Fabula and semiotics

Fabula are “the raw material of a story or narrative.”

I want to borrow this term to denote the raw material of a purposive conversation. For example, if I say to my partner that I want to have a salad for dinner, the notion or idea of that salad is a fabula that we can now discuss.

Our discussion of this as yet non-existent salad, this salad fabula, will include particular items, acts, and visualizations. For example, I may want sliced tomatoes in the salad, my partner may mention some olives in the refrigerator. We may both visualize our salad bowl and kitchen while we decide who does what.

Before the salad is made it is a fabula. The particular elements that go into getting the salad made while they are still only in our minds are semiotic elements.

In this sense, semiotics can be defined as the units or parts of a conversational fabula. We use these semiotics to discuss how to make what kind of salad.

We do the same thing with virtually all other conversational subjects. That is, we declare or grope toward determining what our fabula is and use semiotics to further clarify our vision of it. While doing this, ideally, we will remain open to real-time alterations and misunderstandings about both the fabula and the semiotics.

In these terms, most reasonable (and many unreasonable) conversations can be understood as two (or more) people negotiating* the “meanings” of their imperfectly shared fabula and semiotics. The fabula is a sort of context that defines the semiotics used in the discussion of it.

When the conversation is about salads, much of the process of going from a salad fabula to a real salad is straightforward and unproblematical.

When a conversation is about matters that are more ambiguous, subjective, emotional, or existential, there may be more problems because the fabula often will not be as clear as a salad to both parties. Or if it is, it may lead parties to quickly cleave to cliches or obvious explanations, thus limiting fresh responses or creative insights.

FIML practice can fix these problems by getting partners to clarify their fabula while also allowing them to alter it, or even change it entirely, as their discussion progresses.

The same is true at a different level for the semiotics they employ in their discussion—with FIML practice these semiotics often can be adjusted and clarified as soon as diverging understanding is noticed in either person’s mind.

Even if diverging understandings persist for some time, experienced FIML partners will be better prepared notice them when the opportunity arises.

A more complex example of this is an ongoing discussion my partner and I have had for several years. The basic discussion involves a strong reaction I sometimes have to cosmetic surgery. I admit that my reaction can be irrational and I can’t quite explain it. My partner frequently makes the point that I do like cosmetic surgery as long as I don’t notice it and/or like the results. We have gone back and forth on this quite a few times without ever getting a really good resolution, until a few days ago. The core problem had been that I do dislike the idea of cosmetic surgery, period. And also, I do recognize that it can be necessary and that if I like the results, I may be able to accept it even when it is not necessary.

We had never been involved in a simple dichotomy—like versus don’t like—but we both had been speaking as if we were. This was mostly my fault as I sometimes expressed revulsion at some forms of cosmetic surgery, but it was also not true that I actually liked the surgery if I liked the results or didn’t notice it.

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*I mean the word negotiating not so much as making a deal but more as negotiating a narrow foot bride across a stream or negotiating a turn in an automobile. Negotiation in this sense is an effort between two or more people to make many small adjustments to arrive at a mutually satisfying result, the “meaning” of which is understood in roughly the same way by all parties.

Repost: Why Smart People Are Stupid

This short article by Jonah Lehrer shows yet another reason that FIML works so well.

From the article: “The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.” (Emphasis added.)

Be sure to read the whole article as that is just a piece of the argument. I chose it because it is relevant to the introspective aspects of Buddhist, and other, practices.

For the record, I am very fond of introspection. But introspection, as we have said many times on this site, without a way to check our work has a strong tendency to lead us astray.

FIML practice helps us correct our very numerous mistakes in assessing the thoughts and stories of other people. At the same time, FIML practice disabuses our own minds of the many errors we hold about ourselves based on our mistaken stories about others.

We have claimed many times that FIML practitioners will be amazed at how often they are wrong about the thoughts and intentions of their partners. The linked article well supports this assertion.

The psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, as quoted in the article says: “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”

I believe him. This is how our minds (don’t) work.

