Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body
Encouraging feelings of well-being
The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.
Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.
There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.
Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.
Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.
Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength
We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.
Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.
Suffusing and saturating the whole body
Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.
One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.
These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.
Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies
The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.
When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.
For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above:
We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.
The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight
Insight brings samādhi
As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!
With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.
Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.
Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.
In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.
Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.
 We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.
So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence.
This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:
We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.
The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…
This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.
I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.
Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.
One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.
In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.
Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence.
So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.
I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.
So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions.But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities.
And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.
I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected.
Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are.
Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.
Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.
And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.
These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.
When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.
So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.
So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.
So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.
Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.
There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those.
Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.
So,dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness.
I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.
Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.
And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.
Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.
Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.
I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.
Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.
Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.
Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has.
So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.
Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.
Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.
These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.
Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.
Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.
Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning.
You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.
You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.
When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.
These are just examples of a piano chord.
Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful.
Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.
And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states.
So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.
Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.
Here are just some quotes. Cool.
And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.
In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it.
Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.
Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry.
Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good.
Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.
For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.
Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena.
This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them.
Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at.
So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.
Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.
And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.
I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.
This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.
We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.
That is, euphoric.
Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true.
Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.
These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.
Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.
Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing.
The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.
And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.
Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!
In the following video Leo Gura from actualized.org talks about his 30-day 5-MeO-DMT streak experiment. In this post I’ll highlight some of the notable things he said and comment along the way using a QRI-lens to interpret his experiences (if you would rather make up your mind about what he says without my commentary just go and watch the video on your own before reading what I have to say about it).
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait a month to satisfy my curiosity and see what happened after his period of isolation because by the time I found about it he had already posted his post-retreat video. Well, it turns out that he used those 30 days of isolation to conduct a very hard-core psychedelic experiment. Namely, he took high doses of 5-MeO-DMT daily for the entire month. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before.
Learning about what he experienced during that month is of special interest to me for many reasons. In particular, thanks to previous research about extreme bliss and suffering, we had determined that 5-MeO-DMT is currently the psychedelic drug that has the most powerful and intense effects on valence. Recall Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (video): many lines of evidence point to the fact that extreme states of consciousness are surprisingly powerful in ways that are completely counterintuitive. So when Leo says that there are “many levels of awakening” and goes on to discuss how each level is unrecognizably more intense and deeper than the previous one, I am very much inclined to believe he is trying to convey a true property of his experiences. Note that Leo did not only indulge in psychedelics; we are talking about 5-MeO-DMT in particular, which is the thermonuclear bomb version of a psychoactive drug (as with Plutonium, this stuff is best handled with caution). More so, thankfully Leo is very eloquent, which is rare among people who have had many extreme experiences. So I was very eager to hear what he had to say.
While I can very easily believe his trip reports when it comes to their profundity, intensity, and extraordinary degree of consciousness, I do not particularly find his interpretations of these experiences convincing. As I go about describing his video, I will point out ways in which you can take as veridical his phenomenological descriptions without at the same time having to agree with his interpretations of them. More so, if you end up exploring these varieties of altered states yourself, by reading this you will now at least have two different and competing frameworks to explain your experiences. This, I think, is an improvement. Right now the psychedelic and scientific community has very few lenses with which to interpret something as extraordinary as 5-MeO-DMT experiences. And I believe this comes at a great cost to people’s sanity and epistemic rationality.
What Are Leo’s Background Assumptions?
In the pre-retreat video Leo says that his core teachings (and what he attempts to realize on his own self) are: (1) you are literally God, (2) there is nothing but consciousness – God is infinite consciousness, (3) everything is states of consciousness – everything at all times is a different state of consciousness, (4) you are love – and love is absolute – this is all constructed out of love – fear is just fear of aspects of yourself you have disconnected from, (5) you have no beginning and no end, (6) you should be radically open-minded. Then he also adds that physical and mental health issues are just manifestations of your resistance to realizing that you are God.
What Are My Background Assumptions?
I am quite sympathetic to the idea of oneness, which is also talked about with terms like nonduality and monopsychism. In philosophical terminology, which I find to be more precise and rigorous, this concept goes by the name of Open Individualism – the belief that we are all one single consciousness. I have written extensively about Open Individualism in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3), but I would like to point out that the arguments I’ve presented in favor of this view are not based on direct experience, but rather, on logical consistency from background assumptions we take for granted. For instance, if you assume that you are the same subject of experience you were a second ago, it follows that you can exist in two points in space-time and still be the same being. Your physical configuration is different than a few seconds ago (let alone a decade), you have slightly different memories, the neurons active are different, etc. For every property you point out as your “identity carrier” I can find a counter-example where such carrier changes a little while you still remain the same subject of experience. Add to that teleportation, fission, fusion, and gradual replacement thought experiments and you can build a framework where you can become any other arbitrary person without a loss of identity. These lines of argumentation coupled with the transitivity of identity can build the case that we are indeed all one to begin with.
But realize that rather than saying that you can grasp this (potential) truth directly from first person experience, I build from agreed upon assumptions to arrive at an otherwise outlandish view. Understanding the argument does not entail “feeling we are all one”, and neither does feeling we are all one entails understanding the arguments!
Indirect Realism About Perception
There is a mind-independent world out there and you never get to experience it directly. In some sense, we each live in a private skull-bound world-simulation that tracks the fitness-relevant features of our environment. Hence, during meditation, dreaming, or psychedelic states you are not accessing any sort of external reality directly, but rather, exploring possible configurations and qualities of your inner world-simulation. This is something that Leo may implicitly not realize. In particular, interpreting 5-MeO-DMT experiences through direct realism (also called naïve realism – the view that you experience the world directly through your senses) would make you think that you are literally merging with the entire cosmos on the drug. Whereas interpreting those experiences with indirect realism merely entails that your inner boundaries are dissolving. In other words, the partitions inside your world-simulation are what implements the feeling of the self-other duality. And since 5-MeO-DMT dissolves inner boundaries, it feels as though you are becoming one with your surroundings (and the rest of reality).
Physicalism and Panpsychism
An important background assumption is that the laws of physics accurately describe the behavior of the universe. This is distinct from materialism, which would also posit that all matter is inherently insentient. Physicalism merely says that the laws of physics describe the behavior of the physical, but leaves its intrinsic nature as an open question. Together with panpsychism, however, physicalism entails that what the laws of physics are describing is the behavior of consciousness.
What makes an experience feel good or bad is not its semantic content, its computational use, or even whether the experience is self-reinforcing or not. What makes experiences feel good or bad is their structure. In particular, a very promising idea that will come up below is that highly symmetrical states of consciousness are inherently blissful, such as those we can access during orgasm, meditation, psychedelics, or even just good food and a hug. Recall that 5-MeO-DMT dissolves internal boundaries, and this is indicative of increased inner symmetry (where the boundaries themselves entail symmetry breaking operations). Thus, an exotic state of oneness is blissful not because you are merging with God, but “merely” because it has a higher degree of symmetry and therefore it’s valence is higher than what we can normally experience. In particular, the symmetry I’m talking abut here may be an objective feature of experiences perhaps even measurable with today’s neuroimaging technology.
There are additional key background philosophical assumptions, but the above are enough to get us started analyzing Leo’s 5-MeO-DMT journey from a different angle.
[Video descriptions are in italics whereas my commentary is bolded.]
For the first 8 minutes or so Leo explains that people do not really know that there are many levels of enlightenment. He starts out strong by claiming that he has reached levels of enlightenment that nobody (or perhaps just a few people) have ever reached. More so, while he agrees with the teachings of meditation masters of the past, he questions the levels of awakening that they had actually reached. It takes one to know one, and he claims that he’s seen things far beyond what previous teachers have talked about. More so, he argues that people simply have no way of knowing how enlightened their teachers are. People just trust books, gurus, teachers, religious leaders, etc. about whether they are “fully” enlightened, but how could they know for sure without reaching their level, and then surpassing them? He wraps up this part of the video by saying that the only viable path is to go all the way by yourself – to dismiss all the teachers, all the books, and all the instructions and see how far you can go on your own when genuinely pursuing truth by yourself.
With this epistemological caveat out of the way, Leo goes on to describe his methodology. Namely, he embarked on a quest of taking 5-MeO-DMT at increasing doses every day for 30 days in a row.
At 10:05 he says that within a week of this protocol he started reaching levels of awakening so elevated that he realized he had already surpassed every single spiritual teacher that he had ever heard of. He started writing a manifesto explaining this, claiming that even the most enlightened humans are not truly as awake as he became during that week. That it had became “completely transparent that most people who say they are awake or teach awakening are not even 1% awake”. But he decided not to go forward with the manifesto because he still values the teachings of spiritual leaders, whom according to him are doing a great service to mankind. He didn’t want to start, what he called, a “nonduality war” (which is of course a fascinating term if you think about it).
The main thing I’d like to comment here is that Leo is never entirely clear about what makes an “awakening experience” authentic. From what I gather (and from what comes next in the video) we can infer that the leading criteria consists of a fuzzy blend of experience of certainty, feeling of unity, and sense of direct knowing coupled together. To the extent that 5-MeO-DMT does all of these things to an extraordinary degree, we can take Leo on his words that he indeed experienced states of consciousness that feel like awakening that are most likely inaccessible to everyone who hasn’t gone through a protocol like his. What is still unclear is how exactly the semantic contents of these experiences are verified by means other than intuition. We will come back to that.
At 16:00 he makes the distinction between awakening as merely “cessation”, “nothingness”, “emptiness”, “the Self”, or that “you are nothing and everything” versus what he has been experiencing. He agrees that those are true and worthy realizations, but he claims that before his experiences, these understandings were still only realized at a very “low level”. Other masters, he claims, may care about ending suffering, about peace, about emptiness, and so on. But that nobody seems to truly care about understanding reality (because otherwise they would be doing what he’s doing). He rebukes possible critics (arguably of the Zen variety) who would say that “understanding is a function of the mind” so the goal shouldn’t be to understand. He asserts that no, based on his lived experience, that consciousness is capable of “infinite understanding”.
Notwithstanding the challenges posed by ultrafinitism, I am also inclined to believe Leo that he has experienced completely new varieties of “understanding”. In my model of the mind, understanding something means to have the ability to render it in your world-simulation in a particular kind of way that allows you to see it from every possible angle you have access to. On 5-MeO-DMT, as we will see to a greater extent below, a certain new set of projective operations get unlocked that allow you to render information from many, many more points of view at the same time. It is unclear whether this is possible with meditation alone (in personal communication, Daniel Ingram said yes) but it is certainly extraordinarily rare for even advanced meditators to be able to do this. So I am with Leo when it comes to describing “new kinds of understandings”. But perhaps I am not on board when it comes to claiming that the content of such understandings is an accurate rendering of the structure of reality.
At 18:30 Leo asserts that what happened to him is that over the course of the first week of his experiment he “completely understood reality, completely understood what God is”. God has no beginning and no end. He explains that normal human understanding sees situations from a single point of view (such as from the past to the future). But that actual infinite reality is from all sides at once: “When you are in full God consciousness, you look around the room, and you can see it from every single point of view, from an infinite number of angle and perspectives. You see that every part of the room generates and manufactures and creates every other part. […] Here when you are in God consciousness, you see it from every single possible dimension and angle. It’s not happening lilnearly, it’s all in the present now. And you can see it from every angle almost as though, if you take a watermelon and you do a cross-section with a giant knife, through that watermelon, and you keep doing cross-section, cross-section, cross-section in various different angles, eventually you’ll slice it up into an infinite number of perspectives. And then you’ll understand the entire watermelon as a sort of a whole. Whereas usually as humans what we do is we slice down that watermelon just right down the middle. And we just see that one cross-section.”
Now, this is extremely interesting. But first, it’s important to point out that here Leo might implicitly be reasoning about his experience through the lens of direct realism about perception. That is, that as he experiences this profound sense of understanding that encompasses every possible angle at once, he seems to believe that this is an understanding of his environment, of his future and past, and of reality as a whole. On the other hand, if you start out assuming indirect realism about perception, how you interpret this experience would be in terms of the instantiation of new exotic geometries of your own world-simulation. Here I must bring up the analysis of “regular” DMT (i.e. n,n-DMT) experiences through the lens of hyperbolic geometry. Indeed, regular DMT elevates the energy of your consciousness, which manifests in brighter colors, fast movement, intricate and detailed patterns, and as curved phenomenal space. We know this because of numerous trip reports from people well educated in advanced mathematics who claim that the visual symmetries one can experience on DMT (at doses above 10mg) have hyperbolic curvature (cf. hyperbolic orbifolds). It is also consistent with many other phenomena one can experience on DMT (see the Eli 5 for a quick summary). But you should keep in mind that this analysis never claims that you are experiencing directly a mind-independent “hyperspace”. Rather, the analysis focuses on how DMT modifies the geometric properties of your inner world-simulation.
Energy-complexity landscape on DMT
DMT trip progression
Intriguingly, our inner world-simulations work with projective geometry. In normal circumstances our world-simulations have a consistent set of projective points at infinity – they render the modal and amodal features of our experience in projective scenes that are globally consistent. But psychedelics can give rise to this phenomenon of “point-of-view-fragmentation“, where your experience becomes a patchwork of inconsistent projective renderings. So even on “regular” DMT you can get the profound feeling of “seeing something from multiple points of view at once”. Enhanced with hyperbolic geometry, this can cause the stark impression that you can explore “hyperspace” with a kind of “ultra-understanding”.
Looking beyond “regular” DMT, 5-MeO-DMT is yet more crazy than that. You see, even on DMT you get the feeling that you are restricted in the number of points of view from which you can see something at the same time. You can see it from many more points of view than normal, but it’s still restricted. But the extreme “smoothing” of experience that 5-MeO-DMT causes makes it so that you cannot distinguish one point of view from another. So they all blend together. Not only do you experience semantic content from “multiple points of view at once” as in DMT, but you can erase distinctions between points of view so that one’s sense of knowing arises involving a totally new kind of projective effect, in which you actually feel you can see something from “every point of view at once”. It feels that you have unlocked a kind of omniscience. This already happens on other psychedelics to a lesser extent (and in meditation, and even sober life to an even lesser extent, but still there), and it is a consequence of smoothing the geometry of your experience to such an extent that there are no symmetry-breaking imperfections “with which to orient a projective point”. I suspect that the higher “formless” jhanas of “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness” are hitting at this effect. And on 5-MeO-DMT this effect is pronounced. More so, because of the connection between symmetry and smoothness of space (cf. Geometry Through the Eyes of Felix Klein) when this happens you will also automatically be instantiating a high-dimensional group. And according to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this ought to be extraordinarily blissful. And indeed it is.
