This post originated in a comment I posted about a strange and unpleasant experience I had when pushing myself too hard mentally.  People seemed interested in hearing about it, so I sat down to write.  In the process, however, it became something rather different (and a great deal longer) than what I originally intended.  The incident referred to in the above comment was a case of manic focus gone wrong; but the truth is, often in my life it's gone incredibly right.  I've gotten myself into some pretty strange headspaces, but through discipline and quick thinking I have often been able to turn them to my advantage and put them to good use.

Part 1, then, lays out a sort of cognitive history, focusing on the more extreme states I've been in.  Part 2 continues the narrative; this is where I began to learn to ride them out and make them work for me.  Part 3 is the incident in question: where I overstepped myself and suffered the consequences.

Some of you, however, may want to skip ahead to part 4 (unless you find my autobiographical writings interesting as a case study).  There, I've written a proposal for a series of posts about how to effectively use the full spectrum of somatic and cognitive states to one's advantage.  I have vacillated for a long time about this, for reasons that will be discussed below, but I decided that if I was already laying this much on the line, I might as well take it a step further.  Read if you will; and if you're interested, please say so.

Part 1: My cognitive background

Let's start with full disclosure: there is madness in my family.  My father was an alcoholic; it was clear to all of us that he also had some other psychological issues, but I never fully learned the details.  My sister has been variously diagnosed with depression, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, etc, and has a breakdown about three or four times a year.  My brother is also bipolar.  He's had two manic episodes so far; he became psychotic during the first one, and both times he's been hospitalized.  And then there's me: the sane, dependable one.

That's what I thought, anyway, until my brother had his first episode and I started to look back on my own history.  I'd always regarded myself as rather unusual, certainly, but basically stable.  But seeing full-blown psychosis for the first time, and within my own family at that, gave new definition and clarity to some of the experiences I had had.  My first episode happened when I was in my senior year of high school.  I had been getting into New Age for about six months, reading rather credulously the work of one Dr. Joshua David Stone, author of the Ascension Manual and a number of other books inspired primarily by theosophy.  I had not thought much about spirituality since renouncing God at the age of twelve, yet a vague unease had led me to begin seeking.  Once I got started, I just ate it up; yet the vague unease persisted.  I did my best to believe and to perform the meditative exercises, and for the most part I did, but it just wasn't sitting quite right.

During winter break of that year, I began reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.  Now, here was something new: Pirsig rejected the analytic method as the sole arbiter of truth, yet he was also clearly uncomfortable with holism and spirituality.  In fact, he seemed uncomfortable with all his ideas: they had come to him during a period of degenerating mental illness, culminating in a nervous breakdown and subsequent electroshock therapy.  Yet rather than dismiss these ideas, he seemed determined to confront them and grapple with them, to sift for genuine insights among the delusions.  Even more interesting was his rhetorical style: rather than simply stating his ideas, as is typical in a philosophical treatise, he would present problems first - present them as problems, really convince the reader that these were questions worth thinking about - and then move on to something else, only proposing solutions several pages later.  This forced me to really think, for the first time in what seemed like ages.  It was exciting; I couldn't put the book down.

And this is where the trouble started: I really couldn't put the book down.  It was as though the mental stimulation afforded by ZAMM had pushed me over the lip of an energy barrier, and I was now in an incredible downhill rush.  My thoughts raced, day and night, about the nature of reality.  New Age was the first thing to go: I could hardly believe my own unthinking credulity, and I summarily rejected what Dr. Stone had taught me.  I also, however, rejected everything else I had thought I knew, eventually concluding that I wasn't sure if I existed; and then on further examination, unable to find any fundamental ground of reality, I departed from Descartes and concluded that even I did not exist, that all was illusion.

I began to withdraw, although I felt I was surging with mental energy.  For the next few months, I spent most of my time in my room, either staring at nothing and pondering or else writing frantic screeds about philosophical matters.  Eventually one of my few remaining social contacts managed to get a grudging confession out of me of my own existence, but I wasn't out of the woods yet.  The following months brought paranoia, existential anxiety, delusions of grandeur.  It was at its worst during the summer: I began to feel that I was trapped in reality, in some sense, and that there were beings outside the universe - previous escapees - who were sending me telepathic messages in an effort to help me escape as well.  I even had one brief moment of hallucination, once: waiting on my bicycle at an intersection, the traffic light shimmered silvery-blue, like an arc of liquid electricity creeping across the surface, and then returned to normal.

Well, if I had told my family about this, I might have ended up medicated; but I put on a straight face, and I kept my grades up despite the inclination to up and head for the hills, so no one ever really noticed.  I think this is why I had never considered this a mental disorder: there was a part of my mind that always kept me in check, making sure to perform all necessary maintenance operations while I lost my shit.  Next thing I knew I was in university, doing remarkably well; the sudden change of scenery and the newfound freedom of living in a major city, as well as increased social contact with a variety of new people, seemed to stabilize me.  I still maintained an interest in spirituality and the occult, but I had learned my lesson: I regarded everything I read as only a hypothetical, perhaps something to be tested but never to be strongly affirmed.

And then, just as suddenly as it had come, my energy departed.  After a stellar first year, I spent the next several years holed up in my room on my computer, not going to class nor doing much else.  Even after I became aware of the problem, I found I could not pull myself out of it, no matter how hard I tried.  This all went about as well as you could expect, and I almost got kicked out of school a couple times.

Part 2: How I learned to stop worrying and use my madness

My second episode began when my father died, and it never really ended.  Our relationship had not been uniformly or even predominantly negative, but it had certainly been complicated, and I felt he held me back in a lot of subtle ways; it was like I was pulling against an elastic tether, and the day he died, it finally snapped.  The school term (and my tenancy in the student residence) was just wrapping up at this time, so on a momentary whim I decided to move to another city where some friends of mine lived; within a week I was unpacking in my new room.  Said friends were heavily into the occult, particularly the work of Aleister Crowley and assorted characters, who take a (selectively) skeptical approach to occultism, even going so far as to suggest that it is more a tool for self-analysis and self-change than anything else.  For the following several months, therefore, I would be inundated with messages of self-improvement and introspective understanding of one's own mind.

So, possessed with a desperate fervour, I began to practice yoga, meditation and ritual magic, attempting to use them as cognitive levers.  At the same time, suddenly deprived of my father's financial support, I struggled to make ends meet, working awful temp labour jobs for minimum wage.  At any time I could have packed up and returned to live with my mother, but I dimly perceived a higher presence urging me onward, promising wisdom and power if I could learn self-discipline against difficult odds.  During this time, I would occasionally have moments of incredible clarity and expansiveness, overwhelmed by the beauty around me and more strongly aware of invisible presences guiding the events in my life, seemingly benevolent yet somewhat harsh in their methods.  Sometimes I would even talk to or argue with myself, addressing darker parts of my psyche as separate entities as described in certain recensions of demonic invocation.

