Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (link)
This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing”. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.
I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.
(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.
(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. Whereas annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noise as well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.
Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious”, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂
~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~
(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)
[ps. correction – I wrote a 30 page document about my retreat, not a 50 word document]
Neural Correlates of the DMT Experience Assessed with Multivariate EEG (Christopher Timmermann, Leor Roseman, Michael Schartner, Raphael Milliere, Luke T. J. Williams, David Erritzoe, Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, Michael Ashton, Adam Bendrioua, Okdeep Kaur, Samuel Turton, Matthew M. Nour, Camilla M. Day, Robert Leech, David J. Nutt & Robin L. Carhart-Harris)
The Purple Pill: What Happens When You Take the Blue and the Red Pill at the Same Time? (link)
“The Purple Pill is the pill that gives you both high hedonic tone and an unprejudiced open-ended approach to the pursuit of truth. For losing truth is to lose it all, but to lose it all is only bad because it makes you and others suffer in the wider universe.” – The Purple Pill (Qualia Computing)
In this talk I explain that the “Blue vs. Red Pill” trope relies on a false dichotomy. You don’t need to choose between depressive realism and comforting illusions. Put differently, you don’t need to choose between truth and happiness. High hedonic tone is not incompatible with one’s representational accuracy of causal structures. The world, and the existence of experiential heaven and hell, can be understood without curling into a ball and crying your way to sleep. More so, effective and persistent action towards the good requires that you don’t believe in this false dichotomy, for sustainable altruistic productivity necessitates both accurate models and positive motivations. Thus, the aspiring paradise engineer ought to be willing to take the Purple Pill to move onwards.
I advocate having a balanced portfolio of (1) efforts to minimize experiential hell, (2) techniques to increase the hedonic baseline sustainably, and (3) methods to reliably experience peak states of consciousness in a sane way.
I do not think that spending 100% of one’s time in “destroying hell” is a sustainable approach to life because it does not allow you to “reinvest” in the conditions that gave rise to one’s goodness to begin with (otherwise you become more of a martyr than an effective player in the field!). More so, the relationship between suffering and productivity is non-trivial, which means that to just helping people who suffer extremely does not generally pay off in terms of productive action towards the cause in the future. Hence, improving baseline is just as important: it is precisely what allows people to go from near zero productivity to a high level of productivity. Finally, the benefits of having access to reliable, pro-social ultra-blissful states of consciousness should not be underestimated. They are an important piece of the puzzle because they motivate the “animal self” and are deeply reassuring. Thus, as a “package”, I see a lot of potential in simultaneously reducing negative extremes, improving the baseline, and achieving new heights of bliss. This, to me, is what I see as the path forward.
Topics I cover span: Trungpa’s “Spiritual Materialism” (the attitude of using exalted states of consciousness to “decorate our ego”), optimization problems/reinvesting in the good, sane in-group/out-group dynamics, the game theory of virtue signaling, and the importance of having an explicit commitment to the wellbeing of all sentient beings (to prevent value drift).
What are the differences between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT? And what gives rise to those differences? In this video we discuss 12 different ways to analyze the strange and unique effects of these substances. We go over the 9 lenses already discussed in Qualia Computing* and add three more.
Starting with three new lenses (5-MeO-DMT left/DMT right):
A) Global Coherence vs. Competing Clusters of Coherence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to a global coherent state (the so-called “unified energy field”), whereas DMT gives rise to an ecosystem of time-loops, each trying to capture as much of your attention as possible, which in turn results in coalition-building and evolution of patterns in the direction of being very “attention grabbing” (cf. reddit.com/r/place).
B) Really Positive or Really Negative Valence vs. Highly-Mixed Valence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to either a globally coherent state (high-valence) or two competing coherent states (negative-valence), whereas DMT tends to generate complex consonance/dissonance relationships between the clusters of coherence.
C) How they are different according the the Free Energy Principle: On 5-MeO-DMT the entire experience has to reinforce itself, whereas each cluster of coherence needs to model the rest of the experience in order to be reinforced by it on DMT. Thus 5-MeO-DMT makes experiences that express “the whole as the whole” whereas DMT makes each part of the experience represent the whole yet remains distinct.
And the original 9 lenses:
1) Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT. 2) Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT. 3) Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving. 4) Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it. 5) Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic. 6) Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it. 7) Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it. 8) Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes. 9) Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.
I also explain what is going on with the “Megaminx DMT worlds” and when DMT entities bully you into believing in their independent existence.
Digital Sentience: Can Digital Computers Ever “Wake Up”? (link)
I start by acknowledging that most smart and well-informed people today believe that digital computers can be conscious. More so, they believe this for good reasons.
In general, 99.99% of the times when someone says that digital computers cannot be conscious they do so equipped with very bad arguments. This, of course, does not mean that all of these smart people who believe in digital sentience are right. In fact, I argue that they are making a critical yet entirely non-obvious mistake: they are not taking into account a sufficiently detailed set of constraints that any scientific theory of consciousness must satisfy. In this video I go over what those constraints are, and in what way they actually entail that digital sentience is literally impossible.
The talk is divided into three parts: (1) my philosophical journey, which I share in order to establish credibility, (2) classic issues in philosophy of mind, and (3) how we can solve all those issues with QRI’s theory of consciousness.
(Skip to 31:00 if you are not interested in my philosophical journey and you want to jump into the philosophy of mind right away).
(1) I’ve been hyper-philosophical all my life and have dedicated thousands of hours working on this topic: having discussions with people in the field, writings essays, studying qualia in all manners of exotic states of consciousness, and working through the implications of different philosophical background assumptions. I claim that QRI’s views here are indeed much more informed than anyone would assume if they just heard that we think digital computers cannot be conscious. In fact, most of us started out as hard-core computationalists and only switched sides once we fully grokked the limitations of that view! Until the age of 20 I was a huge proponent of digital sentience, and I planned my life around that very issue. So it was a big blow to find out that I was neglecting key pieces of the puzzle that David Pearce, and later Mike Johnson, brought up when I met them in person. In particular, they made me aware of the importance of the “phenomenal binding/boundary problem”; once I finally understood it, everything unraveled from there.
(2) We go over: Marr’s levels of analysis (and “interactions between levels”). The difference between functionalism, computationalism, causal structure, and physicalist theories of consciousness. The Chinese Room. Multiple Realizability. Epiphenomenalism. Why synchrony is not enough for binding. Multiple Drafts Theory of consciousness. And the difference between awareness and attention.
(3) We solve the boundary problem with topological segmentation: this allows us to also provide an explanation for what the causal properties of experience are. The integrated nature of fields can be recruited for computation. Topological boundaries are neither epiphenomenal nor frame-dependent. Thus, evolution stumbling upon holistic field behavior of topological pockets of the fields of physics would solve a lot of puzzles in philosophy of mind. In turn, since digital computers don’t use fields of physics for computation, they will never be unified subjects of experience no matter how you program them.
I also discuss issues with IIT’s solution to the binding problem (despite IIT’s whole aesthetic of irreducible causality, their solution makes binding epiphenomenal! The devil’s in the details: IIT says the Minimum Information Partition has “the highest claim of existence” but this leaves all non-minimal partitions untouched. It’s epiphenomenal and thus not actually useful for computation).
Thanks also to Andrew Zuckerman and other QRI folks for great recent discussions on this topic.
Psychedelics and the Free Energy Principle: From REBUS to Indra’s Net (link)
Friston’s Free Energy Principle (FEP) is one of those ideas that seem to offer new perspectives on almost anything you point it at.
It seems to synthesize already very high-level ideas into an incredibly general and flexible conceptual framework. It brings together thermodynamics, probabilistic graphical models, information theory, evolution, and psychology. We could say that trying to apply the FEP to literally everything is not a bad idea: it may not explain it all, but we are bound to learn a lot from seeing when it fails.
So what is the FEP? In the words of Friston: “In short, the long-term (distal) imperative — of maintaining states within physiological bounds — translates into a short-term (proximal) avoidance of surprise. Surprise here relates not just to the current state, which cannot be changed, but also to movement from one state to another, which can change. This motion can be complicated and itinerant (wandering) provided that it revisits a small set of states, called a global random attractor, that are compatible with survival (for example, driving a car within a small margin of error). It is this motion that the free-energy principle optimizes.“
Organisms that survive over time must minimize entropy injections from their environment, which means they need to minimize surprise, which unfortunately is computationally intractable, but the information theoretic construct of variational free-energy provides an upper bound on this ground truth surprise, meaning that minimizing it will indirectly minimize surprise. This cashes out in the need to maximize “accuracy – complexity” which prevents both overfitting and underfitting. In the video we go over some of the classical ideas surrounding the FEP: the dark room, active inference, explicit vs. implicit representations, and whether real dynamic systems can be decomposed into Markov blankets. Finally, we cover how the FEP naturally gives rise to predictive coding via hierarchical Bayesian models.
We then talk about Reduced BEliefs Under pSychedelics (REBUS) and explain how Carhart-Harris and Friston interpret psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain in light of the FEP. We then discuss Safron’s countermodel of Strengthened BEliefs Under pSychedelics (SEBUS) and the work coming out of Seth’s lab.
So, that’s how the FEP shows up in the literature today. But what about explaining not only belief changes and perceptual effects, but perhaps also getting into the actual weeds of the ultra bizarre things that happen on psychedelics?
I provide three novel ideas for how the FEP can explain features of exotic experiences:
(1) Dissonance-minimizing resonance networks would naturally balance model complexity due to an inherent “complexity cost” that shows up as dissonance and prediction error minimization when prediction errors give rise to out-of-phase interactions between the layers.
(2) Bayesian Energy Sinks: What you can recognize lowers the (physical) energy of one’s world-sheet. I then blend this with an analysis of symmetrical psychedelic thought-forms as energy-minimizing configurations. On net, we thus experience hybrid “semantic + symmetric” hallucinations.
(3) Indra’s Net: Each “competing cluster of coherence” needs to model its environment in order to synch up with it in a reinforcing way. This leads to attractor states where “everything reflects everything else”.
Advanced Visions of Paradise: From Basic Hedonism to Paradise Engineering (link)
This video was recorded as a way for me to prepare for the speech I gave at the “QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise” (see livestream here). You can think of it as the significantly more in-depth (and higher audio quality!) version of that speech.
The core message of this video is: thinking wholesome, genuinely useful, and novel thoughts about how to build paradise is hard. Doing so without getting caught up in low-dimensional aesthetics and pre-conceptions is very challenging. Most of the “visions of paradise” we find in our culture, media, and art are projections of implicit aesthetics used for human coordination, rather than deeply thought-out and high-dimensional perspectives truly meant to elevate our understanding and inspire us to investigate the Mystery of reality. Aesthetics tend to put the cart before the horse: they tacitly come with a sense of what is good and what is real. Aesthetics are fast, parallel, and collective ways of judging the goodness or badness of images, ideas, and archetypes. They give rise to internal dissonance when you present to them things that don’t fit well with their previous judgements. And due to naïve realism about perception, these judgements are often experienced as “divine revelations”.
To disentangle ourselves from tacit low-dimensional aesthetics, and inspired by the work of Rob Burbea (cf. Soulmaking), I go over what aesthetics consist of: Eros, Psyche, and Logos. Then, to explore high-quality aesthetics relevant to paradise engineering, I go over 7 camps of a hypothetical “Superhappiness Festival”, each representing a different advanced aesthetic: Hedonism, Psychiatry, Wholesome, Paleo, Energy, Self-Organization, and Paradise Engineering. For didactic purposes I also assign a Buddhist Realm (cf. “Opening the Heart of Compassion” by Short & Lowenthal) to each of the camps.
Note: the Buddhist realms are a very general lens, so a more detailed exposition would point out how each of the camps manifests in each of the Buddhist realms. Don’t put too much stock on the precise mapping I present in this video.
~Qualia of the Day: Pure Lands~
Picture by Wendi Yan (wendiyan.com) “The Tower of Paradise Engineering” (also the featured image of this post / image to appear in the forthcoming QRI Book)
For context, here is the party invite/description:
Science fiction and futurism have failed us. Simply put, there is a remarkable lack of exploration when it comes to the role that consciousness (and its exotic states) will play in the unfolding of intelligent agency on Earth. This, of course, is largely understandable: we simply lack adequate conceptual frameworks to make sense of the state-space of consciousness and its myriad properties. Alas, any vision of the future that neglects what we already know about the state-space of consciousness and its potential is, in the final analysis, “missing the point” entirely.
Exotic states of consciousness are consequential for two reasons: (1) they may provide unique computational benefits, and (2) they may have orders of magnitude more bliss, love, and feelings of inherent value. As Nick Bostrom puts it in Letter From Utopia:
(1) “Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your way, and your journey will fail.
(2) “Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.”
In light of the above, let us for once try to be serious consciousness-aware futurists. Then, we must ask, what does paradise look like? What does it feel like? What kinds of exotic synesthetic thought-forms and hyper-dimensional gems populate and imbue the spacetime of awareness that makes up paradise?
Come and join us for an evening of qualia delights and great company: experience and make curious smells, try multi-sensory art installations, and listen to a presentation about what we call “Advanced Visions of Paradise”. Equipped with an enriched experience base and a novel conceptual toolkit, we look forward to have you share your own visions of paradise and discuss ways to bring them into reality.
Ps. If you are being invited to this event, that means that we value you as a friend of QRI ❤
Pss. Only come if you are fully vaccinated, please!
~Music: People were asking me about the playlist of yesterday’s party. The core idea behind this playlist was to emulate the sequence of aesthetics I talked about in the speech. Namely, the songs are ordered roughly so that each of the 7 camps gets about 1 hour, starting in camp Hedonism and going all the way to camp Paradise Engineering: QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise~
Excerpt from The Science of Enlightenment (2005) by Shinzen Young (p. xv-xvii)
It took me quite a while to get to the point of publishing this book — many years actually. That may seem like a strange statement. How can someone not get the point of publishing something they themselves wrote? Let me explain.
A central notion of Buddhism is that there’s not a thing inside us called a self. One way to express that is to say that we are a colony of sub-personalities and each of those sub-personalities is in fact not a noun but a verb–a doing.
One of my doings is Shinzen the researcher. Shinzen the researcher is on a mission to “take the mist out of mysticism.” Contrary to what is often claimed, he believes that mystical experience can be described with the same rigor, precision, and quantified language that one would find in a successful scientific theory. In his opinion, formulating a clear description of mystical experience is a required prenuptial for the Marriage of the Millennium: the union of quantified science and contemplative spirituality. He hopes that eventually this odd couple will exuberantly make love, spawning a generation of offspring that precipitously improves the human condition.
Shinzen the researcher also believes that many meditation masters, current and past, have formulated their teachings with “less than full rigor” by making unwarranted, sweeping philosophical claims about the nature of objective reality based on their subjective experiences—claims that tend to offend scientists and, hence, impede the science-spiritually courtship.
Shinzen the researcher has a natural voice. It’s the style you would find in a graduate text on mathematics: definition, lemma, theorem, example, corollary, postulate, theorem. Here’s a sample of that voice:
It may be possible to model certain global patterns of brain physiology in ways that feel familiar to any trained scientist, i.e., equations in differential operators on scalar, vector, or tensor fields whose dependent variables can be quantified in terms of SI units and whose independent variables are time and space (where space equals ordinary space or some more esoteric differential manifold). It is perhaps even possible to derive those equations from first principles the way Navier-Stokes is derived from Cauchy continuity. In such fields, distinctive “flow regimes” are typically associated with relations on the parameters of the equations, i.e., F(Pj) → Q, where Q is qualitative change in field behavior. By qualitative change in field behavior, I mean things like the appearance of solitons or the disappearance of turbulence, etc. Through inverse methods, it may be possible to establish a correspondence between the presence of a certain parameter relation in the equations modeling a field in a brain and the presence of classical enlightenment in the owner of that brain. This would provide a way to physically quantify and mathematically describe (or perhaps even explain) various dimensions of spiritual enlightenment in a way that any trained scientist would feel comfortable with.
