to have this question answered convincingly!
At 50:00 Leo says that “everything I’ve described so far is really a prelude to the real heart of awakening, which is the discovery of love. […] I had already awakened to love a number of times, but this was deeper. By the two week mark the love really started to crack open. Infinite self-love. You are drowning on this love.” He goes on to describe how at this point he was developing a form of telepathy that allowed him to communicate with God directly (which is, of course, a way of talking to himself as he is God already). It’s just a helpful way to further develop. And what God was showing him was how to receive self-love. It was so much at first he couldn’t handle it. And so he went through a self-purification process.
An interesting lens with which to interpret this experience of purification is that of neural annealing. Each 5-MeO-DMT experience would be making Leo’s nervous system resonate in ways in new ways, slowly writing over previous patterns and entraining the characteristic high-symmetry patterns of the state. Over time, the nervous system adjusts its weights in order to be able to handle that resonance without getting its patterns over-written. In other words, Leo has been transforming his nervous system into a kind of high-valence machine, which is of course very beneficial for intrinsic feelings of wellbeing (though perhaps detrimental to one’s epistemology).
55:00: He points out that unlike addictive drugs, he actually had to push himself very hard to continue to take 5-MeO-DMT everyday for 30 days. He stopped wanting to do it. The ego didn’t want it. And yes, it was pleasurable once he surrendered on every session, but it was difficult, heavy spiritual work. He says that he could only really do this because of years of practice with and without psychedelics, intense meditation, and a lot of personal development. And because of this, he explains his 5-MeO experiences felt like “years of spiritual work condensed into a single hour.” He then says that God will never judge you, and will help you to accept whatever terrible things you’ve done. And many of his subsequent trips were centered around self-acceptance.
Following the path of progressive neural annealing, going deeper and deeper into a state of self-acceptance can be understood as a deeper harmonization of your nervous system with itself.
At 1:01:20, Leo claims to have figured out what the purpose of reality truly is: “Reality is a contest for who can love who more. That’s really what life is about when you are fully conscious. […] Consciousness is a race for who can love who more. […] An intelligent fully conscious consciousness would only be interested in love. It wouldn’t be interested in anything else. Because everything else is inferior. […] Everything else is just utter silliness!”
I tend to agree with this, though perhaps not in an agentive way. As David Pearce says: “the pleasure-pain axis discloses the universe’s intrinsic value function.” So when you’ve annealed extremely harmonious patterns and do not get distracted by negative emotion, naturally, all there is left to do is maximize love. Unless we mess up, this is the only good final destiny for the cosmos (albeit perhaps it might take the form of a Hedonium shockwave, which at least in our current human form, sound utterly unappealing to most people).
1:06:10 “[God’s love] sparks you to also want to love it back. You see, it turns into a reciprocal reaction, where it is like two mirrors that are mirroring light between each other like a laser beam that is bouncing between two mirrors. And it’s bouncing back and forth and back and forth. And as it bounces back and forth it becomes more and more concentrated. And it strengthens. And it becomes more coherent. And so that’s what started happening. At first it started out as just a little game. Like ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. A little game. It sounds like it’s almost like childish. And it sort of was. But then it morphed from being this childish thing, into being this serious existential business. This turned into the work. This was the true awakening. Is that with the two mirrors, you know, first it took a little while to get the two mirrors aligned. Because you know if the two mirrors are not perfectly aligned, the laser beam will kind of bounce back and forth in different directions. It’s not going to really concentrate. So that was happening at first. […] The love started bouncing back and forth between us, and getting stronger and stronger. […] Each time it bounces back to me it transforms me. It opens me up deeper. And as it opens me up deeper it reveals blockages and obstacles to my capacity to love.”
Misaligned mirrors letting energy fly away
Aligned mirrors concentrating coherent energy
Now this is a fascinating account. And while Leo interprets it in a completely mystical way, the description also fits very well an annealing process where the nervous system gets more and more fine-tuned in order to be able to contain high levels of coherent energy via symmetry. Again, this would be extremely high-valence as a consequence of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Notice that we’ve talked about this phenomenon of “infinite mirrors” on psychedelics since 2016 (see: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States).
At ~1:09:30 he starts discussing that at this point he was confronted by God about whether he was willing to love the holocaust, and rape, and murder, and bullies, and people of all sorts, even devil worshipers.
