Personality as persona

The word persona comes from Latin, where it originally meant a “theatrical mask.” In everyday usage today, we normally mean it to indicate a “social role” that, to some extent, most of us play consciously.

Carl Jung used the concept of persona to indicate the deep sense in which a person employs conscious and subconscious methods to present a social face, or mask, to the world.

Jung said of his use of the word persona that it is “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” (C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology London 1953 p. 190)

My understanding of Jung’s psychology is that he took the persona to be something more substantial—more real—than it need be. In my view, when we take our persona(s) too seriously, we reify them, even fetishize them.

Once fetishized or reified, the persona in Jungian psychology takes on almost supernatural qualities, eventually requiring “disintegration” followed after some time by “restoration” as a more conscious and reasonable thing that can serve both personal and social needs without painful contradictions.

I believe this Jungian sense of the term persona has had a considerable influence on our ordinary sense of what a personality is.

In this light, I would contend that what we commonly refer to as personality is a ghostly generalization that obscures both inner-private and outer-social reality.

Belief in “personality” removes analysis of interpersonal-being-in-this-world from actual specifics to nebulous generalities.

If you have a conflict or misunderstanding with a friend and either of you believes it is due to “personality differences,” you will tend to avoid the problem rather than fix it. You will avoid it because it is all but impossible to fix anything with such a vague notion as personalty.

Assuming the two friends just mentioned are close friends, they would do much better to identify the specific moment their misunderstanding occurred and work with that.

People today do not normally do this for two reasons: 1) almost everyone believes in something like “personality” and in so believing makes it impossible to fix even small moments of discord, and 2) very few people know how to fix those sorts of problems even if they do realize that more is going on than two ghostly persona clashing in a mystical realm.

I agree that people need personas to negotiate many social and professional environments. And I agree that most people have a few traits that often remain sort of constant over time and in similar contexts.

What I do not agree with is everything else we normally attribute to personalities. In place of all that, I would substitute the idea that humans are semiotic entities and that we communicate with each other and within ourselves by using semiotics and semiotic networks.

Our interests and training lead us to emphasize some parts of these networks over others, but this does not constitute a “personality” as the word is normally used.

Suffering arises when we experience bad communication. Belief in personalities masks (ironically) the true nature of communication problems. Belief in personalities causes us to generalize when we should be looking very close at the specific moment during communication that the semiotic networks of the two (or more) communicators began to diverge.

That is the point at which their interpretations began to differ and nothing will explain why they began to differ except close analysis of that precise moment.

People do not analyze the precise moment their interpretations of each other began to differ because they do not know how. In place of analysis, people almost always generate strong emotions and within seconds make it impossible to analyze anything.

It is not your personality or theirs that does this. It is, rather, our lousy abilities to communicate, a problem everyone in the world has. We are like monkeys in a high-powered automobile all but doomed to crash, or go nowhere.

How to drive that car? How can we catch the specific moment interpersonal interpretations diverge? And how can we analyze that moment? Only FIML practice or something very much like it will allow us to do that.

Wasting time analyzing your personality or constructing an even better one will get you nothing more than a theatrical mask, a persona, that will be useful in some social situations but a disaster in all close interpersonal relationships.

Standoff in Nevada resolved nonviolently


This short clip is a great lesson in semiotics. Readers can make of it what they want. So many American elements are there—land rights, grazing rights, gun rights, civil rights, individual freedom, heavy-handed federal agents, and peaceful resolution following courageous citizen action.

My understanding is the situation is far more complex than Bundy simply not paying grazing fees, but I am not an expert so please make up your own mind (after doing some research).

The discussion at 1:24 is priceless.

As a Buddhist, I am not at all ashamed to say I support full Second Amendment rights and, for me, this video shows an important reason why.

Second Amendment rights are “fundamental rights” that “…exist philosophically and legally at the individual level and are not dependent upon the existence of government.” (Source)

Notice that by having and exercising their fundamental rights to protest and carry weapons, the people in the video resolved a potentially dangerous conflict nonviolently.


Update (4/15/14): Below are a few more pieces of recent news on the Bundy ranch issue. I am not completely sure of the veracity of these videos, but am providing them for readers who are interested. As mentioned above, this issue is replete with American semiotics. It even has cows, horses, cowboys, and a quintessential American plot-line—big bad guys messing with little people’s land.

To be clear, I support the BLM managing public lands for long-term environmental and wild animal protection, and even support more of it, but that should never be a cover for political corruption and cronyism, which may very well be what is happening at Bundy’s. Politics and semiotics are complex, almost always.

Exclusive: Sources Inside The BLM and Las Vegas Metro Say Feds Are Planning A Raid On Bundy Home

Bundy Ranch – What You’re Not Being Told

Sen. Reid on Cattle Battle: “It’s not over”

More on personality problems

I discussed some of my problems with the word personality and how it is used in an earlier post.

This morning, I found an wonderful post by Robert Priddy that put the matter well. He says:

Against the belief in a ‘hard core’ of self it is held that we do not have – or experience – any stable, single, united self. We have no permanent identity because our entire psycho-physical personal existence is a dynamic and changing flow of bodily growth and decay, mental perceptions and memories. According to this, the belief in an ‘unchanging’ self – one always having the same identity – is a conception that has been developed and embodied in culture and languages and taken over during the socialization process. The interactive physical and social environments influence both body and mind, while the perception of oneself is also variable. People behave in different ways according to situations, not always showing the same character traits or responses. One who is truthful to most people may be deceptive or untruthful in other circumstances, so there is no unvarying self involved.

The way in which the mind construes a fixed identity (or ego) was described phenomenologically and convincingly by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1940s essay ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’. Wittgenstein is also illumining on the subject, also pointing out that – because we have substantive words (nouns) for self, ego etc., we are bewitched into the false notion that these (an many other such) words also represent something substantial. The self is a construction of the mind, and when one looks at the concept and our experience most carefully, one finds that the idea of an eternal self is just as false as that of an earth-centered universe and all that mental baggage handed down without due critical examination from such as Aristotle, Plato and others before them. (Source)

I very much agree with Priddy’s analysis. And also, I want to say a bit more. Priddy’s words describe the general problem with terms like personality, ego, self, or identity.

What I think gets missed in general descriptions of the problem is a clear micro-analysis of how these problem concepts (and many others) actually function within human cognition.

I accept, or posit, that human cognition can be fairly well-described as a network of associated semiotics. Single semiotics are the basic units of this cognitive network. How they are associated in different individuals will differ, sometimes greatly.

When someone speaks of their “personality,” I believe they often are reifying a cluster of mutually referential semiotics. Priddy’s description says it well—they are “bewitched into the false notion that these…words…represent something substantial.”

Instead of saying words, I generally prefer semiotics because it is a more inclusive term, encompassing words and all other signs that communicate.

When someone reifies the semiotics of “personality” or “self,” they are in a very significant way making a “fetish” of those semiotics. They are turning them into a “thing” that seems to have a life of its own, that can be referenced in ways that are essentially false (or fetishized) and misleading.

I believe this process can be glimpsed in a hazy way from afar in general terms, but that it cannot be clearly seen unless we are able to observe its micro-functionality. That is, we can vaguely know that we are using terms like personality in misleading ways, but we will not fully grasp how this is happening until we have a method to observe those semiotics as they actually functions in real-time in a real “moment” (short period of time up to 10 seconds or so).

The only way I know of to do this is FIML practice because only FIML allows one mind to stop and query another mind in the “moment.” Only FIML forces us to see the network of cognitive semiotics as they actually function in real time.

FIML cannot be done alone exclusively because there is no way to check your work when you are alone. Semiotics communicate. You can and do use semiotics to communicate with yourself and you can gain insight into them while you are alone, but you will never be able to see large parts of your semiotic network as it actually functions in real-life without the help of a FIML partner.

Dissociation in FIML practice

In the field of neuropsychology, the term dissociation is used to describe various ways of identifying the neural substrate of specific brain functions.

One way this is done is by studying “lesions,” or damaged areas, in people’s brains and figuring out how that damage affects such functions as perception, speech, memory, vision, and so on.

Neuroimaging is another method for observing particular brain regions and thus “dissociating” them from the larger brain system in order to understand their unique functions.

While FIML practice does not rely on lesions in the brain and has not (yet) been studied in an fMRI machine, it does employ a kind of dissociation.

When a FIML partner stops a conversation and makes a query, the partner being questioned is essentially being asked to dissociate a few moments of communication from the large welter of brain function that had been going on before the query.

By isolating, or dissociating, that small segment of communication, both partners gain insight into how they express themselves and how they interpret what they are hearing or perceiving.

Seeing many dissociated segments of communication teaches partners that their communication is frequently more random, ambiguous, misleading, and just plain wrong than they had realized prior to doing FIML practice.

Dissociation in FIML practice also teaches partners how to sharpen their overall communication by frequently adjusting and fine-tuning small segments of it through FIML queries and follow-up discussions.

I can imagine more advanced meuroimaging devices than we have today showing what part of the brain is being used to do the “macro-perception” required by a FIML query. I hope that a more advanced device will also show how small mistakes in communication can often lead to very large mistakes in mutual understanding.

Ideally, an advanced neuroimaging device would dissociate the initial error in both partners’ brains and show how that error then quickly spreads chemically and neurologically throughout their brains.

For now, all we have is shared self-reporting between FIML partners, but this is still a very large improvement over not doing FIML at all. By clearing up many micro-errors in communication, FIML practice improves macro-functionality in the brain.

My personality problem

I may be guilty of rhetorical excess in my mini-battle against the term personality, but overall I believe I have a significant point worth discussing.

A good deal of my professional training is in translation. This makes me sensitive to how word-choice can be misleading.

In non-specialist situations, the word personality can be useful and doesn’t bother me at all.

Joe and Suzy have such different personalities, but they get along so well. My twins look alike but have very different personalities. Sammy’s personality hasn’t changed in thirty years.

These sorts of casual uses are often informative, economical, and well-suited to context. I might make similar statements myself.

The term personality bothers when it is reified, when it becomes a thing far more than it deserves. A basic example of this problem might be the term personality disorder.

Here is a link to a chart that shows how the definition of personality disorder has changed through the years in the USA: Personality disorder diagnoses in each edition of American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual. Notice how often it changes.

Personality disorder is defined as “enduring maladaptive patterns of behavior, cognition and inner experience, exhibited across many contexts and deviating markedly from those accepted by the individual’s culture.”

And yet there is nothing “enduring” about what the term defines or the professional culture of psychologists defining it.