That’s not the voice you’ll be hearing in this book. This book is a record of a different Shinzen, Shinzen the dharma teacher, as he talks to students engaged in meditation practice. Shinzen the dharma teacher has no resistance at all to speaking with less than full rigor. He’s quite comfortable with words like God, Source, Spirit, or phrases like “the nature of nature.” In fact, his natural voice loves spouting the kind of stuff that makes scientists wince. Here’s an example of that voice:
The same cosmic forces that mold galaxies, stars, and atoms also mold each moment of self and world. The inner self and the outer scene are born in the cleft between expansion and contraction. By giving yourself to those forces, you become those forces, and through that, you experience a kind of immortality–you live in the breath and pulse of every animal, in the polarization of electrons and protons, in the interplay of the thermal expansion and self-gravity that molds stars, in the interplay of dark matter that holds galaxies together and dark energy that stretches space apart. Don’t be afraid to let expansion and contraction tear you apart, scattering you in many directions while ripping away the solid ground beneath you. Behind that seeming disorder is an ordering principle so primordial that it can never be disordered: father-God effortlessly expands while mother-God effortlessly contracts. The ultimate act of faith is to give yourself back to those forces, give yourself back to the Source of the world, and through that, become the kind of person who can optimally contribute to the Mending of the world.
Shinzen the hard-nosed researcher and Shinzen the poetic dharma teacher get along just fine. After all, they’re both just waves. Particles may bang together. Waves automatically integrate. Just one problem though. The researcher is a fussy perfectionist. He is very resistant to the notion of publishing anything that lacks full rigor. Spoken words return to silence from where they came from. Printed text sits around for centuries waiting for every tiny imprecision and incompleteness to be exposed.
So it took a while for me to see value in allowing my talks to be published in something close to their original spoken form.
This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing“. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.
I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.
(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.
(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. In contrast, annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noiseas well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.
Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious“, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂
~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~
(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)
[Excerpt from The Secret of Scent (2006) by Luca Turin, pgs 108-111]
Some Strange Clues
It has been said,* correctly in my opinion, that theories define facts as much as the other way around. Nowhere is this more true than in structure-odour relations, where all knowledge is anecdotal. Anecdotal evidence has a sort of slippery, jelly-like quality to it, and theories are needed to congeal the stuff together into single, solid facts. ‘Anecdotal’ is often used as a pejorative term in scientific circles, meaning unreliable. In practice it often means isolated, and therefore hard to assess. Think of a new field of science as a large jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are discovered one by one, and at first they are unlikely to fit together to make a picture. Things can look distinctly unpromising, sometimes for decades. But if you can bear the pain of feeling stupid and the humiliation of being wrong, anecdotal evidence is the call of the wild, the surest sign of the undiscovered. Columbus set sail on the basis of anecdotal evidence. The Mayan hieroglyphs were deciphered using anecdotal evidence. Life-saving remedies based on plants, such as aspirin and digitalis, were found by scientists who paid attention to anecdotal evidence.
Scientific problems typically go through three phases. In the first phase, a few bold explorers discover a new land and map out its basic features. In the second phase, boatloads of immigrant scientists arrive and colonize the land. In the third phase, statues are erected on town squares, sometimes to the original discoverers, more often to the able administrators who build the roads and railways. Smell, as it happens, did not follow this pattern. Scientific colonies never thrived on this particular island. Every few years, a new set of scientists claims to have cleared the jungle, but their cities are eventually overgrown and get lost in the weeds.
In smell, the difficulty is compounded by two additional factors, one obvious, the other more subtle. The first is the supposed untrustworthiness of the smell sensation I’ve mentioned earlier which makes strong men and women doubt their own noses. The second is that when facts, especially anecdotal ones, remain unexplained for long enough, a kind of question fatigue sets in, and they become accepted without being understood. The situation brings to mind a quintessentially British cartoon I saw once where a dinosaur strides past a terraced house, and a couple see it from their living room. Wife: “What was that?” Husband: “Oh, just one of those Things.” The fact that we can smell functional groups is just such a Thing.
Functional groups, as we have seen, are the specific structures of one or more atoms that are responsible for the chemical behaviour of a substance. Examples are thiols (-SH), nitriles (-CN), and aldehydes (-C(=O)H). The little hyphen indicates that these groups are, of course, attached to something and that the Something varies hugely. But the remarkable thing is that the Something matters little to the smell of the molecules. What gives the game away, especially to the casual observer, is the fact that types of smell are named after chemical groups: sulphuraceous, nitrilic, aldehydic, corresponding respectively to -SH, -CN, -(H)C=O. This is particularly clear in the case of -SH. All molecules which contain an -SH group smell (a) strong and (b) reminiscent of rotten eggs.
Powdered Kala Namak (“black [really pink] salt”)
A word about the description ‘rotten eggs,’ since only a tiny minority of readers will be old enough to remember them. Eggs nowadays come with time stamps and serial numbers, so they seldom get a chance to rot. The rotten eggs smell is today more likely to be experienced in an oriental market (the durian fruit), by opening the gas tap on the stove (a small amount of an -SH compound is added to make sure we notice it), or best of all by going to an Indian store and asking for kala namak or ‘black salt’. Black salt, as its name does not indicate, is actually pink and is a type of rock salt that must come from Hell, as it contains ample amounts of Hell’s Kitchen smell, namely the HSH molecule. HSH is -SH repeated and smells bad twice over. Put some kala namak on your tongue and you will see what I mean. The first thing you will notice is that it reminds you mostly of a very intense hard-boiled egg smell. Clearly, eggs, even when fresh, are itching to fall apart. If you’ve done any chemistry at school, you will also recall the classroom when the teacher was making one of those stinks for which chemistry is famous. Beware though, the culinary satanism of kala namak is beguiling: a tiny amount in blackcurrant ice cream, strawberry daiquiris, coffee, and chocolate does wonders, as long as you don’t let anyone know you did it.
Do all -SH compounds smell identical then, i.e. of rotten eggs? Not a bit, actually: they smell of all manner of things, from grapefruit to garlic via blackcurrants, but they all have this sulphuraceous (i.e. from Hell) character. The grapefruit compound is particularly instructive. It is called pinanethiol. Thiol means -SH, so pinanethiol means pinane-SH.
Remove the -SH and the rest of the molecule (pinane) smells like pine needles, as it should, since pinane is a major component of turpentine oil, itself extracted from pine. Add the -SH back and, having smelled the pinane by itself and familiarized yourself with kala namak, you can clearly smell the parts of the molecule. That is to say you smell both the pine needles and the sulphur. Smell another very strong -SH compound like H₃C-SH, or methanethiol, for a few seconds till the nose (mercifully) tires of the hideous -SH smell, then go back to pinane-SH. Surprise! The sulphur note is now almost gone and the molecule no longer smells of pinane-SH, but instead smells of pinane tout court. This means that this molecule smells like the sum of its parts. In other words, -SH is a primary, though the other smells are not. But how does that work? How do we know what parts it’s made of? This, as we shall see, is the greatest mystery of smell. Looking for an answer will take us amazingly far afield.
* Paul Feyerabend, among others, convincingly argued this view in Against Method, required reading for those who believe the scientific method is something which can be written down and followed like a recipe.
On a recent conversation I had with Luca, I shared with him the fact that there are anti-tolerance drugs that can lessen (and even reverse) the physiological tolerance to drugs such as painkillers. He was seriously surprised by this fact. Despite spending a whole career studying biological regulatory systems, he had never in his life heard of anti-tolerance drugs in academia. Upon hearing this, he shared that in his experience, most of the innovation in science comes from people who work hands-on in the field, as this exposes them to a much broader evidential base than you would encounter when doing research in a strictly theoretical way.
Thus, he has learned far more about consciousness from psychonauts than he ever has from academic psychopharmacologists, and has learned more about electronics from radio amateurs than professional electrical engineers. In other words, the people who actually tinker with the inner mechanisms of the systems they’re interested in are the people to ask for “weird and novel phenomena”, rather than (only) those who study the field academically angling for a university post or a narrow job in the industry. Same, of course, with the science of smell: actually tinkering with aromachemicals can give rise to discoveries one may never stumble upon by merely studying scent receptors in a lab. Needless to say, the best outcomes will come from seamlessly blending both worlds; but for that to happen we will have to embrace phenomenological reports as acceptable leads for research in science.
In the following video Leo Gura from actualized.org talks about his 30-day 5-MeO-DMT streak experiment. In this post I’ll highlight some of the notable things he said and comment along the way using a QRI-lens to interpret his experiences (if you would rather make up your mind about what he says without my commentary just go and watch the video on your own before reading what I have to say about it).
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait a month to satisfy my curiosity and see what happened after his period of isolation because by the time I found about it he had already posted his post-retreat video. Well, it turns out that he used those 30 days of isolation to conduct a very hard-core psychedelic experiment. Namely, he took high doses of 5-MeO-DMT daily for the entire month. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before.
Learning about what he experienced during that month is of special interest to me for many reasons. In particular, thanks to previous research about extreme bliss and suffering, we had determined that 5-MeO-DMT is currently the psychedelic drug that has the most powerful and intense effects on valence. Recall Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (video): many lines of evidence point to the fact that extreme states of consciousness are surprisingly powerful in ways that are completely counterintuitive. So when Leo says that there are “many levels of awakening” and goes on to discuss how each level is unrecognizably more intense and deeper than the previous one, I am very much inclined to believe he is trying to convey a true property of his experiences. Note that Leo did not only indulge in psychedelics; we are talking about 5-MeO-DMT in particular, which is the thermonuclear bomb version of a psychoactive drug (as with Plutonium, this stuff is best handled with caution). More so, thankfully Leo is very eloquent, which is rare among people who have had many extreme experiences. So I was very eager to hear what he had to say.
While I can very easily believe his trip reports when it comes to their profundity, intensity, and extraordinary degree of consciousness, I do not particularly find his interpretations of these experiences convincing. As I go about describing his video, I will point out ways in which you can take as veridical his phenomenological descriptions without at the same time having to agree with his interpretations of them. More so, if you end up exploring these varieties of altered states yourself, by reading this you will now at least have two different and competing frameworks to explain your experiences. This, I think, is an improvement. Right now the psychedelic and scientific community has very few lenses with which to interpret something as extraordinary as 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And I believe this comes at a great cost to people’s sanity and epistemic rationality.
What Are Leo’s Background Assumptions?
In the pre-retreat video Leo says that his core teachings (and what he attempts to realize on his own self) are: (1) you are literally God, (2) there is nothing but consciousness – God is infinite consciousness, (3) everything is states of consciousness – everything at all times is a different state of consciousness, (4) you are love – and love is absolute – this is all constructed out of love – fear is just fear of aspects of yourself you have disconnected from, (5) you have no beginning and no end, (6) you should be radically open-minded. Then he also adds that physical and mental health issues are just manifestations of your resistance to realizing that you are God.
What Are My Background Assumptions?
I am quite sympathetic to the idea of oneness, which is also talked about with terms like nonduality and monopsychism. In philosophical terminology, which I find to be more precise and rigorous, this concept goes by the name of Open Individualism – the belief that we are all one single consciousness. I have written extensively about Open Individualism in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3), but I would like to point out that the arguments I’ve presented in favor of this view are not based on direct experience, but rather, on logical consistency from background assumptions we take for granted. For instance, if you assume that you are the same subject of experience you were a second ago, it follows that you can exist in two points in space-time and still be the same being. Your physical configuration is different than a few seconds ago (let alone a decade), you have slightly different memories, the neurons active are different, etc. For every property you point out as your “identity carrier” I can find a counter-example where such carrier changes a little while you still remain the same subject of experience. Add to that teleportation, fission, fusion, and gradual replacement thought experiments and you can build a framework where you can become any other arbitrary person without a loss of identity. These lines of argumentation coupled with the transitivity of identity can build the case that we are indeed all one to begin with.
But realize that rather than saying that you can grasp this (potential) truth directly from first person experience, I build from agreed upon assumptions to arrive at an otherwise outlandish view. Understanding the argument does not entail “feeling we are all one”, and neither does feeling we are all one entails understanding the arguments!
Indirect Realism About Perception
There is a mind-independent world out there and you never get to experience it directly. In some sense, we each live in a private skull-bound world-simulation that tracks the fitness-relevant features of our environment. Hence, during meditation, dreaming, or psychedelic states you are not accessing any sort of external reality directly, but rather, exploring possible configurations and qualities of your inner world-simulation. This is something that Leo may implicitly not realize. In particular, interpreting 5-MeO-DMT experiences through direct realism (also called naïve realism – the view that you experience the world directly through your senses) would make you think that you are literally merging with the entire cosmos on the drug. Whereas interpreting those experiences with indirect realism merely entails that your inner boundaries are dissolving. In other words, the partitions inside your world-simulation are what implements the feeling of the self-other duality. And since 5-MeO-DMT dissolves inner boundaries, it feels as though you are becoming one with your surroundings (and the rest of reality).
Physicalism and Panpsychism
An important background assumption is that the laws of physics accurately describe the behavior of the universe. This is distinct from materialism, which would also posit that all matter is inherently insentient. Physicalism merely says that the laws of physics describe the behavior of the physical, but leaves its intrinsic nature as an open question. Together with panpsychism, however, physicalism entails that what the laws of physics are describing is the behavior of consciousness.
What makes an experience feel good or bad is not its semantic content, its computational use, or even whether the experience is self-reinforcing or not. What makes experiences feel good or bad is their structure. In particular, a very promising idea that will come up below is that highly symmetrical states of consciousness are inherently blissful, such as those we can access during orgasm, meditation, psychedelics, or even just good food and a hug. Recall that 5-MeO-DMT dissolves internal boundaries, and this is indicative of increased inner symmetry (where the boundaries themselves entail symmetry breaking operations). Thus, an exotic state of oneness is blissful not because you are merging with God, but “merely” because it has a higher degree of symmetry and therefore it’s valence is higher than what we can normally experience. In particular, the symmetry I’m talking abut here may be an objective feature of experiences perhaps even measurable with today’s neuroimaging technology.
There are additional key background philosophical assumptions, but the above are enough to get us started analyzing Leo’s 5-MeO-DMT journey from a different angle.
[Video descriptions are in italics whereas my commentary is bolded.]
For the first 8 minutes or so Leo explains that people do not really know that there are many levels of enlightenment. He starts out strong by claiming that he has reached levels of enlightenment that nobody (or perhaps just a few people) have ever reached. More so, while he agrees with the teachings of meditation masters of the past, he questions the levels of awakening that they had actually reached. It takes one to know one, and he claims that he’s seen things far beyond what previous teachers have talked about. More so, he argues that people simply have no way of knowing how enlightened their teachers are. People just trust books, gurus, teachers, religious leaders, etc. about whether they are “fully” enlightened, but how could they know for sure without reaching their level, and then surpassing them? He wraps up this part of the video by saying that the only viable path is to go all the way by yourself – to dismiss all the teachers, all the books, and all the instructions and see how far you can go on your own when genuinely pursuing truth by yourself.
With this epistemological caveat out of the way, Leo goes on to describe his methodology. Namely, he embarked on a quest of taking 5-MeO-DMT at increasing doses every day for 30 days in a row.
At 10:05 he says that within a week of this protocol he started reaching levels of awakening so elevated that he realized he had already surpassed every single spiritual teacher that he had ever heard of. He started writing a manifesto explaining this, claiming that even the most enlightened humans are not truly as awake as he became during that week. That it had became “completely transparent that most people who say they are awake or teach awakening are not even 1% awake”. But he decided not to go forward with the manifesto because he still values the teachings of spiritual leaders, whom according to him are doing a great service to mankind. He didn’t want to start, what he called, a “nonduality war” (which is of course a fascinating term if you think about it).
