Pleasure and Pain are Long-Tailed

This post is derived from Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain by the Qualia Research Institute. Thank you Romeo Stevens for introducing me to the cool work you’re doing over there.

People have a certain baseline amount of happiness. Fix their problems, and they’ll be happy for a while, then go back to baseline. The only solution is to hack consciousness directly, to figure out what exactly happiness is – unpack what we’re looking for when we describe some mental states as having higher positive valence than others – and then add that on to every other mental state directly.

Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017 by Scott Alexander

If we want to cure suffering then we need a way to measure suffering.

The human brain does not, by default, reason in absolutes. We reason via ratios. The difference between 1 and 2 feels about the same as the difference between 100 and 200 even though the difference between 100 and 200 is 100× as large as the difference between 1 and 2. This is known as Weber’s Law.

To put this in mathematical terms, we map everything onto a logarithmic scale and then compare distances on the log plot. On a log plot, the distance between 1 and 2 equals the distance between 100 and 200.

Weber’s Law doesn’t just apply to measurements of our external environment. It applies to subjective experience itself. When you combine Weber’s Law with subjective reports of conscious experience we find that valence (the intensity of an experience) is long-tailed. Consciousness itself may be long-tailed too.

The Valence Scale

Are people intersubjectively consistent on the relative pleasure and pain caused by different things? Yes we are.


“Ok,” you might say, “you’re just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?” The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states.

You know how every instant is a priceless gift but it’s hard to appreciate that fact? When I’m meditating regularly I consistently, after thirty minutes of focused attention, drop into a state where I appreciate it. (My default mode network turns off too.) I don’t know where my experiences fall on the th Jhana ladder but I suspect there are meditative states way higher than what I’ve experienced. There are people who meditate for decades.

When I’m in a state of meditatively-heightened awareness I’m not just in a more blissful state. I feel qualitatively more conscious, which I mean in the “hard problem of consciousness” sense of the word. “Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life.” Zen practitioners are often uninterested in LSD because it’s possible to reach states that are indescribably more real and vivid than (regular) real life without ever leaving real life. (Zen is based around being totally present for real life. A Zen master meditates eyes open.) It is not unusual for proficient meditators to describe mystical experiences as at least 100× more conscious than regular everyday experience.

As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in multiples of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/​pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here,” one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience.” Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time and phenomenal space can drastically expand. In short, you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.

That sounds right to me.

Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (c.f., semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.

One way to describe ultra-bliss is as pure intense universal unconditional compassion toward everything you comprehend. I don’t think this is the only kind of ultra-bliss. Different meditative techniques could produce different bliss states. But universal compassion seems like an easy one to describe to people who haven’t “stood on the ragged edge of reality”.


The horrifying flipside to “pleasure is incomprehensibly long-tailed” is that “pain is incomprehensibly long-tailed too”. Trigeminal neuralgia is reported to be especially bad.

The explorers of the pain frontier are even crazier than the LSD users and the mountain yogis.

The Science

QRI created predictions based on the idea that valence is long-tailed.

  • That people will typically say that their top #1 best/​worst experience is not only a bit better/​worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/​worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/​worse.

  • That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e., that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).

  • That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/​worse. We call such a relationship a “deference.” More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a ¿ b and b ¿ c implying that a ¿ c).

They surveyed a bunch of people on Mechanical Turk. They did a bunch of math to rank the surveyed experiences.

Most Pleasurable Experiences

Most Painful Experiences

I don’t see “death of a child” on the list. I suspect it’s because we live in a time period where child death is rare.


This paper is evidence my personal experience is a tiny parochial region of consciousness space. It reminds me I should do more meditation. It reminds me I should be helping out others in incomprehensible (to me) pain.