Symmetry in Qualia – an Interview with Andres Gomez-Emilsson by Justin Riddle

I recently had the pleasure to talk to Justin Riddle*, who is one of the few people in academia who takes quantum theories of consciousness seriously while also doing formal neuroscience research (see his publications, which include woks on transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for a number of conditions, EEG analysis for decision making, reward, and cognition, as well as concept work on the connection between fractals and consciousness).

I first met him at Toward a Science of Consciousness in Tuscon in 2016 (see my writeup about that event, which I attended with David Pearce). About a year ago I noticed that he started uploading videos about quantum theories of consciousness, which I happily watched while going on long walks. Just a few months ago, we both participated in a documentary about consciousness (more on that later!) and had the chance to sit down and record a video together. He edited our long and wide-ranging discussion into a friendly and consumable format by adding explainers and visual aids along the way. I particularly appreciate his description of “mathematical fictionalism” at 21:30 (cf. Mathematics as the Study of Patterns of Qualia).

We hope you enjoy it!

* Thanks to David Field for catalyzing this meeting 🙂


Video Description:

In episode 32 of the quantum consciousness series, Justin Riddle interviews Andres Gomez-Emilsson, the director of research at the Qualia Research Institute. Andres is passionate about understanding qualia, which is the feeling and quality of subjective experience. In this interview, we discuss many of Andres’ theories: mathematical fictionalism, models of valence, neural annealing as it pertains to psychedelic therapy, and antitolerance medications to reduce suffering.

First up, we discuss the nature of qualia and whether or not there can be a universal mathematical description of subjective experience. Andres posits that the experience of having a thought should not be confused with the thought itself. Therefore, any attempt at mathematical description will be wrapped up within the experience of the person suggesting the mathematics. As he states, mathematics is as real as the Lord of the Rings, a great story that we can tell, but not to be confused with reality itself. Next up, we discuss the symmetry theory of valence [proposed by Michael Johnson in Principia Qualia] which postulates that the structure of experience determines how good or bad an experience feels (such as the imagination of certain geometric patterns imbuing a sense of well-being whereas other patterns being anxiogenic). The geometric patterns that lead to positive valence (positive emotional experiences) are those shapes recognized as “sacred geometry”. However, Andres cautions that because these “sacred” geometric shapes generate well-being, people have used this reproducible experience to peddle New Age metaphysics. We should be cautious of the ability to generate positive experience as it can be used to manipulate people into buying into particular belief systems. Third, we discuss recent findings that single dose psilocybin in a therapeutic context can produce a lasting reduction in symptoms of depression. Andres posits that this could be explained as a form of neural annealing (see also, and also). The mind “heats up” and breaks through discordant neural pathways and through neural plasticity during the psychedelic experience will allow for the formation of new neural pathways with higher resonant properties consistent with positive valence. This contributes to Andres’ overall ontological model of reality in which the universe is a unified field of experience that is pinched off into individuals. Here, he starts with an unbroken unity of all things that is topologically segmented into individuals. Finally, Andres is a devout hedonist with the long-term goal of reducing suffering. His group at the Qualia Research Institute is investigating medications that reduce adaptation to molecules over long-term use. Go check out Andres’ YouTube channel and the Qualia Research Institute website!

~~~ Timestamps ~~~

0:00 Introduction to the Qualia Research Institute

21:28 Mathematical fictionalism and qualia

28:58 Symmetry Theory of Valence

35:23 Using subjective experience for scientific discovery

41:10 Consciousness as topological segmentation

45:19 Topographic bifurcations within the mind-field

51:07 Neural annealing in psychedelic therapy

1:02:09 Electrical oscillations in neural annealing

1:06:23 Hyperbolic geometry in the brain

1:12:16 Definition of hyperbolic geometry

1:16:23 Antitolerance medication to reduce suffering

1:23:59 Quantum computers and qualia

Website: http://www.justinriddlepodcast.com

QRI: A Year in Review – 2022

We are deeply grateful to have you with us on our expedition through the state-space of consciousness. It’s been an exciting and productive year and we’re thrilled to share all of our updates and accomplishments. None of this would have been possible without support from sentient beings like you.


1+ Million Views

First of all, we are thrilled to announce that our presentation on DMT & Hyperbolic Geometry has reached an amazing milestone of 1+ million views this year. We highly appreciate the support and engagement of the community. This presentation has also helped to catalyze some incredible collaborations.

Check Out QRI’s Latest DMT Research


“I interpret QRI as coming at the problem from the opposite direction as everyone else: normal neuroscience starts with normal brain behavior and tries to build on it until they can one day explain crazy things like jhana; QRI starts with crazy things like jhana and tries to build down until they can explain ordinary behavior. This is naturally going to be shakier and harder to research – but somebody should be trying it.”

– Scott Alexander, Astral Codex TenÂč


Peer-Reviewed Research Publication Pipeline

Our Slicing Problem paper, which provides a novel critique of computational theories of consciousness, has been accepted to the journal Open Philosophy.

We’ve also recently submitted a paper on our Heavy-Tailed Valence Hypothesis (read the preprint), which is the latest iteration of our Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain – a key foundational piece for the field of valence research.

QRI has been working on building this field since 2015. We are proud to continue pushing the boundaries of knowledge in valence research. We are just getting started!

Up next: QRI’s solution to the Boundary Problem of Consciousness and a hypothesis piece for the Symmetry Theory of Valence and how it might be tested!


Tyringham Initiative

In addition to our research efforts, we’ve had the opportunity to connect with others in the research community. Our Director of Research, AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson, presented at the Tyringham Initiative, and we held a meet-and-greet in London with approximately 40 attendees, including some of QRI’s earliest supporters. We are thrilled to see such a strong interest in building a worldwide “qualia research community”, and we look forward to hosting more meetups in the future.


QRI now has an unofficial Discord server which has already gathered over 1000 members and has fostered engaging discussions related to QRI, attracting notable figures in the field like Roger Thisdell and the founders of PsychonautWiki.

Join


QRI Summer Event

One of the highlights of the year for us was getting to host a QRI event in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended by over 200 people. It was a great opportunity for us to showcase some of our latest tangible innovations, such as our scents and a demo of our Light-Sound-Vibration system. We also had a speech about the Future of Consciousness, which generated some thought-provoking conversations.


TEDx Talk

QRI’s first TEDx Talk got published, which discusses interventions that will have as much, if not more, impact in reducing suffering as anesthesia. The most innovative part of the talk was about anti-tolerance drugs. We believe that we are the only organization in the entire world talking about anti-tolerance drugs as a dedicated field of study with enormous implications rather than as a mere biochemical oddity.


QRI Articles

Just Look At The Thing!

A thorough explanation of how the science of consciousness and valence structuralism inform ethics and what the Effective Altruism movement is missing.

Digital Sentience

Digital computers will remain unconscious until they recruit physical fields for holistic computing using well-defined topological boundaries.


QRI Media

The Ontological Dinner Party

w/ Daniel Ingram, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Frank Yang, & Ryan Ferris

Reflections on a 2-Week Jhāna Meditation Retreat

A deep phenomenological reflection on Pīti and the 1st Jhāna through a QRI-theoretic lens.

Harmonic Gestalt

Steven Lehar provides an overview of the core insights of his life’s work.

Exploratory Haptic Research

Valence, Arousal, Phenomenal Complexity, and Loving-Kindness

The History of HedWeb

Andrés Gómez Emilsson interviews QRI Board of Advisor and author of the Hedonistic Imperative, David Pearce.

