The Philosophy and Neuroscience of Consciousness, Part III: Formless Consciousness and Zero Information

5,000 words

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Editor’s Note

Since interning at the Qualia Research Institute (QRI) last summer, my thinking on consciousness has been influenced strongly by its “memeplex,” the set of ideas and theories that define QRI as a research institute. I wouldn’t have conceived of the argument put forward in this article if I hadn’t been immersed in the rich and complex intersection of neuroscience, philosophy, and physics at QRI. I am deeply indebted to QRI for inspiring me to think more deeply and broadly about consciousness.

Summary

This essay discusses formless consciousness, an extraordinary state in which the boundary between the perceiving subject and the objects of perception dissolves. I claim that there is an ethical imperative to experience formless consciousness, since it is the gateway to radical compassion. I propose that formless consciousness has zero information content, yet due to a paradox of information theory, it nonetheless maximizes the repertoire of possible experiential states and neuronal phenomena. I also suggest, building on research by QRI, that formless consciousness is mediated by meta-criticality, a scale-invariant phenomenon in which multiple brain networks attain criticality simultaneously.   

Formless consciousness

Towards the end of his book Galileo’s Error, the philosopher and panpsychist Philip Goff describes a unique state of consciousness that he calls “formless consciousness.” Goff defines it as an experience in which the boundary between the perceiving subject (e.g., me) and the objects of perception (e.g., sights, sounds, feelings) dissolves. According to Goff, “mystics claim that it becomes apparent in such states that formless consciousness is the backdrop to all individual conscious experiences and hence that in a significant sense formless consciousness is the ultimate nature of each and every conscious mind. This realization allegedly undermines ordinary understanding of the distinctions between different people and leads to a conviction that in some deep sense ‘we are all one.’”

Furthermore, while it is difficult – and perhaps dangerous – to defend the claim that all religions are pointing to the same universal Truth, it does appear to be the case that mystical traditions across a broad range of cultures report experiences of formless consciousness. The rabbi Jay Michaelson writes that the “deepest secret of wisdom” in the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism, “is that, despite appearances, all things, and all of us, are like ripples on a single pond, motes of a single sunbeam, the letters of a single word. The true reality of our existence is One … and thus the sense of separate self that we all have — the notion that “you” and “I” are individuals with souls separate from the rest of the universe – is not ultimately true.” In a collection of works known as the Seven Treasuries, the famed Tibetan Buddhist scholar Longchenpa states that this experience of boundlessness displays itself in everything as “basic space.” “Throughout the entire universe, all beings and all that manifests as form,” he says, “are adornments of basic space … All consciousness and all stirring and proliferation of thoughts … are adornments of basic space.” In other words, there is no fundamental distinction between me and the rest of the world in the sense that we are all permeated by the same basic space. Basic space is devoid of content (as traditionally defined), “empty in essence”; “it has never existed as anything whatsoever.” It can be likened to a blank canvas upon which a picture of the world and of ourselves is painted. Most of the time, it appears that my canvas features a different painting than the canvas of other people; we are experiencing different sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and we identify with a distinct set of attributes, whether those are social, political, cultural, or religious. But in certain rare circumstances, we can wipe away the paint and become aware of the bare canvas that underlies it. This experience then yields the recognition that there is nothing to distinguish my canvas from the canvases of everyone else. Understanding this insight at the deepest possible level of intuition – through a type of knowing that is more profound and intimate than “mere belief,” as Michaelson says – gives rise to formless consciousness. 