This is, perhaps, partly what is going on in the experience that Leo is describing. Again, I am inclined to believe his description, but happy to dismiss his naïve interpretation.
At 23:15 Leo describes how from his 5-MeO-DMT point of view he realized what “consciousness truly is”. And that is an “infinitely interconnected self-communicating field”. In normal everyday states of consciousness the different parts of your experience are “connected” but not “communicating.” But on 5-MeO, “as you become more conscious, what happens is that every point in space inter-connects with itself and starts to communicate with itself. This is a really profound, shocking, mystical experience. And it keeps getting cranked up more and more and more. You can call it omniscience, or telepathy. And it’s like the universal communication system gets turned on for the first time. Right now your conscious field is not in infinite communication with itself. It’s fragmented and divided. Such that you think I’m over here, you are over there, my computer is over here, your computer is over there…”. He explains that if we were to realize we are all one, we would then instantly be able to communicate between each other.
Here again we get extremely different interpretations of the phenomena Leo describes depending on whether you believe in direct or indirect realism about perception. As Leo implicitly assumes direct realism about perception, he interprets this effect as literally switching on an “universal communication system” between every points in reality, whereas the indirect realist interpretation would be that you have somehow interlocked the pieces of your conscious experience in such a way that they now act as an interconnected whole. This is something that indeed has been reported before, and at QRI we call this effect “networkintegration“. A simple way of encapsulating this phenomenon would be by saying that the cross-frequency coupling of your nervous system is massively increased so that there is seamless information and energy transfer between vibrations at different scales (to a much lesser extent MDMA also does this, but 5-MeO-DMT is the most powerful “integration aid” we know of). This sounds crazy but it really isn’t. After all, your nervous system is a network of oscillators. It stands to reason that you can change how they interact with one another by fine-tuning their connections and get as a result decoupling of vibrations (e.g. SSRIs), or coupling only between vibrations of a specific frequency (e.g. stimulants and depressants), or more coupling in general (e.g. psychedelics). In particular, 5-MeO-DMT does seem to cause a massively effective kind of fractal coupling, where every vibration can get in tune with every other vibration. And recall, since a lot of our inner world simulation is about representing “external reality”, this effect can give rise to the feeling that you can now instantly communicate with other parts of reality as a whole. This, from my point of view, is merely misinterpreting the experience by imagining that you have direct access to your surroundings.
At 34:52 Leo explains that you just need 5-MeO-DMT to experience these awakenings. And yet, he also claims that everything in reality is imaginary. It is all something that you, as God, are imagining because “you need a story to deny that you are infinite consciousness.” Even though the neurotransmitters are imaginary, you still need to modify them in order to have this experience: “I’m talking about superhuman levels of consciousness. These are not levels of consciousness that you can access sober. You need to literally upgrade the neurotransmitters in your imaginary brain. And yes, your brain is still imaginary, and those neurotransmitters are imaginary. But you still need to upgrade them nevertheless in order to access some of the things I say.”
Needless to say, it’s bizarre that you would need imaginary neurotransmitter-mimicking molecules in your brain in order to realize that all of reality is your own imagination. When you dream, do you need to find a specific drug inside your dream in order to wake up from the dream? Perhaps this view can indeed be steel-manned, but the odds seem stacked against it.
At 38:30 he starts talking about his pornography collection. He assembles nude images of women, not only to relieve horniness, but also as a kind of pursuit of aesthetics. Pictures of nude super-models are some of the most beautiful things a (straight) man can see. He brings this up in order to talk about how he then at some point started exploring watching these pictures on 5-MeO-DMT. Recollecting this brings him to tears because of how beautiful the experiences were. He states “you’ve never really seen porn until you’ve seen it on 5-MeO-DMT.” He claims that he started to feel that this way he really felt that it is you (God) that is beautiful, which is manifested through those pictures.
A robust finding in the psychology of sexual attraction is that symmetry in faces is correlated with attractiveness. Indeed, more regular faces tend to be perceived as more beautiful. Amazingly, you can play with this effect by decorating someone’s face with face-paint. The more symmetrical the pattern, the more beautiful the face looks (and vice-versa). Arguably, the effect Leo is describing where people who are already beautiful become unbelievably pretty on 5-MeO-DMT involves embedding high-dimensional symmetries into the way you render them in your world-simulation. A lesser, and perhaps more reliable, version of this effect happens when you look at people on MDMA. They look way more attractive than what they look like sober.
Leo then brings up (~41:30) that he started to take 5-MeO-DMT on warm baths as well, which he reassures us is not as dangerous as it sounds (not enough water to drown if he experiences a whiteout). [It’s important to mention that people have died by taking ketamine on bath tubs; although a different drug, it is arguably still extremely dangerous to take 5-MeO-DMT alone on a bathtub; don’t do it]. He then has an incredible awakening surrendering to God consciousness in the bathtub, on 5-MeO-DMT, jerking off to beautiful women in the screen of his laptop. He gets a profound insight into the very “nature of desire”. He explains that it is very difficult to recognize the true nature of desire while on a normal level of consciousness because our desires are biased and fragmented. When “your consciousness becomes infinite” those biases dissolve, and you experience desire in its pure form. Which according to his direct experience turned out to be “desire for God, desire for myself”. And this is because you are, deep down “infinite love”. When you desire a husband, or sex, or whatever, you are really desiring God in disguise. But the problem is that since your path to God is constrained by the form you desire, your connection to God is not stable. But once you have this experience of complete understanding of what desire is, you finally get your desire fully quenched by experiencing God’s love.
This is a very deep point. It is related to what I’ve sometimes called the “most important philosophical question“, which is: is valence a spiritual phenomenon or spirituality a valence phenomenon? In other words, do we find experiences of God blissful because they have harmony and symmetry, or perhaps is it the other way around, where even the most trivial of pleasures, like drinking a good smoothy, feels good because it temporarily “gets you closer to God”? I lean towards the former, and that in fact mystical experiences are so beautiful because they are indeed extremely harmonious and resonant states of consciousness, and not because they take you closer to God. But I know very smart people who can’t decide between these views. For example, my friend Stuart Garvagh writes:
What if the two options are indistinguishable? Suppose valence is a measure of the harmony/symmetry of the object of consciousness, and the experience of “Oneness” or Cosmic Consciousness is equivalent to having the object of consciousness be all of creation (God‘s object), a highly symmetrical, full-spectrum object (full of bliss, light, love, beingness, all-knowledge, empty of discernible content or information). All objects of consciousness are distortions (or refractions, or something) of this one object. Happiness is equivalent to reducing or “polishing-out” these distortions. Thus, what appears to be just the fact of certain states being more pleasant than others is equivalent to certain states being closer to God‘s creation as a whole. Obviously this is all pure speculation and just a story to illustrate a point, but I could see it being very tough to tease apart the truth-value of 1 and 2. Note: I’m fairly agnostic myself, but lean towards 2 (bliss is the perfume of “God realizing God” or the subject of experience knowing Itself). I would very much love to have this question answered convincingly!
At 50:00 Leo says that “everything I’ve described so far is really a prelude to the real heart of awakening, which is the discovery of love. […] I had already awakened to love a number of times, but this was deeper. By the two week mark the love really started to crack open. Infinite self-love. You are drowning on this love.” He goes on to describe how at this point he was developing a form of telepathy that allowed him to communicate with God directly (which is, of course, a way of talking to himself as he is God already). It’s just a helpful way to further develop. And what God was showing him was how to receive self-love. It was so much at first he couldn’t handle it. And so he went through a self-purification process.
An interesting lens with which to interpret this experience of purification is that of neural annealing. Each 5-MeO-DMT experience would be making Leo’s nervous system resonate in ways in new ways, slowly writing over previous patterns and entraining the characteristic high-symmetry patterns of the state. Over time, the nervous system adjusts its weights in order to be able to handle that resonance without getting its patterns over-written. In other words, Leo has been transforming his nervous system into a kind of high-valence machine, which is of course very beneficial for intrinsic feelings of wellbeing (though perhaps detrimental to one’s epistemology).
55:00: He points out that unlike addictive drugs, he actually had to push himself very hard to continue to take 5-MeO-DMT everyday for 30 days. He stopped wanting to do it. The ego didn’t want it. And yes, it was pleasurable once he surrendered on every session, but it was difficult, heavy spiritual work. He says that he could only really do this because of years of practice with and without psychedelics, intense meditation, and a lot of personal development. And because of this, he explains his 5-MeO experiences felt like “years of spiritual work condensed into a single hour.” He then says that God will never judge you, and will help you to accept whatever terrible things you’ve done. And many of his subsequent trips were centered around self-acceptance.
Following the path of progressive neural annealing, going deeper and deeper into a state of self-acceptance can be understood as a deeper harmonization of your nervous system with itself.
At 1:01:20, Leo claims to have figured out what the purpose of reality truly is: “Reality is a contest for who can love who more. That’s really what life is about when you are fully conscious. […] Consciousness is a race for who can love who more. […] An intelligent fully conscious consciousness would only be interested in love. It wouldn’t be interested in anything else. Because everything else is inferior. […] Everything else is just utter silliness!”
I tend to agree with this, though perhaps not in an agentive way. As David Pearce says: “the pleasure-pain axis discloses the universe’s intrinsic value function.” So when you’ve annealed extremely harmonious patterns and do not get distracted by negative emotion, naturally, all there is left to do is maximize love. Unless we mess up, this is the only good final destiny for the cosmos (albeit perhaps it might take the form of a Hedonium shockwave, which at least in our current human form, sound utterly unappealing to most people).
1:06:10 “[God’s love] sparks you to also want to love it back. You see, it turns into a reciprocal reaction, where it is like two mirrors that are mirroring light between each other like a laser beam that is bouncing between two mirrors. And it’s bouncing back and forth and back and forth. And as it bounces back and forth it becomes more and more concentrated. And it strengthens. And it becomes more coherent. And so that’s what started happening. At first it started out as just a little game. Like ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. A little game. It sounds like it’s almost like childish. And it sort of was. But then it morphed from being this childish thing, into being this serious existential business. This turned into the work. This was the true awakening. Is that with the two mirrors, you know, first it took a little while to get the two mirrors aligned. Because you know if the two mirrors are not perfectly aligned, the laser beam will kind of bounce back and forth in different directions. It’s not going to really concentrate. So that was happening at first. […] The love started bouncing back and forth between us, and getting stronger and stronger. […] Each time it bounces back to me it transforms me. It opens me up deeper. And as it opens me up deeper it reveals blockages and obstacles to my capacity to love.”
Misaligned mirrors letting energy fly away
Aligned mirrors concentrating coherent energy
Now this is a fascinating account. And while Leo interprets it in a completely mystical way, the description also fits very well an annealing process where the nervous system gets more and more fine-tuned in order to be able to contain high levels of coherent energy via symmetry. Again, this would be extremely high-valence as a consequence of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Notice that we’ve talked about this phenomenon of “infinite mirrors” on psychedelics since 2016 (see: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States).
At ~1:09:30 he starts discussing that at this point he was confronted by God about whether he was willing to love the holocaust, and rape, and murder, and bullies, and people of all sorts, even devil worshipers.
Two important points here. First, it is a bit ambiguous whether Leo here is using the word “love” in the sense of “enjoyment” or in the sense of “loving-kindness and compassion”. The former would be disturbing while the latter would be admirable. I suppose he was talking about the latter, in which case “loving rape” would refer to “being able to accept and forgive those who rape” which indeed sounds very Godly. This radical move is explored in metta (loving-kindness) meditation and it seems healthy on the whole. And second: Why? Why go through the trouble of embracing all the evil and repulsive aspects of ourselves? One interpretation here, coming back to the analysis based on neural annealing, is that any little kink or imperfection caused by negative emotion in our nervous system will create slight symmetry breaking effects on the resonance of the entire system as whole. So after you’ve “polished and aligned the mirrors for long enough” the tiny imperfections become the next natural blockage to overcome in order to maximize the preservation of coherent energy via symmetry.
~1:12:00 Leo explains that the hardest thing to love is your own self-hatred. In the bouncing off of the love between you and God, with each bounce, you find that the parts you hate about yourself reflect an imperfect love. But God loves all of you including your self-hatred. So he pings you about that. And once you can accept it, that’s what truly changes you. “Because when you feel that love, and you feel how accepting it is, and how forgiving it is of all of your evil and of all of your sins… that’s the thing that kills you, that transforms you. That’s what breaks your heart, wide open. That’s what gets you to surrender. That’s what humbles you. That’s what heals you.” Leo then explains that he discovered what “healing is”. And it is “truth and love”. That in order to heal anyone, you need to love them and accept them. Not via sappy postcards and white lies but by truth. He also states that all physical, mental, and spiritual ailments have, at their root, lack of love.
If love is one of the cleanest expressions of high-valence symmetry and resonance, we can certainly expect that inundating a nervous system with it will smooth and clean its blockages, i.e. the sources of neural dissonance. Hence the incredible power of MDMA on healing nervous systems in the short-term. Indeed, positive emotion is itself healing and enhances neural coherence. But where I think this view is incomplete is in diagnosing the terrible suffering that goes on in the world in terms of a lack of love. For instance, are cluster headaches really just the result of lack of self-love? In here must bring back the background assumption of physicalism and make a firm statement that if we fall into illusion about the nature of reality we risk not saving people (and sentient beings more generally) who are really in the depth of Hell. Just loving them without taking the causally-relevant physical action to prevent their suffering is, in my opinion, not true love. Hence the importance of maintaining a high level of epistemic rigor: for the sake of others. (See: Hell Must Be Destroyed).
