Michael Edward Johnson


Qualia Research Institute: History & 2021 Strategy

Hi Charlie,

To compress a lot of thoughts into a small remark, I think both possibilities (consciousness is like electromagnetism in that it has some deep structure to be formalized, vs consciousness is like elan vital in that it lacks any such deep structure) are live possibilities. What's most interesting to me is doing the work that will give us evidence which of these worlds we live in. There are a lot of threads mentioned in my first comment that I think can generate value/clarity here; in general I'd recommend brainstorming "what would I expect to see if I lived in a world where consciousness does, vs does not, have a crisp substructure?"

Qualia Research Institute: History & 2021 Strategy

Some sorts of knowledge about consciousness will necessarily be as messy as the brain is messy, but the core question is whether there's any 'clean substructure' to be discovered about phenomenology itself. Here's what I suggest in Principia Qualia:


>Brains vs conscious systems:

>There are fundamentally two kinds of knowledge about valence: things that are true specifically in brains like ours, and general principles common to all conscious entities. Almost all of what we know about pain and pleasure is of the first type – essentially, affective neuroscience has been synonymous with making maps of the mammalian brain’s evolved, adaptive affective modules and contingent architectural quirks (“spandrels”).

>This paper attempts to chart a viable course for this second type of research: it’s an attempt toward a general theory of valence, a.k.a. universal, substrate-independent principles that apply equally to and are precisely true in all conscious entities, be they humans, non-human animals, aliens, or conscious artificial intelligence (AI).

>In order to generalize valence research in this way, we need to understand valence research as a subset of qualia research, and qualia research as a problem in information theory and/or physics, rather than neuroscience. Such a generalized approach avoids focusing on contingent facts and instead seeks general principles for how the causal organization of a physical system generates or corresponds to its phenomenology, or how it feels to subjectively be that system. David Chalmers has hypothesized about this in terms of “psychophysical laws” (Chalmers 1995), or translational principles which we could use to derive a system’s qualia, much like we can derive the electromagnetic field generated by some electronic gadget purely from knowledge of the gadget’s internal composition and circuitry.

Qualia Research Institute: History & 2021 Strategy

Hi Charlie, I'm glad to point to our announced collaborations with JHU, Harvard, ICL, and some of the other more established centers for neuroscience, as well as our psychophysics toolkit, which you can check out here. I find that many times people operate from cached impressions of what we're doing and in such cases I try to get people to update their cache, as our work does now encompass what most people might call "normal" neuroscience of consciousness and associated markers of legitimacy (as inspired and guided by our theoretical work).

I highly appreciate Wittgenstein's notion of language games as a nigh-universal tool for dissolving confusion. However, I would also suggest an alternate framing: "have you tried solving the problem?" -- has anyone tried to formalize emotional valence before in a way that could yield results if there is a solution? What could a 'solution' here even mean? What would this process look like from the inside? What outputs should we expect to see from the outside? Is there a "fire alarm" for solving this problem? -- In short I think "dissolving confusion" is important for consciousness research, but I don't think that's necessarily the only goal. Rather, we should also look for 'deep structure' to be formalized, much like electromagnetism and chemistry had 'deep structure' to be formalized. I feel skeptics (analytic functionalists) risk premature optimization here -- skepticism isn't a strong position to hold before we've 'actually tried' to find this structure. (I say more about the problems I see with analytic functionalism / eliminativism as positive theories here.) 

QRI is predicated on the assumption that, before we give up on systematizing consciousness, we should apply the same core formalism aesthetics that have led to progress in other fields, to consciousness -- i.e. we should 'actually try'. From both inside-view process and outside-view neuroscience outputs, I'm confident what we're doing is strongly worthwhile.

Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything (crosspost)

Fair enough; the TL;DR pull-quote for this piece would be:

Annealing involves heating a metal above its recrystallization temperature, keeping it there for long enough for the microstructure of the metal to reach equilibrium, then slowly cooling it down, letting new patterns crystallize. This releases the internal stresses of the material, and is often used to restore ductility (plasticity and toughness) on metals that have been ‘cold-worked’ and have become very hard and brittle— in a sense, annealing is a ‘reset switch’ which allows metals to go back to a more pristine, natural state after being bent or stressed. I suspect this is a useful metaphor for brains, in that they can become hard and brittle over time with a build-up of internal stresses, and these stresses can be released by periodically entering high-energy states where a more natural neural microstructure can reemerge.

