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Andrés Gómez Emilsson from the Qualia Research Institute presents about the Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain.

How good is good? How bad is bad? In this presentation, Andrés makes the case that the true range of intensity of both pleasure and pain is orders of magnitude wider than we intuitively believe. The core argument for this claim focuses on comparing what a world with linear pleasure and pain scales ("linear world") would look like relative to a world in which they are logarithmic ("lognormal world"). Andrés explains that the "lognormal world" is more consistent with the following empirical results: (1) the characteristic distribution of neural activity, (2) personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, (3) the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and (4) the results of a recent study by the QRI which analyzes the rankings, ratings, and comparisons of the hedonic quality of people's most extreme experiences of their lives, both good and bad.

It turns out that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. That is, the most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).

This discovery is not just of academic interest. It also cashes out in a serious and important revision to ethical priorities for utilitarian and humanitarian movements like Effective Altruism. Rather than merely focusing on metrics such as Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs), number of people below the poverty line, or lives saved per dollar donated, the logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain strongly suggest that among our top ethical imperatives ought to be to minimize the incidence of extremely painful conditions such as cluster headaches, kidney and gallbladder stones, migraines, childbirth, chronic pain, etc.

On the flip side, the findings also suggest that working on neurotechnolgy to enhance hedonic tone might produce positive effects orders of magnitude more valuable than expected. Key research leads for this purpose include the study of ultra-blissful states of consciousness such as those induced by 5-MeO-DMT, Buddhist Jhana meditation (aka. absorption states), and the onset stage of temporal lobe epilepsy.

See original article: Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain

And the EA Forum post version: Log Scales EA Post

For more, read about the Qualia Research Institute at:

Andrés blogs at Qualia Computing: Top 10 Qualia Computing Articles

This presentation was given in September of 2019 at the Harvard Effective Altruism student club, the MIT Effective Altruism student club, and at the Effective Altruism NYC meetup (which is where this particular video was recorded).

Many thanks to the organizers of the Effective Altruism NYC meetup Anisha and Chris. Also thanks to Winslow, Jason, Quintin, Mike, Romeo, Zuck, Kenneth, Jacob, and others for supporting this work. And also thanks to Bence for editing the video.

Infinite Bliss!!!




Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:22 AM

I haven't watched the talk, but I have just left a long comment on original article, Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain

Here's the TL;DR of my comment:

I don't think this post provides an argument that we should interpret pleasure/pain scales as logarithmic. What's more, whether or not this is true is not necessary for post's practical claim - which is roughly that "the best/worst things are much better/worse than most people think".

Here's the link to my comment. I meant to write up my thoughts 3 months ago when the original article was posted, but never got around to it.

Thank you! I just left a reply to your comment. Here's a summary of the core claim:

In this account, the fact that people would naturally and spontaneously use a logarithmic scale to report their level of pain is a simple implication of the fact that you can only definitively tell that "the pain got worse" when it got 10% worse and not when it became 1 unit worse (which soon becomes hard to notice when you talk about experiences with e.g. 1000 pain units per second).
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