Desiring that the universe be turned into Hedonium is the straightforward implication of realizing that everything wants to become music.
The problem is… the world-simulations instantiated by our brains are really good at hiding from us the what-it-is-likeness of peak experiences. Like Buddhist enlightenment, language can only serve as a pointer to the real deal. So how do we use it to point to Hedonium? Here is a list of experiences, concepts and dynamics that (personally) give me at least a sort of intuition pump for what Hedonium might be like. Just remember that it is way beyond any of this:
[Content Warning: Trying to understand the contents of this essay may be mind-warping. Proceed with caution.]
Friends, right here and now, one quantum away, there is raging a universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.
The Geometry of DMT States
This is an essay on the phenomenology of DMT. The analysis here presented predominantly uses algorithmic, geometric and information-theoretic frameworks, which distinguishes it from purely phenomenological, symbolic, neuroscientific or spiritual accounts. We do not claim to know what ultimately implements the effects here described (i.e. in light of the substrate problem of consciousness), but the analysis does not need to go there in order to have explanatory power. We posit that one can account for a wide array of (apparently diverse) phenomena present on DMT-induced states of consciousness by describing the overall changes in the geometry of one’s spationtemporal representations (what we will call “world-sheets” i.e. 3D + time surfaces;3D1T for short). The concrete hypothesis is that the network of subjective measurements of distances we experience on DMT (coming from the relationships between the phenomenal objects one experiences in that state) has an overall geometry that can accurately be described as hyperbolic (or hyperbolic-like). In other words, our inner 3D1T world grows larger than is possible to fit in an experiential field with 3D Euclidean phenomenal space (i.e. an experience of dimension R2.5 representing an R3 scene). This results in phenomenal spaces, surfaces, and objects acquiring a mean negative curvature. Of note is that even though DMT produces this effect in the most consistent and intense way, the effect is also present in states of consciousness induced by tryptamines and to a lesser extent in those induced by all other psychedelics.
Conceptual Framework: Algorithmic Reduction
We will use the reduction framework originally proposed in the article Algorithmic Reductions of Psychedelic States. This means that we will be examining how algorithms and processes (as experienced by a subject of experience) can explain the dynamics of people’s phenomenology in DMT states. We do not claim “the substrate of consciousness” is becoming hyperbolic in any literal sense (though we do not discard that possibility). Rather, we interpret the hyperbolic curvature that experience acquires while on DMT as an emergent effect of a series of more general mechanism of action that can work together to change the geometry of a mind. These same mechanisms of action govern the dynamics of other psychedelic experiences; it is the proportion and intensity of the various “basic” effects that lead to the different outcomes observed. In other words, the hyperbolization of phenomenal space may not be a fundamental effect of DMT, but rather, it may be an emergent effect of more simple effects combined (not unlike how our seemingly smooth macroscopic space-time emerges from the jittery yet fundamental interactions that happen in a microscopic high-dimensional quantum foam).
In particular, we will discuss three candidate models for a more fundamental algorithmic reduction: (1) the synergistic effect of control interruption and symmetry detection resulting in a change of the metric of phenomenal space (analogously to how one can measure the geometry of hyperbolic graph embeddings), (2) the mind as a dynamic system with energy sources, sinks and invariants, in which curvature stores potential energy, and (3) a change in the underlying curvature of the micro-structure of consciousness. These models are not mutually-exclusive, and they may turn out to be compatible. More on this later.
What is Hyperbolic Geometry?
Perhaps the clearest way to describe hyperbolic space is to show examples of it:
Inside a hyperbolic cube
In hyperbolic 3D space dodecahedra can have right corners.
The picture to the left shows a representation of a “saddle” surface. In geometry, saddle surfaces are 2-dimensional hyperbolic spaces (also called “hyperbolic planes” or H2). For a surface to have “constant curvature” it must look the same at every point. In other words, for a saddle to be a geometric saddle, every point in it must be a “saddle point” (i.e. a point with negative curvature). As you can see, saddles have the property that the angles of a triangle found in them add up to less than 180 degrees (compare that to surfaces with positive curvature such as the 2-sphere, in which the angles of a triangle add up to more than 180 degrees). Generalizing this to higher dimensions, the middle image above shows a cube in H3 (i.e. a hyperbolic space of three dimensions). This cube, since it is in hyperbolic space, has thin edges and pointy corners. More generally, the corners of a polyhedra (and polytopes) will be more pointy in Hn than they are in Rn. This is why you can see in the right image a dodecahedron with right-angled corners, which in this case can tile H3 (cf. Not Knot). Such a thing- people of the past might say- is an insult to the imagination. Times are changing, though, and hyperbolic geometry is now an acceptable subject of conversation.
An important property of hyperbolic spaces is the way in which the area of a circle (or the n-dimensional volume of a hypersphere) increases as a function of its radius. In 2D Euclidean space the area grows quadratically with the radius. But on H2, the area grows exponentially as a function of the radius! As you may imagine, it is easy to get lost in hyperbolic space. A few steps take you to an entirely different scene. More so, your influence over the environment is greatly diminished as a function of distance. For example, the habitable region of solar systems in hyperbolic spaces (i.e.the Goldilocks zone) is extremelly thin. In order to avoid getting burned or freezing to death you would have to place your planet within a very narrow distance range from the center star. Most of what you do in hyperbolic space either stays as local news or is quickly dissipated in an ever-expanding environment.
We Can Only Remember What We Can Reconstruct
We cannot experience H2 or H3 manifolds under normal circumstances, but we can at least represent some aspects of them through partial embeddings (i.e. instantiations as subsets of other spaces preserving properties) and projections into more familiar geometries. It is important to note that such representations will necessarily be flawed. As it turns out, it is notoriously hard to truly embed H2 in Euclidean 3D space, since doing so will necessarily distort some properties of the original H2 space (such as distance, angle, area, local curvature, etc.). As we will discuss further below, this difficulty turns out to be crucial for understanding why DMT experiences are so hard to remember. In order to remember the experience you need to create a faithful and memorable 3D Euclidean embedding of it. Thus, if one happens to experience a hyperbolic object and wants to remember as much of it as possible, one will have to think strategically about how to fold, crunch and deform such object so that it can be fit in compact Euclidean representations.
What about DMT suggests hyperbolic geometry?
Why should we believe that phenomenal space on DMT (and to a lesser extent on other psychedelics) becomes hyperbolic-like? We will argue that the features people use to describe their trips as well as concrete mathematical observations of such features point directly to hyperbolic geometry. Here is a list of such features (arranged from least to most suggestive… you know, for dramatic effect):
Perception of far-out travel (as we said, small movements in hyperbolic space lead to huge changes in the scene).
Feelings of becoming big (you can fit a lot more inside a circle of radius r in hyperbolic space).
The space experienced is often depicted as “more real and more dense than normal”.
The use of terms like “mind-expanding” and “warping” to describe the effects of the drug are very common.
People describing it as “a different kind of space” and frequently using the word “hyperspace” to talk about it.
Difficulty integrating/remembering the objects and scenes experienced (e.g. “they were too alien to recall”).
Constant movement/acceleration and change of perspectives which are often described as “unfolding scenes and expanding patterns” (cf. thechrysanthemum, jitterbox).
Continuous change of the scene’s context through escape routes: A door that leads to a labyrinth that leads to branching underground tunnels that lead to mirror rooms that lead to endless windows, and the one you take leading you to a temple with thirty seven gates which lead you to a kale salad world etc. (example).
Crowding of scene beyond the limits of Euclidean space (users frequently wondering “How was I able to fit so much in my mind? I don’t see any space for my experience to fit in here!”)
Reported similarity with fractals.
Omnipresence of saddles making up the structural constraints of the hallucinated scenes. For example, one often hears about experiencing scenes saturated with: joints, twists, bifurcations, curved alleys, knots, and double helixes.
Looking at self-similar objects (such as cauliflowers) can get you lost in what seems like endless space. (Note: beware of the potential side effects of looking at a cauliflower on DMT*).
PSIS-like experiences where people seem to experience multiple alternative outcomes from each event at the same time (this may be the result of “hyperbolic branching” through time rather than space).
People describe “incredibly advanced mechanisms” and “impossible objects” that cannot be represented in our usual reality (e.g. Terence Mckenna’s self-dribbling basketballs).
At least one mathematician has stated that what one experiences on DMT cannot be translated into Euclidian geometry (unlike what one experiences on LSD).
We received a series of systematic DMT trip-reports by a math enthusiast and experienced psychonaut who claims that the surfaces experienced on DMT are typically composed of hyperbolic tilings (which imply a negative curvature; cf. wallpaper groups).
This article goes beyond claiming a mere connection between DMT and hyperbolic geometry. We will be more specific by addressing the aspects of the experience that can be interpreted geometrically. To do so, let us now turn to a phenomenological description of the way DMT experiences usually unfold:
The Phenomenology of DMT experiences: The 6 Levels
In order to proceed we will give an account of a typical vaporized DMT experience. You can think of the following six sections as stages or levels of a DMT journey. Let me explain. The highest level you get to depends on the dose consumed, and in high doses one experiences all of the levels, one at a time, and in quick succession (i.e. on high doses these levels are perceived as the stages of the experience). If one takes just enough DMT to cross over to the highest level one reaches during the journey for only a brief moment, then that level will probably be described as “the peak of the experience”. If, on the other hand, one takes a dose that squarely falls within the milligram range for producing a given level, it will be felt as more of a “plateau”. Each level is sufficiently distinct from the others that people will rarely miss the transitions between them.
The six levels of a DMT experience are: Threshold, Chrysanthemum, Magic Eye, Waiting Room, Breakthrough, and Amnesia. Let us dive in!
(Note: The following description assumes that the self-experimenter is in good physical and mental health at the time of consuming the DMT. It is well known that negative states of consciousness can lead to incomprehensible hellscapes when “boosted” by DMT (please avoid DMT at all costs while you are drunk, depressed, angry, suicidal, irritable, etc.). The full geometry is best appreciated on a mentally and emotionally balanced set and settings.)
The very first alert of something unusual happening may take between 3 to 30 seconds after inhaling the DMT, depending on the dose consumed. Rather than a clear sensorial or cognitive change, the very first hint is a change in the apparent ambiance of one’s setting. You know how at times when you enter a temple, an art museum, a crowd of people, or even just a well decorated restaurant you can abstract an undefinable yet clearly present “vibe of the place”? There’s nothing overt or specific about it. The ambiance of a place is more of an overall gestalt than a localized feeling. An ambiance somehow encodes information about the social, ideological and aesthetic quality of the place or community you just crashed into, and it tells you at a glance which moods are socially acceptable and which ones are discouraged. The specific DMT vibe you feel on a given session can be one of a million different flavors. That said, whether you feel like you entered a circus or joined a religious ceremony, the very first hint of a DMT experience is nonetheless always (or almost always) accompanied with an overall feeling of significance. The feeling that something important is about to happen or is happening is made manifest by the vibe of the state. This vibe is usually present for at least the first 150 seconds or so of the journey. Interestingly, the change in ambiance is shorter-lived than the trip itself; it seems to go away before the visuals vanish quickly declining once the the peak is over.
