Consciousness researcher and co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. I blog at

Core interests span - measuring emotional valence objectively, formal models of phenomenal space and time, the importance of phenomenal binding, models of intelligence based on qualia, and neurotechnology.

Wiki Contributions


A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

People are asking for  object-level justifications for the Symmetry Theory of Valence:

The first thing to mention is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) is *really easy to strawman*. It really is the case that there are many near enemies of STV that sound exactly like what a naïve researcher who is missing developmental stages (e.g. is a naïve realist about perception) would say. That we like pretty symmetrical shapes of course does not mean that symmetry is at the root of valence; that we enjoy symphonic music does not mean harmony is "inherently pleasant"; that we enjoy nice repeating patterns of tactile stimulation does not mean, well, you get the idea...

The truth of course is that at QRI we really are meta-contrarian intellectual hipsters. So the weird and often dumb-sounding things we say are already taking into account the criticisms people in our people-cluster would make and are taking the conversation one step further. For instance, we think digital computers cannot be conscious, but this belief comes from entirely different arguments than those that justify such beliefs out there. We think that the "energy body" is real and important, except that we interpret it within a physicalist paradigm of dynamic systems. We take seriously the possible positive sum game-theoretical implications of MDMA, but not out of a naïve "why can't we all love each other?" impression, but rather, based on deep evolutionary arguments. And we take seriously non-standard views of identity, not because "we are all Krishna", but because the common-sense view of identity turns out to, in retrospect, be based on illusion (cf. Parfit, Kolak, "The Future of Personal Identity") and a true physicalist theory of consciousness (e.g. Pearce's theory) has no room for enduring metaphysical egos. This is all to say that straw-manning the paradigms explored at QRI is easy; steelmanning them is what's hard. Can anyone here make a Titanium Man out of them instead? :-)

Now, I am indeed happy to address any mischaracterization of STV. Sadly, to my knowledge nobody outside of QRI really "gets it", so I don't think there is anyone other than us (and possibly Scott Alexander!) who can make a steelman of STV. My promise is that "there is something here" and that to "get it" is not merely to buy into the theory blindly, but rather, it is what happens when you give it enough benefit of the doubt, share a sufficient number of background assumptions, and have a wide enough experience base that it actually becomes a rather obvious "good fit" for all of the data available.

For a bit of history (and properly giving due credit), I should clarify that Michael Johnson is the one who came up with the hypothesis in Principia Qualia (for a brief history see: STV Primer). I started out very skeptical of STV myself, and in fact it took about three years of thinking it through in light of many meditation and exotic high-energy experiences to be viscerally convinced that it's pointing in the right direction. I'm talking about a process of elimination where, for instance, I checked if what feels good is at the computational level of abstraction (such as prediction error minimization) or if it's at the implementation level (i.e. dissonance). I then developed a number of technical paradigms for how to translate STV into something we could actually study in neuroscience and ultimately try out empirically with non-invasive neurotech (in our case, light-sound-vibration systems that produce multi-modally coherent high-valence states of consciousness). Quintin Frerichs (who gave a presentation about Neural Annealing to Friston) has since been working hard on the actual neuroscience of it in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, Daniel Ingram, Imperial College and others. We are currently testing the theory in a number of ways and will publish a large paper based on all this work.

For clarification, I should point out that what is brilliant (IMO) about Mike's Principia Qualia is that he breaks down the problem of consciousness in such a way that it allows us to divide and conquer the hard problem of consciousness. Indeed, once broken down into his 8 subproblems, calling it the "hard problem of consciousness" sounds as bizarre as it would sound to us to hear about "the hard problem of matter". We do claim that if we are able to solve each of these subproblems, that indeed the hard problem will dissolve. Not the way illusionists would have it (where the very concept of consciousness is problematic), but rather, in the way that electricity and lightning and magnets all turned out to be explained by just 4 simple equations of electromagnetism. Of course the further question of why do those equations exist and why consciousness follows such laws remains, but even that could IMO be fully explained with the appropriate paradigm (cf. Zero Ontology).

