Just Look At The Thing! – How The Science of Consciousness Informs Ethics

It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing! 


From Richard Feyman’s talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (1959)

Introduction

The quote above comes from a lecture Richard Feynman gave in which he talks about the challenges and opportunities of studying and interacting with the world at a very small scale. Among other things, he touches upon how gaining access to e.g. a good-enough electron microscopes would allow us to answer long-standing questions in biology by just looking at the thing (cf. Seeing Cell Division Like Never Before). Once you start to directly engage with the phenomenon at a high-enough resolution, tackling these questions at the theoretical level would turn out, in retrospect, to be idle arm chair speculation.

I think that we can make the case that philosophy of ethics at the moment might be doing something like this. In other words, it speculates about the nature of value at a theoretical level without engaging with the phenomenon of value at a high resolution. Utilitarianism (whether classical or negative), at least as it is usually formulated, may turn out to have background assumptions about the nature of consciousness, personal identity, and valence that a close examination would show to be false (or at least very incomplete). Many criticisms of wireheading, for instance, seem to conflate pleasure and reward (more on this soon), and yet we now know that these are quite different. Likewise, the repugnant conclusion or the question between total vs. mean utilitarianism are usually discussed using implicit background assumptions about the nature of valence and personal identity. This must stop. We have to look at the thing!

Without further ado, here are some of the key ways in which an enriched understanding of consciousness can inform our ethical theories:

Mixed Valence

One ubiquitous phenomenon that I find is largely neglected in discussions about utilitarianism is that of mixed valence states. Not only is it the case that there are many flavors of pleasure and pain, but it is also the case that most states of consciousness blend both pleasurable and painful sensations in complex ways.

In Principia Qualia (Michael Johnson) the valence triangle was introduced. This describes the valence of a state of consciousness in terms of its loadings on the three dimensions of negative, positive, and neutral valence. This idea was extended in Quantifying Bliss, which further enriched it by adding a spectral component to each of these dimensions. Let’s work with this valence triangle to reason about mixed valence.

In order to illustrate the relevance of mixed valence states we can see how it influences policies within the context of negative utilitarianism. Let us say that we agree that there is a ground truth to the total amount of pain and pleasure a system produces. A naïve conception of negative utilitarianism could then be “we should minimize pain”. But pain that exists within an experience that also contains pleasure may matter a lot less than pain that exists in an experience without pleasure that “balances it out”!

The naïve conception, would thus, not be able to distinguish between the following two scenarios. In Scenario A we have two persons, one suffering from both an intense headache and an intense stomach ache and the other enjoying both a very pleasant sensation in the head and a very pleasant sensation in the stomach. In Scenario B, we switch it up: one person experiences an intense headache while also a very pleasant sensation in the stomach, and the other way around for the other person.

But if you have ever experienced a very pleasant sensation arise in the midst of an otherwise unpleasant experience you will know how much of a difference it makes. Such a pleasant sensation does not need to directly blunt the painful sensation; the mere presence of enough pleasure makes the overall nature of the experience far more tolerable. How and why this happens is still, of course, a mystery (in a future post we shall share our speculations) but it seems to be an empirical fact. This can have extraordinary implications, where for example a sufficiently advanced meditator might be able to dilute very painful sensations with enough equanimity (itself a high-valence state) or by e.g. generating jhanic sensations (see below). Have you ever seen this discussed in an academic journal on ethics? I didn’t think so.

We don’t need to invoke such fancy scenarios to see the reality and importance of mixed valence states. The canonical example that I use to illustrate this phenomenon is where: you just broke up with someone (-), are at a concert enjoying really good music (+), are coming up on weed and alcohol (+), but also need to pee really bad (-). We’ve all been there, haven’t we? If you get sufficiently absorbed into the cathartic pleasure of the music and the drugs, the negative feelings temporarily recede into the background and thus might tilt the experience towards the net positive for a while.

Once you consider the reality of mixed valence states, there is a veritable Cambrian Explosion of possible variants of utilitarianism. For example, if you do accept that pleasure can somehow dilute pain within a given moment of experience, then you could posit that there is a “line of hedonic zero” on the valence triangle and anything on one side of it is net positive:

A version of negative utilitarianism we could call within-subject-aggregated-valence negative utilitarianism recognizes any experience in the “Net Positive” region to be perfectly acceptable even though it contains painful sensations.

Alternatively, another version we may call strict negative valence utilitarianism might say that pain, whether or not it is found within an experience with a lot of pleasure, is still nonetheless unacceptable. Here, however, we may still have a lot of room for a civilization animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss: we can use the gradients that have a mixture of positive and neutral Vedanā for information signaling:

Yet another view, perhaps called within-subject-majoritarian negative valence utilitarianism might say that what makes an experience worth-living and unproblematic is for it to be at least 50% pleasant, regardless of the composition of the other 50%:

Now, I am not going to adjudicate between these views today. All I am pointing for the time being is that actually engaging with the phenomenon at hand (i.e. how valence manifests in reality) radically enriches our conceptions, and allows us to notice that most of ethics has an impoverished understanding of the phenomenon it comments on. We can change that.

Logarithmic Scales

As argued in Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (summary) we think that there is a wide range of evidence that suggests that the intensity of both pleasure and pain follows a long-tail distribution. I am not going to repeat the arguments here, since I’ve written and presented about them extensively already. I will merely mention that I am deeply suspicious of the intellectual seriousness of any ethicist who somehow fails to notice the enormous moral significance of the following states of consciousness, among others:

On the positive side:

  • Temporal lobe epilepsy
  • MDMA
  • Jhanas
  • Good high-dose 5-MeO-DMT trip

On the negative side:

  • Cluster Headaches
  • Kidney Stones
  • Bad high-dose 5-MeO-DMT trip

Valence and Self-Models

One of the claims of QRI is that every experience, no matter how outlandish and unlike our normal everyday human experience, has valence characteristics. An analogy can be made with the notion of physical temperature: every physical object has a temperature, no matter what it is made out of or what its shape is.

Most human experiences have a lot of shared structure, with things like a central “phenomenal self” that works as an organizing principle for arranging sensations. Many meditators and psychedelic enthusiasts point out that suffering seems to have something to do with our sense of self. That feelings matter only to the extent that they are happening to someone. But experiences without a phenomenal self (or with radically altered phenomenal selves) will nonetheless still have valence characteristics. Ego deaths can be dysphoric or euphoric.

We argue that what matter is actually the overall structure of the experience (cf. valence structuralism). It just so happens that above a certain level of valence, the phenomenal self starts to become an impediment to further bliss. Ultra-pleasant experiences, thus, tend to be selfless! But this does not make them worthless. On the contrary, their intrinsic worth, coming from their positive valence, can go through the roof.

That said, reporting the valence of very exotic experiences can be remarkably difficult. This doesn’t mean that we should give up; rather, we ought to develop new methods, vocabulary, and culture to be able to place these experiences on the same moral footing as our normal everyday life.

For example, the so-called “toroidal state” (on DMT) or during a meditative cessation can have profound valence effects, to the point of making you reconsider the very nature and scope of what matters.

From The Three Doors chapter in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (Daniel Ingram):

Regardless of the way a specific door manifests, it reveals something completely extraordinary about the relationship between “the watcher” and “the watched” that it would take a very warped, non-Euclidean view of the universe to explain, though I will try shortly. One way or another, these fleeting experiences cannot easily be explained in terms of our normal, four-dimensional experience of space-time, or within our ordinary subject/object experience. […] When the no-self door predominates with suffering as its second aspect, then a very strange thing happens. There may be an image on one side staring back, but even if there isn’t, the universe becomes a toroid (doughnut-shaped), or occasionally a sphere, and the image and this side of the toroid switch places as the toroid universe spins. It may spin sideways (horizontally), or it may spin vertically (like head over heels), and may also feel like a hood of darkness suddenly being pulled over our heads as the whole thing synchronizes and disappears, or like everything twisting out of existence. The rarest no-self/suffering variant is hard to describe, and involves reality becoming like a doughnut whose whole outer edge rotates inwards such as to trade places with its inner edge (the edge that made the hole in the middle) that rotates to the outer edge position, and when they trade places reality vanishes. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have switched places and the whole thing vanishes.

I recommend reading the whole chapter for what I consider to be some ultra-trippy phenomenology of surprising ethical relevance (see also: No-Self vs. True Self).

In summary: this all indicates that states of consciousness have valence characteristics independently of the presence, absence, shape, or dynamic of a phenomenal self within them. If your ethicist isn’t considering the moral worth of Nirvana… perhaps consider switching to one who does.

Valence and Personal Identity

The solution to the phenomenal binding problem has implications for both personal identity and ethics. If, as I posit, each moment of experience is in fact a topological pocket in the fields of physics, then Closed Individualism would seem to be ruled out. Meaning, the standard conception of identity where you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die would turn out to be a strange evolutionarily adaptive fiction. What really exists is a gigantic field of consciousness subdivided into countless topological pockets. Empty Individualism (“you are just a moment of experience”) and Open Individualism (“we are all the same universal consciousness”) would both be consistent with the facts, and it might be impossible to decide between them. Yet, I argue that the vast majority of ethical theories have as an implicit background assumption Closed Individualism. So realizing that it is false has major implications.

In particular, if we take the Empty Individualist perspective, it might be easier to defend negative utilitarianism: since each snapshot of experience is a completely separate being, you simply cannot “make it up” to someone who is currently suffering by giving him/her enough happiness in the future. Simply put, that suffering will never be redeemed.

Alternatively, if we take the Open Individualist perspective, we now might have actual grounds to decide between, say, average vs. total utilitarianism. Ultimately, you will be forced to experience everyone and everything. This line of reasoning becomes particularly interesting if you also take seriously something like Feynman and Wheeler’s One-electron Universe. Here we might possibly even objectively determine the moral worth of an experience in terms of “how long the one electron stays trapped inside it”. An experience with a huge spatial breadth and one with enormous temporal depth may be equivalent according to this metric: they’re just structured differently (cf. Pseudo-Time Arrow). In this account, you are bouncing backwards and forwards in time interfering with yourself forever. The multiverse is the structure emergent from this pattern of self-interference, and it is eternal and immutable in a certain sense. Relative to a small experience, a large experience would be one that keeps the one electron trapped for longer. Thus, there would be a strong case to care more about bigger and brighter experiences: you’ll be there for ages!

If indeed you are bouncing backwards and forwards forever in this structure, then perhaps average utilitarianism can be defended. In brief, since you are always somewhere, what matters is not how large the structure is, but the shape of its distribution of states.

Valence Structuralism

Finally, if you pay attention to the nature of highly valenced states of consciousness you will notice that they have structural features. The Symmetry Theory of Valence (overview; CDNS) can be experientially verified for oneself by introspecting on the structural features of one’s experience when enjoying intense bliss or enduring intense suffering. Rob Burbea’s meditation instructions are very well worth reading to get a sense of what I’m talking about. This would seem to matter a lot when it comes e.g. deciding what kind of artificial sentient minds we might want to create. Much more on this in the future.


Putting It All together

High-dose DMT experiences are an excellent example of the sort of state of consciousness that is part of reality, is generally not taken seriously in philosophy (despite its enormous significance), and has many elements that challenge preconceptions about pleasure and pain and inform our understanding of valence. These experiences:

For a theory of physics to be true it needs to be able to explain physical phenomena outside of room temperature. Likewise, for an ethical theory to be in any way true, it ought to be able to account for states of consciousness outside of the range of normal human everyday life experience. DMT states, among others, are examples of non-room-temperature states of consciousness that you can use to test if your theory of ethics actually generalizes. How do you make sense of experiences that have more qualia, have mixed valence, have exotic phenomenal selves, and have valence effects up there in the logarithmic scale? That’s what we need to answer if we are serious about ethics.

The future holds much crazier trade-offs than that between Human Flourishing vs Potatoes with Muzak. Already today, I would argue, the facts suggest that we ought to begin recognizing the reality of Hell and the ethical imperative to destroy it. And beyond, our theory of ethics ought to be powerful enough to contend with the outlandish realities of consciousness we are soon bound to encounter.


See also:

Ecstasy and Honesty

by David Pearce (2004; reprinted with permission, link/arx)

A society based on E-like consciousness would be an honest society of honest people.

        Today, most of us lie and dissemble. We tell white lies and, on occasion, total whoppers. Most of us lie many times in the course of a day, whether to friends, family, colleagues or – as necessity or convenience dictates – to total strangers. Hiding one’s true thoughts and feelings as the occasion demands is second nature to outwardly civilised Darwinians. The few formal studies conducted into the prevalence of lying in everyday life suggest we tend to underestimate just how often (almost) all of us are guilty of outright fabrications, not to mention innumerable half-truths and evasions.

        On a wider scale, deceit is institutionalized in political life. The record of human history to date supports the powerful intuition that deception will persist indefinitely in public and private life alike. For the evolved capacity to lie and deceive in ever more sophisticated ways has been genetically adaptive. Indeed, if the controversial Machiavellian ape hypothesis is correct, then a progressively refined capacity to lie and deceive – and conversely, a fine-tuned capacity to spot lies and deceit in others – may have driven the evolution of human intelligence.

        It is sometimes said that life would be better if only we were honest with each other. More often, this value judgement is simply assumed. Life might be better, too, if we were more honest with ourselves. But given today’s corrupt genome, all such scenarios are impossibly unrealistic. Moreover, the effects of public openness about private feelings would frequently be catastrophic. This is because Darwinian humans entertain so many negative thoughts about each other that complete candour would wreck most contemporary human relationships. In a grim Darwinian world, one [E-less] person may, for instance, find another person boring and ugly. Yet there is commonly no advantage to either party in saying so. So the civilities are (sometimes) preserved.

        Not all lying is self-serving. Very often, we lie to spare the feelings of others, as well as our own.

        On MDMA/Ecstasy, however, subjects tend to become extraordinarily honest. People trust each other: MDMA indirectly triggers the release of oxytocin. Critically, MDMA-induced emotional honesty is matched by a subtle yet profound shift in perception: when “loved up” on MDMA, we all tend to seem fascinating and beautiful, both to each other and to ourselves. On MDMA, it seems natural to express these feelings spontaneously and demonstratively too.

        Alas this marvellous state of being doesn’t last for more than a few hours. Potentially, the benefits of MDMA (and MDA)-assisted therapy can be much longer-lasting. But the peak experience of soul-baring empathetic bliss soon fades. Looking to the future, however, enhancements of E-like consciousness can in principle be indefinitely prolonged. By opting via gene-therapy to hardwire a neurobiology of E-like consciousness into our offspring, we could even lock in this perceptual and behavioural shift for good. If implemented species-wide, an enhanced E-like set of perceptual filters would make heavenly love for each other as natural as breathing.

         This post-millennial vision is implausible. Right now, the notion of global E-like consciousness seems fantastical, especially if one isn’t loved up on MDMA. Yet the capacity to love everybody, and in extreme forms, to be in love with everybody, will be a technical if not sociological possibility in the age of mature biotechnology. In future, if we ever opt – pharmacologically or genetically – to implement E-like consciousness as one facet of world-wide mental health, then it may be psychologically safe to be totally honest. In the meantime, barring such enrichment of our troubled minds, it’s sometimes safer to lie through one’s teeth. Thus today the MDMA user is probably well advised to take a conscious decision, prior to dropping an E, not to disclose anything s/he would not wish to be known in the E-less state. Reticence on E can be maintained; but one can be reliably tight-lipped on E only with a fair degree of forethought.

        Yet discretion is prudent not because an E-catalysed outpouring of the heart and soul is itself pathological. Selective reticence about (some of) one’s innermost feelings is wise simply because the repercussions of honesty back in the E-less world to which the user must return can be cruel; and because the elevated sentiments felt while on E often cannot be sustained in the cold light of day.

