Befriending Utility Monsters: Being the Adult in the Room When Talking About the Hedonic Extremes (link)
In this episode I connect a broad variety of topics with the following common thread: “What does it mean to be the adult in the room when dealing with extremely valenced states of consciousness?” Essentially, a talk on Utility Monsters.
Concretely, what does it mean to be responsible and sensible when confronted with the fact that pain and pleasure follow a long tail distribution? When discussing ultra-painful or ultra-blissful experiences one needs to take off the glasses we use to reason about “room temperature consciousness” and put on glasses that actually take these states with the seriousness they deserve.
Topics discussed include: The partial 5HT3 antagonism of ginger juice, kidney stones from vitamin C supplementation, 2C-E nausea, phenibut withdrawal, akathisia as a remarkably common side effect of psychiatric medication (neuroleptics, benzos, and SSRIs), negative 5-MeO-DMT trips, the book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe”, turbulence and laminar flow in the “energy body”, being a “mom” at a festival, and more.
“This manuscript will advance the hypothesis that 5-HT7 directly mediates three specific dramatic mental effects of psychedelics: creative open-eyed Visuals, Ego-loss, and loss of contact with Reality (VER).” (Thomas S. Ray; source)
Mapping State-Spaces of Consciousness: The Neroli Neighborhood (link)
What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, clauses, subordinate clauses, field geometry, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)?
Topics Covered in this Video: The State-space of Consciousness, Mapping State-Spaces, David Pearce at Oxford, Qualia Enrichment Kits, Character Impact vs. Flavors, Linalool Variants, Clusters of Neroli Scents, Neroli in Perfumes, Neroli vs. Orange Blossom vs. Petigrain vs. Orange/Mandarin/Lemon/Lime, High-Entropy Alloys of Scent, Musks as Reverb and Brown Noise, “Neroli Reconstructions” (synthetic), Semi-synthetic Mixtures, Winner-Takes-All Dynamics in Qualia Spaces, Multi-Phasic Scents, and Non-Euclidean State-Spaces.
What is Time? Explaining Time-Loops, Moments of Eternity, Time Branching, Time Reversal, and More… (link)
What is (phenomenal) time?
The feeling of time passing is not the same as physical time.
Albert Einstein discovered that “Newtonian time” was a special case of physical time, since gravity, relativity, and the constancy of the speed of light entails that space, time, mass, and gravity are intimately connected. He, in a sense, discovered a generalization of our common-sense notion of physical time; a generalization which accounts for the effects of moving and accelerating frames of reference on the relative passage of time between observers. Physical time, it turns out, could manifest in many more (exotic) ways than was previously thought.
Likewise, we find that our everyday phenomenal time (i.e. the feeling of time passing) is a special case of a far more general set of possible time-like qualities of experience. In particular, in this video I discuss “exotic phenomenal time” experiences, which include oddities such as time-loops, moments of eternity, time branching, and time reversal. I then go on to explain these exotic phenomenal time experiences with a model we call the “pseudo-time arrow”, which involves implicit causality in the network of sensations we experience on each “moment of experience”. Thus we realize that phenomenal time is an incredibly general property! It turns out that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible here… it’s about time we do so.
Benzos: Why the Withdrawal is Worse than the High is Good (+ Flumazenil/NAD+ Anti-Tolerance Action) (link)
Most people have low-resolution models of how drug tolerance works. Folk theories that “what goes up must come down” and theories in the medical establishment about how you can “stabilize a patient on a dose” and expect optimal effects long term get in the way of actually looking at how tolerance works.
In this video I explain why benzo withdrawal is far worse than the high they give you is good.
Core arguments presented:
Benzos can treat anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, seizures, hallucinations, etc. If you use them to treat one of these symptoms, the rebound will nonetheless involve all of them.
Kindling – How long-term use leads to neural annealing of the “withdrawal neural patterns”.
Amnesia effects prevent you from remembering the good parts/only remembering the bad parts.
Neurotoxicity from long-term benzo use makes it harder for your brain to heal.
Arousal as a multiplier of consciousness: on benzos the “high” is low arousal and the withdrawal is high arousal (compared to stimulants where you at least will “sleep through the withdrawal”).
Tolerance still builds up even when you don’t have a “psychoactive dose” in your body – meaning that the extremely long half-life of clonazepam and diazepam and their metabolites (50h+) entails that you still develop long-term tolerance even with weekly or biweekly use!
I then go into how the (empirically false) common-sense view of drug tolerance is delaying promising research avenues, such as “anti-tolerance drugs” (see links below). In particular, NAD+ IV and Flumazenil seem to have large effect sizes for treating benzo withdrawals. I AM NOT CONFIDENT THAT THEY WORK, but I think it is silly to not look into them with our best science at this point. Clinical trials for NAD+ IV therapy for drug withdrawal are underway, and the research to date on flumazenil seems extremely promising. Please let me know if you have any experience using either of these two tools and whether you had success with them or not.
Note: These treatments may also generalize to other GABAergic drugs like gabapentin, alcohol, and phenibut (which also have horrible withdrawals, but are far shorter than benzo withdrawal).
Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil. Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines […] were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.”
Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms. Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.
Is it possible for the “natural growth” of a pandemic to be slower than exponential no matter where it starts? What are ways in which we can leverage the graphical properties of the “contact network” of humanity in order to control contagious diseases? In this video I offer a novel way of analyzing and designing networks that may allow us to easily prevent the exponential growth of future pandemics.
Topics covered: The difference between the aesthetic of pure math vs. applied statistics when it comes to making sense of graphs. Applications of graph analysis. Identifying people with a high centrality in social networks. Klout scores. Graphlets. Kinds of graphs: geometric, small world, scale-free, empirical (galactic core + “whiskers”). Pandemics being difficult to control due to exponential growth. Using a sort of “pandemic Klout score” to prioritize who to quarantine, who to vaccinate first. The network properties that made the plague spread so slowly in the Middle Ages. Toroidal planets as having linear pandemic growth after a certain threshold number of infections. Non-integer graph dimensionality. Dimensional chokes. And… kitchen sponges.
Readings either referenced in the video or useful to learn more about this topic:
Main Empirical Findings: Our results suggest a rather detailed and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the community structure in large networks. Several qualitative properties of community structure are nearly universal:
• Up to a size scale, which empirically is roughly 100 nodes, there not only exist well-separated communities, but also the slope of the network community profile plot is generally sloping downward. (See Fig. 1(a).) This latter point suggests, and empirically we often observe, that smaller communities can be combined into meaningful larger communities.
• At size scale of 100 nodes, we often observe the global minimum of the network community profile plot. (Although these are the “best” communities in the entire graph, they are usually connected to the remainder of the network by just a single edge.)
• Above the size scale of roughly 100 nodes, the network community profile plot gradually increases, and thus there is a nearly inverse relationship between community size and community quality. This upward slope suggests, and empirically we often observe, that as a function of increasing size, the best possible communities as they grow become more and more “blended into” the remainder of the network.
We have also examined in detail the structure of our social and information networks. We have observed that an ‘jellyfish’ or ‘octopus’ model [33, 7] provides a rough first approximation to structure of many of the networks we have examined.
Ps. Forgot to explain the sponge’s relevance: the scale-specific network geometry of a sponge is roughly hyperbolic at a small scale. Then the material is cubic at medium scale. And at the scale where you look at it as flat (being a sheet with finite thickness) it is two dimensional.
Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (link)
Why does DMT feel so “real”? Why does it feel like you experience genuine mind-independent realities on DMT?
In this video I explain that we all implicitly rely on a model of which signals are trustworthy and which ones are not. In particular, in order to avoid losing one’s mind during an intense exotic experience (such as those catalyzed by psychedelics, dissociatives, or meditation) one needs to (a) know that you are altered, (b) have a good model of what that alteration entails, and (c) that the alteration is not strong enough that it breaks down either (a) or (b). So drugs that make you forget you are under the influence, or that you don’t know how to model (or have a mistaken model of) can deeply disrupt your “web of trusted beliefs”.
I argue that one cannot really import the models that one learned from other psychedelics about “what psychedelics do” to DMT; DMT alters you in a far broader way. For example, most people on LSD may mistrust what they see, but they will not mistrust what they touch (touch stays a “trusted signal” on LSD). But on DMT you can experience tactile hallucinations that are coherent with one’s visions! “Crossing the veil” on DMT is not a visual experience: it’s a multi-modal experience, like entering a cave hiding behind a waterfall.
Some of the signals that DMT messes with that often convince people that what they experienced was mind-independent include:
Hyperbolic geometry and mathematical complexity; experiencing “impossible objects”.
Incredibly high-resolution multi-modal integration: hallucinations are “coherent” across senses.
Philosophical qualia enhancement: it alters not only your senses and emotions, but also “the way you organize models of reality”.
More “energized” experiences feel inherently more real, and DMT can increase the energy parameter to an extreme degree.
Highly valenced experiences also feel more real – the bliss and the horror are interpreted as “belonging to the vibe of a reality” rather than being just a property of your experience.
DMT can give you powerful hallucinations in every modality: not only visual hallucinations, but also tactile, auditory, scent, taste, and proprioception.
Novel and exotic feelings of “electromagnetism”.
Sense of “wisdom”.
Knowledge of your feelings: the entities know more about you than you yourself know about yourself.
With all of these signals being liable to chaotic alterations on DMT it makes sense that even very bright and rational people may experience a “shift” in their beliefs about reality. The trusted signals will have altered their consilience point. And since each point of consilience between trusted signals entails a worldview, people who believe in the independent reality of the realms disclosed by DMT share trust in some signals most people don’t even know exist. We can expect some pushback for this analysis by people who trust any of the signals altered by DMT listed above. Which is fine! But… if we want to create a rational Super-Shulgin Academy to really make some serious progress in mapping-out the state-space of consciousness, we will need to prevent epistemological mishaps. I.e. We have to model insanity so that we ourselves can stay sane.
[Skip to 4:20 if you don’t care about the scent of rose – the Qualia of the Day today]
“The most common descriptive labels for the entity were being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. […] Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.”
So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence.
This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:
We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.
The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…
This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.
I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.
Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.
One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.
In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.
Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence.
So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.
I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.
So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions.But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities.
And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.
I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected.
Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are.
Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.
Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.
And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.
These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.
When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.
So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.
So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.
So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.
Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.
There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those.
Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.
So,dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness.
I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.
Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.
And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.
Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.
Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.
I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.
Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.
Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.
Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has.
So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.
Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.
Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.
These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.
Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.
Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.
Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning.
You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.
You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.
When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.
These are just examples of a piano chord.
Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful.
Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.
And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states.
So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.
Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.
Here are just some quotes. Cool.
And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.
In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it.
Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.
Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry.
Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good.
Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.
For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.
Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena.
This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them.
Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at.
So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.
Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.
And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.
I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.
This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.
We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.
That is, euphoric.
Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true.
Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.
These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.
Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.
Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing.
The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.
And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.
Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!
Excerpt from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) by Neil Postman (pgs. 17-23)
Chapter 2: Media as Epistemology
In the hope of simplifying what I mean by the title of this chapter, media as epistemology, I find it helpful to borrow a word from Northrop Frye, who has made use of a principle he calls resonance. “Through resonance,” he writes, “a particular statement in a particular context acquires a universal significance.” Frye offers as an opening example the phrase “the grapes of wrath,” which first appears in Isaiah in the context of a celebration of a prospective massacre of Edomites. But the phrase, Frye continues, “has long ago flown away from this context into many new contexts, contexts that give dignity to the human situation instead of merely reflecting its bigotries.” Having said this, Frye extends the idea of resonance so that it goes beyond phrases and sentences. A character in a play or story—Hamlet, for example, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice—may have resonance. Objects may have resonance, and so may countries: “The smallest details of the geography of two tiny chopped-up countries, Greece and Israel, have imposed themselves on our consciousness until they have become part of the map of our own imaginative world, whether we have ever seen these countries or not.”
In addressing the question of the source of resonance, Frye concludes that metaphor is the generative force—that is, the power of a phrase, a book, a character, or a history to unify and invest with meaning a variety of attitudes or experiences. Thus, Athens becomes a metaphor of intellectual excellence, wherever we find it; Hamlet, a metaphor of brooding indecisiveness; Alice’s wanderings, a metaphor of a search for order in a world of semantic nonsense.
I now depart from Frye (who, I am certain, would raise no objection) but I take his word along with me. Every medium of communication, I am claiming, has resonance, for resonance is metaphor writ large. Whatever the original and limited context of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.
To explain how this happens—how the bias of a medium sits heavy, felt but unseen, over a culture—I offer three cases of truth-telling.
The first is drawn from a tribe in western Africa that has no writing system but whose rich oral tradition has given form to its ideas of civil law. When a dispute arises, the complainants come before the chief of the tribe and state their grievances. With no written law to guide him, the task of the chief is to search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that justice has been done, that the truth has been served. You will recognize, of course, that this was largely the method of Jesus and other Biblical figures who, living in an essentially oral culture, drew upon all of the resources of speech, including mnemonic devices, formulaic expressions and parables, as a means of discovering and revealing truth. As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.”
