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.
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.)
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 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.
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, 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, 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.
 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.
 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.
 (the big reason why people in pain are so self-absorbed and unpleasant to be around)
 S.S.R.I.s, of which Zoloft and the ill-fated Prozac were the ancestors.
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.
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)
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.
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.
– Wallpaper group 632 rotating along each symmetry element – Nick Xu
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.
Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 money, people, 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:
Please have patience if we don’t get back to you right away. We’re juggling as best we can!
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.
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.
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
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:
Neural annealing is a concept we developed at QRI to extend the entropic disintegration framework. 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:
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.
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).
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 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.
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 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.
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)
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.
 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”.
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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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)
Glass Pavilion by Nick Xu
Glass Pavilion by Nick Xu
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 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.
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.).
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.
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 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.
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:
Free Energy Principle (Karl Friston, 2010):
The brain is trying to minimize expected future surprise by building high-level models of sensory input
When a model says that the input is very unlikely, our brain propagates an error signal in the form of excess energy
This energy motivates the search for a better model, for which the previously surprising input is now expected
Physical systems with excitation-inhibition wavefronts have harmonic modes
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
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:
Energy Sources: surprises, sensory stimulation
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:
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. 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.
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
DMT-like phenomenal objects – high energy configurations of phenomenal space. Images by Paul Nylander (http://bugman123.com/)
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. 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.
 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.
 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”).
 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.
 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.
It presents a plausible unified theory of how psychedelics work.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
This is a glossary of key terms and concept handles that are part of the memetic ecosystem of the Qualia Research Institute. Reading this glossary is itself a great way to become acquainted with this emerging memeplex. If you do not know what a memeplex is… you can find its definition in this glossary.
Consciousness (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): There are over a dozen common uses for the word consciousness, and all of them are interesting. Common senses include: self-awareness, linguistic cognition, and the ability to navigate one’s environment. With that said, the sense of the word in the context of QRI is more often than not: the very fact of experience, that experience exists and there is something that it feels like to be. Talking loosely and evocatively- rather than formally and precisely- consciousness refers to “what experience is made of”. Of course formalizing that statement requires a lot of unpacking about the nature of matter, time, selfhood, and so on. But this is a start.
Qualia (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): This word refers to the range of ways in which experience presents itself. Experiences can be richly colored or bare and monochromatic, they can be spatial and kinesthetic or devoid of geometry and directions, they can be flavorfully blended or felt as coming from mutually unintelligible dimensions, and so on. Classic qualia examples include things like the redness of red, the tartness of lime, and the glow of bodily warmth. However, qualia extends into categories far beyond the classic examples, beyond the wildest of our common-sense conceptions. There are modes of experience as altogether different from everything we have ever experienced as vision qualia is different from sound qualia.
Valence / Hedonic Tone (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): How good or bad an experience feels – each experience expresses a balance between positive, neutral, and negative notes. The aspect of experience that accounts for its pleasant and unpleasant qualities. The term is evocative of pleasant sensations such as warming up one’s body when cold with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. That said, hedonic tone refers to a much broader class of sensations than just the feeling of warmth. For example, the music appreciation enhancement produced by drugs can be described as “enhanced hedonic tone in sound qualia”. Hedonic tone can appear in any sensory modality (touch, smell, sight, etc.), and even more generally, in every facet of experience (such as cognitive and proprioceptive elements, themselves capable of coming with their own flavor of euphoria/dysphoria). Experiences with both negative and positive notes are called “mixed”, which are the most common ones.
Ontology (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): At the most basic level, an ontology is an account of what is real and what is good.
Epistemology (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The set of strategies, heuristics, and methods for knowing. In the context of consciousness research, what constitutes a good epistemology is a highly contentious subject. Some scientists argue that we should only take into account objectively-measurable third-person data in order to build models and postulate theories about consciousness (cf. heterophenomenology). On the other extreme, some argue that the only information that counts is first-person experiences and what they reveal to us (cf. new mysterianism). Somewhere in the middle, QRI fully embraces objective third-person data. And along with it, QRI recognizes the importance of skepticism and epistemic rigor when it comes to which first-person accounts should be taken seriously. Its epistemology does accept the information gained from alien state-spaces of consciousness as long as they meet some criteria. For example, we are very careful to distinguish between information about the intentional content of experience (what it was about) and information about its phenomenal character (how it felt). As a general heuristic, QRI tends to value more e.g. trip reports that emphasize the phenomenal character of the experience (e.g. “30Hz flashes with slow-decay harmonic reverb audio hallucinations”) relative to intentional content (e.g. “the DMT alien said I should learn to play the guitar”). Ultimately, first-person and third-person data are complementary views of the same substrate of consciousness (cf. dual-aspect monism), and so are both equally necessary for a complete scientific account of consciousness.
Functionalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): In Philosophy of Mind, functionalism is the view that consciousness is produced (and in some cases identical with) not only by the input-output mapping of an information-processing system, but also by the internal relationships that make that information-processing possible. In light of Marr’s Levels of Analysis (see below), we could say that functionalism identifies the content of conscious experience with the algorithmic level of analysis. Hence this philosophy is usually presented in conjunction with the concept of “substrate neutrality” which posits that the material makeup of brains is not necessary for the arising of consciousness out of it. If we implemented the same information-processing functions that are encoded in the neural networks of a brain using rocks, buckets of water, or a large crowd instantiating a large computer, we would also generate the same experiences the brain generates on its own. Importantly, functionalism tends to deny any essential role of the substrate in the generation of consciousness, and will typically also deny any significant interaction between levels of analysis (see below).