The main thing I’d like to comment here is that Leo is never entirely clear about what makes an “awakening experience” authentic. From what I gather (and from what comes next in the video) we can infer that the leading criteria consists of a fuzzy blend of experience of certainty, feeling of unity, and sense of direct knowing coupled together. To the extent that 5-MeO-DMT does all of these things to an extraordinary degree, we can take Leo on his words that he indeed experienced states of consciousness that feel like awakening that are most likely inaccessible to everyone who hasn’t gone through a protocol like his. What is still unclear is how exactly the semantic contents of these experiences are verified by means other than intuition. We will come back to that.
At 16:00 he makes the distinction between awakening as merely “cessation”, “nothingness”, “emptiness”, “the Self”, or that “you are nothing and everything” versus what he has been experiencing. He agrees that those are true and worthy realizations, but he claims that before his experiences, these understandings were still only realized at a very “low level”. Other masters, he claims, may care about ending suffering, about peace, about emptiness, and so on. But that nobody seems to truly care about understanding reality (because otherwise they would be doing what he’s doing). He rebukes possible critics (arguably of the Zen variety) who would say that “understanding is a function of the mind” so the goal shouldn’t be to understand. He asserts that no, based on his lived experience, that consciousness is capable of “infinite understanding”.
Notwithstanding the challenges posed by ultrafinitism, I am also inclined to believe Leo that he has experienced completely new varieties of “understanding”. In my model of the mind, understanding something means to have the ability to render it in your world-simulation in a particular kind of way that allows you to see it from every possible angle you have access to. On 5-MeO-DMT, as we will see to a greater extent below, a certain new set of projective operations get unlocked that allow you to render information from many, many more points of view at the same time. It is unclear whether this is possible with meditation alone (in personal communication, Daniel Ingram said yes) but it is certainly extraordinarily rare for even advanced meditators to be able to do this. So I am with Leo when it comes to describing “new kinds of understandings”. But perhaps I am not on board when it comes to claiming that the content of such understandings is an accurate rendering of the structure of reality.
At 18:30 Leo asserts that what happened to him is that over the course of the first week of his experiment he “completely understood reality, completely understood what God is”. God has no beginning and no end. He explains that normal human understanding sees situations from a single point of view (such as from the past to the future). But that actual infinite reality is from all sides at once: “When you are in full God consciousness, you look around the room, and you can see it from every single point of view, from an infinite number of angle and perspectives. You see that every part of the room generates and manufactures and creates every other part. […] Here when you are in God consciousness, you see it from every single possible dimension and angle. It’s not happening lilnearly, it’s all in the present now. And you can see it from every angle almost as though, if you take a watermelon and you do a cross-section with a giant knife, through that watermelon, and you keep doing cross-section, cross-section, cross-section in various different angles, eventually you’ll slice it up into an infinite number of perspectives. And then you’ll understand the entire watermelon as a sort of a whole. Whereas usually as humans what we do is we slice down that watermelon just right down the middle. And we just see that one cross-section.”
Now, this is extremely interesting. But first, it’s important to point out that here Leo might implicitly be reasoning about his experience through the lens of direct realism about perception. That is, that as he experiences this profound sense of understanding that encompasses every possible angle at once, he seems to believe that this is an understanding of his environment, of his future and past, and of reality as a whole. On the other hand, if you start out assuming indirect realism about perception, how you interpret this experience would be in terms of the instantiation of new exotic geometries of your own world-simulation. Here I must bring up the analysis of “regular” DMT (i.e. n,n-DMT) experiences through the lens of hyperbolic geometry. Indeed, regular DMT elevates the energy of your consciousness, which manifests in brighter colors, fast movement, intricate and detailed patterns, and as curved phenomenal space. We know this because of numerous trip reports from people well educated in advanced mathematics who claim that the visual symmetries one can experience on DMT (at doses above 10mg) have hyperbolic curvature (cf. hyperbolic orbifolds). It is also consistent with many other phenomena one can experience on DMT (see the Eli 5 for a quick summary). But you should keep in mind that this analysis never claims that you are experiencing directly a mind-independent “hyperspace”. Rather, the analysis focuses on how DMT modifies the geometric properties of your inner world-simulation.
Energy-complexity landscape on DMT
DMT trip progression
Intriguingly, our inner world-simulations work with projective geometry. In normal circumstances our world-simulations have a consistent set of projective points at infinity – they render the modal and amodal features of our experience in projective scenes that are globally consistent. But psychedelics can give rise to this phenomenon of “point-of-view-fragmentation“, where your experience becomes a patchwork of inconsistent projective renderings. So even on “regular” DMT you can get the profound feeling of “seeing something from multiple points of view at once”. Enhanced with hyperbolic geometry, this can cause the stark impression that you can explore “hyperspace” with a kind of “ultra-understanding”.
Looking beyond “regular” DMT, 5-MeO-DMT is yet more crazy than that. You see, even on DMT you get the feeling that you are restricted in the number of points of view from which you can see something at the same time. You can see it from many more points of view than normal, but it’s still restricted. But the extreme “smoothing” of experience that 5-MeO-DMT causes makes it so that you cannot distinguish one point of view from another. So they all blend together. Not only do you experience semantic content from “multiple points of view at once” as in DMT, but you can erase distinctions between points of view so that one’s sense of knowing arises involving a totally new kind of projective effect, in which you actually feel you can see something from “every point of view at once”. It feels that you have unlocked a kind of omniscience. This already happens on other psychedelics to a lesser extent (and in meditation, and even sober life to an even lesser extent, but still there), and it is a consequence of smoothing the geometry of your experience to such an extent that there are no symmetry-breaking imperfections “with which to orient a projective point”. I suspect that the higher “formless” jhanas of “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness” are hitting at this effect. And on 5-MeO-DMT this effect is pronounced. More so, because of the connection between symmetry and smoothness of space (cf. Geometry Through the Eyes of Felix Klein) when this happens you will also automatically be instantiating a high-dimensional group. And according to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this ought to be extraordinarily blissful. And indeed it is.
This is, perhaps, partly what is going on in the experience that Leo is describing. Again, I am inclined to believe his description, but happy to dismiss his naïve interpretation.
At 23:15 Leo describes how from his 5-MeO-DMT point of view he realized what “consciousness truly is”. And that is an “infinitely interconnected self-communicating field”. In normal everyday states of consciousness the different parts of your experience are “connected” but not “communicating.” But on 5-MeO, “as you become more conscious, what happens is that every point in space inter-connects with itself and starts to communicate with itself. This is a really profound, shocking, mystical experience. And it keeps getting cranked up more and more and more. You can call it omniscience, or telepathy. And it’s like the universal communication system gets turned on for the first time. Right now your conscious field is not in infinite communication with itself. It’s fragmented and divided. Such that you think I’m over here, you are over there, my computer is over here, your computer is over there…”. He explains that if we were to realize we are all one, we would then instantly be able to communicate between each other.
Here again we get extremely different interpretations of the phenomena Leo describes depending on whether you believe in direct or indirect realism about perception. As Leo implicitly assumes direct realism about perception, he interprets this effect as literally switching on an “universal communication system” between every points in reality, whereas the indirect realist interpretation would be that you have somehow interlocked the pieces of your conscious experience in such a way that they now act as an interconnected whole. This is something that indeed has been reported before, and at QRI we call this effect “networkintegration“. A simple way of encapsulating this phenomenon would be by saying that the cross-frequency coupling of your nervous system is massively increased so that there is seamless information and energy transfer between vibrations at different scales (to a much lesser extent MDMA also does this, but 5-MeO-DMT is the most powerful “integration aid” we know of). This sounds crazy but it really isn’t. After all, your nervous system is a network of oscillators. It stands to reason that you can change how they interact with one another by fine-tuning their connections and get as a result decoupling of vibrations (e.g. SSRIs), or coupling only between vibrations of a specific frequency (e.g. stimulants and depressants), or more coupling in general (e.g. psychedelics). In particular, 5-MeO-DMT does seem to cause a massively effective kind of fractal coupling, where every vibration can get in tune with every other vibration. And recall, since a lot of our inner world simulation is about representing “external reality”, this effect can give rise to the feeling that you can now instantly communicate with other parts of reality as a whole. This, from my point of view, is merely misinterpreting the experience by imagining that you have direct access to your surroundings.
At 34:52 Leo explains that you just need 5-MeO-DMT to experience these awakenings. And yet, he also claims that everything in reality is imaginary. It is all something that you, as God, are imagining because “you need a story to deny that you are infinite consciousness.” Even though the neurotransmitters are imaginary, you still need to modify them in order to have this experience: “I’m talking about superhuman levels of consciousness. These are not levels of consciousness that you can access sober. You need to literally upgrade the neurotransmitters in your imaginary brain. And yes, your brain is still imaginary, and those neurotransmitters are imaginary. But you still need to upgrade them nevertheless in order to access some of the things I say.”
Needless to say, it’s bizarre that you would need imaginary neurotransmitter-mimicking molecules in your brain in order to realize that all of reality is your own imagination. When you dream, do you need to find a specific drug inside your dream in order to wake up from the dream? Perhaps this view can indeed be steel-manned, but the odds seem stacked against it.
At 38:30 he starts talking about his pornography collection. He assembles nude images of women, not only to relieve horniness, but also as a kind of pursuit of aesthetics. Pictures of nude super-models are some of the most beautiful things a (straight) man can see. He brings this up in order to talk about how he then at some point started exploring watching these pictures on 5-MeO-DMT. Recollecting this brings him to tears because of how beautiful the experiences were. He states “you’ve never really seen porn until you’ve seen it on 5-MeO-DMT.” He claims that he started to feel that this way he really felt that it is you (God) that is beautiful, which is manifested through those pictures.
A robust finding in the psychology of sexual attraction is that symmetry in faces is correlated with attractiveness. Indeed, more regular faces tend to be perceived as more beautiful. Amazingly, you can play with this effect by decorating someone’s face with face-paint. The more symmetrical the pattern, the more beautiful the face looks (and vice-versa). Arguably, the effect Leo is describing where people who are already beautiful become unbelievably pretty on 5-MeO-DMT involves embedding high-dimensional symmetries into the way you render them in your world-simulation. A lesser, and perhaps more reliable, version of this effect happens when you look at people on MDMA. They look way more attractive than what they look like sober.
Leo then brings up (~41:30) that he started to take 5-MeO-DMT on warm baths as well, which he reassures us is not as dangerous as it sounds (not enough water to drown if he experiences a whiteout). [It’s important to mention that people have died by taking ketamine on bath tubs; although a different drug, it is arguably still extremely dangerous to take 5-MeO-DMT alone on a bathtub; don’t do it]. He then has an incredible awakening surrendering to God consciousness in the bathtub, on 5-MeO-DMT, jerking off to beautiful women in the screen of his laptop. He gets a profound insight into the very “nature of desire”. He explains that it is very difficult to recognize the true nature of desire while on a normal level of consciousness because our desires are biased and fragmented. When “your consciousness becomes infinite” those biases dissolve, and you experience desire in its pure form. Which according to his direct experience turned out to be “desire for God, desire for myself”. And this is because you are, deep down “infinite love”. When you desire a husband, or sex, or whatever, you are really desiring God in disguise. But the problem is that since your path to God is constrained by the form you desire, your connection to God is not stable. But once you have this experience of complete understanding of what desire is, you finally get your desire fully quenched by experiencing God’s love.
This is a very deep point. It is related to what I’ve sometimes called the “most important philosophical question“, which is: is valence a spiritual phenomenon or spirituality a valence phenomenon? In other words, do we find experiences of God blissful because they have harmony and symmetry, or perhaps is it the other way around, where even the most trivial of pleasures, like drinking a good smoothy, feels good because it temporarily “gets you closer to God”? I lean towards the former, and that in fact mystical experiences are so beautiful because they are indeed extremely harmonious and resonant states of consciousness, and not because they take you closer to God. But I know very smart people who can’t decide between these views. For example, my friend Stuart Garvagh writes:
What if the two options are indistinguishable? Suppose valence is a measure of the harmony/symmetry of the object of consciousness, and the experience of “Oneness” or Cosmic Consciousness is equivalent to having the object of consciousness be all of creation (God‘s object), a highly symmetrical, full-spectrum object (full of bliss, light, love, beingness, all-knowledge, empty of discernible content or information). All objects of consciousness are distortions (or refractions, or something) of this one object. Happiness is equivalent to reducing or “polishing-out” these distortions. Thus, what appears to be just the fact of certain states being more pleasant than others is equivalent to certain states being closer to God‘s creation as a whole. Obviously this is all pure speculation and just a story to illustrate a point, but I could see it being very tough to tease apart the truth-value of 1 and 2. Note: I’m fairly agnostic myself, but lean towards 2 (bliss is the perfume of “God realizing God” or the subject of experience knowing Itself). I would very much love to have this question answered convincingly!
At 50:00 Leo says that “everything I’ve described so far is really a prelude to the real heart of awakening, which is the discovery of love. […] I had already awakened to love a number of times, but this was deeper. By the two week mark the love really started to crack open. Infinite self-love. You are drowning on this love.” He goes on to describe how at this point he was developing a form of telepathy that allowed him to communicate with God directly (which is, of course, a way of talking to himself as he is God already). It’s just a helpful way to further develop. And what God was showing him was how to receive self-love. It was so much at first he couldn’t handle it. And so he went through a self-purification process.
An interesting lens with which to interpret this experience of purification is that of neural annealing. Each 5-MeO-DMT experience would be making Leo’s nervous system resonate in ways in new ways, slowly writing over previous patterns and entraining the characteristic high-symmetry patterns of the state. Over time, the nervous system adjusts its weights in order to be able to handle that resonance without getting its patterns over-written. In other words, Leo has been transforming his nervous system into a kind of high-valence machine, which is of course very beneficial for intrinsic feelings of wellbeing (though perhaps detrimental to one’s epistemology).
55:00: He points out that unlike addictive drugs, he actually had to push himself very hard to continue to take 5-MeO-DMT everyday for 30 days. He stopped wanting to do it. The ego didn’t want it. And yes, it was pleasurable once he surrendered on every session, but it was difficult, heavy spiritual work. He says that he could only really do this because of years of practice with and without psychedelics, intense meditation, and a lot of personal development. And because of this, he explains his 5-MeO experiences felt like “years of spiritual work condensed into a single hour.” He then says that God will never judge you, and will help you to accept whatever terrible things you’ve done. And many of his subsequent trips were centered around self-acceptance.
Following the path of progressive neural annealing, going deeper and deeper into a state of self-acceptance can be understood as a deeper harmonization of your nervous system with itself.
At 1:01:20, Leo claims to have figured out what the purpose of reality truly is: “Reality is a contest for who can love who more. That’s really what life is about when you are fully conscious. […] Consciousness is a race for who can love who more. […] An intelligent fully conscious consciousness would only be interested in love. It wouldn’t be interested in anything else. Because everything else is inferior. […] Everything else is just utter silliness!”
I tend to agree with this, though perhaps not in an agentive way. As David Pearce says: “the pleasure-pain axis discloses the universe’s intrinsic value function.” So when you’ve annealed extremely harmonious patterns and do not get distracted by negative emotion, naturally, all there is left to do is maximize love. Unless we mess up, this is the only good final destiny for the cosmos (albeit perhaps it might take the form of a Hedonium shockwave, which at least in our current human form, sound utterly unappealing to most people).
1:06:10 “[God’s love] sparks you to also want to love it back. You see, it turns into a reciprocal reaction, where it is like two mirrors that are mirroring light between each other like a laser beam that is bouncing between two mirrors. And it’s bouncing back and forth and back and forth. And as it bounces back and forth it becomes more and more concentrated. And it strengthens. And it becomes more coherent. And so that’s what started happening. At first it started out as just a little game. Like ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. A little game. It sounds like it’s almost like childish. And it sort of was. But then it morphed from being this childish thing, into being this serious existential business. This turned into the work. This was the true awakening. Is that with the two mirrors, you know, first it took a little while to get the two mirrors aligned. Because you know if the two mirrors are not perfectly aligned, the laser beam will kind of bounce back and forth in different directions. It’s not going to really concentrate. So that was happening at first. […] The love started bouncing back and forth between us, and getting stronger and stronger. […] Each time it bounces back to me it transforms me. It opens me up deeper. And as it opens me up deeper it reveals blockages and obstacles to my capacity to love.”
