[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.
TL;DR I came up with a new way to test the reality of DMT entities!
Core idea: Look for signatures of injection pulling in the brain’s connectome-specific harmonic waves. This would distinguish between mere hallucinations (however weird they may feel) and hallucinations being driven by an external source.
Like the study about whether psychedelics can help you see through different Everett branches of the multiverse, I don’t expect the results of this experiment to come out positive. But it’s exciting to see a testable prediction on an otherwise so difficult-to-approach subject matter.
Televised Entity Contact
I think that we can basically assume that a certain percentage of people who vaporize DMT will believe that they contacted mind-independent beings. This is likely the result of hallucinations, but naïve realism and a bias to interpret more intense and detailed qualia as “more real than real external information” is so deeply ingrained that we can take it as a matter of fact that, say, 50%+ of people won’t be able to override their felt-sense of entity presence with heady philosophical epistemic rigor like discussions about the pseudo-time arrow, valence structuralism, or indirect realism about perception.
Is there anything we can do with that? Think of it from an economics arbitrage point of view. If we predict that X number of people will newly believe in DMT entities next year, is there an opportunity there?
I was thinking yesterday on a walk about how “Storm Area 51” is a reality check of sorts for the general public. As in – yes Area 51 is a thing, and no, you can’t just invade it with 100,000 people Naruto running towards it. It was predictable that would be the case, but going through the act in a collective and televised fashion was an interesting exercise in societal epistemology.
Along those lines, I suggest that a “Break Out of the Simulation Day” event could be organized. That day we would have, on LIVE TV, people doing DMT trying to contact aliens as a medium, the camera going from one person to the next, always making sure that whoever has the microphone is currently peaking on DMT.
So if the DMT Elves are mind-independent sentient beings and want to send a coherent message to humanity, then that would be the time and place to do it. They would have all of our attention.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect DMT Elves to send a coherent message when, surprise surprise, they are on LIVE TV all of a sudden. And this is not only because they won’t have time to dress up. According to people who have tried DMT many times and believe it puts you in contact with other dimensions (cf. Dick Khan’s 600 DMT trip reports) there is an entire ecosystem of entities to contact, each of them with special gifts, powers, intentions, and styles. There are jesters, robots, greys, Archons, angels, demons, wireheading specialists, used alien spaceship dealers (those are the worst), etc. There are entire categories of entities whose sole purpose is to convince you that you are dead, or that you are in a simulation, or that the government is out to get you. There are entire species of entities of the sort that show you how to use sound to create thought-forms, and those that like to discuss with you the impact that the Greeks and Aztecs had on the aesthetics of the reptilians (i.e. interdimensional art historians). You cannot expect to be lucky and get a reasonable DMT entity who (1) will figure out what is going on, and (2) has good intentions for humanity. Perhaps we would be opening ourselves up to influence by incompetent, evil, or incompetent and evil entities. Worse, we would be doing so on LIVE TV!
Testing the Mind-Independent Existence of DMT Entities
Ok, so maybe televising the experiment is a bad idea. Back to the drawing board. Let’s ask: what are the main ways to prove the independent existence of DMT entities? How would serious researchers approach this problem? As far as I can tell, there are three big categories of methods:
Psi-based (having them tell you something about the world you would have no way of knowing otherwise)
Computation-based (having them solve a problem that requires much more computational power than what is available to you with your brain alone)
Quasi-Physical interference-based (have entities literally poke, shake, vibrate, excite, or inhibit your body or nervous system in ways that are impossible on their own)
The Psi-based category is the most well-known, and it includes tests such: (a) asking the entities what your family members are doing right now, (b) having them tell you what is inside a sealed box, (c) having them predict what tomorrow’s lottery numbers will be, and so on. While many people claim to have learned valuable information from DMT entities, I’ve yet to see credible reports of positive tests of this kind.
The computation-based category is perhaps best exemplified by Marko Rodriguez’ suggestion of having the entities factorize a large number for you. This method was popularized by Scott Alexander’s now-famous short story Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person, and then later Gwern made an estimate of the cost of such an experiment. It turns out that testing the hypothesis this way could be as cheap as one thousand (of 2015) dollars. Unfortunately, this test is very hard to conduct (saying 200 digits while on DMT and memorizing sets of numbers with dozens of digits the elves return to you as an answer is not an easy task). So other difficult-to-compute but easy-to-articulate and fast-to-memorize problems might be a better fit in this case. I predict it is only a matter of time before someone seriously tries a variant of this method and reports the results online. I would just caution that, depending on the computational task selected, one may inadvertently discover new computational applications of the DMT state rather than prove the existence of mind-independent DMT entities. After all, unusual states of consciousness may have unique computational trade-offs. See for example: Thinking in Numbers, How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD, and the discussion about the possible applications for mathematical research of the hyperbolic phenomenal space disclosed during DMT intoxication. Indeed, I would not be surprised to find out that in the year 2100 many of the most important mathematical breakthroughs are taking place in consciousness research centers thanks to having identified states of consciousness capable of rendering exotic mathematical objects and their possible transformations. So before concluding the DMT Elf solved your computationally-demanding problem, it would be important to rule out that it wasn’t you (or the DMT-filled version of you) who solved the problem thanks to novel qualia varieties only disclosed in such a state. That said, this concern only applies to computational tasks that are not extremely difficult. If a DMT alien can factorize a 3000-digit number in 10 seconds then we could actually reasonably conclude that it exists in a mind-independent way.
Now, the 3rd approach is, IMO, both the most likely to work in practice, and also the most spooky and frightening were the results to come out positive. Here is why. I’ve recently received trip reports from rational psychonauts who have taken DMT hundreds of times, and it seems clear that there is a vast number of qualitatively distinct state-spaces disclosed by this substance. One of these such relatively rare idiosyncratic responses caught my attention, and I think it warrants closer scientific scrutiny. Namely, I’ve received reports that when the psychonaut is either tired or has been drinking (why anyone would dare take DMT while drunk is beyond me, but for science-I guess-someone already did it) there is a different kind of experience of a rather unpleasant nature that unfolds. This type of DMT experience is described as getting in contact with the “lower levels of the astral plane” in which parasitic etheric life-forms live (not my words). During such an experience, one may feel that these beings “jitter” your nervous system without asking for your permission to do so. And this is done in such a way that your body may literally get up and dance, as if possessed by a spirit, without your conscious control. In a less extreme presentation of this phenomenon, at the very least the entities seem to jerk one’s extremities whether or not you like it. For example, in one of these trip reports someone described having their arm being pulled and jerked left and right by a demon of sorts while at the same time insectoid life-forms crawled inside their body, into the veins of the tripper. Needless to say, this is a profoundly unpleasant experience, no doubt, but perhaps it is also one of the most empirically testable of the bunch.
Injection Pulling Experiments
The big-picture idea here would be to hook a person up to an EEG during such a state (or even place them in an fMRI if at all possible) in order to determine if the “jittering” experienced is endogenously or exogenously generated.
How could we do this? Let’s take a step back for a second and recall Selen Atasoy’s study about the influence of LSD on the connectome-specific harmonic waves of the brain. The connectome-specific harmonic waves (CSHWs) are the “natural resonant modes” of a given brain. With this analysis, one can characterize a given “brain state” as a weighted sum of such resonant modes. In turn, one can then see how LSD affects one’s brain state by analyzing the CSHWs while under its influence. As it turns out, there are three major effects from LSD: (a) an overall increase in the power of all CSHWs, (b) the higher-frequency harmonics gain even more power relative to the lower-frequency ones, and (c) the repertoire of possible states dramatically increases, meaning that CSHWs that usually don’t co-occur are more likely to be simultaneously active while on LSD.
The thing to point out is that LSD in this case does not change which harmonic modes the brain has; it merely changes the energy distribution over those harmonics. On the other hand, we could in principle imagine that if the “DMT entity contact” brain state is not purely a hallucination, we would instead find out that such a state has a distinct “non-native harmonic pattern”. And this would manifest in the form of injection pulling and injection locking signatures in the reconstructed patterns of brain activity from the neuroimaging data.