And yet, this time something was different.  This time, I saw exactly how crazy this all was.  The solution, then, was simple: I simply did not attach any definite ontological state to what I was experiencing.  As long as there was some part of me still grounded in the mundane, refusing to judge these entities as separate intelligences or as aspects of myself or even just as figments of my imagination, I could simply follow them along and evaluate the results.  Rather surprisingly, the results were uniformly good: I was learning a great deal about how the world worked as well as my own constitution; the challenges I faced were difficult but surmountable, which boosted my confidence; and my overall life satisfaction dramatically increased.  I learned to push through serious discomfort - physical, emotional or mental - if it was beneficial to do so.  And I learned how to pay attention to my extremes of mental excitation: how to encourage them, how to use them, and how to keep them in check when necessary.

Urged on by my visions, I returned to school with new dedication and discipline, which blossomed into a deep and abiding love of mathematics.  A year later, it was a vision that compelled me to ride my bicycle from Ontario to Georgia, an incredible and life-changing experience which also introduced me to communal and alternative living as I met people along the way.  It was another vision that compelled me to start my own communal house, where I am living happily to this day, and it was yet another vision that caused me to finally sit down and learn physics.  And this is only a small selection of the ways in which arational impulses and visionary experiences have improved my life; they've also contributed to the development of my social skills, to my construction of a broad circle of friends and acquaintances, even to my moral development.  They've also been highly entertaining: I have something of a penchant for the bizarre and mindbending, after the fashion of Philip K. Dick or David Cronenberg, and it's all the more exciting if it appears to be really happening.

More interestingly, visionary experiences have often furnished me with new and interesting ideas.  In the worst case, these ideas turn out to be totally absurd and useless, and I dismiss them easily, no harm done.  In some cases, the ideas are dead ends but for very subtle reasons; in these cases, I often learn a great deal in trying to work them out.  But in many cases, the ideas have proven to hold water even after I come down, perhaps after a little revision and formalization.  The most recent of these was a game theoretic analysis of the relationship between government and citizen, which may end up as another post.  Another time, I had a direct and visceral experience of living in a Tegmark universe, several years before I even heard of the idea - but we'll get to that.

At any rate, I've benefited a great deal from arational urges verging on madness.  But there is one more tale to tell: the time I pushed myself too far off balance and suffered the consequences.

Part 3: How it turned around and bit me

This happened a little over two years ago.  I had a psychedelic experience (legal highs only, of course) in which it was suggested that I investigate the topology of consciousness.  Sounds a little crazy, but as mentioned, I've found a lot of value in the process of wrestling with these kinds of ideas, trying to make them work.  Along for the trip was a man I had never met, who would become one of my closest friends.  He had studied in some detail biology, physics, scattered mathematics, logic, and a variety of other technical fields.  Not knowing what reaction I would get, I started talking to him about my idea.  He became excited and began feeding back clever angles I might not have otherwise considered.  As the conversation continued we fed off each other, growing more and more animated.  Finally I stormed out onto the porch to have a cigarette.  My mind was racing; this was the most brilliant idea ever!  It was essential that I study this.  But how would I support myself?  The university was a good bet, but what department would I take it to?  Which would be just crazy enough to fund me while I work on something this weird?

And then all of a sudden something felt terribly wrong.  Like metaphysical poison, unbearable dysphoria flowed into my entire being.  The strength left my limbs, and I sat down, briefly certain I was going to die.  Fortunately I quickly recognized this as an entirely common and much-parodied psychedelic trope, and after confirming that my vital signs were good, I crawled off to the bathroom to lie on the floor until I started to feel better.

Looking back, I believe what happened was this: although I had gained some experience in effectively managing my more extreme mental states, I was accustomed to doing this in something of a vacuum; I didn't know anyone else who was interested in the things I was interested in.  But my new friend acted as an amplifier, and I needed new cognitive tools to recognize the threat and contain myself accordingly.  In the meantime, though, I was terribly excited despite the bad trip and determined to begin on the project I had been given.

I quickly determined that I would need to understand physics better; all I had was Newtonian mechanics supplemented by pop science articles about relativity and quantum physics.  So I began to study, with a passion.  I bought some textbooks, found a number of physics courses on YouTube - quite a few of them, something like 150-200 hours in total - and began to spend all my free time giving myself a full, if a little sketchy, undergraduate physics education, condensed into about six months.  And this was while I was also in university courses.  To round it off, I started taking psychedelics on a regular basis.  The character of my trips became darker and less euphoric, but they helped me develop richer intuitions for the systems I was learning about, and sometimes suggested new insights.  I felt I was making good progress, and so despite feeling that I was stretched a little thin, I pushed further.  Meanwhile, I withdrew from everything except school and my project, and the isolation began to take its toll.

This culminated eventually in my Tegmark vision: I felt I saw the entire mathematical universe, a densely connected fabric of causality with our own universe embedded within it.  Deduction, duality, emergence, simulation, and other such operations were seen as directions in this space.  I felt there was a kind of knot or defect in the Tegmark space, along the lines of circular causation but vastly more subtle, somehow embedded in the structure of causality itself, and that this was how anything manages to exist in the first place.  Needless to say, I threw caution to the wind and redoubled my efforts after this, certain I was approaching a significant discovery.

And that's when I got swine flu.  No joke.

For three days I was unable to keep anything down but juice and tylenol.  My fever was unbearable, and it got so bad at one point that I called 911, worried I might be dying - the one and only time I have ever called them for myself.  Worst of all was the delirium: I hallucinated tiny quantum particle interactions, repeated over and over for hours in terrifying slowness and silence.  I had visions of plagues sweeping the planet.  I realized that this cold, mechanistic empty thing was all there was to reality, and there was not even the benefit of some kind of invisible being revealing this to me; I was just some poor schmuck who had discovered it by accident.

The fever broke, but for almost a month afterward I was weak and sickly, unable to stand for long without getting dizzy.  During this time, I could not bear to think about math or physics or the mind; it triggered a kind of psychic nausea reaction.  But the damage had already been done: I felt restless and anxious and desperate even as the physical symptoms abated, and although I was in fact functioning at peak capacity in purely practical matters - driven mainly by a sense of desperation - my social life and my mental wellbeing began to suffer.  I started having panic attacks for the first time in my life.  I felt like I was being tormented by some demonic influence (figuratively, in this case); life was tolerable at best and harsh and brutal at worst.

The mental state I had been maintaining, it seems, was a fragile one.  It gave me a great deal of energy and dedication, which I was able to use to greatly enrich my understanding of the world, but it relied too heavily on nothing else going wrong in my life.  It was like I had been building a tall but flimsy tower on a fault line, and when the earthquake finally hit - in the form of the flu - it all violently collapsed.

It took a year of damage control to finally return myself to stability, which takes us close to the present; I remember distinctly a particular day in September when I realized I finally felt completely at ease.  In the months since then I have taken great pleasure in pursuing my degree, cultivating a new interest in applied mathematics.  The old questions still linger, and I return to them for inspiration, but I take a more relaxed approach to my researches.  My friend and I have discussed the feedback loops we get into, and through shared awareness we now keep our oscillations suitably damped.  Most importantly, I have learned how to keep myself balanced.  I still allow myself to go into ecstatic states, but in short bursts and with frequent breaks.