For those who have not experienced it personally or for those who take a skeptical view towards mysticism, this description of formless consciousness may seem rather “woo-woo.” What exactly does it mean to “wipe away the paint” of our consciousness, in non-mystical terms? How can we get more precise in our definition of formless consciousness? Andrés Gomez Emilsson, director of research at QRI, has put forward a useful frame for operationalizing this phenomenon. In particular, he has suggested that formless consciousness is a state of experience with close to zero or zero information content. (As I will discuss later, this conception of formless consciousness is perfectly consistent with Part II of this essay series, where I argued that information theory is central to the science of consciousness.) Thus, we “wipe the paint away from our mental canvases” by erasing all of the information from our conscious experiences, while still being conscious. As far as I know, this can be achieved systematically in two ways: 1) through intense meditation, and 2) through psychedelic use. In the first case, the meditator shifts her attention away from the content of her conscious experience – the recurring sensations, thoughts, and emotions that would normally distract her – to her consciousness itself. As the neuroscientist and consciousness expert Christof Koch has noted, these meditations on “bare awareness” are facilitated by sensory deprivation chambers, in which the normal contents of conscious experience – sight, sound, etc. – fade away. The most profound meditations on bare awareness yield a series of states known as the four formless jhanas, which both Andrés and I have written about on our respective blogs. The highest of these jhanas is an experience of “neither perception nor non-perception,” which is perhaps the ultimate realization of formless consciousness; a sense of heightened awareness is vividly present, but it is not awareness of anything in particular. In the words of meditation teacher Daniel Ingram, “one is simultaneously focused so narrowly that one notices nothing and yet so broadly that one doesn’t notice even that.” In the second case, according to Andrés, ingesting 5-MeO-DMT, which is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug, tends to bring about a state of consciousness with very low information complexity, for two reasons. [1] Firstly, Andrés notes that 5-MeO-DMT produces visual hallucinations with lots of symmetry, as seen in the figure below. A symmetrical pattern implies low information content, since one region of the pattern determines what the pattern looks like in all the other regions; if I know what a single plank of a fence looks like, then I will also know what every other plank looks like. Secondly, and more importantly, 5-MeO-DMT results in an overwhelming sensation of oneness, one that is perhaps capable of breaking down every duality of perception; to quote Andrés, “5-MeO-DMT … seems to allow for ‘all colors to blend together into pure white light’, and ‘the past and the future to collapse into the present’, and [most importantly] the ‘self-other distinction to be dissolved’, and so on.”

Fig 1. Low-information conscious experiences produced by 5-MeO-DMT. Image taken from Andrés’ blog, Qualia Computing.

What is the significance or utility of formless consciousness? To those who don’t have an appreciation of “exotic states of consciousness,” it may seem like nothing more than a mystical curiosity at best. However, I would argue that there is actually nothing that is more important for the world than cultivating formless consciousness. As Andrés has said to me, inducing formless consciousness on a large scale would “change the world very quickly.” Why? Because formless consciousness is the gateway to radical, universal compassion. When each of us deeply internalizes the notion that there is fundamentally no difference between one another, we will act as though we are a single organism, as Andrés has remarked. We will abandon the dualistic mindset of “preserving my self-interest at the expense of someone else’s well-being.” There will be no reason or motivation to prioritize “my needs” over the needs of others. Instead, “my needs” become the needs of everyone else. Indeed, we will adopt the holistic attitude of protecting and promoting the welfare of all sentient beings. Importantly, these include sentient beings that we would not consider to be our friends, that have wronged us very badly in the past, and that we may find repulsive (e.g.  literal snakes). The desire to end unnecessary suffering, which happens to be QRI’s ultimate mission, extends unconditionally to everyone and everything that has the gift of consciousness. [2] Once experienced on a global scale, formless consciousness will spell the end of every tribe, every creed, every political party, every social or cultural construct that seeks to pit one group of people against another.

Formless consciousness comes with many risks. Taking 5-MeO-DMT can often be an overwhelmingly positive experience, but it can also cause some harrowingly bad trips; one person on the Internet reported that “the suffering, terror, and panic” she felt on 5-MeO-DMT “was really beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.” In general, feeling a sense of all-encompassing oneness with every sentient creature can be deeply unsettling, especially for people who are not willing to totally surrender into a void of egolessness. Aside from the psychological and perhaps neurobiological dangers that it poses, many people would also be reluctant to accommodate the ethical implications of formless consciousness. It is very controversial to suggest that we should completely let go of any sense of individuality, for while our attachments to our personal identities are the sources of great suffering, they can also imbue life with meaning. Tribes make war with one another, but rallying people around a common battle cry can bring them together in a way that is not only effective but also soulfully enriching.

