A signal-based model of psychology: part four

In the first three parts of A signal based model of psychology, we discussed micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding and how paying attention to these levels can make human signaling easier to comprehend.

In this post I want to discuss how human signaling is normally managed and, knowing this, how we can better understand how it affects us.

In truth, there are countless possible interpretations for every moment of every day if we choose to notice them. In the material world of doing familiar things in familiar surroundings, we handle the abundance of possible interpretations by simply ignoring most of them. We put our minds on autopilot and do our tasks by accessing rote procedures and memories.

In social situations, though the stakes may be higher psychologically, we do much the same. Rather than wonder about the vast majority of communicative exchanges with others, we generally put our minds in social autopilot mode and interpret what we are hearing and perceiving according to fairly simple rules we have already established.

These rules, or principles of behavior, in my view, are roughly what people mean when they speak of “personality,” their own or someone else’s. For example, an “optimistic personality” could with considerable explanatory power be described as being an “optimistic principle that governs the semiotic network of perception and interpretation.”

This simple rule—to always reduce the multitude of possible social interpretations to an optimistic few—saves time, reduces ambiguity, and presents a nice face to the world. With just this one rule, you can establish yourself as having an optimistic “personality.” Much the same can be said for other types of “personalities.”

I put personality in quotes because I think it is a dangerous word since it tends to lead people into believing that they actually possess some inner actor or agency that defines or “expresses” who they are. Once that mistake is made, people want to develop this agency of personality by adorning it with emotions, behaviors, and expressions. Before long, it becomes a limiting act. It is limiting because in essence all personality is is a few rules or principles that govern social interpretations; a few simple rules that reduces the plethora of possible interpretations to just a few.

Since our culture does this all the time, people having “personalities” seems ordinary and even satisfying. If they are simple enough, we are able to predict how others will behave as they will be able to predict our behavior. This situation is even sort of desirable in formal or professional situations. Large groups must function by following lowest-common-denominator rules, so having more or less standard or uniform “personalities” is in the interest of most if not all large groups.

The ways that large groups build group bonding shows a great deal about basic human signaling. We have to understand each other and, thus, in large groups we have to make it easy to do that by, for example, singing songs, meeting in the same places, wearing uniforms, listening to speeches, and confining ourselves to a few main ideas.

What having a steady “personality” too often does is bring large-group rules into intimate relationships. With friends, we get to wear more kinds of clothes, say more things, and generally relax more than we can in large groups, but the underlying issue of how we interpret each others’ speech and behavior cannot be satisfyingly resolved by resorting to the “personality” rules that govern our semiotic networks in large groups.

When we reduce each other to a set of “personality” rules or behaviors, we destroy our ability to analyze and interpret the rich micro, meso, and macro semiotic networks that are a major component of the human mind. When we do that to others, we often do it to ourselves. When you reduce the richness of your own mind’s networks into a few “personality” rules or principles, you are going to have problems. And when you do it to someone else, you both are going to have problems.

You cannot communicate deeply or richly by using just a few rules. You must have ways to access and analyze your own and your partner’s semiotic networks. Micro, meso, and macro levels of understanding, of course, lie on a continuum and it is not always easy to say whether something is meso or macro. But this slight vagueness doesn’t matter very much as long as you can manipulate individual semiotics, semiotic bundles, and semiotic networks.

Most people have OK abilities for analyzing meso and macro levels, but completely lack the capacity to even perceive, let alone analyze, communicative micro semiotics, micro signals. The reason this is so is communicative micro semiotics happen quickly. They appear quickly and disappear quickly. They last just a few seconds or less. When we fail to understand the importance of these micro units of communication, we reduce our capacity for meaningful analysis so greatly it is as if we had no analysis. Without a capacity for micro analysis, we become confined to meso and macro levels—to having simple “personalities” that follow simple rules based on simple principles.

I do admit that some people like it that way, and God bless them, but I also believe that a great many people are essentially crazy due to their inability to access and analyze micro semiotics with any other person in the world. People like that will feel lonely when with others, frightened, paranoid, scattered, unfocused, angry, deeply unsatisfied. They will feel these ways because micro semiotics will frequently affect them deeply and cause them to reach for explanations that cannot be confirmed (due to no communication in this realm).

The oldish word for that state is neurotic. It is my contention that a great many people are neurotic, anxious, depressed, bipolar, ADHD, and so on because a massive part of life is going on all around them and yet they have no way to access it, analyze it, understand it, or share it with anyone else.

FIML practice, by the way, will start to fix that problem in a matter of days or weeks.

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A signal-based model of psychology: part one

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

A signal-based model of psychology: part three

Repost: Signals and subliminal signal associations

Signals sent between people are almost never simple, single entities devoid of ambiguity.

Indeed, even very clear communicative signals, especially in interpersonal communication, are often fraught with subliminal associations. These “extra” associations are a primary cause of interpersonal error and ambiguity, and deriving from that, of individual, personal discomfort or neurosis.

We have mentioned this general problem many times and claimed that FIML practice is probably the only way to successfully remove the bulk of dangerous ambiguity and misunderstanding that inevitably accrues in almost all interpersonal relationships.

A study on visual perception from the University of Arizona—UA Study: Your Brain Sees Things You Don’t—reasonably confirms these statements for visual perception. I would argue that many other brain functions work in similar ways, including listening, speaking, and our overall perceptions of human behavior and what it “means.”

The study found that participants subconsciously perceive “meaning” in visual images flashed quickly before them. It took about 400 milliseconds for this perception of “meaning” to show on an fMRI machine.

I have put the word “meaning” in quotes because this word could also be understood as “contextualize,” “associate with,” “frame,” or even “anticipate.” When we listen to someone with any care, our minds are always roving slightly as we adjust, readjust, and anticipate what the speaker means, meant, and is meaning. Listening is a dynamic process that draws heavily—even completely—on semiotic associations that hover and come into view as our sense of what the speaker is saying unfolds.