FIML will probably not correct your general tendencies toward bias and misplaced confidence, but it will vastly reduce the number of mistakes you make about your partner (and thus yourself). This may not seem like all that much, but it is actually a huge benefit because when you have clarity with your partner, you gain a kind of emotional and psychological security that is deeply satisfying.

Humans are social beings, interactive social beings. When you gain verifiable clarity with your FIML partner you upgrade this fundamental aspect of your being far beyond what is possible by any other means I know of. FIML practice greatly reduces our need to rely on mistaken interpretations of our own making as well as the mistaken interpretations of the cultures to which we belong.

For Buddhists, this helps us to avoid the mistakes inherent in pure introspection as well as the mistakes inherent in accepting the generalities of the Buddhist tradition as it has come down to us today.

Repost: Dynamic semiotics, interpersonal semiotics

We discussed semiotics last week in the post Semiotics and FIML. In a post few days ago we linked to the essay by Daniel Chandler Semiotics for Beginners.

What I want to do today is follow up on those posts and discuss how to use semiotics in a dynamic way. How to use it in dynamic interpersonal situations to increase our understanding of both semiotics and our interpersonal relationships. Doing this will also help us better understand ourselves because the self is constructed out of semiotic elements and it appears most strongly in dynamic interpersonal situations.

One of the problems or deficiencies I see in a good deal of literature on semiotics is concepts pertaining to it tend to be static, based on structures and the general relations between semiotic elements rather than how those elements actually function in the moment. I am pretty sure that most people who spend time thinking about semiotics well-understand that semiotics describes a realm that is very dynamic and very fluid. And yet still, much of what we read is general analysis, a stable abstract schema intended to map or describe something other than itself. Nothing particularly wrong with this because a semiotic map would be a wonderful thing to have, but this approach is limited in that it cannot readily capture the functioning of semiotic parts as they occur in a moment of real life.

In like manner, a good deal of Buddhist literature treats the Dharma as a static map of “reality.” Buddhists try to learn this map and apply it in different circumstances. Again, not a huge problem, but lacking in a method for tackling real moments, as they arise, with something more than general rules or static formulas. Most psychology has the same problem. The DSM maps static traits, while there are few, if any, ways of dealing with dynamic moments as they arise in real life.

The only way I can see to tackle real semiotics or really do Buddhism or psychology is to find a way to deal with semiotics as it is happening. That is to say, to grasp semiotic elements in the moments during which they actually are arising in real life.

(A normal, static way of approaching semiotics might be to apply a semiotic map to the transcript of a recorded conversation. In Buddhism, it might to use a Buddhist slogan or formula to negotiate an emotionally difficult moment. In psychology it might be to use a diagnostic survey to “understand” what “problem” a patient is having and then applying a formulaic method for treating that “problem.” All of these approaches surely have some utility but they are also a bit like trying to catch a fish with a broken hook.)

How then can you or anyone actually “grasp semiotic elements in the moments during which they actually are arising in real life”?

  • You can’t do it alone because when you are alone you have no way of checking the validity of those elements.
  • You have to do it with someone who cares about you, who will help you, and who wants to do the same thing.
  • You both have to have the same plan to quickly grasp those semiotic elements as they arise because if you wait too long, you will be relying too much on your faulty memories, which tend strongly to forget semiotic elements after a few moments or to turn them into static bits of a “reality” that never was.

Analyze your own mind. For how long can you reliably recall everything that was/is in your conscious mind? In a dynamic situation, it’s not going to be very long. Our working memory can’t handle that much data. You probably can hold a decent memory of what is in your mind for no more than a few seconds.

Since we are going to be working with a partner on dynamic semiotics, we won’t need to remember absolutely everything. We will just need to remember things like why we said something, why we used a certain tone of voice, why we made a gesture, why we chose a certain word, etc.

That makes it easier. We could make it even easier if we just sat around with our partner and discussed the semiotics of static things; for example, the semiotics of flags, or national groups, or bicycle fashions. Well, nothing is perfectly static, but you probably get the idea. It is interesting to do stuff like that, but after a point it’s pretty boring.

