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Welcome to The Elevator!
Your bi-weekly consciousness reader
In this biweekly reader/digest, we explore consciousness.
With The Elevator, we hope to keep you updated on the latest developments in the fields of consciousness research, theory, and investigation.
Consciousness is, obviously, a gigantic subject that encompasses many topics, ranging from the science of consciousness to social, ecological, and political consciousness. There is, also, a growing interest in non-ordinary or altered states of consciousness, partly fueled by the psychedelic movement and the growing worldwide interest in yoga and meditation.
Also, the rapid explosion in Artificial Intelligence has opened up a renewed fascination with what, if anything, is particularly unique about human sentience or self-awareness, along with the question of whether digital systems modeled on neural networks can not only imitate human consciousness but, perhaps, become self-aware in some way.
In recent years, many thinkers have proclaimed that humanity is evolving toward higher consciousness, or that we are in a consciousness revolution, or we are building a global consciousness movement. But often these exciting prospects are left ambiguous. What does it mean to have a “consciousness movement?” Consciousness of what? What is “higher consciousness?”
As interest in the subject of consciousness grows, we believe there is an increasing need for guidance.
We are interested in all of these topics — the science of consciousness, the ecology of consciousness, embodied consciousness, artificial sentience, social consciousness, consciousness and mental health, as well as new developments that could lead to entrepreneurial opportunities to expand or evolve consciousness. Each issue of The Newsletter will include a roster of articles and essays plus a special focus or theme. This first issue has a focus on AI.
While most entries will be new or recent, some will be older content that we believe helps provide a necessary context for understanding different facets of the contemporary consciousness movement.
We hope you will join us for this ongoing exploration!
Please, also, let us know about articles, essays, videos, and initiatives you think we should cover.
Over the last years, there has been an explosion in independent media content, facilitated by new platforms such as Substack and Ghost. It is, in a sense, the “second coming” of the blogosphere. The problem is that it has become impossible to track the most interesting and incisive essays, articles, videos and podcasts through this overwhelming media blizzard.
Table of Contents
Consciousness and Psychedelics:
Consciousness and Politics:
Consciousness and Death:
Consciousness and Psychology:
Focus on AI
Nuggets from the archive
The CIA's Project MK-Ultra involved the secret and illegal administration of LSD to thousands of American and Canadian citizens without their knowledge or consent. Black Americans were disproportionately targeted, with many victims drawn from prisons and hospital mental wards. Their subsequent exclusion from contemporary research into the effectiveness of drugs such as psilocybin, ketamine, and MDMA demonstrates the potential dangers of medical racism.
Spanish athlete Beatriz Flamini spent 500 days alone in a cave to help scientists understand the effects of extreme isolation. When she emerged, she explained that she had lost her sense of time, believing she had only been there for 160-170 days. Can our actions, emotions, and changes in our environment affect the way our minds process time?
Altman is chairman of Journey Colab, a startup whose CEO, Jeeshan Chowdhury, is pushing for the use of psychedelic drugs in mental health care and addiction treatment. Psychedelics have shown promise in treating mental health disorders and addiction, and venture capitalists have invested millions of dollars in related companies. However, the regulatory landscape is still largely restrictive.
A recent study from the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown University suggests that political partisanship has a neurobiological basis. The researchers found that individuals' ideological bent is closely connected to the patterns of activity in the striatum when they hear certain political words, such as "immigration" and "American."
The University of Exeter in the UK is launching a postgraduate qualification on psychedelics, which will teach healthcare workers about using psychoactive drugs in therapeutic work.
A new study provides early evidence of a surge of activity correlated with consciousness in the dying brain. The patients showed an increase in heart rate along with a surge of gamma wave activity, considered the fastest brain activity and associated with consciousness.
Thiel has stated that he plans to freeze his body after death as an "ideological statement" and a moment of anti-death activism. While he acknowledges that cryonics might not ultimately work, he believes that it is something that we should try to do, arguing that we should either conquer death or at least figure out why it's impossible.
