A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

May 2023 note: in May 2022 I stepped down from the QRI board and left the organization. I wish them well and intend on continuing to pursue my research. I have updated several parts of this document to speak only for myself.

STV is a candidate for a universal theory of valence, first proposed in Principia Qualia (2016). The following is a brief discussion of why existing theories are unsatisfying, what STV says, and key milestones so far.

I. Suffering is a puzzle

We know suffering when we feel it — but what is it? What would a satisfying answer for this even look like?

The psychological default model of suffering is “suffering is caused by not getting what you want.” This is the model that evolution has primed us toward. Empirically, it appears false (1)(2).

The Buddhist critique suggests that most suffering actually comes from holding this as our model of suffering. My co-founder Romeo Stevens suggests that we create a huge amount of unpleasantness by identifying with the sensations we want and making a commitment to ‘dukkha’ ourselves until we get them. When this fails to produce happiness, we take our failure as evidence we simply need to be more skillful in controlling our sensations, to work harder to get what we want, to suffer more until we reach our goal — whereas in reality there is no reasonable way we can force our sensations to be “stable, controllable, and satisfying” all the time. As Romeo puts it, “The mind is like a child that thinks that if it just finds the right flavor of cake it can live off of it with no stomach aches or other negative results.”

Buddhism itself is a brilliant internal psychology of suffering (1)(2), but has strict limits: it’s dogmatically silent on the influence of external factors on suffering, such as health, relationships, or anything having to do with the brain.

The Aristotelian model of suffering & well-being identifies a set of baseline conditions and virtues for human happiness, with suffering being due to deviations from these conditions. Modern psychology and psychiatry are tacitly built on this model, with one popular version being Seligman’s PERMA Model: P – Positive Emotion; E – Engagement; R – Relationships; M – Meaning; A – Accomplishments. Chris Kresser and other ‘holistic medicine’ practitioners are synthesizing what I would call ‘Paleo Psychology’, which suggests that we should look at our evolutionary history to understand the conditions for human happiness, with a special focus on nutrition, connection, sleep, and stress.

I have a deep affection for these ways of thinking and find them uncannily effective at debugging hedonic problems. But they’re not proper theories of mind, and say little about the underlying metaphysics or variation of internal experience.

Neurophysiological models of suffering try to dig into the computational utility and underlying biology of suffering and emotional valence. Bright spots include Friston & Seth, Panksepp, Joffily, and Eldar talking about emotional states being normative markers of momentum (i.e. whether you should keep doing what you’re doing, or switch things up), and Wager, Tracey, Kucyi, Osteen, and others discussing neural correlates of pain. These approaches are clearly important parts of the story, but tend to be descriptive rather than predictive, either focusing on ‘correlation collecting’ or telling a story without grounding that story in mechanism.

Not having a principled understanding of emotional valence is a core bottleneck for neuroscience, drug development, and next-generation mental health treatments, as well as philosophical questions about the future direction of civilization. I think this question is also much more tractable than people realize, that there are trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk, waiting to be picked up if we just actually try.

II. A brief history of STV

What does “actually trying” to solve valence look like? I can share how I’m thinking of this.

2016: The world’s first crisp formalism for pain and pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV)

STV had a long exploratory gestation period as I explored a lot of paths and marked the dead-ends. Things started to ‘gel’ through identifying and collecting core research lineages that any fundamentally satisfying answer must engage with.

A key piece of the puzzle for me was Integrated Information Theory (IIT), the first attempt at a formal bridge between phenomenology and causal emergence (Tononi et. al 2004, 2008, 2012). The goal of IIT is to create a mathematical object ‘isomorphic to’ a system’s phenomenology — that is to say, to create a perfect mathematical representation of what it feels like to be something. If it’s possible to create such a mathematical representation of an experience, then how pleasant or unpleasant the experience is should be ‘baked into’ this representation somehow.

In 2016 I introduced the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) built on the expectation that, although the details of IIT may not yet be correct, it has the correct goal — to create a mathematical formalism for consciousness. STV proposes that, given such a mathematical representation of an experience, the symmetry of this representation will encode how pleasant the experience is (Johnson 2016). STV is a formal, causal expression of the sentiment that “suffering is lack of harmony in the mind” and allowed us to make philosophically clear assertions such as:

  • X causes suffering because it creates dissonance, resistance, turbulence in the brain/mind.
  • If there is dissonance in the brain, there is suffering; if there is suffering, there is dissonance in the brain. Always.

This also let us begin to pose first-principles, conceptual-level models for affective mechanics: e.g., ‘pleasure centers’ function as pleasure centers insofar as they act as tuning knobs for harmony in the brain.

I co-founded a research institution, QRI, with the intention to pursue this research.

2017: We figured out how to apply the STV formalism to brains in an elegant way: CDNS

STV is a formal hypothesis that harmony in the brain feels good, and dissonance feels bad. But how do we measure harmony and dissonance, given how noisy most forms of neuroimaging are?