Within seconds after the change in ambiance, one feels a sudden sharpening of all the senses. Some people describe this as “upgrading one’s experience to an HD version of it”. The level of detail in one’s experience is increased, yet the overall semantic content is still fairly intact. People say things like: “Reality around me seems more crisp” and “it’s like I’m really grasping my surroundings, you know? fully in tune with the smallest textures of the things around me.” Terence Mckenna described this state as follows: “The air appears to suddenly have been sucked out of the room because all the colors brighten visibly, as though some intervening medium has been removed.”
On a schedule of repeated small doses (below 4 mg; preferably i.m.) one can stabilize this sharpening of the senses for arbitrarily long periods of time. I am a firm believer that this state (quite apart from the alien experiences on higher doses) can already be recruited for a variety of computational and aesthetic tasks that humans do in this day and age. In particular, the state itself seems to enable grasping complex ideas with many parameters without distorting them, which may be useful for learning mathematics at an accelerated pace. Likewise, the sate increases one’s awareness of one’s surroundings (possibly at the expense of consuming many calories). I find it hard to imagine that artists will not be able to use this state for anything valuable.
(2) The Chrysanthemum
If one ups the dose a little bit and lands somewhere in the range between 4 to 8 mg, one is likely to experience what Terrence McKenna called “the Chrysanthemum”. This usually manifests as a surface saturated with a sort of textured fabric composed of intricate symmetrical relationships, bright colors, shifting edges and shimmering pulsing superposition patterns of harmonic linear waves of many different frequencies.
Depending on the dose consumed one may experience either one or several semi-parallel channels. Whereas a threshold dose usually presents you with a single strong vibe (or ambiance), the Chrysanthemum level often has several competing vibes each bidding for your attention. Here are some examples of what the visual component of this state of consciousness may look like.
Chrysanthemum with multuple symmetry channels
The visual component of the Chrysanthemum is often described as “the best screen saver ever“, and if you happen to experience it in a good mood you will almost certainly agree with that description, as it is usually extremelly harmonious, symmetric and beautiful in uncountable ways. No external input can possibly replicate the information density and intricate symmetry of this state; such state has to be endogenously generated as a a sort of harmonic attractor of your brain dynamics.
You can find many replications of Chrysanthemum-level DMT experiences on the internet, and I encourage you to examine their implicit symmetries (this replication is one of my all-times favorite).
In Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States we posited that any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated as the symmetries that govern psychedelic visuals. Unfortunately, unlike the generally slow evolution of usual psychedelic visuals, DMT’s vibrational frequency forces such visuals to evolve at a speed that makes it difficult for most people to spot the implicit symmetry elements that give rise to the overall mathematical structure underneath one’s experience. For this reason it has been difficult to verify that all 17 wallpaper groups are possible in DMT states. Fortunately we were recently able to confirm that this is in fact the case thanks to someone who trained himself to do just this. I.e. detecting symmetry elements in patterns at an outstanding speed.
An anonymous psychonaut (whom we will call researcher A) sent a series of trip report to Qualia Computing detailing the mathematical properties of psychedelic visuals under various substances and dose regimens. A is an experienced psychonaut and a math enthusiast who recently trained himself to recognize (and name) the mathematical properties of symmetrical patterns (such as in works of art or biological organisms). In particular, he has become fluent at naming the symmetries exhibited by psychedelic visuals. In the context of 2D visuals on surfaces, A confirms that the symmetrical textures that arise in psychedelic states can exhibit any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups. Likewise, he has been able to confirm that every possible spherical symmetry group can also be instantiated in one’s mind on these states.
The images below show some examples of the visuals that A has experienced on 2C-B, LSD, 4-HO-MET and DMT (sources: top left, top middle, the rest were made with this service):
The Chrysanthemum level interacts with sensory input in an interesting way: the texture of anything one looks at quickly becomes saturated with nested 2-dimensional symmetry groups. If you took enough DMT to take you to this level and you keep your eyes open and look at a patterned surface (i.e. statistical texture), it will symmetrify beyond recognition. A explains that at this level DMT visuals share some qualities with those of, say, LSD, mescaline, and psilocin. Like other psychedelics, DMT’s Chrysanthemum level can instantiate any 2-dimensional symmetry, yet there are important differences from other psychedelics at this dose range. These include the consistent change in ambiance (already present in threshold doses), the complexity and consistency of the symmetrical relationships (much more dense and whole-experience-consistent than is usually possible with other psychedelics), and the speed (with a control-interruption frequency reaching up to 30 hertz, compared to 10-20 hertz for most psychedelics). Thus, people tend to point out that DMT visuals (at this level) are “faster, smaller, more detailed and more globally consistent” than on comparable levels of alteration from similar agents.
Now, if you take a dose that is a little higher (in the ballpark of 8 to 12 mg), the Chrysanthemum will start doing something new and interesting…
(3) The Magic Eye Level
A great way to understand the Magic Eye level of DMT effects is to think of the Chrysanthemum as the texture of an autostereogram (colloquially described as “Magic Eye” pictures). Our visual experience can be easily decomposed into two points-of-view (corresponding to the feed coming from each eye) that share information in order to solve the depth-map problem in vision. This is to map each visual qualia to a space with relative distances so (a) the input is explained and (b) you get recognizable every-day objects represented as implicit shapes beneath the depth-map. You can think of this process as a sort of hand-shake between bottom-up perception and top-down modeling.
In everyday conditions one solves the depth-map problem within a second of opening one’s eyes (minus minor details that are added as one looks around). But on DMT, the “low-level perceptions” looks like a breathing Chrysanthemum, which means that the top-down modeling has that “constantly shifting” stuff to play with. What to make of it? Anything you can think of.
There are three major components of variance on the DMT Magic Eye level:
Texture (dependent on the Chrysanthemum’s evolution)
World-sheet (non-occluduing 3D1T depth maps)
Extremelly lowered information copying threshold.
The image on the left is a lobster, the one on the center is a cone and the one to the right contains furniture (a lamp, a chair and a table). Notice that what you see is a sort of depth-map which encodes shapes. We will call this depth-map together with the appearance of movement and acceleration represented in it, a world-sheet.
The world-sheet encodes the “semantic content” of the scene and is capable of representing arbitrary situations (including information about what you are seeing, where you are, what the entities there are doing, what is happening, etc.).
It is common to experience scenes from usually mundane-looking places like ice-cream stores, play pens, household situations, furniture rooms, apparel, etc.. Likewise, one frequently sees entities in these places, but they rarely seem to mind you because their world is fairly self-contained. As if seeing through a window. People often report that the worlds they saw on a DMT trip were all “made of the same thing”. This can be interpreted as the texture becoming the surfaces of the world-sheet, so that the surfaces of the tables, chairs, ice-cream cones, the bodies of the people, and so on are all patterned with the same texture (just as in actual autostereograms). This texture is indeed the Chrysanthemum completely contorted to accommodate all the curvature of the scene.
Magic Eye level scenes often include 3D geometrical shapes like spheres, cones, cylinders, cubes, etc. The complexity of the scene is roughly dose-dependent. As one ups the highness (but still remaining within the Magic Eye level) complex translucid qualia crystals in three dimensions start to become a possibility.
Whatever phenomenal objects you experience on this level that lives for more than a millisecond needs to have effective strategies for surviving in an ecosystem of other objects adapted to that level. Given the extremelly lowered information copying threshold, whatever is good at making copies of itself will begin to tesselate, mutate and evolve, stealing as much of your attention as possible in the way. Cyclic transitions occupy one’s attention: objects quickly become scenes which quickly become gestalts from which a new texture evolves in which new objects are detected and so on ad infinitum.
A reports that at this dose range one can experience at least some of the 230 space groups as objects represented in the world-sheet. For example, A reports having stabilized a structure with a Pm-3m symmetry structure, not unlike the structure of ZIF-71-RHO. Visualizing such complex 3D symmetries, however, does seem to require previous training and high levels of mental concentration (i.e. in order to ensure that all the symmetry elements are indeed what they are supposed to be).
There is so much qualia laying around, though, at times not even your normal space can contain it all. Any regular or semi regular symmetrical structure you construct by focusing on it is prone to overflow if you focus too much on it. What does this mean? If you focus too much on, for example, the number 6, your mind might represent the various ways in which you can arrange six balls in a perfectly symmetrical way. Worlds made of hexagons and octahedrons interlocked in complex but symmetrical ways may begin to tesselate your experiential field. With every second you find more and more ways of representing the number six in interesting, satisfying, metaphorically-sound synesthetic ways (cf. Thinking in Numbers). Now, what happens if you try to represent the number seven in a symmetric way on the plane? Well, the problem is that you will have too many heptagons to fit in Euclidean space (cf. Too Many Triangles). Thus the resulting symmetrical patterns will seem to overflow the plane (which is often felt as a folding and fluid re-arrangement, and when there is no space left in a region it either expands space or it is felt as some sort of synesthetic tension or stress, like a sense of crackling under a lot of pressure).
Heptagonal tiling of the Poincaré disk representing the 2D hyperbolic space.
Order-7-3 rhombille tiling
In particular, A claims that in the lower ranges of the DMT Magic Eye level the texture of the Chrysanthemum tends to exhibit heptagonal and triheptagonal tilings (as shown in the picture above). A explains that at the critical point between the Chrysanthemum and the Magic Eye levels the intensity of the rate of symmetry detection of the Chrysanthemum cannot be contained to a 2D surface. Thus, the surface begins to fold, often in semi-symmetric ways. Every time one “recognizes” an object on this “folding Chrysanthemum” the extra curvature is passed on to this object. As the dose increases, one interprets more and more of this extra curvature and ends up shaping a complex and highly dynamic spatiotemporal depth map with hyperbolic folds. In the upper ranges of the Magic Eye level the world-sheet is so curved that the scenes one visualize are intricate and expansive, feeling at times like one is able to peer through one’s horizon in all directions and see oneself and one’s world from a distance. At some critical point one may feel like the space around one is folding into a huge dome where the walls are made of whatever texture + world-sheet combination happened to win the Darwinian selection pressures applied to the qualia patterns on the Magic Eye level. This concentrated hyperbolic synesthetic texture is what becomes the walls of the Waiting Room…
(4) Waiting Room
In the range of 12-25mg of DMT a likely final destination is the so-called Waiting Room. This experience is distinguished from the Magic Eye level in several ways: first, the world-sheet at this level breaks into several quasi-independent components, each evolving semi-autonomously. Second, one goes from “partial immersion” into “full immersion”. The transition between Magic Eye and Waiting Room often looks like “finding a very complex element in the scene and using it as a window into another dimension”. The total 2D surface curvature present (by adding up the curvature of all elements in the scene) is substantially higher than that of the Magic Eye level, and one can start to see actual 3D hyperbolic space. Perhaps a way of describing this transition is as follows: The curvature of the world-sheet gets to be so extreme that in order to accommodate it one’s entire multi-modal experiential field becomes involved, and a feeling of total and complete synchronization of all senses into a unified synesthetic experience is inescapable (often described as the “mmmMMMMMMM+++++!!!” whole-body tone people report). Thus the feeling of entering into an entirely new dimension. This explains what people mean when they say: “I experienced such an intense pressure that my soul could not be contained in my tiny body, and the intense pressure launched me into a bigger world”.
DMT Waiting Room
Changes in the connectivity of the micro-structure of the texture
Constant flow of interlocking symmetry elements tile the texture.
The images above, taken together, are meant as an impressionistic replication of what a Waiting Room experience may feel like. On the left you see the textured world-sheet curved in several ways resulting in an enclosed room with shimmering walls and an entity looking at a futuristic-looking contraption. The images on the right are meant to illustrate the ways in which the texture of the world-sheet evolves: you will find that the micro-structure of such texture is constantly unfolding in new symmetrical ways (bottom right), and propagating such changes throughout the entire surface at a striking speed (top right).