The effect of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on whole-brain functional and effective connectivity | Neuropsychopharmacology
This study investigates the neural mechanisms of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) using novel technique that assesses whole-brain effective connectivity (EC) during resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The study found that LSD perturbs the Excitation/Inhibition balance of the brain, with predominantly stronger interregional connectivity and reduced self-inhibition, with some notable exceptions.
Joshua Michael Schei creates what he calls ‘a provocation’ on the increasing influence of psychology in various aspects of life. This has led to an overemphasis on psychological and individualistic explanations for everything. This episode explores the warnings from Bayo Akomolafe and others about a potential loss of deeper meanings and traditional relationality as we increasingly view everything through a psychological lens. Plant medicine rituals, traditional practices, and even activist movements have started to become infected by psychological vocabulary, resulting in a loss of connection to the soul or the "breath of life."
An entire podcast ‘featuring’ Joe Rogan and Sam Altman, with all content generated using AI language models, including their appearance, voices, and everything they say. Expect a lot more of this sort of thing in the future, for good and ill. For now, this is a bit of fun.
Jaron Lanier argues that the term "artificial intelligence" (AI) is misleading and dangerous, and that we should instead think of AI as an innovative form of social collaboration. He suggests that the flexibility and unpredictability of AI arise from simple mathematics, and that we should view it as a tool rather than a creature. While acknowledging the potential benefits of AI, he also warns of the risks and emphasizes the importance of managing the technology intelligently.
Scientist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup vigorously argues that AI is extremely unlikely to ever become conscious, indeed he claims that so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ is no more self-aware than the sewerage system in your house.
He asks the very pertinent question that if AI is conscious, then why do we not also consider our smartphones and other silicon-based computing devices to be sentient? Where do we draw the line? As an analytic idealist, he considers the existence of the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ to be the result of asking the wrong question in the first place.
Arielle Friedman considers the capacities of the human brain alongside those of ChatGPT. She compares the structure and complexity of the neural network of ChatGPT to that of the human brain in terms of network size, synapses versus parameters, neuroplasticity, and data processing. The conclusion? You’ll have to check out the article to find out. 😉
AI technology has made impressive strides, yet is still a long way away from achieving consciousness. At least that’s the conclusion of David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University. He contends that consciousness is necessary for understanding language and emotions, and that without it, AI, like ChatGPT, can only produce canned responses and lacks the ability to judge the quality of its own work. The author also dismisses fears that AI like ChatGPT could become dangerous.
Scientists are using advanced sensors and artificial intelligence technology to observe and decode how a broad range of species already share information with their own communication methods. This field of “digital bioacoustics” is the subject of a new book called The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants. The same natural language processing algorithms that are used in tools such as Google Translate can also be used to detect patterns in nonhuman communication, a goal that seemed unreachable until recent AI breakthroughs.
Ted Chiang discusses some potential risks of AI, and proposes a new metaphor for understanding them, suggesting that AI functions similarly to consulting firms like McKinsey, which are hired to help companies achieve their goals without taking responsibility for the consequences. He questions whether AI could be used to assist workers instead of management, and suggests that universal basic income will turn out to be insufficient as a solution to AI-driven unemployment.
Yuval Harari, Tristan Harris, and Aza Raskin collaborate on an article about AI risk. They don’t get into the issue of whether or AI might ever be considered sentient, rather focusing on the capacity of AI to generate illusions, and the likely weaponization of those illusions by existing power structures and potential ‘bad actors’. Their conclusions might give us pause as to why we are pressing down hard on the AI accelerator.
L. M. Sacasas, who writes the Convivial Society newsletter, exposes the unexamined religious assumptions embedded in the mythology that surrounds technology, and AI in particular: “the Enlightenment—and, yes, we are painting with broad strokes here—did not do away with the notions of Providence, Heaven, and Grace. Rather, the Enlightenment re-framed these as Progress, Utopia, and Technology respectively.”
He argues that the emergence of AI, as a distillation of the modernist paradigm, will force us to reckon with the death of modernity itself: “The resulting system demands or threatens the elimination of the human person. But this must not be understood ultimately as the risk of the appearance of a new, alien super-intelligence. Rather, it must be understood as the culmination of a longstanding trajectory.”