To people like ourselves any reliance on proverbs and sayings is reserved largely for resolving disputes among or with children. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” “First come, first served.” “Haste makes waste.” These are forms of speech we pull out in small crises with our young but would think ridiculous to produce in a courtroom where “serious” matters are to be decided. Can you imagine a bailiff asking a jury if it has reached a decision and receiving the reply that “to err is human but to forgive is divine”? Or even better, “Let us render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”? For the briefest moment, the judge might be charmed but if a “serious” language form is not immediately forthcoming, the jury may end up with a longer sentence than most guilty defendants.
Judges, lawyers and defendants do not regard proverbs or sayings as a relevant response to legal disputes. In this, they are separated from the tribal chief by a media-metaphor. For in a print-based courtroom, where law books, briefs, citations and other written materials define and organize the method of finding the truth, the oral tradition has lost much of its resonance—but not all of it. Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness. Indeed, in many courtrooms jurors are not permitted to take notes, nor are they given written copies of the judge’s explanation of the law. Jurors are expected to hear the truth, or its opposite, not to read it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed.
A similar paradox exists in universities, and with roughly the same distribution of resonances; that is to say, there are a few residual traditions based on the notion that speech is the primary carrier of truth. But for the most part, university conceptions of truth are tightly bound to the structure and logic of the printed word. To exemplify this point, I draw here on a personal experience that occurred during a still widely practiced medieval ritual known as a “doctoral oral.” I use the word medieval literally, for in the Middle Ages students were always examined orally, and the tradition is carried forward in the assumption that a candidate must be able to talk competently about his written work. But, of course, the written work matters most.
In the case I have in mind, the issue of what is a legitimate form of truth-telling was raised to a level of consciousness rarely achieved. The candidate had included in his thesis a footnote, intended as documentation of a quotation, which read: “Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981, in the presence of Arthur Lingeman and Jerrold Gross.” This citation drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five oral examiners, all of whom observed that it was hardly suitable as a form of documentation and that it ought to be replaced by a citation from a book or article. “You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told at the Roosevelt Hotel, he defended himself vigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, that they were available to attest to the accuracy of the quotation, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?
The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character, which is why, no doubt, you have referred to yourself in your thesis as “the investigator” and not by your name; that is to say, the written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual. The written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this commission produce a written statement that you have passed your examination (should you do so) than for us merely to tell you that you have, and leave it at that. Our written statement would represent the “truth.” Our oral agreement would be only a rumor.
The candidate wisely said no more on the matter except to indicate that he would make whatever changes the commission suggested and that he profoundly wished that should he pass the “oral,” a written document would attest to that fact. He did pass, and in time the proper words were written.
A third example of the influence of media on our epistemologies can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’ defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers did not regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates’ plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech—most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophists of fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth.
It was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important than philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemporaries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be both discovered and articulated. To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.
The point I am leading to by this and the previous examples is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant.
It is absolutely essential to try to figure out how you experience thoughts, otherwise you will simply flounder in content. What do thoughts feel like? Where do they occur? How big are they? What do they look like, smell like, taste like, sound like? How long do they last? Where are their edges? Only take on this practice if you are willing to try to work on this level, the level that tries to figure out what thoughts actually are rather than what they mean or imply. If my thoughts are somewhat auditory, I begin by trying to perceive each syllable of the current thought and then each syllable’s beginning and ending. If they are somewhat visual, I try to perceive every instant in which a mental image presents itself.
If they seem somewhat physical, such as the memory of a movement or feeling, I try to perceive exactly how long each little sensation of this memory lasts. This sort of investigation can actually be fairly easy to do and yet is quite powerful. Things can also get a bit odd quickly when doing this sort of practice, but I don’t worry about that. Sometimes thoughts can begin to sound like the auditory strobing section of the song “Crimson and Clover,” where it sounds like they are standing at a spinning microphone. Sometimes the images in our head can begin to flash and flicker. Sometimes our very sense of attention can begin to strobe. This is the point! The sensations that imply a mind and mental processes are discontinuous, impermanent.
Just as one can only imperfectly understand the nature of dreaming “from the inside” – even in a lucid dream – likewise the nature of the ordinary waking consciousness may yield only state-specific knowledge that can only imperfectly be understood “from the inside” too. How much does the medium of expression of propositional thought infect that propositional content itself? (cf. Nicholas Rescher’s “Conceptual Idealism“)
What are your thoughts like? No, not “what are they about?” But their texture, what is it like? The medium of thought is not explicitly represented in the content of thought, at least not by default. The medium of thought adds constraints to imagination – what is and is not imaginable is state-dependent (perhaps not unlike our faculty of episodic reconstruction!). Your imagination is a reflection of the medium of your thought.
Restricted to the sober “everyday” (non-psychedelic, non-meditative) medium of thought, we are in a sense confined to only accept ideas as having the ring of truth when they appear in the right format, not unlike how legal proceedings are based on oral tradition proverbs in the West African tribe Neil Postman wrote about in the first of the three quotes above. For the most part, we have a culture and a language whose communication assumes a sober medium of thought, and in turn we reject as cognitively and epistemologically illegitimate anything that deviates from it. Sober thought is the arbiter of truth. But are we not perhaps missing out on valuable knowledge if we don’t investigate alternate mediums of thought?
Of course mastery over the medium of thought is only acquired through years of practice, tuning, and critical feedback. Consider how the sophistication of one’s thinking evolves over time; compare how a third grader thinks relative to a graduate student. There is no reason to expect this mastery over our sober medium of thought will translate into competence over exotic patterns of thought! When you take LSD for the first time and experience “LSD-like thinking patterns” you are like a newborn, faced with a completely new and exotic mode of self-reflective expression. No wonder “LSD thoughts”, when put into sober words, have a tendency of sounding like gibberish! But that is not to say that the medium of LSD-like thought patterns is doomed to be irrational, insane, or helplessly disconnected from reality. Far from it, as attested by the numerous anecdotes concerning genuine (and later verifiable) problem solving breakthroughs enabled by the psychedelic state (see: Harman’s and Fadiman’s research on psychedelic problem solving).
Here I must agree with Steven Lehar: drugs are wasted on the young. In his book “The Grand Illusion” Lehar narrates how when he tried LSD as a teenager he thought it was interesting but couldn’t make any sense of his experience. After not taking it for more than a decade, he tried it again in his thirties while studying for a PhD in cognitive sciences. He was then much more capable of saying intelligent and insightful things about the nature of the state. I very much expect a Cambrian explosion of insights about the psychedelic state (and not only psychedelic insights!) if and when we bring together groups of seasoned neuroscientists and AI researchers together to trip in a systematic and grounded way. Perhaps we could organize a retreat in Jamaica? Importantly, I would suggest that we should approach the development of a scientific culture based on a psychedelic medium of thought with as few preconceptions as possible, yet allow it to be grounded in our modern scientific world-picture whenever possible.
Once we get past the prejudice against exotic mediums of thought (but without at the same time opening the floodgates to insanity either), we will actually get many new perspectives on consciousness, reality, and the very nature of semantics. Studying this on a large scale will entail using tools like Psychedelic Turk, Generalized Wada Tests, and Free-Wheeling Hallucinations. And further into the future, designer synesthesia may allow anyone to think in numbers. Dedicated linguists (or meta-linguists?) would be put to the task of identifying the isomorphisms between each medium of thought in order to create a state-neutral meta-language of thought (aka. the language of Harmonic Society).
Because the “work” needed to arrive at a culture based in exotic mediums of thought has yet to be done, across the globe we currently have a huge backlog of never-written insights from psychedelic users. You should perhaps think of this collective as a baby intelligence that is not yet verbally competent but which can think of the world in a completely different way than us. How many trips do you need to undergo before the psychedelic medium of thought acquires a verbal competence equivalent to that of our sober thinking? Considering the number of hours it takes for a toddler to learn language, probably quite a few! LSD and the Mind of the Universe by Christopher M. Bache is based on 70+ extremely well documented high-dose (~500 microgram) LSD trips. It is a book that I recommend reading for its phenomenological richness and clarity of “thought”. Despite the insanity that would typically be associated with anyone who has spent that much time in such radically altered states, Bache sounds completely cogent and grounded. His metaphysical conclusions are bizarre, yet familiar to anyone who has spent some time researching spiritual tropes. Yet the manner of presentation is exotic and fascinating. Who knows what hundreds if not thousands of rational psychonauts doing this kind of work could work out if they put their minds to the task of developing a language to talk about those states. To truly develop a community for such an exotic medium of thought, one will need to find ways to receive critical feedback from others. One needs critical feedback to learn and grow, so we may need to invent modes of communication for people experiencing exotic modes of thinking to fruitfully interact with one another.
What would be an example of a quality of the medium of thought of the psychedelic state? Based on countless trip reports, it seems that LSD and related compounds allow you to “think about infinity” in a way that sober thought simply lacks. That said, when someone says that they “experienced infinity” or even “became infinite” on LSD I do not take their word at face value. At least not in the sense of the term which sober thinking imagines. I do, however, believe people when they say that such phrases are pointing at something meaningful, something they experienced. “Becoming infinite on LSD” does not literally mean that on LSD you experienced an infinite amount of qualia (for is it even intelligible or logically cogent to have realized arbitrarily large numbers?). We have to realize that infinityas a term is very different than infinity as a concept: when you say infinity while on a high dose of LSD you are referring to an aspect of your experience rather than a formally defined mathematical or common sense conception of infinity. And if I were to guess, I would say that the quality of experience that is being pointed at is related to the symmetry of both phenomenal space or time: time-looping has a seemingly endless quality and symmetrical texture repetition gives you a sense of infinite space not unlike that of seeing the never-ending reflections of parallel mirrors. Given our normal habits of thought and only available cultural references, one is pressed to communicate this quality of experience in ways that invariably distort their meaning. Some things have to be experienced to be understood.
Another property of the psychedelic medium of thought is that DMT-like cognition may be very well suited to reason about and indeed experience non-Euclidean high-dimensional geometry. And, incredibly, there are reports that the medium of thought triggered by 5-MeO-DMT is well suited to contemplate the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Getting into the weeds of why I think this happens will take us very far afield, but just to hint at it without further comment: I think this is because in states of extreme symmetry Zero Ontology is much more intuitive. A topic to be revisited in another post.
Ultimately, full-spectrum supersentient superintelligence will entail having access to all of these exotic mediums of thought and many more. Our descendants may some day have the ability to seamlessly switch between radically alien modes of cognition to tackle conceptual problems we haven’t even conceived of. In fact, that we currently can’t even conceive of, lacking the semantic primitives needed to do so.
To end on an observation that is closer to home: you do not have to go as far into exotica as the outlandish states of consciousness induced by DMT to notice how our state of mind influences the medium of our thought. Subtle, but real, are the ways in which emotions texturize our thinking. Next time you have an intense emotion, introspect on the ways it influences your imagination. In a great mood, do you not have, perhaps, much more access to soft, regular, and manageable textures of thought you can use as building blocks for your field of imagination? And when in a depressive mood, aren’t thoughts, perhaps, more likely to be built out of nauseous, gloomy, starved, or self-loathing building blocks? It is thus why in a sense it is so hard, for the most part, to “think yourself out” of a depression. This is because the thoughts themselves are the ways the depression expresses itself! (“The world of the happy is a different one from that of the unhappy.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein). On a happier note, I would like to end by encouraging you to introspect on the way music genres influence the medium of your thoughts. How, for example, the repetitive strobing of the synthesizer sounds of psytrance gives your thoughts an energized, motivated, loopy, meta, repetitive, echoey quality. Or how the signal diversity, harmonic cleanliness, and fractal organization of classical music may give rise to highly narrative, interwoven, and coherent patterns of thought. Indeed, I believe that a focused exploration of music for thinking (and music for thinkingspecific kinds of thoughts rather than thinking in general) has a lot of promise. I would not be surprised to find out that there exists music that is highly beneficial for learning Einstein’s theory of general relativity, or quantum field theory. And perhaps just as important, if not more so, I wonder if there is music that allows us to learn directly, intuitively, and memorably the intricacies of the nature of phenomenal love. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
Excerpt from Rhythms of the Brain (2006) by György Buzsáki (pgs. 168-170)
The paramount advantage of synchronization by oscillation is its cost-effectiveness. No other known mechanism in the physical world can bring about synchrony with so little investment. What do I mean by declaring that synchrony by oscillation is cheap? Let me illustrate the cost issue first with a few familiar examples from our everyday life. You have probably watched leisurely strolling romantic couples on a fine evening in a park or on the beach. Couples holding hands walk in perfect unison, whereas couples without such physical link walk out of step. You can do this experiment yourself. Just touching your partner’s finger will result in your walking in sync in a couple of cycles. Unless your partner is twice as tall or short as you, it costs pretty much the same effort to walk in sync as out of sync. Once you establish synchronous walking, it survives for quite some time even if physical contact is discontinued. If both of you are about the same height and have a similar step size, you will stay in sync for a long distance. In other words, synchronization by oscillation requires only an occasional update, depending on the frequency differences and precision of the oscillators. Two synchronized Patek Philippe vintage timepieces can tick together for many weeks, and quartz watches fare even better.