The UA study provides pretty good evidence that we do something similar visually and that it happens quickly.

Mary Peterson, an adviser on the study, said of it

This is a window into what the brain is doing all the time. It’s always sifting through a variety of possibilities and finding the best interpretation for what’s out there. And the best interpretation may vary with the situation.

Pay close attention to that word best.

Firstly, I completely agree with Peterson’s statement. And secondly, I see a massive problem in interpersonal communication lurking just beneath that word “best.”

Whose best? During interpersonal communication, if the listener does not have the habit of directly asking the speaker what is meant, then the listener’s brain will decide the issue on its own based on its own autocthonous “best” sense of what the speaker “means.”

How often can anyone be right under those conditions? This is why FIML practice micromanages some aspects of communication by  requiring quick interventions to be sure the deep meaning is being transmitted correctly. If partners do not do FIML, they will be forced to do all of the following—make many wrong assumptions about what is being communicated to them, rely on general rules of listening (the bane of authentic individuality), rely on statistical assumptions about how the speaker “generally” more or less “is.” That is a formula for interpersonal disaster and likely a major factor in the very high incidence mental illness in industrialized societies.

FIML demands some effort and it takes some time, but I prefer it any day of the week over the static role-playing and error-prone guessing that is the only other alternative.

Another way of saying all of the above is this: when we communicate we often send and receive ambiguous messages. Our minds handle ambiguity (often subconsciously) by choosing what they perceive as the “best” interpretation. But this “best” interpretation happens very quickly and is frequently wrong. Nonetheless, this “best” interpretation if accepted, which it often is, will get fed back immediately into the communicative exchange, quickly (or gradually) distorting everything that is happening.

Unemotional visual perceptions, such as those used in the linked study, will not be problematical for the participants. But similar brain functions will be and are problematical in all of their interpersonal relationships. There is simply no way around the fact that we rapidly perceive and mispercieve “best” interpretations, especially since we are accepting them based on subconscious processes.

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Edit: Here is a paper (PDF) on the dangers of inferring too much from neuroimaging: Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? I don’t think too much has been inferred from the UA study, but some readers may disagree.

It seems to me that the human brain is characterized by semiotic networks that are held together through a variety of associations between the “nodes,” or individual signs, that comprise them. We use these networks to understand everything and they are remarkable beautiful, even if fraught with danger when employed (as they always are) during acts of communication with people we care about.

A signal-based model of psychology: part three

Two major advantages to conceiving of humans as signaling systems with micro, meso, and macro levels are:

  • we can get clearer data on signals than by other approaches, and
  • analyzing micro. meso, and macro levels allows us to see even more clearly how human signaling works and why problems occur

I will discuss each of these points in the first two sections below. In the third section, I will discuss some aspects of micro analysis of communication.

we can get clearer data on signals than by other approaches

Behaviorism is an approach to human psychology that developed out of the need to get better, more objective data on how the human mind works. Rather than work with self-reported subjective data, behaviorists sought to work with observable behavioral data that could be tested scientifically.

The behaviorist school of thought maintains that behaviors as such can be described scientifically without recourse either to internal physiological events or to hypothetical constructs such as thoughts and beliefs. (Behaviorism)

Much good has come from the behaviorist approach, but it is also limited because behavior, especially complex behavior, often has a rich subjective context out of which it arises. As with many other approaches to human psychology, behaviorists see the individual from too far away and too far outside.

If we look to human signals—and behavior is a signal—we can begin to grasp that human thought, feeling, and behavior can be broken down into discrete units or signals. If we analyze human signals “from the outside” or “from too great a distance,” however, we will see them only in outline or simplified form. And we will never be sure of how they seem to the signaler. Behaviorism, in this sense, can be compared to a general linguistic analysis, a general semiotic analysis, or a general psychological analysis based on some theory.

All of these approaches work at meso or macro levels of understanding, but not at micro levels.

analyzing micro. meso, and macro levels allows us to see even more clearly how human signaling works and why problems occur

In Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding, we defined the micro level as being:

…very small units of thought or communication. These can be words, phrases, gestures, etc. and the “psychological morphemes” that accompany them. A psychological morpheme is the smallest unit of an emotional or psychological response.

The meso and macro levels were defined as:

  • Meso levels lie between macro and micro levels. Longer discourse, a sense that people have personalities or egos, and the basic ideas of any culture appear at this level.
  • Macro levels are the larger abstract levels that sort of stand above the other two levels. Macro levels might include religious or scientific beliefs, political ideologies, long-term personal goals or strategies.

Of course all of these levels are part of a continuum, but it is very helpful to group psychological data in these three categories.

When we do so, it becomes apparent, with some thought, that very few humans communicate well on the micro level. And with a bit more thought, it becomes apparent that since we do not communicate well on this micro level, we are forced to use meso and macro levels for communication.

When we are in formal or professional settings or in settings with many people, there is little else we can do than use meso and macro levels for communication. Problems arise, however, when we use these levels to communicate intimately with people that are important to us.

Each human being has a rich inner world of micro understanding, subjective micro understanding. Some of us can communicate some of this micro inner world to others, but even when we do we tend strongly to use meso and macro perspectives and semiotics. But these levels ignore the deeply perceived reality of subjective inner being as it is experienced in real-time. When we ignore micro levels, they become turbulent and cause suffering.

Communicative micro data must be shared and analyzed in real-time for humans to feel deeply and fully connected. When this micro data is not shared and analyzed, humans are forced to substitute the memes and cliches of meso and macro understanding for the rich world of subjective being.

Clearly, no one can share micro data all the time. So when do we share it? We can share it whenever we want to if our partner is willing. And we can—in fact, we should or must—share it whenever we have formed a strong impression or noticed a strong impression or interpretation forming or arising in ourselves.

