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Dreams, Qualia and Valence
A fundamental conversation featuring Andrés Gómez Emilsson & Jim O'Neill
The conversation to follow was recorded on December 4, 2023 at a conference afterparty in the Berkeley Hills. If you find the muddled audio to be unbearable, fear not, I have included the transcript below. Consume in whatever medium you like. The latter will be more straightforward and the audio will contain sidebars and easter eggs that I omit from the transcript.
In this conversation, 3 characters discuss the nature of emotional valence, aspects of qualia and thoughts on dreams.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson is the president and director of research at the Qualia Research Institute. He has a Master’s Degree in Psychology with an emphasis in computational models from Stanford and a professional background in graph theory, statistics, and affective science. Andrés was also the co-founder of the Stanford Transhumanist Association and first place winner of the Norway Math Olympiad. His work at QRI ranges from algorithm design, to psychedelic theory, to neurotechnology development, to mapping and studying the computational properties of consciousness.
Jim O’Neill has advised or invested in more than sixty science and technology companies. He was a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services, CEO of the Thiel Foundation and SENS Research Foundation, and a managing director of Thiel Capital. He co-founded the Thiel Fellowship which gives $100,000 grants to twenty teens a year to drop out of college and start tech companies.
JO: Explain valence.
AGE: Valence is the pleasure pain axis. We like the term valence because it's extremely general. A lot of people complain that pleasure is a superficial thing. Why do you optimize for pleasure? You want meaning or something like that. But actually, if you introspect on why meaning is valuable, it has instrumental value in that it organizes how you think and your motivations. What people enjoy about meaning is that it feels good. Hyper meaningful experiences are good, because they have positive valence. The positive valence of meaning manifests in a way that is very different than the positive valence of let's say an orgasm or cocaine. It's still very, very pleasant. There's some richness and reverb and resonance of mental constructs that makes something very meaningful.
BA: You jumped over an interesting point, which is how pleasure from meaning is different from pleasure in something like an orgasm. Say more about that difference.
AGE: We have various channels in our consciousness. Ultimately, it's all connected and there's no hard boundaries. We have a visual space, we have a tactile space, we have an auditory space and we have an emotional space, which is kind of like the inner component of the bodily space. But then we also have a mental space and meaning in a lot of context is where the mental space enters in resonance with the emotional space. And so, very meaningful experiences are where there's resonance between semantics and body sensations. An orgasm usually is devoid of rich meaning. Maybe you really like the girl or the guy and there's some kind of peak experience but usually it's a very shallow meaning. It's not like your experience with say, a Wagner Opera where you're in ecstasy with the concepts and the melody and everything fits together.
BA: Would it be fair to say that what you're describing is where that recoil reflex in men comes from?
AGE: Yeah. I was thinking about this. What is it- post orgasm dysphoria? There's a term for it. When everything is right, the other person is somebody you want to be with on many levels, right? Like you get along and you find them physically attractive and they're good long term partner material, you don't experience these dysphoric effects afterwards.
JO: There's a glow.
AGE: I think the term I would use for this is it's like a hedonic injury. That your body is specifically like, 'Okay, you were having a lot of fun', but some parts of you thinks this is not good for you in the long term so you inject dissonance afterwards. From the point of view of Qualia Research, what is going on there is it's disturbing an annealing process where the positive valence that you were experiencing was putting a lot of things in harmony. If you keep that and you let it cool slowly, it galvanizes those connections in a harmonic way.
BA: It's like Hebbian learning, right?
AGE: Yeah, Hebbian learning on many levels simultaneously. Whereas if you get the dysphoria, it jitters those connections and then you don't actually anneal, you don't galvanize in the same way. The afterglow is so much better if you feel everything right. On a very practical note with something like MDMA, it seems you can reduce the neurotoxicity by taking an SSRI right afterwards, but from all the reports I've heard that it kills the afterglow. So it may ruin the therapeutic benefits potentially. Even for saunas, I think there's probably something important about the cooling effect of saunas. I think if you meditate in a sauna—I had this experience recently—rather than jumping into cold water you want to just cool slowly. I think that has very good benefits, like how you cool down slowly while meditating—not worrying about anything, and then this really galvanizes a sense of harmony. All of that for QRI shows there's a valence effect where the mathematical structure of emotion shows up. It has to do with harmony, literal harmony and resonance. For a lot of people pleasure is kind of like, 'does this cause reinforcement? Or semantics?'
JO: Are there as many negative valence types as there are positive?