DMT Waiting Rooms contain entities that at times do interact directly with you. Their reality is perceived as a much more intense and intimate version of what human interaction normally is, but they do not give the impression of being telepathic. That said, their power is felt as if they could radiate it. One could say that this level of DMT places you in such an intimate, vulnerable and open state that interpreting the entities in a second-person social mode is almost inevitable. It is like interacting with someone you really know (or perhaps someone you really really want to know… or really really don’t want to know), except that the whole world is made of those feelings and some entities inhabit that world.
Serious hard-core psychonauts tend to describe the Wating Room as a temporary stopgap. Indeed more poetry could ever be written about the Waiting Room states of consciousness than about most human activities, for its state-space is larger, more diverse and more hedonically loaded. But even so, it is important to realize that there are even weirder states. Serious psychonauts exploring the upper ranges of humanly-accessible high energy consciousness research may see Waiting Rooms as a stepping stones to the real deal…
If one manages to ingest around 20-30mg of DMT there is a decent chance that one will achieve a DMT breakthrough experience (some sources place the dosage as high as 40mg). There is no agreed-upon definition for a “DMT breakthrough”, but most experienced users confirm that there is a qualitative change in the structure and feel of one’s experience on such high doses. Based on A’s observations we postulate that DMT breakthroughs are the result of a world-sheet with a curvature so extreme that topological bifurcations start to happen uncontrollably. In other words, the very topology of one’s world-sheet is forced to change in order to accommodate all of the intense curvature.
The geometry of space you experience may suddenly go from a simply-connected space into something else. What does this mean? Suddenly one may feel like space itself is twisting and reconnecting to itself in complex (and often confusing) ways. One may find that given any two points on this “alien world” there may be loops between them. This has drastic effects on one’s every representation (including, of course, the self-other divide). The particular feeling that comes with this may explain the presence of PSIS-like experiences induced by DMT and high dose LSD (cf. LSD and Quantum Measurements). Since the topological bifurcations are happening on a 3D1T world-sheet, this may look like “multiple things happening at once” or “objects taking multiple non-overlapping paths at once in order to get from one place into another”. The entities at this level feel transpersonal: due to the extreme curvature it is hard to distinguish between the information you ascribe to your self-model and the information you ascribe to others. Thus one is all over the place, in a literal topological sense.
While on the Waiting Room one can stabilize the context where the experience seems to be taking place, on a DMT breakthrough state one invariably “moves across vast regions, galaxies, universes, realities, etc.” in a constant uncontrollable way. Why is this? This may be related to whether one can contain the curvature of the objects one attends to. If the curvature is uncontrollable, it will “pass on to the walls” and result in constant “context switches”. In fact, such a large fraction of 3D space is perceived as hyperbolic in one way or another, that one seems to have access to vast regions of reality at the same time. Thus a sense of radical openness is often experienced.
(6) Amnesia Level
Unlike 5-MeO-DMT, “normal DMT” experiences are not typically so mind-warping that they dissolve one’s self-model completely. On the contrary, many people report DMT as having “surprisingly little effect on one’s sense of self except at very high doses” relative to the overall intensity of the alteration. Thus, DMT usually does not produce amnesia due to ego death directly. Rather, the amnesic properties of DMT at high doses can be blamed on the difficulty of instantiating the necessary geometry to make sense of what was experienced. In the case of doses above “breakthrough experiences” there is a chance that the user will not be able to recall anything about the most intense periods of the journey. Unfortunately, we are not likely to learn much from these states (that is, until we live in a community of people who can access other phenomenal geometries in a controlled fashion).
Recalling the Immemorial
We postulate that the difficulty people have remembering the phenomenal quality of a DMT experience is in part the result of not being able to access the geometry required to accurately relive their hallucinations. The few and far apart elements of the experience that people do somehow manage to remember, we posit, are those that happen to be (relatively) easy to embed in 3D Euclidean space. Thus, we predict that what people do manage to “bring back” from hyperspace will be biased towards those things that can be represented in R3.
This explains why people remember experiencing intensely saddled scenes (e.g. fractals, tunnels, kale worlds, recursive processes, and so on). Unfortunately most information-rich and interesting (irreducible, prime) phenomenal objects one experiences on DMT are by their very nature impossible to embed in our normal experiential geometry. This problem reveals an intrinsic limitation that comes from living in a community of intelligences (i.e. contemporary humans) who are constrained in the range of state-spaces of consciousness that they can access. This realization calls for a new epistemological paradigm, one that incorporate state-specific representations into a globally accessible database of states of consciousness, together with the network that emerges from their mutual (in)intelligibility.
The increased curvature of one’s world-sheet can manifest in endless ways. In some important ways, the state-space of possible scenes that you can experience on DMT is much bigger than what you can experience on normal states of consciousness. Strictly speaking, you can represent more scenes on DMT states than in most other states because the overall amount qualia available is much larger. Of course the very dynamics of these experiences constrains what can be experienced, so there are still many things inaccessible on DMT. For instance, it may be impossible to experience a perfectly uniform blue screen (since the Chrysanthemum texture is saturated with edges, surfaces and symmetrical patterns). Likewise, scenes that are too irregular may be impossible to stabilize given the omnipresent symmetry enhancement found in the state.
What are the nature of the objects and entities one experiences on DMT? Magic Eye level experiences tend to include objects that are usually found in our everyday life. It is at the DMT waiting room level and above that the “truly impossible objects” begin to emerge. In particular, all of these objects are often curved in extreme ways. They condense within them complex networks of interlocking structures sustaining an overall superlative curvature. Here are some example objects that one can experience on Waiting Room and Breakthrough level experiences:
Notice that all of these images have many saddles everywhere. Ultimately, the range of objects one can experience on such states includes many other features that are impossible to represent in R3. The objects that people do manage to bring back and recall later on, are precisely those that can be embedded in R3. Thus you often see extremelly contorted wrapped-up objects. The most interesting ones (such as quasi-regular H3 tilings or irreducible objects) are next-to-impossible to bring back in any meaningful way, for now at least.
DMT Space Expansion
The expansion of space responsible for the increased curvature happens anywhere you direct your attention (including the objects you see). Here you can see what it may look like to stare at a DMT object: This is called the “jitterbox” mechanism.
DMT entities come in many forms, and their overall quality is extremelly dose-dependent. Rather than describing any specific manifestation we will instead briefly characterize the rough properties of the entities experienced based on the level reached.
Threshold: Usually the ambiance change has a social feel to is. More similar to entering a room of people of an alien culture, than entering an empty cave or a warm pool on your own. In this sense the very beginning of a DMT experience may already frame the experience in social terms and facilitate the expectation of meeting entities.
Chrysanthemum: One can feel perhaps the subtle presence of entities, but they are often interpreted as “feeling connected” to one’s friends, relatives and acquaintances. The feeling does not manifest in any clear spatial way, though. Other than that, this state is apersonal in the sense that one does not see any entity directly.
Magic Eye: Here the entities can be roughly described as having an impersonal relationship with you. They are just there, hanging out on their own, often engrossed with whatever activities your world-sheet is capable of representing for them.
Waiting Room: At this level entities start becoming able to interact with you. They feel like autonomous beings wrapped in mystery. Their intentions, what they know, and their emotional states can be guessed from their behavior, but they are not immediatly obvious.
Breakthrough: At this level the entities one meets seem to have what we might call a transpersonal relationship with you. They share their own internal states (emotions, knowledge, wishes, etc) with you. It feels like they can communicate telepathically and “see through” you. One cannot hide one’s “private” mental contents from them at this level.
Amnesia: One cannot remember, of course, exactly what happens here. But if trip reports are any indication, this level is reminiscent of highly “mystical” states in which one’s implicit beliefs about Personal Identity are obliterated and replaced by the feeling of becoming an all-encompassing entity. “Union with God” and “Samadhi” are terms that describe the subjective feeling of self in this state. In other words, at this level it is impossible to distinguish between oneself and other entities, for all is represented as one. (Beware of never trying to go here if you feel bad at the time since negative hedonic tone can be amplified just as much as a good feeling such as Samadhi).
Modeling the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT
How can we explain the drastic geometric changes of phenomenal space on DMT? As mentioned earlier, we will discuss three (non-mutually exclusive) hypothesis. These hypothesis work at the level of an algorithmic reduction, which means that we will go deeper than just describing information processing and phenomenology. We will stop short of addressing the implementation level of abstraction. It is worth pointing out that describing the ways in which DMT experiences are hyperbolic is in itself an algorithmic reduction. What we are about to do is to develop a more granular algorithmic reduction in which we try to explain why hyperbolic geometry emerges on DMT states by postulating underlying processes. Here are the three reductions:
(1) Control Interruption + Symmetry detection = Change in Metric
Recall that on a previous article we algorithmically reduced general psychedelic states. The building blocks of that reduction were:
Using this framework one can argue that DMT makes space more hyperbolic in the following way: in high amounts the synergistic effect of control interruption together with extremelly lowered symmetry detection thresholds experienced in quick succession makes the subjective distance between the points in the phenomenal objects in the scene evolve a hyperbolic metric. How would this happen? The key thing to realize is that in this model the usual quasi-Euclidean space we experience is an emergent effect of an equilibrium between these two forces. Even in normal circumstances our world-sheet is continuously regenerated; the rate at which symmetrical relationships in the scene are detected is balanced by the rate at which these subjective measurements are forgotten. This usually results in an emergent Euclidean geometry. On DMT the rate of symmetry detection increases while the rate of “forgetting” (inhibiting control) decreases. Attention points out more relationships in quick succession and this creates a network of measured subjective distances that cannot be embedded in Euclidean 3D space. Thus there is an overflow of symmetries. We are currently working on a precise mathematical model of this process in order to reconstruct a hyperbolic metric out of these two parameters. In this model, control interruption is interpreted as a change in the decay for subjective measurements of distance in one’s mind, whereas the lowered symmetry detection threshold is interpreted as a change in the probability of measuring the distance between any two given points as a function of the network of distances already measured.
The curvature increase is most salient where there is already a lot of measurements made, since highly-measured regions focus attention and attention drives symmetry detection. Thus, focusing on any surface will make the surface itself hyperbolic (rather than the 3D space, since measurements are mostly concentrated on the surface). On the other hand, if the curvature is too high to keep on a 2D surface, it will “jump” to 3D or even 3D1T (i.e. branching out the temporal component of one’s experience). The result is that the total curvature of one’s 3D1T world-sheet increases on DMT in a dose-dependent way.
Different doses lead to different states of curvature homeostasis. Each part of the worldsheet has constantly-morphing shapes and sudden curvature changes, but the total curvature is nonetheless more or less preserved on a given dose. It is not easy to get rid of excess curvature. Rather, whenever one tries to reduce the curvature in one part of the scene one is simply pushing it elsewhere. Even when one manages to push most of the curvature out of a given modality (e.g. vision) it is likely to quickly return in another modality (e.g. kinesthetic or auditory landscape) since attention never ceases on a DMT trip. Such apparent dose-dependent global curving of the world-sheet (and its jump from one modality into another) constrains the shape of the objects one can represent on the state (thus leading to alien-looking highly-curved objects similar to the ones shown above).