A much larger scale example of synchrony through oscillation is rhythmic clapping of hands, an expression of appreciation for superior theater and opera performances in some countries. Clapping always starts as a tumultuous cacophony but transforms into synchronized clapping after half a minute or so. Clapping synchrony builds up gradually and dies away after a few tens of seconds. Asynchronous and synchronous group clapping periods can alternate relatively regularly. An important observation, made by Zoltán Néda at the Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania, and his colleagues, is that synchronized clapping increases the transient noise during the duty cycle, but it actually diminishes the overall noise (Neda et al. 2000).* The explanation for the noise decrease during the synchronized clapping phase is the simple fact that everyone is clapping approximately half as fast during the synchronous compared with the nonsynchronous phase. Oscillatory entrainment nevertheless provides sharp surges of sound energy at the cost of less overall muscular effort. The waxing and waning nature of rhythmic hand clapping is reminiscent of numerous transient oscillatory events in the brain, especially in the thalamocortical system. Similar to hand clapping, the total number of spikes emitted by the participating neurons and the excitatory events leading to spiking may be fewer during these brain rhythms than during comparable nonrhythmic periods. A direct test of this hypothesis would require simultaneous recordings from large numbers of individual neurons. Indirect observations, using brain imaging methods, however, support the idea.**
Perhaps the most spectacular example of low-energy coupling, known to all physics and engineering majors, is the synchronization of Christiaan Huygen’s pendulum clocks. Huygen’s striking observation was that when two identical clocks were hung next to each other on the wall, their pendula became time-locked after some period. Synchrony did not happen when the clocks were placed on different walls in the room. Huygen’s clocks entrained because the extremely small vibrations of the wall that held both clocks were large enough that each rhythm affected the other. The physical reason for synchrony between two oscillators is relatively simple, and solid math exists to explain the phenomenon.*** However, extrapolation from two oscillators to the coupling behavior of large numbers of oscillators is not at all straightforward. Imagine that, in a cylinder-shaped room, 10 clocks are placed on the wall equidistant from one another, each started at a different time. In a second, much larger room, there are 100 clocks. Finally, in a giant arena, we hang 10,000 identical clocks on the wall. As with Huygen’s two clocks, each clock in the rooms has neighbors on each side, and these clocks influence the middle clock. Furthermore, in the new experiment, there are many distant neighbors with progressively less influence. However, the aggregate effects of more distant clocks must be significant, especially if they become synchronous. Do we expect that synchronous ticking of all clocks will develop in each room? Various things can happen, including traveling waves of synchrony or local buildup of small or large synchronous groups transiently. Only one thing cannot occur: global synchrony.
I know the answer because we did an analogous experiment with Xiao-Jing Wang and his student Caroline Geisler. We built a network of 4,000 inhibitory interneurons.**** When connectivity in the network mimicked local interneuron connections in the hippocampus, all we could see were some transient oscillations involving a small set of neurons. On the other hand, when the connections were random, a situation difficult to create in physical systems, a robust population oscillation emerged. So perfect harmony prevailed in a network with no resemblance to the brain but not with what appeared to be a copy of a local interneuronal network. The problem was the same as with the clocks on the wall: neurons could affect each other primarily locally. To reduce the synaptic path length of the network, we replaced a small subset of neurons with neurons with medium- and long-range connections. Such interneurons with medium- and long-range connections do indeed exist (see Cycle 3). The new, scale-free network ticked perfectly. Its structure shared reasonable similarities with the anatomical wiring of the hippocampus and displayed synchronized oscillations, involving each member equally, irrespective of their physical distance. The reason why our small-world-like artificial network synchronized is because it exploited two key features: few but critical long-range connections that reduced the average synaptic path length of the network and oscillatory coupling, which required very little energy. Analogously, cortical networks may achieve their efficacy by exploiting small-world-like organization at the anatomical level (Cycle 2) and oscillatory synchrony at the functional level. There is synchrony for (almost) free.
* Most of the observations were taken in the small underground Kamra (Chamber) Theater of Budapest. Global and local noise was measured by microphones above the audience and placed next to a spectator, respectively. Rhythmic group clapping emerges between 12 and 25 seconds. Average global noise intensity, integrated over 3-second time windows, indicates decreased energy spending by the audience during the rhythm despite large surges of noise.
** The BOLD signal (see Cycle 4) decreases over large cortical areas during both alpha dominance (Laufs et al., 2003) and thalamocortical spike-and-wave epilepsy (Salek-Haddadi et al., 2002), demonstrating that the metabolic cost of neuronal activity associated with increased neuronal synchrony may, in fact, be less than during nonrhythmic states.
*** For the English translation of Huygen’s original letter about the “sympathy” of clocks, see Pikovsky et al. (2001).
**** In reality, the issue we addressed was quite different from the clocks on the wall because none of the 4,000 interneurons was an oscillator. Instead, their interactions formed one single clock (Buzsáki et al., 2004). Coupling of numerous oscillators have been analyzed mathematically, but these mathematical models lack the physical constraints of axon conduction delays; therefore, they cannot be directly applied to coupling of brain oscillators (Kuramoto, 2984; Mirollo and Strogatz, 1990). For the coupling of two identical oscillators with realistic axon conduction delays, see Traub et al. (1996) and Bibbig et al. (2002).
5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT – Interestingly, 5-MeO-DMT seems to lead to global synchrony (and thus the melting of internal boundaries, the feeling of complete oneness with the universe) whereas N,N-DMT instead seems to give rise to powerful clusters of synchrony which are constantly competing against each other (thus creating partitions in the mind and the sense of “an other”, aka. machine elves). It would be fascinating to figure out why this difference emerges at the level of functional changes to the brain’s network topology as induced by each drug.
Excerpt from Opening the Heart of Compassion: Transform Suffering Through Buddhist Psychology and Practice by Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short (pgs. 101-107, 112-113)
Beyond Struggle and the Quest for Power: From Titan Realm to Skillful Means
“Sure winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” – “Red” Sanders
“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” – George Santayana, Life of Reason, Volume 1
“Only where love and need are one – And the work is play for mortal stakes – Is the deed ever really done – For Heaven and the future’s sakes.” – Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
The Titans, dressed in full armor, are beings inflamed by jealousy. They see everything in terms of struggle, feel attacked by the gods, and seek the power to become gods. A giant tree grows on the border between the titan realm and the god realm and bears wish-granting fruit. While the tree grows in the territory of the titans, the fruit falls in the land of the gods. The gods, oblivious of where the blessings come from, eat the fruit and toss the pits over the wall between the two realms, which the titans take to be arrows of assault. They fire arrows and spears toward the gods, which magically turn to blossoms as they descend into their neighbor’s realm.
Avalokiteshvara appears to the titans as the Spiritual Father Amogasiddhi, realizer of the aim and of all-accomplishing wisdom, and as the Divine Mother Tara, the All-Merciful. Amogasiddhi is an impeccably skilled warrior who remains cool and fearless in the face of attacks by all the titans, and who radiates a luminous green light. Unable to defeat him, the titans attempt to learn his skill. As they learn to separate their actions from their emotions, and to develop the qualities of skillful means — stillness and quietude, freshness of being, cool unfettered mind, productive activity, harmony with both comrades and opponents, precision, and selfless volition — their original desire to conquer the kingdom of the gods is undermined by their realization that there is nothing to be gained by the struggle.
Tara, as a “savior”, invites the titans, particularly the female titans, to look into the pool of tears they have shed for their husbands, brothers, and sons lost in battle. They reflect on the suffering that flows from their sense of entitlement, their tendency to be aggressive, and their orientation towards struggle. From this reflection comes a pause, a realization of the dangers of fixation, and a sense of grace and gratitude.
When we live in the titan realm, we want to prove that we deserve to be respected, to be honored, to be loved, to be secure, and to be treated justly. We furiously engage in one activity after another, and often in many activities simultaneously, in an effort to show the world that we are worthy. We strive to avoid being criticized or attacked for some failure. We have an enormous fear of failure because it would leave us vulnerable to those who would destroy us with criticism and shame.
In our struggle to prove our worth and prevent failures, we feel compelled toward greater accomplishments and ever grander goals. If only we could control situations, we could use our intelligence, our energy, and our hard work to make things turn out as they should.
Shame and the Fear of Violation
As titans, we feel shame, envy, and fear of attack. All are rooted in the feeling that our basic integrity — who we are and what we feel — can and will be violated. We fear what others think of us, and we are convinced that they think we are not good enough. Shame is specifically this feeling of being unworthy and inadequate as human beings.
Robert Bly points out that, when our inner sovereignty is not respected by our parents, our teachers, or our society, we not only develop shame, but also become confused about boundaries. When we live as titans, we live with paranoia. We think our boss is setting us up to fail. We are sure that the driver passing us on the right is defeating us in an imaginary race. Or we sense that our lover is holding back from acknowledging our achievements out of jealousy.
As titans we are haunted by the feeling that our friends, bosses, lovers, and powerful people are competing with us. They attack us, seeking to destroy our sense of worth and to steal what we have. Those who have more than we have are shaming us by example; they are revealing our failings. Those who help us must have ulterior motives such as domination and dependency. Those who do not help us are selfish and untrustworthy. Those who desire our friendship want the riches we have to offer. Those who give us gifts expect more in return. We know that we work hard and diligently, yet the fruits of our labor seem to benefit others more than ourselves.
So we frequently feel that we are being cheated, that others are reaping the rewards of our efforts. We become protective of our accomplishments. Rather than sharing the joy of our victories, we erect protective walls to secure our gains. This realm is characterized by the illusion of scarcity, the conviction that there is not enough to go around. Therefore, we must fight not only for our fair share now but also for control, so that we can get ours in the future.
Envy and Entitlement
In this realm we are preoccupied with our desire for what other people have. Our territory is extended beyond simply what we own to include those things that we deserve. If we are unable to obtain what we want, we experience not only frustration, but the pain of undeserved loss. We justify what we want as entitlement, and feel that we have a rightful claim not only to what we have but to what we think we need.
This sense of righteous entitlement shapes our attitude toward others: those who support our activities are friends, and all others are enemies. For the titan, even friends and allies are regarded with suspicion because they might shift positions, becoming enemies. This means that we are continually gauging relative positions, not only with foes, but also with friends. We cannot afford to let our friends become too good, too famous, too successful. Instead of rejoicing in their triumphs we feel alienated from them. We feel envy and shame at not having accomplished all that they have accomplished.
This frame of suspicion and threat means that we mistrust information from other people and cut ourselves off from learning from them. We think that only we can judge what is useful and true. We are preoccupied with the way information is manipulated for competitive ends. We think that one of the few things that we can control is the information that we give other people, and we not only use this to advance our own position but assume that others are doing the same. In fact, we believe that everyone is the same, with the same desires and motives and combative spirit. To us people act out of self-interest and are motivated by the desire for accomplishment, acquisition, status, and power.We distrust protestations to the contrary and demonstrations of alternative motives.
Torn by Desire and Distrust
We are torn between our desire for approval and our distrust of others and their motives. We seek peaceful relationships and secure sense of belonging, but feel constant distrust and competition. We want to relax and are often exhausted by our constant struggles; yet we fear the consequences of lowering our guard.
We long to fit into the world, but we are convinced that we have to fight for our place and defend it. This means perpetual alienation from other people. We often decide to settle for their respect rather than seeking their love, as this appears safer in the world of competition.
Competing for Esteem
Competition, as such, is neither good nor bad. Competition can support us by giving feedback on our performance, by providing examples of what is possible, by engendering appreciation for the abilities of others, and by creating side-by-side intimacy through fellowship with our competitors. If, however, it is viewed simply in terms of winning and losing and of proving self-worth, it cuts us off from our aliveness. Our competitive urge drives us to be better, smarter and richer than other people. Even religious leaders and spiritual seekers work to become greater, more devout, more skilled and even more humble than anyone else. Yet, when we are concerned with surpassing others, we cut ourselves off from our own best qualities and energies.
This type of competition distances us from other people, making it easy to ignore the feelings and situations of those around us. The desire to win leads us to concentrate on weaknesses of others so that we will look better. We point out their failings as part of our campaign to appear superior. One paradox of competition is that we want to validate our inherent self-worth beyond all comparison by using comparison with others.
The preoccupation with winning distorts our natural inclination for meaningful action. We search for our arena, our field of competitive advantage. Then we specialize, narrowing the ground of competition to increase our chance of winning. We share less and less with others and lose interest in things outside our sphere of endeavor. Win/lose competitiveness not only alienates us from others but also from our own openness.