An analogy with a musical instrument is possible: assume that your brain is a musical instrument and that the notes it plays sound like those of a guitar. In this analogy, taking LSD would entail increasing the volume of each note (and especially so for the higher notes) while also increasing the range of possible note-combinations. In other words, while LSD changes what you can play with the guitar, it does not change the fact that you are playing a guitar. That is, the brain states produced by LSD can be explained as different configurations of otherwise native vibratory patterns. In contrast, if DMT entity contact involves an external energy source with its own characteristic resonant modes, then the brain state that results from it would seem to have non-native vibratory patterns. It would be like having a guitar that produces saxophone sounds. You would know that on its own it is not physically capable of producing such sounds, and hence infer it is being externally influenced somehow.
Are the jiggling patterns of your brain harmonics while on DMT best explained with or without an external metronome and its injection pulling effects?
Such an analysis might reveal that the jerking of the nervous system one experiences on those idiosyncratic DMT experiences is best explained with an injection pulling model and an external metronome marking the pace. In turn, this would imply that the brain is not merely hallucinating a scene, but rather, it is being influenced by an outside metronome. Now, that would be a scientifically-sound ground-breaking finding. And perhaps be so spooky we would all prefer to forget about it rather than contemplate its implications.
Now, there is always the option to interpret all of the unusual phenomenal experiences on DMT with a scientific secular framework that excludes entities from other dimensions. At the Qualia Research Institute, the frameworks that we use to explain such unusual experiences involve what we call algorithmic reductions, namely, identifying a small set of data-structures and information-processing steps that when taken together are capable of generating the vast zoo of complex emergent effects. The advantage of this approach is two-fold. First, we avoid over-fitting by minimizing the information complexity of the model (few data structures and few operations is a vastly more parsimonious explanatory framework than ad-hoc spiritual or atomistic interpretations). And second, it allows us to generate predictions such as the possible existence of exotic phenomenal states that haven’t yet been reported in the literature. Indeed, verifying that its predictions are accurate is one way of validating an algorithmic reduction.
In the case of DMT, we have algorithmic reduction models that explain the unusual properties of space as well as their associated exotic phenomenal time. And while providing compelling explanations for the exotic space and time one can experience in such a state is foundational, we recognize that this is still a first step. I admit that such models still do not go far enough. We still need to explain the nature and unusual character of “entity contact” experiences. So what do we make of them?
The Brain as a Game Engine
Our best guess- for the time being- involves reformulating the nature of the state-space of consciousness to include a layer of “game parameters”. This was first brought up in the essay “Harmonic Society“:
Consider what happens when someone takes LSD. Most people expect that they will simply get to experience new sensations like brighter colors, tracers, or synesthesia. This is true to a point, for light doses. But on medium doses, in addition to exploring the state-space of sensory configurations, one also experiences new aesthetics, which this model would define as ways of organizing a lot of sensations in ways that feel right. More so, an aesthetic is also a way of delivering uninhibited sensations in a way that feels good at the level of the whole experience, from moment to moment. Most people have no clue that there is a vast space of possibilities here.
On higher doses, people are surprised to find an even more general way of exploring the state-space of consciousness. Namely, one instantiates alternate games. The DMT “vibe” that people report can be thought of as more than a “context switch”. It is, rather, a more radical change that we could describe as a “game switch”. The “Jester” that people talk about regarding DMT experiences is an archetype that the mind uses to signal the “rule violation” quality of the state. There is so much going on that one’s experience splits into multiple games at once trying to find some common ground, and this feeling of game-incompatibility feels very alien. A sort of anti-virus system in the mind is triggered at that point, and labels the inconsistency with a feeling of weirdness so that you know not to update your actions based on the (currently globally inconsistent) experience of multiple superimposed games. Rule violation through fast changes in implicit games of social status causes you to interpret what is going on as having extreme stakes. Interacting with DMT Aliens, Gods, Elves, etc. feels like the upper limit of potential social status transfer that your world simulation affords (like meeting a president or a king). The state-space of consciousness contains all of these alternate games and metagames, and we have not even begun to catalogue them.
In other words, taking DMT does not merely propel you to other regions of the state-space of possible sensory impressions, but it also grants you access to alternate aesthetics and game setups. If you think of your brain not only as a sensory-processing tool, but in fact as a kind of high-level game engine, realizing that God and the Devil can be real in your experience shows that they are possible characters of the games your brain can render. In such a case, we will eventually find that the brain states that render DMT entities are, however exotic, still produced by combining the native resonant modes of one’s own nervous system. No need to invoke neuronal injection pulling from the etheric plane.
Of note is that such a “Game Engine” paradigm would go a long way in explaining unusual experiences such as Free-Wheeling Hallucinations where one becomes able to control almost all features of one’s experience with an incredible level of detail. Indeed we can describe a Free-Wheeling Hallucination state as having access to an experience editor, as illustrated in the Memory Facility Scene of Blade Runner 2049:
Unsurprisingly, we can anticipate that when one is given root access to the parameters of one’s own inner world-simulation, one is likely to focus on creating experiences entirely filled with enjoyable super-stimuli. Whether this involves sex-worlds or proofs of the existence of a benevolent God might be a function of what is it that one craves the most. The intense concern with theodicy and the nature of death while on psychedelic drugs might have something to do with having the ability to change the most essential parameters of one’s internal world simulation. After all, if “living in a world” where God exists and is loving is more enjoyable than the alternative, one’s own hedonic maximization algorithms would try to “realize that’s the truth” if given the option to forge evidence. The same could be going on with DMT entities, for a world in which DMT is an interdimensional portal technology is vastly more interesting (or at least dramatic) than the alternative.
In the end, studying DMT experiences do not need to involve actual entity contact to be of profound significance to the science of consciousness. If you think of your brain as a qualia machine engine, DMT is about the best (or second-best ) qualia fuel there is. There are vast regions of the state-space of consciousness that can only be accessed with DMT, many of which contain extremely computationally interesting qualia, and many others which contain intrinsically valuable states (aka. heaven worlds). If, on top of that, it also enables interdimensional beings to injection pull your brain harmonics, we could think of that as icing on the cake.
 Serious and Unserious Consciousness Researchers
On a tangential note, here is a quote I recently heard at a consciousness conference:
Thomas Metzinger, the famous and brilliant German neuroscientist and philosopher of mind*, was once asked at a conference presentation he was giving whether he had ever tried psychedelics. His response? “There are two kinds of consciousness researchers. There are the serious ones, and the unserious ones. The serious ones take advantage of all the tools at their disposal to crack this mystery. All I will say is that I am NOT an unserious consciousness researcher.”
*He is best known for being the writer of the books “Being No One” and “The Ego Tunnel“, friends with the Foundational Research Institute, a strong proponent of a variant of eliminativism about consciousness, and a negative utilitarian specializing in AI ethics.
If the injection pulling experiment does reveal that DMT entities are indeed mind-independent sentient beings in alternate dimensions, then what?
We shall cross that bridge when we get there, but in the meantime, let me entertain you with a wild hypothesis: DMT Elves are us at a higher level of spiritual and psychological development. In such a case, we might want to revise Integral Theory’s levels to include DMT Elves. Expect Ken Wilber’s next book to contain the following:
 An open question for all my DMT-using readers: are DMT visuals more akin to Art Deco, or Art Nouveau?
 On a Serious Note
My prediction is that the single most important tool to investigate consciousness is 5-MeO-DMT. It is probably the most important consciousness tool ever discovered. While I’ve seen serious consciousness researchers and academics admit in private that they have tried psychedelics, I almost never encounter people who have tried 5-MeO. I expect this to change over the course of the next decade as the word gets out that no, 5-MeO is not “yet another psychedelic” but it’s the “real deal” when it comes to disclosing profoundly insightful states of consciousness with implications for personal identity, ethics, the state-space of qualia, the nature of valence (i.e. harmony vs. dissonance), phenomenal time, causality, and the importance of quantum coherence for phenomenal binding. If you have explored this compound and would like to share your insights, please get in touch. We always welcome high-quality trip reports.