(2) Dynamic System Account: Energy Sources, Sinks and Invariants
Let us define a notion of energy in consciousness so that we can formalize the way experiences warps and transforms on DMT. Assume that one needs “energy” in order to instantiate a given experience (really, this is just an implicit invariant and we could use a different name). Each feature of a given experience needs a certain amount of energy, which roughly corresponds to a weighted sum of the intensity and the information content of an experience. For instance, the brightness of a point of colored light in one’s visual field is energy-dependent. Likewise, the information content in a texture, the number of represented symmetrical relationships, the speed by which an object moves (plus its acceleration), and even the curvature of one’s geometry. All of these features require energy to be instantiated.
Under normal circumstances the brain has many clever and (evolutionarily) appropriate ways of modulating the amount of energy present in different modules of one’s mind. That is, we have many programs that work as energy switches for different mental activities depending on the context. When we think, we have allocated a certain amount of energy to finding a shape/thought-form that satisfies a number of constraints. When it shape-shifting that energy in various ways and finding a solution, we either allocate more energy to it or perhaps give up. However, on DMT the energy cannot be switched off, and it can only pass from one modality into another. In other words, whereas in normal circumstances one uses strategically one’s ability to give energy limits to different tasks, on DMT one simply has constant high energy globally no matter what.
More formally, this model of DMT action says that DMT modifies the structure of one’s mind so that (1) energy freely passes from one form into another, and (2) energy floods the entire system. Let’s talk about energy sources and sinks.
Energy Sources and Sinks
In this algorithmic reduction DMT increases the amount of consciousness in one’s mind by virtue of impairing our normal energy sinks while increasing the throughput of its energy sources. This may frequently manifests as phenomenal spaces becoming hyperbolic in the mathematical-geometric sense of increasing its negative curvature as such curvature is one manifestation of higher levels of energy. Energy sinks are still present and they struggle to capture as much of the energy as possible. In particular, one energy sink is “recognition” of objects on the world-sheet.
This model postulates that attention functions as an energy source, whereas pattern recognition functions as an energy sink.
The Hamiltonian of a World-sheet
The total energy in one’s consciousness increases on DMT, and there is a constant flow between different ways for this energy to take form. That said, one can analyze piecewise the various components of one’s experience, specially if the network of energy exchange clusters well. In particular, we can postulate that world-sheets are fairly self-contained. Relative to other parts of the environment the mind is simulating, the world-sheet itself has a very high within-cluster energy exchange and a relatively low cross-cluster energy exchange. One’s world-sheet is very fluid, and little deformations propagate almost linearly throughout it. In a given dose plateau, if you add up the acceleration, the velocity, the curvature, and so on of every point in the world-sheet you will come up with a number that remains fairly constant over time. Thus studying the Hamiltonian of a world-sheet (i.e. the state-space given by a constant level of energy) can be very informative in describing both the information content and the experiential intensity of DMT experiences.
You can deform a surface without changing its local curvature. (Source: Gauss’ “Remarkable Theorem” [seriously not my quotes]). Thus on a DMT trip plateau there is still a lot of room for transformations of the world-sheet into different shapes with similar curvature.
Under normal circumstances the curvature of one’s world-sheet is, as far as I can tell, arousal-dependent. Have you noticed how when you feel tired you are more likely to defocus your visual experience? You are tired late at night and you are trying to watch a movie, but bringing the scene in focus is too much of an effort so you defocus for a little bit (still listening to the dialogue). What did you do that for? In the framework here proposed, you did that to diminish the energy it takes you to sustain a curved world-sheet with a lot of information. Doing so may be aesthetically pleasing and rewarding when fully awake or excited, but when tired the returns on doing the focusing are not great given how much effort it needs and the fact that the dialogue is more essential for the plot anyway.
It takes effort and wakefulness to focus on a complex scene with many intricate details. (Reading and trying to comprehend this essay may itself require significant conscious energy expenditure). For this reason we might say that DMT is an exceedingly effective arouser of consciousness.
Bayesian Energy Sinks
One essential property of our minds is that our level of mental arousal decreases when we interpret our experience as “expected”. People who can enjoy their own minds do so, in part, by finding unexpected ways of understanding expected things. In the presence of new information that one cannot easily integrate, however, one’s level of energy is adjusted upwards so that we try out a variety of different models quickly and try to sort out a model that does make the new information expected (though perhaps integrating new assumptions or adding content in other ways). When we cannot manage to generate a mental model that works out a likely model of what we are experiencing we tend to remain in an over-active state.
This general principle applies to the world-sheet. One of the predominant ways in which a world-sheet reduces its energy (locally) is by morphing into something you can recognize or interpret. Thus the world-sheet in some way keeps on producing objects, at first familiar, but in higher energies the whole process can seem desperate or hopeless: one can only recognize things with a stretch of the imagination. Since humans in general lack much experience with hyperbolic geometry, we usually don’t manage to imagine objects that are symmetric on their own native geometry. But when we do, and we fill them up with resonant light-mind-energy, then BAM! New harmonics of consciousness! New varieties of bliss! Music of the angels! OMG! Laughter till infinity and more- shared across the galaxy- in a hyperbolic transpersonal delight! It’s like LSD and N2O! Wow!
Forgive me, it is my first day. Let’s carry on. As one does not know any object that the world-sheet can reasonably be able to generate in high doses, and the world-sheet has so much energy on its own, energy can seem to spiral out of control. This explains in part the non-linear relationship between experienced intensity and DMT dose.
Like all aspects of one’s consciousness, the negative curvature of phenomenal space tends to decay over time (possibly through inhibition by the cortex). In this case, the feeling is one of “smoothing out the curves” and embedding the phenomenal objects in 3D euclidean space. However, this is opposed by the effect that attention and (degrees of) awareness have on our phenomenal sheet, which is to increase its negative curvature. On DMT, anything that attention focuses on will begin branching, copying itself and multiplying, a process that quickly saturates the scene to the point of filling more spatial relationships than would fit in Euclidean 3D. The rate at which this happens is dose-dependent. The higher the dose, the less inhibiting control there is and the more intense the “folding” property of attention will be. Thus, for different dosages one reaches different homeostatic levels of overall curvature in one’s phenomenal space. Since attention does not stop at any point during a DMT trip (it keeps being bright and intense all throughout) there isn’t really any rest period to sit back and see the curvature get smoothed out on its own. Everything one thinks about, perceives or imagines branches out and bifurcate at a high speed.
Every moment during the experience is very hard to “grasp” because the way one normally does that in usual circumstances is by focusing attention on it and shaping one’s world-sheet to account for the input. But here that very attention makes the world-sheet wobble, warp and expand beyond recognition. Thus one might say that during a solid DMT experience one never sees the same thing twice, as the experience continues to evolve. That is, of course, as long as you do not stumble upon (or deliberatively create) stable phenomenal objects whose structure can survive the warping effect of attention.
(3) Hyperbolic Micro-structure of Consciousness
Subjectively, A says, negative curvature is associated with more energy. Perhaps this curvature happens at a very low level? An example to light up the imagination is using heat to fold a sheet of metal (thanks to thermal expansion). Whatever your attention focuses on seems to get heated up (in some sense) and expand as a result. The folding patterns themselves seem to store potential energy. Left on their own, this extra energy stored as negative curvature usually dissipates, but on DMT this process is lowered (while the effect of increasing the energy is heightened). Could this be the result of some very very fine-level micro-experiential change that gradually propagates upwards? With the help of our normal mental processes the change in the micro-structure may propagate all the way into seemingly hyperbolic 2D and 3D surfaces.
Perhaps the most important difference between DMT in high doses and other psychedelics is that the micro-structure of consciousness drifts in such a way that tiny Droste effects bubble up into large Möbius transforms.
As noted already, these three algorithmic reductions are not incompatible. We just present them here due to their apparent explanatory power. A lot more theoretical work will be needed to make them quantitative and precise, but we are optimistic. The aim is now to develop an experimental framework to distinguish between the predictions that each candidate algorithmic reduction makes (including many not presented here). This is a work in progress.
Generalizing hyperbolization to non-spatial experiential fields
In the case of experiential fields such as body feelings, smells and concepts, the “hyperbolization” takes different forms depending on the algorithmic reduction you use. I prefer the very general interpretation that one experiences hyperbolic information geometry rather than just hyperbolic space. In other words, when we talk about body feelings and so on, on a psychedelic one organizes such information in a hyperbolic relational graph, which also exhibits a negative curvature relative to its normal geometry. Arguing in favor of this interpretation would take another article, so we will leave that for another time.
Getting a handle on the DMT state
Gluing a 1-handle is easy on a 2-sphere. Tongue in cheek, sticking a little doughnut on a big ball allows you to grab the sphere and control it in some way. But how do you get a handle on hyperbolic space? The answer is to build hyperbolic manifolds at the core of one’s being, by imagining knots very intensely. The higher one is, the more complex the knot one can imagine in detail. Having practiced visualizations of this sort while sober certainly helps. If you imagine the knot with enough detail, you can then stress the environment surrounding it to represent a warped hyperbolic space. This way you give life to the complement of the knot (which is almost always hyperbolic!). We postulate that it is possible to study in detail the relationship between the knots imagined, and the properties of the experiential worlds that result from their inversion (i.e. thinking about the geometry of the space surrounding the knot rather than the knot itself). A reports that different hyperbolic spaces generated this way (i.e. imagining knots on tryptamines) have different levels of energy, and have unique resonant properties. Different kinds of music feel better in different kinds of hyperbolic manifolds. It takes more energy to “light up” a hyperbolic space like that, mostly due to its openness. This is why using small doses of 2C-B can be helpful to create a positive backbone to the experience (providing the necessary warmth to light up the hyperbolic space). Admittedly MDMA tends to work best, but its use is unadvisable for reasons we will not get into (related to the hedonic treadmill). A healthy combination that both enables the visualization of the hyperbolic spaces in a vivid way and also lights them up with positive hedonic tone healthily and reliably has yet to be found.
Relatedly… Get a handle on your DMT trip by creating a stabilizing 4D hyperbolic manifold in four easy steps:
Unifying Your Space
God, the divine, open individualism, the number one, an abstract notion of self, or the thought of existence itself are all thoughts that work as great “unifiers” of large areas of phenomenal space. Indeed these concepts can allow a person to connect the edges of the hyperbolic space and create a pocket of one’s experience that does not seem to have a boundary yet is extremelly open. This may be a reason why such ideas are very common in high levels of psychedelia. In a sense, depending on the mind, they have at times the highest recruiting power for your multi-threaded attention.
Applications to Qualia Computing and Closing Thoughts
Beyond mere designer synesthesia, the future of consciousness research contains the possibility of exploring alternative geometries for the layout of our experiences. One’s overall level of energy, its manifestation, the allowed invariants, the logic gates, the differences in resonance, the granularity of the patterns, and so on, are all parameters that we will get to change in our minds to see what happens (in controlled and healthy ways, of course). The exploration of the state-space of consciousness is sure to lead to a combinatorial explosion. Even with good post-theoretical quantitative algorithmic reductions, it is likely that qualia computing scientists will still find an unfathomable number of distinct “prime” permutations. For some applications it may be more useful to use special kinds of hyperbolic spaces (like the compliment of certain class of knot), but for others it may suffice to be a little sphere. Who knows. In the end, if a valence economy ends up dominating the world, then the value of hyperbolic phenomenal spaces will be proportional to the level of wellbeing and bliss that can be felt in them. Which space in which resonant mode generates the highest level of bliss? This is an empirical question with far-reaching economic implications.
