How we perceive and what to do about it

Human perception is massively based on human memory, expectations, and schemas already formed and present in the brain.

A recent study on visual perception came to this conclusion:

Altogether, these results show that many neurons in the medial temporal lobe signal the subjects’ perceptual decisions rather than the visual features of the stimulus. (Source)

This study is about visual perception and it focuses on neurons in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, but it’s conclusions have been discovered in many other studies—that is, we very often perceive what we already know or expect to perceive visually, aurally, verbally, semiotically.

Humans are capable of seeing new things and forming new conclusions and perceptions, but our default brain state is that most of the time we react to what we already think we know, consciously or unconsciously.

And how could it be otherwise? We could not function if we had to reassemble every pixel in a photo or our visual field every time we looked at anything. Same for sounds, sentences, concepts, and semiotics in general. If we are unable to quickly generalize and categorize something as something we already know about, we will find ourselves utterly lost in a maze of astounding complexity every second of our lives.

We cannot live without that default state, but when we use it during interpersonal communication we frequently run the risk of applying an erroneous “perceptual decision” about what someone is saying or about how we think they have heard us.

If you make erroneous perceptual decisions at a normal pace, which can be several times per hour, you will almost certainly begin to build up bigger and bigger wrong perceptions of the person you are doing it to. If that person is a spouse or close friend, you will have problems.

How do we usually deal with or work around problems of that type?

  1. We ignore them.
  2. We spend time away from the person.
  3. We get mad openly or seethe quietly.
  4. We resort to the simple generalities of basic friendship—shared activities, safe topics, declarations of loyalty or friendship.
  5. We believe or hope that mistakes will average out and not matter much.

In order:

1) If we ignore problems that arise from erroneous “perceptual decisions,” we are merely pushing them aside where they will continue to fester. Some people are truly able to completely ignore or forget, but do you really want to do that to your memory? And what replaces what you have forgotten? Isn’t it just another false “perceptual decision?”

2) This works to dilute feeling and perception, but not to improve or upgrade it. In most cases, this is a losing strategy with close friends.

3) Getting mad is better than most responses if you have the tools to fix the problem. Seething silently is a horrible way to go, though unfortunately a very common one. The worst of all is “not getting mad but getting even.” People who do this with friends are universally idiots.

4) Sad way to go but probably the most common halfway-decent thing people do. This describes most friendships and marriages. They become  sort of lifeless card games that go on and on because no one knows what else to do. And the longer they go on, the less likely there will be change.

5) I think this is an unrealistic belief because false perceptions can go off at many different angles. They don’t cancel out. At best, this belief may produce an outcome similar to item four above.

There is a way to handle these problems and that way is FIML. With practice, FIML partners will find that they have no festering false perceptions about each other and that they have not been forced to compromise the integrity and complexity of their relationship by resorting any of the about strategies.

If you read about morality in books and essays, it is all usually very philosophical. What is it? What are the foundations of it? How does fairness contribute? Is it emotional? Cognitive? Non-cognitive? Etc.

But how do you do it? Not how do you do it in the big sense of politics or global warming or philosophy, but how do you do it with just one other person? Can you do that? Have you ever done that? Can you conduct a complex and moral relationship with even one other person?

I don’t mean just sex, though that’s in there. I mean everything. Can you get very, very clear about all of the complexities of your relationship with just one other person? How can you be psychologically healthy if you cannot? I think most people are stuck, at best, on level four above. The reason is not that they want that but that they do not see another way.

You absolutely have to do something like FIML. If you don’t, false perceptions will accumulate and lead to one of the five things mentioned above.

Ethics, morality

If we consider our minds to be networks of signals, then we can say that it is better that the signals be more efficient and contain fewer errors.

This might be a good definition of a sound ethical position—to reduce signal error and increase signal efficiency.

In many ways, the two are the same. When we reduce signal error, we increase the efficiency of the entire system.

Thus, for any one system, such that there is a such a thing, the best ethical position would be to reduce signal error while increasing signal efficiency. That one system might stand for one human being.

But what if there are two or more systems that interact with each other?

In one sense we might say they are the “same” system, especially if interaction is imperative. In another sense, we can treat them as different systems.

If they are seen as the “same,” then reducing error and increasing efficiency will benefit the whole system (of two or more).

If they are seen as separate and not the same, there are two possibilities. Separate systems within the whole may decide to lie or cheat or they may decide not to lie or cheat.

If none of the separate systems within the network ever lies or cheats, efficiency will be increased and error will be reduced.

If one or more of the separate systems within the network decides to lie or cheat, efficiency will decrease and errors will multiply.

The separate systems can be understood to be people while the large network can be understood to be human groups. Lying and cheating or refraining from lying or cheating must be conscious acts.