It presents a plausible unified theory of how psychedelics work.
It’s a wonderful jumping-off point into the literature. Every paragraph is full of pointers to research that’s come out in the last 5 years, and boy are there a lot of rabbit holes to go down – it’s filled out my reading list for the next several months.
REBUS is a (somewhat dubious) acronym for RElaxed Beliefs Under pSychedelics. The basic idea: psychedelics reduce the weight of held beliefs and increase the weight of incoming sensory input, allowing the beliefs to be more readily changed by the new sensory information.
The brain generates mental models that predict upcoming sensory inputs. (The predictions are called “priors,” as in “prior beliefs.”)
These predictive models are layered on top of each other in a hierarchy – the higher levels send predictions down the hierarchy; the lower levels report sense data upwards.
In cases where the model’s top-down predictions do not match the bottom-up sensory input, the model either (a) updates its priors based on the new sense data, or (b) ignores the sense data and maintains its priors.
Carhart-Harris & Friston theorize that the main thing psychedelics are doing is relaxing the weight of the brain’s top-down prediction-making (“REBUS”) and increasing the weight of the bottom-up sense information (“the Anarchic Brain”). This allows bottom-up information to have more influence on our conscious experience, and also on the configuration of the hierarchy overall.
Carhart-Harris & Friston analogize this process to annealing – heating up a metal dissolves its crystalline structure, then a new structure recrystallizes as the metal cools:
The hypothesized flattening of the brain’s (variational free) energy landscape under psychedelics can be seen as analogous to the phenomenon of simulated annealing in computer science – which itself is analogous to annealing in metallurgy, whereby a system is heated (i.e., instantiated by increased neural excitability), such that it attains a state of heightened plasticity, in which the discovery of new energy minima (relatively stable places/trajectories for the system to visit/reside in for a period of time) is accelerated (Wang and Smith, 1998).
Subsequently, as the drug is metabolized and the system cools, its dynamics begin to stabilize – and attractor basins begin to steepen again (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017). This process may result in the emergence of a new energy landscape with revised properties.
Psychedelics “heat up” the brain, increasing plasticity and weakening the influence of prior beliefs. As the psychedelic stops being active, the brain “cools” – the hierarchy re-forms, though perhaps in a different configuration than the pre-psychedelic configuration.
This explains how psychedelic trips can cause changes that last long after the substance has exited the body – in those cases, the psychedelic facilitated a change in the organization of the brain’s cognitive hierarchy.
Psychedelic therapy is showing promise for mental disorders associated with too-rigid thought patterns – depression, anxiety, addictions, maybe OCD, maybe eating disorders. In predictive-coding lingo, “disorders that may rest on particularly rigid high-level priors that dominate cognition.”
In these disorders, new information can’t revise the existing story of how things are, because strong priors suppress the new info before it can update anything.
The REBUS model straightforwardly explains how psychedelics help with disorder like this – by relaxing the strong top-down priors and boosting the bottom-up inputs, bottom-up inputs have more ability to effect the system. Here’s an illustration from the paper:
The top sketch is a brain where strong top-down priors dominate. New sensory inputs are suppressed and can’t update the hierarchy. The bottom sketch is the same brain while on a psychedelic – the top-down priors have been relaxed and bottom-up sensory information flows more freely through the system, causing a bigger impact.
Okay, nice theory, but can we observe this in the brain? Is there any evidence for it?
Carhart-Harris & Friston place the default mode network at top of the brain’s predictive hierarchy. The default mode network is the network of brain regions that’s most active when the brain isn’t engaged with any specific task. It also appears to be the seat of one’s sense of self. The default mode network is intensely relaxed by strong psychedelic experiences – this is subjectively felt as ego dissolution, and allows for the propagation of bottom-up sense data (which are also boosted by psychedelics).
Carhart-Harris & Friston identify two mechanisms by which psychedelics may relax the default mode network – activation of 5-HT2AR serotonin receptors (there are lots of these receptors in the default mode network), and disruption of α and βwave patterns, which seem to propagate top-down expectations through the brain (and are correlated with default mode network activity).
In addition to the brain-scan-style evidence they cite throughout the paper, Carhart-Harris & Friston dedicate a long section to behavioral evidence (“Behavioral Evidence of Relaxed Priors under Psychedelics”). Briefly, there are several studies showing that surprise & consistency-making responses to sensory stimuli are reduced while on psychedelics, which is what we’d expect if the influence of top-down priors was lessened.
To sum up, REBUS and the Anarchic Brain places psychedelics in a predictive coding framework to give a unified theory of what psychedelics do – they decrease the influence of top-down prediction-making and increase the influence of bottom-up sense data. The theory has the nice quality of tying many disparate psychedelic phenomena together with an underlying explanation of what’s going on. Plus, it gives a brain-based explanation for why psychedelic therapy is helpful for disorders like depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Our first mention of Neural Annealing in relation to psychedelics was in Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States in 2016, and we are pleased to see that the concept is becoming a live idea in academic neuroscience in 2019.*
From our point of view, an extremely promising area of research that mainstream neuroscience has yet to explore is the Symmetry Theory of Valence. In particular, we claim that the very reason why Neural Annealing improves not only global control, belief, and behavioral consistency, but also mood and sense of wellbeing is because it smooths and symmetrifies your neural patterns of activation. Will this turn out to become part of mainstream neuroscience in the future? Well, since QRI was calling Neural Annealing years in advance, perhaps in retrospect you’ll also see that we were on the money when it came to the mathematics of valence. Only time (and funding) will tell.
[Warning: Disturbing content ahead. Why talk about it? This is an ethically very serious topic and it deserves more attention. But please beware that thinking about this might be bad for one’s mental health.]
One of the key insights that shows why Effective Altruism is so important is that the positive effect on the world that results from donating to various charities follows a long-tail distribution:
It is for this, among other, reasons why focusing on the best interventions really pays off. Where else can we expect long-tails to appear?
In Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace we discussed how introducing a new metric into the Effective Altruist ecosystem could shed light on neglected cost-effective interventions. We presented the Hell-Index:
A country’s Hell-Index could be defined as the yearly total of people-seconds in pain and suffering that are at or above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent)*. This index captures the intuition that intense suffering can be in some ways qualitatively different and more serious than lesser suffering in a way that isn’t really captured by a linear pain scale.
In a future article we will discuss how the quality of suffering as a function of different medical and psychological conditions very likely follows a long-tail distribution. That is, some conditions such as Cluster Headaches (which affect about 1 in 1000 people worldwide) produce pain that is orders of magnitude worse than the pain experienced in other kinds of medical conditions, such as migraines (which are themselves already described as orders of magnitude worse than tension headaches). In other words, a 0-10 pain-scale is better thought of as a logarithmic compression of the true levels of pain rather than a linear scale. So concentrating on the worst conditions could really pay off for reducing suffering in bulk amounts.
Now: the long-tailed nature of suffering may extend beyond the quality of suffering, and show up also in its quantity. That is, the frequency with which people experience episodes of intense suffering, even among those who experience the same kind of suffering, is unlikely to be normally distributed.
Intuitively, one may think that how much suffering people endure on a given year follows a normal distribution. This intuition says that if the median number of hell-seconds people endure in a year is, say, 1,000, then people who are at the 90% percentile of hell-seconds experienced per year will be experiencing something like 1,500 or at most 2,000. If suffering follows a long-tail distribution, in reality the 90% percentile might be experiencing something more akin to 10,000 hell-seconds per year, the 99% percentile something akin to 100,000, and the 99.9% something akin to 1,000,000. If true, such a heavy skew of the distribution would suggest that we should concentrate our energies on addressing the problems of the people who are unlucky to be on the upper ranges, rather than be overly concerned with “the typical person”*.