Conclusion: A proposal

I'm told that Bertrand Russell was once asked: "But haven't you ever had any mystical experiences?"  "Why, yes," he replied, "I ignored them."  He had convinced himself, through rigourous argumentation, that there was nothing in the spectrum of supernatural phenomena that stood up to scrutiny; and so when faced with peak experiences, he simply disregarded them as cognitive artefacts and glitches.  I'm in no place to disagree with him about the supernatural; I have some finicky ontological and epistemic quibbles with materialism as usually stated, but I regard it as basically correct.  I do wonder, though, if he was too extreme in his reaction.

I won't rehash the usual arguments linking madness and creativity, but I do want to call attention to the link.  The consensus on Less Wrong seems to be that spirituality in the experiential sense is a cognitive glitch in and of itself.  I suggest, on the contrary, that it is a somewhat glitchy and kludgy tendency nevertheless serving a useful cognitive purpose.  I have always been struck by the fact that the revelations and felt presences I have experienced seem just as clever and aware as I am, sometimes even more so.  I don't mean to suggest anything supernatural by this; it is more likely that they are personified representations of my own unconscious ability to recognize patterns and solve hard problems.

The ability to loosen one's associations and build bridges between disparate ideas seems to help us solve problems not amenable to direct, formal computation: to intuit mathematical truths before sitting down to prove them, for example, or to recognize that a pattern seen in one system is reflected in another, totally unrelated system.  A state of mental excitation, even to the point of fervour, is also useful for overcoming akrasia, and promotes the quick thinking necessary when you don't have time to sit around and compute.  If this is the case, then there is considerable benefit to be had in learning to depart from rationality in a safe and controlled manner.  I say safe and controlled because, as we have seen, there are real dangers in overextending oneself; but with proper technique, I believe these dangers can be minimized while still reaping the benefits.

If Less Wrong is simply about improving our techniques of rationality, then much of our work is already done: the voluminous Sequences encode both the core ideas and many of the consequences of good critical thinking, and we are left quibbling about subtleties of anthropic reasoning and speculating about AI design.  If, however, we wish to use every advantage afforded by our mental constitution, then we should be studying ecstasy and passion.  In fact, this generalizes to a wide variety of affective states; indeed, there have been some posts mentioning more effective managing of emotions, social skills, and so on, but not many concrete suggestions have been made.  This is not surprising: much of the scientific research that has been done on emotions is either about business-as-usual or about treating serious pathologies.

The truth is, there are in fact techniques out there which seem to work.  I'm perhaps an unusual case in that I already had some extreme cognitive states to work with, but these techniques have served me well, and they also seem to have worked well for other friends of mine who have tried them.  Nevertheless, I've been reluctant to post them, for one major reason: they're cranky as hell.  Many of them come from spiritual, religious or occult sources, and it can be a little tricky to tease apart the techniques from the metaphysical beliefs (the best case, perhaps, is the Buddhist system, which holds (roughly) that the unenlightened mind can't truly understand reality anyway, so you'd best just shut up and meditate).  Nevertheless, these traditions have decades or even centuries of experience in inducing altered states of consciousness, and with a good cognitive hazmat suit we can pick out really effective techniques among the more fanciful detritus.

So, with little to lose, I'm putting this out there: I have a fair bit of experience with this sort of thing, and I can start posting about it if people are interested.  I've done my best to filter out the woo-woo from a lot of it, and to get feedback from other people attempting similar techniques, but due to limited data it is sometimes difficult to separate what is actually effective from what is extraneous.  So, fair warning: you'd be getting this in a rather rough and inexact form.  For this reason, I would encourage everyone to analyze and critique what I post - and, more importantly, to experiment and report back their results.

To give you a sense of what I have planned:

  • Roadmap of the emotions: a post, or series of posts, attempting to categorize affective states in a more or less natural way, with an eye to neurochemistry.  How to recognize particular emotions, how to induce them, how to keep them in check, what they're good for, and when they're not so good.
  • Effective use of the body: the benefits of particular kinds of exercise, how to develop muscle memory, how to construct good practice drills.  Also some suggestions for what kinds of body awareness rationalists should develop: I believe, for example, that learning a martial tradition is of significant benefit even if you never have to use it.
  • Reprogramming the nervous system: recognizing and dealing with deep-seated cognitive blocks, traumas, pathologies, etc.  If you're accustomed to being a social outcast from an early age, for example, any interaction with strangers will tend to trigger anxiety and hinder the establishment of rapport.
  • How to step outside the rational box without going off the deep end.  Essentially, techniques for maintaining a lifeline back to normality so you can explore the further reaches of the psyche in some degree of safety.

I have some other ideas, but in a more inchoate form, so I'll leave it at that: this, then, is my pitch.  I'd rather not clutter the main page with this stuff if it's going to bother people, but at least a few have expressed interest in hearing about it, and so if there's broader support I will proceed.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
122 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:47 PM
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

You should definitely write at least the first post in this attempted sequence; either it will work or it won't.

Though I will advise that you lead with your strongest and most useful point - you can try writing things in an optimal educational order after that; first you have to hook your readers.

I was thinking that how not to go irrevocably awry would be the best topic to cover first, assuming the other stuff works for most people. But it would be hard to care about that material, since I doubt that assumption.
Thanks for the suggestion; I'll definitely keep that in mind as I'm writing.

First of all, thank you so much for posting this. I've been contemplating composing a similar post for a while now but haven't because I did not feel like my experience was sufficiently extensive or my understanding was sufficiently deep. I eagerly anticipate future posts.

That said, I'm a bit puzzled by your framing of this domain as "arational." Rationality, at least as LW has been using the word, refers to the art of obtaining true beliefs and making good decisions, not following any particular method. Your attitude and behavior with regard to your "mystical" experiences seems far more rational than both the hasty enthusiasm and reflexive dismissal that are more common. Most of what my brain does might as well be magic to me. The suggestion that ideas spoken to you by glowing spirit animals should be evaluated in much the same way as ideas that arise in less fantastic (though often no less mysterious) ways seems quite plausible and worthy of investigation. You seem to have done a good job at keeping your eye on the ball by focusing on the usefulness of these experiences without accepting poorly thought out explanations of their origins.

It may be the ca... (read more)

I'm a newly registered member of LW (long-time lurker) and was thinking of posting about this very topic. Like many in the community, I have a background in science / math / philosophy, but unlike many, I have also spent many years working to understand what Jasen calls the "Buddhist claim" experientially (i.e. through meditation) and being involved with the contemporary traditions that emphasize attaining that understanding. I see myself as an "insider" straddling both communities, well-situated to talk about what Buddhists are going on about regarding "self" and "not-self" and enlightenment in a way that would be highly comprehensible to people who frame the world in a contemporary scientific way.

Specifically, I was considering a three-part series along these lines:

1) Highly abridged history of Buddhist thought concerning "insight" meditation and the insight into "no-self"; overview of contemporary secular traditions focusing on attaining this insight. Risks and benefits of pursuing it.

2) Case study: Have 1500 years of Buddhist tradition yielded a novel testable model of an aspect of human psychological development?