Misaligned mirrors letting energy fly away
Aligned mirrors concentrating coherent energy
Now this is a fascinating account. And while Leo interprets it in a completely mystical way, the description also fits very well an annealing process where the nervous system gets more and more fine-tuned in order to be able to contain high levels of coherent energy via symmetry. Again, this would be extremely high-valence as a consequence of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Notice that we’ve talked about this phenomenon of “infinite mirrors” on psychedelics since 2016 (see: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States).
At ~1:09:30 he starts discussing that at this point he was confronted by God about whether he was willing to love the holocaust, and rape, and murder, and bullies, and people of all sorts, even devil worshipers.
Two important points here. First, it is a bit ambiguous whether Leo here is using the word “love” in the sense of “enjoyment” or in the sense of “loving-kindness and compassion”. The former would be disturbing while the latter would be admirable. I suppose he was talking about the latter, in which case “loving rape” would refer to “being able to accept and forgive those who rape” which indeed sounds very Godly. This radical move is explored in metta (loving-kindness) meditation and it seems healthy on the whole. And second: Why? Why go through the trouble of embracing all the evil and repulsive aspects of ourselves? One interpretation here, coming back to the analysis based on neural annealing, is that any little kink or imperfection caused by negative emotion in our nervous system will create slight symmetry breaking effects on the resonance of the entire system as whole. So after you’ve “polished and aligned the mirrors for long enough” the tiny imperfections become the next natural blockage to overcome in order to maximize the preservation of coherent energy via symmetry.
~1:12:00 Leo explains that the hardest thing to love is your own self-hatred. In the bouncing off of the love between you and God, with each bounce, you find that the parts you hate about yourself reflect an imperfect love. But God loves all of you including your self-hatred. So he pings you about that. And once you can accept it, that’s what truly changes you. “Because when you feel that love, and you feel how accepting it is, and how forgiving it is of all of your evil and of all of your sins… that’s the thing that kills you, that transforms you. That’s what breaks your heart, wide open. That’s what gets you to surrender. That’s what humbles you. That’s what heals you.” Leo then explains that he discovered what “healing is”. And it is “truth and love”. That in order to heal anyone, you need to love them and accept them. Not via sappy postcards and white lies but by truth. He also states that all physical, mental, and spiritual ailments have, at their root, lack of love.
If love is one of the cleanest expressions of high-valence symmetry and resonance, we can certainly expect that inundating a nervous system with it will smooth and clean its blockages, i.e. the sources of neural dissonance. Hence the incredible power of MDMA on healing nervous systems in the short-term. Indeed, positive emotion is itself healing and enhances neural coherence. But where I think this view is incomplete is in diagnosing the terrible suffering that goes on in the world in terms of a lack of love. For instance, are cluster headaches really just the result of lack of self-love? In here must bring back the background assumption of physicalism and make a firm statement that if we fall into illusion about the nature of reality we risk not saving people (and sentient beings more generally) who are really in the depth of Hell. Just loving them without taking the causally-relevant physical action to prevent their suffering is, in my opinion, not true love. Hence the importance of maintaining a high level of epistemic rigor: for the sake of others. (See: Hell Must Be Destroyed).
1:22:30 Leo explains that in this “love contest” with God of bouncing off love through parallel mirrors the love became so deep that for the first time in his life he felt the need to apologize: “I’m sorry for not loving more.” He goes into a sermon about how we are petty, and selfish, etc. and how God loves us anyway. “Real love means: I really love you as you are. And I don’t need anything from you. And especially all those things that you think I want you to change about you, I don’t need you to change. I can accept them all exactly as they are. Because that’s love. And when you realize THAT, that’s what transforms you. It is not that God says that he loves you. He is demonstrating it. It’s the demonstration that transforms you.” Leo expresses that he was then for the first time in his life able to say “thank you” sincerely. Specifically, “thank you for your love”: “This is the point at which you’ve really been touched by God’s love. And at this point you realize that that’s it, that’s the point, that’s the lesson in life. That’s my only job. It’s to love.” And finally, that for the first time in his life he was able to say “I love you” and truly mean it. “And you fall in love with God… but it doesn’t end there.”
An interesting interpretation of the felt-sense of “truly meaning” words like “I’m sorry”, “thank you”, and “I love you” is that at this point Leo has really deeply annealed his nervous system into a vessel for coherent energy. In other words, at this point he is saying and meaning those words through the whole of his nervous system, rather than them coming from a fragmented region of a complex set of competing internal family systems in a scattered way. Which is, of course, the way it usually goes.
1:35:30 Leo explains that at this point he started going into the stage of being able to radiate love. That he was unable to radiate love before. “I love that you are not capable of love. I love that. And when that hits you, that’s what fills you with enough love to overcome your resistance to love that next level thing that you couldn’t love.” Then at ~ 1:38:00 it gets really serious. Leo explains that so far he was just loving and accepting past events and people. But he was then asked by God whether he would be willing to live through the worst things that have happened and will happen. To incarnate and be tortured, among many other horrible things. And that’s what true love really means. “When you see a murder on the TV, you have to realize that God lived through that. And the only reason he lived through that is because it loved it.”
I do not understand this. Here is where the distinction between the two kinds of senses of the word “love” become very important. I worry that Leo has annealed to the version of love with the meaning of “enjoyment” rather than “loving-kindness and compassion”. Because a loving God would be happy to take the place of someone who went through Hell. But would a loving God send himself to Hell if nobody had to in the first place? That would just create suffering out of nothing. So I am confused about why Leo would believe this to be the case. It’s quite possible that there are many maxima of symmetry in the nervous system you can achieve with 5-MeO-DMT, and some of them are loving in the sense of compassionate and others are crazy and would be willing to create suffering out of nothing from a misguided understanding of what love is supposed to be. Again, handle Plutonium with caution.
1:43:00 Leo started wondering “what is reality then?” And the answer was: “It’s infinite consciousness. Infinite formless consciousness. So what happens was that my mind in my visual field as I was in that bathtub. My mind and my visual field focused in on empty space, and I sort of zoomed into that empty space and realized that that empty space is just love”. He then describes a process where his consciousness became more and more concentrated and absorbed into space, each dot of consciousness branching out into more and more dots of consciousness, turning into the brightest possible white light. But when he inquired into what was that white light he kept seeing that there was no end to it, and rather, that each point was always connected to more points. Inquiring further, he would get the response that at the core, reality is pure love. That it wouldn’t be and couldn’t be any other way.
The description sounds remarkably close to the formless jhanas such as “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness”. The description itself is extremely reminiscent of an annealing process, reaching a highly energized state of consciousness nearly devoid of information content and nearly perfectly symmetrical. The fact that at this incredibly annealed level he felt so much love supports the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
147:28 – And after Leo realizes that “Of course it is love!” he says that’s when the fear comes: “Because then what you realize is that this is the end. This is the end of your life. You are dead. If you go any further you are dead. Everything will disappear. Your family, your friends, you parents, all of it is completely imaginary. And if you stop imagining it right now, it will all end. If you go any further into this Singularity, you will become pure, formless, infinite, love for ever, loving itself forever. And the entire universe will be destroyed as if it never existed. Complete nothingness. Complete everythingness. You will merge into everyone.”
This sounds like the transition between the 6th and 7th Jhana, i.e. between “boundless consciousness” and “nothingness”. Again, this would be the result of further loss of information via an annealing process, refining the symmetry up to that of a “point”. Interestingly, Mike Johnson in Principia Quallia points out that as symmetry approaches an asymptote of perfection you do get a higher quality of valence but at the cost of reduced consciousness. This might explain why you go from “the brightest possible love” to a feeling of nothingness at this critical transition.
1:48:25: “…You will merge into everyone. Your mother, your father, your children, your spouse, Hitler, terrorists, 9/11, Donald Trump, rape, murder, torture, everything will become pure infinite love, merging completely into itself, there will be no distinction between absolutely anything, and that will be the end. And you will realize what reality is. Infinite consciousness. Love. God. And you will realize that everything in your life from your birth to this point has just been some imaginary story. A dream that was design to lead you to pure absolute infinite love. And you will rest in that love forever. Forever falling in love with yourself. Forever making love to yourself. Forever in infinite union. With every possible object that could ever exist. Pure absolute, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, intelligent, consciousness. Everything that could ever possibly be, is you. And THAT is awakening. When you are this awake, you are dead. And you have no desire for life. There is no physical existence. There is no universe. Nothing remains. Your parents, and your spouse, and your children, they don’t stay back and keep living their lives, enjoying their life without you while your body drops dead. No, no, no, no, no. This is much more serious than that. If you do this. If you become infinite love, you will take everybody with you. There will not be anybody left. You will destroy the entire universe. Every single sentient being will become you. They will have no existence whatsoever. Zero. They will die with you. They will all awaken with you. It’s infinite awakening. It’s completely absolute. There will not be anything left. You will take the entire universe with you. Into pure oneness. THAT’S awakening.”
This is not the first time I hear about this kind of experience. It certainly sounds extraordinarily scary. Though perhaps a negative utilitarian would find it to be the ultimate relief and the best of all possible imaginable outcomes. With the human survival instinct, and quite possibly a body fully aroused with the incredible power of 5-MeO-DMT, this is bound to be one of the most terrifying feelings possible. It’s quite likely that it may be one element of what makes “bad 5-MeO-DMT experiences” so terrifying. But here we must recall that the map is not the territory. And while an annealing process might slowly write over every single facet of one’s model of reality and in turn making them part of a super-cluster of high-dimensional resonance that reflects itself seemingly infinitely, doing this does not entail that you are in fact about to destroy the universe. Though, admittedly, it will surely feel that way. Additionally, I would gather that were it possible to actually end the universe this way, somebody, somewhere, in some reality or another, would have already done so. Remember that if God could be killed, it’d be dead already.
1:52:01: “And I didn’t go there! As you can tell, since I’m still sitting here. I’m not there. I was too afraid to go there. And God was fine with it. It didn’t push me. But that’s not the end of the story! It’s still just the beginning.” He then goes on to explain that a part of him wanted to do it and another part of him didn’t want to. He says it got really loopy and weird; this really shook him. That God was beckoning him to go and be one forever, but he was still ambivalent and needed some time to think about it. He knew it would make no difference, but he still decided to ‘make preparations’ and tell his family and friends that he loves them before moving forward with a final decision to annihilate the universe. By the time he had done that… he had stopped taking 5-MeO-DMT: “The experiences had gotten so profound and so deep… this was roughly the 25th or 27th day of this whole 30 day process. I swore off 5-MeO-DMT and said ‘Ok I’m not doing any more of this shit. It’s enough'”. He explains that by this time the drug was making him feel infinite consciousness when waking up (from sleep) the next day. He felt the Singularity was sucking him into it. It felt both terrifying and irresistible. Every time he would go to sleep it would suck him in really strongly, and he kept resisting it. He would wake up sweaty and in a panic. He was tripping deeper in his sleep than in the bathtub. He couldn’t sleep without this happening, and it kept happening for about 5 days. “I just want to get back to normal. This is getting freaky now.”
I’ve heard this from more than a couple people. That is, that when one does 5-MeO-DMT enough times, and especially within a short enough period of time, the “realizations” start to also happen during sleep in an involuntarily way. One can interpret this as the annealing process of 5-MeO-DMT now latching on to sleep (itself a natural annealing process meant to lessen the technical debt of the nervous system). Even just a couple strong trips can really change what sleep feels like for many days. I can’t imagine just how intense it must have been for Leo after 25 days straight of using this drug.
2:01:40 – Leo explains that when he was dozing off with a blanket on his living room (terrified of sleeping on his bed due to the effect just described) he experienced a “yet deeper awakening” which involved realizing that all of his previous awakenings were just like points and that the new one was like a line connecting many points. “Everything I’ve said up to this point were just a single dimension of awakening. And then what I broke through to is a second dimension. A second dimension of awakening opened up. This second dimension is completely unimaginable, completely indescribable, cannot be talked about, cannot be thought about. And yet it’s there. In it, are things that are completely outside of the physical universe that you cannot conceive or imagine.” He goes on to explain that there are then also a third, fourth, fifth, etc. dimensions. And that he believes there is an infinite number of them. He barely even began to explore the second dimension of awakening, but he realized that it goes forever. It kept happening, he had intense emotional distress and mood swings. But gradually after five more days it subsided, and he started to be able to sleep more normally. “And I’ve been working to make sense of all of this for the last couple of weeks. So that’s what happened.”
Alright, this is out of my depth and I do not have an interpretation of what this “second dimension of awakening” is about. If anyone has any clue, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’m as as confused as Leo is about this.
~2:05:00 – Leo confesses he does not know what would happen if he went through with joining the Singularity and mentions that it sounds a bit like Mahasamādhi. He simply has not answers at this point, but he asserts that the experience has made him question the extent of the enlightenment of other teachers. It also has made him more loving. But still, he feels frustration: “I don’t know what to do from here.”
And neither do I. Do you, dear reader?
Postscript: In the last 10 minutes of the video Leo shares a heart warming message about how reality is, deep down, truly, “just love” and that him saying this may be a seed that will blossom into you finding this out for yourself at some point in the future. He ends by cautioning his audience to not believe as a matter of fact that this is the path for everyone. He suggests that others should just use his examples from his own journey as examples rather than an absolute guide or how-to for enlightenment. He asks his audience to make sure to question the depth of their own awakening – to not believe that they have reached the ultimate level. He admits he has no idea whether there is an ultimate level or not, and that he still has some healing to do on himself. He remains dissatisfied with his understanding of reality.
Imagine that you were tasked with creating a molecule to represent the spirit of California. I think that I would just glue together two MDMA molecules and call it a day.
It turns out Californidine is indeed a real molecule, named after the California Poppy. I am still wrapping my head around the fact that Californidine can be described as two MDMA molecules sharing the nitrogen atom and with the end of the carbon chain of each MDMA molecule bonded at the 2-position of the benzene ring of the other one (minus a hydrogen atom). Interestingly, this compound has no psychedelic or empathogenic action. At best, it can be described as a very mild and unreliable relaxing agent of “herbal strength” akin to the active ingredients of chamomile, valerian, or ashwagandha. So, joining two powerful heart-openers gives rise to a mild sleep-inducer? Perhaps this is a metaphor for something.
Californidine and MDMA
But that’s not what I want to talk to you about today. While gluing together psychoactive molecules may not have a (cartoonishly) desirable additive effect, doing so does express the spirit of what I want to propose today. And that is the impulse to use a creative and fun approach to drug design, letting your imagination run wild to avoid prematurely discarding one’s crazy ideas.
Notable Leads for Great Drug Combos
Over the last 10 years I’ve read many (many!) trip reports and have talked to hundreds of experienced psychonauts (see also: r/replications). It is largely thanks to a subset of these psychonauts, which for lack of a better term could be described as the subset of rational psychonauts, that I’ve been able to assemble empirically testable models for psychedelic phenomenology (some examples: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, Quantifying Bliss, How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD, etc.). Although my focus has largely been on the effects of individual drugs, I’ve become very cognizant of the fact that drug combinations can produce effects not accessible with individual substances. In other words, when it comes to mixing psychoactive substances, the sum is more often than not different from the sum of its parts. Some of these effects seem extremely significant both from a scientific and a philosophical point of view.
But first, an important disclaimer: mixing drugs is dangerous and you should never do it unless you really know what you are doing. The pile of celebrity deaths caused by multiple drug intoxication is only scratching the surface. Indeed, there are many combinations of drugs that are deadly even when the individual drugs taken on their own are relatively safe. For example, while 5-MeO-DMT is relatively safe when vaporized (save for egregiously negligent uses of the drug and the occasional drowning in one’s own vomit), taking 5-MeO-DMT orally in combination with an MAOI leads to extremely toxic reactions, such as severe hypertensive symptoms, overheating, and serotonin syndrome. Don’t do it. As a very rough guide for how mixtures of psychoactives behave, study the chart below.