Unfortunately, I come to share the bad news that suffering probably follows a very long-tail distribution:
It is generally acknowledged that Cluster Headaches are some of the most painful experiences that people endure. Having a single Cluster Headache, lasting anywhere between 15 minutes to 4 hours, is already an ethically unacceptable situation that should never happen to begin with. It is disheartening to know that 1 in 1,000 people experience such extreme pain. But the truth of the matter is yet much worse than we intuitively think…
We recently analyzed a survey** of Cluster Headache patients that was conducted with the intention of determining the reasons why sufferers do or do not use psychedelics to relieve their pain. As it turns out, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT all get rid of Cluster Headaches in a majority of sufferers. Given the safety profile of these agents, it is insane to think that there are millions of people suffering needlessly from this condition who could be nearly-instantly cured with something as simple as growing and eating some magic mushrooms.
We will get back to this in more depth in later articles, but for the time being what we want to highlight is the responses to the question “About how many cluster headaches do you get in a typical year?”.
After cleaning the data***, we end up with 270 participants. We then ranked the values from smallest to largest, and visualize them:
Honestly I am a bit suspicious of the very top numbers (I do not know how you can fit 25,000 Cluster Headaches in a year, so perhaps the participant interpreted the question as “lifetime number of Cluster Headaches”). So, just to be safe, we cut the top 20 highest numbers and visualize the bottom 250 values:
This is clearly a long-tail distribution. And since many people online do claim to have 3 or more Cluster Headaches a day, I am inclined to believe this curve. To zoom in on some parts of the distribution, here are some additional histograms that focus on the lower percentiles:
Bins of 1, responses between 1 and 10 CHs per year.
Bins of 1, responses between 1 and 100 CHs per year.
Bins of 10, responses between 1 and 1000 CHs per year.
Bins of 100, responses between 1 and 2000 CHs per year.
Bins of 10, responses between 1 and 5000 CHs per year.
If we take the logarithm of the number of yearly Cluster Headaches, the distribution looks remarkably normal:
Natural log of the responses to the question “About how many cluster headaches do you get in a typical year?”
I should also point out that the distribution is really close to the 80/20 Pareto principle – we see that the top 20% of the participants contain about 83% of the CH incidents per year. Below you will find the percent of the total number of incidents accounted for by the bottom x% of the respondents:
The bottom 10% accounts for .06% of incidents
The bottom 20% accounts for 0.36% of incidents
The bottom 30% accounts for .95% of incidents
The bottom 40% accounts for 1.82% of incidents
The bottom 50% accounts for 3.17% of incidents
The bottom 60% accounts for 5.54% of incidents
The bottom 70% accounts for 9.56% of incidents
The bottom 80% accounts for 17% of incidents
The bottom 90% accounts for 30% of incidents
The bottom 95% accounts for 43% of incidents
Below we also include the number of yearly Cluster Headaches experiences at different percentiles:
10% percentile experiences 5 CH/year
20% percentile experiences 17 CH/year
30% percentile experiences 30 CH/year
40% percentile experiences 45 CH/year
50% percentile experiences 70 CH/year
60% percentile experiences 105 CH/year
70% percentile experiences 200 CH/year
80% percentile experiences 365 CH/year
90% percentile experiences 730 CH/year
95% percentile experiences 1095 CH/year
98% percentile experiences 2190 CH/year
I believe that this information is crucial to consider when assessing cost-effective interventions to help people who endure intense suffering.
Here are some additional results from the survey.
The following graphs are about the beliefs and attitudes of Cluster Headache sufferers who do not use tryptamines (LSD, psilocybin, DMT, etc.) to treat their condition:
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
Social stigma. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
I think it is fair to say that the survey shows that one of the biggest barriers preventing CH patients from using tryptamines to treat their condition is simply the difficulty of acquiring them. Since a number of interviews we’ve conducted have shown that even sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT can abort cluster headaches (writeup coming soon), more education could easily address the barrier of being concerned about hallucinogenic side effects. The social stigma seems like a minor problem, and the legal implications (the hardest to change, perhaps), are a big concern to about half of the participants (ratings of 4 or 5/5). Hence the importance of passing new laws allowing people with this condition to use them without repercussions.
Do CH sufferers who do not use tryptamines think they would work?
And do they work? Here is what the CH sufferers who do use them say:
If we interpret a 2 or 3 in the 0 to 5 scale as an equivalent to a “maybe”, and a 4 or 5 as a “yes” to the question “do they work?” we see a big difference between non-users beliefs in their effectiveness and their reported effectiveness by users. 24% of people who use tryptamines to treat their CHs report that “They have completely eliminated the cluster headaches” and in total 68% mark it as either a 4 or a 5 in the scale (which we can interpret as “working” even if not “completely eliminating them”). This is compared to only 30% of non-users who believe the tryptamines would work. This large discrepancy also suggests that outreach and education could help sufferers give this approach a try.
Finally, we also looked at whether the users and non-users had different number of incidents per year (reasoning that perhaps those who experience more incidents would be more desperate to try legally and socially risky treatments). We notices that there is a very slight difference in the mean (and mean-log) for the number of CH incidents a year between the 20% of sufferers who treat their CHs with tryptamines and those who don’t. I won’t report the difference in the mean because the skew of the distribution makes such a metric deceptive, but the log-mean of yearly incidents of tryptamine users is 4.73 whereas for all the rest it is 4.10 (which reaches statistical significance of p < 0.05 based on a t-test). That said, we don’t think this is a very practically relevant difference. The distributions look roughly the same:
The similarity between these two distributions also suggests that there is a long way to go to make sure that those who are the worse off get prompt access to tryptamines.
See also https://clusterbusters.org/, which is an organization that aims to make psychedelics legally available to people who suffer from this condition. Please consider donating to them to help this very important cause. Also consider donating to MAPS which is championing the use of psychedelics for mental health applications. Finally, consider also donating to organizations that care and strategize about how to reduce intense suffering, such as: QRI, FRI, OPIS, and The Neuroethics Foundation.
*There are instrumental considerations here – if experiencing more than, say, 5,000 hell-seconds in a year is very likely to make you depressed and ineffective, then it might pay-off to also spend resources on keeping as many people as possible below that level. In particular, to be an effective Effective Altruist it pays off not to be heavily depressed and nihilistic.
**Thanks to Harlan Stewart for taking the initiative to conduct this survey. He advertised it on the Facebook groups and subreddits of Cluster Headache sufferers and got 371 responses.
***Some people provided numerical answers, which we used directly. Some other people provided ranges, in which case we used the middle point between the values provided (e.g. “200 to 300” was coded as “250”). Some people provided lower bounds, in which case we simply used such lower bound (e.g. “500+” was coded as “500”). We discarded the data of people who didn’t provide an answer in any of those formats – which left 270 participants. A more strict analysis that uses *only* the numerical responses results in the same observations listed above (e.g. the distribution is equally long-tailed and it appears to be log-normal).
Excerpt from The Resonance Effect: How Frequency Specific Microcurrent is Changing Medicine (2017) by Carolyn McMakin
Kidney Stone Pain
Everyone who has ever had a kidney stone will tell you that the kidney-stone pain is the worst. Emergency rooms treat it with morphine, and nothing else seems to touch it.
The phone rang on a summer Sunday morning and I hardly recognized the friend who grunted through gritted teeth to ask if “my machine” could treat kidney-stone pain. I told him that I’d never treated it before, but I’d be willing to try if he could make it to my house. He shuffled from the front door to the couch bent forward at the waist, sweating in pain. I put one wet graphite glove under his back and the other glove on his abdomen. He tried hard not to moan as I covered him with a soft blanket and placed my hand on top of the glove on his abdomen.