3) Ho... (read more)

Welcome! Please do this. I'm interested. From the FAQ:
Thanks for pointing the rule about karma out to me. I've got 10 points so far, 10 more to go...
Awesome, I'm very interested in sharing notes, particular since you've been practicing meditation a lot longer than I have. I'd love to chat with you on Skype if you have the time. Feel free to send me an email at if you'd like to schedule a time.
Great, I'll send you an email in a day or two (things are rather busy on my end, apologies) and we'll work something out!
I'm very interested too!
These are some interesting points. I meant "arational" in the sense that our actions are arational - rationally motivated, perhaps, but it would be incorrect to say that the action itself is either rational or irrational, hence it's arational. What intrigues me is the fact that these arational phenomena are deeply embedded in the way our minds are structured, and therefore can perhaps inform and augment the process of rationality. Indeed, some of them may be extremal states of the same systems that allow us to be rational in the first place. I'd definitely like to see this post on Buddhism; you seem to have an excellent grasp on it.
I agree with Jasen. I don't think Skatche's (fascinating) story is an account of much arationality. Rationality is about having true beliefs and achieving your goals, not about acting like Spock.

How to step outside the rational box without going off the deep end. Essentially, techniques for maintaining a lifeline back to normality so you can explore the further reaches of the psyche in some degree of safety.

I developed some of these!

I had a manic episode as well, but it was induced by medication and led to hypersocial behavior. I quickly noticed that I was having bizarre and sudden convictions, and started adopting heuristics to deal with them. I thought I was normal, or even better than normal. Then I realized that such a thought was very abnormal for me, and compensated.

Mania, for me, was like thinking in ALL CAPS ABOUT THINGS I USUALLY IGNORED. It was suddenly giving credence to religion not because I ceased to be an atheist, but because WE ARE ALL CONNECTED REALLY! It was fuzzy thinking, but damned if it didn't make people like me more for a bit. It was looking people IN THE EYE, BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT TRUST AND SOCIAL COMMUNICATION IS ALL ABOUT, all the time, when I am normally shy of eye contact.

(If you find the CAPSLOCK intrusions in the above paragraph annoying, imagine THINKING THIS WAY and you begin to see why mania is a very tiring thing and NOT RECOMMENDED u... (read more)

These are great. Do you mind if I incorporate them into the relevant post when the time comes?
Anybody curious about experiencing similar things need only use Marijuana or K-2. Analyzing and overcoming/working around altered mental states is a worthwhile practice, in my opinion. It teaches you to not trust your mind in the way that boot-camp teaches you to be a soldier.

This post doesn't easily motivate its assertion that there are benefits to unusual states of mind. Angels might not speak to you with white noise, and their ideas could potentially have some use, just as writings of philosophers could potentially have some use, but that's not enough to decide that reading philosophy or speaking to angels in your head (let alone growing new ones) is a good use of your resources. Practice creative skills, and you won't need no angels.


What do you mean by 'creative skills'?

Definitely do these posts. I am somewhat skeptical, since my own experience with mystical practices (mostly from Buddhism) haven't provided me with many benefits, but I am enormously interested in your case, since you indicate you actually have had major successes. I look forward to reading them and trying them out.

On a little picky note, I wouldn't describe what you're talking about as "arational". Rational thought processes lead to correct beliefs, and effective actions. As long as that happens, I call it rational.

I'm interested in your plan for a sequence, but I can't get a good feeling for how useful your experiences will be to me -- to what extent the language you use will be close enough to the language that I might use to describe such experiences in order to help me pull additional cognitive levers.

For this reason, I agree with Eliezer's point, but want to be a bit more specific: post the things which I am most likely to see concrete results from as soon as you can.

Can you post references to new mathematical (or philosophical) proofs that you have solved so we can check the assertion that such altered states are beneficial? Have the results been peer reviewed or published (not that them not being peer-reviewed or published makes them any less valid but this gives a baseline of that others have checked your work)?

Also, what was your reasoning for doubting that you exist? How was Descartes proof insufficient?

It's essentially circular. It assumes an "I" from the start. If you get rid of that assumption, you have to start with "something is thinking." That's been acknowledged in philosophical circles for some time now, but I don't think many philosophers regard it as an important problem anymore. It's about as safe an assumption as you can possibly make. Seconding your main request, I've heard more people than I care to recall claim inspiration from altered states of consciousness, but it would be a first to have anyone present one that's novel and demonstrably true.
If anyone wants to google this, keywords are "nonduality" and "Advaita". It probably deserves a memetic hazard warning, though.
Kary Mullis invented PCR while on LSD
According to his wikipedia page, he claims that he found the use of LSD mind opening, that he believes it helped him come up with the idea for PCR, and that he doubts he would have come up with it if he never used LSD, but it doesn't say that he came up with it while on LSD, and I would take it as implied that he did not. This does shift my prior in favor of LSD having been useful to him in developing PCR, but not a whole lot, because there's such an abundance of evidence for people having poor self assessment regarding the propensity of drugs to aid their thinking. Even a non-blinded experiment which compared some measure of intellectual productivity of an experiment group on drugs to a control group that wasn't would do a lot more to change my assessment (and it is awfully hard to adequately blind subjects to whether or not they're taking real hallucinogens.)
Do you have a source for that? I remember reading in his book that the idea came to him in a flash while he was driving on the freeway. It could be my memory of what he wrote is mistaken, or he's just that kind of crazy guy, but driving on the freeway implies not tripping on LSD.
Oh, would that it were so.
Well, I've written a few poems and passages of longer prose that came out reasonably well and have joined the collection of "things I'm working on to submit to publishers" while on various drugs. That might just about count. Also, is fun itself not enough to justify something being a Good Thing?
Provided there's nothing else to counterbalance it, but if what drugs provide is only fun, then arguing for them on any grounds other than fun is disingenuous.
Yes, that's very true. I have found, in my personal and not at all even a little bit scientific personal experience, that altered states can be very good indeed for what people who write (I don't paint or practice higher mathematics or any of the other relevant things, so I shan't presume to comment on them) call the creative process. But then, maybe this isn't the right place for talking about The Creative Process, which I suppose is a nebulous and rather wanky sort of a term even if it is something very dear to my heart.
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 16
The message here doesn't seem truly novel, but 'You will survive through sex reassignment surgery' must at least count as unusual. The story also illustrates how the word "I" can conceal any number of unsafe assumptions. Clearly part of the author knew more than she thought she did. (And the part about her childhood memories seems credible though not strictly proven.)
I thought the standard answer to this problem was that "think" confers "me-ness" - if you could observe "someone thinks" the way that Descartes observed it (introspection on the thought process) then you are that someone. The flipside is that you can't know that others are thinking, because you have no ability to introspect on their thoughts.
It might be more appropriate to say "something appears to be thinking." Perhaps in the chaotic mass of whatever-exists-ness, a random collision of entities has produced something that feels from the inside like thoughts and memories of a past, but has no continuity. I suppose you could say that the entity is still "I," even if it's divorced from your conception of yourself, but I think a better solution is to not entertain the notion at all.
Try "thinking is happening" and "observing is happening". No entity required.
Yeah, this clarifies what I thought on the matter - although it touches on anthropic reasoning, so I guess it isn't a standard answer. For the record, it would look something like: * "Thinking is happening" entails " "Thinking is happening" is being observed". * " "Thinking is happening" is being observed" entails "observing is happening". * "Observing is happening" entails the existence of an observer (existential claim, can't find the symbol, would be "There exists an x such that x is an observer") * Some further work on the concept of "me" or "I" would define it in terms of observer-property, some argument from denying "me"-ness of observer requires multiple observers, etc.
Putting this in formal logic, it only works if "being observed" is defined from the two-place predicate "x is observing y". We could also use a one-place predicate, "x is observed". So it's still not totally free of assumptions, so to speak. The point is, Decart was supposedly doubting everything; so this particular argument, while decent, is not so unusually decent as to justify being held up as the one undoubted thing.
I feel like the existence of an observer is a necessary condition for "x is observed" to be true - but that is again anthropics, and so fully fleshing out this argument might take more than a comment,
The nonexistence thing was an error of judgment. In retrospect, it originated in an unconscious assumption I was making that there must be some ground to reality, a kind of "bottom level" of which everything else is epiphenomenal. A materialist might look to quantum fields to fill that role, but when I rejected all my former beliefs, that included my belief in an external reality independent of perception. So all I was left with was thought and sensory experience, and as they were interdependently defined, rather than any one aspect taking ontological primacy, I concluded that they - and hence I - must not exist. There are any number of holes in this argument, but that's how I was thinking at the time. Unfortunately I'm not yet at the point where I have papers published. For the most part the ideas that come to me in peak states are not specific, easily formalizable facts. In some cases they are directives to do certain things (like the bike trip mentioned in my original post); in other cases, they give a broad direction to my studies. The Tegmark vision is one example: higher category theory seems like it could furnish me with the tools to formally analyze the mathematical universe (or parts thereof) as a topological space; but since my knowledge of category theory is rather patchy, for now I'm simply working on learning some more of the prerequisites (I just finished a course in algebraic topology). Two cases spring to mind, however, of fairly specific and well-polished ideas that have come from peak experiences. One was a metric on the space of events over a given probability space; it popped into my head as I was waking from a dream during the peak of my mania. If you're interested: for events A and B, we can define d(A,B)=1-P(A|B)P(B|A). You can check that it satisfies the properties of a metric [EDIT: This doesn't actually work, as Sniffnoy pointed out below]; couldn't say for sure whether it's useful for anything, since I got swine flu shortly after that, a
This doesn't appear to actually be true. :-/ Say we take our probability space to be [0,1], and we take A=[0,2/3], C=[1/3,1], and B=[0,1]. Then d(A,B)=d(B,C)=1/3, so d(A,B)+d(B,C)=2/3, but d(A,C)=3/4>2/3. Any ideas on how to fix? (Also strictly speaking it would be a pseudometric on the set of positive probability events, with two events being equivalent if they differ by a set of probability 0, but that's nitpicking.)
Eeeesh. You're right. In my defense, I think I checked the properties while I was still half-asleep, and I must have fudged the triangle inequality. I fiddled with it a bit, but couldn't find any obvious way to make it work. Thanks for your correction.