Welcome to the practice of combining drugs. You may die. (source)
That said, just as drug combinations have a dangerous side, they also likely harbor hidden gems that are very safe, enjoyable, and mind-expanding in ways inaccessible via single drugs. As a general overview, some examples of the possible benefits of drug combinations include: (1) Enhanced euphoria, e.g. see speedball which is massively euphoric but also very dangerous, (2) reduced psychological discomfort (e.g. anxiolytics with psychedelics), (3) uniquely interesting effects, e.g. LSD + MDMA (see below), and (4) reduced physical side-effects and medical risks, e.g. calcium blockers to reduce MDMA neurotoxicity, 5HT2B antagonists to reduce cardiotoxicity of psychedelics, etc. as we’ll discuss. In addition, it is worth mentioning that from a therapeutic point of view, we also have the “more dakka effect“, where some conditions only respond to combining enough drugs (e.g. oncology). It’s possible chronic pain or severe depression may legitimately require multiple drugs to be adequately dealt with. Now let us examine in more detail some particularly interesting categories of drug combinations:
Psychedelics + Anxiolytics: According to many reports, phenibut in small doses seems to significantly reduce the anxiety that comes up on psychedelics. I am ambivalent about sharing this information given the fact that phenibut can become a huge problem for some people, but I think that on the whole it is wise for people to know that an over-the-counter “nootropic” can actually help avoid fear, discomfort, and panic attacks during a psychedelic experience.
Cannabis + Psychedelics: I generally find two kinds of psychedelic drug users. Those who cannot think of having a psychedelic trip without at some point smoking a joint, vaping, or eating a cannabis edible. And then those who would never dare to combine the two because they once had a terrifying experience with the combo. Interestingly, some of the people I’ve met over the years who seem to be able to easily handle massive doses of psychedelics (e.g. 500 micrograms of acid) respond terribly to weed, and especially badly if they are already tripping. Cannabis both modifies and potentiates psychedelic states of mind. It has a tendency to make the experience more conceptual rather than sensory or mystical. The combination also greatly increases the probability of getting stuck in time loops.
Empathogens + Psychedelics: One of the best descriptions of MDMA + LSD (also called candy-flipping) that I’ve found comes from Steven Lehar (emphasis added):
Under LSD and ecstasy I could see the flickering blur of visual generation most clearly. And I saw peculiar ornamental artifacts on all perceived objects, like a Fourier representation with the higher harmonics chopped off. LSD by itself creates sharply detailed ornamental artifacts, like a transparent overlay of an ornamental lattice or filigree pattern superimposed on the visual scene, especially in darkness. Ecstasy smooths out those sharp edges and blurs them into a creamy smooth rolling experience. I would sometimes feel some part of my world suddenly bulging out to greater magnification, like a fish-eye lens distortion appearing randomly in space, stretching everything in that portion of space like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.
Not everyone responds well to this combination, and given the nature of these substances, it seems likely that the dosages and the relative timing have a large influence on how the experience develops. I’ve heard three relatively “established” ways in which people use this combination. First, you have the school that says that you should take the MDMA at or slightly after the peak of the effects of LSD, that is 4-4:30h after taking it. The reasoning here is that you don’t want to be caught coming down from the MDMA while still having a long time to go on LSD since the acid could enhance the feelings of the comedown. The delayed gratification also pays-off by giving you several hours to face the problems you want to solve unaided and see how far you can get before the mood boost of MDMA gives you the determination to be contented with it.
The second school of thought about candy-flipping says that the biggest factor in how psychedelic experiences turn out is how they start. So what you want to do is take the MDMA 1 to 1:30 hours before the acid. This way, you only embark upon the inner journey when you are already in a really, really good chill state of mind. Some people report that the acid picks up the empathogenic quality of the state, amplifies it, and carries it on for much longer than if you had only taken MDMA alone.
There are many proponents and detractors to both of these schools. What I’ve seen more or less everyone agree on is to avoid taking substantial doses of LSD and MDMA (e.g. 200micrograms LSD + 120mg MDMA) at the same time. Apparently this is simply just too overwhelming and synergistic to be enjoyable, often causing a lot of nausea and palpitations.
The third school, however, is to take only a small dose of both at the same time. Say, 35micrograms LSD and 35mg MDMA. This apparently is an extremely positive combination. The experience is not mild due to the synergy, and it seems to provide an open, creative, level-headed mindset for many hours without much of a comedown or hangover. As with everything here, your mileage may vary.
Psychedelics + Dissociatives: Psychedelics and dissociatives have profound non-linear mixing effects. According to multiple sources, the right combination of LSD, Ketamine, and THC can give rise to a “free-wheeling hallucination“. This is a state of consciousness in which you gain a great degree of conscious control over the contents of the hallucinated world, so that you can project your will by saying “let there be a chair in front of me” and you will see it manifest in exquisite detail. You can rotate, translate, invert, fibrate, and project the chair in any way you want, as if you were now able to use your brain as a very general game engine of consciousness. That said, even when this doesn’t happen, the combination of psychedelics and dissociatives is ridiculously synergistic. People report getting stuck in extremely energetic time-loops akin to those caused by psychedelics and cannabis, but more powerful (cf. trip report of DMT + nitrous oxide). Steven Lehar calls the effect where the presence of a psychedelic changes the quality of a dissociative as “dissociative coloring”. I’ve been amazed at the fact that there is no mistaking when someone has previously experienced LSD and nitrous together. You don’t get reactions like “it didn’t do much for me”. This combo usually has a special place in the memory of a person who has experienced it. Eyes brighten, curiosity sparks. I’ve been asked on multiple occasions “what do you think is going on with the strange synergy between LSD and nitrous?” Now, 5-MeO-DMT and DMT are very different, and the LSD + nitrous state seems to have some resemblance with the 5-MeO-DMT state. They share that strange feeling of becoming a kind of saturated resonance box. The feeling is one of becoming a vessel full of coordinated and coherent vibrations that unearth and dissolve internal boundaries and blockages. The process inherently blocks your ability to conceptualize in a dualistic way. The cognitive content of the state is better captured by a huge blinking sign that reads “THIS, THIS, THIS” on repeat rather than the more usual “that thing over there connected to this over here, modulated by what happens there” kind of cognitive state we are more familiar with. DMT on its own is very different than this, in that the mental formations and patterns of binding that emerge are extremely specific, detailed, and irreducibly complex. Not so on the upper ranges of the dissociative and psychedelic cocktail, where the resonance is profound and the asymmetries needed to store complex information are constantly smoothed out by the ongoing full-body bath of reverb. (cf. Neural Annealing).
Dissociatives + Empathogens: According to several trip reports and credible personal communications, taking ketamine while on MDMA can bring back “the magic” that one only ever experienced with MDMA the first few times using it. Also MDMA and nitrous have profound research-worthy synergy.
Potentiation: Shulgin reported that substances that don’t feel psychedelically active on their own may nonetheless potentiate the effects of other psychedelics. For instance:
(with 160 mg of MDPR followed at 2h by 100μg LSD) This proved to be almost too intoxicating, and a problem arose that had to have a solution. The entire research group was here, and all were following this same regimen. Two hours into the second half of the experiment a telephone call came that reminded me of a promise I had made to perform in a social afternoon with the viola in a string quartet. Why did I answer the phone? My entire experience was, over the course of about 20 minutes, pushed down to a fragile threshold, and I drove about 10 minutes to attend a swank afternoon event and played an early Beethoven and a middle Mozart with an untouched glass of expensive Merlot in front of me. I could always blame the booze. I declined the magnificent food spread, split, and returned to my own party. Safely home, and given 20 more minutes, I was back into a rolling +++ and I now know that the mind has a remarkable ability to control the particular place the psyche is in.
More common than the above, ayahuasca is intrinsically a drug combo primarily of the potentiation kind. As mentioned before, cannabis not only alters but also potentiates the effects of psychedelics. It is worth mentioning there is a community of people who believe that noopept (a cholinergic nootropic, see below) can potentiate MDMA. While there is some evidence that MDMA is itself mildly cholinergic– and thus provides a sense of mental clarity in addition to the loved-up feeling- too much cholinergic action tends to make people feel rigid, robotic, and hyper-cerebral. I am therefore personally skeptical of the benefits of combining something like noopept with MDMA, as the potentiation of some of its qualities may come at the cost of reduced emotional sensitivity. Why trade a feeling of renewed innocence and receptivity with calculating prowess? I doubt this is the best use of a roll.
Anti-tolerance Drugs: This is a category of combinations with tremendous potential to relieve suffering, to the extent that I think of it as a humanitarian tragedy that there are no concerted research efforts currently in this direction. Sufferers of chronic pain and treatment-resistance depression could make use of drugs that help them keep the tolerance to the drugs they depend upon for having a livable life under control. I know this has a lot of the ring of turtles all the way down (“when are you going to get the anti-tolerance drugs for anti-tolerance drugs? And then the anti-tolerance for anti-tolerance for…”) but I am sincere when I say that looking here may pay off in spades. Already we see ibogaine doing other-worldly magnificent things to cure addiction and reverse tolerance. Who knows what a large targeted research program with this focus may discover. Some examples of anti-tolerance drugs include proglumide, ibogaine, and black seed oil for opioids, and flumazenil for benzodiazepines.
Prevent Physical Side Effects: Epidemiological data suggests that chronic or heavy use of 5HT2B agonists may lead to heart valve disease (cf. Fen-Phen), which does not bode well for the long-term (as opposed to acute) safety of many psychedelic compounds. Now, neuroscientist Thomas Ray believes that 5HT2B may be necessary for some of the characteristic psychedelic action of entheogens, so blocking it altogether may come at the cost of eliminating the reason why the drug is interesting. That said, we do know that 5-MeO-DMT is profoundly psychedelic and yet has negligible 5HT2B activity. It would be very useful to know what happens when one combines psychedelics with heavy 5HT2B affinity, like 2C-B and DOB, with 5HT2B antagonists (usually prescription medicines). Would blocking 5HT2B agonism avoid cardiotoxicity? And what would the drug feel like then? Another interesting lead is the affinity of compounds like 2C-E and 2C-T-2 to the 5HT3 receptor, which is predominantly in the gut and modulates feelings like nausea. Additionally, since 5HT3 antagonists are antiemetic it really stands to reason that taking one before e.g. tripping on shrooms may give you a much less, ahem, visceral experience. Finally, I would like to explore the implications of the fact that of all of the compounds in Ray’s study the only one with significant affinity for calcium channels is MDMA. Would this be related to its neurotoxicity? And would taking a calcium channel blocker prevent it? It might still be wise regardless simply as a way to lessen the cardiac load of the compound.
Nootropic Stacks (cf. the Qualia Pill): Many people who explore nootropics make “stacks”. That is, rather than taking only piracetam, they might take a combination of piracetam, aniracetam, pramiracetam, coluracetam, and l-tyrosine. I suspect that this is popular because most nootropics are pretty mild and often hard to notice, and people want to be able to feel the effects. I generally do not think this is sensible, though, as we don’t understand these substances well enough. More so, branded “nootropic stacks” can have upwards of 30 different psychoactive substances crammed together in half a dozen pills you are supposed to take daily. While I do think there are likely gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of cognition-boosting chemicals, I simply do not see any way in which the current major brands of nootropic stacks could have done the type of research needed to find them. I therefore do not personally recommend you go out and try such combos, at least not until we know a lot more about how to do combinations properly. If you want to try nootropic stacks, I’d recommend you start with small doses of two or three well-researched nootropics at most and do your own research thoroughly before settling on a particular combination.
LSD + DMT Visual Replication
Psychedelics and Psychedelics: A classic psychedelic combo that I’ve heard a lot about is LSD + DMT. The state that emerges from this combination is apparently unique, though if you take enough DMT the LSD fades into the background. Apparently psychedelics tend to have a characteristic spectral effect on your brain’s harmonics (see: Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves on LSD), which manifests in the form of experiencing “vibes of different frequencies” specific to the drug you are taking. The case of LSD and DMT is very interesting, since their characteristic frequencies are sufficiently far apart (to put a number on it, LSD may be in the vicinity of 18Hz while DMT may be close to 30Hz) that they can be separated easily. You thus get a spectral effect of two peaks interfering with one another, oftentimes creating a powerful 3D grid of Moiré patterns, like a super-charged version of the “regular” DMT Chrysanthemum. As a method for spectral analysis, studying the beat patterns of psychedelic drug combos could go a long way in formulating a systematic characterization of their phenomenology. Speculatively, this may even allow us to come up with specific psychedelic drug cocktails that produce maximally consonant harmonious effects.
A final thought to add to this section concerns the fact that people respond differently to drugs. One can reason that if drug A affects 20% of people in a different way while drug B affects 10% of people in a different way, that A + B would lead to 4 different kinds of responses. More so, the more drugs you pile on top of each other, the more specific and individualized the response would be. I think that this is likely true in the general case, but I would argue that it is not universally true. A useful analogy here is with the way people respond to the scent of different molecules: you may lack the gene that encodes the receptor for a particular molecule, but perfumes usually have 30 or more scent-contributing molecules, so the experience of a perfume may be more similar between people than their experience of individual molecules. At the extreme, we have the phenomenon of “white noise scent” where once you mix 40+ molecules in equal (intensity-adjusted) proportions that span scent-space, it all starts smelling the same. The notion of “scent entropy” can be imported to drugs as well: I would expect a kind of inverted U-curve for “how idiosyncratic” the responses to drug combinations are as a function of the total entropy of the combo.
Drug Cocktails From First Principles
The way we aim to understand psychoactive substances at the Qualia Research Institute is in terms of the way they modify the neuroacoustic profile of the brain. And while this is what I see as the most promising approach moving forward, I believe that there is nonetheless a lot of low-hanging fruit at the receptor level of analysis.
The first time I’d thought of trying to emulate the effects of a drug using a cocktail of other drugs came up years ago when I found out that MDMA is likely neurotoxic. At the time I thought perhaps it was just a matter of getting the right dopaminergic, serotonergic, and oxytocinergic activity going for you to replicate the MDMA high. It’s a good thought, and some people have taken it to heart, such as the creators of “Poly”, an MDMA-like cocktail (cf. Kisspeptine). But as we’ll see, MDMA is more complex than that, and we may need to consider far more variables to make a “credible MDMA substitute”.
Looking beyond drug combos of only two or three drugs, and with a nod to concepts from the field of high-entropy alloys (HEAs), we could start thinking about the secret gems to be found in the vast combinatorial space of “high-entropy drug combos”. But what kind of principles could we use to safely combine 5+ drugs? The full story will probably be much, much more complicated than the following approach, but it is still nonetheless worth exploring as a first pass. Namely, to break down each drug in terms of their receptor affinity profile and then use those affinities additively to create arbitrary “synthetic” receptor affinity profiles. There are many reasons why this might not work: receptor affinity may not work linearly or have a clear rule-based behavior. For instance, it is still unclear if a single drug that has affinity for key serotonin receptors (say 5HT2A, 5HT2B, and 5HT7) in addition to working as an NMDR antagonist would produce the same feeling of “synergistic action” as there is between psychedelics and dissociatives. More so, there could be additional intra-cellular signaling specific to each molecule, so that two molecules that work as agonists with the exact same 5HT2B affinity may have different downstream effects inside the neuron, and then those intracellular effects might have phenomenological properties of their own. But leaving all of those caveats and unknowns aside for a moment, what would it look like to create drug cocktails with this method?
True for both people and drugs!