Eliminativism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2, 3): In Philosophy of Mind, eliminativism refers to a cluster of ideas concerning whether the word “consciousness” is clear enough to be useful for making sense of how brains work. One key idea in eliminativist views is that most of the language that we use to talk about experiences (from specific emotions to qualia) is built on top of folk-psychology rather than physical reality. In a way, terms such as “experience” and “feelings” are an interface for the brain to model itself and others in a massively simplified but adaptive way. There is no reason why our evolved intuitions about how the brain works should even approximate how it really works. In many cases, eliminativists advocate starting from scratch and abandoning our intuitions about experience, sticking to hard physical and computational analysis of the brain as empirically measured. This view suggests that once we truly understand scientifically how brains work, the language we will use to talk about it will look nothing like the way we currently speak about our experiences, and that this change will be so dramatic that we would effectively start thinking as if “consciousness never existed to begin with”.
Watchmen Chapter IV
Watchmen Chapter IV
Watchmen Chapter IV
Presentism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The view that only the present is real, the past and the future being illusory inferences and projections made in the present. Oftentimes presentism posits that change is a fundamental aspect of the present and that the feeling of the passage of time is based on the ever-changing nature of reality itself.
Eternalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The view that every here-and-now in reality is equally real. Rather than thinking of the universe as a “now” sandwiched between a “past” and “future”, eternalism posits that it is more accurate to simply describe pairs of moments as having a “before” and “after” relationship, but neither of them being in the future or past. Some of the strongest arguments for eternalism come from Special and General Relativity (see: Rietdijk–Putnam argument), where space-time forms a continuous 4-dimensional geometric shape that stands together as a whole, and where any notion of a “present” is only locally valid. In some sense, eternalism says that all of reality exists in an “eternal now” (including your present, past, and future selves).
Personal Identity (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The relevant sense of this term for our purposes refers to the set of questions about what constitutes the natural unit for subjects of experience. Questions such as “will the consciousness who wakes up in my current body tomorrow morning be me?”, “if we make an atom-by-atom identical copy of me right now, will I start existing in it as well?”, “if you conduct a Wada Test, is the consciousness generated by my right hemisphere alone also me?”, and so on.
Closed Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1): In its most basic form, this is the common-sense personal identity view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die. According to this view each person is a different subject of experience with an independent existence. One can believe in a soul ontology and be a Closed Individualist at the same time, with the correction that you exist as long as your soul exists, which could be the case even before or after death.
Empty Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1, 2, 3): This personal identity view states that each “moment of experience” is its own separate subject. While it may seem that we exist as persons with an existence that spans decades, Empty Individualism does not associate a single subject to each person. Rather, each moment a new “self” is born and dies, existing for as long as the conscious event takes place (something that could be anywhere between a femtosecond and a few hundred milliseconds, depending on which scientific theory of consciousness one believes in).
Open Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4): This is the personal identity view that we are all one single consciousness. The apparent partitions and separations between the universal consciousness, in this view, are the result of partial information access from one moment of experience to the next. Regardless, the subject who gets to experience every moment is the same. Each sentient being is fundamentally part of the same universal subject of experience.
Open Individualism: All is One
Empty Individualism: You are a “moment of experience”
Closed Individualism: You are a distinct narrative over time
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Having realized that there are both positive and negative psychological aspects to each of the three views of personal identity discussed (Closed, Empty, Open Individualism), the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness emerges as a conceptual resolution. Open Individualism comes with a solution to the fear of death, but it also can give rise to a sort of cosmic solipsism. Closed Individualism allows you to feel fundamentally special, but also disconnected from the universe and fundamentally misunderstood by others. Empty Individualism is philosophically satisfying, but it may come with a sense of lack of agency and the fear of being a time-slice that is stuck in a negative place. The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness posits that there is a way to transcend classical logic in personal identity, and that the truth incorporates elements of all of the three views at once. In the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness one is simultaneously part of a whole but also not the entirety of it. One can relate with others by having a shared nature, while also being able to love them on their own terms by recognizing their unique identity. This view has yet to be formalized, but in the meantime it may prove to be pragmatically useful for community-building.
The Problem of Other Minds (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This is the philosophical conundrum of whether other people (and sentient beings in general) are conscious. While your own consciousness is self-evidence, the consciousness of others is inferred. Possible solutions involve technologies such as the Generalized Wada Test (see below), phenomenal puzzles, and thalamic bridges, which you can use to test the consciousness of another being by having it solve a problem that can only be solved by making comparisons between qualia values.