Furthermore: meditation, music, and psychedelics (and sex and perhaps sleep) 'heat' the brain up in this metaphorical sense. Lots of things follow from this -- most usefully, if you feel stressed and depressed, make sure you're "annealing" enough, both in terms of frequency and 'annealing temperature' (really intense emotional experiences are crucial for the emotional updating process). 

Possibly the most LW-relevant part of this is the comment left by lsusr, which I've appended to the bottom of the version on opentheory.net, i.e. the comment that starts out "This makes sense to me because I work full-time on the bleeding edge of applied AI, meditate, and have degree in physics where I taught the acoustical and energy-based models this theory is based upon. Without a solid foundation in all three of these fields this theory might seem less self-evident." -- he said some things clearly that were only tacit in my writeup.

Currently working on a follow-up piece.

Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything (crosspost)

This will be a terribly late and very incomplete reply, but regarding your question,

>Is there some mechanism that would allow for evolution to somewhat define the 'landscape' of harmonics? Is reframing the harmonics as goals compatible with the model? Something like this seems to be pointed at in the quote
>>Panksepp’s seven core drives (play, panic/grief, fear, rage, seeking, lust, care) might be a decent first-pass approximation for the attractors in this system.

A metaphor that I like to use here is that I see any given brain as a terribly complicated lock. Various stimuli can be thought of as keys. The right key will create harmony in the brain's harmonics. E.g., if you're hungry, a nice high-calorie food will create a blast of consonance which will ripple through many different brain systems, updating your tacit drive away from food seeking. If you aren't hungry -- it won't create this blast of consonance. It's the wrong key to unlock harmony in your brain. 

Under this model, the shape of the connectome is the thing that evolution has built to define the landscape of harmonics and drive adaptive behavior. The success condition is harmony. I.e., the lock is very complex, the 'key' that fits a given lock can be either simple or complex, and the success condition (harmony in the brain) is relatively simple.

Russian x-risks newsletter spring 2020

I really appreciate this newsletter. I wish we had something similar from China.

Project Proposal: Gears of Aging

I think there's a lot of great points and habits of thinking here. My intuition is that it's really hard to marshall resources in this space, SENS has done this, and they seem pretty open to feedback (I think Jim is great). The next exploratory step in getting this to happen might be as a proposal to SENS.

I really like the meditation/enlightenment frame for poking at these concepts. You might enjoy my Neuroscience of Meditation piece; here's an excerpt:


Finally, we may be able to usefully describe the Buddhist jhanas through a combination of CSHW and neural annealing. Essentially, Buddha noted that as one follows the meditative path and eliminates unwholesome mental states, they will experience various trance-like states of deep mental unification he called ‘jhanas’. These are seen as progressive steps to full enlightenment- the first few jhanas focus on joy, and after these are attained one can move to jhanas which revolve around contentment and feelings of infinity, and finally full cessation of suffering. Importantly, these experiences are not seen as ‘mere signposts’ on the path, but active processes which are causally involved in the purification of the mind — in the original Pāli, the root of ‘jhana’ can refer to both ‘meditate’ and ‘burn up’, e.g. to destroy the mental defilements holding one back from serenity and insight.
A ‘modern’ approach here might be to identify the various jhanas as natural resonant modes of the brain– i.e., different jhanas would map to different harmonic configurations, each with a different phenomenological texture, but all high in consonance/harmony. If this is true, we should be able to do neat things like identify which jhana a meditator is experiencing from their CSHW data, or reconstruct Buddhism’s list of jhanas from first principles based on the math of which brain harmonics can be combined in a way that produces high consonance/harmony. Perhaps we could even find a novel, unexplored jhana or two, pleasant configurations of brain harmonics that even most experienced meditators have never experienced.
But if we add neural annealing to this model, we can start to understand how experiencing the various jhanas may actively sculpt the mind. At its most basic, meditation offers a context for people to sit with their thoughts and maybe do some work on themselves, and get some practice ‘getting out of their own way’. Basically removing the ‘defilements’ which clutter up their brain harmonics, much like removing a clamp from a bell or shaking a mouse out of a trombone. Once these ‘resonance impediments’ are removed, and energy is added to the system (through effortful meditation), brains will naturally start to self-organize toward the simpler resonant configurations, the first jhanas. But importantly, highly-resonant states are also high-energy states- i.e., the very definition of resonance is that energy travels in a periodic pattern that reinforces itself, instead of dissipating in destructive interference. So if you get a brain into a highly-resonant state (a jhana) and keep it there, this will also start a neural annealing process, basically purifying itself (and making it easier and easier to enter into that particular resonant state- “harmonic recanalization”) more or less automatically.
With this in mind, we might separate Buddha’s path to enlightenment into two stages: first, one attempts to remove the psychological conditions which prevent them from attaining a minimum level of ‘whole-brain resonance’; mostly, this will involve trying to meditate, experiencing a problem in doing so, fixing the problem, trying to meditate again. Rinse, repeat- possibly for years. But in the second stage, once enough of these conditions are gone and resonant momentum can accumulate, they can start ‘climbing the jhanas,’ mostly just entering meditative flow and letting the math of Laplacian eigenmodes and neural annealing slowly shape their mind into something that resonates in purer and purer ways[8], until at the end it becomes something which can only support harmony, something which simply has no resources that can be used to sustain dissonance.
[8] What precisely is happening as one climbs the various jhanas? Resonance in chaotic systems is inherently unstable, and so if the first jhana is “a minimum level of whole-brain resonance” we should expect many perturbations and failures in maintaining this pleasant state as unpredicted sense-data, chaotic internal feedback loops, and evolved defenses against ‘psychological wireheading‘ knock the system around. Each additional jhana, then, may be thought of as a widening of the set of factors being stabilized, or using a higher-dimensional or further-optimized implicit model of wave dynamics to compensate for more sources of turbulence. This optimization process might separate into discrete steps or strategies (jhanas), each with their own particular phenomenology, depending on what kind of turbulence it’s best at stabilizing. I expect we’ll find that earlier jhanas are characterized by seeking particular narrow resonant configurations that work; later jhanas flip the script and are characterized by seeking out the remaining distortions in the ‘web of phenomenology’, the problem states that don’t resonate, in order to investigate and release them. 