After giving it some thought I realized that the problem can be reduced to a non-negative least squares (NNLS) optimization (non-negative because, as they say: “you can always take more drugs, but you cannot take less drugs”). It turns out there are already open source implementations of algorithms that solve this optimization problem (for both R and Python)*. So I downloaded the data from the famous Thomas Ray study of psychedelic receptor affinity and played with the data and the non-negative least squares method in a Jupyter notebook for a bit. The first thing I tried was to create a compound like 2C-B but better. Under dubious- but not entirely random- assumptions, I set the desired receptor affinity to be that of 2C-B but with the following modifications: to have the 5HT2B affinity be as low as possible in order to minimize cardiotoxicity concerns, and borrow from MDMA’s unique profile the hypothesis that the Imidazoline receptor is related to heart-opening effects. Additionally, I modified the receptor profile so that the drug would give you more focus than 2C-B by having a higher affinity for the dopamine receptors. To top it off, I racked up the desired receptor affinity for 5HT7, as it has been implicated in providing the more utterly mind-blowing power of psychedelics. I entered these modifications into the NNLS optimizer and the output I got was**:
I see, so since 2C-B is still the backbone of the desired affinity pattern, it appears in high proportion in the mixture as a kind of “base” on top of which the modifications are made. It makes sense that 5-MeO-DMT would come next as it is pretty selective for 5HT7 (remember, the most literally mind-blowing chemical), and MDMA would follow due to the desire for Imidazoline affinity. That by the way, is also probably partly why the formula contains a pinch of Mescaline, to round up that Imidazoline for good measure. I then decided to relax the 5HT7 requirement and instead increase the 5HT6 and 5HT5A, and got the following formula:
And this now looks pretty different. After playing like this for a while, it occurred to me to use this technique to basically try to reconstruct a drug using a non-negative linear combination of the remaining drugs available. Imagine for example that you are stuck in quarantine at your house and you don’t have any 2C-B to kill time (I know! Very relatable isn’t it?), but you do somehow happen to have an assortment of hundreds of other unscheduled random research chemicals. Could you combine them in such a way that you approximate the effects of 2C-B? Well, let’s see.
Here are the “drug reconstructions” the method derives (again, please, don’t try this at home):
I am pleasantly surprised to see the formulas actually do seem pretty intuitive to me. Take for example the DIPT reconstruction. The top two ingredients are 5-MeO-DIPT and DPT, which are the two closest structural analogues of DIPT in the dataset. Or take the one for DOB: this is the amphetamine version of 2C-B, so it makes sense that both an amphetamine psychedelic (Aleph-2) and 2C-B would make up the top two ingredients. Or consider 5-MeO-DMT, with its most prominent ingredient being 5-MeO-TMT, which is one carbon atom away in terms of structure. Or see how Mescaline’s heart-opening effects are well represented by its reconstruction with MDMA and MDA, while TMA contributes the receptor affinity characteristic of the trimethoxy class of functional groups, along with another Mescaline-like phenethylamine, 4C-T-2. Alas, here is where an imperfect understanding of drug interactions could come and bite us in the ass: if 4C-T-2 is anything like 2C-T-2, it might have some MAOI action, which could be potentially very dangerous to combine with compounds like MDMA. Needless to say, before you go out and try these crazy drug cocktails, we first need a thorough understanding of each drug well beyond just its affinity to “only” 30 or so receptors.
Now, not every reconstruction makes sense to me, and really only a few substances have what I would call a descent mean squared error. See the receptor affinity tables below for examples of both successful and unsuccessful reconstructions (only non-zero entries shown):
2C-T-2: Error of 1.31
DOB: Error of 1.51
Aleph-2: Error of 1.85
2C-B: Error of 2.34
2C-B-fly: Error of 2.76
Ibogaine: Error of 7.05
MDMA: Error of 7.06
DOB and 2C-T-2 have some of the lowest errors in the sample, meaning that their reconstructions are pretty good, while Ibogaine and MDMA have two of the worst error rates, and their reconstructions are still obviously pretty far from the goal. Naturally, if we were ever to test this method in the lab (with e.g. a drug discrimination paradigm) we would probably start with the most accurate reconstructions first. For instance, train rats to distinguish between 2C-B and DOB, and see if administering the (2C-B-containing) “DOB reconstruction” makes the rats think they got DOB rather than 2C-B.
Master Druggist (Synapse? Dendrite?)
I would like to conclude this essay with an interesting speculation: what if we developed drug combos like we develop perfumes? It is my appreciation that it takes a very high level of intelligence, domain expertise, and psychological robustness to be able to contribute usefully to the field of psychonautics. Sasha Shulgin spent over 30 years taking hundreds of completely new drugs, and I would very much trust his judgement about what makes a great psychedelic drug combo than I would trust a random BlueLight or Erowid user. (As an aside: Shulgin was extremely cautious in his approach, but he certainly wasn’t doing some of the low-hanging fruit on safety, such as wearing a heart monitor or measuring his blood pressure when taking a new drug, for starters. Future systematic psychonautic work should also record as much biometric data as is feasible). You wouldn’t put on a perfume made by someone who has only ever worn Axe, would you? Training a “Nose” takes up to 7 years, and it involves becoming deeply familiar with the scent of a long list of molecules, accords, and perfumes. Likewise, I’d expect that in order to be qualified to find extremely good drug combinations, one would first need to become familiar with the effect of many different individual drugs, “natural drug accords” (e.g. peyote), and designed drug cocktails. Only once you have an intuitive sense of how e.g. the sigma receptor interacts with the 5HT1A receptor would I trust your judgement about adding a pinch of agmatine to your already convoluted mixture of 20 psychoactive substances. A Super-Shulgin Academy could train people to be professional drug cocktail makers (if perfumers are called “Noses” would we call Super-Shulgin certified cocktail makers “Dendrites”?). As discussed above, this assumes that we can do this safely, which I suspect will be possible once we map out the space of dangerous combinations and receptors we shouldn’t mess with to avoid side effects like cardiotoxicity (e.g. 5HT2B, 5HT3A, calcium channels, etc.).
You come to the master cocktail designer with a general concept for a new recreational drug, and they would come up with activity profiles that best evoke those feelings. The Dendrite would select from hundreds or thousands*** of pure chemicals and accords to create your unique cocktail. As is the case with Noses in the perfume industry, a Dendrite would tend to have a set of about one to two hundred “frequently used” compounds, and a dozen or so “signature” ones they’re deeply familiar with and that usually reveal who the Druggist is, if found in large proportions in the end product. Of course there would be “house favorites” (e.g. the classic “ambroxan bomb” of Dior fragrances for men) and chemical fads (e.g. the wide adoption of Iso E Super in 90s perfumes). Every year would come with a new season of amazing, safe, and uniquely interesting recreational drug cocktails.
Iso E Super
In perfumery you find both natural and synthetic “accords”: “Violet reconstructions” attempt to emulate the smell of violet but in a much more long-lasting, storable, and versatile way. Good Dendrites would not only use “natural accords” such as “peyote” or “marijuana plant” but would also make their own, aided with computer models and datasets of trip reports along with their own first person experiences. In both perfumery and professional drug cocktail making we would study accords packed with combos of qualia-triggering chemicals, and a Dendrite could be known not only for making good final products, but for making excellent accords with predictable and desirable effects.
To finalize the analogy (and this article) we could also discuss the way in which perfumes feel “broad spectrum” thanks to being constructed by combining “top, heart, and base notes”. Roughly speaking, top notes tend to “feel higher frequency” (such as citric scents) while base notes tend to “feel low frequency” (such as woody scents), not unlike how a symphony will tend to combine sounds across the spectrum. The most interesting, voluptuous, and commercially viable combos would also probably have a broad spectrum of activity. They would be anxiolytic, exciting, relaxing, trippy, and empathogenic to various degrees all at once. They would combine fast, slow, and spiritual euphoria in a single power punch of qualia cornucopia. As such, each drug cocktail made this way would entail an entire worldview – a whole realm currently hidden in the vast state-space of consciousness.
* For an intuition: recall from linear algebra that a basis of n linearly independent vectors span an n-dimensional vector space. When the vector that you are trying to reconstruct is not in the span of your basis, the best you can do is to project your vector to the nearest hyperplane of the spanning space. Adding the constraint that you can only make non-negative linear combinations with your basis vectors, you find that the span will look like an ‘inverted pyramid’, and the least-squares solution will be the point of that inverted pyramid that is closest to your desired vector. This is why most of the reconstructions only use a subset of the available drugs in the dataset. In most cases, the desired vector (i.e. affinity profile in this case) will be outside of the inverted pyramid of the non-negative span, and the closest hyperplane will be a linear combination of only a subset of the building blocks- those which span that particular hyperplane. I.e. the solution is the projection to the nearest hyperplane segment covering the non-negative span. This is what the NNLS method is doing under the hood.
** Note: It’s important to point out that these are not dosages. The coefficients provided by the non-negative least squares method apply to the normalized affinity “npKi“, which is the receptor affinity normalized by the highest affinity among the receptors. The coefficients will be correlated with “proportion of a standard active dose” but there will be an error caused by the pretty tricky confounder that molecules vary in their “breadth of affinity”. Additionally: the psychoactivity of each receptor is not the same, we are not considering saturation effects, the difference between partial and full agonists is not taken into account, downstream effects are ignored, etc. etc. Needless to say, there is still quite some work to be done to transform these coefficients into meaningful dosages.
*** List of Psychoactive Drugs a professional Dendrite would be expected to be familiar with:
Note – The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia
The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue).
The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.
Below you will find the abstract, introduction, and the first 2 (out of 8) models of art. I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all 8 of them.
Contemporary writing about art is in exactly the same place as writing about nature was before Darwin came along. Before Darwin there was no single intellectual matrix upon which to fix all of these impressions and ideas. There was no way of organizing all of that information. And this seems to me to be the situation we are in with the arts, as well.
We start by assuming that there are real stakes in art. This motivates the analysis of this subject matter, and it focuses where we place our gaze. We examine a total of eight models for “what art might be about”, divided into two groups. The first group of four are some of the most compelling contemporary models, which derive their strength from fields such as philosophy of language, economics, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. These models are: (1) art as a word only definable in a family resemblance way with no necessary or sufficient features, (2) art as social signaling of desirable genetic characteristics, (3) art as Schelling point creation, and (4) art as the cultivation of sacred experiences. These four models, however enlightening, nonetheless only account for what David Marr might describe as the computational level of abstraction while leaving the algorithmic and implementation levels of abstraction unexamined. They explain what art is about in terms of why it exists and what its coarse effects are, but not the nature of its internal representations or its implementation. Hence we propose a second group of four models in order to get a “full-stack” view of art. These models are: (5) art as a tool for exploring the state-space of consciousness, (6) art as a method for changing the energy parameter of experience, (7) art as activities that induce neuronal annealing (which implements novel valence modulation, i.e. surprising pain/pleasure effects), and (8) art as an early prototype of a future affective language that will allow diverse states of consciousness to make sense of each other. These frameworks address how art interfaces with consciousness and how its key valuable features might be implemented neurologically. We conclude with a brief look at how embracing these new paradigms could, in principle, lead to the creation of a society free from suffering and interpersonal misunderstanding. Such a society, aka. Harmonic Society, would be designed with the effect of guaranteeing positive valence interactions using principles from a post-Galilean science of consciousness.
We shall start this essay by making the assumption that there are real and substantial stakes when it comes to art. Not all of my readers will agree with this point, and those who do might in fact secretly worry that they are overvaluing art for selfish reasons. I come here to suggest that there could be very real and substantial stakes in art, and that to realize this you do not need to buy into sentimentalism, fanaticism, wishful thinking, or traditionalist attitudes. You could start with the sheer amount of human attention that is devoted to art in one way or another. Art seems to make a lot of people do things, and do them with a lot of their energy and focus. Indeed, many people point at their intimations with art as personally defining moments. Some say their best self is expressed in their creation, consumption, or participation in art. So what is all of this fuss about?
Alas, most things of grand significance have been analyzed by countless people. The sheer magnitude of certain human activity is not a justification for caring about it at the margin, considering the often corresponding sheer magnitude of other people already analyzing and scientifically probing the field. That is, of course, unless you have a reason to think that you have something that everyone else has been missing all this time. And this is the case for you and me right now. The new perspectives on art on this essay come from thinking very deeply about consciousness, qualia, and the possible implementations of the pleasure-pain axis, aka. valence. We will see how investigating these questions cashes out in novel insights about art. In turn, these models, as well as the empirically testable predictions they generate, might have the ability to reframe what is going on with art in a way that allows us to predict how and when it will bring about good and desirable effects.
The 8 Models
Art as family resemblance (Semantic Deflation)
Art as Signaling (Cool Kid Theory)
Art as Schelling-point creation (a few Hipster-theoretical considerations)
Art as cultivating sacred experiences (self-transcendence and highest values)
Art as exploring the state-space of consciousness (ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
Art as something that mess with the energy parameter of your mind (ꙮ)
Art as puzzling valence effects (emotional salience and annealing as key ingredients)
Art as a system of affective communication: a protolanguage to communicate information about worthwhile qualia (which culminates in Harmonic Society).
Models 1 through 4 are already present in the memetic ecosystem of today. They focus on external aspects of art, such as why it reproduces and how it impacts social behavior. From the point of view of Marr’s levels of analysis, these four models focus on the behavioral/computational level of analysis. Namely, what art looks like from the outside, and how it reproduces. Models 5 through 8 are novel perspectives that arise out of examining artistic experiences in light of Marr’s algorithmic and implementation-level accounts of consciousness. That is, how the internal information-processing and implementational features of brains give rise to art. In turn, these four models give rise to a new understanding for when art does or does not do its job.
1. Semantic Deflation
This model says that asking “what is art?” is, more often than not, an utterly confused question. Perhaps in antiquity it would make sense to talk about the essence of art, expecting there to be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art. According to the semantic deflation model of art, starting out with the expectation of finding a crisp set of requirements for something to be art is starting off on the wrong foot, for believing that there is an essence of art is to simply not pay attention to the large set of inconsistent use cases for that word, which challenges the existence of such an essence.
The semantic deflation model is supported by key insights from 20th Century philosophy of language, such as found in the works of Russell, Frege, Carnap, Quine, and especially those of the late Wittgenstein. Of particular relevance when it comes to defining art we could point at Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. Developed in his book Philosophical Investigations, the concept of family resemblance posits that many words which seem at first to point at something with a core essence are, in fact, pointing to referents which have overlapping similarities but no universally shared attributes.
Like the concept of a game, which refers to activities as diverse as checkers and cellular automata, and which cannot be easily defined in terms of e.g. point systems, physical movement, number of players, etc., we likewise cannot expect art to be definable in terms of media, intent, social effects, or craft. All we can aspire to is to identify common and characteristic features.
According to this view, the models of art that take objective beauty seriously on Platonic or traditionalist grounds are fundamentally misguided. Callbacks to retraditionalize society to preserve its past – more genuine – aesthetics are perceived as parodies of themselves, trying to undo an intrinsically irreversible process of cultural learning. Nowadays few people seriously believe that art should be conceived of as a tool exclusively for the glorification of traditional values and religious symbolism. It is also not fashionable to think of art in sincere non-ironic ways. Those who wish to earnestly engage with art must remind themselves that the days in which its meaning could be grounded on universally agreed definitions is gone.
Although sobering and clarifying, I argue that this view leaves a lot of value on the table. Sure, art has no common essence, but that does not mean that all of the uses of the word are pointing at things of equal value. Semantic deflation does not provide us with guidance for identifying and promoting good art. Indeed, as Wittgenstein might put it, “[p]hilosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.” (Philosophical Investigations, pg.49).
Interestingly, the semantic deflation model of art can itself be conceived of as an aesthetic. This aesthetic rewards those who can help others transcend narrow conceptions of what art is. Exemplary movements like Dadaism and Pop Art could be thought of as pushing the aesthetic of semantic deflation to the limit.
“Art is what you can get away with.” – Andy Warhol.