Solipsism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2, 3): In its classic formulation, solipsism refers to a state of existence in which the only person who is conscious is “oneself”, which resides in the body of an individual human over time. A more general version of solipsism involves crossing it with personal identity views (see above). Through this lens, the classic person-centric formulation of solipsism refers exclusively to a Closed Individualist universe. Alternatively, Open Individualism also has a solipsistic interpretation – it is thus compatible with (and in at least in one sense entails) solipsism: the entire multiverse of experiences are all experiences of a single solipsistic cosmic consciousness. With an Empty Individualist universe, too, we can have a solipsistic interpretation of reality. In one version you use epiphenomenalism to claim that this moment of experience is the only one that is conscious even though the whole universe still exists and it had an evolutionary path that led it to the configuration in which you stand right now. In another version, one’s experience is the result of the fact that in the cosmic void everything can happen. This is not because it is likely, but because there is a boundless amount of time for it to happen. That is, no matter how thin its probability is, it will still take place at some point (see: Boltzmann brain). That said, one’s present experience -with its highly specific information content- being the only one that exists seems very improbable a priori. Like imagining that despite the fact that “the void can give rise to anything” the only thing that actually gets materialized is an elephant. Why would it only produce an elephant, of all things? Likewise, solipsistic Empty Individualism has this problem – why would this experience be the only one? To cap it off, we can also reason about solipsism in its relation to hybrid views of personal identity. In their case solipsism either fails, or its formulation needs to be complicated significantly. This is partly why the concept of the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness (see above) might be worth exploring, as it may be a way out of ultimate solipsism. On a much more proximal domain, it may be possible to use Phenomenal Puzzles, Wada tests, and ultimately mindmelding to test the classical (Closed Individualist) formulation of solipsism.
Suffering Focused Ethics (recent philosophy term from rationalist-adjacent communities; ref: 1, 2) The view that our overriding obligation is to focus on suffering. In particular, taking seriously the prevention of extreme suffering is one of the features of this view. This is not unreasonable if we take into account the logarithmic scales of pain and pleasure into account, which suggest that the majority of suffering is concentrated in a small percent of experiences of intense suffering. Hence why caring about the extreme cases matters so much.
Antinatalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This is the view that being born entails a net negative. Classic formulations of this view tend to implicitly assume Closed Individualism, where there is someone who may or may not be born and it is meaningful to consider this a yes or no question with ontological bearings. Under Open Individualism the question becomes whether there should be any conscious being at all, for neither preventing someone’s birth nor committing an individual suicide entail the real birth or death of a consciousness. They would merely add or subtract from the long library corridors of experiences had by universal consciousness. And in Empty Individualism, antinatalism might be seen through the light of “preventing specific experiences with certain qualities”. For example, having an experience of extreme suffering is not harming a person (though it may have further psychological repercussions), but rather harming that very experience in an intrinsic way. This view would underscore the importance of preventing the existence of experiences of intense suffering rather than preventing the existence of people as such. A final note on antinalism is that even in its original formulation we encounter the problem that selection pressures makes any trait that reduces inclusive fitness disappear in the long run. The traits that predispose to such views would simply be selected out. A more fruitful way of improving the world is to encourage the elimination of suffering in ways that do not reduce inclusive fitness, such as the prevention of genetic spell errors and diseases that carry a high burden of suffering.
Tyranny of the Intentional Object (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2): The way our reward architecture is constructed makes it difficult for us to have a clear sense of what it is that we enjoy about life. Our brains reinforce the pursuit of specific objects, situations, and headspaces, which gives the impression that these are intrinsically valuable. But this is an illusion. In reality such conditions trigger positive valence changes to our experience, and it is those that we are really after (as evidenced by the way in which our reward architecture is modified in presence of euphoric and dysphoric drugs and external stimuli such as music). We call this illusion the tyranny of the intentional object because in philosophy “intentionality” refers to “what the experience is about”. Our world-simulations chain us to the feeling that external objects, circumstances, and headspaces are the very source of value. More so, dissociating from such sources of positive valence triggers negative valence, so critical insight into the way our reward architecture really works is itself negatively reinforced by it.
Formalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): Formalism is a philosophical and methodological approach for analyzing systems which postulates the existence of mathematical objects such that their mathematical features are isomorphic to the properties of the system. An example of a successful formalism is the use of Maxwell’s equations in order to describe electromagnetic phenomena.
Qualia Formalism (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Qualia Formalism means that for any given physical system that is conscious, there will be a corresponding mathematical object associated to it such that the mathematical features of that object will be isomorphic to the phenomenology of the experience generated by the system.
Marr’s Levels of Analysis (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): This powerful analytic framework was developed by cognitive scientist David Marr to talk more precisely about vision, but it is more broadly applicable to information processing systems in general. It is a way to break down what a system does in a conceptually clear fashion that lends itself to a clean analysis.
Computational Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The first of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Computational Level of abstraction describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. That is, the input-output mapping, the runtime complexity for the problems it can solve, and the ways in which it fails are all facts about a system that are at the computational level of abstraction. In a simple example case, we can describe an abacus at the computational level by saying that it can do sums, subtractions, multiplications, divisions, and other arithmetic operations.
Algorithmic Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The second of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Algorithmic Level of abstraction describes the internal representations, operations, and their interactions used to transform the input into the output. In aggregate, representations, operations, and their interactions constitute the algorithms of the system. As a general rule, we find that there are many possible algorithms that give rise to the same computational-level properties. Following the simple example case of an abacus, the algorithmic-level account would describe how passing beads from one side to another and using each row to represent different orders of magnitude are used to instantiate algorithms to perform arithmetic operations.
Implementation Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The third of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Implementation Level of abstraction describes the way in which the system’s algorithms are physically instantiated. Following the case of the abacus, an implementation-level account would detail how the various materials of the abacus are put together in order to allow the smooth passing of beads between the sides of each row and how to prevent them from sliding by accident (and “forgetting” the state).
