Qualia Productions Presents: When AI Equals Advanced Incompetence

By Maggie and Anders Amelin

Letter I: Introduction

We are Maggie & Anders. A mostly harmless Swedish old-timer couple only now beginning to discover the advanced incompetence that is the proto-science — or “alchemy” — of consciousness research. A few centuries ago a philosopher of chemistry could have claimed with a straight face to be quite certain that a substance with negative mass had to be invoked to explain the phenomenon of combustion. Another could have been equally convinced that the chemistry of life involves a special force of nature absent from all non-living matter. A physicist of today may recognize that the study of consciousness has even less experimental foundation than alchemy did, yet be confident that at least it cannot feel like something to be a black hole. Since, obviously, black holes are simple objects and consciousness is a phenomenon which only emerges from “complexity” as high as that of a human brain.

Is there some ultimate substrate, basic to reality and which has properties intrinsic to itself? If so, is elementary sentience one of those properties? Or is it “turtles all the way down” in a long regress where all of reality can be modeled as patterns within patterns within patterns ending in Turing-style “bits”? Or parsimoniously never ending?

Will it turn out to be patterns all the way down, or sentience all the way up? Should people who believe themselves to perhaps be in an ancestor simulation take for granted that consciousness exists for biologically-based people in base-level reality? David Chalmers does. So at least that must be one assumption it is safe to make, isn’t it? And the one about no sentience existing in a black hole. And the one about phlogiston. And the four chemical elements.

This really is good material for silly comedy or artistic satire. To view a modest attempt by us in that direction, please feel encouraged to enjoy this youtube video we made with QRI in mind:

When ignorance is near complete, it is vital to think outside the proverbial box if progress is to be made. However, spontaneous creative speculation is more context-constrained than it feels like, and it rarely correlates all that beautifully with anything useful. Any science has to work via the baby steps of testable predictions. The integrated information theory (IIT) does just that, and has produced encouraging early results. IIT could turn out to be a good starting point for eventually mapping and modeling all of experiential phenomenology. For a perspective, IIT 3.0 may be comparable to how Einstein’s modeling of the photoelectric effect stands in relation to a full-blown theory of quantum gravity. There is a fair bit of ground to cover. We have not been able to find any group more likely than the QRI to speed up the process whereby humanity eventually manages to cover that ground. That is, if they get a whole lot of help in the form of outreach, fundraising and technological development. Early pioneers have big hurdles to overcome, but the difference they can make for the future is enormous.anders_and_maggie_thermometer

For those who feel inspired, a nice start is to go through all that is on or linked via the QRI website. Indulge in Principia Qualia. If that leaves you confused on a higher level, you are in good company. With us. We are halfway senile and are not information theorists, neuroscientists or physicists. All we have is a nerdy sense of humor and work experience in areas like marketing and planetary geochemistry. One thing we think we can do is help bridge the gap between “experts” and “lay people”. Instead of “explain it like I am five”, we offer the even greater challenge of explaining it like we are Maggie & Anders. Manage that, and you will definitely be wiser afterwards!

– Maggie & Anders


Letter II: State-Space of Matter and State-Space of Consciousness

A core aspect of science is the mapping out of distributions, spectra, and state-spaces of the building blocks of reality. Naturally occurring states of things can be spontaneously discovered. To gain more information about them, one can experimentally alter such states to produce novel ones, and then analyze them in a systematic way.

The full state-space of matter is multidimensional and vast. Zoom in anywhere in it and there will be a number of characteristic physics phenomena appearing there. Within a model of the state-space you can follow independent directions as you move towards regions and points. As an example, you can hold steady at one particular simple chemical configuration. Diamond, say. The stable region of diamond and its emergent properties like high hardness extends certain distances in other parameter directions such as temperature and pressure. The diamond region has neighboring regions with differently structured carbon, such as graphite. Diamond and graphite make for an interesting case since the property of hardness emerges very differently in the two regions. (In the pure carbon state-space the dimensions denoting amounts of all other elements can be said to be there but set to zero). Material properties like hardness can be modeled as static phenomena. According to IIT however, consciousness cannot. It’s still an emergent property of matter though, so just stay in the matter state-space and add a time dimension to it. Then open chains and closed loops of causation emerge as a sort of fundamental level of what matter “does”. Each elementary step of causation may be regarded to produce or intrinsically be some iota of proto-experience. In feedback loops this self-amplifies into states of feeling like something. Many or perhaps most forms of matter can “do” these basic things at various regions of various combinations of parameter settings. Closed causal loops require more delicate fine-tuning in parameter space, so the state-space of nonconscious causation structure is larger than that of conscious structure. The famous “hard problem” has to do with the fact that both an experientially very weak and a very strong state can emerge from the same matter (shown to be the case so far only within brains). A bit like the huge difference in mechanical hardness of diamond and graphite both emerging from the same pure carbon substrate (a word play on “hard” to make it sticky).

By the logic of IIT it should be possible to model (in arbitrarily coarse or fine detail) the state-space of all conscious experience whose substrate is all possible physical states of pure carbon. Or at room temperature in any material. And so on. If future advanced versions of IIT turn out to be a success then we may guess there’ll be a significant overlap to allow for a certain “substrate invariance” for hardware that can support intelligence with human-recognizable consciousness. Outside of that there will be a gargantuan additional novel space to explore. It ought to contain maxima of (intrinsic) attractiveness, none of which need to reside within what a biological nervous system can host. Biological evolution has only been able to search through certain parts of the state-space of matter. One thing it has not worked with on Earth is pure carbon. Diamond tooth enamel or carbon nanotube tendons would be useful but no animal has them. What about conscious states? Has biology come close to hit upon any of the optima in those? If all of human sentience is like planet Earth, and all of Terrestrial biologically-based sentience is like the whole Solar System, that leaves an entire extrasolar galaxy out there to explore. (Boarding call: Space X Flight 42 bound for Nanedi Settlement, Mars. Sentinauts please go to the Neuralink check-in terminal).

Of course we don’t currently know how IIT is going to stand up, but thankfully it does make testable predictions. There is, therefore, a beginning of something to be hoped for with it. In a hopeful scenario IIT turns out to be like special relativity, and what QRI is reaching for is like quantum gravity. It will be a process of taking baby steps, for sure. But each step is likely to bring benefits in many ways.

Is any of this making you curious? Then you may enjoy reading “Principia Qualia” and other QRI articles.

– Maggie & Anders

Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything

QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.



Mike writes:

This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.

A few takeaways:


  • Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
  • Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
  • Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
  • Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
  • Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
  • The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
  • Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
  • A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.

(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)

Is the Orthogonality Thesis Defensible if We Assume Both Valence Realism and Open Individualism?

Ari Astra asks: Is the Orthogonality Thesis Defensible if We Assume Both “Valence Realism” and Open Individualism?


Ari’s own response: I suppose it’s contingent on whether or not digital zombies are capable of general intelligence, which is an open question. However, phenomenally bound subjective world simulations seem like an uncharacteristic extravagance on the part of evolution if non-sphexish p-zombie general intelligence is possible.

Of course, it may be possible, but just not reachable through Darwinian selection. But the fact that a search process as huge as evolution couldn’t find it and instead developed profoundly sophisticated phenomenally bound subjectivity is (possibly strong) evidence against the proposition that zombie AGI is possible (or likely to be stumbled on by accident).

If we do need phenomenally bound subjectivity for non-sphexish intelligence and minds ultimately care about qualia valence – and confusedly think that they care about other things only when they’re below a certain intelligence (or thoughtfulness) level – then it seems to follow that smarter than human AGIs will converge on valence optimization.

If OI is also true, then smarter than human AGIs will likely converge on this as well – since it’s within the reach of smart humans – and this will plausibly lead to AGIs adopting sentience in general as their target for valence optimization.

Friendliness may be built into the nature of all sufficiently smart and thoughtful general intelligence.

If we’re not drug-naive and we’ve conducted the phenomenological experiment of chemically blowing open the reducing valves that keep “mind at large” out and that filteratively shape hominid consciousness, we know by direct acquaintance that it’s possible to hack our way to more expansive awareness.

We shouldn’t discount the possibility that AGI will do the same simply because the idea is weirdly genre bending. Whatever narrow experience of “self” AGI starts with in the beginning, it may quickly expand out of.


Michael E. Johnson‘s response: The orthogonality thesis seems sound from ‘far mode’ but always breaks down in ‘near mode’. One way it breaks down is in implementation: the way you build an AGI system will definitely influence what it tends to ‘want’. Orthogonality is a leaky abstraction in this case.

Another way it breaks down is that the nature and structure of the universe instantiates various Schelling points. As you note, if Valence Realism is true, then there exists a pretty big Schelling point around optimizing that. Any arbitrary AGI would be much more likely to optimize for (and coordinate around) optimizing for positive qualia than, say, paperclips. I think this may be what your question gets at.

Coordination is also a huge question. You may have read this already, but worth pointing to: A new theory of Open Individualism.

To collect some threads- I’d suggest that much of the future will be determined by the coordination capacity and game-theoretical equilibriums between (1) different theories of identity, and (2) different metaphysics.

What does ‘metaphysics’ mean here? I use ‘metaphysics’ as shorthand for ‘the ontology people believe is ‘real’. What they believe we should look at when determining moral action.’