Mathematics post-hyperbolic consciousness
I predict that some time in the next century or so many of the breakthroughs in mathematics will take place in consciousness research centers. The ability to utilize arbitrary combinations of qualia with programable geometry and information content (in addition to our whole range of pre-existing cognitive skills) will allow people to have new semantic primitives related to mathematical structures and qualia systems currently unfathomable to us. In the end, studying the mathematics of consciousness and valence is perhaps the ultimate effective altruist endeavor in a world filled with suffering, since reverse-engineering valence would simplify paradise engineering… But even in a post-scarcity world, consciousness research will also probably be the ultimate past time given the endless new discoveries awaiting to be found in the state-space of consciousness.
*On the unexpected side effects of staring at a cauliflower on DMT: You can get lost in the hyperbolic reality of the (apparent) life force that spirals in a scale-free fractal fashion throughout the plant. The spirals may feel like magnetic vortexes that take advantage of your state to attract your attention. The cauliflower may pull you into its own world of interconnected fractals, and as soon as you start to trust it, it begins trying to recruit you for the cauliflower cause. The cauliflower may scare you into not eating it, and make you feel guilty about frying it. You may freak out a little, but when you come down you convince yourself that it was all just a hallucination. That said, you secretly worry it was for real. You may never choose to abstain from eating cauliflowers, but you will probably drop the knife when cooking it. You will break it apart with your own hands in the way you think minimizes its pain. You sometimes wonder whether it experiences agony as it is slowly cooked in the pan, and you drink alcohol to forget. Damn, don’t stare at a cauliflower while high on DMT if you ever intend to eat one again.
P.S. Note on Originality: The only mention I have been able to find that explicitly connects hyperbolic geometry in a literal sense with DMT (rather than just metaphorical talk of “hyperspace”) is a 2014 post in the Psychonaut subredit. To my knowledge, no one has yet elaborated to any substantial degree on this interesting connection. That said, I’m convinced that during the days that follow a strong trip, psychedelic self-experimenters may frequently wonder about the geometry of the places they explored. Yet they usually lack any conceptual framework to justify their intuitions or even verbalize them, so they quickly forget about them.
P.S.S. Example Self-Dribbling Basketball:
To the right you can see what a “self-dribbling basketball” looks like. The more you try to “grasp” what it is, the more curved it gets. That’s because you are adding energy with you attention and you do not have enough recognition ability in this space to lower its energy and reduce the curvature to stabilize it. The curvature is so extreme at times that it produces constant “context switches”. This is the result of excess curvature being pushed towards the edge of your experience and turning into walls and corridors.
P.S.S.S.: Example on world-sheet bending:
Below you can find two gifs that illustrate the behavior of a world-sheet on a 5mg vs. 20mg dose. The speed at which you are adding curvature to it increases so much that the shapes and objects keep shifting to accommodate it all.
(Source of super-trippy symmetric hyperbolic manifold representations: http://newearthlovelight.tumblr.com/post/70053311720)
David Pearce asked me ages ago to make accesible videos about transhumanism, consciousness and the abolitionist project. Well, here is a start
In this video I outline the core philosophy and objectives of Qualia Computing. There are three main goals here:
Catalogue the entire state-space of consciousness
Identify the computational properties of each experience (and its qualia components), and
Reverse engineer valence (i.e. to discover the function that maps formal descriptions of states of consciousness to values in the pleasure-pain axis)
While describing the 1st objective I explain that we start by realizing that consciousness is doing something useful (or evolution would not have been able to recruit it for information-processing purposes). I also go on to explain the difference between qualia varieties (e.g. phenomenal color, smell, touch, thought, etc.) and qualia values (i.e. the specific points in the state-spaces defined by the varieties, such as “pure phenomenal blue” or the smell of cardamom).
With regards to the 2nd objective, I explain that our minds actually use the specific properties of each qualia variety in order to represent information states and then to solve computational problems. We are only getting started in this project.
And 3rd, I argue that discovering exactly what makes an experience “worth living” in a formal and mathematical way is indeed ethically urgent. With a fundamental understanding of valence we can develop precise interventions to reduce (even prevent altogether) any form of suffering without messing up with our capacity to think and explore the state-space of consciousness (at least the valuable part of it).
I conclude by pointing out that the 1st and 2nd research programs actually interact in non-trivial ways: There is a synergy between them which may lead us to a recursively self-improving intelligence (and do so in a far “safer” way than trying to build an AGI through digital software).
Wireheads are beings who have changed their reward architecture in order to be happy all the time. Unfortunately few people are making a serious effort to steel man the case for wireheading. The concept of wireheading tends to be a conversation stopper, and is frequently used as a reductio-ad-absurdum for valence utilitarianism. Hedonism is a low-status philosophy at the time, but this may be the result of what amounts to dumb reasons (i.e. going against it signals intellectual sophistications). Let’s be meta-contrarian for a moment and think critically about it. What would a good case for wireheading look like? In what follows I will (1) provide an account of what is known about emotional dynamics over time, (2) discuss the known pitfalls of current wireheading methods, (3) propose a system to overcome these pitfalls, and (4) make the case that combining wireheading (done right) with a systematic exploration of the state-space of consciousness might ultimately be our saving grace against the perils of Darwinism at the evolutionary limit.
Let us begin by enriching our understanding of the nature of bliss and its temporal dynamics:
The Cube of Euphoria
A little over a year ago I conducted a study to figure out the main dimensions along which psychotropic drugs influence people. The State-Space of Drug Effects consists of six main dimensions: fast euphoria, slow euphoria, spiritual euphoria, clarity, perception of overall value, and external vs. internal source of interest. The first three dimensions are directly related to pleasure, which makes them relevant for our current discussion.
Slow | Fast
Spiritual | Fast
Spiritual | Slow
Fast euphoria is what you get when you take stimulants, exercise or anticipate that something great is about to happen. Slow euphoria is what you experience if you take opioids or depressants, receive massages or hug a loved one. Spiritual/philosophical euphoria changes less frequently relative to the daily comings and goings of the other two. It is a state of consciousness related to the way we represent “the big picture”. Those who seek it try to induce it by methods that include philosophical thinking, spiritual practices and/or psychedelic drug use.
Two out of these three dimensions are equivalent to the well-studied emotion classification space of valence and arousal (also called core affect). Valence is how good the experience feels, whereas arousal deals with the intensity of the experience. It turns out that one can get the slow-fast projection of the cube of euphoria by changing the basis used to represent the valence-arousal space. You can get the valence-arousal space simply by rotating the slow-fast euphoria projection by 45 degrees:
The valence-arousal dimensional classification of emotions.
A change of basis by turning the space 90 degrees. Fast and Slow euphoria are two of three dimensions of the cube of euphoria.
As we can see, fast euphoria is equivalent to “high-valence high-arousal” while slow euphoria is equivalent to “high-valence low-arousal”. This basis is not uncommon in affective psychology, and when used the axes are usually labeled “positive and negative activation”. We will use a yellow-red circle to represent fast euphoria and a blue-green circle to represent slow euphoria. I chose this color-coding by reasoning that warm colors are a better representation of ecstatic states of consciousness whereas cool colors illustrate better the feelings of cooling off and relaxing. I happen to prefer the fast-slow basis because it highlights the different kinds of euphoria in a helpful way that captures behavioral differences. This will be important when we get to steel-manning wireheading later on.
Formalizing the Hedonic Treadmill: Negative Feedback Mechanisms
It is well known that in the long run the things that happen to you have a surprisingly small effect on your overall level of happiness. One tends to always orbit around one’s hedonic set-point(our mean valence and arousal values). Although our average sense of wellbeing does change from context to context (in response to variables such as stress, novelty, drug regimens, accomplishments, and opportunities for meaningful relationships), the environmental effect usually washes out over time by one’s internal negative feedback mechanisms. The ability to achieve lasting happiness, it turns out, was not as evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral environment as the robust re-centering of affective dynamics that ended up governing our patterns of wellbeing. Thankfully, though unfairly, we are not all equally miserable; some people are lucky to be born hyperthymic and enjoy life the majority of the time. Genetically-determined pain-thresholds do not only influence how one responds to physical discomfort, but also predict the size of one’s social network (presumably by making social rejection less taxing).
Less well known is that people have different values for their valence-arousal correlation. According to a 2007 study by Peter Kuppens, the conventional wisdom in affective psychology that valence and arousal are uncorrelated is not quite correct. For 30% of people valence is negatively correlated with arousal, for 30% it is the opposite and for the remaining 40% there is no correlation between these two dimensions.
This means that some people usually experience high valence (i.e. feel good) at the same time as being in an up-beat high energy state, and when they feel bad they tend to also have low levels of energy. On the other extreme there are those who experience bliss by tuning the energy down and relaxing, and primarily experience bad feelings in the form of high-energy states (such as irritation, worry and anger).
The study showed that the correlation between valence and arousal was person-specific (negative for ~30%, positive for ~30%, no correlation for ~40% of people).
What else is variable across people? As it turns out, the transition patterns of core affect are related to personality factors. People’s level of variance in the valence dimension is an important component of neuroticism. Although most neurotics tend to hang out in low-valence states, there are indeed very happy neurotics whose problem is not that they feel bad, but that great feelings are too short-lasting and unpredictable. It is the unpredictability of valence rather than its absolute value that results in the coping mechanisms typical of this dimension. Likewise, higher variability in arousal is a component of extraversion, SEE I AM SCREAMING NOW (for example). Openness to experience can be understood in terms of novelty-triggered increases in valence, so that more open individuals are more likely to experience euphoria of all kinds when learning new information relative to people who describe themselves as conventional. Conscientious individuals feel very rewarded when they complete a laborious task (but may experience more intense shame if they do not finish it on time). Agreeableness is undeniably connected to a positive perception of other people. If one feels that others are right and deserve to exist one is more likely to cooperate. The way to have positive perceptions of others is to increase the hedonic tone of the interpersonal representations. In brief, core affect dynamics can be used to capture otherwise hard-to-describe properties of the various personality factors. They each have a signature behavior in the valence-arousal space.
In a paper titled A Hierarchical Latent Stochastic Differential Equation Model for Affective Dynamics, Oravecz, Tuerlinckx, and Vandekerckhove applied the Ornstein–Uhlenbeck process to the dynamics of core affect. Their model takes into account many important features that had previously been overlooked for the sake of simplicity. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, these features turn out to be important signatures of personality factors, so having a model that incorporates them may be very useful to understand the differences between people. Their model describes people as having: a latent home base (hedonic set point), variance (for both components), a correlation between valence and arousal, an average speed, and a time-dependent relocation of the home base determined by the hour of the day. The model allows you to estimate person-specific parameters (using as input a sequence of self-reported emotional states). In turn, once you have determined someone’s latent parameters, the model can help you predict their future affect based on their current state.
The “how fast you are pushed towards your baseline” vector field.
Two example walks over time in core affect space having different hedonic set-points.
The effect of parameters
This model is perhaps as good as it gets if you are restricted by a Markov assumption and given only the valence and arousal dimensions of the participants over time. The state-space of emotion is far more granular, though. Even increasing the number of dimensions by one (e.g. by including the dimension of spiritual euphoria) may go a long way in clarifying the nature of unexpected emotional transitions. What explains the sometimes very large effect of philosophical discoveries, religious conversions, and personal epiphanies?