Interaction Between Levels (obscure cognitive science concept handle; ref: 1, 2): Some information-processing systems can be fully understood by describing each of Marr’s Levels of Analysis separately. For example, it does not matter whether an abacus is made of metal, wood, or even if it is digitally simulated in order to explain its algorithmic and computational-level properties. But while this is true for an abacus, it is not the case for analog systems that leverage the unique physical properties of their components to do computational shortcuts. In particular, in quantum computing one intrinsically requires an understanding of the implementation-level properties of the system in order to explain the algorithms used. Hence, for quantum computing, there are strong interactions between levels of analysis. Likewise, we believe this is likely going to be the case for the algorithms our brains perform by leveraging the unique properties of qualia.
Natural Kind (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): Natural kinds are things whose objective existence makes it possible to discover durable facts about them. They are the elements of a “true ontology” for the universe, and what “carves reality at its joints”. This is in contrast to “reifications” which are aggregates of elements with no unitary independent existence.
State-Space (standard term in physics and mathematics; ref: 1, 2): A state-space of a system is a geometric map where each point corresponds to a particular state of the system. Usually the space has a Euclidean geometry with a number of dimensions equal to the number of variables in the system, so that the value of each variable is encoded in the value of a corresponding dimension. This is not always the case, however. In the general case, not all points in the state-space are physically realizable. Additionally, some system configurations do not admit a natural decomposition into a constant set of variables. This may give rise to irregularities in the state-space, such as non-Euclidean regions or a variable number of dimensions.
Phenomenal puzzle solution
Emotion transition probabilities
State-Space of Consciousness (coined by David Pearce; 1, 2, 3): This is a hypothetical map that contains the set of all possible experiences, organized in such a way that the similarities between experiences are encoded in the geometry of the state-space. For example, the experience you are having right now would correspond to a single point in the state-space of consciousness, with the neighboring experiences being Just Noticeably Different from your experience right now (e.g. simplistically, we could say they would be different from your current experience “by a single pixel”).
Qualia Value (QRI term; ref: 1): Starting with examples- the scent of cinnamon, a spark of sourness, a specific color hue, etc. are all qualia values. Any particular quality of experience that cannot be decomposed further into overlapping components is a qualia value.
Qualia Variety (QRI term; ref: 1): A qualia variety refers to the set of qualia values that belong to the same category (for example, tentatively, phenomenal colors are all part of the same qualia variety, which is different from the qualia variety of phenomenal sounds). A possible operationalization for qualia varieties involves the construction of equivalence classes based on the ability to transform a given qualia value into another via a series of Just-Noticeable Differences. For example, in the case of color, we can transform a given qualia value like a specific shade of blue, into another qualia value like a shade of green by traversing across a straight line from one to the other in the CIELAB color space. Tentatively, it is not possible to do the same between a shade of blue and a particular phenomenal sound. That said, the large number of unknowns (and unknown unknowns!) about the state-space of consciousness does not allow us to rule out the existence of qualia values that can bridge the gap between color and sound qualia. If that turned out to be the case, we would need to rethink our approach to defining qualia varieties.
Region of the State-Space of Consciousness (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A set of possible experiences that are similar to each other in some way. Given an experience, the “experiences nearby in the state-space of consciousness” are those that share its qualities to a large degree but have variations. The term can be used to point at experiences with a given property (such as “high-valence” and “phenomenal color”).
The Binding Problem (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): The binding problem (also called the combination problem) arises from asking the question: how is it possible that the activity of a hundred billion neurons that are spatially distributed can simultaneously contribute to a unitary moment of experience? It should be noted that in the classical formulation of the problem we start with an “atomistic” ontology where the universe is made of space, particles, and forces, and the question then becomes how spatially-distributed discrete particles can “collaborate” to form a unified experience. But if one starts out with a “globalistic” ontology where the universe is made of a universal wavefunction, then the question that arises is how something that is fundamentally unitary (the whole universe) can give rise to “separate parts” such as individual experiences, which is often called “the boundary problem”. Thus, the “binding problem” and “the boundary problem” are really the same problem, but starting with different ontologies (atomistic vs. globalistic).
Phenomenal Binding (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This term refers to the hypothetical mechanism of action that enables information that is spatially-distributed across a brain (and more generally, a conscious system) to simultaneously contribute to a unitary discrete moment of experience.
Local Binding (lesser-known cognitive science term; ref: 1): Local binding refers to the way in which the features of our experience are interrelated. Imagine you are looking at a sheet of paper with a drawing of a blue square and a yellow triangle. If your visual system works well you do not question which shape is colored blue; the color and the shapes come unified within one’s experience. In this case, we would say that color qualia and shape qualia are locally bound. Disorders of perception show that this is not always the case: people with simultagnosia find it hard to perceive more than one phenomenal object at a time and thus would confuse the association between the colors and shapes they are not directly attending to, people with schizophrenia have local binding problems in the construction of their sense of self, and people with motion blindness have a failure of local binding between sensory stimuli separated by physical time.
Global Binding (lesser-known cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): Global binding refers to the fact that the entirety of the contents of each experience is simultaneously apprehended by a unitary experiential self. As in the example for local binding, while blue and the square (and the yellow and the triangle) are locally bound into separate phenomenal objects, both the blue square and the yellow triangle are globally bound into the same experience.