The cleanest typology for metaphysics I can offer is: some theories focus on computations as the thing that’s ‘real’, the thing that ethically matters – we should pay attention to what the *bits* are doing. Others focus on physical states – we should pay attention to what the *atoms* are doing. I’m on team atoms, as I note here: Against Functionalism.

My suggested takeaway: an open individualist who assumes computationalism is true (team bits) will have a hard time coordinating with an open individualist who assumes physicalism is true (team atoms) — they’re essentially running incompatible versions of OI and will compete for resources. As a first approximation, instead of three theories of personal identity – Closed Individualism, Empty Individualism, Open Individualism – we’d have six. CI-bits, CI-atoms, EI-bits, EI-atoms, OI-bits, OI-atoms. Whether the future is positive will be substantially determined by how widely and deeply we can build positive-sum moral trades between these six frames.

Maybe there’s further structure, if we add the dimension of ‘yes/no’ on Valence Realism. But maybe not– my intuition is that ‘team bits’ trends toward not being valence realists, whereas ‘team atoms’ tends toward it. So we’d still have these core six.

(I believe OI-atoms or EI-atoms is the ‘most true’ theory of personal identity, and that upon reflection and under consistency constraints agents will converge to these theories at the limit, but I expect all six theories to be well-represented by various agents and pseudo-agents in our current and foreseeable technological society.)

Psychotic Depression

Excerpt from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (pgs. 692-698)

And re Ennet House resident Kate Gompert and this depression issue:

Some psychiatric patients — plus a certain percentage of people who’ve gotten so dependent on chemicals for feelings of well-being that when the chemicals have to be abandoned they undergo a loss-trauma that reaches way down deep into the soul’s core systems — these persons know firsthand that there’s more than one kind of so-called ‘depression’. One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia[280] or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing youtube videos cartridges. The gourmand is off his feed. The sensualist finds his beloved Unit all of a sudden to be so much feelingless gristle, just hanging there. The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overly painful its deadness is disconcerting and… well, depressing. Kate Gompert’s always thought of this anhedonic state as a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content. Terms that undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy — happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love — are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world. An anhedonic can navigate, but has no location. I.e. the anhedonic becomes, in the lingo of Boston AA, Unable To Identify.

It’s worth nothing that, among younger E.T.A.s, the standard take on Dr. J. O. Incandenza’s suicide attributes his putting his head in the microwave to this kind of anhedonia. This is maybe because anhedonia’s often associated with the crises that afflict extremely goal-oriented people who reach a certain age having achieved all or more than all than they’d hoped for. The what-does-it-all-mean-type crisis of middle-aged Americans. In fact this is in fact not what killed Incandenza at all. In fact the presumption that he’d achieved all his goals and found that the achievement didn’t confer meaning or joy on his existence says more about the students at E.T.A. than it says about Orin’s and Hal’s father: still under the influence of the deLint-like carrot-and-stick philosophies of their hometown coaches rather than the more paradoxical Schtitt/Incandenza/Lyle school, younger athletes who can’t help gauging their whole worth by their place in an ordinal ranking use the idea that achieving their goals and finding the gnawing sense of worthlessness still there in their own gut as a kind of psychic bogey, something that they can use to justify stopping on their way down to dawn drills to smell flowers along the E.T.A. paths. The idea that achievement doesn’t automatically confer interior worth is, to them, still, at this age, an abstraction, rather like the prospect of their own death — ‘Caius Is Mortal’ and so on. Deep down, they all still view the competitive carrot as the grail. They’re mostly going through the motions when they invoke anhedonia. They’re mostly small children, keep in mind. Listen to any sort of sub-16 exchange you hear in the bathroom or food line: ‘Hey, there, how are you?’ ‘Number eight this week, is how I am.’ They all still worship the carrot. With the possible exception of the tormented LaMount Chu, they all still subscribe to the delusive idea that the continent’s second-ranked fourteen-year-old feels exactly twice as worthwhile as the continent’s #4.

Deluded or not, it’s still a lucky way to live. Even though it’s temporary. It may well be that the lower-ranked little kids at E.T.A. are proportionally happier than the higher-ranked kids, since we (who are mostly not small children) know it’s more invigorating to want than to have, it seems. Though maybe this is just the inverse of the same delusion.

Hal Incandenza, though he has no idea yet of why his father really put his head in a specially-dickied microwave in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, is pretty sure that it wasn’t because of standard U.S. anhedonia. Hal himself hadn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being — but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne. One of his troubles with his Moms is the fact that Avril Incandenza believes she knows him inside and out as a human being, and an internally worthy one at that, when in fact inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows. His Moms Avril hears her own echoes inside him and thinks what she hears is him, and this makes Hal feel the one thing he feels to the limit, lately: he is lonely.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïvité. Sentiment equals naïvité on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration). One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about the J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naïvité is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïvité are mutually exclusive. Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.[281]

The American Century as Seen Through a Brick‘s main and famous key-image is of a piano-string vibrating — a high D, it looks like — vibrating and making a very sweet unadorned solo sound indeed, and then a little thumb comes into the frame, a blunt moist pale and yet dingy thumb, with disreputable stuff crusted in one of the nail-corners, small and unlined, clearly an infantile thumb, and as it touches the paino string the high sweet sound immediately dies. And the silence that follows is excruciating. Later in the film, after much mordant and didactic panoramic brick-following, we’re back at the piano-string, and the thumb is removed, and the high sweet sound recommences, extremely pure and solo, and yet now somehow, as the volume increases, now with something rotten about it underneath, there’s something sick-sweet and overripe and potentially putrid about the one clear high D as its volume increases and increases, the sound getting purer and louder and more dysphoric until after a surprisingly few seconds we find ourselves right in the middle of the pure undampered sound longing and even maybe praying for the return of the natal thumb, to shut it up.

Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that this is because numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression. That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of the soul, the predator-grade depression Kate Gompert always feels as she Withdraws from secret marijuana is itself a feeling. It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain[282], a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.

The authoritative term psychotic depression makes Kate Gompert feel especially lonely. Specifically the psychotic part. Think of it this way. Two people are screaming in pain. One of them is being tortured with electric current. The other is not. The screamer who’s being tortured with electric current is not psychotic: her screams are circumstantially appropriate. The screaming person who’s not being tortured, however, is psychotic, since the outside parties making the diagnoses can see no electrodes or measurable amperage. One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. Thus the loneliness: it’s a closed circuit: the current is both applied and received from within.

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of the two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to personally be trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

But and so the idea of a person in the grip of It being bound by a ‘Suicide Contract’ some well-meaning Substance-abuse halfway house makes her sign is simply absurd. Because such a contract will constrain such a person only until the exact psychic circumstances that made the contract necessary in the first place assert themselves, invisibly and indescribably. That the well-meaning halfway-house Staff does not understand Its overriding terror will only make the depressed resident feel more alone.

One fellow psychotically depressed patient Kate Gompert came to know at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton two years ago was a man in his fifties. He was a civil engineer whose hobby was model trains — like from Lionel Trains Inc., etc. — for which he erected incredibly intricate systems of switching and track that filled his basement recreation room. His wife brought photographs of the trains and network of trellis and track into the locked ward, to help remind him. The man said he had been suffering from psychotic depression for seventeen straight years, and Kate Gompert had had no reason to disbelieve him. He was stocky and swart with thinning hair and hands that he held very still in his lap as he sat. Twenty years ago he had slipped on a patch of 3-In-1-brand oil from his model-train tracks and bonked his head on the cement floor of his basement rec room in Wellesley Hills, and when he woke up in the E.R. he was depressed beyond all human endurance, and stayed that way. He’d never once tried suicide, though he confessed that he yearned for unconsciousness without end. His wife was very devoted and loving. She went to Catholic Mass every day. She was very devout. The psychotically depressed man, too, went to daily Mass when he was not institutionalized. He prayed for relief. He still had his job and his hobby. He went to work regularly, taking medical leaves only when the invisible torment got too bad for him to trust himself, or when there was some radical new treatment the psychiatrists wanted him to try. They’d tried Tricyclics, M.A.O.I.s, insulin-comas, Selective-Serotonin-Reuptake Inhibitors[283], the new and side-effect-laden Quadracyclics. They’d scanned his lobes and affective matrices for lesions and scars. Nothing worked. Not even high-amperage E.C.T. relieved It. This happens sometimes. Some cases of depression are beyond human aid. The man’s case gave Kate Gompert the howling fantods. The idea of this man going to work and to Mass and building miniaturized railroad networks day after day after day while feeling anything like what Kate Gompert felt in that ward was simply beyond her ability to imagine. The rationo-spiritual part of her knew this man and his wife must be possessed of a courage way off any sort of known courage-chart. But in her toxified soul Kate Gompert felt only a paralyzing horror at the idea of the squat dead-eyed man laying toy track slowly and carefully in the silence of his wood-panelled rec room, the silence total except for the sounds of the track being oiled and snapped together and laid into place, the man’s head full of poison and worms and every cell in his body screaming for relief from flames no one else could help with or even feel.

The permanently psychotically depressed man was finally transferred to a place on Long Island to be evaluated for a radical new type of psychosurgery where they supposedly went in and yanked out your whole limbic system, which is the part of the brain that causes all sentiment and feeling. The man’s fondest dream was anhedonia, complete psychic numbing. I.e. death in life. The prospect of radical psychosurgery was the dangled carrot that Kate guessed still gave the man’s life enough meaning for him to hang onto the windowsill by his fingernails, which were probably black and gnarled from the flames. That and his wife: he seemed genuinely to love his wife, and she him. He went to bed every night at home holding her, weeping for it to be over, while she prayed or did that devout thing with beads.