A Map of Emotion Attractors: Studying 176X176 Transition Probabilities
Back between 2012 to 2014 I worked on modeling the dynamics of emotion transitions. I did this first as part of a research project for a company I worked for (thanks Kanjoya!) and it then transformed into the topic of my masters’ thesis. If you are interested in reading about it you can find some more on a paper I wrote with colleagues on predicting future emotions based on a sequence of previous ones (together with social cues).*
The analysis I worked on was made on a sample of hundreds of thousands of users of the now-defunct (but still browsable) Experience Project social network. Participants would have the option to record their mood on the landing page: they would select an emotion from a list of 176 words, say how intense this emotion was at the time (from 1 to 5) and explain why they feel the way they do (open text; optional). I analyzed the transition probability between each ordered pair of emotions for different intervals of time and compressed it into a score that describes the overall flow of people between them. This results in a flow graph that we can analyze with tools from graph theory. I explored many ways of clustering this graph and ultimately settled on a method that generated the best predictive power on a model to forecast future emotions. This method consisted of grouping the emotions in such a way that each emotion would maximize its mean transition probability to other emotions in the same group (relative to other groups). For the paper I made this graph with all of the emotions (nodes), the transition probabilities between them (edge thickness) and the resulting clusters (colors):
A weighted directed graph with 176 nodes, each representing a distinct state of consciousness. The edges represent the (directed) compressed transition probability between each ordered pair of states. The size of each node approximates the base rate at which the emotion occurs in the sample.
Each color represents a given “emotion attractor”. At a high level, we can say that whenever you are experiencing an emotion that is e.g. green you are more likely to transition to other emotions that are also green (relative to what would be expected from choosing an emotion randomly). This analysis is ultimately consistent with Oravecz et al.’s model in the sense that both analysis study the dynamic way in which people tend to get in and out of their home base. However, the granularity afforded by the 176 different options also allowed me to examine the deviations from this pattern. I investigated the question: “Which emotions take you to places that are inconsistent with the general trend of stochastically moving towards the central hedonic set-point?”
It turns out that some emotions behave in interesting ways. Some are what we called “hubs”: common stopping points that work as a route between any two colors. For example, “calm” and “tired” are hubs, and they do not give you much information about past or future emotions. Some other emotions behave like ‘gateways’ in the sense that they tend to indicate a jump from a particular color to another. For example, ‘hopeful’ and ‘relieved’ are two ‘gateway’ emotions: they work as stepping stones from blue (depressive) emotions to green (positive) ones.
Some emotions challenge the hedonic treadmill by virtue of predicting unexpectedly long-lasting stays on a given color. For example, the words “blessed”, “blissful” and “loved” were great predictors of long-lasting green emotions. By examining the text of these mood updates we determined that on average the people listing religious and spiritual themes as the cause of their feelings were more likely to stay for longer periods of time in the zone of positive emotions than most other people in the sample. I suppose that people’s spiritual euphoria may hack the pattern of hedonic habituation to some extent in a few lucky ones. I personally do not think that this is a scalable solution for everyone, though, since not everyone is spiritually oriented or has their endogenous opioid system wired up properly for meditation. The outstanding effect sizes we may see in some people who benefit from a particular e.g. meditation technique rarely generalize to everyone else. That said, it is certainly neat to see some evidence of some (spiritual/philosophical) sabotage at the mill.
How can we feel better in the long term?
A few years ago I abandoned hope in the idea that psychological interventions are sufficient to increase our wellbeing (philosophy, spirituality and exposure therapy can only take you so far in making you feel better). So what is next? The trick will be to combine psychological, chemical, electrical and genetic methods together in a balanced and healthy way and forget about relying on a single method. Can we be happy all the time? Let us move on to the subject of wireheading more directly. Given what we have discussed about core affect, emotion dynamics and the resilience of the hedonic set-point, is it possible to wirehead oneself in a non-regrettable way? I think that the answer is yes, but we will need to avoid some crucial dangers…
Wireheading Done Wrong I: Forgetting About the Negative Feedback
Fast and slow euphoria can be reliably triggered by sensorial or chemical methods. However, doing so quickly kick-starts two negative feedback mechanisms.
Current hedonic negative feedback dynamics.
The first one is that the effect is reduced (shown in the image as the little loops with a minus sign) with each use. And the second one is that withdrawing from these euphoric states kindles circuits that do the opposite of what was intended (as shown by the arrows with a positive sign). Too much of something that calms you is going to bring about a long and withdrawn state of constant low-level anxiety. Too much of anything that makes you up-beat and ecstatic is going to induce a long and withdrawn state of low-level depression.
Amphetamines, traditional opioids, barbiturates and empathogens can be ruled out as wise tools for positive hedonic recalibration. They are not comprehensive life enrichers precisely because it is not possible (at least as of 2016) to control the negative feedback mechanism that they kick-start. Simply pushing the button of pleasure and hoping it will all be alright is not an intelligent strategy given our physiological implementation. The onset of this negative feedback often triggers addictive behavior and physiological changes that shape the brain to expect the substance.
The case of spiritual/philosophical euphoria is a lot trickier. It is clear that there is a negative feedback that may be described (more or less) as a sort of philosophical boredom. Psychedelics are capable of changing our brain so as to increase the range of possible valence (i.e. they can enable states of extreme pleasure but also extreme suffering) in a way that sidesteps the need to directly interact with our pleasure centers. I think it is extremely important to figure out the mechanism of action of psychedelic bliss. We will in fact address it in another article. For now it will suffice to say that psychedelic pleasure does not seem to induce cravings or withdrawal. We should take a close look at it because it may be the key to understanding how to produce unlimited positive valence with no negative repercussions. Unfortunately, producing philosophical, spiritual and psychedelic bliss nowadays is still more of an art than a science; these methods are unreliable and can backfire tremendously.
In summary, we might say that if one is oblivious to negative feedback, then meth addiction is an attempt at fast euphoria wireheading, whereas opioid dependence is the result of trying (ineffectively) to obtain boundless slow euphoria. Spiritual euphoria wireheading attempts usually involve activities such as philosophy, meditation, prayer and psychedelic drug use. Even though attempting spiritual euphoria wireheading on oneself is a hell of a lot healthier than doing meth or heroin, it is certainly not free from possible psychological side effects (such as acquiring bizarre beliefs or experiencing events- sometimes profoundly distressing- of spiritual dysphoria and unwanted changes in one’s belief system).
Wireheading Done Wrong II: Seduced by a World of Your Own
One simple approach to wireheading effectively is to remove either one or both of the negative feedback mechanisms shown in the image above. Wiring electrodes into one’s pleasure centers does the trick just fine, since it apparently removes both. It turns out that the mechanism for generating physiological tolerance is bypassed by direct electric (rather than chemical) stimulation to the nucleus accumbens. Bliss obtained this way does not seem to stop pouring nor diminish in greatness over time. Unfortunately this method has profound pitfalls. Most salient of all is that if given the choice, mice (and some but not all people) will continuously self-stimulate this way as frequently and as intensely as possible, neglecting both physiological needs (like food and sleep) and social demands (like feeding one’s children or paying taxes). In the case of humans, people feel compelled to self-stimulate when suffering, but under normal circumstances (if feeling good already) they can hold off from pressing the button in order to carry out other activities. Admittedly this is an improvement over drugs, which make you feel terrible in the long run and in turn make you seek relief with the same method that brought you there. With electrical rather than chemical stimulation we can at least avoid this pitfall. That said, people do not like to have objects implanted in their brain, and our infection-prone future will thank us for not developing an addictive technology that requires a constant stream of ineffective antibiotics to keep it plugged in place. Thankfully future wireheading may be minimally invasive. Attractive alternatives to old-fashioned electrodes include body-powered wireless implants, optogenetics, and genetically encoded magnetic triggers of neural activity.
A much more subtle way to try to improve one’s hedonic set point is by counteracting the activation of the post-pleasure dysphoria only. Anti-depressants of the SSRI variety and the less well-known fast-acting aminoguanidine agmatine help prevent gross kindling of circuits that produce unpleasant sensations. This method may ultimately come down to increasing the amount of noise in the entire system** and thus reducing the survivability of highly-ordered states (such as pain and pleasure) in one’s consciousness. Preventing withdrawal by this method comes at the cost of blunting high-valence states, unfortunately. Prolonged SSRI use often makes people anhedonic and feel like they have lost all zest for life. In contrast, Ibogaine and low-dose opioid antagonists are promising chemical avenues to attack the same problem in a very different way without such side-effects. These compounds work by rebalancing one’s proportion of the various opioid receptor subtypes and in turn driving one’s hedonic capacity upwards (for some reason I don’t understand).
A whole generation of people will probably be “lost” to what I call single euphoria wireheading: let’s say that you have mastered the ability to experience a high level of fast euphoria in a sustainable way. You can in principle stop at any point and come down without feeling like you are missing out. But whenever you do activate the fast euphoria you are about ten times more motivated to go out, explore the world, work on projects and meet great people who also share your newfound interests and values. You may end up choosing to join a community of other people who value living fast and staying hyper-motivated, just as you do now.
Super-symmetric states may maximize valence locally. Whether their continuous instantiation is evolutionarily adaptive is still up unknown.
A World of Your Own: If you can modify the parameters of your own qualia values, you can perceive yourself as being in the best possible world.
Fast euphoria in particular is extremely tricky to program correctly, since it deals so directly with behavioral reinforcement. Many people get hooked on meth + X rather than on just meth: whether X is music, gaming, sex, gambling, porn and/or alcohol, during a meth binge people often end up doing the exact same repetitive but pleasant task for tens of hours. In other words, fast euphoria not only reinforces itself, but it also reinforces whatever activity you do while you experience it, and this is especially the case if the activity is more enjoyable as a result of the fast euphoria. Stimulant addiction, deep brain stimulation and manic states in bipolar sufferers share a core personality-changing effect driven by an excessive interest in a few rewarding activities at the expense of all other interests and responsibilities. It is extremely tricky to rationally use one’s reinforcement system directly in order to recalibrate one’s hedonic tone. Without (as-of-yet-uninvented) safeguards, doing so tends to increase impulsivity in the long term and mess up one’s preference architecture.
We could in principle block the metabolic pathways that lead to changes in one’s motivational system as a response to fast euphoria. If we did this, then people might be able to master side-effect-free hyper-motivation. Does this mean that a straightforward road to Super-Happiness is short-cutting to perpetual motivation?
The main problem is that motivation and one’s implicit notion of our self-in-time interact in unpredictable ways. One of the very mechanisms of action by which something like meth can transform your preference architecture is by forcibly redefining your self-model (cf. Ontological Qualia). Fast euphoria brings one’s attention towards the present moment and present happenings. In high amounts, it brings you face to face with your own presence in the eternal now. From that point of view, it feels as if that very moment is who you are, and one’s normal state of consciousness is re-interpreted as a mere jumping platform at the service of the few and far apart moments of real joy. To have an episode of feeling “truly alive” and returning to typical human conditions can unquestionably be felt as a sort of death -one not of the biological body but of the fleeting self-models that inhabited such sharper and subjectively more worthwhile state-spaces of consciousness.