The Aesthetic of the Meta-Aesthetic – On the Stoa

This talk explores modeling the generator of each aesthetic in order to create a network of “compatibility between aesthetics” that minimizes dissonance between them while emphasizing their synergies as well as their unique and valuable contributions.

AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson & Roger Thisdell – WystanTBS

Discussion on indirect realism, phenomenal time, qualia formalism, exotic phenomenal spacetime in psychedelic and meditative phenomenology, the effects of persistent subject-object nonduality on phenomenal spacetime and hedonic valence, and more!

Stephen Snyder & AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson – WystanTBS

A wide-ranging discussion and sharing of perspectives covering jhāna, Brahmavihārās, comparisons with psychedelic states, and the journey to and from the Absolute.

Leigh Brasington & AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson – WystanTBS

AI, Sentience & the Binding Problem of Consciousness – Adam Ford’s Science, Technology & the Future

Is Google’s LaMDA sentient? The phenomenal binding problem asks us to consider, ‘how can a huge set of discrete neurons form a unified mind?’ Is topological binding a requirement for AI to be sentient?

The Future of Consciousness – Adam Ford’s Science, Technology & the Future

A positive vision of the future that is both viable given what we know, and also utterly radical in its implications.

Psychedelic Qualia – Martin W. Ball

A discussion on psychedelic qualia, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, salvia divinorum, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, MDMA, and more!


Listen to QRI on the Go!

You can now listen to QRI material on the go, while driving, doing exercise, in the sauna, or any other healthy annealing rituals!


Supporting QRI

Purchase a scent pack from QRI’s new scent line “Magical Creatures”. This line of scents explores the complex and often puzzling interactions that exist in the state-space of olfaction, highlighting the exotic and unique qualities that can emerge in this space.

Purchase QRI’s Magical Creatures

Please feel free to donate to QRI independent of our Magical Creatures campaign.


Thank you!

We want to thank everyone who has helped QRI in any way, including our current and past collaborators, donors, readers, video watchers, and event attendees. Special thanks to Hunter, Anders & Maggie, Marcin, Chris, Winslow, Olaf, Crystal, Libor, and David who really stepped up this year to help QRI in an incredible way. Our efforts wouldn’t matter or be possible without all of you! May you all be prosperous, energized, and access the full-state of consciousness for the benefit of all beings! Thank you!


Âč Additional QRI references by Scott Alexander on Astral Codex Ten this year:

Copyright (C) 2022 Qualia Research Institute. All rights reserved.

Magical Creatures: Explore the State-Space of Consciousness with QRI’s First Line of Scents

Hello Qualia Enthusiasts,

We are excited to announce the release of our first line of Qualia Research Institute scents, “Magical Creatures”. This line explores the complex and often puzzling interactions that exist in the state-space of olfaction, highlighting the exotic and unique qualities that can emerge in this space.

Get Magical Creatures at the QRI WebsiteSee Video


QRI’s Scent Philosophy

“Bearing your intentions in the back of your mind has all kinds of effects in navigating your practice, without you even being conscious of it. It’s a powerful thing. Intentions are extremely powerful things. Intentions create our worlds. And that’s not hyperbole.”


– Rob Burbea, in Practicing the Jhanas

Vimalakīrti then asked the bodhisattvas from the Host of Fragrances [world], “How does Accumulation of Fragrances Tathāgata explain the Dharma?”


Those bodhisattvas said, “In our land the Tathāgata* explains [the Dharma] without words. He simply uses the host of fragrances to make the gods and humans enter into the practice of the Vinaya. The bodhisattvas each sit beneath fragrant trees, smelling such wondrous fragrances, from which they attain the ‘samādhi of the repository of all virtues.’ Those who attain this samādhi all become replete in the merits of the bodhisattva.”

– Chapter X – The Buddha Accumulation Of Fragrances

[*Tathāgata is an honorable name for the Buddha of a realm.]

In his 2019 Jhana retreat lectures, Rob Burbea explains that the intention you use as your source of energy, your reserve, your approach, and your guide to meditation has an enormous influence on what unfolds and what arises during a retreat.

If you practice Jhana meditation to be more calm, or to reduce stress, or to tick a box of “having done a Jhana retreat”, or because someone really likes the teacher and recommended it to you, or as an instrumental stepping stone to then use for insight practices, or anything else that is not open to the mystery of the Jhanas and has the flexibility and responsivity to what comes up naturally out of them, then many of the deepest and most worthwhile realms of experience this practice has to offer will simply not unfold.

Similarly, approaching an ayahuasca session with the intention of healing a particular relationship, or experiencing a mystical sense about a specific spiritual tradition, or for the sake of neurogenesis, or anything else with a predetermined target, will entail that some things will not unfold.

The approach, the intentions, and the desires that fuel a particular exploration of consciousness will determine the limits of what will unfold from it. This insight is an important conceptual background to understand the exploration of consciousness we are pursuing at QRI. To truly get the most out of experiencing our scents, we want to think of it in terms of what we call the cultivation of Qualia Mastery.

Qualia Mastery consists of three core intentions that work in the background during any exploration of consciousness:

  1. It’s for the Benefit of Sentient Beings: The exploration intends to benefit all sentient beings. The explorer should not do anything damaging, which may limit future explorations. We should let our efforts be guided by compassion and sympathetic joy in addition to curiosity and creativity. And the goal should be altruistic: we are seeking solutions to the problem of suffering in all its guises, and we believe that understanding consciousness is essential for achieving this.
  2. To Develop an Intellectual Understanding: Unlike many spiritual traditions which advocate for a strictly non-intellectual understanding of consciousness, Qualia Mastery fully embraces the value, importance, and necessity of intellectual understanding. This embrace entails approaching the exploration of consciousness with epistemological optimism. Yes, with enough dedication, cleverness, and knowledge, it is possible to eff the ineffable. Or, at the very least, not trying to do so will surely make it impossible!
  3. To Experience the Mystery of Consciousness Directly: In other words, an essential aspect of Qualia Mastery involves the intention to acquire the capacity to instantiate, navigate, and utilize any and every possible state of consciousness. It is not enough to know that the 6th Jhana exists intellectually; we want to experience it ourselves! Likewise, we want to develop the ability to abide in all shades of wonder, color, taste, and so on.

With Qualia Mastery in mind, you will get much more out of exploring our scents (and any other scent you may encounter on your own!). Don’t let your preconcieved sense of what scents are (and what they are for) limit the way you approach them. They are disclosing hidden properties of consciousness! Drink and delight in experiencing the wonder of the unknown, and join us in developing an intimate and unmediated relationship with this most outstanding mystery.

Importantly, please do not think of these scents as perfumes for two reasons. First, that way of perceiving them will be limiting. It comes with a large set of cultural imports and expectations (cf. functional fixedness). Instead, these scents are qualia research tools: they are molecular compositions meant to disclose varieties of qualia and to allow you to engage in an intimate and unmediated way with the mystery of consciousness. And second, these scents are not intended as skin scents. The makeup of these scents is a mixture of common essential oils and perfume ingredients. Their relative proportions do not adhere to IFRA guidelines, which would enable us to sell them as proper perfumes intended to be used on one’s skin. Some of those regulations restrict the range of qualia accessible. Although clever perfumist tricks can, in principle, be used to deliver the same qualia while adhering closely to the guidelines. However, as a non-profit with a limited budget, this is something we have yet to invest in doing (but we may invest in the future).

See also:


Magical Creatures

What is this line of scents about? And what is the aesthetic generator behind it?