1:22:30 Leo explains that in this “love contest” with God of bouncing off love through parallel mirrors the love became so deep that for the first time in his life he felt the need to apologize: “I’m sorry for not loving more.” He goes into a sermon about how we are petty, and selfish, etc. and how God loves us anyway. “Real love means: I really love you as you are. And I don’t need anything from you. And especially all those things that you think I want you to change about you, I don’t need you to change. I can accept them all exactly as they are. Because that’s love. And when you realize THAT, that’s what transforms you. It is not that God says that he loves you. He is demonstrating it. It’s the demonstration that transforms you.” Leo expresses that he was then for the first time in his life able to say “thank you” sincerely. Specifically, “thank you for your love”: “This is the point at which you’ve really been touched by God’s love. And at this point you realize that that’s it, that’s the point, that’s the lesson in life. That’s my only job. It’s to love.” And finally, that for the first time in his life he was able to say “I love you” and truly mean it. “And you fall in love with God… but it doesn’t end there.”
An interesting interpretation of the felt-sense of “truly meaning” words like “I’m sorry”, “thank you”, and “I love you” is that at this point Leo has really deeply annealed his nervous system into a vessel for coherent energy. In other words, at this point he is saying and meaning those words through the whole of his nervous system, rather than them coming from a fragmented region of a complex set of competing internal family systems in a scattered way. Which is, of course, the way it usually goes.
1:35:30 Leo explains that at this point he started going into the stage of being able to radiate love. That he was unable to radiate love before. “I love that you are not capable of love. I love that. And when that hits you, that’s what fills you with enough love to overcome your resistance to love that next level thing that you couldn’t love.” Then at ~ 1:38:00 it gets really serious. Leo explains that so far he was just loving and accepting past events and people. But he was then asked by God whether he would be willing to live through the worst things that have happened and will happen. To incarnate and be tortured, among many other horrible things. And that’s what true love really means. “When you see a murder on the TV, you have to realize that God lived through that. And the only reason he lived through that is because it loved it.”
I do not understand this. Here is where the distinction between the two kinds of senses of the word “love” become very important. I worry that Leo has annealed to the version of love with the meaning of “enjoyment” rather than “loving-kindness and compassion”. Because a loving God would be happy to take the place of someone who went through Hell. But would a loving God send himself to Hell if nobody had to in the first place? That would just create suffering out of nothing. So I am confused about why Leo would believe this to be the case. It’s quite possible that there are many maxima of symmetry in the nervous system you can achieve with 5-MeO-DMT, and some of them are loving in the sense of compassionate and others are crazy and would be willing to create suffering out of nothing from a misguided understanding of what love is supposed to be. Again, handle Plutonium with caution.
1:43:00 Leo started wondering “what is reality then?” And the answer was: “It’s infinite consciousness. Infinite formless consciousness. So what happens was that my mind in my visual field as I was in that bathtub. My mind and my visual field focused in on empty space, and I sort of zoomed into that empty space and realized that that empty space is just love”. He then describes a process where his consciousness became more and more concentrated and absorbed into space, each dot of consciousness branching out into more and more dots of consciousness, turning into the brightest possible white light. But when he inquired into what was that white light he kept seeing that there was no end to it, and rather, that each point was always connected to more points. Inquiring further, he would get the response that at the core, reality is pure love. That it wouldn’t be and couldn’t be any other way.
The description sounds remarkably close to the formless jhanas such as “boundless space” and “boundless consciousness”. The description itself is extremely reminiscent of an annealing process, reaching a highly energized state of consciousness nearly devoid of information content and nearly perfectly symmetrical. The fact that at this incredibly annealed level he felt so much love supports the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
147:28 – And after Leo realizes that “Of course it is love!” he says that’s when the fear comes: “Because then what you realize is that this is the end. This is the end of your life. You are dead. If you go any further you are dead. Everything will disappear. Your family, your friends, you parents, all of it is completely imaginary. And if you stop imagining it right now, it will all end. If you go any further into this Singularity, you will become pure, formless, infinite, love for ever, loving itself forever. And the entire universe will be destroyed as if it never existed. Complete nothingness. Complete everythingness. You will merge into everyone.”
This sounds like the transition between the 6th and 7th Jhana, i.e. between “boundless consciousness” and “nothingness”. Again, this would be the result of further loss of information via an annealing process, refining the symmetry up to that of a “point”. Interestingly, Mike Johnson in Principia Quallia points out that as symmetry approaches an asymptote of perfection you do get a higher quality of valence but at the cost of reduced consciousness. This might explain why you go from “the brightest possible love” to a feeling of nothingness at this critical transition.
1:48:25: “…You will merge into everyone. Your mother, your father, your children, your spouse, Hitler, terrorists, 9/11, Donald Trump, rape, murder, torture, everything will become pure infinite love, merging completely into itself, there will be no distinction between absolutely anything, and that will be the end. And you will realize what reality is. Infinite consciousness. Love. God. And you will realize that everything in your life from your birth to this point has just been some imaginary story. A dream that was design to lead you to pure absolute infinite love. And you will rest in that love forever. Forever falling in love with yourself. Forever making love to yourself. Forever in infinite union. With every possible object that could ever exist. Pure absolute, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, intelligent, consciousness. Everything that could ever possibly be, is you. And THAT is awakening. When you are this awake, you are dead. And you have no desire for life. There is no physical existence. There is no universe. Nothing remains. Your parents, and your spouse, and your children, they don’t stay back and keep living their lives, enjoying their life without you while your body drops dead. No, no, no, no, no. This is much more serious than that. If you do this. If you become infinite love, you will take everybody with you. There will not be anybody left. You will destroy the entire universe. Every single sentient being will become you. They will have no existence whatsoever. Zero. They will die with you. They will all awaken with you. It’s infinite awakening. It’s completely absolute. There will not be anything left. You will take the entire universe with you. Into pure oneness. THAT’S awakening.”
This is not the first time I hear about this kind of experience. It certainly sounds extraordinarily scary. Though perhaps a negative utilitarian would find it to be the ultimate relief and the best of all possible imaginable outcomes. With the human survival instinct, and quite possibly a body fully aroused with the incredible power of 5-MeO-DMT, this is bound to be one of the most terrifying feelings possible. It’s quite likely that it may be one element of what makes “bad 5-MeO-DMT experiences” so terrifying. But here we must recall that the map is not the territory. And while an annealing process might slowly write over every single facet of one’s model of reality and in turn making them part of a super-cluster of high-dimensional resonance that reflects itself seemingly infinitely, doing this does not entail that you are in fact about to destroy the universe. Though, admittedly, it will surely feel that way. Additionally, I would gather that were it possible to actually end the universe this way, somebody, somewhere, in some reality or another, would have already done so. Remember that if God could be killed, it’d be dead already.
1:52:01: “And I didn’t go there! As you can tell, since I’m still sitting here. I’m not there. I was too afraid to go there. And God was fine with it. It didn’t push me. But that’s not the end of the story! It’s still just the beginning.” He then goes on to explain that a part of him wanted to do it and another part of him didn’t want to. He says it got really loopy and weird; this really shook him. That God was beckoning him to go and be one forever, but he was still ambivalent and needed some time to think about it. He knew it would make no difference, but he still decided to ‘make preparations’ and tell his family and friends that he loves them before moving forward with a final decision to annihilate the universe. By the time he had done that… he had stopped taking 5-MeO-DMT: “The experiences had gotten so profound and so deep… this was roughly the 25th or 27th day of this whole 30 day process. I swore off 5-MeO-DMT and said ‘Ok I’m not doing any more of this shit. It’s enough'”. He explains that by this time the drug was making him feel infinite consciousness when waking up (from sleep) the next day. He felt the Singularity was sucking him into it. It felt both terrifying and irresistible. Every time he would go to sleep it would suck him in really strongly, and he kept resisting it. He would wake up sweaty and in a panic. He was tripping deeper in his sleep than in the bathtub. He couldn’t sleep without this happening, and it kept happening for about 5 days. “I just want to get back to normal. This is getting freaky now.”
I’ve heard this from more than a couple people. That is, that when one does 5-MeO-DMT enough times, and especially within a short enough period of time, the “realizations” start to also happen during sleep in an involuntarily way. One can interpret this as the annealing process of 5-MeO-DMT now latching on to sleep (itself a natural annealing process meant to lessen the technical debt of the nervous system). Even just a couple strong trips can really change what sleep feels like for many days. I can’t imagine just how intense it must have been for Leo after 25 days straight of using this drug.
2:01:40 – Leo explains that when he was dozing off with a blanket on his living room (terrified of sleeping on his bed due to the effect just described) he experienced a “yet deeper awakening” which involved realizing that all of his previous awakenings were just like points and that the new one was like a line connecting many points. “Everything I’ve said up to this point were just a single dimension of awakening. And then what I broke through to is a second dimension. A second dimension of awakening opened up. This second dimension is completely unimaginable, completely indescribable, cannot be talked about, cannot be thought about. And yet it’s there. In it, are things that are completely outside of the physical universe that you cannot conceive or imagine.” He goes on to explain that there are then also a third, fourth, fifth, etc. dimensions. And that he believes there is an infinite number of them. He barely even began to explore the second dimension of awakening, but he realized that it goes forever. It kept happening, he had intense emotional distress and mood swings. But gradually after five more days it subsided, and he started to be able to sleep more normally. “And I’ve been working to make sense of all of this for the last couple of weeks. So that’s what happened.”
Alright, this is out of my depth and I do not have an interpretation of what this “second dimension of awakening” is about. If anyone has any clue, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’m as as confused as Leo is about this.
~2:05:00 – Leo confesses he does not know what would happen if he went through with joining the Singularity and mentions that it sounds a bit like Mahasamādhi. He simply has not answers at this point, but he asserts that the experience has made him question the extent of the enlightenment of other teachers. It also has made him more loving. But still, he feels frustration: “I don’t know what to do from here.”
And neither do I. Do you, dear reader?
Postscript: In the last 10 minutes of the video Leo shares a heart warming message about how reality is, deep down, truly, “just love” and that him saying this may be a seed that will blossom into you finding this out for yourself at some point in the future. He ends by cautioning his audience to not believe as a matter of fact that this is the path for everyone. He suggests that others should just use his examples from his own journey as examples rather than an absolute guide or how-to for enlightenment. He asks his audience to make sure to question the depth of their own awakening – to not believe that they have reached the ultimate level. He admits he has no idea whether there is an ultimate level or not, and that he still has some healing to do on himself. He remains dissatisfied with his understanding of reality.
Even with the benefit of enormous hindsight, it is hard to introduce complex numbers in a compelling manner. Historically, we have seen how cubic equations forced them upon us algebraically, and in discussing Cotes’ work we saw something of the inevitability of their geometric interpretation. In this section we will attempt to show how complex numbers arise very naturally, almost inevitably, from a careful re-examination of plane Euclidean geometry.
Although the ancient Greeks made many beautiful and remarkable discoveries in geometry, it was two thousand years later that Felix Klein first asked and answered the question, “What is geometry?”
Let us restrict ourselves from the outset to plane geometry. One might begin by saying that this is the study of geometric properties of geometric figures in the plane, but what are (i) “geometric properties”, and (ii) “geometric figures”? We will concentrate on (i), swiftly passing over (ii) by interpreting “geometric figure” as anything we might choose to draw on an infinitely large piece of flat paper with an infinitely fine pen.
As for (i), we begin by noting that if two figures (e.g., two triangles), have the same geometric properties, then (from the point of view of geometry) they must be the “same”, “equal”, or, as one usually says, congruent. Thus if we had a clear definition of congruence (“geometric equality”) then we could reverse this observation and define geometric properties as those properties that are common to all congruent figures. How, then, can we tell if two figures are geometrically equal?
Consider the triangles in [fig 23], and imagine that they are pieces of paper you could pick up in your hand. To see if T is congruent with T’, you could pick up T and check whether it could be placed on top of T’. Note that it is essential that we be allowed to move T in space: in order to place T on top of T˜ we must first flip it over; we can’t just slide T around within the plane. Tentatively generalizing, this suggests that a figure F is congruent to another figure F’ if there exists a motion of F through space that makes it coincide with F’. Note that the discussion suggests that there are two fundamentally different types of motion: those that involve flipping the figure over, and those that do no. Later, we shall return to this important point.
It is clearly somewhat unsatisfactory that in attempting to define geometry in the plane we have appealed to the idea of motion through space. We now rectify this. Returning to [fig 23], imagine that T and T’ are drawn on separate, transparent sheets of plastic. Instead of picking up just the triangle T, we now pick up the entire sheet on which it is drawn, then try to place it on the second sheet so as to make T coincide with T’. At the end of this motion, each point A on T‘s sheet lies over a point A’ of T’‘s sheet, and we can now define the motion M to be this mapping A → A’ = M(A) of the plane to itself.
However, not any old mapping qualifies as a motion, for we must also capture the (previously implicit) idea of the sheet remaining rigid while it moves, so that distances between points remain constant during the motion. Here, then, is our definition:
A motion M is a mapping of the plane to itself such that the distance between any two points A and B is equal to the distance between their images A’ = M(A) and B’ = M(B). (22)
Note that what we have called a motion is often termed a “rigid motion”, or an “isometry”.
Armed with this precise concept of motion, our final definition of geometric equality becomes:
F is congruent to F’, written F ≅ F’, if there exists a motion M such that F’ = M(F). (23)
Next, as a consequence of our earlier discussion, a geometric property of a figure is one that is unaltered by all possible motions of the figure. Finally, in answer to the opening question of “What is geometry?”, Klein would answer that it is the study of these so-called invariants of the set of motions.
One of the most remarkable discoveries of the last century was that Euclidean geometry is not the only possible geometry. Two of these so-called non-Euclidean geometries will be studied in Chapter 6, but for the moment we wish only to explain how Klein was able to generalize the above ideas so as to embrace such new geometries.
The aim in (23) was to use a family of transformations to introduce the concept of geometric equality. But will this ≅-type of equality behave in the way we would like and expect? To answer this we must first make these expectations explicit. So as not to confuse this general discussion with the particular concept of congruence in (23), let us denote geometric equality by ~.
(i) A figure should equal itself: F ~ F’, for all F.
(ii) If F equals F’, then F’ should equal F: F ~ F’ ⇒ F’ ~ F.
(iii) If F and F’ are equal, and F’ and F” are equal, then F and F” should also be equal: F ~ F’ & F’ ~ F” ⇒ F ~ F”.