Sharing in this way, prevents what might be called “turbulence” within the micro-sphere. The more turbulence within the micro-sphere, the more emotional problems there will be. Why does not sharing our impressions and interpretations produce turbulence? Because that multiplies unknowns and variables.

practice over theory, or why theory without practice doesn’t work

A major problem with behaviorism, psychology in general, and even linguistics is these fields are dominated by experts who share theories, but do not provide techniques for actual micro analyses. If you decide to seek help for a psychological problem, you will either pay a doctor to prescribe a pill or pay a therapist to “guide” you based on some theory.

But significant psychological micro-analyses cannot be done in this way. A professional analyst can only help you with meso and macro contradictions, not micro turbulence.

Micro analyses must be shared by equal partners—who care about each other, not paid theorists—in real-time during real-life events. Real moments of communicative understanding or misunderstanding can only be grasped by the parties involved during those moments. Analyses after the fact do help, but relying solely on analyses of that type will never remove subjective micro turbulence. Furthermore, analyses of that type will strengthen tendencies to engage in meso and macro theorizing in place of doing micro analyses.

Most of us are so used to having subjective micro turbulence we think there is nothing we can do about it. Instead of working with micro communication levels, we fill our time with meso activities or pump ourselves up with “positive” meso or macro thoughts about things that will never be completely satisfying as long as there is micro turbulence.

One way to do micro analysis today is FIML practice. Links about this practice can be found at the top of the page. Honestly, I do not know of another way to go about it.

A signal-based model of psychology: part one

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

Repost: Consciousness, Big Data, and FIML

Modern neuroscience does not see humans as having a discrete consciousness located in a specific part of the brain. Rather, as Michael S. Gazzaniga says:

The view in neuroscience today is that consciousness does not constitute a single, generalized process. It involves a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes, the products of which are integrated by the interpreter module. (Source)

Computer and Big Data-driven sociology sees something similar. According to Alex Pentland:

While it may be useful to reason about the averages, social phenomena are really made up of millions of small transactions between individuals. There are patterns in those individual transactions that are not just averages, they’re the things that are responsible for the flash crash and the Arab spring. You need to get down into these new patterns, these micro-patterns, because they don’t just average out to the classical way of understanding society. We’re entering a new era of social physics, where it’s the details of all the particles—the you and me—that actually determine the outcome.  (Source)

Buddhists may recognize in these insights close similarities to core teachings of the Buddha—that we do not have a self; that all things arise out of complex conditions that are impermanent and changeable; that the lion’s share of “reality” for any individual lies in being attentive to the moment.

Notice how similar Pentland’s insights are to Gazzaniga’s—the whole, or the common generalities (of society), can be far better understood if we can account for the details that comprise them. Is an individual mind a fractal of society? Do these complex systems—societies and minds—both use similar organizational processes?

I am not completely sure how to answer those questions, but I am certain that most people are using similar sorts of “average” or general semiotics to communicate and think about both minds and societies. If we stick with general averages, we won’t see very much. Class, self, markets, personalities don’t give us information as sophisticated as the detailed analyses proposed by Gazzaniga and Pentland.

Well then, how can individuals cognize Gazzaniga’s “multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes” in their minds? And how can they understand how “the products” of those processes are actually “integrated” into a functional “interpreter module”?

And if individuals can cognize the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter,” how will they understand traditional psychological analyses of the self, personality, identity, biography, behavior?

I would maintain that our understanding of what it is to be a human will change deeply if we can learn to observe with reliable clarity the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter.” That is, we will arrive at a completely new understanding of being that will replace the “self” that truly does not exist in the ways most societies (and people) understand it.

FIML practice shows partners how to observe with great clarity the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter.” Once these process are observed in detail and for a long enough period of time, partners will realize that it is no longer necessary to understand themselves in the “average” terms of self, personality, identity, biography, behavior, and so on.

Partners will come to understand that these terms denote only a more detailed version of a naive, static view of what a person is. Most psychology is largely a more detailed version of a naive, static view of what a person is.

We see this in Gazzaniga and Pentland’s findings that are derived from complex analyses of what is actually happening in the brain or in the multitude of real transactions that actually comprise a society. We can also see very similar insights in the Buddha’s teachings.

It is my contention that FIML practice will show partners the same things—that their actual minds and actual interactions are much more complex (and interesting) than the general semiotic averages we normally use to understand them.

From a Buddhist point of view, when we “liberate” ourselves from “attachment” to “delusive” semiotic generalities and averages and are truly “mindful” of the “thusness” of the ways our minds actually work, we will free ourselves from “suffering,” from the “ignorance” that characterizes the First Noble Truth.

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

If we consider humans to be complex signaling systems or networks, then it is readily apparent that each human network signals within itself and also is connected by signals to other networks.

In A signal-based model of psychology: part one, we said:

the only significant interpersonal signaling data we can really know with significant certainty are data noticed, remembered, and agreed upon by two (or more in some cases) people engaged in significant interpersonal communication (signaling).

More recently, in Indeterminacy of translation and FIML, we discussed W. V. Quine’s thesis, which describes;

the fundamental impossibility of determining what anything means well enough to “translate” it into another context, a next sentence, into another person’s mind, or even “translating” your own speech from the past into the context of your mind today.

When we analyze a person based on vague ideas like “personality,” “psychology,” or “cognition,” we are principally assigning ambiguous referents to amorphous categories. We have more words but not much more understanding.

Cognition is a huge grab-bag of a word that means almost anything, as do the terms psychology and personality.

If we replace these terms with the concept of signaling networks, we gain specificity. For example, rather than analyzing the “cognitive-behavior” of a person we can more easily and profitably analyze their signaling.

The advantage of examining signaling rather than “cognitive-behavior” is signals are quite specific. They can usually be defined pretty well, they can be contextualized, and their communicative intent can be determined with reasonable specificity.

To be most effective, signaling analysis works best if we abandon the idea that we can accurately analyze the signals of someone else, especially if we do not analyze our own signals at the same time.

