Hello Qualia Enthusiasts,
We are excited to announce the release of our first line of Qualia Research Institute scents, “Magical Creatures”. This line explores the complex and often puzzling interactions that exist in the state-space of olfaction, highlighting the exotic and unique qualities that can emerge in this space.
QRI’s Scent Philosophy
“Bearing your intentions in the back of your mind has all kinds of effects in navigating your practice, without you even being conscious of it. It’s a powerful thing. Intentions are extremely powerful things. Intentions create our worlds. And that’s not hyperbole.”
– Rob Burbea, in Practicing the Jhanas
Vimalakīrti then asked the bodhisattvas from the Host of Fragrances [world], “How does Accumulation of Fragrances Tathāgata explain the Dharma?”
Those bodhisattvas said, “In our land the Tathāgata* explains [the Dharma] without words. He simply uses the host of fragrances to make the gods and humans enter into the practice of the Vinaya. The bodhisattvas each sit beneath fragrant trees, smelling such wondrous fragrances, from which they attain the ‘samādhi of the repository of all virtues.’ Those who attain this samādhi all become replete in the merits of the bodhisattva.”
– Chapter X – The Buddha Accumulation Of Fragrances
[*Tathāgata is an honorable name for the Buddha of a realm.]
In his 2019 Jhana retreat lectures, Rob Burbea explains that the intention you use as your source of energy, your reserve, your approach, and your guide to meditation has an enormous influence on what unfolds and what arises during a retreat.
If you practice Jhana meditation to be more calm, or to reduce stress, or to tick a box of “having done a Jhana retreat”, or because someone really likes the teacher and recommended it to you, or as an instrumental stepping stone to then use for insight practices, or anything else that is not open to the mystery of the Jhanas and has the flexibility and responsivity to what comes up naturally out of them, then many of the deepest and most worthwhile realms of experience this practice has to offer will simply not unfold.
Similarly, approaching an ayahuasca session with the intention of healing a particular relationship, or experiencing a mystical sense about a specific spiritual tradition, or for the sake of neurogenesis, or anything else with a predetermined target, will entail that some things will not unfold.
The approach, the intentions, and the desires that fuel a particular exploration of consciousness will determine the limits of what will unfold from it. This insight is an important conceptual background to understand the exploration of consciousness we are pursuing at QRI. To truly get the most out of experiencing our scents, we want to think of it in terms of what we call the cultivation of Qualia Mastery.
Qualia Mastery consists of three core intentions that work in the background during any exploration of consciousness:
- It’s for the Benefit of Sentient Beings: The exploration intends to benefit all sentient beings. The explorer should not do anything damaging, which may limit future explorations. We should let our efforts be guided by compassion and sympathetic joy in addition to curiosity and creativity. And the goal should be altruistic: we are seeking solutions to the problem of suffering in all its guises, and we believe that understanding consciousness is essential for achieving this.
- To Develop an Intellectual Understanding: Unlike many spiritual traditions which advocate for a strictly non-intellectual understanding of consciousness, Qualia Mastery fully embraces the value, importance, and necessity of intellectual understanding. This embrace entails approaching the exploration of consciousness with epistemological optimism. Yes, with enough dedication, cleverness, and knowledge, it is possible to eff the ineffable. Or, at the very least, not trying to do so will surely make it impossible!
- To Experience the Mystery of Consciousness Directly: In other words, an essential aspect of Qualia Mastery involves the intention to acquire the capacity to instantiate, navigate, and utilize any and every possible state of consciousness. It is not enough to know that the 6th Jhana exists intellectually; we want to experience it ourselves! Likewise, we want to develop the ability to abide in all shades of wonder, color, taste, and so on.
With Qualia Mastery in mind, you will get much more out of exploring our scents (and any other scent you may encounter on your own!). Don’t let your preconcieved sense of what scents are (and what they are for) limit the way you approach them. They are disclosing hidden properties of consciousness! Drink and delight in experiencing the wonder of the unknown, and join us in developing an intimate and unmediated relationship with this most outstanding mystery.
