A society based on E-like consciousness would be an honest society of honest people.
Today, most of us lie and dissemble. We tell white lies and, on occasion, total whoppers. Most of us lie many times in the course of a day, whether to friends, family, colleagues or – as necessity or convenience dictates – to total strangers. Hiding one’s true thoughts and feelings as the occasion demands is second nature to outwardly civilised Darwinians. The few formal studies conducted into the prevalence of lying in everyday life suggest we tend to underestimate just how often (almost) all of us are guilty of outright fabrications, not to mention innumerable half-truths and evasions.
On a wider scale, deceit is institutionalized in political life. The record of human history to date supports the powerful intuition that deception will persist indefinitely in public and private life alike. For the evolved capacity to lie and deceive in ever more sophisticated ways has been genetically adaptive. Indeed, if the controversial Machiavellian ape hypothesis is correct, then a progressively refined capacity to lie and deceive – and conversely, a fine-tuned capacity to spot lies and deceit in others – may have driven the evolution of human intelligence.
It is sometimes said that life would be better if only we were honest with each other. More often, this value judgement is simply assumed. Life might be better, too, if we were more honest with ourselves. But given today’s corrupt genome, all such scenarios are impossibly unrealistic. Moreover, the effects of public openness about private feelings would frequently be catastrophic. This is because Darwinian humans entertain so many negative thoughts about each other that complete candour would wreck most contemporary human relationships. In a grim Darwinian world, one [E-less] person may, for instance, find another person boring and ugly. Yet there is commonly no advantage to either party in saying so. So the civilities are (sometimes) preserved.
Not all lying is self-serving. Very often, we lie to spare the feelings of others, as well as our own.
On MDMA/Ecstasy, however, subjects tend to become extraordinarily honest. People trust each other: MDMA indirectly triggers the release of oxytocin. Critically, MDMA-induced emotional honesty is matched by a subtle yet profound shift in perception: when “loved up” on MDMA, we all tend to seem fascinating and beautiful, both to each other and to ourselves. On MDMA, it seems natural to express these feelings spontaneously and demonstratively too.
Alas this marvellous state of being doesn’t last for more than a few hours. Potentially, the benefits of MDMA (and MDA)-assisted therapy can be much longer-lasting. But the peak experience of soul-baring empathetic bliss soon fades. Looking to the future, however, enhancements of E-like consciousness can in principle be indefinitely prolonged. By opting via gene-therapy to hardwire a neurobiology of E-like consciousness into our offspring, we could even lock in this perceptual and behavioural shift for good. If implemented species-wide, an enhanced E-like set of perceptual filters would make heavenly love for each other as natural as breathing.
This post-millennial vision is implausible. Right now, the notion of global E-like consciousness seems fantastical, especially if one isn’t loved up on MDMA. Yet the capacity to love everybody, and in extreme forms, to be in love with everybody, will be a technical if not sociological possibility in the age of mature biotechnology. In future, if we ever opt – pharmacologically or genetically – to implement E-like consciousness as one facet of world-wide mental health, then it may be psychologically safe to be totally honest. In the meantime, barring such enrichment of our troubled minds, it’s sometimes safer to lie through one’s teeth. Thus today the MDMA user is probably well advised to take a conscious decision, prior to dropping an E, not to disclose anything s/he would not wish to be known in the E-less state. Reticence on E can be maintained; but one can be reliably tight-lipped on E only with a fair degree of forethought.
Yet discretion is prudent not because an E-catalysed outpouring of the heart and soul is itself pathological. Selective reticence about (some of) one’s innermost feelings is wise simply because the repercussions of honesty back in the E-less world to which the user must return can be cruel; and because the elevated sentiments felt while on E often cannot be sustained in the cold light of day.
Of course, the prospect of worldwide E-like candour strikes the harsh Darwinian eye as grotesque – no less than the prospect of us all loving each other. More specifically, the option of becoming permanently loved-up invites the charge that E-like perception is systematically distorted. A notional society of loved-up E-heads, it may be alleged, would be in the grip of a collective psychosis. Sure, runs the cynic’s critique, loved-up Ecstatics intoxicated on MDMA may find everyone beautiful and fascinating. But so what? Even though MDMA is not a classic “hallucinogen” or psychedelic, the drug-induced perception of loveliness that MDMA creates is (often) false. For lots of people are really boring and ugly. A perpetually E-enchanted world would be a fool’s paradise populated by intellectually and aesthetically undiscerning simpletons. In an E-like world, we might indeed be open and honest; but we’d have nothing worth hiding.
This dismissive judgement doesn’t follow. If being boring or ugly were intrinsic properties of (some of) our fellow humans, rather than our emotional responses to the vicious (mis-)representations of Darwinian minds, then the charge of false consciousness, as it were, might be easier to sustain. But there’s no evidence that this is so. Our perceptual experiences have been shaped by natural selection, not to be veridical, but to help our genes leave more copies of themselves. Sometimes this (lack of) veridicality is fitness-enhancing; and sometimes it isn’t; and sometimes – as is arguably the case in the realm of attitudes expressing pure value judgements – there’s no fact of the matter either way. In any event, under the primordial Darwinian regime of natural selection, there has been great advantage in seeing genetic rivals, and indeed seeing anyone with whom one is not genetically identical, in a (sometimes) cruelly negative light. On the other hand, if it had helped our genes leave more copies of themselves, then men would typically represent women of, say, 80 years old as more sexy and fascinating than women aged 21; and this perception would be neither more nor less “correct” than the aesthetic consensus-reality of today.
Analogously, the enraptured mystic who can “see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower” is not deluded; such perceptions are uncommon at present merely because it has been genetically maladaptive to occupy states of sustained mystical bliss. For in the ancestral environment of adaptation, it was typically more adaptive to see grains of sand as boring and neglect them. But today’s parochial (virtual) worlds are only one small set of mind-dependent creations in a vaster state-space of possibilities, not a timeless feature of the human predicament. Tantalisingly, thanks to biotechnology a wide range of life-enriching options will soon be on offer instead.
A tough-minded sceptic may respond: yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not all social perception is relative. Some people really are nasty and ill-natured by (almost) any criterion at all. And seeing them as anything else would be delusive. Granted, viewing each other in an often jaundiced light may be a product of our nasty little Darwinian minds, but surely that’s the point: commonly we just aren’t very lovable. If we are to be honest, then we should admit this – not gush effusively at each other like drugged-up hippies.
Herein lies the beauty of MDMA – and perhaps safer, sexier lovedrugs and more distant gene-therapies in the pipeline. MDMA doesn’t just make us honest. E-like consciousness makes us sweeter-natured. Even better, the idealised self activated by MDMA does not take the form of alien impostor, so to speak, but feels utterly authentic, constructed from elements of an idealised persona that we can’t live up to in drug-naïve life. If, in a hypothetical E-based society, everyone were constitutionally sweet-natured, then enriching our cognitive architecture would entail capturing this sweet-naturedness in our interpersonal perceptions. With E-like consciousness, emotional honesty and intellectual integrity can, in principle, go hand in hand. It is possible, but unproven, that ugly representations of ourselves and each other belong to a dark Darwinian world that we will shortly leave behind.
This prospect again invites scepticism. It can be argued that genetically engineering an entire population primed for indiscriminate honesty is not an evolutionarily stable outcome. An unfailingly honest population might seem prone to genetic invasion by mutant, quasi-sociopathic “defectors”. This game-theoretic argument may continue to hold in the future, as it has done in the past. Even with advanced biotechnology, runs this line of argument, perhaps only substantially egoistic well-being is feasible in any biologically realistic model of a globally superhappy society.
But once again, this overly quick reply neglects how ostensibly altruistic thoughts and behaviour evolved in the first instance i.e. for (genetically) selfish reasons; and how they are likely to proliferate explosively in the new reproductive era of designer babies. The proliferation of such admirable traits will accelerate not because our genes stop being any less selfish in the technical sense. For unselfish genes are impossible. Instead, an (E-like?) nobility of character may flourish in the impending era of so-called unnatural selection because when selection is no longer “blind” or [effectively] random, the [selfish] genetic payoff of promoting such “altruistic” traits can be higher. In the new reproductive era ahead, when genes/allelic combinations are chosen by (partially) rational agents in anticipation of their likely behavioural consequences, parents will plausibly exhibit a strong preference for offspring with genotypes that promote such (partially) heritable traits as honesty and “lovability”. These nicer traits may then flourish at the expense of alleles that predispose to a nastier disposition. After all, who wants to devote their life to raising nasty kids?
Needless to say, we don’t know whether our genetically enhanced descendants will ever have E-like perceptual filters to their consciousness. We don’t know if posterity will lie and cheat as much as we do. We don’t even know whether they will be fundamentally happy, or assuming they are indeed innately so blessed, whether their well-being will take an egocentric or empathetic guise, or express modes of flourishing unimaginably different from anything accessible to conscious mind today. So perhaps the enticing scenarios for our transhuman descendants touted here are all just wishful thinking masquerading as futurology. But whatever the future holds, by taking MDMA we can already, fleetingly, access states of consciousness richer than our brutish Darwinian mindset normally permits. A fundamentally honest society, prefigured (perhaps) in a communal MDMA love-in, is not self-evidently ethically inferior to a society founded on never-ending lies and deceit – or a society driven by competitive displays of consumer consumption. So at least as an intellectual exercise, it’s worth investigating the policy-option of locking in the biochemical substrates of E-like honesty for good.
In this video I introduce the concept of Open Individualism- the idea that we are all one consciousness -, why it is relevant, and who has historically been a proponent of it (Hinduism, Einstein, Schopenhauer, Schrödinger, etc.).
We also cover the fact that there is a distinction between Open Individualism as an experience and Open Individualism as a philosophical position with rigorous arguments. I mention that I generally consider arguments to be more powerful and useful than just relying on first-person experiences, though experiences certainly have their place.
Part 2: Definitions
We define and illustrate:
Closed Individualism (“you are a separate observer that exists from moment to moment”)
Empty Individualism (“you are just a moment of experience”)
Open Individualism (“we are all one consciousness”)
Part 3: Strongest Arguments
In this video we provide some of the strongest arguments in favor of Open Individualism:
Based on continuity of identity from moment to moment.
Reductio ad absurdum of Closed Individualism.
Lack of viable Identity Carriers (IC).
Based on parsimony.
Self-locating uncertainty when taking a “view from nowhere”.
Part 4: Loneliness, Psychosis, Ecstasy
I address some key considerations when investigating Open Individualism:
It is crucial to distinguish between our human feelings about a certain idea and the merits and drawbacks of that idea on its own.
Open Individualism tends to cause a lot of bliss at first (caused by defanging death)
But Open Individualism can often take a turn for the bad.
It makes you realize that you won’t only not die, which is good, but also be forced to experience all of the suffering of the world (or multiverse).
More so, it can make you feel “cosmically lonely” – a feeling typical of bad trips where the focus is the pursuit of oneness.
While the increased sense of responsibility caused by Open Individualism is good, it is important not to be overwhelmed by the suffering of the world. As they say “one day at a time” and perhaps we could extend that advise to “one lifetime at a time”.
The feeling of loneliness is likely the result of mixing deep brain circuits evolved to track things like one’s place in the tribe via feelings of belongingness and togetherness, which can get deactivated or over-activated when fully internalizing otherwise-neutral philosophical viewpoints. In other words, those feelings are reflections of our mammal brain’s response to Open Individualism rather than inherent to the philosophy in and of itself.
I also briefly mention the interesting relationship between the ways we represent the world and valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis). Given the Symmetry Theory of Valence, which claims that more “consonant and symmetrical” states of consciousness feel better, experiencing “unitive states of mind” usually comes with the “dissolution of internal boundaries”. Therefore, to actively simulate a world where we are all one is likely to come with very positive feelings (perhaps even orgasmic, and ecstatic). Yet, this is not intrinsic of oneness as such – rather, it’s an artifact of the way valence is implemented in the brain! Subtle, but key, distinction.
Finally, I also explain that “the highest truth” is not oneness:
In some sense, Open Individualism is “level 0” – it is the start of a journey of self-discovery. We still need to address things like how to eliminate extreme suffering, understand how physics describes fields of qualia, the binding problem, how causality interfaces with consciousness, what makes consciousness have an “arrow of time”, and so on. While oneness is a piece of the puzzle, it is by no means “the final answer”. To think otherwise leads to mental pathologies that constrict- rather than expand- one’s understanding and engagement with the world.
Part 5: Ethics, Coordination, Game Theory
In this video I discuss the beneficial implications of Open Individualism. Namely:
Its ethical implications, where one feels a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of all sentient beings.
Its ability to solve coordination problems.
Its game-theoretical effects.
I cover how a cultural, philosophical, and scientific movement that grounds the feelings of oneness and universal love in rigorous philosophy and science would be much more powerful and consequential than yet another attempt at a naïve spreading of “peace, love, and harmony”. Indeed, it is the philosophical strength of Open Individualism, rather than just its experiential component, that makes it viable as a tool for solving coordination problems.
In particular, I explain that studying 5-MeO-DMT and MDMA from a rigorous, scientific, and methodical point of view is one of the most promising ways of changing the world for the better. Creating reliable, sane, and integrative methods of experiencing oneness and universal love could help us transform weak feelings of altruism into a solid and powerful new conception of decision theoretic rationality.
We invite you to think with us about how to carry this out for the benefit of all sentient beings.
[Epistemic Status: Fiction; see related non-fiction Burning Man articles – 1, 2, 3. See part 2/2 here.]
What follows is the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?” Hope this sparks interesting thoughts.
The interdependent nature of knowledge is such that for you to truly understand anything, you must understand everything first.
– Alex Alamy, founder of Camp State-Space of Consciousness
The year is 2029 and Burning Man season is upon us. You’ve been there once before, but you feel like you gravitated a lot towards the art in deep playa and neglected the theme-camps that surrounded you. For instance, you didn’t even visit your neighbors despite the fact that they had giant marble statues hung up from a transparent dome visible from the street, and a picture of Shiva having sex with a rhino at the entrance. In retrospect you wonder “why didn’t I at least come by and say hi? The place looked so inviting!” This year you are determined to change that by investigating in detail one theme-camp every day, in addition to enjoying the company of your campmates and exploring the deep playa the rest of the time.
