Category: Science

To The Earth

By James Wadman



If you asked me about the future of humanity I inevitably think of our place in the stars. It is natural that the minds of the conscious wander toward the things in our universe that are larger than life. But now more than ever, the debate seems to be is our destination in the sky or in circuitry of virtual realities? First we must answer, is the fate of humanity in progress or the dust of our self-inflicted ashes? And if we can cohesively strive for progress, we might find that our fate is infinite, both in the space that exists above us and in the space between transient pulses of binary gates.

Inevitably, though, we are meant to leave this earth. Will we do it together, or will we wave goodbye to lives left behind?

To the Earth is a testament to the first step mankind took toward this goal, and an optimistic gesture toward the flightpath of our ascension into the stars.

Achilleus is the collaborative project of Eric Averetta and James Wadman. A symbol of transcendence, Achilleus is a return to authentic trance as it first was intended. “To the Earth” is a testament to the first step mankind took toward this goal, and an optimistic gesture toward the flightpath of our ascension into the stars. This video was composed using mirrored time lapse footage in Austin, Texas. There are automated 180 degree and 45 degree mirrors with zoom-movement in exported footage.

Conscious Talks: Mechanisms of Death in Diamondis

By James Wadman

With the release of my novel, Diamondis, only two days away, I wanted to share a light-reading version of a very important story of scientific investigation, speculation, and research I collected over the years. This is the story of death and Diamondis, as told through the lens of science.

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Engrained in the evolutionary biology of humans is a conscious fear of the most exotic experience capable in a lifetime: the onset of death. It seems plausible that the event of death, which has been described by many as “transcendent” or “cathartic,” is such a fascinating experience because it involves the brain breaking down and trying to understand itself in the most psychedelic way possible. We understand that the physiological mechanisms of death are similar to that of dreams and introspection-inducing pharmaceuticals, but the questions that remain are: what exactly does one feel at the moment of death, and why does consciousness transform into this intense stage of introspection at the moment of death?


In my novel, Diamondis, the outline of the death experience follows a mechanism I find very interesting. In the first chapter, Tomas begins to experience the event of death. However, this experience extends beyond the initial creation of an afterlife within his mind to his introspection into the meaning of death and his inevitable assimilation with his fate (I’ll keep that open-ended so you can find out what his fate is, yourself!). Here I will take you through the experience of death, as it relates to the steps followed by Tomas in Diamondis.


The mechanics, the experience, and the destination of death is purely speculation. However, as I wrote in Diamondis, the role of a scientist is not always to search for objective truths; rather, it is important also to “take a chisel to the vast unknown.” As always, that is the purpose of my Conscious Talks series and I hope, if anything, my beliefs on the sheer beauty of death are enough to inspire you to consider that the purpose in the end is not to look relinquish ourselves from the inevitable fear of death, but to enrich our lives so that every moment we live until then is full of wonder and happiness.


Step One: Dissociation from the outside world.


A lack of oxygen results immediately in anesthetic-like behavior. Time dilates, but you lose most sense of reality. Whereas falling into a black hole allows you to perceive the entire fate of the universe –assuming you don’t get shredded to pieces in the process—falling into death allows you to experience a lifetime that is independent of the outside world. Your journey onward is completely internal.


While there still might be sensory input (auditory, visual, etc.), you cannot label things and instead begin a descent into what we call the afterlife. The physiological components involved in this step are the NMDA-receptor (what we can refer to as the “reality receptor”) and its paired neurotransmitter, Glutamate. Essentially at this point, the NMDA-receptor is nonfunctional — which, by the way, is analogous to the behavior of anesthesia, though anesthesia accomplishes this in a slightly different manner— resulting in dissociative effects.


This also suggests that memory formation here is essentially blocked. Anyone who reaches this stage will likely not remember the experience clearly (such as someone who experiences a near-death experience). But again, the paradoxical time extension here results in the possibility for one to have a significant experience that seems to last a lifetime, in a matter of seconds.


Read more about my early thoughts on Death vs. Design


Step Two: Rapid, Concrete Memory


Ironically, the cell death that follows oxygen depletion in the brain quickly has the exact opposite effect on the glutamate system. Cell death results in glutamate excitotoxity (too much glutamate in the synapses without a way to regulate levels of the neurotransmitter), which means that after your brain is shutoff from the world, it gets kicked into overdrive. This is fascinating to me because it is the cause of the most incredible event of introspection. Your mind is racing but, again, you can only look inward.


The brain courses through memories that might explain the experience. I believe it is sensible to suggest that it is not necessarily the great memories of life that come first (what many people would know as their life “flashing before their eyes”). Instead, the first memories to surface are interactions with experiences similar to death. The purpose of these memories is for the brain to figure out what in the hell is happening — death, after all, is an experience that is felt only once. My theory on this part is actually not based off of science at all (although I have read small amounts of scientific literature that make the same claim); rather, I recall having a dream of death once where I was on an airplane to the afterlife. On the flight, I was shown strange memories — things like having surgery, writing down my dreams, and extremely abstract shapes and images. It seemed sensible and fascinating to me, so I kept this mechanism in for my Diamondis, knowing it lacks the scientific evidence.