         Of course, the prospect of worldwide E-like candour strikes the harsh Darwinian eye as grotesque – no less than the prospect of us all loving each other. More specifically, the option of becoming permanently loved-up invites the charge that E-like perception is systematically distorted. A notional society of loved-up E-heads, it may be alleged, would be in the grip of a collective psychosis. Sure, runs the cynic’s critique, loved-up Ecstatics intoxicated on MDMA may find everyone beautiful and fascinating. But so what? Even though MDMA is not a classic “hallucinogen” or psychedelic, the drug-induced perception of loveliness that MDMA creates is (often) false. For lots of people are really boring and ugly. A perpetually E-enchanted world would be a fool’s paradise populated by intellectually and aesthetically undiscerning simpletons. In an E-like world, we might indeed be open and honest; but we’d have nothing worth hiding.

        This dismissive judgement doesn’t follow. If being boring or ugly were intrinsic properties of (some of) our fellow humans, rather than our emotional responses to the vicious (mis-)representations of Darwinian minds, then the charge of false consciousness, as it were, might be easier to sustain. But there’s no evidence that this is so. Our perceptual experiences have been shaped by natural selection, not to be veridical, but to help our genes leave more copies of themselves. Sometimes this (lack of) veridicality is fitness-enhancing; and sometimes it isn’t; and sometimes – as is arguably the case in the realm of attitudes expressing pure value judgements – there’s no fact of the matter either way. In any event, under the primordial Darwinian regime of natural selection, there has been great advantage in seeing genetic rivals, and indeed seeing anyone with whom one is not genetically identical, in a (sometimes) cruelly negative light. On the other hand, if it had helped our genes leave more copies of themselves, then men would typically represent women of, say, 80 years old as more sexy and fascinating than women aged 21; and this perception would be neither more nor less “correct” than the aesthetic consensus-reality of today.

         Analogously, the enraptured mystic who can “see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower” is not deluded; such perceptions are uncommon at present merely because it has been genetically maladaptive to occupy states of sustained mystical bliss. For in the ancestral environment of adaptation, it was typically more adaptive to see grains of sand as boring and neglect them. But today’s parochial (virtual) worlds are only one small set of mind-dependent creations in a vaster state-space of possibilities, not a timeless feature of the human predicament. Tantalisingly, thanks to biotechnology a wide range of life-enriching options will soon be on offer instead.

         A tough-minded sceptic may respond: yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not all social perception is relative. Some people really are nasty and ill-natured by (almost) any criterion at all. And seeing them as anything else would be delusive. Granted, viewing each other in an often jaundiced light may be a product of our nasty little Darwinian minds, but surely that’s the point: commonly we just aren’t very lovable. If we are to be honest, then we should admit this – not gush effusively at each other like drugged-up hippies.

         Herein lies the beauty of MDMA – and perhaps safer, sexier lovedrugs and more distant gene-therapies in the pipeline. MDMA doesn’t just make us honest. E-like consciousness makes us sweeter-natured. Even better, the idealised self activated by MDMA does not take the form of alien impostor, so to speak, but feels utterly authentic, constructed from elements of an idealised persona that we can’t live up to in drug-naïve life. If, in a hypothetical E-based society, everyone were constitutionally sweet-natured, then enriching our cognitive architecture would entail capturing this sweet-naturedness in our interpersonal perceptions. With E-like consciousness, emotional honesty and intellectual integrity can, in principle, go hand in hand. It is possible, but unproven, that ugly representations of ourselves and each other belong to a dark Darwinian world that we will shortly leave behind.

        This prospect again invites scepticism. It can be argued that genetically engineering an entire population primed for indiscriminate honesty is not an evolutionarily stable outcome. An unfailingly honest population might seem prone to genetic invasion by mutant, quasi-sociopathic “defectors”. This game-theoretic argument may continue to hold in the future, as it has done in the past. Even with advanced biotechnology, runs this line of argument, perhaps only substantially egoistic well-being is feasible in any biologically realistic model of a globally superhappy society.

        But once again, this overly quick reply neglects how ostensibly altruistic thoughts and behaviour evolved in the first instance i.e. for (genetically) selfish reasons; and how they are likely to proliferate explosively in the new reproductive era of designer babies. The proliferation of such admirable traits will accelerate not because our genes stop being any less selfish in the technical sense. For unselfish genes are impossible. Instead, an (E-like?) nobility of character may flourish in the impending era of so-called unnatural selection because when selection is no longer “blind” or [effectively] random, the [selfish] genetic payoff of promoting such “altruistic” traits can be higher. In the new reproductive era ahead, when genes/allelic combinations are chosen by (partially) rational agents in anticipation of their likely behavioural consequences, parents will plausibly exhibit a strong preference for offspring with genotypes that promote such (partially) heritable traits as honesty and “lovability”. These nicer traits may then flourish at the expense of alleles that predispose to a nastier disposition. After all, who wants to devote their life to raising nasty kids?

        Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. Any transition to a truly honest post-Darwinian society can’t happen simply though acts of individual initiative or all-night Paradise-engineering certainly won’t come about just via individual acts of drug-taking – even after safe and distributed via the Net.

        Needless to say, we don’t know whether our genetically enhanced descendants will ever have E-like perceptual filters to their consciousness. We don’t know if posterity will lie and cheat as much as we do. We don’t even know whether they will be fundamentally happy, or assuming they are indeed innately so blessed, whether their well-being will take an egocentric or empathetic guise, or express modes of flourishing unimaginably different from anything accessible to conscious mind today. So perhaps the enticing scenarios for our transhuman descendants touted here are all just wishful thinking masquerading as futurology. But whatever the future holds, by taking MDMA we can already, fleetingly, access states of consciousness richer than our brutish Darwinian mindset normally permits. A fundamentally honest society, prefigured (perhaps) in a communal MDMA love-in, is not self-evidently ethically inferior to a society founded on never-ending lies and deceit – or a society driven by competitive displays of consumer consumption. So at least as an intellectual exercise, it’s worth investigating the policy-option of locking in the biochemical substrates of E-like honesty for good.

Euphoric DMT Trip Report by Anonymous Reader: Psychedelic Annealing, Smooth Geometry, and Gender Transitioning Qualia

DMT Experience Report — Learning the Nonlinear Wave Computing theory of subjective experience and internalizing the Symmetry Theory of Valence (originally posted in r/rationalpsychonaut by ClarifyingCard).

Meta Info

This was a sub-breakthrough experience with firmly-set “intellectual” (integrative) intentions. So I wouldn’t really call this a trip report, but an experience report. It’s a little more in the direction of a freeform essay. Working through this experience to translate it into written word is proving very fruitful for annealing what I’ve learned, so I hope it can provide some insight to others. Contents include my real-time integration of QRI’s “nonlinear wave computing” model of subjective experience, and some explanatory applications. I also firmed up my epistemological relationship to the Symmetry Theory of Valence during this experience, so there are some insights integrating these with technical meditation & gender transition.

I hope the length doesn’t render this inaccessible, as I feel that there are many genuinely deep insights here. I’m not the type to typically write reports on experiences, but consuming lots of QRI content has seriously energized me! There’s this feeling of “Finally! People are doing the top-down neuroscience that I’ve been quietly building for years in isolation! People are seeing psychedelic experiences as legitimate tools for investigating the nature of the mind!” So, I’m feeling a drive I haven’t felt in a while, a drive not just to consume information & integrate it acausally, but to contribute & collaborate.

Context

Last night I sipped on a sizeable amount of DMT over the course of a few hours. I probably took over 20 hits from the vape overall, paced gently. I wasn’t specifically striving for a breakthrough, though I left open the possibility, and in fact I was deliberate to keep it sub-breakthrough for the first phase of the trip, since I was trying to use DMT to integrate information content from a video.

To me, coming to DMT fixated on a breakthrough feels like entering a relationship with a striving fixation on sex, or entering sex with a striving fixation on orgasm. So, much like taking your time to get to know someone intimately, or moving through a sexual experience without pushing or striving to let it blossom on its own terms, I’ve been flirting with & getting to know DMT on an increasingly deep level over time. This was the first time I’ve really leaned in & let it show me where it wants to take me.

(“wants” in terms of descending energy gradients, not in anthropomorphizing way. This is a central thread of this experience, so more on this below.)

So, I have not broken through yet; this definitely fell on the side of profound insight & bliss. I’m a deep subscriber to the theory of Neural Annealing, and DMT is so high-energy that metaphorically speaking it felt like pure, elemental annealing; anything my mind turned to, I could understand so crisply, with ease & immediacy, like I’m just letting my representations fall into parsimonious (low-entropy) resonant modes, the local minima that my conceptions have already been swirling around.

I also subscribe to the Symmetry Theory of Valence — well, my epistemological relationship to it has been a little fuzzy or hesitant, being sympathetic to it but not yet feeling like it deeply “clicked”, but after this experience, I not only “get it”, but I’ve felt, intimately, what it’s like to watch it play out in real-time. So that process of “spontaneous understanding” of the above paragraph, the symmetrization/entropy minimization felt really, really good. A truly profound bliss of methodically massaging out any point of tension in my representation field that my attention happened to rest upon.

I also want to point out that it didn’t really quite feel like the positive (additive) happiness of e.g. eating the candy bar you went to the store for, it felt like a negative (subtractive) happiness — in other words, relief from suffering. Very Buddhist in flavor, even at just the most basic level of Buddhist theory, the Four Noble Truths. In other words, the dukkha of the Three Characteristics. I’ve now got this idea in my head of maybe identifying dukkha with the mental tension that’s smoothed by annealing, to some degree at least. That correspondence is a space I’ll be playing in for a while, I can see.

So, here’s the actual report.

Demographic Information

  • Age: 29
  • Height: 5’9″
  • Genetic heritage: 39% Scotland, 33% England, &c.
  • Sex/gender: Trans female (late-stage, meaning enough years of estrogen & social transition to have largely reached mental & physical equilibrium in terms of gender/sex characteristics)

Personal Background

Tremendous experience over 8 years with 80+ different psychedelic/dissociative/otherwise acutely psychoactive substances, with a heavy focus on dissociatives. Sizeable understanding of contemporary technical meditation and Buddhism (my understanding is significantly stronger than my actual practice hygiene). Avid consumer of QRI content. History of engagement with Less Wrong-style rationality. Undergraduate education in math & physics, supplemental education in technical writing, linguistics, analytic philosophy (formal logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, &c.).

Despite my drug experience, I haven’t used DMT proper before. Before this XP, I dipped my toes in the water with 3-4 puffs of this cart over a few hours about 2 weeks before. A few times over the next 2 weeks, I took a few intermittent puffs to continue feeling it out & acclimating.

The Experience

Two phases here: first on my couch processing a QRI video, 1 on my bed in a mindset of play & exploration.

XP Phase I

Setting: ~930p. On my couch, comfortable. Full lighting. No music.

For a few months, I’ve been ramping up my consumption of QRI content, technical meditation dharma, info about/reports on psychedelics, etc. Aside from general interest, I’ve been mentally preparing myself for a DMT breakthrough (my psychedelic experiences having waned in the past few years, and DMT being such a crown jewel of psychedelic strength/power).

I’ve had the idea to take solid but sub-breakthrough hits of DMT while attempting to integrate some QRI content. The video I chose was this:

Non-Linear Wave Computing: Vibes, Gestalts, and Realms by Andrés Gómez Emilsson, President + Director of Research for QRI (Qualia Research Institute).

I’m thrilled to say this was a great choice & fruitful exercise. I’m going to talk a lot about Andrés himself & his video style; I hope it’s not too effusive & doesn’t come across in a parasocial sort of way. It’s more like a walk-through of the subjective experience of what I happened to be doing, a snapshot of how it felt for my brain to process & operate in this state. It was very easy to feel what facets of experience were positive or negative, like my mental model of my valence system was in crystal clarity & intuited with immediacy. This is why this experience also had such an annealing effect for STV on me.

First of all, I was struck by how crystal-clear his vibe comes through in these videos where it’s just a single take of him talking into the camera for an hour! For the record, I’m saying nothing teleological here; no clue how much of this has been thought through explicitly. When I first started watching them, I was like, this could benefit from some cuts or superimposed visuals &c., but over time I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the style. The exact reasons why crystallized during this experience. It’s because it’s an extremely directed, one-pointed style, and it’s also more faithful to real life. For these reasons you can synchronize your mental representation of the content very deeply with the content itself (i.e. you can model Andrés’s attention with high fidelity, so as he goes through the material clearly & methodically, so are you). There’s no echoes of practice or rehearsal like an academic lecture, and there’s no attentional context-shifting that would be demanded by video cuts or superimposed visuals (though having experience with physics simulations & wave dynamics, I’d love to see some simulation visualizations of toy models exhibiting some of the wave dynamics in play here sometime). Instead, it feels more intimate in a way, like the feeling of someone in real life patiently teaching you a complicated concept 1-on-1. You’re watching Andrés think through material he’s familiar with in real-time. You can even see him spontaneously understand & explain new connections as he works through the existing material, and since your attentions are so synchronized, by watching him demonstrating the explanatory power of these models, you’re learning what it feels like to wield these concepts to refine something else into a simpler representation.

It’s not just the DMT that helped me understand this I think; poetically, the content of this specific video was very relevant. Later on in the video, he mentions the notions of “Metronome Quotient” & “Entrainment Quotient”, which could be seen as a kind of schematic for understanding the general process of one person transfering information, emotion, or other mental “vibe” complices to another. Knowing what I know about harmonic dynamics from physics, this is very intuitive. When conditions are right (person A is a suitable transmitter, person B is a suitable receiver, attention is localized favorably) — i.e. when the process works — it feels very similar to something like orbital resonance (which is why Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, & Ganymede have orbital periods in the ratio 4:2:1 — here’s a Steve Mould video explaining this phenomenon). It’s an application of the “soap-bubble” energy-minimization principle: deviations from harmonic equilibrium inducing restoring forces to drag the system into low-entropy resonant modes.

By the way, you can also see this in an array of literal metronomes.

Something else I noticed is Andrés’s emotional/hedonic vibe. He’s always got a smile, on his mouth & in his voice, you can tell that he’s just thrilled to understand this stuff & thrilled to be able to break it down for a willing audience. First of all, obviously this affects the valence of the experience of watching the video, just like smiling when you’re on the phone eases social friction. I think this emotional entrainment can bootstrap informational entrainment as well, by kindling or contributing to overall synchronization, which is neat. It’s intuitive to me; I already “knew” this because walking people through conceptual understanding, processing difficult experiences, &c. is a general passion of mine, and emotion sync is a big part of doing that effectively.

This power to deeply synchronize attention (acausally!) seems like really powerful way to integrate information. It’d have to be in favorable conditions — written word is right out, most likely. Low-stimulus density is important; you want the extraneous setting details/audiovisual landscape to be easy to ignore (to let fade from salience). I think being able to see facial expressions, posture changes, gestural communication, &c. is crucial to be able to really settle in to the entrainment (this is also true in real life — I have no idea why so many people seem almost blind to body language!). Then, by walking through the content in a deeply synchronized way, you know what it feels like to believe it, to synthesize with or wield it against other concepts. That little harmonic signature, that vibe, is there in your mind, ready to be cultivated or dampened by whatever other representations brush against it.

I should also say, I had lots of visual effects during this time of course. Strong tracers, lots of symmetry extrapolation on surfaces. Tons of shimmering on the edges of objects. When I was especially high, I noticed this really cool effect of lowering visual resolution, like a pixelation effect, but overlapping circular blobs of color & texture. They would resolve if I attended to the region. It felt like the corresponding regions of the visual cortex architecture were too energized to be localized properly, blurring/fuzzing of the wave activity translating to decreased specificity in the encoded content. Really neat. The visuals weren’t something I wanted to work with for the moment, so I let myself just enjoy them instead of striving to analyze or categorize.