You arrive on Sunday evening after a 16-hour drive. Eight of those hours involved being in the line. And of those, you spent four of them manually pushing your car while a dust storm was in full force (your car’s battery died because you used it to power up speakers to blast the latest Lady Gaga album, but forgot that doing this could drain it completely if you left your engine off). After the dust cleared, the first neighbor in the line without an electric car helped you jump-start the car, which worked fine from then on. After that rough start, you are now settling in your little pod, keeping hydrated, and eating the left-over fried rice that one of your campmates cooked for everyone who helped build the shade structures. You decide to call it a night and rest. After all, you have seven full days of Burning Man ahead of you…
Monday: Camp Microlife
You wake up slightly groggy and disoriented. Like last year- you are now aware- the first day of the Burn is usually a little slow and difficult on the body as it acclimatizes to the new environment. You take it easy and wake up at 11AM, help campmates with their tents and structures, attend the camp meeting, eat bunches of fruit mixed in with Soylent Cereal®, and take a nap. At 6PM you feel rested and ready to start exploring. Your first stop is right next door, a place called Camp Microlife (formerly known as Longevity Camp).
Burning Man is said to be dangerous. Indeed, a well-known piece of advice people like to throw at each other is to only do one stupid thing at a time. If you take shrooms, don’t try to climb a giant sculpture. If you are drunk, don’t go for a walk without a camelback. If you are going to oversee the safety of a fire, don’t do so while being heavily sleep deprived. And if you go to the Orgy Dome, don’t do so while on MDMA. Just common sense things, right? You would be surprised how people tend to stack dangerous activities on top of each other at Burning Man. And you’d be even more surprised how despite this, the number of serious accidents is incredibly low. In fact, it is a marvel why more people don’t die at Burning Man, given the expectations that you can realistically place on 80,000 Homo Sapiens in the desert for an entire week. It takes a lot of effort distributed across many people to reach this level of relative safety.
The low injury statistic at Burning Man is something to applaud. That said, before 2020 there wasn’t much awareness about the fact that the environmental hazards of Burning Man had measurable effects on the rate of aging of the body. Camp Longevity was thus founded in order to help people minimize this effect by focusing on interventions that would give you the largest bang for your buck. Their welcoming sign at the entrance reads:
This camp is dedicated to the task of identifying the most cost-effective way of reducing the number of micromorts (cf. microlives) that you are expending at Burning Man. We will take a picture of your skin in controlled lighting conditions in order to determine the amount of melanin in your skin, and measure your height, BMI, and lung capacity. Then based on actuarial tables we will give you custom harm-reduction help, ranging from gifting you optimal sunscreen, to magnesium supplements & earplugs, to providing free high-quality masks and even nose-filters as part of a pilot program (did I mention that you are encouraged to enroll in a study to see whether nose-filters are as effective as dust masks at preventing lung aging from the dust?).
They have both a no-nonsense set of recommendations and a more creative “R&D” side, in which they are piloting wacky solutions to “microlife loss prevention.” For instance, they had nose-filters they could give you if you participated in a study (well, they would give them to you regardless but they would encourage you to sign up). They also had an instant-cooling system in their camp that you could use if you were over-heating (or felt like it, anyhow). Under the assumption that MDMA neurotoxicity and body strain is partly caused by hyperthemia, they hoped to incorporate this device as a harm reduction strategy at Zendos around the world. On your way out they handed you UV-protecting arm sleeves, which they had in bulk quantities, and were giving out to passersby.
At night, you visit some of the core attractions in Esplanade, and take a ride to deep playa on the Mayan Warrior, which is still going strong after 17 years of Burning Man. On your way back you stop at a space cowboy-themed bar, and have two drinks- Mr. Walker on Glowing Rocks– before calling it a night.
Tuesday: Camp State-Space of Consciousness
On Tuesday you wake up at 9AM, stretch, shower, and socialize for half an hour while eating a handful of bananas with copious amounts of almond butter. You check out the Man, the Temple, and random artwork you find on the way to and from. You eat quesadillas at Mexican Grill, and by 5PM, you return to camp and rest for ninety minutes before going out at 7PM with two friends. Tonight is a “trip night”.
CampState-Space of Consciousness (formerly known as Rainbow God) is devoted to a made-up religion called Divine Spectralism. This religion postulates that the maximum expression of divinity is in its full-spectrum (aka. rainbow) form. God may have infinite faces, but some of them display its glory more fully, clearly, and lucidly. In their theology, God realized is tasteless and flavorless. But that’s an asymptote that’s impossible to talk about. Around it, approaching the event horizon, we see God diffractions that express all of the possible flavors, colors, thought-forms, space and time qualities, etc. of consciousness. That is, God Realized is surrounded by a full-spectrum of all varieties of experience. This region of the multiverse corresponds to the highest heavens, the rainbow worlds; these are the closest you can get to the fullest expression of God while being able to support sapience and self-awareness.
In order to transcend our world- grey and dull relative to rainbow worlds-, we must move towards the universalgradient of synthesis, which incorporates, in each successive moment of experience, more diversity of experiential qualities (aka. qualia). Up there in the upper heavens everyone has a full-spectrum enjoyment body, which allows them to create-imagine-animate massive worlds of experience populated with maximally-encompassing narratives. They pack tremendous amounts of smell, taste, warmth, music, echolocation, and uncountably many other flavors of experience we humans don’t have words for in highly energetic forms. The result is not just an impressive “painting of experience”; there is something special and magical that happens when you start piecing together all of the varieties of experience in a giant thought-form. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts. One unlocks the ability to recombine the complementary parts of experience and get purified God consciousness. They even claim that you don’t really understand a given qualia (e.g. cinnamon scent) until you can put it in the context of all of the values of its variety (in this case all scents). And you don’t really understand a given variety (e.g. scents) until you see it in the context of all varieties (e.g. scents, colors, tactile sensations, etc.). So we don’t truly understand anything until we understand everything. That is not to say that ignorance doesn’t come in gradients, though.
Buddhists came across this phenomenon long time ago. They encountered states of consciousness where they had an intensified divine connection in conjunction with full-spectrum experiences. They called it the rainbow body. It is interesting that they knew about it but they didn’t develop techniques specifically aimed at it. Instead, they merely thought of it as a side-effect of good and deliberate practice, or maybe a gift liable to become a distraction. The Divine Spectralists, in contrast, claim to investigate this phenomenon scientifically. They will tell you that they have found a causal connection between full-spectrum practices and increased spirituality.
Phenomenal puzzle solution
The camp is organized along the lines of a hexagon, with a large central rectangular tarp. This shape defines seven regions: one corner for each of the “top 6 senses” (sight, hearing, touch, taste, scent, and proprioception) and a central space called the “global workspace.”*
You, being the intrepid scientific psychonaut that you are, of course decide to visit this camp while on acid. You take 150 micrograms before heading out. This camp has been around for five years, and it has grown into a core Burning Man attraction. Your friends tell you that if you took acid you should definitely go check it out. So you and two of your friends- Galaxy Fox and Astro Burrito– make the walk towards it, which takes long enough for the acid to start kicking in.
As you approach the entrance you notice people playing with LED-illuminated hula hoops. That is not unexpected, since after all, Burning Man is the DIY LED Mecca of the world (cf. Ring Theory). But there is something particularly unusual about these hula hoops. The tracers left by the bright LEDs given your psychedelic state are not only stunning, they are also somehow encoding words and images. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” – you ask Galaxy Fox, who is sitting you during this 12 hour trip. “You mean the hula hoops? They are cool, aren’t they?” – she responds. “Yes, but you see the things they are saying? It’s saying:
You are the Chosen One, The One who will deliver the message. A message of hope for those who choose to hear it. And a warning for those who do not.
Are you not seeing that?” – you say. “Nah, man, you trippin’, I see no message there, dude.” – she says. But for you this is undeniable. As it turns out, these hula hoops were programmed to encode messages only readable by people on psychedelics; they use a technique called psychedelic cryptography. To illustrate how these hula hoops look, see the video below (tracer effect applied to LED hula hoops). In brief, they take advantage of the longer-than-normal decay of qualia on psychedelics. This way they can “paint over time” pictures that only people with pronounced persistence of vision can really detect. Shocked and intrigued, you start exploring the camp.
You learn about the made-up religion with a video they play and a few girls who answer questions about it. From your point of view this feels extremely cultish, but you are not sure whether it is your state or the actual camp. So you ask your friends if they also feel the same as you, considering they are sober judges of what’s going on. One of them says yes, and one of them says no, which isn’t very helpful. You decide to stop worrying about whether they will brainwash you and take it on good faith that they are at least doing their best at pointing you towards interesting ideas to consider.
You are fascinated by the made-up religion, and thinking about it in your state activates in you very intense feelings that are hard to put into words. At times you get convinced that you can perform psi feats and feel like you are connecting to the minds and feelings of the people around you… that God’s light is being reflected and refracted throughout everyone in the camp. Then again, you realize this is exactly what the environment is meant to suggest and exalt as much as possible, not to speak of the suggestibility of LSD states.
The camp’s center has a large rectangular tent, and when you come in you see that one of the walls is completely covered with LEDs stacked along three layers (each of the layers is capable of 7 bright primary colors, and their combinations). This artwork is called “The Fourth Wall”, and it is a large LED display optimized for psychedelic cryptography. The “hidden messages” cycle over several minutes. It displays messages written by people walking by who draw them on a tablet connected to the lights. It also shows bizarre supertrippy patterns of all kinds, along with what looks like psychophysics experiments. Every once in a while it displays a live video of yourself from a corner (it takes you a moment, but you manage to locate the camera, which is behind you). The symbolism startles, as you realize that only on psychedelics you are able to realize that you are being secretly watched. Sober people passing by just see pretty lights, and a few local features of the pictures, but unlike people on a couple blotters of acid, they don’t see the entire pictures there. Interestingly, this way people on psychedelics can coordinate with each other in surprising ways. The message sometimes says “all move to the blue corner” and from the point of view of someone sober it’s like suddenly half of the room makes the telepathic decision to move together towards one corner. Doing fun things with psychedelic cryptography is an art-form. Making an analogy to a county fair, the whole range of games and prototypes in this section could accurately be described as being of the type that says “you have to be at least this high to play this game”.
You now decide to take a look at the music corner. The place is a dome shaped in a peculiar way that increases both the resonanceandreverb of the space. That on its own would make it a cool experience, but the fact that those effects are massively amplified with a network of microphones and speakers that subtly generate feedback without blowing up makes it an over-the-top experience. The auditory effect is confusing and mentally scrambling to an exaggerated degree. The 3D sound effects can generate the impression of entire worlds in movement. These music and sound geeks have been working for years on being able to represent events in a sort of musical-ray-tracing engine with custom software. They can generate the illusion of the reverb fingerprint of arbitrary spaces, and hence create for you the illusion that you are inside a car, or inside a church, or inside an infinite tunnel. In addition, they use doppler effects to change the impression of how fast things are moving, and in particular, to create the illusion that the shape of the universe is changing and that information is propagating relativistically. Did I mention one of the people involved in this installation is a famous physicist? And did I mention the sound booth is managed by a robotic dog?
This place plays weird music. You know of weird music, but this music here is weird music. In fact the thing these guys have been working on for a while is a computational approach to figuring out which combinations of sounds will weird youout as much as possible. It learns over the course of 15 minutes or so using eye-tracking and biosignals it gets from a headband you put on when you enter their sound dome. The music tries to drive you towards the edge between chaos and predictability. It parametrically identifies how quickly to change its degree of predictability in order to assault your attention with hyper-dopaminergic attention-grabbing mood-setting sounds. The music is so mesmerizing that it has developed a sort of fame for being able to halt fights in the Playa. Taking an angry campmate there is certainly going to distract them for no less than 30 minutes, and give them a chance to approach whatever problem they are dealing with from a different angle.
You move on to the camp’s “scented room”, which has a large repertoire of scented objects and essential oils. Starting with the stereotypically obligatory patchouli (as in, if you don’t have patchouli in your kit of scent qualia, what are you even doing?) – more seriously, the repertoire of scents is enormous, with a box with more than 5,000 scents collected over the years, including uncommon scents like cypress, palmarosa, ylang ylang, durian, acetone, cork, jojoba, and boutique scents like digestive enzymes and a synthesized “old book smell”-mimicking mixture. You didn’t even know that old books smell could be chemically identified, but now you do. You notice that some of the scents resonate with your state, and others almost, kind of, sober you up to an extent.
Perhaps the most interesting, and daring, of all of the scents there is the LSD-scent vial. “Do not get confused”-the attendant tells you- “this vial is LSD-free, but it smells like LSD.” You reply: “I thought LSD was odorless.” She says: “Most people have no idea it has a smell because there is so little LSD, weight-wise, in blotters that there is not enough of it to build enough scent for you to smell it… but dogs can smell it. What this vial contains is what is used to train dogs to detect LSD.” You smell the vial: “Uh, it’s a bit tangy?” She says: “Yeah, some say that. Others mention it reminds them of the smell of DMT to an extent, and others point out its metallic tones.” You ask her – “wait, wouldn’t search dogs get crazy about this, then? Isn’t this a liability for the camp?”. To which she replies: “There’s a funny story here. The first year we brought this scent to the playa we were stopped by a cop for a random search during the trip from Reno. A dog sniffed out the vial right away. It took literally about 5 seconds for the dogs to find it. We were careful not to have anything illegal on us, though, so that’s the only thing they found. They wanted to press charges for the vial even though we claimed it was not LSD. Later they got from the lab the result that the vial had actual LSD in it. This, of course, majorly surprised us. By having the paper trail of how we got the vial, and it having a serial number, and us hiring an independent lab to test it which confirmed it had no LSD, we and the Burner community at large discovered that lab tests were being forged. This revealed that the rumors were true, that there really were somepeoplefakinglab results, and they were making a lot of money off of this. This is currently unraveling, and the courts are now going back, historically, and dropping the charges from people harmed by faked lab results over the years. A number of burners we know are getting their charges dropped for this reason.” You think about it, for a moment, and reply: “I guess I didn’t realize there was so much power in having something that is genuinely, provably, fake, since it can be used to expose people who claim to be able to recognize the authentic ones.”