But what if there is something worth preserving, reifying, and defining clearly in art? Semantic deflation should perhaps be thought of as a first step in figuring out what is valuable about art, rather than a final destination. To move beyond it, one should avoid reviving a naïve essentialist view of art, and instead identify conceptual focal points that genuinely enrich our conception of art. Rather than destroying preconceptions, we could instead refactor, discover, and build new and enlightened ones. Transcending absolutist deflationary views of art is indeed more appealing when there is an alternative in sight that is both better and more real than what you get by merely deconstructing and breaking down naïve views. And this is what we will attempt to do as we move on to other models of art.
2. Cool Kid Theory
In his book “The Mating Mind”, Geoffrey Miller discusses art in light of evolutionary psychology. In this view, art, rather than being a thing, is a culturally sanctioned activity devised to allow people to display their genetic fitness, by showing off above-average features of their phenotypes. Art is, in this view, at its core, an outlet for courtship. Incredible performances like those of Liszt and Rachmaninoff are not just for the pleasure of music. The incredible difficulty of performing the musical compositions is itself the show. The difficulty is not a side-effect of discovering new soundscape frontiers that produce blissful and extraordinary experiences to degrees that couldn’t be possible without the difficulty of execution. Rather, the difficulty of performing the musical pieces is part and parcel of what makes them so extraordinary. They are indeed erotic displays of fitness traits (cf. Lisztomania) crafted to cause an impression in fertile ground.
Indeed, we are constructed in such a way that we can emotionally hack and be hacked by others to assess each others’ suitability as potential family, friends, and neighbors. Unfakeable fitness displays typically require prodigious amounts of waste. As Geoffrey puts it: “Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste.” (The Mating Mind, pg. 128. cf. An Infinite Variety of Waste) Only extremely fit organisms can afford to spend resources on non-survival tasks.
Fashion, too, in this light, is a sort of collective activity of systematic waste. Keeping up with the latest trends shows that you have a lot of free time (which, contrary to popular belief, is perceived as more sexy than the alternative). Only the wealthy, disciplined, or well-organized can manage to sustain energy- and time-consuming hobbies for years and years.
This theory of art has a problem, though, which is that on its own it does not explain art as a cultural institution. We could very well imagine that aesthetics-based displays of genetic fitness would be circumscribed to individual efforts but in practice we see groups of people coming together to work out the potentialities, possibilities, limits, and implications of particular aesthetics. We don’t only generate extraordinarily wasteful works of art ourselves, but do so contextually within art movements and aesthetic languages. Why is this?
I believe there is a layer of organization above individual signaling displays. To fully grasp it, we need to talk about what I have named “Cool Kid Theory”. This theory postulates that above-average and particularly well-rounded individuals, aka. Cool Kids, figure out ways of enticing others to show their peacock feathers, so to speak. Being a Cool Kid is not to excel oneself, but rather, to have the precise kind of strategic mediocrity that gives others the urge to show how they can improve upon your craft. At its extreme, a Cool Kid commands a group of people who practice a particular type of craft, which ultimately becomes an artistic gang. If you are a Cool Kid you can decide who is cool and who is not by choosing what challenges to measure the performance of people with.
Who wants to be a Cool Kid? The answer is, for the most part, anyone who can get away with it. It is so evolutionarily adaptive to be a Cool Kid that we have a number of psychological programs that can be triggered with a sequence of social cues that can make almost anyone into a Cool Kid.
Part and parcel of being a Cool Kid is to know how to induce the fear of missing out in others. It is about detecting when a particular challenge is headed towards an imminent dead end and course-correct to keep people engaged.
Here is an example. If you ever encounter a group of dancers in public transportation, you will notice that there is a Cool Kid who binds them together. The Cool Kid selects for people who have unique talents, and collectively accumulates a solidly impressive bag of tricks. Everyone in the group takes turns showing their best trick. For instance, the group might have someone who sings, someone who plays an instrument, and someone who owns a subwoofer (sometimes that’s all it takes). You might also see that there is a guy who can do the weird elbow twist thingy, the one who can break dance and do nine spins on his back, the one who can beat-box to the tune of the song, and the one who moonwalks while playing a harmonica. An effective Cool Kid is one who can corral all of these specialists and be the artistic glue who controls the overarching aesthetic. And this aesthetic is what defines a set of challenges used for impressive fitness displays.
The art world can be thus conceived of as a large super-cluster of Cool Kid gangs cornering the economy of attention. The competitive nature of Cool Kids is sure to produce a constant stream of novel stimuli, endlessly varied trends and fashions, as well as competitive and indeed sometimes even virulent attacks between aesthetics. For he who controls the aesthetic, controls your ability to be popular.
To be continued…
 Marr’s levels of analysis is a framework to analyze information-processing systems. First we have the computational level, which describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. This level is concerned with questions like what the system is capable of, and how quickly it can succeed at it. Second is the algorithmic level of analysis, which focuses on the internal representations and operations used to transform the inputs into the outputs. And third is the implementation level of analysis, which is concerned with the physical realization of the algorithms described in the second level.
Psychedelics are known to produce profound, meaningful, transformative experiences when used in a safe and intentional manner.1 However, many people don’t have access to psychedelics, or to a safe setting within which to use them. Others simply don’t want to break the law. Until we adopt more compassionate, evidence-based drug policy, there are few ways for people to experience these extraordinary states of consciousness safely and legally. Atman Retreat exists to fill this gap.
Our core mission is to help people explore the full potential of the psychedelic experience, in all its healing, transformative, and transcendent qualities. Retreats are held in Jamaica, where psilocybin mushrooms are legal. Participants stay at a spacious villa, with comfortable rooms and a scenic private beachfront. Our team of experienced facilitators is passionate about creating space for inner transformation, insight, and breakthroughs.
Whether you’re completely new to psychedelics, or a seasoned psychonaut interested in a different kind of journey, Atman Retreat is a complete 4-day experience that allows you to explore psychedelics safely, legally, and in a setting designed to maximize their benefits.
Why am I sharing this announcement? I think that Atman Retreat is especially suited to Qualia Computing readers for the following three reasons:
I know some of the people who started it and I can confirm that they are good, rational, and tactful people trying to make the world a better place.
The retreat is open-ended in nature. Sadly, most legal psychedelic retreats come with heavy “memetic baggage” in the form of unquestioned beliefs about spirituality or strong ideological commitments. At the very least, the focus of most legal psychedelic retreats is explicitly therapeutic. Atman Retreat is a good place to simply explore your own mind and studythenature of consciousness without having to accept any spiritual, therapeutic, or ideological framework. For example, their website has a research section which lists and summarizes recent studies on the effects of psilocybin, which shows a willingness by the staff to engage with a scientific approach to psychedelics.
To this, I will add that one of the visions of the Qualia Research Institute is to create an empirical consciousness research center in which psychedelics are taken by the brightest scientists, philosophers, and engineers to explore alien state-spaces of consciousness directly.
Indeed, consciousness research is currently at a pre-Galilean state, where brain scientists refuse to “look through the telescope” so to speak (or at least if they do, they are not talking about it publicly). Scientific culture is such that discussing the EEG measurements of members of the general public under the influence of psychedelics is acceptable but as soon as one talks about one’s own direct experience with such compounds one’s scientific credibility becomes suspect.
We can change this, and one of the first steps is to establish a legal framework for consciousness researchers to be able to engage in fruitful self-experimentation. Real scientific progress on consciousness will only take place with a twin track that combines both analysis of third-person data and the use of an empirical research methodology of direct experience by the researchers themselves. By pointing to the Atman Retreat I am hoping to elevate it to the status of a sort of Schelling point for rational psychonauts to converge on for the time being.
Perhaps this is a crucial first step in establishing a legally-viable Super-Shulgin Academy* for a post-Galilean science of consciousness.
Super-Shulgin Academy (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8): This is a hypothetical future intellectual society that investigates consciousness empirically. Rather than merely theorizing about it or having people from the general population describe their odd experiences, the Super-Shulgin Academy directly studies the state-space of consciousness by putting the brightest minds on the task. The Super-Shulgin Academy (1) trains high-quality consciousness researchers and psychonauts, (2) investigates the computational trade-offs between different states of consciousness, (3) finds new socially-useful applications for exotic states of consciousness, (4) practices the art and craft of creating ultra-blissful experiences, and (5) develops and maintains a full-stack memeplex that incorporates the latest insights about the state-space of consciousness into the most up-to-date Theory of Everything.
Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).
This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.
An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).
Why This Matters
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
Predictions of Lognormal World
Appearance Base Rates
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
Latent Trait Ratings
Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of Children
Falling in Love
Games of Chance Earnings
Death of Father and Mother
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.
There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:
In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.
In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.
We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.
The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:
Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences
Why This Matters
Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.
Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.
True long-tail pain scale
As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).
“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.
I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.
My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.
The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.
DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?
What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.
Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss
As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.
Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:
The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.
There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.
“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)
Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:
“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”
– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.
“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”
– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.
Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:
As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.
– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)
All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.
Now, how about the negative side?
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”
– Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)
(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:
4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain].
7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.
11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.
Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?
[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”
Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!
[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.
Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.
If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.
(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are severalqualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:
I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be thathot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).
I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”
Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches
(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:
The KIP scale
KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful KIP-2 More persistent shadows KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing” KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.
The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.
As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.
In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.
While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?
Predictions of Lognormal World
If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:
That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).
To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).
The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.
I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).
I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.
Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition
The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):
Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)
While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:
The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:
And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.
In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.
Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.
I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:
Appearance Base Rates
There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:
Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)
Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)
For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.
A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:
Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)
Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:
Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57
(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).
And for pleasure:
Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.
The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.
The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:
Best experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
Worst experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.
In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion
I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:
Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:
PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.
With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).
In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:
The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:
In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.
Latent Trait Ratings
A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).
I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.
To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:
Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):
(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).
I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).
The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):
If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:
As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of children
I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:
The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.
I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.
I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.
I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.
No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.
Falling in Love
The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.
The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.
It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).
Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.
Games of Chance Earnings
Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.
Key Pains Surfaced
Kidney Stones and Migraines
The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)
Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.
Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.
Death of Father and Mother
This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:
Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors
After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).
In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:
Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.
In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.
Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:
The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.
In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:
First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.
And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.
We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.
Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.
In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.
* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).
[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]
For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.
*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.
To extend this recent EA Forum Post, I wanted to share the results of Qualia Research Institute’s research into using tryptamines to abort and prevent cluster headaches. While the quotes and statistics contained here can provide some notion of the pain experienced by cluster headache sufferers, I think it is truly unimaginable. This report contains specific interventions to be pursued in both a philanthropic and for-profit business capacity. While for-profit options are beyond our scope, those interested in supporting philanthropic interventions should consider donating to ClusterBusters (the most important nonprofit dedicated to researching treatments for cluster headaches), or QRI (which does foundational research on ways to reduce intense suffering).
Mission: Instantly and safely abort cluster headaches and treat migraines, the #2 and #10 (respectively) most painful medical conditions according to NHS. Emphasis is placed on chronic cluster headaches, which account for as much as 80% of all clusters and currently lack an effective treatment option.
“Even child birth is 1/10th the pain of a cluster headache, seriously this name needs to change… call it ultra super migraine.” (source)
A back of the envelope calculation indicates there are roughly 14 thousand people enduring a cluster headache right now.
14.2% of US adults 18 or older reported having migraine or severe headache in the previous 3 months in the 2012 NHIS. The overall age-adjusted 3-month prevalence of migraine in females was 19.1% and in males 9.0%, but varied substantially depending on age. (source)
Current treatments are either ineffective, costly, unsafe, or some combination of the three. The most effective treatments available for cluster headaches include oxygen, which requires the patient to carry an oxygen tank with them at all times, and triptans, which can be used a maximum of three times daily (an issue for chronic sufferers especially) and have side effects from pain to heart attack and stroke. The most effective treatments for migraines include triptans and opioids (which have high addiction potential). Emgality, a more promising treatment for episodic cluster headaches, has recently entered the market, but its long-term risk profile and efficacy have not yet been established.
Bob Wold founded “Cluster Busters” in 2002 with the explicit purpose of trying to get psychedelics to be prescription medication (see his lecture Treating Cluster Headaches with Psychedelics). He tried over 75 different prescription medications and was at the end of the rope when he found psychedelics could be helpful:
Medications Bob Wold tried that didn’t work (1/2)
Meditations Bob Wold tried that didn’t work (2/2)
As noted in this Qualia Computing article, the survey surfaced that about 83% of all cluster headaches are experienced by 20% of the sufferers, most of which are classified as ‘chronic’. No existing medication has been approved for use to treat chronic cluster headaches. Vaporizing DMT could be the first such treatment, offering instant relief for cluster headaches as often as they arise in a (potentially large) percentage of sufferers.
“One of the most incredible experiences of my life was when I first aborted a CH [cluster headache] with DMT. That feeling of going from a place of excruciating pain…and feeling the pain fizzle away and die in a matter of seconds” (source)
It is known by a majority of cluster headache sufferers that psychedelics can be highly effective treatments. Due to the legal status of psychedelics, no randomized controlled trial (RCT) has been conducted, but analysis has been done on online forum responses and anonymous surveys, and interviews have been recorded. Evidence from these reports points to a number of important factors: tryptamines (the class of psychedelics which includes compounds like N,N-DMT and psilocybin, the active chemical in ‘magic mushrooms’) seem especially effective, sub-psychoactive and non-psychedelic doses can be therapeutic, and psychedelics can also decrease the frequency of headaches on long time horizons. While smoking/vaporizing is the fastest method of administration available, information from a private correspondence suggests that the FDA may be averse to approving inhalants. Intramuscular administration, utilizing Rick Strassman’s protocol, could be an alternative that would achieve rapid relief without the use of an inhalation device. Since the pain being experienced is so severe, having a faster method of administration is critical.
From the relevant academic literature:
“The indoleamine hallucinogens, psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide, and lysergic acid amide, were comparable to or more efficacious than most conventional medications. These agents were also perceived to shorten/abort a cluster period and bring chronic cluster headache into remission more so than conventional medications.” (source)
“Also, for DMT, it was suggested that singular or infrequent dosage could have potential long-term beneficial effects on headache disorders: ‘Even a single dose, or perhaps a couple, can be a lifelong benefit.’” (source)
“Of interest, an open-label study found that similar compounds (2-bromo-LSD) without psychedelic effect were promising for this purpose” (source)
From online surveys:
A survey of members of online cluster headache forums revealed that 68% of respondents who used tryptamines had a 4 or 5 out of 5 relief. 5 indicates “completely eliminated the cluster headaches”.
This survey again suggests that the main barrier to use is lack of access and hallucinogenic effects. As we found in an interview with an anonymous sufferer (see below), hallucinogenic effects may be avoidable.
Difficulty getting. 0 – Extremely easy to acquire, 5 – Nearly impossible to acquire
Legal risk. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
Side effects. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
From interviews with cluster headache sufferers who have tried N,N-DMT:
Due to the Schedule I status of psychedelics in the United States, pursuing this intervention in the US will not be feasible for a number of years (see Section IV for more information on pursuing FDA approval for DMT for cluster headaches/migraines).
A possible solution would be to create an online education campaign publicizing the results of this report to cluster headache sufferers, designated as ‘information-only’, and pursuing the use of psychedelics to treat cluster headaches and migraines in countries where tryptamines are legal, including Brazil, Jamaica and the Netherlands. In addition, given the gravity of the disorder, it could be cost-effective to fly patients to such countries for months at a time.
While we believe that traditional metrics such as the QALY do not accurately capture the suffering caused by a cluster headache (see upcoming post on the true pain/pleasure scale), a rough QALY calculation would be as follows (focusing on chronic cluster headache sufferers rather than average, since they compromise up to 83% of total headaches):
Facebook AD campaign:
An estimated 370,000 Americans suffer from cluster headaches, 68% of whom are on Facebook (=251,000). About 15% of these suffer from chronic cluster headaches (=37,740). According to Sprout Social, the average estimated cost per click of an ad campaign is $1.72. Assuming 1/10 who click are cluster headache sufferers, to reach all chronic sufferers would take (ballpark) $650,000.