In response to these concerns, I would argue that a world in which formless consciousness is the default mode of experience is simply so transcendent that we can’t even imagine how incredible it would be. Suffering is to us like water is to a fish; we are so entrenched in it that it is nearly impossible to conceive of life without it. [3] Because we take so much pride in the qualities that distinguish us from everyone else, it is perfectly reasonable to be opposed to a society that is principally guided by the vision that we are all, fundamentally, the same person. But once we manage to anchor our sense of who we are not in our differences but in the shared recognition that we are all brushstrokes on the same canvas, we will be opened up to new horizons of compassion, bliss, and even spiritual fulfillment.

Enough of the discussion on ethics, for now. In the remainder of this essay, I will propose some new ideas about the underlying science of formless consciousness, which has barely received any attention in mainstream neuroscience research. (I can imagine many neuroscientists swiftly dismissing formless consciousness as “something a hippy would talk about.”) Since my thoughts on formless consciousness are rooted in information content, my analysis will be guided by some philosophical insights on information theory, which I will introduce now.

The Zero Ontology

The Zero Ontology was one of the first theories that I learned about when I signed on to be an intern at QRI. It was developed by the philosopher David Pearce, who is also one of QRI’s core lineages. The central idea of the Zero Ontology is that, in some sense, (apparently) maximal information paradoxically implies zero information. 

When Andrés first explained the Zero Ontology to me, he began by defining information as a reduction in uncertainty. (This is identical to the definition of information that I discussed in Part II.) Hence, if I were to specify the position of a rook on a chess board, for example, I would be giving you a nonzero amount (6 bits, in fact) of information. On the other hand, if I were to say that the rook could be anywhere on the chess board, I would be conveying zero information, since I am not reducing any of the uncertainty that someone would have about the rook.

By extension, as Pearce argues, a library that contains every permutation of letters and numbers, also known as the Library of Babel, would have zero information content. This example appears to create a paradox, as the Library of Babel would appear to have maximal information. But in fact, knowing that a book belongs in the Library of Babel doesn’t reduce any uncertainty about the letters and numbers that could appear in the book, since the Library of Babel implies that any configuration of characters is possible. (If, on the other hand, I knew that the book is in a library that only consists of works by Shakespeare, my prior uncertainty about the book would decrease very significantly.)

In general, a system can minimize its information content by maximizing its repertoire of possible states, such that the uncertainty about the actual state of the system is maximally high. When the brain exhibits this phenomenon, the result is formless consciousness. This claim is actually consistent with the phenomenology of formless consciousness; recall, as Andrés wrote, that “all colors blend together into white light” under the influence of 5-MeO-DMT. (Note that the mere presence of all colors is sufficient for the hallucinations on 5-MeO-DMT to convey zero information about colors; the colors do not need to blend into white noise.) More to the point, formless consciousness unmoors a person’s sense of self so strongly that he will literally identify himself with other objects in his environment. One person felt as though he literally became a pineapple when he ate it on the comedown of 5-MeO-DMT. Typically, a person’s sense of self can access only a very small repertoire of states; my concept of who I am is generally very fixed and stable, and even if a life-changing event were to radically change my personality, I would still think, deep down, that I inhabit a certain body, that my identity is somehow tied to my name, and so on. 5-MeO-DMT and any other substance or experience that results in formless consciousness will dramatically broaden this repertoire of states.

Additionally, as Andrés has said, 5-MeO-DMT is known to induce delta coherence on an unprecedented scale; that is, it causes brain waves at a certain frequency (1-4 Hz) to become very similar to one another. Global coherence at such a high level implies that the entire brain is oscillating at the same frequency, or within a small range of frequencies. Hence, the corresponding information content is either zero or very close to zero, for the same reason that a single character or pixel repeated many times conveys next to no information. Additionally, if every neuron is active at the same time, then we wouldn’t experience any reduction in uncertainty if we were to isolate a certain neuron and learn about its state, even though globally simultaneous activity in the brain would seem to produce a high-information state.

Fig 2. Massive increase in delta coherence under the influence of 5-MeO-DMT. Image taken from this study.