Two important points here. First, it is a bit ambiguous whether Leo here is using the word “love” in the sense of “enjoyment” or in the sense of “loving-kindness and compassion”. The former would be disturbing while the latter would be admirable. I suppose he was talking about the latter, in which case “loving rape” would refer to “being able to accept and forgive those who rape” which indeed sounds very Godly. This radical move is explored in metta (loving-kindness) meditation and it seems healthy on the whole. And second: Why? Why go through the trouble of embracing all the evil and repulsive aspects of ourselves? One interpretation here, coming back to the analysis based on neural annealing, is that any little kink or imperfection caused by negative emotion in our nervous system will create slight symmetry breaking effects on the resonance of the entire system as whole. So after you’ve “polished and aligned the mirrors for long enough” the tiny imperfections become the next natural blockage to overcome in order to maximize the preservation of coherent energy via symmetry.
~1:12:00 Leo explains that the hardest thing to love is your own self-hatred. In the bouncing off of the love between you and God, with each bounce, you find that the parts you hate about yourself reflect an imperfect love. But God loves all of you including your self-hatred. So he pings you about that. And once you can accept it, that’s what truly changes you. “Because when you feel that love, and you feel how accepting it is, and how forgiving it is of all of your evil and of all of your sins… that’s the thing that kills you, that transforms you. That’s what breaks your heart, wide open. That’s what gets you to surrender. That’s what humbles you. That’s what heals you.” Leo then explains that he discovered what “healing is”. And it is “truth and love”. That in order to heal anyone, you need to love them and accept them. Not via sappy postcards and white lies but by truth. He also states that all physical, mental, and spiritual ailments have, at their root, lack of love.
If love is one of the cleanest expressions of high-valence symmetry and resonance, we can certainly expect that inundating a nervous system with it will smooth and clean its blockages, i.e. the sources of neural dissonance. Hence the incredible power of MDMA on healing nervous systems in the short-term. Indeed, positive emotion is itself healing and enhances neural coherence. But where I think this view is incomplete is in diagnosing the terrible suffering that goes on in the world in terms of a lack of love. For instance, are cluster headaches really just the result of lack of self-love? In here must bring back the background assumption of physicalism and make a firm statement that if we fall into illusion about the nature of reality we risk not saving people (and sentient beings more generally) who are really in the depth of Hell. Just loving them without taking the causally-relevant physical action to prevent their suffering is, in my opinion, not true love. Hence the importance of maintaining a high level of epistemic rigor: for the sake of others. (See: Hell Must Be Destroyed).
1:22:30 Leo explains that in this “love contest” with God of bouncing off love through parallel mirrors the love became so deep that for the first time in his life he felt the need to apologize: “I’m sorry for not loving more.” He goes into a sermon about how we are petty, and selfish, etc. and how God loves us anyway. “Real love means: I really love you as you are. And I don’t need anything from you. And especially all those things that you think I want you to change about you, I don’t need you to change. I can accept them all exactly as they are. Because that’s love. And when you realize THAT, that’s what transforms you. It is not that God says that he loves you. He is demonstrating it. It’s the demonstration that transforms you.” Leo expresses that he was then for the first time in his life able to say “thank you” sincerely. Specifically, “thank you for your love”: “This is the point at which you’ve really been touched by God’s love. And at this point you realize that that’s it, that’s the point, that’s the lesson in life. That’s my only job. It’s to love.” And finally, that for the first time in his life he was able to say “I love you” and truly mean it. “And you fall in love with God… but it doesn’t end there.”
An interesting interpretation of the felt-sense of “truly meaning” words like “I’m sorry”, “thank you”, and “I love you” is that at this point Leo has really deeply annealed his nervous system into a vessel for coherent energy. In other words, at this point he is saying and meaning those words through the whole of his nervous system, rather than them coming from a fragmented region of a complex set of competing internal family systems in a scattered way. Which is, of course, the way it usually goes.