Moreover, a signaling analysis will work best if we do it with:

  • someone that we care about and that cares about us
  • someone with whom we can be completely honest and who will be completely honest with us
  • someone who is willing to spend the time to do the analyzing

Sad to say, it can be difficult to find two people who fit together in those ways, but that is how it is. Much of this problem is due to social expectations, which presently greatly reduce opportunities for clear, honest communication. And much of this is due to how we normally conceive of a person, as a bundle of vague things that cannot be pinned down.

The ideal signaling analysis will be done between close friends with the above qualifications. A signaling analysis will not work well, if at at all, if it is done between a professional and a patient. A professional psychologist would do the best for their patient by teaching them how to do signaling analysis with a friend. If they don’t have a friend, maybe one can be found; if not, a different approach should be used.

But you don’t have to have “problems” to do a signaling analysis. Everyone will benefit from it.

Signaling analysis works because partners learn to work with good data that has been generated between them during real-life situations. Having this data allows partners to do micro, meso, and macro levels of analysis on it. And these different levels help them see the specifics of a particular signal exchange, the immediate context of the exchange, and the larger social or historical context from which the exchange has derived some or much of its meaning.

For example, if clear data on a tone of voice has been agreed upon, both partners can then explain the micro antecedents and context of that data, the meso context of those antecedents, and if necessary the macro context that gave rise to either or both of those. The same outline applies to all micro data, be it tone, gesture, word choice, body language, reference, etc.

With practice, a new way of understanding communication will arise in partners’ minds. Rather than having a vague “cognition” about some poorly-defined “emotion” or “personality trait,” partners will find that they can benefit much more by simply analyzing what actually happened based upon data they both agree on.

It is very important for partners to do many analyses of specific micro-data, a single word or phrase, a single tone of voice, a single gesture, etc.. The reason for this is we can’t accurately remember much more than that. When we try to do more, we are pushed immediately out of specific micro data into vague meso or macro generalities that constitute nothing more than general categories with general references to other general categories. Rather than analyzing something that has actually occurred, we instead argue about general emotions, vague traits, unsubstantiated assumptions about “personalities,” and so on.

Indeterminacy of translation and FIML

I betray my poor education by admitting that I had never heard of W. V. Quine’s “indeterminacy of translation” until last week. My ignorance is especially egregious as I have worked as a professional translator for many years.

Maybe I had heard about it but had forgotten. I am being self-reflective because FIML practice is deeply, fundamentally concerned with the “indeterminacy” of translating one person’s thoughts into another person’s head.

Quine’s thesis is not just about translating from one language to another, though there is that. It is much more about the fundamental impossibility of determining what anything means well enough to “translate” it into another context, a next sentence, into another person’s mind, or even “translating” your own speech from the past into the context of your mind today.

If I had known about Quine, I probably never would have thought of FIML because his ideas and the slews of papers written on “indeterminacy of translation” surely would have made me believe that the subject had been worked through.

As it was, I have plodded along in a delightful state of ignorance and, due to that, maybe added something practical to the subject.

In the first place, I wholeheartedly believe that speech is filled with indeterminacy, which I have generally called ambiguity or uncertainty. In the second place, I have confined my FIML-related investigations mainly to interpersonal speech between partners who care about each other. I see no solution to the more general problem of indeterminacy within groups, subcultures, or linguistic communities. Until brain scans get much better, large groups will be forced to resort to hierarchical “determinacy” to exist or function at all.

For individuals, though, there is much we can do. FIML practice does not remove all “indeterminacy.” Rather, it removes much more than most people are accustomed to. My guess is FIML communication provides a level of detail and resolution that is an order of magnitude better than non-FIML.

FIML does not fix everything—and philosophical or “artistic” differences between partners are still possible—but it does fix a great deal. By clearing up interpersonal micro-indeterminacy again and again, FIML practice frees partners from the inevitable macro-problems that ambiguity causes.

Moreover, this freedom, in turn, frees partners from a great deal of subconscious adhesion to the hierarchical “determinacy” of whichever culture they are part of. Rather than trapping themselves in a state of helpless acceptance of predefined hierarchical “meaning,” FIML partners have the capacity to sort through existential semiotics and make of them what they will with far less “indeterminacy,” or ambiguity, than had been possible without FIML practice.

Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding

This post is concerned with the micro, meso, and macro levels of existential semiotics and communicative thought, and how those levels affect human understanding.

  • Micro levels are very small units of thought or communication. These can be words, phrases, gestures, etc. and the “psychological morphemes” that accompany them. A psychological morpheme is the smallest unit of an emotional or psychological response.
  • Meso levels lie between macro and micro levels. Longer discourse, a sense that people have personalities or egos, and the basic ideas of any culture appear at this level.
  • Macro levels are the larger abstract levels that sort of stand above the other two levels. Macro levels might include religious or scientific beliefs, political ideologies, long-term personal goals or strategies.

Most people most of the time socialize on the meso level, often with support from shared macro level beliefs or aims. For most people, the broad outlines of most emotions are defined and conditioned at the meso level. This is the level where the nuts and bolts of convention are found. This is the level that tosses the beach balls of conversation back and forth across the dinner table and that defines those balls. The meso level defines our subculture and how well or badly we conform to it. The meso level is necessary for much of social life and sort of fun, though it is by definition not very detailed or profound. It is something most people can agree on and work with fairly easily for an hour or two at a time.

Many people define themselves mainly on the meso level and judge others by their understanding of this level. Many subcultures become stifling or cloying because meso definitions are crude and tend to leave out the rich subjectivity of individuals. Macro definitions are not all that different from meso ones except that they tend to define group feelings more than meso definitions. Groups band together based on macro level assumptions about ideologies, science, religion, art, style, location, ethnicity, etc.

Since most people are unable to fully access micro levels of communication the rich subjectivity of the individual mind is rarely, if ever, communicated at all and almost never communicated well.

In other fields, micro levels are all important. For example, the invention of the microscope completely changed the way humans see and understand their world. All that was added by the microscope was greater resolution and detail in the visual sphere. From that arose germ theory, material sciences, modern biology, modern medicine, and much more.