After these memories have come and gone, the brain sweeps through the other existing memories. In other words, your life flashes before your eyes. There, I said it. But don’t forget that this all has a purpose: the brain has no idea what is going on and is searching for a reason for, an expectation of, or a solution to this experience. There is a white tunnel that will soon be your destination. It is made up of the light that remains for your closing eyes, but it will not fade. It will grow as you begin to let go, but there is so much between you and your destination.


Step Three: Embrace and Wonder


The brain is equipped to quickly adjust to the glutamate excitotoxity, so a brief moment of clarity surfaces. For a moment (however long this moment seems to last), a person can sit and observe and potentially even exist in the world created by their memories. I associate this step with serotonin, which is a perceptive neurotransmitter commonly known to regulate many other neurophysiological systems. Serotonin regulates mood, who we are, and who we perceive ourselves to be. Take a moment and look back at your life in this moment of clarity.


Step Four: Persistence of Ancient Memories


I wrote in Diamondis that Tomas believes there is a reason for why people who experience near-death experiences see their angels. It does not have to be a religious meaning, and it is certainly not something that denies an atheist his/her right to skepticism. This is because, in the moment of death, angels are a product of science.


Serotonin has many important derivatives that have proved to be much better at activating lost physiological pathways in the brain. One of these compounds in dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and provides a very strong scientific argument for the existence of angels. DMT is a molecule that can potentially activate parts of the brain that store the earliest memories of childhood and perhaps even infancy. Users of the molecule (illegal, by the way) claim to feel in unison with “beings” who speak to them and promise to take care of them. The real-world translation for this is that the activation of ancient memories allows you the opportunity to see the world as you did before you truly understood the labels and names of objects and people. When you see an angel in death, what you are truly seeing is someone you loved who took care of you as a baby. In death, these memories are accessible. It could be due to an increase in concentration of powerful serotonin-like molecules, or due to the breakdown of regulatory systems. One way or another, I find this to be the most beautiful experience capable of a human being.


Step Five: Complete Dissociation


As described as a “narcotic bliss with a touch of insignificance,” this last step is the open-ended coda of death. Can we ever know what comes next? Only when we see for ourselves. Physiologically, however, when all the excitement of the brain sifting through absurd, sensible, and beautiful memories subsides, the dominant sensations are governed by the endorphins that have eased the pain all this time. Death is gentle, as you fade away. You do not fade to black, you fade to the white light you see at the end of the tunnel. Time stretches further onward, perhaps infinitely. Most importantly, you lose what it means to be human. With that you are free from your apprehension, pain, longing, and desire. You are a particle in an infinite time and space.


The final paradox is the simultaneous loss of time and loss of self. If the loss of time comes first, you are infinitely aware. If the loss of self comes first, you are infinitely void. If self and time are lost simultaneously, there is a paradox. I hope you will tell me what happens if you ever return.




Conscious Talks: Neural Systems, Neural Networks, & AI

Artificial Intelligence: From Neural Systems to Neural Networks, by James Wadman

This is a very casual meditation on the state and future of artificial intelligence from the perspective of a neurobiologist.

I want to clarify that I will use two different phrases to make it easy to distinguish between biology and computer science. In this piece, “neural systems” refers to the biological nervous system and the associated molecular biology. “Neural networks” refers to artificial intelligence that mimics (for now) neural systems on the macro-scale of neurons. I will argue that neural networks should operate on a more fundamental scale, where instead of focusing on macro-scale neurons, we should focus on the underlying molecular-scale (genetic) processes. To address the hardcore physicists: yes, we can and will at some point go one step further and operate neural networks on an atomic (dare I say quantum) scale, but this will come only after we fully understand molecular-scale neural networks. More on this later.

First let me ask, what are you trying to accomplish with designing an artificial intelligence system? One of the more common applications of artificial intelligence is to compose an algorithm that can evaluate and improve itself. Let’s call this AIa. This utilizes simplified (although not necessary simple) versions of neural networks that take into consideration the connectivity between neurons using a circuit-structured and feedback mentality. Another form of artificial intelligence includes algorithms that can make sense of large, often abstract, data structures and draw conclusions from the chaos that humans would not see. Let’s call this AIb. This form might also use neural network feedback tools, but focuses on data rather than the plasticity of the algorithm. Both of these take simple human logic characteristics, such as deduction and compare/contrast, and apply them to data that is far too vast for an ordinary human to sift through. Either of these examples are only as complex as the data itself or the results desired. In other words, the more abstract the data or the more precise the conclusions, the more challenging the algorithms. The differences between the two can be understood by comparing them to behavioral traits in humans. While AIa is based on the principles of learning (the brain adapts to experience to create intelligence), AIb is mimics intuition (the brain extrapolates direct conclusions from abstract concepts). However, one can write these algorithms without a fundamental understanding of how actual biological intelligence works.