Happens to the best of us. However, it is worth emphasising that you have provided little evidence with your writing that the actual ideas coming from peak experiences are worth much. You have provided a great deal of indication that the motivational aspect of these ideas is useful, though.

You may be right. I will have to think about this. A lot of the imperative ideas ("Go do this!") that I've had while manic have had decidedly positive results - notably my bike trip to Georgia and the decision to devote a lot more of my time and mental energy to mathematics, founding the communal house I currently live in, but I'm going to have to try and remember some concrete examples of declarative ideas that have come to me in that state before I continue to make that claim.
BTW, I must say I would love to hear about the founding of this communal house, even if this isn't necessarily the place for it.
I was thinking about how to calculate a metric on a probability space. One thing that makes sense is Arccos( P(A|B) P(B|A)) . This is the metric you get if you view events as vectors in a Hilbert space and look at the angle between the two vectors, angle, of course, being a metric. It generalizes to the space of random variables in general, which is where I first discovered it. There you get Arccos ( E(XY)^2/ E(X^2) E(Y^2) ) Just on probability events, I think one thing that also makes sense is - Log (P(A|A or B)P(B|A or B)). This should be a metric and should have geodesics in the space of events. The geodesic between A and B passes through (A or B). But I don't have as clear an argument as to why this works. So your idea isn't actually that far from correct, if you look at my angle idea.

This relates to something I've been arguing hereabouts since before the founding of Less Wrong. Basically, if you reduce all of your decision-making to a mathematical algorithm, then you're limiting the power of your decision-making to those parts of your brain that can do math. But our brains can do amazing things if we let them, and are mostly not very good at math.

a good cognitive hazmat suit

I want one!

the traffic light shimmered silvery-blue, like an arc of liquid electricity creeping across the surface, and then returned to normal.

I would wonder if something like that actually happened - it might have been an unfamiliar trick of the light or electrical malfunction...

Once I was walking down the back of West Rock at twilight and suddenly noticed everything was done up in strange, bright colors - the rocks were teal and purple, the leaves were emerald green, etc. After several minutes, the experience didn't go away, and so I picked up a representative purple rock and brought it back to civilization, thinking that would dispel the clearly hallucinatory magic. I immediately asked a passerby, "What color is this rock?", to which the response was indeed "purple". I resolved thenceforth to pay a little more attention to my surroundings.

Did the rock stay as bright? This is reminding me of a time after therapy when the spacial relationships in the bus I was on suddenly got very weird, and I was wondering if there was something odd at my end...... it turned out to be one of those buses that bend in the middle. However, your story also reminds me of what I call color beyond color. One time, I was doing color meditation, and when I was visualizing red, it became a red more vivid than anything I'd ever seen. One of John Chilton Pearce's Magical Child books mentions doing that sort of thing with all the senses-- I don't know whether it can be made permanent. It seems to me that it would add to quality of life if it wasn't overwhelming. I've also seen a description of that sort of visual experience in one of Disch's later novels. I'm inclined to think that there's some sort of intensity regulation for sensory experience, and it may generally be set lower than it needs to be. Corroboration: I've seen accounts by anorexics of sensory overload which suggests that the stepping down process takes resources, and malnutrition might mean that sensations aren't buttered. The usual question about qualia is "What if what is red to me is blue to you?", but as far as I know there's no evidence for that sort of switch. What there's plenty of evidence for is that some people notice things vividly that scarcely register on other people. I've talked with a couple of men who can see color, but find it not interesting-- but they're vividly aware of shape and motion.
Have you ever seen 'moonshine'? This is something I experienced exactly once about a year ago. (Whenever I heard the phrase, I thought they meant ordinary light shining off the moon.) However, one evening in the summer I looked outside my window in response to an owl hooting and found the ground covered in a blanket of snow. Since it was about 70 degrees outside, I needed to investigate. To my amazement, the snow did not disappear when I got closer -- it wasn't that kind of mirage. Even when I stood on the ground, it looked like I was standing in snow. The moon light had some kind of strange polarization (?) and it was so bright and direct everything it touched was bleached.
I was interested and did a search. It happens on the 'Harvest Moon': How it looks varies a bit from person to person.
I think math is the most amazing thing my brain can do. Granted, it's not very good at it, but I bet it can improve with practice.
It's entirely possible. I recall I stayed at that intersection for a few minutes, watching the light and trying to figure out how such a thing might have happened, before concluding I had hallucinated it - but I can't make any guarantees that I was very thorough, given my mental state at the time. I don't think an electrical malfunction would have produced what I saw, but a trick of the light is plausible.