As I mentioned earlier, the research on the neuroscience of formless consciousness is still extremely nascent. Even relative to those of other psychedelics, the neurobiological effects of 5-MeO-DMT are very poorly understood. Little is known about the jhanas either, though the existing evidence on meditation in general does suggest that all the major meditative traditions increase global coherence at the gamma frequency (>30 Hz). However, if it is true that formless consciousness is a state that actually has zero information content despite appearing to be maximally rich in information, we are still left with the puzzle of explaining the underlying mechanisms. How does the brain achieve such widespread uniformity in this sublime state of consciousness, given that it usually maintains a very diverse activity profile in more mundane circumstances?

Andrés has speculated (personal communication) that the process of minimizing information content in the brain is characterized by a property of complex systems known as scale invariance. I share this intuition, since scale invariance maximizes the repertoire of possible states that a system can have. Before I elaborate on this idea, it will be necessary for me to offer some background on scale invariance.

Scale invariance and criticality

Scale invariance is a property that arises as a physical system approaches its critical point, which is the threshold at which the system undergoes a transition from one phase to another. Familiar critical points include the phase transition between ice and liquid water, or between liquid water and vapor. At the critical point, the system reorganizes itself such that even a small change will propagate throughout its entire structure. This phenomenon results in scale invariance; no matter the scale at which the system is observed, its structure appears the same. 

For instance, when the temperature of iron is above its critical point, the magnetic spins of its atoms point in random directions, such that the net magnetization is zero. At the critical point, altering the spin of a single atom can trigger a change in the spins of all the other atoms, due to scale invariance. Hence, below the critical point, the majority of the spins are aligned in the same direction. According to physicist Thomas Gisiger, as the temperature is tuned to the critical point, “the spins of the [iron] behave like a row of dominoes where the fall of one brings down all the others. Here also, the interaction of one domino extends effectively to the whole system. This seems to take place by the spins arranging themselves in a scale-free, i.e. fractal, way.” In the theory of complex systems, events that trigger this domino effect are known as avalanches.

Mathematically, scale invariances are encoded by power laws. These are functions of the form:

f(s) = sα

Eq 1.

where α is a constant. In a self-organizing system, s would be the size of an event in the system, such as the number of atoms whose magnetic spins get changed, and f would be the probability that the event occurs. Power laws imply scale invariance because, as the neuroscientist Dietmar Plenz explains, they entail that activity at any scale of the system can affect activity that takes place at any other scale. This implication arises from the fact that the mean event size of the system is constrained only by its physical size; in an infinitely large system, the mean event size would be infinite (see Technical Appendix A). Thus, according to Plenz, “Activity originating at any site [in the system] can potentially engage activity at any other site, demonstrating that every site is correlated with every other site over long periods of activity. This suggests that activation at any one site … has the potential to access information stored at any other site. The behavior can therefore be readily extrapolated to any scale.” 

When the brain is operating at or near a critical point, neuronal activity at any region can, in principle, propagate to any other region, no matter how distant it is. However, the critical point is also a state with minimal information content since it maximizes uncertainty about the effect of a single event (e.g. the firing of an electrical impulse by a neuron) on the rest of the brain. While one action potential can trigger a very large avalanche at the critical point, it can also elicit nothing more than a small trickle of activity. Thus, criticality maximizes the repertoire of possible scalings of neuronal activity.

Scaling, furthermore, is inextricably linked to consciousness. The Global Workspace Theory, one of the leading theories of consciousness, claims that large scalings of activity, i.e. neuronal avalanches, broadcast information throughout the brain. Once neural information is “globally available” – that is, once many populations of neurons, such as those that regulate memory, language, cognition, etc., have the ability to process it – it becomes accessible to consciousness. 