If, however, our goal for artificial intelligence is to make a true intelligent entity we have a major problem. We should not expect to fully replicate human intelligence or consciousness through neural networks until we fully understand neural systems. Ironically, we also cannot fully understand neural systems without our work so far in using artificial intelligence algorithms in the manner of the first two examples I discussed above. AIa and AIb are integral tools to understanding the complexity of neural systems with incredible capacity and utility in modern computing. But they are not yet acceptable for making true consciousness.

In the wake of my seemingly pessimistic sentiments, I want to make clear that our only barrier to artificial intelligence is our knowledge of the problem itself and the complexity of our algorithms. Once we really understand what we are doing, the solution will be obvious. For now, we should be working toward optimizing functional use algorithms (AIa and AIb) to build the foundation for true intelligence systems.

AIa and AIb are powerful algorithms for modeling molecular biology and are therefore the keys to understanding the problem, not the solution. Neural networks are designed to solve problems or enhance algorithms by simulating neuron-neuron interaction and plasticity. Let us not power to quickly forward in attempts to create functional artificial intelligence algorithms before truly understanding the capacity of learning and ingenuity. Concisely stated, the solution to creating an algorithm for artificial consciousness is to create realistic neural networks based on the underlying molecular neural systems. Go beyond just neuron plasticity, incorporate genetics and cell signaling, and build upon neuron replication.

Artificial intelligence has so far undervalued multi-stage memory consolidation and altogether neglected the ironic cohesion between the unconscious and conscious minds. We are therefore taking blind shots into a darkened room that is likely far larger than the echoes that call back. This comes as a contrast to my often optimistic perspective on technology and our ascension toward the future, so what is my intention in saying this? Quite simply I am suggesting that more biologists should program and more programmers should study the brain’s fundamental biology. Everything in biology is a product of the molecular processes that govern the expression, activation, and inhibition of genetics. It would be foolish, therefore, to limit neural networks to neuron-neuron interactions when their actual function involves far more complicated interactions. Human intelligence might be a function of synaptic interactions, but we cannot ignore the fact the synaptic interactions are the function of intracellular molecular processes. At the present moment, we are too limited by our knowledge of what happens “under the hood” of neurons to properly model intelligence through a synaptic model. We should develop accurate libraries for how biological systems work to the point where neural networks in computer science are equally complex and efficient as neural systems in human conscious reflections, unconscious reflexes, and intelligence.

It is already inherent to computer algorithms that the efficiency of problem solving far exceeds the efficiency of a human with a pen and paper. That is to say, given any complex question and a computer program with the algorithm and a person to knows how to solve the problem, the computer program will nearly always win. Artificial intelligence, even in its early stages of simply replicating human thought, will create far more capable “thinkers.” However, artificial intelligence entities will not be restrained by genetics, evolution, and neurochemistry. We will be able to take strides from there to improve upon the biological disadvantages of natural neural system to the point where we will eventually determine strategies for enhancing the basic framework of thought beyond that of the capacity of humans.

I believe that the future of artificial intelligence will progress in stages that address both our strides so far and the distance left before us to the end goal. Its success will be based on genuine understanding and the pursuit of knowledge not driven by profit or social gain. However, in the end artificial intelligence will be profitable, but the benefits beyond just currency are what will make the true difference. Our moral, intellectual, and sensible views of modern structure will be forever improved.

Boundless Wonder

By James Wadman

Society has misguided us into believing that boundless wonder has an expiration date in our lives. The difference between a child and a parent is experience, not the capacity for desire, curiosity, or even intelligent thought. I can’t be the only person to suggest that some of the most brilliant ideas are those voiced by children.

Anatomically, there are differences between the adult and child brains. Throughout late childhood and adolescence, the brain undergoes what is called “synaptic pruning,” a molecular phenomenon where unused circuits in the brain grow weaker and the useful circuitry grows stronger. For many of us that means that logical thought and responsibility increases as a function of growing up, while playful thought and uninhibited pleasure seeking is tamed by rationality. In modern society, synaptic pruning is an important product of our evolution. However, it is also an inherent limitation that forces us to cling to our biological history.

And for this I will suggest that maintaining the characteristics of a child’s brain can prove to be effective for a genuinely happy life, even if it would seem that this is fundamentally impossible given the previously discussed anatomical differences. Embrace your dreams, the chance to see new things in the world, and express yourself freely. Growing up, we learn to be responsible in a world that becomes increasingly competitive. Don’t let your curiosity fall victim to the false notion of growing up.



Conscious Talks

For full series, please click here

Conscious Talks are a series of scientific and philosophical musings that deal predominantly with topics too large to grasp using the scientific method. I believe that it is important to weigh in on ideas that are just out of reach of technology so that we can inspire a collective movement toward the future. I write these posts in a stream of consciousness fashion (hence the name) so that it is like engaging in an actual conversation.

I have now collected my Conscious Talks series into a single page, which you can access here.

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As long as the universe exists, there is something to be created and something to be explored. James Wadman
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