The couple had gotten Kate Gompert’s mother’s address and had sent Kate an Xmas card the last two years, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Feaster of Wellesley Hills MA, stating that she was in her prayers and wishing her all available joy. Kate Gompert doesn’t know whether Mr. Ernest’s limbic system got yanked out or not. Whether he achieved anhedonia. The Xmas cards had had excruciating little watercolor pictures of locomotives on them. She could barely stand to think about them, even at the best of times, which the present was not.


[280] Anhedonia was apparently coined by Ribot, a Continental Frenchman, who in his 19th-century Psychologie des Sentiments says he means it to denote the psychoequivalent of analgesia, which is the neurologic supression of pain.

[281] This had been one of Hal’s deepest and most pregnant abstractions, one he’d come up with once while getting secretly high in the Pump Room. That we’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never even met? Without the universalizing abstraction, the feeling would make no sense.

[282] (the big reason why people in pain are so self-absorbed and unpleasant to be around)

[283] S.S.R.I.s, of which Zoloft and the ill-fated Prozac were the ancestors.



See also:

  • Wireheading Done Right – which steel-mans the case for philosophical and practical hedonism by outlining how to change our reward circuitry in such a way that (1) we never need to feel bad, (2) we move between different varieties of bliss depending on their functional properties, and (3) avoid becoming a pure replicator.
  • Tyranny of the Intentional Object – the stories we tell ourselves to explain every sense of pleasure and every sense of pain we feel are all, for the most part, deeply psychotic. That is, in so far as we attribute their valence to external triggers –  in truth, every feeling’s valence is the result of the fine-grained structure of the qualia that implements it. You don’t scream at a bullet ant’s sting. You scream at the deep scintillating patterns of qualia shaped by dissonance, shearing, pinching, tearing, etc. (all symmetry breaking effects) that result from the sting.
  • Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain – I like that David Foster Wallace makes a distinction between run-of-the-mill anhedonia and the Great White Shark of clinical depression. More broadly, we ought to realize that bad experiences of pain and suffering are not just a fraction worse than the rest, but they can indeed be orders of magnitude worse. On the flip-side, this is also true for positive experiences, with illustrative examples such as Buddhist Jhanas, temporal lobe epilepsy, and the lucky 5-MeO-DMT-induced state of supreme bliss.

Also relevant: David Pearce‘s Abolitionist Bioethics, Mike Johnson‘s A Future for Neuroscience, and Romeo Stevens‘ post about Core Transformation.

Finally, see Scott Alexander‘s book review of Infinite Jest.

Two Recent Presentations: (1) Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, and (2) Harmonic Society

Here are two recent talks I gave. The first one is a talk about the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences I gave at the Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club in mid-September (2019). And the second talk is about QRI‘s models of art, which took place in June (2019) at a QRI party in the Bay Area.


The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (@Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club)


Description

Andrés Gómez Emilsson from the Qualia Research Institute presents about the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences.

At a high-level, this video presents an algorithmic reduction of DMT phenomenology which imports concepts from hyperbolic geometry and dynamic systems theory in order to explain the “weirder than weird” hallucinations one can have on this drug. Andrés describes what different levels of DMT intoxication feel like in light of a model in which experience has both variable geometric curvature and information content. The benefit of this model cashes out in a novel approach to design DMT experiences in order to maximize specific desired benefits.

See original article: The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences: Symmetries, Sheets, and Saddled Scenes

And the Explain Like I’m 5 version: ELI5 “The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences”

Presentation outline:

  • Thermometers of Experience
  • The Leaf Metaphor
  • Introduction to Hyperbolic Geometry
  • DMT Levels
  • Level 1: Threshold (& Symmetry Hotel)
  • Level 2: Chrysanthemum
  • Level 3: Magic Eye (& Crystal Worlds)
  • Level 4: Waiting Room
  • Level 5: Breakthrough
  • Level 6: Amnesia
  • Energy – Complexity Landscape
  • Dynamic Systems
  • Fixed Point
  • Limit Cycles
  • Chaos
  • Noise Driven Structures
  • Turbulence
  • Conclusion
  • Super-Shulgin Academy
  • Atman Retreat
  • Wrap-Up

About the speaker: Andrés studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford (and has a masters in Computational Psychology, also from Stanford). He has professional experience in data science engineering, machine learning, and affective science. His research at the Qualia Research Institute ranges from algorithm design, to psychedelic theory, to neurotechnology development, to mapping and studying the computational properties of consciousness. Andrés blogs at qualiacomputing.com.

The Qualia Research Institute (QRI) is a non-profit based in the Bay Area close to San Francisco which seeks to discover the computational properties of experience. QRI has a “full-stack approach” to the science of consciousness which incorporates philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and neurotechnology. For more information see: qualiaresearchinstitute.org

The Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club hosts events on psychedelic research, meditation, neuroscience, students sharing their own experiences, and much more.


Credits:

– Wallpaper group 632 rotating along each symmetry element – Nick Xu

– Many of the images are by Paul Nylander: http://bugman123.com/

– The Hyperbolic Honeycomb images and 3D prints are by Henry Segerman, who also has an awesome Youtube channel where he shows 3D printed math. We used his design to print the Honeycombs we were passing around during the lecture: https://www.youtube.com/user/henryseg

– Space-Time Dynamics in Video Feedback: Jim Crutchfield, Entropy Productions, Santa Cruz (1984): https://youtu.be/B4Kn3djJMCE

Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman and Kenneth Shinozuka for helping organize this event. And thanks to David Pearce, Michael Johnson, Romeo Stevens, Quintin Frerichs, the anonymous trippers, and many others for making this work real.


And here are the slides:

 

Dynamic Systems animations:



Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia


Description

Andrés Gómez Emilsson from the Qualia Research Institute gives a presentation about how art works according to modern neuroscience and philosophy of mind.

The video discusses eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.

Abstract:

We start by assuming that there are real stakes in art. This motivates the analysis of this subject matter, and it focuses where we place our gaze. We examine a total of eight models for “what art might be about”, divided into two groups. The first group of four are some of the most compelling contemporary models, which derive their strength from fields such as philosophy of language, economics, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. These models are: (1) art as a word only definable in a family resemblance way with no necessary or sufficient features, (2) art as social signaling of desirable genetic characteristics, (3) art as Schelling point creation, and (4) art as the cultivation of sacred experiences. These four models, however enlightening, nonetheless only account for what David Marr might describe as the computational level of abstraction while leaving the algorithmic and implementation levels of abstraction unexamined. They explain what art is about in terms of why it exists and what its coarse effects are, but not the nature of its internal representations or its implementation. Hence we propose a second group of four models in order to get a “full-stack” view of art. These models are: (5) art as a tool for exploring the state-space of consciousness, (6) art as a method for changing the energy parameter of experience, (7) art as activities that induce neural annealing (which implements novel valence modulation, i.e. surprising pain/pleasure effects), and (8) art as an early prototype of a future affective language that will allow diverse states of consciousness to make sense of each other. These frameworks address how art interfaces with consciousness and how its key valuable features might be implemented neurologically. We conclude with a brief look at how embracing these new paradigms could, in principle, lead to the creation of a society free from suffering and interpersonal misunderstanding. Such a society, aka. Harmonic Society, would be designed with the effect of guaranteeing positive valence interactions using principles from a post-Galilean science of consciousness.

———————–

The 8 models of art are:

1. Art as family resemblance (Semantic Deflation)

2. Art as Signaling (Cool Kid Theory)

3. Art as Schelling-point creation (a few Hipster-theoretical considerations)

4. Art as cultivating sacred experiences (self-transcendence and highest values)

5. Art as exploring the state-space of consciousness (ϡ☀♘🏳️‍🌈♬♠ヅ)

6. Art as something that messes with the energy parameter of your mind (ꙮ)

7. Art as puzzling valence effects (emotional salience and annealing as key ingredients)

8. Art as a system of affective communication: a protolanguage to communicate information about worthwhile qualia (which culminates in Harmonic Society).


The presentation is based on an essay published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (see: Issue #6).

Article is posted online here: Models 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8.


See more about the Qualia Research Institute at: https://www.qualiaresearchinstitute.org/

Andrés blogs at Qualia Computing: Top 10 Qualia Computing Articles


Infinite bliss!!!


And here are the slides:

State of the Qualia, Fall 2019

Qualia Research Institute’s inaugural newsletter.


What is QRI trying to do?

Our long-term vision is to end suffering. To destroy hell, and to build tools for exploring all the bright futures which come after. To take the Buddha’s vision of 2600 years ago, update it with advanced theory and technology, and make it real for all creatures.

Our medium-term goal is to build a ‘full-stack’ approach to the mind and brain, centered around emotional valence. Critically, better philosophy should lead to better neuroscience, and better neuroscience should lead to better neurotechnology. We’re skeptical of any philosophical approaches that don’t try to “pay rent” by building empirically useful things.

Our short-term deliverables are to refine our tools for evaluating EEG readings of emotionally-intense states (e.g. 5-MeO-DMT), build a hardware platform for non-invasive precision brain stimulation, and release an updated version of our full-stack theory of brain dynamics (‘neural annealing’).