Micro levels of communication are basic to how we understand ourselves and others. Poor micro communication skills consign us to communication that occurs only at meso or macro levels. This is a problem because meso and macro levels do not have sufficient detail and also because meso and macro levels become the only tools we have to decide what is going on. When we are forced to account for micro details with the crude tools of meso thought, we will make many mistakes. Eventually we become like the long-term cigarette-smoker whose (micro) alveoli have collapsed, destroying full use of the lungs.

Without the details of the microscope, people for millennia happily drank germ infested water. Without a way to resolve micro levels of communication, people today, as in the past, happily ingest multitudes of micro error—errors that make them ill.

Micro communication errors make us sick because we make many serious mistakes on this level and also because our minds are fully capable of comprehending the sort of detail we can find at the micro level. We speak and listen on many interpersonal levels like crude beasts when we are capable of very delicate and refined understanding.

FIML or a technique similar to it provides a method for grasping micro details. Doing FIML for a long time is like spending a long time using a microscope or telescope. You will start to see everything differently. Detailed micro analyses of interpersonal communication changes our understanding of micro communication and also both the meso and macro levels of existential semiotics and communicative thought. Microscopes allowed us to see germs in water and also to understand that some of those germs can kill us.

Semiotic codes

Simply stated, semiotic codes are the conventions used to communicate meaning.

Codes can be compared to puppet masters that control the words and semiotic bundles that people use when speaking and listening. For many people, semiotic codes are largely unconscious, functioning mainly as limits to communication or as givens.

Some examples of codes might be the ready-made formulas of politics or the ordinary assumptions of any culture anywhere.

Codes work well in most cases when we do ordinary or formal things, but they inhibit thought and communication when we want to go beyond ordinary or formal interactions and behaviors.

Unconscious, unexamined, or strongly-held codes can be a disaster in interpersonal relations if one or both (or all) parties are rigid in their definitions and understanding of the codes being used. These are the sorts of conditions that lead to absurd exchanges at the dinner table and are one of the main reason most of us learn never to talk about politics or religion at most gatherings.

Gathering for dinner itself is a code. On Thanksgiving we are expected to break bread without breaking the code of silence on politics or whatever else your family can’t or won’t talk about. There is not much the individual can do to change this because the harder you try—no matter how good your intentions—the more it will seem that you are breaking the code, being aggressive, or threatening the (probably fairly weak) bonds that hold your dining unit together.

Many years ago, Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese proposed a theory about communication known as the Uncertainty Reduction Theory. This theory deals with how people initially get to know each other. It proposes:

…that, when interacting, people need information about the other party in order to reduce their uncertainty. In gaining this information people are able to predict the other’s behavior and resulting actions, all of which according to the theory is crucial in the development of any relationship. (Source)

The basic idea is that we humans need to reduce uncertainty in order to understand each other well-enough to get along. If we succeed at reducing uncertainty sufficiently, it then becomes possible to continue to develop relations.

The theory works pretty well in my view, but the problem I see with it is reducing initial uncertainty is much the same as feeling out semiotic codes, discovering which ones both (or all) parties subscribe to. As mentioned, this works well-enough for ordinary and formal relations, but what happens next? For the most part, most people then become trapped in the codes they seem to share.

What happens next can even be seen as sort of comical as people over the weeks or months continue to reduce uncertainty while confining themselves even more. Very often, if you try to go a bit deeper, you will be seen as breaking the code, disrupting convention, even threatening the group.

This is the region in which intimate relationships can be destroyed. Destruction happens because the parties involved are trapped in their codes and do not have the means to stand outside them and analyze them. Obviously, this leads to either reduced or turbulent speech.

I think the Uncertainty Reduction Theory might be extended and amended to include a stage two theory of uncertainty reduction. FIML practice would constitute a very reasonable stage two as FIML is designed to remove uncertainty and ambiguity between close partners.

Notice that FIML itself is not a semiotic code. It is a tool, a method, a procedure that allows partners to communicate without using any code at all save ones they consciously choose or create for themselves.

It seems clear to me that all established interpersonal codes are ultimately limiting and that people must find a way to analyze whatever codes they hold or have been inculcated with if they want to have truthful or authentic communication with their closest partners.

Most codes are public in the sense that they are roughly known by many people. But all of us have idiosyncratic ways of understanding these public codes and all of us also have private codes, idiosyncratic codes that are known only to us.

Sometimes our understanding of our idiosyncratic codes and/or idiosyncratic interpretations of public codes is not all that clear to us. One reason is we do not have good ways to access them. Another reason is a good many idiosyncrasies are sort of born in the dark. We muddle into them privately, inside our own minds with little or no opportunity to share them with others. Indeed, as seen above, to try to share them all too often leads to disruption of the shallow “certainty” that adherence to the shared code has provided.

What a mess. We need codes to learn, grow, and communicate with strangers. But we have to go beyond them if we want to learn, grow, and communicate with the people who are most important to us.

FIML is a sort of stage two Uncertainty Reduction Practice that allows partners to observe and analyze all of their codes—both public and private—in real-time.

Why is real-time analysis important? It is important because codes can only be richly and accurately analyzed when we see clearly how they are functioning in the moment. The “psychological morphemes” that appear only during brief moments of communication must be seen and analyzed if deep understanding is to be accomplished.

When two wrongs make a right

I say something that sounds bad to you. You query me and I tell you what I meant. You realize that what I meant was not bad at all but actually quite nice. That’s one wrong that you discovered. Then you tell me what you thought you had heard and I realize that the tone I used could all too easily be misinterpreted. That’s one wrong that I discovered. For a total of two wrongs. What we made right is how we understand each other. Since both of us learned something valuable about ourselves and each other, we have actually made more than one right. So two wrongs can make even more than one right.

This is one reason it is good to see how and why you are wrong when doing FIML. You help your partner and you help yourself, and going forward you make it easier to communicate with your partner clearly and with great detail. If we face our wrongs in the right way by using FIML practice, we will learn to take pleasure in being wrong because being wrong about communication hurts both partners, while fixing what was wrong helps both of them.