1:35:30 Leo explains that at this point he started going into the stage of being able to radiate love. That he was unable to radiate love before. “I love that you are not capable of love. I love that. And when that hits you, that’s what fills you with enough love to overcome your resistance to love that next level thing that you couldn’t love.” Then at ~ 1:38:00 it gets really serious. Leo explains that so far he was just loving and accepting past events and people. But he was then asked by God whether he would be willing to live through the worst things that have happened and will happen. To incarnate and be tortured, among many other horrible things. And that’s what true love really means. “When you see a murder on the TV, you have to realize that God lived through that. And the only reason he lived through that is because it loved it.”
I do not understand this. Here is where the distinction between the two kinds of senses of the word “love” become very important. I worry that Leo has annealed to the version of love with the meaning of “enjoyment” rather than “loving-kindness and compassion”. Because a loving God would be happy to take the place of someone who went through Hell. But would a loving God send himself to Hell if nobody had to in the first place? That would just create suffering out of nothing. So I am confused about why Leo would believe this to be the case. It’s quite possible that there are many maxima of symmetry in the nervous system you can achieve with 5-MeO-DMT, and some of them are loving in the sense of compassionate and others are crazy and would be willing to create suffering out of nothing from a misguided understanding of what love is supposed to be. Again, handle Plutonium with caution.
1:43:00 Leo started wondering “what is reality then?” And the answer was: “It’s infinite consciousness. Infinite formless consciousness. So what happens was that my mind in my visual field as I was in that bathtub. My mind and my visual field focused in on empty space, and I sort of zoomed into that empty space and realized that that empty space is just love”. He then describes a process where his consciousness became more and more concentrated and absorbed into space, each dot of consciousness branching out into more and more dots of consciousness, turning into the brightest possible white light. But when he inquired into what was that white light he kept seeing that there was no end to it, and rather, that each point was always connected to more points. Inquiring further, he would get the response that at the core, reality is pure love. That it wouldn’t be and couldn’t be any other way.
The description sounds remarkably close to the formless jhanas such as “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness”. The description itself is extremely reminiscent of an annealing process, reaching a highly energized state of consciousness nearly devoid of information content and nearly perfectly symmetrical. The fact that at this incredibly annealed level he felt so much love supports the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
147:28 – And after Leo realizes that “Of course it is love!” he says that’s when the fear comes: “Because then what you realize is that this is the end. This is the end of your life. You are dead. If you go any further you are dead. Everything will disappear. Your family, your friends, you parents, all of it is completely imaginary. And if you stop imagining it right now, it will all end. If you go any further into this Singularity, you will become pure, formless, infinite, love for ever, loving itself forever. And the entire universe will be destroyed as if it never existed. Complete nothingness. Complete everythingness. You will merge into everyone.”
This sounds like the transition between the 6th and 7th Jhana, i.e. between “boundless consciousness” and “nothingness”. Again, this would be the result of further loss of information via an annealing process, refining the symmetry up to that of a “point”. Interestingly, Mike Johnson in Principia Quallia points out that as symmetry approaches an asymptote of perfection you do get a higher quality of valence but at the cost of reduced consciousness. This might explain why you go from “the brightest possible love” to a feeling of nothingness at this critical transition.
1:48:25: “…You will merge into everyone. Your mother, your father, your children, your spouse, Hitler, terrorists, 9/11, Donald Trump, rape, murder, torture, everything will become pure infinite love, merging completely into itself, there will be no distinction between absolutely anything, and that will be the end. And you will realize what reality is. Infinite consciousness. Love. God. And you will realize that everything in your life from your birth to this point has just been some imaginary story. A dream that was design to lead you to pure absolute infinite love. And you will rest in that love forever. Forever falling in love with yourself. Forever making love to yourself. Forever in infinite union. With every possible object that could ever exist. Pure absolute, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, intelligent, consciousness. Everything that could ever possibly be, is you. And THAT is awakening. When you are this awake, you are dead. And you have no desire for life. There is no physical existence. There is no universe. Nothing remains. Your parents, and your spouse, and your children, they don’t stay back and keep living their lives, enjoying their life without you while your body drops dead. No, no, no, no, no. This is much more serious than that. If you do this. If you become infinite love, you will take everybody with you. There will not be anybody left. You will destroy the entire universe. Every single sentient being will become you. They will have no existence whatsoever. Zero. They will die with you. They will all awaken with you. It’s infinite awakening. It’s completely absolute. There will not be anything left. You will take the entire universe with you. Into pure oneness. THAT’S awakening.”