Errors that just happen non-consciously (misspeaking, mishearing, misunderstanding, data mistakes, etc.) are not moral errors unless they could be or could have been avoided by a reliable method.

No network without lying or cheating has ever been achieved by large numbers of human beings. Even very small groups, as few as two people, rarely are able to achieve an ideal ethical state of no lying and no cheating. And even if they do get pretty good at that, it is very difficult for even just two people to remove non-conscious errors from their interactions.

FIML practice can greatly reduce non-conscious error between partners while at the same time providing a robust basis for increased moral awareness and increased understanding that both partners are benefiting greatly from the honesty (or ethical practice) of both of them.

My honesty with you greatly improves my understanding of and honesty within my own network and also gives me much better information about your network. And the same is true for you. Together we form an autocatalytic set that continually upgrades our mutual network and individual systems.

Clarity, honesty, and efficiency in interpersonal communication is satisfying in itself and also it improves efficiency between partners as it upgrades the self-awareness of each.

One partner could lie and cheat while doing FIML practice, but since FIML is fairly involved and somewhat difficult to learn, it is likely that most partners will do their best by each other ad that most individuals will come to realize that honesty benefits them much more than lying.

I think it is fair to conclude that the best ethical or moral position to take is one that increases efficiency of signalling (talking, doing, etc.) while also reducing signalling error. The problem with doing that is people can and will lie and cheat and we do not (yet) have a reliable way to tell when they are lying and cheating.

A good way to tell if someone is being honest will be an accurate lie-detector, but even that may not be efficient or work well with the dynamics of real-time human communication.

Thus some other technique in needed. FIML can be that technique and I know of no other one that works as well. Thus a sound ethical position in today’s world would be having the aim of reducing signal error while increasing signal efficiency through the practice of FIML.

Without FIML, interpersonal communications is at least an order of magnitude cruder and thus much less efficient. FIML is not perfect, but it is much better than what we ordinarily do. If you can increase resolution and detail at will within any system, it will improve that system. If you can do that with interpersonal communication, it will improve all aspects of that system.

Fractals in the humanities

“A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” (Wikipedia)

Most of us know what math fractals look like and understand that shorelines and trees exhibit fractal patterns that display at different scales.

I think we can also see fractal patterns or sets in the humanities.

For example, the five skandha explanation in Buddhism to be fully understood must be conceived of as a fractal pattern that repeats at different scales. The normal explanation of the five skandhas is as follows:

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness. (Ibid.)

This explanation describes the most basic fractal pattern or the smallest one. “…the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly.”

A simple example of this rapid movement of the five skandhas might be the experience of having something suddenly touch your neck. Your first awareness of this is the form. Your next awareness is the sensation; at this point you react with aversion, attraction, or neutrality. If you are outside, you might react with aversion as you perceive (third skandha) the touch to probably be an insect. Following that, there is often rapid physical activity (fourth skandha) as you involuntarily reach to brush it away. After that has been done, you will determine what actually happened, you will become conscious (fifth skandha) of what happened.

If it was an insect you might shudder or feel relieved. If it was a leaf on a tree branch you might feel a bit foolish. Your consciousness of the event comes after the first four skandhas have arisen or occurred.

A larger fractal version of the above might be the feeling (form, or first skandha) that you are ignorant about something. This form gives rise to an aversive sensation (second skandha), which leads you to perceive (third skandha) that you ignorance is probably something you should correct. This leads to mental activity (fourth skandha) which may require months of your time. At last, when you are satisfied that you are no longer ignorant on that subject, you will experience a new state of consciousness (fifth skandha).

In the above example, your ongoing feeling of ignorance as you study the subject might also be described as the fifth skandha, consciousness. Understanding that the five skandha explanation is a fractal pattern to be used to help you understand yourself will allow you to apply it where it can do the most good. As with so many things in the humanities, you will do better if you see the pattern and use it to aid understanding without letting yourself get trapped in a quasi-logical net that hinders understanding.

FIML practice can be seen as a fractal pattern as well. The smallest, or most basic level, is the basic FIML query which interrupts normal communicative processing to insert rational thought and more accurate information. The FIML query interrupts the mind as soon as the second skandha, sensation, arises. Whenever partners question a sensation, they will immediately change all of the five skandhas associated with it. Rather than follow a semi-conscious sensation down the same associative path as usual, partners gain an entry point to their deep psychology and an awareness of how their communications are affected by it.

A larger fractal pattern of FIML, might be hearing about it (form); feeling interested in it (sensation); perceiving what it is; learning the system (activity); and lastly gaining a new consciousness about how language can be made to work much better than without FIML.