Education said that kidney-stone pain had to be about spasm in the ureter, the tube that carries the stone from the kidney to the bladder. The frequency for spasm was 29 hertz on channel A. The frequency for the ureter was 60 hertz on channel B. It did absolutely nothing: no warmth, no relaxation or softening, nothing. Maybe there was bleeding caused by the rough stone shredding the ureter as it traveled? I tried 18 hertz to stop bleeding on channel A. The glove didn’t get warm, and the pain didn’t change.
I really didn’t want my gray-faced friend to be my first failure. Reaching for inspiration, I tried the always-reliable 40 hertz to reduce inflammation. Nothing changed. Desperation amplified the small murmur of my intuition in my head, “Don’t get sloppy! Be thorough.”
There is a sequence of frequencies leading up to inflammation. The sequence was 20 hertz for “pressure or pain reaction,” 30 hertz for irritation, 40 hertz for inflammation. I never ran the whole sequence because 40 hertz always worked and I had no idea what a “pressure or pain reaction” might be. The buttons clicked down from 40 hertz to 20 hertz on channel A, and two things happened in seconds. The glove resting on his abdomen got hot — not just warm, it was hot. His abdomen started to soften. The feeling is hard to describe. It feels like a balloon feels when it has been sitting on the floor overnight. The tissue softens and stays soft while the correct frequency is working, and it returns to normal when the frequency is finished.
His voice was a little slurred when he fell asleep a few minutes later as he said, “Is that supposed to make me feel woozy?” His deep relaxed breathing said he was out of pain.
There are frequencies for the stone, so I tried those after twenty quiet minutes of watching him doze. The glove got hot, the abdomen softened, and ten minutes later he bolted awake and yelped, “The stone’s moving.” True to its promise, 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B reduced the pain again and put him back to sleep. Forty minutes later he left, pain-free, and passed the stone that night with no increase in pain.
I told this story at the Advanced Course in Australia a few weeks later, and one of the Australian practitioners reported that she treated her husband for kidney stone pain with 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B. He was out of pain in an hour and passed the stone uneventfully.
Every case of kidney stones treated since then has responded exactly the same way. When the patient has gripping lower back pain from lifting suitcases during a long dehydrating flight but treating the muscles doesn’t help, experience finally admits it’s not the muscle. Intuition says, “I wonder if it’s a kidney stone?” The learning curve is very steep and short when the glove gets hot, the muscles begin to relax, the pain goes down in minutes, and the patient falls asleep.
When one specific frequency combination, and only one, works every time anyone uses it, and when it does something that is otherwise impossible, then it can’t be impossible. It’s got to be resonance.
“The easiest pain to bear is someone else’s.”
(François de La Rochefoucauld)
Could two small genetic tweaks get rid of most of the world’s mental and physical pain?
A tentative answer is: just conceivably. More cautiously, the problem of suffering should be genetically soluble this century. Before launching into a long list of caveats and complications – and outright scepticism – it’s worth considering a case study. The subject has waived anonymity.
Jo Cameron is a retired Scottish schoolteacher, a socially responsible vegan and pillar of the local community. Jo has gone though life in a perpetual state of “mild euphoria”. She has unusually high levels of anandamide (from the Sanskrit for “bliss”) and is never anxious, though her serenity may vary. Jo doesn’t feel pain, or at least not in any sense most of us would recognise: childbirth felt like “a tickle”. She is hyperthymic, but not manic. Unlike previously reported cases of congenital analgesia, Jo didn’t die young or find the need to adopt a “cotton-wool” existence to avoid bodily trauma. She came to the attention of medical researchers only when her disdain of painkillers for what “ought” to have been an excruciating medical procedure – a trapeziectomy on her right thumb – intrigued her doctor. “I had no idea until a few years ago there was anything that unusual about how little pain I feel – I just thought it was normal.”
With CRISPR genome-editing, lifelong bliss could be normal.
Jo Cameron is first known case of someone with mutations in both the FAAHgene and its newly-discovered sister gene, FAAH-OUT, which modulates the FAAH gene. The FAAH gene (short for Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase) is a protein-coding gene responsible for degrading bioactive fatty amides, most notably the endogenous cannabinoid anandamide. Previous mutations of FAAH are known, but the FAAH-OUT gene was previously reckoned a pseudogene. Single FAAH mutations are associated with high pain-tolerance, reduced anxiety and a sunny outlook without Jo’s “extreme” syndrome of well-being. Jo’s son has the single mutation.
Other case studies may be cited. I often use (again with prior consent) the example of my transhumanist colleague Anders Sandberg (“I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point”) – although Anders’ pain-sensitivity lies within the normal range. The pain-modulating SCN9A gene, which has dozens of alleles conferring varying pain (in)tolerance, is much better studied (cf. How much do our pain thresholds differ?).
What biologists call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) ensures such outliers are rare. Although Jo Cameron shows accelerated wound-healing, not being a “normal”, neurotic mother on the African savannah would have carried a fitness-cost. Predators are unforgiving of relaxed moms. Our sugary “wildlife documentaries” barely hint at the cruelties of Nature. Pain, fear and anxiety are intimately linked. “Only the paranoid survive”, said Intel boss Andy Grove; and this bleak diagnosis can be true of market capitalism to this day. But we are not living on the African savannah – or even in a world of unfettered free markets. Looking ahead, all kinds of risks can be offloaded to artificial intelligence. AI and smart prostheses can potentially manage risks moreeffectively than bias-ridden humans. Intuitively, for sure, tampering with our reward circuitry will be hazardous. Genetically modifying or creating superhappy organisms with relative pain-insensitivity and enhanced zest for life will lead to increased personal risk-taking. Yet the story is more complicated. A great deal of risky and self-destructive behaviour in today’s world involves not happy, pain-free people, but the pain-ridden, depressive and psychologically disturbed. Life-loving optimists typically value life more – and seek to preserve and protect it. Anecdotally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the happiest people I know dedicate their lives to the study and prevention of existential risk.
So a practical question arises. Should a large, well-controlled clinical trial of CRISPR babies be launched, with some babies carrying Jo’s two mutations, others a single FAAH mutation like her son, and controls?
If the trial is successful, then the controls and (in due course) the wider human population could enjoy remedial gene-therapy to share the benefits.
One of the few publications to recognise the far-reaching significance of Jo’s case is the magazine Wired (cf. Crispr Gene Editing Could One Day Cut Away Human Pain). Instead of the double mutation promising “only” better drugs to treat pain, humanity can now tackle the problem of suffering at its source.
Bioconservative critics will be appalled at the idea: “Doctor Mengele!” “Eugenics!” “Designer babies!” “Gattaca!” “Brave New World!” Being malaise-ridden is normal and natural. Creating superbabies would be hubris. Where will it lead? How do we know gene-editing won’t be used by despots to create a race of fearless superwarriors?
In more measured language, how can experimentation with the lives of sentient beings without prior informed consent be ethically justified?
Indeed. Yet all babies born today are unique and untested genetic experiments. All baby-making entails creating involuntary suffering. None of our genetic experiments first passed muster with a medical ethics committee. Any proposal to create transhuman superbabies will probably strike our descendants as genetic remediation, not enhancement. If we reject the arguments of anti-natalists, who view Darwinian life as malware, then allprospective parents are committed to practising genetic experimentation – just not under that inflammatory label. So what’s at issue is not the principle of genetic innovation, only whether we should harness the new tools of CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing to conduct our experiments more responsibly. If aspiring writers can benefit from proofreaders and editors, why not aspiring parents too – where the stakes are higher?
Your question asks about breaking the hedonic treadmill (cf. What would people who never suffered be like?). Breaking or otherwise dismantling the hedonic treadmill is worth distinguishing from recalibration of its dial-settings. Hedonic adaptation can be broken in human and non-human animals by experimentally inducing “learned helplessness” and behavioural despair in response to chronic, uncontrollable stress. Hedonic adaptation can be broken at the other extreme by using intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system. “Wireheading” shows virtually no tolerance. Pathological cases of a broken hedonic treadmill occur “naturally” in chronic unipolar depression and, much more rarely, in euphoric unipolar mania. Attempts to cheat the hedonic treadmill via drugs are fraught with pitfalls. The most powerful mood-brighteners, namely the opioids, activate the hedonic treadmill rather than mitigate it. Some opioid users end up with a habit hundreds of times their starting dose. Natural selection did not design living organisms to be happy.