In the example above, if when you heard the tone of voice that sounded bad to you and you did not make a FIML query, you would have essentially accepted a mistaken interpretation of your partner. In a short time, you would probably forget the incident that led to your forming that mistaken interpretation but the emotions generated by it and the stimulation of deeper associations due to it would now be a thing in your mind. You would have started forming a mistaken impression of your partner. If you had made other prior mistakes about your partner, this one would be added to them. Even though none of your impressions had been correct, they still would snowball in you mind. In contrast, if you had made a FIML query as soon as you heard the tone that sounded bad, you would have seen your mistake and prevented it from snowballing. Thus, you should feel happy to learn you were wrong.

From your partner’s point of view, they too should feel happy because your query has stopped you from misunderstanding them while at the same time showing them that maybe that habitual tone of voice isn’t as good as they thought it was. Additionally, both of you will be able to trust each other even more because you now know you can do that. You can fix small mistakes in real-time as they arise. This skill will allow you to take on many new subjects that may have seemed too complex in the past. And that should make you happy too.

When FIML practice relieves us of mistakes, we can and should feel happy. Many wrongs can lead to many rights if we have the right technique.

What FIML is

FIML practice is mainly an act of the intellect.

A FIML discussion and resolution is largely guided by the intellect. Whatever emotions arise during a contretemps* can and should be observed, but not given in to.

Emotions are more chemical than thought and thus they last longer and are slower to subside. Knowing this helps us observe emotions unemotionally while they are happening.

The FIML meta-position is an intellectual position that provides a clear, mutually agreed upon vantage from which to observe and analyze a segment of communication that has gotten derailed. Both partners should participate in the analysis and the resolution that follows a complete analysis.

A FIML resolution should be accompanied by a satisfying feeling of relief or accomplishment because something important will have been figured out and agreed upon by both partners. Whatever was figured out, furthermore, will serve as an example for future resolutions. The more successful resolutions partners have, the easier it gets.

If FIML is correctly understood, it should be easy, even enjoyable, for partners to admit they were wrong or at fault or in some way the source of the contretemps. For example, if you discover that it was your tone of voice that disturbed your partner and that that is what led to a contretemps, you should feel good to see that. You might have spoken in irritation because you hadn’t slept well the night before or because you were worried about something. You may feel that you were just bantering, but now you know it didn’t sound that way. Or maybe it did—maybe your partner was simply mishearing you because they were tired or worried. The two of you ought to be able to figure all of this out if you understand how to do FIML and have made a prior agreement to do it.

Every time you figure it out and achieve a satisfying resolution, you will get better at doing FIML and much better at understanding each other. Most importantly, you will get better at communicating with each other. The inevitable glitches and bumps in the road that happen with great frequency to all human beings will be as nothing to you and your partner because you are secure in your ability to deal with them.

A word about the word intellectual. To me a real intellectual is someone who willingly uses their mind all the time. When we use our minds to analyze the process of communicating with another mind, we are using our intellects in an inestimably valuable way. In like manner, a real artist is someone who responds aesthetically and deeply to life’s details all the time. You don’t have to write a book to be a very fine intellectual and you don’t have to make sculptures to be a very fine artist. Sloppy art and sloppy intellectual behavior, to me, would be being bound by general semiotics or being lost in the emotions of interpersonal contretemps or cultural stupidity. In my mind, some of the worst intellectuals and artists that ever lived were Stalin and his henchmen who used their minds and feelings to destroy through mass murder and other means entire societies. I single them out because they were the first people in the modern world to go down that terrible “intellectual” path.

With practice, FIML partners should feel that there is not a cloud in the sky between them. And both should be confident in knowing that should a small cloud appear in either one of their minds that it will be dealt with immediately, or as soon as possible. Nothing to fester, nothing to fear, no lies, no paranoia, no unresolved contretemps. What could be better than that?

FIML practice teaches us to speak, listen, and think differently. It is a kind of higher language or a higher way to use language. FIML allows us to grasp and analyze details that cannot be grasped in any other way.

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*A contretemps in FIML is a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a communicative act, usually a small act lasting just a few seconds, though there can be larger contretemps. A communicative misinterpretation in one person’s mind clearly must involve the other person, so in this sense all contretemps are mutual. FIML practice is always done between two (or more) people, though FIML habits will definitely favorably affect the introspection and thoughts of a single person while alone.

Detail and complexity

If we look, we can find detail and complexity essentially everywhere.

The following video shows in detail a Giant Texas Katydid adult male breathing, grooming, and just hanging out. It is fascinating to watch.

If only we humans were as careful about what we say and how we listen.

The most important area that humans do not pay enough detailed attention to is interpersonal communication. We have the ability to observe, analyze, and comprehend our communications with much greater detail than most of us ever do.

FIML provides techniques for being as careful about communication as the katydid is about his body. The katydid is complex. So is what you say, hear, and observe. All of the details matter.

FIML practice helps you understand these details and their ramifications in real-time. If you don’t catch important details in real-time, chances are you won’t catch them at all. Sometimes a single missed detail can lead to a cascade of misunderstanding that never gets fixed because the detail has been forgotten.

If the katydid fails to groom properly, he will become sick and die. When we fail to maintain detailed and complex understanding of communicative acts with people we care about, similar outcomes are more likely than not.

Repost: How delusions are formed

Delusions must start somewhere.

A recent study (Emoticons in mind: An event-related potential study) convincingly demonstrates that our responses to emoticons as simple as a colon next to a parenthesis :) are similar to our responses to real human faces.

Clearly, this response has been learned. No infant is born with that response and no one anywhere had it just a few decades ago.

Our tendency to respond to :) as a face arose with its use in email and texting. This response is now a well-established “public” response to a “public” semiotic. In this context, public means “understood and shared by many people.”

