Pleasure and Pain are Long-Tailed

post by lsusr · 2021-09-09T05:10:18.883Z · LW · GW · 10 comments

Contents

  The Valence Scale
    
    
  The Science
    Pleasurable Experiences
    Painful Experiences
  Conclusions
None
10 comments

This post is derived from Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain by the Qualia Research Institute. Thank you Romeo Stevens [LW · GW] for introducing me to the cool work you're doing over there.


People have a certain baseline amount of happiness. Fix their problems, and they’ll be happy for a while, then go back to baseline. The only solution is to hack consciousness directly, to figure out what exactly happiness is – unpack what we’re looking for when we describe some mental states as having higher positive valence than others – and then add that on to every other mental state directly.

Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017 by Scott Alexander

If we want to cure suffering then we need a way to measure suffering.

The human brain does not, by default, reason in absolutes. We reason via ratios. The difference between 1 and 2 feels about the same as the difference between 100 and 200 even though the difference between 100 and 200 is 100× as large as the difference between 1 and 2. This is known as Weber's Law.

To put this in mathematical terms, we map everything onto a logarithmic scale and then compare distances on the log plot. On a log plot, the distance between 1 and 2 equals the distance between 100 and 200.

Weber's Law doesn't just apply to measurements of our external environment. It applies to subjective experience itself. When you combine Weber's Law with subjective reports of conscious experience we find that valence (the intensity of an experience) is long-tailed. Consciousness itself may be long-tailed too.

The Valence Scale

Are people intersubjectively consistent on the relative pleasure and pain caused by different things? Yes we are.

Pleasure

“Ok,” you might say, “you’re just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?” The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states.

You know how every instant is a priceless gift but it's hard to appreciate that fact? When I'm meditating regularly I consistently, after thirty minutes of focused attention, drop into a state where I appreciate it. (My default mode network turns off too.) I don't know where my experiences fall on the th Jhana ladder but I suspect there are meditative states way higher than what I've experienced. There are people who meditate for decades.

When I'm in a state of meditatively-heightened awareness I'm not just in a more blissful state. I feel qualitatively more conscious, which I mean in the "hard problem of consciousness" sense of the word. "Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life." Zen practitioners are often uninterested in LSD because it's possible to reach states that are indescribably more real and vivid than (regular) real life without ever leaving real life. (Zen is based around being totally present for real life. A Zen master meditates eyes open.) It is not unusual for proficient meditators to describe mystical experiences as at least 100× more conscious than regular everyday experience.

As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in multiples of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here,” one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience.” Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time and phenomenal space can drastically expand. In short, you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.

That sounds right to me.

Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (c.f., semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.

One way to describe ultra-bliss is as pure intense universal unconditional compassion toward everything you comprehend. I don't think this is the only kind of ultra-bliss. Different meditative techniques could produce different bliss states. But universal compassion seems like an easy one to describe to people who haven't "stood on the ragged edge of reality".

Pain

The horrifying flipside to "pleasure is incomprehensibly long-tailed" is that "pain is incomprehensibly long-tailed too". Trigeminal neuralgia is reported to be especially bad.

The explorers of the pain frontier are even crazier than the LSD users and the mountain yogis.

The Science

QRI created predictions based on the idea that valence is long-tailed.

  • That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.

  • That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e., that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).

  • That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference.” More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a ¿ b and b ¿ c implying that a ¿ c).

They surveyed a bunch of people on Mechanical Turk. They did a bunch of math to rank the surveyed experiences.

Most Pleasurable Experiences

Most Painful Experiences

I don't see "death of a child" on the list. I suspect it's because we live in a time period where child death is rare.

Conclusions

This paper is evidence my personal experience is a tiny parochial region of consciousness space. It reminds me I should do more meditation. It reminds me I should be helping out others in incomprehensible (to me) pain.

10 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Robbo · 2021-09-09T12:37:36.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for writing about this. It's a tremendously interesting issue. 

I feel qualitatively more conscious, which I mean in the "hard problem of consciousness" sense of the word. "Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life." Zen practitioners are often uninterested in LSD because it's possible to reach states that are indescribably more real and vivid than (regular) real life without ever leaving real life. (Zen is based around being totally present for real life. A Zen master meditates eyes open.) It is not unusual for proficient meditators to describe mystical experiences as at least 100× more conscious than regular everyday experience.

I'm very curious about the issue of what it means to say that one creature is "more conscious" than another--or, that one person is more conscious while meditating than while surfing Reddit. Especially if this is meant in the sense of "more phenomenally conscious". (I take it that you do mean "more phenomenally conscious", and that's what you are saying by invoking the hard problem. But let me know if that's not right). Can you say more about what you mean? Some background:

Pautz (2019) has been influential on my thinking about this kind of talk about 'more conscious' or 'level of conscious' or 'degree of consciousness'. Pautz distinguishes between many consciousness-related things that certainly do come in degrees. 