The main point to consider here w.r.t. STV is that symmetry is posited to be connected with valence at the implementation level of analysis. This squarely and clearly distinguishes STV from behaviorist accounts of valence (e.g. "behavioral reinforcement") and also from algorithmic accounts (e.g. compression drive or prediction error minimization). Indeed, with STV you can have a brain (perhaps a damaged brain, or one in an exotic state of consciousness) where prediction errors are not in fact connected to valence. Rather, the brain evolved to recruit valence gradients in order to make better predictions. Similarly, STV predicts that what makes activation of the pleasure centers feel good is precisely that doing so gives rise to large-scale harmony in brain activity. This is exciting because it means the theory predicts we can actually observe a double dissociation: if we inhibit the pleasure centers while exogenously stimulating large-scale harmonic patterns we expect that to feel good, and we likewise expect that even if you activate the pleasure centers you will not feel good if something inhibits the large-scale harmony that would typically result. Same with prediction errors, behavior, etc.: we predict we can doubly-dissociate valence from those features if we conduct the right experiment. But we won't be able to dissociate valence from symmetry in the formalism of consciousness.

Now, of course we currently can't see consciousness directly, but we can infer a lot of invariants about it with different "projections", and so far all are consistent with STV:



Of especial note, I'd point you to one of the studies discussed in the 2020 STV talk: The Human Default Consciousness and Its Disruption: Insights From an EEG Study of Buddhist Jhāna Meditation. It shows a very tight correspondence between jhanas and various smoothly-repeating EEG patterns, including a seizure-like activity that unlike normal seizures (of typically bad valence) shows up as having a *harmonic structure*. Here we find a beautiful correspondence between (a) sense of peace/jhanic bliss, (b) phenomenological descriptions of simplicity and smoothness, (c) valence, and (d) actual neurophysiological data mirroring these phenomenological accounts. At QRI we have similarly observed something quite similar studying the EEG patterns of other ultra-high-valence meditation states (which we will hopefully publish in 2022). I expect this pattern to hold for other exotic high-valence states in one way or another, ranging from quality of orgasm to exogenous opioids. 

Phenomenologically speaking, STV is not only capable of describing and explaining why certain meditation or psychedelic states of consciousness feel good or bad, but in fact it can be used as a navigation aid! You can introspect on the ways energy does not flow smoothly, the presence of blockages and pinch points make it reflect in discordant ways, or zone in on areas of the "energy body" that are out of synch with one another and then specifically use attention in order to "comb the field of experience". This approach - the purely secular climbing of the harmony gradient leads all of its own to amazing high-valence states of consciousness (cf. Buddhist Annealing). I'll probably make a video series with meditation instructions for people to actually experience this on themselves first hand. It doesn't take very long, actually. Also, STV as a paradigm can be used in order to experience more pleasant trajectories along the "Energy X Complexity landscape" of a DMT trip (something I even talked about at the SSC meetup online!). In a simple quip, I'd say "there are good and bad ways of vibing on DMT, and STV gives you the key to the realms of good vibes" :-)

Another angle: we can find subtle ways of dissociating valence from e.g. chemicals: if you take stimulants but don't feel the nice buzz that provides a "working frame" for your mental activity, they will not feel good. At the same time, without stimulants you can get that pleasant productivity-enhancing buzz with the right tactile patterns of stimulation. Indeed this "buzz" that characterizes the effects of many euphoric drugs (and the quality of e.g. metta meditation) is precisely a valence effect, one that provides a metronome to self-organize around and which can feel bad when you don't follow where it takes you. Literally, one of the core reasons why MDMA feels better than LSD which feels better than DOB is precisely because the "quality of the buzz" of each of these highs is different. MDMA's buzz is beautiful and harmonious; DOB's buzz is harsh and dissonant. More so, such a buzz can work as task-specific dissonance guide-rails, if you will. Meaning that when you do buzz-congruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner harmony, whereas when you do buzz-incongruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner turmoil. Hence what kind of buzz one experiences is deeply consequential! All of this falls rather nicely within STV - IMO other theories need to keep adding epicycles to keep up.

Hopefully this all worked as useful clarifications.

Does Critical Flicker-Fusion Frequency Track the Subjective Experience of Time?

Thank you for this very insightful and information-dense article!