The Mathematics of Valence
Valence Realism (QRI term; ref: 1): This is the claim that valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure. Also defined as: “Valence (subjective pleasantness) is a well-defined and ordered property of conscious systems.”
Valence Structuralism (QRI term; ref: 1): Valence could have a simple encoding in the mathematical representation of a system’s qualia.
Symmetry Theory of Valence (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Given a mathematical object isomorphic to the qualia of a system, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that system is that object’s symmetry.
Valence Gradients (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): It is postulated that one of the important inputs that contributes to our decision-making involves “valence gradients”. To understand what a valence gradient is, it is helpful to provide an example. Imagine coming back from dancing in the rain and feeling pretty cold. In order to warm yourself up you get into the shower and turn on the hot water. Ouch! Too hot, so you dial down the temperature. Brrr! Now it’s too cold, so you dial up the temperature just a little. Ah, just perfect! See, during this process you evaluated, at each point, in what way you could modify your experience in order to make it feel better. At first the valence gradient was pointing in the direction of higher temperature. As soon as you felt it being too hot, the valence gradient changed direction and pointed to lower temperature. And so on until it feels like there is nothing else you could do to improve how you feel. In the more general case, we posit that a significant input into our decision-making is the direction of change along which we believe our experience would improve. At an implementation level of analysis (see above) the very syntax of our experience might be built with a landscape of valence gradients. In a sense, noticing them is possible, but it is a task akin to the metaphor of a fish not knowing what water is. We use valence gradients to navigate both the external and internal world in such a basic and all-pervasive way that missing this fact altogether is easy. When we justify why we did such and such, we often forget that a big component of the decision was made based on how each of the options felt. The difficulty we face when trying to point at the specific valence gradients that influence our decision-making is one of the reasons why the tyranny of the intentional object (see above) arises, which is that what pulls and pushes us is not explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme.
CDNS Analysis (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A scientific and philosophical hypothesis with implications for measuring valence in conscious systems. Namely, the hypothesis is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence is expressed in the structure of neural patterns over time, implying that the valence of a brain will be in part determined by neural dissonance, consonance, and noise. This makes precise, empirically testable predictions within paradigms such as Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves.
Evolutionary Qualia (QRI term): Evolutionary Qualia is a scientific discipline that will emerge as the science of consciousness improves to the point where cellular gene expression analysis, brain imaging, and interpretation algorithms get to infer the qualia present in the experience of the brains of animals in general. For instance, we may find out that certain combinations of receptor types and protein shapes inside neurons of the visual cortex are necessary and sufficient for generating color qualia. Additionally, such understanding could be complemented with an information-theoretic account of why color qualia is more effective (cost-benefit-wise) for certain information-processing than other qualia. Together, these two kinds of understanding will allow us to explain why the specific qualia that we have was recruited by natural selection for information-processing purposes. Evolutionary Qualia is the (future) discipline that explains from an evolutionary point of view why we have the specific qualia and patterns of local binding that we do (said differently, it will explain why “the walls of our world-simulation are painted the way they are”). So while Evolutionary Psychology may explain why we have evolved to have some emotions from the point of view of their behavioral effects, Evolutionary Qualia will explain why the emotions feel the way they do and how those specific feelings happen to have the right “shape” for the information-processing tasks they accomplish.
Stimuli with tracers
17 wallpaper symmetry groups
Paredolia / Enhanced Pattern Recognition
Algorithmic Reduction (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A reduction is a model that explains a set of behaviors, often very complex and diverse, in terms of the interaction between variables. A successful reduction is one that explains the intricacies and complexities present in the set of behaviors as emergent effects from a much smaller number of variables and their interactions. A specific case is that of “atomistic reductions” which decompose a set of behaviors in terms of particles interacting with each other (e.g. ideal gas laws from statistical mechanics in physics). While many scientifically significant reductions are atomistic in nature, one should not think that every phenomenon can be successfully reduced atomistically (e.g. double-slit experiment). Even when a set of behaviors cannot be reduced atomistically we may be able to algorithmically reduce it. That is, to identify a set of processes, internal representations, and interactions that when combined give rise to the set of observed behaviors. This style of reduction is very useful in the field of phenomenology since it can provide insights into how complex phenomena (such as psychedelic hallucinations) emerge out of a few relatively simple algorithmic building blocks. This way we avoid begging the question by not assuming an atomistic ontology in a context where it is not clear what atoms correspond to.
How you see it sober
~How you see it on ~100µg of LSD
Psychedelic Cryptography (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): Encoding information in videos, text, abstract paintings, etc. such that only people who are in a specific state of consciousness can decode it. A simple example is the use of alternations in after-image formation on psychedelics (enhanced persistence of vision, aka. tracers) to paint a picture by presenting the content of an image one column of pixels at a time. Sober individuals only see a column of pixels while people high on psychedelics will see a long trace forming parts of an image that can be inferred by paying close attention. In general, psychedelic cryptography can be done by taking advantage of any of the algorithms one finds with algorithmic reductions of arbitrary states of consciousness. In the case of psychedelics, important effects that can be leveraged include tracers, pareidolia, drifting, and symmetrification.