Color is the quintessential example used to illustrate the concept of qualia. The state-space of color qualia is rather simple1 . It consists of three orthogonal dimensions: the red-green axis, the yellow-blue axis, and the white-black axis. Every shade of color can be found as a coordinate in this three-dimensional space.

The QRI logo illustrates two of the three dimensions of color qualia.

Albeit controversial in some circles, fundamental properties of this qualia space can be understood experientially by anyone who pays close attention. For example, orange, purple, yellow-green, and green-blue are all secondary color qualia. Orange is, in some sense, both yellow-like and red-like; it isn’t a “pure” color quale. A fair number of phenomenal puzzles can be formulated with color qualia alone. But at its core, the space is simple: linear, Euclidean, and 3-dimensional.

The state-space of scent qualia, however, isn’t that simple. Depending on who you ask, scent-space might have between 30 and 300 dimensions. It is our measured assessment, however, that seeking a Euclidean space for scents is, at best premature and, at worst, fundamentally misguided. Early research in the geometry of the state-space of scent suggests it is hyperbolic. But we at QRI would suggest it is also irregular, and its topology might be far from trivial.

Here are a couple of examples of what makes us think there may be many puzzling interactions that suggest the presence of irregularities in the state-space of olfaction:

There are many examples where two scents mixed give rise to new emergent “scent gestalts” that genuinely feel like more than the sum of their parts. As elaborated in the description of Eau de Cologne Vide, there are tactile scent effects (such as the coolness of mint and the prickly spiky trigeminal stimulation of aldehydes). Some scents modify other scents called “character impact”: two scents that refuse to “blend” with each other can be merged by adding the right character impact into the mix.

Thus, we may need new interpretative lenses to make sense of the state-space of scents. We encourage, cultivate, and celebrate creative explorations of this (and other) qualia spaces that provide new insights and perspectives. This is what Magical Creatures is all about.

Magical Creatures is a line of scents emphasizing the “special effects” found in the state-space of scents. Rather than thinking of scents as mere points in a Euclidean space, we think of them as exotic creatures inhabiting a complex and irregular space with hidden interstitial gems found in unique places like triple points and unexpected phase transitions.

As an intuition pump, perhaps think of the range of powers that PokĂ©mon have. If you’ve only ever seen waterfiregroundfighting, and grass PokĂ©mon types, is it possible to derive from first principles that there is also such a thing as an electric type? What about psychic? And ghost? These seem like entirely new categories coming out of the blue rather than linear combinations out of a simple vector basis!

Likewise, the state-space of scents can, at times, seem more like an ecosystem of unique and exotic Magical Creatures than linear combinations of a few simple primitives. For example, if you were a perfume connoisseur but had never encountered minty scents of any sort, could you figure out from first principles that there ought to be such a thing as cooling scents? No way! Where did that come from?

Magical Creatures highlight some of the fascinating “special effects” that exist hidden in the state-space of scents. Think of it as a magical treasure trove of qualia secrets. Each of the scents we present has been carefully crafted to show a “special effect” in a clear and undeniable way:

  • Fearless: a scent designed for countering and extinguishing fear vibrations.
  • Dust Devil: a scent that showcases how scents can be mysteriously powdery.
  • Glacial Gumdrop: a scent that incorporates cooling and “gummy” qualities.
  • Frisson: A scent that can cause a subtle, strange, and rather remarkable synesthetic ASMR-like sensation.
  • Eau de Cologne Vide: a scent that explores character impact with no flavor, a celebration of emptiness.
  • Hedonium Shockwave: a scent that explores positive valence in its purest form – what would a rich scent with no negative features smell like? This is our best attempt.

Note that these are just the first six of this line of scents and that there might very well be more. We’ve come across many other rather unique effects, and in time we aim to share them.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that there are countless other ways to explore scent-space – Magical Creatures is a very generative and fun approach, but ultimately just one of many. Mapping, understanding, and utilizing the full-state space of scents is undoubtedly worthy of a lifetime of exploration. We invite you to join us in this creative pursuit and in cultivating Qualia Mastery in the olfactory domain.

See also:

[1] We are here following the well-known findings that dates back to the psychophysics work underpinning the CIELAB color space with an Euclidean metric for color difference. Admittedly this is hiding vast amounts of complexity, such as what goes on each kind of color blindness, how power spectrum distributions map onto qualia space, tetrachromatism, blue-yellow/red-green hybrids, and hypercolors. One thing at a time!


Open Fearless

Originally debuted at QRI’s Future of Consciousness Party on the 24th of June, 2022.

Fearless 3.0 is a scent optimized for expressing the reduction of common varieties of fear. Open Fearless is a slight improvement over Fearless 3.0. The term Open is intended to convey two meanings. First, it is an open-source formulation rather than a proprietary blend, drawing inspiration from the open-source cola movement (e.g. OpenCola). And second, it alludes to the concept of Open Individualism, the philosophical position about personal identity that says that we are all one universal consciousness, a single subject of experience experiencing itself through the universe (cf. The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness). Hence, Open Fearless is an open-source scent optimized for expressing the reduction of fear at the transpersonal level: not only the common animalistic variety, but it also tackles deeper forms of existential fear, such as the fear of being alone or the unpleasant suspicion that the universe is meaningless. 

The scent combines the three most friendly and soft facets of scent-space we know of: sweetness, creaminess, and coolness. In Open Fearless, these are balanced using olfactory tricks that soften the phenomenal boundary and division between facets to give rise to a coherent scent gestalt that is intended to express happiness, freshness, and a care-free state of mind. 

Open Source Formula


Dust Devil

It is not without some degree of confusion that people react when one says that a scent is “powdery”. It doesn’t help that most people don’t have much experience with the powdery scent that is used as the quintessential example of powdery: violet (unless you grew up with Parma Violets). Alas, even when someone knows what violet smells like, the fact that it also has floral, sweet, and oily facets tends to make the qualia reference somewhat ambiguous. Common powdery scents you may be familiar with are cedarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, talc, and some kinds of pear. Their phenomenology is a neighbor of the dry facet. Still, it has an additional quality: it creates the sensation of a dusty misty layer of fine particles whose grain size will vary depending on the precise scent. In early experiments, we determined that making a very powdery effect is not as easy as simply mixing a lot of powdery notes together: they have a habit of canceling each other out, perhaps not unlike at times mixing different kinds of powders can lead to caking and viscous consolidation. 

Dust Devil combines a carefully mixed set of powdery scents that synergize with one another: violet, cedarwood, turmeric, and iso-e super. We use a dash of tangerine to give it an uplifting yet dry, citrusy spark. The result is a powerfully dusty tornado of drying and refining sensations. It’s great to create an Old West vibe characterized by tumbleweeds, whisky neat, pistol duels, droughts, and dust devils everywhere. Enjoy!


Glacial Gumdrop

Menthol can increase the threshold temperature of activation for cold receptors. In other words, it can trick neurons into thinking that the current ambient temperature is colder than it is. Now, Glacial Gumdrop does not have a single drop of menthol. It’s menthol-free! In a daring bit of self-aware and honest advertisement, we admit that this is akin to publicizing a carbonated drink sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup as sucrose-free. Yes, but! Glacial Gumdrop does not use menthol for cooling for the simple reason that in our experiments, it didn’t seem to perform as well as a cooling agent as a mixture of menthone, carvone, and wintergreen extract. The synergy we identified between these three “cooling alternatives” has desirable phenomenological properties that menthol alone does not. Since they “hit” different kinds of coolness effects, together, they pack a much bigger and more powerful punch.