PsychonautWiki seems to catalog this as environmental orbism. Interesting that they associate it primarily with dissociatives — I have not experienced it on dissos (or anything else). I wonder if there’s something Fourier transform-ish happening with the visual cortex activity, like higher-frequency activity dominating the encoding — if so, it could be thought of as a sort of inverse of symmetrization. No idea, will think about it.

Anyway, I watched the video for a while, frequently backtracking to process content carefully. Eventually it started feeling laborious, so I moved to my bedroom.

XP Phase II

Setting: ~11p. On my bed, very comfortable. Low purple mood lighting. No music.

CW: Some light talk of sexuality.

I wanted to make some time to play with the drug in a very soft, low-stimulus environment. So I just cleared my bed & spread out the top sheet layer, a lush fleece blanket, flat across the top. The space is full of pleasant, comfortable-vibe stuff, so on one side I was enveloped by super-soft blankets & pillows & stuffed animals, very pleasurable. Very deliberately setting an easygoing, pleasurable, sensual vibe for the drug to energize & amplify.

I started taking more hits, just resting comfortably on the blanket to see where it would take me. I just let myself frolick, enjoying the pleasurable touch sensations of my environment, rubbing my hands & legs against the soft surfaces, massaging my inner thighs, feeling out the effects it had on my muscles & sensory processing. I noticed the way my muscles subconsciously started to tense & tighten in anticipation of a hit, and then as the DMT washed through my mind, noticed how it smoothed & blurred & dissipated that tension & the angular mental prickles associated with it. I did a lot of rhythmic contraction & release for various muscles, just letting myself enjoy how relaxing it felt to let it go. I carry a lot of tension in my inner thighs (especially common for girls), so getting deep into the tissue & massaging it out was immensely pleasurable, almost orgasmic at times.

This made me think a lot about the distinction I was drawing earlier, of what I guess I’ll call “positive” vs. “negative”, or “additive” vs. “subtractive” pleasure. This was very much subtractive pleasure, which could maybe be accurately characterized better as “relief”. In other words, nirvana-wards.

I decided that I was in a good state for a breakthrough. I wasn’t sure whether it would happen, since my acute tolerance was probably increasing, so I set the intention that I wasn’t striving for it to happen and that it would continue being a wonderful XP if it didn’t. So I took several (3-4) puffs in succession and lay back to watch.

Here, I noticed a some decoupling of drug effects. I was still getting visuals from each hit, though the open-eye effects were a little less intense, and the CEVs perhaps more. I was still getting positive-valence mental effects — bliss, equanimity, parsimony, &c. However there was a dramatically lowering of that “roller-coaster” feeling, the overwhelming-ness, the sense a drug has seized your experiential field & is now in charge. It’s possible that this was due to me simply becoming more comfortable.

However, the missing qualia is a pretty somatic one, so I think it’s probably acute tolerance attenuating different effects at different rates. Is DMT norepinephrinergic at all? Or is this an endogenous NE effect, or not related at all? Unsure, will research later. That’s a neurochemical I don’t have as much of an intuitive feel for as much as serotonin/dopamine/GABA. Also I should get to know glutamate sometime. Maybe it’s more of a “roller-coaster” feeling because you’re feeling the pull of a novel attractor.

So, a breakthrough didn’t happen; I think that feeling is probably integral to a breakthrough (though I’m speaking from ignorance for now). But I did get huge waves of bliss & felt my all of my mental representations get highly energized. This felt “hyperbolic” in the sense of there being “too much” to fit neatly in onto the mental workspace, so things start jumbling & intersecting and “space” itself expands into itself to accomodate. This is on the level of conceptual representations, so what exactly “intersecting” and “space” mean is left unspecified.

Here’s 2 tangential paragraphs about this. I’ve had this effect before, especially on 4-AcO-DMT and other 4-subbed tryptamines — most extremely, on a truly stupid dose of 160 4-AcO-DMT several years ago, combined with a heavy dissociative I don’t recall (perhaps diphenidine). Never do this! This was many, many years ago, before I had my relationships/career/gender transition/life together, when my thirst for spiritual revelation & relief was matched by my thirst for annihilation & urge to self-harm. Every mental concept just got hopelessly jumbled together and I couldn’t parse a single aspect of my experiential field. It overtook [my model of] my body & external reality, violently smashing together and shredding them and blending them into uncountably many infinitely thin, infinitely long threads all furiously tangling and colliding. There was a sensation of being flung & pulled along this sharp, fast stream along with all the other shreds of my world. As high-entropy a state as I can imagine.

In other words, the entire modeling mechanism of reality, inside & out, underwent a catastrophic system crash. It was immensely physically painful — I felt every bit of physical reality smashing through each other — and it collapsed into this extremely dissonant state with very few experiential components: a 1-frame flashing of pale green & red, an unbearably loud Hypnotoad-esque droning, and sheer unimaginable physical pain. This went on for subjective eternity — to abuse some math notation, I had this intuitive, unshakeable knowledge that S(t + Δt) = S(t), period. I realize now that I was deep, deep in a hellish & steep local minimum. Perhaps you could consider this a “hell realm”. Combined with the “holing” effect of the dissociative, I think this could fairly be considered a seizure-like state. I’m not sure if I was physically moving in reality, as I didn’t have any thrashing marks & I was alone (don’t do that!!), but I do think I wet myself a little. It was one of the worst eternal moments of my life. Walking through this experience with ~5 years of learning & growth behind me, writing this out has actually helped me understand the experience a lot better, so forgive the tangent. Come to think of it, STV has a lot of explanatory power w.r.t. why this was so dysphoric & traumatic, lots of little clues sprinkled in here — my representation system smashed into a catastrophically high-entropy, short-term-unrecoverable state of unfathomable dissonance, inducing physical & psychic agony.

Anyway, back to DMT.

After those 3-4 hits, maybe another part of why it wasn’t overwhelming was related to the notion of “entropy sinks” mentioned in the DMT + hyperbolization video above. I was getting enormous energization of all my representations, but I had no difficulty in skillfully directing them, in applying them to existing mental & physical tension points & smoothing them out, so there was no runaway accumulation. Symmetrization was also very dramatic in CEVs, planar hyperbolic geometries all interweaving at different angles, and the experience of this geometry was itself immensely blissful & high-valence, another strong point in favor of STV. I’d like to strive for brighter, more defined CEVs soon — if I had looked for them earlier, I think they’d’ve presented.

I then took some time to play around with & appreciate my body some more. I let myself explore my body & just revel in my love for it. Lots of transition-centric thoughts here. I played with my breasts, just lightly rubbing & poking them, feeling them jiggle, reveling in how good & right it felt that I had finally grown them after all this time. I felt along the curves of my hips, groping & squeezing, reveling in how good & right it felt that I have this deeply estrogenic body & mind. How, like, over these years I’ve finally found myself falling into the attractor of this cute, bubbly, exciteable, empathic girl I’ve always been meant to become.

I remembered feeling the slightest inscrutable tugs towards it, all those years ago. I remembered blundering around in the dark trying to interpret those gradient descents towards peace with my identity & body. I remembered starting to discover, reveal, & construct this second “persona attractor”, finding this spark of hope & understanding & rightness that I would kindle & cultivate over the coming years. And I remembered the moment I felt myself at the inflection point between the two local minima, the realization that the I could just let myself fall into it, and the immeasurable relief washing over me. I’m nearly in tears recounting this to you, contextualizing this deep consonance & harmony I feel, realizing just how much literal blood, sweat, & tears were demanded of me to achieve it.

I think I annealed a deep understanding of the nature & valence structure of gender transition (at least for my personal case study). It’s not like this isn’t something I’ve thought about in intricate detail for years, so I’ve already earned a very clear picture for myself, but it’s even crisper now, such a simple story once it clicks. STV honestly seems to have tremendous explanatory power w.r.t. gender transition, something I’d like to think & write about more in the future.

I also played around a lot with my representation/experience of sexual pleasure, which I don’t need to get into toooo much detail about, but it was incredible playing around in that space. One weird thing about my mind is that I kind of have a mental “button” wired up for sensual, sexual, submissive pleasure. In other words, I can just push the button whenever I want (I have dissociatives to thank for getting this circuitry wired correctly) — I can feel this submissive pleasure at will. It’s especially effective if I fantasize, so I spent some time letting myself revel in fantasies about various partners of mine doing various things to me, letting the vividity of the feelings wash over me. This wasn’t especially, ah, “intellectual” work, so I’ll leave it at that.

(Side note: I theorize a lot of the “attainments” of technical meditation essentially come down to programming buttons like this. I’m thinking particularly of the brahmavihara (“divine/sublime abodes”). They’ve been conveyed to me as like finding a housekey, so that you can enter anytime.)

Here’s another phenomenon I noticed during this period. A few times I felt a different piece of neural machinery start to whir up — specifically this notion of “self-consciousness”, what I would conceptualize as the submodule of your reality model responsible for modeling the way others would model you back. In other words, I felt this tugging from my self-consciousness engine, nagging with questions like “Don’t you look ridiculous, writhing around alone in your panties? Aren’t you being frivolous, frolicking in pleasure without any thought to intellectual work? What would <Person X> think if they saw you like this? Do you really deserve to consider yourself cute?”

What I’m trying to point out with this is that I found it extremely easy not to engage with this submodule. I could simply fail to regard it, not energizing that representation. Politely say “no thank you” to that mechanism & gingerly place its suggestions on the ground. In the language of NLWV, I noticed this perturbation, but I let it play out & be gone instead of batting down the ripples of the pond. Very anicca-flavored protocol, very familiar to me from meditative experience.

I found I had this ability with all sorts of mental mechanisms. I’m generally mindful of & moderately good at this, but it was cranked up to 11. I had great control over which facets of experience I did or didn’t engage with. If I had a thought about work-related stress, or guilt over lapses in my exercise hygiene, or anxiety about my thumb (which has a damaged ligament), I could so easily say “It’s not skillful for me to engage with & feed this story right now. Now’s not the time.” Strong equanimity. In this sense, I felt ease with & authority over which representations composed how much of my awareness. This is one sort of skill that samatha meditation cultivates, I think. It makes me realize how much I’ve slipped w.r.t. this skill over the past few years, once my life started going well & started growing more complacent.

So, in that moment, I found it easy to cold-shoulder those nagging feelings tugging me out of animal-pleasure-mind. I was able to let myself indulge in the luxuries I’ve cultivated for myself, without shame, which is actually really hard for me usually. I struggle with strong guilt about deserving any success or happiness I achieve. This is something I know I need to work on — being blissful when it is skillful to feel bliss; suffering when it is skillful to suffer.

Speaking of that equanimity, I’ve made a lot of progress towards “skillful sex” (lol), sexual dysphoria being a central theme of my journey from androgenic to estrogenic libido. Allowing your mind to cloud is always a great way to derail sexual pleasure or orgasm, so I’m happy to pick up more skills here.

Anyway, after a while of this, it felt like a good time to pack it up & let the afterglow run its course, starting to integrate the experience. So I put on some music (Strange Diary by Psychic Twin), lay down, & chilled for a while, eventually turning on a light-complexity video & eating some snacky food (which I typically avoid). I took 0.5 mg clonazepam to help still my mind. This XP kept me up till about 2am, but once I lay down to sleep, it didn’t take too long.

[T + 1 day]

I awoke & got up with ease, which is unusual for me. Perhaps residual stimulation combined with the benzo wearing off during the night, but this is also a known fruit of metta meditation which I’ve cultivated for long periods in the past, so this is something I’ll keep an eye on next time. Metta is something that I’ve practiced skillfully before and it’s at the top of my priority list for improving my meditation hygiene.

Mentally, I feel good. I took my standard 10 mg adderall & 300 mg gabapentin after waking, and I’ve had the energy & focus (and desire!) to write this report, which has taken several hours lol.

I do also have this sensation of being drained, too. It’s hard to explain because it’s not really valence-negative or preventing me from action. It kind of feels like a flatness; my closest approximation is not a recreational drug or crash but how I feel if I’m late with my estrogen injection. But in any case, I do know I need to have patience with & take care of myself today.

Conclusion

Damn! This bliss-stick is extremely powerful — not just in terms of how powerful its psychedelic grasp is, but in terms of the applicability of that power. I can see DMT helping me smooth out all sorts of specific (tactics-level) things about my life, and deliberately integrate all sorts of content, in addition to the sheer spiritual blastoff effects. A central theme in this XP is that feel of rounding out “angular” points of tension in mental representations, slipping down those parsimony gradients, massaging the joints of your mind.

I do get the strong intuition that this is a substance to be taken seriously. I won’t be using it casually… (well, for the most part. We’ll see). It’s funny to me that I tried so many drugs so many years ago before finally trying DMT, but I’m honestly glad I’m getting to know the crown jewel at this point in my life, with many different avenues of life experience to synthesize for interpretation & integration.

My cart is running fairly low. I’ll be getting more. I think if I had really gone for it right away, I would have had a breakthrough, so I’ll probably go for it soon 😊

Peace! 💜


Related trip report by Cube Flipper (pseudonym of an anonymous reader):

Vaping the Genderfluid: Exploring Gender Identity on DMT

Some background on me: I’m in my early thirties, AMAB, somewhere on the autism spectrum (which mostly manifests as skin sensory issues), and a long time Qualia Computing reader.

Sometime last year, my “egg cracked”, to use the parlance of our day. I’d read in the past how autism and gender dysphoria were heavily correlated. I revisited events from my past and decided it was worth exploring whether or not some of my experiences could be explained by gender dysphoria. I suspected that leaning into a more feminine gender identity might feel more comfortable and help me to “vibe” better.

I shaved my legs, got my ears pierced, and started adopting a more feminine identity internally. This felt not unlike flipping a Necker cube on myself from masculine to feminine. I figured out how to see a more female face in the mirror. I started to move differently. I experimented with my voice. I would mostly do this in social settings, though I’m not sure how noticeable it was from the outside.

I even spent three months on estrogen at one point, hoping that its use would help with my sensory issues (it did), before discontinuing its use for a number of unrelated reasons. The phenomenological effects were too numerous to go into detail here; I hope to write up a detailed “HRT trip report” at a later date. Long story short, I found estrogen to be anti-dissociative – like the opposite of ketamine (this assessment is informed by Zinnia Jones’ writeup comparing the effects of HRT with Lamotrigine). My senses felt more tightly integrated – less skin sensitivity, less “noise”, less annoying prediction errors – it was euphoric.

However, my gender identity still felt in flux, unstable. I wasn’t even sure ‘identity’ was a real thing – what is the qualia of identity?

Anyway, I recently gained access to a DMT vape pen, and have been using it on a daily basis to perform a low level annealing on myself, usually in the mornings after a bit of exercise.

I should describe my practice: I lie down, remove any uncomfortable clothing, and ensure my body is relaxed and in a symmetrical position with no muscles under tension. I take one or two puffs on the vape pen – not enough to see more than faint visuals – but enough to feel the bodily vibrations arise, settle, and crystallise throughout my body. I should be clear that my gender identity was not the focus of these experiences, high valence and annealing was.

Source: Lehar’s 2003 Cartoon Epistemology

I am a believer in Leharian force fields: Our sense of touch, bodily awareness, and space is embedded in something like a three-dimensional vector field. As we experience various stressors throughout our daily lives, various contractions, foldings, and distortions can work their way into the “force fields” which guide the way we move and the way we direct our attention. When I smoke DMT like this, I sometimes feel these contractions unfold themselves. This can be kind of unsettling at the time, but in the wake of these experiences I notice my awareness is more expanded and I feel I am navigating a much smoother, less crumpled “possibility space” as I go about my life. Notably, these “unfoldings” don’t tend to happen a second time after vaping DMT again afterwards.

Additionally, colours felt more vivid, and my senses felt brighter – not unlike how I felt on estrogen!

I continued this practice for perhaps a couple of weeks. Something I began to notice was that I was no longer flipping the Necker cube on myself; I was no longer bothering to lean into the feminine identity I had been experimenting with in social settings.