Functionally, therefore, genetic recalibration is a more fruitful strategy than abolishing the hedonic treadmill, both for the individual and society at large. For what it’s worth, I personally think we should aim for a hyperthymic civilisation built on a biology of invincible well-being. Future sentience will be underpinned by gradients of bliss. However, nothing so grandiose need be envisaged in order to warrant human CRISPR trials of happy babies. Grant some fairly modest ethical assumptions, e.g. other things being equal, intelligent moral agents should act so as to reduce the burden of suffering, or at least not wantonly add to it. For any genetic intervention that alters default hedonic tone, conserving information-sensitivity to “good” and “bad” stimuli is critical. In other words, we should aim to retain the hedonic treadmill but transform its negative feedback-mechanisms into a hedonistic treadmill – where “hedonism” is understood not in the amoral popular sense of a life of drink, drugs and debauchery, but as embracing Mill’s “higher pleasures”. Hence the hedonistic imperative. If clinical trials of superbabies go well, prospective parents world-wide could be offered the opportunity to have happy, heathy babies via CRISPR genome-editing, preimplantation genetic screening and counselling.
A biohappiness revolution would be extremely cost-effective. Depression, anxiety disorders and chronic pain-syndromes significantly reduce economic growth worldwide. By conserving hedonic adaptation, but ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points, humanity can conserve and enhance empathetic understanding, social responsibility and critical insight while enriching default quality of life. By conserving hedonic adaptation, we can also conserve cherished traditional values, if so desired. Yesterday’s utopias involved overriding the preferences of others, whether for their own notional good or in pursuit of some higher cause. By contrast, elevating your pain-tolerance and raising your hedonic set-point would radically enrich your life but wouldn’t challenge your values and preferences – unless one of your core values is preserving the genetic status quo.
What could go wrong with a biohappiness revolution?
Cue for vast treatises and a sci-fi movie.
However, as well as seriously – indeed exhaustively – researching everything that could conceivably go wrong, I think we should also invesigate what could goright. The world is racked by suffering. The hedonic treadmill might more aptly be called a dolorous treadmill. Hundreds of millions of people are currently depressed, pain-ridden or both. Hundreds of billions of non-human animals are suffering too. If we weren’t so inured to a world of pain and misery, then the biosphere would be reckoned in the throes of a global medical emergency. Thanks to breakthroughs in biotechnology, pain-thresholds, default anxiety levels, hedonic range and hedonic set-points are all now adjustable parameters in human and non-human animals alike. We are living in the final century of life on Earth in which suffering is biologically inevitable. As a society, we need an ethical debate about how much pain and misery we want to preserve and create.
As a function of time and resources, what is the optimal way to reduce suffering and maximize happiness?
You have 1 minute and no money: Try to calm down and distract yourself with music.
You have 1 hour and 1 dollar: Ignore the dollar, just make a playlist of songs you really enjoyed in your life and play it as you dance.
You have 1 day and 50 dollars: Go get yourself some hard drugs.
You have 3 months and 1,000 dollars: Get some gym equipment, establish a workout routine, hangout with friends as much as possible, get laid, go to see movies, go to a beach.
You have 3 years and 3,000 dollars: Learn about Buddhist meditation, get fit, and then focus on achieving the Jhanas states. Stay in them for as long as you can.
You have 10 years and 10,000 dollars: Investigate charities that minimize suffering, or make your own. Fund-raise in order to eliminate suffering in people who have cluster-headaches by giving them access to tryptamine vape-pens, help the spread of pain-killers for people dying in hospitals in third-world countries, etc.
You have 50 years and 10,000,000 dollars: You found a research institute devoted to identifying the biochemical, functional, or behavioral causes of suffering, identify promising large-effect-size genetic modification technologies in order to enable sustainable hedonic-tone enhancement. You build a company that sells permanent hedonic tone amplification. With the money you get rid of factory farming and implement a wild-animal welfare system. Then you get rid of game-theoretical impasses using ultra-bliss technology.
The answer is yes (though I am the writer of the piece that is linked, so take my answer with a grain of salt).
The number of novel mathematical objects encoded in the structure of one’s experience when under the influence of DMT is huge. Most mathematicians who try it will come out feeling that they “don’t even know where to start”.
So let’s start simple.
Consider the “Chrysanthemum” level of DMT intoxication (which is the 2nd of 6 levels). Anybody who has read “The Symmetry of Things” by John H. Conway, Heidi Burgiel, and Chaim Goodman-Strauss (or who has a deep acquaintance with symmetry groups by other means) will *readily recognize* the fact that the symmetry groups that appear on such DMT visuals are *not Euclidean*.
At that level they would see rapidly-flickering superpositions of hyperbolic symmetry groups like *2 3 11, *2 3 7, 2 4 5, 2 3 9 (the picture below), etc. Together with the fact that these visuals are completely “flat-looking” rather than curved, this is the smoking gun that what you are looking at/experiencing is a hyperbolic phenomenal space.
2 3 9 Hyperbolic Symmetry Group
And this is not even discussing the 3D hyperbolic space that becomes apparent (if you know what to look for) on higher levels of DMT. For instance, on level 3 you can experience 3D Euclidean symmetry groups tesselate your visual field, on level 4 you can experience 3D hyperbolic space and “prime” objects that belong to that geometry (which are impossible to reproduce faithfully in Euclidean space). Level 5 leads to global topological bifurcations of the phenomenal space, which gives rise to even more exotic objects with hard-to-grasp mathematics. And level 6… well, there IS a level 6, and that’s as much as I’m willing to say for the time being.
In future, I believe that mathematicians who care to *look closely* will see the signature of exotic mathematical spaces on the “DMT Realms” everywhere. This will become common knowledge in both neuroscience and mathematical circles.
As David Pearce likes to say: “Some people think we are reaching the age where fundamental knowledge has been achieved… I think the enterprise of knowledge has scarcely begun.” Studying exotic states of consciousness is not even at a pre-Galilean stage, it perhaps is even at a pre-Socratic stage. Alas, if more people pay attention and document their experiences carefully, such that a critical mass of rational brilliant psychonauts is reached, there will be a “knowledge explosion”.
Practically speaking, I think that our single best psychopharmacological bet for tackling depression, anxiety, and above all chronic pain worldwide in the next decade is to:
1) Identify great, non-toxic, partial mu-opioid agonists with extremely high therapeutic index (e.g. tianepetine, 7-hydroxymitragynine, etc.), and
2) Prescribe them in conjunction withanti-tolerance drugs (such as proglumide, agmatine, black seed oil, small dose ibogaine, etc.).
I think that whomever manages to patent a mixture of partial opioid agonist + anti-tolerance drug that works in the long term will be a multi-billionaire within a couple of years while actually reducing/preventing massive amounts of untold suffering.
Proglumide: A Promising Anti-Tolerance Agent (proof of concept of what is to come)
Ps. My core research at QRI is not pharmacological but rather phenomenological and “patternceutical“. So I am not pursuing the above line of research myself as the core objective of the next few years. But if I was looking into pharmacological options, that’s where I’d shine some light on. If you are in the field, I urge you to look into this option. For more info: “Anti-Tolerance Drugs“.
Greetings, and may this letter find you at peace and in prosperity! Forgive
my writing to you out of the blue. Though you and I have never met, we are
not strangers. We are, in a certain sense, the closest of kin. I am one of your
I hope you will become me. Should fortune grant this wish, then I am not
just a possible future of yours, but your actual future: a coming phase of you,
like the full moon that follows a waxing crescent, or like the flower that
follows a seed.
I am writing to tell you about my life – how good it is – that you may choose
it for yourself.