Psychedelic Turk (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4): Mechanical Turk is a human task completion platform that matches people who need humans to do many small (relatively) easy tasks with humans willing to do a lot of small (relatively) easy tasks. Psychedelic Turk is akin to Mechanical Turk, but where workers disclose the state of consciousness they are in. This would be helpful for task requesters because many tasks are more appropriate for people in specific states of consciousness. For example, it is better to test ads intended to be seen by drunk people by having people who are actually drunk evaluate them, as opposed to asking sober people to imagine how they would perceive them while drunk. Likewise, some high-stakes tasks would benefit from being completed by people who are demonstrably very alert and clear-headed. And for foundational consciousness research, Psychedelic Turk would be extremely useful as it would allow researchers to test how people high on psychedelics and other exotic agents process information and experience emotions usually inaccessible in sober states.
Generalized Wada Test (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): This is a generalization of the Wada Test where rather than pentobarbital being injected in just one hemisphere while the other hemisphere is kept sober, one injects substance A in one hemisphere and substance B on the other. This could be used to improve our epistemology about various states of consciousness. By keeping one hemisphere in a state with robust linguistic ability the other hemisphere could be used to explore alien-state spaces of consciousness and allow for real-time verbal interpretation. The caveats and complications are myriad, but the general direction this concept handle is pointing to is worth exploring.
Self-Locating Uncertainty (originally a physics term but we also use it for describing a phenomenal character of experience; ref: 1, 2): The uncertainty that one has about who and where one is. This is relevant in light of states of consciousness that are common on high-dose psychedelics, mental illnesses, and meditation, where the information about one’s identity and one’s place in the world is temporarily inaccessible. Very high- and low-valence states tend to induce a high level of self-locating uncertainty as the information content of the experience is over-written by very simple patterns that dominate one’s attention. Learning to navigate states with self-locating uncertainty without freaking out is a prerequisite for studying alien state-spaces of consciousness.
Phenomenal Time (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The felt-sense of the passage of time. This is in contrast to the physical passage of time. Although physical time and phenomenal time tend to be intimately correlated, as you will see in the definition of “exotic phenomenal time” this is not always the case.
Phenomenal Space (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): The experience of space. Usually our sense of space represents a smooth 3D Euclidean space in a projective fashion (with variable scale encoding subjective distance). In altered states of consciousness phenomenal space can be distorted, expanded, contracted, higher-dimensional, topologically distinct, and even geometrically modified as in the case of hyperbolic geometry while on DMT (see below).
Each layer is connected itself in a geometric way, and connected to the previous and next layer with directed edges.
Strong dose (overwhelming layering/confusion between layers)
Pseudo-Time Arrow (QRI term; ref: 1): This is a formal model of phenomenal time. It utilizes a simple mathematical object: a graph. The nodes of the graph are identified with simple qualia values (such as colors, basic sounds, etc.) and the edges are identified with local binding connections. According to the pseudo-time arrow model, phenomenal time is isomorphic to the patterns of implicit causality in the graph, as derived from patterns of conditional statistical independence.
Exotic Phenomenal Time (QRI term; ref: 1): It is commonly acknowledged that in some situations time can feel like it is passing faster or slower than normal (cf. tachypsychia). What is less generally known is that experiences of time can be much more general, such as feeling like time stops entirely or that one is stuck in a loop. These are called exotic phenomenal time experiences, and while not very common, they certainly are informative about what phenomenal time is. Deviations from an apparent universal pattern are usually scientifically significant.
Reversed Time (QRI term; ref: 1): This is a variant of exotic phenomenal time in which experience seems to be moving backwards in time. “Inverted tracers” are experienced where one first experiences the faint after-images of objects before they fade in, constitute themselves, and then quickly disappear without a trace. According to the pseudo-time arrow model this experience can be described as an inversion of the implicit arrow of causality, though how this arises dynamically is still a mystery.
Moments of Eternity (common psychedelic phenomenology term; ref: 1): This exotic phenomenal time describes experiences where all apparent temporal movement seems to stop. One’s experience seems to have an unchanging quality and there is no way to tell if there will ever be something else other than the present experience in the whole of existence. In most cases this state is accompanied by intense emotions of simple texture and immediacy (rather than complex layered constructions of feelings). The experience seems to appear as the end-point and local maxima of annealing on psychedelic and dissociative states. That is, it often comes as metastable “flashes of large-scale synchrony” that are created over the course of seconds to minutes and decay just as quickly. Significantly, sensory deprivation conditions are ideal for the generation of this particular exotic phenomenal time.
Timelessness (QRI term; ref: 1): Timelessness is a variant of exotic phenomenal time where causality flows in a very chaotic way at all scales. This prevents forming a general global direction for time. In the state, change is perceptible and it is happening everywhere in your experience, and yet it seems as if there is no consensus among the different parts of your experience about the direction of time. That is, there is no general direction along which the experience seems to be changing as a whole over time. The chaotic bustle of changes that make up the texture of the experience are devoid of a story arc, and yet remain alive and turbulent. Trip reports suggest that the state that arises at the transition points between dissociative plateaus has this noisy timelessness quality (e.g. coming up on ketamine). Listening to green noise evokes the general idea, but you need to imagine that happening on every sensory modality and not just audio.