This is not the first time I hear about this kind of experience. It certainly sounds extraordinarily scary. Though perhaps a negative utilitarian would find it to be the ultimate relief and the best of all possible imaginable outcomes. With the human survival instinct, and quite possibly a body fully aroused with the incredible power of 5-MeO-DMT, this is bound to be one of the most terrifying feelings possible. It’s quite likely that it may be one element of what makes “bad 5-MeO-DMT experiences” so terrifying. But here we must recall that the map is not the territory. And while an annealing process might slowly write over every single facet of one’s model of reality and in turn making them part of a super-cluster of high-dimensional resonance that reflects itself seemingly infinitely, doing this does not entail that you are in fact about to destroy the universe. Though, admittedly, it will surely feel that way. Additionally, I would gather that were it possible to actually end the universe this way, somebody, somewhere, in some reality or another, would have already done so. Remember that if God could be killed, it’d be dead already.
1:52:01: “And I didn’t go there! As you can tell, since I’m still sitting here. I’m not there. I was too afraid to go there. And God was fine with it. It didn’t push me. But that’s not the end of the story! It’s still just the beginning.” He then goes on to explain that a part of him wanted to do it and another part of him didn’t want to. He says it got really loopy and weird; this really shook him. That God was beckoning him to go and be one forever, but he was still ambivalent and needed some time to think about it. He knew it would make no difference, but he still decided to ‘make preparations’ and tell his family and friends that he loves them before moving forward with a final decision to annihilate the universe. By the time he had done that… he had stopped taking 5-MeO-DMT: “The experiences had gotten so profound and so deep… this was roughly the 25th or 27th day of this whole 30 day process. I swore off 5-MeO-DMT and said ‘Ok I’m not doing any more of this shit. It’s enough'”. He explains that by this time the drug was making him feel infinite consciousness when waking up (from sleep) the next day. He felt the Singularity was sucking him into it. It felt both terrifying and irresistible. Every time he would go to sleep it would suck him in really strongly, and he kept resisting it. He would wake up sweaty and in a panic. He was tripping deeper in his sleep than in the bathtub. He couldn’t sleep without this happening, and it kept happening for about 5 days. “I just want to get back to normal. This is getting freaky now.”
I’ve heard this from more than a couple people. That is, that when one does 5-MeO-DMT enough times, and especially within a short enough period of time, the “realizations” start to also happen during sleep in an involuntarily way. One can interpret this as the annealing process of 5-MeO-DMT now latching on to sleep (itself a natural annealing process meant to lessen the technical debt of the nervous system). Even just a couple strong trips can really change what sleep feels like for many days. I can’t imagine just how intense it must have been for Leo after 25 days straight of using this drug.
2:01:40 – Leo explains that when he was dozing off with a blanket on his living room (terrified of sleeping on his bed due to the effect just described) he experienced a “yet deeper awakening” which involved realizing that all of his previous awakenings were just like points and that the new one was like a line connecting many points. “Everything I’ve said up to this point were just a single dimension of awakening. And then what I broke through to is a second dimension. A second dimension of awakening opened up. This second dimension is completely unimaginable, completely indescribable, cannot be talked about, cannot be thought about. And yet it’s there. In it, are things that are completely outside of the physical universe that you cannot conceive or imagine.” He goes on to explain that there are then also a third, fourth, fifth, etc. dimensions. And that he believes there is an infinite number of them. He barely even began to explore the second dimension of awakening, but he realized that it goes forever. It kept happening, he had intense emotional distress and mood swings. But gradually after five more days it subsided, and he started to be able to sleep more normally. “And I’ve been working to make sense of all of this for the last couple of weeks. So that’s what happened.”
Alright, this is out of my depth and I do not have an interpretation of what this “second dimension of awakening” is about. If anyone has any clue, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’m as as confused as Leo is about this.
~2:05:00 – Leo confesses he does not know what would happen if he went through with joining the Singularity and mentions that it sounds a bit like Mahasamādhi. He simply has not answers at this point, but he asserts that the experience has made him question the extent of the enlightenment of other teachers. It also has made him more loving. But still, he feels frustration: “I don’t know what to do from here.”
And neither do I. Do you, dear reader?