If one’s implicit self-model is not robust against sudden changes in one’s level of fast euphoria, then one will not be good at surviving and being productive in a social economy. Let us say that person A is able to identify herself with her future self in 2059 and save for retirement, but person A on meth has a very hard time thinking of herself in any other terms than “me, right now, for as long as I can stay in this state of mind, 3 to 9 hours, give or take, depending on whether I redose.” The present moment, the immediate future and the pleasure opportunities available in it can be so salient that they eclipse one’s every other interest. If we do not find a way to prevent this shift in perspective it may be impossible to safeguard rationality when showered with streams of high-grade fast euphoria.
How about sloweuphoria wireheading? I suspect that it is in principle possible to master hyper-relaxation without being incapacitated. In the meantime, trying to slow down too much does seem to reduce one’s productivity by a good margin, so wireheading of the slow euphoria type is not currently advisable. That said, achieving hedonic recalibration by guaranteeing a minimum of slow euphoria is, as I see it, a lot more feasible than doing so through fast euphoria. Slow euphoria does not have the explosive effects on one’s motivational architecture and self-models that fast euphoria does. On the contrary, relaxation can allow us to reconceive of ourselves as beings who inhabit much longer timelines (to really grasp our decades-long lifespan and know how to pace ourselves rather than feeling pressed to identify with our present moment exclusively).
Spiritual euphoria may or may not necessarily imply changes in one’s belief structure. Currently, peak spiritual/philosophical states (including high levels of psychedelia) are a rather different kind of subjective wellbeing than the other two that dominate our everyday life. This bliss is often associated with extreme changes in the quality of one’s conceptualization of reality, which limits its effective incorporation into a rational and economically productive being. Unless, of course… one is producing useful information in those states. More about this further below.
In summary: If a device is ever discovered that allows people to enjoy fast, slow or spiritual euphoria without implicitly influencing their worldview and economic capacity, then that device will probably become a staple of life. Issues of authorship and agency aside, single euphoria wireheading without serious engineering to counter its problems is a road to oblivion from the point of view of evolution. Whether controlled single euphoria wireheading can be adaptive is still up for debate.
Wireheading Done Wrong III: Becoming a Pure Replicator (Even If You Love It)
Look, we are all friends here. We are trying to delay for as long as possible the development of a Singleton (i.e. a state of complete control by one system), while we also try to keep at bay the problem of Moloch*** (i.e. complete lack of control). We are trying to find a sustainable solution against both extremes. In our ideal world, all beings should have the freedom to explore the state-space of consciousness however they want (or live in an Archipelago of societies at the very least). We need to work together on designing the future to avoid evolutionary extremes and safeguard freedom of consciousness. Now, who is the enemy?
The Threat of Pure Replicators
I will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
If given the choice, please don’t become a pure replicator and throw under the bus all the hard work that people throughout history have put into making the world not an entirely horrible place. Pure replicators may come in many guises. While the term pure replicator may invoke images of cockroaches and viruses in one’s mind, the truth is that your modafinil-fueled income-maximizing coworker may already be on the path of turning into one. Wait, what did you just read?
Considering that the dimension of spiritual euphoria is the most intense (and subjectively profound) source of conscious value, it would be a shame if our society exclusively optimized for linear logico-linguistic “high clarity” states of consciousness. Of all the drugs available, when balancing side effects and overall effectiveness, it is likely that modafinil-like compounds (e.g. custom nootropics) give you the single largest economic edge within this society. Caffeine is already available to everyone, speed slowly kills you and micro-dosed LSD makes you (believe it or not) too creative for most paying jobs. Is it possible to make the interesting and valuable states of consciousness the ones that are economically rewarded? Are we going to let the economic incentives in our society silently maximize the presence of modafinil-like states of consciousness?
There is no known substance that enhances both “clarity” and “spiritual/philosophical euphoria” at the same time. It would be a shame if all the economy cared about was your level of clarity, for that would mean that modafiniljunkiesusers will rule the world. (Oh, wait…). At the limit, such a world may be impervious to conceptual revolutions or caring about valence research. Image Source.
In practice, unless digital AGI pans out or nanotechnology takes over, pure replicators are going to need to interface with human and posthuman markets to gain any power. Although fashionable to think about nowadays, exotic nanotech and/or AI pure replicators may ultimately be far easier to stop than pure replicators that disguise themselves as humans (i.e. people who turn into empty shells of their former selves by embracing hyper-competitive Moloch memes and their associated technologies). As we will see, the nature of future economic selection pressures may be the most important factor in whether or not we are taken over by armies of pure replicators.
Aren’t we all pure replicators already?
Tautologically, natural selection can only produce pure replicators. But this would be to think of the term in an unhelpful way that is not true to the spirit of the idea. This is why we defined pure replicators in terms of indifference towards conscious states. Most animals do indeed care a great deal about the valence of their own consciousness; after all, the motivational power of the pleasure-pain axis is the very reason why evolution recruited conscious valence to begin with. More so, sexual selection happens to have recruited introspection, aesthetics, benevolence and intelligence as fitness-indicators (which explains why we are so keen on advertising these traits). Brian Tomasik calls our times the Age of Spandrelsbecause we live in a period that is reaping the benefits of surplus production (still being below carrying capacity) while silly non-optimal aesthetics inherited from our evolutionary past still survive. Interpersonal love, sexually selected hedonistic social rituals and ingrained prosocial implicit values may be evolutionary spandrels in the context of our economy, but (surprisingly) they are still part of our society. Hence, we today can enjoy watching movies, making love and thinking about philosophy. Our drive to delight in life is powerful enough to distract us from optimal economic participation, and our emotional wellbeing (which affects our economic participation) is still linked to events dealing with our level of pleasure outside work.
In contrast, the intelligent agents of the future may not be constrained to using the pleasure-pain axis to implement goal-oriented behaviors. One could envision scenarios like Robin Hanson’s Age of EM in which the most productive (and abundant) minds do 99.9999% of the work, and this work is boring 99.9999% of the time. These minds may work while in near-neutral states of consciousness that have either negligibly positive or even outright negative valence. The employees of this massive workforce are those individuals who are willing to do whatever they are told for 0.00001% vacation time and the opportunity to stay alive and multiply (in this case by copying the minds in digital servers). The employers may themselves not be particularly happy because they are also competing against other companies that cut down on costs as much as possible. If smiling does not increase one’s productivity at one’s job but it does waste precious calories and units of attention, then smiling will be abolished for purely economic reasons. In this scenario everyone is either employed and miserable (relative to our current standards), or unemployed and dying of starvation. We can thank those entities who were willing to completely sacrifice their own psychological depth (and freedom to explore the state-space of consciousness) for the sake of merely existing. The world now fails to produce any actual value in the form of meaningful states of consciousness and is over-saturated with modafinil-like consciousness.
Singleton and Moloch end-of-times scenarios tend to look pretty terrible because the worlds they present don’t seem to contain reasons for anyone to care about valence.
A desirable Singleton should at the very least care about states of high-valence and avoid negative valence states as much as possible. In a future article we will discuss some ideas for how to design an economic system based on cooperation that increases our chances of having ecologies of sustainable conscious entities who have the following properties: (1) they are free to explore the state-space of consciousness, (2) are social, and (3) have access to practically unlimited positive valence. But what if we are headed towards a perpetual Moloch (failure of cooperation) scenario?
Surviving in the Sundown of the Age of Spandrels
‘[I]n Time any being that is spontaneous and alive will wither and die like an old joke.’
What would be a list of desirable traits that we want to have after acquiring complete control over our individual pleasure-pain axis? David Pearce doesn’t get tired of pointing out that the future does not belong to anti-natalists. Their compassionate genes will be weeded out of the gene pool, and it will be their own compassionate sentimental fault. Similarly, full-blown single euphoria wireheading (as discussed above) is destined for oblivion unless it also happens to give you marketable skills.
We want to be able to both feel good and at the same time remain economically competitive (or we are going to be crowded out by pure replicators). Here is a list of traits that would help us have lives worth living without sacrificing our economic value:
Always in a positive valence state (i.e. remaining above hedonic zero).
Faithful/good enough internal simulation of one’s environment (both physical and social).
Free to explore at will the known state-space of consciousness.
Capable of producing socially-useful information.
Free from unconscious bonds and protected against mind control.
Capable of exiting attractor states (affective, cognitive, social e.g. thought loops).
Able to make others happier in ways they did not know were possible.
Trans/Post-human negative feedback mechanisms. It is a virtuous cycle that delivers hearty amounts of euphoria but with no craving as a result. What’s reinforced is the flow between the types of euphoria rather than each kind on its own.
The first trait matters for ethical reasons: one needs to guarantee that the entities you bring into existence will always be happy to be alive. One should never compromise on the wellbeing of the beings one designs and gives birth to. If someone does, then we are again off to the races against pure replicators willing to suffer for a chance to exist.
The second trait is a requirement to survive in a physical world and a social economy (for obvious reasons).
The third trait is motivated by both ethical and practical reasons: as I understand it, having the ability to explore the known state-space of consciousness guarantees that you yourself can benefit from whatever awesome things people have made and discovered already. It guarantees that each individual will be able to experience the most valuable states (as judged by themselves at the time) without a preconceived notion of which states are the most ideal before experimenting on their own.
Being capable of experiencing any state of consciousness already discovered and understood will hopefully also turn out to be economically desirable. In order to be of relevance in the market of information about the state-space of consciousness you yourself will need to be an explorer and be up to date with what is in vogue. This opens up the possibility of a full-fledged qualia economy: when people have spare resources and are interested in new states of consciousness, anyone good at mining the state-space for precious gems will have an economic advantage.
In principle the whole economy may eventually be entirely based on exploring the state-space of consciousness and trading information about the most valuable contents discovered doing so. The traits 4 through 7 are intended to address the complications that arise from the need to have social competence to survive in such an economy.
Society may ultimately converge into a system in which people are constantly in hyper-valuable states and the only way to become powerful is to invent new ways to improve upon the already highly-optimal state-spaces people are free to roam all the time. In this economy, people would also be motivated to help others succeed: Everyone benefits from making discoveries since every discovered state is made accessible to everyone.
How could we implement a conscious mind with these attributes? The task is indeed extremely demanding, and billions of dollars in R&D will have to be invested before we have a silver-bullet genetic intervention that takes us in that direction. In the next centuries we are likely to see hundreds of thousands of researchers experimenting with various cocktails, implants and genetic vectors hacking themselves in order to reliably improve their hedonic tone while also increasing their economic value.
In order to have any chance at living in such a society we need to make sure we won’t be overrun by pure replicators in any of their gazillion different guises. To do so, we need to make sure we do not fall prey to any of the wireheading mistakes outlined above. And we also need to make sure that we can give back to the world more than we take, so that the world is happy to have us around.
Wireheading Done Right: Stay Positive Without Going Insane
To remain economically relevant and subvert the rise of pure replicators, it is quintessential that one’s capacity to explore the state-space of consciousness is a marketable skill. Your imagination (if we choose to call it that way), should therefore work at an acceptable depth and pace from the point of view of the current economy of social relationships.
Be like my friends Leona and Link. They have a balanced routine of many varieties of experiential wellbeing and euphoria. They are hyper-motivated in the morning (fast euphoria), go crazy creative and spiritual in the afternoon (spiritual euphoria), and go to sleep in delightful oceans of cool sensations (slow euphoria). They are genetically engineered to live the good life without getting stuck in bad loops.
The diagram above illustrates the main idea: we want to rewire our reward architecture in such a way that as each kind of euphoria is instantiated a different one becomes more accessible.