Time Loops (common psychedelic phenomenology term; ref: 1): This is perhaps the most common exotic phenomenal time experience that people have on psychedelics and dissociatives. This is due to the fact that, while it can be generated spontaneously, it is relatively easy to trigger by listening to repetitive music (e.g. a lot of EDM, trance, progressive rock, etc.), repetitive movements (e.g. walking, dancing), and repetitive thoughts (e.g. talking about the same topic for a long time) all of which are often abundant in the set and setting of psychedelic users. The effect happens when your projections about the future and the past are entirely informed by what seems like an endlessly repeating loop of experience. This often comes with intense emotions of its own (which are unusual and outside of the normal range of human experience), but it also triggers secondary emotions (which are just normal emotions amplified) such as fear and worry, or at times wonder and bliss. The pseudo-time arrow model of phenomenal time describes this experience as a graph in which the local patterns of implicit causality form a cycle at the global scale. Thus the phenomenal past and future merge at their tails and one inhabits an experiential world that seems to be infinitely-repeating.
Psychedelic view in the null scenario
Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis
Time Branching (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A rare variant of exotic phenomenal time in which you feel like you are able to experience more than one outcome out of events that you witness. Your friend stands up to go to the bathroom. Midway there he wonders whether to go for a snack first, and you see “both possibilities play out at once in superposition”. In an extreme version of this experience type, each event seems to lead to dozens if not hundreds of possible outcomes at once, and your mind becomes like a choose-your-own-adventure book with a broccoli-like branching of narratives, and at the limit all things of all imaginable possible timelines seem to happen at once and you converge on a moment of eternity, thus transitioning out of this variety. We would like to note that a Qualia Computing article delved into the question of how to test if the effect actually allows you to see alternative branches of the multiverse. The author never considered this hypothesis plausible, but the relative ease of testing it made it an interesting, if wacky, research lead. The test consisted of trying to tell apart the difference between a classical and a quantum random number generator in real time. The results of the experiment are all null for the time being.
World-Sheet (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): We represent modal and amodal information in our experience in a projective way. In most common cases, this information forms a 2D “sheet” that encodes the distance to the objects around you, which can be used as a depth-map to navigate your surroundings. A lot of the information we experience is in the combination of this sheet and phenomenal time (i.e. how it changes over time).
Hyperbolic Phenomenal Space (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): The local curvature of the world-sheet encodes a lot of information about the scene. There is a sense in which the “energy” of the experience is related to the curvature of the world-sheet (in addition to its phenomenal richness and brightness). So when one raises the energy of the state dramatically (e.g. by taking DMT) the world-sheet tends to instantiate configurations with very high-curvature. The surface becomes generically hyperbolic, which profoundly alters the overall geometry of one’s experience. A lot of the accounts of “space expansion” on psychedelics can be described in terms of alterations to the geometry of the world-sheet.
Chaotic pseudo-time arrow
Dimensionality of Consciousness (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): A generative definition for the dimensionality of a moment of experience can be “the highest virtual dimension implied by the network of correlations between globally bound degrees of freedom”. Admittedly, at the moment this is more of an intuition pump than a precise formalism, but a number of related phenomena suggest there is something in this general direction. For starters, differences between degrees of pain and pleasure are often described in terms of qualitative changes with phase transitions between them. Likewise, one generally experiences a higher degree of emotional involvement in a given stimuli the more sensory channels one is utilizing to interact with it. Pleasure that has cognitive, emotional, and physical components in a coordinated fashion is felt as much more profound and significant than pleasure that only involves one of those “channels”, or even pleasure that involves all three but where they lack coherence between them. Another striking example involves the states of consciousness induced by DMT, in which there are phase-transitions between the levels. These phase transitions seem to involve a change in the dimensional character of the hallucinations: in addition to hyperbolic geometry, DMT geometry involves a wide range of phenomena with virtual dimensions. On lower doses the hallucinations take the shape of 2D symmetrical plane coverings. On higher doses those covers transform into 2.5D wobbly worldsheets, and on higher doses still into 3D symmetrical tessellations and rooms with 4D features. For example, the DMT level above 3D tessellations has its “walls” covered with symmetrical patterns that are correlated with one another in such a way that they generate a “virtual” 4th dimension, itself capable of containing semantic content. We suspect that one of the reasons why MDMA is so uniquely good at healing trauma is that in order to address a high-dimensional pain you need a high-dimensional pleasure to hold space for it. MDMA seems to induce a high-dimensional variety of feelings of wellbeing, which can support and smooth a high-dimensional pain like such as those which underly traumatic memories.
Meme (standard science/psychology term coined by Richard Dawkins; 1): A “meme” is a cultural unit of information capable of being transmitted from one mind to another. Examples of memes include jokes, hat styles, window-dressing color palettes, and superstitions.
Memeplex (lesser known term coined by Richard Dawkins; 1, 2): A “memeplex” is a set of memes that, when simultaneously present, increase their ability to replicate (i.e. to be spread from one mind to another). Memeplexes do not need to say true things in order to be good at spreading; many strategies exist to motivate humans to share memes and memeplexes, ranging from producing good feelings (e.g. jokes), being threatening (e.g. apostasy), to being salient (e.g. famous people believe in them). A classic example of a memeplex is that of an ideology such as libertarianism, communism, capitalism, etc.
Full-Stack Memeplex (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A “full-stack memeplex” is a memeplex that provides an answer to most common human questions. While the scope of a memeplex like “libertarianism” extends across a variety of fields including economics and ethics, it is not a full-stack memeplex because it does not attempt to answer questions such as “why does anything exist?”, “why are the constants of nature the way they are?” and “what happens after we die?”. Religions and some philosophies like existentialism, Buddhism, and the LessWrong Sequences are full-stack memeplexes. We also consider the QRI ecosystem to contain a full-stack memeplex.
