A new competition focused on “Psychedelic Cryptography” has awarded cash prizes to artists who made videos encoded with hidden messages that can be most easily deciphered by a person who is tripping on psychedelic substances, such as LSD, ayahuasca, or psilocybin mushrooms.
Qualia Research Institute (QRI), a California-based nonprofit group that researches consciousness with backing from tech investors and experts, announced the winners of its Psychedelic Cryptography (PsyCrypto) contest last week. The goal of the exercise was “to create encodings of sensory information that are only meaningful when experienced on psychedelics in order to show the specific information-processing advantages of those states,” according to the original contest page, which was posted in March.
Artist Raimonds Jermaks clinched the first and second place prizes in the contest for videos entitled “Can You See Us?” and “ We Are Here. Let’s Talk.” The third prize went to Rūdolfs Balcers for the video “The Key.” The contest entries were judged by members of QRI’s international phenomenologist network, and evaluated based on their effectiveness, specificity, and aesthetic value.
The winning videos play on the common psychedelic experience of seeing radiant “tracers,” which are trails of colors and afterimages that linger in the visual field. The winning artists used this effect to write out tracer-based messages that are incomprehensible to a sober person, but that can be understood while tripping.
“The top three submissions were the only ones that worked at all according to our team of expert phenomenologists,” said Andrés Gómez Emilsson, director of research at QRI, in an email to Motherboard. “They tried really, really hard to find messages in every submission while on mushrooms and ayahuasca (at places where these substances are perfectly legal) and none of the other submissions had anything worth commenting on (sorry!).”
“I do expect a dramatic improvement in the quality of submissions next time we run this contest, though,” he added. “Very importantly, based on recent work at QRI, I am convinced that there are at least 3-4 completely new and mind-blowing ways to achieve PsyCrypto that do not use tracers at all. The tracers are, in a way, the trivial case. The new PsyCrypto encoding schemes are...far more surprising and non-trivial. We will publish more information about them in the near future.”
Gómez-Emilsson first started ruminating about the concept of PsyCrypto a decade ago while pursuing a graduate degree in psychology at Stanford University. He was throwing glowing sticks into the air in the dark and watching the entrancing patterns that arose from their movements, which made him wonder whether it might be even easier to follow those trails of light on psychedelics. In particular, he was interested in whether these types of sensory experiences could shed light on the hypothesis that consciousness has inherent information processing advantages, which has been suggested by the philosopher David Pearce.
“I immediately coded up some experiments to hide letters using that idea and gave the code to some friends, who then reported some mild but noticeable improved ability to read them while on LSD.” recalled Gómez-Emilsson, who coined the term “Psychedelic Cryptography.”
“Even then, I was actively in the lookout for ways to demonstrate how consciousness actually confers an information processing advantage,” he added. And psychedelics, to me, felt like very fertile territory to explore this idea. In essence, people have reported all sorts of information processing benefits from psychedelics (e.g. the classic study of Harman and Fadiman of psychedelics for problem solving). But this is still controversial, so to me PsyCrypto is a way to show the undeniable benefits (and tradeoffs!) in terms of information processing that different states of consciousness confer.”
To that end, the results of the PsyCrpyto contest affirmed that it was much easier for judges who were experiencing particularly vibrant tracers to decode the messages in the winning videos. Some of the judges who read the messages on psychedelics reported that they could still see them once they were sober, though at least two people on the panel said they were unable to reinterpret the messages after the effects of mushrooms or ayahuasca wore off.
Gómez-Emilsson predicts that new and improved PsyCrypto creations will start to catch on in recreational and entertainment contexts, such as festivals or movies, in the coming years. He and his colleagues at QRI also think that this work presents intriguing opportunities for fields like neuroscience and consciousness.
“[W]e think that by developing encryption schemes that use ‘phenomenological facts’ such as hyperbolic geometry on DMT, we will radically transform the conversation about how consciousness works and what its information processing properties are,” Gómez-Emilsson said. “Once you show that those geometries can be used for information processing, and that humans in the right state of consciousness display such advantages, then it becomes undeniable that they are in fact using such exotic geometry for computation.”
“I believe this will set the trajectory of the history of consciousness in very unexpected ways,” he concluded. “Indeed, superintelligence won't be achieved with AI, but with consciousness engineering.”