What is much more interesting and vital is to find a way to discuss semiotics that arise during dynamic interactions with your partner. This will really help you understand what semiotics are and how they function. It will also help you understand Buddhism and human psychology much better.

This is what FIML does. FIML is a method for partners to grasp and understand the dynamics of semiotics as they arise (or very quickly thereafter).

Doing FIML enhances Buddhist practice because it helps partners understand more precisely how something in real life is empty, how it arose, why it arose, how it might create delusion, why it is impermanent, why it is a klesha, and so on.

For people who want to optimize their psychology and their relationship with their partner, FIML greatly improves communication. It helps partners identify and understand transient destabilizing emotions while strengthening deep bonds between them. If partners believe they have psychological problems, FIML will help them understand how those problems actually arise and how they actually impact the moments of their lives. By frequently replacing transient, mistaken emotions and interpretations with better data, FIML partners will gradually relieve themselves of the suffering that comes from poor speech habits, mistaken interpretations, and a static view of the self and others.

FIML is fundamentally a technique for correcting inevitable interpersonal communication mistakes. FIML can be better understood if partners also have a basic understanding of semiotics.

Please see How to do FIML for more.

Repost: How to view FIML

This article provides a good way of understanding what FIML can do for you: Anyone can learn to be more inventive, cognitive researcher says.

The researcher, Anthony McCaffrey, says of his theory: “I detected a pattern suggesting that something everyone else had overlooked often became the basis of an inventive solution.”

This is exactly what FIML does. Normally, we all overlook the indisputable fact that we simply do not understand one another a good deal of the time. We get impressions, we get the general idea, we trust, we love. But we don’t have good, clear understanding of the small units of communication, out of which our impressions of others are built. With most people in professional or formal settings, this does not matter greatly (or maybe it does but it is hard to fix in those contexts), but with close friends, and especially loved ones, not having a clear idea of what they are saying can and often does have very serious consequences.

What FIML practice does is show us how to notice what we are overlooking in our communications with our partners. Since both partners are equal participants and both are active in the practice, it doesn’t take very long to get good results.

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 one

Signals are fundamental to everything that exists. There can be no physical realm without signals and certainly no life.

What is a signal? Anything that transmits any effect to anything else is a signal. In this sense, all signals “mean” something, including the smallest signal anyone can think of.

The advantage of basing a model of psychology (not just human psychology) on signals is our fundamental unit of analysis is universal, including everything we can know and think about.

Our bodies do an enormous amount of signalling—both internal and external—without our being conscious of most of it. Many living and non-living systems maintain homeostasis through signalling that is non-conscious (or so we now believe). The laws of physics describe signals that explain, for example, how our solar system came to be the way it is and why it remains in homeostasis.

Signals also explain how non-conscious life-forms—viruses, bacteria, plants, your blood, etc.—have arisen and how they maintain their dynamic homeostasis vis–à–vis the ever changing environment that surrounds them and signals to them constantly.

Consciousness itself almost certainly emerges out of a network of signals. Conscious beings read signals in the environment while frequently signaling each other. Cats and birds use conscious signals extensively. Even life-forms that we believe to be non-conscious, such as worms and plants, send and receive signals constantly to each other, while also signalling internally and with their environment.

Draw the line between conscious and non-conscious signalling wherever you like. Then let’s jump to human psychology.

Humans are different from cats and other animals in that we specialize in signals. Birds are specialists of the air, fish of the water, and humans of signals.

Humans signal each other constantly with signs that can employ any of our senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and so on. Our preeminent signalling system is, of course, language. With language humans are capable of remembering complex groupings of signals. We are also capable of thinking about these signals and transmitting our understanding of them to others.

Right now, as you read, you are receiving a complex signal from me.

Consciousness is arguably our most precious quality. Human consciousness is filled with and based upon signals. For our psychological well-being—the well-being of our consciousness—the signals we send and receive to and from other human beings are of fundamental importance.