In this podcast Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, explains the company’s work on AGI, AI technologies, and reflects on the future of AI with Lex Fridman. They discuss GPT-4, ChatGPT, and RLHF, as well as the complexities of training a language model, aligning it with human feedback, and the data sets used. They go into the possibilities AI offers, as well as the potential dangers it poses.
In this video Stephen Wolfram discusses the various ways people have tried to describe the world, including through the use of mathematical equations, and the limitations of these approaches. He introduces the idea of programs and rules, explaining how even simple programs can produce incredibly complex and unpredictable behavior, warning that time works differently in these systems and that predicting their behavior is not always possible.
Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke discusses the scientific, philosophical, and spiritual implications of AI machines, the advent of artificial general intelligence (AGI), and the need to be cautious about making hyperbolic growth predictions. He proposes that we should focus on foreseeing plausible threshold points where we can make fundamental decisions about how we want to proceed with AGI. Reality is inexhaustibly complex and contains real uncertainty, and that placing superhuman intelligence into a complex environment can lead to general system collapse.
A video by David Shapiro on Ray Kurzweil’s claim that the exponential rise of AI, compounding returns, nanotech, and quantum computing are all contributing to the possibility of achieving biological immortality by 2030. This "iPhone moment of longevity medicine" could create completely new possibilities and markets that will unlock entirely new domains. Social reactions, economic impact, and lifestyle changes will all occur as a result of achieving biological immortality, with some very dystopian possibilities thrown into the mix.
You might have missed…
(some nuggets from our archive)
Philosopher Philip Goff answers questions about “panpsychism”, a theory based on the idea that consciousness is not just a quality of the brain, but is inherent to all matter. “Human beings have a very rich and complex experience; horses less so, mice less so again. As we move to simpler forms of life, we find simpler forms of experience … it’s at least coherent to suppose that this continuum of consciousness carries on into inorganic matter, with fundamental particles having unimaginably simple forms of experience.” Physical science cannot explain the subjective experience of consciousness, whereas panpsychism offers a way to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview. This theory could offer a way to rethink what science is and could lead to a new science of consciousness.
Breathwork is a mindfulness technique that involves conscious breathing practices. It can have immediate and undeniable results, unlike other mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation. The benefits of breathwork include stress reduction, emotional regulation, and improved productivity.
LSD, madness and healing: Mystical experiences as possible link between psychosis model and therapy model
This study by Wiessner et al on behalf of the Beckley Foundation explores the relationship between psychedelic experiences, psychotic experiences, and psychotherapy. The research involved a small sample of participants who had previously experienced treatment-resistant depression, with varying results. The study found that psilocybin assisted in reducing depressive symptoms and improving overall mood in some participants, with effects lasting up to five weeks after treatment. The authors suggest that the link between the psychotic model and therapeutic model lies in mystical experiences, and that psychedelic-assisted therapy might benefit from therapeutic suggestions fostering mystical experiences. However, more research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits and risks of using psilocybin as a treatment for depression.
The British author of Curious and Conflicted, Leslie here explores the current fascination with AI-generated images and text, but more importantly, he argues, humans have become more robotic or machine-like over the last years, as we seek to syncopate our consciousness to the reining algorithms. He writes: “Machine learning programs work by labeling objects and assigning them to categories. An image in a dataset either contains a car or it does not – it can’t be car-ish. The ontology comes pre-wrapped. This picture is either of a cat or of a sheep – it can’t be of a cat and a sheep. Nothing can be ambiguous and everything must be assigned a definite value. There is no room for doubt or uncertainty (as distinct from quantified variability).” He explores how pop songs and movies have become more formulaic and less complex, overall. The same, he argues, is true for politics, which has become more “bot-like.”
A founder of the recently ended Rebel Wisdom, Alexander Beiner describes his experience facilitating a workshop in Spain trying to address polarization across activist circles, addressing subjects as “intersectionality,” racism, woke-ism, and so on. The workshop wasn’t entirely successful, but left Beiner with new ideas: “The more I’ve reflected on the conversations that came up during the Protopia Lab, the more I’ve found it useful to see cultural polarization through a lens of cycles of blame and retribution. Unresolved rage, unresolved needs, unresolved hopes. Over all, what I feel in these kinds of conversations is a collective urge for the unspoken to be spoken.” This still seems quite vague, and the subtext of the piece is that there remains a lot of work to do for activists from different backgrounds and ideologies to cooperate effectively.