Postscript: In the last 10 minutes of the video Leo shares a heart warming message about how reality is, deep down, truly, “just love” and that him saying this may be a seed that will blossom into you finding this out for yourself at some point in the future. He ends by cautioning his audience to not believe as a matter of fact that this is the path for everyone. He suggests that others should just use his examples from his own journey as examples rather than an absolute guide or how-to for enlightenment. He asks his audience to make sure to question the depth of their own awakening – to not believe that they have reached the ultimate level. He admits he has no idea whether there is an ultimate level or not, and that he still has some healing to do on himself. He remains dissatisfied with his understanding of reality.
We are Maggie & Anders. A mostly harmless Swedish old-timer couple only now beginning to discover the advanced incompetence that is the proto-science — or “alchemy” — of consciousness research. A few centuries ago a philosopher of chemistry could have claimed with a straight face to be quite certain that a substance with negative mass had to be invoked to explain the phenomenon of combustion. Another could have been equally convinced that the chemistry of life involves a special force of nature absent from all non-living matter. A physicist of today may recognize that the study of consciousness has even less experimental foundation than alchemy did, yet be confident that at least it cannot feel like somethingto be a black hole. Since, obviously, black holes are simple objects and consciousness is a phenomenon which only emerges from “complexity” as high as that of a human brain.
Is there some ultimate substrate, basic to reality and which has properties intrinsic to itself? If so, is elementary sentience one of those properties? Or is it “turtles all the way down” in a long regress where all of reality can be modeled as patterns within patterns within patterns ending in Turing-style “bits”? Or parsimoniously never ending?
Will it turn out to be patterns all the way down, or sentience all the way up? Should people who believe themselves to perhaps be in an ancestor simulation take for granted that consciousness exists for biologically-based people in base-level reality? David Chalmers does. So at least that must be one assumption it is safe to make, isn’t it? And the one about no sentience existing in a black hole. And the one about phlogiston. And the four chemical elements.
This really is good material for silly comedy or artistic satire. To view a modest attempt by us in that direction, please feel encouraged to enjoy this youtube video we made with QRI in mind:
When ignorance is near complete, it is vital to think outside the proverbial box if progress is to be made. However, spontaneous creative speculation is more context-constrained than it feels like, and it rarely correlates all that beautifully with anything useful. Any science has to work via the baby steps of testable predictions. The integrated information theory (IIT) does just that, and has produced encouraging early results. IIT could turn out to be a good starting point for eventually mapping and modeling all of experiential phenomenology. For a perspective, IIT 3.0 may be comparable to how Einstein’s modeling of the photoelectric effect stands in relation to a full-blown theory of quantum gravity. There is a fair bit of ground to cover. We have not been able to find any group more likely than the QRI to speed up the process whereby humanity eventually manages to cover that ground. That is, if they get a whole lot of help in the form of outreach, fundraising and technological development. Early pioneers have big hurdles to overcome, but the difference they can make for the future is enormous.
For those who feel inspired, a nice start is to go through all that is on or linked via the QRI website. Indulge in Principia Qualia. If that leaves you confused on a higher level, you are in good company. With us. We are halfway senile and are not information theorists, neuroscientists or physicists. All we have is a nerdy sense of humor and work experience in areas like marketing and planetary geochemistry. One thing we think we can do is help bridge the gap between “experts” and “lay people”. Instead of “explain it like I am five”, we offer the even greater challenge of explaining it like we are Maggie & Anders. Manage that, and you will definitely be wiser afterwards!
– Maggie & Anders
No qualia or your money back!
Tested for consciousness – zero
Don’t be afraid – she can’t feel anything!
Letter II: State-Space of Matter and State-Space of Consciousness
A core aspect of science is the mapping out of distributions, spectra, and state-spaces of the building blocks of reality. Naturally occurring states of things can be spontaneously discovered. To gain more information about them, one can experimentally alter such states to produce novel ones, and then analyze them in a systematic way.