Any relation satisfying these expectations is called an equivalence relation.
Now suppose that we retain the definition (23) of geometric equality, but that we generalize the definition of “motion” given in (22) by replacing the family of distance-preserving transformations with some other family G of transformations.
It should be clear that not any old G will be compatible with our aim of defining geometric equality. Indeed, (i), (ii), and (iii) imply that G must have the following very special structure, which is illustrated in [fig 24].
(i) The family G must contain a transformation ε (called identity) that maps each point to itself.
(ii) If G contains a transformation M, then it must also contain a transformation M-1 (called the inverse) that undoes M. [Check for yourself that for M-1 to exist (let alone be a member of G) M must have the special properties of being (a) onto and (b) one-to-one, i.e., (a) every point must be the image of some point, and (b) distinct points must have distinct images.]
(iii) If M and N are members of G then so is the composite transformation N ∘ M = (M followed by N). This property of G is called closure.
We have thus arrived, very naturally, at a concept of fundamental importance in the whole of mathematics: a family G of transformations that satisfies these three requirements is called a group.
Let us check that the motions defined in (22) do indeed form a group: (i) Since the identity transformation preserves distances, it is a motion. (ii) Provided it exists, the inverse of a motion will preserve distances and hence will be a motion itself. As for existence, (a) it is certainly plausible that when we apply a motion to the entire plane then the image is the entire plane — we will prove this later — and (b) the non-zero distance between distinct points is preserved by a motion, so their images are again distinct. (iii) If two transformations do not alter distances, then applying them in succession will not alter distances either, so the composition of two motions is another motion.
Klein’s idea was that we could first select a group G at will, then define a corresponding “geometry” as the study of the invariants of that G. [Klein first announced this idea in 1872 — when he was 23 years old! — at the University of Erlangen, and it has thus come to be known as his Erlangen Program.] For example, if we choose G to be the group of motions, we recover the familiar Euclidean geometry of the plane. But this is far from being the only geometry of the plane, as the so-called projective geometry of [fig 24] illustrates.
Klein’s vision of geometry was broader still. We have been concerned with what geometries are possible when figures are drawn anywhere in the plane, but suppose for example that we are only allowed to draw within some disc D. It should be clear that we can construct “geometries of D” in exactly the same way that we constructed geometries of the plane: given a group H of transformations of D to itself, the corresponding geometry is the study of the invariants of H. If you doubt that any such group exists, consider the set of all rotations around the center of D.
The reader may well feel that the above discussion is a chronic case of mathematical generalization running amuck — that the resulting conception of geometry is (to coin a phrase) “as subtle as it is useless”. Nothing could be further from the truth! In Chapter 3 we shall be led, very naturally, to consider a particularly interesting group of transformations of a disc to itself. The resulting non-Euclidean geometry is called hyperbolic or Lobachevskian geometry, and it is the subject of Chapter 6. Far from being useless, this geometry has proved to be an immensely powerful tool in diverse areas of mathematics, and the insights it continues to provide lie on the cutting edge of contemporary research.
 The excellent book by Nikulin and Shafarevich  is the only other work we know of in which a similar attempt is made.
 Here G is the group of projections. If we do a perspective drawing of figures in the plane, then the mapping from the plane to the “canvas” plane is called a perspectivity. A projection is then defined to be any sequence of perspectivities. Can you see why the set of projections should form a group?
 In more abstract settings it is necessary to add a fourth requirement of associativity, namely, A∘ (B∘ C) = (A∘ B)∘ C. Of course for transformations this is automatically true.
Note: QRI‘s Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) refers to the claim that valence (the pleasure-pain axis) manifests in the symmetry of the mathematical object that corresponds to each experience such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the phenomenal character of that experience. Using the lens of Klein’s conception of geometry, one could in turn give to STV a strictly geometrical interpretation. Namely, that the shape of one’s experience will be of high valence when it contains geometric invariants. In addition, Noether’s theorem (one of QRI’s lineages, which states that “every differentiable symmetry of the action of a physical system has a corresponding conservation law”) along with physicalismof consciousness suggests that for every symmetry in the mathematical object that corresponds to consciousness there is a corresponding preserved quantity. Thus, one could posit– assuming that the STV is correct– high-valence states might be extremely energy-efficient in addition to feeling good.
We are currently preparing a paper that ties all of these threads together in a way that, we believe, may turn out to have tremendous explanatory power. In particular, this formal account of valence will be able to explain succinctly a wide range of disparate and exotic empirical phenomena such as:
Why phenomenal symmetry during psychedelic experiences is correlated with more extreme valence values.
How and why Jhanas present the way they do, namely, as having:
QRI‘s co-founder Michael E. Johnson just posted a piece on neural annealing. This is one of QRI’s most important pieces of content to date. I’m very proud of Mike and the team for pulling this off. You can find the full piece here.
This is QRI’s unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, depression, trauma, and emotional processing; the most challenging (and I think beautiful) thing I’ve written in the last three years. I would really appreciate careful comments.
A few takeaways:
Entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This is similar to ‘annealing’ in metals, where heat allows atoms to break their bonds, then they search for more stable configurations as they cool.
Brains really do need to anneal regularly to pay down their ‘technical debt’, and if they don’t, they grow brittle and neurotic.
Meditation, music, psychedelics, exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work all share the same mechanism: a build-up of rhythmic neural resonance that can push the brain into these high-energy states which produce annealing.
Depression is a self-reinforcing perturbation from the natural annealing cycle.
Sometimes the brain needs to rapidly halt information propagation across regions to prevent cascading system failure … we call this ‘trauma’. This is a common and serious disruption of the annealing cycle.
The core psychological changes driven by psychedelics are best understood in terms of the amount and ‘statistical flavor’ of the energy (rhythmic firing) they add to the brain. Different psychedelics will ‘anneal’ different things.
Young brains (and lifelong learners) might not only be more plastic than average, but actually having experience that is objectively more visceral.
A unified theory of emotional updating, depression, trauma, meditation, and psychedelics may give us the tools to build a future that’s substantially better than the present.
(A unification of Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s REBUS annealing model, with Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves paradigm.)
The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.
Below you will find models 7 and 8, which conclude this series of posts. (See previous models: 1 & 2, 3 & 4, and 5 & 6).
7. Valence Modulation
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 a plenty 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.
– Letter From Utopia by Nick Bostrom
Photo by Andrés Silva (aka. El Capitán). Claudia Silva (in the picture).
We are now approaching the point at which we will finally start cooking with peanut oil, so to speak. We will finally start thinking about how to build extremely good art from first principles. The ‘Art as Valence Modulation’ model builds on top of the previous model where art involves messing with the brain’s energy parameter. To explain this model we need to introduce two additional concepts:
Neural annealing is a concept we developed at QRI to extend the entropic disintegration framework. Namely, the most beneficial use of ‘energy’ is to direct it towards the brain’s natural harmonics in order to carve out the presence of a naturally blissful state in everyday life. This process works on a progression that goes like this:
Together with neural annealing, STV provides an answer for why we experience intensely rewarding states of consciousness from art. Here is where some of the theories that we have been working on come into play. In particular, we hypothesize that when highly-energized states of consciousness follow an adequate cooling schedule, they can give rise to highly ordered states that are experienced as very pleasant and which can carve good attractor states into the brain in the long term. Making an analogy with metallurgy, with annealing, you can increase the regularity of the microscopic structure of metal by heating it above the recrystallization temperature and letting it cool. This results in changed material properties (such as reduced hardness and increased ductility). We hypothesize that something along these lines also takes place in brains. Neural annealing facilitates solving complex constraint satisfaction problems at the perceptual, emotional, and conceptual level. The higher energy enables quick search between possible configurations that satisfy as many constraints as possible (over- stepping the local maxima we are usually stuck within normal energy ranges), while the cooling process solidifies the best constraint satisfaction solutions. Critically, here the STV comes into play by proposing that the more regular the resulting neural structures are, the better they feel. Annealing smooths out inconsistencies and irregularities, which according to the STV are key sources of discomfort. Symmetry, in the form of smoothness and harmony, is why the process of annealing leaves you feeling great.
Very high-valence annealed states of mind feel cosmic and profound in significance. Images by Adrián Regnier Chávez
In this light, art with lasting desirable mood effects does not only need to increase the energy parameter, but it also needs to know how to lower it at the right schedule in order to leave people annealed to a given desirable mindset. A lot of art that successfully raises the energy parameter nonetheless does not succeed in the ecosystem of human attention, because it does not let people cool off in the right way. More so, an excessively competitive memetic landscape that incentivizes maximum surprise tends to train people to experience too much fear of missing out to let them adequately consume art at the pace needed to leave you better off emotionally. There is genuine wisdom in going to museums with one’s smartphone turned off.
Where do we draw the line between healthy recreation and distraction? Some might say that art in the form of pictures is fine, but audiovisual is too much. Some may be fine with movies but not with VR. Others would be ok with videogames but perhaps not with drugs. Others perhaps would be ok with drugs but not with genetic modification of neuronal gene expression. Some would be ok with that but not with neural dust rewiring, and so on. The format, we would argue, is not what matters. But rather, what the annealing pattern is, which is actually what makes the effects of art stick in the long run (or not).
Image by Joseph Matthias Young. It makes me think of the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic.
This way of seeing art is highly generative. It gives us a research lead for how to construct new grandiose and highly-effective art. More so, the model can itself be developed as an aesthetic of its own. Perhaps we could call it the aesthetic of the meta-aesthetic. That is, an aesthetic that rewards distilling the essential reason why any aesthetic can feel good and meaningful. In the future, we might expect to see in stores “Hedonium Magazine” – which catalogues all of the peak-valence states that can be achieved with any method whatsoever, and sees the craft of perfecting neural annealing as itself the highest form of art. Here we transcend the post-modern ethos of giving each aesthetic its place in the garden of paradoxes. Yes, give each aesthetic its place, but do not let that prevent you from building a meta- narrative that ties together and clarifies the value-add of each aesthetic. No aesthetic is above being examined in terms of how it achieves neural annealing in those who consume it.
In turn, this model gives us a new understanding of what an “aesthetic” even is. According to it, an aesthetic is a system for long-term neural annealing. A one-off weird art piece might give rise to annealing and solidify random structures in your brain. An aesthetic is more than that. It is a collection of generator seeds for art pieces that give rise to a coherent form of neural annealing that is reinforced with each piece, no matter how different they may seem from one another on the surface.
A further property of neural annealing is that it is what enables you to fully experience a self-consistent worldview as if true. This bridges the gap between meaning and pleasure, and is at the core of the connection between valence and the experience of sacredness we discussed in model 4. According to model 7, sacred experiences are the result of driving the energy parameter of the brain above the recrystallization threshold and then having it cool down as it reorganizes the elements of a given target ontology and worldview. The result is an annealed mental state optimized to represent that worldview. The sense of global consistency makes the worldview feel good and true, almost as if you were able to smell truth with it. This model would say, thus, that the core mechanism behind every kind of sacred experience is the same. Which emotions, ontologies, and worldviews get annealed is what is different depending on set, setting, and aesthetic (i.e. how the energy sources and sinks were modified). But deep down, it is successful annealing that makes sacred experiences feel so compelling and good.
8. Affective Language: Harmonic Society
An idealised full-spectrum superintelligence will indeed be capable of an impartial “view from nowhere” or God’s-eye-view of the multiverse, a mathematically complete Theory Of Everything – as does modern theoretical physics, in aspiration if not achievement. But in virtue of its God’s-eye-view, full-spectrum superintelligence must also be hypersocial and supersentient: able to understand all possible first-person perspectives, the state-space of all possible minds in other Hubble volumes, other branches of the universal wavefunction (UWF) – and in other solar systems and galaxies if such beings exist within our cosmological horizon. Idealized at least, full-spectrum superintelligence will be able to understand and weigh the significance of all possible modes of experience irrespective of whether they have hitherto been recruited for information-signalling purposes.
– David Pearce, in The Biointelligence Explosion (2012)
If we succeed at developing a science of art built on top of a modern science of consciousness, what should we do with it? What would the art of a wise post-scarcity and post-suffering society look like? As far I can tell, Utopia consists of both having the system in place to keep the lights on, while being able to use the surplus energy to power blissful experiences beyond the bounds of our current conceptions.
Harmonic Society by ALGE
The vision of Harmonic Society is that of a particular type of post-suffering utopia that resolves to optimize for good art. Referencing the models of art we’ve built upon so far: Harmonic Society (1) knows there are stakes in art and hence sidesteps the traps of semantic deflation, (2) avoids runaway signaling and Cool Kid gridlock, (3) utilizes Hipsters to explore promising new frontiers, (4) has mastery over a diverse range of conceptions of the sacred, (5) systematically explores the state-space of consciousness, (6) has a scientific and precise understanding of the energy parameter of experience, and (7) has deep knowledge of how to induce arbitrary types of neural annealing. In addition to all of this, Harmonic Society has (8) a map of all high-level aesthetics, knows what they are useful for, and can instantiate them at will.
In Harmonic Society there is always a way to smoothly transition between seemingly irreconcilable aesthetics. It deeply understands the pros and cons of different aesthetics and knows how to apply them optimally both for instrumental purposes and hedonic value.
Image by Michael Aaron Coleman
Nowadays a lot of people who could benefit from, e.g. going to art festivals, taking acid, subpack cuddle parties, participating in plays (i.e. exposing themselves to high-end aesthetic experiences), find it hard to do so, because it is difficult to get back to work once the weekend is over after experiencing incredible bliss. A rough solution to avoid residual incompatibility between the state you annealed over on the weekend with the mindset you need today for work would be to develop a mood organ that instantly puts you into any mindset you want. But perhaps a more elegant solution is to have such an advanced and detailed map of the state-space of mindsets that smooth, painless, and synergistic transitory states between arbitrary modes of being are discovered.
Thus, one could one minute be on a 5-MeO-DMT-type white light conscious void ultra-blissful state, the next minute be on a perfectly functional MDMA-like state useful for socializing, the minute after moving to a highly-focused nootropic-like systematizing state, and so on. The aesthetic to foster here is a meta-aesthetic of avoiding sharp discontinuities between mindsets, and allowing you to transition between all known awesome aesthetics. In Harmonic Society the entire state-space of consciousness is your oyster.