FIML is a tool that helps partners leverage communicative details to gain great insight into how their minds work. Since FIML is not (yet) the rule for how people speak to each other, a non-FIML fractal pattern can be seen in society at large: since most people do not have a way to access the highly important details that FIML can access, they do not expect anyone else to access them. Thus, by default they accept horribly sloppy reasoning and lies from politicians and others who make important statements in public.

The fractal pattern of non-FIML communication in society at large is all but defined by lies, secrets, and hidden motives. At a smaller fractal level, so are the personal lives of most people. The world goes on. It is my guess that brain scans and better computers and computer programs will one day make it easier for people to see that having the ability to perceive and manipulate communicative details greatly enhances communication. And that communication so enhanced greatly enhances our understanding of ourselves and others. And that this sort of understanding will help us see that we do not have to live in a society that is all but characterized by lies, sloppy reasoning, and partisan nonsense.

In the humanities, fractal patterns can be seen at many levels. By changing the details of very significant communicative patterns between ourselves and our partners, we will change both ourselves and our perceptions of others, and this will gradually lead to better concepts of what society is and how it can function.

Repost: FIML and cerebral efficiency

This article argues that the human brain saves energy by predicting or imagining “reality” more than actually perceiving it: Do Thrifty Brains Make Better Minds? The article argues that this way of using our brains allows us to work more efficiently with complex data or in complex situations.

I think this general premise is pretty well known and agreed on, but the linked article puts it in a new way. The following sentence caught my eye: This… underlines the surprising extent to which the structure of our expectations (both conscious and non-conscious) may quite literally be determining much of what we see, hear and feel.

The article uses visual perception as an example, but the idea applies just as well, and maybe more so, to what we hear in the speech of others. FIML practice works by inserting a new mental skill between the first arising of a (stored) interpretation and its full-blown acceptance as “reality”.

Evolution of the smile and the inherent ambiguity of signs

Michael Graziano proposes a interesting, and quite convincing, hypothesis on the evolution of a good many human signals, including smiling, crying, laughing, and subtle versions of these.

His essay can be found here: The First Smile. I highly recommend it.

Evolutionary psychology is without question a real field capable of explaining a great deal about human beings. At the same time, it is often very difficult to separate what actually happened during thousands of years of evolution from what we think happened.

Graziano proposes that the human signals of smiling, crying, and laughing all evolved from a single more basic cringe reaction employed as defense against an object or person striking us or otherwise threatening us.

The evolutionary transformation from primitive reactions to subtle social cues is fascinating to contemplate. I am particularly struck by how ambiguous our present-day understanding of these social cues can be. As Graziano, the evolutionist, says, “So long as both sides of the exchange keep deriving benefits, the behaviour floats free of its violent origins.”

The violent origins of smiling and acting nice only sometimes play a direct role in why people do these behaviors today. Added to them is a plethora of cultural and idiosyncratic interpretations. And so, Graziano the social scientist also says, “We have stumbled on the defining ambiguity of human emotional life: we are always caught between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.”

I would contend that this aspect of human emotional life is maddening, that it is literally driving people crazy. Because how can you really tell if an expression, a statement, a gesture is authentic or fake? And how can you be sure you know how to interpret it?

In most cases, you can’t be sure. Yes, we can make vows, proclaim fealty or allegiance, swear till death do us part, or repeat familiar, comforting routines for years, but none of these methods is certain either. Indeed, our need for them only shows what thin ice we are on. All of them can be faked and all of them often are.

I do believe that many, if not most, of us do not want to be either fakers or the one faked to. Yet we seem all but trapped “between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.” Don’t we?

This is why we all need FIML practice or something very much like it.With FIML, much greater communicative detail can be made available to both partners. Rather than wonder what words, smiles, tears, or a tone of voice means, FIML partners have the means to find out.

Evolutionarily, you might say that FIML allows the human neocortex to understand and control the human limbic system. FIML allows higher thought, reason, and reflection to control base reactions and base signs that inevitably cause serious misunderstandings even between people who are very well-disposed toward each other and who share a strong desire to interact honestly.

Humans are characterized by a delicate and intricate web of thought, language, and culture that has been grafted onto a base of animal behavior. I do not see how it is even remotely possible to fully realize the potential of that delicate and intricate web of thought, language, and culture without frequently analyzing how animal signs and signals interfere with it during even the most ordinary of interactions.

Graziano mentions the Duchenne smile, a supposedly authentic smile that includes the muscles around the eyes. But Duchenne smiles can easily be faked. They are a required social expression in most of East Asia and can be seen faked by actors on American TV all the time.

The distinction between a Duchenne smile and a super-fake one is valid and valuable to a point. But it is also a woefully simple distinction. We cannot as thinking beings expect to find satisfaction in noticing minor, and easily faked, distinctions like that. The same thing goes for tones of voice, gestures, word choices, behaviors, and everything else we use to communicate.