The full state-space of matter is multidimensional and vast. Zoom in anywhere in it and there will be a number of characteristic physics phenomena appearing there. Within a model of the state-space you can follow independent directions as you move towards regions and points. As an example, you can hold steady at one particular simple chemical configuration. Diamond, say. The stable region of diamond and its emergent properties like high hardness extends certain distances in other parameter directions such as temperature and pressure. The diamond region has neighboring regions with differently structured carbon, such as graphite. Diamond and graphite make for an interesting case since the property of hardness emerges very differently in the two regions. (In the pure carbon state-space the dimensions denoting amounts of all other elements can be said to be there but set to zero). Material properties like hardness can be modeled as static phenomena. According to IIT however, consciousness cannot. It’s still an emergent property of matter though, so just stay in the matter state-space and add a time dimension to it. Then open chains and closed loops of causation emerge as a sort of fundamental level of what matter “does”. Each elementary step of causation may be regarded to produce or intrinsically be some iota of proto-experience. In feedback loops this self-amplifies into states of feeling like something. Many or perhaps most forms of matter can “do” these basic things at various regions of various combinations of parameter settings. Closed causal loops require more delicate fine-tuning in parameter space, so the state-space of nonconscious causation structure is larger than that of conscious structure. The famous “hard problem” has to do with the fact that both an experientially very weak and a very strong state can emerge from the same matter (shown to be the case so far only within brains). A bit like the huge difference in mechanical hardness of diamond and graphite both emerging from the same pure carbon substrate (a word play on “hard” to make it sticky).
By the logic of IIT it should be possible to model (in arbitrarily coarse or fine detail) the state-space of all conscious experience whose substrate is all possible physical states of pure carbon. Or at room temperature in any material. And so on. If future advanced versions of IIT turn out to be a success then we may guess there’ll be a significant overlap to allow for a certain “substrate invariance” for hardware that can support intelligence with human-recognizable consciousness. Outside of that there will be a gargantuan additional novel space to explore. It ought to contain maxima of (intrinsic) attractiveness, none of which need to reside within what a biological nervous system can host. Biological evolution has only been able to search through certain parts of the state-space of matter. One thing it has not worked with on Earth is pure carbon. Diamond tooth enamel or carbon nanotube tendons would be useful but no animal has them. What about conscious states? Has biology come close to hit upon any of the optima in those? If all of human sentience is like planet Earth, and all of Terrestrial biologically-based sentience is like the whole Solar System, that leaves an entire extrasolar galaxy out there to explore. (Boarding call: Space X Flight 42 bound for Nanedi Settlement, Mars. Sentinauts please go to the Neuralink check-in terminal).
Of course we don’t currently know how IIT is going to stand up, but thankfully it does make testable predictions. There is, therefore, a beginning of something to be hoped for with it. In a hopeful scenario IIT turns out to be like special relativity, and what QRI is reaching for is like quantum gravity. It will be a process of taking baby steps, for sure. But each step is likely to bring benefits in many ways.
QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.
This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.
A few takeaways:
Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.
(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)
I recently had the chance to interview someone who’s had 50+ vaporized N,N-DMT experiences. The person in question (who wishes to remain anonymous) is extremely smart, philosophically literate, and has a PhD in a STEM field from a top US university. Based on the interview notes I took, I wrote down what the progression of a “typical” experience looks like. The anonymous reader confirmed that this description provides an accurate account.
Onset stage (1-20 seconds): PsychedelicMolting – Sharpening of colors and edges, the world acquires a secondary layer (as if the world is “molting”), and then this second layer becomes unified and starts to resonate across the entire field of experience.
Early come-up (20-40 seconds): TheHyper-Edge Capacitor – Visual field gets saturated with the Chrysanthemum, which starts to give way to 3D shapes. At this point a center of high-dimensional correlations between planes of experience starts bubbling up correlated subspaces for later use: planes, then 3D spaces, then hyper-planes, etc. And as these “high-dimensional Lego pieces” are made, they start becoming the elements of the scene (the walls, the objects, the space, the sense of presence, etc.).
Middle come-up (40-80 seconds): Crystal Worlds – In this phase of the experience there are a lot of “Buddhist no-self universes” of perfect resonance along many axes. Cave worlds, column worlds, pentagonal tiling of mirror chambers worlds, transparent blinds oceanic worlds, etc. There is a feeling that “these worlds exist independently of you” and that they are kinds of high-grade meditative states achievable by highly-attained monks and beings from other dimensions. They are sterile in some sense, though, which is that they lack evolution. They are attractor points of high-dimensional resonance. Insanely beautiful and ecstatic but also not perfect (for reasons that are hard to articulate).