Importantly, please do not think of these scents as perfumes for two reasons. First, that way of perceiving them will be limiting. It comes with a large set of cultural imports and expectations (cf. functional fixedness). Instead, these scents are qualia research tools: they are molecular compositions meant to disclose varieties of qualia and to allow you to engage in an intimate and unmediated way with the mystery of consciousness. And second, these scents are not intended as skin scents. The makeup of these scents is a mixture of common essential oils and perfume ingredients. Their relative proportions do not adhere to IFRA guidelines, which would enable us to sell them as proper perfumes intended to be used on one’s skin. Some of those regulations restrict the range of qualia accessible. Although clever perfumist tricks can, in principle, be used to deliver the same qualia while adhering closely to the guidelines. However, as a non-profit with a limited budget, this is something we have yet to invest in doing (but we may invest in the future).
- Harmonic Society
- Perfumery as an Artform
- Qualia Research Diary: Scents
- Detailed 2C-B Trip Report by an Anonymous Reader
- Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God
What is this line of scents about? And what is the aesthetic generator behind it?
Color is the quintessential example used to illustrate the concept of qualia. The state-space of color qualia is rather simple1 . It consists of three orthogonal dimensions: the red-green axis, the yellow-blue axis, and the white-black axis. Every shade of color can be found as a coordinate in this three-dimensional space.
The QRI logo illustrates two of the three dimensions of color qualia.
Albeit controversial in some circles, fundamental properties of this qualia space can be understood experientially by anyone who pays close attention. For example, orange, purple, yellow-green, and green-blue are all secondary color qualia. Orange is, in some sense, both yellow-like and red-like; it isn’t a “pure” color quale. A fair number of phenomenal puzzles can be formulated with color qualia alone. But at its core, the space is simple: linear, Euclidean, and 3-dimensional.
The state-space of scent qualia, however, isn’t that simple. Depending on who you ask, scent-space might have between 30 and 300 dimensions. It is our measured assessment, however, that seeking a Euclidean space for scents is, at best premature and, at worst, fundamentally misguided. Early research in the geometry of the state-space of scent suggests it is hyperbolic. But we at QRI would suggest it is also irregular, and its topology might be far from trivial.
Here are a couple of examples of what makes us think there may be many puzzling interactions that suggest the presence of irregularities in the state-space of olfaction:
There are many examples where two scents mixed give rise to new emergent “scent gestalts” that genuinely feel like more than the sum of their parts. As elaborated in the description of Eau de Cologne Vide, there are tactile scent effects (such as the coolness of mint and the prickly spiky trigeminal stimulation of aldehydes). Some scents modify other scents called “character impact”: two scents that refuse to “blend” with each other can be merged by adding the right character impact into the mix.
Thus, we may need new interpretative lenses to make sense of the state-space of scents. We encourage, cultivate, and celebrate creative explorations of this (and other) qualia spaces that provide new insights and perspectives. This is what Magical Creatures is all about.
Magical Creatures is a line of scents emphasizing the “special effects” found in the state-space of scents. Rather than thinking of scents as mere points in a Euclidean space, we think of them as exotic creatures inhabiting a complex and irregular space with hidden interstitial gems found in unique places like triple points and unexpected phase transitions.
As an intuition pump, perhaps think of the range of powers that Pokémon have. If you’ve only ever seen water, fire, ground, fighting, and grass Pokémon types, is it possible to derive from first principles that there is also such a thing as an electric type? What about psychic? And ghost? These seem like entirely new categories coming out of the blue rather than linear combinations out of a simple vector basis!
Likewise, the state-space of scents can, at times, seem more like an ecosystem of unique and exotic Magical Creatures than linear combinations of a few simple primitives. For example, if you were a perfume connoisseur but had never encountered minty scents of any sort, could you figure out from first principles that there ought to be such a thing as cooling scents? No way! Where did that come from?
Magical Creatures highlight some of the fascinating “special effects” that exist hidden in the state-space of scents. Think of it as a magical treasure trove of qualia secrets. Each of the scents we present has been carefully crafted to show a “special effect” in a clear and undeniable way:
- Fearless: a scent designed for countering and extinguishing fear vibrations.
- Dust Devil: a scent that showcases how scents can be mysteriously powdery.
- Glacial Gumdrop: a scent that incorporates cooling and “gummy” qualities.