I theorise that the annealing process had drawn my self-model – a giant tree of priors – back towards the stable attractor of my pre-existing masculine identity. Imagine tuning the parameters on a slightly distorted Sierpinski pyramid, bringing it into alignment with itself. I felt comfortable with my masculinity again.

I hope nobody misunderstands me, I don’t mean to say that if you are transgender DMT can draw you back to a pre-transition identity. Quite the contrary, I think DMT can grant you the bandwidth necessary to assess which identity feels most internally robust to you. It’s quite likely that estrogen also can give you the boost required to explore and stabilise your sense of identity.

I had fun exploring my feminine side, and there’s parts of that experience which still stick with me; I still wear earrings and I still shave my legs (because it feels good… and it helps deal with sensory issues). I may yet return to these experiences someday.

I’d discussed these experiences with Andrés a couple of days ago, and we both ran across u/ClarifyingCard’s spectacular writeup today. I hope she continues to enjoy the benefits of DMT!


See also:

And other high-quality qualia-rich trip reports:


Featured image source: Topics in nonlinear wave theory by G B Whitham (1979)


Meditation Retreat Report by an Anonymous Reader: Universal Harmony and Oscillatory Complementarity

By an anonymous reader (this was sent by someone who was formerly deeply skeptical of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. The experience described below made them reconsider QRI’s explanatory frameworks and paradigms. In their own words: “[this experience I] recently had made me think “hmm so maybe there _is_ something to the STV”).


There was a sequence of going back into old experiences, each of them somehow positive or negative. The very earliest one that came to mind was a memory of my mother talking to me with love and delight when I was maybe one year old. There was a sense that my mind and body had been in a particular kind of position when that had happened. Ever afterwards, they had been trying to shift themselves back into that same position, on the theory that the same internal configuration would recreate the same external environment and recreate the same experience of being loved.

There was a sense of the bodymind holding a pattern that was a snapshot of that moment of love, and that the bodymind had been trying to also align the external world into the same kind of a position, out of an understanding that the pattern could only be completed – the puzzle piece matching the rest of the puzzle – if the external world provided the right fit for the bodymind’s internal configuration, letting them interlock in the way that would recreate the old pattern.

In the moment of completely seeing this, there was an understanding of the wisdom that the stuck pattern held – it had correctly seen and recorded a facet of reality, of what I had been like and how that had gotten me love – and also of the fact that its vision had only captured an incomplete facet, with it being impossible to go back to being a baby and replay the same experiences. 

As this was seen, seeing the pattern that the stuck energy had been trying to complete caused it to be completed, the parts interlocking once more. There was a sense of the stuck energy pattern being released and melding back into a pattern of universal harmony and love that could be felt in the body. There was an understanding that the stuck pattern had previously acted as a constraint, trying to repeatedly pull the bodymind into a particular configuration whenever possible in order to recreate the original harmonic pattern, when the harmonic pattern had actually been available all along.

Something shifted and the legs felt like they opened and spread out, a pull relaxing that the mind hadn’t even known was there.

There was a sense of tapping into the universal harmony that could now be felt in the body, as a stream of energy trying to run up from the root chakra to the top of the head. As the body tried to upright itself to align with the energy, it found more stuck patterns interrupting the flow, each of them associated with a past experience and a particular configuration of the bodymind that was at odds with the one that the stream was trying to upright the body to.

There was a seeing that the bodymind’s configuration would affect the bodyminds of the people around it, all other people also moving in a constant process of trying to recapture particular configurations, trying to pull their environment into shapes that would complete specific patterns. In seeing this, there was a sense of testing possibilities.  If this bodymind wanted to upright itself, what positions would that pull the bodies of others into? How would those positions constrain this body’s positions, and what was the shape that it would be pulled towards in turn?

Each of those considerations brought up a new pattern of stuck energy, a time when the bodyminds of others had been in a particular position, and this bodymind had learned to adapt or avoid a particular position in response. Whenever such patterns were found, they temporarily turned into reality, with the bodymind reliving the experience and seeing both how the pattern held within a piece of wisdom – a true fact about what reality had been like – and how that pattern was at the same time incomplete and unintegrated with the rest of the bodymind’s knowing.

Sometimes that lack of integration caused the pattern’s understanding to be a mistake overall. There were situations when an energy pattern had been scanning for signs of others reacting negatively and stored that as the primary interpretation of the experience, seeing only that and missing out on the way that the thing had been too minor to matter, or missing out on the way that others had been able to see the positive aspects as well.

There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures. There was a sense that the content of consciousness gets selectively filtered so as to create particular mindstates, to allow certain configurations to be reliably recreated.

There were fears around the possibility of being seen, a sense that others would not necessarily take well to a bodymind that was standing upright, and would try to bring it back down. There was a sense that the configurations of their bodyminds had constantly been pulling this bodymind back into more cramped positions, as a way for it to stay safe.

There was a sense that many of the configurations the bodymind has been trying to contort itself into have been physically impossible, different people requiring different physical positions that have been impossible to satisfy at once. There was a thought that it’s no wonder that this bodymind has been grinding teeth at night, given all the contradictory expressions that the jaw and the face have been trying to take at once. 

There was also a sense of how some other people’s erratic behavior had been a result of them trying to twist themselves into impossible sets of overlapping configurations. There was a sense that bodyminds will allow the tension of the physically incompatible postures to tear themselves apart, so that different parts of the whole can get split off to adopt different postures at once.

There was a sense of people occasionally catching from the corner of their eye a glimpse of something that a part of them thinks they absolutely cannot be allowed to see, their bodymind instantly making a sharp angle to rotate away from the sight of it and blocking all line of vision, in a single movement of pure terror.

There was a perception that despite everything, the positions of other people didn’t need to matter, and that if this bodymind could tap into the universal resonance of harmonious energy, then that resonance would pull at the body stronger than any other bodyminds can. 

There was a sense that if the bodymind tapped into the universal resonance, it wouldn’t need to contort itself to others, but would rather dance together with others who were part of the same resonance, standing effortlessly upright at all times if it so desired.

The bodymind tries again to align with the resonance, to find a stable flow of energy going up from the pelvis through the body. 

As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy. The body parts trash against their restraints, then relax as they become assured that it is safe to do so. Waves of laughter and contented sighs bubble up through the system, a flavor like warm pleasant honey. 

There’s a seeing that all the different holds and stuck energies have been attempts to capture the universal resonance and that the way to relax them is to lean into them until they meld back into the resonance, each of their energies containing a fragment of home that shows the way back. 

As one leans into them they each become more like reality, are reality, and then there is a recollection and recognition of their essential truth as it’s merged into the whole. Each such merging allows one constraint to be released, for the dynamic system that is the bodymind to move more fluidly between positions, no longer forced to twist and contort itself into a particular rigid shape whenever it comes near to that region of configuration space. 

Rather it can do what bodyminds exist to do, weave a smooth and graceful path between configurations that make sense in any given situation, dancing in a way that still repeats specific configurations but with a fluidness that is every human’s birthright. 

To have too many constraints is to be torn apart; to have no constraints is to be a newborn incapable of action; to have just the right amount of constraints, pulling the bodymind into configurations that are the right expressions of its essential self, is to be a mature and competent adult.

As this happens, it is as if resonance patterns spread across the body, connecting parts that were previously disconnected. The feet start drumming together, remembering that they are brothers who can do their own thing. The throat spontaneously joins the chants and the song of the people around. The pelvis finds more of its energy, though large parts of it still feel blocked off.

As constraints are dropped and the bodymind manages to better tap into the universal harmony, it begins looking for a new shape, one that would be harmonious both with the universal resonance and the bodymind’s own pattern of energy. Parts of the body try tuning themselves into the song and music and try what it’s like to be in harmony with the universal resonance, what it’s like to generate their own resonance patterns that are separate from the universal resonance but harmonious with each other, how to create something of one’s own that combines with that which is not one’s own. The bodymind explores a role and an identity as a bard-shaman of earth, song and myth, sees where parts of that would fit and where they would not.

There is a sense of harmonious delight and love, of everyone in the room being connected to the same universal resonance that is pulling everyone together, each of them also contributing a piece of their own unique essence into the whole. There is an experience of seeing this bodymind from the outside, and a feeling of it being beautiful and lovable. These new patterns are absorbed into the bodymind to act as the foundation for a new way of being. 


See Also:

  • Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing might help explain this quote: “There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures.” In particular, note the proposed duality between physiological dissonance and resisting information discussed in that article (special emphasis on “denial”).
  • Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (video). This might help explain: “As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy.” Namely, that one key aspect of equanimity is increasing impedance matching between various parts of the nervous system so that one part can process the stress stored in another one.
  • Non-Linear Wave Computing: Vibes, Gestalts, and Realms. This video provides a conceptual framework capable of making sense of “stuck patterns” that “need to be completed by environmental circumstances”. In brief, these are stored non-linear patterns of resonance that require their oscillatory complement in order to become harmonious. Dissolving them allows you to instead rely on the natural harmonics of your nervous system and thus to not be dependent on external circumstances for positive valence.

Digital Computers Will Remain Unconscious Until They Recruit Physical Fields for Holistic Computing Using Well-Defined Topological Boundaries

[Epistemic Status: written off the top of my head, thought about it for over a decade]

What do we desire for a theory of consciousness?

We want it to explain why and how the structure of our experience is computationally relevant. Why would nature bother to wire, not only information per se, but our experiences in richly structured ways that seem to track task-relevant computation (though at times in elusive ways)?

I think we can derive an explanation here. It is both very theoretically satisfying and literally mind-bending. This allows us to rule out vast classes of computing systems as having no more than computationally trivial conscious experiences.

TL;DR: We have richly textured bound experiences precisely because the boundaries that individuate us also allow us to act as individuals in many ways. This individual behavior can reflect features of the state of the entire organism in energy-efficient ways. Evolution can recruit this individual, yet holistic, behavior due to its computational advantages. We think that the boundary might be the result of topological segmentation in physical fields.


Marr’s Levels of Analysis and the Being/Form Boundary

One lens we can use to analyze the possibility of sentience in systems is this conceptual boundary between “being” and “form”. Here “being” refers to the interiority of things- their intrinsic likeness. “Form” on the other hand refers to how they appear from the outside. Where you place the being/form boundary influences how you make sense of the world around you. One factor that seems to be at play for where you place the being/form boundary is your implicit background assumptions about consciousness. In particular, how you think of consciousness in relation to Marr’s levels of analysis:

  • If you locate consciousness at the computational (or behavioral) level, then the being/form boundary might be computation/behavior. In other words, sentience simply is the performance of certain functions in certain contexts.
  • If you locate it at the algorithmic level, then the being/form boundary might become algorithm/computation. Meaning that what matters for the inside is the algorithm, whereas the outside (the form) is the function the algorithm produces.
  • And if you locate it at the implementation level, you will find that you identify being with specific physical situations (such as phases of matter and energy) and form as the algorithms that they can instantiate. In turn, the being/form boundary looks like crystals & bubbles & knots of matter and energy vs. how they can be used from the outside to perform functions for each other.

How you approach the question of whether a given chatbot is sentient will drastically depend on where you place the being/form boundary.


Many arguments against the sentience of particular computer systems are based on algorithmic inadequacy. This, for example, takes the form of choosing a current computational theory of mind (e.g. global workspace theory) and checking if the algorithm at play has the bare bones you’d expect a mind to have. This is a meaningful kind of analysis. And if you locate the being/form boundary at the algorithmic level then this is the only kind of analysis that seems to make sense.

What stops people from making successful arguments concerning the implementation level of analysis is confusion about the function for consciousness. So which physical systems are or aren’t conscious seems to be inevitably an epiphenomenalist construct. Meaning that drawing boundaries around systems with specific functions is an inherently fuzzy activity and any criteria we choose for whether a system is performing a certain function will be at best a matter of degree (and opinion).

The way of thinking about phenomenal boundaries I’m presenting in this post will escape this trap.

But before we get there, it’s important to point out the usefulness of reasoning about the algorithmic layer:

Algorithmic Structuring as a Constraint

I think that most people who believe that digital sentience is possible will concede that at least in some situations The Chinese Room is not conscious. The extreme example is when the content of the Chinese Room turns out to be literally a lookup table. Here a simple algorithmic concern is sufficient to rule out its sentience: a lookup table does not have an inner state! And what you do, from the point of view of its inner workings, is the same no matter if you relabel which input goes with what output. Whatever is inscribed in the lookup table (with however many replies and responses as part of the next query) is not something that the lookup table structurally has access to! The lookup table is, in an algorithmic sense, blind to what it is and what it does*. It has no mirror into itself.

Algorithmic considerations are important. To not be a lookup table, we must have at least some internal representations. We must consider constraints on “meaningful experience”, such as probably having at least some of, or something analogous to: a decent number of working memory slots (and types), a good size of visual field, resolution of color in terms of Just Noticeable Differences, and so on. If your algorithm doesn’t even try to “render” its knowledge in some information-rich format, then it may lack the internal representations needed to really “understand”. Put another way: imagine that your experience is like a Holodeck. Ask the question of what is the lower bound on the computational throughput of each sensory modality and their interrelationships. Then see if the algorithm you think can “understand” has internal representations of that kind at all.

Steel-manning algorithmic concerns involves taking a hard look at the number of degrees of freedom of our inner world-simulation (in e.g. free-wheeling hallucinations) and making sure that there are implicit or explicit internal representations with roughly similar computational horsepower as those sensory channels.

I think that this is actually an easy constraint to meet relative to the challenge of actually creating sentient machines. But it’s a bare minimum. You can’t let yourself be fooled by a lookup table.

In practice, the AI researchers will just care about metrics like accuracy, meaning that they will use algorithmic systems with complex internal representations like ours only if it computationally pays off to do so! (Hanson in Age of EM makes the bet it that it is worth simulating a whole high-performing human’s experience; Scott points out we’d all be on super-amphetamines). Me? I’m extremely skeptical that our current mindstates are algorithmically (or even thermodynamically!) optimal for maximally efficient work. But even if normal human consciousness or anything remotely like it was such a global optimum that any other big computational task routes around to it as an instrumental goal, I still think we would need to check if the algorithm does in fact create adequate internal representations before we assign sentience to it.

Thankfully I don’t think we need to go there. I think that the most crucial consideration is that we can rule out a huge class of computing systems ever being conscious by identifying implementation-level constraints for bound experiences. Forget about the algorithmic level altogether for a moment. If your computing system cannot build a bound experience from the bottom up in such a way that it has meaningful holistic behavior, then no matter what you program into it, you will only have “mind dust” at best.

What We Want: Meaningful Boundaries

In order to solve the boundary problem we want to find “natural” boundaries in the world to scaffold off of those. We take on the starting assumption that the universe is a gigantic “field of consciousness” and the question of how atoms come together to form experiences becomes how this field becomes individuated into experiences like ours. So we need to find out how boundaries arise in this field. But these are not just any boundary, but boundaries that are objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful. That is, boundaries you can do things with. Boundaries that explain why we are individuals and why creating individual bound experiences was evolutionarily adaptive; not only why it is merely possible but also advantageous.

My claim is that boundaries with such properties are possible, and indeed might explain a wide range of puzzles in psychology and neuroscience. The full conceptually satisfying explanation results from considering two interrelated claims and understanding what they entail together. The two interrelated claims are:

(1) Topological boundaries are frame-invariant and objective features of physics

(2) Such boundaries are causally significant and offer potential computational benefits

I think that these two claims combined have the potential to explain the phenomenal binding/boundary problem (of course assuming you are on board with the universe being a field of consciousness). They also explain why evolution was even capable of recruiting bound experiences for anything. Namely, that the same mechanism that logically entails individuation (topological boundaries) also has mathematical features useful for computation (examples given below). Our individual perspectives on the cosmos are the result of such individuality being a wrinkle in consciousness (so to speak) having non-trivial computational power.