Although this letter uses the singular, I am really writing on behalf of all
my contemporaries, and we are addressing ourselves to all of your
contemporaries. Amongst us are many who are possible futures of your
people. Some of us are possible futures of children you have not yet given
birth to. Still others are possible artificial persons that you might one day
create. What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real.
You can think of this note as if it were an invitation to a ball that will take
place only if folks turn up.
We call the lives we lead here “Utopia”.
How can I tell you about Utopia and not leave you mystified? What words
could convey the wonder? What inflections express our happiness? What
points overcome your skepticism? My pen, I fear, is as unequal to the task as
if I had tried to use it against a charging elephant.
But the matter is so important that we must try even against long odds.
Maybe you will see through the inadequacies of my exposition.
Have you ever known a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration,
maybe, where your hands were guided by a greater force to trace the shapes
of truth and beauty? Or perhaps you found such a moment in the ecstasy of
love? Or in a glorious success achieved with good friends? Or in splendid
conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or
perhaps there was a song or a melody that smuggled itself into your heart,
setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotion? Or during worship?
If you have experienced such a moment, experienced the best type of such a
moment, then a certain idle but sincere thought may have presented itself to
you: “Oh Heaven! I didn’t realize it could feel like this. This is on a
different level, so very much more real and worthwhile. Why can’t it be like
this always? Why must good times end? I was sleeping; now I am awake.”
Yet behold, only a little later, scarcely an hour gone by, and the softly-falling
soot of ordinary life is already piling up. The silver and gold of exuberance
lose their shine. The marble becomes dirty.
Every way you turn it’s the same: soot, casting its veil over all glamours and
revelries, despoiling your epiphany, sodding up your white pressed collar and
shirt. And once again that familiar beat is audible, the beat of numbing
routine rolling along its tracks. The commuter trains loading and unloading
their passengers… sleepwalkers, shoppers, solicitors, the ambitious and the
hopeless, the contented and the wretched… like human electrons shuffling
through the circuitry of civilization.
We do so easily forget how good life can be at its best – and how bad at its
worst. The most outstanding occasion: barely is it over before the sweepers
move in to clean up the rice. Yellowing photos remain.
And this is as it should be. We are in the business of living, and life must go
on. Special moments are out-of-equilibrium experiences in which our
puddles are stirred up and splashed about; yet when normalcy returns we are
usually relieved. We are built for mundane functionality, not lasting bliss.
So the door that was ajar begins to close, disappearing hope’s sliver behind
an insensate scab.
Quick, stop that door! Look again at your yellowing photos, search for a
clue. Do you not see it? Do you not feel it, the touch of the possible? You
have witnessed the potential for a higher life, and you hold the fading proof
in your hands. Don’t throw it away. In the attic of your mind, reserve a
drawer for the notion of a higher state of being. In the furnace of your heart,
keep an aspiring ember alive.
I am summoning this memory of your best experience – to what end? In the
hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness.
And yet, what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now
– a beckoning scintilla at most. If the distance between base and apex for
you is eight kilometers, then to reach my dwellings requires a million lightyear ascent. The altitude is outside moon and planets and all the stars your
eyes can see. Beyond dreams. Beyond imagination.
My consciousness is wide and deep, my life long. I have read all your
authors – and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from
many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek
and city back alley. I have sailed the high seas of cultures, and swum, and
dived. Quite some marvelous edifice builds up over a million years by the
efforts of homunculi, just as the humble polyps amass a reef in time. And
I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story,
scintillate under heaving ocean waters.
The whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What I have is not merely more of
what is available to you now. It isn’t just the particular things, the paintings
and toothpaste-tube designs, the record covers and books, the epochs, lives,
leaves, rivers, and random encounters, the satellite images and the hadron
collider data – it is also the complex relationships between these particulars
that make up my mind. There are ideas that can be formed only on top of
such a wide experience base. There are depths that can be fathomed only
with such ideas.
You could say I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel
surpassing bliss. But these are words invented to describe human
experience. What I feel is as far beyond human feeling as my thoughts are
beyond human thought. I wish I could show you what I have in mind. If
only I could share one second of my conscious life with you!
But you don’t have to understand what I think and feel. If only you bear in
mind what is possible within the present human realm, you will have enough
to get started in the right direction, one step at a time. At no point will you
encounter a wall of blinding light. At no point will you have to jettison
yourself over an end-of-the-world precipice. As you advance, the horizon
will recede. The transformation is profound, but it can be as gradual as the
growth that made the baby you were into the adult you think you are.
You will not achieve this through any magic trick or hokum, nor by the
power of wishful thinking, nor by semantic acrobatics, meditation,
affirmation, or incantation. And I do not presume to advise you on matters
theological. I urge on you nothing more, nothing less, than reconfigured
The challenge before you: to become fully what you are now only in hope
and potential. New capacities are needed if you wish to live and play on my
To reach Utopia, you must first discover the means to three fundamental
The First Transformation: Secure life!
Your body is a deathtrap. This vital machine and mortal vehicle, unless it
jams first or crashes, is sure to rust anon. You are lucky to get seven decades
of mobility; eight if you be Fortuna’s darling. That is not sufficient to get
started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the
soul takes longer. Why, even a tree-life takes longer!
Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They
are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death –
infection, violence, malnutrition, heart attack, cancer. Turn your biggest
gun on aging, and fire. You must seize control of the biochemical processes
in your body in order to vanquish, by and by, illness and senescence. In
time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable media.
Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease
continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is
premature if your life is good.
Oh, it is not well to live in a self-combusting paper hut! Keep the flames at
bay and be prepared with liquid nitrogen, while you construct yourself a
better habitation. One day you or your children should have a secure home.
Research, build, redouble your effort!
The Second Transformation: Upgrade cognition!
Your brain’s special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics,
eroticism, art, nurturing, narration, gossip! These are fine spirits to pour
into the cup of life. Blessed you are if you have a vintage bottle of any of
these. Better yet, a cask! Better yet, a vineyard!
Be not afraid to grow. The mind’s cellars have no ceilings!
What other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all the music dried
up: what poverty, what loss. Give your thanks, not to the lyre, but to your
ears for the music. And ask yourself, what other harmonies are there in the
air, that you lack the ears to hear? What vaults of value are you witlessly
debarred from, lacking the key sensibility?
Had you but an inkling, your nails would be clawing at the padlock in sacred
Your brain must grow beyond the bounds of any genius of humankind, in its
special faculties as well as its general intelligence, so that you may better
learn, remember, and understand, and so that you may apprehend your own
Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your
way, and your journey will fail.
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.
Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and tug at the posts, and you will
slowly loosen them up. One day you’ll break the fence that held your
forebears captive. Gnaw and tug, redouble your effort!
The Third Transformation: Elevate well-being!
What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill,
despair and bliss?
Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s
treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything
we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.
The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and
creates a bubbling celebration of life.
It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been
trampled upon since the beginning of time.
There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that
if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow.
I reach in vain for words to convey to you what it all amounts to… It’s like a
rain of the most wonderful feeling, where every raindrop has its own unique
and indescribable meaning – or rather a scent or essence that evokes a whole
world… And each such evoked world is subtler, richer, deeper, more
palpable than the totality of what you have experienced in your entire life.
I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too
horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of
palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there
is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that
are currently out of reach.
The roots of suffering are planted deep in your brain. Weeding them out
and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require advanced
skills and instruments for the cultivation of your neuronal soil. But take
heed, the problem is multiplex! All emotions have a natural function. Prune
carefully lest you reduce the fertility of your plot.
Sustainable yields are possible. Yet fools will build fools’ paradises. I
recommend you go easy on your paradise-engineering until you have the
wisdom to do it right.
Oh, what a gruesome knot suffering is! Pull and tug on those loops, and you
will gradually loosen them up. One day the coils will fall, and you will
stretch out in delight. Pull and tug, and be patient in your effort!
May there come a time when rising suns are greeted with joy by all the living
creatures they shine upon.
How do you find this place? How long will it take to get here?