To make a virtue of our struggle, we elevate winning to an ideal, excellence to the greatest expression of human nature, and competitiveness to an innate human quality. […] The pressure to succeed, however, breeds the fear of failure and shame, which undermines our self-confidence and keeps us trapped in issues of self-esteem.
We use our continual comparisons with others and with our ideals to judge our progress and to map out strategies for the competitive struggle. The success of others is not an indication of our impoverishment, as in the preta realm, but a basis for shame and a target for achievement. We do not want to be less than others, and so we struggle to be superior to them. Comparisons spur us into action. Whereas in the preta realm we internalize the sense of comparison and evaluation, in the realm of the titans we externalize it and try to change our position. We often treat others as obstacles to be moved out of the way, or as data to be manipulated.
We feel shamed by the accomplishments of other people, as though they succeeded in order to spite us. We try to dismiss their sharing as “showing off” — another insult added to the injury of our relative failure.
In our titan frame of mind, we may come to feel that we must be the best at almost any cost. If we cannot exceed everyone else, then we will diminish their successes. If we cannot be taller naturally, we can at least lop off the heads of those around us.
Conceits of Superiority, Inferiority, and Equality
When we inhabit this realm we are prone to three conceits: superiority, inferiority, and equality. The superiority conceit argues, “I am better than you,” or “You are worse than me.” The inferiority conceit says, “I am worse than you,” or “You are better than me.” The equality conceits suggests that “I am as good as you,” or “I am as bad as you are.”
This last conceit can be the most insidious because it seems virtuous. As titans, we are trying to make everyone at least as bad as we are. If we are angry with our partners and they are calm, we will try to make them upset to show that they are no different and certainly no better than we are. If we confess our failings, we want everyone else to confess theirs to demonstrate that they are no better than us. We want to bring them down to a common level where we can feel equal and can thereby validate ourselves. We enlist the political virtue of equality in the cause of proving that everyone is the same as we are.
Appealing to the Public
In our drive for respect and approval, we may be seduced by superficial judgments. People will encourage us to show only our most appealing behaviors and to say what they want to hear. We pander to an audience and take public attention as validation, even though it is dependent on outward appearances and manipulated impressions.
This habit of superficiality minimizes the threat to our constructed identity and therefore feels comfortable. We befriend people who are engaged in the same game because there is an implicit agreement that “I won’t call you on your game, if you won’t reveal mine.” With most people we attempt to manipulate their feelings, saying what will maintain their esteem for us and prevent their honest feedback. This further obscures both our feelings and our capacity for insight into our own habits.
When we equate manipulation with success, genuine honesty appears naive and unproductive. Our lives seem to be functioning in high gear, our work resulting in material rewards and fame. Yet underneath this superficial progress, we sense that our integrity has been violated, thus aggravating our insecurity and agitation.
Our dissatisfaction and striving prevents us from finding any natural balance in the world and experiencing harmony within ourselves. Our heart posture of struggle also prevents us from greeting new situations freshly. We become jaded in relating to ourselves and other people. Everything appears to be the same old thing, as we cloak our innate freshness with habitual perceptions and unconscious assumptions.
Spiritual Masquerade of the Warrior
As titans we may enter the spiritual path to improve our personal power and to enhance our self-image and public image. We become warriors in our struggle for perfection. We want to mobilize the energy body in our pursuit of success and excellence. We are preoccupied with the psychic powers and impeccability of the warrior, and view other spiritual aspirants — and even our own teachers — as competitors. We also sense the power of harmony, spontaneity, and authenticity and want these for ourselves to serve our titan goals.
(with 120 mg [of MDMA]) “I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible. The cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength continued throughout the rest of the day, and evening, and through the next day. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience, and how much more powerful it was than previous experiences, for no apparent reason, other than a continually improving state of being. All the next day I felt like ‘a citizen of the universe’ rather than a citizen of the planet, completely disconnecting time and flowing easily from one activity to the next.” – PIHKAL entry on MDMA
The abolitionist project, i.e. the goal of preventing all future suffering, is tremendously ambitious and grandiose. It is not surprising, then, that one would assume that the demographic that it will tend to attract consists of people who inhabit the titan realm first and foremost. Likewise, when we talk about ending suffering, the grandiosity of this aspiration can likely trigger in the listener precisely the defense mechanisms of the titan realm. How many of the counterarguments against ending suffering are really coming from a place of equanimity and balance, and how many of them are just habitual titan realm reactions to a perceived threat to one’s status in the hierarchies we are invested in?
One may say: “I had to suffer to be great! To be meaningful, to be useful, to be respected, all of that has cost me a sea of sweat and tears. Without great sacrifice there is no great reward! Do you want to take that away from me?”
Compare such pained responses to the mindset that MDMA instills in us. Because on MDMA one often experiences one’s sense of self-worth as inherent rather than conditional, one is able to see our motivations with complete self-honesty. More so, one does not get entangled in the status competitions of others, as the unshakable sense of inner worth is not diminished by one’s relative position in these consensus realities.
One may surely worry that our natural low self-worth is perhaps necessary to achieve great things. That if we could actually emotionally get by with feeling better than well — in a state of compassion, bliss, and wholesomeness — we would have evolved to be that way already. Alas, evolution does not care about our wellbeing; only the inclusive fitness of our genes. And it surely was the case that back in the African Savannah being driven by titan realm energies was highly adaptive. But today, I suspect, we will gain a lot of value by examining all the ways in which titan realm energies, in fact, get in the way of great achievements. Indeed, the very meaning of greatness as seen from the point of view of the titan realm is highly impoverished, narrow, and one-sided. For greatness of an even higher kind is to be found in the wonder and majesty of working towards a world of beautiful feelings for everyone.
It is surely the case that a lot of human accomplishments come straight out of the titan realm. However, I would like to challenge the notion that titan realm feelings are necessary, desirable, or perhaps inevitable in high-achievers. In particular, we should recall that group selection has limits: while every cell of your liver is indeed “in it to win it” with you, this is not quite true for each “cell” of a human group. The reason is simple: we are not all genetic twins, so human colonies are generally bound to be unstable, filled with internal competition, and sabotage. I would posit that one can indeed work towards ambitious and beautiful goals without invoking titan realm energies. In particular, we should be frank about all the ways in which titan motivations are in fact detrimental to our very goals. The low mood and self-loathing caused by internalized low-status is undoubtedly a huge cause of low productivity (see: rank theory of depression); office politics a massive waste of internal resources; and the paranoia overhead of the realm a derailment of effective and coherent group action. Thus, while MDMA-like states of consciousness may not have been the optimally adaptive mindsets from the point of view of our selfish genes, I think that a strong case can be made that they might in fact be extremely adaptive at the group level in modern times. This can be empirically tested. Looking ahead, this maybe is especially so post-reproductive revolution, as we will get to decide the gene distribution of our offspring in anticipation of their expected benefits at the individual and group level.
Much has been said about how we are, by nature, status-seeking monkeys. But an important thing to point out here is that the objective of our actions can be disentangled from the way in which their underlying motivations are implemented. We are not utility maximizers as much as we are adaptation executors. Sure we may nominally act in a way that maximizes our inclusive fitness, but the way we do so is by executing adaptations rather than having a “gene copying maximizing brain module” or anything of the sort. More so, that such adaptations result in the maximization of our genetic inclusive fitness is only guaranteed to be the case in our ancestral environment of adaptiveness. The connection between the (largely male-dominated) titan realm temperament and constant warfare is undeniable in communities largely untouched by modern civilization like Yanomami tribes in South America. And I would argue, it also explains inter- and intra-group aggression in modern times. Today in modern society a lot of (most?) groups indeed run on the fumes of the titan realm. And the fact that this causes huge misery inside these groups is only one reason to want to change it. Even more importantly, the titan realm paranoia, attachment to group identity, and its desire to win at all costs are especially dangerous in an era of drones and nuclear weapons. The maintenance of group pride no matter the consequences is threatening the survival of our species. But modern environments can in principle be designed so that this temperament becomes thoroughly maladaptive.
Thankfully, there is a sliver of a chance that we will soon find ways to motivate large groups of people by entirely wholesome energies. How far-fetched is this? Well, research into MDMA is just starting. We are at the foot of a hockey stick figure of “studies per year” of MDMA and related empathogenic/entactogenic drugs and interventions. This research has the potential to bootstrap a new modus operandi for human groups in a way that is sustainable and adaptive at the personal and group level, such that it effectively makes everyone in them happy, wholesome, and productive. If we manage to do this, we may in fact experience a complete overhaul of the old world energies of pride and domination, in lieu of an adaptive sense that “I love the world and the world loves me”.
Excerpt from “Mindmelding: Consciousness, Neuroscience, and the Mind’s Privacy” (2012) by William Hirstein (pgs. 57-58 and 64-65)
The Neuroscience of Binding
When you experience an orchestra playing, you see them and hear them at the same time. The sights and sounds are co-conscious (Hurley, 2003; de Vignemont, 2004). The brain has an amazing ability to make everything in consciousness co-conscious with everything else, so that the co-conscious relation is transitive: That means, if x is co-conscious with y, and y is co-conscious with z, then x is co-conscious with z. Brain researchers hypothesized that the brain’s method of achieving co-consciousness is to link the different areas embodying each portion of the brain state by a synchronizing electrical pulse. In 1993, Linás and Ribary proposed that these temporal binding processes are responsible for unifying information from the different sensory modalities. Electrical activity, “manifested as variations in the minute voltage across the cell’s enveloping membrane,” is able to spread, like “ripples in calm water” according to Linás (2002, pp.9-10). This sort of binding has been found not only in the visual system, but also in other modalities (Engel et al., 2003). Bachmann makes the important point that the binding processes need to be “general and lacking any sensory specificity. This may be understood via a comparison: A mirror that is expected to reflect equally well everything” (2006, 32).
Roelfsema et al. (1997) implanted electrodes in the brain of cats and found binding across parietal and motor areas. Desmedt and Tomberg (1994) found binding between a parietal area and a prefrontal area nine centimeters apart in their subjects, who had to respond with one hand, to signal which finger on another hand had been stimulated – a conscious response to a conscious perception. Binding can occur across great distances in the brain. Engel et al. (1991) also found binding across the two hemispheres. Apparently binding processes can produce unified conscious states out of cortical areas widely separated. Notice, however, that even if there is a single area in the brain where all the sensory modalities, memory, and emotion, and anything else that can be in a conscious state were known to feed into, binding would still be needed. As long as there is any spatial extent at all to the merging area, binding is needed. In addition to its ability to unify spatially separate areas, binding has a temporal dimension. When we engage in certain behaviors, binding unifies different areas that are cooperating to produce a perception-action cycle. When laboratory animals were trained to perform sensory-motor tasks, the synchronized oscillations were seen to increase both within the areas involved in performing the task and across those areas, according to Singer (1997).
Several different levels of binding are needed to produce a full conscious mental state:
Binding of information from many sensory neurons into object features
Binding of features into unimodal representations of objects
Binding of different modalities, e.g., the sound and movement made by a single object
Binding of multimodal object representations into a full surrounding environment
Binding of representations, emotions, and memories, into full conscious states.
So is there one basic type of binding, or many? The issue is still debated. On the side of there being a single basic process, Koch says that he is content to make “the tentative assumption that all the different aspects of consciousness (smell, pain, vision, self-consciousness, the feeling of willing an action, of being angry and so on) employ one or perhaps a few common mechanisms” (2004, p15). On the other hand, O’Reilly et al. argue that “instead of one simple and generic solution to the binding problem, the brain has developed a number of specialized mechanisms that build on the strengths of existing neural hardware in different brain areas” (2003, p.168).
What is the function of binding?
We saw just above that Crick and Koch suggest a function for binding, to assist a coalition of neurons in getting the “attention” of prefrontal executive processes when there are other competitors for this attention. Crick and Koch also claim that only bound states can enter short-term memory and be available for consciousness (Crick and Koch, 1990). Engel et al. mention a possible function of binding: “In sensory systems, temporal binding may serve for perceptual grouping and, thus, constitute an important prerequisite for scene segmentation and object recognition” (2003, 140). One effect of malfunctions in the binding process may be a perceptual disorder in which the parts of objects cannot be integrated into a perception of the whole object. Riddoch and Humphreys (2003) describe a disorder called ‘integrative agnosia’ in which the patient cannot integrate the parts of an object into a whole. They mention a patient who is given a photograph of a paintbrush but sees the handle and the bristles as two separate objects. Breitmeyer and Stoerig (2006, p.43) say that:
[P]atients can have what are called “apperceptive agnosia,” resulting from damage to object-specific extrastriate cortical areas such as the fusiform face area and the parahippocampal place area. While these patients are aware of qualia, they are unable to segment the primitive unity into foreground or background or to fuse its spatially distributed elements into coherent shapes and objects.
A second possible function of binding is a kind of bridging function, it makes high-level perception-action cycles go through. Engel et al. say that, “temporal binding may be involved in sensorimotor integration, that is, in establishing selective links between sensory and motor aspects of behavior” (2003, p.140).