This was an interesting read but I'm not really sure what you're claiming to have achieved with your flirtations with "arationality." Personally all my encounters with so-called "altered states of consciousness" - especially drugs (and drug users) - have led me to believe the effects are rather mundane. For the most part they appear to blunt rather than aid creativity. Perhaps some artists have found inspiration in them but I think that says more about the artists pre-existing ability to translate experiences in an interesting way than the creative potential of a given altered state. Surely the great majority of people experience altered states and go on to do nothing with them.

The great majority of people do nothing in any event.

For some reason, diet coke basically makes me high. Sometimes it also just happens at random. As such, altered states are fairly mundane to me. I've found that, just like melatonin helps with insomnia, and valium helps with pain, I can use this to help manage depression. So, I'd agree with "mundane" but I don't think that disqualifies them as useful. It feels rather dismissive to say that "says more about the artists pre-existing ability". Some people, yes, have different talents and skills, and some people struggle against various neurological limits as well. If something helps, even if it's just bringing someone up to "average" functionality, I'd consider that a positive.
Unfortunately even those substances that do have potential are abused rather than used.
People abuse painkillers and antibiotics, but we still find those useful. It doesn't really seem to follow to me, that people abusing drugs suggests that drugs are therefore not useful.
That seems to be the point I just made, if I parsed your negatives correctly. I assume someone objected.
Ahhh, apologies. I am used to parsing "These substances are sometimes abused" as being shorthand for "I disapprove of illegal drugs, because some people abuse them; therefore they should be shunned as being categorically evil." My own personal stance is that drugs are a useful tool, as long as you're careful with the risk factors they involve. I feel quite a lot of illegal drugs have fairly high utility and low risks, at least compared to our social acceptance of risk in other areas.
Pardon me, illusion of transparency. This is an area I am interested in and have investigated enough that my default language and expression will be decidedly non-mainstream. Absolutely. MDMA and psyclobin come to mind as good examples of things which could have positive uses in the right circumstances. And ketamine is damn near miraculous if used right. THC on the other hand could perhaps deserve a worse reputation than what it has. It is terrible stuff. All those IQ points lost and mood destabilisation. Yet even that can be useful in the right circumstances. Those circumstances being when F@#%ing up your brain is a good thing. In particular if I had a massively traumatic experience I would administer some pot to myself as soon as possible in order to reduce (bad) memory consolidation. (If I recall correctly some benefits can be observed even after the onset of PTSD.) For my part I haven't bothered with illegal stuff (except for maybe being a little flexible regarding whether or not I happened to have a prescription at the time). There is just too much available that isn't illegal. Even for recreational purposes the big name street drugs aren't really the optimal way to get high. The same way alcohol was a good drug for its time. That is, about 4,000 years ago.
Would you be interested in writing up the results of your investigations? A structured article on tested useful drugs, if only with a terse summary of what each of them is good for, would be an interesting starting point for studying this topic further. Most such resources on the Internet seem to focus mainly on illegal drugs, which makes their use somewhat problematic.
May I ask what you mean by "useful"? My own feeling - as a user of various illegal drugs - is that fun itself is enough use alone, but I don't know if that's quite what folk are meaning here.
Given the current state of mental health support, at least in the US, I consider them a useful tool for some people to self-medicate. Fun is also a nice perk :)
Yeah, that's definitely true. And also, of course, cannabis is a marvelous painkiller.

This is a fascinating post! Thank you for sharing your story.

And this is where the trouble started: I really couldn't put the book down. It was as though the mental stimulation afforded by ZAMM had pushed me over the lip of an energy barrier, and I was now in an incredible downhill rush.

This ability to dissociate from the rest of reality and focus on one thing is a gift! Albeit scary if you feel unable to stop focusing. I've felt it occasionally while working on novels, but in general I have to expend mental effort to focus on something, and I think ... (read more)

I began to feel that I was trapped in reality, in some sense, and that there were beings outside the universe - previous escapees - who were sending me telepathic messages in an effort to help me escape as well.

This is a familiar mind state. Most often in the middle of the night, suggesting it's a particular brain state repressed by being conscious, especially after thinking hard about something intellectually eluding.

I associate it with being on the schizophrenic side of the autistic-schizophrenic spectrum, and I consider it within normal range, but n... (read more)

I'd have thought that was just iNtuitive in the Myers-Briggs system. Or would that be that the perceptible world is dwarfed by something larger and/or richer and/or truer and/or above/beneath/beyond itself. Perhaps there's a distinction between people with that temperament and who think the way to get at the larger reality by drilling into the perceptible world vs. those who think they can get at the larger reality by getting away from the perceptible world.
I don't know.. I don't have any clear ideas on how beliefs, personality and 'schizophrenic events' would influence one another, but I would only comment that the feelings of unreality are something my brain does to me and after the effects, I can interpret the experience through the filter of my personality and beliefs. Perhaps this is because they are rare, and more of an exceptional than normal experience. Perhaps people sitting in a somewhat schizophrenic state* all the time are the intuitive personality type. * This would be relative to my baseline experience, it might be an entirely healthy mental state for them in which case my labeling is misleading. For my set of experiences, it does not seem like it would be mentally stable/healthy if they were to last for any extended period.
For me, the feeling isn't so much that the perceptible world is false, as that there's something better behind it. If you want a theory-driven account of how the Myers-Briggs types experience life differently from each other, check out Psychetypes.
This reminds me of the bicameral mind hypothesis. Certain people (corresponding to your "schizophrenic side of the schizophrenic-autistic spectrum") may well still receive the results of unconscious processing as "voices in their head" rather than a coherent deliberation on all facets of the truth. (The bicameral mind hypothesis holds that said "voices" are the ancestral condition, which is probably unprovable but intriguing nevertheless.)
''In June 1936 Gödel developed paranoid symptoms and spent several months in a sanitarium for nervous diseases." Consider the proposition:'' “Peter believes someone is out to get him”. On one interpretation, ‘someone’ is unspecific and Peter suffers a general paranoia; he believes that it is true that a person is out to get him, but does not necessarily have any beliefs about who this person may be. What Peter believes is that the predicate ‘is out to get Peter’ is satisfied. This is the de dicto interpretation. On the de re interpretation, ‘someone’ is specific, picking out some particular individual. There is some person Peter has in mind, and Peter believes that person is out to get him. In the context of thought, the distinction helps us explain how people can hold seemingly self-contradicting beliefs. Say Lois Lane believes Clark Kent is weaker than Superman. Since Clark Kent is Superman, taken de re, Lois’s belief is untenable; the names ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ pick out an individual in the world, and a person (or super-person) cannot be stronger than himself. Understood de dicto, however, this may be a perfectly reasonable belief, since Lois is not aware that Clark and Superman are one and the same." -Wikipedia

I would be very interested in the fourth bullet point. I have only some limited experience with different cognitive states, but I haven't found a reliable way to bring myself back to normal functioning, and with that one tool I (and other readers) could start exploring what you've said at our leisure.