I can pass you no blueprint for Utopia, no timetable, no roadmap. All I can
give you is my assurance that there is something here, the potential for a
If you could visit me here for but a day, you would henceforth call this place
your home. This is the place where you belong. Ever since one hairy
creature picked up two flints and began knocking them together to make a
tool, this has been the direction of your unknown aspiration. Like Odysseus
you must journey, and never cease journeying, until you arrive upon this
“Arrive?” you say; “But isn’t the journey the destination? Isn’t Utopia a
place that doesn’t exist? And isn’t the quest for Utopia, as witnessed
historically, a dangerous folly and an incitement to mischief?”
Friend, that is not such a bad way for you to think about it. To be sure,
Utopia is not a location or a form of social organization.
The blush of health on a convalescent’s cheek. The twinkling of the eye in a
moment of wit. The smile of a loving thought… Utopia is the hope that the
scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our
lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that yours should have been.
I fear that the pursuit of Utopia will bring out the worst in you. Many a
moth has been incinerated in its pursuit of a brighter future.
Seek the light! But approach with care – swerve if you smell your wingtips
singeing. Light is for seeing, not dying.
When you embark on this quest, you will encounter rough seas and hard
problems. To prevail will take your best science, your best technology, and
your best politics. Yet each problem has a solution. My existence breaks no
law of nature. The materials are all there. Your people must become
master builders, and then you must use these skills to build yourselves up
without crushing your cores.
What is Suffering in Utopia? Suffering is the salt trace left on the cheeks of those
who were around before.
What is Tragedy in Utopia? There is tragedy in Snowman’s melting. Mass
murders are not required.
What is Imperfection in Utopia? Imperfection is the measure of our respect for
things as they are and for their history.
What is Body in Utopia? Body is a pair of legs, a pair of arms, a trunk and a
head, all made of flesh. Or not, as the case may be.
What is Society in Utopia? Society is a never-finished tapestry, its weavers equal
to its threads – the parts and patterns an inexhaustible bourne of beauty.
What is Death in Utopia? Death is the darkness that ultimately surrounds all
What is Guilt in Utopia? Guilt is our knowledge that we could have created
We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow
our minds had their amperage not been previously increased. My
contemporaries and I bear witness, and we request your aid. Please, help us
come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility
becomes reality depends on your actions. If your empathy can perceive at
least the outlines of the vision I am describing, then your ingenuity will find a
way to make it real.
Human life, at its best, is fantastic. I’m asking you to create something even
greater. Life that is truly humane.
Alas, despite Bostrom’s far-reaching contributions, many argue that Nick’s most important impact has been in the field of AI Alignment (cf. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies). In 2009 AI safety research was perceived to be a fringe concern of sci-fi aficionados and weirdos. Today, partly thanks to Bostrom (along with Yudkowsky, Chalmers, and others), many top journals publish serious work in this area.
I worry that this is not as good as it may seem. Nick Bostrom’s name is first and foremost associated with AI safety, followed by the Simulation Argument and Existential Risk, and only later by his extensive work on all other areas of transhumanism. For example, if you search Youtube for his name, you will see that of the top 20 results, 15 concern AI safety/digital superintelligence. Of the remaining 5, 3 are about the Simulation Argument, 1 is about agnosticism, and 1 is CGP Grey’s Dragon-Tyrant video. Where are the Triple-S videos?
I remembered that I encountered the work of both David and Nick when I was 16, googling terms like consciousness, AI, psychedelics, and far future. I was drawn to both of them, though I particularly liked David’s focus on ending suffering as a priority and his acknowledgment of the scientific significance of altered states of consciousness. I thought that their work was complementary rather than redundant. Alas, Bostrom is far more well known than Pearce, perhaps due to his success as both a fringe philosopher and a mainstream academic. In contrast, David dropped out of Oxford out of frustration with the academic community; the analytic philosophy of the time was not empirical, and it focused on language use rather than real philosophical questions, including the nature of suffering, psychedelics, and physical causality (e.g. “Philosophy 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. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it.” – Wittgenstein). Bostrom, unlike Pearce, has the blessing of Ra, the God of optionality, superlativity, status legibility, and groundless prestige. And yet, it was David’s conversation with Nick that gave rise to the creation of the World Transhumanist Association, and provided one of the most important memetic Schelling points of the early 2000s. Alas, David is not focused on AI Safety. Why?
People in the transhumanist community accuse David of not getting it. David, after all, is not a mathematician, computer scientist, or physicist; he is merely a philosopher. I must confess that the very first time I met David Pearce in person I got the sense that (1) he was an incredibly well-read and creative genius in most areas of philosophy, and yet (2) naïve and unenlightened in the field of AI. As a fan of his work, and having co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association a couple of months earlier, I thought to invite him to give a talk at Stanford (see: David Pearce at Stanford – 2011).
David Pearce and the officers of the Stanford Transhumanist Association (December 1st 2011) at Palo Alto’s Chinese Vegan restaurant Garden Fresh, before David’s talk.
We had a lively conversation while eating dinner at a Chinese vegan restaurant before the event along with other members of the Association. I recall that he checked all of the right boxes when it came to personal identity (Open/Empty Individualism), ethics (consequentialism), physics (Everettian multiverse), psychedelia (they disclose new varieties of qualia), evolution (modern synthesis; selfish gene), social signaling theory (Mating Mind and sexual selection theory), and more (see his Reddit AMA). And yet, how could he dare to say that a digital computer would never be conscious? Meeting a brilliant thinker who had a better grasp of my favorite topics than I did and yet would try to hit on one of my core load-bearing beliefs was uncomfortable and unexpected. I dismissed his take on AI as that of a fuzzy thinker (at least in this area); I reassured myself by recalling that it was me who was studying AI academically at a top US institution and not him. Little did I know that over the next few years, and after hanging out with him in person for over 20 cumulative hours, he would finally change my mind- and worldview- concerning this whole field. If it wasn’t for him, I suspect I would have jumped on the bandwagon of AI-as-the-top-priority (cf. Altruists Should Prioritize Artificial Intelligence). Thankfully, I was already extremely interested in consciousness and didn’t have it in me to dismiss it. Additionally, my interest in personal identity reduced my (relative) interest in longevity research (at least as the top priority), for if we are all one consciousness, dying is more akin to forgetting a timeline than a true ontological death. The instrumental value of intelligence, however, ought not to be taken for granted, which is why I now advocate for a twin approach of improving subjective wellbeing while retaining critical insight. Figuring out that consciousness required more than digital computation utterly transformed my approach to transhumanism, and I largely credit this change to my conversations with David.
AI safety is sexy. If you are a smart, industrious, open-minded, and systematizing undergraduate, studying AI gives you access to a wide circle of really fun people to hang out in. It also signals intelligence, sober-mindedness, and stoicism. It gives you both an in into smart cool kid circles, and a profitable career in Silicon Valley. It allows you to straddle the world of normies and cutting-edge thinkers.
But, crucially, you have to consider the opportunity cost that comes from directing such a large fraction of hyper-intelligent young altruistic systematizers to this problem. The field is plagued with misconceptions about pleasure and value; Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Fun Theory suffers from the severe delusion that value comes from the intentional object of experience, rather than from its phenomenal character. Brian Tomasik’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners is seemingly unaware of the fact that neuroscience has found that pleasure/suffering and reinforcement learning are doubly dissociated. Pleasure is not reinforcement, and until you grasp this, your ethical models will output nonsense.
Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps AI risk is a real threat. Not because of the usual reasons, but because it siphons out top brain power into a relatively sterile field, leaving vast amounts of unclaimed marginal value in the fields of rejuvenation research and valence technologies by the wayside.
In light of all of this, I would want to advocate for the reinvigoration of the broader transhumanist meme-plex, now updated with a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness. Writers, animators, Youtubers, and philosophers ought to collaborate in creating more balanced Triple-S Transhumanist outreach in the form of widely consumable media. This, I think, is the path forward.