Late come-up (80-100 seconds): Hyperbolic Gear World – At this point you start to see high-dimensional hyperbolic mechanisms. One intuitively feels that the state has too much energy to be contained in a Crystal World, which gives rise to stitching parallel Crystal Worlds into a unified hyperbolic world-sheet. Incredibly, this world-sheet is precise and seamless. The information contained in it is highly-specific. At this point number theory, hyperbolic geometry, and high-dimensional dynamics start to be very relevant. Irreducibly complex mathematical interlocking objects appear in very crisp and precise ways (it’s not just a fuzzy but intense impression of precision – it is a precise experience of precision clockwork machinery). 3D gear mechanisms with a prime-number of teeth that only repeat when they make as many cycles as the minimum common multiple of all the gears may show up, scenes with ‘plasma consciousness’ contained in hyperbolically-folded cavities with laminar color flow arise, spontaneous chaotic symmetry breaking devices arranged in the form of complex vibrating metallic flowers will materialize, etc. These devices also build on each other’s innovations. They can swap elements to become more interesting, more complex, more energetic, more hypnotizing, and more pleasurable than before.
Artwork and Visual Media
Plateau (100-180 seconds): DMT Tykes – One starts to hallucinate things that are higher up in the visual hierarchy. “DMT Tykes” (another name for “DMT elves”) are humanoid forms that start to appear at this point. They are ever-evolving, and constructed of a high-dimensional hyperbolic world-sheet made of networks of interlocking Rabbit-Duck bistable percepts. In some sense the entities you see are not the DMT Tykes themselves. Instead, it feels like there are still higher-dimensional entities that interface with the space you’re at and it is those entities that control the rendered humanoid bistable percepts. The devices you saw in the immediately preceding stage (Hyperbolic Gear World) are revealed to be artifacts created by these higher-dimensional beings. As reported by others before, this space gives off the impression of being a gallery, a museum, a factory, or some kind of scientific testing facility, where entities are trying out new qualia configurations to study their properties: how they feel, what they can be used for, what it is like to experience them as a human being, etc. They are trying to compel you to take these things seriously, to see through how groundbreaking they would be for humans. Whenever one is too overwhelmed with the information presented (common misgivings are of the sort: “this is too much for a simple human” or “too beautiful, I don’t deserve this” or “what if people find out I know this?”) the experience becomes calming and things that you recognize as a human start being presented: jungles, hedonically-charged human scenes, locations, archetypes, stories about the origin of humanity, etc. And when one feels ready again to look at the complex machinery then there is this sense that the entities will continue to show you more and more of the irreducibly complex phenomenal objects native to that space.
Early comedown (180-240 seconds): High-Dimensional Breakdown – Entities may become a bit desperate to make sure they have sent along the most important information. The intensity starts subsiding and there is a lot of revisiting of earlier stages, gathering of essential insights, and decisions made about what to definitely try to bring back to one’s baseline state. Often one fears that one’s brain will never get back to normal during the earlier parts, but at this point one recognizes that there is a downward trend and that it’s all going to be ok after all. Paranoia, if present beforehand, starts to subside at this point. In terms of narrative, at this point one is usually coming to terms with what the experience will mean for your everyday life, whether you believe that the entities were real, and whether all of this was just a hallucination. The intuitive understanding that even if it is all just in your mind it still contained information of very high-value is clear at this stage (but may subside if you don’t properly encode it). Key undeniable facts of the experience at this point are: (1) there are heights of bliss and pain way outside of the range of human experience, (2) there are heights of mathematical complexity possible to experience directly that are beyond the scope of normal human cognition, and (3) there are types of qualia that matter both for intelligence and wellbeing that exist but humans are utterly clueless about. Disregarding the veracity of the entities or the literal interpretations of the experience, these three facts are straightforward to acknowledge at this stage of the trip.
Late comedown (240-360 seconds): Psychedelic Dampening – There is a clear sense that some of the information you were able to easily see and grock earlier in the experience is completely inaccessible now. You lose contact with what felt like higher forms of intelligence but you still see a lot of interesting patterns and complex geometry that you somehow realize is not as important as what happened just before. Even though it still feels like you are “very high”, it feels like one’s unique privileged access to information about consciousness is gone and that what you could discover now would not belong to the same level of “scientific breakthrough” as what you experienced before.