A further thought about Harmonic Society is that a sufficiently advanced understanding of aesthetic experience might even revolutionize our understanding of identity.
For instance, a non-trivial sense of personal diachronic identity could arise if everyone
starts to identify with e.g. a different person-specific song. If we truly understood how
valence works and we had full access to our neurocircuitry, we could in a way embody a
given work of art and interact with others in a way that is consistent with the artistic
degrees of freedom our identity allows. This way, people’s interactions could perhaps be guaranteed to be positive. The combinatorial space of possible back-and-forth interactions does not need to be small, since high-energy allows for incredibly varied states. But nonetheless we could get to a point of understanding how valence works such that we could provably demonstrate that two persons with the right neural implementations will always have positive-sum interactions no matter what.
Identity in Harmonic Society: The aesthetic of understanding the valence of every possible state of consciousness and how to translate what matters between them. (Picture: Symbol of Open, Empty, Closed Individualism from Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029, Continuity Camp)
As the guiding premise of this essay we started out assuming that there are real and substantial stakes in art. It sure is all fun and games to think that anything goes in art until your landscape of cultural meaning is polluted with replicator strategies and attention-zapping exploits that lead to long-term neuropsychological problems and anneal false and neurotic metaphysics. Understanding art matters.
I would make the claim that a new science of valence, i.e. a new science of pleasure, pain, love, hate, and indeed transcendent bliss, can be a new rallying flag for cultural value. Rather than the messy consilience patchwork between different aesthetics we have today, we might in the future indeed find a true and real grounding for the meaning of beauty and bliss. Contrary to the conservative spirit often associated with calls to reinvigorate an objective sense of beauty, here we arrive at a theory of art that would very well appreciate experiences as outlandish as DMT breakthroughs. This theory of art appreciates such states not “just as much” as fine art, but indeed as far more valuable and implicated in what matters than most of everyday life. For art, meditation, psychedelics, and philosophy all share the fact that they are messing with the energy parameter of experience in powerful ways that can be used to achieve much better and globally-consistent brain states. Understanding that the effects of art can be very strong and life-changing is one thing, but knowing the mechanism of action behind those changes comes with entirely new possibilities and responsibilities. We invite you to consider what this entails, and to join us in envisioning a future Harmonic Society constructed with full knowledge of neural annealing.
 The Penfield Mood Organ is a technology described in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick that allows the user to instantly tune into any of hundreds of possible moods via direct cerebral stimulation. Some example moods include “3. The desire to dial other moods”, “481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future”, “594. Pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters”, and “888. The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”.
Cool Kids: Someone who is well-rounded and uses strategic mediocrity in order to entice people to show their peacock feathers. At its extreme, Cool Kids become the leaders of artistic gangs who corner the marketplace of aesthetic attention.
Hipster: Someone who enjoys art and media that seems too obscure to care about. Typically, the preferred aesthetics of a Hipster are highly detailed and focus on specific favored attributes at the expense of well-roundedness. A Hipster does not only have opinions about what is enjoyable, but also about how to enjoy it and why.
Nerd: Someone who wants to figure out what is true, especially as it applies to technical and formal systems. A philosophy nerd, for instance, compulsively tries to figure out ultimate truth.
Minimax art strategies: A strategy for making art that tries to be the best on a narrow set of attributes while neglecting well-roundedness. This is sometimes adaptive and some- times maladaptive.
L1/L2 normalization: Using mean absolute error (L1) favors minimax strategies vs. using mean squared error (L2) which favors well-rounded strategies.
Special thanks to: Michael Johnson, Romeo Stevens, Liam Brereton, Duncan Wilson, Victor Ochikubo, and David Pearce for their thoughts and feedback.
* The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia
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Martin Ball: Here is what I learned very quickly in working both with 5-MeO-DMT and other medicines during the same time period. First, I noticed this in myself, and then I started looking to see if this was true for other people, and very quickly found that this was true. There is a fundamental distinction: when people go into fully energetically open non-dual states of awareness -and I do qualify it with ‘fully energetically open’ because that is different than, say, a meditative non-dual experience, which I do not qualify as energetically fully open- when someone is energetically fully open and goes into a non-dual state of awareness, what happens is that they always open up with a perfectly mirrored bilateral symmetry, with the left and right sides of the body always mirroring each other. And nothing ever crosses the center line of the body. People move spontaneously or their bodies open up, and their hands may come together, but they come together right here, in the middle along the center line, and then they separate, and then come back together. Then you can see a transition when suddenly someone comes back into the ego. So, they are fully immersed in the experience and their bodies are opened… and then as soon as the ego comes in, there is some kind of break when suddenly the left side of the body is doing something different than the right side of the body.
For people who don’t get all the way to being fully energetically open, you give them a very powerful psychedelic -which again is changing the energetic experience of the body- and you can watch them fight with it, and you will see that there is always some kind of asymmetry taking place in their body language when they are fighting with it. Or if they are still residing in their ego. So I learned very quickly that non-dual states of awareness coincide with balanced bilateral symmetry and the ego almost always functions through some form of energetic asymmetry. Which is perfectly natural! I mean, there is noting wrong with it, I am not trying to criticize it. But for example (I use this example all the time): My glass of water is to my right. Now if I -a subject- become thirsty and I want my water, operating with bilateral symmetry isn’t going to get me my water. My water is over here to the right. So I break into object-subject duality so we can have an interaction between these two different parts of the self. So working with psychedelics for the intention of achieving… not only achieving, but also working out the distortions of the ego, means paying attention to how either symmetries or asymmetries show up within the body.
So this is the challenge that I give people: Take some 5-MeO-DMT, and see how long you can stay perfectly symmetrical within your body. Now, some people can ride it all the way through. And they can do that fairly easily. Many people… I would say the vast majority, can’t. And even those who do, who open up initially and are in this nice bilateral symmetry, you will see, after 10 or 15 minutes, or for some people after 30 seconds, as soon as the ego starts to reintegrate, they start breaking into asymmetries. Now, what can happen is… so the ego itself, and this is also coming out of my own experience, this is not based on anybody else’s model, this is just my own definition of the ego… the ego itself is not a singular thing. It is a collection of patterns of energy. So as we are coming into ourselves, as young beings, what we are doing is learning different -what we perceive as acceptable- ways of engaging our energy.
I had two or three such experiences on my new batch of LSD, taking perhaps 2 or 3 “hits” (tabs) each time (presumed to be about  micrograms, or “mikes” per tab). And each time the experience became somewhat more familiar, and I learned to think more clearly under its influence. In July 1990 I took a trip to Europe with Tim, a colleague from work, because we were both presenting posters at a neural network conference in Paris, and the company where we worked very kindly funded the travel expenses. Tim and I took this opportunity to plan a little excursion around Europe after the conference, visiting Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland touring in a rented car. When we got to Austria we bought a little tent at a camping store, then we hiked up an enormous mountain in the Alps, and spent the day sightseeing at the top. When I told Tim that I happened to have some LSD with me, his eyes lit up. It turns out he too had been a hippy in his youth, and had even attended the original Woodstock, so he immediately warmed to the idea of taking LSD with me on a mountain top, although he had not done psychedelic drugs in over a decade. So there in the most stupendous and idyllic setting of a mountain in the Austrian alps, early the next morning after camping overnight, we consumed five hits of LSD each, and spent the day in profound wonder at the glory of creation!
I made a few new and interesting discoveries on that mountain top in Austria. First of all, I learned to have a great deal more control of the experience in the following manner. I discovered that the effects of LSD become markedly stronger and more pronounced when you sit still and stare, and clear your mind, much like a state of zen meditation, or pre-hypnotic relaxation. When you do this under LSD, the visual world begins to break up and fragment in a most astonishing way. You tend to lose all sense of self, that is, you lose the distinction between self and non-self. This can be a very alarming experience for those who are prone to panic or anxiety, or for those who insist on maintaining a level of control and awareness of themselves and the world around them. But I also discovered that this mental dissociation and visual confusion can be diminished, and normal consciousness can be largely restored by simply looking around, moving about, and interacting actively with the world around you. Because when you do this, suddenly the world appears as a solid and stable structure again, and your familiar body reappears where it belongs at the center of your world of experience. This discovery greatly enhanced my ability to explore the deeper spaces of consciousness revealed by the drug, while providing an insurance against the natural panic that tends to arise with the dissolusion of the self, and the world around you. It allowed me to descend into the depths of the experience while maintaining a life line back to consensual reality, like a spelunker descending into the bowels of the deep underground cavern of my mind, while always able to return safely to the surface. And what a splendid and magnificent cavern it was that I discovered within my mind!
One of the most prominent aspects of consciousness that has puzzled philosophers and psychologists for centuries is the unity of conscious experience. We feel that we live in a world that surrounds our body, and that world appears as a single “picture” or volumetric spatial structure, like a theatre set, every piece of which takes its proper place in the panorama of surrounding experience. It has always been somewhat difficult to grasp this notion of conscious unity, because it is difficult to even conceptualize the alternative. What would consciousness be like if it were not unified? What does that even mean? Under LSD you can discover what non-unified consciousness is like for yourself, and that in turn by contrast offers profound insights as to the nature and meaning of unified consciousness. Again, the most interesting revelations of the psychedelic experience are not confined to that experience itself, but they reveal insights into the nature of normal conscious experience that might otherwise be missed due to its familiarity. In fact, I realized much later, even normal consciousness has aspects which are not unified.
The most familiar example of non-unified consciousness is seen in binocular vision. Under normal conditions the two eyes view the same scene and produce a three-dimensional “picture” in the mind that is a unified construction based on the information from both eyes simultaneously. But everyone knows the experience of double vision. For those with greater control over their own visual function, double vision is easily achieved by simply staring into space and relaxing the eyes. As a vision scientist myself, I have trained myself to do this so as to be able to “free fuse” a binocular pair of left-eye, right-eye images to create the perception of a 3D scene. For those who have difficulty with this, a similar experience can be had by holding a small mirror at an angle close in front of one eye, so as to send very different images into the two eyes. Whichever way you do it, the result is rather unremarkable in its familiarity, and yet when you think of it, this is in fact an example of disunity of conscious experience that is familiar to one and all. For what you see in double vision is actually two visual experiences which are seen as if they are superimposed in some manner, and yet at the same time they are also experienced each in its own separate disconnected space. It is generally possible to observe the correspondence between these two disconnected visual experiences, for example to determine which point in one eye view relates to a particular point in the other, as if viewing two slide transparencies that are overlaid on top of one another, although this correspondence is shifting and unstable, as the vergence between your two eyes tends to wander when binocular fusion is broken. But in fact it is more natural to simply ignore that correspondence and to view the two visual experiences as separate and disconnected spaces that bear no significant spatial relation to each other. When the images in our two eyes do not correspond, we tend to focus on one while ignoring the other, like an experienced marksman who no longer has to close his idle eye while aiming a gun. And yet, although the image from the idle eye is generally ignored, it has not left consciousness entirely, and with an effort, or perhaps more accurately, with an absence of effort or focus, it is possible to experience both views simultaneously.
In the trance-like state of yoga-like meditation performed under LSD, the entire visual world breaks up and fragments in this manner into a multitude of disconnected parallel conscious experiences, each one only loosly related spatially to the other experiences in the visual field. The effect is much enhanced by the fact that your eyes actually diverge or relax in this mental state, as they do under binocular fission, and this helps trigger the state of visual confusion as your mind gives up on trying to make sense of what it is seeing. As in Zen meditation, the LSD trance state is a passive or receptive state of consciousness that allots equal attention, or perhaps lack of attention, to all components of experience, which is why they appear in parallel as separate disconnected pieces. The state of normal active consciousness resists this kind of parallel confusion, and tends to select and focus on the the most significant portion, like the marksman aiming a gun, suppressing alternative experiences such as the view from the idle eye.
The deep LSD-induced trance state can be easily broken by simply moving the eyes, so conversely, the deeper states are achieved by complete mental and physical relaxation, with glazed eyes staring blankly into space. But of all the separate fragments of visual experience observed in this mental state, there is one special fragment located at the very center of the visual field, the foveal center, that appears somewhat sharper and clearer than the rest of the visual field. In fact, the visual fragmentation is somewhat like a kind of tunnel vision in which the peripheral portions of the visual field break off and disconnect from this central portion of the experience. But while the peripheral fragments become separated from the whole, they are never entirely and completely independent, but appear to interact with each other, and especially with the central foveal image in characteristic ways. For example if the foveal image shows a couple of blades of grass, twitching and dancing in the wind, then if any of the peripheral fragments of visual experience happen to show a similar image, i.e. blades of grass at a similar angle and twitching and dancing in synchrony with those in the foveal view, then the central and peripheral images become instantly coupled into a larger unified perceptual experience of a global motion sweeping through the image. Instead of a million blades of grass each twitching individually, we perceive the invisible wind as a wave of synchronous motion that sweeps invisibly across the blades of grass. The waves of motion caused by the wind are perceived as waves of energy across the visual field, a perceptual experience of something larger than the individual grass blades that collectively give rise to it. By careful adjustment of my state of relaxation, I found I could relax until the visual world fragmented into a million independent experiences, and I could gently bring it back into focus, as first a few, and then ever more of the fragmented visual experiences coupled together into fewer separate, and eventually a single unified global experience, much like the moment of binocular fusion when the two monocular images finally lock into each other to produce a single binocular experience.
When the visual world was locked into a unified perceptual experience, even then there were instabilities in local portions of the scene. A little detail seen in distant trees appears first as a mounted horseman, then pops abruptly into a hand with three fingers extended, then to a duck on a branch, then back to the mounted horseman, all the while the actual shape and color perceived remain unchanged, it is only the interpretation, or visual understanding of that pattern that switches constantly, as when a child sees mountains and castles in the clouds. One of the many possible interpretations is of a dead tree with leafless branches, (the veridical percept of what was actually there) and that is the only alternative that enters consciouseness under normal circumstances. The effect of LSD is to make the visual system more tolerant of obvious contradictions in the scene, such as a giant horseman frozen in a line of trees. The effect is like those surrealistic Dali paintings, for example the Three Ages of Man, shown in Figure 2.1, where one sees a single coherent scene, local parts of which spontaneously invert into some alternative interpretation. This is very significant for the nature of biological vision, for it shows that vision involves a dynamic relaxation process whose stable states represent the final perceptual interpretation.