In public, in the world at large, we have to use best guesses about what is going on, but in private guessing about what your partner really means is a recipe for mutual disaster, if not complete destruction.

Humans as networks

The advantage of seeing humans as networks is we can say interesting things about them parsimoniously.

A network is an organization of parts that are all connected.

Humans are networks of language. It is quite easy to see that language is a kind of network. Words connect in many ways and any word can be added to an existing network without difficulty. One word is defined by other words and we understand how it is used by how it functions among other words.

Humans are networks of semiotics. Semiotics function and are networked much like words, though a single semiotic may require many words to describe.

Meaning or what things mean is another network that is a fundamental part of being human. Meaning can be expressed in words, it can be apprehended through semiotic analyses, and it very often has a strong emotional component.

Emotions are another network that is fundamental to humanness. Emotions are often not as easily analyzed as the other networks since they can be vague, changeable, and based on complexities that are difficult to see while the emotion is happening. I am pretty sure that most, if not all, complex emotions are socially determined. Since semiotics are by definition communicative, the emotional aspect of all semiotics is a major aspect of both the semiotic and emotional networks. For this reason, emotions are often best analyzed through their accompanying semiotics.

Humans also have biological networks, perceptual networks, chemical and electrical networks.

All of these networks are hooked up with each other and all of them send signals internally and to the other networks.

If we conceive of a single human being as being a vast network that includes all of the above mentioned networks and others that have not been mentioned (aesthetic, gustatory, sexual, etc.), we can see that that vast network that is all of the other networks must have a basic need to be unified.

The biology must cohere and be healthy and the mind and feelings that exist together with that biology must be unconfused enough to guide the biology toward what it needs to maintain itself.

The cognitive networks (language, semiotics, feeling, reason, etc.) must have a strong tendency to forming basic conclusions about the world around them.

For example, all humans live in fundamentally uncertain circumstances. We don’t know when we will die, what happens after we die, how stable our social lives are, our economics, our biology, and so forth. To function, our cognitive network(s) must have a basic answer to the question of uncertainty. Here are some ways that people answer or respond to the fundamentally uncertain nature of human existence:

  • Many just declare that this is how it is. People like this might say, “Life is tough and you gotta do what you gotta do ’cause that’s how it is.” Or, “I growed up poor so I gots to be rich now and that just how it is.”Answers of this sort, while not complex, can be very motivating. I am sure that many conventionally “successful” people deal with uncertainty on terms like these.
  • For many, religion, science, or philosophy answers this question. “God said so.” “Science has shown that.” “Do as thou wilt.”
  • Another common response is “No one has ever been able to answer that question, so I am going to ignore it and get all I can because you only live once.”
  • In my limited experience (wish it were more limited), a good many alcoholics love the feeling of being sure or of knowing how things are. Booze activates an easy confidence of this sort and can even be charming in an occasional drunk. By the time booze is an addiction, though, this form of confidence becomes a bad habit, declining in charm as the cognitive functions are eroded by the alcohol.
  • In cultures that have a belief in rebirth, the question of uncertainty is often answered by what happened in the past or resolved by what might happen in the next life.
  • Some people deal with this question by focusing entirely on one thing—their career, their children, their nation, their business, etc.
  • Some deal with it by facing it and finding that nearly everything produces a sense of wonder because hardly anything is known for sure. Others feel anxiety by facing it. Others anger or frustration.

I am sure that readers can add many more examples of how humans deal with fundamental existential uncertainty. What I find most interesting in thinking in this way is you don’t need t imagine a person’s ego or wonder too much about how or why their emotions developed as they did. You really just need to ask them how they deal with uncertainty and they will tell you.

The vast cognitive and biological networks of individual humans often can be understood as being based on a simple answer to a simple question like that.

Since psychological explanations are the coin of the realm today, many people will confuse themselves and others by further adding long stories about the development of their personality or how their parents treated them. These factors can be interesting and are real, to a point, but it is much simpler and more profitable to focus directly at the answer/response to the basic question of life’s uncertainty. A major bias or unifying principle of the human network can be found in a straightforward answer to that question.

Beyond this basic question discussed above, there are many other questions we can ask about a particular human network. Is the network closed or is it open? Is it complex or simple? Is it independent of social definitions/constraints or dependent on them? How well does it see itself, understand itself? Does it perceive other networks or does it see other people as two-dimensional aspects of its own network? Is it willing to interface with other human networks in complex ways or only in simple conventional or established ways? Is it secretive? Does it see the vastness of the networks outside and beyond itself? Does it see how it is connected to them?