To say it another way, humans are profoundly interactive signalling systems and the quality of the signals sent between us and other human systems are of primary importance to our sense of well-being, our psychological health, our conscious sense of who we are and how we are doing.

When our consciousness is filled with or marked by clear, truthful, and ethically sound signals, we feel good. In those moments we do not suffer confusion, neurosis, or pain. When consciousness is filled with or marked by confusion, lies, and ethically unsound signals, we feel bad. In those moments, we suffer, often greatly. (Of course, there are exceptions to these statements. Injury and truth, to name two, can cause us pain and confusion. But the basic distinction made here works well enough, I believe.)

It makes sense, thus, to focus on human signalling if we want to figure out what makes us tick.

The science of human signalling is often called semiotics, which can be roughly defined as the study of signs and their meanings. Semiotics can and does also include non-human signs and signals, but for now let’s limit ourselves to human signalling. There are other sciences that describe human signalling, but semiotics, which emphasizes signs and their interpretation, will serve us well enough that we can temporarily ignore other ways of understanding human meaning—game theory, traditional psychology, anthropology, etc. Semiotics works well because semiotic analyses can be reduced to single signals; they have a distinct and clearly defined basic unit—the signal or the sign.

Why do we focus so much of our inquiry into human psychology on emotion? Emotion is inchoate, often even unfelt, until it is defined or given meaning as a signal or sign.

Emotions are real, but they are massively subject to cultural interpretation, to definitions that have arisen outside of the individual experiencing them. Culture is little more than a system of signs and symbols shared among a group of people. Human cultures have great variety because the signs and signals and the meanings of those signs and signals develop differently in different places and under different conditions. This fact alone should suffice to show that the meanings of human signs often are completely arbitrary.

As long as a bunch of people believe that the sun is a chariot driven by a god, that meaning of the sun will work as a cultural standard, or cultural element with varying interpretations. If most people in a community think the sun is the center of the universe, that will also work until a better idea comes along. If enough people believe that human hearts have to be sacrificed to keep the sun moving across the sky, that will also work well-enough to hold that society together. Wherever you look, you will find great cultural variety, much of it based on arbitrary decisions that have long been forgotten by the people adhering to that system of meaning, that system of signs that are signaled between members of any human society you care to consider.

Thus, in this context, isn’t it clear that focusing our inquiry into human psychology on emotion is going to provide us with many tautological results?

Similar statements can be made about many other elements of our traditional understanding of human psychology, including such elements as personality, neurosis, mental health, what being normal means, what our goals and desires are, and so on. The emotions and/or “psychological states” that these areas of inquiry deal with are vague and almost entirely changeable over time and place.

What is not vague are signals. When we ask what signals are and what their quality is we can get much better answers based on much better data compared to the answers we get when we ask only how someone feels and where those feelings came from.

How do we do that? More precisely, in the context of what we call human psychology, how do we analyze our signalling?

Is it valuable to compare my assessment of my internal signalling with “data” taken from “surveys” of other people who speak my language and live in a society which is sort of maybe the “same” or similar to my own? Yes, you can get something from that data but you will also make many mistakes because it is very crude, or general, data and will never fully apply to any individual or even come close to actually describing anything of significant value to most people. Such data will contain so many mistakes, it should be handled with great caution, if it is used at all. (You most certainly can fool people with that data. But that happens because many people will believe the data is scientific and provides an accurate metric that describes who they are. And that is an example of how a cultural semiotic can and does impose “meaning” on individuals; not hugely different from believing you have to sacrifice human hearts to make the sun go round.)

You can’t really get at the important signalling people do by using general surveys because your data is is coming from a tautological loop based on surveys that are generally put together on the basis of other surveys involving stuff like common words or feelings.

For psychology, for human mental health, the most important signalling people do is interpersonal signalling with significant other people.

When we try to figure ourselves out by remembering (a dubious exercise in so many cases) what our parents did or said or made us feel, we can get some useful information, but it is not that reliable and suffers from the same sort of misinterpretation as personality studies or studies of human emotion do. You can read whatever you want into it and/or be subject to the vagaries of chance interpretations.

The only significant interpersonal signalling 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 (signalling).

A mere observer (much less a surveyor) to this communication will never be able to know or analyze the data with anything approaching the accuracy or validity of the two people involved if those two people have a reliable method for gathering that data. Even if an observer has a video record of the exchange, they will never be able to know or analyze it with the accuracy of the individuals directly involved if those two people have a reliable method for gathering that data.

The day may come when brain scans can provide us with real-time data of that sort, but for now all we have is FIML practice, or something very much like it.

Positive neurosis

On this site, a neurosis is defined simply as a “mistaken interpretation” or an “ongoing mistaken interpretation.” Thus a “positive neurosis” is a mistaken interpretation that feels good as opposed to a “negative neurosis,” which is one that feels bad.

There can also be “neutral neuroses,” ones that have no positive or negative feelings attached to them.

The advantage of defining a neurosis in this way is we have a clear definition that removes the term from the ambiguous, and often mistaken, connotations typically associated with it. The disadvantage is being even slightly wrong about something trivial can be deemed “neurotic.”

And yet, even this disadvantage has some advantages. If you wrongly believe the capital of NY State is Buffalo, your mistake is easily correctable, though it could lead to more serious problems, depending on when and how you figure it out.

Examples of positive neuroses are as numerous as negative ones. If you believe people are happier to see you than they really are, that your unethical “oversight” is less important than it really is, or that your motives are purer than they are, you will be in the grip of a positive neurosis.

Yes, sometime positive mistakes can snowball well and lead to a beneficial recreation of reality, just as negative mistakes may inspire us to try harder. But generally, from most points of view, we are better off dealing with the truth than with illusions. Narcissists and cults frequently base their self- and world-views on positive neuroses.

The deep point in this is that most people have no way of determining what within them is neurotic—positive, negative, or neutral.

And we do not have a sure way of determining that about other people either.

How can you know for sure how happy your friends are to see you or how serious your ethical lapse was? We do provide each other with many signs and signals about these matters, but it is always going to be hard-to-impossible to determine how to interpret those signs. Maybe the person(s) sending you signals are lying to you; maybe they want your money or want to hurt you for a perceived offense.

How can you find out? Basically, you can’t. All of us (except for FIML practitioners) live in a ghostly, amorphous world that forces us to rely on publicly shared semiotics to determine who we are and what others think of us.

A case in point might be the Texas judge who as a prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence from a murder trial, leading to an innocent man spending twenty-five years in jail (see For the First Time Ever, a Prosecutor Will Go to Jail for Wrongfully Convicting an Innocent Man). The guilty party (the judge) in this case got ten days in jail, community service, a small fine, and a loss of his license to practice law.

What is remarkable, in addition to the disparity of sentencing, is that this is the first time in US history that a prosecutor has been legally punished for withholding important evidence from the defense even though this practice is fairly common.

Doesn’t that speak volumes about culture/society in the USA? A prosecutor, a supposed upholder of the law, can live with himself for twenty-five years knowing that he sent an innocent man to jail. And surely there are many others in his social and professional circles who do or abet similar deeds.

You can see the same sorts of behavior in all other human pursuits in the USA (and the world)—academia, medicine, politics, banking, business, religion, etc. People do these things not only because they can but also, in many cases, because they “must,” or almost must if they want to stay on their career ladders.

Furthermore, I would maintain that this also happens because too many people know how to exploit the ambiguity that results from virtually none of us knowing how to tell truth/reality from neurosis.

If you were a Texan and you met that judge at your club or wherever, you would be required to smile, be polite, and mutually “affirm” each others’ moral and social worth. To do otherwise might get you kicked out of the club or dropped from that circle of “friends.”

This is a nasty world, but what can a poor boy do?

The core problem is we have no way of knowing what constitutes a neurosis or how to tell if someone is free of neuroses. In other words, we have no way of knowing who other people really are. And because of that, we also have no way of knowing who we are.