We think we’re on track for all of these goals. On one level this is a huge claim- but as Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.” We think we have that lever, and we’re building a place to stand.


Progress to date

Philosophy: over the course of the last few years, we’ve imported and integrated many key insights from our research lineages – in aggregate we believe these form the world’s best map of how to not get confused in navigating the formalization of consciousness. Our paradigm (laid out in Principia Qualia) builds on top of these lineages, and our core philosophical result is the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), an information-theoretic approach towards understanding how pleasant an experience is. (STV is important because it’s such a crisp and theoretically significant hypothesis: if it’s right, and we can prove it, the world will shift overnight.) We’ve also done significant philosophical research on the phenomenological nature of time, DMT states, and the logarithmic nature of pain and pleasure, to pick a few topics. Read more.

Neuroscience: Over the past two years we’ve put together a substantial push into neuroscience, which is showing increasing traction. Scott Alexander recently noticed how we actually beat Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston (the world’s most-influential neuroscientist!) to the punch with an annealing model for psychedelics; this also forms the basis for (we believe) the world’s best neuroscience paradigm for explaining the mechanisms and effects of meditation and was mentioned in Tim Ferriss’s newsletter. We’re also a center of gravity (along with Selen Atasoy, its creator) for phenomenological interpretation of the Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave (CSHW) paradigm.

Organization: This year saw QRI run a successful summer internship program in San Francisco with 3 superstar interns, Andrew and Kenneth from Harvard and Quintin from Washington University. More recently, we spent a month in Boston on a ‘work sprint’, and ended up giving 3 talks at Harvard and 1 at MIT, with plans to do more at various Ivies this fall. One of the most fun outputs of this summer was Zuck’s QRI explainer video (4.5 minutes).

I’m ridiculously proud of everything we’ve accomplished — a few years ago, QRI was mostly a promissory note that a formalist approach to consciousness could produce something interesting. Today, I can say with a straight face that QRI is one of the premier consciousness research centers in the world, releasing top-tier cross-disciplinary research every few months.


What’s next

Our current push is centered on empirically validating the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) and integrating it with our neuroscience stack. This involves releasing an updated version of our ‘neural annealing’ neuroscience paradigm, building a hardware platform for patterned stimulation, and refining our “CDNS” algorithm to work with EEG, with an eye toward using 5-MeO-DMT EEG data to evaluate STV. It looks like 2020 will be a breakout year for us.


What we need

Frankly speaking, we need your support. Building things is hard, and what we’re doing has never been done before. Our core bottlenecks are moneypeople, and executive function.

Money: so far, QRI has been mostly self-funded from the co-founders’ personal savings. I’m proud of everyone’s commitment, but this is unsustainable, especially as we attempt more ambitious projects. At this point, we have enough results to make a firm case that supporting QRI is likely to produce an awesome amount of value for the world, potentially literally the most leveraged philanthropic effort existing today. Frankly speaking the future we’re building won’t get built if we don’t secure funding, and I ask for your help and generosity. You can donate here. (Thank you to our key supporters this year! Your efforts allowed us to onboard three amazing interns and will support building things this Fall.)

People: high-quality organizations are incredibly hungry for high-quality people. QRI is no exception. If you think you have something to offer, please get in touch about collaboration, volunteering, research, and so on. Importantly, we don’t just need researchers: we’re hungry for operations people, and looking for help with getting on podcasts (speaking with Sam Harris and Joe Rogan would both be big wins!), organizing or getting speaking engagements (especially in the Bay), and even small, fun projects like making a series of QRI meme t-shirts.

Executive function: there’s a natural tension between research and organization-building. Paul Graham talks about this in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule; research needs big uninterrupted chunks of time, whereas management and outreach involves lots of small tasks. Speaking personally, I struggle with keeping up with all our inquiries while also doing ‘deep work’. I would offer three thoughts to potential volunteers:

  1. Please have patience if we don’t get back to you right away. We’re juggling as best we can!
  2. When possible, we absolutely love it when people can figure out their own way to help — I can think of few things more pleasant to see in my inbox than someone sharing a “by the way, I made this” link to e.g. a nice HTML version of Principia Qualia, an explainer video for various QRI concepts, a deep review of our experimental method, etc.
  3. One of the highest leverage ways to help is to build infrastructure for us. E.g., if you’re familiar with the main themes of our work and want to be a volunteer coordinator for us, that would be an amazing force-multiplier.

I am incredibly proud of what we’ve done so far, and incredibly excited about the future. We will need your help to build it.

All the best,

Michael Edward Johnson

Executive Director, Qualia Research Institute

Harmonic Society (4/4): Art as Valence Modulation and Future Affective Language

The following essay* was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (buy issue).

The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.

Below you will find models 7 and 8, which conclude this series of posts. (See previous models: 1 & 2, 3 & 4, and 5 & 6).


7. Valence Modulation

What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill, despair and bliss? Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s treasure, and we have it a plenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and creates a bubbling celebration of life.

It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been trampled upon since the beginning of time.
Letter From Utopia by Nick Bostrom

silva_12916345_1731904193723631_6197701101530100221_o

Photo by Andrés Silva (aka. El Capitán). Claudia Silva (in the picture).

We are now approaching the point at which we will finally start cooking with peanut oil, so to speak. We will finally start thinking about how to build extremely good art from first principles. The ‘Art as Valence Modulation’ model builds on top of the previous model where art involves messing with the brain’s energy parameter. To explain this model we need to introduce two additional concepts:

  1. Neural Annealing, and
  2. The Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV)

Neural annealing is a concept we developed at QRI to extend the entropic disintegration framework.[1] Namely, the most beneficial use of ‘energy’ is to direct it towards the brain’s natural harmonics in order to carve out the presence of a naturally blissful state in everyday life. This process works on a progression that goes like this:

  1. Energy application
  2. Entropic disintegration
  3. Search/self-reorganization
  4. Neural annealing

Together with neural annealing, STV provides an answer for why we experience intensely rewarding states of consciousness from art. Here is where some of the theories that we have been working on come into play. In particular, we hypothesize that when highly-energized states of consciousness follow an adequate cooling schedule, they can give rise to highly ordered states that are experienced as very pleasant and which can carve good attractor states into the brain in the long term. Making an analogy with metallurgy, with annealing, you can increase the regularity of the microscopic structure of metal by heating it above the recrystallization temperature and letting it cool. This results in changed material properties (such as reduced hardness and increased ductility). We hypothesize that something along these lines also takes place in brains. Neural annealing facilitates solving complex constraint satisfaction problems at the perceptual, emotional, and conceptual level. The higher energy enables quick search between possible configurations that satisfy as many constraints as possible (over- stepping the local maxima we are usually stuck within normal energy ranges), while the cooling process solidifies the best constraint satisfaction solutions. Critically, here the STV comes into play by proposing that the more regular the resulting neural structures are, the better they feel. Annealing smooths out inconsistencies and irregularities, which according to the STV are key sources of discomfort. Symmetry, in the form of smoothness and harmony, is why the process of annealing leaves you feeling great.

adrian_regnier_coming_soon

Very high-valence annealed states of mind feel cosmic and profound in significance. Images by Adrián Regnier Chávez

In this light, art with lasting desirable mood effects does not only need to increase the energy parameter, but it also needs to know how to lower it at the right schedule in order to leave people annealed to a given desirable mindset. A lot of art that successfully raises the energy parameter nonetheless does not succeed in the ecosystem of human attention, because it does not let people cool off in the right way. More so, an excessively competitive memetic landscape that incentivizes maximum surprise tends to train people to experience too much fear of missing out to let them adequately consume art at the pace needed to leave you better off emotionally. There is genuine wisdom in going to museums with one’s smartphone turned off.

Where do we draw the line between healthy recreation and distraction? Some might say that art in the form of pictures is fine, but audiovisual is too much. Some may be fine with movies but not with VR. Others would be ok with videogames but perhaps not with drugs. Others perhaps would be ok with drugs but not with genetic modification of neuronal gene expression. Some would be ok with that but not with neural dust rewiring, and so on. The format, we would argue, is not what matters. But rather, what the annealing pattern is, which is actually what makes the effects of art stick in the long run (or not).

25182111_10155726072591047_3901730907574199963_o

Image by Joseph Matthias Young. It makes me think of the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic.

This way of seeing art is highly generative. It gives us a research lead for how to construct new grandiose and highly-effective art. More so, the model can itself be developed as an aesthetic of its own. Perhaps we could call it the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic. That is, an aesthetic that rewards distilling the essential reason why any aesthetic can feel good and meaningful. In the future, we might expect to see in stores “Hedonium Magazine” – which catalogues all of the peak-valence states that can be achieved with any method whatsoever, and sees the craft of perfecting neural annealing as itself the highest form of art. Here we transcend the post-modern ethos of giving each aesthetic its place in the garden of paradoxes. Yes, give each aesthetic its place, but do not let that prevent you from building a meta- narrative that ties together and clarifies the value-add of each aesthetic. No aesthetic is above being examined in terms of how it achieves neural annealing in those who consume it.

In turn, this model gives us a new understanding of what an “aesthetic” even is. According to it, an aesthetic is a system for long-term neural annealing. A one-off weird art piece might give rise to annealing and solidify random structures in your brain. An aesthetic is more than that. It is a collection of generator seeds for art pieces that give rise to a coherent form of neural annealing that is reinforced with each piece, no matter how different they may seem from one another on the surface.

A further property of neural annealing is that it is what enables you to fully experience a self-consistent worldview as if true. This bridges the gap between meaning and pleasure, and is at the core of the connection between valence and the experience of sacredness we discussed in model 4. According to model 7, sacred experiences are the result of driving the energy parameter of the brain above the recrystallization threshold and then having it cool down as it reorganizes the elements of a given target ontology and worldview. The result is an annealed mental state optimized to represent that worldview. The sense of global consistency makes the worldview feel good and true, almost as if you were able to smell truth with it. This model would say, thus, that the core mechanism behind every kind of sacred experience is the same. Which emotions, ontologies, and worldviews get annealed is what is different depending on set, setting, and aesthetic (i.e. how the energy sources and sinks were modified). But deep down, it is successful annealing that makes sacred experiences feel so compelling and good.

8. Affective Language: Harmonic Society

An idealised full-spectrum superintelligence will indeed be capable of an impartial “view from nowhere” or God’s-eye-view of the multiverse, a mathematically complete Theory Of Everything – as does modern theoretical physics, in aspiration if not achievement. But in virtue of its God’s-eye-view, full-spectrum superintelligence must also be hypersocial and supersentient: able to understand all possible first-person perspectives, the state-space of all possible minds in other Hubble volumes, other branches of the universal wavefunction (UWF) – and in other solar systems and galaxies if such beings exist within our cosmological horizon. Idealized at least, full-spectrum superintelligence will be able to understand and weigh the significance of all possible modes of experience irrespective of whether they have hitherto been recruited for information-signalling purposes.
David Pearce, in The Biointelligence Explosion (2012)

If we succeed at developing a science of art built on top of a modern science of consciousness, what should we do with it? What would the art of a wise post-scarcity and post-suffering society look like? As far I can tell, Utopia consists of both having the system in place to keep the lights on, while being able to use the surplus energy to power blissful experiences beyond the bounds of our current conceptions.

harmonic_society

Harmonic Society by ALGE

The vision of Harmonic Society is that of a particular type of post-suffering utopia that resolves to optimize for good art. Referencing the models of art we’ve built upon so far: Harmonic Society (1) knows there are stakes in art and hence sidesteps the traps of semantic deflation, (2) avoids runaway signaling and Cool Kid gridlock, (3) utilizes Hipsters to explore promising new frontiers, (4) has mastery over a diverse range of conceptions of the sacred, (5) systematically explores the state-space of consciousness, (6) has a scientific and precise understanding of the energy parameter of experience, and (7) has deep knowledge of how to induce arbitrary types of neural annealing. In addition to all of this, Harmonic Society has (8) a map of all high-level aesthetics, knows what they are useful for, and can instantiate them at will.

In Harmonic Society there is always a way to smoothly transition between seemingly irreconcilable aesthetics. It deeply understands the pros and cons of different aesthetics and knows how to apply them optimally both for instrumental purposes and hedonic value.

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Image by Michael Aaron Coleman

Nowadays a lot of people who could benefit from, e.g. going to art festivals, taking acid, subpack cuddle parties, participating in plays (i.e. exposing themselves to high-end aesthetic experiences), find it hard to do so, because it is difficult to get back to work once the weekend is over after experiencing incredible bliss. A rough solution to avoid residual incompatibility between the state you annealed over on the weekend with the mindset you need today for work would be to develop a mood organ[2] that instantly puts you into any mindset you want. But perhaps a more elegant solution is to have such an advanced and detailed map of the state-space of mindsets that smooth, painless, and synergistic transitory states between arbitrary modes of being are discovered.

Thus, one could one minute be on a 5-MeO-DMT-type white light conscious void ultra-blissful state, the next minute be on a perfectly functional MDMA-like state useful for socializing, the minute after moving to a highly-focused nootropic-like systematizing state, and so on. The aesthetic to foster here is a meta-aesthetic of avoiding sharp discontinuities between mindsets, and allowing you to transition between all known awesome aesthetics. In Harmonic Society the entire state-space of consciousness is your oyster.

A further thought about Harmonic Society is that a sufficiently advanced understanding of aesthetic experience might even revolutionize our understanding of identity.
For instance, a non-trivial sense of personal diachronic identity could arise if everyone
starts to identify with e.g. a different person-specific song. If we truly understood how
valence works and we had full access to our neurocircuitry, we could in a way embody a
given work of art and interact with others in a way that is consistent with the artistic
degrees of freedom our identity allows. This way, people’s interactions could perhaps be guaranteed to be positive. The combinatorial space of possible back-and-forth interactions does not need to be small, since high-energy allows for incredibly varied states. But nonetheless we could get to a point of understanding how valence works such that we could provably demonstrate that two persons with the right neural implementations will always have positive-sum interactions no matter what.

Open_Closed_Empty_Ring

Identity in Harmonic Society: The aesthetic of understanding the valence of every possible state of consciousness and how to translate what matters between them. (Picture: Symbol of Open, Empty, Closed Individualism from Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029, Continuity Camp)

Conclusion

As the guiding premise of this essay we started out assuming that there are real and substantial stakes in art. It sure is all fun and games to think that anything goes in art until your landscape of cultural meaning is polluted with replicator strategies and attention-zapping exploits that lead to long-term neuropsychological problems and anneal false and neurotic metaphysics. Understanding art matters.

I would make the claim that a new science of valence, i.e. a new science of pleasure, pain, love, hate, and indeed transcendent bliss, can be a new rallying flag for cultural value. Rather than the messy consilience patchwork between different aesthetics we have today, we might in the future indeed find a true and real grounding for the meaning of beauty and bliss. Contrary to the conservative spirit often associated with calls to reinvigorate an objective sense of beauty, here we arrive at a theory of art that would very well appreciate experiences as outlandish as DMT breakthroughs. This theory of art appreciates such states not “just as much” as fine art, but indeed as far more valuable and implicated in what matters than most of everyday life. For art, meditation, psychedelics, and philosophy all share the fact that they are messing with the energy parameter of experience in powerful ways that can be used to achieve much better and globally-consistent brain states. Understanding that the effects of art can be very strong and life-changing is one thing, but knowing the mechanism of action behind those changes comes with entirely new possibilities and responsibilities. We invite you to consider what this entails, and to join us in envisioning a future Harmonic Society constructed with full knowledge of neural annealing.


[1] It is worth mentioning that Steven Lehar used annealing to describe the subjective progression of his ketamine experiences in his book The Grand Illusion: A Psychonautical Odyssey Into the Depths of Human Experience. [October 2019 – Edit: Carhart-Harris and Friston wrote a paper together in which they discussed annealing in the context of psychedelic research (see summary). The paper was published in July, two months after I submitted this essay to Art Against Art in May of 2019. We are delighted to see independent convergence on this concept and its importance.]

[2] The Penfield Mood Organ is a technology described in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick that allows the user to instantly tune into any of hundreds of possible moods via direct cerebral stimulation. Some example moods include “3. The desire to dial other moods”, “481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future”, “594. Pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters”, and “888. The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”.



Glossary

Cool Kids: Someone who is well-rounded and uses strategic mediocrity in order to entice people to show their peacock feathers. At its extreme, Cool Kids become the leaders of artistic gangs who corner the marketplace of aesthetic attention.

Hipster: Someone who enjoys art and media that seems too obscure to care about. Typically, the preferred aesthetics of a Hipster are highly detailed and focus on specific favored attributes at the expense of well-roundedness. A Hipster does not only have opinions about what is enjoyable, but also about how to enjoy it and why.

Nerd: Someone who wants to figure out what is true, especially as it applies to technical and formal systems. A philosophy nerd, for instance, compulsively tries to figure out ultimate truth.

Minimax art strategies: A strategy for making art that tries to be the best on a narrow set of attributes while neglecting well-roundedness. This is sometimes adaptive and some- times maladaptive.

L1/L2 normalization: Using mean absolute error (L1) favors minimax strategies vs. using mean squared error (L2) which favors well-rounded strategies.



Special thanks to: Michael Johnson, Romeo Stevens, Liam Brereton, Duncan Wilson, Victor Ochikubo, and David Pearce for their thoughts and feedback.