There was another interesting observation that I made that day. I noticed that under LSD things appear a little more regular and geometrical than they otherwise do. It is not the shape of things that is different under LSD, but rather the shape of the things we see in objects. For example a cloud is about as irregular and fragmented a shape as a shape can be, and yet we tend to see clouds in a simplified cartoon manner, as a little puff composed of simple convex curves. A real cloud under closer inspection reveals a ragged ugly appearance with very indefinite boundaries and irregular structure. Under LSD the cloud becomes even more regular than usual. I began to see parts of the cloud as regular geometrical shapes, seeing the shapes in the shapes of the cloud as if on a transparent overlay.
Another rather astonishing observation of the LSD experience was that the visual world wavered and wobbled slowly as if the visual scene was painted on an elastic canvas that would stretch over here while shrinking over there, with great waves of expansion and contraction moving slowly across the scene, as if the whole scene was “breathing”, with its component parts in constant motion relative to each other. This was perhaps the most compelling evidence that the world of experience is not the solid stable world that it portrays. Figure 2.2 shows a sketch I made shortly after my alpine mountain adventure to try to express the wavery elasticity and the visual regularity I had observed under LSD. This picture is of course an exaggeration, more of an impression than a depiction of how the experience actually appeared.
The geometrical regularity was particularly prominent in peripheral vision, when attending to the periphery without looking to see what is there. Usually peripheral vision is hardly noticed, giving the impression of a homogeneous visual field, but under LSD the loss of resolution in peripheral vision becomes more readily apparent, especially when holding a fixed and glassy stare. And in that periphery, objects like trees or shrubs appear more regular and geometrical than they do in central vision, like artificial Christmas trees with perfectly regular spacing of brances and twigs. Again, it was not the raw image in the periphery that appeared regular or geometrical, but rather it was the invisible skeleton of visual understanding derived from that raw colored experience that exhibits the more regular features. And suddenly I could see it. This is the way the visual system encodes visual form in a compact or compressed manner, by expressing shape in terms of the next nearest regular geometrical form, or combination of forms. Children draw a tree as a circular blob of leaves on top of a straight vertical trunk, or a pine tree as a green triangle with saw-tooth sides. It is not that we see trees in those simplified forms, but rather that we see those simplified forms in the trees, and the forms that we perceive in these invisible skeletons are the expression of our understanding of the shapes we perceive those more irregular forms to have. This was later to turn into my harmonic resonance theory of the brain, as I sought an explanation for this emerging regularity in perception, but in 1990 all I saw was the periodicity and the symmetry, and I thought they were profoundly beautiful.
My friend Tim who had not done LSD for many years, responded to this sudden 5 hit dose by going into a state of complete dissociation. He lay down on the forest floor with glassy eyes, muttering “It is TOO beautiful! It is TOO beautiful!” and he did not respond to me, even when I stared him straight in the face. He reported afterwards that he found himself in a giant Gothic cathedral with the most extravagantly elaborate and brightly painted ornamental decorations all around him. This too can be seen as an extreme form of the regularization discussed above. Under the influence of this powerful dose, Tim’s visual brain could no longer keep up with the massive irregularity of the forest around him, and therefore presented the forest in simplified or abbreviated form, as the interior of a Gothic cathedral. It captures the large geometry of a ground plane that supports an array of vertical columns, each of which fans out high overhead to link up into an over-arching canopy of branches. The only difference is that in the Gothic cathedral the trees are in a regular geometrical array, and each one is a masterpiece of compound symmetry, composed of smaller pillars of different diameters in perfectly symmetrical arrangements, and studded with periodic patterns of ribs, ridges, or knobby protruberances as a kind of celebration of symmetry and periodicity for their own sake. There is a kind of geometrical logic expressed in the ornamental design. If part of the cathedral were lost or destroyed, the pattern could be easily restored by following the same logic as the rest of the design. In information-theoretic terms, the Gothic cathedral has lots of redundancy, its pattern could be expressed in a very much simpler compressed geometrical code. In Tim’s drug-addled brain his visual system could only muster a simple code to represent the world around him, and that is why Tim saw the forest as a Gothic cathedral. Under normal conditions, the additional information of irregularity, or how each tree and branch breaks from the strict regularity of the cathedral model of it, creates the irregular world of experience that we normally see around us. This suggests that the beautiful shapes of ornamental art are not the product of the highest human faculty, as is commonly supposed, but rather, ornamental art offers a window onto the workings of a simpler visual system, whose image of the world is distorted by artifacts of the representational scheme used in the brain. The Gothic cathedral gives a hint as to how the world might appear to a simpler creature, a lizard, or a snake, to whom the world appears more regular than it does to us, because its full irregularity is too expensive to encode exhaustively in all its chaotic details. Of course the flip-side of this rumination is that the world that we humans experience, even in the stone-cold sober state, is itself immeasurably simpler, more regular and geometric, that the real world itself, of which our experience is an imperfect replica. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
While I was a PhD student at Boston University, my parents owned a beautiful ski lodge house in the picturesque town of Mittersill in the mountains of New Hampshire, and on spring breaks or long week-ends I would invite my friends, the other PhD candidates, up to Mittersill where we would take long hikes up the mountain, and spend evenings by the fireplace. I introduced a small circle of my friends to the illuminating experience of LSD, in the hopes of sharing some of my perceptual discoveries with them, and perhaps inducing them to learn to use the experience to make discoveries of their own. Eventually Mittersill became associated in our minds with these group trips with an ever-shrinking circle of true diehard psychonauts, making our regular pilgrimage up the mountain in search of Truth and to touch the face of God. We always brought a goodly supply of Happy T’Baccy, which provides a beautiful complement and bemellowment to the otherwise sometimes sharp and jangly LSD experience. Our pattern was usually to arrive on a Friday night, cook up a great feast, and spend an evening by the fire, drinking beer and/or wine and passing the pipe around until everyone felt properly toasted. The talk was often about the workings of mind and brain, since we were all students of cognitive and neural systems. We were all adept computer programmers and well versed in mathematics as part of our PhD studies, so we all understood the issues of mental computation and representation, and I found the conversations about the computational principles of the mind, to be most interesting and intellectually stimulating. This was the high point of my academic career, this is why people want to be scientists. The next morning we would rise early, and after a hearty breakfast, we would all set off up the mountain, which was a steep brisk climb of two or three hours. About half way up the mountain, at a carefully pre-planned time, we would stop, and each “dose up” with our individually chosen dose of LSD for the occasion, timed to reach the peak of the experience about the time we reached the peak of the mountain. Then we would continue our climb through the rich lush mountain forests of New Hampshire to the top of Maida Vale, the sub-peak next to Canon Mountain, from whence a stupendous view opened up across to Canon Mountain and the vast valley below. We would settle ourselves comfortably at some location off the beaten track, and spend the best hours of the day just dreaming crazy thoughts and drinking in the experience
By now I had perfected my introspective techniques to the point that I could voluntarily relax my mind into a state of total disembodiment. The visual world began to fragment, first into two large pieces as binocular fusion was broken, then into a few smaller fragments, and eventually into a miriad of separate fragments of consciousness, like the miriad reflections from a shattered mirror. I was fascinated by this state of consciousness, and how different it was from normal consensual reality. Most alarming or significant was the total absence of my body from its normal place at the center of my world. As the world began to fragment, my body would fragment along with it, disconnected pieces of my body seeming to exist independently, one part here, another over there, but in separate spaces that did not exist in a distinct spatial relation to each other, but as if in different universes, like reflections from different shards of a shattered mirror. And as the visual world attained total fragmentation, all evidence of my body completely vanished, and I lived the experience of a disembodied spirit, pure raw experience, just sensations of color, form, and light. I felt safe and secure in this environment among friends, so I did not mind the total vulnerability afforded by a complete functional shutdown of my mind in this manner. Besides, I had learned that I could snap back together again to a relatively normal consciousness at will, simply by getting up and looking around, and interacting with the world. I was endlessly fascinated by the state of complete disembodiment, and one feature of it impressed itself on me again and again, the geometric regularity of it all. There was a powerful tendency for everything to reduce to ornamental patterns, geometrical arrangements of three-dimensional shapes, like so many glistening gems in a jewelry store, with rich periodic and symmetrical patterns in deep vibrant colors. The deeper I plunged into the experience, the simpler and more powerfully emotive those patterns became. And since my body had totally vanished, these patterns were no longer patterns I viewed out in the world, but rather, the patterns were me, I had become the spatial patterns which made up my experience. I began to see that symmetry and periodicity were somehow primal to experience.
I remember lying on my back and watching the clouds in the sky overhead. Weather patterns are often chaotic at the tops of mountains, and on more than one occasion we were located at a spot where the clouds that formed on the windward side of the mountain were just cresting the summit, where they would dissove in a continuous process of chaotic fragmentation, a veritable Niagra Falls of nebular dissolution, evocative of the fragmentation of my psychedelic experience. The shattered shreds of cloud, viewed from this close up, were about the most ragged and irregular shapes you could imagine, and yet under the influence of the drug I kept seeing fleeting geometrical patterns in them. There were great circular pinwheels and arabesques, patterns like those carved in the doors of Gothic cathedrals, but each flashing in and out of brief existence so quickly that it would be impossible to draw them. I began to realize that the human mind is one great symmetry engine, that the mind makes sense of the world it sees by way of the symmetries that it finds in it. Symmetry is the glue that binds the fragments of experience into coherent wholes.
Figure 2.3 shows a series of paintings by artist Louis Wain, that I find very evocative of the LSD experience. Wain suffered a progressive psychosis that manifested itself in his art, which was originally quite realistic, becomming progressively more abstract and ornamental, in the manner I observed in the various stages or levels of my LSD dissociation. Figure 2.3 A shows a fairly realistic depiction of a cat, but there are curious artifacts in the textured background, a mere hint of periodicity breaking out. I would see such artifacts everywhere, almost invisible, fleeting, and faint, reminiscent of the ornamental pinstripe patterns painted on trucks and motorcycles, a kind of eddy in the stream of visual consciousness as it flows around visual features in the scene. As I descended into the fully dissociated states, the patterns would become more like Figure 2.3 B, C, and D, breathtakingly ornate, with many levels of compound symmetry, revealing the eigenfunctions of perceptual representation, the code by which visual form is represented in the brain.
At times we would break free from our individual reveries, and share absurd nonsensical conversations about our observations. One time, looking down at the vast valley stretching out below us, a vista that seemed to stretch out to distances beyond comprehension, my old friend Peter said that it was hard to tell whether all that scenery was just “way out there”, or was it “way WAY out there?” Of course we both laughed heartily at the absurdity of his statement, but I knew exactly what he meant. When viewing such a grand vista under normal consciousness, one is deeply impressed by the vastness of the view.
But under the influence of the drug, the vista somehow did not look quite as large as we “knew” that it really was. What Peter was saying was that for some strange reason, the world had shrunken back in on us, and that magnificently vast valley had shrunken to something like a scale model, or a diorama, where it is easy to see how vast the modeled valley is supposed to be, but the model itself appears very much smaller than the valley it attempts to portray. What Peter was observing was the same thing I had observed, and that was beginning to even become familiar, that the world of our experience is not a great open vastness of infinite space, but like the domed vault of the night sky, our experience is bounded by, and contained within, a vast but finite spherical shell, and under the influence of psychedelic drugs that shell seemed to shrink to smaller dimensions, our consciousness was closing in on its egocentric center. Many years later after giving it considerable thought, I built the diorama shown in Figure 2.4 to depict the geometry of visual experience as I observed it under LSD.
And when I was in the completely disembodied state, my consciousness closed in even smaller and tighter, the range of my experience was all contained within a rather modest sized space, like a glass showcase in a jewelry store, and the complexity of the patterns in that space was also reduced, from the unfathomably complex and chaotic fractal forms in a typical natural scene, to a much simpler but powerfully beautiful glistening ornamental world of the degree of complexity seen in a Gothic cathedral. The profound significance of these observations dawned on me incrementally every time we had these experiences. I can recall fragmentary pieces of insights gleaned through the confusion of our passage down the mountain, stopping to sit and think wherever and whenever the spirit took us. At one point three of us stopped by a babbling brook that was crashing and burbling through the rocks down the steep mountain slope. We sat in silent contemplation at this primal “white noise” sound, when Lonce commented that if you listen, you can hear a million different sounds hidden in that noise. And sure enough when I listened, I heard laughing voices and honking car horns and shrieking crashes and jangly music and every other possible sound, all at the same time superimposed on each other in a chaotic jumbled mass. It was the auditory equivalent of what we were seeing visually, the mind was latching onto the raw sensory experience not so much to view it as it really is, but to conjure up random patterns from deep within our sensory memory and to match those images to the current sensory input. And now I could see the more general concept. We experience the world by way of these images conjured up in our minds. I came to realize why the LSD experience was enjoyed best in outdoors natural settings, and that is because the chaos of a natural scene, with its innumerable twigs and leaves and stalks, acts as a kind of “white noise” stimulus, like the babbling brook, a stimulus that contains within it every possible pattern, and that frees our mind to interpret that noise as anything it pleases.
On one occasion, on arrival back down at the lodge, our minds were still reeling, and we were not yet ready to leave the magnificence of the natural landscape for the relatively tame and controlled environment indoors, so Andy and I stopped in the woods behind the house and just stood there, like deer in the headlights, drinking in the experience. It was a particularly dark green and leafy environment in the shadow behind the house, with shrubs and leaves at every level, around our ankles, our knees, our shoulders, and all the way up to a leafy canopy high overhead, and at every depth and distance from inches away to the farthest visible depths of the deep green woods. The visual chaos was total and complete, the world already fragmented into millions and millions of apparently disconnected features and facets uniformly in all directions, that it hardly required LSD to appreciate the richness of this chaotic experience. But under LSD, and with the two of us standing stock still for many long minutes of total silence, we both descended into a mental fragmentation as crazy as the fragmented world around us. My body disappeared from my experience, and I felt like I became the forest; the forest and all its visual chaos was me, which in a very real sense it actually was. And in that eternal timeless moment, wrapped in intense but wordless thought, I recognized something very very ancient and primal in my experience. I felt like I was sharing the experience of some primal creature in an ancient swamp many millions of years ago, when nature was first forging its earliest models of mind from the tissue of brain. I saw the world with the same intense attentive concentration, bewilderment, and total absence of human cogntive understanding, as that antediluvian cretaceous lizard must have experienced long ago and far away. The beautiful geometrical and symmetrical forms that condensed spontaneously in my visual experience were like the first glimmerings of understanding emerging in a primitive visual brain. This is why I do psychedelic drugs, to connect more intimately with my animal origins, to celebrate the magnificent mental mechanisms that we inherit from the earliest animal pioneers of mind.
