Self-Directed Qualia Research

We think the following projects would be particularly useful to QRI's mission.

We are happy to provide initial feedback and resources, but we do not have the capacity to actively manage volunteers working on these projects. No need to ask for permission to start working on one of them!

You can email with the subject line "Volunteer:[Project Name]" if you are interested in working on a particular project, or if you have an idea of your own! Please provide any specific technical or non-technical skills if relevant.

Potential Action Items

The way in which positive and negative valence is distributed may have far-reaching implications for establishing the best course of action for how to reduce suffering. From the results of the work on Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain, we realized two important things. The first is that prioritarian reasoning on how to minimize suffering tends to neglect negative extremes, and when it values them, it does so on a more qualitative basis. Consider how measures such as QALYs and the happiness index do not admit differences by orders of magnitude. And while suffering-focused ethics is an emerging field in EA, it does not usually aim to assign a precise value to how bad extreme suffering is. The kinds of paradigms explored in Logarithmic Scales may allow us to formalize this scale and bring it into consideration in ethics and medicine.

The second thing we found out was that the heuristic for looking at the negative extreme of the distribution is surprisingly generative for identifying promising interventions. The significance of doing this is baked into the fact that we are looking at the negative extreme (assuming a long-tail). The neglectedness comes from the fact that a long-tail distribution lens is very rarely used explicitly in utilitarian calculus. And the tractability comes from the fact that many extremely negative experiences have surprisingly simple treatments. For example, although not usually thought of as painkillers in the standard way, psychedelics have a surprisingly powerful capacity for tackling specific extremely negative states, such as cluster headaches, migraines, and anecdotally, intense pain associated with premenstrual syndrome and shingles. The research on these applications is scant, and in particular there hasn't been any formal research on the latter two. We are not confident about these research leads, but because they meet the criteria of significance, neglected, and tractable if true, under this heuristic they would seem very worthwhile to investigate. Likewise, we expect this approach to generate a lot of worthwhile research leads with potentially huge benefits to human welfare.

An emerging neuroscience paradigm that we take very seriously is the Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave (CSHW) decomposition of brain activity. This has been very illuminating as a tool to characterize various exotic states of consciousness (e.g. see recent work comparing traditional anaesthetics to ketamine). We think that applying this paradigm to non-human animals could also be very illuminating. In particular, we would love to see some work on modeling the connectome harmonics of flatworms and other small creatures. For example, does a CSHW decomposition work better as a dimensionality reduction technique relative to PCA and autoencoders? Is it more interpretable and does it explain a larger amount of variance? Do the CSHWs of flatworm become consonant if you give them exogenous opioids? Do they become dissonant when experiencing thirst and hunger? Optimistically, this kind of foundational research could be the basis for a cross-species science of consciousness.

Being a small organization, we're bandwidth-limited, and are most interested in focusing our efforts on supporting work done within the QRI paradigm (as outlined by our intellectual lineages).

The most important research project for which we need the most outside help is empirical validation of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. To do this, we need access to high-quality fMRI data of individuals experiencing strongly positive states. For example, data of people in high-valence states might involve studies that look into the brain activity characteristic of meditative Jhanas and Metta (loving-kindness), romantic love, orgasm, tasty flavors, euphoric drugs, and psychedelics. If you can provide us with such, please get in touch!

The following are some further projects on our radar that we'd be glad to find people to take the lead on.

Some experiences are orders of magnitude worse than others. In most cases, this is not the result of anyone's malice, but the consequence of biological accidents that lead to disproportionate negative valence responses. This is because evolution's output is not naturally subjected to rational hedonic audits. We are interested in identifying ways to identify and avoid these experiences.

While people can do all kinds of things to temporarily increase their sense of wellbeing, long-term substantial improvements are rarely achieved. We want to find ways to sustainably increase the baseline of hedonic tone:

Hermann von Helmholtz revolutionized music theory by using a hand-made glass-bulb with two openings and using wax to plug it into his ear in order to filter out all sound outside of a narrow frequency band. Doing this, he discovered that instrumental dissonance is the result of the added dissonance between the partials of the timbres of two given musical notes. This is to say that just because an experiment looks wacky does not mean it can't tell us very important things about why some things feel good and not others.

  • Characterize the hedonic response to various auditory stimuli while on different states of consciousness. For example, does green noise feel better, worse, or the same while drunk? Does harmonic reverb sound especially good while under the influence of THC? Are dissonant city sounds more bearable while on SSRIs?
  • Compile a list of large effect-sizes in the valence space. It would be useful to have a list of little-known non-drug interventions which often result in extremely high valence in order to use as targets for research;
  • Expand Atasoy's and QRI's work on Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves to studies in non-human animals. For example, measure the neuronal response of a C. Elegans to opioid agonists to see if the resulting state is high-valence according to its CDNS. Do worms wiggle harmoniously when happy? This kind of research could plausibly be a method for grounding work into animal suffering on a more formal basis.

Some states of consciousness are better for doing your taxes than others. But when it comes to aesthetic enjoyment, creativity, and open-ended explorations, are the “do taxes" states of consciousness really optimal? A very interesting research area is that of identifying novel applications for unusual states of consciousness. And as we saw in the How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD article, exotic state-spaces of consciousness could have unexpected information-processing benefits.

  • Develop a scale that measures the acute prosocial behavior induced by MDMA. Then identify people who are naturally high on that scale. With them you can then investigate the ways in which their naturally prosocial frame of mind influences their productivity and ability to adapt to high-trust social environments. Identify when such people are taken advantage of by others. This analysis would help us find ways to make a society with MDMA-like states of consciousness as the norm be game-theoretically robust.
  • Survey people in STEM fields about the insights or modes of understanding that they have been able to achieve thanks to alien state-spaces of consciousness (e.g. DMT-like states of consciousness may enhance the ability to study hyperbolic spaces for mathematicians).
  • Do research on the connection between beliefs in Open Individualism and acquaintance with various states of consciousness. In particular, how does e.g. exposure to 5-MeO-DMT-like states of consciousness influence a person's mood, social behavior, and big-picture beliefs?

We are very open to extensions of our work in creative directions.

  • Reinterpreting results from the QRI and IIT paradigms in terms of category theory. See: Tsuchiya et al. 2016;
  • Develop a consistent, formal, frame-invariant framework for ethics that integrates Game Theory, Rationality, and Open Individualism (Related: Write a Decision Theory FAQ that does not assume Closed Individualism).

Often, art is the most effective way to communicate, to teach, and to coordinate. We're looking for individuals with technical and aesthetic skills to help us on specific projects, including:

  • QRI-themed videos explaining key concepts.
  • Choreography designed for teaching the wallpaper groups.
  • Create software applications to help others make their own psychedelic cryptography messages.
  • Visualizations of QRI-ecosystem concepts. For example, these illustrations for understanding the ontologies for personal identity. Animations in this space would be useful as well.
  • Musicians: note and catalogue features of music which result in high valence states.

Every successful research project has a community around it. We really value efforts which help build and feed this community.

  • The easiest way to get involved: read our stuff, watch our videos, subscribe to our youtube channel.
  • Organize local meetups about our research.
  • Coordinate appearances on high-profile shows and podcasts.
  • Create QRI-related memes.