Metacriticality

In ordinary consciousness, only a single network will typically achieve criticality at any given time, thus triggering an avalanche that projects data about a single conscious experience to the rest of the brain. (As I’ve written before, we are normally conscious of only one percept at a time, though it appears otherwise.) The fact that one network is approaching its own critical point does not mean that another network is near its corresponding threshold; different networks in the brain may have different critical points. As the neuroscientist Janina Hesse has pointed out, “there is at least the possibility that different regions of the brain are tuned to criticality separately, and perhaps to different phase transitions.” I speculate that, in formless consciousness, a large number of brain networks reach criticality at the same time. I call this phenomenon metacriticality. [4] Metacriticality is the state of the brain with the lowest possible information content, because it implies that every scaling of every network can be realized. Additionally, in formless consciousness, every network simultaneously elicits an avalanche, thereby maximizing the repertoire of qualia that a person’s experience. That is, because each cluster of neurons in the brain encodes a different quale (i.e. conscious experience), as I discussed in Part II of this essay series, metacriticality will cause a breathtaking multiplicity of qualia to flood a person’s consciousness. Metacriticality may produce many of the “exotic” phenomena that accompany formless consciousness, such as the experience of seeing all colors blending together into white light, or the experience of reliving many memories simultaneously as a result of “watching your entire life flash before your eyes.” [5] 

In order for the entire brain to avalanche at once, the inhibitory mechanisms that typically suppress excitatory neural activity must themselves be silenced. Indeed, under normal circumstances, the brain maintains a very hierarchical structure, in which “bottom-up” evidence about the self and the world is inhibited or “explained” by “top-down” predictions. This hierarchy actually accounts for the boundary that we ordinarily perceive between ourselves and the world around us. Because there is usually no difference between our predictions about our own actions and the sensory feedback that we receive from those actions, we are able to easily distinguish our own behavior from that of other people. Yet when those predictive mechanisms start to break down, we perceive that we start to lose ownership or agency over our bodies and minds. For instance, if a patient’s brain fails to predict the sensory feedback from her left hand, e.g. the sensation of touch when she pats someone on the back, she may begin to feel as though her left hand “has a mind of its own.” Furthermore, these prediction errors arise when the brain is pushed closer to criticality. As the neuroscientists Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston write in their landmark essay “REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Towards a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics,” “systems at criticality display maximal sensitivity to [bottom-up] perturbation.” [6] Hence, events that push the brain closer to criticality, such as tripping on psychedelics, will cause the brain to become more sensitive to prediction errors. Metacriticality, I believe, would trigger a far more radical reorganization of brain activity, one that leads the ordinary hierarchical structure to disintegrate almost entirely. The brain fails to predict internal and external signals (i.e. bottom-up perturbations) to such an extent that the locus of a person’s consciousness / sense of self is displaced completely from the body and appears to become dispersed throughout the environment. In this way, metacriticality gives rise to formless consciousness. 

Fig 3. (Ignore the right half of the image.) Normally, as indicated by the thick green arrow, top-down predictions strongly inhibit or explain away bottom-up signals, which are labeled above as “prediction errors.” Under the influence, the thickness of the arrow decreases, meaning that the strength of the inhibition declines. Additionally, top-down predictions become more sensitive to bottom-up perturbations. Image taken from this paper.

The neurobiological mechanisms underlying this large-scale restructuring of the brain in formless consciousness are still a huge mystery, but I speculate that percolation may play a role. Percolation is itself a critical phenomenon, and according to the neuroscientist Joshua Mallinson, the percolation threshold is the critical point “at which avalanches might be expected to propagate.” Percolation takes place in networks and other systems that are capable of forming clusters. The parameter that modulates the level of percolation is the probability p that two nodes in the network are connected. When p is small, there are few clusters in the network, and they are quite scattered. But when p exceeds its critical value, a “giant component” emerges, which is a cluster that spans the entire network. 

The connectome, which is the structure of connections in the brain, contains an entire hierarchy of clusters, and I suspect that this maps onto the hierarchy of predictive mechanisms in the brain. At higher levels, brain activity is usually dominated by the top-down, inhibitory connections (see Fig 3), but once those levels exceed their corresponding percolation thresholds, new patterns of connectivity are forged. In fact, the repertoire of connectivity motifs is maximized, giving rise to a minimally low-information state. Carhart-Harris and Friston state that an enhanced repertoire results in greater responsiveness to bottom-up perturbations. But, much like there is no single critical point for the entire brain, there is no single percolation threshold for it either; rather, there is a different threshold for separate levels of the hierarchy. Percolation at one level can, for example, increase sensitivity to emotionally charged stimuli, as Carhart-Harris and Friston note, but I doubt that it can trigger the extreme restructuring of brain dynamics that occurs in formless consciousness. Rather, percolation at every level of the hierarchy is necessary to bring about formless consciousness. Only then does the brain become completely incapable of predicting any of the sensory feedback that it receives from bottom-up sources.

