This post significantly adds to the conversation in Effective Altruism about how pain is distributed. As explained in the review of Log Scales, understanding that intense pain follows a long-tail distributions significantly changes the effectiveness landscape for possible altruistic interventions. In particular, this analysis shows that finding the top 5% of people who suffer the most in a given medical condition and treating them as the priority will allow us to target a very large fraction of the total pain such a condition generates. In the case of clus... (read more)
As explained in the review of Log Scales, cluster headaches are some of the most painful experiences people can have in life. If a $5 DMT Vape Pen produced at scale is all it takes to fully take care of the problem for people sufferers, this stands to be an Effective Altruist bargain.
In the future, I would love to see more analysis of this sort. Namely, analysis that look at particular highly painful conditions (the "pain points of humanity", as it were), and identify tractable, cost-effective solutions to them. Given the work in this area so far, I expect... (read more)
Most people who know about drugs tend to have an intuitive model of drug tolerance where "what goes up must come down". In this piece, the author shows that this intuitive model is wrong, for drug tolerance can be reversed pharmacologically. This seems extremely important in the context of pain relief: for people who simply have no option but to take opioids to treat their chronic pain, anti-tolerance would be a game-changer. I sincerely believe this will be a paradigm shift in the world of pain management, with a clear before-and-after cultural shift arou... (read more)
I would like to suggest that Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (“Log Scales” from here on out) presents a novel, meaningful, and non-trivial contribution to the field of Effective Altruism. It is novel because even though the terribleness of extreme suffering has been discussed multiple times before, such discussions have not presented a method or conceptual scheme with which to compare extreme suffering relative to less extreme varieties. It is meaningful because it articulates the essence of an intuition of an aspect of life that deeply matters to ... (read more)
Hi Holden!I am happy to see you think deeply about questions of personal identity. I've been thinking about the same for many years (e.g. see "Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity"), and I think that addressing such questions is critical for any consistent theory of consciousness and ethics.
I broadly agree with your view, but here are some things that stand out as worth pointing out:
First, I prefer Daniel Kolak's factorization of "views of personal identity". Namely, Closed Individualism (common sense - we are each a "timeline of experience"... (read more)
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 ... (read more)
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-tim... (read more)
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 ... (read more)
wrt QRI's take on the causal importance of consciousness - yes, it is one of the core problems that are being addressed.
Perhaps see: Breaking Down the Problem of Consciousness, and Raising the Table Stakes for Successful Theories of Consciousness.
wrt the meta-problem, see: Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply: Reflections on The Science of Consciousness 2018
[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 subjecti... (read more)
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... (read more)
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... (read more)
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 t... (read more)
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 th... (read more)
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 ... (read more)
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).
Thank for commenting. First of all I agree that the claims of (A) and (B) do need to be distinguished, and I admit I didn't make that conceptual distinction very clear in the article. I agree that the most important takeaway from the piece is (B), and I also think that this alone is already enough to challenge EA's prioritization methods (i.e. ultra-painful experiences are completely flying under the radar from the point of view of QALYs and similar metrics; reducing the incidence of cluster headaches, migraines, kidney stones, etc. c... (read more)
Thanks for writing this.
How would this model explain Cluster Headaches? They are not particularly more incapacitating than migraines, yet they are (possibly literally*) thousands of times more acutely painful than them. What is the role of this X1000 multiplier on phenomenal pain in such cases? As far as I can tell, in the ancestral environment nobody could have done anything to help you if you were having a Cluster Headache, and your chances of reproduction seem to be the same whether that pain was a thousand times less bad (which would still be VERY bad,... (read more)
One possibility, if this theory is correct, is that cluster headaches are a spandrel, i.e. a (very unfortunate) unintended side effect of the pain system being accidentally fired in a case when it isn't beneficial for it to be but doesn't get selected out because it doesn't have much of an impact on differential reproduction rates.
Another is that causality is slightly different, pain is amped up in some cases to elicit altruism, but the mechanisms of pain are "lower in the stack" and so can be triggered by things other than those c... (read more)
That's a good point, thank you. We should distinguish between lifetime use and current use in future surveys. Perhaps even asking whether "they worked the first time you used them" to see if people who currently use them had a better reaction to their first try relative to those who did try them at some point but do not currently use them.
I would add that other reasons why people might have used them in the past but don't currently include "can't access it now", "too afraid of legal repercussions", and "soc... (read more)
Depends on context. In most cases the 'we' refers to my team and I at the Qualia Research Institute. For example: "Since a number of interviews we’ve conducted have shown that even sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT can abort cluster headaches" refers to QRI (with other members of the research group having conducted such interviews).
I should note that the word is also used in the 'didactic we' sense a number of times (as in "we will explore the era of the dinosaurs together" in a National Geographic documentary).
According to "Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas" by L. Brasington and "The Mind Illuminated" by Culadasa, it is feasible to achieve Jhana states within two years of dedicated practice. This entails a few hours of meditation a day and attending at least one 9-day retreat over the course of this time period. The books explain in detail how to get there in a very practical and no-nonsense way.
I personally have yet to invest that time into this task, but I know that one of the other core members of the Qualia Research Ins... (read more)
2019-09-04 Update: Since posting this I've learned about the Bradley-Terry model for obtaining latent traits based on sets of rankings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradley%E2%80%93Terry_model) and also that there are libraries to do this (e.g. https://pypi.org/project/choix/). Additionally, I've learned about "extreme value theory", which describes the statistical distribution of extreme values (e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generalized_extreme_value_distribution) and seen some applications to other long-tail events (see: https:/... (read more)
To zoom in on the "logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain" angle (I'm the author), I would say that this way of seeing the world suggests that the bulk of suffering is concentrated on a small percentage of experiences. Thus, finding scaleable treatments specially for ultra-painful conditions could take care of a much larger percent of the world burden of suffering than most people would intuitively realize. I really think this should be up in the list of considerations for Cause X. Specifically:
An important pragmatic takeaway from this art
Do you think that the empirical finding that pain and suffering are distributed along a lognormal distribution (cf. Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain) has implications for how to prioritize causes? In particular, what do you say about these tentative implications:
Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely hi
I would disagree for the following reason. For a group to contribute equally it needs to have both its average and its size be such that when you multiply them you get the same value. While it is true that people at the 50% percentile get 1/10 of the people at the 90% (and ~1/50 of the 99%), these do not define groups. What we need to look at instead is the cumulative distribution function:
The bottom 50% accounts for 3.17% of incidents
The bottom 90% accounts for 30% of incidents
The bottom 95% accounts for 43% of incidents
What I am getting at is... (read more)
Hi! Thank you for elaborating on what your question is :)
"Bulk" is indeed a very ambiguous term. Would you say 80% is "the bulk"? And 20% is "a small percentage"? If so we would be in agreement. If not, it is more of a wording issue than a matter of substance, I think.
Good catch that the numbers I provided would suggest a power law that just keeps going (e.g. similar to St. Petersburg paradox?). If we use the Cluster Headache dataset, the numbers are:
50% percentile experiences 70 CH/year
80% percentile experiences 365 CH/year
9... (read more)
Adding to what Lucas mentioned (how we are motivated in part by longing/addiction for strong rewards): Suffering and negative reinforcement are correlated but are by no means the same thing. In the case of extreme suffering, there seems to be a point where the pain has already maxed out in terms of negative reinforcement capacity, and anything above it is just senseless suffering. Cluster headaches would not cause any less behavioral suppression if they were 10 or even 100 times less painful. Likewise, our ability to reason about pain and pleasure is limit... (read more)
The short answer is - extreme pain is vastly more common than is generally believed. Statistics such as 20% of people in the USA experience chronic pain, with 8% experiencing high-impact chronic pain (interferes with most aspects of life). If indeed we live in Lognormal World, we can expect that the median person will probably have relatively low acquaintance with extreme suffering (until old age), but that the people in the top 10% of sufferers will have 10X the amount, and people in the 99% will have 100X the amount. If we take a person-neutral point of ... (read more)
The article does focus on the long-tail of intensity and quality of both pleasure and pain rather than frequency. That said, it discusses the Lognormal World as a general principle, which would also predict that the frequency of pain or pleasure would follow a long-tail in addition to their intensity and quality.
This is backed up by the previous article "Cluster Headache Frequency Follows a Long-Tail Distribution", where we analyzed a survey about Cluster Headache frequency among sufferers, and showed it followed a long-tail (with stati... (read more)
It's great that it works for some people, some of the time. In absolute terms, it is a massive good, so it should be promoted more. Pragmatically it might make sense to emphasize it right now given the low probability that DMT will be approved as a treatment in the next few years, so until then Emgality should be discussed more. That said, yes, in terms of % relief it still is in a completely different class than DMT. That is, it tends to reduce incidence rather than get rid of them, and it is only approved for episodic (rather than chronic) CHs, which account for a relatively small % of the number of CHs experienced, as described in this article (due to the long-tail).
In the article specifically about N,N-DMT as a possible treatment for CHs, Quintin added a rough QALY calculation (I should add that any QALY estimate concerning CHs and other ultra-painful disorders will typically severely underestimate the value of the interventions, given the logarithmic nature of pain scales):
While we believe that traditional metrics such as the QALY do not accurately capture the suffering caused by a cluster headache (see upcoming post on the true pain/pleasure scale), a rough QALY calculation would be as follows (focusing on chronic
I completely agree that the members of a cluster headache subreddit or facebook group are not necessarily representative, and in fact quite likely not representative at all.
I think that the conclusion that the distribution follows a long-tail regardless is still accurate. I reason this based on the following point: even if the probability of participating in the survey increased exponentially as a function of the number of times one experiences CHs per year (or sigmoid at the limit), you would nonetheless not be able to make a Gaussian distribution look l... (read more)
Thank you. The survey said that 68% of sufferers who have used psychedelics found gave them a rating of 4 or 5, where 5 means “They have completely eliminated the cluster headaches”. I would certainly stand by the claim that "there are millions of people suffering needlessly from this condition who could be nearly-instantly cured with something as simple as growing and eating some magic mushrooms." We've interviewed people for whom sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT and psilocybin took a 10/10 pain CH all the way to a 1/10 or 0/10. And in the c... (read more)
Let's say "the typical pain of the top 5% most painful of the cases of a given condition".
My sense is that the pain scale is exponential. Let's say that kidney stones rank on average at a 7/10 level with a standard deviation of 1. In that case, about 2% of the kidney stone cases are a 9/10, which might be hundreds of times more painful than the 7/10 typical case. In other words, you can't really judge how many hell-seconds a given condition contributes by observing a *median* case... you need either the average or to look at the more painful side of it.
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Of particular note is agmatine's high affinity to the imidazoline receptor, which according to Thomas Ray- who analyzed the receptor affinity of 30+ psychedelics- might be one of the keys to the "ma... (read more)
(1) We are trying to arrive at a metric like you describe at QRI. See: Quantifying bliss and a future for neuroscience for the big-picture idea. I think the suffering you describe is very relevant for instrumental reasons, but perhaps not very large in terms of absolute values (still sucks, obviously!).
(2) I think that another important update that people should make in EA is that hell-seconds are not only much, much, much worse than garden-variety pain and suffering. But also that they are *far more prevalent* than we realize. About... (read more)
For context, this post is motivated by the realization that pain-scales are logarithmic compressions of what is probably an exponentially-increasing capacity for pain and suffering in sentient beings. Here is a simple example, as told by the guy who stung himself with 80+ insects to put the pain on a scale:
4:28 - The harvester ants is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honey bees, old jackers, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which... (read more)