I'm interested in the others too, but the lifeline seems immediately valuable to me in ways that exposition and optimization are more abstract.

Reading your description of what you had planned led me to worry that it would bore me by focusing too much on the details rather than the big picture.

Then I realized that these details are probably important.

I would therefore request that you use all your powers to make this sequence super interesting and fun.

Interesting. I like to see forays outside the usual narrow LessWrong tracks.

I eagerly await further posts in this sequence! I would love to see more, either front page or discussion is fine because I read both, but it seems more of a front-page effort. I wish I could up-vote more than once.

I feel the same way.
Me as well

I forget if I've linked it here before, but here's a critique of a commonly claimed connection between mystical experiences and genuine enlightenment or creativity.

That's a critique of LSD, not mystical experiences in general, as a creativity enhancer, and even then, I think the author is leaving out a fair bit of evidence to the contrary. Though he never officially confirmed this, Francis Crick is believed to have been on LSD when he discovered the helical structure of DNA. Less controversially, many of the programmers in the early days of Silicon Valley are known to have done a fair bit of coding on acid; Steve Jobs himself is known to have taken a fair bit of it in his day. Here's another article claiming that Kary Mullis, a Nobel prize-winning chemist, was assisted by LSD in his discovery of a certain polymerase chain reaction used to amplify DNA sequences. And, to end on a more whimsical note, Dock Ellis once pitched a no-hitter on LSD. If more people haven't come forward with important discoveries on acid, we shouldn't be too surprised: most people haven't tried it, and even if you have, it's a significant career risk to admit it. I do agree that acid on its own is not enough - there's still a fair bit of work to be done while sober - but to say that it's done nothing for us is simply not true.
As an outright supporter of 'consciousness expansion' through drug induced altered states, I can say that mathematics is about the worst thing you can try to gain insight into using irrationality as a tool. I would not say that a mind in an altered state is as bad as a random-theorem-generator, but altered states almost never result in validity in my experience. The best state of mind to do math in is a sober and logical one. Now, if we are talking about building mental fortitude, about overcoming personal barriers and winning at life, then I would say that introducing yourself to measures of irrationality is a good idea. You get a good idea of how the 'other side' lives and can develop strategies for compensating for your errors, not to mention building a tolerance for stress.

If I could upvote this post a couple more times, I would, and I think the sequence is an excellent idea to try.

I also think Russell was going a bit too far and it's that sort of attitude which pushed me away from atheism-the-social-group for a long time. For me, "mystical experiences" usually end with a sudden boost to my ability to see, evaluate and navigate systems.


You seem to have gotten mania under control and made it do useful work for you. I'd love to hear how you did that. I can by now induce mania at will, but it always ends up with me believing something silly, becoming terribly confused or working endlessly on meaningless tangents.

On a more personal note, I've mostly given up on all this spiritual work based on some deeply unsatisfying and disappointing experiences (very nicely described by James Kent on Tripzine). I'm trying to reintegrate some minimalistic, purely pragmatic aspects of it, but haven't really succeeded yet. I'm looking forward to your posts.


I use to do something similar. It didn't work out for me. Sensory overload, bipolarity, was all too much.

It went like this, according to my psychologist and became a cycle I couldn't escape from. I started towards fixing it up with these steps in-case anyone is brave enough to replicate my experiment.

I was impressed at how easily I understood everything you said, despite having experienced neither any non-fleeting mania, nor the depth into the academic fields that you have acquired. So your writing rules at that.

Definitely would like to read more, particularly as someone whose view of the world is consistently mundane.

Great post, a very lucid account of your experiences, thank you.

As it happens I was just contemplating writing something along the lines of "mysticism for rationalists", but I think you may have it covered.

I am right now trying to fathom the problem of synthesizing rationality and mysticism. Would you like to correspond on this topic?

For those interested in these topics I suggest reading Robert Anton Wilson's nonfiction, specifically the Cosmic Trigger series and Prometheus Rising.

Seconded and thirded. These books had a very deep and lasting impact on my development and worldview. Fair warning to those unfamiliar with his writings: they're chock-full of memetic hazards, but that's kind of the point. Wilson argues that we stand to benefit a great deal from being able to occupy unusual or even "false" belief systems (I use scare quotes because I think he would be reluctant to use that word), provided we can learn to consciously choose these systems and not get attached to them.
What makes Quantum Psychology worth reading? (I took a look and found that R.A.W. gives a misinterpretation of Claude Shannon's 1948 paper on information theory -- on the first page.)
No, RAW's further discussion of noisy communications channels is pretty good. (Shannon's paper proves interesting and surprising things about noisy communications channels, but it takes the noisiness as given -- contra RAW, it does not prove that all communications channels are noisy.)

Interesting article, I will need to think quite thoroughly about this for some time. In the meantime I hope I can bothered you with a quick question:

What is your gender?

This might seem irrelevant, silly (as perhaps it is easy to deduce from your handle for someone of a different background that me or because you mentioned it in some other post I haven't read) or even offensive (it is certainly not meant that way), but I assure you that this is simply because I want to understand you better (in order to get part 1 to 3 right). It may seem not much can be d... (read more)

I'm male. I gather certain psychotic-spectrum disorders are more common in men than in women, so this doesn't strike me as entirely irrelevant.
Thank you for the reply and again kudos for the thought provoking article.
This is off-topic, for which I apologise, but I now find myself fascinated by the various ways in which gender is communicated. It seemed really very obvious indeed to me that Skatche was male; so much so I was vaguely susprised that the question had been asked. I think it's a combination of the split of experiences, different writing styles (men /do/ write differently than women) and LW being a very male-dominated environment.

I think this is an important direction to push discourse on Rationality toward. I wanted to write a spiritually similar post myself.

The theory is that we know our minds are fundamentally local optimizers. Within the hypothesis space we are capable of considering, we are extremely good exploitive maximizers, but, as always, it's difficult to know how much to err on the side of explorative optimization.

I think you can couch creativity and revolution in terms like that, and if our final goal is to find something to optimize and then do it, it's important to note randomized techniques might be a necessary component.