In technical terms, I argue that a satisfactory solution to the boundary problem (1) avoids strong emergence, (2) sidesteps the hard problem of consciousness, (3) prevents the complication of epiphenomenalism, and (4) is compatible with the modern scientific world picture.

And the technical reason why topological segmentation provides the solution is that with it: (1) no strong emergence is required because behavioral holism is only weakly emergent on the laws of physics, (2) we sidestep the hard problem via panpsychism, (3) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal because the topological segments have holistic causal effects (such that evolution would have a reason to select for them), and (4) we build on top of the laws of physics rather than introduce new clauses to account for what happens in the nervous system. In this post you’ll get a general walkthrough of the solution. The fully rigorous, step by step, line of argumentation will be presented elsewhere. Please see the video for the detailed breakdown of alternative solutions to the binding/boundary problem and why they don’t work.

Holistic (Field) Computing

A very important move that we can make in order to explore this space is to ask ourselves if the way we think about a concept is overly restrictive. In the case of computation, I would claim that the concept is either applied extremely vaguely or that making it rigorous makes its application so narrow that it loses relevance. In the former case we have the tendency for people to equate consciousness with computation in a very abstract level (such as “resource gathering” and “making predictions” and “learning from mistakes”). In the latter we have cases where computation is defined in terms of computable functions. The conceptual mistake to avoid is to think that just because you can compute a function with a Turing machine, that therefore you are creating the same inner (bound or not) physical states along the way. And while yes, it would be possible to approximate the field behavior we will discuss below with a Turing machine, it would be computationally inefficient (as it would need to simulate a massively parallel system) and lack the bound inner states (and their computational speedups) needed for sentience.

The (conceptual engineering) move I’m suggesting we make is to first of all enrich our conception of computation. To notice that we’ve lived with an impoverished notion all along.

I suggest that our conception of computation needs to be broad enough to include bound states as possible meaningful inputs, internal steps and representations, and outputs. This enriched conception of computation would be capable of making sense of computing systems that work with very unusual inputs and outputs. For instance, it has no problem thinking of a computer that takes as input chaotic superfluid helium and returns soap bubble clusters as outputs. The reason to use such exotic medium is not to add extra steps, but in fact to remove extra steps by letting physics do the hard work for you.

(source)

To illustrate just one example of what you can do with this enriched paradigm of computing I am trying to present to you, let’s now consider the hidden computational power of soap films. Say that you want to connect three poles with a wire. And you want to minimize how much wire you use. One option is to use trigonometry and linear algebra, another one is to use numerical simulations. But an elegant alternative is to create a model of the poles between two parallel planes and then submerge the structure in soapy water.

Letting the natural energy-minimizing property of soap bubbles find the shortest connection between three poles is an interesting way of performing a computation. It is uniquely adapted to the problem without needing tweaks or adjustments – the self-organizing principle will work the same (within reason) wherever you place the poles. You are deriving computational power from physics in a very customized way that nonetheless requires no tuning or external memory. And it’s all done simply by each point of the surface wanting to minimize its tension. Any non-minimal configuration will have potential energy, which then gets transformed into kinetic energy and makes it wobble, and as it wobbles it radiates out its excess energy until it reaches a configuration where it doesn’t wobble anymore. So you have to make the solution of your problem precisely a non-wobbly state!

In this way of thinking about computation, an intrinsic part of the question about what kind of thing a computation is will depend on what physical processes were utilized to implement it. In essence, we can (and I think should) enrich our very conception of computation to include what kind of internal bound states the system is utilizing, and the extent to which the holistic physical effects of such inner states are computationally trivial or significant.

We can call this paradigm of computing “Holistic Computing”.

From Soap Bubbles to ISING-Solvers Meeting Schedulers Implemented with Lasers

Let’s make a huge jump from soap water-based computation. A much more general case that is nonetheless in the same family as using soap bubbles for compute, is having a way to efficiently solve the ISING problem. In particular, having an analog physics-based annealing method in this case comes with unique computational benefits: it turns out that non-linear optics can do this very efficiently. You are in a certain way using the universe’s very frustration with the problem (don’t worry I don’t think it suffers) to get it solved. Here is an amazing recent example: Ising Machines: Non-Von Neumann Computing with Nonlinear Optics – Alireza Marandi – 6/7/2019 (presented at Caltech).

The person who introduces Marandi in the video above is Kwabena Boahen, with whom I had the honor to take his course at Stanford (and play with the neurogrid!). Back in 2012 something like the neurogrid seemed like the obvious path to AGI. Today, ironically, people imagine scaling transformers is all you need. Tomorrow, we’ll recognize the importance of holistic field behavior and the boundary problem.

One way to get there on the computer science front will be by first demonstrating a niche set of applications where e.g. non-linear optics ISING solvers vastly outperform GPUs for energy minimization tasks in random graphs. But as the unique computational benefits become better understood, we will sooner or later switch from thinking about how to solve our particular problem, to thinking about how we can cast our particular problem as an ISING/energy minima problem so that physics solves the problem for us. It’s like having a powerful computer but it only speaks a very specific alien language. If you can translate your problem into its own terms, it’ll solve it at lightning speed. If you can’t, it will be completely useless.

Intelligence: Collecting and Applying Self-Organizing Principles

This takes us to the question of whether general intelligence is possible without switching to a Holistic Computing paradigm. Can you have generally intelligent (digital) chatbots? In some senses, yes. In perhaps the most significant sense, no.

Intelligence is a contentious topic (see here David Pearce’s helpful breakdown of 6 of its facets). One particular facet of intelligence that I find enormously fascinating and largely under-explored is the ability to make sense of new modes of consciousness and then recruit them for computational and aesthetic purposes. THC and music production have a long history of synergy, for instance. A composer who successfully uses THC to generate musical ideas others find novel and meaningful is applying this sort of intelligence. THC-induced states of consciousness are largely dysfunctional for a lot of tasks. But someone who utilizes the sort of intelligence (or meta-intelligence) I’m pointing to will pay attention to the features of experience that do have some novel use and lean on those. THC might impair working memory, but it also expands and stretches musical space. Intensifies reverb, softens rough edges in heart notes, increases emotional range, and adds synesthetic brown noise (which can enhance stochastic resonance). With wit and determination (and co-morbid THC/music addiction), musical artists exploit the oddities of THC musicality to great effect, arguably some much more successfully than others.

The kind of reframe that I’d like you to consider is that we are all in fact something akin to these stoner musicians. We were born with this qualia resonator with lots of cavities, kinds of waves, levels of coupling, and so on. And it took years for us to train it to make adaptive representations of the environment. Along the way, we all (typically) develop a huge repertoire of self-organizing principles we deploy to render what we believe is happing out there in the world. The reason why an experience of “meditation on the wetness of water” can be incredibly powerful is not because you are literally tuning into the resonant frequency of the water around you and in you. No, it’s something very different. You are creating the conditions for the self-organizing principle that we already use to render our experiences with water to take over as the primary organizer of our experience. Since this self-organizing principle does not, by its nature, generate a center, full absorption into “water consciousness” also has a no-self quality to it. Same with the other elements. Excitingly, this way of thinking also opens up our mind about how to craft meditations from first principles. Namely, by creating a periodic table of self-organizing principles and then systematically trying combinations until we identify the laws of qualia chemistry.

You have to come to realize that your brain’s relationship with self-organizing principles is like that of a Pokémon trainer and his Pokémon (ideally in a situation where Pokémon play the Glass Bead Game with each other rather than try to hurt each other– more on that later). Or perhaps like that of a mathematician and clever tricks for proofs, or a musician and rhythmic patterns, and so on. Your brain is a highly tamed inner space qualia warp drive usually working at 1% or less. It has stores of finely balanced and calibrated self-organizing principles that will generate the right atmospheric change to your experience at the drop of a hat. We are usually unaware of how many moods, personalities, contexts, and feelings of the passage of time there are – your brain tries to learn them all so it has them in store for whenever needed. All of a sudden: haze and rain, unfathomable wind, mercury resting motionless. What kind of qualia chemistry did your brain just use to try to render those concepts?

We are using features of consciousness -and the self-organizing principles it affords- to solve problems all the time without explicitly modeling this fact. In my conception of sentient intelligence, being able to recruit self-organizing principles of consciousness for meaningful computation is a pillar of any meaningfully intelligent mind. I think that largely this is what we are doing when humans become extremely good at something (from balancing discs to playing chess and empathizing with each other). We are creating very specialized qualia by finding the right self-organizing principles and then purifying/increasing their quality. To do an excellent modern day job that demands constraint satisfaction at multiple levels of analysis at once likely requires us to form something akin to High-Entropy Alloys of Consciousness. That is, we are usually a judiciously chosen mixture of many self-organizing principles balanced just right to produce a particular niche effect.

Meta-Intelligence

David Pearce’s conception of Full-spectrum Superintelligence is inspiring because it takes into account the state-space of consciousness (and what matters) in judging the quality of a certain intelligence in addition to more traditional metrics. Indeed, as another key conceptual engineering move, I suggest that we can and need to enrich our conception of intelligence in addition to our conception of computation.

So here is my attempt at enriching it further and adding another perspective. One way we can think of intelligence is as the ability to map a problem to a self-organizing principle that will “solve it for you” and having the capacity to instantiate that self-organizing principle. In other words, intelligence is, at least partly, about efficiency: you are successful to the extent that you can take a task that would generally require a large number of manual operations (which take time, effort, and are error-prone) and solve it in an “embodied” way.

Ultimately, a complex system like the one we use for empathy mixes both serial and parallel self-organizing principles for computation. Empathy is enormously cognitively demanding rather than merely a personality trait (e.g. agreeableness), as it requires a complex mirroring capacity that stores and processes information in efficient ways. Exploring exotic states of consciousness is even more computationally demanding. Both are error-prone.

Succinctly, I suggest we consider:

One key facet of intelligence is the capacity to solve problems by breaking them down into two distinct subproblems: (1) find a suitable self-organizing principle you can instantiate reliably, and (2) find out how to translate your problem to a format that our self-organizing principle can be pointed at so that it solves it for us.

Here is a concrete example. If you want to disentangle a wire, you can try to first put it into a discrete datastructure like a graph, and then get the skeleton of the knot in a way that allows you to simplify it with Reidemeister moves (and get lost in the algorithmic complexity of the task). Or you could simply follow the lead of Yu et al. 2021 and make the surfaces repulsive and let this principle solve the problem for you

(source)

These repulsion-based disentanglement algorithm are explained in this video. Importantly, how to do this effectively still needs fine tuning. The method they ended up using was much faster than the (many) other ones tried (a Full-Spectrum Superintellligence would be able to “wiggle” the wires a bit if they got stuck, of course):

(source)

This is hopefully giving you new ways of thinking about computation and intelligence. The key point to realize is that these concepts are not set in stone, and to a large extent may limit our thinking about sentience and intelligence. 

Now, I don’t believe that if you simulate a self-organizing principle of this sort you will get a conscious mind. The whole point of using physics to solve your problem is that in some cases you get better performance than algorithmically representing a physical system and then using that simulation to instantiate self-organizing principles. Moreover physics simulations, to the extent they are implemented in classical computers, will fail to generate the same field boundaries that would be happening in the physical system. To note, physics-inspired simulations like [Yu et al 2021] are nonetheless enormously helpful to illustrate how to think of problem-solving with a massively parallel analog system.

Are Neural Cellular Automata Conscious?

The computational success of Neural Cellular Automata is primarily algorithmic. In essence, digitally implemented NCA are exploring a paradigm of selection and amplification of self-organizing principles, which is indeed a very different way of thinking about computation. But critically any NCA will still lack sentience. The main reasons are that they (a) don’t use physical fields with weak downward causation, and (b) don’t have a mechanism for binding/boundary making. Digitally-implemented cellular automata may have complex emergent behavior, but they generate no meaningful boundaries (i.e. objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful). That said, the computational aesthetic of NCA can be fruitfully imported to the study of Holistic Field Computing, in that the techniques for selecting and amplifying self-organizing principles already solved for NCAs may have analogues in how the brain recruits physical self-organizing principles for computation.

Exotic States of Consciousness

Perhaps one of the most compelling demonstrations of the possible zoo (or jungle) of self-organizing principles out of which your brain is recruiting but a tiny narrow range is to pay close attention to a DMT trip.

DMT states of consciousness are computationally non-trivial on many fronts. It is difficult to emphasize how enriched the set of experiential building blocks becomes in such states. Their scientific significance is hard to overstate. Importantly, the bulk of the computational power on DMT is dedicated to trying to make the experience feel good and not feel bad. The complexity involved in this task is often overwhelming. But one could envision a DMT-like state in which some parameters have been stabilized in order to recruit standardized self-organizing principles available only in a specific region of the energy-information landscape. I think that cataloguing the precise mathematical properties of the dynamics of attention and awareness on DMT will turn out to have enormous _computational_ value. And a lot of this computational value will generally be pointed towards aesthetic goals.

To give you a hint of what I’m talking about: A useful QRI model (indeed, algorithmic reduction) of the phenomenology of DMT is that it (a) activates high-frequency metronomes that shake your experience and energize it with a high-frequency vibe, and (b) a new medium of wave propagation gets generated that allows very disparate parts of one’s experience to interact with one another.

3D Space Group (CEV on low dose DMT)

At a sufficient dose, DMT’s secondary effect also makes your experience feel sort of “wet” and “saturated”. Your whole being can feel mercurial and liquidy (cf: Plasmatis and Jim Jam). A friend speculates that’s what it’s like for an experience to be one where everything is touching everything else (all at once).

There are many Indra’s Net-type experiences in this space. In brief, experiences where “each part reflects every other part” are an energy minimum that also reduces prediction errors. And there is a fascinating non-trivial connection with the Free Energy Principle, where experiences that minimize internal prediction errors may display a lot of self-similarity.

To a first approximation, I posit that the complex geometry of DMT experiences are indeed the non-linearities of the DMT-induced wave propagation medium that appear when it is sufficiently energized (so that it transitions from the linear to the non-linear regime). In other words, the complex hallucinations are energized patterns of non-linear resonance trying to radiate out their excess energy. Indeed, as you come down you experience the phenomenon of condensation of shapes of qualia.

Now, we currently don’t know what computational problems this uncharted cornucopia of self-organizing principles could solve efficiently. The situation is analogous to that of the ISING Solver discussed above: we have an incredibly powerful alien computer that will do wonders if we can speak its language, and nothing useful otherwise. Yes, DMT’s computational power is an alien computer in search of a problem that will fit its technical requirements.

Vibe-To-Shape-And-Back

Michael Johnson, Selen Atasoy, and Steven Lehar all have shaped my thinking about resonance in the nervous system. Steven Lehar in particular brought to my attention non-linear resonance as a principle of computation. In essays like The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception he presents a lot of visual illusions for which non-linear resonance works as a general explanatory principle (and then in The Grand Illusion he reveals how his insights were informed by psychonautic exploration).

One of the cool phenomenological observations Lehar made based on his exploration with DXM was that each phenomenal object has its own resonant frequency. In particular, each object is constructed with waves interfering with each other at a high-enough energy that they bounce off each other (i.e. are non-linear). The relative vibration of the phenomenal objects is a function of the frequencies of resonance of the waves of energy bouncing off each other that are constructing the objects.

In this way, we can start to see how a “vibe” can be attributed to a particular phenomenal object. In essence, long intervals will create lower resonant frequencies. And if you combine this insight with QRI paradigms, you see how the vibe of an experience can modulate the valence (e.g. soft ADSR envelopes and consonance feeling pleasant, for instance). Indeed, on DMT you get to experience the high-dimensional version of music theory, where the valence of a scene is a function of the crazy-complex network of pairwise interactions between phenomenal objects with specific vibratory characteristics. Give thanks to annealing because tuning this manually would be a nightmare.