- Frisson: A scent that can cause a subtle, strange, and rather remarkable synesthetic ASMR-like sensation.
- Eau de Cologne Vide: a scent that explores character impact with no flavor, a celebration of emptiness.
- Hedonium Shockwave: a scent that explores positive valence in its purest form – what would a rich scent with no negative features smell like? This is our best attempt.
Note that these are just the first six of this line of scents and that there might very well be more. We’ve come across many other rather unique effects, and in time we aim to share them.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that there are countless other ways to explore scent-space – Magical Creatures is a very generative and fun approach, but ultimately just one of many. Mapping, understanding, and utilizing the full-state space of scents is undoubtedly worthy of a lifetime of exploration. We invite you to join us in this creative pursuit and in cultivating Qualia Mastery in the olfactory domain.
- List of Aesthetics
- The Aesthetic of the Meta-Aesthetic
- A Big State-Space of Consciousness
- Daniel Ingram’s dream about Pokémon Go
 We are here following the well-known findings that dates back to the psychophysics work underpinning the CIELAB color space with an Euclidean metric for color difference. Admittedly this is hiding vast amounts of complexity, such as what goes on each kind of color blindness, how power spectrum distributions map onto qualia space, tetrachromatism, blue-yellow/red-green hybrids, and hypercolors. One thing at a time!
Originally debuted at QRI’s Future of Consciousness Party on the 24th of June, 2022.
Fearless 3.0 is a scent optimized for expressing the reduction of common varieties of fear. Open Fearless is a slight improvement over Fearless 3.0. The term Open is intended to convey two meanings. First, it is an open-source formulation rather than a proprietary blend, drawing inspiration from the open-source cola movement (e.g. OpenCola). And second, it alludes to the concept of Open Individualism, the philosophical position about personal identity that says that we are all one universal consciousness, a single subject of experience experiencing itself through the universe (cf. The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness). Hence, Open Fearless is an open-source scent optimized for expressing the reduction of fear at the transpersonal level: not only the common animalistic variety, but it also tackles deeper forms of existential fear, such as the fear of being alone or the unpleasant suspicion that the universe is meaningless.
The scent combines the three most friendly and soft facets of scent-space we know of: sweetness, creaminess, and coolness. In Open Fearless, these are balanced using olfactory tricks that soften the phenomenal boundary and division between facets to give rise to a coherent scent gestalt that is intended to express happiness, freshness, and a care-free state of mind.
It is not without some degree of confusion that people react when one says that a scent is “powdery”. It doesn’t help that most people don’t have much experience with the powdery scent that is used as the quintessential example of powdery: violet (unless you grew up with Parma Violets). Alas, even when someone knows what violet smells like, the fact that it also has floral, sweet, and oily facets tends to make the qualia reference somewhat ambiguous. Common powdery scents you may be familiar with are cedarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, talc, and some kinds of pear. Their phenomenology is a neighbor of the dry facet. Still, it has an additional quality: it creates the sensation of a dusty misty layer of fine particles whose grain size will vary depending on the precise scent. In early experiments, we determined that making a very powdery effect is not as easy as simply mixing a lot of powdery notes together: they have a habit of canceling each other out, perhaps not unlike at times mixing different kinds of powders can lead to caking and viscous consolidation.
Dust Devil combines a carefully mixed set of powdery scents that synergize with one another: violet, cedarwood, turmeric, and iso-e super. We use a dash of tangerine to give it an uplifting yet dry, citrusy spark. The result is a powerfully dusty tornado of drying and refining sensations. It’s great to create an Old West vibe characterized by tumbleweeds, whisky neat, pistol duels, droughts, and dust devils everywhere. Enjoy!
Menthol can increase the threshold temperature of activation for cold receptors. In other words, it can trick neurons into thinking that the current ambient temperature is colder than it is. Now, Glacial Gumdrop does not have a single drop of menthol. It’s menthol-free! In a daring bit of self-aware and honest advertisement, we admit that this is akin to publicizing a carbonated drink sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup as sucrose-free. Yes, but! Glacial Gumdrop does not use menthol for cooling for the simple reason that in our experiments, it didn’t seem to perform as well as a cooling agent as a mixture of menthone, carvone, and wintergreen extract. The synergy we identified between these three “cooling alternatives” has desirable phenomenological properties that menthol alone does not. Since they “hit” different kinds of coolness effects, together, they pack a much bigger and more powerful punch.