On the one hand, we have certain features of the particular character of phenomenally conscious experiences:

  • Intensity level (193)
    • A whisper is less intense than a heavy metal concert; faint pink is less intense than bright red.  And of course, certain pleasures and pains are more intense than others
  • Complexity level
    • The whiff of mint is a 'simpler' experience than visual experience of a bustling London street
  • Determinacy level
    • A tomato in the center of vision is represented more determinately than a tomato in the periphery
  • Access level
    • If you think that things can be more or less 'access' of phenomenal conscious experiences, then there might be some experiences that are not accessed, versus those that are fully accessed--e.g. something right in front of you that you are paying full attention to.

And then there is a 'global' feature of a creature's phenomenal consciousness:

  • Richness of experiential repertoire: the ‘number’ of distinct experiences (types and tokens) the creature has the capacity to have (194). Adult humans probably have a greater richness of experiential repertoire than a worm (if indeed worms are phenomenally conscious).

In light of this, my questions for you:

  1. Along which of these dimensions are you 'more' conscious when meditating? Would love to hear more. (I'm guessing: intensity, complexity, and access?)
  2. Do you think there is some further way in which you are 'more conscious', that is not cashed out in these terms? (Pautz does not, and he uses this to criticize Integrated Information Theory)

Finally: this post has inspired me to be more ambitious about exploring the broader regions of consciousness space for myself. ("Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different." -William James). And for that, I am grateful.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2021-09-09T18:29:30.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Though I wrote "while meditating", that language is misleading. The effects persist after meditation. They are often most salient immediately after meditation since, while meditating, I am too focused on meditating to appreciate the effects.

When I have a consistent mediation practice, I am more conscious along the intensity, complexity and access dimensions. I feel more conscious along the experiential repertoire too, but that might be more subjective. What do you mean by "determinacy"? I don't understand your definition.

I would be surprised if there weren't other ways I am more conscious after meditation that isn't included under your terms, but this is a notoriously difficult experience to describe.

comment by alexgieg · 2021-09-09T16:15:56.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looking at the pain scale, I guess I'm somewhat atypical. On the pleasurable experiences I had, I'd order them such:

  • 0.0: College graduation (I haven't really felt it as anything special)
  • 0.2: Alcohol consumption (but I haven't gotten really drunk)
  • 1.0 to 3.0: Male orgasm (kinda meh most of the time, sometimes good)
  • 2.0: Tongue orgasm from a skilled kisser
  • 4.0 to 6.0: Female orgasm (the first one is 4.0, successive ones being more and more intense until it plateaus at 6.0 on the 8th orgasm or so)

(Yes, I've had the last one despite being 100% a cis-male. Let's attribute it to "the magics" and leave it at that.)

And on the pain scale, the worst tooth ache I've ever had was way stronger that when my gallbladder was almost rupturing, so I think it'd go like this:

  • 1.0: ear infection
  • 1.0 to 3.0: tooth ache, lower back pain
  • 2.5: gallbladder going kaput
  • 3.0: the most impacting death in family
  • 4.0: heartbreak
Replies from: lsusr, niplav
comment by lsusr · 2021-09-09T18:22:58.606Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I skipped my own college graduation.

Replies from: alexgieg
comment by alexgieg · 2021-09-09T18:54:37.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ditto, or more precisely, no one from my graduation class has any interest in paying for one, so we all got our certificates by mail. I suppose it helps that most everyone was 30+, and the major was Philosophy, neither of which predisposes one to care much about such things, much less when put together.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2021-09-09T19:09:01.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I majored in physics and graduated at 22. I think the common threads are that neither of our majors are highly-employable on their own and that our graduations were never in doubt. Someone who struggled through a valuable degree would be in a different position.

comment by niplav · 2021-09-09T18:00:07.820Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tongue orgasm

I'm intrigued – google gives only porn videos as search results.

Also, I assume you mean a P-spot orgasm when you say "female orgasm"?

Replies from: alexgieg
comment by alexgieg · 2021-09-09T19:09:07.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm intrigued – google gives only porn videos as search results.

The tongue is very sensitive. A very skilled kisser knows how to intensely stimulate the top of their partner's tongue with theirs while French kissing, to the point one or both of them get a very specific kind of orgasm different from any other. In my case I got spasms while washed in endorphins, which took several minutes to subside. :-)

Also, I assume you mean a P-spot orgasm when you say "female orgasm"?

No, I mean actual female orgasm. I can provide exactly zero evidence for this, which on LW is a particularly huge no-no, but if mentioning a little bit of mystic experiences isn't too much of a problem I can say there are Tantra masters out there who can induce some pretty interesting experiences on suitable students, one of which is, on male-bodied ones, those of having a full set of phantom limb representatives of female genitalia complete with the mental experience of female orgasms (as well as of male genitalia on female-bodied students). This is linked to advanced Karmamudrā techniques.

comment by Random Ambles (random-ambles) · 2021-09-21T02:50:07.997Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What if it's not transitive?

Wouldn't that kinda throw a wrench in the idea of modeling it as continuous scale?

comment by Milli · 2021-09-13T18:58:58.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting article.

An oddity I noticed is that the statistics ranks "Sexual Assault" equal to "Aunt Death". That seems wrong to me and might be due to the (hopefully) low sample size.

The original article doesn't mention the oddity either.

But that got me thinking of where "Sexual Assault" would / should rank in "Painful Experiences". Does anyone have insight into that or can direct me to a post?