One time after we had descended from the mountain and were sitting around the lodge drinking and smoking in a happy state of befuddlement, a peculiar phenomenon manifested itself that made a deep impression on me. It was getting close to supper time and somebody expressed something to that effect. But our minds were so befuddled by the intoxication that we could only speak in broken sentences, as we inevitably forgot what we wanted to say just as we started saying it, instantly confused by our own initial words. So the first person must have said something like “I’m getting hungry. Do you think…” and then tailed off in confusion. But somebody else would immediately sense the direction that thought was going, and would instinctively attempt to complete the sentence with something like “…we otta go get…” before himself becoming confused, at which a third person might interject “…something to eat?” It does not sound so remarkable here in the retelling, but what erupted before our eyes was an extraordinarily fluid and coherent session of what we later referred to as group thought, where the conversation bounced easily from one person to the next, each person contributing only a fragmentary thought, but nobody having any clear idea of what the whole thought was supposed to be, or how it was going to end. What was amazing about the experience was the coherence and purposefulness of the emergent thought, how it seemed to have a mind of its own independent of our individual minds, even though of course it was nothing other than the collective action of our befuddled minds. It was fascinating to see this thought, like a disembodied spirit, pick up and move our bodies and hands in concerted action, one person getting wood for the fire, another getting out a frying pan, a third going for potatoes, or to open a bottle of wine, none of it planned by any one person, and yet each person chipped in just as and when they thought would be appropriate, as the supper apparently “made itself” using us as its willing accomplices. It was reminiscent of the operational principle behind a ouija board, where people sitting in a circle around a table, all rest an index finger on some movable pointer on a circular alphabet board, and the pointer begins to spell out some message under the collective action of all those fingers. At first the emergent message appears random, but after the first few letters have been spelled out, the participants start to guess at each next letter, and without anyone being overtly aware of it, the word appears to “spell itself” as if under the influence of a supernatural force. As with the ouija board, none of us participating in the group thought experience could hold a coherent thought in their head, and yet coherent thoughts emerged nevertheless, to the bewilderment of us all. And later I observed the same phenomenon with different LSD parties. I have subsequently encountered people well versed in the psychedelic experience who claim with great certainty to have experienced mental telepathy in the form of wordless communication and sharing of thoughts. But for us hard-nosed scientific types, the natural explanation for this apparently supernatural experience is just as wonderous and noteworthy, because it offers a hint as to how the individual parts of a mind act together in concert to produce a unified coherent pattern of behavior that is greater than the mere sum of its constituent parts. The principle of group thought occurs across our individual brains in normal sober consciousness as we instinctively read each other’s faces and follow each other’s thoughts, and it is seen also whenever people are moving a heavy piece of furniture, all lifting and moving in unison in a coherent motion towards some goal. But the psychedelic experience highlighted this aspect of wordless communication and brought it to my attention in clearer, sharper focus.
As the evening tailed on and the drug’s effect gradually subsided in a long slow steady decline, we would sit by the fire and pass a pipe or joint around, and share our observations and experiences of the day. At one point Lonce, who had just taken a puff of a joint, breathed out and held it contemplatively for a while, before taking a second puff and passing it on to the next person in the circle. I objected to this behavior, and accused Lonce of “Bogarting” the joint – smoking it all by himself without passing it along. Lonce responded to this with an explanation that where he comes from, people don’t puff and pass in haste, but every man has the right to a few moments of quiet contemplation and a second puff before passing it along. That was, he explained, the civilized way of sharing a joint. So we immediately adopted Lonce’s suggestion, and this method of sharing a joint has henceforth and forever since been referred to by us as the “Lonce Method”.
As I have explained, the purpose of all this psychonautical exploration was not merely for our own entertainment, although entertaining it was, and to the highest degree. No, the primary purpose of these psychonautical exploits was clear all along at least in my mind, and that was to investigate the theoretical implications of these experiences to theories of mind and brain. And my investigations were actually beginning to bear fruit in two completely separate directions, each of which had profound theoretical implications. At that time I was studying neural network theories of the brain, or how the brain makes sense of the visual world. A principal focus of our investigation was the phenomena of visual illusions, like the Kanizsa figure shown in Figure 2.5 A. It is clear that what is happening here is that the visual mind is creating illusory contours that link up the fragmentary contours suggestive of the illusory triangle. In our studies we learned of Stephen Grossberg’s neural network model of this phenomenon. Grossberg proposed that the visual brain is equipped with oriented edge detector neurons that fire whenever a visual edge passes through their local receptive field. These neurons would be triggered by the stark black / white contrast edges of the stimulus in Figure 2.5 A. A higher level set of neurons would then detect the global pattern of collinearity, and sketch in the illusory contour by a process of collinear completion. These higher level “cooperative cells” were equipped with much larger elongated receptive fields, long enough to span the gap in the Kanizsa figure, and the activation of these higher level neurons in turn stimulated lower level local edge detector neurons located along the illusory contour, and that activation promoted the experience of an illusory contour where there is none in the stimulus
I believed I was seeing these illusory contours in my LSD experience, as suggested by all the curvy lines in my sketch in Figure 2.2 above. But I was not only seeing the contours in illusory figures, I was seeing “illusory” contours just about everywhere across the visual field. But curiously, these contours were not “visible” in the usual sense, but rather, they are experienced in an “invisible” manner as something you know is there, but you cannot actually see. However I also noticed that these contours did have an influence on the visible portions of the scene. I have mentioned how under LSD the visual world tends to “breathe”, to waver and wobble like a slow-motion movie of the bottom of a swimming pool viewed through its surface waves. In fact, the effect of the “invisible” contours was very much like the effect of the invisible waves on the surface of the pool, which can also be seen only by their effects on the scene viewed through them. You cannot see the waves themselves, all you can see is the wavering of the world caused by those waves. Well I was observing a very similar phenomenon in my LSD experience. I devised a three-dimensional Kanizsa figure, shown in Figure 2.5 B, and observed that even in the stone-cold sober state, I could see a kind of warp or wobble of the visual background behind the illusory contour caused by the figure, especially if the figure is waved back and forth gently against a noisy or chaotic background. So far, my LSD experiences were consistent with our theoretical understanding of the visual process, confirming to myself by direct observation an aspect of the neural network model we were currently studying in school.
But there was one aspect of the LSD experience that had me truly baffled, and that was the fantastic symmetries and periodicities that were so characteristic of the experience. What kind of neural network model could possibly account for that? It was an issue that I grappled with for many months that stretched into years. In relation to Grossberg’s neural network, it seemed that the issue concerned the question of what happens at corners and vertices where contours meet or cross. A model based on collinearity alone would be stumped at image vertices. And yet a straightforward extension of Grossberg’s neural network theory to address image vertices leads to a combinatorial explosion.The obvious extension, initially proposed by Grossberg himself, was to posit specialized “cooperative cells” with receptive fields configured to detect and enhance other configurations of edges besides ones that are collinear. But the problem is that you would need so many different specialized cells to recognize and complete every possible type of vertex, such as T and V and X and Y vertices, where two or more edges meet at a point, and each of these vertex types would have to be replicated at every orientation, and at every location across the whole visual field! It just seemed like a brute-force solution that was totally implausible.
Then one day after agonizing for months on this issue, my LSD observations of periodic and symmetrical patterns suddenly triggered a novel inspiration. Maybe the nervous system does not require specialized hard-wired receptive fields to accomodate every type of vertex, replicated at every orientation at every spatial location. Maybe the nervous system uses something much more dynamic and adaptive and flexible. Maybe it uses circular standing waves to represent different vertex types, where the standing wave can bend and warp to match the visual input, and standing waves would explain all that symmetry and periodicity so clearly evident in the LSD experience as little rotational standing waves that emerge spontaneously at image vertices, and adapt to the configuration of those vertices. Thanks to illegal psychotropic substances, I had stumbled on a staggeringly significant new theory of the brain, a theory which, if proven right, would turn the world of neuroscience on its head! My heart raced and pounded at the implications of what I had discovered. And this theory became the prime focus of my PhD thesis (Lehar 1994), in which I did computer simulations of my harmonic resonance model that replicated certain visual illusions in a way that no other model could. I had accomplished the impossible. I had found an actual practical use and purpose for what was becoming my favorite pass-time, psychedelic drugs! It was a moment of glory for an intrepid psychonaut, a turning point in my life. Figure 2.6 shows a page from my notebook dated October 6 1992, the first mention of my new theory of harmonic resonance in the brain.
Compare the above descriptions of point-of-view fragmentation, visual coherence, and symmetry as experienced on LSD, with our very own account of symmetrical pattern completion during psychedelic experiences as presented in Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States (slightly edited for clarity):
Lower Symmetry Detection and Propagation Thresholds
Finally, this is perhaps the most interesting and ethically salient effect of psychedelics. The first three effects (tracers, drifting, and pattern recognition) are not particularly difficult to square with standard neuroscience. This fourth effect, while not incompatible with connectionist accounts, does suggest a series of research questions that may hint at an entirely new paradigm for understanding consciousness.
We have not seen anyone in the literature specifically identify this effect in all of its generality. The lowering of the symmetry detection threshold really has to be experienced to be believed. We claim that this effect manifests in all psychedelic experiences to a greater or lesser extent, and that many effects can in fact be explained by simply applying this effect iteratively.
Psychedelics make it easier to find similarities between any two given phenomenal objects. When applied to perception, this effect can be described as a lowering of the symmetry detection threshold. This effect is extremely general and symmetry should not be taken to refer exclusively to geometric symmetry.
How symmetries manifest depends on the set and setting. Researchers interested in verifying and exploring the quantitative and subjective properties of this effect will probably have to focus first on a narrow domain; the effect happens in all experiential modalities.
Credit: Chelsea Morgan from PsychonautWiki and r/replications
Symmetry detection during psychedelic experiences requires that one’s attention interprets a given element in the scene as a symmetry element. Symmetry elements are geometrical points of reference about which symmetry operations can take place (such as axes of rotation, mirror planes, hyperplanes, etc.). In turn, a collection of symmetry elements defines a symmetry structure in the following way: A symmetry structure is a set of n-dimensional symmetry elements for which the qualities of the experience surrounding each element obeys the symmetry constraints imposed by all the elements considered together.
Psychedelic symmetry detection can be (and typically is) recursively applied to previously constructed symmetry structures. At a given time multiple independent symmetry structures can coexist inside an experience. By guiding one’s attention one can make these structures interact and ultimately merge. Formally, each symmetry structure is capable of establishing a merging relationship with another symmetry structure. This is achieved by simultaneously focusing one’s attention on both. These relationships are fleeting, but they influence the evolution of the relative position of each symmetry element. When two symmetry structures are in a merging relationship, it is possible to rearrange them (with the aid of drifting and pattern recognition) to create a symmetrical structure that incorporates the symmetry elements of both substructures at once. To do so, one’s mind can either detect one (or several) more symmetry elements along which the previously-existing symmetry elements are made to conform, or, alternatively, if the two pre-existing symmetry structures share a symmetry element (e.g. an axis of rotation of order 3), these corresponding identical symmetry elements can fuse and become a bridge that merges both structures.
Surprisingly, valence seems to be related to psychedelic symmetry detection. As one constructs symmetry structures, one becomes aware of an odd and irresistible subjective pull towards building even higher levels of symmetry. In other words, every time the structure of one’s experience is simplified by identifying a new symmetry element in the scene, one’s whole experience seems to snap into a new (simplified) mode, and this comes with a positive feeling. This feeling can take many forms: it may feel blissful, interesting, beautiful, mind-expanding, and/or awe-producing, all depending on the specific structures that one is merging. Conversely when two symmetry structures are such that merging them is either tricky of impossible, this leads to low valence: frustration, anxiety, pain and an odd feeling of being stuck between two mutually unintelligible worlds. We hypothesize that this is the result of dissonance between the incompatible symmetry structures.
If one meditates in a sensorially-minimized room during a psychedelic experience while being aware that one’s symmetry detection threshold has been lowered by the substance, one can recursively re-apply this effect to produce all kinds of complex mathematical structures that incorporate complex symmetry element interactions. In other words, with the aid of concentration one can climb the symmetry gradient (i.e. increase the total number of symmetry elements) up to the point where the degrees of freedom afforded by the symmetry structure limit any further element from being incorporated into it. We will call these experiences peak symmetry states.
Future research should explore and compare the various states of consciousness that exhibit peak symmetry. There is very likely an enormous number of peak symmetry states, some of which are fairly suboptimal and others that cannot be improved upon. If there is a very deep connection between valence, symmetry, information and harmony, it would very likely show in this area. Indeed, we hypothesize that the highest levels of valence that can be consciously experienced involve peak symmetry states. Anecdotally, this connection has already been verified, with numerous trip reports of people achieving states of unimaginable bliss by inhabiting peak symmetry states (often described as fractal mandala-like mirror rooms).
The range of peak symmetry states include fractals, tessellations, graphs, and higher dimensional projections. Which one of these states contains the highest degree of inter-connectivity? And if psychedelic symmetry is indeed related to conscious bliss, which experience of symmetry is human peak bliss?
Higher Order Symmetry
Mirror Symmetry Tessellation
The pictures above all illustrate possible peak symmetry states one can achieve by combining psychedelics and meditation. The pictures illustrate only the core structure of symmetries that are present in these states of consciousness. What is being reflected is the very raw “feels” of each patch of your experiential field. Thus these pictures really miss the actual raw feelings of the whole experience. They do show, however, a rough outline of symmetrical relationships possible in one of these experiences.