The advantage of analyzing humans as networks is it avoids many of the ambiguities of psychological analysis. Rather than focus on such dubious concepts as personality, ego, the subconscious, or self, a network analysis simply asks how is the network functioning. From a network point of view, a personality or self is little more than a focal point, a unifying principle that provides an illusion of certainty where there need not be one and cannot really be one. A human can function perfectly well without an ego, self, or well-defined personality. Indeed, there is greater stability in seeing yourself as a complex network that is always open to analysis and always willing to add or remove parts as they show themselves to be either good or bad.

 After basic network questions have been asked and answered, I think the best starting point for a more detailed analysis is  an examination of semiotics and how they are functioning in the individual’s life, and especially in their communications with others. This is best done through FIML practice.

In this context, as in so many, it is important to remember that humans are entry-level conscious semiotic animals. As such, we are prone to processing semiotics with the abrupt and often violent instincts of animals. A network approach provides specificity (what semiotic are we talking about), malleability (oh, I didn’t mean that), an appreciation for the functionality of network nodes, what they are doing and how or why. Since FIML partners have a prior agreement to do analyses of this sort, it is fairly easy for them to segue from ordinary conversation to analysis of that conversation and then back to the ordinary conversation.

Repost: Metaphors, words associations, and paralinguistics

If we consider spoken language as a complex linear system, we will be able to use it as a pretty good standard for understanding individual psychology as well as interpersonal communication.

All words have words associated with them. Though we all share many of the same word-associations (coffee/beverage; booze/drunk; etc.), we also all have an abundance of word associations that belong only to us. I suppose this is fairly obvious, though I am not so sure it is well enough appreciated.

For example, we all know that coffee is a beverage and that booze can make people drunk, but beyond that each one of us has many other associations connected with these words, unique associations that have been gathered through years of experience. You may have pleasant associations with coffee and unpleasant ones with booze, or it could be the other way around. You may visualize the Caribbean when you think of either of these words, or Alaska. As the associations become richer and get further from the word that generated them, the psycholinguistic network they create will become increasingly complex.

If we could put diagrams of these associative networks on paper–including all of the images and feelings that go with them–I am sure that each person would be uniquely identifiable from just a few of them, in much the same way that we can be identified from our fingerprints. No two of us are alike in how we use and understand language.

The ways in which words, phrases, word-associations, gestures, tones of voice, expressions, dramatic poses, and so on strike each one of us are unique. This point is more than touched upon by an Emory University study, Metaphorically feeling: Comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex, that demonstrates that “texture-selective somatosensory cortex in the parietal operculum is activated when processing sentences containing textural metaphors.”

What this means is that when people hear a tactile metaphor (soft as silk), the brain responds, at least in part, as if the person is feeling silk. I would contend that this and similar sorts of extended responses within the brain (and body) are a huge part of virtually all interpersonal communication. In this context, what FIML does is allow partners to access these deep associations and sort them out rationally without becoming lost in different associative versions of the “same” linguistic event.

FIML does not have to always depend on language, but it helps to bring it back to the actual words spoken as much as possible because the other sorts of associations and emotions that are generated during speech events are simply too complex to sort out without a stable reference point most of the time. Actual short bits of speech provide partners with the best data that both can readily agree upon. The many associations that are connected to that short segment of speech are often a big part of the material of a FIML discussion.

Alpha male falsehoods

I have a sort of close friend/relative who deeply believes in the alpha male thing. He believes it so much he frequently behaves horribly, and probably due to his alpha beliefs, at least in part, has become an alcoholic. He suffers from wild delusions of grandeur coupled with abject self-abasement and shame, a not uncommon formula. He is also as abusive to others as he is to himself.

So I have a personal stake in this issue. And also the alpha male thing is very good example of how far cultural beliefs can stray from reality and thus cause great harm to society as well as individuals caught up in falsehoods of that sort.

Alpha status, even based as it is on bad science, became a semiotic—something that can be communicated with signs to other humans—and in that capacity became a fetishized semiotic that took on a life of its own.

Anyone who has given thought to culture must surely be aware that all of the world’s cultures are filled with mistaken semiotics like the alpha male thing. In US culture, pretty much anything that become “a thing” is a fetishized semiotic, or a fetishized semiotic bundle.

If our entire culture can see through the alpha male thing, and by extension, the alpha female thing, we will save a great deal of time and avoid a great deal of suffering. In Buddhist terms, “empty” semiotics are impermanent things (dharmas) that have no “own being,” no “inherent nature.” They are reified concepts that become part of a transitory culture and are doomed to oblivion, especially if they are demonstrably false like the alpha male thing.

As individuals, I don’t think we can do all that much about which way our culture flows, but we can do a great deal about how our own minds flow. FIML practice would help my friend, but he is too drunk to do it and too lost in his delusions to even glimpse an exit from them. He is a sad example of someone trapped in a prison of his “own device.”