Here is another hypothesis we might call the scale model theory of binding. For example, in order to test a new airplane design in a wind tunnel, one needs a complete model of it. The reason for this is that a change in one area, say the wing, will alter the aerodynamics of the entire plane, especially those areas behind the wing. The world itself is quite holistic. […] Binding allows the executive processes to operate on a large, holistic model of the world in a way that allows the model to simulate the same holistic effects found in the world. The holism of the represented realm is mirrored by a type of brain holism in the form of binding.
See also these articles about (phenomenal) binding:
We developed a new method for replicating psychedelic tracer effects in detail: the Tracer Replication Tool. This tool gives us a window into how the time-like texture of experience determines the state of consciousness we find ourselves in, which clarifies what makes both meditating and taking psychedelics such powerful state-switching activities. We discuss how the technique of using the tracer tool may find useful applications, such as allowing us to describe exotic “ineffable” experiences in clear language, standardize a scale of intensity of psychedelic drug effects (a.k.a. a “High-O-Meter”), help us quantify the synergy between different drugs, and test theories for what makes an experience feel good or bad such as the Symmetry Theory of Valence. The pilot data collected with this tool so far is suggestive of the following patterns: (1) THC and HPPD result in a smooth and faint trail effect. (2) The characteristic frequencies of the strobe and replay effects for 2C-B are slower than those of either DMT or 5-MeO-DMT. And, (3) whereas DMT comes with a strong color pulsing effect leading to very colorful visuals, 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to monochromatic tracer effects. We conclude by discussing the implications of these patterns in light of an analysis of experience that allows for a varying time-like texture. We hope to inspire the scientific community and curious psychonauts to use this tool to help us uncover more patterns.
Rhythmic activity in the brain is a staple of neuroscience. It shows up in spiking neurons, synchronous oscillations at the level of networks, global patterns of resonance and coherence in EEG recordings, and in many other places. The book Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsáki is a systematic review of what was known about these rhythms back in 2006. One of the things György talks about in this book is how a lot of neuroscience techniques focused on finding the neural correlates of perception tend to consider the variable activation of neurons from one trial to the next as noise. In experiments that look into how neurons respond to a specific stimulus, datasets are constructed that track the neuronal activity that stays the same across trials. That which changes is discarded as noise, and György argues that such “noise” is really where the information about the internal rhythms is to be found. We concur with the assessment that understanding these native rhythms is key for making sense of how the brain works. Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in this space is the method of Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave analysis (Atasoy et al., 2016). This way of analyzing fMRI data describes a “brain state” as, at least partly, consisting of a weighted sum of its resonant modes. This paradigm has been used with success for comparing brain states across widely different categories of experience: LSD, ketamine, and anesthesia, among others (Luppi et al., 2020).
These are exciting times for exploring the native rhythms of nervous systems in neuroscience. But what about their subjective quality? One would hope that we could connect a formal third-person view of these rhythms with their experiential component. Alas, at this point in time the behavioral and physiological component of brain rhythms is far better understood than the way in which they cash out in subjective qualities.
Could there be a way to make these rhythms easily visible to ourselves as scientists? One interesting lens through which to see psychedelics is in terms of the way they excite specific rhythm-generating networks. This lens would present psychedelic states as giving you a sense of what it feels like to have many of these rhythms simultaneously activated, thus having access to a wider repertoire of brain states (Atasoy et al., 2017).
But you don’t need psychedelics to realize there’s something fishy about the solidity of our perception. Intuitively, one may get the impression that normal everyday states of consciousness do not show the signatures of being the result of ensembles of rhythmic activity. That said, some would affirm that paying attention to the artifacts of our perception may in fact be a window into these rhythms. For example, Lehar’s Harmonic Resonance Theory of the gestalt properties of perception (Lehar, 1999) attempts to explain the characteristics of well known visual illusions (such as the Kanizsa triangle) with principles derived from the superposition of rhythmic activity.
Paying close attention to the act of observing an object over time has led some researchers to play with the idea that our experience of the world is best understood as music (Lloyd, 2013), for our feeling of a solid surrounding results from the interplay between finely coordinated sensations and acts of interpretation. Indeed, the fluidity of sensory impressions betrays our common-sense notion that we experience a solid and stable world. It often takes a perturbation out of our normal everyday state of consciousness to notice this. As an example here, we can point out that insight meditation practices peer into the illusion of solidity and continuity of our experience, whereas concentration meditation enhances these illusions (Ingram, 2018).
Arguably, like a fish who cannot notice water until it’s taken out of it, the stitching process by which our brain constructs reality is usually hidden from view. To be taken out of the water in this context would be to be in a state that allows you to notice the seams of one’s experience. To the extent that this normal stitching process breaks down in exotic states of consciousness, they are clearly useful for research in this domain. Thus we argue that the artifacts of perception in alien states of consciousness are not noise; they provide hints for how normal experience is constructed. In particular, we posit that “psychedelic tracers” (i.e. the cluster of persisting visual phenomena caused by hallucinogens) may be a window into how rhythmic feedback dynamics are used to control the content of our experience. For this reason, we have been interested in turning what until now has been qualitative descriptions and informal approximations of this phenomenon into concrete quantitative replications.
In what follows we will showcase the value of a psychophysics toolkit we developed at the Qualia Research Institute called the Tracer Replication Tool for modeling psychedelic tracer phenomenology. Although we will focus on psychedelic experiences, this tool can have a much broader set of applications. For example, we show how the tool can be used to visualize and quantify the severity of HPPD, which currently has a very qualitative, and imprecise at best, diagnostic criteria. Likewise, the tool has the potential to bring together the complex clinical presentation of visual disturbances such as palinopsia, photopsia, oscillopsia, visual snow, and other conditions, into a coherent framework. Perhaps, speculatively, the connection between all these visual disturbances is to be found in the dysregulation of the rhythms of the visual control systems, which is what the tracer tool sets out to quantify.
The only attempt of arriving at quantitative replications of psychedelic tracers in the scientific literature we are aware of is by (Dubois & VanRullen, 2011). They used multiple-exposure stroboscopic photography in order to depict video scenes. They then asked many people who have had LSD experiences to identify the strobe frequency that best approximated their tracers (which on average was in the 15-20 Hz range).
As we will see, our model for psychedelic tracers is more detailed: it has multiple persistence of vision effects that combine together into a complex tracer. For this reason, the kind of tracers used in Dubois & VanRullen turn out to be a special case of our tool, which we call the strobeeffect:
LSD users perceive a series of discrete positive afterimages in the wake of moving objects, a percept that has been likened to a multiple-exposure stroboscopic photograph, somewhat akin to Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs  from 1880, or to more recent digital art produced in a few clicks (Figure 1).
By using a wider set of effects, the Tracer Replication Tool might give us hints about how psychedelics disrupt native rhythms given how they affect the processing of perceptual information at a granular level.
Before we provide the full set of tracer effects along with their associated vocabulary, let us jump into the preliminary psychedelic replications we have obtained thanks to this tool.
Over the years since I’ve run the Qualia Computing blog, I’ve received many messages from people who, for lack of a better term, we could call rational psychonauts. This should not be too surprising, with pieces like “How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD” and “5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses”, the site has become a bit of a Schelling point for people who like to blend computational reasoning and the study of exotic states of consciousness. These rational psychonauts are people who not only are well acquainted with exotic states of consciousness, but also like to use a scientific and rational lens to make sense of such states. In particular, people in this cluster often ask me to send them experiments to try out next time they take a psychedelic substance. I certainly never encourage them to take drugs, but under the assumption they will do so anyway, I sometimes send them tasks to do. Thus, once we had a prototype for the tracer tool, I already had a set of more than willing anonymous pilot participants. I sent them the link to the tool along with some brief instructions. Namely:
Look at the ball for a few minutes in state X (where X can be any substance, meditation, etc.). Then as soon as you come down, try to fiddle with the parameters on the left until the simulated tracer looks as close as possible to how you experienced it in the state. When you are ready, simply click “submit parameters” and add info about what the state you were in was at the time. In the case of HPPD, just try your best to replicate the tracer (I know it gets confusing when we talk about the tracers of the simulated tracers, but try to ignore those and just replicate the tracer of the original input).
Without further ado, here are the resulting replications I received:
Mild HPPD (participant said it was strongest on color red)
12.5mg edible, 60 minutes post-ingestion
15mg edible, 90 minutes post-ingestion
20mg orally ingested
Notice how although the replication of the higher dosage is more mild in a way, they both share the presence of a strobe effect at roughly 5.5 Hz!
The higher dose has a complex mixture of effects, including 40 Hz color pulsing (positive and negative afterimages mixed together), 22 Hz replay, and 27 Hz strobe. I’ll note that the participant included the following comment: “Aside from extremely fast tracers, the white space consisted of pixelated fractals. Color was abundant.”
As we will discuss further below, it is worth noting that at least in this sample, there are no color pulsing effects present (which is unlike “regular” DMT).
Drug Combination: Mescaline + ETH-LAD
125μg ETH-LAD + 2 teaspoons of San Pedro powder
The above is the only datapoint we have so far from the combination of psychoactive substances. The participant took 125μg of ETH-LAD, and then two and a half hours later 2 teaspoons of San Pedro powder. The replication is of the way the ball looked like 5 hours after taking the first drug.
Let us now look into the specifics of the tracer tool:
Core effects are pillars of the tracer tool where a particular feedback dynamic is used. The core effects include trails, strobe, and replay.
A modifier effect is one that plays with a core effect and alters it in some way. We will talk along the way about the modifying effects of persistence, intensity, and frequency, and then have a separate section to talk in more detail about the modifier effects of envelope (ADSR), pulse, and color pulse.
Trails (Core Effect)
This is perhaps the most basic effect. Making an analogy with sound, trails are akin to a soft reverb with no delay:
The three settings for trails are: persistence, intensity, and exponential decay (which is binary in the current implementation and otherwise takes on the value of linear decay). Persistence determines how quickly the tracer vanishes, whereas intensity is a constant multiplier for the entire trail. Thus, by changing those parameters you can choose between e.g. a long but dim trail or a short but bright trail.
High persistence / low intensity
Low persistence / high intensity
The exponential decay parameter slightly changes how quickly the brightness goes down; when it’s on, the trails go down more smoothly (cf. gamma correction).
Without exponential decay
With exponential decay
Strobe (Core Effect)
The strobe effect takes snapshots of the input at regular intervals. It works like chronophotography, and it is perhaps what most people think about when you first talk about visual tracers. It is the effect that Dubois & VanRullen used to find that LSD produces visual tracers at ~15-20 Hz.
Strobe effect at 16.4 Hz
The strobe effect, just as the traileffect, also has intensity, persistence, and exponential decay modifiers. In addition, it also has frequency, which encodes how many snapshots per second are being taken.
5 Hz Strobe
10 Hz Strobe
20 Hz Strobe
Note: The current implementation of the trails feature is done with a very fast strobe. In this way, when you set the strobe frequency to the maximum you get something that starts to look a little like the trails effect.
Replay (Core Effect)
With an analogy to sound, replay would be akin to adding an echo or delay to a signal. Replay adds to the raw signal a copy of the output from a fraction of a second into the past. The result is a current output that contains a sequence of increasingly dimmer video replays of itself at regular time intervals into the past.
6 Hz Replay
As with strobe, replay has intensity, persistence, exponential decay, and frequency as its modifying effects.
3 Hz Replay
12 Hz Replay
Note: the replay effect is difficult to distinguish from the strobe effect with only still images
This is a modifier effect that can apply to trails, strobes, and replays (right now the implementation only applies to strobe, but we may change that in the future). It takes a fraction of the input and modulates it with a sine wave at a given frequency. This way the trails, strobes, and replays can come and go (either in part or in full) at a given frequency. This adds sparkle to the experience, and it can plausibly help create a sense of reality or object-permanence for the hallucinations as they “vibrate at their own frequency”.
Compare the difference between a strobe at 4 Hz vs. a strobe at 4 Hz with a pulse at 2 Hz:
4 Hz Strobe
4 Hz Strobe + 2 Hz Pulse at 50% amplitude
As you can see, the pulsing effect makes the strobes look like they have a sort of life of their own.
Using control interrupts as the source of hallucinogenesis, we can model hallucinogenic frame distortion of multisensory perception the same way we model sound waves produced by synthesizers; by plotting the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR envelope) of the hallucinogenic interrupt as it effects consciousness. (Fig. 2)3,4 For example, nitrous oxide (N20) inhalation alters consciousness in such a way that all perceptual frames arise and fall with a predictable “wah-wah-wah” time signature. The throbbing “wah-wha-wah” of the N20 experience is a stable standing wave formation that begins when the molecule hits the neural network and ends when it is metabolized, but for the duration of N20 action the “wah-wah-wah” completely penetrates all modes of sensory awareness with a strobe-like intensity. The periodic interrupt of N20 can be modeled as a perceptual wave ambiguity that toggles back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness at roughly 8 to 11 frames-per-second, or @8-11hz.5 Consciousness rises at the peak of each “wah” and diminishes in the valleys in between. On sub-anesthetic doses, N20 creates a looping effect where frame content overlaps into the following frame, causing a perceptual cascade similar to fractal regression. We can thus model the interrupt envelope of N20 as having a rounded attack, fast decay, low sustain, medium release, with an interrupt frequency of @8-11hz. Any psychoactive substance with a similar interrupt envelope will produce results that feel similar to the N20 experience. (Fig. 3) For instance, Smoked Salvia divinorum (vaporized Salvinorin A&B, or Salvia) has an interrupt envelope similar to N20, except Salvia has a harder attack, a slightly longer decay, a more intense sustain, a slightly longer release, and a slightly faster interrupt frequency (@12-15hz).6 These slight changes in the frequency and shape of interrupt envelope cause Salvia to feel more physically intense, more hallucinatory, and more disorienting than N20, even though they share a similar throbbing or tingling sensation along the same frequency range.
This actually seems to be important for showcasing what makes drugs with similar characteristic frequencies capable of feeling so different.
2 Hz Strobe
2 Hz Strobe + soft ADSR pattern
A really interesting research lead that is connected to the ADSR envelope of psychedelic tracers can be found in The Grand Illusion (Lehar, 2010), where cognitive scientist Steven Lehar narrates some of his experiences with LSD vs. LSD + MDMA. One of the things he discusses is the way that MDMA makes the experience jitter in a pleasant way that results in the LSD visuals becoming smoother (emphasis mine):
Under LSD and ecstasy I could see the flickering blur of visual generation most clearly. And I saw peculiar ornamental artifacts on all perceived objects, like a Fourier representation with the higher harmonics chopped off. LSD by itself creates sharply detailed ornamental artifacts, like a transparent overlay of an ornamental lattice or filigree pattern superimposed on the visual scene, especially in darkness. Ecstasy smooths out those sharp edges and blurs them into a creamy smooth rolling experience.
As we will discuss further below, a more creamy ADSR envelope may cash out in a more pleasant experience, whereas a sharper or spikier envelope may in turn create more harsh experiences.
Color Pulse/Negative After Images (Modifier)
The color pulse effect transforms the image’s color towards its opposite in the CIELAB color space with a given frequency. It modifies strobe, replay, and trails (in principle, there can be a different color pulse for each effect, but for now it modifies all three simultaneously).
23.6 Hz Strobe
23.6 Hz Strobe + 2 Hz Color Pulse
Unlike pulse, color pulse modulates the color rather than the brightness of the input. The way we determine what color to transform into is by going to the opposite side of the CIELAB color space. This accurately approximates the negative afterimage of any phenomenal color (such as yellow being the negative afterimage of blue, and green being the negative afterimage of red). In our current implementation, color pulsing affects strobe and replay quite differently. For replay, the effect is one where there are now versions of the ball (or image, more generally) that have the opposite color that are chasing the original ball, whereas for strobe the effect is that of giving a seizure to each of the recent snapshots of experience! See for yourself:
26 Hz Replay + 13 Hz Color Pulse
26 Hz Strobe + 13 Hz Color Pulse
In a future version of the tracer tool, color pulse may become a sub-property of each main tracer layer in the same way ADSR is a sub-property of the strobe and replay layers.
Color pulsing may be an important piece of the puzzle for understanding how otherwise similar drugs can have such dramatically different effects. Tentatively, color pulsing showed up as a distinction between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT according to one of the persons who submitted parameters (as you can see above in the replication section). For that person, DMT produced color pulses while 5-MeO-DMT did not. Of course this is just a sample size of N=1. But it seems like an important research lead if true! After all, DMT trip reports do talk of highly colorful hallucinations that typically involve the combination of colors and their opposites (e.g. “The wall looked like a Persian carpet with an alternating checkerboard pattern design of neon green and magenta light” – anonymous 10mg DMT), whereas most 5-MeO-DMT trip reports don’t feature color very much. In fact, 5-MeO-DMT trips are often in black and white, pure white, pure black, or “nothingness color”. We discuss the implications of this in more detail in the last section of this piece (GettingRealms from Time-Like Textures).
Face Value vs. Dynamic Feedback Model
It is important to point out that the tracer tool works under the assumption of linearity between the effects it models. In other words, each effect modifies the input in its own way, and the corresponding modifications are added linearly at the end. This does not need to be the case. And in fact, we must expect the brain to have a lot of complex non-linearities where e.g. the pulsing effect is then used in a replay loop which entrains a strobing pattern which focuses your attention and so on. This complication aside, there is a lot of value in postulating the simple model first, and then adjusting accordingly when it fails to model the more complex phenomena. When we get there, once we have identified particular drugs, doses, and combinations that produce strange nonlinearities, we can then build tracer tools that explore how the parameters of particular dynamic systems can best explain the empirical data. Until then, let us start mapping out the space with this (relatively) simple linear model.
I would like to highlight the fact that using the tracer tool can be very educational. Familiarizing yourself with the effects and their modifications will allow you to be able to describe in detail psychedelic tracers even without having to use the tool again. For instance, I find myself now able to describe what kind of tracer effect appears on any given replication or trippy video. For example, now that you have read about them, can you tell us what is going on in the following gifs?:
The Explanatory Power of the Time-Like Texture of Experience
Exotic Phenomenal Time
We have previously suggested that tracers in the most general sense (i.e. including tracers for emotions, thoughts, and all sensory modalities in addition to visual experience) are very important for understanding the time distortions one experiences in exotic states of consciousness. The overall idea is that the aspect of our experience that gives rise to the feeling of time passing is the result of implicit causality in the network of local binding connections, which we call the pseudo-time arrow (see a recent presentation about it). Don’t worry about the details, though. All you need to know is that here we model phenomenal time as the direction along which causality flows within one’s experience. And because this is a statistical property of our experience, it turns out that phenomenal time ends up being very malleable; it admits of “exotic phenomenal time” variants:
This framework can articulate what is going on when you experience crazy psychedelic states such as moments of eternity, time branching, time looping, and so on. Now, even these are just some of the possible ways in which the network of local binding connections can give rise to exotic phenomenal time experiences. In reality, because the pseudo-time arrow emerges at a statistical level in the network, one can have all manners of local pseudo-time arrows nested in complex ways, as briefly discussed in the presentation:
I will end by speculating: I just walked you through seven types of exotic phenomenal time, but if indeed [the experience of time] can be explained in terms of causality in a graph, then there are many other exotic phenomenal times we can construct. This is especially so when we consider the space of possible hybrid phenomenal times. For instance, where in some regions in the network we may find time looping, some other region might be a moment of eternity, and perhaps another region is branching, and you know, if you have a very big experience, there is no reason why you wouldn’t be able to segment different regions of it for different types of phenomenal time. This is not unlike, perhaps, how we think of Feynman diagrams, where this part of it here is moving forwards in time, this part here is doing a loop, this part here is branching… I think a lot of the topologies we see here could be used to represent completely new [hybrid] exotic phenomenal times.
Given the diversity of ways in which phenomenal time can be expressed in an experience, I will start talking about the patterns encoded in the pseudo-time arrow as the time-like texture of experience. This way, rather than assuming that one’s sense of time is globally consistent in a given way (e.g. as in “I am fully inside a time-loop”), we can discuss how various patches and components of one’s experience have this or that time-like texture (e.g. “my visual field was looping, but my proprioception was strobing and my thoughts felt timeless”).
As a generic effect, all psychedelics seem to increase the duration of qualia in one’s experiential field, leading to a buildup of energy. But the precise shape this takes matters a lot, and it is certainly different between drugs. An example pointed above is how LSD and DMT seem to produce strobe and replay patterns of markedly different frequencies. For DMT, the spatial and temporal frequency of the visual hallucinations is usually described as “very high”. Based on the replications thus far, along with personal reports from a musician I trust, DMT’s “characteristic frequency” seems to be in the 25 to 30 Hz range. In contrast, LSD’s frequency is more in the range of 15 to 20 Hz: both Dubois & VanRullen’s LSD tracer study and subjective reports I’ve gathered over the years point to the hallucinations of acid having this rough frequency. Hence, the very building blocks of reality of a high-dose DMT breakthrough experience consist of tiny time-loops and strobe effects interacting with one another, weaving together a hallucinated world with surprising levels of detail and intense freshness of experience (as all the time loops are “young” due to their short duration). Really, when you take a small dose of DMT and you see the walls tessellating into wallpaper groups, notice how each of the tiny “bricks” that make up the tessellation is itself a time loop of sorts! It is not a stretch to describe a DMT experience as a kind of complex Darwinian ecosystem of tiny coalition-based time loop clusters bidding for your attention (cf. Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences).
Taking this paradigm seriously allows us to interpret psychoactive effects at a high level in novel ways. For example, these are some of the general patterns we have identified so far:
Psychedelics tend to have strong replay and strobe effects
HPPD, cannabis, and dissociatives seem to have a much smoother trail effect
MDMA and 5-MeO-DMT have characteristically creamy ADSR envelope effects
Using the sound metaphor to restate the above, psychedelics introduce beats and recursion, dissociatives introduce reverb, and empathogens/valence drugs may affect the temporal blur of one’s experience. Thus, we arrive at a model of psychoactive substances that makes sense of their effects in the language of signal processing rather than neurotransmitters and functional localization. This sheds a lot of clarity on the mysterious and bizarre state-spaces of consciousness disclosed by psychoactive drugs and paves the way for a principled way of predicting the way drug combinations may give rise to synergistic effects (more on that below). More so, it lends credence to the patternceutical paradigm of drug effects.
Meditation: Insight and Concentration Practices
The pseudo-time arrow paradigm suggests that one of the ways in which meditative practices can switch one’s state of consciousness is by disrupting sober time-like textures and enabling exotic time-like textures not available to the sober mind (see also: The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models (Johnson, 2018)). My personal experience with meditative practices is limited, but I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing some strange effects so far. In particular, I would say that concentration practices seem to give rise to experiences with long and stable pseudo-time arrows – a peacefulness in which nothing is happening yet the flow of time is constant and rather uneventful. The phenomenal time of highly focused states of mind may be full of reverb, but I do not think it has crazy time loops. Moments of eternity and timelessness may be present at the limit here (e.g. moments of eternity and Jhanas may be deeply connected), though I will need more personal experience to say this with confidence.
On the other hand, insight practices such as noting meditation may have more of a replay and strobe effect. In particular, this may happen as a result of three core effects from this kind of meditation: (1) it stops you from dissipating energy across long narratives, (2) it recaptures the energy you were going to use for a longer narrative to feed the noting process instead, and (3) it entrains the rhythm of noting. This in turn (a) energizes a regular constant-frequency pattern (the frequency of noting) and (b) reduces the energy of every other rhythm, which in turn (c) canalizes sensory stimulation energy towards the brain’s noting frequency and all of its harmonics, which eventually leads to a high-frequency energized state of consciousness whose building blocks are tiny time-loops. These can synchronize and create experiences with characteristic time-like textures made up of such tiny energized loops. Hence, noting practice above some level of skill (e.g. with a noting frequency above 3 Hz) can be DMT-like to an extent (in light of thinking of DMT realms as made up of energized high-frequency mini-time-loops).
These experiences characterized by intense tracer effects are in a similar space as the strange temporal distortions that happen when you are dizzy (like when you stand up too fast or hyperventilate). The “loss of context” that results from this effect is due to the longest replay loops becoming too short to contain the necessary information to “keep you in the loop about what is going on”. Hence the confusion about who or what you are, what you are doing, and how you got here that happens when you are near passing out from standing up too quickly. That confusion takes place in an otherwise highly detailed and intense high-energy and high-frequency “rush” made of tiny time loops.
Thus, one of the gateways into altered states of consciousness via meditation with noting can be summarized as what happens when you induce a self-reinforcing pattern of strobing, replay, and pulsing that fully captures your attention. This process builds up a lot of energy, which one can only wield up to a point. When one fails to control it, the state decays into a series of tracer patterns that use the clean loop as its background reference. As this happens, one experiences a world whose building blocks are beautiful tiny jewels of attention, slowly decaying as one loses the ability to stay focused. The decay process also seems to do something good when properly orchestrated. Namely, as the decay process begins, one naturally experiences a Cambrian explosion of qualia critters eager to feed off of the negentropy generated, as thought-forms need attention to survive. This whole process, one could argue, lends phenomenological credence to the paradigm of neural annealing, where one’s brain uses a heating and cooling schedule to entrain brain-wide harmony.
In other words, with something like a noting practice, one ends up creating a world simulation whose building blocks are all embedded in a very tight time-loop, a wind-up universe of concentrated awareness. Perhaps we are going too far with this explanation. Either way, we really feel that thinking in terms of these generalized tracer dynamic patterns is an exciting new conceptual toolkit that allows us to describe the quality of exotic experiences that were hard to pinpoint before.