* The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

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Borges, J. L. (1944). The Library of Babel (La Biblioteca de Babel), Buenos Aires: Editorial Sur
SleepyE. (2016). DMT Trip: Jester Entity Occurrence From Viewer. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmVA1755ffM
Gómez Emilsson, A. Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2). (2019, April 9). Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Qualia Computing website: https://qualiacomputing.com/2019/04/08/burning-man-theme-camps- of-the-year-2029-from-replicator-to-rainbow-god-2-2/
Johnson, M. (2018). The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models | Opentheory.net. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from website: https://opentheory.net/2018/12/the-neuroscience-of-meditation/
Johnson, M., (2016). Principia Qualia: Blueprint for a new science v1. Retrieved from http://opentheory.net/PrincipiaQualia.pdf
Friston, K. (2010). The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(2), 127–138. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2787
Schmidhuber, J. (2009) Simple Algorithmic Theory of Subjective Beauty, Novelty, Surprise, Interestingness, Attention, Curiosity, Creativity, Art, Science, Music, Jokes. Journal of SICE 48(1), 21-32
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Leech, R., Hellyer, P. J., Shanahan, M., Feilding, A., Tagliazucchi, E., … Nutt, D. (2014). The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020
Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Kringelbach, M. L., Deco, G., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0
Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I., & Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nature Communications, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10340
Kanungo, R., & Lambert, W. E. (1963). Semantic satiation and meaningfulness. The American Journal of Psychology, 76(3), 421-428.
Gómez Emilsson, A., (2016). The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences: Symmetries, Sheets, and Saddled Scenes. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Qualia Com- puting website: https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/12/12/the-hyperbolic-geometry-of-dmt-experiences/
Bostrom, N. (2008). Letter from Utopia. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.2202/1941-6008.1025
Dick, P. K. (1968), Do androids dream of electric sheep? Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday Pearce, D.(1995) The Hedonistic Imperative. Retrieved May 16 2019 from: https://www.hedweb.com/hedab.htm
Lehar, S., (2010) The Grand Illusion: A psychonautical odyssey into the depths of human experience, Retrieved May 26 2019 from: http://cns-alumni.bu.edu/~slehar/GrandIllusion.pdf
Simler, K. (2014). Ads Don’t Work That Way | Melting Asphalt. [online] Available at: https://meltingasphalt.com/ads-dont-work-that-way/ [Accessed 16 May 2019]. Pearce, D. Supersentience. (2012). Retrieved May 16, 2019, from Biointelligence-explosion.com website: https://www.biointelligence-explosion.com/parable.html
Kent, J. L. (2010). Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, Chapter 05, ‘The Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action’. PIT Press, Seattle.

Harmonic Society (3/4): Art as State-Space Exploration and Energy Parameter Modulation

The following essay* was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue). Below you will find models 5 and 6 (out of 8), which are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute. (See models 1 & 2, and 3 & 4).

I will wrap up this series next week with something many readers would know to expect – an explanation for how art is connected to valence. Stay tuned!


5. State-Space Exploration

The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.
Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.
– Ken Mogi in The Qualia Manifesto (1998)

Is there anything beyond the sacred? Yes. This model of art posits that one key feature of art is the pursuit of novel experiences that challenge preconceptions of what is possible to experience. The state-space[1] of possible experiences is unfathomably vast, and mundane everyday human experiences are restricted to a tiny corner of this enormous behemoth. As they say, “you won’t know if you like it until you try it”. Applying that logic to the exploration of the state-space of consciousness would encourage us to open our horizons and become receptive to the possibility that there are true gems of experience waiting to be found in exotic regions of this space.

Now, it is easy for some people to fetishize the exotic for novelty’s sake. But contrary to popular belief, novelty is not intrinsically valuable. Taking into account previous discussions (especially models 2 and 3 above), we can interpret artistic explorations that push the boundary of our knowledge about what can be experienced as a sophisticated form of signaling genetic fitness. In particular, mastery over novel modes of experience shows that you have the mental and physical power to devote copious amounts of resources to exploration, for only one in a thousand attempts at discovering something new results in something that other people can appreciate. It is thus the case that a lot of novelty creation is aimed at courtship rather than being driven by a genuine passion for knowledge.

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Left style source: Adrián Regnier Chávez. Right style source: Carpet by ALGE

That said, what is out there hidden in the state-space of consciousness beggars belief. Anyone who is exploring that vast space in an intelligent way will sooner or later find incredible things. But how do we explore this space intelligently? A systematic exploration of possible images, for instance, could involve taking a picture and changing one pixel at a time. But as we all know, the Library of Babel is almost completely devoid of meaningful books. At least relative to its size. A much better way of exploring the space (inspired by Steerable Pyramid and Deep Dream-type algorithms) would be to sample possible images with an intelligent method, such as training generative neural networks on previous works of art, and then asking them to hallucinate possible images while constraining the neural layers you identify with the aesthetic quality of the images. Style transfer techniques and similar methods can result in images sampled from a given aesthetic, rather than from e.g. a particular low-level feature set (e.g. a type of edges) or a set of high-level semantic content (e.g. cars, people, dogs, etc.).

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Left style source: blue balloons in a living room. Right style source: collection of blankets by ALGE

Exploring the space of possible images is an extremely small sub-problem of exploring the state-space of consciousness. But I think the analogy is useful as a general idea. Now, how vast is the state-space of consciousness? Well, it tends to be larger than you think, even when you take that fact into account. I will coin that fact as Gomez-Emilsson’s Law. Every time you think you know how vast the state-space of consciousness is, you will be surprised to find out you are wrong if you choose to dig deeper.

Consider what happens when someone takes LSD. Most people expect that they will simply get to experience new sensations like brighter colors, tracers, or synesthesia. This is true to a point, for light doses. But on medium doses, in addition to exploring the state-space of sensory configurations, one also experiences new aesthetics, which this model would define as ways of organizing a lot of sensations in ways that feel right. More so, an aesthetic is also a way of delivering uninhibited sensations in a way that feels good at the level of the whole experience, from moment to moment. Most people have no clue that there is a vast space of possibilities here.

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Illustrates “state-space of beach rocks” by unknown artist at Sombrio Beach in Vancouver. Photo: Julia Pope

On higher doses, people are surprised to find an even more general way of exploring the state-space of consciousness. Namely, one instantiates alternate games. The DMT “vibe” that people report can be thought of as more than a “context switch”. It is, rather, a more radical change that we could describe as a “game switch”. The “Jester” that people talk about regarding DMT experiences is an archetype that the mind uses to signal the “rule violation” quality of the state. There is so much going on that one’s experience splits into multiple games at once trying to find some common ground, and this feeling of game-incompatibility feels very alien. A sort of anti-virus system in the mind is triggered at that point, and labels the inconsistency with a feeling of weirdness so that you know not to update your actions based on the (currently globally inconsistent) experience of multiple superimposed games. Rule violation through fast changes in implicit games of social status causes you to interpret what is going on as having extreme stakes. Interacting with DMT Aliens, Gods, Elves, etc. feels like the upper limit of potential social status transfer that your world simulation affords (like meeting a president or a king). The state-space of consciousness contains all of these alternate games and metagames, and we have not even begun to catalogue them. This is all to say: seen in this light, the era of art has just begun.

Like the previous models, this one also gives rise to an aesthetic of its own. I call this the aesthetic of “Rainbow God”. This is the meta-belief that we gain value by understanding and experiencing extremely novel states of consciousness. Ultimate bliss, according to this aesthetic, is not a bland monotone state, but rather, is a state that incorporates within it an extraordinary variety of types of qualia. Posthuman aesthetics will not only show up in the form of intense feelings, but also in the form of extremely “rainbow-ey” experiences. The concept of a full-spectrum intelligence (an intelligence capable of instantiating any qualia at will) plays an important role in this aesthetic. Thus, the full-spectrum artists of the future will have access to a qualia pallet in an experience editor[2] that includes human qualia like sight, touch, scent, emotions, thought-episodes, etc. It will also include qualia only found in insects, fish, mollusks, people tripping, people having seizures, novel neurocircuitry, etc. The asymptote of incorporating all possible varieties of qualia into a single experience is the final realization of Rainbow God, the ultimate state of knowledge and beauty according to this aesthetic.

6. Energy Parameter Modulation

SeifertSurfaces

Seifert Surfaces by Paul Nylander

People say they have weird and novel experiences with art, but by a large margin, the novelty itself is not the focus of what matters in people’s reports. Rather, people especially talk about having experiences that are not only novel and unusual, but also characterized by heightened states of consciousness. For example, when people “get art” they report being inspired, amazed, surprised, enthralled, or even shocked. These states seem to have in common a quality of high-energy in one form or another. Although possible, it is rare to talk about art as purposefully sedating, boring, anesthetizing, or numbing. That’s the exception. In general, art as diverse as Japanoise and Jodorowsky have in common the quality of heightening, and not only changing, one’s state.

At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI) we take very seriously the notion that experience has an energy parameter. In psychology-speak, nearby concepts include emotional arousal and activation level, though these tend to have more physiological than phenomenological connotations. In contrast, we hold that you can indeed experience very high levels of conscious energy without at the same time experiencing the physiological responses that are usually associated with high arousal (such as high heart-rate, high breath-rate, high blood pressure, sweating, etc.). Likewise, it is not the case that only traditionally high-arousal emotions (such as being excited, thrilled, fearful, anxious, etc.) come in high-energy forms. Indeed, it is possible to experience states of relaxation, serenity, equanimity, and peacefulness in extremely energetic forms(!), as happens in the concentration-based altered states of consciousness called “Jhanas” in the Buddhist tradition.