Additionally, the shape of the envelope of the combination (cf. ADSR) is compatible with other aspects of the olfactory experience. Menthol tends to monopolize attention and anesthetize one’s sensitivity to other facets of scent; our proprietary blend leaves some gaps open for attention to interweave and incorporate anise, apple, and lotus nuances which for mysterious reasons make the scent “gummy” (akin to the synesthetic equivalent of munching a gummy bear, but with your olfactory bulb). What are example scents that have this “gummy bear” quality? Marigold, auranone, and some bergamots (e.g. H’ana’s) are good examples, but only Glacial Gumdrop blends this bouncy and fun gummy quality with coolness. This scent will surely surprise you and open your mind to qualia-space mysteries.


Frisson

Frisson is a scent formulation that plays with an unexpected olfactory effect we identified when exploring the space of powdery citruses (such as bergamot). When the scent facets of citrus, powdery, dry, and etheric are combined in the right proportions, the resulting gestalt can cause a subtle psychogenic shiver of a synesthetic nature: a mix of olfactory and tactile qualia with a subdermal quality reminiscent of the sound of rubbing sandpaper on wood. Some people describe it as the olfactory equivalent of ASMR and a cross between a hiss and musical frisson. This effect is achieved by combining large amounts of tangerine and bergamot, the most powdery citruses, and honeysuckle. The emergent gestalt brings about this effect like no other combination we have tried. Now the question arises: what is this good for? The answer is: for contemplating novel qualia varieties, of course!


Eau de Cologne Vide

A psychonaut once asked a DMT elf if they could tell them something they didn’t know about the state-space of scents. They were expecting some incredible download of information in the form of hyperbolic state-space representations and hyperstereoscopic synesthetic displays of qualia dynamics. Alas, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the elf asked them: “Are you sure that scent is just one qualia variety?”. A riddle! After chewing on it for a while, they concluded that no, scent qualia seems to somehow blend and interweave at least three qualia varieties into one multifaceted experience:

  • Scents have “flavor” (ex. lemony, rosy, herbaly, woody, etc.).
  • They often have distinctly “tactile components” (ex. the literally cooling effect of mints, or the “prickly” trigeminal nerve stimulation of aldehydes).
  • Perhaps the most interesting and mysterious of all, they come with “character impact”. Namely, a distortion of spacetime, boundaries, and valence characteristics that modify whatever flavor and tactile elements one is experiencing.

Analogized to the auditory domain, we could say that “flavor” would correspond to the frequencies and rhythms one hears, such as a piano note, applause, or a child’s laugh. A “tactile component” would be akin to the haptic vibrations one feels in the body when listening to a powerful base or the prickly pinchy feeling in the ear of a screechy sound. And finally, the “character impact” would correspond to signal processing effects like reverb, echoes, spatial audio, and frequency filters. Character impact gives you a lot of control you may not know you had: with clever tricks, you can take the sound of two persons talking and, say, remove annoying high-pitch sounds, harmonize them, create the illusion of movement, or even “blend” them into a single voice with an appropriate amount of reverb. In other words, these signal processing effects allow you to “musicalize” audio which may, on its own, be of little aesthetic merit. Or in the culinary domain, Luca Turin describes “character impact” in the following way. Given tomato soup, the tomato would be the “flavor,” whereas the creaminess would be the character impact. And according to him, in fact, “the money is in making a new cream, not in finding yet another tomato”. Early in our investigations, we discovered that incompatible scents could be “blended into a single gestalt” with the clever use of character impact. Say, a mixture of alpha-pinene, citral, and vanillin tends to “flicker” between kinds of scents in a chaotic fashion (what we call “multiphasic scents”). But if you add linalool or ambroxan, they will mysteriously “blend” into a unified scent gestalt. 

Now, ambers and musks are the most common “character impact” scents, with flagship examples like ambroxan, iso e super, galaxolide, and habanolide, all of which are subtle, low in pitch, and “transparent”. The idea of creating a perfume around these isn’t new: Molecule 01 Escentric Molecules (iso e super isomer mix) and Molecule 02 Escentric Molecules (ambroxan) were a big success in the 2000s despite their niche status. By all means, they are more of a work of conceptual art than perfumery in any recognizable form.  Beyond the niche, there are also examples of mega-hit mainstream fragrances with enormous amounts of character impact relative to flavors, such as the impossibly clean CK One (hedione, iso e super, galaxolide) and the masterfully musky Le Male by JPG (galaxolide, tonalide).

Such perfumes would have you believe that character impact is always a base note; they largely play with enveloping and calming low-frequency scents. But our work at QRI has convinced us that character impact effects are also present in the heart and top notes. Hence, Eau de Cologne Vide explores fresh, electric, high-voltage character impact effects fit for a wake-me-up cologne (citruses are typically high in pitch and mostly top notes).

The name follows the age-old tradition of perfumes named after mystical concepts such as NirvanaEternity, and Truth (“If we were to discover the biomolecular signature of pleasure, its name would surely find its way into the brand of a toothpaste.” – David Pearce). Eau de Cologne Vide packs a powerful punch of such character-impact elements to decorate
 “nothing”. Emptiness beautified. Therefore, the impression is of intense salience, but you are left wondering, “what was that about?”. Eau de Cologne Vide is a way of saying “much ado about nothing!”

How is this achieved? Eau de Cologne Vide combines the ethereal alcoholic reverb-ey effect of lavender (linalool), the incredible anodyne softness of rose (phenylethyl alcohol), the dry astringent effect of bergamot (terpinene), the intensely aromatic, stimulating and borderline citrusy effect of spices like thyme and dill (p-cymene), the warming, sweet and spicy, balsamic, “oriental” and “rindy” note typical of bisabol aka. “opoponax” (bisabolene, also found in oregano and cubeb), and fructone (nigh flavorless sweetness). It brings these notes into coherence with the classic aromatic fougere note of aggressive freshness of scents like Drakkar Noir (dihydromyrcenol), and a nanodose of the sour, soapy, and always reliable agrumen aldehyde light.

What does Eau de Cologne Vide smell like? Transparent, sweet, soft, dank, intense, ethereal, slightly sour, mysterious, and yet
 flavorless. Eau de Cologne Vide intensifies, vivifies, enriches, and thickens the experience of other scents. But as with Buddhist Emptiness of the highest grade, it’s best experienced by itself.


Hedonium Shockwave

Hedonium is matter and energy optimized for pure bliss. It is not a shallow sense of well-being but the most profound sense of holistic well-being possible within the laws of physics. Cosmic awe, deep wellness, and rapturous joys are all human emotions and are merely low-dimensional shadows of the real deal. A Hedonium Shockwave is a hypothetical phase transition traveling near the speed of light which changes the very composition of matter and energy by turning everything it touches into Hedonium. Classical Utilitarianism, in its typical formulation, might hold the latent implication that not only would the instantiation of a Hedonium Shockwave be desirable, but we are morally obliged to bring it into existence. QRI’s ethical theories are agnostic, but Hedonium plays an important role in its memetic landscape. Namely, as a theoretical entity that embodies the essence of pure positive valence, it challenges us to consider the nature of value in and of itself and its possible “physical compilation”. 

Hedonium Shockwave is a scent developed in-house to illustrate this anticipated phase transition in consciousness. The primary “olfactory idea” of Hedonium Shockwave is the synergistic combination of violet, mint, and an accord of pear and honeysuckle. This combination expresses a powerful yet anodyne uplifting mood grounded in a qualia landscape devoid of negative elements—pure olfactory pleasure at last.

Review of Hedonium Shockwave: It is, overall, incredibly smooth. My first thought is that it feels like a combination of Metta and Mudita, which are two different Brahmavihara meditations where it’s very soft and expansive for me. It feels very golden and pink. It’s very soft, but it’s a bit sharper, then a really soft sharp. It’s like a combination of metta and cocaine. It hits you, but in a loving way. It doesn’t hold back, but it hits you in a loving way. It’s almost like being woken up. “Wake up the world is great!” “Wake up there’s something important!” but a soft, loving wake-up!