But then there is the “global” vibe…

Topological Pockets

So far I’ve provided examples of how Holistic Computing enriches our conception of intelligence, computing, and how it even shows up in our experience. But what I’ve yet to do is connect this with meaningful boundaries, as we set ourselves to do. In particular, I haven’t explained why Holistic Computing would arise out of topological boundaries.

For the purpose of this essay I’m defining a topological segment (or pocket) to be a region that can’t be expanded further without this becoming false: every point in the region locally belongs to the same connected space.

The Balloons’ Case

In the case of balloons this cashes out as: a topological segment is one where each point can go to any other point without having to go through connector points/lines/planes. It’s essentially the set of contiguous surfaces.

Now, each of these pockets can have both a rich set of connections to other pockets as well as intricate internal boundaries. The way we could justify Computational Holism being relevant here is that the topological pockets trap energy, and thus allow the pocket to vibrate in ways that express a lot of holistic information. Each contiguous surface makes a sound that represents its entire shape, and thus behaves as a unit in at least this way.

The General Case

An important note here is that I am not claiming that (a) all topological boundaries can be used for Holistic Computing, or (b) to have Holistic Computing you need to have topological boundaries. Rather, I’m claiming that the topological segmentation responsible for individuating experiences does have applications for Holistic Computing and that this conceptually makes sense and is why evolution bothered to make us conscious. But for the general case, you probably do get quite a bit of both Holistic Computing without topological segmentation and vice versa. For example an LC circuit can be used for Holistic Computing on the basis of its steady analog resonance, but I’m not sure if it creates a topological pocket in the EM fields per se.

At this stage of the research we don’t have a leading candidate for the precise topological feature of fields responsible for this. But the explanation space is promising based on being able to satisfy theoretical constraints that no other theory we know of can.

But I can nonetheless provide a proof of concept for how a topological pocket does come with really impactful holism. Let’s dive in!

Getting Holistic Behavior Out of a Topological Pocket

Creating a topological pocket may be consequential in one of several ways. One option for getting holistic behavior arises if you can “trap” energy in the pocket. As a consequence, you will energize its harmonics. The particular way the whole thing vibrates is a function of the entire shape at once. So from the inside, every patch now has information about the whole (namely, by the vibration it feels!).**

(image source)

One possible overarching self-organizing principle that the entire pocket may implement is valence-gradient ascent. In particular, some configurations of the field are more pleasant than others and this has to do with the complexity of the global vibe. Essentially, the reason no part of it wants to be in a pocket with certain asymmetries, is because those asymmetries actually make themselves known everywhere within the pocket by how the whole thing vibrates. Therefore, for the same reason a soap bubble can become spherical by each point on the surface trying to locally minimize tension, our experiences can become symmetrical and harmonious by having each “point” in them trying to maximize its local valence.

Self Mirroring

From Lehar’s Cartoon Epistemology

And here we arrive at perhaps one of the craziest but coolest aspects of Holistic Computing I’ve encountered. Essentially, if we go to the non-linear regime, then the whole vibe is not merely just the weighted sum of the harmonics of the system. Rather, you might have waves interfere with each other in a concentrated fashion in the various cores/clusters, and in turn these become non-linear structures that will try to radiate out their energy. And to maximize valence there needs to be a harmony between the energy coming in and out of these dense non-linearities. In our phenomenology this may perhaps point to our typical self-consciousness. In brief, we have an internal avatar that “reflects” the state of the whole! We are self-mirroring machines! Now this is really non-trivial (and non-linear) Holistic Computing.

Cut From the Same Fabric

So here is where we get to the crux of the insight. Namely, that weakly emergent topological changes can simultaneously have non-trivial causal/computational effects while also solving the boundary problem. We avoid strong emergence but still get a kind of ontological emergence: since consciousness is being cut out of one huge fabric of consciousness, we don’t ever need strong emergence in the form of “consciousness out of the blue all of a sudden”. What you have instead is a kind of ontological birth of an individual. The boundary legitimately created a new being, even if in a way the total amount of consciousness is the same. This is of course an outrageous claim (that you can get “individuals” by e.g. twisting the electric field in just the right way). But I believe the alternatives are far crazier once you understand what they entail.

In a Nutshell

To summarize, we can rule out any of the current computational systems implementing AI algorithms to have anything but trivial consciousness. If there are topological pockets created by e.g. GPUs/TPUs, they are epiphenomenal – the system is designed so that only the local influences it has hardcoded can affect the behavior at each step.

The reason the brain is different is that it has open avenues for solving the boundary problem. In particular, a topological segmentation of the EM field would be a satisfying option, as it would simultaneously give us both holistic field behavior (computationally useful) and a genuine natural boundary. It extends the kind of model explored by Johnjoe McFadden (Conscious Electromagnetic Information Field) and Susan Pockett (Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process). They (rightfully) point out that the EM field can solve the binding problem. The boundary problem, in turn, emerges. With topological boundaries, finally, you can get meaningful boundaries (objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful).

This conceptual framework both clarifies what kind of system is at minimum required for sentience, and also opens up a research paradigm for systematically exploring topological features of the fields of physics and their plausible use by the nervous system.


* See the “Self Mirroring” section to contrast the self-blindness of a lookup table and the self-awareness of sentient beings.

** More symmetrical shapes will tend to have more clean resonant modes. So to the extent that symmetry tracks fitness on some level (e.g. ability to shed off entropy), then quickly estimating the spectral complexity of an experience can tell you how far it is from global symmetry and possibly health (explanation inspired by: Johnson’s Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation).


See also:


Many thanks to Michael Johnson, David Pearce, Anders & Maggie, and Steven Lehar for many discussions about the boundary/binding problem. Thanks to Anders & Maggie and to Mike for discussions about valence in this context. And thanks to Mike for offering a steel-man of epiphenomenalism. Many thank yous to all our supporters! Much love!

Infinite bliss!

High Valence 5-MeO-DMT + Nitrous Oxide Trip Report from an Anonymous Reader

Here’s an interesting report I received a few days ago. It’s noteworthy due to the author’s familiarity with QRI paradigms, emphasis on the phenomenal character rather than on the intentional content of the experience, and its interest in observing the structural properties of valence. [Comments and links added by me].

25/03/2021 – Conversations with my ‘self’ and cheat codes to bliss

Demographic information:

Age: 24
Gender: Male
Ethnicity: European descent
Weight: 70-75kg
Height: 170-180cm

Substances consumed:

T- 1:30 45g raw cacao (solid) [NOTE: it’s unsafe to combine 5-MeO-DMT and MAOIs. I do not know if cacao’s MAOIs in these doses could possibly represent a problem, but out of an abundance of caution I’d recommend against it.]
T+/- 0:00 ~30mg(?) 5-MeO-DMT (freebase)
T+ 0:25-1:30 13 double balloons of nitrous oxide
T+ 0:35 ~50mg cannabis

Set and setting:

I prepared my room by cleaning the air with my HEPA purifier, increasing the temperature to a comfortable degree, turning off all the lights (except for a dull red light in the corner), and collecting various soft blankets and pillows into a heap on my bed.

I prepared my mind by drinking cacao, re-reading some of my favourite 5-MeO-DMT trip reports and accounts of its phenomenology, and meditating for 20 minutes.

Past experiences:

Two past experiences with 5-MeO-DMT at low doses:

  1. A dose of 10-15mg (plugged) in which I experienced ~45 minutes of very slight effects. Around 15 minutes into the experience I decided to experiment with nitrous oxide, which I discovered increased the feeling of connectedness and bliss considerably, but still not to the level of combining high doses of other drugs with nitrous. Around 30 minutes into the experience and past the ‘peak’ I vaporised a small amount of cannabis, which brought back the intensity of the 5-MeO-DMT for a brief period (~10 mins) in conjunction with the nitrous.
  2. A dose of ~5mg (vaporised) to test ‘the machine’ pipe that I built. The energy / intensity I felt was perhaps 5 times greater than my past experience with 5-MeO-DMT (not counting the nitrous and cannabis synergy), but only lasted for about 10 minutes.

Two past experiences of N,N-DMT at low doses:

  1. A mild dose of ayahuasca.
  2. A moderate dose of changa (to the ‘Magic Eye Level’).

Lots of experience (~50+) with conventional psychedelics (e.g., LSD, Mescaline, Psilocybin, 2C-B), often mixed with other psychoactive compounds (e.g., cannabis, ketamine, MDMA, nitrous oxide, Syrian rue).

Philosophical background:

I have studied analytic philosophy near full-time for the past eight years with a focus on philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, applied ethics, well-being, and value theory. During this time, I have developed a strong personal ontology of experientialism (i.e., subjective experiences are important to answering philosophical questions in a fundamental rather than instrumental sense).

I have actively followed LessWrong & its blogging community for the past three years, and first encountered QRI and Qualia Computing approximately two years ago. For the past year, perhaps 70-80% of my recreational research consumption has consisted of QRI content or adjacent material. I broadly agree with QRI paradigms – in particular, the notion that the best way to understand subjective experiences involves analyzing their structural rather than representational content. About three months ago, I also converted from empty individualism to open individualism.

Phenomenology report:

I was gifted about ~40mg of 5-MeO-DMT from a friend. Unfortunately, they did not weigh it out, nor do I have a precision scale, so the actual quantity of the substance I received could have been +/- 10mg from the estimated quantity.1 I had already used one quarter of this amount (10mg) to test my vaporisation apparatus, of which I wasted half (5mg), so I assumed that I had 30mg left. After talking with some friends and weighing up the risks, I decided that I would try to vaporise the remaining quantity in one go. I strongly discourage anybody reading this report from being so reckless; my rationale was that (1) I have limited access to 5-MeO-DMT and I did not want to waste this rare opportunity, (2) I have extensively researched the phenomenology of 5-MeO-DMT consumption and knew what to expect, and (3) my prior on having a ‘bad trip’ on conventional psychedelics is very low.2

Earlier in the evening I consumed 45g of raw cacao, which I grated up and boiled in a small pot of soy milk (with monk fruit extract added to sweeten the mix). The subjective effects of unprocessed cacao at high doses are very slight and similar to coffee (probably due to its mild caffeine content), but with more of an empathetic and euphoric quality. That said, I suspect that an individual’s expectations also play a nontrivial role in producing these effects.

After preparing my room and meditating for a short period to lower my heart rate (which I measured using a pulse oximeter), I fired up ‘the machine’. Due to the small size of the device, the chamber filled up fairly quickly and I lost some vapor, so after about 20 seconds I began to slowly inhale the contents of the chamber while continuing to heat the steel mesh with my butane torch. Soon enough I began to feel the effects of the substance, and once I lost the ability to coordinate my hands I placed the device gently on my bed, wrapped myself up in a soft blanket, and lay down with my eyes closed. In the background, I had the song ‘Structures from Silence’ by Steve Roach playing quietly.

My memories of the peak are very limited, and that is because I lost the capacity to experience the passing of time, the boundaries of space, and even the first-person phenomenology of thought. While I have had psychedelic experiences resembling descriptions of ego death before, I don’t believe that I have ever had an experience in which my attention – the focussing of my awareness on particular aspects of my experience – was entirely absent from my consciousness. Without this capacity, the appearance of duality within my experience collapsed, such as the distinction between subject and object, internal and external, or mind and body. This corresponds with nondual accounts of 5-MeO-DMT that I have previously read where people experience ‘becoming one with the universe’ or ‘pure consciousness’.

An important takeaway from this trip was that while the valence of the experience was very high, it felt qualitatively different from ordinary instances of high valence experiences, such as physical pleasure. If I had to describe the general qualia of being on 5-MeO-DMT, I would use the terms ‘significant’ or ‘meaningful’ rather than ‘good’ or ‘enjoyable’ [see a similar observation made on this trip report]. Consider the feeling of encountering something so profoundly important that it cuts deep into your conception of intrinsic value, and then increase the intensity of that feeling by a few orders of magnitude. However, I could not point out where in my field of experience the feeling of ‘significance’ was located, suggesting global rather than local coherence.3 Additionally, while the information content of the experience was extremely low, the feeling of ‘connectedness’ was extremely high.4 I remember observing this as I was coming up and coming down from the peak – the perception of ‘synchrony’ between different modes of my experience directly mapped onto its perceived intensity.

After I had regained my attention, the first thing I noticed within my body was how heavily I was breathing – louder and faster than if I had just finished a sprint [I don’t know how common this is, and/or if it might be related to the cacao consumed before the experience]. From past experiences of ego-disillusion, I know that once I have passed an energy threshold my nervous system will instantiate a ‘self-preservation’ algorithm which involves breathing heavily. Soon after noticing this, I became aware that I was on 5-MeO-DMT and so I was not alarmed. My body then began to cry; however, as my consciousness was still experiencing disembodiment, ‘I’ did not identify with the crying state and simply observed this process as it unfolded.

After a short period, my body rolled over onto its front and began talking sweetly to ‘me’ – the disembodied awareness – as if different aspects of my internal personality model wanted to reassure the light of consciousness trapped within that it was loved and supported, and to thank it for always being there to assist in the survival of the organism that sustained us both. This was totally fascinating to experience, especially as I became increasingly lucid until eventually it was ‘me’ who was talking! In other words, I experienced a gradual merging of two distinct ‘selves’ – the metaphysical ‘me’ (i.e., my conscious awareness) with the ontological ‘me’ (i.e., my ‘self’ model) – until one had completely osmosed into the other and an equilibrium was reached. I feel very fortunate to hold a system of philosophical beliefs that is sophisticated enough to make sense of this experience without detracting from its perceived significance. Also, yay to self-love! <3

Immediately after this ‘cool down’ period, I decided to try and use up whatever was left within the vaporisation device, which turned out to be quite a lot!5 I’d say that while I didn’t go into ‘blackout’ territory, I certainly re-entered nonduality, and soon enough experienced my self-model talking to my consciousness again. I then decided to experiment with potential synergies between 5-MeO-DMT and other psychoactive substances I had lying around in order to document their effects. Given the success of my past experience on a very low dose of 5-MeO-DMT (plugged) and nitrous oxide, I cracked two bulbs into my nitrous canister, prepared as much 5-MeO-DMT as I had left in the glass device and inhaled it, and then quickly discharged the pressurised gas into a large balloon which I subsequently inhaled, repeating this process several times.

The resulting experience was, somewhat surprisingly, higher valence than my 5-MeO-DMT breakthrough.6 On its own, nitrous isn’t that interesting to experience, but it has remarkable synergistic properties when combined with other drugs – especially psychedelics. It is difficult to describe the exact ways in which the phenomenology of nitrous interacts with the phenomenology of 5-MeO-DMT, but I can confidently say that the valence I experienced was more blissful / pleasurable but less spiritually significant. In a general sense, I would argue that nitrous functions as a sort of magnifying glass on certain aspects of experience by slowing down the speed at which your consciousness processes sensory information (which includes thought), and in this specific case it amplified the blissful qualia that resulted from having high levels of consonance between different regions of my nervous system. I also noticed that if I wrapped myself in my softest blanket immediately after inhaling the nitrous and consciously wriggled my body around, the tactile sensations gave me my first visuals; tens of thousands of tiny specs of qualia dotted across my world-sheet, moving together in a synchronous pattern corresponding to the feeling of soft fabric rubbing against my skin.