For example, we may want to wirehead ourselves in such a way that our ability to experience fast euphoria is gated by slow euphoria. Until you have not “satiated” your psychological need for resting you will not be allowed to feel hyper-motivated. Our desires are already state-specific, but the current network of transition probabilities between emotions facilitates the reinforcement of toxic local attractors (also called “death spirals” like states of depression or generalized anxiety). By re-engineering the network of transition probabilities between emotions and extracting out the dysphoric components we might be able to guarantee a continuous flow between functionally and phenomenologically distinct modes of wellbeing. Wireheading done right consists of having wonderful experiences all the time, but in such a way that you never feel compelled to stay where you are for too long. In addition, a good wireheading procedure should also allow you to keep learning useful information about the state-space of consciousness. Wireheading should not imply the end of learning. In brief, we suggest that we should change our brains so that by feeling great in a certain way you temporarily reduce the response to that particular kind of euphoria but also make it easier to enjoy some other kind. One would thus be incentivized to keep moving, and to never give up or to get stuck in loops.
Naturally one may be skeptical that perpetual (but varied) bliss is at all possible. After all, shouldn’t we be already there if such states were actually evolutionarily advantageous? The problem is that the high-valence states we can experience evolved to increase our inclusive fitness in the ancestral environment, and not in an economy based on gradients of bliss. Experiences are calorically expensive; in the African Savannah it may cost too many calories to keep people in novelty-producing hyperthymic states (even if one is kept psychologically balanced) relative to the potential benefits of having our brains working at the minimal acceptable capacity. In today’s environment we have a surplus of calories which can be put to good use, i.e. to explore the state-space of consciousness and have a chance at discovering socially (and hedonically) valuable states. Exploring consciousness may thus not only be aligned with real value (cf. valence realism) but it might also turn out to be a good, rational time investment if you live in an experience-oriented economy. We are not particularly calorie-constrained nowadays; our states of consciousness should be enriched to reflect this fact.
Link and Leona (whom you may recognize from a previous article) are two successful wireheads who are now happier than ever. They chose to have the following feedback network for their valence: fast makes it easier to feel spiritual, spiritual makes it easier to feel slow, and slow makes it easier to feel fast. Their primary state of consciousness cycles over a period of 24 hours. Here is their routine: They wake up and experience intense zest for life and work at full capacity making others happy and having fun. Then they go crazy creative in the afternoon, usually spending that time alone or with friends, and explore (and share) strange but always awesome psychedelic-like states of consciousness. Finally, at night they just relax to the max (the healthy and genetically encoded phenomenological equivalent of shooting heroin). They report having more agency than before, since now they feel that there is time to do everything they want, and moving from one activity to the next is easy and spontaneous. This kind of wireheading allows them to avoid loops, drops in motivation or impoverished creativity and introspection. The only thing they had to accept was that “hey, you don’t need to have all of the euphorias at once all the time”. By enjoying them one at a time you can guarantee a healthy mind, a healthy social life and a healthy economic output.
Positive Wireheading at the Evolutionary Limit
One of the main insights of evolutionary game theory is that strategies that have the best shot at being dominant for long periods of time have three properties: (1) they do well on average against other strong strategies, (2) do well against themselves, and (3) have an immune system against custom anti-strategies. This last condition may be skipped if we are not going to play for too long, but in the long run it is absolutely necessary. Custom anti-strategies may themselves be terrible against other strong strategies and even against themselves, so you may not realize they exist at first. For a while your strategy may be dominating the space with no signs of anything changing. But then you may start noticing that a tiny population of contrarians are beginning to grow exponentially. In no time you are defeated and the world breaks into chaos (since the contrarians may not be good at holding power). A classical illustration of this phenomenon comes from the evolutionary setup of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. Here we can find some strategies that satisfy (1) and (2) but do not have a good immune system against free-loading strategies. The strategy always-defect is surprisingly effective in an ecosystem dominated by always-cooperate. Likewise the Pavlov strategy can exploit the vulnerabilities of tit-for-tat-with-forgiveness, (though improved versions can counter it). Over time we see sporadical population booms and busts caused by cycles of cooperative eras collapsing under parasitic breakthroughs.
I posit that an ecology of wirehead minds that dedicate themselves to explore (“mine”) the state-space of consciousness can be economically powerful if other people are willing to pay for the information about how to instantiate the high-valence qualia discovered during these explorations. A large group of cooperators that help each other explore the state-space of consciousness satisfies condition (2) from the previous paragraph. But in order to satisfy condition (1) we need an environment in which knowledge about consciousness is marketable. The Super-Shulgin Academies (i.e. rational psychonautic collectives) of the future may concentrate all the qualia research talent in the world and reap the highest economic benefits while producing the largest amount of value, but they will only be able to do so if the surrounding society values their output. A society of pure replicators has no use for Super-Shulgin Academies, let alone Manhattan Projects of Consciousness (i.e. global concerted efforts to find and recruit benevolence-enhancing states of consciousness). But given the moral and hedonistic pursuits of our fellow humans we may still have a chance: making people happier than they currently are is a trillion-dollar industry nowadays, and Super-Shulgin Academies may capitalize on this demand by selling valence-enhancing technologies to the masses.
With regards to (3) we may happen to be lucky this time: Knowing all there is to know about the state-space of consciousness is the best way to prevent oneself from being outsmarted. Super-Shulgin Academies would invest heavily in researching ways to defend themselves against pure replicators. As part of its immune system, a Super-Shulgin Academy should only admit benevolent individuals as researchers. Benevolence, perhaps, is best implemented at the level of ontological qualia: someone who believes that we are all the same consciousness is a lot less dangerous to others than someone who is solipsistic or self-centered. “Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize they are one and the same process as the universe.” (Alan Watts). Rational agency and super-sentience in the hands of Open Individualists (i.e. people who believe that we are all the same subject of experience) could eventually allow us to bring about a good qualia and valence-centric Singleton.
But to bootstrap our way there we need to make sure that the organization would not die out even in an economy that isn’t already completely focused on consciousness (i.e. to fulfill condition 1).
We are very lucky to live in the Age of Spandrels. We take for granted the fact that people around us like to watch movies, go to sports events, read novels, get drunk, listen to music, have sex, etc. without realizing they could be investing all of that energy in figuring out how to make clones. We don’t usually realize that people’s atavistic inefficient hedonism is in fact our saving grace. (As an aside, I hope I am not inspiring anyone to go wild into the arts and do silly non-optimal things. My readership is capable of much more than that. Let us do silly non-optimal things in the most optimal way possible, by which I mean, let’s try to ensure that future beings care about valence and consciousness.) We should be thankful that we still have residual sexually-selected preferences for experientially rich lifestyles over pure and efficient dullness.
Wiki-consciousness. The state-space of consciousness library is accessible to everyone free of charge.
As long as we make intelligent use of today’s collective interest in exploring consciousness (in all of its guises e.g. art, philosophy, drugs) we still have a chance to create a sustainable economy of well-rounded wireheads that is worth living. The wirehead psychonaut collective would obtain most of its economic power via the revenue coming from the discoveries made during the systematic exploration of the state-space of consciousness. If the public consumes these discoveries, then the strategy may be perfectly self-sustaining. The process itself would be beneficial, as we would discover new ways to make people happy, bring the radical freedom to inhabit any known state of consciousness and increase our understanding of the universe.
One can even imagine that if Super-Shulgin Academies become the most powerful economic forces in the world, they may choose to create a massive “wiki-consciousness”: a library of all known states of consciousness completely accessible to anyone free of charge. Why would they do this given that their power comes from being able to sell this information? On the one hand it stabilizes people’s ability to gain power over each other (since the only way to gain power in such an economy is to sell information about the state-space). This incentivizes people to actually find something new and valuable for everyone if they are aiming to become more powerful. And on the other hand, making the information freely available would also increase the quality of prospective members of the psychonaut collective due to widespread consciousness literacy.
If we play our cards right we may still have a chance of avoiding the pure replicators, Molochs and Singletons that lurk ahead in our forward light-cone. But to do so we need to stay grounded and avoid the pitfalls here discussed.
If we are to have a chance at surviving with a good quality of life in the sundown of the Age of Spandrels we will need to preemptively outcompete pure replicators. To do so we must avoid wireheading traps and take seriously future economic selection pressures, as they will determine who or what survives at the evolutionary limit. It is imperative that we take advantage of the current collective demand for valence and information about consciousness to fund ambitious consciousness research programs. Such programs will capitalize on this demand and kick-start a valence-centric market. In turn, scientific breakthroughs in this area may increase the percentage of the economy that is dedicated to exploring consciousness, which may reduce the opportunities for pure replicators to participate in the economy.
We need to act fast: if the economic demand for valence technologies disappears (or is low enough), we will find ourselves in a world in which exploring the state-space of consciousness is not profitable and pure replicators win.
For every word written in scientific journals about the evolution of astonishing language ability, at least a hundred words have been written in women’s magazines about men’s apparent inability to articulate even the simplest thought or feeling. Women commonly complain that their sexual partners do not talk enough to them. If language evolved through sexual selection, and if sexual selection operates more powerfully on males than on females, you may legitimately wonder why your boyfriend or husband cannot share his feelings with you. Is it possible that, his early courtship efforts having brought success, he no longer feels driven to be as verbally energetic, interesting, and self-disclosing as he was before? The man who used to talk like Cyrano now talks like a cave-man. Once he was a poet, now he is prosaic. His verbal courtship effort has decreased.
I have already argued that effective verbal courtship is a reliable fitness indicator precisely because it is costly and difficult. Animals evolve to allocate their energies efficiently. If it took a million words to establish a sexual relationship with you, your boyfriend was apparently willing to absorb those costs, just as his male ancestors were. But if it takes only twenty words a day to maintain exclusive sexual access to you, why should he bother uttering more? His motivational system has evolved to deploy his courtship effort where it makes a difference to his reproductive success- mainly by focusing it where it improves his rate of sexual intercourse. Men apparently did not evolve from male ancestors who squandered high levels of verbal courtship effort on already established relationships. Of course, if an established partner suspends sexual relations, or threatens to have an affair, evolution would favor motivations that produce a temporary resurgence of verbal courtship until the danger has passed. Frustratingly, a woman may find that the greater the sexual commitment she displays the less her man speaks.
This analysis may sound heartlessly unromantic, but evolution is heartlessly unromantic. It is stingy with courtship effort, stacking it heavily where it does the most good, and sprinkling it very lightly elsewhere. Human courtship, like courtship in other animals, has a typical time-course. Courtship effort is low when first assessing a sexual prospect, increases rapidly if the prospect reciprocates one’s interest, peaks when the prospect is deciding whether to copulate, and declines once a long-term relationship is established. We all enjoy a desired partner besieging us with ardent, witty, energetic courtship. That enjoyment is the subjective manifestation of the mate preferences that shaped human language in the first place. As with any evolved preference, we may desire more than we can realistically get. Evolution’s job is to motivate us, not to satisfy us.
So, when women universally complain about their slothfully mute boyfriends, we learn two things. First, women have a universal desire to enjoy receiving high levels of verbal courtship effort. Second, high levels of verbal courtship effort are so costly that men have evolved to produce them only when they are necessary for initiating or reviving sexual relationships. Far from undermining the courtship hypothesis for language evolution, this phenomenon provides two key pieces of evidence that support it.
– The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (pg. 382) by Geoffrey F. Miller