– Nick Cammarata

On Rhythms of the Brain: Jhanas, Local Field Potentials, and Electromagnetic Theories of Consciousness

Of potential interest to readers: here’s part of an email exchange I recently had with Scott Alexander about Rhythms of the Brain by György BuzsĂĄki, a book I recommended he read to learn more about the neuroscience of brainwaves. This is an essay he published about it; I had a chance to read a pre-publication draft to check whether he was describing the science and my positions accurately. This is part of my feedback on the draft (lightly edited for clarity and consistent formatting):


AndrĂ©s – Oct/13/2022

First of all, thank you again for writing a review of Rhythms Of The Brain. As I mentioned, I think your review is spot-on. It’s already really great as it is. But I think the following pieces of information might help you answer some of the questions you pose and enrich the mental model you have about brainwaves. I should also mention that I’m still learning a lot on the topic from a number of angles and my model still has quite a few moving parts.

Without further ado, here are 5 key points I’d like to share:

(1) I think that Susan Pockett‘s Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process (link to PDF) is very relevant here. She argues based on neurophysiological and behavioral evidence that conscious perception only happens when Local Field Potentials (LFPs) are generated. The timing, functional correlates, and location of events of conscious perception of sensory stimuli seem to agree with this (pgs. 4-5):

Here’s how I think about this: 

Have you wondered why brainwaves track levels of wakefulness? See, in principle you can have a great deal of neural activity without any brainwaves. Raster plots of spike neural networks could in principle look like white noise… which in turn would generate no brainwaves at all because the oscillations in the electric field would cancel each other out at the macroscopic level. Recall that perfectly compressed information is indistinguishable from noise. So, in principle, an optimal use of the state-space of neural activity would look totally like white noise and lack brainwaves.

Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.

(2) Johnjoe McFadden‘s Conscious Electromagnetic Field (CEMI) theory is worth digging into. 

The “LFPs as mediators of consciousness” story has a lot going for it. In particular, it is quite elegant in how it can help us make sense of our phenomenological relation to our brain and nervous system. Brainwaves and LFPs are be highly correlated. Coherent neural activity causes LFPs, which in turn mediate/bias activity in neurons, with a causal structure like this:

If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there. But at the same time, we need the coherent neural activity to be booted up. So we are sort of “riding the brain” while the brain is giving us our foundation. Perhaps this gives us another angle to think about the “elephant taming” metaphor for the progression of the meditative path:

(3) The work of Stephen Grossberg (Adaptive Resonant Theory, and more recently his book Conscious Mind, Resonant Brain) as well as that of his student Steven Lehar, have macroscopic resonance as a key computational step. Arguably this is something you can simulate with classical neural networks. But using the EM field would potentially produce a significant computational speedup. Talking to Lehar, he used an interesting analogy, where in which he described “neurons spiking as a kind of sand blasting of the electric field” in order to activate internal representations. Recent research seems to confirm that the information content of internal representations is better captured by the structure of the electric field than by the neurons that sustain it (“Neurons are fickle. Electric fields are more reliable for information.“).

NOTE: One of the contributions to the conversation that QRI is aiming to make (essentially by publishing in academia what’s already discussed in our website) is that while these field theories of consciousness do address the binding problem, they now have to contend with the boundary problem. Our solution is “topological segmentation”, which itself comes with empirically testable predictions. Topological pockets allow for holistic field behavior *and* for solving the boundary problem at the same time, finally rendering bound consciousness both causally efficacious and objectively bounded. [In your essay] you could point out that I claim that resonance is necessary but not sufficient to solve the phenomenal binding problem. So even if AIs were using brainwaves, that might not be enough for them to be conscious, though it would go in the right direction. More on this on our website soonish.  

(4) I think that we can use the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) to explain the hedonic properties of different network topologies. This would be responsible for the “intrinsic valence” of a given brain region. You write:

> Why this combination of tasks? Rhythms sort of suggests that brain areas are less about specific tasks than about specific graph-theoretic arrangements, which are convenient for specific algorithms, which are convenient for specific tasks.

Yes! This is a great way of putting it. I think that having diverse network topologies available is one of the key ingredients of a general intelligence like ours. A learning algorithm that patches together the right sections to produce the right kind of structure for internal representations with holistic properties seems like a natural way to construct a mind. More so, some of these patches will cause dysphoric waves and others euphoric waves. The dysphoric parts of the brain, if STV is in the right direction, would have a network topology that work as a sort of frustration generator. The waves generated by these parts sort of “hate themselves”: activating them causes internal dissonance and stress that is then radiated out as waves with unfriendly ADSR envelopes to the rest of the brain. In contrast, the euphoric parts would produce highly aligned waves with soft ADSR envelopes and the right level of impedance matching to harmonize with other wave generators. 

(5) Merging with God as a kind of global coherence:

> Andres suggests all of this is a good match for oscillatory coupling between brain regions.

Perhaps add something akin to “which according to him ‘dissolves internal boundaries'”

> Andres thinks this is part of what’s behind “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences, where you suddenly feel like you’ve lost the boundaries of yourself and are at one with God and Nature and Everything.

My strongest phenomenological evidence here is the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT (video): competing clusters of coherence feel like “a lot of entities in an ecosystem of patterns” whereas global coherence feels like “union with God, Everything, and Everyone”. Hence the terms “spirit molecule” for DMT and “God molecule” for 5-MeO-DMT. The effect size of this difference is extremely large and reliable. I’ve yet to find someone who has experience with both substances who doesn’t immediately agree with this characterization. [This can be empirically tested] by blinding whether one takes DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and then reporting on the valence characteristics, “competing vs. global” coherence characteristics, and on whether one gets a patchwork of entities or one feels like one is merging with the universe.

With classic psychedelics, which stand somewhere between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in their level of global coherence, you always go through an annealing process before finally “snapping” into global coherence and “becoming one with God”. That coherence is the signature of these mystical experiences becomes rather self-evident once you pay attention to annealing signatures (i.e. noticing how incompatible metronomes slowly start synchronizing and forming larger and larger structures until one megastructure swallows it all and dissolves the self-other boundary in the process of doing so).

You will not find academic publications describing this process (because their psychological scales are not detailed enough, aren’t focused on structure, and aren’t informed by actual practice). Nor will you find psychonauts talking much about this, because they tend to focus on the semantic content of the experience rather than on the phenomenal texture [see our guide]. Naturally, one is typically socially rewarded for providing an entertaining story about one’s trip… not a detailed *technical* report of phenomenal texture. Therefore, right now you’ll only find QRI content explaining all of this. But I’m fairly confident about this after talking to very experienced. So I think this will significantly shape the conversation in a couple of years once we start getting some consensus on it.

I could share much more, but I have to restrain myself (taming the elephant!). Let me know if you need anything else.

Thank you!!

Infinite bliss!


Scott – Oct/13/2022

Thanks. […] two questions:

> Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.

Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)? Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?

> If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there.

Confused by this too. My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?


Andrés Oct/15/2022

Hey Scott!

> Thanks […] two questions:

(I’ll answer your questions in a different order than how you asked them, on the basis that my answer to the first one is much more weird and less credible… In other words, I’m answering more or less in order of how weird my responses are so that you are not put off by my first answers. This way you can choose when to stop reading without missing anything useful for your essay):

> My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? 