I have two different answers to your question: one practical, one more theoretical. On a practical level, what I gain from peak experiences depends on where my attention is. If I'm out and about, or doing something materially, then the main advantage I gain is noticing new aspects of a situation, or seeing the same aspects in a different light; I believe this is a result of greater flexibility in choosing the cognitive map I apply to the territory. These, I suppose, would be the "unknown dots": information that was present in the environment, but which my brain never bothered to record. If I'm sitting around thinking, on the other hand, then I tend to find a lot of unconventional connections. Even here, though, there is new information to be gained; I've learned a lot about my own nervous system simply by careful observation of my internal experience. On a theoretical level, I have some trouble with the distinction between information and deduction. In the strictest sense, mathematical truths contain zero information, since they are automatically true in every possible world (or insert your own X-Rationalist translation of this claim). Yet we are still surprised to learn, for example, that e^(pi.i)+1=0 - or I know I was surprised, at the very least. I think this is a result of the fact that our evaluation of mathematical claims is based on manipulation of tangible stuff: we can check our memory to determine if we've ever seen a proof before, or we can manipulate symbolic expressions, encoded in our wetware, to attempt to prove or disprove it. Even wood pulp and graphite can be leveraged for this purpose, and so the result of this computation comes in as an observation of an uncertain outcome in the world. Yet the no-information claim takes on new complications when we realize that our brains use the same basic processes to encode relations between facts, as it does to encode facts. This leads to kind of "flat" ontology, in which we can treat relations as facts and
Thanks, that was an awesome read! I'll attempt a translation. If I'm engaging with the world, then I notice new things about it, or I see things in new ways. For example: once, looking at the sky, I noticed that it was brightest near the horizon and darkest at the zenith. Suddenly I realized the reason: there was more air between me and the horizon than there was between me and the space directly above me. The scene snapped into focus, and I found I could distinctly see the atmosphere as a three-dimensional mass. If I turn my attention inward, on the other hand, I tend to draw connections between pieces of information I already have - suddenly intuiting the behaviour of quantum wave packets, for example, or drawing an analogy between my social networking behaviour and annealing. These two cases are the "dots" and the connections between the dots, respectively. Information theory generally defines information to be about some event with an uncertain outcome: if you know a coin has been flipped, you will need additional information to determine whether it came up heads or tails. By contrast, if you already know that five coins were flipped and three came up heads, you don't need any additional information to deduce that the number of heads was prime. Anything that you could in principle figure out from the information you've already got isn't treated as new information; In this sense, mathematical truths (connections) are separated from information proper ("dots"). While this separation may be useful for theory, it doesn't capture all aspects of the way we learn and process information. For starters, we're often rather surprised to learn mathematical facts; this is because we need to use physical hardware (our brains) to compute proofs, and we don't know what the outcome of the computation will be. Also, our brains seem to treat things, states, patterns, and pieces of information all in the same way - hence, for example, we can refer to "the economy" as if it were
Could you elaborate on that?
This is a false assertion, they are only true if the axioms used to conclude them correspond to reality. There are proofs that rely on the Axiom of Choice which is not accepted (as far as I can tell) by everyone on this site (as well as the axiom of infinity?). There are proofs that rely on the GCH or Large Cardinal Axioms or V=L which are not among the accepted axioms and proven to be independent of the other axioms.
This is a fair point, but I'm referring to information in the information theoretic sense; in this technical sense, mathematical truths are indeed not information. I'm aware that the Axiom of Choice is required for some important results of practical import (Tychonoff's theorem, for example, is equivalent to it), but do you know of any important and useful results following from the GCH, etc.? I've only looked into this a little; foundational math is not really my field.
Game theoretic results that are generalized to infinite games often require the use of the GCH. For instance see "Variations on a Game" by J Beck 1981.
It seems Skatche is roughly talking about what is called semantic entailment in logic and I would partially agree with your criticism... since mathematical truth is considered to be more than just that, it includes axioms that you feel good about accepting. However, I'm not sure where reality comes into the picture when considering the definition of mathematical truth.
How do we choose axioms that are good to accept as valid except for our experience with reality? This is a philosophical question so isn't often considered within mathematics. If one reads some of Eliezer's posts where he doubts the axiom of infinity (unless I am misunderstanding what he is doing) then it becomes clear that his argument for doubting the axiom is that it doesn't correspond with reality. This is generally why choice is doubted; as it is thought that non-measurable sets do not play any role in reality they are ignored in standard statistics and calculus. If non-measurable sets do play a role within the real world then some very odd things can happen that so far no one has observed happen. I suppose if mathematical truth is changed to be whatever is provable given all possible combinations of non-contradictory axioms then reality does not play any role in math.
I think when trying to study information and its relation to mathematical truth, we must start off practical and should be talking about provability in formal systems of logic. I don't actually know of any rigorous connections between the two notions, but I can think of an argument that "mathematical truths contain zero information" might be false based on indirect connections between existing work on proof theory and information theory. But I don't want to give that interpretation yet because I would like to first ask Skatche if he wanted to elaborate on his statement a little better or point to some references for us to read. The philosophical question is interesting too, and I would agree that a set theory without the axiom of infinity seems pretty adequate for describing our experiences of reality. I'm not sure if its the most harmonious, however...

Less Wrong is all about rationality, which is a vital component of our thinking, but there is evidence to suspect our brains have useful functions beyond this. For example, the placebo and nocebo effects, which demonstrate the physical results of our positive or negative beliefs. Because of this it is necessary to do double blind trials on medicines, so that not even the person administering the treatment knows who is receiving the trial drug and who is getting the sugar pill. There is the "white coat effect" which causes raised blood pressure due to being... (read more)


Did you just eat the intellectual sugar of physics lectures on the internet, or did you also sit down and do the boring work of exercises? If you didn't, you are very likely not as able (fast) as someone who did real studies, and it is very plausible that you think to have understood things that you didn't.

This is interesting and a little scary and intriguing. I can't wait for the posts.


LW trains you how to evaluate new ideas, but not how to generate them. Most existing advice about getting new ideas, thinking outside the box etc., is pure woo, but many people have found that injecting some randomness into the process often helps. When I'm trying to solve some complicated problem, I often have this tantalizing feeling that the idea I need is floating somewhere nearby, but I'm not crazy enough to catch it. Would be nice if LW invented a solution for that!

Besides being very interesting in the topics covered, this post has shifted my inclination to try drugs (to the trying drugs side).

Up to now, I didn't feel like trying anything serious. I saw no clear benefit, and I was afraid that it would mess with my core reasoning. I depend on my "reasoning core" to operate in stressful, inebriated, or otherwise compromised situations. Messing with that seemed like a Bad Idea.

Thinking about it now, though, I recognize that my core reasoning is not an isolated crystal anyway, being influenced by emotions and s... (read more)

It seems like you have developed techniques for performing two somewhat unrelated tasks:

1). Keeping your mania, and cognitive biases in general, under control.

2). Using altered states of consciousness to greatly enhance your problem-solving capabilities.

I can see some major potential weaknesses in both areas:

1). Do your mental control techniques have general applicability ? That is, do they only work for you, or can anyone use them ? Had anyone else besides yourself tried using them ? If so, have they garnered positive results that are directly attributabl... (read more)

I actually am very curious to hear about your techniques, so much so that I registered to add this comment :) It is an art to manage your mood swings I believe, much like "air bending". So, please keep them coming.

I'm sometimes on the lookout for novel, relatively inexpensive techniques that might be considered arational processes assisting more formal cognitive processes. Presently I'm not directly working on extremely hard problems, but I intentionally emulate in some ways a good cognitive system who is. Since the problems are still hard for me, including as in some parts of the solutions' implementations being routine or tedious, I'm naturally interested in determining beneficial affective states that I can appropriately reproduce.

Thus far I haven't adopted much ... (read more)

I would be very interested!

I'd very much like to read what you have to say.

My own experience seems quite limited, but I know a lot about Aleister Crowley and could explain curious aspects of his explorations that I haven't seen people here mention.

It seems to me that, on the grand scale of things, there's probably not that much difference between being a clinically insane human and being a clinically "sane" human, aside from the size and character of the support group.

Yes. I would be very interested in reading about this.

I'm interested in the first three at least and possibly the fourth.