(More in the post itself)

Of course, the challenge here is: if this is a good theory of how the brain works, of how meditation works, of what enlightenment, is -- can we use it to build something cool? Something that actually helps people, that you couldn't have built without these insights?

Thanks for so clearly putting your thoughts down. Honestly, I liked your comment on my LW crosspost of Neural Annealing so that I added it to the end of the post on my blog.

Briefly, I wanted to note a key section of NA where I talk about "a continuum of CSHWs with scale-free functional roles", which depending on definitions may or may not be the same thing as CSHWs being fractal:


Last year in A Future for Neuroscience, I shared the frame that we could split CSHWs into high-frequency and low-frequency types, and perhaps say something about how they might serve different purposes in the Bayesian brain:

The mathematics of signal propagation and the nature of emotions
High frequency harmonics will tend to stop at the boundaries of brain regions, and thus will be used more for fine-grained and very local information processing; low frequency harmonics will tend to travel longer distances, much as low frequency sounds travel better through walls. This paints a possible, and I think useful, picture of what emotions fundamentally are: semi-discrete conditional bundles of low(ish) frequency brain harmonics that essentially act as Bayesian priors for our limbic system. Change the harmonics, change the priors and thus the behavior. Panksepp’s seven core drives (play, panic/grief, fear, rage, seeking, lust, care) might be a decent first-pass approximation for the attractors in this system. 

I would now add this roughly implies a continuum of CSHWs, with scale-free functional roles:

  • Region-specific harmonic waves (RSHWs) high frequency resonances that implement the processing of cognitive particulars, and are localized to a specific brain region (much like how high-frequencies don’t travel through walls) in theory quantifiable through simply applying Atasoy’s CSHW method to individual brain regions;
  • Connectome-specific harmonic waves (CSHWs) low-frequency connectome-wide resonances that act as Bayesian priors, carrying relatively simple ‘emotional-type’ information across the brain (I note Friston makes a similar connection in Waves of Prediction);
  • Sensorium-specific harmonic waves (SSHWs) very-low-frequency waves that span not just the connectome, but the larger nervous system and parts of the body. These encode somatic information – in theory, we could infer sensorium eigenmodes by applying Atasoy’s method to not only the connectome, but the nervous system, adjusting for variable nerve-lengths, and validate against something like body-emotion maps.[2][3]

These waves shade into each other – a ‘low-frequency thought’ shades into a ‘high-frequency emotion’, a ‘low-frequency emotion’ shades into somatic information. As we go further up in frequencies, these waves become more localized.


Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything (crosspost)

Right-- one question that Milan Griffes asked me was, "how can you tell if you should trust your aesthetic?"

Presumably integration practices should make it more trustworthy, but would be nice to have a good heuristic for when it's trustworthy (and when pushing with meditation/psychedelics might be safe) vs untrustworthy (and they would be a bad idea).

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