I think that “brainwaves can be explained as emergent patterns of a cellular automata” is a very good starting model, and it has a lot of explanatory power. But there are empirical and experiential facts that would go against it as a complete explanation. And perhaps, it misses the most important hint for a theory of consciousness that satisfies all of the necessary criteria I consider such a theory must satisfy. And that is, that binding has non-trivial computational effects. I.e. At some level, patterns of organization exert “weak downward causation” on the substrate that gave rise to them. This does not mean there is “strong emergence” or that we’re going against the laws of physics. On the contrary, a key guiding principle for QRI is to be strict physicalists. The laws of physics are causally closed and complete (or at least as good as it gets; the Standard Model can be taken at face value for the time being, until something better comes along). Without violating physicalism, we nonetheless still see instances of weak downward causation in the physical world.

As an intuition, consider the fact that something like TMS can change neural activity. In fact, TMS, and especially rTMS, can cause seizures. This suggests that at a sufficiently high dose, EM oscillations can exert top-down influence on neuronal firing thresholds and phase coherence, and more so when they come in repetitive waves rather than pulses. In the case of LFPs, which are far more localized and less energetic, the influence isn’t huge. But it is there. As far as I understand the neuroscience literature on LFPs (and ephatic coupling more generally), the fact that LFPs change firing thresholds is uncontroversial. The question is “by how much”. Most studies find small effects (otoh between 1% and 20% of the variance, but I can look up more precise and recent figures – e.g. see: Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons).

The more interesting and perhaps significant effect that LFPs have is to change the degree of coherence between neurons. In other words, they may not change much their probability of firing, but do change a lot their probability of firing in phase. You can see how this would lead to interesting self-reinforcing effects. Namely, if neural coherence causes LFPs, and LFPs increase neural coherence, there might be attractors of hypercoherent neural firings coupled with strong and very orderly LFPs. I believe this explains the Jhanas.

Now, can’t you just expand your cellular automata to include LFPs and call it a day? Well, yes, in a theoretical but rather impractical sense. Building a cellular automata that simulates a simple neural network is easy. Building one that simulates water is more tricky. By the time you are constructing cellular automata to simulate EM fields you get into trouble. It’s possible, but you need all sorts of tricks, shortcuts, and handling complex edge cases (e.g. topological segmentation!). Can you construct a cellular automata that simulates physics? Quantum mechanics proper? Yes… if you are Wolfram. But recall that his explorations invoke cellular automata with unusual mathematical primitives. We are no longer in the territory of simple grid-like graphs. We are in Ruliad-space, with hypergraphs and exotic rulesets. Quantum coherent states behave in a very holistic fashion (where the “next step” is the result of solving Shrödinger’s equation in configuration space). So while it’s possible to use cellular automata to think of physics at this level, it isn’t a very natural choice. Rather, I posit that thinking of it in terms of universal principles like energy minimization, extremas, and the preservation of zero information is what takes us closer to the phenomenon at hand. These principles are, by their very nature, holistic. An electron, as Feynman would put it, can sort of “smell its surroundings” to decide where to go. It somehow explores all possibilities at once and “chooses” the one that balances the minimization of energy and maximization of entropy. A truly holistic sort of phenomenon.

Source: A Class of Models with the Potential to Represent Fundamental Physics by Stephen Wolfram

I think that if at that point one uses a cellular automata to represent this, one has actually reintroduced the very thing the cellular automata conceptual framework was trying to avoid. And that is, the computational power of holism. This is because even though the Ruliad that simulates physics is in some way a cellular automata, the ruleset itself requires a kind of God-like capacity to integrate pieces of information and “see all at once” entire regions of the (hyper)graph and decide what to do next. My claim is that at this point one has “pushed” the undesired holism to the ruleset in order to avoid seeing it directly. It’s a reductionist sleight of hand.

Now, I’m not saying consciousness is quantum mechanical. What I’m pointing out is that EM waves are sort of in the spectrum between simple cellular automatas and QM, where the waves interacting with one another have all kinds of peculiar holistic effects. Binding, if it involves EM waves, turns out to be computationally non-trivial.

In this model, the brain is physically providing a soil that can instantiate EM waves with many different kinds of properties. Some behave linearly, some non-linearly. And together, they give rise to the vast zoo of possible internal representations, many kinds of binding, topologies, and dynamics we experience (such as the strangeness of “fire meditation“).

> Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?

You can’t voluntarily shut down your brain with conscious control. At least not immediately. But you can direct your attention to two parts of your experience at once, and the resonances in those two regions will slowly but surely begin to synchronize. In other words, from an EE point of view, spreading your attention over a given region of your experience increases the impedance matching between the metronomes in those regions. This, I think, is the influence of LFPs (or similar) on neural activity. This may be subtle, but over enough time and neural rewiring, the process can lead to very interesting effects. Hyperconcentrated states of consciousness, starting with access concentration all the way to single-pointed attention and ultimately to the formless Jhanas are obtained through mental moves that slowly by surely “unify the mind” (i.e. brings coherence between disparate metronomes in the nervous system). This is “us” learning to influence “our brain”.

> Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)?

Two quick things here. The first is that we think brainwaves (macroscopic oscillations in the EM field more generally) are necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. They still need to form a topological pocket, or they will remain unclosed eddies that cannot contain information nor maintain a boundary with their surroundings. The second is that the main point is that the brainwaves track the texture of degrees of wakefulness. More so, it’s not just the spectral power distribution, but also the patterns of spatiotemporal cross-frequency coherence. Thus, two states might look the same in terms of their spectrum, but carry significantly different internal textures since one of them has a high degree of, say, gamma coherence and the other doesn’t.

> Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?

One of the key insights from Stevan Lehar is that using a dynamic, smooth, spatial medium of representation allows us to run spatial algorithms on our representations. One example is the incredibly general reverse grassfire & reverse shock schaffold algorithms that explain a wide range of visual illusions (discussed in The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception / as well as in his magnum opus video Harmonic Gestalt). Based on the fact that these algorithms generalize to things like breakthrough level DMT experiences and that they apply to hyperdimensional phenomenal objects and their resonant modes, I’m fairly convinced that the local cellular automata view doesn’t explain the facts. The structures that exist in those states follow law-like energy minimization properties reminiscent of fluid dynamics in higher dimensions. To me they seem to necessitate something like Maxwell’s equations; a cellular automaton would need a lot of training and fine-tuning to be able to instantly generate those dynamics right and seamlessly. Combine this with the (not fully verified but tentative) observation that DMT states are phenomenologically similar to those induced by high-dose Fire Kasina. I believe that the mechanism is actually fairly simple: both methods energize the visual field to the point where it transitions from a linear and partially linear state into a fully nonlinear regime. The phenomenon is better seen as what happens when you energize a non-linear optical computer than, say, the effect of changing the ruleset of a cellular automaton.

I know this lacks credibility for the time being […]. I aim to identify crisp and experimentally verifiable demonstrations of this that trained physicists and neuroscientists can both agree on.

In the long-term, I expect humans to figure out ways to use high-energy states of consciousness to tap into the EM field as a computational substrate. Not only will this entail a revolution in consciousness, but also, interestingly, in how we think of computation. The Turing Paradigm will turn out to be a tiny special case of… qualia computing.

Alright, I hope that wasn’t too much, haha.

Thank you again, and happy to answer more questions.

Infinite bliss!


See also:

David Pearce on the Long-Term Future of Consciousness: The Meta-Copernican Revolution

Excerpt from David Pearce‘s 2008 Diary Update (images made w/ DALL-E, except for the pictures of Shulgin):


New discoveries? Nothing dramatic. I dutifully flip through Nature each week; wade through turgid tomes of analytic philosophy; and scan Medline abstracts. A lot of the time my heart isn’t in it. Compared to an item from Dr Shulgin‘s library, the illumination can seem trivial. I very much doubt if people who have tried major psychedelics are any smarter on average than the drug-naĂŻve; in fact psychonauts may be cognitively overwhelmed or (rarely) even brain-damaged by their experiences. To complicate comparisons further, many altered states are dross – just like innumerable textures of everyday life. But by opening up a Pandora’s box of new phenomena, psychedelics do confer an immensely richer evidential base for any theory of mind and the world – an evidential base too rich, indeed, for our existing primitive terms, language and conceptual equipment to handle. One compares the laments of physicists starved of new empirical data to test their theories beyond the low-energy Standard Model with the fate of the psychedelic investigator. For in contrast the aspiring psychonaut may be forced to abandon the empirical method, not because he exhausts the range of novel phenomenology it delivers, but because the Darwinian mind can neither cope with LSD / ketamine / salvia / DMT‘s (etc) weirdness, nor weave the novel modes of sentience disclosed into an integrated world-picture.

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #1

Of course, claims of epochal significance cut no ice with the drug-naĂŻve. Those innocent of drug-induced exotica see no more need to enhance their evidential base than did the cardinals (apocryphally) invited to look through Galileo‘s telescope. An a priori refusal to acknowledge the potential significance of alien modes of sentience is impossible to overcome in subjects whose experience of altered states is confined to getting drunk. Over time, even my own knowledge of these bizarre realms is fading. My ancestral namesake was briefly awoken from his dogmatic slumbers; but DP version-2008 has rejoined the ranks of the living dead in the ghetto of consensus reality.

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #2

My assimilation isn’t yet complete. Even as a born-again sleepwalker, I sometimes wonder if there may be a first-person method alternative to drug-based investigations that can unlock novel phenomenology latent within excitable nervous tissue. There is a crying need for alternative avenues, I think, since drug-driven self-assays are for the most part not merely unlawful and taboo, but arguably can’t be practised responsibly until the substrates of well-being are guaranteed in a (hypothetical) post-Darwinian era of genetically pre-programmed bliss. I’ve thought about alternatives to using psychoactive drugs, not least because of the shallowness of my own current research compared to the richness of the empirical methodology pioneered by Dr Shulgin. In order to discover both the formal, mathematico-physical and the intrinsic, subjective properties of the world, a dual methodology of third- and first-person research is indispensable. The former can be abdicated to the physical sciences; but not the latter. Natural science offers no explanation of why we’re not zombies, an unfortunate anomaly if consciousness is fundamental both to our understanding of the world and the world itself. By forswearing the empirical method, we effectively guarantee that the mysteries of consciousness will never be solved. Whereas insentience is, so to speak, all of a piece – hypothetical “zombies” in the philosophical sense of the term are all exactly alike in being non-conscious – there are innumerable ways to be sentient: qualia are fantastically diverse in ways we’ve scarcely begun to map out. So I reckon the only way adequately to understand Reality will be both to capture its formal structure – ideally the master equation of the TOE of the Multiverse – and literally to incorporate ever more of the stuff of the world into one’s expanding psyche to explore the state-space of its textures – the “what-it’s-likeness”. Only incorporation and systematic molecular permutation can disclose the subjective features of all permutations of matter and energy: the solutions, I conjecture, to the equations of the TOE. A priori, one could never have guessed that cells of the striate cortex mediate visual experience and cells in the posterior parietal cortex mediate auditory experience, quite irrespective of their typical functional role in the sensory systems of naturally evolved organisms. We know about such phenomena – and full-blown phenomenal sunsets and symphonies – only because we instantiate the neuronal cell-assembles that embody such qualia. Thus to discover novel categories of experience, I think we should construct and personally instantiate genetically enhanced designer brain cells, systematically altering their intracellular amino acid sequences and gene expression profiles to design/discover new categories of experience as different as is sight from sound, making them part of one’s own psyche/virtual world. Or if this incorporation sounds too irreversible, perhaps we might splice in designer genes and allelic combinations for new modes of experience into subsets of our existing nerve cells, systematically coding new protein sequences into discrete areas of the brain and then selectively expressing the designer proteins they code for at will. Eventually, however, systematic manipulation of the molecular ingredients of one’s neural porridge/mind-dust can be harnessed to mind-expansion in the literal sense. This is because we need bigger mind/brains, not just to mirror external reality more effectively, but also to discover more of its subjective properties. Such discoveries can only be accomplished empirically.

New neuron types for new neurotypes.

I suppose what drives me here is reflection on just how (superficially) trivial are the neurochemical differences between nerve cells mediating, say, phenomenal colour and phenomenal sound – and indeed reflection on how (superficially) trivial are the molecular differences in the cells mediating the phenomenology of desire, volition and belief-episodes. How can such tiny molecular differences exert such dramatic subjective effects? LSD, for instance, is undetectable in the body three hours after consumption; and yet a few hundred micrograms of the serotonin 5-HT2A partial agonist can transport the subject into outlandish alternative virtual worlds for 10 hours or more. How many analogous, radically incommensurable kingdoms of experience, mediated by equally “trivial” molecular variations, await discovery? How will the uncharted state-spaces be systematically explored? What will be the nature of life/civilisation when these kingdoms of experience are spliced together in composite minds; recruited to play an information-bearing role; harnessed to new art forms and new lifestyles; and ultimately integrated into communities of composite minds in advanced civilisations? For sure, talk of discovering a “new category of experience” doesn’t sound a particularly exciting kind of knowledge when couched in the abstract, any more than discovery of a new brand of perfume. OK, it’s a new experience; but so what? [AndrĂ©s adds: so what!?] One might sacrifice a lot for the opportunity to experience a novel phenomenal colour; but what cognitive value should be ascribed to an unknown category of experience for which one hasn’t even a name? Initially at any rate, the novel modes of experience that we discover within a modified neural proteome won’t be harnessed to senses, either internal or external, let alone harnessed to whole conceptual schemes, cultures and novel languages of thought. So they won’t play any functional role in the mind/brain: they won’t be information-bearing. But then neither are visual or auditory experiences per se; they have no intrinsic connection to sensory perception. Dreams, for instance, can be vibrantly colourful; they don’t reliably track anything in the external world. Honed by natural selection after recruitment by awake living organisms to track mind-independent patterns, visual and auditory experience has taken millions of years to play out; and who knows where it will end. By the same token, the developmental potential of new modes of experience that we discover in tweaked neurons is equally unfathomable from here.

Every scent, every color, every touch sensation, every sound, every novel qualia…

I can understand the impatience of an exasperated sceptic. What interest have novel “tickles” of experience beyond the psychopathology of the subject? Analogously, conventional wisdom in an echolocation (etc)-based civilisation might scornfully ask a similar question if and when post-chiropteran psychonauts first access drug-induced speckles of colour or jarring shrieks or whistles of sound – or perhaps when investigators recklessly explore a new methodology of mind-expansion by incorporating alien nervous tissue into their psyche. The chiropteran consensus wisdom might account the new phenomena weird but trivial – and inexpressible in language to boot. So why should any sane chiropteran mind run the risk of messing itself up just to explore such psychotic states? For our part, human ignorance of what it’s like to be a bat isn’t too unsettling because we know that bats don’t have a rich conceptual scheme, culture or technology. We are “superior” to bats; and therefore their alien modes of experience aren’t especially important. We don’t even give our ignorance much thought.

