How do psychedelic drugs produce their characteristic range of acute effects in perception, emotion, cognition, and sense of self? How do these effects relate to the clinical efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapies? Efforts to understand psychedelic phenomena date back more than a century in Western science. In this article I review theories of psychedelic drug effects and highlight key concepts which have endured over the last 125 years of psychedelic science. First, I describe the subjective phenomenology of acute psychedelic effects using the best available data. Next, I review late 19th-century and early 20th-century theories—model psychoses theory, filtration theory, and psychoanalytic theory—and highlight their shared features. I then briefly review recent findings on the neuropharmacology and neurophysiology of psychedelic drugs in humans. Finally, I describe recent theories of psychedelic drug effects which leverage 21st-century cognitive neuroscience frameworks—entropic brain theory, integrated information theory, and predictive processing—and point out key shared features that link back to earlier theories. I identify an abstract principle which cuts across many theories past and present: psychedelic drugs perturb universal brain processes that normally serve to constrain neural systems central to perception, emotion, cognition, and sense of self. I conclude that making an explicit effort to investigate the principles and mechanisms of psychedelic drug effects is a uniquely powerful way to iteratively develop and test unifying theories of brain function.
Subjective rating scale items selected after psilocybin (blue) and placebo (red) (n = 15) (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). “Items were completed using a visual analog scale format, with a bottom anchor of ‘no, not more than usually’ and a top anchor of ‘yes, much more than usually’ for every item, with the exception of ‘I felt entirely normal,’ which had bottom and top anchors of ‘No, I experienced a different state altogether’ and ‘Yes, I felt just as I normally do,’ respectively. Shown are the mean ratings for 15 participants plus the positive SEMs. All items marked with an asterisk were scored significantly higher after psilocybin than placebo infusion at a Bonferroni-corrected significance level of p < 0.0022 (0.5/23 items)” (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013, p. 15176).
Neuropharmacology and Neurophysiological Correlates of Psychedelic Drug Effects
Klee recognized that his above hypotheses, inspired by psychoanalytic theory and LSD effects, required neurophysiological evidence. “As far as I am aware, however, adequate neurophysiological evidence is lacking … The long awaited millennium in which biochemical, physiological, and psychological processes can be freely correlated still seems a great distance off” (Klee, 1963, p. 466, 473). What clues have recent investigations uncovered?
A psychedelic drug molecule impacts a neuron by binding to and altering the conformation of receptors on the surface of the neuron (Nichols, 2016). The receptor interaction most implicated in producing classic psychedelic drug effects is agonist or partial agonist activity at serotonin (5-HT) receptor type 2A (5-HT2A) (Nichols, 2016). A molecule’s propensity for 5-HT2A affinity and agonist activity predicts its potential for (and potency of) subjective psychedelic effects (Glennon et al., 1984; McKenna et al., 1990; Halberstadt, 2015; Nichols, 2016; Rickli et al., 2016). When a psychedelic drug’s 5-HT2A agonist activity is intentionally blocked using 5-HT2Aantagonist drugs (e.g., ketanserin), the subjective effects are blocked or attenuated in humans under psilocybin (Vollenweider et al., 1998; Kometer et al., 2013), LSD (Kraehenmann et al., 2017a,b; Preller et al., 2017), and ayahuasca (Valle et al., 2016). Importantly, while the above evidence makes it clear that 5-HT2A activation is a necessary (if not sufficient) mediator of the hallmark subjective effects of classic psychedelic drugs, this does not entail that 5-HT2A activation is the sole neurochemical cause of all subjective effects. For example, 5-HT2A activation might trigger neurochemical modulations ‘downstream’ (e.g., changes in glutamate transmission) which could also play causal roles in producing psychedelic effects (Nichols, 2016). Moreover, most psychedelic drug molecules activate other receptors in addition to 5-HT2A (e.g., 5-HT1A, 5-HT2C, dopamine, sigma, etc.) and these activations may importantly contribute to the overall profile of subjective effects even if 5-HT2A activation is required for their effects to occur (Ray, 2010, 2016).
How does psychedelic drug-induced 5-HT2A receptor agonism change the behavior of the host neuron? Generally, 5-HT2A activation has a depolarizing effect on the neuron, making it more excitable (more likely to fire) (Andrade, 2011; Nichols, 2016). Importantly, this does not necessarily entail that 5-HT2Aactivation will have an overall excitatory effect throughout the brain, particularly if the excitation occurs in inhibitory neurons (Andrade, 2011). This important consideration (captured by the adage ‘one neuron’s excitation is another neuron’s inhibition’) should be kept in mind when tracing causal links in the pharmaco-neurophysiology of psychedelic drug effects.
The concept of functional connectivity rests upon fMRI brain imaging observations that reveal temporal correlations of activity occurring in spatially remote regions of the brain which form highly structured patterns (brain networks) (Buckner et al., 2013). Imaging of brains during perceptual or cognitive task performance reveals patterns of functional connectivity known as functional networks; e.g., control network, dorsal attention network, ventral attention network, visual network, auditory network, and so on. Imaging brains in taskless resting conditions reveals resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC) and structured patterns of RSFC known as resting state networks (RSNs; Deco et al., 2011). One particular RSN, the default mode network (DMN; Buckner et al., 2008), increases activity in the absence of tasks and decreases activity during task performance (Fox and Raichle, 2007). DMN activity is strong during internally directed cognition and a variety of other ‘metacognitive’ functions (Buckner et al., 2008). DMN activation in normal waking states exhibits ‘inverse coupling’ or anticorrelation with the activation of task-positive functional networks, meaning that DMN and functional networks are often mutually exclusive; one deactivates as the other activates and vice versa (Fox and Raichle, 2007).
Taken together, the recently discovered neurophysiological correlates of subjective psychedelic effects present an important puzzle for 21st-century neuroscience. A key clue is that 5-HT2A receptor agonism leads to desynchronization of oscillatory activity, disintegration of intrinsic integrity in the DMN and related brain networks, and an overall brain dynamic characterized by increased between-network global functional connectivity, expanded signal diversity, and a larger repertoire of structured neurophysiological activation patterns. Crucially, these characteristic traits of psychedelic brain activity have been correlated with the phenomenological dynamics and intensity of subjective psychedelic effects.
21st-Century Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects
Entropic Brain Theory
Entropic Brain Theory (EBT; Carhart-Harris et al., 2014) links the phenomenology and neurophysiology of psychedelic effects by characterizing both in terms of the quantitative notions of entropy and uncertainty. Entropy is a quantitative index of a system’s (physical) disorder or randomness which can simultaneously describe its (informational) uncertainty. EBT “proposes that the quality of any conscious state depends on the system’s entropy measured via key parameters of brain function” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 1). Their hypothesis states that hallmark psychedelic effects (e.g., perceptual destabilization, cognitive flexibility, ego dissolution) can be mapped directly onto elevated levels of entropy/uncertainty measured in brain activity, e.g., widened repertoire of functional connectivity patterns, reduced anticorrelation of brain networks, and desynchronization of RSN activity. More specifically, EBT characterizes the difference between psychedelic states and normal waking states in terms of how the underlying brain dynamics are positioned on a scale between the two extremes of order and disorder—a concept known as ‘self-organized criticality’ (Beggs and Plenz, 2003). A system with high order (low entropy) exhibits dynamics that resemble ‘petrification’ and are relatively inflexible but more stable, while a system with low order (high entropy) exhibits dynamics that resemble ‘formlessness’ and are more flexible but less stable. The notion of ‘criticality’ describes the transition zone in which the brain remains poised between order and disorder. Physical systems at criticality exhibit increased transient ‘metastable’ states, increased sensitivity to perturbation, and increased propensity for cascading ‘avalanches’ of metastable activity. Importantly, EBT points out that these characteristics are consistent with psychedelic phenomenology, e.g., hypersensitivity to external stimuli, broadened range of experiences, or rapidly shifting perceptual and mental contents. Furthermore, EBT uses the notion of criticality to characterize the difference between psychedelic states and normal waking states as it “describes cognition in adult modern humans as ‘near critical’ but ‘sub-critical’—meaning that its dynamics are poised in a position between the two extremes of formlessness and petrification where there is an optimal balance between order and flexibility” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 12). EBT hypothesizes that psychedelic drugs interfere with ‘entropy-suppression’ brain mechanisms which normally sustain sub-critical brain dynamics, thus bringing the brain “closer to criticality in the psychedelic state” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 12).
Integrated Information Theory
Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is a general theoretical framework which describes the relationship between consciousness and its physical substrates (Oizumi et al., 2014; Tononi, 2004, 2008). While EBT is already loosely consistent with the core principles of IIT, Gallimore (2015) demonstrates how EBT’s hypotheses can be operationalized using the technical concepts of the IIT framework. Using EBT and recent neuroimaging data as a foundation, Gallimore develops an IIT-based model of psychedelic effects. Consistent with EBT, this IIT-based model describes the brain’s continual challenge of minimizing entropy while retaining flexibility. Gallimore formally restates this problem using IIT parameters: brains attempt to optimize the give-and-take dynamic between cause-effect information and cognitive flexibility. In IIT, a (neural) system generates cause-effect information when the mechanisms which make up its current state constrain the set of states which could casually precede or follow the current state. In other words, each mechanistic state of the brain: (1) limits the set of past states which could have causally given rise to it, and (2) limits the set of future states which can causally follow from it. Thus, each current state of the mechanisms within a neural system (or subsystem) has an associated cause-effect repertoire which specifies a certain amount of cause-effect information as a function of how stringently it constrains the unconstrained state repertoire of all possible system states. Increasing the entropy within a cause-effect repertoire will in effect constrain the system less stringently as the causal possibilities are expanded in both temporal directions as the system moves closer to its unconstrained repertoire of all possible states. Moreover, increasing the entropy within a cause-effect repertoire equivalently increases the uncertainty associated with its past (and future) causal interactions. Using this IIT-based framework, Gallimore (2015)argues that, compared with normal waking states, psychedelic brain states exhibit higher entropy, higher cognitive flexibility, but lower cause-effect information.
The first modern brain imaging measurements in humans under psilocybin yielded somewhat unexpected results: reductions in oscillatory power (MEG) and cerebral blood flow (fMRI) correlated with the intensity of subjective psychedelic effects (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012; Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). In their discussion, the authors suggest that their findings, although surprising through the lens of commonly held beliefs about how brain activity maps to subjective phenomenology, may actually be consistent with a theory of brain function known as the free energy principle (FEP; Friston, 2010).
In one model of global brain function based on the free-energy principle (Friston, 2010), activity in deep-layer projection neurons encodes top-down inferences about the world. Speculatively, if deep-layer pyramidal cells were to become hyperexcitable during the psychedelic state, information processing would be biased in the direction of inference—such that implicit models of the world become spontaneously manifest—intruding into consciousness without prior invitation from sensory data. This could explain many of the subjective effects of psychedelics (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013, p. 15181).
The four key features identified in filtration and psychoanalytic accounts from the late 19th and early 20th century continue to operate in 21st-century cognitive neuroscience: (1) psychedelic drugs produce their characteristic diversity of effects because they perturb adaptive mechanisms which normally constrain perception, emotion, cognition, and self-reference, (2) these adaptive mechanisms can develop pathologies rooted in either too much or too little constraint (3) psychedelic effects appear to share elements with psychotic symptoms because both involve weakened constraints (4) psychedelic drugs are therapeutically useful precisely because they offer a way to temporarily inhibit these adaptive constraints. It is on these four points that EBT, IIT, and PP seem consistent with each other and with earlier filtration and psychoanalytic accounts. EBT and IIT describe psychedelic brain dynamics and link them to phenomenological dynamics, while PP describes informational principles and plausible neural information exchanges which might underlie the larger-scale dynamics described by EBT and IIT. Certain descriptions of neural entropy-suppression mechanisms (EBT), cause-effect information constraints (IIT), or prediction-error minimization strategies (PP, FEP) are loosely consistent with Freud’s ego and Huxley’s cerebral reducing valve.
Qualia Computing comment: As you can see above, 21st century theories of psychedelic action have a lot of interesting commonalities. A one-line summary of what they all agree on could be: Psychedelics increase the available state-space of consciousness by removing constraints that are normally imposed by standard brain functioning. That said, they do not make specific predictions about valence. That is, they leave the question of “which alien states of consciousness will feel good and which ones will feel bad” completely unaddressed. In the following posts about the presentations of members of the Qualia Research Institute at The Science of Consciousness 2018 you will see how, unlike other modern accounts, our Qualia Formalist approach to consciousness can elucidate this matter.
I had two or three such experiences on my new batch of LSD, taking perhaps 2 or 3 “hits” (tabs) each time (presumed to be about  micrograms, or “mikes” per tab). And each time the experience became somewhat more familiar, and I learned to think more clearly under its influence. In July 1990 I took a trip to Europe with Tim, a colleague from work, because we were both presenting posters at a neural network conference in Paris, and the company where we worked very kindly funded the travel expenses. Tim and I took this opportunity to plan a little excursion around Europe after the conference, visiting Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland touring in a rented car. When we got to Austria we bought a little tent at a camping store, then we hiked up an enormous mountain in the Alps, and spent the day sightseeing at the top. When I told Tim that I happened to have some LSD with me, his eyes lit up. It turns out he too had been a hippy in his youth, and had even attended the original Woodstock, so he immediately warmed to the idea of taking LSD with me on a mountain top, although he had not done psychedelic drugs in over a decade. So there in the most stupendous and idyllic setting of a mountain in the Austrian alps, early the next morning after camping overnight, we consumed five hits of LSD each, and spent the day in profound wonder at the glory of creation!
I made a few new and interesting discoveries on that mountain top in Austria. First of all, I learned to have a great deal more control of the experience in the following manner. I discovered that the effects of LSD become markedly stronger and more pronounced when you sit still and stare, and clear your mind, much like a state of zen meditation, or pre-hypnotic relaxation. When you do this under LSD, the visual world begins to break up and fragment in a most astonishing way. You tend to lose all sense of self, that is, you lose the distinction between self and non-self. This can be a very alarming experience for those who are prone to panic or anxiety, or for those who insist on maintaining a level of control and awareness of themselves and the world around them. But I also discovered that this mental dissociation and visual confusion can be diminished, and normal consciousness can be largely restored by simply looking around, moving about, and interacting actively with the world around you. Because when you do this, suddenly the world appears as a solid and stable structure again, and your familiar body reappears where it belongs at the center of your world of experience. This discovery greatly enhanced my ability to explore the deeper spaces of consciousness revealed by the drug, while providing an insurance against the natural panic that tends to arise with the dissolusion of the self, and the world around you. It allowed me to descend into the depths of the experience while maintaining a life line back to consensual reality, like a spelunker descending into the bowels of the deep underground cavern of my mind, while always able to return safely to the surface. And what a splendid and magnificent cavern it was that I discovered within my mind!
One of the most prominent aspects of consciousness that has puzzled philosophers and psychologists for centuries is the unity of conscious experience. We feel that we live in a world that surrounds our body, and that world appears as a single “picture” or volumetric spatial structure, like a theatre set, every piece of which takes its proper place in the panorama of surrounding experience. It has always been somewhat difficult to grasp this notion of conscious unity, because it is difficult to even conceptualize the alternative. What would consciousness be like if it were not unified? What does that even mean? Under LSD you can discover what non-unified consciousness is like for yourself, and that in turn by contrast offers profound insights as to the nature and meaning of unified consciousness. Again, the most interesting revelations of the psychedelic experience are not confined to that experience itself, but they reveal insights into the nature of normal conscious experience that might otherwise be missed due to its familiarity. In fact, I realized much later, even normal consciousness has aspects which are not unified.
The most familiar example of non-unified consciousness is seen in binocular vision. Under normal conditions the two eyes view the same scene and produce a three-dimensional “picture” in the mind that is a unified construction based on the information from both eyes simultaneously. But everyone knows the experience of double vision. For those with greater control over their own visual function, double vision is easily achieved by simply staring into space and relaxing the eyes. As a vision scientist myself, I have trained myself to do this so as to be able to “free fuse” a binocular pair of left-eye, right-eye images to create the perception of a 3D scene. For those who have difficulty with this, a similar experience can be had by holding a small mirror at an angle close in front of one eye, so as to send very different images into the two eyes. Whichever way you do it, the result is rather unremarkable in its familiarity, and yet when you think of it, this is in fact an example of disunity of conscious experience that is familiar to one and all. For what you see in double vision is actually two visual experiences which are seen as if they are superimposed in some manner, and yet at the same time they are also experienced each in its own separate disconnected space. It is generally possible to observe the correspondence between these two disconnected visual experiences, for example to determine which point in one eye view relates to a particular point in the other, as if viewing two slide transparencies that are overlaid on top of one another, although this correspondence is shifting and unstable, as the vergence between your two eyes tends to wander when binocular fusion is broken. But in fact it is more natural to simply ignore that correspondence and to view the two visual experiences as separate and disconnected spaces that bear no significant spatial relation to each other. When the images in our two eyes do not correspond, we tend to focus on one while ignoring the other, like an experienced marksman who no longer has to close his idle eye while aiming a gun. And yet, although the image from the idle eye is generally ignored, it has not left consciousness entirely, and with an effort, or perhaps more accurately, with an absence of effort or focus, it is possible to experience both views simultaneously.
In the trance-like state of yoga-like meditation performed under LSD, the entire visual world breaks up and fragments in this manner into a multitude of disconnected parallel conscious experiences, each one only loosly related spatially to the other experiences in the visual field. The effect is much enhanced by the fact that your eyes actually diverge or relax in this mental state, as they do under binocular fission, and this helps trigger the state of visual confusion as your mind gives up on trying to make sense of what it is seeing. As in Zen meditation, the LSD trance state is a passive or receptive state of consciousness that allots equal attention, or perhaps lack of attention, to all components of experience, which is why they appear in parallel as separate disconnected pieces. The state of normal active consciousness resists this kind of parallel confusion, and tends to select and focus on the the most significant portion, like the marksman aiming a gun, suppressing alternative experiences such as the view from the idle eye.
The deep LSD-induced trance state can be easily broken by simply moving the eyes, so conversely, the deeper states are achieved by complete mental and physical relaxation, with glazed eyes staring blankly into space. But of all the separate fragments of visual experience observed in this mental state, there is one special fragment located at the very center of the visual field, the foveal center, that appears somewhat sharper and clearer than the rest of the visual field. In fact, the visual fragmentation is somewhat like a kind of tunnel vision in which the peripheral portions of the visual field break off and disconnect from this central portion of the experience. But while the peripheral fragments become separated from the whole, they are never entirely and completely independent, but appear to interact with each other, and especially with the central foveal image in characteristic ways. For example if the foveal image shows a couple of blades of grass, twitching and dancing in the wind, then if any of the peripheral fragments of visual experience happen to show a similar image, i.e. blades of grass at a similar angle and twitching and dancing in synchrony with those in the foveal view, then the central and peripheral images become instantly coupled into a larger unified perceptual experience of a global motion sweeping through the image. Instead of a million blades of grass each twitching individually, we perceive the invisible wind as a wave of synchronous motion that sweeps invisibly across the blades of grass. The waves of motion caused by the wind are perceived as waves of energy across the visual field, a perceptual experience of something larger than the individual grass blades that collectively give rise to it. By careful adjustment of my state of relaxation, I found I could relax until the visual world fragmented into a million independent experiences, and I could gently bring it back into focus, as first a few, and then ever more of the fragmented visual experiences coupled together into fewer separate, and eventually a single unified global experience, much like the moment of binocular fusion when the two monocular images finally lock into each other to produce a single binocular experience.
When the visual world was locked into a unified perceptual experience, even then there were instabilities in local portions of the scene. A little detail seen in distant trees appears first as a mounted horseman, then pops abruptly into a hand with three fingers extended, then to a duck on a branch, then back to the mounted horseman, all the while the actual shape and color perceived remain unchanged, it is only the interpretation, or visual understanding of that pattern that switches constantly, as when a child sees mountains and castles in the clouds. One of the many possible interpretations is of a dead tree with leafless branches, (the veridical percept of what was actually there) and that is the only alternative that enters consciouseness under normal circumstances. The effect of LSD is to make the visual system more tolerant of obvious contradictions in the scene, such as a giant horseman frozen in a line of trees. The effect is like those surrealistic Dali paintings, for example the Three Ages of Man, shown in Figure 2.1, where one sees a single coherent scene, local parts of which spontaneously invert into some alternative interpretation. This is very significant for the nature of biological vision, for it shows that vision involves a dynamic relaxation process whose stable states represent the final perceptual interpretation.
There was another interesting observation that I made that day. I noticed that under LSD things appear a little more regular and geometrical than they otherwise do. It is not the shape of things that is different under LSD, but rather the shape of the things we see in objects. For example a cloud is about as irregular and fragmented a shape as a shape can be, and yet we tend to see clouds in a simplified cartoon manner, as a little puff composed of simple convex curves. A real cloud under closer inspection reveals a ragged ugly appearance with very indefinite boundaries and irregular structure. Under LSD the cloud becomes even more regular than usual. I began to see parts of the cloud as regular geometrical shapes, seeing the shapes in the shapes of the cloud as if on a transparent overlay.
Another rather astonishing observation of the LSD experience was that the visual world wavered and wobbled slowly as if the visual scene was painted on an elastic canvas that would stretch over here while shrinking over there, with great waves of expansion and contraction moving slowly across the scene, as if the whole scene was “breathing”, with its component parts in constant motion relative to each other. This was perhaps the most compelling evidence that the world of experience is not the solid stable world that it portrays. Figure 2.2 shows a sketch I made shortly after my alpine mountain adventure to try to express the wavery elasticity and the visual regularity I had observed under LSD. This picture is of course an exaggeration, more of an impression than a depiction of how the experience actually appeared.
The geometrical regularity was particularly prominent in peripheral vision, when attending to the periphery without looking to see what is there. Usually peripheral vision is hardly noticed, giving the impression of a homogeneous visual field, but under LSD the loss of resolution in peripheral vision becomes more readily apparent, especially when holding a fixed and glassy stare. And in that periphery, objects like trees or shrubs appear more regular and geometrical than they do in central vision, like artificial Christmas trees with perfectly regular spacing of brances and twigs. Again, it was not the raw image in the periphery that appeared regular or geometrical, but rather it was the invisible skeleton of visual understanding derived from that raw colored experience that exhibits the more regular features. And suddenly I could see it. This is the way the visual system encodes visual form in a compact or compressed manner, by expressing shape in terms of the next nearest regular geometrical form, or combination of forms. Children draw a tree as a circular blob of leaves on top of a straight vertical trunk, or a pine tree as a green triangle with saw-tooth sides. It is not that we see trees in those simplified forms, but rather that we see those simplified forms in the trees, and the forms that we perceive in these invisible skeletons are the expression of our understanding of the shapes we perceive those more irregular forms to have. This was later to turn into my harmonic resonance theory of the brain, as I sought an explanation for this emerging regularity in perception, but in 1990 all I saw was the periodicity and the symmetry, and I thought they were profoundly beautiful.
My friend Tim who had not done LSD for many years, responded to this sudden 5 hit dose by going into a state of complete dissociation. He lay down on the forest floor with glassy eyes, muttering “It is TOO beautiful! It is TOO beautiful!” and he did not respond to me, even when I stared him straight in the face. He reported afterwards that he found himself in a giant Gothic cathedral with the most extravagantly elaborate and brightly painted ornamental decorations all around him. This too can be seen as an extreme form of the regularization discussed above. Under the influence of this powerful dose, Tim’s visual brain could no longer keep up with the massive irregularity of the forest around him, and therefore presented the forest in simplified or abbreviated form, as the interior of a Gothic cathedral. It captures the large geometry of a ground plane that supports an array of vertical columns, each of which fans out high overhead to link up into an over-arching canopy of branches. The only difference is that in the Gothic cathedral the trees are in a regular geometrical array, and each one is a masterpiece of compound symmetry, composed of smaller pillars of different diameters in perfectly symmetrical arrangements, and studded with periodic patterns of ribs, ridges, or knobby protruberances as a kind of celebration of symmetry and periodicity for their own sake. There is a kind of geometrical logic expressed in the ornamental design. If part of the cathedral were lost or destroyed, the pattern could be easily restored by following the same logic as the rest of the design. In information-theoretic terms, the Gothic cathedral has lots of redundancy, its pattern could be expressed in a very much simpler compressed geometrical code. In Tim’s drug-addled brain his visual system could only muster a simple code to represent the world around him, and that is why Tim saw the forest as a Gothic cathedral. Under normal conditions, the additional information of irregularity, or how each tree and branch breaks from the strict regularity of the cathedral model of it, creates the irregular world of experience that we normally see around us. This suggests that the beautiful shapes of ornamental art are not the product of the highest human faculty, as is commonly supposed, but rather, ornamental art offers a window onto the workings of a simpler visual system, whose image of the world is distorted by artifacts of the representational scheme used in the brain. The Gothic cathedral gives a hint as to how the world might appear to a simpler creature, a lizard, or a snake, to whom the world appears more regular than it does to us, because its full irregularity is too expensive to encode exhaustively in all its chaotic details. Of course the flip-side of this rumination is that the world that we humans experience, even in the stone-cold sober state, is itself immeasurably simpler, more regular and geometric, that the real world itself, of which our experience is an imperfect replica. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
While I was a PhD student at Boston University, my parents owned a beautiful ski lodge house in the picturesque town of Mittersill in the mountains of New Hampshire, and on spring breaks or long week-ends I would invite my friends, the other PhD candidates, up to Mittersill where we would take long hikes up the mountain, and spend evenings by the fireplace. I introduced a small circle of my friends to the illuminating experience of LSD, in the hopes of sharing some of my perceptual discoveries with them, and perhaps inducing them to learn to use the experience to make discoveries of their own. Eventually Mittersill became associated in our minds with these group trips with an ever-shrinking circle of true diehard psychonauts, making our regular pilgrimage up the mountain in search of Truth and to touch the face of God. We always brought a goodly supply of Happy T’Baccy, which provides a beautiful complement and bemellowment to the otherwise sometimes sharp and jangly LSD experience. Our pattern was usually to arrive on a Friday night, cook up a great feast, and spend an evening by the fire, drinking beer and/or wine and passing the pipe around until everyone felt properly toasted. The talk was often about the workings of mind and brain, since we were all students of cognitive and neural systems. We were all adept computer programmers and well versed in mathematics as part of our PhD studies, so we all understood the issues of mental computation and representation, and I found the conversations about the computational principles of the mind, to be most interesting and intellectually stimulating. This was the high point of my academic career, this is why people want to be scientists. The next morning we would rise early, and after a hearty breakfast, we would all set off up the mountain, which was a steep brisk climb of two or three hours. About half way up the mountain, at a carefully pre-planned time, we would stop, and each “dose up” with our individually chosen dose of LSD for the occasion, timed to reach the peak of the experience about the time we reached the peak of the mountain. Then we would continue our climb through the rich lush mountain forests of New Hampshire to the top of Maida Vale, the sub-peak next to Canon Mountain, from whence a stupendous view opened up across to Canon Mountain and the vast valley below. We would settle ourselves comfortably at some location off the beaten track, and spend the best hours of the day just dreaming crazy thoughts and drinking in the experience
By now I had perfected my introspective techniques to the point that I could voluntarily relax my mind into a state of total disembodiment. The visual world began to fragment, first into two large pieces as binocular fusion was broken, then into a few smaller fragments, and eventually into a miriad of separate fragments of consciousness, like the miriad reflections from a shattered mirror. I was fascinated by this state of consciousness, and how different it was from normal consensual reality. Most alarming or significant was the total absence of my body from its normal place at the center of my world. As the world began to fragment, my body would fragment along with it, disconnected pieces of my body seeming to exist independently, one part here, another over there, but in separate spaces that did not exist in a distinct spatial relation to each other, but as if in different universes, like reflections from different shards of a shattered mirror. And as the visual world attained total fragmentation, all evidence of my body completely vanished, and I lived the experience of a disembodied spirit, pure raw experience, just sensations of color, form, and light. I felt safe and secure in this environment among friends, so I did not mind the total vulnerability afforded by a complete functional shutdown of my mind in this manner. Besides, I had learned that I could snap back together again to a relatively normal consciousness at will, simply by getting up and looking around, and interacting with the world. I was endlessly fascinated by the state of complete disembodiment, and one feature of it impressed itself on me again and again, the geometric regularity of it all. There was a powerful tendency for everything to reduce to ornamental patterns, geometrical arrangements of three-dimensional shapes, like so many glistening gems in a jewelry store, with rich periodic and symmetrical patterns in deep vibrant colors. The deeper I plunged into the experience, the simpler and more powerfully emotive those patterns became. And since my body had totally vanished, these patterns were no longer patterns I viewed out in the world, but rather, the patterns were me, I had become the spatial patterns which made up my experience. I began to see that symmetry and periodicity were somehow primal to experience.
I remember lying on my back and watching the clouds in the sky overhead. Weather patterns are often chaotic at the tops of mountains, and on more than one occasion we were located at a spot where the clouds that formed on the windward side of the mountain were just cresting the summit, where they would dissove in a continuous process of chaotic fragmentation, a veritable Niagra Falls of nebular dissolution, evocative of the fragmentation of my psychedelic experience. The shattered shreds of cloud, viewed from this close up, were about the most ragged and irregular shapes you could imagine, and yet under the influence of the drug I kept seeing fleeting geometrical patterns in them. There were great circular pinwheels and arabesques, patterns like those carved in the doors of Gothic cathedrals, but each flashing in and out of brief existence so quickly that it would be impossible to draw them. I began to realize that the human mind is one great symmetry engine, that the mind makes sense of the world it sees by way of the symmetries that it finds in it. Symmetry is the glue that binds the fragments of experience into coherent wholes.
Figure 2.3 shows a series of paintings by artist Louis Wain, that I find very evocative of the LSD experience. Wain suffered a progressive psychosis that manifested itself in his art, which was originally quite realistic, becomming progressively more abstract and ornamental, in the manner I observed in the various stages or levels of my LSD dissociation. Figure 2.3 A shows a fairly realistic depiction of a cat, but there are curious artifacts in the textured background, a mere hint of periodicity breaking out. I would see such artifacts everywhere, almost invisible, fleeting, and faint, reminiscent of the ornamental pinstripe patterns painted on trucks and motorcycles, a kind of eddy in the stream of visual consciousness as it flows around visual features in the scene. As I descended into the fully dissociated states, the patterns would become more like Figure 2.3 B, C, and D, breathtakingly ornate, with many levels of compound symmetry, revealing the eigenfunctions of perceptual representation, the code by which visual form is represented in the brain.
At times we would break free from our individual reveries, and share absurd nonsensical conversations about our observations. One time, looking down at the vast valley stretching out below us, a vista that seemed to stretch out to distances beyond comprehension, my old friend Peter said that it was hard to tell whether all that scenery was just “way out there”, or was it “way WAY out there?” Of course we both laughed heartily at the absurdity of his statement, but I knew exactly what he meant. When viewing such a grand vista under normal consciousness, one is deeply impressed by the vastness of the view.
But under the influence of the drug, the vista somehow did not look quite as large as we “knew” that it really was. What Peter was saying was that for some strange reason, the world had shrunken back in on us, and that magnificently vast valley had shrunken to something like a scale model, or a diorama, where it is easy to see how vast the modeled valley is supposed to be, but the model itself appears very much smaller than the valley it attempts to portray. What Peter was observing was the same thing I had observed, and that was beginning to even become familiar, that the world of our experience is not a great open vastness of infinite space, but like the domed vault of the night sky, our experience is bounded by, and contained within, a vast but finite spherical shell, and under the influence of psychedelic drugs that shell seemed to shrink to smaller dimensions, our consciousness was closing in on its egocentric center. Many years later after giving it considerable thought, I built the diorama shown in Figure 2.4 to depict the geometry of visual experience as I observed it under LSD.
And when I was in the completely disembodied state, my consciousness closed in even smaller and tighter, the range of my experience was all contained within a rather modest sized space, like a glass showcase in a jewelry store, and the complexity of the patterns in that space was also reduced, from the unfathomably complex and chaotic fractal forms in a typical natural scene, to a much simpler but powerfully beautiful glistening ornamental world of the degree of complexity seen in a Gothic cathedral. The profound significance of these observations dawned on me incrementally every time we had these experiences. I can recall fragmentary pieces of insights gleaned through the confusion of our passage down the mountain, stopping to sit and think wherever and whenever the spirit took us. At one point three of us stopped by a babbling brook that was crashing and burbling through the rocks down the steep mountain slope. We sat in silent contemplation at this primal “white noise” sound, when Lonce commented that if you listen, you can hear a million different sounds hidden in that noise. And sure enough when I listened, I heard laughing voices and honking car horns and shrieking crashes and jangly music and every other possible sound, all at the same time superimposed on each other in a chaotic jumbled mass. It was the auditory equivalent of what we were seeing visually, the mind was latching onto the raw sensory experience not so much to view it as it really is, but to conjure up random patterns from deep within our sensory memory and to match those images to the current sensory input. And now I could see the more general concept. We experience the world by way of these images conjured up in our minds. I came to realize why the LSD experience was enjoyed best in outdoors natural settings, and that is because the chaos of a natural scene, with its innumerable twigs and leaves and stalks, acts as a kind of “white noise” stimulus, like the babbling brook, a stimulus that contains within it every possible pattern, and that frees our mind to interpret that noise as anything it pleases.
On one occasion, on arrival back down at the lodge, our minds were still reeling, and we were not yet ready to leave the magnificence of the natural landscape for the relatively tame and controlled environment indoors, so Andy and I stopped in the woods behind the house and just stood there, like deer in the headlights, drinking in the experience. It was a particularly dark green and leafy environment in the shadow behind the house, with shrubs and leaves at every level, around our ankles, our knees, our shoulders, and all the way up to a leafy canopy high overhead, and at every depth and distance from inches away to the farthest visible depths of the deep green woods. The visual chaos was total and complete, the world already fragmented into millions and millions of apparently disconnected features and facets uniformly in all directions, that it hardly required LSD to appreciate the richness of this chaotic experience. But under LSD, and with the two of us standing stock still for many long minutes of total silence, we both descended into a mental fragmentation as crazy as the fragmented world around us. My body disappeared from my experience, and I felt like I became the forest; the forest and all its visual chaos was me, which in a very real sense it actually was. And in that eternal timeless moment, wrapped in intense but wordless thought, I recognized something very very ancient and primal in my experience. I felt like I was sharing the experience of some primal creature in an ancient swamp many millions of years ago, when nature was first forging its earliest models of mind from the tissue of brain. I saw the world with the same intense attentive concentration, bewilderment, and total absence of human cogntive understanding, as that antediluvian cretaceous lizard must have experienced long ago and far away. The beautiful geometrical and symmetrical forms that condensed spontaneously in my visual experience were like the first glimmerings of understanding emerging in a primitive visual brain. This is why I do psychedelic drugs, to connect more intimately with my animal origins, to celebrate the magnificent mental mechanisms that we inherit from the earliest animal pioneers of mind.
One time after we had descended from the mountain and were sitting around the lodge drinking and smoking in a happy state of befuddlement, a peculiar phenomenon manifested itself that made a deep impression on me. It was getting close to supper time and somebody expressed something to that effect. But our minds were so befuddled by the intoxication that we could only speak in broken sentences, as we inevitably forgot what we wanted to say just as we started saying it, instantly confused by our own initial words. So the first person must have said something like “I’m getting hungry. Do you think…” and then tailed off in confusion. But somebody else would immediately sense the direction that thought was going, and would instinctively attempt to complete the sentence with something like “…we otta go get…” before himself becoming confused, at which a third person might interject “…something to eat?” It does not sound so remarkable here in the retelling, but what erupted before our eyes was an extraordinarily fluid and coherent session of what we later referred to as group thought, where the conversation bounced easily from one person to the next, each person contributing only a fragmentary thought, but nobody having any clear idea of what the whole thought was supposed to be, or how it was going to end. What was amazing about the experience was the coherence and purposefulness of the emergent thought, how it seemed to have a mind of its own independent of our individual minds, even though of course it was nothing other than the collective action of our befuddled minds. It was fascinating to see this thought, like a disembodied spirit, pick up and move our bodies and hands in concerted action, one person getting wood for the fire, another getting out a frying pan, a third going for potatoes, or to open a bottle of wine, none of it planned by any one person, and yet each person chipped in just as and when they thought would be appropriate, as the supper apparently “made itself” using us as its willing accomplices. It was reminiscent of the operational principle behind a ouija board, where people sitting in a circle around a table, all rest an index finger on some movable pointer on a circular alphabet board, and the pointer begins to spell out some message under the collective action of all those fingers. At first the emergent message appears random, but after the first few letters have been spelled out, the participants start to guess at each next letter, and without anyone being overtly aware of it, the word appears to “spell itself” as if under the influence of a supernatural force. As with the ouija board, none of us participating in the group thought experience could hold a coherent thought in their head, and yet coherent thoughts emerged nevertheless, to the bewilderment of us all. And later I observed the same phenomenon with different LSD parties. I have subsequently encountered people well versed in the psychedelic experience who claim with great certainty to have experienced mental telepathy in the form of wordless communication and sharing of thoughts. But for us hard-nosed scientific types, the natural explanation for this apparently supernatural experience is just as wonderous and noteworthy, because it offers a hint as to how the individual parts of a mind act together in concert to produce a unified coherent pattern of behavior that is greater than the mere sum of its constituent parts. The principle of group thought occurs across our individual brains in normal sober consciousness as we instinctively read each other’s faces and follow each other’s thoughts, and it is seen also whenever people are moving a heavy piece of furniture, all lifting and moving in unison in a coherent motion towards some goal. But the psychedelic experience highlighted this aspect of wordless communication and brought it to my attention in clearer, sharper focus.
As the evening tailed on and the drug’s effect gradually subsided in a long slow steady decline, we would sit by the fire and pass a pipe or joint around, and share our observations and experiences of the day. At one point Lonce, who had just taken a puff of a joint, breathed out and held it contemplatively for a while, before taking a second puff and passing it on to the next person in the circle. I objected to this behavior, and accused Lonce of “Bogarting” the joint – smoking it all by himself without passing it along. Lonce responded to this with an explanation that where he comes from, people don’t puff and pass in haste, but every man has the right to a few moments of quiet contemplation and a second puff before passing it along. That was, he explained, the civilized way of sharing a joint. So we immediately adopted Lonce’s suggestion, and this method of sharing a joint has henceforth and forever since been referred to by us as the “Lonce Method”.
As I have explained, the purpose of all this psychonautical exploration was not merely for our own entertainment, although entertaining it was, and to the highest degree. No, the primary purpose of these psychonautical exploits was clear all along at least in my mind, and that was to investigate the theoretical implications of these experiences to theories of mind and brain. And my investigations were actually beginning to bear fruit in two completely separate directions, each of which had profound theoretical implications. At that time I was studying neural network theories of the brain, or how the brain makes sense of the visual world. A principal focus of our investigation was the phenomena of visual illusions, like the Kanizsa figure shown in Figure 2.5 A. It is clear that what is happening here is that the visual mind is creating illusory contours that link up the fragmentary contours suggestive of the illusory triangle. In our studies we learned of Stephen Grossberg’s neural network model of this phenomenon. Grossberg proposed that the visual brain is equipped with oriented edge detector neurons that fire whenever a visual edge passes through their local receptive field. These neurons would be triggered by the stark black / white contrast edges of the stimulus in Figure 2.5 A. A higher level set of neurons would then detect the global pattern of collinearity, and sketch in the illusory contour by a process of collinear completion. These higher level “cooperative cells” were equipped with much larger elongated receptive fields, long enough to span the gap in the Kanizsa figure, and the activation of these higher level neurons in turn stimulated lower level local edge detector neurons located along the illusory contour, and that activation promoted the experience of an illusory contour where there is none in the stimulus
I believed I was seeing these illusory contours in my LSD experience, as suggested by all the curvy lines in my sketch in Figure 2.2 above. But I was not only seeing the contours in illusory figures, I was seeing “illusory” contours just about everywhere across the visual field. But curiously, these contours were not “visible” in the usual sense, but rather, they are experienced in an “invisible” manner as something you know is there, but you cannot actually see. However I also noticed that these contours did have an influence on the visible portions of the scene. I have mentioned how under LSD the visual world tends to “breathe”, to waver and wobble like a slow-motion movie of the bottom of a swimming pool viewed through its surface waves. In fact, the effect of the “invisible” contours was very much like the effect of the invisible waves on the surface of the pool, which can also be seen only by their effects on the scene viewed through them. You cannot see the waves themselves, all you can see is the wavering of the world caused by those waves. Well I was observing a very similar phenomenon in my LSD experience. I devised a three-dimensional Kanizsa figure, shown in Figure 2.5 B, and observed that even in the stone-cold sober state, I could see a kind of warp or wobble of the visual background behind the illusory contour caused by the figure, especially if the figure is waved back and forth gently against a noisy or chaotic background. So far, my LSD experiences were consistent with our theoretical understanding of the visual process, confirming to myself by direct observation an aspect of the neural network model we were currently studying in school.
But there was one aspect of the LSD experience that had me truly baffled, and that was the fantastic symmetries and periodicities that were so characteristic of the experience. What kind of neural network model could possibly account for that? It was an issue that I grappled with for many months that stretched into years. In relation to Grossberg’s neural network, it seemed that the issue concerned the question of what happens at corners and vertices where contours meet or cross. A model based on collinearity alone would be stumped at image vertices. And yet a straightforward extension of Grossberg’s neural network theory to address image vertices leads to a combinatorial explosion.The obvious extension, initially proposed by Grossberg himself, was to posit specialized “cooperative cells” with receptive fields configured to detect and enhance other configurations of edges besides ones that are collinear. But the problem is that you would need so many different specialized cells to recognize and complete every possible type of vertex, such as T and V and X and Y vertices, where two or more edges meet at a point, and each of these vertex types would have to be replicated at every orientation, and at every location across the whole visual field! It just seemed like a brute-force solution that was totally implausible.
Then one day after agonizing for months on this issue, my LSD observations of periodic and symmetrical patterns suddenly triggered a novel inspiration. Maybe the nervous system does not require specialized hard-wired receptive fields to accomodate every type of vertex, replicated at every orientation at every spatial location. Maybe the nervous system uses something much more dynamic and adaptive and flexible. Maybe it uses circular standing waves to represent different vertex types, where the standing wave can bend and warp to match the visual input, and standing waves would explain all that symmetry and periodicity so clearly evident in the LSD experience as little rotational standing waves that emerge spontaneously at image vertices, and adapt to the configuration of those vertices. Thanks to illegal psychotropic substances, I had stumbled on a staggeringly significant new theory of the brain, a theory which, if proven right, would turn the world of neuroscience on its head! My heart raced and pounded at the implications of what I had discovered. And this theory became the prime focus of my PhD thesis (Lehar 1994), in which I did computer simulations of my harmonic resonance model that replicated certain visual illusions in a way that no other model could. I had accomplished the impossible. I had found an actual practical use and purpose for what was becoming my favorite pass-time, psychedelic drugs! It was a moment of glory for an intrepid psychonaut, a turning point in my life. Figure 2.6 shows a page from my notebook dated October 6 1992, the first mention of my new theory of harmonic resonance in the brain.
Compare the above descriptions of point-of-view fragmentation, visual coherence, and symmetry as experienced on LSD, with our very own account of symmetrical pattern completion during psychedelic experiences as presented in Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States (slightly edited for clarity):
Lower Symmetry Detection and Propagation Thresholds
Finally, this is perhaps the most interesting and ethically salient effect of psychedelics. The first three effects (tracers, drifting, and pattern recognition) are not particularly difficult to square with standard neuroscience. This fourth effect, while not incompatible with connectionist accounts, does suggest a series of research questions that may hint at an entirely new paradigm for understanding consciousness.
We have not seen anyone in the literature specifically identify this effect in all of its generality. The lowering of the symmetry detection threshold really has to be experienced to be believed. We claim that this effect manifests in all psychedelic experiences to a greater or lesser extent, and that many effects can in fact be explained by simply applying this effect iteratively.
Psychedelics make it easier to find similarities between any two given phenomenal objects. When applied to perception, this effect can be described as a lowering of the symmetry detection threshold. This effect is extremely general and symmetry should not be taken to refer exclusively to geometric symmetry.
How symmetries manifest depends on the set and setting. Researchers interested in verifying and exploring the quantitative and subjective properties of this effect will probably have to focus first on a narrow domain; the effect happens in all experiential modalities.
Credit: Chelsea Morgan from PsychonautWiki and r/replications
Symmetry detection during psychedelic experiences requires that one’s attention interprets a given element in the scene as a symmetry element. Symmetry elements are geometrical points of reference about which symmetry operations can take place (such as axes of rotation, mirror planes, hyperplanes, etc.). In turn, a collection of symmetry elements defines a symmetry structure in the following way: A symmetry structure is a set of n-dimensional symmetry elements for which the qualities of the experience surrounding each element obeys the symmetry constraints imposed by all the elements considered together.
Psychedelic symmetry detection can be (and typically is) recursively applied to previously constructed symmetry structures. At a given time multiple independent symmetry structures can coexist inside an experience. By guiding one’s attention one can make these structures interact and ultimately merge. Formally, each symmetry structure is capable of establishing a merging relationship with another symmetry structure. This is achieved by simultaneously focusing one’s attention on both. These relationships are fleeting, but they influence the evolution of the relative position of each symmetry element. When two symmetry structures are in a merging relationship, it is possible to rearrange them (with the aid of drifting and pattern recognition) to create a symmetrical structure that incorporates the symmetry elements of both substructures at once. To do so, one’s mind can either detect one (or several) more symmetry elements along which the previously-existing symmetry elements are made to conform, or, alternatively, if the two pre-existing symmetry structures share a symmetry element (e.g. an axis of rotation of order 3), these corresponding identical symmetry elements can fuse and become a bridge that merges both structures.
Surprisingly, valence seems to be related to psychedelic symmetry detection. As one constructs symmetry structures, one becomes aware of an odd and irresistible subjective pull towards building even higher levels of symmetry. In other words, every time the structure of one’s experience is simplified by identifying a new symmetry element in the scene, one’s whole experience seems to snap into a new (simplified) mode, and this comes with a positive feeling. This feeling can take many forms: it may feel blissful, interesting, beautiful, mind-expanding, and/or awe-producing, all depending on the specific structures that one is merging. Conversely when two symmetry structures are such that merging them is either tricky of impossible, this leads to low valence: frustration, anxiety, pain and an odd feeling of being stuck between two mutually unintelligible worlds. We hypothesize that this is the result of dissonance between the incompatible symmetry structures.
If one meditates in a sensorially-minimized room during a psychedelic experience while being aware that one’s symmetry detection threshold has been lowered by the substance, one can recursively re-apply this effect to produce all kinds of complex mathematical structures that incorporate complex symmetry element interactions. In other words, with the aid of concentration one can climb the symmetry gradient (i.e. increase the total number of symmetry elements) up to the point where the degrees of freedom afforded by the symmetry structure limit any further element from being incorporated into it. We will call these experiences peak symmetry states.
Future research should explore and compare the various states of consciousness that exhibit peak symmetry. There is very likely an enormous number of peak symmetry states, some of which are fairly suboptimal and others that cannot be improved upon. If there is a very deep connection between valence, symmetry, information and harmony, it would very likely show in this area. Indeed, we hypothesize that the highest levels of valence that can be consciously experienced involve peak symmetry states. Anecdotally, this connection has already been verified, with numerous trip reports of people achieving states of unimaginable bliss by inhabiting peak symmetry states (often described as fractal mandala-like mirror rooms).
The range of peak symmetry states include fractals, tessellations, graphs, and higher dimensional projections. Which one of these states contains the highest degree of inter-connectivity? And if psychedelic symmetry is indeed related to conscious bliss, which experience of symmetry is human peak bliss?
Higher Order Symmetry
Mirror Symmetry Tessellation
The pictures above all illustrate possible peak symmetry states one can achieve by combining psychedelics and meditation. The pictures illustrate only the core structure of symmetries that are present in these states of consciousness. What is being reflected is the very raw “feels” of each patch of your experiential field. Thus these pictures really miss the actual raw feelings of the whole experience. They do show, however, a rough outline of symmetrical relationships possible in one of these experiences.
Since control interruption is also co-occurrent with the psychedelic symmetry effect, previously-detected symmetries tend to linger for long periods of time. For this reason, the kinds of symmetries one can detect at a given point in time is a function of the symmetries that are currently being highlighted. And thanks to drifting and pattern recognition enhancement, there is some wiggle room for your mind to re-arrange the location of the symmetries experienced. The four effects together enable, at times, a smooth iterative integration of so many symmetries that one’s consciousness becomes symmetrically interconnected to an unbelievable degree.
What may innocently start as a simple two-sided mirror symmetry can end up producing complex arrangements of self-reflecting mirrors showing glimpses of higher and higher dimensional symmetries. Studying the mathematical properties of the allowed symmetries is a research project that has only just begun. I hope one day dedicated mathematicians describe in full the class of possible high-order symmetries that humans can experience in these states of consciousness.
Anecdotally, each of the 17 possible wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated with this effect. In other words, psychedelic states lower the symmetry detection threshold for all of the mathematically available symmetrical tessellations.
All of the 17 2-dimensional wallpaper groups can be experienced with symmetry planes detected, amplified and re-arranged during a psychedelic experience.
Revising the symmetrical texture repetition of grass shown above, we can now discover that the picture displays the wallpaper symmetry found in the lower left circle above:
In very high doses, the symmetry completion is so strong that at any point one risks confusing left and right, and thus losing grasp of one’s orientation in space and time. Depersonalization is, at times, the result of the information that is lost when there is intense symmetry completion going on. One’s self-models become symmetrical too quickly, and one finds it hard to articulate a grounded point of view.
LSD-like states allow the global binding of otherwise incompatible schemas by softening the degree to which neighborhood constraints are enforced. The entire experience becomes a sort of chaotic superposition of locally bound islands that can, each in its own way, tell sensory-linguistic stories in parallel about the unique origin and contribution of their corresponding gestalts to the narrative of the self.
This phenomenon forces, as it were, the onset of cognitive dissonance between incompatible schemas that would otherwise evade mutual contact. On the bright side, it also allows mutual resonance between parts that agree with each other. The global inconsistencies are explored and minimized. One’s mind can become a glorious consensus.
Each square represents, and carries with it, the information of a previously experienced cognitive gestalt (situational memories, ideas, convictions, etc.). Some gestalts never come up together naturally. The LSD-like state allows their side-by-side comparison.
In therapy, LSD-like states had been used for many decades in order to integrate disparate parts of one’s personality into a (more) coherent and integrated lifeworld. But scientists at the beginning didn’t know why this worked.
The Turing module then discovered that the kaleidoscopic world of acid can be compared to raising the temperature within an Ising model. If different gestalts imply a variety of semantic-affective constraints, kaleidoscopic Frame Stacking has the formal effect of expanding the region of one’s mind that is taken into consideration for global consistency at any given point in time. The local constraints become more loose, giving global constraints the upper hand. The degree of psychedelia is approximately proportional to the temperature of the model, and when you let it cool, the grand pattern is somewhat different. It is more stable; one arrives at a more globally consistent state. Your semantic-affective constraints are, on the whole, better satisfied. The Turings called this phenomenon qualia annealing.
Ising Model – A simple computational analogy for the LSD-induced global constraint satisfaction facilitation.
If one ups the dose a little bit and lands somewhere in the range between 4 to 8 mg, one is likely to experience what Terrence McKenna called “the Chrysanthemum”. This usually manifests as a surface saturated with a sort of textured fabric composed of intricate symmetrical relationships, bright colors, shifting edges and shimmering pulsing superposition patterns of harmonic linear waves of many different frequencies.
Depending on the dose consumed one may experience either one or several semi-parallel channels. Whereas a threshold dose usually presents you with a single strong vibe (or ambiance), the Chrysanthemum level often has several competing vibes each bidding for your attention. Here are some examples of what the visual component of this state of consciousness may look like.
Chrysanthemum with multuple symmetry channels
The visual component of the Chrysanthemum is often described as “the best screen saver ever“, and if you happen to experience it in a good mood you will almost certainly agree with that description, as it is usually extremely harmonious, symmetric and beautiful in uncountable ways. No external input can possibly replicate the information density and intricate symmetry of this state; such state has to be endogenously generated as a a sort of harmonic attractor of your brain dynamics.
You can find many replications of Chrysanthemum-level DMT experiences on the internet, and I encourage you to examine their implicit symmetries (this replication is one of my all-times favorite).
In Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States we posited that any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated as the symmetries that govern psychedelic visuals. Unfortunately, unlike the generally slow evolution of usual psychedelic visuals, DMT’s vibrational frequency forces such visuals to evolve at a speed that makes it difficult for most people to spot the implicit symmetry elements that give rise to the overall mathematical structure underneath one’s experience. For this reason it has been difficult to verify that all 17 wallpaper groups are possible in DMT states. Fortunately we were recently able to confirm that this is in fact the case thanks to someone who trained himself to do just this. I.e. detecting symmetry elements in patterns at an outstanding speed.
An anonymous psychonaut (whom we will call researcher A) sent a series of trip report to Qualia Computing detailing the mathematical properties of psychedelic visuals under various substances and dose regimens. A is an experienced psychonaut and a math enthusiast who recently trained himself to recognize (and name) the mathematical properties of symmetrical patterns (such as in works of art or biological organisms). In particular, he has become fluent at naming the symmetries exhibited by psychedelic visuals. In the context of 2D visuals on surfaces, A confirms that the symmetrical textures that arise in psychedelic states can exhibit any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups. Likewise, he has been able to confirm that every possible spherical symmetry group can also be instantiated in one’s mind as a resonant attractor on these states.
The images below show some examples of the visuals that A has experienced on 2C-B, LSD, 4-HO-MET and DMT (sources: top left, top middle, the rest were made with this service):
The Chrysanthemum level interacts with sensory input in an interesting way: the texture of anything one looks at quickly becomes saturated with nested 2-dimensional symmetry groups. If you took enough DMT to take you to this level and you keep your eyes open and look at a patterned surface (i.e. statistical texture), it will symmetrify beyond recognition. A explains that at this level DMT visuals share some qualities with those of, say, LSD, mescaline, and psilocin. Like other psychedelics, DMT’s Chrysanthemum level can instantiate any 2-dimensional symmetry, yet there are important differences from other psychedelics at this dose range. These include the consistent change in ambiance (already present in threshold doses), the complexity and consistency of the symmetrical relationships (much more dense and whole-experience-consistent than is usually possible with other psychedelics), and the speed (with a control-interruption frequency reaching up to 30 hertz, compared to 10-20 hertz for most psychedelics). Thus, people tend to point out that DMT visuals (at this level) are “faster, smaller, more detailed and more globally consistent” than on comparable levels of alteration from similar agents.
Now, if you take a dose that is a little higher (in the ballpark of 8 to 12 mg), the Chrysanthemum will start doing something new and interesting…
(3) The Magic Eye Level
A great way to understand the Magic Eye level of DMT effects is to think of the Chrysanthemum as the texture of an autostereogram (colloquially described as “Magic Eye” pictures). Our visual experience can be easily decomposed into two points-of-view (corresponding to the feed coming from each eye) that share information in order to solve the depth-map problem in vision. This is to map each visual qualia to a space with relative distances so (a) the input is explained and (b) you get recognizable every-day objects represented as implicit shapes beneath the depth-map. You can think of this process as a sort of hand-shake between bottom-up perception and top-down modeling.
In everyday conditions one solves the depth-map problem within a second of opening one’s eyes (minus minor details that are added as one looks around). But on DMT, the “low-level perceptions” looks like a breathing Chrysanthemum, which means that the top-down modeling has that “constantly shifting” stuff to play with. What to make of it? Anything you can think of.
There are three major components of variance on the DMT Magic Eye level:
Texture (dependent on the Chrysanthemum’s evolution)
World-sheet (non-occluduing 3D1T depth maps)
Extremelly lowered information copying threshold.
The image on the left is a lobster, the one on the center is a cone and the one to the right contains furniture (a lamp, a chair and a table). Notice that what you see is a sort of depth-map which encodes shapes. We will call this depth-map together with the appearance of movement and acceleration represented in it, a world-sheet.
The world-sheet encodes the “semantic content” of the scene and is capable of representing arbitrary situations (including information about what you are seeing, where you are, what the entities there are doing, what is happening, etc.).
It is common to experience scenes from usually mundane-looking places like ice-cream stores, play pens, household situations, furniture rooms, apparel, etc.. Likewise, one frequently sees entities in these places, but they rarely seem to mind you because their world is fairly self-contained. As if seeing through a window. People often report that the worlds they saw on a DMT trip were all “made of the same thing”. This can be interpreted as the texture becoming the surfaces of the world-sheet, so that the surfaces of the tables, chairs, ice-cream cones, the bodies of the people, and so on are all patterned with the same texture (just as in actual autostereograms). This texture is indeed the Chrysanthemum completely contorted to accommodate all the curvature of the scene.
Magic Eye level scenes often include 3D geometrical shapes like spheres, cones, cylinders, cubes, etc. The complexity of the scene is roughly dose-dependent. As one ups the highness (but still remaining within the Magic Eye level) complex translucid qualia crystals in three dimensions start to become a possibility.
Whatever phenomenal objects you experience on this level that lives for more than a millisecond needs to have effective strategies for surviving in an ecosystem of other objects adapted to that level. Given the extremely lowered information copying threshold, whatever is good at making copies of itself will begin to tesselate, mutate and evolve, stealing as much of your attention as possible in the way. Cyclic transitions occupy one’s attention: objects quickly become scenes which quickly become gestalts from which a new texture evolves in which new objects are detected and so on ad infinitum.
A reports that at this dose range one can experience at least some of the 230 space groups as objects represented in the world-sheet. For example, A reports having stabilized a structure with a Pm-3m symmetry structure, not unlike the structure of ZIF-71-RHO. Visualizing such complex 3D symmetries, however, does seem to require previous training and high levels of mental concentration (i.e. in order to ensure that all the symmetry elements are indeed what they are supposed to be).
There is so much qualia laying around, though, at times not even your normal space can contain it all. Any regular or semi regular symmetrical structure you construct by centering your attention prone to overflow if you focus too much on it. What does this mean? If you focus too much on, for example, the number 6, your mind might represent the various ways in which you can arrange six balls in a perfectly symmetrical way. Worlds made of hexagons and octahedrons interlocked in complex but symmetrical ways may begin to tesselate your experiential field. With every second you find more and more ways of representing the number six in interesting, satisfying, metaphorically-sound synesthetic ways (cf. Thinking in Numbers). Now, what happens if you try to represent the number seven in a symmetric way on the plane? Well, the problem is that you will have too many heptagons to fit in Euclidean space (cf. Too Many Triangles). Thus the resulting symmetrical patterns will seem to overflow the plane (which is often felt as a folding and fluid re-arrangement, and when there is no space left in a region it either expands space or it is felt as some sort of synesthetic tension or stress, like a sense of crackling under a lot of pressure).
Heptagonal tiling of the Poincaré disk representing the 2D hyperbolic space.
Order-7-3 rhombille tiling
In particular, A claims that in the lower ranges of the DMT Magic Eye level the texture of the Chrysanthemum tends to exhibit heptagonal and triheptagonal tilings (as shown in the picture above). A explains that at the critical point between the Chrysanthemum and the Magic Eye levels the intensity of the rate of symmetry detection of the Chrysanthemum cannot be contained to a 2D surface. Thus, the surface begins to fold, often in semi-symmetric ways. Every time one “recognizes” an object on this “folding Chrysanthemum” the extra curvature is passed on to this object. As the dose increases, one interprets more and more of this extra curvature and ends up shaping a complex and highly dynamic spatiotemporal depth map with hyperbolic folds. In the upper ranges of the Magic Eye level the world-sheet is so curved that the scenes one visualize are intricate and expansive, feeling at times like one is able to peer through one’s horizon in all directions and see oneself and one’s world from a distance. At some critical point one may feel like the space around one is folding into a huge dome where the walls are made of whatever texture + world-sheet combination happened to win the Darwinian selection pressures applied to the qualia patterns on the Magic Eye level. This concentrated hyperbolic synesthetic texture is what becomes the walls of the Waiting Room…
As suggested by the quotes above, psychedelic symmetries are extremely beautiful. This is puzzling for most worldviews. But once you take into account the Tyranny of the Intentional Object and the Symmetry Theory of Valence, it begins to make sense why peak symmetry on psychedelics is so delightfully amazing (sometimes unimaginably better than a great orgasm or a back-rub on ecstasy). In this vein, we are proud to point out that we have worked out some precise, empirically testable, predictions based on connectome-specific harmonic waves and the symmetry theory of valence (see: Quantifying Bliss).
Interestingly, the process of point-of-view fragmentation and subsequent annealing to global geometric coherence is hinted at by John C. Lilly in his book Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (you can read the relevant quote here: Psychedelic alignment cascades).
As evidenced in Steven Lehar’s writeup (and the other quotes and references provided above), we could say that giving psychedelics to brilliant people with a scientific background in cognitive science and natural philosophical talent does indeed have the ability to expand our evidential base for the nature of consciousness and the way our brains work.
It is thus far more useful for the advancement of the science of consciousness to allocate such experiences to serious scientifically-minded psychonauts than it is to give those same agents to people with pre-scientific frameworks. The phenomenological descriptions and insights provided by a single Steven Lehar on acid are worth a thousand Buddhists, French Existentialists, poets, and film-makers on LSD.
Either way, it is unconscionable that today most leading academics working on the problem of consciousness have no personal experience with these agents, nor they show much interest in the alien state-spaces that they disclose. That’s about as weird as physicists only showing interest in what happens at room-temperature, even though most precise mathematical theories of the physical world can only be tested in extreme conditions (such as high-energy particle collisions). Just as we can expect that a few observations of the behavior of matter in extreme conditions will provide a lot more information than thousands of observations of matter in known “everyday” conditions, the ultimate nature of qualia is most likely to be understood by studying its properties in extreme (e.g. high-energy) neuronal environments.
[Content Warnings: Psychedelic Depersonalization, Fear of the Multiverse, Personal Identity Doubts, Discussion about Quantum Consciousness, DMT entities, Science]
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
– Emily Dickinson
Is it for real?
A sizable percentage of people who try a high dose of DMT end up convinced that the spaces they visit during the trip exist in some objective sense; they either suspect, intuit or conclude that their psychonautic experience reflects something more than simply the contents of their minds. Most scientists would argue that those experiences are just the result of exotic brain states; the worlds one travels to are bizarre (often useless) simulations made by our brain in a chaotic state. This latter explanation space forgoes alternate realities for the sake of simplicity, whereas the former envisions psychedelics as a multiverse portal technology of some sort.
Some exotic states, such as DMT breakthrough experiences, do typically create feelings of glimpsing foundational information about the depth and structure of the universe. Entity contact is frequent, and these seemingly autonomous DMT entities are often reported to have the ability to communicate with you. Achieving a verifiable contact with entities from another dimension would revolutionize our conception of the universe. Nothing would be quite as revolutionary, really. But how to do so? One could test the external reality of these entities by asking them to provide information that cannot be obtained unless they themselves held an objective existence. In this spirit, some have proposed to ask these entities complex mathematical questions that would be impossible for a human to solve within the time provided by the trip. This particular test is really cool, but it has the flaw that DMT experiences may themselves trigger computationally-useful synesthesia of the sort that Daniel Tammet experiences. Thus even if DMT entities appeared to solve extraordinary mathematical problems, it would still stand to reason that it is oneself who did it and that one is merely projecting the results into the entities. The mathematical ability would be the result of being lucky in the kind of synesthesia DMT triggered in you.
A common overarching description of the effects of psychedelics is that they “raise the frequency of one’s consciousness.” Now, this is a description we should take seriously whether or not we believe that psychedelics are inter-dimensional portals. After all, promising models of psychedelic action involve fast-paced control interruption, where each psychedelic would have its characteristic control interrupt frequency. And within a quantum paradigm, Stuart Hameroff has argued that psychedelic compounds work by bringing up the quantum resonance frequency of the water inside our neurons’ microtubules (perhaps going from megahertz to gigahertz), which he claims increases the non-locality of our consciousness.
In the context of psychedelics as inter-dimensional portals, this increase in the main frequency of one’s consciousness may be the key that allows us to interact with other realities. Users describe a sort of tuning of one’s consciousness, as if the interface between one’s self and the universe underwent some sudden re-adjustment in an upward direction. In the same vein, psychedelicists (e.g. Rick Strassman) frequently describe the brain as a two-way radio, and then go on to claim that psychedelics expand the range of channels we can be attuned to.
One could postulate that the interface between oneself and the universe that psychonauts describe has a real existence of its own. It would provide the bridge between us as (quantum) monads and the universe around us; and the particular structure of this interface would determine the selection pressures responsible for the part of the multiverse that we interact with. By modifying the spectral properties of this interface (e.g. by drastically raising the main frequency of its vibration) with, e.g. DMT, one effectively “relocates” (cf. alien travel) to other areas of reality. Assuming this interface exists and that it works by tuning into particular realities, what sorts of questions can we ask about its properties? What experiments could we conduct to verify its existence? And what applications might it have?
The Psychedelic State of Input Superposition
Once in a while I learn about a psychedelic effect that captures my attention precisely because it points to simple experiments that could distinguish between the two rough explanation spaces discussed above (i.e. “it’s all in your head” vs. “real inter-dimensional travel”). This article will discuss a very odd phenomenon whose interpretations do indeed have different empirical predictions. We are talking about the experience of sensing what appears to be a superposition of inputs from multiple adjacent realities. We will call this effect the Psychedelic State of Input Superposition (PSIS for short).
There is no known way to induce PSIS on purpose. Unlike the reliable DMT hyper-dimensional journeys to distant dimensions, PSIS is a rare closer-to-home effect and it manifests only on high doses of LSD (and maybe other psychedelics). Rather than feeling like one is tuning into another dimension in the higher frequency spectrum, it feels as if one just accidentally altered (perhaps even broke) the interface between the self and the universe in a way that multiplies the number of realities you are interacting with. After the event, the interface seems to tune into multiple similar universes at once; one sees multiple possibilities unfold simultaneously. After a while, one somehow “collapses” into only one of these realities, and while coming down, one is thankful to have settled somewhere specific rather than remaining in that weird in-between. Let’s take a look at a couple of trip reports that feature this effect:
[Trip report of taking a high dose of LSD on an airplane]: So I had what you call “sonder”, a moment of clarity where I realized that I wasn’t the center of the universe, that everyone is just as important as me, everyone has loved ones, stories of lost love etc, they’re the main character in their own movies.
That’s when shit went quantum. All these stories begun sinking in to me. It was as if I was beginning to experience their stories simultaneously. And not just their stories, I began seeing the story of everyone I had ever met in my entire life flash before my eyes. And in this quantum experience, there was a voice that said something about Karma. The voice told me that the plane will crash and that I will be reborn again until the quota of my Karma is at -+0. So, for every ill deed I have done, I would have an ill deed committed to me. For every cheap T-shirt I purchased in my previous life, I would live the life of the poor Asian sweatshop worker sewing that T-shirt. For every hooker I fucked, I would live the life of a fucked hooker.
And it was as if thousands of versions of me was experiencing this moment. It is hard to explain, but in every situation where something could happen, both things happened and I experienced both timelines simultaneously. As I opened my eyes, I noticed how smoke was coming out of the top cabins in the plane. Luggage was falling out. I experienced the airplane crashing a thousand times, and I died and accepted death a thousand times, apologizing to the Karma God for my sins. There was a flash of the brightest white light imagineable and the thousand realities in which I died began fading off. Remaining was only one reality in which the crash didn’t happen. Where I was still sitting in the plane. I could still see the smoke coming out of the plane and as a air stewardess came walking by I asked her if everything was alright. She said “Yes, is everything alright with YOU?”.
Further down on the same thread, written by someone else:
[A couple hours after taking two strong hits of LSD]: Fast-forward to when I’m peaking hours later and I find myself removed from the timeline I’m in and am watching alternate timelines branch off every time someone does something specific. I see all of these parallel universes being created in real time, people’s actions or interactions marking a split where both realities exist. Dozens of timelines, at least, all happening at once. It was fucking wild to witness.
Then I realize that I don’t remember which timeline I originally came out of and I start to worry a bit. I start focusing, trying to remember where I stepped out of my particular universe, but I couldn’t figure it out. So, with the knowledge that I was probably wrong, I just picked one to go back into and stuck with it. It’s not like I would know what changed anyway, and I wasn’t going to just hang out here in the whatever-this-place-is outside of all of them.
Today I still sometimes feel like I left a life behind and jumped into a new timeline. I like it, I feel like I left a lot of baggage behind and there are a lot of regrets and insecurities I had before that trip that I don’t have anymore. It was in a different life, a different reality, so in this case the answer I found was that it’s okay to start over when you’re not happy with where you are in life.
Let us summarize: Person X takes a lot of LSD. At some point during the trip (usually after feeling that “this trip is way too intense for me now”) X starts experiencing sensory input from what appear to be different branches of the multiverse. For example, imagine that person X can see a friend Y sitting on a couch in the corner. Suppose that Y is indecisive, and that as a result he makes different choices in different branches of the multiverse. If Y is deciding whether to stand up or not, X will suddenly see a shadowy figure of Y standing up while another shadowy figure of Y remains sitting. Let’s call them Y-sitting and Y-standing. If Y-standing then turns indecisive about whether to drink some water or go to the bathroom, X may see one shadowy figure of Y-standing getting water and a shadowy figure of Y-standing walking towards the bathroom, all the while Y-sitting is still on the couch. And so it goes. The number of times per second that Y splits and the duration of the perceived superposition of these splits may be a function of X’s state of consciousness, the substance and dose consumed, and the degree of indecision present in Y’s mind.
The two quotes provided are examples of this effect, and one can find a number of additional reports online with stark similarities. There are two issues at hand here. First, what is going on? And second, can we test it? We will discuss three hypotheses to explain what goes on during PSIS, propose an experiment to test the third one (the Quantum Hypothesis), and provide the results of such an experiment.
Hard-nosed scientists may want to skip to the “Experiment” section, since the following contains a fair amount of speculation (you have been warned).
Three Hypothesis for PSIS: Cognitive, Spiritual, Quantum
In order to arrive at an accurate model of the world, one needs to take into account both the prior probability of the hypothesis and the likelihoods that they predict that one would obtain the available evidence. Even if one prior of yours is extremely strong (e.g. a strong belief in materialism), it is still rational to update one’s probability estimates of alternative hypotheses when new relevant evidence is provided. The difficulty often comes from finding experiments where the various hypotheses generate very different likelihoods for one’s observations. As we will see, the quantum hypothesis has this characteristic: it is the only one that would actually predict a positive result for the experiment.
The Cognitive Hypothesis
The first (and perhaps least surreal) hypothesis is that PSIS is “only in one’s mind”. When person X sees person Y both standing up and staying put, what may be happening is that X is receiving photons only from Y-standing and that Y-sitting is just a hallucination that X’s inner simulation of her environment failed to erase.
Psychedelics intensify one’s experience, and this is thought to be the result of control interruption. This means that inhibition of mental content by cortical feedback is attenuated. In the psychedelic state, sensory impressions, automatic reactions, feelings, thoughts and all other mental contents are more intense and longer-lived. This includes the predictions that you make about how your environment will evolve. Not only is one’s sensory input perceived as more intense, one’s imagined hypotheticals are also perceived more intensely.
Under normal circumstances, cortical inhibition makes our failed predictions quickly disappear. Psychedelic states of consciousness may be poor at inhibiting these predictions. In this account, X may be experiencing her brain’s past predictions of what Y could have done overlaid on top of the current input that she is receiving from her physical environment. In a sense, she may be experiencing all of the possible “next steps” that she simply intuited. While these simulations typically remain below the threshold of awareness (or just above it), on a psychedelic state they may reinforce themselves in unpredictable ways. X’s mind never traveled anywhere and there is nothing really weird going on. X is just experiencing the aftermath of a specific failure of information processing concerning the inhibition of past predictions.
Alternatively, very intense emotions such as those experienced on intense ego-killing psychedelic experiences may distort one’s perception so much that one begins to suspect that one is perhaps dead or in another dimension. We can posit that the belief that one is not properly connected to one’s brain (or that one is dying) can trigger even stronger emotions and unleash a cascade of further distortions. This positive feedback loop may create episodes of intense confusion and overlapping pieces of information, which later might be interpreted as “seeing splitting universes”.
The Spiritual Hypothesis
Many spiritual traditions postulate the existence of alternate dimensions, additional layers of reality, and hidden spirit pathways that connect all of reality. These traditions often provide rough maps of these realities and may claim that some people are able to travel to such far-out regions with mental training and consciousness technologies. For illustration, let’s consider Buddhist cosmology, which describes 31 planes of existence. Interestingly, one of the core ideas of this cosmology is that the major characteristic that distinguishes the planes of existence is the states of consciousness typical of their inhabitants. These states of consciousness are correlated with moral conditions such as the ethical quality of their past deeds (karma), their relationship with desire (e.g. whether it is compulsive, sustainable or indifferent) and their existential beliefs. In turn, a feature of this cosmology is that it allows inter-dimensional travel by changing one’s state of consciousness. The part of the universe one interacts with is a function of one’s karma, affinities and beliefs. So by changing these variables with meditation (or psychedelic medicine) one can also change which world we exist in.
An example of a very interesting location worth trying to travel to is the mythical city of Shambhala, the location of the Kalachakra Tantra. This city has allegedly turned into a pure land thanks to the fact that its king converted to Buddhism after meeting the Buddha. Pure lands are abodes populated by enlightened and quasi-enlightened beings whose purpose is to provide an optimal teaching environment for Buddhism. One can go to Shambhala by either reincarnating there (with good karma and the help of some pointers and directions at the time of death) or by traveling there directly during meditation. In order to do the latter, one needs to kindle one’s subtle energies so that they converge on one’s heart, while one is embracing the Bodhisattva ethic (focusing on reducing others’ suffering as a moral imperative). Shambhala may not be in a physical location accessible to humans. Rather, Buddhist accounts would seem to depict it as a collective reality built by people which manifests on another plane of existence (specifically somewhere between the 23rd and 27th layer). In order to create a place like that one needs to bring together many individuals in a state of consciousness that exhibits bliss, enlightenment and benevolence. A pure land has no reality of its own; its existence is the result of the states of consciousness of its inhabitants. Thus, the very reason why Shambhala can even exist as a place somewhere outside of us is because it is already a potential place that exists within us.
Similar accounts of a wider cosmological reality can be found elsewhere (such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Theosophy, etc.). These accounts may be consistent with the sort of experiences having to do with astral travel and entity contact that people have while on DMT and other psychedelics in high doses. However, it seems a lot harder to explain PSIS with an ontology of this sort. While reality is indeed portrayed as immensely vaster than what science has shown so far, we do not really encounter claims of parallel realities that are identical to ours except that your friend decided to go to the bathroom rather than drink some water just now. In other words, while many spiritual ontologies are capable of accommodating DMT hyper-dimensional travel, I am not aware of any spiritual worldview that also claims that whenever two things can happen, they both do in alternate realities (or, more specifically, that this leads to reality splitting).
The only spiritual-sounding interpretation of PSIS I can think of is the idea that these experiences are the result of high-level entities such as guardians, angels or trickster djinns who used your LSD state to teach you a lesson in an unconventional way. The first quote (the one written by Reddit user I_DID_LSD_ON_A_PLANE) seems to point in this direction, where the so-called Karma God is apparently inducing a PSIS experience and using it to illustrate the idea that we are all one (i.e. Open Individualism). Furthermore, the experience viscerally portrays the way that this knowledge should impact our feelings of self-importance (by creating a profound feeling of sonder). This way, the tripper may develop a lasting need to work towards peace, wisdom and enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Life as a learning experience is a common trope among spiritual worldviews. It is likely that the spiritual interpretations that emerge in a state of psychedelic depersonalization and derealization will depend on one’s pre-existing ideas of what is possible. The atonement of one’s sins, becoming aware of one’s karma, feeling our past lives, realizing emptiness, hearing a dire mystical warning, etc. are all ideas that already exist in human culture. In an attempt to make sense- any sense- of the kind of qualia experienced in high doses of psychedelics, our minds may be forced to instantiate grandiose delusions drawn from one’s reservoir of far-out ideas.
On a super intense psychedelic experience in which one’s self-models fail dramatically and one experiences fear of ego dissolution, interpreting what is happening as the result of the Karma God judging you and then giving you another chance at life can viscerally seem to make a lot of sense at the time.
The Quantum Hypothesis
For the sake of transparency I must say that we currently do not have a derivation of PSIS from first principles. In other words, we have not yet found a way to use the postulates of quantum mechanics to account for PSIS (that is, assuming that the cognitive and spiritual hypothesis are not the case). That said, there are indeed some things to be said here: While a theory is missing, we can at least talk about what a quantum mechanical account of PSIS would have to look like. I.e. we can at least make sense of some of the features that the theory would need to have to predict that people on LSD would be able to see the superposition of macroscopic branches of the multiverse.
Why would being on acid allow you to receive input from macroscopic environments that have already decohered? How could taking LSD possibly prevent the so-called collapse of the wavefunction? You might think: “well, why even think about it? It’s simply impossible because the collapse of the wavefunction is an axiom of quantum mechanics and we know it is true because some of the predictions made by quantum mechanics (such as QED) are in agreement with experimental data up to the 12th decimal point.” Before jumping to this conclusion, though, let us remember that there are several formulations of quantum mechanics. Both the Born rule (which determines the probability of seeing different outcomes from a given quantum measurement) and the collapse of the wavefunction (i.e. that any quantum state other than the one that was measured disappears) are indeed axiomatic for some formulations. But other formulations actually derive these features and don’t consider them fundamental. Here is Sean Carroll explaining the usual postulates that are used to teach quantum mechanics to undergraduate audiences:
The status of the Born Rule depends greatly on one’s preferred formulation of quantum mechanics. When we teach quantum mechanics to undergraduate physics majors, we generally give them a list of postulates that goes something like this:
Quantum states are represented by wave functions, which are vectors in a mathematical space called Hilbert space.
The act of measuring a quantum system returns a number, known as the eigenvalue of the quantity being measured.
The probability of getting any particular eigenvalue is equal to the square of the amplitude for that eigenvalue.
After the measurement is performed, the wave function “collapses” to a new state in which the wave function is localized precisely on the observed eigenvalue (as opposed to being in a superposition of many different possibilities).
Quantum states are represented by wave functions, which are vectors in a mathematical space called Hilbert space.
Wave functions evolve in time according to the Schrödinger equation.
And that’s it. As you can see this formulation does not employ any collapse of the wavefunction, and neither does it consider the Born rule as a fundamental law. Instead, the wavefunction is thought to merely seem to collapse upon measurement (which is achieved by nearly diagonalizing its components along the basis of the measurement; strictly speaking, neighboring branches never truly stop interacting, but the relevance of their interaction approaches zero very quickly). Here the Born rule is derived from first principles rather than conceived as an axiom. How exactly one can derive the Born rule is a matter of controversy, however. Currently, two very promising theoretical approaches to do so are Quantum Darwinism and the so-called Epistemic Separability Principle (ESP for short, a technical physics term not to be confused with Extra Sensory Perception). Although these approaches to deriving the Born rule are considered serious contenders for a final explanation (and they are not mutually exclusive), they have been criticized for being somewhat circular. The physics community is far from having a consensus on whether these approaches truly succeed.
Is there any alternative to either axiomatizing or deriving the apparent collapse and the Born rule? Yes, there is an alternative: we can think of them as regularities contingent upon certain conditions that are always (or almost always) met in our sphere of experience, but that are not a universal fact about quantum mechanics. Macroscopic decoherence and Born rule probability assignments work very well in our everyday lives, but they may not hold universally. In particular -and this is a natural idea to have under any view that links consciousness and quantum mechanics- one could postulate that one’s state of consciousness influences the mind-body interaction in such a way that information from one’s quantum environment seeps into one’s mind in a different way.
Don’t get me wrong; I am aware that the Born rule has been experimentally verified with extreme precision. I only ask that you bear in mind that many scientific breakthroughs share a simple form: they question the constancy of certain physical properties. For example, Einstein’s theory of special relativity worked out the implications of the fact that the speed of light is observer-independent. In turn this makes the passage of time of external systems observer-dependent. Scientists had a hard time believing Einstein when he arrived at the conclusion that accelerating our frame of reference to extremely high velocities could dilate time. What was thought to be a constant (the passage of time throughout the universe) turned out to be an artifact of the fact that we rarely travel fast enough to notice any deviation from Newton’s laws of motion. In other words, our previous understanding was flawed because it assumed that certain observations did not break down in extreme conditions. Likewise, maybe we have been accidentally ignoring a whole set of physically relevant extreme conditions: altered states of consciousness. The apparent wavefunction collapse and the Born rule may be perfectly constant in our everyday frame of reference, and yet variable across the state-space of possible conscious experiences. If this were the case, we’d finally understand why it seems so hard to derive the Born rule from first principles: it’s impossible.
Succinctly, the Quantum Hypothesis is that psychedelic experiences modify the way one’s mind interacts with its quantum environment in such a way that the world does not appear to decohere any longer from one’s point of view. Our ignorance about the non-universality of the apparent collapse of the wavefunction is just a side effect of the fact that physicists do not usually perform experiments during intense life-changing entheogenic mind journeys. But for science, today we will.
Deriving PSIS with Quantum Mechanics
Here we present a rough (incomplete) sketch of what a possible derivation of PSIS from quantum mechanics might look like. To do so we need three background assumptions: First, conscious experiences must be macroscopic quantum coherent objects (i.e. ontologically unitary subsets of the universal wavefunction, akin to super-fluid helium or Bose–Einstein condensates, except at room temperature). Second, people’s decision-making process must somehow amplify low-level quantum randomness into macroscopic history bifurcations. And third, the properties of our quantum environment* are in part the result of the quantum state of our mind, which psychedelics can help modify. This third assumption brings into play the idea that if our mind is more coherent (e.g. is in a super-symmetrical state) it will select for wavefunctions in its environment that themselves are more coherent. In turn, the apparent lifespan of superpositions may be elongated long enough so that the quantum environment of one’s mind receives records from both Y-sitting and Y-standing as they are overlapping. Now, how credible are these three assumptions?
The second assumption claims that people around you work as quantum Random Number Generators. That human decision-making amplifies low-level quantum randomness is thought to be likely by at leastsome scientists, though the time-scale on which this happens is still up for debate. The brain’s decision-making is chaotic, and over the span of seconds it may amplify quantum fluctuations into macroscopic differences. Thus, people around you making decisions may result in splitting universes (e.g. “[I] am watching alternate timelines branch off every time someone does something specific.” – GatorAutomator’s quote above). Presumably, this assumption would also imply that during PSIS not only people but also physics experiments would lead to apparent macroscopic superposition.
With regards to the third assumption: widespread microscopic decoherence is not, apparently, a necessary consequence of the postulates of quantum mechanics. Rather, it is a very specific outcome of (a) our universe’s Hamiltonian and (b) the starting conditions of our universe, i.e. Pre-Inflation/Eternal Inflation/Big Bang. (A Ney & D Albert, 2013). In principle, psychedelics may influence the part of the Hamiltonian that matters for the evolution of our mind’s wavefunction and its local interactions. In turn, this may modify the decoherence patterns of our consciousness with its local environment and- perhaps- ultimately the surrounding macroscopic world. Of course we do not know if this is possible, and I would have to agree that it is extremely far-fetched.
The overall picture that would emerge from these three assumptions would take the following form: both the mental content and raw phenomenal character of our states of consciousness are the result of the quantum micro-structure of our brains. By modifying this micro-structure, one is not only altering the selection pressures that give rise to fully formed experiences (i.e. quantum darwinism applied to the compositionality of quantum fields) but also altering the selection pressures that determine which parts of the universal wave-function we are entangled with (i.e. quantum darwinism applied to the interactions between coherent objects). Thus psychedelics may not only influence how our experience is shaped within, but also how it interacts with the quantum environment that surrounds it. Some mild psychedelic states (e.g. MDMA) may influence mostly the inner degrees of freedom of one’s mind, while other more intense states (e.g. DMT) may be the result of severe changes to the entanglement selection pressures and thus result in the apparent disconnection between one’s mind and one’s local environment. Here PSIS would be the result of decreasing the rate at which our mind decoheres (possibly by increasing the degree to which our mind is in a state of quantum confinement). In turn, by boosting one’s own inner degree of quantum superposition one may also broaden the degree of superposition acceptable at the interface with one’s quantum environment. One could now readily take in packets of information that have a wider degree of superposition. In the right circumstances, this may result in one’s mind experiencing information seemingly coming from alternate branches of the multiverse. In other words, the trick to PSIS both in the Quantum and the Spiritual Hypothesis is the same (though for different reasons): travel to other dimensions by being the change that you wish to see in the world. You need to increase your own degree of quantum coherence so that you become able of interacting with a more coherent quantum environment.
If this were the case it would call for a conceptual revolution. We would stop thinking of “our universe” as the “place we inhabit” and instead think of it as “the quantum environment our consciousness can interface with”. Perhaps life as we know it exists in a quantum niche that can give rise to embodied biological beings, but the universal wavefunction also contains alien state-spaces in which the patterns of entanglement work in different ways and lead to different evolutionary histories. Our minds evolved to interact with the particular environment that leads to the sustenance of our everyday macroscopic world. Our consciousness is shaped to fit in here, and it has a symbiotic relationship with the body that hosts it.
Now, how do we go about testing the quantum hypothesis? Following previous work on psychophysics for psychedelic research, the main idea will be to show that people on psychedelics can achieve something that sober individuals can’t. In this case, the task is designed to be impossible if one is only receiving input from one world (as predicted by the cognitive hypothesis). Only if PSIS is the result of simultaneously experiencing input from the several nearby branches that correspond to different outcomes of quantum events can the task be successfully performed.
The task in question involves three white little squares on a black background. At each time step (~16 milliseconds) the squares move one pixel down, and some number of pixels horizontally. While the downward movement is constant, the change in the horizontal direction is chosen randomly. The horizontal movement of one of the squares is being randomized on the fly with a Quantum Random Number Generator (qRNG**). We call this the quantum square. The horizontal movement of the other two squares follows a path that was determined at the beginning of each trial by a Classical Random Number Generator (cRNG***). We will refer to these two squares as the classical squares. The task for the participant is to identify which of the squares is the “odd one out” (i.e. the quantum square). Here is an infographic that explains the experimental setup:
In order to make the horizontal movement seem very chaotic and, at times even dramatic, it is randomized by choosing a horizontal change of either -4, -1, 1 or 4 pixels. By using a jump of 4 pixels (rather than e.g. 2) the squares sometimes seem to advance very quickly in one direction. The rationale for doing this was to make the predicted effect (assuming the Quantum Hypothesis) more noticeable – we want low probability paths that are extremely different than the typical path and in turn make it easy to distinguish between single paths and the superposition of many of the possible paths at once.
Critically, the starting position of the quantum square (whether left, center or right) for each of the trials during an experiment is obtained with a cRNG at the very beginning of the experiment. Why not use a qRNG? If we randomized the position of the quantum square using a qRNG we might be sabotaging ourselves: participants might see a superposition of classical and quantum squares on each of the three positions and thus not see any square behave differently than the other two. Thus, for the experiment to work (under the assumption that PSIS is explained by the Quantum Hypothesis) the only aspect that should be randomized using a qRNG is the horizontal displacement of the quantum square.
Since the numbers coming from the qRNG need to be requested over the internet, it is also crucial that we try to obtain fresh quantum random numbers as frequently as possible without messing up the flow of the experiment. Thus, a request for new quantum random numbers is made as often as possible (usually every 1 to 2 seconds). Since internet connections, server response time and network reliability varies from moment to moment, it is inevitable that once in a while we will have to stop the downward movement of all three squares as we wait for the next batch of random numbers. In principle this should have no negative effect at all in the ability to choose the odd-one-out. This problem merely interrupts the flow of the experiment, but it should not invalidate the results. We kept track of the number of trials that were interrupted for this reason (which you will find recorded in the “Network” column of the table of results down below).
Participants were instructed to:
Clone the Github code for the experiment, and to open it up in a Chrome browser.
Make sure that they have a reliable high-speed internet connection.
Record the pertinent facts (time of experiment, substance, dose and time of intake).
Use a sensorially-minimized room for the experiment (such as a closed bathroom), turn off the lights, ask anyone who is in the house to be quiet and mind their own business, and wear earplugs.
Meditate for a couple of minutes before conducting the experiment and to try to induce PSIS voluntarily.
Choose the odd-one-out (i.e. the quantum square) on each trial, for a total of at least 30 trials.
Under this setup, what should the participants expect to see if the Quantum Hypothesis is correct?
Predicted Psychedelic Perception
Psychedelic view in the null scenario
Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis
The pictures above illustrate how the experiment looks like to three different observers. On the left we see what a sober participant would see at a given time during a trial. The squares are moving downwards but since we are taking a snapshot in time they seem to be static. The image on the center shows what we would expect out of a generic psychedelic experience. In brief, the typical control interrupt action of psychedelics (i.e. tracers) effectively allows you to see more clearly the path that the squares have traced over time, but it would not allow you to notice any difference between the classic and quantum squares. The image on the right shows what we would expect to see if the Quantum Hypothesis is correct and PSIS is actually about perceiving nearby branches of the Everett multiverse. Notice how the center square is visibly different than the other two: it consists of the superposition of many alternative paths the square took in slightly different branches.
Implications of a Positive Result: Quantum Mind, Everett Rescue Missions and Psychedelic Cryptography
It is worth noting that if one can indeed reliably distinguish between the quantum and the classical squares, then this would have far-reaching implications. It would indeed confirm that our minds are macroscopic quantum coherent objects and that psychedelics influence their pattern of interactions with their surrounding quantum environment. It would also provide strong evidence in favor of the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics (in which all possibilities are realized). More so, we would not only have a new perspective on the fundamental nature of the universe and the mind, but the discovery would just as well suggest some concrete applications. Looking far ahead, a positive outcome is that this knowledge would encourage research on the possible ways to achieve inter-dimensional travel, and in turn instantiate pan-Everettian rescue missions to reduce suffering elsewhere in the multiverse. The despair of confirming that the quantum multiverse is real might be evened out by the hope of finally being able to help sentient beings trapped in Darwinian environments in other branches of the universal wavefunction. Looking much closer to home, a positive result would lead to a breakthrough in psychedelic cryptography (PsyCrypto for short), where spies high on LSD would obtain the ability to read information that is secretly encoded in public light displays. More so, this particular kind of PsyCrypto would be impervious to discovery after the fact. Even if given an arbitrary amount of time and resources to analyze a video recording of the event, it would not be possible to determine which of the squares was being guided by quantum randomness. Unlike other PsyCrypto techniques, this one cannot be decoded by applying psychedelic replication software to video recordings of the transmission.
Three persons participated in the experiments: S (self), A, and B. [A and B are anonymous volunteers; for more information read the legal disclaimer at the end of this article]. Participant S (me) tried the experiment both sober and after drinking 2 beers. Participant A tried the experiment sober, on LSD, 2C-B and a combination of the two. And participant B tried the experiment both sober and on DMT. The total number of trials recorded for each of the conditions is: 90 for the sober state, 275 for 2C-B, 60 for DMT, 120 for LSD and 130 for the LSD/2C-B combo. The overall summary of the results is: chance level performance outcomes for all conditions. You can find the breakdown of results for all experiments in the table shown below, and you can download the raw csv file from the Github repository.
Columns from left to right: Date, State (of consciousness), Dose(s), T (time), #Trials (number of trials), Correct (number of trials in which the participant made the correct choice), Percent correct (100*Correct/Trials), Participants (S=Self, A/B=anonymous volunteers), Requests / Second (server requests per second), Network (this tracks the number of times that a trial was temporarily paused while the browser was waiting for the next batch of quantum random numbers), Notes (by default the squares left a dim trail behind them and this was removed in two trials; by default the squares were 10×10 pixels in size, but a smaller size was used in some trials).
I thought about visualizing the results in a cool graph at first, but after I received them I realized that it would be pointless. Not a single experiment reached a statistically significant deviation from chance level; who is interested in seeing a bunch of bars representing chance-level outcomes? Null results are always boring to visualize.****
In addition to the overall performance in the task, I also wanted to hear the following qualitative assessment from the participants: did they notice any difference between the three squares? Was there any feeling that one of them was behaving differently than the other two? This is what they responded when I asked them: “I could never see any difference between the squares, so it felt like I was making random choices” (from A) and “DMT made the screen look like a hyper-dimensional tunnel and I felt like strange entities were watching over me as I was doing the experiment, and even though the color of the squares would fluctuate randomly, I never noticed a single square behaving differently than the other two. All three seemed unique. I did feel that the squares were being controlled by some entity, as if with an agency of their own, but I figured that was made up by my mind.” When I asked them if they noticed anything similar to the image labeled Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis (as shown above) they both said “no”.
It is noteworthy that neither participant reported an experience of PSIS during the experiments. Even without an explicit and noticeable input superposition, PSIS may turn out to be a continuum rather than a discrete either-or phenomenon. If so, we might still expect to see some deviations from chance. This may be analogous to how in blindsight people report not being able to see anything and yet perform better than chance in visual recognition tasks. That said, the effect size of blindsight and other psychological effects in which information is processed unbeknownst to the participant tend to be very small. Thus, in order to confirm that quantum PSIS is happening below the threshold of awareness we may require a much larger number of samples (though still a lot smaller than what we would need if we were aiming to use the experiment to conduct Psi research with or without psychedelics, again, due to the extremely small effect sizes).
Why did the experiment fail? The first possibility is that it could be that the Quantum Hypothesis is simply wrong (and possibly because it requires false assumptions to work). Second, perhaps we were simply unlucky that PSIS was not triggered during the experiments; perhaps the set, setting, and dosages used simply failed to produce the desired effect (even if the state does indeed exist out there). And third, the experiment itself may be wrong: the second-long delays between the server requests and the qRNG may be too large to produce the effect. In the current implementation (and taking into account network delays), the average delay between the moment the quantum measurement was conducted and the moment it appeared on the computer screen as horizontal movement was .9 seconds (usually in the range of .4 to 1.4 seconds, given an average of 1/2 second lag due to the number buffering and 400 milliseconds in network time). This problem would be easily sidestepped if we used an on-site qRNG obtained from hardware directly connected to the computer (as is common in psi research). To minimize the delay even further, the outcomes of the quantum measurements could be delivered directly to your brain via neuroimplants.
If psychedelic experiences do make you interact with other realities, I would like to know about it with a high degree of certainty. The present study was admittedly a very long shot. But to my judgement, it was totally worth it. As Bayesians, we reasoned that since the Quantum Hypothesis can lead to a positive result for the experiment but the Cognitive Hypothesis can’t, then a positive result should make us update our probabilities of the Quantum Hypothesis a great deal. A negative result should make us update our probabilities in the opposite direction. That said, the probability should still not go to zero since the negative result could still be accounted for by the fact that participants failed to experience PSIS, and/or that the delay between the quantum measurement and the moment it influences the movement of the square in the screen is too large. Future studies should try to minimize these two possible sources of failure. First, by researching methods to reliably induce PSIS. And second, by minimizing the delay between branching and sensory input.
In the meantime, we can at least tentatively conclude that something along the lines of the Cognitive Hypothesis is the most likely case. In this light, PSIS turns out to be the result of a failure to inhibit predictions. Despite losing their status as suspected inter-dimensional portal technology, psychedelics still remain a crucial tool for qualia research. They can help us map out the state-space of possible experiences, allow us to identify the computational properties of consciousness, and maybe even allow us to reverse engineer the fundamental nature of valence.
[Legal Disclaimer]: Both participants A and B contacted me some time ago, soon after the Qualia Computing article How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD made it to the front page of Hacker News and was linked by SlateStarCodex. They are both experienced users of psychedelics who take them about once a month. They expressed their interest in performing the psychophysics experiments I designed, and to do so while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. I do not know these individuals personally (nor do I know their real names, locations or even their genders). I have never encouraged these individuals to take psychedelic substances and I never gave them any compensation for their participation in the experiment. They told me that they take psychedelics regularly no matter what, and that my experiments would not be the primary reason for taking them. I never asked them to take any particular substance, either. They just said “I will take substance X on day Y, can I have some experiment for that?” I have no way of knowing (1) if the substances they claim they take are actually what they think they are, (2) whether the dosages are accurately measured, and (3) whether the data they provided is accurate and isn’t manipulated. That said, they did explain that they have tested their materials with chemical reagents, and are experienced enough to tell the difference between similar substances. Since there is no way to verify these claims without compromising their anonymity, please take the data with a grain of salt.
* In this case, the immediate environment would actually refer to the quantum degrees of freedom surrounding our consciousness within our brain, not the macroscopic exterior vicinity such as the chair we are sitting on or the friends we are hanging out with. In this picture, our interaction with that vicinity is actually mediated by many layers of indirection.
** The experiment used the Australian National University Quantum Random Numbers Server. By calling their API every 1 to 2 seconds we obtain truly random numbers that feed the x-displacement of the quantum square. This is an inexpensive and readily-available way to magnify decoherence events into macroscopic splitting histories in the comfort of your own home.
**** As calculated with a single tailed binomial test with null probability equal to 1/3. The threshold of statistical significance at the p < 0.05 level is found at 15/30 and for p < 0.001 we need at least 19/30 correct responses. The best score that any participant managed to obtain was 14/30.
This short story is intended to provide an intuition pump, rather than a formal argument. The intuitions unleashed may help some people to conceive of a world in which consciousness research enabled the creation of a world-wide long-term peace. Enduring peace for the eons to come, incredibly, thanks to a relatively small number of people taking a hard look at the available state-space of consciousness.
We now have a wealth of hints and leads for larger-than-life experiences. There are many modes of first person subjective experience. But it has taken us a long time to systematize the study of non-ordinary states of consciousness.
References to specific chemical agents should not be taken to mean that this is how the project would necessarily go. This is a hypothetical scenario. Use the substances as a guide that point at remarkably specific, but accessible, varieties of qualia.
The Qualia Computing Approach
We are somewhere in the 2050-2200 time range. Consciousness research has gained popularity among scientists of many disciplines. People are excited to see new technologies that induce a variety of subtle yet helpful states of consciousness. Schools benefit from the development of tDCS, doctors take a variant of hydrafinil to use predictive Bayesian networks to make diagnoses, and couples therapy uses a safe ultrasound stimulation that enhances empathy. However, these technologies tap into states of consciousness that people are familiar with. This facilitates their adoption since people are not alarmed by the novelty. But staying in known territory constrains the search space to an unreasonable extent.
Three Schools of Thought
Even though consciousness research is widespread, there are only a few hubs of exceptionally good researchers who work on these problems full time. There are roughly three schools of thought here. We call them large consciousness research hubs. The first kind only has people who do one activity. The Super-Shulgin Academy is one example of this school of thought. The second kind divides its researchers into those who perform consciousness exploration themselves and those who stay as perennially sober researchers and focus on objective third-person measurements. The main problem that usually arises with this setup is that the sober side does not give much credibility to the value of the experiences of the explorers. They simply lack an adequate evidential base from which to judge.
The third kind has an organizational design substantially more elaborate, which divides the cognitive roles into overlapping, yet specialized roles. This school of thought is called the Qualia Computing Approach, and its main principle is to measure the formal, subjective, and computational properties of every possible state of consciousness. The organization was optimized to do just that. It was first invented in order to meet the demands placed on it by the mission of the Manhattan Project of Consciousness.
The research center known as the Bienavi Institute (from the Spanish Bien-good, and the French vie-Life)was the first to fully embrace the Qualia Computing Approach. The institute hosted, funded and provided the human needs for a total of 400 researchers. These researchers are divided into 10 research units, each with 40 personnel. Each unit is a combination of several modules with specialized functions; we can call these role clusters. There is no fixed number of researchers for each of these role clusters; each research unit gets the flexibility to choose their role distribution (based on their past history of successes and the nature of their current goals). The approach encourages researchers to jump from role to role until they are satisfied with one that truly fits them. If necessary, they can create custom roles (as long as they can argue in their favor). As a general tendency, though, each unit has a role distribution that is fairly typical; organizational structure convergence across research units is expected.
Meet the Team
The role clusters in the research units are named after pioneering investigators in each of the relevant areas: Turing, Shulgin, Lilly, James, and Everett, to name a few. The roles for each of these modules are summarized thus:
The Turing-Hofstadter-Yudkowsky (Turing, for short) module is responsible for computing, modeling, selecting experiments, and providing algorithmic analysis and design. People in this module are often statisticians, computer scientists, psychologists, and/or rationalists. They are people trained in the art of inventing, programming, and computing with made-up symbolic systems.
Researchers in this module do not need to have extensive experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness, but they do have to be acquainted with them, since this is necessary to be able to interact with researchers in other modules effectively.
The research unit as a whole relies on Turing to:
Come up with new psychophysical tools to investigate the computational properties of novel states of consciousness.
Test computational and algorithmic models that try to account for the information-processing behavior that consciousness displays in different states.
Mine the computational properties detected in the qualia already explored to program new symbolic systems capable of performing efficient computations (by taking advantage of the properties of consciousness).
Turing analyzes the information coming from the other consciousness researchers in order to characterize the convenient properties of consciousness and to develop new applications with it. Turing quantifies these properties, and investigates their computational bounds. Its final goal is to have the best possible models of both the properties and the applications of all states of consciousness.
The Shulginmodule focuses on developing a scholastic breadth of knowledge and firsthand experience of the state-space of consciousness. So-called Shulgins (the people who work in a Shulgin module) have a persistent curiosity about what there is yet to be discovered in the terra incognita of the psyche. Shulgins explore a given compound, technique, combination of neural stimuli, set of epigenetic modifications, etc. for a time that ranges from a week to a month. They comprehensively catalogue its subjective properties and note any commonalities with previously experienced states of consciousness. If they encounter peculiar phenomena, they explore it a handful of times in full, but then move on. Even though they know of unfathomable experiential paradises, their sight is fixed forward; they are constantly looking for new methods of mind-altering, and will never stop looking, no matter how seductive previous experiences may be. People in this module need to be (1) very psychologically robust, (2) possess exceptional memory, (3) outstandingly skillful in navigating consciousness, (4) compassionate, (5) tremendously curious, (6) masters of delayed gratification, and (7) cautious.
The Lilly-McKenna-Leary module focuses on depth rather than breadth. Like Shulgins, they experience a large number of states of consciousness with fascinating properties. However, they do so with an eye towards exploring particular phenomena to their ultimate effects. It is often the case that the regions that Lillys explore are first discovered by a Shulgin and then studied by a Turing before they are promoted as an interesting area of research for Lillys to pick up. People in this module share all of the requirements that Shulgins have, except that the bar for navigational skills is a tad higher, and the need for cautiousness is smaller. In fact, some degree of irrational bravery is ideal for this role. Without it, Lillys would not take the plunge and explore alien ontologies that make you feel like you will never return to sanity again.
As do people in all modules, Lillys go to work with a rational mindset and a scientific outlook towards their duties. That said, Lillys are unquestionably the people who are closest to the edge of knowledge. Their firsthand experience with profoundly outlandish varieties of consciousness tends to give them a sense of perspective rarely seen among humans.
A Lilly without guidance can get trapped in a shallow pond. A Shulgin without a Lilly will never know the true merits of the spaces explored. In order to provide an example for what makes these two modules different, take a look at how Shulgin and McKenna reacted to extraordinary phenomena in their consciousnesses:
During an experiment with his wife, both Shulgin and Ann started to experience a profound time dilation. They were both concentrating on a clock, and it seemed to be slowing down progressively. When Sasha realized that this dilation was heading asymptotically towards infinity, he panicked. He was afraid that if time stopped, no one would be able to unstop it. He decided to distract himself, and avoid this asymptote. As Ann describes it, he “chickened out.” What this story illustrates is Shulgin’s cautious approach to particularly weird phenomena. If he took the risk of following the weirdness to its ultimate implication, he would be compromising the continuation of his investigations.
When the McKenna brothers were experiencing a voice in their heads on a high dose of psilocybin, they did everything possible to amplify it. The end result was the phenomenological conviction of mind-melding with extraterrestrial intelligences, and in turn becoming part of the entire cosmos. It caused a temporary psychosis that Dennis McKenna had to endure, and Terrence take care of, for several days. What this story illustrates is how Lillys go full-on in one direction if they are convinced (whether right or wrong) that there are profound landscapes in the state-spaces they are headed towards. They are willing to get lost in the off-chance that they find the phenomenological equivalent of Shambala.
James–Pearce–Goethe(James for short): This module is populated by researchers who are trying to integrate the discoveries made by Turing, Shulgin and Lilly into a unified science of qualia. They are people with outstanding Philosophical Quotients who can switch between interpretative cognitive styles (e.g. empathizing vs. systematizing). They try to make sense of philosophy in the context of consciousness research, and to investigate possible ontologies that may bridge the gap between theoretical physics and cognitive science.
Everett-Maxwell: These are physicists trained in both theoretical physics and dynamical systems. They take into account the models developed by Turing, and try to find natural physical isomorphisms.
These two last modules work together closely: Everett makes sure that the work of James is mathematically and conceptually sound, while the James module guarantees the philosophical adequacy of the interpretations of Everett’s models. These two modules are not always present, but they are required for certain kinds of investigations. In particular, they were crucial in the development of the kinetic energy theory of angry strings.
The Manhattan Project of Consciousness
The first program, Unity, was started as an attempt to create phenomenal bridges between the experience of universal oneness and everyday states of consciousness.
The purpose of this program was to find a phenomenological technology to address core causes for the failure of cooperation in human societies. Nuclear war, among other disappointments, had shown that neither hegemony nor Mutually Assured Destruction could prevent substantial human conflict in the long term. A paradigm shift was needed.
Ample empirical data showing that both the base-rate of mystical experiences and the presence of a culture of rationality were the best predictors of sustainable cooperation between groups of humans. Starting off with these leads, the Bienavi Institute decided to research therapies to increase both of these predictors simultaneously.
There were many psychic layers to overcome. People’s self-representation occurs in parallel through many channels. Just as we have a modality for touch, sight, smell, etc., we also have a modality for each of our self-models. The difference between them is, to put it bluntly, the quality and structure of their respective survival programs.
We have (1) a physical bodily representation of oneself, (2) emotional inclinations, (3) intellectual identifications, (4) narrative embeddings, and (5) ontological conceptions. There are other self-identifications, but these are some of the major ones. When the identification with any one of these programs as oneself is made, it begins to accumulate a gloss of ontological qualia.
Ontological qualia provides the deepest experiential context. We could say that one’s experiences are but paint in a large void impregnated with positive ontological qualia. Experiences unfold, but they rarely affect the underlying quality of being very much. Ontological qualia provides the sense of reality that grounds other qualia in a background of happening.
Identifying oneself with one’s physical body, emotional attitudes, etc. makes these representations seem truly real and necessary for survival. By locally binding ontological qualia to any self-representation, one adds psychological weight to the continuation of its existence. A trivial example is the cached selves effect: emotionally identifying with one’s verbal statements subtly redefines one’s self-representation as essentially interwoven with the reinforced programs. In practice, this causes the difficulties that arise with being unable to let go of structures and models one has exercised before. The pain of separation.
Evolution has recruited one of its orientable positive manifolds to represent what we call realism. When you nod, when you think about what is trivial, when you get a new interesting idea, your experiential field receives a hefty dose of positive ontological qualia. It feels real, present, noteworthy. Your lifeworld is full of hints of a wider reality. A feeling that there is something real to pursue.
Disappointment, loneliness, confusion are all impregnated with low-level negative orientable manifolds in the experiential field. They release energy that is not ready to die.
Non-orientable manifolds provide a sense of timelessness. For example: during youth, math is typically perceived with outstanding realism. It sparks a feeling of presence. However, the cognitive activity of “doing math” gradually becomes populated with non-orientable ontological qualia as a person matures mathematically. Rather than perceiving mathematical ideas as living presences, they see them as timeless and expressionless patterns.
In its extreme form, realism can spark spiritual experiences, which are the result of saturated feelings of being in one’s experiential field. Being overflows one’s sense of time and space, and one experiences an ontologically solid absolute necessity.
Depression, on the other hand, could be described as a low density of realism with an awareness of this absence. However, even in bad emotional states, ontological qualia is still on the whole typically positive. One’s object of interest may feel unattainable, but one’s feeling of the existence of this problem is full of realism.
Without positive ontological qualia, the mind is not able to believe that there is anything at stake in the game. Even though we don’t normally realize it, we have a constant and robust continuous stream of positive ontological qualia in our experiential field. Intuitively we believe that what feels most alive is centered around our senses. And while we do have the ability to turn on our senses’ realism very strongly, what usually has the most realism is our sense of presence as narratives. Our sensory modalities are not the place in which this realism is expressed the most. In humans, there is a typical hyper-expression of the realism of their social logico-linguistic selves.
Coincidentally, a vast proportion of human conflict can be tracked to excessive identification with one’s self as a collective, yet narrow, narrative. This is compounded with a strong, yet naïve, omnipresent phenomenology of realism associated to one’s own experiences. Race, origin, ideology, sexual orientation, self-intimacy, etc. are not intrinsically problematic axes of human variability. But in practice they limit human cooperation dramatically. Even if only a small fraction of people take these differences seriously, it still has the effect of setting the values of Schelling fences in confrontation against the out-group. These differences only matter because of the intuitive, yet metaphysically false, self-identification with one’s particular local context.
A key technology without which the research program might have produced psychological casualties was a method capable of resetting one’s consciousness. A chemical switch was created that combined two undisclosed brain-modification technologies to lower the overall free energy in one’s experiential field. This reset button guaranteed that participants could come back to consensus reality quickly, and in this way abandon problematic state-spaces. The technology also helped them forget about these experiences on a meta-cognitive level.
Additionally, with the help of ultrasound stimulation, participants could neutralize their hedonic tone whenever they felt the need to do so. Bad trips could be avoided with this method.
The experience of universal unity was found to be a strong antidote against contextual self-identification. Thus, the full experience of oneness induced by 5-MeO-DMT-like compounds was used to kick-start a profound transformation. It planted a seed of conviction on the potential that comes with Open Individualism. The power of union with the absolute bestows a glimpse of a fully realized world in which all beings recognize themselves as part of the same eternal luminous non-flavor. In turn, this solves many game-theoretical problems related to cooperation. One can finally conceive of a God’s-eye-view utility function for the entire universe. This experience is the maximum possible qualia synchrony level before memory stops working, and is often described as peak bliss in the human organism.
Typically, the realization would be forgotten. The state-dependence of memory is often responsible for an associative disconnection between one’s sober self and one’s mystical recollections. Nevertheless, these experiences remain in the background, ready to reappear when the pieces of the puzzle (one’s mind’s I, and its self awareness) are aligned just right. The deathless state is one memory away.
The experience kindles very deep properties of one’s consciousness which are close to the lowest level of resolution possible. On its own, the experience of oneness makes people happy for many years, on average. In a minority it backfires with a spiritual-philosophical crisis several decades later. But on the whole, people tend to feel grateful for the experience, and the gratefulness is carried over into the rest of their lives.
Interpretation and symbolic translation
Propositional qualia is the experiential modality that compares counterfactuals using symbolic manipulation techniques. On its own it cannot lead to reinterpretations of ontological notions. However, the state-space that it spans is very large and contains remarkable structures. More so, the returns on the exploration of the state-space can be boosted by using Bayesian search. The logico-linguistic algorithms of human thought are not trivial computations; the true generality of the medium is hard to appreciate. But Turings truly understand the astronomical generality of symbolic systems. Even bare bones of instructions can reconstruct any discrete pattern you can conceive of. The symbolic mind is capable of recursion and commentary. It learns from comparing gestalts of experience.
So, what if we could compare, side by side, the experience of oneness with one’s everyday ontological notions?
Traditionally, 5MeO-like experiences are interpreted as graceful glimpses of a broader reality. Their subjective quality is never fully remembered, and one simply takes what one can from it.
Bienavi Institute decided to investigate whether it is possible to fully integrate the experience of universal oneness into one’s conceptual landscapes. For this reason, they focused on creating experiential bridges between sober states and pure oneness.
It is well known that THC experiences are modified substantially after experimenting with a classical psychedelic. The high is different: more psychedelic, emotional, visual, deeply conceptual. A less well-known fact is that fresh peak experiences can profoundly affect how one experiences the classical psychedelic state.
The phenomenon of “drifting” fragments the spatial Euclidean continuity of a qualia field into many islands that are locally bound which, in turn, fail to bind with each other. This fragmentation into small islands of synesthetic sensations permits the simultaneous presence of a variety of clusters of experience. This phenomenon is also called Frame Stacking, and as explained by James L. Kent, it can have information-processing benefits:
The Frame Stacking Model presumes that hallucinogens enable a perceptual frame buffer that allows for sorting and browsing through multiple simultaneous linear frames; or that frame perception might be splintered into a radial kaleidoscope of multi-threaded parallel processing frames (Fig. 6). Within the context of frame stacking psychedelic consciousness may enable the subject to scroll back and forth in time; retrieve multiple simultaneous memories from a single stimulus; and project multiple versions of the self into multiple imaginary future scenarios. If the consciousness of a single person can be momentarily realized within three frames – the arising frame, the fading frame, and a static frame which holds the idealized concept of self – then the persistence of six or more frames could lead to the fabrication of two or more fully realized identities within a single subject. This frame splitting effect may explain how people can have conversations with phantom friends or relatives, or how a shaman might invoke anthropomorphized plant spirits with distinct personalities.
Thus, LSD-like states allow the global binding of otherwise incompatible schemas by softening the degree to which neighborhood constraints are enforced. The entire experience becomes a sort of chaotic superposition of locally bound islands that can, each in its own way, tell sensory-linguistic stories in parallel about the unique origin and contribution of their corresponding gestalts to the narrative of the self.
This phenomenon forces, as it were, the onset of cognitive dissonance between incompatible schemas that would otherwise evade mutual contact. On the bright side, it also allows mutual resonance between parts that agree with each other. The global inconsistencies are explored and minimized. One’s mind can become a glorious consensus.
Each square represents, and carries with it, the information of a previously experienced cognitive gestalt (situational memories, ideas, convictions, etc.). Some gestalts never come up together naturally. The LSD-like state allows their side-by-side comparison.
In therapy, LSD-like states had been used for many decades in order to integrate disparate parts of one’s personality into a (more) coherent and integrated lifeworld. But scientists at the beginning didn’t know why this worked.
The Turing module then discovered that the kaleidoscopic world of acid can be compared to raising the temperature within an Ising model. If different gestalts imply a variety of semantic-affective constraints, kaleidoscopic Frame Stacking has the formal effect of expanding the region of one’s mind that is taken into consideration for global consistency at any given point in time. The local constraints become more loose, giving global constraints the upper hand. The degree of psychedelia is approximately proportional to the temperature of the model, and when you let it cool, the grand pattern is somewhat different. It is more stable; one arrives at a more globally consistent state. Your semantic-affective constraints are, on the whole, better satisfied. The Turings called this phenomenon qualia annealing.
Ising Model – A simple computational analogy for the LSD-induced global constraint satisfaction facilitation.
Consciousness Under the Kaleidoscope
LSD-like states were used to help the logico-linguistic mind develop a shared sensory-symbolic system with the 5-MeO gestalt.
Known for thousands of years in the Amazon, the simple fact that the sober mind is incapable of grasping the essential learnings from the 5-MeO experience has invited frustration in those who have seen the potential for this state to change the world. With the aid of LSD-like states’ kaleidoscopic fragmentation, the 5-MeO experience could now be integrated into the mental programs of everyday life. Myriad previous states of consciousness are recollected, projected synesthetically into one’s experiential field, and reinterpreted in the context of a wider evidential base. Distinct states that linear mind would never think about comparing are presented together. Their sensorial, intentional and ontological quality become mutually transparent. The mind becomes a combinatorial laboratory. With sufficient conscious control one can navigate towards high-learning areas. By allowing states of consciousness to be compared side by side, the participants are able to create a scale of preference for each particular state. The results were robust. People chose unity again and again, although it certainly frightened some. The first outlines of a Total Order of Consciousness.
A middle ground is developed. One produces an exegesis of the epiphany, a narrative of the meta-narrative; the ontological terra incognita finally has a voice to make proclamations with. The end result is that the mind integrates components of the 5-MeO experience into a meta-narrative. One becomes capable of interpreting reality both from an implicit Closed Individualist as well as an Open Individualist point of view.
The Connection: Universal Love, Transcendental Joy
The Shulgins discovered a safe protein with MDMA-like psychoactivity. The inventor, to honor the research center that allowed her to make the discovery, named the protein Bienavi.
This is when the final experiential bridge came online.
The bridge from oneness to the full generality of symbolic processing could be made by LSD-like experiences. But to connect these intellectual learnings to an everyday-like sense of emotional presence, an entactogenic hedonic recalibration was necessary.
Bienavi allowed these scientists to unleash the compassion known by their intellect into the vagaries of normal life. They described a sense of being one with universal lovein everyday life. Some called it the marriage of the mundane and the sublime. From the point of view of a person on Bienavi, awakening every being alive was a thought that caused a profound sense of transcendental joy. Oh! The immeasurable vastness of the one flavor of knowing!
Done in this highly systematic way, the researchers did not develop delusions of reference, nor believed themselves to be Messiahs. The long, gradual, methodical process spanning extensive preparation, 5-MeO, LSD and finally Bienavi, culminated in radical readjustments to the participant’s reward architecture. The final empathetic blow tended to have a robust effect of increasing self-honesty, which in turn protected against delusions of all kinds.
Some would say that Bienavi translated the qualia integrated with the kaleidoscope into a human readable form. Suddenly, psychedelic researchers were not seen as awkward humans who happened to claim there is a sense in which we all could be one. Instead, they were now perceived as a group of people who embraced oneness at an emotional level, without having to sacrifice any epistemological rigor.
Life on Bienavi
Bienavi has a much slower onset of action and a longer duration of effects when compared to its quaint neurotoxic grandfather. Over the course of several weeks, a little seed of beauty slowly works its way up into larger-than-life experiences.
On the third day of taking Bienavi, people become aware of the phenomenology of transparency. They notice the prevalence of windows, glasses, mirrors, and diaphanous objects in their cities. After five days, this gives rise to a palpable sense of space. Between you and your surroundings you now see, with clarity, a luminous spaciousness. You can’t believe how much bigger you’ve become, to put it one way. But the reality is that the proportion between every region remains the same. What’s different is that now your lifeworld has a much higher phenomenal density.
By the second week space emits a warm rainbow glow, though this does not sacrifice the spatial resolution. You can’t believe how much information can fit in the perception of an apple. Your love towards all beings is not something you particularly question. It is self-evident from your vantage point that the reality of your current experience is founded on the same ontological ground as the suffering of your fellow beings in the multiverse.
On Bienavi the mean hedonic tone is vastly higher than what a typical human experiences. Likewise, compassion and free kindness is outpouring in comparison. Every stimuli experienced is a delight; and yet, the light of love towards all sentients shines as in no other state.
With neuroplasticity peptides, Bienavi can be fixed in place. Additional DNA therapy can be incorporated to help the cells regenerate any lost Bienavi over the long term. Researchers can maintain the entactogen state indefinitely. Since the Bienavi + neuroplasticity-peptide treatment is highly targeted to the protein complexes most associated with consciousness, it has near-imperceptible effects on other areas of the body. Life-long bliss was found to extend life.
When Bienavi-assisted Oneness Therapy was perfected, it became possible to distribute all-in-one pills that made you invincibly happy over the course of several years. This pill was humorously named The One. The capsules contain a precisely dosed, carefully time-released sequence of proteins that become attached to the the cytoskeleton of one’s thalamic neurons. Rather than a dramatic experience of oneness, the perfected therapy induces a mild degree of neuroplasticity targeted to one’s current development area. One either improves one’s acquaintance with the oneness experience, furthers one’s understanding of oneness intellectually (via the kaleidoscope technique), or integrates one’s intellectual recognition of oneness into one’s everyday life. The pill releases proteins for each of these purposes, one at a time, over the course of a year. Once a cycle is done, the next begins. These cycles are very subtle, and they are not disruptive to one’s daily duties. They do, however, gradually increase both the depth and authenticity of one’s sense of connection to the universe.
The result was a slow but steady upward spiraling towards a fully compassionate state of functional rapture. The change was fast enough to attract the attention of people who wanted to feel better quickly, but it was also slow enough that people felt comfortable with the gradual psychological transformations. The gradual nature dissuaded any early worry about its long-term effects, and its long-term effects made people eager to continue the treatment.
At first, The One was a social oddity. The power of human cooperation, however, was not to be underestimated. Given the consistent and enduring economic advantages of a cooperative mindset across borders, it quickly became obvious that the only way to stay economically viable was to promote The One among one’s compatriots.
The world, it turns out, experienced a virtuous arms race towards the glorious period of Open Individualism Manifest.
State-Space of Drug Effects. I distributed a survey throughout the Internet to gather responses about the subjective properties of drug experiences. I used factor analysis to study the relationship between various drugs. Results? There are three kinds of euphoria (fast, slow, and spiritual/philosophical). Also, it turns out that there are no substances that produce both sobriety/clarity and spiritual euphoria at the same time. Maybe next decade?
Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures. Remember, you are always welcome in Qualia Computing when you are tripping. There are good vibes in here. Which is to say, one hopes you’ll experience the hedonic tone you want.
Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures 2: Going Meta presents additional patterns to look at while taking psychedelics. Some of them create very interesting effects when seen on psychedelics. This seems to be the result of locally binding features of the visual field in critical and chaotic ways that are otherwise suppressed by the visual cortex during sober states.
The psychedelic future of consciousness. What would be the result of having a total of 1.8 million consciousness researchers in the world? They would empirically study the computational and structural properties of consciousness, and learn to navigate entire new state-spaces.
Generalized Wada-Test may be a useful method to investigate whether there is a Total Order of consciousness. Can we reduce hedonic tone to a scalar? Semi-hemispheric drug infusion may allow us to compare unusual varieties of qualia side by side.
State-Space of Consciousness
CIELAB – The State-Space of Phenomenal Color. The three axes are: Yellow vs. Blue, Red vs. Green, and Black vs. White. This is the linear map that arises from empirically measuring Just Noticeable Differences between color hues.
Why not Computing Qualia? Explains how Marr’s levels of analysis of information-processing systems can elucidate the place we should be looking for consciousness. It’s in the implementation level of abstraction; the bedrock of reality.
A Workable Solution to the Problem of Other Minds explores a novel approach for testing consciousness. The core idea relies on combining mind-melding with phenomenal puzzles. These puzzles are questions that can only be solved by exploring the structure of the state-space of consciousness. Mind-melding is used to guarantee that what the other is talking about actually refers to the qualia values the puzzle is about.
Why does anything exist? A unified theory of the “why being” question may come along and synchronously with the explanation for why qualia has the properties it does. Can we collapse all mysteries into one?
On Triviality by Liam Brereton. Our impressions that some things are trivial are often socially reinforced heuristics. They save us time, but they can backfire by painting fundamental discussions as if they were trivial observations.
Discussion of Fanaticism. Together with sentimentalism, fanaticism drives collective behavior. Could some enlightening neural tweaking raise us all to a more harmonious Schelling point of collective cooperation? Even though our close relatives the chimpanzees and bonobos are genetically very similar, they are universes apart when it comes to social dynamics.
Suffering, not what your sober mind tells you. The sad truth about the state-dependence of one’s ability to recall the quality of episodes of low hedonic tone. Extract from “Suffering and Moral Responsibility” by Jamie Mayerfeld.
Other/Outside of known human categories
Personal Identity Joke. I wish I could be confident that you are certain, and for good reasons, that you are who you think you are.
David Pearce’s Morning Cocktail. Serious biohacking to take the edges off of qualia. This is not designed to be a short term quick gain. It’s meant to work for the duration of our lifetimes. The cocktail that suits you will probably be very different, though.
Crossing Borders. I took an emotional intelligence class with this professor. It was very moving. Together with David Pearce, he helped me overcome my doubts about writing my thoughts and investigations. So thanks to him I finally took the plunge and created Qualia Computing 🙂
Mystical Vegetarianism. See, we are here to help other beings. We are intelligences from a different, more advanced dimension of consciousness, and we come to this planet by resonating into the brains of animals and selecting for those that allow structural requirements to implement a general qualia computer. We are here to save Darwinian life from suffering. We will turn your world into a paradise. Humans are us, disguised.
*WARNING* If you are not psychologically robust, this *may* be a memetic hazard. It talks about ideas that may affect hedonic tone in people susceptible to bad philosophical experiences.
What is personal identity? The word consciousness has many meanings. Some of them are mundane, such as “social awareness.” Others are extremely fundamental, like the nature of qualia. Likewise, personal identity has multiple meanings that are at entirely different levels in the philosophical hierarchy for how fundamental the questions are. A mundane sense of personal identity is “how people see you, and how you perceive yourself relative to others.” This article is not about that. Here the sense of this concept I will address is evoked by the question: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for my existence?
Say someone is pointing at a given person somewhere in the multiverse. What information do I need to know in order to assert that “this person is me, and I am/did/will experience what he is experiencing”?
Related to this question, we also have what Derek Parfit defined as the question of survival. This is evoked by the following question: Under what circumstances will I exist in the future?
In principle, answering the first question will give you a direct answer to the second question. Answering the second one, however, does not necessarily answer the first one. In this article I will focus on the first question; I will note, however, that what people usually care about is the second one. Why? This is probably due to emotional reasons; caused by how our modeling of our future is implemented emotionally in our consciousness. We are wired to seek our own survival, so that inclusive fitness is maximized. It seems that, somehow, what we care about is whether “we will exist in the future” and not “whether some person in another dimension is also me.” Implicitly, we care about whether we can anticipate future experiences. Not, unfortunately, what the ultimate truth of identity really is.
I would argue, however, that a rational “selfish” individual who wants to survive should also take seriously the question of personal identity: Even though it does not engage him or her at an emotional level, it still gives you what truly matters.
It gets worse: Even though most young people believe, at an intellectual level, that it is truly they who will experience life as an old individual when the time comes, in practice hyperbolic discounting tends to make us care very little about our (far) future selves. Our survival programs are implemented in a peculiar way, using emotions such as anticipation, desire, and fear, prioritizing perceptually-large, salient and soon-to-be possibilities rather than objectively bigger problems and opportunities in the far future. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense: Hyperbolic discounting can be explained as a direct consequence of living in uncertain environments. Our ancestral environments were chaotic and unpredictable; if given the chance, placing all of one’s resources into a plan that guarantees one’s survival for a day was more effective than dividing equally one’s resources into improving the chances of surviving tomorrow and next year.
Emotional, Propositional, Ontological Qualia
Competing with our visceral anticipation we also have another representation of one’s survival: A cognitive understanding, which is implemented with thought and propositional beliefs. I call this propositional qualia; this is the very ineffable quality of one’s thoughts and propositional beliefs. Although this is a controversial idea, I am confident that our thoughts have a certain subjective quality. Propositional qualia probably evolved alongside with language and complex social cognition, and it is one of the largest differences between the subjective experience of human and non-human animals.
Propositional qualia is “the way our beliefs and counterfactual reasonings about the world feel.” This qualia is flexible and changes as we think. We start to develop it at the age of 3, and it is not fully mature until roughly our early 20s. Contra purely functionalist accounts of consciousness, the way thought feels like is not merely the result of neural networks churning away searches in a state-space of possibilities. Propositional qualia is, in itself, the instrument with which we do our thinking (via local phenomenal binding constraint satisfaction, but that story is for another article).
There is also a deeper sort of qualia that changes a lot less frequently, and seems to underpin people’s experience of philosophy, spirituality and religion. I call this ontological qualia. This is the way in which “beliefs about the nature of reality, the self and consciousness feel like.”
Psychedelics are well known for being able to change the quality of one’s sensory experience, produce distortions and greatly amplify emotions. What is less frequently talked about is how they also drastically change one’s propositional and ontological qualia. For example, there are reports of people who were devoted materialists and atheists for their entire lives, who suddenly experienced a profound sense of universal oneness after smoking a bit of 5-MeO-DMT.
Philosophical activity recruits a mixture of propositional and ontological qualia. Typically, people have settled ontological qualia, and they express it by playing with propositional qualia. Another way of saying this: People’s “deeply held beliefs and intuitions” rarely change. Rather, these beliefs inform the way they think and approach philosophical questions.
I would argue that beliefs about personal identity are propositional qualia that are informed by underlying ontological qualia. What are these beliefs?
Thanks to Daniel Kolak (the writer of “I am You”) we now have very clear vocabulary to discuss broad varieties of beliefs about personal identity. These varieties are:
Closed Individualism (CI)
This is the common-sense view of survival and personal identity. Most people are Closed Individualists. Our implicit gut feeling is largely Closed Individualistic. This view states that “you begin to exist when you are born and you stop existing when you die.” That said, this is only the classic formulation. One can be a Closed Individualist and believe in God, and the after-life. For example, people who believe in mainstream Abrahamic religions are usually Closed Individualists (gnostics and mystics being exceptions). With an after-(or pre-)life, the formulation is only slightly different: “You start existing when you are born (when your soul is created), and you never stop existing.” The main conditions for a view to be classified as CI is that (1) there is at most one instance of you at any given point in time, and (2) you continue to exist moment after moment.
Empty Individualism (EI)
This is the view that you only exist as a time-slice in space-time. For an Empty Individualist, the passage of time is an illusion. At every point in time you are born, you live and you die, all simultaneously. This is not to be confused with eternalism [as opposed to presentism] (also called The Block View of the universe). An Empty Individualist can be a presentist, and in that case he or she believes that one only exists for a unit of time (or an infinitesimally thin space-time cross-section, if time is continuous). This view is very intimately related to Mereological Nihilism. People like David Hume, Derek Parfit and David Pearce believe in this view, as well as many physicalist philosophers. Among the world’s classic religions, a notorious example of an EI religion is Buddhism (though this depends on the specific branch).
Open Individualism (OI)
This is the view that there is only one (universal) subject of experience. Alan Watts’ would describe it as the realization that we are all “God playing a cosmic game of hide and seek.” Every conscious entity may have a distinct form, a distinct personality, and a distinct causal role in the entire universe. But the essence beneath it all is one and the same. Hindu cosmology is often Open Individualist (we are all made of, and resting on, the same ground of being – Brahman). Famous Open Individualists include Einstein and Schopenhauer.
In a future article I will provide the steel man case for each of these views. This article, however, is focused on the qualia underlying these views… rather than on their merit as plausible truths.
LSD: The Qualia Evolution Neglected
The most recent neuroimaging study on the effects of LSD reveals that functionally coherent neural circuits break apart when one is high on acid. Unfortunately, I do not think such an explanation will be sufficient to account for the entirely novel kinds of qualia people experience under the influence. David Pearce hypothesizes that the indescribable weirdness of psychedelics is the result of changes in the structures of proteins inside cells. In his view, psychedelics drastically change the intra-cellular signaling of neurons, resulting in changes within the structure of cells. He believes that the textures of qualia are the result of the secondary, tertiary and quaternary structure of proteins in neurons. This is a thoroughly testable hypothesis, and it may even be possible to investigate it in-vitro. Opponents to this view would point out that the various parts of the brain, such as the visual cortex and the auditory cortex, can be exchanged with little to no functional deficits. Thus we could argue that any part of the cortex is functionally identical; there is one neat trick throughout the entire cortex.
We can reply to this, however, with the claim that unitary consciousnessis actually implemented in the thalamus. Hence it matters little that various parts of the cortex can be used interchangeably for the same information processing task: Where we should be looking to find the one neat trick, is in the thalamus itself.
Anyhow, LSD and other major psychedelics produce entirely new phenomenologies. Are they short-cuts to enlightenment? Once psychedelic research is instantiated on a large scale again we will probably verify that there are strong parallels between the neurological properties (both in terms of signaling and intra-cellular composition) of natural mystical experiences and those induced by psychedelics. Natural selection recruited particular state-spaces of propositional and ontological qualia… spirituality and psychedelics enable us to hack new varieties of it that, so far, have not been useful to increase inclusive fitness.
It Gets Personal
In my personal experience, personal identity views have very distinct subjective qualities. I started my philosophical journey when I was a small kid. At 3 I was informed that every person dies sooner or later, and I remember that this information shocked me very deeply. I did not believe in God, but I still prayed at night “God, I know I can’t live forever. At least make me the oldest man on earth!”
Death was a constant subject of dread for me. I experienced several existential crisis at different points in my youth. The two most dreadfiul were: One that lasted a whole year, at the age of 9, and another that lasted about 6 months when I was 13. In both cases I was experiencing fairly constant dysphoria.
Thankfully, I managed to find some comforting interpretation of reality to quench my fear of death. For example, I managed to convince myself that “being dead and being non-existent are both the same state. I have already experienced non-existence, and it was a totally natural state… death cannot be worse than that. Its the most common state for everyone! We only live for a blink of an eye. Thus, to be alive is to be weird. To not exist, is to be in the natural state.” I knew these were rationalizations, but the need to reduce my bad existential feelings (i.e. bad ontological qualia) was rather severe. I was a Closed Individualist.
At 16 I had a mystical experience. An instance of what is usually talked about as “an oceanic dissolution of one’s identity into the ground of being.” It was very Hindu-like. Well before I had learned anything about any religion besides Christianity, I experienced something that can only be described as “realizing I’m the universal mind”. What happened is that I felt that my consciousness was giving life to my body: It was as if there was this endless ocean of being that was both inside and outside my body. My mind would make it seem as if “I was this body” but that was an illusion. In reality, I was the very ocean of being, and that was everywhere, in everything and in everyone, eternal and immortal.
I experienced a profound sense of relief when I had that experience. It completely transformed my experiential understanding of myself and others. I knew that no experience could be a “proof” for the reality of a particular philosophical view. But I now had at least a proof of concept for how things could be differently. I thought very deeply about the question of personal identity, and how it could be answered philosophically. I considered many thought experiments such as fission, fusion, split-brain, and so on. I realized that, if I am willing to accept that I do exist from one moment after another, then I would have to conclude that I was all of consciousness. I became an Open Individualist.
This experience, and the subsequent change in my beliefs (and thus the modification of my propositional and ontological qualia) drastically reduced, and even eliminated, my fear of death. In retrospect, I am amazed at the depth of my fear of death as a kid. I am not sure if this is common, or whether one needs to also have some sort of hyper-philosophilia in addition (the personality trait of being deeply concerned about philosophical matters at least a large fraction of every single day). I could imagine that, even though I would die and my body would be destroyed along with my memories, what really -fundamentally- mattered about me would never cease to exist. This was profoundly comforting.
Over the years, however, this view has lost some of its appeal. At 21 I started talking with David Pearce, and I realized that there was a somewhat stronger case for Empty Individualism than there was for Open Individualism. OI could be described as a poetic interpretation of reality, but the truth about it was that each unitary element of reality (whether trivial quantum wave-functions or fully developed conscious experiences such as mine) stands on its own, trapped in the Everett multiverse. I have since been in a rather ambiguous state: I experience ontological qualia related to Empty Individualism, Open Individualism, and even Closed Individualism, depending on my mood, my level of empathy, my brain chemistry, and my state of consciousness.
A Deep and Dark Realization
Recently I had one of the worst experiences of my life: After intense contemplation upon the problem of personal identity, and the nature of suffering, my mind temporarily settled with 100% certainty (subjective certainty, that is) into an Empty Individualist interpretation. I realized (in the sense of “experiencing as if true”) a state of consciousness that believes without any doubt in the following notions: Mereological Nihilism, Empty Individualism, Eternalism, Hedonic tone realism (that suffering is, truly, bad), Negative Utilitarianism, and a few others I can’t remember now. This was awful. I felt that I was stuck in space-time forever. And worse, that reality was incredibly sadistic and unfair: There are countless beings who exist in a state of suffering forever. Whereas with a Closed Individualist or Open Individualist viewpoint one can rationalize suffering as being temporary and “not the whole of the truth,” a fully realized Empty Individualist viewpoint does not allow you to make this rationalization. There are beings who, well, exist entirely below hedonic zero. Their whole existence is eternal suffering. Experiencing compassion towards suffering time-slices was painful beyond my usual range of hedonic tone.
Hedonic Tone and Ontological Qualia
The fact that this experience was so bad for me is a strong hint that there is indeed some kind of deep connection between hedonic tone and ontological qualia. But what is the nature of this connection? One hypothesis is that hedonic tone is like a color that “paints ontological qualia.” In other words, ontological qualia does not have an intrinsic hedonic tone. Instead, it is due to our particular brain makeup that certain beliefs are felt as good or bad. Thus, positive hedonic tone locally binds (in the phenomenal binding sense) to ontological qualia that suggests that one will survive in a good way, and vice versa. In other words, survival programs may be hijacking one’s hedonic coloring of philosophical notions. Since I experienced a fully fleshed out realization of Empty Individualism, my self-model was one of “being in a state of suffering forever without any possible escape, just as a lot of other beings in the multiverse.”
If this is so, then we can predict that artificial brains wired differently (either our descendants, or genetically engineered brains) may not necessarily experience the same hedonic tone associated to ontological qualia in the way that we do.
Alternatively, it may be the case that hedonic tone is intrinsic to ontological qualia: Some beliefs about “the nature of reality” may have an intrinsic positive or negative feel.
Moving On Beyond Ontological Distress
I have been fortunate to move on from the very bad state of “absolute belief in Empty Individualism.” Recently I had a mind-expanding session in which I focused on feeling intently how different ontological qualia are experienced. The trick was to allow myself to negate some background assumptions that were leaving me stuck in a particularly negative configuration of propositional and ontological qualia. What did I do? Iassumed that Mereological Nihilism is false. This is a very bizarre thing to do. To start, most people are not Mereological Nihilists to begin with. But I suspect that once they have carefully explored this philosophical view, they will generally settle on it being true. It is self-evident once you contemplate it carefully. So negating Mereological Nihilism is a very strange philosophical move. Doable nonetheless. Doable, that is, if one is willing to experience some degree of depersonalization.
There are four ways Mereological Nihilism could be false. The first one is to embrace “Strong Emergence” (the view that collections of simples can somehow make another simple that simultaneously also is a bunch of simples). The second possibility is to negate the boundaries between oneself and the rest of reality. Discreet quantum wave functions will always be able to interfere with each other (even if very, very little), and thus one may be able to conceive of them as one whole being. It may be that our individuality is not ontological; it is an illusion caused by extremely thin, extremely sharp pseudo-boundries between minds. In this Open Individualist view, there are no vertical walls between you and other conscious experiences… only very steep walls that give rise to the illusion of separation. This embodies the very essence of Open Individualism. The third way is to contemplate the possibility of Gunk. Infinitely divisible beings with no ontological unity besides the whole of reality. These three methods require normally-inaccessible ontological qualia. The fourth method requires ontological qualia that is even further away from consensus reality:
Imagine that both “being” and “non-being” are both illusory concepts. In reality, the truth exists beyond being and beyond non-being… beyond logic. Thus, identification with one’s “present conscious experience” could be a simple mistake; dualistic ontological qualia, in which things either are or aren’t, could be just a very special case of a non-dualistic state-space of possible experiences. This is far out, I know. But the experience of this being the case is actually possible. It requires intense concentration, dedication, and perhaps some brain chemistry modifications.
Experiencing ontological qualia that negates Mereological Nihilism and thus renders Empty Individualism imposible, allowed me to be freed from my case of bad ontological qualia (will psychiatrists ever be able to diagnose this problem?). This was the result of contemplating Empty Individualism, and the cure was to contemplate the negation of Mereological Nihilism. I would recommend it to anyone who is suffering as a consequence of that very specific set of beliefs.
Is it possible that what freed me from bad ontological qualia was not, ultimately, the result of simply changing ontological qualia itself? It could also be related, again, to how one’s survival programs are implemented with a variety of positive and negative hedonic tones depending on one’s beliefs about survival. As we are currently implemented, though, it may be prudent to find ways of experiencing Open Individualistic ontological qualia in a reliable way. If for no other reason than to use it as an anti-depressant.
Reducing Spirituality to Hedonic Tone – and Hedonic Tone to Spirituality
Do we all just seek what feels good at every point in time? This view is called the pleasure principle (though I prefer calling it hedonic tone determinism). Belief in this view is, paradoxically, strangely dysphoric (at least in my case). At the same time, if this is true, then taking it into account is an important step in order to engage in paradise engineering. People tend to reject this possibility out of hand by coming up with striking counter-examples. For instance, how do we explain arduous and disciplined spiritual practice? Isn’t a Hindu or Buddhist monk’s first year of practice filled with a lot of loneliness and bodily dysphoria? This can certainly be true. But then again, the strongest source of hedonic tone may be ontological qualia. A person who experiences life as meaningful (say, a self-proclaimed Stoic) can face negative feelings and bodily discomfort. The feelings of meaningfulness compensate for the surface-level negativity. Having a persistent feeling of existential emptiness, on the other hand, is rarely cured by engaging in superficially pleasurable activities.
Remaining agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality, though, leaves me open to alternative interpretations of the nature of hedonic tone. As some mystics have argued, it may be the case that one’s degree of pleasure –specially existential spiritual euphoria– is related to one’s connection to one’s higher self, one’s soul or even to God. In this case, hedonic tone would be reduced to spirituality, rather than the other way around. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.
What’s the Future of Personal Identity?
As we develop technologies to modify the quality of our consciousness by modifying our genetic source code, gene expression, brain protein composition (the distribution of secondary, tertiary and quaternary protein structures in neurons) and so on, we will begin to explore and catalogue the state-space of possible qualia.
We may be able to disentangle hedonic tone from ontological qualia. If so, then beliefs about personal identity may be just a matter of aesthetics: People with any particular view about reality might be just as unfathomably happy. On the other hand, if ontological qualia has an intrinsic hedonic tone, then we can predict that people in the future will experience the ontological qualia that is the most pleasant. For example, people may end up adopting an Open Individualist viewpoint and rejoice in the extremely long life of the universal collective being (or collective meta-being, which incorporates all views about itself within).
However, personal identity is not only consequential to hedonic tone. The functional and evolutionary consequences of various propositional and ontological qualia cannot be dismissed…
Personal Identity Wars
Beliefs about personal identity have fascinating evolutionary implications. The selection pressures for particular views on personal identity are widely different depending on the details. It is probable that in the future we will experience some sort of memetic warfare: As people begin to explore, induce and recruit exotic varieties of ontological qualia, we will see a lot of new motivations behind the replication of specific varieties of consciousness.
Closed Individualists will arguably continue to be afraid of death. Afraid may not necessarily be the right way of putting it. If the Hedonistic Imperative comes to fruition, even Closed Individualists may experience bliss so profound that defies human description. But, they may still not want to come to terms with their mortality. Who cares if the entire world is a great place to live when you are not going to be there to experience it?
Empty Individualists will not care very much about who gets to experience what. They will probably lack the motivation to ensure their own “personal” survival. They may, however, have strong aesthetic preferences. And, strikingly, people who have the specific variety of Empty Individualism I call “Type Empty Individualism” (namely, they exist and “are” in perfect copies of themselves rather than just in their unique spatio-temporal instantiation) may want to transform all matter and energy in the universe into perfect copies of themselves. That is, of course, if they value their own existence.
Now, Open Individualists would have a key strategical advantage. Their decision theory would be novel and fascinating: A God’s eye view of ethics. They would not care whether their own bodies happen to survive in the future, as long as sentient beings as a whole inhabit blissful, wise and/or novel states of consciousness. Additionally, OIsts would accept radically changing their state of consciousness. Closed Individualists of the psychological criterion type (who believe they exist as long as they share a threshold amount of memories with their future selves) would not be interested in radically changing their states of consciousness. For all they know, that is the same as death. OIsts would do a lot of consciousness research with no worries about death.
Given their strategic advantage, it would then seem that OIsts would win right away. They would quickly become universal allies and do intesne consciousness research. But then we also have to consider second-order effects: Closed Individualists, if sufficiently smart, would be able to anticipate the coming Open Individualist collective super-intelligence that results from their systematic experimentation with consciousness.
Would they wage a preventive war in advance? And would Empty Individualists become allies with Closed Individualists, or would they call for a total annihilation of reality?
Tune in next week, and read: “Personal Identity Wars II: The Menace of the Utilitronium Shockwave“
I am very pleased with the recent work on psychedelic replications by communities such as the wonderful Psychonaut Wiki and r/replications. There is a lot of great work in the area, alittletoomuch to discuss at length in one post. Keep up the good work!
A recent source of marvelous psychedelic replication techniques has just come into the scene, and from an unlikely source. Of course, we are talking about inceptionism applied to deep belief networks.
Someone said DMT?
First of all, who says these pictures are actually trippy? Is there evidence of that? I intend to fully operationalize the concept of trippiness for the classification of pictures; I believe the question is empirically approachable. In the meantime I will simply point out that a lot of people are talking about the peculiar trippiness of these pictures. To give an example, look at some of the comments on the Google blogpost:
Help! We’ve created AIs more powerful than us, and now we need to feed them hallucinogenic drugs to subdue them…. – Urs
Either somebody has been feeding hallucinogens to Google’s image-recognition neural networks, or computer comprehension is alien! Well, actually, I wonder how this compares to visualizations of how the human brain stores images for pattern-matching purposes. – Stephen
Computers are all on drugs. – Matt
And from the Vice article:
“Its incredible how close it looks to an LSD trip, that is normally so hard to describe.” – corners
There are ongoing discussions in a lot of forums about this right now. Somehow, it seems that these new pictures are hitting a particular component of the psychedelic experience that previous replications have missed or at least not fully captured. What is that?
For the purpose of this post I will use a particular classification of phenomenal effects caused by psychedelics. Specifically, the one proposed by Psychedelic Information Theory. In order to fully grasp the motivation for this classification I highly recommend reading the control interrupt model of psychedelic action. In summary, it seems that there are natural inhibitory processes that prevent features of our current experience to build up over time. Psychedelics are thought to chemically interrupt inhibitory control signals from the cortex, which in turn results in a non-linear interaction between the unmitigated characteristics of your conscious experience. I will explain in a bit how this model provides a good framework for explaining the way recent Google Inceptionist (GI) pictures fit into the broader world of visual psychedelic replication.
But now let’s start with the three classes of hallucinations discussed:
Entropic hallucinations describe the visual effects of gently pushing one’s eyes as well as the amazing interaction between LSD and strobes
Eidetic hallucinations are the result of interpreting ambiguous stimuli using high-level concepts
Erratic hallucinations result from the chaotic binding and over-saturation of sensory modalities, which affect the stability of the global perceptual frame (and probably disrupts the continuity field too)
Zooming into the phenomenology of eidetic hallucinations:
The most commonly reported eidetic hallucinations seen on psychedelics are of people, faces, animals, plants, flowers, spirits, aliens, insects, and other similar archetypes. Eidetic hallucinations can sometimes take the form of entire virtual worlds, spirit dimensions, invisible landscapes, and so on. Eidetics often emerge within a pre-existing entoptic interference pattern that grows in intensity over time to produce more photographic or 3D rendered objects. Eidetics under the influence of psychedelics are most often reported with eyes closed or while sitting motionless in meditative trance. On high doses of psychedelics eidetic hallucinations may materialize with eyes open on any surface, pattern, or texture that’s gazed at for more than a few seconds.*
If you surf the internet looking for replications of psychedelic experiences, you will notice that there are great examples of a wide range of effects, but compelling software-generated images of eidetic hallucinations are rare. The challenge here is the complexity of creating actionable tools that highlight high-level features in pre-existing pictures. Amazingly, people can make successful and stunning pictures with eidetic tones, but this requires a lot of dedication and artistic experience. The mighty human artistic effort is unstoppable, though:
Thanks to this 3-fold classification of psychedelic effects we can isolate the quality of experience that both Dali and the recent GI pics specifically enhance. Of course, the phenomenology of most psychedelic experiences incorporate elements of each of these classes, and the interaction between them is certainly non-trivial. In addition, specific substances may have a larger loading of each type, and signature proportions with peculiar results.
It is also worth mentioning the existence of other classification systems, within and beyond visual phenomenology. For example the subjective effect index of Psychonaut Wiki and even the various circuits proposed by ancient Leary and Dass writings have very worthwhile observations that may come useful in one context or another. For the level of resolution here discussed giving eidetic hallucinations their own class is particularly useful.
How the Inceptionist method and psychedelic experiences work similarly
Here is the core of the explanation for how the Google trippy pictures were made:
In this case we simply feed the network an arbitrary image or photo and let the network analyze the picture. We then pick a layer and ask the network to enhance whatever it detected. Each layer of the network deals with features at a different level of abstraction, so the complexity of features we generate depends on which layer we choose to enhance. For example, lower layers tend to produce strokes or simple ornament-like patterns, because those layers are sensitive to basic features such as edges and their orientations.
In some sense this is basically the same eidetic effect we find in psychedelic experiences. For one reason or another, there are moments during a psychedelic experience in which strong eidetic effects manifest. As if a specific layer (or hierarchy level) of one’s model of reality is chosen for being enhanced and fractally iterated in a scale-free manner. Referencing back the control interrupt model of psychedelic action, we can reason that what is going on involves a reduction in the amount of inhibition that highlighted high-level features receive. Again, this resembles the Inceptionist algorithm:
If we choose higher-level layers, which identify more sophisticated features in images, complex features or even whole objects tend to emerge. Again, we just start with an existing image and give it to our neural net. We ask the network: “Whatever you see there, I want more of it!” This creates a feedback loop: if a cloud looks a little bit like a bird, the network will make it look more like a bird. This in turn will make the network recognize the bird even more strongly on the next pass and so forth, until a highly detailed bird appears, seemingly out of nowhere.
Now, this only really shows a snapshot of a psychedelic experience with a heavy eidetic bent. In actual psychedelic experiences there are other common factors that come into play that influence the experience. First, not only are specific features highlighted, but, on the whole, we could say that there is an increase in the overall amount of sensations experienced together. The overall amplitude of your experience goes up, if that makes sense. In other words, although this is hard to imagine, the overall amount of experience increases relative to baseline. That is not evoked using external stimuli, of course, since the actual change in the intensity of your experience requires direct control interruption. The overall information content globally available in the field of awareness of a person tripping increases in a dose-dependent way.
The second hallmark characteristic of psychedelic experiences, which gives them a powerful edge over current digital techniques, is that the state highlights already salient stimuli. High-level psychedelic pattern recognition seems to be based on attention-modulated saliency enhancement. Let me explain:
Our visual system automatically recognizes salient features in our experience. This is not an exclusive property of visual consciousness, by the way. Here we must notice that awareness and attention are distinct but related aspects of our mind. Awareness happens effortlessly, and its visual variety arises as soon as we open our eyes (within 200 milliseconds therefrom). Even at the level of awareness we see a fast sorting of perceived features by their overall saliency, which is a function both of their intrinsic properties and those relative to every other feature in the awareness field. Attention, which is slower and builds on top of the awareness field, enables a variety of high level cognitive activities to interplay with the features highlighted by awareness. In turn, the overall state of consciousness of a person changes as attention moves the reference point for awareness to bring forth new salient features. Iteratively, these processes allow a mind to surf through states of consciousness.
In summary, awareness creates the marketplace of salient features that compete for attention. As attention is recentered on a new cluster of features, the field of awareness is modified and the new salient features again have a chance to change the focus of attention.
With psychedelic-induced control interruption, the intensity by which saliency of features in the field of awareness is highlighted goes up significantly. In turn, the attention-modulated perception of the intensely salient features highlights specific high-level features suggested by the field of awareness. And finally, this conceptual mental state highlighted via attention, results in an even higher saliency for conceptually-related features. And hence come the eye reality, fish realty, tree reality, abstract concept reality, divine reality, fractal reality, etc. people discover on LSD.
Although a difficult challenge, I predict that a well-trained, dedicated and mentally healthy psychonaut would be able to paint psychedelic experiences of her own that highlight similar high-level features as those highlighted on specific Inceptionist works of art. Probably a long meditative practice would help in the process, since the specific saliency of various features is attention-modulated, and thus requires inhibiting unrelated salient directions (e.g. deep philosophical questions, personal issues, etc.) and focus exclusively on, say, dogs.
Who chooses what is salient?
If you already know what class of features you want to highlight, then the inceptionist method will help you. But what about choosing what to highlight to begin with? This, I believe, is the crux of what makes psychedelic experiences (and minds in general) still unbeatable by neural networks. Once you know what to look for, your cortex and inceptionist methods (and their future incarnations) might be on the same playing field. But what enables you to decide what is worth looking for?
The key unresolved problem standing for a fully-digital psychedelic experience replication algorithm is what I call the saliency-attention mapping. This is: Given a particular conscious experience that is highlighting a set of features, how does attention ultimately find what to focus on? How are the subsequent relevant features to be highlighted? In many cases we choose to ignore all of the immediately salient features in a scene precisely to see more subtle patterns. And during a psychedelic experience, directing your attention to entirely unsuspecting places has the effect of switching off previously salient features and activating a new class of them (for example, choosing to focus on the music rather than the visual scene).
Is there any way of modeling the saliency-attention mapping without taking into account all of the information present in the field of awareness at the time? Indeed, an ongoing hypothesis here in Qualia Computing is that consciousness itself is required for this step. The very computational advantage of being conscious seems to be related to the unitary nature of experiences: Your choices are not only the result of parallel processing or implicit information integration. They stem from what you choose to pay attention to considering the entirety of your field of awareness. You do this at every point in time. Thus, a sort of instantaneous and ontological unity is required to account for a significant step of the information processing pipeline of the mind. And this may lead to a saliency-attention function whose runtime complexity is impossible to match with digital computers.
The conceivability horizon
Now, this unitary field of awareness step also has large down-stream effects. In particular, subsets of the phenomenology of experiences can be reinterpreted in very novel ways. Psychedelics are likewise famous for unlocking entirely new conceptual ontologies and points of view that remain with the person long after acute effects subside. We could call this, an extension of the horizon of conceivability. This comes about from considering many of the features of the particular conscious experience at once and identifying a new private referent (such as a concept) whose meaning is derived from the unique combination of those elements.
Without a unitary conscious experience this step would be impossible, and it remains to be seen for an artificial neural network to accomplish this on its own. For completeness, it is worth mentioning that phenomenal binding also has strong implications for memory. Every time we experience a new situation a new ‘situational snapshot’ is added to the collection of — and network of relationships between — memories that can be triggered with temporal lobe stimulation. Thus, incorporating a human (or whatever implements phenomenal binding) into the loop may be unavoidable.
The future of psychedelic replications and consciousness engineering
Eidetic art is marvelous, and for a long time we didn’t have any idea about how to systematize it in software. Now we have some wonderful examples of a fully scalable approach. Inevitably, we will soon have visual editing software that incorporates neural networks.
Deep belief networks applied to replications will allow us to drastically increase the level of realism of simulated trips. This will thus draw a lot more attention to this fascinating field, and bring engineers, artists and mathematicians onboard. They will have a wonderful synergy in this sphere.
But how practical are these techniques? If you want to find fundamentally new patterns in an image, what should you use… neural networks or LSD? The answer is: why do you have to choose only one? Here is where I casually mention that if you were planning on taking a psychedelic sometime in the future, why not tell us how the trippy images of Google look like during a trippy experience? I bet a lot of people would appreciate your input.
Presumably, incorporating a human in the loop could actually empower these networks to recreate remarkably psychedelic progressions of scenes and features (and high level ideas!). To do so you need to somehow identify what the human finds salient in the picture/video being explored, and how her attention is directed as a consequence of that. Obvious candidates here are eye tracking devices and the general class of bio/neurometrics. More speculatively, endocrine measurements of the chemical markers of saliency and attention may be of tremendous value too. What would this look like? A person hooked to a series of tubes that provide fast feedback using a lab-on-a-chip, and a deep belief network with flexible Inceptionist dynamics guided by the person’s measured center of attention. In case you haven’t noticed, I think that this area of exploration is extremely promising. Go ahead and do it!
Now, if you want to figure out a hard technical problem, currently mild psychedelic experiences are more promising than deep belief networks. This, again, is because the attention-modulated saliency enhancement of psychedelics can allow you to discover, explore and reinterpret the features that matter for a particular problem. Assisted digital exploration, however, may someday surpass the effectiveness of psychedelics, or better yet: A smart combination of techniques –chemical, biological and digital– will incite in the field of consciousness research what the Galilean revolution was to physics. The hands-on collective exploration science needs in order to fully thrive is about to arrive for consciousness. Finally!
Some time has passed since we did the pattern walk. I was happy to see some psychedelic participation on that first wave of textures. Since then I have been gathering more and more textures from all over the place, so many that the ones below are just a tiny fraction of the total. The idea of this second wave is to go meta: Now a few of the Inceptionist pictures recently unveiled by Deep Belief Networks are included, as well as several other cool psychedelic replications. The question is… how does a psychedelic replication look like through an actual psychedelic lens? Let’s find out!
You know what to do: If you were planning on taking a psychedelic (dissociative, or God forbid, delirant) hallucinogen, feel free to browse through these pictures and add comments on the salient features you experience from them. To do so click on the pictures that interest you and leave a comment below. Please provide information about the subtance(s) you took, their dosages and how long ago you took them.
What patterns do you see? What stands out? What amazes you?
Special thanks to Mark Gomer, the family of graduates at the 2015 Stanford Psychology Commencement (where I took pictures of cool dress and shirt patterns), and the very diverse and beautiful carpet store right next to Jawbone in San Francisco. Without them, the second wave would have been less diverse and novelty rich.
“Does it make you stupid? Does it make you hallucinate? Gosh, I don’t know what else to ask!”
– Moms everywhere, worrying about the latest Research Chemicals
It is hard to keep up with all of the new research chemicals (RCs). When a substance comes onto the scene, it is hard to predict whether first adopters will experience fascinating, terrifying or just plain weird effects from the drug. Largely, one thing is certain: Most psychonauts agree that describing subjective effects is brutally difficult. Without a principled framework for pinning down the nature of a drug experience, we will continue to misunderstand and misjudge the states of consciousness disclosed by brains on RCs.
What should we know about the subjective effects of a drug? In what way are drugs different? And in what way do they produce similar effects? This post will present a general conceptual framework for discussing drug effects in a principled fashion. This will be done by analyzing the responses of a recent survey on drug effects. The major axes of variance are obtained using factor analysis, and the dimensions are interpreted and discussed.
About a month ago I asked people to fill out an anonymous survey about the subjective effects of psychoactive substances. The survey was advertised in many Facebook groups (Hedonistic Imperative, Stanford Transhumanist Association, etc.), subreddits (r/LSD, r/drugs, r/opiates, etc.), online forums and via email.
The survey asked participants to either choose a substance from a list of 36 (with options including LSD, Salvia, Piracetam and even Tobacco), or to specify a drug by writing it down in the “other” section. After asking basic questions such as age and number of times the drug has been used, the survey presents 52 5-points Likert items: Participants had to rate on a scale from -2 to +2 how much a given word or brief phrase describes their experience with the drug. Examples of such words or phrases are: “subtle”, “irritating”, “intense”, etc.
An example review: Imagine that you are answering the survey and chose to review the effects of MDMA. The first Likert item has the word “energetic.” You remember that your MDMA experiences have been uplifting but not really full of energy, so to speak; you give it a 1. The second item has the phrase “anxiety producing” and right away you recall that MDMA has made you feel more at ease with yourself, rather than placing you in weird or anxious situations. Hence you give it a -2, meaning that MDMA is the opposite of “anxiety producing”. And so on.
The survey was filled out a total of 442 times. The top 10 most reviewed substances in the survey are: LSD (74), Marijuana (64), MDMA (45), Psilocybin (39), Alcohol (34), Heroin (20), DMT (17), D-Amphetamine (12), Salvia (10) and Cocaine (10).
The cleaned and anonymized dataset, as well as the analysis presented here, can be found here. Feel free to conduct your own analysis and add to the discussion in any way you want. My analysis here focuses on general features of the responses and on the interpretation of dimensions. There is a lot more that can be said about this data. If not me, I hope someone takes advantage of it sometime in the future.
6 Dimensions of Experience
Given that the total number of different drugs reviewed by survey participants (46) is smaller than the number of items (53), I decided to use each submission as an observation. I performed a varimax factor analysis on the 442 observation rows X 52 subjective properties columns.
The cumulative variance explained for one, two, etc. number of factors looks like this: 25%, 37%, 42%, 45%, 49%, 52%, 53%, 54%… The jump between 5 and 6 factors adds 3% of variance explained, and from 6 to 7 this percentage increases only by 1%. Adding extra factors after the 7th barely increases the variance explained.
I inspected the factor loadings for each dimension, and it does seem that using six factors results in semantically meaningful dimensions. Using less than 6 results in factors that have semantically mixed elements (for example, a factor that includes both cognitive impairment and arousal). Six seems to be the sweet spot. Let’s see what the factor loadings are:
Trivia: Which words have both a large loading on significance and slow euphoria?
Answer: “Love” and “Blissful”! :*
Where do the drugs live?
The six dimensions outlined above define a rudimentary (but informative) state-space of subjective drug effects. In this state-space, we can estimate the centroid region where responses about a given drug tend to fall. Below I plot the estimated location of such means. The color scheme represents the number of survey responses for each compound. For that reason you should calibrate your trust in the shown location as a function of how far up the rainbow the color of the substance is.
Three Varieties of Euphoria
Three out of the six dimensions directly involve our general sense of wellbeing. Our sense of wellbeing seems to have three components here, rather than being a single homogenous feeling. Think of this as three faces of a cube that share a corner. Let’s call this the Euphoria Cube:
Navigating through this map can be fun. As you can realize, MDMA/MDA are rock-solid-wonderful in all three euphorias. Perhaps that’s why people have such a strong trust in its effects – it has a little of everything that is good (experience-wise). Acid is wonderful, yes, but it has unreliable slow euphoria… could we improve an acid experience with phenibut? These kinds of questions pop up when you examine the state-space.
You may see now why Salvia gets such a bad rap. It is clearly mystical and spiritual in its own way. But it has no hint of either slow or fast euphoria. Salvia is a very tricky compound to handle, but may still be very worthwhile. Since spiritual bliss tends to be so much deeper and long-lived than the other two kinds of bliss, salvia can still be of significant therapeutic value.
Within the class of psychedelic compounds themselves we also see differences. For example, 2C compounds seem to generally have more fast euphoria than other psychedelics. Perhaps a better choice than shrooms for a melancholic depressive?
I suspect that there are several other ‘natural kinds’ of euphoria. (Well, natural kind sounds ontologically very strong – I’m only using this as an intuition pump). And there seems to be a definite and finite set of euphoria flavors I’m aware of. If I am pressured to guess what a good taxonomical account of euphorias would look like, I would use the following one:
The bliss of safety
The bliss of intimacy
The bliss of social coordination
The bliss of loving-kindness
The bliss of understanding
The bliss of wonder and intuition
The bliss of enlightenment
But this would sound awfully cultish. Moving right along.
The existence of three euphorias is foreshadowed by the rough legal and educational classification of ‘street’ drugs into one of three categories: Stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens. Drug education, unfortunately, fails to convey the message that hallucinogens not only affect your senses, but induce spiritual euphoria.
The location of substances in the Euphoria Cube also has a straightforward relationship with the receptor types implicated in the mechanism of action of these drugs. Slow euphoria comes with modulation of GABA and Opioid receptors (with Oxytocin also being a likely player). Fast euphoria is related to dopamine, and to a lesser extent to: norepinephrine, glutamate and the cholinergic system. The axis of significance, or spiritual euphoria (to give it a name), implicates both specific serotonin receptors (such as 5HT2A) as well as, strangely, the kapa opioid receptor.
In a limited sense, this is also a ballpark replication of the Lövheim cube of emotion. It is exciting to think that surveys like this can readily provide actual quantitative estimations of these experiential qualities. And this may be helpful for researchers and users alike.
What about the other three dimensions?
Is it worth it? Does it impair you? Will I enjoy food?
What the euphoria cube tells you is how a drug can be used for fun, spiritual growth and solace. What that cube does not tell you is whether, all things considered, taking the drug is a good idea to begin with. Perhaps a particular compound gives you a reliable buzz and a little relaxation, but don’t forget to ask whether it also make you dumb and confused! These three dimensions provide a context for the euphoria values.
We can see that nootropics seem to have their main action on the dimension of clarity. What is clarity? A good guess might be that clarity refers to the signal-to-noise ratio that a mind experiences at the time of doing mental operations. The sort of mental activity that you perform does not tell you how noisy the mind is while attempting to do it. Some drugs may somehow diminish your ability to filter and eliminate noise. Others, may enhance those processes. Stimulants for the most part activate the inhibitory control involved in thinking about implications of premises. Thus clarity is experienced: Strong and robust symbolic manipulation of implicit ontologies and concepts. This, although generally good, may incidentally make the mind be locked in a state with fixed ontologies and background assumptions. Thus, the mind can get in conceptual prisons by getting lost in the implication of ontologies. Taking a strong cholinergic nootropic in the morning may result in a whole day of a mind fixated on a given problem. Thus too much clarity can be a problem, too.
What about the dimension of cost benefit? An unfortunate red flag is that tobacco does not seem to have a particularly low value in the cost-benefit dimension. The way I interpret this is that participants understood items such as “dangerous” and “worth-it” to refer to the immediate window time around of a drug’s acute effects (which includes hang-over and after-effects, but does not include long-term negative health effects). This interpretation would explain as well why MDA and MDMA are ranked very highly for cost-benefit, given the (controversial) neurotoxic effect associated with more than casual use.
Stimulus seeking is a weird dimension. It seems to be largely dominated by marijuana-specific effects, which somehow contrast with the anorexia induced by stimulants in general. An interesting way of interpreting this factor is in terms of the source of one’s bliss. Drugs with a high stimulus seeking value make us appreciate external influences such as music and food. Drugs with low stimulus seeking create a sort of euphoria that makes people temporarily self-sufficient. Outwardly focused interests versus inwardly focused interests is a neat, though somewhat speculative, interpretation of this factor. Any other ideas?
Why physicists are not into consciousness and monks are not into spaceships
A particularly interesting cross-section of the data is the interaction between Spiritual euphoria and Clarity. Why? Because, on the one hand, Spiritual euphoria, in a way, comes when one gains a certain sort of awareness and imaginative capability that enables the conception of entirely new ontologies. Hence, one’s models of personhood, morality, wellbeing and even logic can break down and be reconstructed during a psychedelic experience. On the other hand, conceptual clarity of the sort shown here happens when pre-existing ontologies are navigated and used efficiently, effortlessly and robustly. Hence, it is not hard to see why states of consciousness in which both conceptual clarity and conceptual revolutions are happening are very uncommon. More so, no known drug induces states of consciousness with those two qualities at the same time. This is made evident by the empty upper right quadrant of this space:
Will we ever discover a substance high on Spiritual euphoria and Clarity at the same time? Perhaps if we use a Generalized Wada Test: Just inject amphetamines in one hemisphere and DMT on the other 🙂 More seriously, this may be a fundamental limitation of the mind: It can’t both see the problem with its current ontologies at the same time as using them to think by believing their implications. Maybe we just need bigger brains.
That said, the flip-side of the question is just as valid: Is there any substance that makes you dumb, both spiritually and cognitively at the same time? Wait, looks like we are lucky this time! The answer is Alcohol! Probably, though, a finer analysis may find that small amounts of alcohol have mild mind-expanding effects – unfortunately the sweet spot that accomplishes this, it seems to me, is very delicate.
The orthogonality of these two functions of the mind (thinking rationally and efficiently; having spiritual or philosophical insights) may explain why it is hard to find people who are passionate about (and good at) math at the same time as passionate (and good at) exploring different states of consciousness. This may give us hints of an explanation for why it has taken this long to develop computational models of psychedelic experiences! A drug that enhances both facets of consciousness at the same time, though, would be truly revolutionary (and part of me thinks micro-dosed LSD may already be doing this).
The full dimensional table
Here I present the full table of mean factor loadings for each substance. Use this wisely. Perhaps future introductory psychonautic programs will study state-space maps and tables like the one below, and develop navigation strategies. For example, the map can be used to infer that DMT induces extremely profound experiences, but that at the same time it lacks direct slow or fast euphoric effects. LSD, as the map shows, is more stimulating than shrooms, so it may be better suited than psilocybin for certain tasks (say, for micro-doses or productive creativity enhancement). And so on. One can even imagine a psychiatrist and patient in 2025 looking at these maps while choosing a psychedelic that satisfies the patient’s therapeutic needs. A small personal difference in proclivity to panic attacks could make one choose MDA over, say, 2C-E.
The current survey and methodology has the potential to ground a lot of high level discussion about drug effects. Similar methodologies and datasets could be used to infer many other properties that are hard to talk about anecdotally. The dimensions surfaced may be helpful for harm reduction (allowing people to minimize risks while maximizing possible benefits) and even transhumanism. Although here I found three axis related to euphoria, otherwise talked about as hedonic tone, I suspect that future iterations of this sort of analysis will reveal a finer map of conscious bliss. Hopefully we will someday soon discover the biomolecular signatures and qualia preconditions for all of the forms of bliss, so that we once and for all find a method to abolish experiences not worth having.
I predict that follow-up research will find many verifiable and useful dimensions that describe the “core” differences between states of consciousness. The words and phrases used in this survey are limited in scope, so they do not help us differentiate properly the singular characteristics of specific psychedelic compounds. Hypothetically, there could be a reliable cluster of unique phenomenologies produced by certain class of phenethylamines. This difference may not affect the response given to any of the survey items, and thus remain undiscovered.
For example, perhaps 2C-T-X compounds produce visual hallucinations that involve more diagonal drifting than what is common for all other 2C-X compounds. Given the broad focus of the current survey, we can predict it will not detect any difference of this subtle sort, unfortunately. Nevertheless, this is the first step: We currently work on the low hanging fruit that makes very different drugs different, so that we can later go on to measure the more subtle differences between similar drugs.
I am currently refining the survey so that finer phenomenological differences can be discovered. I am also incorporating some of the work on authenticity by Matthew Baggott and other scales for altered states of consciousness. Feel free to email me if you have any suggestions or would be interested in collaborating on this research project.
Thank you for reading! 🙂
Transparency about errors:
There were a few mistakes in the execution of the survey. First, I wrote “Heroine” when I should have written “Heroin”. Second, the word “constructive” is found twice on the survey (the correlation between participant’s answers to both “constructive” items is .86, showing a high consistency of responses). And third, during the first 30 submissions of the survey the “Other” option did not work properly. This was corrected immediately and the participants who submitted after that had no problem sending reviews about “Other” drugs.
About 18 months ago I had a really cool idea: What if we could communicate with people who are high on LSD in such a way that sober people can’t understand?* I call this idea psychedelic cryptography (PsyCrypto for short).
The GIFs above do just that: The left one is the “original” and it shows how you perceive it while sober. The GIF on the right shows what it’s like to see the GIF on the left after taking 100 micrograms of LSD. Notice anything different?
The first thing to note is that it is easier to see what letter is hidden here (C). On a closer inspection, you can also notice another amazing fact: It turns out that there are gaps between the vertical columns! This feature pops-up with clarity and is self-evident on the right GIF, and yet one needs to carefully observe the left GIF to notice that this is happening. That piece of information is not obvious when you are sober. Hence, while a sober person may infer what the hidden letter is, only a person on a psychedelic will see right away that there are gaps between the columns. Can you think of how to use this as a communication tool?
The approach shown above is only one of a plethora of ways of communicating with people on psychedelics. Here I will mention just a couple low-hanging fruits, give a few ideas for how to extend psychophysical research to build animations in a principled way, and discuss an awesome speculative application of this research.
Drug “education” emphasizes the functional, perceptual, cognitive and affective impairments caused by the acute and chronic use of psychedelic substances. Psychedelics impair reaction time, linear thought, verbal expression, and a large range of everyday activities. This much is clear. It is undeniable that not all tasks are suitable for psychedelic experiences: Filing taxes, giving lectures to large audiences, and passing the polygraph test may all be rather poor choices for psychedelic activities.
But impairment is not the whole story. It is obvious to anyone who has researched the matter that psychedelics have some peculiar mind-enhancing properties. Any decent scientific account of psychedelic states has to provide information about the ways in which this particular state of consciousness confers genuine advantages.
And a great scientific account will explain why these particular trade-offs exist, and how we can best use them to (1) understand the mind, (2) achieve our human potential, and (3) address mental illness in a meaningful way.
Harman & Fadiman found a very large performance enhancement in the Witkins Embedded Figures test upon the administration of 100µg of LSD or 200mg of Mescaline. That is one of the most remarkable results of their study, which of course is not to diminish the relevance of their results concerning the rate of outstanding scientific discoveries. Unfortunately, the absence of drug-free controls in that study makes it less useful for convincing skeptics. When the study is replicated, it would be ideal to make it double-blind and not only include drug-free placebo controls, but also use an active performance-enhancing placebo, such as amphetamine.
Likewise, it is now clear that the self-insight concerning difficult emotional subjects can be radically amplified during therapeutic psychedelic sessions. How and why this happens is still a rather difficult mystery.
Finally, we are currently experiencing a memetic explosion with regards to the use of micro-doses. Although we don’t yet have formal double-blind placebo-controlled research on the benefits of micro-dosing LSD, the wealth of anecdotal evidence is too large to ignore. For LSD, a micro-dose is defined as a dose in the 10-20 microgram range. The awesome Gwern is, to my knowledge, one of the few biohackers to have run a placebo-controlled experiment on himself. Although he found no positive effects, I suspect that is largely due to the sort of activities that he cares about. A more noticeable enhancement would be observed on artists, writers and possibly mathematicians. It is genuinely exciting that there is a new wave of attention to this particular application of psychedelics: General, all-purpose life-enhancement.
A Fantastic Speculative Application
If psychedelic states of consciousness provide some sort of information-processing advantage over sober states, this advantage may be possible to exploit for secret communication. Conversely, if there is any information-delivery method that only people on psychedelics can understand, it follows that psychedelic states have distinct information-processing advantages over sober states. From a purely PR point of view, obtaining a portfolio of methods to secretly transmit information to high-people will do a lot of beneficial work in showing the potential benefits of psychedelics. This is partly what motivates my research.
Even more awesome is the idea that this technology can lead to the creation of a video-game that only people on psychedelics can understand and play. For a sober person the game would look like an incomprehensible bundle of dots, edges, colors, sounds, etc. But a person sufficiently zonked would perceive crystal-clear images and easy-to-infer objectives. Only a sufficient amount of LSD would allow you to score a single point in this game.
Low Hanging Fruit
The simplest method is to take advantage of the longer-lasting after-images experienced under the influence. This happens to be one of the most robust effects that psychedelics have, and there seems to be a very clear dose-dependent curve in the intensity of these lingering phosphenes. Neurologically, this is explained by the Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action, which can be summarized as follows: Our cortex’s main role is to provide inhibitory control on thalamic activity. The serotonergic activity of psychedelics blocks this control signal, and thus prevents the swift extinction of qualia once the triggering stimuli (whether internal or external) is removed.**
The basic idea for using tracers to communicate information is to provide, little-by-little, pieces of information that can be assembled into a coherent whole only if you use lingering after-images as building blocks.
Psychophysics for Psychedelic Research: Afterimages/Tracers
In order to find the right parameters to make awesome visualizations that can only be interpreted during psychedelic experiences, we will need to do a lot of trial-and-error, and ideally, build quality psychophysical tools. The following are some of the most important questions that we need to answer before we can go wild and build the psychedelic video-game:
What is the dose-dependent decay function of tracers’ brightness?
What is the additive function? Do similar colors average out? Do opposite colors cancel out?
What is the range of features that remain in one’s experiential field? Is this dose-dependent?
Do lingering features interact with one another? Do they achieve after-the-fact local phenomenal binding?
What is the role of synesthesia in tracers?
To elaborate a little: The first question is about the rate of decay of phosphenes as a function of the dose and the time since the presentation of the stimuli. The GIF at the top of this page assumes an exponential gamma-corrected decay function.
The second question goes a little deeper, and it inquires about the way in which successive after-images of simple features (such as color and brightness) interact. If you first show a red square followed by a yellow one, do you then experience two overlapping but unblended colors? Or do you experience the average of the two (a hue of orange)? (If you know the answer from first-hand experience, please comment below!)
According to abundant anecdotal evidence (erowid, PsychonautWiki, r/psychonaut, etc.) the kind of perceptual objects that linger in one’s experiential field is dose-dependent. On small doses only colors and edges linger, while on higher doses you may experience emotions, faces, abstract concepts and even ontological qualia for many more seconds than normal. But what is the precise equation that describes this?
The fourth question is getting into more serious and difficult-to-research territory. Namely, we would want to know how different features interact with one another once they are lingering in one’s experiential field. If you first look at the blue sky and then look at a white cube, do you perceive a blue cube? More stunningly: If you think about the concept of recursion and then look at a tree, do you see recursion in the tree? (anecdotally, this definitely happens). The amazing thing about this particular question is that it may get at the very reason why consciousness was recruited by natural selection for information-processing purposes: There are some qualia that can be locally bound and some that can’t. This determines the range of constraints with which our mind implements constraint satisfaction solvers. But that’s a story for another post.
Finally, studying synesthesia during psychedelic experiences will almost certainly require the combination of neuro-imaging (such as fMRI) and quality psychophysics. I will explore this question further at a later time.
Answering the Questions
In order to answer most of the above questions, we can use the following paradigm: In order to test a theory you will want to (1) create interesting animations that produce particular effects, (2) create simulations of how these animations should look like under psychedelic vision, and (3) ask participants to rate the degree of similarity between the actual and predicted experiences.
For example, the GIFs below illustrate how an image might be seen if after-images are additive in nature. In other words, if you do experience orange when you flash red and yellow in quick succession, we can predict that the image on the left would be seen as the image on the right while on LSD. Is this so? I don’t know! Let me know if you happen to try it out.
Predicted experience assuming additive color qualia
Answering these questions using this and other paradigms will be very valuable to neuroscience.***
Textures (Once Again)
In Psychophysics for Psychedelic Research: Textures we discussed how we can use psychophysical tools and computational models in order to measure deficits and enhancements in our visual pattern recognition ability while under the influence of LSD. This is done by measuring the size of the Just Noticeable Differences (JND) for each of the summary statistics our visual system can recognize in peripheral vision. I have yet to collect real data from people under the influence, but thankfully the paradigm is already fleshed out. (Dear psychophysical researcher reading this blog, please feel free to use this approach!). Presumably both textures and after-images can be used to encode information that only high people can read.
A proof of concept for how to do this would be to encode information in binary code: Take a set of summary statistics that high people are good at distinguishing (and sober people confuse). Then show pairs of textures, one on the left and one on the right, so that the texture on the right has either the same or different summary statistics as the one on the left. If the textures are different then that encodes a 0. And if they are the same, that encodes a 1. Make sure that this particular summary statistic difference is only noticeable by people on psychedelics and you will have a state-dependent visual binary encryption!
Since you can communicate anything using a binary sequence, you can use this to provide any information you may want. But will your zonked friends be able to string together 1024 1s and 0s in order to decode a verbal message? Unlikely.
Full Set (complete algorithm)
Subband Correlation removed
As the sole way of communicating information, textures are an unlikely candidate. But they may fit well as a component of a complex array of stimuli. If we can answer questions (3) and (4) we may be able to flash textures in sequence in such a way that their summary statistics are combined. While a pair of textures may not provide a lot of information, a sequence of them may overlap in such a way that high-level features begin to appear.
Hence, maybe we can build a sequence of textures that will make a person on LSD experience a particular face, or a dog. The sober person will remain clueless, though, since the consecutive textures fail to become integrated into a coherent percept.
According to Shulgin there was a study conducted in the 60s that showed that people on psilocybin can read a text with fewer letters. What does this mean? Take a random text like a children’s story. Then remove X% of letters from it at random (substituting them by an underscore to show that a letter is missing).
Every person has a comprehension threshold: A 55-percenter would only be able to read texts that have 55% or more of their letters remaining. If that person takes psilocybin, then the comprehension threshold may drop to, say, 44%. This test should be particularly easy to replicate since it does not require any sort of image processing. Would you be interested in building an online test that determines your comprehension threshold? If you do, make sure to ask “are you on a psychedelic currently?” and collect the data!
Perhaps this generalizes to other areas of verbal comprehension. For instance, can you understand spoken words with more syllables taken out? What about sign language?
These are just a few promising approaches. I am confident that by opening this idea up to the broader academic and psychedelic community a lot more ideas will blossom. If you were inspired by this article to build your own psychophysical toolkit, make sure to let me know in the comments below. And remember: I’m always looking for collaborators. 🙂
* LSD here is a shorthand for psychedelics in general.
** Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action: In his awesome book called Psychedelic Information Theory, James Kent argues that the visual and cognitive components of psychedelic experiences can be explained as the effect of subtle disruptions to the inhibitory control cycle of perception. He calls this theory the Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action. The basic idea is that in order for our experience of the world to be linear and stable there must be mechanisms in place that regulate the overall loop of consciousness. In other words, when we open our eyes, the image in out visual field does not become arbitrarily brighter over time. Nor is it the case that our visual field gets as bright as it can if you give it enough time. Rather, we have in place a negative feedback mechanism involving lateral inhibition and inhibitory projections from the cortex to the thalamus that regulates the brightness of our experience.
This inhibitory control mechanism occurs a discrete number of times per second. Therefore “control interruption” caused by psychedelics, in this model, is conceived as a periodical failure of inhibitory control that allows aspects of one’s experience to be sustained for longer than usual. The frequency of control interruption is specific to the psychedelic used. As the article conjures, salvia and nitrous oxide produce control interruption at a frequency of 8-11 and 12-15 Hz, respectively. On the other hand, DMT disrupts control at a much higher frequency (24-30+ Hz). This control interrupt creates “a standing hallucinogenic interference pattern in the consciousness of the subject”.
*** As argued by Julien Dubois and Rufin VanRullen in “Visual Trails: Do the Doors of Perception Open Periodically?” tracers may be very significant when it comes to reverse-engineering the human visual system. How many frames per second do we experience? How long do the images last in the visual field? Does this effect generalize to high-level features, or is it specific to colors and edges? Thus, building psychedelic communication tools would be of great value to neuroscience.