My sense is that critical flicker fusion is more about sampling rate than about phenomenal time per se. And also, that just because time feels slow doesn't mean you are actually getting more experience on the whole. The critical issue here is the difference between phenomenal time and physical time (as covered in the Pseudo-Time Arrow).

In particular, one could e.g. have 1000 experiences per second and think that you are only having one experience per second (e.g. lots of very short pseudo-time arrows!), or you could have 1 experience per second but feel like you are having 1000s of them (e.g. when the single experience per second happens to have a huge pseudo-time arrow that integrates a lot of temporally-rich information). So I think CFF will be correlated with amount of qualia and subjective sense of time, but only mildly. And that to get the ground truth of "amount of qualia" we will need to see through phenomenal time as a construct.

I mean, for example, I don't think you get different CFFs on DMT, even though your pseudo-time arrow is extremely distorted and at times "seconds can feel like eternities".

Consciousness research as a cause? [asking for advice]

I don't see anything like that from QRI either, although someone can correct me if I missed it.


In Principia Qualia (p. 65-66), Mike Johnson posits:

What is happening when we talk about our qualia? 

If ‘downward causation’ isn’t real, then how are our qualia causing us to act? I suggest that we should look for solutions which describe why we have the sensory illusion of qualia having causal power, without actually adding another causal entity to the universe.

I believe this is much more feasible than it seems if we carefully examine the exact sense in which language is ‘about’ qualia. Instead of a direct representational interpretation, I offer we should instead think of language’s ‘aboutness’ as a function of systematic correlations between two things related to qualia: the brain’s logical state (i.e., connectome-level neural activity), particularly those logical states relevant to its self-model, and the brain’s microphysical state (i.e., what the quarks which constitute the brain are doing). 

In short, our brain has evolved to be able to fairly accurately report its internal computational states (since it was adaptive to be able to coordinate such states with others), and these computational states are highly correlated with the microphysical states of the substrate the brain’s computations run on (the actual source of qualia). However, these computational states and microphysical states are not identical. Thus, we would need to be open to the possibility that certain interventions could cause a change in a system’s physical substrate (which generates its qualia) without causing a change in its computational level (which generates its qualia reports). We’ve evolved toward having our qualia, and our reports about our qualia, being synchronized – but in contexts where there hasn’t been an adaptive pressure to accurately report our qualia, we shouldn’t expect these to be synchronized ‘for free’. 

The details of precisely how our reports of qualia, and our ground-truth qualia, might diverge will greatly depend on what the actual physical substrate of consciousness is.48 What is clear from this, however, is that transplanting the brain to a new substrate – e.g., emulating a human brain as software, on a traditional Von Neumann architecture computer – would likely produce qualia very different from the original, even if the high-level behavioral dynamics which generate its qualia reports were faithfully replicated. Copying qualia reports will likely not copy qualia. 

I realize this notion that we could (at least in theory) be mistaken about what qualia we report & remember having is difficult to swallow. I would just say that although it may seem far-fetched, I think it’s a necessary implication of all theories of qualia that don’t resort to anti-scientific mysticism or significantly contradict what we know of physical laws. 

Back to the question: why do we have the illusion that qualia have causal power? 

In short, I’d argue that the brain is a complex, chaotic, coalition-based dynamic system with well defined attractors and a high level of criticality (low activation energy needed to switch between attractors) that has an internal model of self-as-agent, yet can’t predict itself. And I think any conscious system with these dynamics will have the quale of free will, and have the phenomenological illusion that its qualia have causal power. 

And although it would be perfectly feasible for there to exist conscious systems which don’t have the quale of free will, it’s plausible that this quale will be relatively common across most evolved organisms. (Brembs 2011) argues that the sort of dynamical unpredictability which leads to the illusion of free will tends to be adaptive, both as a search strategy for hidden resources and as a game-theoretic advantage against predators, prey, and conspecifics: “[p]redictability can never be an evolutionarily stable strategy.”

algekalipso's Shortform

[Related to:  Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain; Anti-Tolerance Drugs]

Millions of people suffering from benzo/gabapentin/phenibut/alcohol withdrawal across the world thinking that tapering is the only solution, while it seems like people in Italy and Japan already figured out how to reverse tolerance without side-effects within a week? It's called Flumazenil and it's a GABAa  antagonist, which when taken in microdoses can up-regulate GABA receptors (hear me out: up-regulation and other tolerance mechanisms are *not* proportional to subjective effect size - this insight makes all the difference).