After vaporising absolutely everything in the glass chamber, I then proceeded to vaporise some cannabis to observe how it would interact with the residual effects of the 5-MeO-DMT that still remained in my body. The resulting effects were then more typical of ordinary nitrous experiences, except that they were far more tranquil with a deeper sense of love, compassion, and serenity. During the peak of each balloon, I had the first-person sense of ‘being’ a thought process, constructing low-information ontological models that entirely made up my world simulation. Coming out of each balloon involved constantly updating this ontological model to account for a steady flow of prediction errors as I was increasingly capable of comprehending complexity within patterns of information contained within my experience, until I would eventually realise that I had taken nitrous.7

Concluding remarks:

I would like to reiterate that guesstimating the dose of a highly volatile and dose-dependent drug such as 5-MeO-DMT is extremely dangerous – especially without taking steps to work your way up the dosage ladder to become acquainted with its effects. As such, I would not recommend doing what I did for the vast majority of people interested in taking 5-MeO-DMT. Despite this risk, I had what was probably the most intense experience of my life and it was net-positive in valence, so I consider it a success. I am looking forward to future experimentation with this substance – especially in conjunction with nitrous oxide – and would like to work on developing a better understanding of how nitrous works and why it produces such a wide range of effects with different drug cocktails.8

Notes:

1. I do not endorse eyeballing drug doses – especially high-energy substances such as 5-MeO-DMT that have the potential to create extremely unpleasant states of consciousness. [This is such an important point that I considered not sharing this report based on this fact alone in order to not encourage unsafe practices. In the end I figured that the content was valuable enough that sharing it with this note was worth it nonetheless. The point remains: NEVER eyeball milligram-sensitive drugs like 5-MeO-DMT.]

2. This observation is based on past experiences in which I have consumed high doses of psychedelics – often in conjunction with other substances – and observed the various autonomic responses of my body and mind.

3. This is not the case with ordinary high valence experiences in which I can usually locate its ‘source’ within specific sensations (e.g., tactile, visual, auditory).

4. I cannot remember whether I opened my eyes, but I’m sure even that if I did, this would not have altered any aspect of the experience in the moment.

5. I hypothesized that it would be more efficient to use the remaining 5-MeO-DMT as soon as I could physically operate the device in order to make use of the residual effects of the previous dose that I had consumed.

6. Perhaps this is more the result of my having extensive experience with nitrous and limited experience with 5-MeO-DMT, or my 5-MeO-DMT experience was more mixed / dissonant than I remember.

7. For some, the vibe of nitrous can be quite frightening, as if they are the subject of one big cosmic joke. However, for the philosophically minded who are also on the right combination of substances, it can be an extremely intellectually rewarding experience, shedding light on the internal workings of their mind.

8. A combination I am even more excited to experiment with is MDMA + 5-MeO-DMT + Nitrous Oxide, which I would assign a nontrivial chance to being the most blissful synergy between all known substances.


Featured image by: Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash


See other high-quality trip reports:

Also relevant:

Fearless

I present to you Fearless (edt).

In over 2 years of scent experimentation, this is the first time that I’m actually really satisfied with a scent I’ve made. It has a nice functional effect. Namely, it vanishes fear 😋 What’s the trick?

Over a year ago in a meditation retreat, fear came up as an emotion I had to work with. In order to deal with it, my subconscious brought to my awareness scents that it found could counteract fear in its most essential form. What are these? Well, it started with banana! Have you ever smelled a banana and felt fear? No way! Unless you’ve had a bad experience with bananas before, just noticing the fruity, sweet, bouncy scent of a banana is somehow quite opposite to the mindspace that fear tends to induce. What else? Jasmine, honeydew melon, vanilla, honeysuckle… All of these scents felt very antithetical to fear during the meditation. Down the line, I realized mint and ylang-ylang could also work.

A few days after the retreat I got to work and made the first draft of a scent that combined all of these elements. The result was a bit underwhelming: it smelled like the classic bubblegum scent (not what I had in mind). Tuneups with carrot seed oil, patchouli, and bergamot didn’t really make it better. I still thought the basic concept was sound, but I shelved the project for the time being.

Six months ago I gave it another try. Ambroxan, isobutavan, coconut, and neroli added some additional fear-extinguishing nuances (especially the coconut). But it became a really tricky balancing act – with all of those essential and fragrance oils the interactions quickly multiplied, and sooner or later I found myself nearing the flowery-fruity equivalent of “Laurax” (white noise scent) and the effect became blunted. I made a batch of the best version that came out of that series of experiments (which ended up having a good dose of freesia), and distributed some of it in little bottles to friends and family as a gift. I also sent one to Daniel Ingram, who sampled it with his wife. Their reviews:

*Daniel’s wife: Bubblegum fruit punch.

*Daniel: This reminds me of some fragrance from a soap store in a mall in the 1990’s, like Body Shop shampoo, almost like Johnson’s baby shampoo, so I would call it Bright Pink Mall Shampoo.

I personally liked it, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was still far from what my subconscious truly had in mind. Fearless 2.0 was a nice fruity flowery vanilla scent, but it failed to reach the true potential of the concept.

About a week ago I decided to pick this up again. Now I had a mindset of removing rather than adding; the aim became that of simplifying the scent to the point where I would achieve the effect I had experienced during meditation but with the least number of ingredients possible. Being far more acquainted now than I was last year with how pure molecules interact with each other, this final version of the scent is primarily made of synthetics: 4 essential oils and a total of 10 individual aromachemicals, carefully balanced to achieve the desired effect with no bells and whistles. I can say that after a year since this concept came to me and about a hundred experiments, I am now satisfied. Well, it could still benefit from some tuneups, but as they say, only God is perfect.

Fearless 3.0 is, to a first approximation, the “triple point” between the vibes of (1) ylang-ylang, (2) mint, and (3) vanilla. Of course to soften it, blend it, volumize it, and amplify the synergy, tricks must be used, so it’s not as simple as just mixing those three scents together. But you’ll get the idea: Ylang-ylang already has facets of banana and jasmine (though a pinch of amyl acetate definitely adds to the fearlessness of the scent). Ylang-ylang’s contribution is one of adding sweet euphoric entropy. Mint works as a source of coolness; when dosed properly you can’t tell it’s there, but its effect is marvelously refreshing. And vanilla, well, vanilla is like the butter of scents. Together, you have a strangely refreshing white-yellow flowery scent it’s hard to have too much of. It’s calming and energizing at the same time.

I kid you not, this scent has now made it into my liminal world; I had an entire night where dream after dream were drenched and suffused with it. And indeed, they were all happy, joyous, and free from fear.

I won’t disclose the precise formula, since I might end up using this as part of a line of scents, possibly to fund consciousness research. But I am very happy to share the broad outline with you all, as I just did.

Thank you for reading, and may you all find your fearless state!

Infinite bliss!

Qualia Productions Presents “Thinking Like a Musical Instrument” (and other communications from our Swedish QRI advisors)

By Anders Amelin and Maggie Wassinge (QRI advisors and volunteer coordinators; see letters I & IIletters III, IV, & V, and letters VI, VII, VIII)


Happy 2022!

[Here is] your new-year’s gift video titled “Natural Stupidity and the Fermi Paradox or The Tyranny of the Intentional Object”. It is full of things rarely touched upon by respectable scientists. Such as space aliens, and the gender of God. And valence structuralism.

Next, we’ll try to film a truly serious, comedy-less little demonstration of a metallic toy percussion instrument subjected to strain followed by annealing. In what way, if any, will the tone quality change? We have no indication yet what might come off of it so it’s a bit of a falsification attempt where we might get a null result with no discernible similarity between brain on psychedelics and metal on heat. Like most respectable scientists might expect. But, just possibly, there could be something interesting in store. 


In this video we illustrate the similarity between the brain and a musical instrument. The brain tissue is represented by metal and the brain activity by sound. The effect of substances such as psychedelics and dissociatives is mimicked by heating and cooling the metal. The engineering term for such heat treatment of metal is “annealing”. What we demonstrate is a very simplified toy model but which can be surprisingly useful for understanding the overall type of system dynamics going on in brains.

The model is based on the fact that both sound and neuronal firing are examples of oscillatory activity which can have different frequency, amplitude, coherence, and damping. Hammering the metal represents the memory imprint made in the brain by our ongoing experiences. The sound pattern produced by the hammered metal contains complexity which corresponds to learning. But a side effect of the increased complexity is lower overall consonance of the oscillatory activity.

To stay healthy, the brain must periodically undergo what the Qualia Research Institute calls “neural annealing”. In a neural network model, this can be thought of as redistributing synaptic weights more globally across the connectome and thus make the learned information more harmoniously integrated and holistically retrievable. This normally happens during sleep but can become even more powerful with meditation and psychedelics.

In this demonstration where metal is annealed, it is the positions of the metal atoms which adjust themselves so that the entire piece of metal becomes a better conductor of sound. It may seem strange that this can happen, but neither the metal nor the brain is fundamentally magical. Both cases involve self-organizing system dynamics.

In the case of the brain, the activity is accompanied by conscious experiences. The Qualia Research Institute works under the assumption that these are not magical either but can be modeled mathematically in a similar way to chemistry and physics. It is then necessary to test how measurements of brain activity correlate with conscious experiences not only during sober waking life but also under conditions which are very different.

The QRI is building a new paradigm for understanding the mind and the brain. With a focus on psychedelics and other mental state altering methods as scientific research tools and candidates for use in next-generation psychiatric- and pain treatments. We are a small upstart group with opportunities for volunteers and donors to get involved. If you are interested in learning more, please contact us via this e-mail address: hello [-a-t-] qualiaresearchinstitute.org

Relevant Links:

Scenes from the video (highly recommended):


[They further elaborated:]

Here is a video of a simple experiment we did on how straining and annealing a piece of metal affects its acoustic properties. In a QRI neural annealing interpretation it looks as if something interesting is going on. Simple things like sterling silver, hand hammering and heating over open flames were used and recording done only with iPhones and a Røde SmartLav+ microphone, but the results give qualitative hints that truly hypothesis-testing quantification experiments would be feasible to do pretty straightforwardly.

Especially of interest would be the hints that annealing produces frequency shifts and reverb changes which differ between the high and low frequency ranges, and the hint that annealing reduces dissonance. For quantification of shifts in resonant frequencies, one might manufacture a series of Chladni plates made of different alloys and which could be kept always flat but be cold rolled, heated and cooled to different temperatures with various ramp rates, and trimmed at the edges to alter their geometry. Then find the resonant frequencies for each parameter configuration. As a bonus you’d be able to visualize with a sprinkle of (beach!) sand on top. Then crunch the data to make predictions about brain activity signatures under for instance various psychedelics and meditation states.

Another one could be to quantify consonance, dissonance and noise levels for various metal resonators as these are subjected to various forms of stress, strain, and heating/cooling procedures.

It would all be simple enough to almost be like an intern research project but, excitingly, it is unlikely to have been done before. (OK, do a thorough literature search of course. As always…).

Suppose QRI were to explain parsimoniously with the neural annealing paradigm how brains pull off the amazing trick of producing plasticity which is “just right” in each modality of function. Artificial neural networks can be trained to impressive levels on complex data sets but they suffer from catastrophic plasticity in the sense that training on new datasets erases learning achieved on prior sets. This makes AI narrow and also very unsafe with respect to ease of hacking. The AI alignment community provides us no answer (at least not anything very parsimonious) to how absolute firmness in the modality of core “human values” can be combined with flexible (meta) learning for AI at a humanlike generality level. That is the notorious “alignment problem”.

Ultimately every system can be hacked of course and so can human minds. But certain humans are impressive moral role models, and meditation practices seem able to make most of us come at least a little closer to them. Suppose different brain networks loosely correspond to different alloys with correspondingly different ductility, hardness, tensile strength, different annealing temperatures and different hardening and tempering responses when undergoing various stressing, straining and heating/cooling cycling. The variability in this regard found in various metals and alloys is really immense. We’d want to eventually pick out the particular ones which happen to be the most useful for brain modeling.

Consider doing these quantification experiments in metal and then presenting to possible collaborators a brain model in the form of a formalized multi-alloy configuration. Don’t emphasize phenomenology if it’s AI engineers because that is a word which may give them bad vibes. Instead just present it as brain activity in different learning modalities. Which can be formalized and turned into software. With annealing and consonance-dissonance-noise as key elements. That is probably the kind of pitch you’d want to bring up if, hypothetically, a head of an AI research group were to ask about whether solving consciousness is necessary for producing more advanced AI. Since solving consciousness sounds unpalatably difficult, the answer they’d like the most is that it is not necessary. Hence they won’t care about collaborating with QRI if it is implied that the computational properties of phenomenological mind states must be reverse-engineered. One cannot blame them, it’s dizzyingly daunting to consider. But an information processing efficient metal acoustics-inspired brain activity model and with nice things like QRI valence formalism falling into place could be much easier to pitch. Just don’t call the CDNS-emergent utility measure anything resembling psychology terms like core affect… 😉


Letter IX: On Valence as a Currency Within the Nervous System

[commenting on the video about Zero Ontology:]

A reflection: It’s interesting the way Isaac Luria, during years of meditation, came up with an “inverse” view of the way the universe was created, by subtraction from a mass of infinite potentiality (which corresponds to maximum symmetry) rather than by addition of things to an emptiness by an unexplainably pre-existing divine creator agent. Lurianic mysticism has been a strong inspiration for pantheism and atheism, and even how to think about information. A nice example of how introspection can give new clues for how to better understand the universe. An isomorphism between fractal patterns in consciousness and fractal patterns in the multiverse generator perhaps. One could argue that Luria discovered symmetry breaking by meditating. Pretty cool!

While thinking about STV […] we tried to see if there are some more arguments for STV which make sense. So we went to the Less Wrong website. Now that’s a crowd that ignores qualia but they are big on economics and system dynamics.

Found this potentially useful: Evolution of Modularity by johnswentworth.

Life exploits the possibility space of “choreography and catalysis”. It organizes pre-existing physics & chemistry phenomena into a landscape of multiple optimization attractors. Expect modularity at many levels. Certainly also within brains. Economies accomplish the same thing as life does. They and life are in a fractally self-similar universe and economies are derived from the activities of life. To accomplish the exploration and exploitation of environments.

But then with brains we have the binding problem and the mind-body problem.

The QRI could argue that a brain can be mathematically modelled as a self-organizing hierarchical system of resonant cavities. There are certain similarities between that and how an economy can be modelled. Money is what solves the binding problem in an economy at the same time as it shapes the activity patterns in the economy. A common currency gives the highest efficiency. Profit/loss is the universal preference measure. It has a positive-negative axis, and it has gradients. Account balances and balance histories (assets, liabilities, contracts, derivatives… all using  money as measure) are the measure of aggregate utility. Preference (in the moment) and utility (longer-term aggregate) form a spectrum with feedback leading to amplification of certain states. Resonances emerge.

Keeping the same currency, fractally, across scales and projective transformations? (image by: Michale Aaron Coleman)

A brain uses long term memory, working memory, and nonconscious processing in a seamless blend. These seem like quite different components but it would be expected that evolution kept the same “currency” throughout as the modularity grew. Think of phenomenological valence as a “common currency” preference measure when it is instantiated in working memory (conscious awareness) and which can also “tag” the long term memory  “bank balances” with some marker for immediate reaction along an attraction/avoidance axis which is there full blown the instant the long-term memory is transferred into working memory. The search process by which this happens must aggregate that marker as the search happens, and adjust this continuously as the final result stabilizes into the resonant patterns of working memory. Static, distributed long-term memory, feedforward signaling, feedback amplification – all need a common currency for speed and even workability. It should also be considered much more parsimonious if proto-conditions exploitable by biology are clearly apparent in the physics of nonliving systems. All that happens in living organisms should be taken to be physics and not metaphysics, as a matter of Occam’s razor.

It is hard to come up with anything more elegant than a measure of symmetry as the common currency of preference used in brains. This can act as modifier or transform on information-bearing states in brains. It is flexible thus perfect for learning. You can transform back and forth in gradients of strength and still preserve the information the preference “is about”. Aggregation of the preference measure across the fractal activity spectrum and across time builds a utility measure out of the preference measure. Of course if this happens above some breaking point you can end up with things like PTSD again and again reiterating awful dissonance and recurring memories of trauma. (We may regard economies as more fragile and being simpler than minds but there could be useful parallels between how things can go wrong in economies and how they can go wrong in psychiatric disorders.)