A public semiotic is a sign with wide currency. It is a unit of culture and often of language itself. We can see in the case of the emoticon :) that a new sign can arise due to unique circumstances and that that sign can come to have a deep meaning for many people.

The sign :) seems quite beautiful to me because it is very simple, very easily produced, and very telling about how our minds work. If the elements of the sign are reversed (: people no longer respond to it as a face, though of course we could learn to do that if the reversed sign were used that way more frequently.

I remember the first time I saw a derivative sign ;) and wondered briefly what it meant. If you had a similar experience, you may be able to remember how such a simple sign can bloom in your mind and go from something that is unknown to something of considerable significance in just a few seconds.

That is an example of the birth of a sign, the birth of a semiotic in your mind.

When the semiotic is public, we strive to learn what other people mean by it. When it is private—that is, with a meaning known only to us—there will be other, often very significant, implications.

What would a “private sign” be like? A straightforward example might be a code we use in a diary. Such a code would have at least one visual sign whose meaning is known only to us.

Another kind of private visual sign might be a facial expression that we have come to interpret differently from other people. My guess is everyone has a good many of these. That is to say, the “idiolect” of facial expressions we each use to understand other people is at least as various as different idiolects within a spoken language.

Now add tone of voice, posture, accent, word choice, topic choice, and so on to this mix. Each of those areas of communication uses signs that can and always will be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, including private ones.

Now, consider how an individual may get lost in all this. If someone ever smiled at you as they hurt you, you may have learned to be suspicious in your interpretation of human smiles. Or you may employ your own smile in ambiguous ways.

Now consider all the signs of communication and how many possible interpretations there are. Then consider the study linked above which shows how deep our responses can be to something as trivial as the sign :).

One way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of communicative signs become too private and/or do not correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people. The other way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of signs does correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people, but those other people are wrong.

In “public” situations—professional, commercial, business, school, etc.—it is fairly easy to communicate well enough based on established norms. But in interpersonal communication, you can only take “established norms” so far. At some point, you will have to understand your partner and be understood by them in much greater detail than “established norms,” or public semiotics.

Here is a newspaper article on the study linked above:  Happy days: Human brain now registers smiley face emoticon as real facial expression.

End-user cultural consumption as narcissism

I don’t really like the term narcissism because it is vague and in important ways can be applied to almost anyone.

The concept does have value though in that it is widely recognized and understood and does seem to point to something real.

Narcissism basically means being excessively selfish, self-centered, or vain. We can imagine a narcissist as someone who is trapped in a hall of mirrors, or trapped in their own imagination. Being trapped by your own imagination sounds paradoxical. But we can indeed become trapped when the terms, elements, or substance of our imagination is trapped in something else. Just as our bodies can be trapped in a prison cell, so our minds can be trapped within limited concepts, a limited sense of our options.

I contend that end-users of culture (virtually all of us) are trapped. A better term than end-user might be retail consumer. In this sense, we could say that retail consumers of culture are trapped by what they are consuming. I avoided the word retail above because it implies buying things with money. What I mean is accepting cultural norms as real or complete or good enough when they are not.

Rather than define narcissism in the usual ways, let me now define it based on signaling. A narcissist is someone who exhibits “unnecessarily reduced signaling.”

What does that mean?

Unnecessarily in this context means it doesn’t have to be that way. Reduced means there could be much more. Signaling means any and all communicative signals—words, expressions, gestures, actions, etc., but especially words.

A retail consumer of a culture, thus, unnecessarily accepts reduced signaling. To put it another way, end-users of culture are trapped  by what they have consumed or “bought.”

Retail implies wholesale while end-user implies that the thing used was made or designed by someone else. For cultures, this implication is exactly right. Very few people make culture, though culture most definitely is made by some people.

Why are end-users or retail consumers of cultures narcissists?

They are narcissists because they are trapped within the reduced signaling of the culture they have “bought.” The wholesalers of culture, those who have made it, don’t think the signals are “unnecessarily” reduced; they want them to be that way. They want end-users to accept their ideas and do what they say, which is what most people do.

Most end-users have no idea they are trapped and do not consider themselves narcissists. But they are narcissists because they are completely stuck at the retail level. They have little or no control over how they understand things. And they have almost no control over how they speak to other end-users or how they hear other end-users.

How do I know this? One way is this: people almost everywhere are capable of complex understanding, be it tying flies for fishing, knitting, doing engineering, designing a home, etc. Nearly everyone exhibits complex understanding of at least a few things.

But almost no one exhibits a complex use of communicative signals. This is so because communicative signals move quickly and usually move through sound (speech).

Without training, it is very difficult to isolate and analyze communicative signaling in real-time. And if you don’t do it in real-time, there is no other way to do it. Even if you have a tape and a video of a communicative exchange, it is impossible to be sure of your analysis after the fact.

Real-time signaling is quick and complex. A single mistake can change the course of a conversation in one person’s mind without changing it in the other person’s mind. From that point on, mistakes will multiply.

What all of us normally do almost all of the time to correct for this problem or difficulty is we reduce our signaling.

And what do we reduce it to? We reduce it to cultural norms. Like narcissists, we assume that other end-users think like us, speak like us, and hear things in roughly the same way we do. If there is any confusion, most of us run quickly toward the nearest retail cultural artifact, thus blurring the real exchange and permanently trapping ourselves in end-user culture.

The mores, taboos, and preferences of culture become what we think we are. And that is a profoundly reduced package from what we are capable of. If you have any complex skill or understanding of anything, take a moment to compare it to how you conceive of your own mind during acts of communication. Or the minds of others during acts of communication.

I bet your understanding of how to take care of your tropical fish or do your favorite hobby is better and more detailed than how you conceive of your communication with others.This is the narcissism of the cultural end-user. It’s a small, made-by-others, prison of ideas within which the individual, maddeningly, resides.

If you do have a complex conception of communication, I bet it is strategical, designed to get you what you want and is thus narcissistic in that sense.