See the wikipedia entry on it:

In Italy, the gold standard for treatment of high-dose benzodiazepine dependency is 8–10 days of low-dose, slowly infused flumazenil.[12] One addiction treatment centre in Italy has used flumazenil to treat over 300 patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines (up to 70 times higher than conventionally prescribed) with physicians being among the clinic's most common patients.[13]

Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil.[14] Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines (median dosage 333 mg diazepam-equivalent) were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.[15]

Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms.[16] Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.[17]

In vitro studies of tissue cultured cell lines have shown that chronic treatment with flumazenil enhanced the benzodiazepine binding site where such receptors have become more numerous and uncoupling/down-regulation of GABAA has been reversed.[18][19][20] After long-term exposure to benzodiazepines, GABAA receptors become down-regulated and uncoupled. Growth of new receptors and recoupling after prolonged flumazenil exposure has also been observed. It is thought this may be due to increased synthesis of receptor proteins.[21]

Flumazenil was found to be more effective than placebo in reducing feelings of hostility and aggression in patients who had been free of benzodiazepines for 4–266 weeks.[22] This may suggest a role for flumazenil in treating protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms.

 Low-dose, slow subcutaneous flumazenil administration is a safe procedure for patients withdrawing from long-term, high-dose benzodiazepine dependency.[23] It has a low risk of seizures even amongst those who have experienced convulsions when previously attempting benzodiazepine withdrawal.[24]

See also a video I made about why our common-sense view of how drug tolerance works gets in the way of actually solving this crisis.

Cost-Effectiveness of Air Purifiers against Pollution

Now that the California fires are raging, it may be time to bring up a few additional reasons why HEPA filters make a lot of sense. I don't know how much this changes the cost-benefit analysis, but I think it is important to take into account:

1) Right now the PM2.5 outside my apartment is 230. Inside it's 40. A week ago the PM2.5 was 100, and inside it was 8. By having a HEPA filter inside, I've been seeing reductions of PM2.5 between 80% and 90%. I also saw this two years ago, and it's been a rather consistent pattern.

2) The idea that non-linearity makes the benefits strictly less than linearity, and therefore that assuming linearity will lead to an optimistic assessment is questionable. In particular, I grant this is true with "diminishing returns" curves. But it's not true with S-shaped curves. So, if it is true that the negative health effects of PM2.5 are concave below 20 and convex above 20, then the assumption of linearity will lead to an underestimation of the positive health benefits of HEPA filters for places with relatively clean air.

3) As a special case of (2), I would expect that giving your lungs "time to breath" (so to speak) might be really good to let them heal, and also allow your cardiovascular system to recover from inflammation. So there may be some extra benefits to being in places that have close to 0PM2.5 for at least some periods of time. And lastly,

4) I do think that the case for massively reducing the economic cost of HEPA filters should be considered more thoroughly. If subsidized at the governmental level, how cheap could these filters become? My suspicion is that they can become extremely cheap, turning them into a utility.

Thank you for the analysis and for bringing this topic to attention of EAs (whose saved micromorts may, well, ultimately have compounding benefits for all). Cheers!

Making discussions in EA groups inclusive

Like many other problems that EAs are aware of, the particular incident you described comes from an outlier that drives the mean significantly forward (I of course know who you are talking about, and the fact that many who've been in EA for a long time know as well should indicate that this is both rare in terms of % of people yet perhaps not that rare in terms of % of drama it accounts for).

The key insight here is that the long-tail matters. As a rough prior we could anticipate that 80% of the drama will come from 20% of people (in my experience this is even more skewed, to perhaps 98% of drama coming from 2% of people). In which case, advocating for self-censorship in general in the community is stifling and unnecessary for the bulk of people (who already doubt themselves), and desperately necessary for the outliers who just march forward without much self-awareness in some or other controversial direction, as if mandated by a higher power to cause as much drama as possible.

If we recognize that the problem per person follows a long-tail distribution, our strategies should look very different than if it was a kind of normal/Gaussian distribution.

EAGxVirtual Unconference (Saturday, June 20th 2020)

Hi Aidan!

Thank you ^_^

We are collaborating with John Hopkins and Stanford researchers on a couple of studies involving the analysis of neuroimaging data of high-valence states of consciousness. Additionally, we are currently preparing two key publications for peer-reviewed journals on our core research areas.

Off the top of my head, some well-known researchers and intellectuals that are very positive about our work include: Robin Carhart-Harris, Scott Alexander, David Pearce, Steven Lehar, Daniel Ingram, etc. (e.g. Scott acknowledged that QRI put together the paradigms that contributed to Friston's integrative model of how psychedelics work before his research was published). Our track record so far has been to foreshadow by several years in advance key discoveries later proposed and accepted in mainstream academia. Given our current research findings, I expect this to continue in the years to follow.

Cheers! :)

EAGxVirtual Unconference (Saturday, June 20th 2020)

*Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain*

Recall that while some distributions (e.g. the size of the leaves of a tree) follow a Gaussian bell-shaped pattern, many others (e.g. avalanches, size of asteroids, etc.) follow a long-tail distribution. Long-tail distributions have the general property that a large fraction of the volume is accounted for by a tiny percent of instances (e.g. 80% of the snow that falls from the mountain will be the result of the top 20% largest avalanches).

Keeping long-tails in mind: based on previous research we have conducted at the Qualia Research Institute we have arrived at the tentative conclusion that the intensity of pleasure and pain follows a long-tail distribution. Why?

First, neural activity on patches of neural tissue follow log-normal distributions (an instance of a long-tail distribution).

Second, the extremes of pleasure and pain are so intense that they cannot conceivably be just the extremes of a normal distribution. This includes, on the positive end: Jhana meditation, 5-MeO-DMT peak experiences, and temporal lobe epilepsy (Dostoevsky famously saying he'd trade 10 years of his life for just a few moments of his good epileptic experiences). On the negative end, things like kidney stones, cluster headaches, fibromyalgia, and migraines top the charts of most intense pain.

And third, all of the quantitative analysis we conducted on a survey about people's best and worst experiences showed that the ratings, comparisons, and rankings of such experiences was far more consistent with a long-tail distribution than a normal distribution. The data could not be explained with a Gaussian distribution; it fit very nicely a log-normal distribution.

This is an *important*, *tractable*, and *neglected* cause.

1) Important because we may be able to reduce the world's suffering by a significant amount if we just focus on preventing the most intense forms of suffering.

2) Tractable because there are already many possible effective treatments to these disorders (such as LSD microdosing for cluster headaches, and FSM for kidney stones).

3) And neglected because most people have no clue that pain and pleasure go this high. Most utilitarian calculus so far seems to assume a normal distribution for suffering, which is very far from the empirical truth. Bentham would recoil at the lack of an exponent term when additively normalizing pain scales.

Importantly, in Effective Altruism there might be an implicit "youth" bias involved in the lack of knowledge of this phenomenon - due to the age of the people in the movement, most EA activists will not themselves have had intensely painful experiences. Thus, why it is so crucial to raise awareness about this topic in the community (it does not show up on its own). Simply put: because the logarithmic nature of pleasure and pain is *news* to most people in EA.

For more, see the original article: Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain

And a presentation about it that I shared at the New York EA chapter:


[I would prefer the late session if possible]


[June 22 2020 edit: Thank you all for attending and/or voting for this talk! I appreciated your engagement and questions! For people who would like to see the video, here it is: Effective Altruism and the Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain]

What are the key ongoing debates in EA?

Whether avoiding *extreme suffering* such as cluster headaches, migraines, kidney stones, CRPS, etc. is an important, tractable, and neglected cause. I personally think that due to the long-tails of pleasure and pain, and how cheap the interventions would be, focusing our efforts on e.g. enabling cluster headaches sufferers to access DMT would prevent *astronomical amounts of suffering* at extremely low costs.

The key bottleneck here might be people's ignorance of just *how bad* these kinds of suffering are. I recommend reading the "long-tails of pleasure and pain" article linked above to get a sense of why this is a reasonable interpretation of the situation.

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