And the definition itself is hugely slippery, especially when it comes to the notion of the “individual’s culture.” In the USA, does that mean “American culture,” one’s “subculture(s),” the “individual’s perception of their ‘culture’,” “others’ perceptions of the individual’s perceptions,” or what?

The term personality itself is actually very nicely defined in one place on Wikipedia as, “…personality theorists present their own definitions of the word based on their theoretical positions.”

In another Wikipedia article we find that personality “defined psychologically, is the set of enduring behavioral and mental traits that distinguish human beings.”

The term is vague in itself and based on “cultural” standards that are highly ambiguous and that change all the time. What can possibly be “enduring” about that except opaqueness?

In 1952, the DSM categorized homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disorder.” Today most in the USA think you are a bigot if you oppose gay marriage.

Not only are “authoritative” uses of the term personality and personality disorder ambiguous and protean, they are also profoundly misleading.

Unless an individual has a strong and realistic sense of how their mind works and how complex feelings and behaviors interact with mental processes, they will be susceptible to reifying their “personality,” to believing in it as if it were a real thing or their “role” in life.

Worse, they may cultivate this thing, this role, and turn it into a fetishized semiotic.

The famous Myers-Briggs personality test was originally created to “help women entering the workforce for the first time during WWII choose jobs they were most comfortable and
effective doing.” (Source)

There has been little progress or change in the field of personality testing since. They are most often used by employers to find ideal employees, most of whom (I would hope) are smart enough to figure out what the employer wants and answer accordingly.

Personality tests and metrics—as well as the simple cultural belief that an “enduring” personality exists in any of us—serve mainly to reify an impoverished way of understanding human life.

I can accept some traits as being more “enduring” than not within individuals, but even these will be highly dependent on context and what we mean by “culture.”

Shyness is generally prized in Japan and considered a mark of honesty, while in the USA it may be classified as a “personality disorder” and medicated. Strength means different things to nus and generals. Ruthlessness was considered a fundamental virtue among Bolshevik “secret police,” who also praised terrorism. Terrorism is a crime in Russia today.

I am good with casual uses of the word personality, but often cringe when it is used as a serious analytical term. It is much better to see yourself as a complex matrix of cognition, perception, feeling, semiotics, language, and imperfect memory in a changing world than as a role-playing personality in a stable culture.

In an employment setting or a small subculture it can help to project a consistent “self,” but my advice is don’t take that too seriously. It will hinder more than help you.

If you are having mental or emotional problems, it is true that they may be roughly describable or classifiable in general terms, but I can all but guarantee you that you will only fix them when you see they are specific and very particular distortions or mistakes within the unique complexity of your own idiosyncratic life. Comparing yourself to generalities like personality will most likely only obscure the real problem and often make it worse.

Comparing FIML practice with Schema Therapy

Schema Therapy appears to be an effective treatment for people who are suffering with mental and emotion confusion.

An article published early this year claims:

A large scale randomized control trial shows Schema Therapy to be significantly more effective than two major alternative approaches to the treatment of a broad range of personality disorders. Schema Therapy resulted in a higher rate of recovery, greater declines in depression, greater increases in general and social functioning and had a lower drop out rate. The results indicated that Schema Therapy is also more cost-effective. (Source)

Psychological studies are notoriously unreliable and the source of the article linked above is the International Society of Schema Therapy, but still I think it is OK to to take their claims seriously.

Therapy is very difficult to study objectively and who else is going to promote Schema Therapy if not the people who believe in it? I am doing the same with my claims for FIML practice.

By comparing FIML and Schema, I hope to illustrate some of the values and drawbacks of both approaches to human suffering. I have chosen to do this with Schema Therapy (ST) because I just read something about it and it seems like a reasonable and workable approach.

ST seeks to correct “maladaptive schemas” that are defined as “self-defeating life patterns of perception, emotion, and physical sensation.” (Source)

Some comparisons with FIML:

  1. ST is based on the notion of people having “personalities” and thus “personality disorders.” FIML largely rejects the notion of personality or finds it trivial. FIML claims that all adults without exception have “disordered” minds, habits, emotions, responses, and so on. There is no need for a concept of personality or to classify types of “disorder” based on an ideal “personality.”
  2. ST claims that adults experiencing less than optimum psychological health use schemas to interact with the world around them. FIML largely agrees with this claim. We usually call schemas misinterpretations. We claim that adults frequently misinterpret what is being said and done around them. Some of these misinterpretations may have begun in childhood, but not all of them. Misinterpretations occur almost every time we interact with anyone. It is common for misinterpretations to occur several times per hour when two people interact. Some misinterpretations will go away on their own and some will cause serious disturbances in the relations between the two (or more) people interacting. Some misinterpretations will have serious ramifications beyond those two people. And some will have begun in childhood, but many childhood misinterpretations, though they may have become habitual, can be fairly easily corrected through FIML practice. They do not constitute a “personality disorder,” but rather a persistent or habitual way of mistakenly interpreting the world. In this sense, I agree that long-standing misinterpretations do look and act somewhat like “schemas,” though as described, I do not think they deserve reification as a classifiable entity called a “personality disorder.”
  3. ST asserts the existence of “schema modes,” which seem to me to be definitions or indications of personality modalities. Some of ST’s schema modes are the angry child, the impulsive child, the abandoned child, and so on. FIML does not use the concept of personality, let alone identify anything like a personality mode or a schema mode of that type. FIML recognizes that misinterpretations are common and that they arise throughout life. FIML claims that misinterpretations arise at discrete moments. These moments may have occurred in childhood and they may have occurred at any other time since childhood. By classifying “personality types” or “schema modes” (as I understand them), FIML asserts that the unique tangle of an individual’s complex suffering will be distorted. FIML may use concepts like abandonment as a point of discussion and FIML may recognize that feelings of abandonment began in childhood, but FIML also claims that making “abandonment” into a classifiable “disorder” is misleading and that fixing the relevant misinterpretation will be hindered by classifying it in that way. FIML claims that reifying largely false “modalities” like “abandonment” only makes them worse while obscuring their true origins and much more importantly how they actually function in real-time.
  4. ST uses a technique called “limited reparenting” which aims to correct unmet core needs that originated in childhood and that led to maladaptive schema. FIML does not require or use a therapist and FIML does not believe that maladaptive schema require “reparenting,” as ST claims.
  5. ST claims that it is cost effective in that it can achieve good results in 50 sessions with a trained ST therapist. A drawback of FIML practice is it requires a suitable partner, and a suitable partner can be hard to find for many people. If a person is suffering and cannot find a suitable partner, ST would be a better choice than FIML. If a suitable partner exists and if both partners understand how to do FIML, I believe FIML will be a better choice in most cases. FIML claims that all human beings are mentally and emotionally disordered and that our disorders arise daily at discrete moments as misinterpretations. There is no end to the constant arising of misinterpretations and thus there can be no beneficial end to stopping FIML practice. FIML can begin to correct mental and emotional disorders within days or weeks, but the process of doing FIML should be ongoing throughout life. FIML is like cleaning your home, washing your dishes, brushing your teeth, bathing. It must be done frequently and cannot be ignored for long without maladaptive consequences.
  6. ST claims to be able to create a “healthy adult” who is thoughtful, rational, happy and more. FIML also claims to be able to create a “healthy adult” with ST qualities, but FIML recognizes that the “interpersonality” of all adults requires constant monitoring. Once the major disorders of the pre-FIML person have been corrected, FIML recognizes that new disorders may arise at any time and that they must be addressed as they arise. Basically, I do not believe that there is such a thing as an ongoing “healthy adult” that can be created in 50 sessions with a therapist. Health requires constant attention with a caring partner, not brief training with a paid stranger.

I would recommend ST for anyone who cannot figure out how to do FIML or who cannot find a suitable FIML partner. For those that do understand FIML and do have a suitable partner, we claim that FIML practice will help you become far less disordered mentally and emotionally but that you must remain vigilant for the rest of your days. You cannot remain healthy for long if you allow misinterpretations to accumulate.

Fetishized semiotics part two

In a previous post, we discussed how semiotics can become fetishized and why that matters. In today’s post, I want to continue that discussion.

A fetishized semiotic(s) provides symbolic focus to the person who entertains it. It provides coherence within their semiotic networks of thought and communication.

Fetishized semiotics also generate or provide motivation for those who entertain them.

Since semiotics are fundamental to all communication, fetishized semiotics often serve to bond people into easily understood groups.

A person with a fetish for prostitutes, for example, will generally find it easy to get what they want while also bonding with others who have similar desires.

The same can be said for people who want a lot of money or status. Ethnic groups and religions often fetishize the semiotics of their cultures and histories.

A scientist might fetishize the semiotics of being a scientist.

A human ego, in most senses of the word and certainly in the Buddhist sense, can be described as the “fetishized semiotic(s) of ‘self’.” Or more precisely, as the “fetishized agglomeration of the semiotics of ‘self’ of an entity that lives in this world primarily within semiotic networks.”

When small “selves” (small in the Buddhist sense) become fetishized egos, or big selves, the entity in question will often feel that life has a focus or energy it did not have before. This is especially true if the person is part of a group that communicates about that ego and supports it through ceremonies, shared beliefs, values, etc.

Big selves, or egos, supported by groups are usually semiotically quite simple. This is a place where we can see the value of thinking in terms of semiotics.

The big self is simple—it wants one or two things and will marshal all of its (often considerable) mental powers to attain it. Other behaviors surrounding the core of the big self may be complex, but the basic big self is usually pretty simple. It wants respect, or power, or some ideal that often is a pretense for getting respect and power.

The formula can be different, but basically that is how it is.

Early communists in Russia and China, for example, all professed high ideals, and some of them meant it, but in both countries the revolutions were seized by the most ruthless actors and the high ideals were replaced with mass murder.

I am convinced that many of those most ruthless communists—who definitely had fetishized what they were doing—actually believed that their high ideals might one day come to be. But that first it was necessary to liquidate millions of “bad elements” and terrorize the remaining population into complete submission.

This all too human mix of idealism deferred to the future blended with extreme cruelty in the present illustrates another aspect of the fetishized self, or fetishized semiotics—the big self diminishes others, even becomes blind to them.

The fetishized ego sees itself with its own peculiar clarity and also it completely fails to see others except as aspects of its own fetish. Thus Bolsheviks and Red Guards murdered and terrorized tens of millions of people, often with very little feeling and always with massive self-delusion.

Fetishized semiotics

On this site we have often employed the idea that human instincts function within a “semiotic realm,” rather than a realm of “nature” that is external to us.

In line with this idea, we have used such concepts as “public semiotics,” “social semiotics,” “private semiotics,” “semiotic wells,” and “semiotic networks.”

A semiotic network is a connected web of semiotics that exists privately (or idiosyncratically) within a single mind or publicly within a culture or society made up of many minds.

A semiotic well is a “gravitational well” within a semiotic network; a gravitational well is like a solar system of semiotics that revolves around a semiotic-sun that defines it and holds it together.

Individuals can create their own semiotic wells within their own idiosyncratic semiotic networks, but most people most of the time import their semiotic wells from the public semiotic network(s) they find around them.

A good example for all of the above might be the American cultural value (now shared by much of the world) of owning your own home.

Most Americans gradually assimilate to (or import) this value, or semiotic well, as they grow up. As they become young adults, many Americans start planning to buy their own home. And many of them imagine all sorts of other things—children, community, picket fences, coffee in the morning, etc.—that go with the semiotic well of home-ownership.

Depending on how strong or weak the gravitational force of this semiotic well is, an individual who entertains it may be more or less “healthy.” If the desire for a home is “excessive,” consuming more time and resources than are “appropriate,” this semiotic well will be “unhealthy.” If the desire is reasonable and doable, it may be considered “healthy.”

Readers can define the words in quotation marks in the paragraph above however they like. It is really up to you, and your partner/family if they exist, to decide what is “excessive” and what is not.

In this context, an “excessive” fixation on owning a home can become a fetish. A semiotic fetish.

If someone believes that they simply cannot be happy until they have a home of their own, they have probably fetishized home-ownership. When such a person gets their home, they may find it is not making them happy or that they cannot share their happiness or that their happiness is based far more on what they have than what they have.

It is my contention that all of us do stuff like this all the time in many areas of our lives. In fact, I do not believe anyone who does not do FIML or something very much like can escape fetishizing many parts of their life in this manner.

A fetish is a “displacement,” “replacement,” or “misplacement” of something richer and better with a symbol. When we replace emotional contentment with the fetish of owning a home, we have misplaced our contentment.

When we replace constructive, honest communication with the prideful fetish of social “status,” we have misplaced communication.

When we misplace our sense of who we are with an excessive fixation on physical vanity, we have fetishized the natural sense of being-a-body-in-this-world with a semiotic well that can take on a life of its own.

Why do I say that FIML practice or something very much like it is essential to breaking this pattern?

The reason is semiotics tend to become static. We need semiotics to think and communicate, so semiotic stasis is necessary in many ways and often a good thing.

But we do it too much and we misplace how we do it. Thus, we get emotions, instincts, values, and beliefs all mixed into a few simple semiotics, a few signs and symbols.

One may be able to see this intellectually and even be able to capably analyze this process, but that can never be a substitute for seeing how our fetishized semiotics—our unique semiotic wells—actually function in the world.

Once you do see that, your whole view of what constitutes human psychology will change. And with that will change how you view culture and what you want out of life.

Consider how many common concepts that we take for granted can be or can become fetishized semiotics. Our understanding of what it means to have a “personality” a “personality trait,” a “soul,” “no-soul,” a “need,” an “instinct,” a “hobby,” an “addiction,” a “psychology,”and so on can and often are fetishized semiotics that distort how we perceive our “selves,” the world, and the people that we know in it.

Consider also how easily our fetishes and semiotic wells can be manipulated by news and communication media.

Are we living in a world where other people communicate authentically with us or are we living in a world where other people communicate with us through fetishized semiotics?

Without FIML, how can you know?

Muddled intentions, specific intentions

One important thing FIML practice has showed me is that people very often—more often than they realize—attribute specific, clear intentionality to the speech of others when that speech actually originated out of a muddled state and was not clear or specific at all to the speaker.

I think we do this because as speakers we have better knowledge of the rich ambiguity that is our mind, while as listeners we know, for the most part, only what the speaker has said, or rather what we think we heard them say.

In many other posts we have discussed hearing words incorrectly and the consequences that can follow from that. In this post, let’s confine ourselves to a listener’s attributing a more specific intentionality to the speaker than the speaker intended.

A crude example might be a drunk at a bar mumbling to himself. Another drunk walks by with his girl on his arm. Hearing the mumbling, he asks, “Did you say that to her?” In saying that, he is attributing intentionality where there was none.

Sometimes, the drunk at the bar will explain that he was just mumbling. And sometimes he will own the intentionality being attributed to him.

In that case, he might say, “Yes, I did. What are you going to do about it?”

Misconstrued intentionality surely leads to many fights.

But those of us who don’t get drunk in bars like that never do anything similar, right?

Not so. We do it all the time. We frequently hear the speech of others as having more specific intent than they meant.

Whenever we listen, we do so with the network of semiotics and language that subsumes our perceptions. Thus, whatever we hear will tend to confirm or be contextualized by that part of our subjective network that is most active at the time or that seems to apply best to what we are hearing.

Our use of that network for understanding the speech of others is hurried, quick, and often wrong. Our listening makes sense to us, but is almost never in full accord with what the speaker said, especially as so much speech initiates in vague or muddled states of mind. Speech is often groping while listening often is less so.

For example, if someone expresses a political view that we have recently been thinking about and that irritates us, our listening will very likely attribute a more specific or pointed intentionality to the speaker than is justified.

If we agree with what the speaker said under the circumstances described above, much the same thing will happen though our attribution of specific intentionality will be favorable rather than unfavorable.

These examples are the polite forms of the barroom brawl versus barroom camaraderie.

Notice also, the tendency we humans have to frame these sorts of errors as dichotomies. Either you are insulting my girl or we are all best friends.

Furthermore, notice that we also have a strong tendency to own the more specific intentionality being attributed to us by the listener. In the bar, you might decline the fight, but in another location you might lock horns with someone who attributed a specific intention to your muddled or idle expression of a vague political “view.”

Next time you think you heard a specific intent in the words of a friend, ask them if that was indeed their intent. Be careful when asking because if they are not experienced FIML practitioners, they may agree to own an intention they never had or that was far more muddled than it had seemed to you (or them in the moment of speaking).

My guess is a great deal of what we say is sloppier or more muddled than even we ourselves realize. This is simply how we are and how we really use language. You can’t male speech perfect.

If we can have illusions about our bodies, how much more can we about our interpretations of other people?

An interesting recent study, The Marble Hand Illusion, demonstrates that by simple manipulation of perceptual input, people can be induced to change their perceptions of their own bodies.

The authors state that, “This novel bodily illusion, the ‘Marble-Hand Illusion’, demonstrates that the perceived material of our body, surely the most stable attribute of our bodily self, can be quickly updated through multisensory integration.”

The full abstract says:

Our body is made of flesh and bones. We know it, and in our daily lives all the senses constantly provide converging information about this simple, factual truth. But is this always the case? Here we report a surprising bodily illusion demonstrating that humans rapidly update their assumptions about the material qualities of their body, based on their recent multisensory perceptual experience. To induce a misperception of the material properties of the hand, we repeatedly gently hit participants’ hand with a small hammer, while progressively replacing the natural sound of the hammer against the skin with the sound of a hammer hitting a piece of marble. After five minutes, the hand started feeling stiffer, heavier, harder, less sensitive, unnatural, and showed enhanced Galvanic skin response (GSR) to threatening stimuli. Notably, such a change in skin conductivity positively correlated with changes in perceived hand stiffness. Conversely, when hammer hits and impact sounds were temporally uncorrelated, participants did not spontaneously report any changes in the perceived properties of the hand, nor did they show any modulation in GSR. In two further experiments, we ruled out that mere audio-tactile synchrony is the causal factor triggering the illusion, further demonstrating the key role of material information conveyed by impact sounds in modulating the perceived material properties of the hand. This novel bodily illusion, the ‘Marble-Hand Illusion’, demonstrates that the perceived material of our body, surely the most stable attribute of our bodily self, can be quickly updated through multisensory integration.

Note that: “After five minutes, the hand started feeling stiffer, heavier, harder, less sensitive, unnatural, and showed enhanced Galvanic skin response (GSR) to threatening stimuli.”

If people can change physical perceptions of their hands in five minutes, wouldn’t our notions of the world around us be just as susceptible to change? And wouldn’t it be good if we could change those notions to something better? Something more accurate?

FIML practice is designed to do just that by helping us regularly upgrade our understanding of what people who are important to us are actually saying, actually thinking, actually feeling. Rather than turn us into marble, FIML practice prevents us from being blockheads by acting on mistaken beliefs and interpretations about others.

FIML helps us change how we interact with people by bringing our perceptions of them closer to their impressions of what they actually have been saying or doing. This is not a trivial exercise because as we change how we understand others—and realize how often we can be mistaken—we also change ourselves, our sense of who we are and what we are doing.

Ingrained mistaken impressions of others and the behaviors that stem from them can be corrected fairly quickly through FIML practice. Just as we can be tricked into thinking our hand is made of marble as in the study above, so we can be “un-tricked” through FIML practice into realizing that even very deeply held interpretations of self and other can be seriously wrong.

Our senses of our bodies in the world depend on constant feedback with the world around us. In like manner, our senses of our hearts and minds in the world depend on constant feedback from the people around us. If our core interpretations of self and other are wrong, we will make frequent mistakes, and thus bring undue suffering to ourselves and others. If we can improve the accuracy of our core interpretations, we will improve the quality of our awareness and our capacity to interact with others.

The ‘Semiotic Age’ or the ‘Age of Signals’

From Pater Tenebrarum’s recent piece The Taming of Deluded ‘Conspiracy Theorists’?:

Look who is warning us again about the great harm conspiracy theories are doing to the minds of impressionable citizens everywhere: Cass Sunstein has emerged at Bloomberg, to once again plead for ‘correction’ of the many conspiracy theories that are disseminated on that pesky new medium, the intertubes, seemingly without inhibition. Contrary to the infamous paper in which he described how to precisely combat the spreading of false information that lacks the government’s seal of approval, he doesn’t list his favored censorship and disinformation techniques outright this time, but it is certainly implied that ‘something must be done’.

With regard to conspiracy theories, there is a long history of dangerous thought entering the minds of deluded citizens. There were people who long doubted the official version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, or those who believed that the government’s minions were capable of thinking up other ‘false flag’ activities such as ‘Operation Northwoods’, or the poor confused souls who argued that Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were a trumped-up pretext for war based on thoroughly politicized intelligence, or the mean-spirited  traitors who charged that the US military killed a Reuter journalist and his helpers in Iraq and then covered it up, or the completely delusional paranoiacs who asserted for many years that the NSA was literally recording everything. Next they’re going to say that the official version of the WTC attack lacks credibility, in spite of its enshrinement as unassailable truth following the government’s decision to investigate itself! (Source)

No one has found a good name for our age. The Modern Age has come and gone as has the Post-Modern Age.

I propose that we are now living in the “Age of Signals,” the “Age of Signs,” the “Semiotic Age,” or even the “Semaphorm Age,” if we want to be more clever. The basis of this sort of term is the signal or the sign. Everything in the universe signals. When people signal each other, we use signs. Signs are communicative entities that carry meaning.

Computers and electronic media use signs. In this Age of Signs, people now battle each other through signs and symbols as much or more than with physical weapons.

In the essay above, Pater Tenebrarum battles Cass Sunstein (and, in my view, wins hands-down) over semiotics, or signs.

Sunstein has a long history of advocating clandestine government control of what citizens think. In his own words, Sunstein says, “our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.”

Obviously, the term “conspiracy theory” is a loaded semiotic. It is a “sign” that neutralizes ideas Sunstein dislikes. The term originated with the intelligence services after the JFK assassination. It was designed to marginalize people who doubted the Warren Commission Report.

“Conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist” is one of the most successful propaganda semiotics ever invented and Sunstein’s upfront use of the term should be an immediate warning to alert readers.

Tenebrarum does a good job of refuting Sunstein, and I hope readers will take a few minutes to read his essay.

The battle between these two is a fine example of semiotic battles that are raging all over the world. To name a few—the long-range US goal of starting a war with Iran, steadfastly ignoring the US role in overthrowing Yanukovich in Ukraine, the removal of fundamental Constitutional rights in the USA, and so on.

There is a long list of hot-button and little-or-no-button (destroying the Bill of Rights) issues in the world today. Gladiators still do battle on the field with real weapons, but more than ever the important battles are fought for the hearts and minds of the public through well-placed semiotics.

Semiotic valence

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of semiotic wells. A semiotic well is like a space-time “gravitational well” within a semiotic network. By this, I mean that part of the semiotic network has some heavy things in it—primary semiotics that pull other nodes within the network toward them.

For example, someone with the view that they have some sort of personality will tend to associate many of their perceptions and thoughts with the features of that personality. Their belief in their personality type will tend to make them see and understand the world in those terms.

I doubt that “having” a personality is all that much different from having a hobby. And I bet most people can move from one personality type to another about as easily as they can move from one hobby to another.

Of course there are constraints and limitations in the development of hobbies just as there are in the development of personalities.

We can gain profitable understanding of the mind by conceiving of it as a network of semiotic units. It is a network because the semiotic elements of the mind are all interconnected. It does not take much imagination to connect any semiotic element in your mind to any other. Apple-red-communism. Or apple-pie-American.

By association we can connect anything in this way.

Every semiotic element in the mind has a valence. In different contexts, the valences for any element will differ, and oftentimes they are neutral, but they are there. A semiotic well organizes valences as well as meaning, intention, belief, value.

For some people, speech is used to socialize, to make friends, to gain and keep access to other people. The valence of major parts of their semiotic network is aimed at socializing with others. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others compliment or reciprocate their social valences.

In contrast, for some other people, speech is used to share ideas, to analyze, to teach and to learn. The valences of their semiotic networks are primarily aimed at sharing ideas. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others reciprocate these valences.

Many semiotic wells and semiotic valences are formed accidentally, randomly, arbitrarily. Once we take on any bit of meaning, even if only slightly, there is always a chance that it will snowball into a significant semiotic well.

The Beatles alluded to this when they sang Had it been another day/ I might have looked the other way/ And I’d have never been aware/ But as it is I dream of her tonight.

This doesn’t just happen with love but with many of our other interests. We form semiotic wells—sometimes very quickly—for what are often very trivial reasons or no reason at all.

Much of what we are comes about through accident or chance. This happens because semiotics and the ways valences become attached to them are frequently very simple. Once a semiotic well begins forming it often grows, and as it does it pulls in or rearranges elements from other parts of our semiotic network.

Once a well is formed or given to us, it can greatly determine how we perceive the world and what we value in it.

This is why propaganda succeeds so well, and is sort of easy to do if you have a lot of money and access to important public forums. All a propagandist has to do is start your mind in one direction and then add more information and more valence. Most people see the world in terms of simple dichotomies, so all the propagandist needs to do is decide what they want and contrast it favorably against what they don’t want.

Want war? Make the public perceive the enemy you want as an enemy, then add info while increasing valence. Columnists will write many thousands of words about the desired war, but the basic sociology of it for the general public is always very simple.

Of course sometimes the trick fails. With Syria the basic formula—terrorists/poison gas/war—failed, probably because the public had been fooled too many times before with similar formulas (Sadam/WMD/war).

If you can see past words and feelings to the core of the semiotic well, you will see that many things in this world are quite simple. It is no accident that people communicate largely in very simple terms.

Semiotic networks and semiotic wells

Semiotics are the signs and symbols of communication.

Words, images, sounds, gestures, phrases, whole sentences, books, fields of study, and so on are all semiotics.

Within any one mind, semiotics are interconnected in a network. I am pretty sure we can speak of a single network in most, if not all, individual minds, but if you want to think of there being several distinct networks in a single mind, that would be fine.

Of course, the semiotic network within any one mind will have sub-networks and, most assuredly, many weird connections among its parts, its semiotic units and/or sub-networks.

When humans conceptualize space-time, we often use the notion of “gravity wells” or “gravitational wells.” Our sun sits in the center of and causes a gravitational well that is a description of the “bending” of space-time.

I want to borrow that sense of “gravitational wells” and use it to describe something called “semiotic wells.”

A semiotic well is like a solar system or galaxy in that it constitutes a system of semiotic elements that are all held together by the “weight” of some of its members. A “semiotic well” is a gravitational bending within a semiotic network.

For example, a trained botanist will have a semiotic well about plants and another well within that well about their particular specialty within the field of botany. To that botanist, many perceptions and events will circle in and around that semiotic well. They will know things about plants and see things in the world that those of us who are not trained in botany will not see.

The same can be said for any profession.Doctors, lawyers, therapists, translators, carpenters, plumbers, farmers, and so on; each will have a semiotic well, or wells, associated with their profession. All of us also have semiotic wells associated with our hobbies and main interests, and many other things.

One of my best friends is a janitor and he knows and see things about human messes and how to clean them that I would never have appreciated without his input. He also has a good sense of humor about his work.

And sadly, he also feels bad about his work sometimes. Though his friends and I know he is a sterling character and have great respect for him, he can’t escape knowing that he is working a low-status job and that very few people appreciate him for what he does.

This brings in another semiotic well, or an aspect of his basic janitorial semiotic well, that is emotional. My wonderful friend sometimes feels bad about what he is doing and finds it very hard to climb out of those feelings. It really is as if he has fallen into a well and can’t get out; he can’t escape the “gravitational well,” the semiotic well, of how he thinks most people in society see him.

He is caught at the same time in both a cultural semiotic well and a subjective semiotic well. His subjective well is very complex but a big part of it is his view of what others think of him.

Now, I think the same is true for all of us. Our professions create one kind of semiotic well, while the way we think society perceives our profession creates another well. Many of the semiotic elements of these wells are highly subjective and depend greatly on idiosyncratic perceptions and assessments.

What I want to do now is largely replace the concept of “personality” with that of semiotic wells.

The advantage of doing this is that we replace an ambiguous term with one that has discrete elements that can be discovered, changed, and moved around.

The gravitational “sun” at the center of my friend’s occasional depression is not his “personality” but his job, the drudgery of it, and, probably most importantly, how he thinks others see him as someone doing that job.

This describes a semiotic well that sometimes is so strong it pulls in his perceptions of many other things not connected to his work at all. And then all of that creates more wells that involve his wife, children, and friends. He can become a semiotic well to them.

But it is not just janitors who can feel that way. Doctors can get depressed because everyone they see feels bad. All day long, they have to deal with people at their worst. And sometimes they make mistakes that cause terrible feelings of guilt or helplessness.

The examples above are clear, I hope, because they are concrete and involve things we all know about.

Some other examples of semiotic wells are our fears, doubts, neuroses, memories, conceits, shame, pride, intentions, and so on. If we conceive of these sorts of subjective items as being aspects of our “personalities,” we won’t analyze them, or we won’t analyze them profitably. We will dwell on them instead.

If we think of them as semiotic wells, we will be more likely to see that they are networks of meaning that are made up of real things—the signs and symbols of communication. Communication happens within the mind as well as between minds.

My friend’s mind is infected with the signs and symbols of having a low-status job. In much the same way, but less concretely, all of us are infected by the signs and symbols of our semiotic wells, both subjective and external semiotic wells.

Our memories, fears, doubts, biases, and much more can become semiotic wells. And what we think others think of our jobs and our “selves” and deeds can also become semiotic wells. And what others really do think can become semiotic wells.

The terrible thing about this is we cannot discuss it with most people. But we can discuss it with some people and, given the right circumstances, we can analyze any semiotic well you can think of. We can discover what their parts are, how they interconnect, and which elements are “heaviest” and why.

Through analyses like that, we can reconfigure our semiotic networks and wells. By calling them into consciousness, especially with the help of a partner, we can fully understand them as we recontextualize or reconfigure them. Oftentimes, we will discover that an element that seems to have great weight, need not have so much weight. We might discover that some elements are false, especially if those elements are how we imagine what others are thinking.

If my friend, for example, could see what I really think of him—and not confuse my mind with what he thinks society sees—he would probably be amazed because I think he is a very clever and dignified person who does difficult work selflessly, mostly for the good of others. I have taken him as a model of human behavior at its best in many things. I have told him this, but he doesn’t seem to believe me because the force of his semiotic well about it is too strong.

Forming semiotic wells seems to me to be a primitive aspect of thought and communication. Transforming them through analysis seems to be a way to generate the escape velocity needed to free ourselves from them.

Not all semiotic wells are bad, but many of them tend to become bad even if they started out good. This happens because they can quickly ossify, or become static. Once you see yourself as “having such-and-such personality,” you will tend to turn the rich network of your mind into a simple semiotic well. Or once you see your friend as having this-or-that trait, you will tend to turn the rich network of their mind into a semiotic well.

Worst of all, most of us do this to each other constantly. Members of small groups, companies, work stations, towns, or churches tend to nickle-and-dime each other to death over static semiotic wells that can be generated from even the shallowest of ambiguities.