Rather than end on this depressing note, I can add the way to fix this problem. Do FIML or something very much like it. Once you can control, analyze, and fully understand real-time communication, you will be free of or have the means to get free of the reduced terms of retail culture.

____________________

Update 11/4/14: Another way to view end-user cultural narcissism is through the concept of “narcissistic supply,” which is “…a type of admiration, interpersonal support or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment and essential to their self-esteem.”

Retail consumers of culture require narcissistic supply that validates their cultural consumption, admires it, praises it, agrees with it, and conforms to it. Retail culture is deeply characterized by fairly set patterns of mutual narcissistic supply that permit only slight deviation from whatever its norms are. My guess is scam artists and psychopaths learn how to work the patterns of narcissistic supply to get what they want. Scam artists often deflect moral judgement against themselves by saying that they were only able to fool people because those people wanted to believe. There is much truth in this defense though, of course, wanting to believe is not the same as wanting to be fooled or cheated. In a similar vein, retail cultural narcissists are capable of a sort of psychopathic behavior themselves in that they cannot bear to have their supply-values ignored or disrespected and will lash out, often with great vehemence, at anyone who does not comply with their need for supply.

Signals and morality

A valuable and basic definition of morality might simply be “clear signaling.”

If I harm you, I am messing with your signaling, making it less clear. If I deceive you, I am doing the same.

If my own internal signaling is unclear, confused, or contradictory, I am probably going to cause harm to others whether I mean to or not.

If we see humans as signaling networks at various levels of clarity or confusion, we can remove terms like self, personality or ego. “I,” then, am a system or network of signals that interfaces and interacts with other signaling networks.

By extension, there is no need for terms like “narcissist” or “abusive personality” or any of the other many, many words we normally use to describe human signaling networks.

For example, we can see that each human does social management within their own signaling system and as that system interacts with other human signaling systems. We compose a signaling system that we want others to see and then display it.

When a person often uses social signaling to manipulate, control, or deceive others, we can say they are doing malignant or immoral signaling instead of saying they are “narcissists” or “abusive personalities.”

The advantage of removing those traditional terms that assume an intentional personhood (narcissist, etc.) is we can see much more clearly what is actually happening.

With respect to narcissism,  we can clearly say what a “narcissist” is. When narcissism is redefined as a signaling problem, we can also see that many narcissistic acts are done out of ignorance more than “selfishness.” People believe that they are supposed to be selfish or secretive or withhold important information simply because they do not know another way to act or have had long experiences with others who signal in those ways.

Of course, all of us manage our signaling systems to put us in a good light, at least to some extent. Refraining from gross behavior at the dinner table is a form of manipulating the signals you send to others. Since that is objectively a kind act, it is not narcissism.

Signaling integrity between adult friends is rarely perfect or even very good. Not because many of us don’t want that, but because we don’t know how to do it. Rather than make virtually all signals clear through a technique like FIML, we are forced instead to use off-the-shelf cultural norms to communicate our “personalities” to others.

Besides the few crude markers like punctuality, basic honesty and reciprocity, basic pleasantness, etc., it is very difficult to know another or even oneself without detailed control over the signaling we do with them.

If morality is seen as fundamentally a signaling issue, then the soundest ethical position would be to make our signaling clearer, more honest, less manipulative. Clarity depends on detail. In this light, we can say that there is a sort of moral imperative to do FIML or something very much like it.

Repost: FIML as a “loose” method of control for chaos in interpersonal communication systems

Interpersonal communication systems can become chaotic when there are misunderstandings. And they can become wildly chaotic when the misunderstandings are serious and/or involve emotional responses.

Normally, in virtually all cultures, out-of-control interpersonal communications are settled by authoritarian decree, by reverting to pre-established roles, by fighting until one side tires, or by ending communication all together.

It is nothing short of tragic when this happens in close relationships during significant or profound communication acts.

FIML is designed to fix communication problems that occur during communications between two (or more) people who care deeply about each other.

FIML is a “loose” method of control in that FIML largely does not have any content. It is a technique that allows partners to discover their own content and their own ways to fix their contretemps.

As with so many potentially chaotic systems, interpersonal misunderstandings can become wildly unstable for even very small reasons. A single misheard word or a single misinterpreted expression can lead to destructive chaos within the system, no matter how dedicated the communicants may be to each other.

Evidence that supports the use of a “loose” method of control like FIML can be found in this paper: Stalling chaos control accelerates convergence.

To paraphrase from the abstract of that paper and apply their conclusions to FIML, we can say that FIML works “…by stalling the control, thereby taking advantage of the stable directions of the uncontrolled chaotic” system.

By not having a set outcome in mind, by not allowing static interpersonal roles to control the outcome, FIML can succeed in fixing even very serious contretemps between caring partners. FIML accomplishes this by providing partners with a means of achieving a meta-view of their contretemps and from that point of view gently nudging their analysis toward mutual agreement, mutual transformation for both parties based on a complete and completely shared understanding of the unique conditions that generated the problem.

In this, FIML takes “advantage of the stable directions of the uncontrolled chaotic” system. The stable direction is the complete and mutually agreed upon resolution of all aspects of the contretemps. It is a “return” to the stable state of caring that preceded the problem, but a “return” with a significant upgrade because the new stable state will now include the experience of repairing the chaotic state that just passed.

The pleasure of a FIML resolution can be very great because the semiotic systems of both partners’ minds will achieve an upgraded level of stability and awareness. This kind of resolution, clearly, strengthens and resonates with the core of conscious beings who live in the midst of and use (often not so well) semiotics to understand themselves and others.

An article on the study linked above describes the “loose” control method as an “approach that cleverly exploits the natural behaviour of the system.” (See: Control is good, freedom is better)

FIML exploits the natural behavior of two people who seek mutual caring and mutual positive transformation by providing a method that allows them to intelligently deal with the chaos that is 100% bound to arise during some of their acts of communication. Rather than flee from communication due to the fear of chaos, FIML partners have a reliable method of controlling it and reestablishing harmony on a higher, better level.