Selen Atasoy, had the insight to use resonance as a proxy for characteristic activity. Neural activity may often look random— a confusing cacophony— but if we look at activity as the sum of all natural resonances of a system we can say a great deal about how the system works, and which configuration the system is currently in, with a few simple equations. Atasoy’s contribution here was connectome-specific harmonic waves (CSHW), an experimental method for doing this with fMRI (Atasoy et. al 2016; 2017a; 2017b). This is similar to how mashing keys on a piano might produce a confusing mix of sounds, but through applying harmonic decomposition to this sound we can calculate which notes must have been played to produce it. There are many ways to decompose brain activity into various parameters or dimensions; CSHW’s strength is it grounds these dimensions in physical mechanism: resonance within the connectome. (See also work by Helmholtz, Tesla, and Lehar.)

My QRI co-founder Andrés Gomez Emilsson had the key insight that if Atasoy’s method can give us a power-weighted list of harmonics in the brain, we can take this list and do a pairwise ‘Consonance Dissonance Noise Signature’ (CDNS) analysis between harmonics and sum the result to figure out how much total consonance, dissonance, and noise a brain has (Gomez Emilsson 2017). Consonance is roughly equivalent to symmetry (invariance under transforms) in the time domain, and so the consonance between these harmonics should be a reasonable measure for the ‘symmetry’ of STV. This process should offer a clean, empirical measure for how much harmony (and lack thereof) there is in a mind, structured in a way that lets us be largely agnostic about the precise physical substrate of consciousness.

With this, we had a full empirical theory of suffering.

We invested in the CSHW paradigm and built ‘trading material’ for collaborations

We had our theory, and tried to get the data to test it. My sense was if STV is right, it should let us build better theory, and this should open doors for collaboration. This led to effort into exploring the implications of CSHW (Johnson 2018a), and research on the neuroscience of meditation (Johnson 2018b).

2019: Synthesis of a new neuroscience paradigm (Neural Annealing)

There are many approaches to doing systems neuroscience, but only a few really good ones. The best neuroscience research lineages are using various flavors of self-organizing systems theory to explain complex phenomena with very simple assumptions. Moreover, there are particularly elegant theories from Atasoy, Carhart-Harris, and Friston, all doing very similar things, just on different levels (physical, computational, energetic). I attempted to tell all three stories together in Neural Annealing (Johnson 2019), a unified theory of music, meditation, psychedelics, trauma, and emotional updating:

>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.

STV is a principled take on which brain states are pleasant; Neural Annealing is a principled take on what processes are healing.

2020-2021 saw a lot of wonderful logistical, organizational, and technical work, a wonderful set of interns, and heroic work by the core team which deserves its own book. I left QRI in May of 2022 and am pursuing my research independently.

III. What’s next?

Three core ways to push STV forward:

  1. Finding a precise physical formalism for consciousness. Asserting that symmetry in the mathematical representation of an experience corresponds with the valence of the experience involves a huge leap in clarity over other theories. But we also need to be able to formally generate this mathematical representation. I’ve argued previously against functionalism and for a physicalist approach to consciousness (partially echoing Aaronson), and Barrett, Tegmark, and McFadden offer notable arguments suggesting the electromagnetic field may be the physical seat of consciousness because it’s the only field that can support sufficient complexity. It seems plausible that determining a physical formalism for consciousness is intimately tied to the binding problem, aka the ‘boundary problem’ as framed in Principia Qualia.
  2. Building better neuroscience & neuroimaging proxies for STV. There’s now a set of empirical predictions around the expectation that consonance within a brain’s connectome-specific harmonic waves (CSHW) will be a good proxy for the symmetry of that mind’s formal mathematical representation. But CSHW rests on a chain of inferences about neuroimaging and brain structure, and using it to discuss consciousness rests on further inferences still. There’s probably room for improvement.
  3. Tell the story in more and simpler ways. I recently condensed Principia Qualia into a much shorter paper (which I recommend reading — it has some new things as well); my former colleague Andrés has spoken about STV in many formats. I should probably do more interviews.

IV. My long-term vision

In the broadest sense, I find myself considering two questions. The first question is, what are we humans here to do? And the answer I find myself drawn toward is that the purpose of the universe is to become perfect, and we humans are the seeds of this perfect thing. STV gives us a clarifying constraint on what “perfect” means: a future absolutely filled with joyful, wholesome experience (building an optimal tradeoff on the information content vs symmetry curve).

The second question is, what is the right path for getting to this perfect future? And the answer I find myself drawn toward is that we should be humble. Speaking only for myself: the older I get the more complex reality appears, the trickier issues of ethics, multi-level selection, and consequentialism seem, and the more value I see in gentle interventions which allow people to reach toward their platonic ideals of themselves — technologies that preserve autonomy, fail gracefully, and can be iterated quickly. This suggests we would-be universe-optimizers may be best served by seeing ourselves as virtue-focused toolmakers, not utility-focused moralists.

If we can make every generation incrementally healthier, happier, and more virtuous, we’ll be on our way to becoming worthy of building something perfect.

“And that is a very self-indulgent thing. It has no altruistic clinical compassion behind it. It is just the selfish desire to try and understand things as completely and as rigorously and as simply as possible,” he says. “I often reflect on the jokes that people make about me—sometimes maliciously, sometimes very amusingly—that I can’t communicate. And I think: I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for me.” 

-Karl Friston