In this controversial and widely discussed piece, Alnoor Ladha and Rene Suša argue against the current efforts to subsume psychedelic substances into Capitalist modes of consumerism and commodification. They write: “Baked into the current notion of the psychedelic renaissance is the sense that it already knows where it wants to go: more scale, more global distribution, more money, more people, more markets, more “social impact.” Psychedelics are the new Terra Nullius, new, uninhabited ground for the market to expand into and human ingenuity to uncover.” The claim of a “psychedelic renaissance” ignores the continuity of psychedelic use and knowledge among indigenous people around the world.
An astute cultural commentator and author of many books, Doug Rushkoff here critiques a group of largely white male Internet thinkers loosely grouped under the name, the Dark Enlightenment. This group includes philosopher/gadfly Alexander Bard, The Stoa, David Fuller and Alex Beiner (who just folded their project, Rebel Wisdom), Cadell Last, and others. “Just buy the supplements, do the microdosing course, pay to attend the festival, and bring yourself to believe what an almost entirely white male contingent of Dark-Enlightenment-alt-right-adjacent philosophers have to tell us about the realm they are colonizing on our behalf,” Rushkoff writes.
He also puts down the popular “Game B” meme propounded by Jim Rutt and Daniel Schmachtenberger, among others: “Rather than adopting any real theory of change, any sort of incrementalism that acknowledges the impact of a wholesale social, political, and economic transition to a new way of being, we simply reboot civilization in what meta-influenced changemakers and systems theorists call going “from Game A to Game B.” We phase change from the pathetic, over-simplified world of rules and governments and provincialism we are in (Game A) to the ineffable but superior one that can fully embrace complexity (Game B).”
Ellie Hain is the co-founder (with Joe Edelman) of rebuildingmeaning.org. In this interview she talks about her recent presentation ‘Exit The Void’. Their organization is working to rebuild our society’s relationship to meaning via a framework intended to aid the transformation of institutions. There is a debate around whether there is a meaning crisis or not; Ellie believes there are two types of meaning, and the crisis depends on how one analyzes it.
They discuss the subtitle of the book, which is “Our Brains, Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World.” This refers to the idea that our left-brain-dominated habits of mind have led to a disconnection from the world as a living, vibrant entity. By mechanizing, abstracting, and ignoring the uniqueness of individuals, we’ve come to inhabit an impoverished version of the world.
They also talk about the erosion of the adult mind and the increasing prevalence of the belief that reality is a simulation, stemming from a solipsistic and doomed bid to transcend the limits of the natural world. McGilchrist emphasizes the need for balance, acknowledging that while everyone sees the world differently, it is crucial to recognize that there is still common ground and a shared reality: the truth that is self-evident to the right hemisphere of the brain, and which we ignore at our peril.
Qualia Institute Director Andrés Gómez Emillson is on the cutting-edge of exploring the phenomenology of deep psychedelic states, in particular DMT. While his YouTube channel contains much more recent videos, this presentation at the Harvard Psychedelic Club (with more than one million views!) from three years ago provides a great introduction and overview of his research. In it, he explores the different stages of the DMT experience, which are accompanied by different perceptions of space, time, and particular geometrical structures that seem to accompany distinct qualities of revealing or knowing. Fascinating stuff, aided and abetted by Emillson’s giggly, elfin personality.
Dr. Kevin W. Reese interviews Dr. Chris Niebauer, author of the book “No Self, No Problem,” discussing the concept of the self and how it creates problems in our lives from the perspective both of Buddhism and of neuroscience. They explore how the process of thinking creates the illusion of the self, and how recognizing thoughts as thoughts, rather than truth, is key to understanding the self. They also touch on the power of the placebo effect and how beliefs can create physical healing. A key point is the paradoxical effect of trying to eliminate the self: “It was my trying not to be neurotic that was my neurosis.”