State-space of scent qualia (adapted from: Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization; Castro, Ramanathan, Chennubhotla. 2013; link)
The camp has a corner dedicated to conducting perception experiments. The experiments are not just idle fun and games, they tell you. Three peer-reviewed papers have been published so far testing hypotheses about psychedelic visual and auditory perception with the data gathered here. You got excited by the prospect of helping science, and confided with the person there that you were currently on 150 micrograms of LSD. Unfortunately how the system works is that you have to go there sober first and sign an anonymous consent form in which you agree to be shown images and audio (some of it possibly R-rated) both today and in the future, so that you could then go back another day and re-do the tests while high on psychedelics. They still allowed you to try the experiments, though, but they said that in cases like yours they would not collect the data gathered.
The experiments were strange and most didn’t make much intuitive sense. For example, in some tests you had to guess “which of the 3 textures is the odd-one-out”, which they told you was used to identify which summary statistics your visual field becomes more or less capable of differentiating on psychedelics. Another experiment would show you ambiguous images and you had to guess what was in them. Interestingly, this was another way in which psychedelic cryptography was being developed, but rather than being based on tracers, it was based on semantics. That is, someone on acid might look at the picture and say “that’s clearly a banana” while someone sober would say “that’s obviously the back of a Jeep”, and if you get creative, you can send secret messages this way.
Your favorite experiment felt very much like a video-game. It was engaging and fun; it had a pleasing effect on your mood for some reason. The task involved looking at the screen of a tablet that displays patterns with wallpaper symmetries shifting along a symmetry element (see below) and identify “the region that is moving at a different rate.”** They told you that this was one of the tasks that exhibited the strongest difference between people sober and on psychedelics; the reduced symmetry detection threshold in combination with increased entrainment potential made this particularly easy for people tripping.
After playing the symmetry detection game for 10 minutes, you decide to move on. The last section you check out at the camp invites you to go into a “world of tactile textures” by entering a large air-conditioned hexayurt with an airlock separating the inside from the windy exterior. The textures, of course, were selected for their experiential richness, but one additional important constraint had to be applied: they had to be MOOP-free. Or at least generate MOOP that is heavy and easy to pick up (hence the airlock). The people inside talk of having “alien cuddles” which is where a handful of people in underwear make a cuddle puddle with all of the pillows, and pretend to be a single alien being with unusual skin having sex with itself. They invite you to join in, and you do. The boundary-dissolving aspect of the LSD experience makes this an incredibly confusing and compelling scenario; you don’t really know where your body starts and where it begins, and gosh, you had no idea synthetic reptile scales and cellophane-wrapped cotton could feel so sexy on your bare skin.
There, in the middle of the cuddle puddle with strangers, you come to an interesting realization. From their point of view of Divine Spectralism, Burning Man is wonderful because it functions as an efficient and intelligent search algorithm for exploring new regions of the state-space of consciousness. It feeds the bottom line of the Camp’s religion and its core prescriptions: to put on the map even the most outlandish of experiences.
Exhausted but satisfied, you reconvene with your friends and start heading back to camp. On your way out, you see the secret hula hoop messages are now saying:
PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY
PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY
You ask one of the hula hoopers why the message changed. She tells you “a prankster got a hold of our controls earlier today, and was feeding them Tool lyrics, but we found it and we are back to the regular programming.”
When you arrive to your camp, you eat a couple MealCubes, drink electrolytes, and force yourself to take a power nap to recharge, but fail due to the still-ongoing acid stimulation. You give up trying to sleep and give in to the music that is blasting next door. You dance to the soundtrack of The Wandering Earth; the neighboring camp is a smallish sound-camp specializing in retro songs and soundtracks of the 2010s. At 2AM you go out and see the Man with your friends, as you hadn’t seen it at night yet. When you come back, at 3AM, you come by a little tea house offering herbal drinks. You see a friend from a different camp there and decide to talk to him about the nature of phenomenal time. It feels like this day has lasted for ages. You also try to process your experience in Camp State-Space of Consciousness. You keep talking with your friend until the sun is about to rise. You don’t go to sleep until 6AM, but then you sleep all day until roughly 6PM.
Wednesday: Camp Valence
Thankfully this was the only day that it rained. There was some rain on and off while you were asleep, and it remained cloudy throughout the day. You figure that you rested so well in part because the temperature didn’t go up as high as it usually does. Due to global warming, now each Burn is, statistically speaking, a little hotter than the previous one. Interestingly, this hasn’t dissuaded people from attending. That said, a serious discussion is underway about the possibility of re-locating Burning Man, and where to do it after it is actually inhospitable to humans. By then, people say, all humans will have more important problems to deal with, and with this, they rationalize not thinking about how to answer the question of where to move Burning Man. Either way, you want to make sure you can squeeze this experience for learning, growth, and fun as much as you can, and you appreciate the time you have in here. You think about the far future. You think about the State-Space of Consciousness, Divine Spectralism, the way textures feel and how to even go about making a language for them, and you think about holograms… something tells you holograms hold some kind of key to “the puzzle of reality”. Perhaps the acid is still in some ways making your thought-patterns less ego-oriented, and so “early” today (7PM) it feels like your mental clarity and sense of spiritual relaxation is something you can take from your trip to Burning Man back home. This alone would have made the visit to Black Rock City worthwhile- you think to yourself. But there is still a lot of the week left for you. There are so many options, so what should you explore next?
You decide that today you are going to take MDMA and ketamine. Both of these substances are things you do not take more than once every two years, and you only ever take them in moderate doses. You decided ahead of time that if there was a particularly cold day at Burning Man this year you would take MDMA that evening since, presumably, that day would have been less taxing to your body. In addition, you had been wondering what MDMA plus ketamine felt like for ages. Tonight you will take reasonable doses for both of these drugs. 85mg of MDMA and about 100mg for ketamine (two 50mg doses spread out over the course of an hour). Together with the ecstasy powder, you swallow the latest neuroscience-backed anti-“MDMA neurotoxicity” tablets, dissolved in your electrolyte water. You ask Astro Burrito for suggestions about where to go. You tell him you took an empathogen and you want something peaceful and relaxed. Another campmate overhears your conversation and says: “If you are taking MDMA, I might recommend Camp Valence, because those Burners are trying to optimize your pleasure in all sorts of ways.” So that’s where you’ll head next. Once you are finished eating a Tasty Bite you just heated up in a communal pan.
Whereas the previous Camp felt “orgiastic” and pagan (in retrospect), this one feels like a much more curated display of experiences. The Camp State-Space of Consciousness would have you be exposed to the wilderness of all possible experiences and have you make sense of it all for yourself. But Camp Valence seems to have a different overall aesthetic, and philosophy. They seem to be optimizing for softness, intimacy, centeredness, homeliness, and emotional availability.
They have a large enclosed space covered with blankets, and small tables with candles and soft pastel-colored LEDs. Some people are sitting and talking calmly. Others are resting on the floor and cuddling with blankets with each other. Some people are meditating with headphones. Yet others in an adjacent room are doing naked yoga. There is also a pod that fits four people lying down which is sound-proof, presumably to experience sensory deprivation. There is plentiful cucumber water, and lavender cookies.
Someone approaches you in a friendly, non-threatening way, and asks you if you want to hear about the place. He gives you the option to just see it for yourself and chill undisturbed. You allow yourself the option to say yes, and he takes you to an adjacent room separated by a curtain. He is dressed with a long-sleeved tie-dye shirt, a green velvety vest, and comfy pajama pants. He also has a little bit of make-up on, which gives his face a kind of cute bird-like quality. You are not gay or bi, but you somehow feel like you are hanging out with a really cool and cute guy. Well, it’s hard to separate the way the MDMA is making you feel from the environment, but you could swear there is something super friendly about this guy. He tells you that the camp was founded three years ago by a serial entrepreneur disappointed with the economic incentives of modern society. You ask if he could share more about it, but he is interrupted when a girl dressed in a black and blue (or is it white and gold?) dress made of silk and pvc comes in. She is wearing a “cloud hat” (which looks like cotton candy but is actually just cotton), and you feel the urge to touch it. She says yes, but to be careful not to pull too hard – “we don’t want cotton MOOP, like last year with the cotton incident.”
The two people you are hanging out with say that there is a joke that is making its rounds in Camp Valence. It goes like this: “What is the most fun you can have in Las Vegas legally?” Intuitively it would be something along the lines of: “Wake up early, go to the casinos, eat fancy food, get drunk, go to a show, admire the giant buildings and statues, go shopping, and sleep late in the night after a nightcap cocktail.” In contrast, the real, objective, answer goes like this: “You check-in into a fancy and quiet hotel (e.g. the Wynn or the Four Seasons), leave your stuff there, then go to the closest weed dispensary and get at least 10mg of THC in edible form, then go to the closest pharmacy and buy 2 bottles of DXM hydrobromide pills (typically 20X15mg each) for a total of 600mg of DXM. Also buy some earplugs and an eye mask there. Then go back to your hotel, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, get yourself comfortable, take all of the DXM, and 45 minutes later eat the edible. Close the curtains, and put your earplugs and eye mask on. Over the course of the next several hours you will fall into an intense free-wheeling hallucination where you can learn a lot of fascinating properties about your mind and disclose new varieties of experience. That should keep you entertained for the next 10 hours, and then you will think about it and be amazed for the rest of your vacation. Welcome to Las Vegas, hope you have a fun stay!”
You ask bird-boy if he could continue describing the origin story of the camp. The cloud girl also knows about it, so they take turns filling you in: The person who started the camp founded a few startups in Silicon Valley, made a lot of money, and then opened an establishment in Las Vegas called “Valence Palace.” This place would somehow manage to get permits to use things like rapid thermal exchange devices to literally cool people off (and possibly prevent neurotoxicity in party-goers, as Camp Microlife would remind you), host algorithmically designed sound baths, provide God Helmet therapy, and organize overpriced nootropicstastings. This last one turned out to be all the rage in 2023-2025, and several other establishments around the world started copying the idea. This guy, they explain, somehow masterminded his way into marketing coluracetam in an upper-class status-signaling kind of way (rather than the drug nerd niche kind of way which everyone assumed was the only market for the thing). He marketed it as a high-end product in the form of a subtle experience. For a lot of rich youngsters and people courting each other it was exciting to go out to an official-looking place in Las Vegas and pay large amounts of money to sip water laced with coluracetam (of all things). Turns out this compound had very few side-effects in the vast majority of people, and temporarily increased people’s memory, visual signal-to-noise ratio, and appreciation (but not enjoyment) of music. It is the sort of thing that only refined minds could really notice and pick up an interest in (or at least that’s how this gentleman would market it). People were dying to show off to their friends how they, too, could have an opinion about what it felt like to go to the nootropics tasting at the Valence Palace. It didn’t signal the same sort of defiance of authority that on some level psychedelics tend to evoke. Nootropics tastings served a market of people with high openness to experience but not quite the intellectual disagreeableness to take psychedelics or seek experiences outside of mainstream channels. Curiously, thanks to the competitive dynamics between dopamine and acetylcholine, taking coluracetam would kill your urge to gamble and drink. Indeed, it worked as a sort of anti-addictive drug, protecting you from all the vices on offer in other Las Vegas establishments.
Anyhow, he claimed that this and his other Valence Palace experiences were genuinely valuable from a hedonic point of view. That unlike typical Las Vegas entertainment, they did not leave you dissatisfied. They had a positive area under the curve effect, rather than illusory front-loaded pleasure followed by long streaks of mundane disappointment. And Yelp reviews of the place showed it was far better, in terms of customer satisfaction, than what casinos and even oxygen bars could offer.
Of course Las Vegas would have none of this. What he called the Dopaminergic Cartel- which profits from short-term illusory and addictive pleasures- couldn’t tolerate the presence of an organization whose actual goal was the maximization of pleasure and satisfaction in the customer. As a result of the increased popularity of nootropics tastings, and the anti-addictive effects of coluracetam, large casinos detected a significant drop in earnings from high rollers. They saw the Valence Palace as a defector against their craving-based business model. So they had to kick his establishment out of the Strip, manufacture claims on him, cancel him, and destroy his future. The poor guy ended up five million dollars in personal debt. He took them to court for defamation, and thanks to legal discovery uncovered an underground collusion between casinos and aripiprazole manufacturers, which soon became national news. The casinos counter-sued, also for defamation, but dropped their charges once the media had quieted down about the aripiprazole scandal. A couple years later he managed to get his money back with the help of an LED company. It’s a long story, they tell you, and you can find it all on Youtube Blue when you are bored and back in civilization. For now all you need to know is that the founder said that Burning Man is a safe haven which the Dopaminergic Cartel hasn’t yet touched. This is all thanks to the decommodification principle, and the persistent efforts to enforce it in every way possible.
Camp Valence has an underlying philosophy that traces its roots back to David Pearce, Effective Altruism, and further back to Bentham, and even Buddha. The universe has an in-built utility function, and to follow the path of goodness is to (1) recognize that value is not relative, (2) that human values are provincial and distorted versions of ultimate value, and (3) to start listening, really listening, to what the universe prefers. Intrinsic value is encoded in the shape of a state of consciousness. What mystics, meditators, and hippies have all been saying for ages is true – the point of life is to live in harmony. But what is harmony, exactly? How does it manifest in precise, empirically measurable ways in terms of brain states and, more generally, configurations of matter and energy? Deep down, they claim, value is grounded in the nature of quantum fields, and the way the universal wavefunction interferes with itself. The highest expression of God, as it were, is not the one that incorporates the most diverse range of qualia, but rather, the one that incorporates the largest amount of coherent energy in a state of harmony. It so happens, they tell you, that the full-spectrum experiences that are catalyzed at places like Camp State-Space of Consciousness have as a side-effect large-scale harmonious coherence. Alas, there are far more direct and effective ways of achieving this. Thus, Divine Spectralism is not entirely true, but it is also not entirely wrong; it holds a kernel of truth… a piece of the puzzle. The full puzzle, though, can only be solved if you put your ear to the ground and listen carefully for what the universe really wants.