Here it is relevant for me to bring up the fact that my colleague Mike Johnson recently wrote about the neuroscience of meditation. He discussed how to make sense of the acute and long-term effects of meditation through the lens of modern neuroscience paradigms, and then found a way to tie them together into an overarching theory. For the sake of brevity I will schematically outline some of the key features of the paradigms he integrated:

  1. Free Energy Principle (Karl Friston, 2010):
    1. The brain is trying to minimize expected future surprise by building high-level models of sensory input
    2. When a model says that the input is very unlikely, our brain propagates an error signal in the form of excess energy
    3. This energy motivates the search for a better model, for which the previously surprising input is now expected
  2. Entropic Disintegration (Robin Carhart Harris, 2014):
    1. Psychedelics elevate the “neural temperature” of the brain, meaning that they increase the entropy/disorder present in neural circuits
    2. One’s everyday mode of consciousness relies on learned neural patterns solidified over years, which at times can be chronically maladaptive
    3. By “raising the temperature” of our neural circuits, maladaptive neural circuits, especially “egoic structures” in the default-mode network (DMN), disintegrate
    4. This enables you to “start from scratch” and form new, more adaptive, neural patterns
  3. Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves (Selen Atasoy, 2016):
    1. Physical systems with excitation-inhibition wavefronts have harmonic modes
    2. By mapping out the connectome of a brain (white and grey matter tracks) and using empirically-derived excitation-inhibition differential equations of neural activity, one can infer the electromagnetic resonant modes of a given brain
    3. Using this technique, it was found empirically that psychedelics increase the amplitude of connectome-specific harmonic waves across the spectrum, and in particular, the amplitude delta is higher on the upper ranges of the spectrum

Tying together these frameworks we see that (a) the brain responds to surprise in an excitatory way which gives rise to a process of search for better models, (b) there is a sense of neural energy for which increasing it gives rise to the disintegration of pre-existing patterns, and (c) there is a sense of actually physical energy in the brain tied together with its resonant modes, which are variable depending on one’s state of consciousness. To bring all of these frameworks together, we can interpret them in terms of energy sources and energy sinks:

  1. Energy Sources: surprises, sensory stimulation
  2. Energy Sinks: passage of time (decay factor), semantic content (crystallization around explanatory representations), pre-existing attitudes

At a high-level, we could describe the relevance of these frameworks for art as follows: For art to energize you it needs to either reduce the influence of energy sinks and/or increase the amount of energy from energy sources.

The numerous tricks of the craft of different kinds of art can be reinterpreted in this framework. For example, a lot of artistic advice for a broad audience focuses on making sure that there is a twist you are introducing in an otherwise familiar space. Even subtle surprises (colors being out of place, unusual garments, implausible actions, perspective mixups, etc.) will propagate a prediction error and heighten the energy available in one’s state. This will make you experience the rest of the piece in a more energized and impactful form. Now, to sustain the heightened energy parameter, it is important to avoid making it easy for the brain to redirect the energy to a large energy sink. If the perceptual mistake one makes is one you are familiar with and have experienced before, you might end up diverting the newly available energy towards reinforcing an attitude you developed about that perceptual mistake (e.g. word tricks could trigger anxiety about not being a good reader rather than helping you stay in an energized state).

This paradigm also puts in a different light, and makes sense of, the criticisms often raised against pieces perceived as Kitsch, Camp, and Cliché, or other aesthetics centered around the over-use of a given artistic trick. Art can fail to sufficiently energize your state by failing to introduce a large enough surprise. If you can immediately grasp the full scope of the novelty introduced by a given piece (even if you are misapprehending the input!) you can quickly categorize your experience into a pre-existing bucket and skip the intended energized state. This functions as an energy sink, and hence you fail to stay energized.

This is just a piece of the full story here, for energy sinks are not completely reliable. There is a phenomenon called semantic satiation, where a pattern of rapid and regular repetition of words, images, and concepts makes them feel meaningless. So even the most cliché of art can indeed get the job done of energizing your state of consciousness, by presenting many versions of the same thing in flashes at a sufficiently high rate (I’m not saying this is necessarily pleasant, but it might be effective!). On the flip side, if what you are after is the maximization of a particular meaning in e.g. a commercial, you will find there is a Goldilocks Zone for the number of times you should present the core concept/image to the audience; too few and the meaning will be weak, too many and you’ll trigger semantic satiation by overwhelming the energy sinks of the audience.

Schematically, there are three broad ways of inhibiting energy sinks to allow the buildup of what we call “semantically neutral energy”. You can:

  1. Disable,
  2. Overwhelm, or
  3. Avoid them

Let me elaborate. First, you can disable energy sinks by switching to unfamiliar contexts (e.g. it is harder worrying about work while on a screen-free beach, at a museum… or at Burning Man). Also, disabling energy sinks can happen in states of exhaustion, fasting, intoxication, or other states of mind that impair some of the normal functions of the brain. Second, as we saw, semantic satiation would be an example of overwhelming energy sinks, but there are many other ways of doing so, such as increasing the intensity of input above a certain threshold. And third, avoiding energy sinks involves things like setting the intention to focus your attention on a meditation object and refocus on it every time you get distracted. Alternatively, one can load a given energy sink with negative implications and learn to avoid it via negative feedback (e.g. when a standard interpretive framework is frowned upon by a social group).

Most drugs and activities could be described in terms of their characteristic effect on energy sources and sinks.[3] But only some of these drugs and activities are “broadband energy enhancers”, in the sense that the energy they give rise to is transferable to a broad range of mental and physical activities. This is what sets meditation, trance-inducing music/dancing, psychedelics, philosophy, and art apart from other energizing activities. Those methods in particular allow energized states to be sustained for long periods of time, and they give rise to novel sensations exclusive to the high-energy regions of the state-space of consciousness.

A note on psychedelics here is in order. There is indeed something very peculiar that psychedelics do to the energy sources that to my knowledge is not done by the other broad-band energy enhancers. Psychedelics make energy sources echo! They change the neuroacoustics of the brain, which favors temporally repeating patterns in a delayed-echo fashion along with a slower decay function for experience over time.[4] Thus, visual tracers and the amplification of music appreciation during a psychedelic trip are both expressions of the same underlying principle: the brain is more resonant. The fact that this effect is distinct from what art, meditation, philosophy, or strobes have to offer makes psychedelics synergistic and complementary with the other methods. After all, it is hard to ignore the gazillion subjective reports of enhanced aesthetic appreciation experienced on even small doses of psychedelics.

For the above reasons, I think this model has a lot of explanatory power. To recap, this model of art says that increasing the energy parameter of one’s consciousness is the success condition of art. It explains the repeating trance-inducing quality of music, the need for balance between predictability and surprise, common craft advice, and the existence of higher aesthetics. In turn, this model implies that art can be done in a wrong way. Art that is uninspiring, insipid, unexciting, irrelevant, etc. could be understood as art that fails to raise the energy parameter of those who experience it. And indeed, the higher the form of the art, the more it allows for the buildup of semantically-neutral energy.



[1] The term “state-space” refers to a very general concept that identifies the set of all possible configurations of a given system (of equations, machines, experiences, etc.) and the ways in which these configurations can transition from to another.

[2] As a proof of concept: According to cognitive scientist Steven Lehar, combining LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination”, which is a state of mind where one gains the ability to edit the contents of one’s experience at will (“You can say ‘give me a table’ and a table will appear right in front of you as real as a solid table”).

[3] For example, anti-psychotic drugs are broad-band energy sink enhancers, psychedelics are broad-band energy source enhancers, classic stimulants (such as amphetamines) are narrow-band energy source enhancers, classical depressants (such as benzodiazepines) are narrow-band energy sink enhancers.

[4] In one account proposed by “Psychedelic Information Theory” (James Kent), psychedelics achieve the tracing/echo effect by disabling an energy sink. The control interrupt model of psychedelic action says that there are natural inhibitory processes that prevent features of our current experience from building up over time. Psychedelics are thought to chemically interrupt inhibitory control signals from the cortex, which are constantly preventing the build-up of qualia. In this account, what you are paying attention to is in fact the part of the sensory input that is being inhibited the least. Interrupting the inhibitory “control signal” gives rise to echoes of previous states across the board that you intrinsically attend to whether you like it or not.


Featured image credit: Seifert Surfaces by Paul Nylander

* Originally titled: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

Carhart-Harris & Friston 2019 – REBUS and the Anarchic Brain

Reposted from Enthea with permission from the writer: 


Drs. Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston recently published a beautiful paper – REBUS and the Anarchic Brain (a).

It’s great for two reasons:

  1. It presents a plausible unified theory of how psychedelics work.
  2. It’s a wonderful jumping-off point into the literature. Every paragraph is full of pointers to research that’s come out in the last 5 years, and boy are there a lot of rabbit holes to go down – it’s filled out my reading list for the next several months.

Carhart-Harris is the director of Imperial College London’s newly minted Centre for Psychedelic Research; Friston is a famous neuroscientist.

REBUS is a (somewhat dubious) acronym for RElaxed Beliefs Under pSychedelics. The basic idea: psychedelics reduce the weight of held beliefs and increase the weight of incoming sensory input, allowing the beliefs to be more readily changed by the new sensory information.

REBUS pulls together Carhart-Harris’ Entropic Brain theory and Friston’s Free Energy Principle, both of which relate to the hierarchical predictive coding model of cognition. There’s a lot of jargon & nuance here, but the essential idea of hierarchical predictive coding is pretty straightforward:

  • The brain generates mental models that predict upcoming sensory inputs. (The predictions are called “priors,” as in “prior beliefs.”)
  • These predictive models are layered on top of each other in a hierarchy – the higher levels send predictions down the hierarchy; the lower levels report sense data upwards.
  • In cases where the model’s top-down predictions do not match the bottom-up sensory input, the model either (a) updates its priors based on the new sense data, or (b) ignores the sense data and maintains its priors.

(Scott Alexander’s review of Surfing Uncertainty has a lot more on predictive coding.)

Carhart-Harris & Friston theorize that the main thing psychedelics are doing is relaxing the weight of the brain’s top-down prediction-making (“REBUS”) and increasing the weight of the bottom-up sense information (“the Anarchic Brain”). This allows bottom-up information to have more influence on our conscious experience, and also on the configuration of the hierarchy overall.