Assuming about 30% of those who view the ad will pursue the treatment (rough estimate-those who put 2 or less on survey results for questions of legality, difficulty to acquire etc.) and that in 68% of cases it cured or nearly cured their clusters (based on survey results), then the resulting increase in QALYs would be (37,740 people * 0.3 * 0.68) * [0.760 (QALY coefficient) * 1 QALY – ( -0.429 (QALY coefficient)* (0.47QALY)) ] = $650,000/7, 404QALY = $87.70 per QALY.
These ads could also be targeted to users in countries where psilocybin and DMT are legal for use recreationally, increasing conversion rate. Further targeting could be done on Facebook groups (and other social media groups) which are associated with cluster headache treatment.
IV. For-profit Opportunities
The recent emergence of psychedelics in for-profit business settings also affords the opportunity for entrepreneurs to seek legal rescheduling of N,N-DMT in the US for the purpose of treating cluster headaches and/or migraines. Below is an outline of the process of navigating the FDA IND process, which could result in a change in legal status:
‘Orphan disease’ status:
There are two main classifications of cluster headaches, chronic and episodic. Episodic cluster headaches are characterized by periods of headaches (up to 8 times per day) of a week to a full year, which remit for periods from a month up to a year. Chronic cluster headaches, on the other hand, either last for longer than a year or have remittance periods of less than a month. A meta-analysis from the NIH estimates that cluster headaches affect 124/100,000 in the U.S., meaning an estimated 370,000 people suffer from cluster headaches a year. Of these, about 15%, or 60,000, suffer from chronic cluster headaches.
The FDA grants ‘orphan disease’ status to diseases which affect fewer than 200,000 persons in the U.S per year, and offers incentives to those pursuing treatments through the FDA’s IND process for such diseases, such as longer periods of exclusivity (monopoly on drug manufacture and sale) for the treatment after approval.
The global market for migraine drugs (which encompasses cluster headache drugs) in 2017 was $1.7 billion.
Healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraine are estimated to be as high as $36 billion annually in the U.S. Current estimates of cluster headaches’ annual cost in the U.S. is ~$3.5 billion.
Share of market
5 years after launch (with FDA approval, with a 5-year monopoly) – serve 20% of chronic migraine sufferers (800,000), serve 20% of cluster headache sufferers (40,000)
Platform’s average annual revenue per patient (migraines): $452/patient/year
There is significant variance in frequency of cluster headaches: estimates range from [$120/g*0.02g/dose*30 doses/month *3 months = $324, $120/g*0.02g/dose*120 doses/month*12 months = $6912/patient/year].
Annual revenue, 5 years after launch: $13.6M [low cluster headache estimate] – $344M [high cluster headache estimate]
Annual revenue, 5 years after launch (migraines): $344M
The 5-year (or more, if ‘orphan disease’ status is gained) monopoly provided by the FDA would allow for further R&D, and as-yet undetermined projects. Some promising directions:
FDA on track to approve MDMA therapy in 2021, psilocybin therapy in 2022
FDA approval will catalyze a large increase in demand for psychedelic services
There is sufficient evidence to attempt bringing DMT for headaches through the FDA process as it becomes increasingly open to psychedelic interventions
Reasons to start before FDA approval of MDMA and psilocybin:
A “psychedelic renaissance” is underway: funding for psychedelic research has skyrocketed, and multiple psychedelic decriminalization initiatives (1, 2) have recently passed. Riding the current wave of activist and public support is advantageous to our efforts.
More time to build relationship with the FDA (important for seeking DMT clearance)
More time to build relationships with organizations currently seeking FDA approval for therapeutic uses of psychedelics (MAPS &Compass Pathways)
Taking on the FDA IND process can be challenging and high risk from an investment standpoint. The average cost of successfully completing Phase 1-3 trials (after which the drug can be rescheduled and approved for medical use) is $100m, requires about 9-11 years and has a 6.7% success rate (private correspondence).
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has recently raised $26.7M for Phase 3 MDMA trials alone. Total, MAPS has spent in the ballpark of $30M. If Phase 3 trials demonstrate statistically-significant results, MDMA could be selectively rescheduled for use in therapeutic settings, but would require subsequent Phase 4 trials.
The FDA is risk-averse and has incurred backlash from their last notable rescheduling of fentanyl in 1985. Convincing the FDA to pursue rescheduling for treatment of a relatively rare disease with other available medications will likely be difficult.
The success or failure of MAPS in receiving approval for MDMA will be crucial for defining the regulatory landscape for other psychedelics. Should they fail, bringing another similar substance through the process may prove much more difficult.
As discussed in Section I, most available migraine and cluster headache drugs are ineffective, expensive, and/or have heavy risk profiles. Emgality, a new migraine drug approved last month, has received FDA ‘breakthrough therapy’ status for its ability to decrease the frequency of episodic cluster headaches and has shown promise as a palliative for migraines as well. Emgality has not been approved for use in treating chronic cluster headaches, however, and does not achieve the same rapidity of administration as the DMT vape pen (see Section III). Thus, our solution is still critical for relieving symptoms instantly, and maintains the advantage of being eligible to treat chronic cluster headaches, an ‘orphan disease’.
Phase 1 studies (typically involve 20 to 80 people).
Phase 2 studies (typically involve a few dozen to about 300 people).
Phase 3 studies (typically involve several hundred to about 3,000 people).
Use of Funds
Expenses for research and operations staff
Researchers with clinical experience
Legal counsel (paperwork)
Phase 1 FDA trial (our connections to expertise in the field would reduce the cost compared to average Phase 1 trials)
Data on Cost of Trials
The following information is from the MDMA/PTSD Trials led by MAPS. However, the treatment for PTSD involves: multiple therapy sessions and an MDMA-trained psychotherapist. Therapy sessions also last 6-8 hours. Presumably, some of these costs would not apply to a DMT/CH trial, so we expect trials for DMT/CH to be cheaper than the MDMA/PTSD Trials.
However, cluster headaches are not well suited to the therapeutic environment that is used to treat mental health conditions (they arise unpredictably, and require instant relief). This means there are likely significant cost-saving opportunities in the experimental design protocol.
Summary of costs for MAPS IND Process:
 Assume a world population of 7.7 billion people, and 53 out of 100,000 yearly prevalence suffering from this. Going by public health records, we see that the average number of cluster headache attacks that a sufferer experiences is about 30 a year (with a huge variance, where some people get only about 5 a year and some get them multiple times a day). Attacks last on average 1 hour (but range from 20 minutes to 3 hours). Hence, the number of people currently experiencing a CH is: 0.00053*7,700,000,000*(30/(24*365)) = 13,976.03 ~= 14 thousand
The term “Transhumanism” has many senses. It is a social movement, a philosophy, a set of technologies, and a conceptual rallying flag. David Pearce pins down the core sentiment behind the term like this:
If we get things right, the future of life in the universe can be wonderful beyond the bounds of human imagination: a “triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness.
The concept of a “triple S” civilization is very widely applicable. For example, one can imagine future smart homes designed with it in mind. Such smart homes would have features to increase your longevity (HEPA filters, humidity control, mold detectors, etc.), increase your intelligence (adaptive noise-canceling, optimal lighting, smart foods), and happiness (mood-congruent lighting, music, aromas, etc.). Since there are trade-offs between these dimensions, one could specify how much one values each of them in advance, and the smart home would be tasked with maximizing a utility function based on a weighted average between the three S’s.
Likewise, one could apply the “triple S” concept to medical care, lifestyle choices, career development, governance, education, etc. In particular, one could argue that a key driver for the realization of a triple S civilization would be what I’d like to call “triple S genetic counseling.” In brief, this is counseling for prospective parents in order to minimize the risks of harming one’s children by being oblivious to the possible genetic risk for having a reduced longevity, intelligence, or happiness. Likewise, in the more forward-looking transhumanist side of the equation, triple S genetic counseling would allow parents to load the genetic dice in their kid’s favor in order to make them as happy, long-lived, and smart as possible.
Genetic counseling, as an industry, is indeed about to explode (cf. Nature’s recent article: Prospective parents should be prepared for a surge in genetic data). Predictably, there will be a significant fraction of society that will question the ethics of e.g. preimplantation genetic diagnosis for psychological traits. In practice, parents who are able to afford it will power ahead, for few prospective parents truly don’t care about the (probabilistic) well-being of their future offspring. My personal worry is not so much that this won’t happen, but that the emphasis will be narrow and misguided. In particular, both predicting health and intelligence based on sequenced genomes are very active areas of research. I worry that happiness will be (relatively) neglected. Hence the importance of emphasizing all three S’s.
In truth, I think that predicting the hedonic set-point of one’s potential future kids (i.e. the average level of genetically-determined happiness) is a relatively more important project than predicting IQ (cf. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligence; BGI). In addition, I anticipate that genetic-based models that predict a person’s hedonic set-point will be much more accurate than those that predict IQ. As it turns out, IQ is extremely polygenetic, with predictors diffused across the entire genome, and it is a very evolutionary recent axis of variance across the population. Predictors of hedonic-set point (such as the “pain-knob gene” SCN9A and it’s variants), on the other hand, are ancient and evolutionarily preserved across the phylogenetic tree. This makes baseline happiness a likely candidate for having a straight-forward universal physiological implementation throughout the human population. Hence my prediction that polygenetic scores of hedonic-set point will be much more precise than those for IQ (or even longevity).
Given all of the above, I would posit that a great place to start would be to develop a model that predicts hedonic set-point using all of the relevant SNPs offered by 23andMe*. Not only would this be “low-hanging fruit” in the field of genetic counseling, it may also be a project that is way up there, close to the top of the “to do” list in Effective Altruism (cf. Cause X; Google Hedonics).
I thought about this because I saw that 23andMe reports on health predispositions based on single SNPs. From a utilitarian point of view, of particular interest are SNPs related to the SCN9A gene. For example, I found that 23andMe has the rs6746030 SNP, which some studies show can account for a percentage of the variance associated with pain in Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. The allele combination A/A is bad, making you more prone to experience pain intensely. This is just one SNP, though, and there ought to be a lot of other relevant SNPs, not only of the SCN9A gene but elsewhere too (e.g. involved in MAO enzymes, neuroplasticity, and pleasure centers innervation).
Concretely, the task would involve making two models and then combining them:
The first model uses people’s responses to 23andMe surveys to come up with a good estimate of a person’s hedonic set-point. Looking at some of the questions they ask, I would argue that there are more than enough dimensions to model how people vary in their hedonic set-point. They ask about things such as perception of pain, perception of spiciness, difficulty sleeping, stress levels, whether exercise is pleasant, etc. From a data science point of view, the challenge here is that number of responses provided by each participant is very variable; some power users respond to every question (and there are hundreds and hundreds), while most people respond to a few questions only, and a substantial minority respond to no questions at all. Most likely, the distribution of responses per participant follows a power law. So the model to build here has to be resilient against absent data. This is not an insurmountable problem, though, considering the existence of Bayesian Networks, PGMs, and statistical paradigms like Item Response Theory. For this reason, the model would need to both predict the most likely hedonic set-point of each participant, and provide confidence intervals specific to the participant based on the quality and relevance of the questions answered.
The second model would involve clustering and dimensionality reduction applied to the SNPs that are likely to be relevant for hedonic set-point. For example, one dimension would likely be a cluster of SNPs that are associated with “maximum intensity of pain”, another might be “how quickly pain subsides once it’s stimulated”, another “how much does pleasure counter-balance pain”, and so on. Each of these dimensions is likely to be determined by different neural circuits, and interact in non-linear ways, so they deserve their own separate dimension.
And finally, one would make a third model that combines the two models above, which predicts the hedonic set-point of a person derived from the first model using the genetic dimensions found by the second model. If you are an up-and-coming geneticist, I would like to nudge you in the direction of looking into this. As a side effect, you might as well get filthy rich in the process, as the genetic counseling field explodes in the next decade.
Bonus Content: What About Us?
Admittedly, many people will note that predicting a fraction of the variance of people’s hedonic set point with commercial DNA testing products will only really alleviate suffering in the medium to long term. The people who will benefit from this technology haven’t been born yet. In the meantime, what do we do about the people who currently have low hedonic set-points? Here is a creative, politically incorrect, and enticing idea:
Let’s predict which recreational drugs have the best cost-benefit profile for individuals based on their genetic makeup.
It is no secret that people react differently to drugs. 23andMe, among others, is currently doing research to predict your particular reaction to a drug based on your genetic makeup (cf. 23andMe can now tell you how you’ll react to 50+ common drugs). Unfortunately for people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other hedonic tone illnesses, most psychiatric drugs are rather subtle and relatively ineffective. No wonder, compared to heroin, an SSRI is not likely to make you feel particularly great. As David Pearce argued in his essay Future Opioids, there is substantial evidence that many people who become addicts are driven to take recreational substances due to the fact that their endogenous opioid system is dysfunctional (e.g. they may have bad variants of opioid receptors, too many endorphin-degrading enzymes, etc.). The problem with giving people hard drugs is not that they don’t work in the short term; it is that they tend to backfire in the long-term and have cumulative negative health effects. As an aside, from the pharmaceutical angle, my main interest is the development of Anti-tolerance Drugs, which would allow hard drugs to work as mood-enhancers indefinitely.
This is not to say that there aren’t lucky people for whom the cost-benefit ratio of taking hard drugs is, in fact, rather beneficial. In what admittedly must have been a tongue-in-cheek marketing move, in the year 2010 the genetic interpretation company Knome (now part of Tute Genomics) studied Ozzy Osbourne‘s entire genome in order to determine how on earth he has been able to stay alive despite the gobs and gobs of drugs he’s taken throughout his life. Ozzy himself:
“I was curious, [g]iven the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol…you name it—there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.”
Tentatively, Knome scientists said, Ozzy’s capacity to drink entire bottles of Whisky and Gin combined with bowlfuls of cocaine and multiple packs of cigarettes over the course of… breakfast… without ending up in the hospital may be due to novel mutations in his alcohol dehydrogenase gene (ADH4), as well as, potentially, the gene that codes for CLTCL1, a protein responsible for the intake of extra-cellular material into the cell’s inside. These are wild speculations, to be clear, but the general idea is brilliant.
Indeed, not everyone reacts in the same way to recreational drugs. A recent massive study on the health effects of alcohol funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cf. No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health) suggests that alcohol is bad for one’s health at every dosage. This goes against the common wisdom backed up with numerous studies that light-drinkers (~1 alcohol unit a day) live longer and healthier lives than teetotalers. The new study suggests that this is not a causal effect of alcohol. Rather, it so happens that a large fraction of teetotalers are precisely the kind of people who react very badly to alcohol as a matter of poor metabolism. Hence, teetotalers are not unhealthy because they avoid alcohol; they avoid alcohol because they are unhealthy, which explains their shorter life expectancy on average. That said, the study did show that 1 alcohol unit a day is, although damaging, very minimally so:
Anyhow, the world’s cultural fascination with alcohol is bizarre to me, considering the existence of drugs that have a much better hedonic and cost-benefit profile (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects). Perhaps finding out with genetic testing that you are likely to be an above-average alcohol metabolizer might be good to lessen your worry about having a couple of drinks now and then. But the much bigger opportunity here would be to allow you to find drugs that you are particularly compatible with. For example, a genetic test might determine based on a polygenetic score that you might benefit a whole lot from taking small amounts of e.g. Khat (or some such obscure and relatively benign euphoriant). That is, that your genetic make-up is such that Khat will be motivation enhancing, empathy-increasing, good for your heart and lungs, reduce the rate of dopamine neuron death, etc. while at the same time producing little to no hangovers, no irritability, no sleep issues, or social dysfunction. Even though you may have thought that you are “not an uppers person”, perhaps that’s because, genetically, every other upper you have ever tried is objectively terrible for your health. But Khat wouldn’t be. Wouldn’t this information be useful? Indeed, I would posit, this might be a great step in the right direction in order to achieve the goal of Wireheading Done Right.
*23andMe is here used as a shorthand for services in general like this (including Ancestry, Counsyl, Natera, etc.)