Mythologically, Camp Valence posits that someday in the future there will be something like Effective Altruism, but rather than focused on suffering- because there will be none of it left- it will focus on creating large projects with huge positive hedonic payoffs for the largest number of sentient beings possible. They don’t call it hedonium, because they want to retain individualized motivational architectures. They agree with David Pearce in “creating a universal welfare world where beings are animated by gradients of bliss” rather than aiming for raw undifferentiated bliss.
In a future where suffering is made physiologically impossible via gene editing, and the game-theory is taken care of such that cooperating is the evolutionarily stable equilibrium, what remains to be done competitively is to try to discover new ways to create glory and awe and delight and open-ended infinite games.
You thank them for the explanation, and you wish you could have recorded the conversation as it seemed of general interest. Alas, this is Burning Man, and as a friend once suggested, whatever happens here gets uploaded to the collective human unconscious anyway.
You walk to another room and notice a stand with many vials and powders. Like Camp State-Space of Consciousness, Camp Valence also has scents. But unlike the multi-faceted and comprehensive repertoire of Rainbow God, the scents in Camp Valence are not selected to catalyze a full-spectrum experience; they concentrate on the scents that generate the most palpable changes in one’s sense of wellbeing. They have blends of hedonically-charged scents that are made to specifically either calm you or make you hyper in a good way. You ask for the relaxing one, and you get something that fits perfectly with your empathogenic state. “Gosh, whoever designed this smell must have been rolling, too.” The attendant mentions that the most interesting thing you could do at the camp is to try out their God Helmet device. She points at one of the corners where you see two people wearing eye-masks and helmets full of wires. The attendant says that they will be done in about five minutes and you can be next. You mention that you took MDMA about two hours ago, and ask if it’s ok to mix the God Helmet with it. She winks and says “well, didn’t you notice the synergy between your state and the scent you just tried? The God Helmet is that way, too. We have many configurations that are designed specifically for a given state of consciousness. My favorite by far is the empathogenic one.”
Indeed many people show up to Camp Valence while on some empathogen or another. The people who set up the camp only take psychedelics at Burning Man due to concerns over the deleterious long-term effects of molly. Of course they are acquainted with the state, or otherwise they wouldn’t have found a way to tune the God helmet to perfectly synergize with your mind. You see the girl push a button that says “Ambrosia” and right after that you get lost into a literal world of bliss. You’ve taken larger doses of MDMA before, and you estimate that the combination of your moderate dose (85mg) with the helmet is making you feel what 200mg of MDMA feels like at its hedonic peak before palpitations and other side-effects start to set in. An all-around feeling of wellbeing and maximum enjoyment. The shape of your attention field-lines experiences interesting changes; you feel like your awareness field is a smooth toroidal powerhouse of pleasure energy. You spontaneously think of your deceased maternal grandfather, and realize you can only have good thoughts about him. Even if you were to try, you couldn’t have a single negative thing to say about him on this state. You feel his love and unconditional acceptance from afar, as if beamed through an etheric field. You yourself feel like a star of happiness– perhaps your dead relatives are seeing you from heaven due to how bright you are shining? This thought seems compelling in your state. Soon enough, your turn is over, and you take the helmet off. You still feel better than how you felt before you put it on; it’s as if this thing energized your mind, whose electromagnetic nature is now evident to you. The device did something that “boosted” your state. It now rests at a pleasant level that you associate with taking ~130mg of MDMA. They say this will also extend your state, and to drink a shot of vodka if you want your state to quiet down (e.g. in order to sleep).
You thank everyone you talked to, you tell them you love them (“we get that often”- they say- “but we know it’s true, thank you, we love you too!”), give everyone a big hug, and part ways.
You go back to your camp, hydrate, eat a couple oranges and mixed nuts, go to your tent and take a large ketamine bump, followed by another one 10 minutes later. You are propelled upwards in a tunnel of light that guides you throughout the known universe until you arrive at a giant ball of life energy. The experience is overwhelming, and hard to decipher. You think about what makes Camp Valence and Rainbow God different. What are the differences and similarities? Are you stealing fire from the Gods by having these experiences and remembering the insights that unfold from them? The giant ball of life energy feels like it is calling you, and approaches you roaring with incredible loudness- yet the sound comes out muffled, as if going through a low-pass filter. You intuitively sense that if you were to approach it too closely, you would cease to be a separate being, as it would absorb you into universal consciousness. Scared for your ego-narrative, you hesitate and hover around it, trying to make sense of it. After twenty five minutes you come down. Exhausted, you fall asleep.
**Credit for psychophysics symmetry experiment stimuli creation to Nick Xu. He generated images that I used to conduct a psychophysics experiment at Burning Man in 2017. He made images where wallpaper symmetry groups would flip along their symmetry elements. All except a single symmetry element would change at the same rate, while one of them would be moving either slightly faster or slower. People on psychedelics seemed to be faster at pointing out the “defect” in the animation. More research is needed to replicate this effect and explain how it works.
A relatively recent hypothesis for the neurotoxicity associated with MDMA is that it causes the brain to over-heat (see: 1, 2, 3). This would make the sorts of environments in which people take it particularly hazardous (hot raves, nightclubs, warm baths, and wild sex).
I really hope this is the core main reason for MDMA’s long-term deleterious effects.
Because then the damage would be completely preventable! In particular, I would point you to the athletic performance-enhancing technology developed at Stanford in 2012 that uses rapid thermal exchange devices (aka. “the cooling glove”*) in order to cool your blood and allow you to compete at a higher level. This is an extremely efficient method to keep the temperature of your whole body (including your brain!) within a healthy range.
Sadly, the device is likely to get banned for athletic purposes (it would be, some say, an unfair advantage if some teams have access to the cooling glove and others don’t). Sports are, of course, completely inconsequential, so the fact that the device is likely to get banned for this application shouldn’t matter. Yet it does, because as a result many people seem to be losing interest in this line of research.
Maybe, I would posit, the device could be resurrected as part of a modern harm-reduction strategy. Imagine night-clubs with a chill-out space stocked with dozens of cooling gloves. Party for 30 minutes, cool down for 10 minutes, repeat. If this could allow people to take MDMA once every month for the rest of their lives without enduring the brain damage that doing this usually causes… wouldn’t that be wonderful? I would expect it to also be highly beneficial for the benevolence of culture and the overall mental health of our society.
And this is all to say: Who would have known… that “being cool” was the key to partying for the rest of your life? Cool it down and party it up!
Yesterday I took about 30mg of 2C-B. In my experience, the “peak” of 2C-B is rather short-lived, so I decided to divide my dose in half so that I could have time to examine the effects over the course of a prolonged plateau. I took 15mg at 2:15pm and then another 15mg at 4:00pm. The whole experience lasted around seven hours, with residual effects for about two more hours. I was just about back to baseline by 11pm. Today, I woke up hangover-free and quite happy and refreshed. I love 2C-B for this reason; unlike MDMA, it does not feel like it taxes the body very much, and unlike LSD, it does not seem to be a completely unpredictable trip with the potential for undesirably deep existential worries – “ontological paranoia”, as a friend once put it. And unlike 2C-I, 2C-E, or 2C-T-2, it is relatively nausea-free and very upbeat. I think that the quasi-entactogenic boost in mood provided by 2C-B, more so than its trippy, psychedelic effects, may be the reason why it feels “psychologically safer” than acid. I’ve never had a bad time on 2C-B- only somewhat uncomfortable- but it never gets worse than a -2 on a sadness-happiness scale from -10 to +10, whereas acid can take you all the way down to -6 or -7 if you are really unlucky and you let it happen. Anyway- I am very happy I did it and I wanted to share some observations about my experience.
From a third person point of view, I’m sure my behavior wasn’t too out of the ordinary. I laughed harder than I usually laugh, and I was clearly giggly and arousable. But I wasn’t slurring my speech, speaking slowly, or making nonsense sounds. I am reasonably certain that for most of the experience, I could have spoken to a sober person without them realizing I was on anything. They might have thought that I was in a very open-minded mood, perhaps, but I don’t think it would have been obvious that I was tripping. Time-wise, I spent the first two hours or so listening to music, looking at patterns that I had saved for just this occasion, and staring at the ceiling. From the time I re-dosed (4pm) until about 7pm, I spent a lot of that time chatting online with a friend, smelling scented objects I was able to find in my house, and trying to test some hypotheses about the state I was in. From 7pm to about 9:30pm, I danced, chatted a bit with a different friend, and tried to take some notes- but I had trouble staying on track due to my short attention span. And from 9:30pm and onwards I mostly just laid back, got sucked into a rabbit hole learning about the Unarius religion, and played chill music.
For context, I should add that I’ve read a good number of Qualia Computing articles and I like to follow the links I find in them. I may get something wrong- please forgive me if I botch any specific reference. But I do think that this analysis of my experience might be helpful for the project of consciousness research. That being said, here are some highlights of the thoughts and observations that I gathered from my trip:
Key Signatures and Atasoy’s Work
In a presentation about brain harmonics (link), Selen Atasoy described how the “repertoire of brain states increases” on LSD. But she also mentioned that LSD has the general effect of (1) increasing the amplitude of brain harmonics across the spectrum, and (2) increasing the amplitude of high-frequency harmonics more so than that of low-frequency harmonics. I remember that the first time I read about brain harmonics, I thought it was some kind of hippie fantasy, or like some sort of 19th century model of how the brain works (e.g. Atasoy quotes Tesla in her presentation). But thinking about it while coming up on a psychedelic is quite revealing. The first thing I noticed was that at the 40 minute mark, I felt an overall amplification of the energy of my consciousness. I know this sounds crazy- especially if you’ve never tried a psychedelic- but there is a global increase in the intensity of your experience. It’s very much true that when you start coming up on psychedelics, it feels like someone is turning up the volume of your experience overall. This is not only true for every sensory modality of your experience (visual, sound, tactile, etc.), but also true for the affective (emotional) and cognitive (thought) components!
On a low dose, or at the beginning of the come-up on a medium or large dose, all you really notice is this global amplification across the board. But then it gets more interesting. I realized yesterday that the mild background noise that I can hear in my head when things are silent kept changing as I was coming up. At first, the noise kept slightly increasing in amplitude. There was a certain mixture of ringings (I don’t really have tinnitus, but I hope you see what I mean… I think weed and dissociatives amplify this noise too, but in a different way), and what I noticed was the way that the mixture of components that make up this subtle background noise started changing and shifting upwards in frequency. The thing is, this didn’t happen in a simple linear progression. I paid attention to how this happened, and I noticed that at around the 50 minute mark, I experienced perfect silence. It was like all of that background noise was gone (apparently MDMA does this to people who suffer from tinnitus). But then, at around the 55 minute mark, other sounds started to appear. It was a new mixture, but the overall spectrum of frequencies was now higher than before- like a higher-pitched mixture of subtle ringings. Then, at the 1 hour mark, I heard silence again! And then another episode of ringing, but higher still- then it switched to silence again, and then it mostly stayed that way. It felt like there were several phase-changes; it seemed like mixtures of brain harmonics can sometimes cancel each other out, but at other times they leave a residue. And the higher the overall spectrum of your brain state in frequency, the higher the pitch of the residue- unless it is silence, which feels the same at any level.
While I was noticing these qualitative changes happening in the background noise that I can hear in my head, I was also paying attention to my visual field. I noticed that something quite similar was happening there too. There were several phases that I would cycle between depending on how high I was. Usually, there is a little bit of “static” random noise in my vision. And on the 2C-B, I noticed that at first, this noise diminished and my vision felt like it was perfectly clear. But then, I would see criss-crossing patterns across my visual field. They were very subtle at first, and then grew more and more noticeable over time. Then the criss-crossing patterns would get higher in their spatial frequency (lines with less space between them), up to the point where they started to saturate my visual field. And then, the whole thing would break into a visual noise pattern similar to where I started from, except that now, it seemed both brighter and more defined than before. Then, again, my visual field would go clear and crisp, like the air was being sucked out of the room. And then again, subtle criss-crossing would start overlaying it, and the entire process would repeat. It repeated itself about four times during the first hour and a half of coming up, and it ended up in the criss-crossing region, now at fairly high frequencies.
I spent some time during the trip wondering how this could happen. It reminded me of a few concepts which I had studied previously: aliasing, beats, and Moiré patterns. I’ll leave some pictures here (courtesy of Google Images) that do a good job of replicating some of the elements of the transitions:
This one in particular, but imagine time flows upwards
I like the one on the left in particular, in which the concentric circles increase in their spatial frequency as you go up. You can imagine that going up that image is how it felt coming up on 2C-B. The thing is, at any given point, I was experiencing an overlap of many different frequencies, but the most dominant ones would interfere with each other- sometimes generating a single, clear, strong beat pattern when superimposed, sometimes generating silence/crisp images, and sometimes making a strange mesh of noisy, grainy, superpositions. But one thing is for certain- the frequency of the underlying components, both temporally and spatially, seemed to go up as a function of how high I was on the 2C-B.
I suppose that many people would read Atasoy’s work and Andres’s speculation about how it could be extended to quantify how happy you are (ref) to mean that in any given moment, you are experiencing just one frequency- or maybe two or three. But I think it’s more like you have a broad range of frequencies active at any point in time, and on psychedelics, the range of possible combinations explodes. At any single point in time, they are both superimposed on and interfere with each other. I guess I thought this was very abstract before the trip, but now I think I was able to feel that process from the inside and know what brain harmonics refer to. The mesh of increasingly high-frequency Moiré patterns is how it looks and sounds like- how it feels like- from the inside, to retune your connectome-harmonics upward.
Sober affective keyboard
2C-B affective keyboard
LSD affective keyboard
At the time, I thought that this could potentially be explained by making an analogy to keyboards, where each brain harmonic is like a musical note on a keyboard. On 2C-B, you get a double keyboard, with a wider range of possible notes. And perhaps LSD would be not only giving you more possible notes, but also providing you with additional features- like, for example, a general synthesizer that can apply distortions to the sounds. 2C-B has some other effects in addition to increasing the range of available notes, but they are hard to describe. Reverb and delays are there for sure, but not crazy things like on-the-fly timbre modifications, which are more akin to the weirdness of LSD. More generally, my experience has been that phenethylamines have fewer features than lysergamides and tryptamines. On the other hand, when it comes to establishing an emotional base, phenethylamines have a certain “loving” frequency that persists throughout the experience, and I think that makes them better in many contexts.
This train of thought led me to consider my experience in light of something that Mike Johnson recently blogged about: the view that our moods are the result of the key signature of our brain state:
This is not to say our key signatures are completely static, however: an interesting thread to pull here may be that some brains seem to flip between a major key and a minor key, with these keys being local maximas of harmony. I suspect each is better at certain kinds of processing, and although parts of each can be compatible with the other, each has elements that present as defection to the internal logic of the other and so these attractors can be ‘sticky’.
With respect to emotion, the things I experienced are very hard to describe, but I’ll give it a go. I think, on average, if you aggregated all the micro-moods of the experience, it would come out to be fairly positive overall- maybe a +3 on the -10 to +10 scale. But the mood would fluctuate in peculiar ways over a period of just fractions of a second. There was an underlying low-frequency tonality to the experience- which was very pleasant- that I think may be the result of the mildly euphoric, stimulant-like effect which 2C-B has. This was a strong base for the overall quality of the total mood, and it made the experience very pleasant for the most part. But there was another big component of mood, that could switch from pleasant to worried and back in the span of about half a second. It didn’t sway the base euphoria very much, and I was actually able to appreciate the switching quality. All in all, I mostly stayed on the positive side, and the negative moods were very fleeting (seconds at most). But I was amazed at how little stability there was, and how the buzzing of various frequencies didn’t settle into a particular coherent emotionalimpression. It certainly felt like the mood was directly connected to the buzzing of notes, which were creating a complex, chaotic symphony made up of meshes of brain harmonics. Thankfully, it was certainly biased towards positive and awe-inspiring moods. My self-model was also disassembled and reassembled with constantly shifting emotional tones. The come-up in particular had a certain anxious edge, and the semantic content of that anxiety seemed to be connected to particular things I’ve done in the past which have embarrassed me. Undergoing those emotions was intense, but it also felt somehow cleansing. It’s like- once you fully see the consequences of your embarrassing actions (or at least imagine them), you don’t worry about it as much. You get used to it and move on.
As I approached the moment I would finally plateau, I experienced many different philosophical views of reality as distinct, short, intense bursts of existential feelings. In these states, one “realizes” that particular philosophical views must be true by the sheer fact of how intense they feel. I can certainly recall having believed in such intense feelings in the past, especially when I was in my early twenties and trying psychedelics for the first time. This time, the images were still as intense as they had been before in similar levels of alteration, but they were about different topics (it’s been a while since I’ve experimented with psychedelics). I recognize that these experiences have a powerful capacity to shake up your pre-existing model of the world. You either cling to your previous models and suffer, or you let go and get brainwashed into having new metaphysical views of reality. I don’t know… Over the years, the content of those feelings has changed, and I’ve seen contradictory things which seemed like the final truth at the time. I think I now interpret these intense bursts of philosophically-flavored experiences as being instances of some kind of “energetically super-charged, super-coherent state of consciousness”. I can see how many people could arrive at the conclusion that these bursts of intense consciousness are messages from aliens, or perhaps psychic laser beams coming from a secret organization, or whatnot. God, the divine, infinite life, now-ness, Buddha nature, awakening, etc. are all suitably grandiose concepts that sort of provide a conceptual framework to make sense of these super-high-energy states of consciousness. Alternatively, we just haven’t figured out how to harness these unusual state-spaces of consciousness for information-processing purposes, or even for non-brainwashy aesthetic experiences… they confuse the heck out of us.
We currently lack the conceptual frameworks and adequate techniques to make sense of, and make use of, super-high-energy states of consciousness.
Anyhow, in this particular case, the intense flashes of super-energetic consciousness seemed to be about the reality of the present moment on the one hand, and the way in which scent is related tofeeling alive on the other. It sounds arbitrary, but it didn’t feel arbitrary at the time. I remember looking for things to smell in my house and finding an essential oil of orange (as well as cinnamon powder, mint tea, ground coffee, and nutmeg). The particular orange smell of that essential oil really seemed to resonate with my state. How should I put it? It was an intense feeling of awake effervescence, youthful reality, and spacious energy. The scent seemed to be a key for a lock, that when turned, would bring all the channels of my experiential field into contact and into a unified expression of “presence/aliveness”. Ok, this is word salad. I’m not going to pretend this is anything but poetic allusion. Here is a concrete, logical-sounding insight instead: I felt like I was finally able to make sense of what scent qualia is getting at. Scent qualia is the phenomenological expression of the resonant signature that is produced in a high-dimensional manifold as a result of energizing it with a certain combination of frequencies. Sorry, word salad again. Let’s try once more…
Orange essential oil seemed like the olfactory equivalent of playing all the notes of a major chord at once. In fact, every scent felt like it had an equivalent in auditory qualia, and that we could describe a scent as presenting you with every note in a key signature all at once. It gave me the impression that perhaps scent is a qualia that can be experienced in a much more general way. Imagine that, all your life, you’ve only ever listened to music made by playing all the notes of certain keys at the same time. I’m sure you could make compelling music that way, and if our brains didn’t separate the notes, we might get the impression that that is all there is to music. Perhaps we are restricted in this way for scents, and the scent of lavender is, in fact, decomposable into a whole number of notes. And I don’t mean chemically purifying the product, because I think that even pure chemicals have complex smells. During the experience, I kept coming back to the orange scent to try to capture the overall emotional key signature of my state. Warm, loving, intense, bright, surprising, flickering, effervescent, citric. Make of this what you will.
State-space of scent qualia (adapted from: Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization; Castro, Ramanathan, Chennubhotla. 2013; link)
Many of the “moments of experience” (ref) of high energy I experienced seemed to be half-posed questions and lack semantic content in the conventional sense. I assume that they could be co-opted by beliefs that say “that’s your karma” and “that’s God” or “that’s a vision of the future”, but honestly, all of those interpretations fall short of the actual thing- which, at the time, seemed more like random snippets of hyper-associations in a super-energized form, akin to a high-dimensional neuronal resonance box, if that makes any sense.
Sometimes the powerful bursts of high-energy consciousness were about the concept of now, and its connection to Open and Empty Individualism, and also the way it connects to the concept of “pure awareness”. I’ve explored these threads before, and it’s always startling when you get these flashes that feel like they mean something and yet contain almost no information. To extend the analogy with musical key signatures, it occurs to me that these states are in fact important nodal points in high-energy state-spaces of consciousness, but we don’t understand either their context or the way in which they fit together with all other possible experiences. I got the impression that these states have their own unique grammatical, syntactic, and semantic structure that is ultimately closed and self-consistent. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of recognizing a song by hearing one brief sub-second fragment of it. You realize there is more, much more, to it, and that the little fragment you heard is meaningless out of context. Yet the fragment is compelling in that it evokes and suggests a whole world of experience. These states feel like that- a high-energy fragment of something that seems completely genuine, whose level of structure and emotional depth is just complete enough to be highly suggestive of a higher world of organization into which such fragments could fit perfectly. From a secular point of view, one could perhaps describe this as the first glimpses of an art form that will be accessible to transhumans and posthumans, once the underlying laws that rule the emotional character of such experiences are understood and mastered.
Existential Humor and Semantic Nihilism
At the conceptual level, I remember that my mind latched onto two related themes: existential humor and semantic nihilism. For reference, I Heart Huckabees would be an example of a movie that plays with existential humor. The movie touches on existential crisis and absence of meaning; and it manages to be funny not despite it but because of it.
Existential humor is humor in the face of unresolved existential questions. Part of what makes this humor work is its self-reflective nature. It’s the humor of the fact that humor is possible in such circumstances. I think that the unresolved mood of the 2C-B state didn’t allow for an over-arching gestalt to form, and one could say it kept being a sort of affective pastiche. Like musical improvisation without a central theme. The deep philosophical questions that were posed didn’t produce deep undertones, like they usually do on LSD. Perhaps this makes it a more friendly state in a way… the buzzing of competing moods protects you from going too deep into some existential crisis, and allows you to sort of have some distance from any particularly unpleasant impression. The only somewhat constant feature here was giddiness, which probably explains why humor was present even though deep existential questions seemed to be both posed and left unresolved.
In turn, I also gained a new appreciation of the general idea of semantic nihilism (which I saw mentioned here). I once took a philosophy of language class in which we discussed Frege, Quine, and Wittgenstein. I was impressed by the fact that these authors would suggest that the semantic content of words was in some way completely relative. I may be misremembering, but I have the image in my mind of a text by Quine where he talks about how meaning is the result of a network of references and has no fundamental grounding (ref). He claimed that analytic and synthetic statements weren’t truly different- at least, not out of context. I didn’t know how to respond to this at the time, but over the years, I’ve thought about it now and then. It’s not like I’ve had the time to sit down and read that philosophy of language textbook again- and maybe I should- but I get the sense that one could, in principle, reformulate meaning by grounding it in qualia. These “no ground of reference” ideas fly in the face of felt-sense and my ability to use attentional attractors as designators. [Edit after writing this – turns out Andres has already discussed something along these lines in an article]. But what if someone claims that qualia is not enough to ground meaning? I think that hearing a strong argument against the view that qualia and meaning are connected would be very interesting. This is what my mind came up with during the trip- the view that not even feelings can be used as the source of meaning. The existential humor seemed to play very well with semantic nihilism. After all, isn’t it funny if nothing means anything and you are still laughing about it? It’s contagious laughter, that’s why. The thought that there was no true reason for why the laughter was appropriate was itself very funny. And then I’d apply the same mental move to this meta-funny layer, and so on. It was hilarious- in a niche philosophical sort of way- which only certain people who are obsessed with understanding reality could probably relate to.
As an aside, I think that if we look at it from a cultural point of view, most people would have a bad time if they were to experience a high-energy state of consciousness that does not reach a conclusion. The abstract expressionism of felt-sense, meaning, and audio-visual qualia is alarming without a framework to make sense of it. I realized that applying semantic nihilism to these experiences made me feel comfortable with them not actually meaning anything specific. It seemed okay that they would stay as they were: existential feelings with no resolution. I think that perhaps some aesthetics could really turn this into an art form. Perhaps Buddhist Vipassana meditation is trying to get at this.
I paid a lot of attention to the visual textures I saw during the relatively long plateau. The textures that I had saved to look at were a bit enhanced, but they were not as interesting, I found, as the textures of the wall, ceiling, carpet, and blankets. The key difference was the fact that the live textures had actual depth. Although subtle, it still gave rise to interesting effects. I started the journey with the intention of examining the symmetrical structures of the textures I saw. I was impressed by the idea that a mathematician who experimented with LSD was able to catalogue each of the 17 wallpaper groups in his visual hallucinations (ref). I, on the other hand, was only able to see a few. Sadly, I didn’t practice naming the symmetries before going into the trip. But I can say that I noted mirror symmetry was rarely involved, and that the simplest, the one called “o”, was the one I saw the most frequently. By looking at the table now, I can definitely say that I also saw “2222”. I did see a lot of rotational symmetry elements, and they would click together to form larger symmetrical bundles. It was very interesting to watch.
I tried to really pay close attention to how the visuals were formed. It was very fascinating. I recall that there are many “subtypes” of visual effects, and they’ve been catalogued to some extent (ref). But what I noted this time was how they are all interconnected. Here is the story: first, the texture would appear relatively normal, just slightly brighter than normal. Then the positive after-image of the texture would linger for long enough to start overlaying onto itself. Then there would be a critical moment where that positive after-image would flip into a negative after-image (e.g. from orange to aqua, green to magenta, white to black, etc.). My brain would then try to deal with the presence of the negative after-image, and somehow fit it discreetly into the texture, in order to preserve as much information as possible from the “real texture”. Here is where the depth comes into play. For whatever reason, the negative after-image would tend to find its place in the crevices of the texture. There, it would form wavy patterns that seemed to self-organize in parallel lines. Once parallel, the patterns would lock into symmetrical shapes and dance together in synchrony. So now I had this two-layered texture that behaved as a unified wave pattern, and after a little while that would form a positive after-image, which in time would start to overlay onto itself- and then my mind would have to find a way to deal with that. With each iteration, my mind would find new ways to fit all of that residual after-image bundle together, and this would often look like some kind of surface trying to be shaped into something recognizable. I got the distinct feeling that whenever I could see somethingin the texture (cf. apophenia), the overall amount of after-image to deal with would be drastically reduced. I remember an article where the concept of energy sinks was discussed, and I think that both symmetrical re-arrangements of the residual after-image bundles and semantically-meaningful re-arrangements of them both seemed to work as energy sinks. Hence, the symmetrical texture repetition is a way by which the energy of these after-image bundles gets dissipated (and the surface gets locked in the shape that sucked out its energy). I remember thinking how the entire process somehow encapsulates many of the classic visual effect categories; tracers, drifting, pattern recognition, and symmetrical texture repetition all fit together in a continuous sequence of unfolding re-arrangements of an after-image bundle surface. Perhaps some trippers will relate to this description.
I also spent some time trying to figure out how to describe the tracers. I probably spent about 10 minutes doing this, and got to a fairly satisfying account, I think. The tracers were mostly composed of “echoes” rather than being the result of applying just a smooth and long decay function. Based on playing with GIFs, I estimated that the first visual echo lagged behind the original stimulation by about 200ms. Then there was another echo (the echo of the echo) which happened roughly 400ms afterwards. I took some time to look at the pictures in How to secretly communicate with people on LSD, and the GIFs seemed to work, but not exactly as the text describes it. It was really cool, though. During the plateau, I found it hard to tell which of the images had the artificial tracer on top (see the article’s “Secret C” GIFs for reference).
(notice the double echo)
I will conclude by mentioning that music was very intense and interesting in this state. I specifically noted that music with reverb sounded massively amplified (example). With the appropriate combination of meditation and reverb-rich sounds, I could experience very pleasant states of equanimity that I don’t usually experience sober. I tried playing pulses of sound and seeing if I could experience “auditory tracers”, but it didn’t seem to work. That is, there wasn’t a clear analogue to the trace structure in the auditory domain. Rather, it’s less that “sound itself sounded like it had more reverb”, and more that “for the sound that already does have reverb, such reverb seemed amplified”. Why would the reverb itself sound amplified? And what is the reverb signature of such amplification? I don’t know! These seem like fertile grounds for novel research.
And that’s about it. I hope you find these observations useful, and if not, at least interesting to read. Peace! 🙂
About this time I had the good fortune of locating a supply of ecstasy. True to its name, ecstasy promotes a kind of euphoric jitteryness, in which it is just a thrill to be alive! Every fiber of your being is just quivering with energy. But ecstasy also has some interesting perceptual manifestations. In the first place there is a kind of jitteryness across the whole visual field. And this jitteryness is so pronounced that it can manifest itself in your eyeballs, that jitter back and forth at a blinding speed. If you relax, and just let the jitters take over, the oscillations of your eyes will blur the whole scene into a peculiar double image. But if you concentrate, and focus, the ocular jitter can be made to subside, and thus become less noticeable or bothersome. One of my friends got the ocular jitters so bad that he could not control them, and that prevented him from having a good time. That was the last time he took ecstasy. I however found it enchanting. And I analyzed that subtle jitteryness more carefully. It was not caused exclusively by jittering of the eyeball, but different objects in the perceived world also seemed to jitter endlessly between alternate states. In fact, all perceived objects jittered in this manner, creating a fuzzy blur between alternate states. This was interesting for a psychonaut! It seemed to me that I could see the mechanism of my visual brain sweeping out the image of my experience right before my eyes, like the flying spot of light that paints the television picture on the glowing phosphor screen. The refresh rate of my visual mechanism had slowed to such a point as to make this sweep visible to me. Very interesting indeed!
Having access simultaneously to ecstasy and LSD, I tried my hand at the practice known in the drug literature as “candy flipping”, that is, taking ecstasy and LSD in combination. The combination is so unique and different from the experience of either drug in isolation, that it has earned its own unique name. Under LSD and ecstasy I could see the flickering blur of visual generation most clearly. And I saw peculiar ornamental artifacts on all perceived objects, like a Fourier representation with the higher harmonics chopped off. LSD by itself creates sharply detailed ornamental artifacts, like a transparent overlay of an ornamental lattice or filigree pattern superimposed on the visual scene, especially in darkness. Ecstasy smooths out those sharp edges and blurs them into a creamy smooth rolling experience. I would sometimes feel some part of my world suddenly bulging out to greater magnification, like a fish-eye lens distortion appearing randomly in space, stretching everything in that portion of space like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. But it was not an actual bulging that changed the shape of the visual world, but more of a seeming bulging, that was perceived in an invisible sense without actual distortion of the world. For example one time I was putting on my boots to go outside, and as I reached down to pull on a boot, I suddenly got the impression that my leg grew to ten times its normal length, but I could still reach my boot because my arms had also grown by the same proportion, as had the whole space in that part of the room. Nothing actually looked any different after this expansion, it was just my sense of the scale of the world that had undergone this transformation, and even as I contemplated this, and finished securing my boot, the world shrank down gradually back to its normal scale again and the distortion vanished.
I have theorized that the way that ecstasy achieved its creamy smoothness is by dithering or alternating so fast between perceptual alternatives as to blur them together, like a spinning propellor that appears as a semi-transparent disc. At this level of observation I was unable to get my co-trippers to see the features that I was seeing. I would ask them when they saw that line of trees, did they not see illusory projections, like a transparent overlay of vectors projecting up from the trees into the blue sky that I could see? They did not see these things. So don’t expect to see what I see when I take LSD and ecstasy. I report my observations as I experience them, but observation of the psychedelic experience is every bit as subjective and variable as any phenomenological observation of our own experience. What stands out for one observer might remain completely obscure to another.
But the features I observed in my psychedelic experience all pointed toward a single self-consistent explanation of the mechanism of experience. It appears that the spatial structure of visual experience is swept out by some kind of volumetric imaging mechanism with a periodic refresh scan, not unlike the principle of television imagery, but extended into three dimensions. This was interesting indeed!
Quantifying Bliss – which proposes a model from first principles to explain the structural properties of an experience that makes it feel good, bad, mixed, or neutral (i.e. valence). It then derives from this model precise, empirically testable predictions for what really good experiences should look like. Specifically, MDMA euphoria is postulated to be the result of a high level of consonance between connectome-specific harmonic waves.
A Future for Neuroscience – which discusses the broad implications of a harmonic resonance theory of brain function for neuroscience, including new ways to conceptualize personality, and exotic states of consciousness.
The Pseudo-Time Arrow – which discusses a particular physicalist model to explain the experience of time by examining the patterns of *implicit causality* in networks of local binding (these terms are defined there). The bottom line being: each moment of experience contains time implicitly embedded in its geometric structure. Psychedelics, MDMA, and their combination would each have unique signature structural effects along the arrow of pseudo-time.
Taken together, these articles would provide an explanation for why MDMA has a uniquely euphoric effect. In particular, Lehar’s point that MDMA’s generalized jitteryness/dithering smooths out the sharp edges of an LSD experience would show up as the harmonization/regularization of the relationship between time-slices along the pseudo-time arrow of experience. The Symmetry Theory of Valence can then be applied in the resulting network of local binding after MDMA’s smoothing effect, leading to the peculiar insight that MDMA’s euphoric effects come from the symmetrification of experience along the axis of experiential time. The creaminess of experience produced by MDMDA that Lehar talks about feels very good precisely because it is the phenomenal character of a dissonance-free state of consciousness. Hence, the fundamental nature of pleasure is not behavioral reinforcement, the maximization of utility according to one’s utility function, or expected surprise minimization; pleasure is more fundamental and low-level than any of those properties. Pleasure, we predict, shall correspond to the degree and intensity of energized symmetries present in a bound moment of experience, and MDMA phenomenology is a clear example of what it looks like to optimize for this property.
Last year I wrote a 13,000 word essay about my experience at Burning Man. This year I will also share some thoughts and insights concerning my experience while being brief and limiting myself to seven thousand words. I decided to write this piece stand-alone in such a way that you do not need to have read the previous essay in order to make sense of the present text.
Camp Soft Landing
I have been wanting to attend Burning Man for several years, but last year was the first time I had both the time and resources to do so. Unfortunately I was not able to get a ticket in the main sale, so I thought I would have to wait another year to have the experience. Out of the blue, however, I received an email from someone from Camp Soft Landing asking me if I would be interested in giving a talk at Burning Man in their Palenque Norte speaker series. My immediate response was “I would love to! But I don’t have a ticket and I don’t have a camp.” The message I received in return was “Great! Well, we have extra tickets, and you can stay at our camp.” So just like that I suddenly had the opportunity to not only attend, but also be at a wonderful camp and give a talk about consciousness research.
Full Circle Teahouse
The camp I’ve been a part of turned out to be an extremely good fit for me both as a researcher and as a person. Camp Soft Landing is one of the largest camps at Burning Man, featuring a total of 150 participants every year. Its two main contributions to the playa are the Full Circle Teahouse and Palenque Norte. The Full Circle Teahouse is a place in which we serve adaptogen herbal tea blends and Pu’er tea in a peaceful setting that emphasizes presence, empathy, and listening. It’s also full of pillows and cozy blankets and serves as a place for people who are overwhelmed to calm down or crash after a hectic night. (During training we were advised to expect that some people “may not know where they are or how they got here when they wake up in the early morning” and to “help them get oriented and offer them tea”). Here are a few telling words by the Teahouse founder Annie Oak:
The real secret sauce to our camp’s collective survival has been our focus on the well being of everyone who steps inside Soft Landing. While the ancestral progenitor who occupied our location before us, Camp Above the Limit, ran a lively bar, we made a decision not to serve alcohol in our camp. I enjoy an occasional cocktail, but I believe that the conflating of the gift economy with free alcohol has compromised the public health and social cohesion of Black Rock City. We do not prohibit alcohol at Soft Landing, but we do not permit bars inside our camp. Instead, we run a tea bar at our Tea House for those seeking a place to rest, hydrate and receive compassionate care. We also give away hundreds of gallons of water to Tea House visitors. We don’t want to undermine their self-sufficiency, but we can proactively reduce the number of guests who become ill from dehydration. We keep our Tea House open until Monday after the Burn to help weary people stay alert on the perilous drive back home.
Palenque Norte schedule 2018 (Tuesday & Wednesday)
Palenque Norte schedule 2018 (Thursday & Friday)
Thanks to the Full Circle Teahouse and Palenque Norte, the social and memetic composition of Camp Soft Landing is one that is characterized by a mixture of veteran scientists and community builders in their 50s and 60s, science and engineering nerds with advanced degrees in their late 20s and early 30s, and a dash of millennials and Gen-Z-ers in the rationalist/Effective Altruist communities.
Lorenzo Hagerty, Sasha Shulgin, and Bruce Damer (Burning Man, Palenque Norte c. 2007)
The people of Camp Soft Landing are near and dear to my heart given that they take consciousness seriously, they have a scientific focus, and they emit a strong intellectual vibe. As a budding qualia researcher myself, I feel completely at home there. As it turns out, this type of vibe is not at all out of place at Burning Man…
Burning Man Attendees
I would hazard the guess that Burning Man attendees are on average much more open to experience, conscientious, cognitively oriented, and psychologically robust than people in the general population. In particular, the combination of conscientiousness and openness to experience is golden. These are people who are not only able to think of crazy ideas, but who are also diligent enough to manifest them in the real world in concrete forms. This may account for the high production value and elaborate nature of the art, music, workshops, and collective activities. While the openness to experience aspect of Burning Man is fairly self-evident (it jumps at you if you do a quick google images search), the conscientiousness aspect may be a little harder to believe. Here I will quote a friend to illustrate this component:
Burning Man is the annual meeting of the recreational logistics community. Or maybe it’s a job interview for CEO: how to deal with broken situations and unexpected constraints in a multi-agent setting, just to survive.
Things I learned / practiced in the last couple of weeks: truck driving, clever packing, impact driver, attaching bike trailer, pumping gas and filling generators, knots, adding hanging knobs to a whiteboard, tying things with wire, quickly moving tents on the last night, finding rides, using ratchet straps, opening & closing storage container, driving to Treasure Island.
Indeed this may be one of the key barriers of entry that defines the culture of Burning Man and explains why the crazy ideas people have in a given year tend to come back in the form of art in the next year… rather than vanishing into thin air.
There are other key features of the people who attend which can be seen by inspecting the Burning Man Census report. Here is a list of attributes, their baserate for Burners, and the baserate in the general population (for comparison): Having an undergraduate degree (73.6% vs. 32%), holding a graduate degree (31% vs. 10%), being gay/lesbian (8.5% vs. 1.3%), bisexual (10% vs. 1.8%), bicurious (11% vs. ??), polyamorous (20% vs. 5%), mixed race (9% vs. 3%), female (40% vs. 50%), median income (62K vs. 30K), etc.
From a bird’s eye view one can describe Burners as much more: educated, LGBT, liberal or libertarian, “spiritual but not religious”, and more mixed race than the average person. There are many more interesting cultural and demographic attributes that define the population of Black Rock City, but I will leave it at that for now for the sake of brevity. That said, feel free to inspect the following Census graphs for further details:
Last year at Burning Man I developed a cluster of new concepts including “The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness” and “Hybrid Vigor in the context of post-Darwinian ethics.” I included my conversation with God and instructions for a guided oneness meditation. This year I continued to use the expanded awareness field of the Playa to further these and other concepts. In what follows I will describe some of the main ideas I experienced and then conclude with a summary of the talk I gave at Palenque Norte. If any of the following sections are too dense or uninteresting please feel free to skip them.
The Universal Eigen-Schelling Religion
On one of the nights a group of friends and I went on a journey following an art car, stopping every now and then to dance and to check out some art. At one point we drove through a large crowd of people and by the time the art car was on the other side, a few people from the group were missing. The question then became “what do we do?” We didn’t agree on a strategy for dealing with this situation before we embarked on the trip. After a couple of minutes we all converged on a strategy: stay near the art car and drive around until we find the missing people. The whole situation had a “lost in space” quality. Finding individual people is very hard since from a distance everyone is wearing roughly-indistinguishable multi-colored blinking LEDs all over their body. But since art cars are large and more distinguishable at a distance, they become natural Schelling points for people to converge on. Schelling points are a natural coordination mechanism in the absence of direct communication channels.
We were thus able to re-group almost in our entirety as a group (with only one person missing, who we finally had to give up on) by independently converging on the meta-heuristic of looking for the most natural Schelling point and finding the rest of the group there. For the rest of the night I kept thinking about how this meta-strategy may play out in the grand scheme of things.
If you follow Qualia Computing you may know that our default view on the nature of ethics is valence utilitarianism. People think they want specific things (e.g. ice-cream, a house, to be rich and famous, etc.) but in reality what they want is the high-valence response (i.e. happiness, bliss, and pleasure) that is triggered by such stimuli. When two people disagree on e.g. whether a certain food is tasty, they are not usually talking about the same experience. For one person, such food could induce high degrees of sensory euphoria, while for the other person, the food may leave them cold. But if they had introspective access to each other’s valence response, the disagreement would vanish (“Ah, I didn’t realize mayo produced such a good feeling for you. I was fixated on the aversive reaction I had to it.”). In other words, disagreements about the value of specific stimuli come down to lack of empathetic fidelity between people rather than a fundamental value mismatch. Deep down, we claim, we all like the same states of consciousness, and our disagreements come from the fact that their triggers vary between people. We call the fixation on the stimuli rather than the valence response the Tyranny of the Intentional Object.
In the grand scheme of things, we posit that advanced intelligences across the multiverse will generally converge on valence realism and valence utilitarianism. This is not an arbitrary value choice; it’s the natural outcome of looking for consistency among one’s disparate preferences and trying to investigate the true nature of conscious value. Insofar as curiosity is evolutionarily adaptive, any sufficiently general and sufficiently curious conscious mind eventually reaches the conclusion that value is a structural feature of conscious states and sheds the illusion of intentionality and closed identity. And while in the context of human history one could point at specific philosophers and scientists that have advanced our understanding of ethics (i.e. Plato, Bentham, Singer, Pearce, etc.) there may be a very abstract but universal way of describing the general tendency of curious conscious intelligences towards valence utilitarianism. It would go like this:
In a physicalist panpsychist paradigm, the vast majority of moments of experience do not occur within intelligent minds and leave no records of their phenomenal character for future minds to examine and inspect. A subset of moments of experience, though, do happen to take place within intelligent minds. We can call these conscious eigen-states because their introspective value can be retroactively investigated and compared against the present moment of experience, which has access to records of past experiences. Humans, insofar as they do not experience large amounts of amnesia, are able to experience a wide range of eigen-states throughout their lives. Thus, within a single human mind, many comparisons between the valence of various states of consciousness can be carried out (this is complicated and not always feasible given the state-dependence of memory). Either way, one could visualize how the information about the relative ranking of experiences is gathered across a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) of moments of experience that have partial introspective access to previous moments of experience. Furthermore, if the assumption of continuity of identity is made (i.e. that each moment of experience is witnessed by the same transcendental subject) then each evaluation between pairs of states of consciousness contributes a noisy datapoint to a universal ranking of all experiences and values.
After enough comparisons, a threshold number of evaluated experiences may be crossed, at which point a general theory of value can begin to be constructed. Thus a series of natural Schelling points for “what is universally valuable” become accessible to subsequent moments of experience. One of these focal points is the prevention of suffering throughout the entire multiverse. That is, to avoid experiences that do not like existing, independently of their location in space-time. Likewise, we would see another focal point that adds an imperative to realize experiences that value their own existence (“let the thought forms who love themselves reproduce and populate the multiverse”).
I call this approach to ethics the Eigen-Schelling Religion. Any sapient mind in the multiverse with a general enough ability to reason about qualia and reflect about causality is capable of converging to it. In turn, we can see that many concepts at the core of world religions are built around universal Eigen-Schelling points. Thus, we can rest assured that both the Bodhisattva imperative to eliminate suffering and the Christ “world redeeming” sentiment are reflections of a fundamental converging process to which many other intelligent life-forms have access across the entire multiverse. What I like about this framework is that you don’t need to take anyone’s word for what constitutes wisdom in consciousness. It naturally exists as reflective focal points within the state-space of consciousness itself in a way that transcends time and space.
EQ (emotional intelligent quotient) isn’t very good as a formal psychological construct- it’s not particularly predictive, nor very robust when viewed from different perspectives. But there’s clearly something there– empirically, we see that some people are more ‘tuned in’ to the emotional & interpersonal realm, more skilled at feeling the energy of the room, more adept at making others feel comfortable, better at inspiring people to belief and action. It would be nice to have some sort of metric here.
I suggest breaking EQ into entrainment quotient (EnQ) and metronome quotient (MQ). In short, entrainment quotient indicates how easily you can reach entrainment with another person. And by “reach entrainment”, I mean how rapidly and deeply your connectome harmonic dynamics can fall into alignment with another’s. Metronome quotient, on the other hand, indicates how strongly you can create, maintain, and project an emotional frame. In other words, how robustly can you signal your internal connectome harmonic state, and how effectively can you cause others to be entrained to it. […] Most likely, these are reasonably positively correlated; in particular, I suspect having a high MQ requires a reasonably decent EnQ. And importantly, we can likely find good ways to evaluate these with CSHW.
This conceptual framework can be useful for making sense of the novel social dynamics that take place in Black Rock City. In particular, as illustrated by the Census responses, most participants are in a very open and emotionally receptive state at Burning Man:
One could say that by feeling safe, welcomed, and accepted at Burning Man, attendees adopt a very high Entrainment Quotient modus operandi. In tandem, we then see large art pieces, art cars, theme camps, and powerful sound systems blasting their unique distinctive emotional signals throughout the Playa. In a sense the entire place looks like an ecosystem of brightly-lit high-energy metronomes trying to attract the attention of a swarm of people in highly open and sensitive states with the potential to be entrained with these metronomes. Since the competition for attention is ferocious, there is not a single metronome that can dominate or totally brainwash you. All it takes for you to get a bad signal out of your head is to walk 50 meters to another place where the vibe will be, in all likelihood, completely different and overwrite the previous state.
This dynamic reaches its ultimate climax the very night of the Burn, as (almost) everyone gathers around the Man in a maximally receptive state, while at the same time every art car and group vibe surrounds the crowd and blasts their unique signals as loud and as intensely as possible all at the same time. This leads to the reification of the collective Burning Man egregore, which manifests as the sum total of all signals and vibes in mass ecstasy.
It is worth pointing out that not all of the metronomes in the Playa are created equal. Some art cars, for example, send highly specific and culturally-bound signals (e.g. country music, Simon & Garfunkel, Michael Jackson, etc.). While these metronomes will have their specific followings (i.e. you can always find a group of dedicated Pink Floyd fans) their ability to interface with the general Burner vibe is limited by their specificity and temporal irregularity. The more typical metronomic texture you will find scattered all around the Playa will be art forms that make use of more general patternceutical Schelling points with a stronger and more general metronomic capacity. Of note is the high degree of prevalence of house music and other 110 to 140 bpm (beats per minute) music that is able to entrain your brain from a distance and motivate you to move towards it- whether or not you are able to recognize the particular song. If you listen carefully to e.g. Palenque Norte recordings you will notice the occasional art car driving by, and the music it is blasting will usually have its tempo within that range, with a strong, repeating, and easily recognizable beat structure. I suspect that this tendency is the natural emergent effect of the evolutionary selection pressures that art forms endure from one Burn to another, which benefit patterns that can captivate a lot of human attention in a competitive economy of recreational states of consciousness.
Android Jones’ Samskara at Camp Mystic 2017 (an example of the Open Individualist Schelling Vibe – i.e. the religion of the ego-dissolving LSD frequency of consciousness)
And then there are the extremely general metronome strategies that revolve around universal principles. The best example I found of this attention-capturing approach was the aesthetic of oneness, which IMO seemed to reach its highest expression at Camp Mystic:
Inspired by a sense of mystery & wonder, we perceive the consciousness of “We Are All One”. Mystics encourage the enigmatic spirit to explore a deeper connection not only on this planet and all that exists within, but the realm of the entire Universe.
At their Wednesday night “White Dance Party” (where you are encouraged to dress in white) Camp Mystic was blasting the strongest vibes of Open Individualism I witnessed this year. I am of the mind that philosophy is the soul of poetry, and that massive party certainly had as its underlying philosophy the vibe of oneness and unity. This vibe is itself a Schelling point in the state-space of consciousness… the religion of the boundary-dissolving LSD frequency is not a random state, but a central hub in the super-highway of the mind. I am glad these focal points made prominent appearances at Burning Man.
Uncontrollable Feedback Loops
It is worth pointing out that at an open field as diverse as Burning Man we are likely to encounter positive feedback systems with both good and bad effects on human wellbeing. An example of a positive feedback loop with bad effects would be the incidents that transpired around the “Carkebab” art installation:
The sculpture consisted of a series of cars piled on top of each other held together by a central pole. The setup was clearly designed to be climbed given the visible handles above the cars leading to a view cart at the top. However, in practice it turned out to be considerably more dangerous and hard to climb than it seemed. Now you may anticipate the problem. If you are told that this art piece is climbable but dangerous, one can easily conjure a mental image of a future event in which someone falls and gets hurt. And as soon as that happens, access to the art installation will be restricted. Thus, one reasons that there is a limited amount of time left in which one will be able to climb the structure. Now imagine a lot of people having that train of thought. As more people realize that an accident is imminent, more people are motivated to climb it before that happens, thus creating an incentive to go as soon as possible, leading to crowding, which in turn increases the chance of an accident. The more people approach the installation, the more imminent the final point seems, and the more pressing it becomes to climb the structure before it becomes off-limits, and the more dangerous it becomes. Predictably, the imminent accident did take place. Thankfully it only involved a broken shoulder rather than something more severe. And yet, why did we let it get to that point? Perhaps in the future we should have methods to detect positive feedback loops like this and put the brakes on before it’s too late…
This leads to the topic of danger:
Can Burning Man be a place in which an abolitionist ethic can put down roots for long-term civilizational planning? Let’s briefly examine some of the potential acute, medium-term, and long-term costs of attending. Everyone has a limit, right? Some may want to think: “well, you only live once, let’s have fun”. But if you are one of the few who carries the wisdom, will, and love to move consciousness forward this should not be how you think. What would be an acceptable level of risk that an Effective Altruist should be able to accept to experience the benefits of Burning Man? I think that the critical question here is not “Is Burning Man dangerous?” but rather “How bad is it for you?”
Thankfully actuaries, modern medicine, and economists have already developed a theoretical framework for putting a number on this question. Namely, this is the concept of micromorts (i.e. 1 in a million chance of dying) and its sister concept of microlife (a cost of 1 millionth of a lifespan lost or gained by performing some activity). My preference is that of using microlives because they translate more easily into time and are, IMO, more conceptually straightforward. So here is the question: How many microlives should we be willing to spend to attend Burning Man? 10 microlives? 100 microlives? 1,000 microlives? 10,000 microlives?
Based on the fact that there are many long-term burners still alive I guesstimate that the upper bound cannot possibly be higher than 10,000 or we would know about it already. I.e. the percentage of people who get e.g. skin cancer, lung disease, or die in other ways would probably be already apparent in the community. Alternatively, it’s also possible that a reduced life expectancy as a result of attending e.g. 10+ Burns is an open secret among long-term burners… they see their friends die at an inexplicably higher rate but are too afraid to talk about it honestly. After all, people tend to be very clingy to their main sources of meaning (what we call “emotionally load-bearing activities”) so a large amount of denial can be expected in this domain.
Additionally, discussing Burning Man micromorts might be a particularly touchy and difficult subject for a number of attendees. The reason being that part of the psychological value that Burning Man provides is a felt sense of the confrontation with one’s fragility and mortality. Many older burners seem to have come to terms with their own mortality quite well already. Indeed, perhaps accepting death as part of life may be one of the very mechanisms of action for the reduction in neuroticism caused by intense experiences like psychedelics and Burning Man.
But that is not my jazz. I would personally not want to recommend an activity that costs a lot of microlives to other people in team consciousness. While I want to come to terms with death as much as your next Silicon Valley mystically-inclined nerd, I also recognize that death-acceptance is a somewhat selfish desire. Paradoxically, living a long, healthy, and productive life is one of the best ways for us to improve our chances of helping consciousness-at-large given our unwavering commitment to the eradication of all sentient suffering.
The main acute risks of Burning Man could be summarized as: dehydration, sleep deprivation, ODing (especially via accidental dosing, which is not uncommon, sadly), being run over by large vehicles (especially by art cars, trucks, and RVs), and falling from art or having art fall on you. These risks can be mitigated by the motto of “doing only one stupid thing at a time” (cf. How not to die at Burning Man). It’s ok to climb a medium-sized art piece if you are fully sober, or to take a psychedelic if you have sitters and don’t walk around art cars, etc. Most stories of accidents one hears about start along the lines of: “So, I was drunk, and high, and on mushrooms, and holding my camera, and I decided to climb on top of the thunderdome, and…”. Yes, of course that went badly. Doing stupid things on top of each other has multiplicative risk effects.
In the medium term, a pretty important risk is that of being busted by law enforcement. After all, the financial, psychological, and physiological effects of going to prison are rather severe on most people. On a similar note, a non-deadly but psychologically devastating danger of living in the desert for a week is an increased risk of kidney stones due to dehydration. The 10/10 pain you are likely to experience while passing a kidney stone may have far-reaching traumatic effects on one’s psyche and should not be underestimated (sufferers experience an increased risk of heart disease and, I would suspect, suicide).
But of all of the risks, the ones that concern me the most are the long term ones given their otherwise silent nature. In particular, we have skin cancer due to UV exposure and lung/heart disease caused by high levels of PM2.5 particles. With respect to the skin component, it is worth observing that a large majority of Burning Man attendees are caucasian and thus at a significantly higher risk. Me being a redhead, I’ve taken rather extreme precautions in this area. I apply SPF50+ sunscreen every couple of hours, use a wide-rim hat, wear arm sleeves [and gloves] for UV sun protection, wear sunglasses, stay in the shade as often as I can, etc. I recommend that other people also follow these precautions.
And with regards to dust… here I would have to say we have the largest error bars. Does Burning Man dust cause lung cancer? Does it impair lung function? Does it cause heart disease? As far as I can tell nobody knows the answer to these questions. A lot of people seem to believe that the air-borne particles are too large to pose a problem, but I highly doubt that is the case. The only source I’ve been able to find that tried to quantify dangerous particles at Burning Man comes from Camp Particle, which unfortunately does not seem to have published its results (and only provides preliminary data without the critical measure of PM2.5 I was looking for). Here are two important thoughts in this area. First, let’s hope that the clay-like alkaline composition of Playa dust turns out to be harmless to the lungs. And second, like most natural phenomena, chances are that the concentration of dangerous particles in, e.g. 1 minute buckets, follows a power law. I would strongly expect that at least 80% of the dust one inhales comes from 20% of the time in which it is most present. More so, during dust storms and especially in white-outs, I would expect the concentration of dust in the air to be at least 1,000 times higher than the median concentration. If that’s true, breathing without protection during a white-out for as little as two minutes would be equivalent to breathing in “typical conditions” without protection for more than 24 hours. In other words, being strategic and diligent about wearing a heavy and cumbersome PN100 mask may be far more effective than lazily taking on and off a more convenient (but less effective) mask throughout the day. Personally, I chose to always have on hand an M3 half facepiece with PN100 filters ready in case the dust suddenly became thicker. This did indeed save me from breathing dust during all dust storms. The difference in the quality of air while wearing it was like day and night. I will also say that while I prefer my look when I have a beard, I chose to fully shave during the event in order to guarantee a good seal with the mask. In retrospect, the fashion sacrifice does seem to be worth it, though at the time I certainly missed having a beard.
The question remaining is: with a realistic amount of protection, what is the acceptable level of risk? I propose that you make up your mind before we find out with science how dangerous Burning Man actually is. In my case, I am willing to endure up to 100 negative microlives per day at Burning Man (for a total of ~800 microlives) as the absolute upper bound. Anything higher than that and the experience wouldn’t be worth it for me, and I would not recommend it to memetic allies. Thankfully, I suspect that the actual danger is lower than that, perhaps in the range of 40 negative microlives per day (mostly in the form of skin cancer and lung disease). But the problem remains that this estimate has very wide error bars. This needs to be addressed.
And if the danger does turn out to be unacceptable, then we can still look to recreate the benefits of Burning Man in a safer way: Your Legacy Could Be To Move Burning Man to a Place With A Fraction of Its Micromorts Cost.
In the ideal case Burning Man would be an event that triggers our brains to produce “danger signals” without there actually being much danger at all. This is because with our current brain implementation, experiencing perceived danger is helpful for bonding, trust building, and a sense of self-efficacy and survival ability.
And now on to my talk…
Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Consciousness vs. Replicators
The video above documents my talk, which includes an extended Q&A with the audience. Below is a quick summary of the main points I touched throughout the talk:
Intro to Qualia Computing
I started out by asking the audience if they had read any Qualia Computing articles. About 30% of them raised a hand. I then asked them how they found out about my talk, and it seems that the majority of the attendees (50%+) found it through the “What Where When” booklet. Since the majority of the people didn’t know about Qualia Computing before the talk, I decided to provide a quick introduction to some of the main concepts:
What is qualia? – The raw way in which consciousness feels. Like the blueness of blue. Did you ever wonder as a kid whether other people saw the same colors as you? Qualia is that ineffable quality of experience that we currently struggle to communicate.
Closed Individualism – you start existing when you are born, stop existing when you die.
Empty Individualism – brains are “experience machines” and you really are just a “moment of experience” disconnected from every other “moment of experience” your brain has generated or will generate.
Open Individualism – we are all the “light of consciousness”. Reality has only one numerically identical subject of experience who is everyone, but which takes all sorts of forms and shapes.
For the purpose of this talk I assume that Open Individualism is true, which provides a strong reason to care about the wellbeing of all sentient beings, even from a “selfish” point of view.
Valence – This is the pleasure-pain axis. We take a valence realist view which means that we assume that there is an objective matter of fact about how much an experience is in pain/suffering vs. experiencing happiness/pleasure. There are pure heavenly experiences, pure hellish experiences, mixed states (e.g. enjoying music you love on awful speakers while wanting to pee), and neutral states (e.g. white noise, mild apathy, etc.).
Evolutionary advantages of consciousness as part of the information processing pipeline – I pointed out that we also assume that consciousness is a real and computationally relevant phenomena. And in particular, that the reason why consciousness was recruited by natural selection to process information has to do with “phenomenal binding”. I did not go into much detail about it at the time, but if you are curious I elaborated about this during the Q&A.
Spirit of our research:
Exploration + Knowledge/Synthesis. Many people either over-focus on exploration (especially people very high in openness to experience) or on synthesis (like conservatives who think “the good days are gone, let’s study history”). The spirit of our research combines both open-ended exploration and strong synthesis. We encourage people to both expand their evidential base and make serious time to synthesize and cross-examine their experiences.
A lot of people treat consciousness research like people used to treat alchemy. That is, they have a psychological need to “keep things magical”. We don’t. We think that consciousness research is due to transition into a hard science and that many new possibilities will be unlocked after this transition, not unlike how chemistry is thousands of times more powerful than alchemy because it allows you to create synthesis pathways from scratch using chemistry principles.
How People Think and Why Few Say Meaningful Things:
What most people say and talk about is a function of the surrounding social status algorithm (i.e. what kind of things award social recognition) and deep-seated evolutionarily adaptive programs (such as survival, reproductive, and affective consistency programs).
Nerds and people on the autism spectrum do tend to circumvent this general mental block and are able to discuss things without being motivated by status or evolutionary programs only, instead being driven by open-ended curiosity. We encourage our collaborators to have that approach to consciousness research.
What the Economy is Based on:
Right now there are three main goods that are exchanged in the global economy. These are:
Survival – resources that help you survive, like food, shelter, safety, etc.
Power – resources that allow you to acquire social and physical power and thus increase your chances of reproducing.
Consciousness – information about the state-space of consciousness. Right now people are willing to spend their “surplus” resources on experiences even if they do not increase their reproductive success. A possible dystopian scenario is one in which people do not do this anymore – everyone spends all of their available time and energy pursuing jobs for the sake of maximizing their wealth and increasing their reproductive success. This leads us to…
Pure Replicators – In Wireheading Done Right we introduced the concept of a Pure Replicator: 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. (e.g. crystals, viruses, programs, memes, genes)
It is reasonable to expect that in the absence of evolutionary selection pressures that favor the wellbeing of sentient beings, in the long run everyone alive will be playing a Pure Replicator strategy.
States vs. Stages vs. Theory of Morality
Ken Wilber emphasizes that there is a key difference between states and stages. Whereas states of consciousness involve various degrees of oneness and interconnectedness (from normal everyday sober experiences all the way to unity consciousness and satori), how you interpret these states will ultimately depend on your own level of moral development and maturity. This is very true and important. But I propose a further axis:
Levels of intellectual understanding of ethics. While stages of consciousness refer to the degree to which you are comfortable with ambiguity, can synthesize large amounts of seemingly contradictory experiences, and are able to be emotionally stable in the face of confusion, we think that there is another axis worth exploring that has more to do with one’s intellectual model of ethics.
The 4 levels are:
Good vs. evil – the most common view which personifies/essentializes evil (e.g. “the devil”)
Balance between good and evil – the view that most people who take psychedelics and engage in eastern meditative practices tend to arrive at. People at this level tend to think that good implies evil, and that the best we can do is to reach a state of balance and equanimity. I argue that this is a rationalization to be able to deal with extremes of suffering; the belief itself is used as an anti-depressant, which shows the intrinsic contradictoriness and motivated reasoning behind adopting this ethical worldview. You believe in the balance between good and evil in general so that you, right now, can feel better about your life. You are still, implicitly, albeit in a low-key way, trying to regulate your mood like everyone else.
Gradients of wisdom – this is the view that people like Sam Harris, Ken Wilber, John Lilly, David Chapman, Buddha, etc. seem to converge on. They don’t have a deontological “if-then” ethical programming like the people at the first level. Rather, they have general heuristics and meta-heuristics for navigating complex problems. They do not claim to know “the truth” or be able to identify exactly what makes a society “better for human flourishing” but they do accept that some environments and states of consciousness are more healthy and conducive to wisdom than others. The problem with this view is that it does not give you a principled way to resolve disagreements or a way forward for designing societies from first principles.
Consciousness vs. pure replicators – this view is the culmination of intellectual ethical development (although you could still be very neurotic and unenlightened otherwise) which arises when one identifies the source of everything that is systematically bad as caused by patterns that are good at making copies of themselves but that either don’t add conscious value or actively increase suffering. In this framework, it is possible for consciousness to win, which would happen if we create a full-spectrum super-sentient super-intelligent singleton that explores the entire state-space of consciousness and rationally decides what experiences to instantiate at a large scale based on the empirically revealed total order of consciousness.
New Reproductive Strategies
Given that we on team consciousness are in a race against Pure Replicator Hell scenarios it is important to explore ways in which we could load the dice in the favor of consciousness. One way to do so would be to increase the ways in which prosocial people are able to reproduce and pass on their pro-consciousness genes going forward. Here are a few interesting examples:
Gay + Lesbian couple – for gay and lesbian couples with long time horizons we could help them have biological kids with the following scheme: Gay couple A + B and lesbian couple X + Z could combine their genes and have 4 kids A/X, A/Z, B/X, B/Z. This would create the genetic and game-theoretical incentives for this new kind of family structure to work in the long term.
Genetic spellchecking – one of the most promising ways of increasing sentient welfare is to apply genetic spellchecking to embryos. This means that we would be reducing the mutational load of one’s offspring without compromising one’s genetic payload (and thus selfish genes would agree to the procedure and lead to an evolutionarily stable strategy). You wouldn’t ship code to production without testing and debugging, you wouldn’t publish a book without someone proof-reading it first, so why do we push genetic code to production without any debugging? As David Pearce says, right now every child is a genetic experiment. It’s terrible that such a high percentage of them lead to health and mental problems.
A reproductive scheme in which 50% of the genes come from an “intelligently vetted gene pool” and the other 50% come from the parents’ genes. This would be very unpopular at first, but after a generation or two we would see that all of the kids who are the result of this procedure are top of the class, win athletic competitions, start getting Nobel prizes and Fields medals, etc. So soon every parent will want to do this… and indeed from a selfish gene point of view there will be no option but to do so, as it will make the difference between passing on some copies vs. none.*
Dispassionate evaluation of the merits and drawbacks of one’s genes in a collective of 100 or more people where one recombines the genetic makeup of the “collective children” in order to maximize both their wellbeing and the information gained. In order to do this analysis in a dispassionate way we might need to recruit 5-meo-dmt-like states of consciousness that make you identify with consciousness rather than with your particular genes, and also MDMA-like states of mind in order to create a feeling of connection to source and universal love even if your own patterns lose out at some point… which they will after long enough, because eventually the entire gene pool would be replaced by a post-human genetic make-up.
Consciousness vs. Replicators as a lens – I discussed how one can use the 4th stage of intellectual ethical development as a lens to analyze the value of different patterns and aesthetics. For example:
Conservatives vs. Liberals (stick to your guns and avoid cancer vs. be adaptable but expose yourself to nasty dangers)
Rap Music vs. Classical or Electronic music (social signaling vs. patternistic valence exploration)
Hyperstition – Finally, I discussed the concept of hyperstition, which is a concept that refers to “ideas that make themselves real”. I explored it in the first Burning Man article. The core idea is that states of consciousness can indeed transform the history of the cosmos. In particular, high-energy states of mind like those experienced under psychedelics allow for “bigger ideas” and thus increase the upper bound of “irreducible complexity” for one’s thoughts. An example of this is coming up with further alternative reproductive strategies, which I encouraged the audience to do in order to increase the chances that team consciousness wins in the long term…
Bonus content: things I overheard virgin burners say:
“Intelligent people build intelligent civilizations. I now get what a society made of brilliant people would look like.”
“Burning Man is a magical place. It seems like it is one of the only places on Earth where the Spirit World and the Physical World intersect and play with each other.”
“It is not every day that you engage in a deeply transformative conversation before breakfast.”
A brief comparison of GHB and MDMA may be instructive because one therapeutic challenge ahead will be to design agents that reverse SSRI-like flattening of affect without inducing mawkish sentimentalism (cf. ethyl alcohol). In contrast to mainstream psychiatric drug therapies, both GHB and MDMA deliver a rare emotional intensity of experience, albeit an intensity different both in texture and molecular mechanism. GHB is known by clubbers if not structural chemists as “liquid ecstasy”. GHB and MDMA are indeed sometimes mixed at raves; but the two drugs are chemically unrelated. GHB is an endogenous neuromodulator derived from GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain. A naturally-occurring fatty acid derivative, GHB is a metabolite of normal human metabolism. GHB has its own G protein-coupled presynaptic receptor in the brain. Sold as a medicine, GHB is licensed as an oral solution under the brand name Xyrem for the treatment of cataplexy associated with narcolepsy. Unlike MDMA, GHB stimulates tissue serotonin turnover. GHB increases both the transport of tryptophan to the brain and its uptake by serotonergic cells. Taking GHB stimulates growth hormone secretion; hence its popularity with bodybuilders. GHB offers cellular protection against cerebral hypoxia, and deep sleep without inducing a hangover. GHB also stimulates tyrosine hydroxylase. Tyrosine hydroxylase converts L-tyrosine to L-dopa, subsequently metabolised to dopamine. Unlike MDMA, the acute effects of GHB involve first inhibiting the dopamine system, followed the next day by a refreshing dopamine rebound. GHB induces mild euphoria in many users. In general, the neurotransmitter GABA acts to reduce the firing of the dopaminergic neurons in the tegmentum and substantia nigra. The sedative/hypnotic effect of GHB is mediated by its stimulation of GABA(B) receptors, though GHB also modulates the GABA(A) receptor complex too. The main effect of GABA(B) agonism is normally muscle relaxation, though interestingly, pretreatment with the GABA(B) agonist baclofen also prevents an MDMA-induced rise in core body temperature. Whatever the exact GABA(A), GABA(B), and GHB-specific mechanisms by which GHB works, when taken at optimal dosage GHB typically acts as a “sociabiliser”. This is a term popularised by the late Claude Rifat (Claude de Contrecoeur), author of GHB: The First Authentic Antidepressant (1999). Rifat was GHB’s most celebrated advocate and an outspoken critic of Anglo-American psychiatry. Similar therapeutic claims have been made for GHB as for MDMA, despite their pharmacological differences. GHB swiftly banishes depression and replaces low mood with an exhilarating feeling of joy; GHB has anxiolytic properties; it’s useful against panic attacks; it suppresses suicidal ideation; it inhibits hostility, paranoia and aggression; it enhances the recall of long-forgotten memories and dreams; and it promotes enhanced feelings of love. Like MDMA, and on slightly firmer grounds, GHB has been touted as an aphrodisiac: GHB heightens and prolongs the experience of orgasm. GHB disinhibits the user, and deeply relaxes his or her body. Inevitably, GHB has been demonised as a date-rape drug [“I was at this party, and this guy gave me a drink. Next thing I know, it’s morning and I’m in someone’s bed. I’ve no idea what happened in between…”]. GHB has a steep dose-response curve. Higher doses will cause anterograde amnesia i.e. users forget what they did under the influence of the drug. It’s dangerous to combine GHB with other depressants. So despite GHB’s therapeutic and pro-social potential, GHB is probably unsafe to commend to clubbers. This is because a significant percentage of the population will combine any drug whatsoever with alcohol regardless of the consequences to health. If used wisely, sparingly, and in a different cultural milieu, then GHB could be a valuable addition to the bathroom pharmacopoeia. But even then, it’s still flawed. GHB may intensify emotion and affection, but not introspective depth or intellectual acuity. Unlike taking too much MDMA, overdoing GHB makes the user fall profoundly asleep. If our consciousness is to be durably enhanced, then sedative-hypnotics have only a limited role to play in the transition ahead.