Hedonistic Imperative (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2): The Hedonistic Imperative is a book-length internet manifesto written by David Pearce which outlines how suffering will be eliminated with biotechnology and why our biological descendants are likely to be animated by gradients of information-sensitive bliss.
Abolitionism (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1): In the context of transhumanism, Abolitionism refers to the view in ethics that we should eliminate all forms of involuntary suffering both in human and non-human animals alike. The term was coined by David Pearce.
Factors 1 and 2: Subjective sense of meaningfulness or significance also described by “spiritual euphoria” (1), Calming/slow/comforting energy (2).
Factors 3 and 4: Intense, bright, defined euphoric energy (3), overall cost-benefit or worth it after all (4).
Factors 5 and 6: Sober mind and clean linear thinking (5), marijuana specific qualities and outwardly rather than inwardly focused aesthetics (6).
Slow and Fast
Spiritual and Fast
Spiritual and Slow
Fast Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “high-energy and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: energetic, charming, stimulating, sociable, erotic, etc.).
Slow Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “low-energy and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: calming, relieving, blissful, loving, etc.).
Spiritual/Philosophical Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “high-significance and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: incredible, spiritual, mystical, life-changing, interesting, colorful, etc.).
Current hedonic negative feedback dynamics.
Trans/Post-human negative feedback mechanisms.
Wireheading (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term; 1, 2): The act of modifying a mind’s reward architecture and hedonic baseline so that it is always generating experiences with a net positive valence (whether or not they are mixed).
Wireheading Done Right (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): Wireheading done in such a way that one can remain rational, economically productive, and ethical. In particular, it entails (1) taking into account neurological negative feedback systems, (2) avoiding reinforcement cycles that narrow one’s behavioral focus, and (3) preventing becoming a pure replicator (see below). A simple proof of concept reward architecture for Wireheading Done Right is to cycle between different kinds of euphoria, each with immediate diminishing returns, and with the ability to make it easier to experience other kinds of euphoria. This would give rise to circadian cycles with stages involving fast, slow, and spiritual/philosophical euphoria at different times. Wireheading Done Right entails never getting stuck while always being in a positive state.
Pure Replicator (QRI term; 1, 2): In the context of agents and minds, a Pure Replicator is an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A Pure Replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
Consciousness vs. Replicators (QRI term; 1, 2): This is a reframe of the big-picture narrative of the meaning of life in which the ultimate battle is between the act of reproducing for the sake of reproduction and the act of seeking the wellbeing of sentient beings for the sake of conscious value itself.
Maximum Effector (QRI term; 1): A Maximum Effector is an entity that uses all of its resources for the task of causing large effects, irrespective of what they may be. There is a sense in which most humans have a Maximum Effector side. Since causing large effects is not easy, one can reason that for evolutionary reasons people find such an ability to be a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Arrogance and power may not be all that people find attractive, but they do play a role in what makes someone seem sexy to others. Hence why, unfortunately, people research how to cause large effects even if they are harmful to everyone. The idealized version of a Maximum Effector, however, would be exclusively interested in causing large effects to happen rather than doing so as a way to meet an emotional need among others. Although being a Maximum Effector may seem crazy and pointless, they are important to consider in any analysis of the future because the long-tailed nature of large effects suggest that those who specifically seek to cause them are likely to have an impact on reality orders of magnitude higher than the impact of agents who try to simultaneously have both large and good effects.
Super-Shulgin Academy (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8): This is a hypothetical future intellectual society that investigates consciousness empirically. Rather than merely theorizing about it or having people from the general population describe their odd experiences, the Super-Shulgin Academy directly studies the state-space of consciousness by putting the brightest minds on the task. The Super-Shulgin Academy (1) trains high-quality consciousness researchers and psychonauts, (2) investigates the computational trade-offs between different states of consciousness, (3) finds new socially-useful applications for exotic states of consciousness, (4) practices the art and craft of creating ultra-blissful experiences, and (5) develops and maintains a full-stack memeplex that incorporates the latest insights about the state-space of consciousness into the most up-to-date Theory of Everything.
Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).
This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.
An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).
Why This Matters
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
Predictions of Lognormal World
Appearance Base Rates
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
Latent Trait Ratings
Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of Children
Falling in Love
Games of Chance Earnings
Death of Father and Mother
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.
There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:
In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.
In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.
We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.
The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:
Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences
Why This Matters
Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.
Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.
True long-tail pain scale
As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).
“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.
I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.
My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.
The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.
DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?
What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.
Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss
As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.
Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:
The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.
There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.
“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)
Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:
“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”
– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.
“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”
– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.
Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:
As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.
– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)
All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.
Now, how about the negative side?
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”
– Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)
(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:
4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain].
7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.
11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.
Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?
[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”
Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!
[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.
Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.
If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.
(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are severalqualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:
I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be thathot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).
I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”
Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches
(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:
The KIP scale
KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful KIP-2 More persistent shadows KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing” KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.
The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.
As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.
In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.
While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?
Predictions of Lognormal World
If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:
That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).
To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).
The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.
I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).
I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.
Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition
The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):
Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)
While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:
The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:
And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.
In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.
Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.
I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:
Appearance Base Rates
There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:
Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)
Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)
For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.
A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are: