Category Archives: Psychedelia

Maximizing the Value of Altering our State of Consciousness

There are many ways for us to alter our state of consciousness. Meditation, tantric sex, psychedelics, triathlons, bacon cheeseburgers, Pokemon Go, and the list goes on and on. Exploring these states contributes to our quality of life and our ability to effectively operate in the Internet Age. How do we decide how often to indulge in these activities to best balance our enjoyment of today and our ability to enjoy tomorrow?

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal recently outlined an approach called the “hedonic calendar” that is useful for this purpose. They published the excellent Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. It describes many ways we are altering our state of consciousness today and how we can do so more effectively. It consists of four steps:

Creating Your Hedonic Calendar

  • Start by listing everything you like or want to do that alters your state. Don’t be shy!
  • Next, rank them using the ecstasis equation. Kotler and Wheal define it as (Value = Time Learning Curve * Reward Back in the Real World / Risk from Potential Dangers)
  • Sort them into five buckets (daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually). Tie the ones you struggle to practice regularly to habit triggers to stick with them. For those you indulge too often, limit them to notable calendar events.
  • Review your calendar annually after a 30 day “Lenten” period where you give up the indulgent activities. Shift the frequency of items so that you have a slight longing for performing each of them.

Happy exploration!

Androids do dream of electric sheep… And why it matters!

Photo credit: A strange carnival with automobile-animal hybrids. Michael Tyka/ Google

A strange carnival with automobile-animal hybrids. Michael Tyka/ Google

Researchers at Google have found a way to make their server computers create astonishingly beautiful images by feeding them information at different levels of their identification network. One of the more fascinating aspects is that the images look strangely similar to the fractalized visions in altered states of consciousness. In this essay, I speculate that this technology might be a first attempt at visually capturing experience in a cognitive system, thus giving a glimpse of a solution to the problem of qualia.

Here we have images, created by artificial intelligence (the Google server computers) as it is identifying asked for objects by searching within it’s own bank of information. The normal identification process of the server computers is that an image passes through several layers of artificial neural networks, dedicated to recognition of certain features. The lower levels of this network are dealing with rough contrasting structures like edges and corners. At intermediate-level layers, individual object-like features are interpreted like a door or a leaf. In the final layers the computer interprets “the bigger picture” giving an illustrated output of what is asked for (a picture of a house for example). However, the above image is the product of “turn[ing] the network upside down” and feeding arbitrary visual input through selected layers while asking the computer to recognize objects by it’s own interpretations.

Drawing upon the interpretations of the previous layers the computer outputs a subjective representation through feedback loops of certain important aspects of the identified object, elaborating recognized features through iteration. If some aspect of the asked for object looks like something else, it will generate more of it, and the higher up the neural chain the input is added, the more detailed the iteration and meaningful the elaboration. The end product is a surrealistic and dreamlike depiction made up by countless fractal patterns of various intermingled images from the server bank. Doesn’t it look kind of familiar? Kind of like something you would expect from a vivid dream or the closed eye visions in an intense psychedelic experience? I kind of think so. And apparently some other people think so too.

I argue that not only does it look similar, these images are created by the same kind of neural processing of information as the brain (even if in a very simplified way). In normal waking consciousness, we, as the computers operate at the lower levels of the neural system, feeding information “upward”. We identify the world around us by filtering out unnecessary information in favor of a coherent experience. In altered states of conscious – trance, dreams and psychedelic experiences – the brain overrides these lower-level layers by increasing entropy of the neural network. It tweaks the system, sending incoming information through novel pathways, giving rise to more free associative thinking and perception.

While it certainly can feel very otherworldly, the hallucinations in the psychedelic state are (probably) not visions of transcendent dimensions, but actual and immediate psychological responses to external and internal stimuli. Multi-sensory input mingling with memories of past experiences and future planing, neurons firing in all directions producing fantastic visions and experiences which are often presented in a fractalized fashion. Very much like “the dreams” of our artificial friends.

So here’s a bold suggestion. If we can perceive and experience it, and the machines (semi-) independently can replicate it by visual representations, this could mean that it is the first empirical evidence of mind and matter being of the same substance. That qualia is not a hidden dimension, but something that is actually manifest in the material world. These artificially created images suggests that we now can record and measure how associative cognitive networks create experiences by interpreting stimuli inputs. At least in the visual domain. It is important to note that what we are looking at is not just random noise interpreted by us as meaningful, but an output of a cognitive system finding meaningful interpretations in random noise. This process is not so different from that of a human artist, and the artificial renderings are as real a depiction of experience as any painting, and in a sense even more truthful.

In the case of the painter painting a painting, whether it is an image of a landscape or the surreal abstraction of a feeling, it is the experience of stimuli that has passed through the sensory modalities that is depicted on the canvas.  But, the painter is always limited by the human inability to accurately convey our conscious experience. Elapsed time and fading memories, change of context and limited artistic skills are all factors that skew the portrait of the original experience. However, one could argue that the act of painting in itself is a temporal event and the cognitive process a continuous flow of interaction. The experience is thus slowly manifesting itself in the layers of the painting. Still, it lacks the precision of a truthful depiction (and of course, this is often not even the intended purpose of most art).

The computers used for the artificial renderings are also producing their images in a self-updating continuous event. But unlike the human painter who is divorced from experience by space and time – also filtering out irrelevant information – the computer is accurately recording every instance of the process. But why is this different from that of any other recording device? The key difference between these artificially created images and those of an ordinary camera is that the images are the products of creation by meaningful interpretations rather than the arbitrary capture of photons. A still picture of a dog is nothing but random visual noise stuck on paper until a cognitive system interprets that picture as meaningful. It is the observer who creates the dog.

The higher the level of neural layers in charge of performing the interpretation of the sensory input, the more abstract the depiction. This corresponds with the information processing during normal vs. altered states of consciousness. Where normal consciousness have firm and solid renderings to optimize precision performance, the altered states invoke meaning in the details, overriding the usual cognitive filtering. The deeper one goes into the altered states, the higher the resolution of the details which in turn feeds back into the system and fosters further interpretations. At high doses of psychedelic drugs or very deep states of meditation, the level of abstraction reaches a peak where the comprehension of the experience breaks down. This process is reflected in the computer generated images produced by adding the input at the highest levels of the artificial neural layers.

Naturally, at this stage the correlation is mere speculation. But if we can assume that these images are an accurate depiction of the cognitive process of meaningful interpretation of stimuli; it is not so far fetched to assume that our brains work in a similar fashion, but more complex (adding a multitude of other sensory modalities). Thus, some instances of qualia can be captured and in this case, visually represented. And if something can represented it is measurable, and if it is measurable it exists within the world of matter. Sure, it is an analogous leap, we still can’t see what a pure biologically produced experience look/feel/taste like. However, more complex artificial intelligence is on the rise, and soon we might be able to record the same kind of cognitive processing of other artificially created sensory modalities like sound, smell or touch. One day, we might even be able to integrate these with virtual reality technologies – where we can share experiences as if they were our own. If this is a future possibility or pure fiction only time will tell. Either way, what the ability to record first hand experience is telling us, is that consciousness exists here, in this world and not in some far off transcendent dimension. Information is substance. The Word has become flesh.

Breaking Convention: Multidisciplinary Conference of Psychedelic Consciousness

We’re very pleased to announce that videos of lectures from Breaking Convention: Multidisciplinary Conference of Psychedelic Consciousness at the University of Kent in 2011, and the University of Greenwich in 2013 are now starting to appear free online at the Ecology, Cosmos and Consciousness salon channel alongside videos from this lecture series.

ECC

Speakers so far include (in order of appearance):

Dr Serena Roney-Dougal
Dr Cathy Montgomery
Dr Matthew Watkins
Charlotte Walsh
Casey Hardison ex-PoWD
Aimee Tollan
Charles Shaw ex-PoWD
Dr Carhart-Harris
Prof Ralph Metzner
Amanda Feilding
Prof Bernard Carr
Leaf Fielding ex-PoWD
Andy Roberts
Dr Andy Letcher
Dr Ben Sessa
Dr David Luke
Peter Sjostedt Hughes
Joseph Bicknell
Oli Genn Bash
Dave King
Mike Crowley
Alan Moore
Mark Pilkington
Mike Jay

Religion and Psychedelia: The Syntheist take on a controversial topic

One of the most controversial issues in theological debates is the widespread and growing use of psychedelic substances to encourage religious experience. Undeniably, psychedelic substances like magic mushrooms, LSD, MDMA,  and ayahuasca activate the very same areas of the human brain as traditional religious experience and have been widely used in various religions for thousands of years. So why the current controversy, and is there a Syntheist take on the growing use of psychedelic substances for religious purposes?

Psychedelia 3

Some Syntheists prefer the exclusive use of techniques such as mediatation and contemplation to achieve their religious experiences. Others welcome the occasional additional usage of psychedelic substances. Since the former is widely accepted in contemporary society while the latter remains highly controversial, the important thing is not to succumb to a temporary contemporary morality – many things we now take for granted as part of our human freedoms have been banned in the past for the most ridiculous and prejudiced reasons, the bias against psychedelics may very well be one such area of prejudiced moralism today – but to leave the decision on whether to use psychedelic substances for religious purposes to each individual practitioner and to increase scientific reasearch on the long-term effects of psychedelic substaces rather than succumb to moralistic prejudice.

Syntheism therefore takes the stand that we respect the choice of religious practice each grown-up responsible individual Syntheist makes, leaving our religion in the making open to sound and creative experimentaton, and that laws and regulations in society should be adjusted to scientific knowledge and not to biased prejudice. Denying people the right to a proper religious experience on the grounds that the practices are morally upsetting to other people – whom it does not really concern – is unacceptable and could rather be viewed as a modern form of religious persecution.

Psychedelia 2

So while neither encouraging nor discouraging the use of psychedelic substances for religious experience, Syntheists are asked to act responsibly and with respect to scientific knowledge (please remember science is sacred to Syntheists) while not succumbing to the moralistic prejudices prevalent in contemporary laws and regulations. After all, we worship Syntheos and not the Logos of any government when such a Logos contradicts our firm beliefs in human and religious freedom.

To be a Syntheist is to be open, creative, on the move, especially in relation to the wrongs and injustices of the times we live in. To be a Syntheist is also to act firmly against any form of drug abuse, since abuse is opposed to the freedom and enlightenment we support and encourage for all human beings. But non-abusive and enlightening drug use can and should not be categorized as abusive, on scientific and ethical grounds.

Syntheism is after all the utopian religion par excellence. We do not believe God created us, we believe we are capable of creating God. And for some well educated and responsible people, this ambition may include the occasional use of psychedelic substances. Live and let live!