What is it like to be a bat? An empirical neural tissue insertion protocol to explore nature’s very own echolocation qualia from the comfort of your own home…

But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own. I suspect that accessing the subjective lifeworlds of hitherto alien mind/brains will inaugurate a meta-Copernican Revolution to dwarf anything that’s come before. The textures of such alien minds are as much a natural property of matter and energy as the atomic mass of gold; and no less important to understanding the nature of the world. Needless to say, grandiose claims of new paradigms, meta-Copernican revolutions, etc, should usually be taken with a healthy grain of salt. I am loath to write such expressions, not least because I can imagine both the withering scorn of my hyper-rational but drug-naĂŻve teenage namesake, and likewise the dismissive reaction of my drug-naĂŻve contemporaries today. Such are the perils of a priori philosophizing practised by academic philosophers (and soi-disant scientists) unwilling to get their hands (or their minds) dirty with the empirical method. In each case, our ignorance of the intrinsic, subjective nature of configurations of most of the stuff of the world is fundamental. It’s an ignorance not remediable by simple application of the hypothetico-deductive method, falsificationismBayesianism or the usual methodologies of third-person science. If you want to find out what it’s like to be a bat, then you have to experience the phenomenology of echolocation. Knowledge-acquisition entails a hardware upgrade. A notional IQ of 200 won’t help without the neural wetware to go with it – any more than a congenitally deaf supergenius can hear music by virtuoso feats of reasoning alone.

But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own.

I guess one deterrent to investigation of altered and exotic states is the thought that the novel phenomena disclosed “aren’t Real” – as though the reality of any phenomenon depended on it being a copy or representation of something else external to itself. I wonder if I lived in a world of Mary-like superscientists – smart monochromats who see the world in black and white – whether I would dare put on “psychedelic” spectacles and hallucinate phenomenal colour? And could I communicate to my Mary-like superscientist colleagues the significance of what they were missing without sounding like a drug-deranged crank? Probably not.

Literally Expanding Our Mind To Overcome Our Fundamental Ignorance of Alien Modes of Experience

So I reckon that we should, literally, expand our minds. If we do, how far should incorporation go? The size of the human brain is limited by the human birth-canal, a constraint that technologies of extra-uterine pregnancy from conception to term will presumably shortly overcome. Over time, brains can become superbrains; and sentience can become supersentience. Ultimately, should we aspire to become God or merely gods? My (tentative) inclination is that we should all become One [AndrĂ©s adds: see David’s Quora response on the topic of Open Individualism]; and not merely out of deference to my New Age friends. Separateness from each other is an epistemic, not just an ethical, limitation: a source of profound ignorance. For we fundamentally misconstrue the nature of other sentient beings, misunderstanding each other as objects to which we fitfully attribute feelings rather than as pure subjects. [Actually, the story is more complicated. If inferential realism about perception is true, then the sceptic about Other Minds is right, in a sense: the phenomenal people encountered in one’s egocentric world-simulation are zombies. But when one is awake, the zombies serve as avatars that causally covary with sentient beings in one’s local environment. So the point stands.] Yes, literally fusing with other minds/virtual worlds sounds an unattractive (as well as infeasible) prospect for the foreseeable future; and not just because of their lousy organic avatars. For we certainly wouldn’t want to Become One with a bunch of ugly Darwinian minds; and likewise, they might get a nasty shock if they tasted one’s own. Infatuated lovers may want to fuse; rival alpha males certainly don’t [unless one eats a defeated opponent, a form of intimacy practised in some traditional cultures; but this is a very one-sided consummation of a relationship]. However, perhaps the prospect of unification will be more exciting if and when we become posthuman smart angels, so to speak: beautiful in every sense. I have no hidden agenda beyond my abolitionist propagandizing; but on current evidence it’s likely we belong to a family of Everett branches that will lead to god-like beings. And thence to God? I’m sceptical, but I don’t know.

Mindmelding with other Darwinian creatures is kind of a bummer sometimes.

Divinity takes many forms. What kind of (demi)gods might we become? Superhappy beings, I reckon, yes, but superhappiness in what guise? A unitary Ăœber-Mind, or fragmented minds as now? At one extreme of the continuum, posthumans may opt to live solipsistically in designer paradises: an era not just of personalized medicine but personalized VR. [Would I opt to dwell with a harem of several thousand houris and become Emperor Dave the First, Lord of The Universe? And supremely modest too. Yes, probably. I’m a Darwinian male.] Occupying the middle of the continuum is the superconnectivity of web-enabled minds (via neural implants, etc) without unitary experience or loss of personal identity. Such a scenario is a recognizable descendant of the status quo whereby we are all connected via the Net to everyone else. This sort of future is the most “obvious” since it’s an extrapolation of current trends. Extreme interconnectivity is still consistent with extensive ignorance of each other, although expansion and/or functional amplification of our mirror neurons could magnify our capacity for mutual empathetic understanding. Finally, at the other extreme of the continuum, there is presumably a more-or-less complete fusion of posthuman mind/brains into a unitary collective: a blissful analogue of the Borg, but contiguous rather than scattered: there is no evidence spatio-temporally disconnected beings have token-identical experiences. It’s hard enough to solve the binding problem in one mind/brain, let alone across discrete skulls.

Emperor Dave the First, Psychonaut Lord of The Universe, Bliss For All Creatures Under the Sun

I don’t know which if any of these three families of scenario is the most likely culmination of life in the Multiverse. Indeed it’s unclear whether the third scenario, i.e. a unitary experiential Supermind, is even technically feasible. For there is an upper limit to the size and duration of the conjectural “warm” quantum coherence needed for unitary sentience; it’s difficult enough to avoid ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence in even a single human mind/brain, let alone a hypothetical global super-mind/brain. Is there a way round this constraint? In spite of the well-worn dictum “black holes have no hair“, I used to play around with the idea that blissful superminds lived on the ultra-cool “surface” of supermassive black holes. All the information content of their interior and information content at the horizon is smeared out across the entire horizon, allowing unitary megaminds of maximum information density – and maximum intelligent bliss: what Seth Baum aptly calls “utilitronium”. This conjecture needs more work. But whether conscious mind is unitary or discrete, I suspect that posthuman modes of existence will be based, not on today’s ordinary waking consciousness, but on unimaginably different modes of sentience. In addition, I predict that these modes of sentience will be as different in intensity from ours as is a supernova from a glowworm. Thus any speculative story we may now be tempted to tell about what life may be like millions or billions of years hence will of necessity ignore a fundamental difference between future minds and us. Human futurology omits the key evolutionary transitions ahead in the nature of consciousness – not only the ethically all-important hedonic transition to superhappiness that I stress, but other modes of sentience currently unknown. The discontinuity promised by any future technological Singularity – or soft Singularities – derives not merely from an exponential growth of computer processing power, but from inconceivably different textures of sentience. Actually, I entertain many bizarre ideas. The art is taking them seriously enough to explore their implications and testable predictions, but sceptically enough not to be seduced into believing they are likely to be true. And what about the nearest I come to a dogmatic commitment? Could the abolitionist project turn out to be mistaken too? I guess so. Yet at least the abolition of suffering is not a phenomenon we will live to regret.

Three families of scenarios for the culmination of life in the Multiverse: #1 everyone kinda doing their own thing in their little virtual worlds. #2 hybrid hive minds of hypersocial connected individuals who choose to retain their (porous) individuality. #3 God, a single mega-mind, that maximally bounds as much matter and energy into unitary superexperiences.


See Also:

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 naĂŻve 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 naĂŻve 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-naĂŻve 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 AndrĂ©s GĂłmez 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 AndrĂ©s 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 AndrĂ©s’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 AndrĂ©s 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 â€” 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 AndrĂ©s’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 đŸ˜Š

Peace! đŸ’œ


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 AndrĂ©s 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 PokĂ©mon trainer and his PokĂ©mon (ideally in a situation where PokĂ©mon 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!