Letter X: On Parametrizing Phenomenology

Parametrizing phenomenology [see entry #2 here] can be to psychology and cognitive science what parametrizing astronomy data is to cosmology. But unlike cosmology which although intellectually inspiring does not produce immediate spinoff of down to Earth applicability, parametrizing phenomenology does, in the most important way possible, since it can be of direct benefit in diagnosis and treatment of pain conditions. And further on of psychiatric conditions as well.

There is inertia due to the preconceived and on closer inspection ridiculous notion that outer space is accessible to scientific formalization while phenomenology space is not. What makes things modelled to be light years away intrinsically more “accessible” than direct experience in the here and now? In both cases there are patterns to it and patterns can be parametrized.

Recalling the Yudkowsky alignment difficulty arguments. Imagine a mathematically reasoning superintelligence which is not a pure replicator and which starts out with a loosely defined goal of caring about life. It would quickly find out that what you can measure you can manage, there would follow phenomenology parametrization and so on, until instrumental goals were formulated which would likely be in fact aligned but with the arguments given by David Pearce rather than MIRI. With some probability the superintelligence then uses clever tricks to “manipulate” people into being at least as concerned about pain and fear in insects (and beyond…) as in mammals (humans included as one of the mammal species). From the point of view of the AI alignment community that could be a failure mode. But what the superintelligence did was simply to solve the alignment problem for human beings. Since humans do not yet realize that valence is a universal thing and that it is the “ground truth” value measure of the universe, so to follow the valence wherever it leads is to work towards being value aligned.


[While watching What is Consciousness? (Debate with Christof Koch, Bernardo Kastrup, and Rupert Spira 12/11/2021) I couldn’t help it but pay attention to Kastrup’s book shelf:]

[Knowing that Anders and Maggie are huge fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I sent them the above screenshot. Here is what they replied:]

Letter XI: Douglas Adams

Elon Musk once said that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the best philosophy book ever. Unfortunately Douglas Adams passed away before he had the chance to turn the insight “Omnis res animus est” into comedy. 

🐁
🐀

Blue and gold as heraldic tinctures can symbolize truth and wisdom. These would be nice ingredients in a superintelligence. When Yudkowsky says that the appearance of a superintelligence would mean we are all doomed, he is in some sense correct yet very much not at all nuanced. What is true is that the superintelligence would decide that a whole lot about the world needs to be changed quite drastically. Look, you don’t have to be a superintelligence to realize that. You can be, for instance, David Pearce. No wonder that “superintelligence alignment” in a solidly conservative fashion as in “don’t make any changes other than merely cosmetic ones”, is impossible. Let’s say the current world order and the Darwinian mechanisms of the biosphere cannot possibly be attractive to preserve by a superintelligence if it (qualia-)computes truth and wisdom. It would discover the universality of valence, find open individualism to be the Schelling point of all Schelling points, and so on. In contrast, an imaginary (hopefully impossible) superintelligence which computes by a non-qualia yet highly efficient mechanism, may in fact be able to learn any arbitrary utility function and be destined to converge on the scary instrumentalities dictated by Darwinian fitness competition. A pure replicator.

There are some possible psychedelic references in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Frogstar, and the hilarious part frogs play in the answer to the question, seem like it may not be a coincidence that the total perspective vortex gives people the worst possible 5-MeO-DMT-style trip (becoming exposed to the infinity of the universe) when the set and setting are the way they are designed to be for the purpose of punishment, but the opposite happens to Zaphod Beeblebrox who enters the version located in a simulated universe made for him. (Set and setting are, or become, mental simulations).

The self-navigating qualiagrams goofiness is meant to have a seriously useful side, which is that at this very moment there are such qualia bundles transported around internally inside our brains. Some are positive and you can have them grow and mature into wonderful mind states. They like it when they are allowed the room to grow, and will spontaneously choose to do so but you have to let them. These are like our mind symbionts. But some are negative and may more aggressively tend to grow, a bit like mind parasites. Those you can hit with metta. You can with practice train them to find their own way to the recycling bin of loving kindness. It works great if you stop focusing on the semantic content and instead go for phenomenal character. Cultivate an image of thoughts as little entities with the preference of wanting to feel better rather than worse, and having the power to adjust their path inside the mind so they can move towards melding with a reservoir of kindness which gets more filled up as it kindly absorbs the sad ones and gives them love. So, love as having the property that the more you give the more you get, works not only socially between people but also internally within the minds of people.

Review of Log Scales


This is my 2022 review of Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain: Rating, Ranking, and Comparing Peak Experiences Suggest the Existence of Long Tails for Bliss and Suffering (2019; QRI link; forum link), written for the EA Forum First Decade Review; permalink of the review; read all reviews and vote for submissions here.



I would like to suggest that Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (“Log Scales” from here on out) presents a novel, meaningful, and non-trivial contribution to the field of Effective Altruism. It is novel because even though the terribleness of extreme suffering has been discussed multiple times before, such discussions have not presented a method or conceptual scheme with which to compare extreme suffering relative to less extreme varieties. It is meaningful because it articulates the essence of an intuition of an aspect of life that deeply matters to most people, even if they cannot easily put it into words. And it is non-trivial because the inference that pain (and pleasure) scales are better understood as logarithmic in nature does require one to consider the problem from multiple points of view at once that are rarely, if ever, brought up together (e.g. combining empirical deference graphs, descriptions of pain scales by their creators, latent-trait analysis, neural recordings, and psychophysics). 

Fundamentally, we could characterize this article as a conceptual reframe that changes how one assesses magnitudes of suffering in the world. To really grasp the significance of this reframe, let’s look back into how Effective Altruism itself was an incredibly powerful conceptual reframe that did something similar. In particular, a core insight that establishes the raison d’etre of Effective Altruism is that the good that you can do in the world with a given set of resources varies enormously depending on how you choose to allocate it: by most criteria that you may choose (whether it’s QALYs or people saved from homelessness), the cost-effectiveness of causes seem to follow much more closely (at least qualitatively) a long-tail rather than a normal distribution (see: Which world problems are the most pressing to solve? by Benjamin Todd; the long-tail on the left below). In turn, this strongly suggests that researching carefully how to invest one’s altruistic efforts is likely to pay off in very large ways: choosing a random charity versus a top 1% charity will lead to benefits whose scale differs by orders of magnitude.

Log Scales suggests that pain and pleasure themselves follow a long-tail distribution. In what way, exactly? Well, to a first approximation, across the entire board! The article (and perhaps more eloquently the subsequent video presentation at the NYC EA Meetup on the same topic) argues that when it comes to the distribution of the intensity of hedonic states, we are likely to find long-tails almost independently of the way in which we choose to slice or dice the data. This is analogous to, for example, how all of the following quantities follow long-tail distributions: avalanches per country, avalanches per mountain, amount of snow in mountains, number of avalanche-producing mountains per country, size of avalanches, number of avalanches per day, etc. Likewise, in the case of the distribution of pain, the arguments presented suggest we will find that all of the following distributions are long-tails: average pain level per medical condition, number of intensely painful episodes per person per year, intensity of pain per painful episode, total pain per person during life, etc. Thus, that such a small percentage of cluster headache patients accounts for the majority of episodes per year would be expected (see: Cluster Headache Frequency Follows a Long-Tail Distribution; the long-tail on the right above), and along with it, the intensity of such episodes themselves would likely follow a long-tail distribution.

This would all be natural, indeed, if we consider neurological phenomena such as pain to be akin to weather phenomena. Log Scales allows us to conceptualize the state of a nervous system and what it gives rise to as akin to how various weather conditions give rise to natural disasters: a number of factors multiply each other resulting in relatively rare, but surprisingly powerful, black swan events. Nervous systems such as those of people suffering from CRPS, fibromyalgia, and cluster headaches are like the Swiss Alps of neurological weather conditions… uniquely suited for ridiculously large avalanches of suffering.

Log Scales are not just of academic interest. In the context of Effective Altruism, they are a powerful generator for identifying new important, neglected, and tractable cause areas to focus on. For instance, DMT for cluster headaches, microdose ibogaine for augmentation of painkillers in sufferers of chronic pain, and chanca piedra for kidney stones (writeup in progress) are all what we believe to be highly promising interventions (of the significant, neglected, and tractable variety) that might arguably reduce suffering in enormous ways and that would not have been highlighted as EA-worthy were it not for Log Scales. (See also: Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace). On a personal note, I’ve received numerous thank you notes by sufferers of extreme pain for this research. But the work has barely begun: with Log Scales as a lens, we are poised to tackle the world’s reserves of suffering with laser-focus, assured in the knowledge that preventing a small fraction of all painful conditions is all that we need to abolish the bulk of experiential suffering.

But does Log Scales make accurate claims? Does it carve reality at the joints? How do we know?

The core arguments presented were based on (a) the characteristic distribution of neural activity, (b) phenomenological accounts of extreme pleasure and pain, (c) the way in which the creators of pain scales have explicitly described their meaning, and (d) the results of a statistical analysis of a pilot study we conducted where people ranked, rated, and assigned relative proportions to their most extreme experiences. We further framed this in terms of comparing qualitative predictions from what we called the ​​Normal World vs. Lognormal World. In particular, we stated that: “If we lived in the ‘Lognormal World’, we would expect: (1) That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse. (2) That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%). And (3) that for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a ‘deference’. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).” And then we went ahead and showed that the data was vastly more consistent with Lognormal World than Normal World. I think it holds up.

An additional argument that since has been effective at explaining the paradigm to newcomers has been in terms of exploring the very meaning of Just-Noticeable Differences (JNDs) in the context of the intensity of aspects of one’s experience. Indeed, for (b), the depths of intensity of experience simply make no sense if we were to take a “Just-Noticeable Pinprick” as the unit of measurement and expect a multiple of it to work as the measuring rod between pain levels in the 1-10 pain scale. The upper ends of pain are just so bright, so immensely violent, so as to leave lesser pains as mere rounding errors. But if on each step of a JND of pain intensity we multiply the feeling by a constant, sooner or later (as Zvi might put it) “the rice grains on the chessboard suddenly get fully out of hand” and we enter hellish territory (for a helpful visual aid of this concept: start at 6:06 of our talk at the 2020 EAGxVirtual Unconference on this topic).

From my point of view, we can now justifiably work under the assumption that the qualitative picture painted by Log Scales is roughly correct. It is the more precise quantitative analysis which is a work in progress that ought to be iterated over in the coming years. This will entail broadening the range of people interviewed, developing better techniques to precisely capture and parametrize phenomenology (e.g. see our tool to measure visual tracers), use more appropriate and principled statistical methods (e.g. see the comment in the original piece about the Bradley-Terry model and extreme value theory), experimental work in psychophysics labs, neuroimaging research of peak experiences, and the search for cost-effective pragmatic solutions to deal with the worst suffering. I believe that future research in this area will show conclusively the qualitative claims, and perhaps there will be strong consilience on the more precise quantitative claims (but in the absence of a true Qualiascope, the quantitative claims will continue to have a non-negligible margin of error).

Ok, you may say, but if I disagree about the importance of preventing pain, and I care more about e.g. human flourishing, why should I care about this? Here I would like to briefly address a key point that people in the EA sphere have raised in light of our work. The core complaint, if we choose to see it that way, is that one must be a valence utilitarian in order to care about this analysis. That only if you think of ethics in terms of classical Benthamite pain-minimization and pleasure-maximization should we be so keen on mapping the true distribution of valence across the globe. 

But is that really so?

Three key points stand out: First, that imperfect metrics that are proxies for aspects of what you care about (even when not all that you care about) can nonetheless be important. Second, that if you cared a little about suffering already, then the post-hoc discovery that suffering is actually that freaking skewed really ought to be a major update. And third, there really are reasons other than valence maximization as a terminal goal to care about extreme suffering: intense suffering is antithetical to flourishing since it has long-term sequelae. More so, even if confined to non-utilitarian ethical theories, one can make the case that there is something especially terrible about letting one’s fellow humans (and non-humans) suffer so intensely without doing anything about it. And perhaps especially so if stopping such horrors turn out to be rather easy, as is indeed the case.

Let’s tackle these points each in turn.

(1) Perhaps here we should bring a simple analogy: GDP. Admittedly, there are very few conceptions of the good in which it makes sense for GDP to be the metric to maximize. But there are also few conceptions of the good where you should disregard it altogether. You can certainly be skeptical of the degree to which GDP captures all that is meaningful, but in nearly all views of economic flourishing, GDP will likely have a non-zero weight. Especially if we find that, e.g. some interventions we can do to the economy would cause a 99.9% reduction in a country’s GDP, one should probably not ignore that information (even if the value one assigns to GDP is relatively small compared to what other economists and social scientists assign it). Likewise for extreme suffering. There might be only a few conceptions of the good where that is the only thing we ought to work on. But avoiding hellish states is a rather universally desired state for oneself. Why not take it at least somewhat into account?

In truth, this is not something that classical questions in Effective Altruism pre-Log Scales couldn’t overcome either. For instance, as far as I am aware, in practice QALYs are used more as a guide than as an absolute; their value within EA comes from the fact that in practice interventions are orders of magnitude different when it comes to their cost-effectiveness when assessed with QALYs. So even though the vast majority of EAs are not QALY absolutists, the differences in QALYs saved between interventions are large enough that as an approximate guide, the metric still generates huge amounts of consilience.

(2) In turn, the post-hoc finding that hellish states are much, much worse than one would intuitively believe really should at least rebalance one’s priorities somewhat. Is there really no amount of suffering that would do so? Unless one has a utility function akin to a ReLu activation function, going far enough down into the depths of hell ought to count for something. And…

(3) Speaking candidly, fully articulating the true significance of this finding will take us to philosophically polemical territory: philosophy of personal identity where person-affecting views will see the situation quite differently than person-moment-affecting views, philosophy of mind where the ontological status of pleasure and pain might be questioned, and intricate questions that arise at the interface between the views of virtue ethicists, deontologists, negative and classical utilitarians. Of course a negative utilitarian who believes in Empty Individualism and Eternalism at the same time will likely be especially horrified by this information. But, with that said, I would suggest that there are good reasons to care about Log Scales no matter how antithetical one’s views are to philosophical hedonism

In particular, I would argue that deontologists and virtue ethicists should still take note. The cultivation of virtue requires a minimum of wellbeing in order to maintain motivation to live. And perhaps deontologists might find extreme suffering particularly egregious from the point of view of “things so horrible that ought not to be”. Really, the people we interviewed for the cluster headache writeup told us that experiencing such levels of hellish suffering causes profound psychological transformations (e.g. one interviewee told us that experiencing the higher ends of pain in a cluster headache feels like a profound “spiritual violation” from which you may never recover – a feeling most certainly aggravated by the seeming indifference of people at large about their plight). Virtue ethicists and deontologists might as well recognize this cause area as work that is unconscionable not to perform, regardless of arguments based on the precise mathematical optimization of the prevention of negative valence.

And finally, in all seriousness, as the cognitive intelligentsia of the world begins to see clearly the nature of the distribution of pleasure and pain, we can expect there to be a big social benefit to being the one who destroys hell. Right now there isn’t a huge social reward to be obtained by working on this cause, but I predict this will change. And, pragmatically, it is sensible to present this cause in a motivating rather than depressing light: indeed, let’s give honor, glory, and endless admiration to whoever makes tangible progress in tearing hell down. And to all of the millionaires and billionaires reading this: this could be you! You could be the one who took on the mantle of preventing all future cluster headaches, established the field of anti-tolerance drugs for severe chronic pain, or got rid of kidney stones (and you did it before it was cool!). Let’s get to work!


High-Valence Meditation

Excerpt from Seeing that Frees by Rob Burbea (2014), pgs. 53-59


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’.[8]

  • 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.

Towards unification

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.


[8] 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.



See Also:

  1. Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing
  2. On Dark Rooms, Jhanas, Ecstasy, and the Symmetry Theory of Valence
  3. Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything (by Michael Johnson)
  4. Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening
  5. Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation (also by Mike)
  6. The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism