Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity

*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.

Personal Identity

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 consciousness is 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? I assumed 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

Getting closer to digital LSD

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, a little too much 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?

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:

  1. Entropic hallucinations describe the visual effects of gently pushing one’s eyes as well as the amazing interaction between LSD and strobes
  2. Eidetic hallucinations are the result of interpreting ambiguous stimuli using high-level concepts
  3. 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!

Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures 2: Going Meta

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.

Enjoy! 🙂

State-Space of Drug Effects: Results

Credit: Chelsea Morgan. Source: http://psychonautwiki.org/wiki/Tracers

Credit: Chelsea Morgan. Source: http://psychonautwiki.org/wiki/Tracers

What are the relevant dimensions of drug effects?

“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.

The Survey

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:

SpiritualClarityRoot

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.

factors

Discussion

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.

How to secretly communicate with people on LSD

 

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.

Hopefully this article will spark interest and motivate both the psychedelic replication and the psychophysics community to come up with more innovative communication methods.

Do psychedelics enhance performance?

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.**

Tracers

Credit: Chelsea Morgan. Source.

 

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:

  1. What is the dose-dependent decay function of tracers’ brightness?
  2. What is the additive function? Do similar colors average out? Do opposite colors cancel out?
  3. What is the range of features that remain in one’s experiential field? Is this dose-dependent?
  4. Do lingering features interact with one another? Do they achieve after-the-fact local phenomenal binding?
  5. 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.

 

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.

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.

Using Text

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?

Inspired Work

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.

Generalized Wada Test and the Total Order of Consciousness

In a Wada test a single hemisphere is sedated with sodium amobarbital. While the sedated hemisphere is unresponsive, a cognitive examination is conducted on the other hemisphere. This test is done to determine whether performing an ablative surgery on a given hemisphere is a viable treatment for epileptic seizures. By using the Wada test, one can avoid creating irreversible damage in areas of the brain crucial for modern day life, such as language production regions.


The Generalized Wada Test

The thought of targeting an isolated brain region for drug therapy is very stimulating. But do we have to sedate it? Sodium amobarbital may have useful properties that makes it a good fit for the Wada test. But it is unlikely to be the only substance that can be used. More broadly, there seem to be a variety of compounds that can be used for intracarotid drug delivery.

In all likelihood there must be a number of psychedelic compounds that could selectively affect brain regions via intracarotid delivery. One thought is to inject 2C-B (or whichever psychedelic has the desired pharmacological properties) on one hemisphere so that a person can compare the two sides of her visual field. This way, she would be able to compare side-by-side the features and patterns highlighted by the algorithms of her visual system (which would, presumably, be different on each side). In turn, this will enable us to catalogue more precisely the specific differences in visual experience under the influence of several drugs.

Even more generally, one could also make use of additional brain interventions such as tDCS, ultrasound, optogenetcs, etc. For example, imagine using ketamine and tDCS on the right hemisphere while the left receives ultrasound stimulation. We have a combinatorial explosion. A good one. I call this the Generalized Wada Test (WGT).


Philosophical Applications of the Generalized Wada Test

This technique presents a striking possibility: approaching philosophical problems empirically. More specifically, this technique might be used to:

  1. Test the properties of phenomenal binding, and
  2.  Allow “incommensurable” experiences to “experience each other” as the halves of a unitary consciousness

Phenomenal binding can be put under a microscope by using a GWT to infer the necessary chemical properties that brain regions require in order to enable the integration of phenomenal features into unitary experiential wholes. The speed at which binding takes place between the hemispheres could also be quantified. If phenomenal binding is not possible between two given states of consciousness, that would also be very valuable information for consciousness research.

With regards to the second possibility…


Is there a Total Order of Subjective Preferences?

Take two states of consciousness A and B. Suppose we use a GWT to make A manifest in the left hemisphere, while B does so in the right. The subject as a whole is asked to decide which of the two states of consciousness is subjectively preferable. If A is preferred over B, then a directed edge from B to A is added to the graph (with a weight proportional to the certainty/degree of preference). By adding the corresponding weighted edge between every pair of states of consciousness inducible on a GWT we would map a large portion of the state-space of consciousness available to humans. Let’s call this graph the directed network of subjective preferences.

Now, once we have fully populated such graph… would it actually be a directed acyclic graph (DAG)? Could we extract a Total Order? In other words, does the directed network of subjective preferences reveal a proper order of experiences from least to most preferred?

Can we make a universal scale of subjective preferability? Is it possible to infer a scale that, as David Pearce would call it, shows us the utility function of the universe?

But what if we find cycles?


Hedonic Tone

Even though there is a very close relationship between bliss and activity in the outer shell of the nucleus accumbens (and various other nearby hedonic hot-spots), it is not yet clear whether all pleasurable, blissful or otherwise subjectively valuable states are triggered by the activation of this area. We know that classic psychedelics, for example, do not have pharmacological dopaminergic or opiodergic action, and thus don’t activate the nucleus accumbens directly. And yet, people do report ecstatic and blissful states of consciousness on LSD…

It is not yet clear whether that bliss is mediated by hedonic hot-spot activity (thankfully, we may soon find out). If psychedelic bliss is fundamentally dissociated from dopaminergic and opiodergic activity, what would that say about the nature of pleasure? Could there be higher levels of bliss that are unrelated to current neurobiological models of subjective reward? What if everyone on acid bliss says that acid bliss is better than heroine bliss, while everyone on heroine bliss says the opposite? What do we make of Dostoevsky’s epileptic bliss?