A second type of metacriticality

So far, we have considered one type of metacriticality in which different networks or hierarchical levels of the brain are associated with distinct critical points. However, we implicitly assumed that all of those critical points were modulated by a single control parameter: the activity of neurons, which is correlated with percolation. Yet, as Hesse notes, “the simple picture, in which exactly one global control parameter is tuned [in the brain], is misleading. In reality, the microscopic changes in the system are likely to affect tens or hundreds of network level quantities at the same time, which all act as possible control parameters for phase transitions.” Thus, there is a second type of metacriticality in which brain networks attain criticality by virtue of tuning different control parameters.

One of these is neural synchronization, which is related to coherence. In Part II of this essay series, I stated that neural coherence may mediate phenomenal binding, i.e. the unifying of different experiences into a single consciousness. [7] It is likely that formless consciousness affects phenomenal binding, since the state is usually accompanied by an experience of extraordinary unity and interconnectedness. Mike Johnson, CEO of QRI, has argued that changes in neural synchronization underlie the unique kind of binding that takes place in formless consciousness. In particular, he claims that 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to “an emergent metronome – and this metronome will drive synchronicity between diverse brain regions. Given the presence of such a region-spanning ‘clean’ metronomic signal, brain regions that have partially ‘stopped talking to each other’ will re-establish integration, and some of this integration will persist while sober.” In other words, as Andrés says, 5-MeO-DMT has a “‘special’ ability that allows arbitrary parts of your nervous system to rhythmically entrain with one another. This “emergent metronome” on … 5-MeO-DMT works as a kind of universal ‘vibratory currency.’” Therefore, 5-MeO-DMT, as well as the other experiences that induce formless consciousness, maximizes the repertoire of networks that can be synchronized with each other, thereby minimizing information about phenomenal binding. Indeed, if it is true that any neuronal network can synchronize with any other in formless consciousness (perhaps a dubious claim, even for this remarkable experiential state), then an outside observer will be maximally uncertain about the patterns of synchronization taking place in the brain.


Endnotes

[1] I’ve also talked about 5-MeO-DMT in relation to sublime states of consciousness previously on this blog.

[2] In Part II, I argued that everything is conscious, including inanimate objects like chairs. Would this mean that we would need to have the welfare of chairs in mind when we aim to minimize suffering? Not really. While it is true, according to my view, that a chair has consciousness, it has such a tiny degree of experience – one that is many, many orders of magnitude more basic than the rich awareness that human beings have – that its consciousness is essentially negligible. It is not capable of feeling pain and pleasure.  

[3] See also David Pearce’s responses to the common objections to his Hedonistic Imperative, which argues that we ought to eliminate suffering.

[4] While there does not seem to be any research on the relationship between metacriticality and psychedelics, there is evidence that psychedelics bring the brain closer to a (single) critical point.

[5] In Qualia Computing, Andrés proposes that the underlying neuronal mechanism of this phenomenon may be a reduction in lateral inhibition. He writes, “Lateral inhibition in the cortex prevents the overlapping of incompatible features in one’s own experience. For example, the primary visual cortex shows a map of orientation selectivity … Each hypercolumn is selective to only a specific orientation, and the surrounding hypercolumns are selective to different orientations. More so, via lateral inhibition, when a hypercolumn is activated, it inhibits the surrounding ones … Intuitively, if [5-MeO-DMT] is biochemically disabling lateral inhibition, that could be reflected as a profound sense of unity and interconnectedness at the phenomenological level, ‘transcending every last barrier.’”

[6] Mike Johnson, CEO of the Qualia Research Institute, wrote an equally landmark essay called “Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything,” which builds heavily on the REBUS framework.

[7] QRI says that it would also entertain this idea.

Technical Appendix A

The mean event size E(s) tends to infinity for an infinitely large system:

Eq. A1. Adapted from this paper.

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