AGE: Oh, that's a wonderful question. We would predict there are more negative valence types than there are positive ones, for roughly the same reason that there are many more sound dissonances than there are consonances, because very high consonance requires a high degree of symmetry. They're combinatorial space is actually is more restricted there. If you have 100 numbers, and you want to put them in a harmonious relationship, a lot of them will have to be different multiples of each other. But if you want to put them in a dissonant configuration, there's gonna be more combinations. Now, most states, according to our theory, are actually neutral in valence for the simple reason that very noisy states, like white noise, have neither consonance nor dissonance. If you take a random sample of audio, like a sample without any weights, it's going to be white noise, like 99.99999% of the time.
JO: The sound of rain, do you consider that positive or neutral?
AGE: It's neutral with a slight positive tilt. There’s reasons for that. There's reasons why people would want white noise.
BA: What people like smelling as well is petrichor, which is the smell of rain. Is there a connection there that you see?
AGE: Not really, I think maybe there's some associations. One of the aesthetics of QRI is in what way the shape of something corresponds to its valence, independent of its associations. For example, for smells, the thing that interests us the most is, in what way the resonances of the smell makes it feel good or bad, independent of, whether it is associated with something good or bad, which also affects the valence, but in a different way. It's kind of like the associations bring up other thought forms that themselves have their own ring, and maybe that colors the valence.
BA: Describe a thought form for a minute.
AGE: So for example, let's say you were bullied once when you first smelt peppermint, in elementary school, so when you smell peppermint, it brings back all these memories of being bullied. Well, that has nothing to do with the actual shape of the smell of peppermint. That's an added component that has its own valence. If you introspect on the traumatic memory, it comes in this kind of anti rhythmic way. Usually traumatic memories, they come and assault you or they come in and out or they're random or intrusive. Whereas, very pleasant memories are very rich, beautiful, soft, sweet kind of events. The actual way in which you remember it, that would be part of the shape of the thought form.
BA: What about pre-modeled thought forms, like daydreaming? Would that qualify as a thought form in the way that you're describing?
AGE: Yes, daydreaming would be like episodes of thought forms.
BA: Episodes of positive or negative experiences, how would these differ from a pre-experienced thought form that's being called upon as a trigger? Like you're saying peppermint could trigger some bullying experience, how do you think about triggers being applied to things like daydreaming? Is there a connection there? I would be very curious to hear your thoughts about something called the overfitted brain hypothesis by a neuroscientist named.
AGE: Yeah, there's this concept of binding, patterns of binding where usually more sensory data is more pure at first, such as only visual experience or only smell experience whereas with things that are just memories, really, what you're remembering is the way in which connections were made. And so it's a more mixed and information rich sensation. I know what overfitting is but I haven't heard about the hypothesis.
BA: Could you could you infer the meaning from the name of the theory?
AGE: That would seem like some account, of what trauma is or something like that?
BA: It's related to dreams. So Erik Hoel basically put this forward without a mathematical formalism behind it but to make the theoretical argument he said, 'What if dreams are not unpacking things that we have already experienced? What if dreams are our brain's neural networks, pre-modeling potential scenarios that haven't happened yet in order to prevent overfitting during our waking conscious experience.'
AGE: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. It definitely feeds with a lot of our theories at QRI.
BA: Say more about how it makes sense and how it fits.
AGE: In our account, dreaming and sleeping is an annealing process. During the deep sleep, it sounds like you're resting, but actually in our account, that's actually like heating up your brain and adding a lot of entropy to it. The various stages of dreams at first are very chaotic and completely random but as the dream progresses, things become more and more meaningful. By the end of the dreams, when you wake up, you experience something that has a lot of rich symbolism, but it's not like your subconscious was a genius from the very beginning. I think during the actual process of dreaming, you're accumulating connections and possible sources of meaning.
BA: That is an idea about dreams that I've never heard before, that they become progressively more meaningful. Where did you come across this idea?
AGE: We thought of it.
BA: Have you tested this experimentally?
AGE: We haven't. It's something that would make sense and at least agrees with my experience.
BA: In what way do you record your dreams and analyze them?
AGE: I don't have that much discipline, the the most interesting phenomenology I have with regards to sleeping is I suffered quite a bit from sleep paralysis. I've taken a lot of notes on the nature of the paralysis. Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis?
BA: Maybe once or twice that I can picture but it's not something that I would say I struggled with.
AGE: Jim, have you?
JO: Yeah, for sure. Last time was maybe a few years ago.
BA: I have been trying to be more disciplined about recording my dreams recently and I found that there's a positive feedback mechanism for recall. I'm trying to record my dreams as quick as I can after waking up. And so in saying that, I'm noticing that my ability to recall seems to be increasing whether it's a placebo or not. As time goes on, I continue to do this a couple days a week.
*Others approach conversation*
AGE: I should probably tell them we're recording but I'm going to stop it so that we can speak clearly.
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