Carhart-Harris & Friston analogize this process to annealing – heating up a metal dissolves its crystalline structure, then a new structure recrystallizes as the metal cools:

The hypothesized flattening of the brain’s (variational free) energy landscape under psychedelics can be seen as analogous to the phenomenon of simulated annealing in computer science – which itself is analogous to annealing in metallurgy, whereby a system is heated (i.e., instantiated by increased neural excitability), such that it attains a state of heightened plasticity, in which the discovery of new energy minima (relatively stable places/trajectories for the system to visit/reside in for a period of time) is accelerated (Wang and Smith, 1998).

Subsequently, as the drug is metabolized and the system cools, its dynamics begin to stabilize – and attractor basins begin to steepen again (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017). This process may result in the emergence of a new energy landscape with revised properties.

Psychedelics “heat up” the brain, increasing plasticity and weakening the influence of prior beliefs. As the psychedelic stops being active, the brain “cools” – the hierarchy re-forms, though perhaps in a different configuration than the pre-psychedelic configuration.

This explains how psychedelic trips can cause changes that last long after the substance has exited the body – in those cases, the psychedelic facilitated a change in the organization of the brain’s cognitive hierarchy.

Psychedelic therapy is showing promise for mental disorders associated with too-rigid thought patterns – depression, anxiety, addictions, maybe OCD, maybe eating disorders. In predictive-coding lingo, “disorders that may rest on particularly rigid high-level priors that dominate cognition.”

In these disorders, new information can’t revise the existing story of how things are, because strong priors suppress the new info before it can update anything.

The REBUS model straightforwardly explains how psychedelics help with disorder like this – by relaxing the strong top-down priors and boosting the bottom-up inputs, bottom-up inputs have more ability to effect the system. Here’s an illustration from the paper:

rebus-schema

The top sketch is a brain where strong top-down priors dominate. New sensory inputs are suppressed and can’t update the hierarchy. The bottom sketch is the same brain while on a psychedelic – the top-down priors have been relaxed and bottom-up sensory information flows more freely through the system, causing a bigger impact.

Okay, nice theory, but can we observe this in the brain? Is there any evidence for it?

Carhart-Harris & Friston place the default mode network at top of the brain’s predictive hierarchy. The default mode network is the network of brain regions that’s most active when the brain isn’t engaged with any specific task. It also appears to be the seat of one’s sense of self. The default mode network is intensely relaxed by strong psychedelic experiences – this is subjectively felt as ego dissolution, and allows for the propagation of bottom-up sense data (which are also boosted by psychedelics).

Carhart-Harris & Friston identify two mechanisms by which psychedelics may relax the default mode network – activation of 5-HT2AR serotonin receptors (there are lots of these receptors in the default mode network), and disruption of α and βwave patterns, which seem to propagate top-down expectations through the brain (and are correlated with default mode network activity).

In addition to the brain-scan-style evidence they cite throughout the paper, Carhart-Harris & Friston dedicate a long section to behavioral evidence (“Behavioral Evidence of Relaxed Priors under Psychedelics”). Briefly, there are several studies showing that surprise & consistency-making responses to sensory stimuli are reduced while on psychedelics, which is what we’d expect if the influence of top-down priors was lessened.

To sum up, REBUS and the Anarchic Brain places psychedelics in a predictive coding framework to give a unified theory of what psychedelics do – they decrease the influence of top-down prediction-making and increase the influence of bottom-up sense data. The theory has the nice quality of tying many disparate psychedelic phenomena together with an underlying explanation of what’s going on. Plus, it gives a brain-based explanation for why psychedelic therapy is helpful for disorders like depression, anxiety, and addiction.



See also: Mike Johnson’s pieces A Future for Neuroscience and The Neuroscience of Meditation which summarize a lot of the research by the Qualia Research Institute (QRI) on this topic. In particular, much like this paper by Carhart-Harris and Friston, at QRI we’ve been working on integrating the neuroscientific paradigms of Entropic Brain, Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves, Predictive Coding, and our own contribution of Neural Annealing into a unified theory of psychedelic action for a number of years.

Our first mention of Neural Annealing in relation to psychedelics was in Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States in 2016, and we are pleased to see that the concept is becoming a live idea in academic neuroscience in 2019.*

From our point of view, an extremely promising area of research that mainstream neuroscience has yet to explore is the Symmetry Theory of Valence. In particular, we claim that the very reason why Neural Annealing improves not only global control, belief, and behavioral consistency, but also mood and sense of wellbeing is because it smooths and symmetrifies your neural patterns of activation. Will this turn out to become part of mainstream neuroscience in the future? Well, since QRI was calling Neural Annealing years in advance, perhaps in retrospect you’ll also see that we were on the money when it came to the mathematics of valence. Only time (and funding) will tell.


*It should be noted that unbeknownst to us Steven Lehar might be the first person to discuss neural annealing in the context of psychedelic states of consciousness. In his 2010 book “The Grand Illusion” he talks about annealing on LSD and ketamine. Here are some key articles about it: Free-Wheeling Hallucinations, The Resonance and Vibration of [Phenomenal] Objects, The Phenomenal Character of LSD + MDMA, and From Point-of-View Fragmentation to Global Visual Coherence: Harmony, Symmetry, and Resonance on LSD.


Featured image credit: Michael Aaron Coleman

Does Full-Spectrum Superintelligence Entail Benevolence?

Excerpt from: The Biointelligence Explosion by David Pearce


The God-like perspective-taking faculty of a full-spectrum superintelligence doesn’t entail distinctively human-friendliness any more than a God-like superintelligence could promote distinctively Aryan-friendliness. Indeed it’s unclear how benevolent superintelligence could want omnivorous killer apes in our current guise to walk the Earth in any shape or form. But is there any connection at all between benevolence and intelligence? Pre-reflectively, benevolence and intelligence are orthogonal concepts. There’s nothing obviously incoherent about a malevolent God or a malevolent – or at least a callously indifferent – Superintelligence. Thus a sceptic might argue that there is no link whatsoever between benevolence – on the face of it a mere personality variable – and enhanced intellect. After all, some sociopaths score highly on our [autistic, mind-blind] IQ tests. Sociopaths know that their victims suffer. They just don’t care.

However, what’s critical in evaluating cognitive ability is a criterion of representational adequacy. Representation is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon; it varies in functional degree. More specifically here, the cognitive capacity to represent the formal properties of mind differs from the cognitive capacity to represent the subjective properties of mind. Thus a notional zombie Hyper-Autist robot running a symbolic AI program on an ultrapowerful digital computer with a classical von Neumann architecture may be beneficent or maleficent in its behaviour toward sentient beings. By its very nature, it can’t know or care. Most starkly, the zombie Hyper-Autist might be programmed to convert the world’s matter and energy into heavenly “utilitronium” or diabolical “dolorium” without the slightest insight into the significance of what it was doing. This kind of scenario is at least a notional risk of creating insentient Hyper-Autists endowed with mere formal utility functions rather than hyper-sentient full-spectrum superintelligence. By contrast, full-spectrum superintelligence does care in virtue of its full-spectrum representational capacities – a bias-free generalisation of the superior perspective-taking, “mind-reading” capabilities that enabled humans to become the cognitively dominant species on the planet. Full-spectrum superintelligence, if equipped with the posthuman cognitive generalisation of mirror-touch synaesthesia, understands your thoughts, your feelings and your egocentric perspective better than you do yourself.

Could there arise “evil” mirror-touch synaesthetes? In one sense, no. You can’t go around wantonly hurting other sentient beings if you feel their pain as your own. Full-spectrum intelligence is friendly intelligence. But in another sense yes, insofar as primitive mirror-touch synaesthetes are prey to species-specific cognitive limitations that prevent them acting rationally to maximise the well-being of all sentience. Full-spectrum superintelligences would lack those computational limitations in virtue of their full cognitive competence in understanding both the subjective and the formal properties of mind. Perhaps full-spectrum superintelligences might optimise your matter and energy into a blissful smart angel; but they couldn’t wantonly hurt you, whether by neglect or design.

More practically today, a cognitively superior analogue of natural mirror-touch synaesthesia should soon be feasible with reciprocal neuroscanning technology – a kind of naturalised telepathy. At first blush, mutual telepathic understanding sounds a panacea for ignorance and egotism alike. An exponential growth of shared telepathic understanding might safeguard against global catastrophe born of mutual incomprehension and WMD. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Maybe so. The problem here, as advocates of Radical Honesty soon discover, is that many Darwinian thoughts scarcely promote friendliness if shared: they are often ill-natured, unedifying and unsuitable for public consumption. Thus unless perpetually “loved-up” on MDMA or its long-acting equivalents, most of us would find mutual mind-reading a traumatic ordeal. Human society and most personal relationships would collapse in acrimony rather than blossom. Either way, our human incapacity fully to understand the first-person point of view of other sentient beings isn’t just a moral failing or a personality variable; it’s an epistemic limitation, an intellectual failure to grasp an objective feature of the natural world. Even “normal” people share with sociopaths this fitness-enhancing cognitive deficit. By posthuman criteria, perhaps we’re all quasi-sociopaths. The egocentric delusion (i.e. that the world centres on one’s existence) is genetically adaptive and strongly selected for over hundreds of millions of years. Fortunately, it’s a cognitive failing amenable to technical fixes and eventually a cure: full-spectrum superintelligence. The devil is in the details, or rather the genetic source code.


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