Three Exciting Possible Applications of the Tracer Tool: High-O-Meter, Synergy Quotient, and Harmonic World-Building
How high are you? It is often difficult to put a number on this question. But once we have established the parameters for different drugs (e.g. characterized DMT as living in a region of the parameter-space that is of higher frequency than LSD, etc.) we can show a series of gifs to someone and ask them to point at the one that best shows what tracers looked like at the peak of their experience. This way we can quickly estimate how high they got (at least visually) with a very simple question.
For example, we may find that the “modal response” to 50, 100, 200, and 300 micrograms of LSD looks as follow:
Simulated tracer for 50 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 100 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 200 μg of LSD
Simulated tracer for 300 μg of LSD
If this works, we would be able to sort research participants into one of these ranges just by asking them to point at the image that best captures their experience. Similar tools for other modalities could be used to obtain a global “highness score” meaningful across people.
(2) Synergy Quotient (orthogonality vs. synergy vs. suppression vs. harmonization)
What happens when you combine psychoactive drugs together? We have previously discussed in great detail what happens when you take combos of drugs from various categories (see: Making Amazing Recreational Drug Cocktails), but admit that there are huge puzzles and unknowns in this space. Of note is that some combinations give rise to synergistic effects (e.g. psychedelics and dissociatives), others blunt each other’s action (e.g. agmatine and nootropics), while yet others seem to create competing effects due to some kind of mutually-exclusive qualities of experience (e.g. salvia and DMT, a.k.a. “drugfights”). For an illustrative example of the third category, famous psychonaut D. M. Turner reports:
I smoked 30 mg. of DMT in three tokes, followed immediately by 650 mcg. of Salvinorin that I had preloaded in a separate pipe.
The effects were felt almost immediately. The first thing I noticed was a grid of crosshatch patterns. I had perceived something similar when using 2C-B with mushrooms, which I believed to be the result of using two psychedelics that were not compatible with each other. However, in this case the patterns were defined to a much sharper degree, and it seemed apparent that these two substances affect consciousness in differing ways that are not synchronistic when used together. Both the Salvia and DMT entities seemed to have been taken entirely off guard and had not been expecting this confrontation. These entities seemingly paid no attention to me as their attention was entirely fixed on each other. It soon became apparent that the two were going to battle, vying to determine who would have control of my consciousness.
We think that the tracer tool can be useful to quantify the degree of interaction between two drugs. For instance, say that drug A produces a robust 10 Hz replay effect, whereas drug B produces a 7 Hz Strobing effect. Would drug A + drug B cause a tracer that blends these two facets, or does it produce something different? If the combination’s tracers are different than the sum of its parts, how large is this difference? And can this difference be identified with a particular recursive stacking of effects, or as the result of a nonlinear interaction between dynamic systems? We believe that this line of research may be very illuminating.
Drug A + Drug B (“orthogonal”)
Drug A + Drug B (“suppression”)
Drug A + Drug B (“synergy”)
Drug A + Drug B (“harmonization”)
In the above example, we show what various possibilities for the result of drug combos may be. “Orthogonal” effects mean that the resulting tracer is the sum of the tracers of each drug, “suppression” means that one drug’s effect reduces the effect of the other, “synergy” means that the resulting effects are stronger than you’d expect by just linearly adding the effects of each drug, and “harmonization” refers to the possible slight-retuning of the characteristic frequency of each drug’s effect that allows for a consonant blending. How strongly the combo is from the predicted effect based on each drug would determine the synergy quotient of the pair.
A few possible (tentative) examples: alcohol + psychedelics give rise to orthogonal effects, opiates and psychedelics result in effect suppression, dissociatives and psychedelics result in strong synergy (not unlike what you get when you stack reverb and looping in music), and MDMA and psychedelics might result in harmonized tracers (hence the creamy and harmonious visuals of candy-flipping). We would love to see research tackling this question.
(3) Harmonic World-Building
Tinnitus is usually loud and distracting, but in addition, it can also be annoying and unpleasant. At QRI, we posit that the precise pattern of tinnitus—not only its loudness—has implications for how bad it is for someone’s mental health: dissonant and chaotic tinnitus might be worse than consonant and harmonious patterns, for instance.
In a similar vein, we think that the particular tracer patterns, over and above just their intensity, of perceptual conditions like HPPD probably matter for how the condition affects you at a cognitive, perceptual, and emotional level. Concretely, we would like to study how valence is related to one’s particular tracer patterns: we think that when psychedelic tracers feel good, that such positive valence may show up in the form of (a) harmonious relationships between the components of the effects, and (b) a sort of creaminness in the way the tracers come over time (as shown in the MDMA + LSD trip report by Steven Lehar).
We take seriously the possibility that something akin to the rules of harmony in music (see: Tuning Timbre Spectrum Scale by William Sethares) will have a showing in the way resonance in any experiential field cashes out into valence. In other words, the way patterns of resonance in the brain combine might be responsible for whether the experience feels good or bad. In particular, under psychedelics and other high-energy states of consciousness, one’s visual field is capable of instantiating visions of both tremendous beauty and tremendous terror. It is as if in high-energy regimes, one’s visual field acquires the capacity for creating pleasure and pain of its own (albeit “visual” in flavor!). While sober, one can get something akin to this effect, though only mildly in comparison: you can experience beautiful patterns by staring at a smooth strobe with eyes closed, or experience unpleasant reactions when the strobe shines at irregular intervals. The quality of the self-generated light-show in energized states of consciousness (such as a psychedelic experience) will likely have an impact on one’s sense of wellbeing. Is one’s inner light show all irregular, uncoordinated, sharp, and jarring? Or is it smooth, clean, robust, and soft? Based on the Symmetry Theory of Valence, one can anticipate that one’s tracer phenomenology feels good when it expresses or approximates regular geometries and bad when the implied geometries are irregular or disjointed.
Dissonant emergent pattern
Consonant emergent pattern
The creaminess of smooth ADSR envelopes would likewise prevent sensory and emotional dissonance by virtue of softening spikes of sensations. This, of course, is ultimately an empirical question. Let’s investigate it!
Final Thoughts: Getting Realms from Time-Like Textures
The complexity and information content of one’s state of consciousness as induced by a substance may depend on what fits in the repertoire of time-like textures of the state. For example, some states might be much more prone to generate quasi-crystals as opposed to crystals, as we argued in DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT (Gomez Emilsson, 2020).
What are these crystals? One of the characteristic spatial effects of psychedelics is that they lower the symmetry detection threshold. This gives rise to the beautiful tessellations (at times Euclidean, at times hyperbolic (Gomez Emilsson, 2016)) everyone talks about. Analogously in time, psychedelics are notorious for creating time loops (cf. Going Loopy (Alexander, 2014)). In a deeper sense these are, we might argue, two facets of the same underlying effect. Namely, the creation of, for lack of a better term, qualia crystals. We can be cautious about assigning an ontological interpretation to qualia crystals; all we are proposing here is to accept them as phenomenological artifacts that tie together a lot of these experiential qualities. These gems of qualia come in many flavors, but they all express at least one symmetry in a clean and deep way. Whereas our experience of the world is usually made of a complex distribution of (tiny) qualia crystals which form the macroscopic time-like texture of our mind, we find in exotic states of consciousness the possibility of experiencing the refined, pure version. Timothy Leary in The Psychedelic Experience describes what he believes is the key existential conundrum close to the peak of an ecstatic trip:
Is it better to be part of the sugar or to taste the sugar?
In line with the neural annealing frame (Johnson, 2019), there is a very real sense in which slightly past the peak of a psychedelic experience you will find some of the largest, purest, most refined qualia crystals (at least relative to the human norm). And what this looks like will depend a lot on what the available building blocks are! The diversity of these building blocks makes the time-like texture of experience triggered by different drugs dramatically variable.
Some of the realms of experience are made with a time-like texture of interlocking time loops of different frequencies allowing you to experience the sense of “a big other”. In some other realms, the time loops are all aligned with each other, which makes self-other distinctions hard to represent and reason about. The various flavors for the felt sense of non-duality, for example, may correspond to different ways in which strobes, replays, pulse, etc. align perfectly to dissolve the internal boundaries used as building blocks to represent duality. At the extreme of “unification”, such as the state found in the 5-MeO-DMT breakthrough, one “becomes” a metronome whose tune is reflected faithfully everywhere in one’s experience, such that there is nothing else to interface with. Hence, one becomes “invisible to oneself”. To be in a state of near total oneness may entail the feeling of nothingness for this reason (thus the highest Jhanas being “nothingness” and “neither nothing nor something”).
This overall interpretative frame of exotic states as the result of time-like textures may show up empirically, too. One of the exciting early results, as mentioned above, is the report that while DMT creates complex positive and negative after-image dynamics full of color and polarity, the tracers on 5-MeO-DMT are monochromatic, meaning that one only experiences their positive after-image.
This alone may go a long way in explaining why the visual character of these two drugs is so distinct at their upper ranges. Namely, because DMT gives rise to complex checkerboard grid-patterns of overly-saturated colors intermingling with their polar opposites, whereas on 5-MeO-DMT, one often experiences an incredibly bright white light, or even a sense of translucid empty space, but no colors! The paradigm of using tracer patterns to make sense of states of consciousness would here suggest that a “breakthrough” experience can be interpreted as what happens when one’s world is saturated with the time-like texture characteristic of the tracer pattern of either drug. The realms of experience these agents disclose are the universes that you get when the building blocks of reality are those specific time loops and attention dynamics, leaving no room for anything that does not follow those “phenomenal time constraints”. When the dose is low, this manifests as just a gloss over one’s otherwise normal experience, a mere modifier on top of one’s sober reality. But when the dose is large, these time loops and attention dynamics drive the very way one’s mind constructs our whole sense of the world.
In this light, rather than thinking of exotic states of mind as places (as the “realm” metaphor alludes to), one can imagine conceptualizing them as ways of making sense of time. When you smoke salvia, you make sense of time in a salvia kind of way, which involves looping back chaotically in a way that typically results in losing the normal plot altogether and instead exotic narratives better fitted for the salvia attentional dynamics end up dominating the world-building process of the mind. Hence you end up in “salvia land”. Which is what you remember best. But the salvia land one ends up in is only a circumstantial part of the true story. The fundamental generator that is upstream of this realm would be the overall tracer pattern, the time-like texture of the experience: the neuroacoustic effect of salvia. He who controls the time-like texture of experience, controls the world-building process of the mind. Thus the paramount importance of understanding tracer patterns.
Do you want to collaborate on this project?
The Tracer Replication Tool is the first of a series of research tools we are creating at QRI specifically designed with psychedelic phenomenology in mind. The spirit of this enterprise is to identify the ways in which psychedelic states of consciousness can enhance the information processing of the mind in some ways. Rather than focusing on how information processing is impaired, we develop these tools with the goal of finding the ways in which it is enhanced (cf. psychedelic cryptography (Gomez Emilsson, 2015), psychedelic problem solving (Harman, 1966)). We take very seriously high-quality trips reports from rational psychonauts, which help us ideate tasks that are likely to show large effect sizes. Thus, rather than bringing traditional psychometric tools to the psychedelic space, we think that developing the tools to assess the psychedelic state in its own terms is more likely to provide novel and significant insights. We would love to have academic researchers include some of these tasks in their own study designs. Becoming familiar with the Tracer Replication Tool takes less than 10 minutes, and based on the pilot results, operating it during a psychedelic experience is possible for a good fraction of people under the influence of these substances. It would be amazing to have tracer replications included in psychedelic studies to come. If you are involved in psychedelic research and would like to use the Tracer Replication Tool or learn more about the toolkit we are developing please reach out to us! We would love to hear from you.
For Participants and Volunteers
There are several ways you can help this project. As a beta tester participant, you can use the tracer tool to replicate tracers that you yourself have experienced. There are three categories here (which you can specify at the point of submission when using the tool):
Retroactively: If you have experienced visuals tracers in the past and think you can remember them accurately (or at least recognize them when you see them), you can play with the Tracer Replication Tool and submit the parameters that best match your memory of the tracers you experienced.
Post-Trip: If you are planning on taking a psychedelic in the near future* and want to submit a datapoint from your experience, open the tracer tool during the trip and look at the bouncing ball (and other animations). While staring at the center of the animation for about a minute, try to get a clear picture of what the tracers look like. We encourage you to play with the color, speed, and animation type while you are in the state so that you see how tracers react to different visual inputs. Then as soon as possible after the trip is over, come back to the tool and find the tracer parameters that best replicate what you saw.
Within Trip: If you are familiar with the tracer tool parameters so that you can tell in real time whether you are experiencing strobing, replays, color pulsing, etc. then you may want to try to replicate the tracers you are seeing in real time. We recognize that this has the problem that the tracer replications will have psychedelic tracers of themselves, and that they get in the way of the tracers you are trying to reproduce. That said, the early reports we have received state that it is actually easier to do a good job at replicating the tracers while in the state than after it. So we also welcome submissions of this type.