Since control interruption is also co-occurrent with the psychedelic symmetry effect, previously-detected symmetries tend to linger for long periods of time. For this reason, the kinds of symmetries one can detect at a given point in time is a function of the symmetries that are currently being highlighted. And thanks to drifting and pattern recognition enhancement, there is some wiggle room for your mind to re-arrange the location of the symmetries experienced. The four effects together enable, at times, a smooth iterative integration of so many symmetries that one’s consciousness becomes symmetrically interconnected to an unbelievable degree.
What may innocently start as a simple two-sided mirror symmetry can end up producing complex arrangements of self-reflecting mirrors showing glimpses of higher and higher dimensional symmetries. Studying the mathematical properties of the allowed symmetries is a research project that has only just begun. I hope one day dedicated mathematicians describe in full the class of possible high-order symmetries that humans can experience in these states of consciousness.
Anecdotally, each of the 17 possible wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated with this effect. In other words, psychedelic states lower the symmetry detection threshold for all of the mathematically available symmetrical tessellations.
All of the 17 2-dimensional wallpaper groups can be experienced with symmetry planes detected, amplified and re-arranged during a psychedelic experience.
Revising the symmetrical texture repetition of grass shown above, we can now discover that the picture displays the wallpaper symmetry found in the lower left circle above:
In very high doses, the symmetry completion is so strong that at any point one risks confusing left and right, and thus losing grasp of one’s orientation in space and time. Depersonalization is, at times, the result of the information that is lost when there is intense symmetry completion going on. One’s self-models become symmetrical too quickly, and one finds it hard to articulate a grounded point of view.
LSD-like states allow the global binding of otherwise incompatible schemas by softening the degree to which neighborhood constraints are enforced. The entire experience becomes a sort of chaotic superposition of locally bound islands that can, each in its own way, tell sensory-linguistic stories in parallel about the unique origin and contribution of their corresponding gestalts to the narrative of the self.
This phenomenon forces, as it were, the onset of cognitive dissonance between incompatible schemas that would otherwise evade mutual contact. On the bright side, it also allows mutual resonance between parts that agree with each other. The global inconsistencies are explored and minimized. One’s mind can become a glorious consensus.
Each square represents, and carries with it, the information of a previously experienced cognitive gestalt (situational memories, ideas, convictions, etc.). Some gestalts never come up together naturally. The LSD-like state allows their side-by-side comparison.
In therapy, LSD-like states had been used for many decades in order to integrate disparate parts of one’s personality into a (more) coherent and integrated lifeworld. But scientists at the beginning didn’t know why this worked.
The Turing module then discovered that the kaleidoscopic world of acid can be compared to raising the temperature within an Ising model. If different gestalts imply a variety of semantic-affective constraints, kaleidoscopic Frame Stacking has the formal effect of expanding the region of one’s mind that is taken into consideration for global consistency at any given point in time. The local constraints become more loose, giving global constraints the upper hand. The degree of psychedelia is approximately proportional to the temperature of the model, and when you let it cool, the grand pattern is somewhat different. It is more stable; one arrives at a more globally consistent state. Your semantic-affective constraints are, on the whole, better satisfied. The Turings called this phenomenon qualia annealing.
Ising Model – A simple computational analogy for the LSD-induced global constraint satisfaction facilitation.
If one ups the dose a little bit and lands somewhere in the range between 4 to 8 mg, one is likely to experience what Terrence McKenna called “the Chrysanthemum”. This usually manifests as a surface saturated with a sort of textured fabric composed of intricate symmetrical relationships, bright colors, shifting edges and shimmering pulsing superposition patterns of harmonic linear waves of many different frequencies.
Depending on the dose consumed one may experience either one or several semi-parallel channels. Whereas a threshold dose usually presents you with a single strong vibe (or ambiance), the Chrysanthemum level often has several competing vibes each bidding for your attention. Here are some examples of what the visual component of this state of consciousness may look like.
Chrysanthemum with multuple symmetry channels
The visual component of the Chrysanthemum is often described as “the best screen saver ever“, and if you happen to experience it in a good mood you will almost certainly agree with that description, as it is usually extremely harmonious, symmetric and beautiful in uncountable ways. No external input can possibly replicate the information density and intricate symmetry of this state; such state has to be endogenously generated as a a sort of harmonic attractor of your brain dynamics.
You can find many replications of Chrysanthemum-level DMT experiences on the internet, and I encourage you to examine their implicit symmetries (this replication is one of my all-times favorite).
In Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States we posited that any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated as the symmetries that govern psychedelic visuals. Unfortunately, unlike the generally slow evolution of usual psychedelic visuals, DMT’s vibrational frequency forces such visuals to evolve at a speed that makes it difficult for most people to spot the implicit symmetry elements that give rise to the overall mathematical structure underneath one’s experience. For this reason it has been difficult to verify that all 17 wallpaper groups are possible in DMT states. Fortunately we were recently able to confirm that this is in fact the case thanks to someone who trained himself to do just this. I.e. detecting symmetry elements in patterns at an outstanding speed.
An anonymous psychonaut (whom we will call researcher A) sent a series of trip report to Qualia Computing detailing the mathematical properties of psychedelic visuals under various substances and dose regimens. A is an experienced psychonaut and a math enthusiast who recently trained himself to recognize (and name) the mathematical properties of symmetrical patterns (such as in works of art or biological organisms). In particular, he has become fluent at naming the symmetries exhibited by psychedelic visuals. In the context of 2D visuals on surfaces, A confirms that the symmetrical textures that arise in psychedelic states can exhibit any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups. Likewise, he has been able to confirm that every possible spherical symmetry group can also be instantiated in one’s mind as a resonant attractor on these states.
The images below show some examples of the visuals that A has experienced on 2C-B, LSD, 4-HO-MET and DMT (sources: top left, top middle, the rest were made with this service):
The Chrysanthemum level interacts with sensory input in an interesting way: the texture of anything one looks at quickly becomes saturated with nested 2-dimensional symmetry groups. If you took enough DMT to take you to this level and you keep your eyes open and look at a patterned surface (i.e. statistical texture), it will symmetrify beyond recognition. A explains that at this level DMT visuals share some qualities with those of, say, LSD, mescaline, and psilocin. Like other psychedelics, DMT’s Chrysanthemum level can instantiate any 2-dimensional symmetry, yet there are important differences from other psychedelics at this dose range. These include the consistent change in ambiance (already present in threshold doses), the complexity and consistency of the symmetrical relationships (much more dense and whole-experience-consistent than is usually possible with other psychedelics), and the speed (with a control-interruption frequency reaching up to 30 hertz, compared to 10-20 hertz for most psychedelics). Thus, people tend to point out that DMT visuals (at this level) are “faster, smaller, more detailed and more globally consistent” than on comparable levels of alteration from similar agents.
Now, if you take a dose that is a little higher (in the ballpark of 8 to 12 mg), the Chrysanthemum will start doing something new and interesting…
(3) The Magic Eye Level
A great way to understand the Magic Eye level of DMT effects is to think of the Chrysanthemum as the texture of an autostereogram (colloquially described as “Magic Eye” pictures). Our visual experience can be easily decomposed into two points-of-view (corresponding to the feed coming from each eye) that share information in order to solve the depth-map problem in vision. This is to map each visual qualia to a space with relative distances so (a) the input is explained and (b) you get recognizable every-day objects represented as implicit shapes beneath the depth-map. You can think of this process as a sort of hand-shake between bottom-up perception and top-down modeling.
In everyday conditions one solves the depth-map problem within a second of opening one’s eyes (minus minor details that are added as one looks around). But on DMT, the “low-level perceptions” looks like a breathing Chrysanthemum, which means that the top-down modeling has that “constantly shifting” stuff to play with. What to make of it? Anything you can think of.
There are three major components of variance on the DMT Magic Eye level:
Texture (dependent on the Chrysanthemum’s evolution)
World-sheet (non-occluduing 3D1T depth maps)
Extremelly lowered information copying threshold.
The image on the left is a lobster, the one on the center is a cone and the one to the right contains furniture (a lamp, a chair and a table). Notice that what you see is a sort of depth-map which encodes shapes. We will call this depth-map together with the appearance of movement and acceleration represented in it, a world-sheet.
The world-sheet encodes the “semantic content” of the scene and is capable of representing arbitrary situations (including information about what you are seeing, where you are, what the entities there are doing, what is happening, etc.).
It is common to experience scenes from usually mundane-looking places like ice-cream stores, play pens, household situations, furniture rooms, apparel, etc.. Likewise, one frequently sees entities in these places, but they rarely seem to mind you because their world is fairly self-contained. As if seeing through a window. People often report that the worlds they saw on a DMT trip were all “made of the same thing”. This can be interpreted as the texture becoming the surfaces of the world-sheet, so that the surfaces of the tables, chairs, ice-cream cones, the bodies of the people, and so on are all patterned with the same texture (just as in actual autostereograms). This texture is indeed the Chrysanthemum completely contorted to accommodate all the curvature of the scene.
Magic Eye level scenes often include 3D geometrical shapes like spheres, cones, cylinders, cubes, etc. The complexity of the scene is roughly dose-dependent. As one ups the highness (but still remaining within the Magic Eye level) complex translucid qualia crystals in three dimensions start to become a possibility.
Whatever phenomenal objects you experience on this level that lives for more than a millisecond needs to have effective strategies for surviving in an ecosystem of other objects adapted to that level. Given the extremely lowered information copying threshold, whatever is good at making copies of itself will begin to tesselate, mutate and evolve, stealing as much of your attention as possible in the way. Cyclic transitions occupy one’s attention: objects quickly become scenes which quickly become gestalts from which a new texture evolves in which new objects are detected and so on ad infinitum.
A reports that at this dose range one can experience at least some of the 230 space groups as objects represented in the world-sheet. For example, A reports having stabilized a structure with a Pm-3m symmetry structure, not unlike the structure of ZIF-71-RHO. Visualizing such complex 3D symmetries, however, does seem to require previous training and high levels of mental concentration (i.e. in order to ensure that all the symmetry elements are indeed what they are supposed to be).
There is so much qualia laying around, though, at times not even your normal space can contain it all. Any regular or semi regular symmetrical structure you construct by centering your attention prone to overflow if you focus too much on it. What does this mean? If you focus too much on, for example, the number 6, your mind might represent the various ways in which you can arrange six balls in a perfectly symmetrical way. Worlds made of hexagons and octahedrons interlocked in complex but symmetrical ways may begin to tesselate your experiential field. With every second you find more and more ways of representing the number six in interesting, satisfying, metaphorically-sound synesthetic ways (cf. Thinking in Numbers). Now, what happens if you try to represent the number seven in a symmetric way on the plane? Well, the problem is that you will have too many heptagons to fit in Euclidean space (cf. Too Many Triangles). Thus the resulting symmetrical patterns will seem to overflow the plane (which is often felt as a folding and fluid re-arrangement, and when there is no space left in a region it either expands space or it is felt as some sort of synesthetic tension or stress, like a sense of crackling under a lot of pressure).
Heptagonal tiling of the Poincaré disk representing the 2D hyperbolic space.
Order-7-3 rhombille tiling
In particular, A claims that in the lower ranges of the DMT Magic Eye level the texture of the Chrysanthemum tends to exhibit heptagonal and triheptagonal tilings (as shown in the picture above). A explains that at the critical point between the Chrysanthemum and the Magic Eye levels the intensity of the rate of symmetry detection of the Chrysanthemum cannot be contained to a 2D surface. Thus, the surface begins to fold, often in semi-symmetric ways. Every time one “recognizes” an object on this “folding Chrysanthemum” the extra curvature is passed on to this object. As the dose increases, one interprets more and more of this extra curvature and ends up shaping a complex and highly dynamic spatiotemporal depth map with hyperbolic folds. In the upper ranges of the Magic Eye level the world-sheet is so curved that the scenes one visualize are intricate and expansive, feeling at times like one is able to peer through one’s horizon in all directions and see oneself and one’s world from a distance. At some critical point one may feel like the space around one is folding into a huge dome where the walls are made of whatever texture + world-sheet combination happened to win the Darwinian selection pressures applied to the qualia patterns on the Magic Eye level. This concentrated hyperbolic synesthetic texture is what becomes the walls of the Waiting Room…
As suggested by the quotes above, psychedelic symmetries are extremely beautiful. This is puzzling for most worldviews. But once you take into account the Tyranny of the Intentional Object and the Symmetry Theory of Valence, it begins to make sense why peak symmetry on psychedelics is so delightfully amazing (sometimes unimaginably better than a great orgasm or a back-rub on ecstasy). In this vein, we are proud to point out that we have worked out some precise, empirically testable, predictions based on connectome-specific harmonic waves and the symmetry theory of valence (see: Quantifying Bliss).
Interestingly, the process of point-of-view fragmentation and subsequent annealing to global geometric coherence is hinted at by John C. Lilly in his book Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (you can read the relevant quote here: Psychedelic alignment cascades).
As evidenced in Steven Lehar’s writeup (and the other quotes and references provided above), we could say that giving psychedelics to brilliant people with a scientific background in cognitive science and natural philosophical talent does indeed have the ability to expand our evidential base for the nature of consciousness and the way our brains work.
It is thus far more useful for the advancement of the science of consciousness to allocate such experiences to serious scientifically-minded psychonauts than it is to give those same agents to people with pre-scientific frameworks. The phenomenological descriptions and insights provided by a single Steven Lehar on acid are worth a thousand Buddhists, French Existentialists, poets, and film-makers on LSD.
Either way, it is unconscionable that today most leading academics working on the problem of consciousness have no personal experience with these agents, nor they show much interest in the alien state-spaces that they disclose. That’s about as weird as physicists only showing interest in what happens at room-temperature, even though most precise mathematical theories of the physical world can only be tested in extreme conditions (such as high-energy particle collisions). Just as we can expect that a few observations of the behavior of matter in extreme conditions will provide a lot more information than thousands of observations of matter in known “everyday” conditions, the ultimate nature of qualia is most likely to be understood by studying its properties in extreme (e.g. high-energy) neuronal environments.