Additionally, the shape of the envelope of the combination (cf. ADSR) is compatible with other aspects of the olfactory experience. Menthol tends to monopolize attention and anesthetize one’s sensitivity to other facets of scent; our proprietary blend leaves some gaps open for attention to interweave and incorporate anise, apple, and lotus nuances which for mysterious reasons make the scent “gummy” (akin to the synesthetic equivalent of munching a gummy bear, but with your olfactory bulb). What are example scents that have this “gummy bear” quality? Marigold, auranone, and some bergamots (e.g. H’ana’s) are good examples, but only Glacial Gumdrop blends this bouncy and fun gummy quality with coolness. This scent will surely surprise you and open your mind to qualia-space mysteries.
Frisson is a scent formulation that plays with an unexpected olfactory effect we identified when exploring the space of powdery citruses (such as bergamot). When the scent facets of citrus, powdery, dry, and etheric are combined in the right proportions, the resulting gestalt can cause a subtle psychogenic shiver of a synesthetic nature: a mix of olfactory and tactile qualia with a subdermal quality reminiscent of the sound of rubbing sandpaper on wood. Some people describe it as the olfactory equivalent of ASMR and a cross between a hiss and musical frisson. This effect is achieved by combining large amounts of tangerine and bergamot, the most powdery citruses, and honeysuckle. The emergent gestalt brings about this effect like no other combination we have tried. Now the question arises: what is this good for? The answer is: for contemplating novel qualia varieties, of course!
Eau de Cologne Vide
A psychonaut once asked a DMT elf if they could tell them something they didn’t know about the state-space of scents. They were expecting some incredible download of information in the form of hyperbolic state-space representations and hyperstereoscopic synesthetic displays of qualia dynamics. Alas, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the elf asked them: “Are you sure that scent is just one qualia variety?”. A riddle! After chewing on it for a while, they concluded that no, scent qualia seems to somehow blend and interweave at least three qualia varieties into one multifaceted experience:
- Scents have “flavor” (ex. lemony, rosy, herbaly, woody, etc.).
- They often have distinctly “tactile components” (ex. the literally cooling effect of mints, or the “prickly” trigeminal nerve stimulation of aldehydes).
- Perhaps the most interesting and mysterious of all, they come with “character impact”. Namely, a distortion of spacetime, boundaries, and valence characteristics that modify whatever flavor and tactile elements one is experiencing.
Analogized to the auditory domain, we could say that “flavor” would correspond to the frequencies and rhythms one hears, such as a piano note, applause, or a child’s laugh. A “tactile component” would be akin to the haptic vibrations one feels in the body when listening to a powerful base or the prickly pinchy feeling in the ear of a screechy sound. And finally, the “character impact” would correspond to signal processing effects like reverb, echoes, spatial audio, and frequency filters. Character impact gives you a lot of control you may not know you had: with clever tricks, you can take the sound of two persons talking and, say, remove annoying high-pitch sounds, harmonize them, create the illusion of movement, or even “blend” them into a single voice with an appropriate amount of reverb. In other words, these signal processing effects allow you to “musicalize” audio which may, on its own, be of little aesthetic merit. Or in the culinary domain, Luca Turin describes “character impact” in the following way. Given tomato soup, the tomato would be the “flavor,” whereas the creaminess would be the character impact. And according to him, in fact, “the money is in making a new cream, not in finding yet another tomato”. Early in our investigations, we discovered that incompatible scents could be “blended into a single gestalt” with the clever use of character impact. Say, a mixture of alpha-pinene, citral, and vanillin tends to “flicker” between kinds of scents in a chaotic fashion (what we call “multiphasic scents”). But if you add linalool or ambroxan, they will mysteriously “blend” into a unified scent gestalt.