For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.

I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is, that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.

Nothing short of a Generalized Wada Test would be able to approach these questions.

The psychedelic future of consciousness

What can 1,800,000 human days per day accomplish?

Imagine the events that happen in a city of near two million persons. How much thinking is done? How many atypical views about the nature of reality take place in the sunny hours of a city of this size?

Psychedelic experiences are eventful, so they have to be weighted more than typical days in any sum total of the quantity of conscious events and conscious luminance. Not to say, the local consciousness flux capacity co-peaks with the peak of an entheogenic trip.

Now imagine, 1,800,000 humans who dedicate their lives to serious psychedelic and consciousness research. A large fraction of this population is experienced in employing psychedelic states of consciousness for qualia-computing applications (that is, for applications suited to the specific state of consciousness, that takes advantage of the computational trade-offs of different states of consciousness to perform certain operations more efficiently). Another large fraction frequently interacts with people reporting from myriad kingdoms of consciousness (which are as different from one another as you could say the kingdoms of life are to each other).

Many of them develop computational models of the dynamics of qualia for a living. They study how varieties of consciousness interact with one another. They ask questions like: How quickly can a conscious experience intensify? What is the function that maps present content of conscious experience to the set of conceivable ideas? How fast can phenomenal yellow be transformed/substituted by phenomenal blue?

They develop probabilistic models that predict the possible transitions between states of consciousness, at all time scales. In the microsecond domain, we see resonant chambers of qualia filaments dynamically modifying manifolds of experience with variable Fourier transforms. In the ‘real-subjective-time’ scale, we would see the change from one emotional state into another. The differential equations that govern the possible affective transitions between emotions in a sober state would have long been figured out. Predicting those equations for hypothetical states of consciousness which are then found in the lab (well, the psychedelic research center) is where the field’s at.

Other people develop connections between consciousness and mathematics themselves. Philosophy of qualiamatics. After all, the semantic content of a mathematical propositions is enclosed within and a part of the experience of doing and thinking mathematics. The engineering of semantically rich states of consciousness is now of interest to pure mathematics researchers, if for no other reason than to improve their investigative mathematical skills. Drugs and techniques that specifically target the kind of meaning-making useful for mathematics are developed and used by many.

And others do a whole flip within and study the nature of philosophical thought. If you are an astute reader, you’ll notice that philosophy of the science of consciousness (just as there is philosophy of the science of physics!) cannot be complete without an understanding of philosophy through the science of consciousness. While first dismissed as a simple circularity, a play of words, universities now offer serious classes on (1) the phenomenal quality of philosophy of consciousness, and (2) the philosophical implications of the science of the consciousness of philosophy. And as you may expect, both courses have a required lab component.

People have been working for a few decades already in the creation of an agreed-upon map of the varieties of conscious experience. Most of the daily experience of most of the persons alive belong to some of the few large and broad regions of the state-space of consciousness defined in standard charts available everywhere. There is also knowledge about general regions (i.e. kinds of experiences) to completely avoid, given their intrinsically negative subjective character. However, a sizable minority of states of consciousness are still completely unclassified and unclassifiable given the present vocabulary and shared conceptions. It is not that these states are in principle inaccessible to scientific study. Instead, there either is no reliable way of reproducing the states, or the current degrees of freedom don’t allow researchers to compare them to other states of consciousness.

Yes, it is true that in some sense every state of consciousness is inconmensurable to every other state. But you can always put them side by side in a phenomenally bound entity and see what happens. Subjective affinities can be quantified, and subsequent behavior is measurable. Consistent findings tend to happen, unless there is an intrinsically chaotic result, in which case that fact is noted. The vast majority of the state space of consciousness remains undiscovered, unexplored, and unconceived. And yet, general key principles of consciousness (such as relationships between behavior and intrinsic quality) are already known and applied widely in the exploration of uncharted states of consciousness. What shamans, psychologists and even philosophers of the past did more or less as an art (with 99.9% of practice time) is now done systematically, more thoroughly and better recorded (with no practice time needed) via technologically enhanced thinking.

Just as the mathematical characterization of tiny physical components of matter in the 19th century led to the development of computing machines made of tiny systems in the 20th century, we now see the mathematical formalisms of the behavior of consciousness are paying off computationally. The computational advantages of phenomenal binding are harnessed in the processing of information in a way that is far superior to digital computers. With the integration of semantics modules of thought, and mathematical renderers, conscious experience can quickly explore vast regions of possibility space. Now thinking about the nature of the possible has been transformed from an art to an engineering discipline.

Qualia treasures are discovered all the time. What used to be a person’s peak experience in a lifetime (a moment of transcendent delight from which the rest of the cosmos seems more profound and deeply significant than at any other point in life) are now a possible baseline of consciousness for many experimental subjects and artists of the mind alike. Yet, there are far greater and significant worlds of qualia discovered from time to time. And there is no sign that the rate of discoveries will slow down. Like prime numbers, perhaps, the interval between them increases as you find the ones closer to zero, and yet you are guaranteed to find one if you keep counting.

Needless to say, the discoveries of qualia treasures are welcomed by the general population, who get to try them and delight in them after robust accessing methods are proved safe. Qualia safety engineers work hard to avoid even the presence of the conceivability of a problem in a qualia world shipped to the general public.

Imagine, 1,800,000 researchers conducting all of this work on a daily basis. That’s a possible future. A very possible, perhaps inevitable one. Perhaps you are unaware of it, but this is a fact: We are at the edge of something big, unimaginably big.