The alpha thing came from narrow wolf studies extended to dog training and then to human males, then females. It began in the 1940s and has held sway over parts of US culture to this day.

Here is a quick refutation:

The debate has its roots in 1940s studies of captive wolves gathered from various places that, when forced to live together, naturally competed for status. Acclaimed animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel dubbed the male and female who won out the alpha pair. As it turns out, this research was based on a faulty premise: wolves in the wild, says L. David Mech, founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, actually live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units, in which the mother and father are the pack leaders and their offspring’s status is based on birth order. Mech, who used to ascribe to alpha-wolf theory but has reversed course in recent years, says the pack’s hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead.(Dog Training and the Myth of Alpha-Male Dominance)

As for my friend, I hate the sin but not the sinner. I know he doesn’t read this site (doesn’t know about it), but maybe by getting these ideas out there they will by “a commodius vicus of recirculation” “bring him back” if not to Howth Castle or Adam and Eve’s place, at least to a better place.

___________________

Edit 8/20/04: Here is a counter-argument on dog obedience versus wolf cooperation:Wolves cooperate but dogs submit, study suggests.

The five skandhas and modern science

A recent study on emotional response—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—indicates that the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness has it right.

From the study’s abstract:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.

Note that all important phrase “…before that information is consciously perceived.”

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness.

Advanced training in meditation and mindfulness is probably necessary for most people to be able to observe the five skandhas individually, as they are actually “firing,” but it can be done. A good deal of Buddhist practice is based on being able to do that.

Though all brain imaging studies must be taken as provisional since the technology is not completely reliable, they still are providing us with some very interesting information worth considering.

The amygdala study cited above seems to confirm that people form significant emotional reactions to faces without being conscious of their reactions at all. In Buddhist terms, their reactions are (or take place at) the second skandha—sensation.

The skandha of sensation is defined as a reaction to a form that is either positive, negative, or neutral. That is, we either like, dislike, or don’t care about the form. In the amygdala study the form is the face that is flashed very briefly on a screen. The face appears so briefly, for just a few milliseconds, that it is not possible to actually “see” or be aware of having “seen” it.

I think it is fair to extrapolate from this study that we humans are forming sensations all the time without being aware of what we are doing. As the authors of the study say, the study “[suggests] that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.”

“…processing of social cues in the absence of awareness” is pretty good description of what the Buddha called delusion, especially if we realize that the delusions we “process” from forms arising outside of us are entwined with and not very different from delusions we process from forms arising within us.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation, thus, provides a way to observe and analyze our minds to prevent our becoming deluded by the tug of sensations that happen in the “absence of awareness.”

A few days ago, I reposted an essay that touches on this subject from a different angle and a different study: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots.

Here is a pretty good article on the study cited above: Friend Or Foe? Even When Faces Are Not Clearly Visible, Your Brain Unconsciously Makes Judgments.

A lesson in semiotic manipulation

A secret report on “how to influence the media and public opinion in America and Europe” is allegedly guiding Israeli spokespeople’s words and emotions when they describe the Gaza conflict on the news or in public.

Every one of the 112 pages in the booklet is marked “not for distribution or publication” and it is easy to see why. The Luntz report, officially entitled “The Israel project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary, was leaked almost immediately to Newsweek Online, but its true importance has seldom been appreciated. It should be required reading for everybody, especially journalists, interested in any aspect of Israeli policy because of its “dos and don’ts” for Israeli spokesmen.

These are highly illuminating about the gap between what Israeli officials and politicians really believe, and what they say, the latter shaped in minute detail by polling to determine what Americans want to hear. (The secret report that helps Israel hide facts)

Readers of this site should be well-aware of the importance of semiotics and of how they are used to construct and conceal “reality.” Humans are primitive semiotic animals who fight with words and ideas as much or more than with physical weapons.

Public statements on the conflict in Gaza amply reveal this, while the report linked above shows us some of the ways the deception works.

Of course, all public figures do stuff like this. Indeed, all individuals do it sometimes, if not all the time. Call it “framing,” “massaging the message,” “getting your point across,” “dissembling,” “explaining yourself,” “giving your side of the story,” or just “lying through your teeth,” it is something we are exposed to in public and private every day.

I don’t know how to stop this in the public sphere, but individuals can put an end to this sort of biased and harmful “messaging” by practicing FIML. FIML practice shows partners how societal and idiosyncratic semiotics affect both their listening and speaking, and, by extension, how they fundamentally make up what we normally call our “selves” or “psychologies.”

Remove as much bullshit as you can from your mind with the help of your FIML partner, and you will discover that your “self” is a very different entity than you had thought. It is much more dynamic, rational, and adaptive than the stolid bozo now trapped inside your head by a network of poorly learned semiotics.

Repost: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots

This report–Brain oscillations reveal that our senses do not experience the world continuously–supports the core activity of FIML practice, which entails noticing the first instant(s) of the arising of an emotional jangle (that is typically tied to a much more involved “mistaken interpretation” within the brain). By interfering with the first instant(s) of arising, FIML practice forestalls the habitual wave of neurotic interpretation that normally follows. Instead, new information–better data obtained from the FIML partner–is used to replace the cue that led to the initial jangle, thus redefining that cue.

Professor Gregor Thut of the University of Glasgow, where the study was conducted, says of its results: “For perception, this means that despite experiencing the world as a continuum, we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots determined by the cycles of brain rhythms.”

I would further hypothesize that the same holds true for our “perceptions” of inner emotional states. In this context, recall the five skandhas of Buddhism–form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation (a FIML jangle is a type of sensation), which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness.

In Buddhist teachings, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of “discrete snapshots”, to use Thut’s words. In FIML practice, partners want to interfere with what has become a habitual “firing” of their five skandhas based on (neurotic) learned cues. FIML practice strives to prevent full-blown neurotic consciousness (the fifth skandha) from taking control of the mind by replacing the source of that consciousness with a more realistic interpretation of the neurotic cue. The cue corresponds to form in the five skandhas explanation. The more realistic interpretation of that cue is based on the true words of the partner.

The five skandhas can also help us understand how FIML is different from more or less normal psychological analysis. In normal, or traditional, analysis we use theories and schema to understand ourselves. In FIML we use a specific technique to interfere with habitual neurotic “firings” of the five skandhas. FIML partners are encouraged to theorize and speak about themselves in any way they like, and it is very helpful to do this, but the core FIML activity cannot be replaced by just theorizing or telling stories.

Here is a link to the study itself: Sounds Reset Rhythms of Visual Cortex and Corresponding Human Visual Perception.

Truth versus getting something done

Truth is the first casualty of war. It is also very commonly the pre-casualty of getting something done.

Feel bad? Throw a tantrum. Makes no difference if your reasons are right. Just go nuts and often you will get something done and may even feel better for it.

Confident assertion carries the day, especially among those who have power or are wannabe power types.

You can see this principle at work in politics, war, business, interpersonal relations, schools, science, religion—pretty much anywhere you look.

Truth, when out, is strong, but in most situations it is weak and quickly trampled by those who are getting something done or who promise to.

Communists in Russia and China said some true things before they got power. Once they got power, they still paid lip-service to truth, but became preoccupied with getting something done, especially getting more power.

Truth in Russia went from a semi-reasonable (semi-reasonable if you ignore the principle being described here) to unbelievable, wanton, astonishing violence and mass murder on a scale not seen in Europe since the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century.

Somewhat similar events unfolded in China a few decades later. Some partial truths were trampled by violent fanatics who killed scores of millions. Then Mao got Alzheimer’s and the country was ruled from behind his doddering throne by the Gang of Four, one of whom was his wife. After they were deposed, the country slowly opened up. Today it is ruled by a small oligarchy made up of the children and grandchildren of the original Chinese communists who brought about the revolution, which had been based on partial truths and a massive ability to get something done.

I am half-way through The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam by Douglas Valentine. So far, the book shows that the same sort of thing happened there. A misconceived program got started and kept going because untruthful reports looked good to LBJ who wanted to get something done. He used people who also wanted to get something done. So something became anything became terror, blowing up villages, while using American “advisers” who had next to no knowledge of Vietnam.

I doubt it was much different in Iraq. Untruthful “intelligence” was sold as truth and mayhem got done. That there probably were more sinister goals than “birthing democracy” is a sort of refutation of my point that proves the point. The people that claimed to want to get something done were the ones who carried the day.

When we emphasize truth over getting something done, many things change. In interpersonal relations, we will find that something like FIML practice is essential for without it we will tend, at least sometimes, to ignore the small voice of truth as we rush forward to get something done.

From what I have read, CEOs do not deserve their rock star reputations anymore than hedge fund people do. They get high pay and respect based on statistical fluctuations. In any year, there will be a number of CEOs or hedge funds that have outperformed the average. Given more years, there will be regression to the mean and their track records will look no better than chance.

Our next presidential candidate will fill the media with small truths and many lies while ardently promising to get something done. It won’t happen. It never does. They fool us because it feels good to listen to someone promising to get something done, even if we know it’s not true.

Speech pathology

An insidious and common kind of speech pathology is having more in your imagination than you are allowed to say.

What prevents you from speaking may be cultural. Or it may be a lack of skill, which in this case is almost certainly due to being in a culture that does not train its members to do this.

I would hypothesize that a person’s degree of emotional/psychological suffering scales very closely to the degree that they are not able to speak about what is in their imagination.

Some people kill their imaginations to save themselves the trouble of feeling bad. This is what alcohol addiction, and some other drugs, can accomplish. This is also what is accomplished by becoming subservient to the conventions of a culture that proscribes or inhibits speech that might free its members from the suffering described above.

As far as I can tell, there is no large or major culture anywhere in the world that allows its members speech to match their imaginations.

Imaginative speech in art is mostly OK in most cultures. But interpersonal imaginings are not.

If you imagine anyone in any way, especially in a way that is painful to you, but you cannot speak about it to them, you have this speech pathology, or your culture does. If the person you are imagining is just an acquaintance or conventional friend, this does not matter too much, though it is not an ideal situation.

If the person you are imagining is your primary interlocutor, you have a serious speech pathology.

“Creative intimacy” – the importance of pairs

Read an interesting piece this morning that focuses on the importance of pairs, or partners in creative work. An excerpt:

…given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges, we’re likely set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group. The pair is also inherently fluid and flexible. Two people can make their own society. When even one more person is added, roles and power positions harden. This may be good for stability but problematic for creativity. Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for moving.

Pairs also naturally engage each of the two people involved. In a larger group, an individual may lie low, phone it in. But nobody can hide in a pair. (Source)

Please read the whole piece and not just that short section.

I agree with the above and would add that groups all but force us to employ lowest-common-denominator semiotics in communication.

Moreover, it is very important to understand that the meso-level of communication (words and semiotics) between two people is not now and probably never will be describable in terms of neurons or the physical matter of the brain. The more we know about the brain, the better. But even if we have perfect knowledge, we may never be able to use it to predict the trees of associationa that will form in your mind after being prompted by virtually any semiotic, word, or concept. It is very unlikely that thought will ever be entirely reducible to neurons or chemistry.

What do you imagine or associate with the simple composite of a sheep plus an apple? Then what do you imagine or associate with whatever that is?

It is very unlikely that any micro-science of neurons will provide us with an answer to that, though you could easily just tell me what your associations are.

Thus, at the macro-level of society or more than a few people, it is difficult or impossible to arouse the depths of your mind, your being, your creativity, your unique existential reality.

At the micro-level of physics, it is unlikely we will ever be able to describe those processes or phenomena, let alone improve on simply speaking honestly to each other.

At the meso-level of communication with a trusted partner we can achieve detailed and fulfilling psychological traction. We can discover aspects of thought and feeling that we cannot find in any other way. An individual alone cannot check their work. A group cannot handle significant detail. Only partners (maybe more than two) can find robust clarity and depth in the meso-reality of interpersonal semiotics, that level at which we most deeply recognize ourselves.

FIML practice is designed to be done by two people. It works by providing partners with a means to unlock the profundity and complexity of the meso-level of semiotic exchange between them. In the linked essay, Shenk puts it well why we need partners. FIML gives ordinary people the means to become extraordinary by showing them how to investigate the meso-level of semiotic exchange between them.

Tone of voice during a FIML query

In basic FIML, tone of voice during a FIML query ideally will be neutral.

In practice and as time goes along, partners will find that it is not as important to maintain a neutral tone of voice during a query as it was in the beginning.

What is important at this point is for both partners to understand that when one of them queries the other, if there is a discernible tone of voice when the speaker makes the query then the listener should assume that the speaker is wondering if the listener is thinking whatever. The listener should not assume that the speaker is thinking that.

This opens the mind of the listener to a kaleidoscope of potential interpretations while relaxing the speaker, who knows that the listener is not judging or interpreting prematurely.

A listener to a query should understand that the speaker of the query may be wondering if the listener is thinking something that statistically is less common than something else. Let’s say that the speaker is wondering if the listener (their partner) is thinking something that only 5% of listeners might be thinking in that situation.

Their wondering about something with a statistical chance of 5% is of some interest but is not of any particular emotional or intellectual concern. It doesn’t matter all that much if they are wondering about something rare or common, something unusual or usual.

Indeed, creativity is sometimes vaguely defined as the making of rare associations. Why should either partner fear wondering about something rare, let alone common?

It is not the job of the one being queried to have a strong interpretation about what the speaker is asking or why they are asking it or what they are imagining as they are asking it. Just answer the query honestly as per FIML guidelines.

After a while, after the basic query has been completed, the one being queried may or may not explain why they were wondering what they were wondering if they had been wondering anything. At that same point and not necessarily before or after the listener, the speaker might profitably reveal what they had imagined the listener might be thinking. Or what they wanted to be sure the listener was not thinking.

Understanding the above will give both partners access to much wider and more various contexts than is normally possible. Having such access frees both partners emotionally and cognitively from conventional and idiosyncratic confinements, expectations, habits, limitations, and so on.