After-effects (360-600 seconds): FastSobering Up – Thinking about meta-narratives is very common at this stage, just like it is on traditional psychedelics. Things like “Where is the human world headed? What kind of consciousness will we experience as our default mode in 100 years from now? What will happen once scientists, engineers, and mathematicians start to do systematic research on the mathematics of the irreducibly-complex phenomenal objects at the peak of the experience? Etc.” Somewhere in along this stage the world finally becomes solidly uni-layered and then it just feels like a low dose of shrooms for a couple more minutes, at most.
Baseline (600 seconds onwards): Re-Grounding Stage – You start wondering what that was all about. The realization that you came back to normal again so quickly is likely to make you feel like you should have not been so afraid to try out the experience to begin with. At the same time, you also may feel a strong pull towards not experiencing that for a while (depends – some people feel braver at this point and redo the experience). In most circumstances one will feel a mood boost for several hours (up to days) for two reasons. First is the sense of significance and profundity in the form of gratitude and the feeling of being special that such an experience confers. And second, there seems to be an essentially physiological response to having gone through such an intense experience without getting harmed (if one wasn’t harmed, of course). Perhaps the annealing frame is adequate in this context. Namely, that the experience somehow smoothed out a lot of pinch points and imperfections latent in one’s psyche. The fear of “the worst that could happen to me” subsides and one experiences a sense of connection to other humans that is significantly above baseline.
Martin Ball: Here is what I learned very quickly in working both with 5-MeO-DMT and other medicines during the same time period. First, I noticed this in myself, and then I started looking to see if this was true for other people, and very quickly found that this was true. There is a fundamental distinction: when people go into fully energetically open non-dual states of awareness -and I do qualify it with ‘fully energetically open’ because that is different than, say, a meditative non-dual experience, which I do not qualify as energetically fully open- when someone is energetically fully open and goes into a non-dual state of awareness, what happens is that they always open up with a perfectly mirrored bilateral symmetry, with the left and right sides of the body always mirroring each other. And nothing ever crosses the center line of the body. People move spontaneously or their bodies open up, and their hands may come together, but they come together right here, in the middle along the center line, and then they separate, and then come back together. Then you can see a transition when suddenly someone comes back into the ego. So, they are fully immersed in the experience and their bodies are opened… and then as soon as the ego comes in, there is some kind of break when suddenly the left side of the body is doing something different than the right side of the body.
For people who don’t get all the way to being fully energetically open, you give them a very powerful psychedelic -which again is changing the energetic experience of the body- and you can watch them fight with it, and you will see that there is always some kind of asymmetry taking place in their body language when they are fighting with it. Or if they are still residing in their ego. So I learned very quickly that non-dual states of awareness coincide with balanced bilateral symmetry and the ego almost always functions through some form of energetic asymmetry. Which is perfectly natural! I mean, there is noting wrong with it, I am not trying to criticize it. But for example (I use this example all the time): My glass of water is to my right. Now if I -a subject- become thirsty and I want my water, operating with bilateral symmetry isn’t going to get me my water. My water is over here to the right. So I break into object-subject duality so we can have an interaction between these two different parts of the self. So working with psychedelics for the intention of achieving… not only achieving, but also working out the distortions of the ego, means paying attention to how either symmetries or asymmetries show up within the body.
So this is the challenge that I give people: Take some 5-MeO-DMT, and see how long you can stay perfectly symmetrical within your body. Now, some people can ride it all the way through. And they can do that fairly easily. Many people… I would say the vast majority, can’t. And even those who do, who open up initially and are in this nice bilateral symmetry, you will see, after 10 or 15 minutes, or for some people after 30 seconds, as soon as the ego starts to reintegrate, they start breaking into asymmetries. Now, what can happen is… so the ego itself, and this is also coming out of my own experience, this is not based on anybody else’s model, this is just my own definition of the ego… the ego itself is not a singular thing. It is a collection of patterns of energy. So as we are coming into ourselves, as young beings, what we are doing is learning different -what we perceive as acceptable- ways of engaging our energy.