The case of HPPD and other non-drug induced tracers could be considered in this frame as well. For instance, we have been made aware that during the meditation practice of Fire Kasina, one experiences many pronounced tracers of various kinds. Thus, if you are currently experiencing meditation-induced tracers, you can submit parameters of the within trip kind. If you saw the bouncing ball (or other animations) during the meditation but have now exited your state, then you could submit a datapoint of the post-trip kind. And if you only have the recollection of tracers but did not see the ball at the time, then submit a retroactive datapoint. Likewise, HPPD and other tracer phenomena may come and go and their intensity may wax and wane, so these categories are also useful in such cases.
Please sign up to the QRI mailing list if you want to stay informed about the development of QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit. We also want to emphasize, as we note in the Special Thanks section below, that this tool could not have been made without our amazing QRI volunteers. We are very eager to work with anyone with technical skills useful for this and related projects. If you would like to help us build these tools and advance our collective understanding of exotic states of consciousness, please get in touch. For more QRI volunteer projects see our volunteer page.
 A significant message of the book is that it is useful to conceptualize these rhythms as being the result of endogenous pattern-generating networks specialized to create specific frequencies, envelopes, and types of synchronization.
 “There are only two sources that control the firing patterns of a neuron at any time: an input from outside the brain and self-organized activity. These two sources of synchronization forces often compete with each other (Cycle 9). If cognition derives from the brain, this self-organized activity is its most likely source. Ensemble synchrony of neurons should therefore reflect the combination of some selected physical features of the world and the brain’s interpretation of those features. Even if the stimulus is invariant, the brain state is not. From this perspective, the most interesting thing we can learn about the brain is how its self-generated internal states, the potential source of cognition, are brought about. Extracting the variant, that is, brain-generated features, including the temporal relation between neural assemblies and assembly members, from the invariant features evoked by the physical world might provide clues about the brain’s perspective on its environment. Yes, this is the information we routinely throw away with stimulus-locked averaging.” (Buzsáki, 2006)
*Disclaimer: We are not encouraging anyone to ingest psychoactive substances.
Special Thanks to: Lawrence Wu for implementing the current version of the tool. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, and Mike Johnson for a lot of useful ideas, conversations, and keeping the project afloat. To Robin Goins and Alex Zhao for getting a head start in implementing an earlier version of the tool. To the QRI team for encouragement and many discussions. And to the anonymous rational psychonauts and the HPPD sufferer for contributing pilot data with visual replications of their own experiences.
Buzsáki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford University Press.
Atasoy, S., Donnelly, I., & Pearson, J. (2016). Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves. Nature Communications, 7(1), 10340. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10340
Luppi, A. I., Vohryzek, J., Kringelbach, M. L., Mediano, P. A. M., Craig, M. M., Adapa, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Pappas, I., Finoia, P., Williams, G. B., Allanson, J., Pickard, J. D., Menon, D. K., Atasoy, S., & Stamatakis, E. A. (2020). Connectome Harmonic Decomposition of Human Brain Dynamics Reveals a Landscape of Consciousness [Preprint]. Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.08.10.244459
Rudrauf, D., Lutz, A., Cosmelli, D., Lachaux, J.-P., & Le Van Quyen, M. (2003). From autopoiesis to neurophenomenology: Francisco Varela’s exploration of the biophysics of being. Biological Research, 36(1). https://doi.org/10.4067/S0716-97602003000100005
Atasoy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Kringelbach, M. L., Deco, G., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Connectome-harmonic decomposition of human brain activity reveals dynamical repertoire re-organization under LSD. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 17661. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17546-0
Excerpt from “Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent” by Jean-Claude Ellena (pgs. 36-38)
To help beginners memorize odors, different perfume companies have created various classifications. The one I provide is based around nine categories of odor.
Flowers. They are subdivided into five groups.
Rose Flowers: This group, which includes rose e.o., geranium e.o., and the odor of hyacinth, lily of the valley, and peony, is characterized by the fragrance of two components of these flowers – phenylethyl alcohol and geraniol.
White Flowers: This group is determined by the combination of two molecules – methyl anthranilate and indole – that characterize the absolutes of orange flower, jasmine, and tuberose, but also the aromas of sweet pea, gardenia, and honeysuckle.
Yellow Flowers: This group is defined by the presence of ionone beta, a molecule produced by the breakdown of the pigment carotene, which is responsible for the color of flowers like freesia and wallflower, extracts of which are in cassia absolute and osmanthus absolute.
Exotic or Spiced Flowers: This group is defined by the combination of benzyl salicylate and eugenol, which is present in the odor of carnations and lilies and as a component in ylang-ylang e.o.
Anise Flowers: This group includes mimosa absolute and the odors of lilac and wisteria. They are created using anisic aldehyde or heliotropin.
Animal Products. They are subdivided into three groups.
Ambers: Labdanum absolute, cistus e.o.
Castoreums: Castoreum absolute, birch tree e.o.
Civets: Civet, skatole, indole.
Marine Products: Seaweed absolute, calone.
In addition to this classification, I recommend another system for identifying odors. To make it easier to memorize and to conceptualize “odor” as an object, I use words associated with another sense, in particular the sense of touch. So I say of an odor that it is hard, soft, cold, hot, velvety, dry, flat, sharp, silky, prickly, gentle, thin, heavy, light, harsh, fragile, oily, greasy, and so forth.
So the vocabulary specific to olfaction consists of words for aromatic objects (soap, sweet, cigar, etc.), of names of flowers (jasmine, lilac, lily of the valley, etc.), of the names of chemical molecules (linalool, benzyl acetate, hexenol, etc.), or of their function (salicylate, aldehyde, etc.), and of words drawn from other senses.
However, what distinguishes the vocabulary of the perfumer from that of laypeople is the choice of a common language based on the training provided in perfumery schools and the discussions between perfumers and experts within the profession. This linguistic community creates a consensus around certain perceptual features. For the perfumer, soap, aldehyde, jasmine, nail varnish, rose, leather, wood, bonbon, and so forth are terms that describe the odor and not the object that produces it. A lily of the valley can be described as “jasmine”, as can a fragrance, a washing powder, and so on. For the perfumer, the word “jasmine” refers to an olfactory experience, which can be very different from the fragrance given off by jasmine flowers. For the professional, therefore, the vocabulary of odors no longer brings to mind the image of the source but a mental picture of the odor. The perfumer thus invents the object of his science; he invents odor, and that is the source of his creativity.
 e.o.: abbreviation for essential oil.
See also these articles that discuss the state-space of scents:
Finally, Luca Turin has recently been putting out videos discussing specific categories of scents by describing the history and use of classic aromachemicals that belong to each of these categories (highly recommended):
TL;DR: You can achieve much greater reductions than 50% of PM2.5 with a HEPA filter if you are clever about how you use it. Using a “concentric shells” approach in a 100m^2 apartment has allowed me to enjoy air with up to 99% less PM2.5 than outdoors.
Some of you may recall that QRI held an event called “Cause X” a year and a half ago. Indeed, Dony Christie (whom I recently credited for sounding the alarms in mid-January about the coming coronavirus pandemic) presented: “The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X“. I think this is a great idea, and it is already bearing some fruit…
Recently, Lukas Trötzmüller reached out to me to follow-up on one of the causes I proposed at the event. Namely, to subsidize HEPA filters as a potentially EA-level intervention. Here was my justification:
[Subsidizing HEPA filters] might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.
After stumbling upon the Cause X post, Lukas and some of his friends decided to do a more thorough cost-benefit analysis, which was recently posted on the EA Forum: Cost-Effectiveness of Air Purifiers against Pollution. I mostly agree with his analysis (and I commented on the post with what I thought was missing). His conclusion?
Air pollution is one of the biggest public health problems of our time. Simple air purifiers are surprisingly effective at reducing the harm. In our sample calculation, the intervention easily meets WHO criteria for a “highly effective” intervention in Austria, and the criteria for an “effective” intervention in India. With just a few small improvements to cost-effectiveness, it would qualify as “highly effective” in India too.
There are many ways in which effectiveness could be improved: If the bedroom is shared by two people, effectiveness doubles. Our calculations were made for 10 hours per day of use. Many people stay home for longer than that, and would correspondingly benefit more from an air purifier in their home. It is plausible that we could find more energy-efficient devices and optimize location, placement and timing. Furthermore, devices could be preferentially given to individuals which are at special risk of pollution-induced illness.
Buying air purifiers for people to place in their homes is probably not a promising EA intervention: Cost-effectiveness is two orders of magnitude worse than GiveWell-recommended charities. That being said, there might be much more cost-effective ways of helping people get access to air purifiers. We might lobby governments to subsidize those devices, or to make HEPA filters mandatory for public buildings and vehicles.
I’ve been quite surprised by the results. It seems that using an air purifier has solid health benefits, both in very polluted and in averagely polluted locations. It is surprising that in affluent countries, where people can easily afford these devices, air purifier use is not commonplace. The health benefits are clear and well-studied. I have installed a homemade device in my bedroom, together with a PM2.5 sensor, and plan to place a second device in the office.
If you’re interested in air pollution, air purifiers, or would like to collaborate on future research please get in touch.
I take this as a sign that encouraging people to sketch out new EA causes can be of very high-value*. Indeed, holding semi-regular “Cause X” events might be a great way to find completely new cost-effective interventions to improve human and non-human welfare across the globe.
Now, the topic of air purifiers has been on my mind again lately. And the reason should be quite obvious. Namely, that in September of 2020 we in the West Coast are currently experiencing one of the worst air qualities in the entire world due to the forest fires. I’ve been recommending friends and acquaintances who live in this area to get a HEPA filter NOW, since the fires are expected to continue for a month at least (and the worst is likely yet to come as we are only in the middle of the fire season). Unfortunately, a lot of HEPA filters are now out-of-stock, in what mirrors perhaps the spike in demand for PPE at the onset of the COVID pandemic. As they say, the prevention is better than the cure – I happened to have both air filters and N95 masks on hand before these two events, but not everyone is as lucky. Ideally, everyone in the West Coast would have at least two air filters from the start (I’ll get to why in a minute) but we do what we can with what we have.
Similarly to how early official advice for how to protect against COVID was deadly (e.g. downplaying the importance of masks early on), I am dumbfounded by the low-res and relatively useless listicles of advice I see for how to deal with the smoke from the wildfires. Yes, staying indoors and avoiding exerting yourself is better than nothing. But we could do much better than that. In particular, I think that a little cleverness in positioning can go a long way in optimizing the effectiveness of HEPA filters for maximum health. Below you will find a brief account of my experience with HEPA filters in a fairly-insulated ~100m^2 (~1100 square feet) apartment in California over the last few years (YMMV) and what I recommend you do if you find yourself in a similar situation:
The basic claim I want to put forth is that the ~50% reduction of PM2.5 quoted in most studies can be massively improved upon with a little work. In particular, with two air filters intelligently placed I’ve been able to achieve a reduction of PM2.5 in the 95 to 99% range. But first, what equipment am I using?
We’ve owned four air quality monitors over the last few years – one I sacrificed by giving it to a friend who went to Burning Man to get some sense of what the air over there is like (answer: really bad), and another one I forgot at the house of a cousin pre-COVID which I haven’t had a chance to retrieve. The two I currently own are: Temtop LKC-1000S+, and BIAOLING’s JSM-131. They both make very similar measurements for PM2.5 and PM10, which also agree fairly closely with the values I get from PurpleAir and AirNow. That said, Temtop seems to be better on the whole – it is even more correlated with the values I get online, is faster (it takes only 1 minute to adapt to a new environment vs. 3 or 4), and is far more granular (it does not jump in increments of 3). So below I will just report the values from the Temtop devise.
We’ve owned two air purifiers for about 3 years – the LEVOIT LV-H132 with H13 filters. It’s really similar to other LEVOIT models, and as far as I can tell, indistinguishable in its performance:
So here is my experience over the last couple of years:
With no air filters the difference between the PM2.5 outside and inside is small, typically in the 20% range. So let’s say the air outside is 20PM2.5, then inside with all the windows and doors closed for many hours, the reading will be no less than 16PM2.5. This is one of the reasons why I feel like the advice of “staying indoors with all the windows closed” is not really that useful (and in my experience people tend to believe they are staying out of harm’s way that way, which is very much not the case).
With one air filter on in the living room, with all of the inside-doors open, I get a stable state where the reduction is in the 60 to 80% range. With two air filters on in separate rooms but with all the inside-doors open, the reduction is a bit higher, in the order of 80 to 85%.
When I have only one air filter on inside one room with no door to the outside (and closed windows), the reduction is more dramatic, in the vicinity of 90%. This makes sense, as both the “surface area” to the outdoors, and the volume of air to clean are smaller.
The best outcome seems to come from having (a) one air filter in the living room, and (b) a second air filter in the room I’m in with its door closed. This is what takes the PM2.5 value to be as low as 1 to 5% of what’s outside. For instance, by using this method, when the air quality outside reached 400 PM2.5 outside a few days ago, I was able to enjoy a 5PM2.5 inside my room (!!!). The living room would be at