Now, ambers and musks are the most common “character impact” scents, with flagship examples like ambroxan, iso e super, galaxolide, and habanolide, all of which are subtle, low in pitch, and “transparent”. The idea of creating a perfume around these isn’t new: Molecule 01 Escentric Molecules (iso e super isomer mix) and Molecule 02 Escentric Molecules (ambroxan) were a big success in the 2000s despite their niche status. By all means, they are more of a work of conceptual art than perfumery in any recognizable form. Beyond the niche, there are also examples of mega-hit mainstream fragrances with enormous amounts of character impact relative to flavors, such as the impossibly clean CK One (hedione, iso e super, galaxolide) and the masterfully musky Le Male by JPG (galaxolide, tonalide).
Such perfumes would have you believe that character impact is always a base note; they largely play with enveloping and calming low-frequency scents. But our work at QRI has convinced us that character impact effects are also present in the heart and top notes. Hence, Eau de Cologne Vide explores fresh, electric, high-voltage character impact effects fit for a wake-me-up cologne (citruses are typically high in pitch and mostly top notes).
The name follows the age-old tradition of perfumes named after mystical concepts such as Nirvana, Eternity, and Truth (“If we were to discover the biomolecular signature of pleasure, its name would surely find its way into the brand of a toothpaste.” – David Pearce). Eau de Cologne Vide packs a powerful punch of such character-impact elements to decorate… “nothing”. Emptiness beautified. Therefore, the impression is of intense salience, but you are left wondering, “what was that about?”. Eau de Cologne Vide is a way of saying “much ado about nothing!”
How is this achieved? Eau de Cologne Vide combines the ethereal alcoholic reverb-ey effect of lavender (linalool), the incredible anodyne softness of rose (phenylethyl alcohol), the dry astringent effect of bergamot (terpinene), the intensely aromatic, stimulating and borderline citrusy effect of spices like thyme and dill (p-cymene), the warming, sweet and spicy, balsamic, “oriental” and “rindy” note typical of bisabol aka. “opoponax” (bisabolene, also found in oregano and cubeb), and fructone (nigh flavorless sweetness). It brings these notes into coherence with the classic aromatic fougere note of aggressive freshness of scents like Drakkar Noir (dihydromyrcenol), and a nanodose of the sour, soapy, and always reliable agrumen aldehyde light.
What does Eau de Cologne Vide smell like? Transparent, sweet, soft, dank, intense, ethereal, slightly sour, mysterious, and yet… flavorless. Eau de Cologne Vide intensifies, vivifies, enriches, and thickens the experience of other scents. But as with Buddhist Emptiness of the highest grade, it’s best experienced by itself.
Hedonium is matter and energy optimized for pure bliss. It is not a shallow sense of well-being but the most profound sense of holistic well-being possible within the laws of physics. Cosmic awe, deep wellness, and rapturous joys are all human emotions and are merely low-dimensional shadows of the real deal. A Hedonium Shockwave is a hypothetical phase transition traveling near the speed of light which changes the very composition of matter and energy by turning everything it touches into Hedonium. Classical Utilitarianism, in its typical formulation, might hold the latent implication that not only would the instantiation of a Hedonium Shockwave be desirable, but we are morally obliged to bring it into existence. QRI’s ethical theories are agnostic, but Hedonium plays an important role in its memetic landscape. Namely, as a theoretical entity that embodies the essence of pure positive valence, it challenges us to consider the nature of value in and of itself and its possible “physical compilation”.
Hedonium Shockwave is a scent developed in-house to illustrate this anticipated phase transition in consciousness. The primary “olfactory idea” of Hedonium Shockwave is the synergistic combination of violet, mint, and an accord of pear and honeysuckle. This combination expresses a powerful yet anodyne uplifting mood grounded in a qualia landscape devoid of negative elements—pure olfactory pleasure at last.
Review of Hedonium Shockwave: It is, overall, incredibly smooth. My first thought is that it feels like a combination of Metta and Mudita, which are two different Brahmavihara meditations where it’s very soft and expansive for me. It feels very golden and pink. It’s very soft, but it’s a bit sharper, then a really soft sharp. It’s like a combination of metta and cocaine. It hits you, but in a loving way. It doesn’t hold back, but it hits you in a loving way. It’s almost like being woken up. “Wake up the world is great!” “Wake up there’s something important!” but a soft, loving wake-up!