I doubt there is a single person anywhere in the world who is not skewered, indeed gored, on this dilemma—I can’t know them and I can’t know myself without knowing them, so quietly, desperately I writhe.

Only the sociopaths enjoy this.

There are two ways out of this problem—1) accurate lie-detectors and 2) FIML practice. FIML works only with small numbers of people (for now), but it does work. It provides partners with a degree of certainty about each other that cannot be achieved in any other way. Without certainty anywhere in your life/social relations, you cannot but harbor many neuroses and you cannot but spend your time dealing with other people who have the same problem.

Repost: Signal quality

Schizophrenia is characterized in part by difficulty in telling the difference between internal and external signals. My guess is that virtually all “normal” people are characterized by their difficulty in telling truthful signals from bullshit.

Normal interpersonal relations are conducted with signals that have low resolution. By that I mean, signal references are rarely unambiguous. In fact, they are very often not even truthful. An ambiguous signal will frequently be interpreted wrongly and lead to problems as serious as those that result from untruthful signals.

The same is true in the public sphere.

Because low signal quality in the social/interpersonal realm is so common, we typically do not identify it as a problem. Furthermore, because we don’t know what to do about it even when we do notice it, we largely ignore it. But that does not mean it isn’t a huge problem.

FIML practice can fix this problem for participating partners. In the future, brain scans may help fix it in the public sphere.

Repost: A theory of FIML

Note: I don’t care for the term “personality” if it is taken too seriously. Used as a rough indicator of how people see themselves, it works well-enough in this essay, I hope. ABN

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FIML is both a practice and a theory. The practice  is roughly described here and in other posts on this website.

The theory states (also roughly) that successful practice of FIML will:

  • Greatly improve communication between participating partners
  • Greatly reduce or eliminate mistaken interpretations (neuroses) between partners
  • Give partners insights into the dynamic structures of their personalities
  • Lead to much greater appreciation of the dynamic linguistic/communicative nature of the personality

These results are achieved because:

  • FIML practice is based on real data agreed upon by both partners
  • FIML practice stops neurotic responses before they get out of control
  • FIML practice allows both partners to understand each other’s neuroses while eliminating them
  • FIML practice establishes a shared objective standard between partners
  • This standard can be checked, confirmed, changed, or upgraded as often as is needed

FIML practice will also:

  • Show partners how their personalities function while alone and together
  • Lead to a much greater appreciation of how mistaken interpretations that occur at discreet times can and often do lead to (or reveal) ongoing mistaken interpretations (neuroses)

FIML practice eliminates neuroses because it shows individuals, through real data, that their (neurotic) interpretation(s) of their partner are mistaken. This reduction of neurosis between partners probably will be generalizable to other situations and people, thus resulting a less neurotic individual overall.

Neurosis is defined here to mean a mistaken interpretation or an ongoing mistaken interpretation.

The theory of FIML can be falsified or shown to be wrong by having a reasonably large number of suitable people learn FIML practice, do it and fail to gain the aforementioned results.

FIML practice will not be suitable for everyone. It requires that partners have a strong interest in each other; a strong sense of caring for each other; an interest in language and communication; the ability to see themselves objectively; the ability to view their use of language objectively; fairly good self-control; enough time to do the practice regularly.

Conversation

One topic my partner and I go back and forth on is conversation.

We both wonder—though I do more than her—why so much conversation among adults is so limited.

My extended family, for example, is so limited in what we can say to each other that we resemble people at the beach who never do anything more than sit in the sun and occasionally toss beach balls to each other. If you push even just a little on any topic, you will be met with silence. If you try to move deeper into almost anything, people perceive the effort as threatening, or so it seems. And it has been like this for decades. My extended family is highly restrictive with respect to speaking and listening and nothing seems to ever change that. They are “nice” people but they do nothing to help each other think, reason, or explore the world of the mind. I wish I could say that I have been a saint with them all my life, but I haven’t. I do realize that for years I contributed to the problem by breaking too many “rules” and appearing threatening (I assume) to them.

And if you look beyond my family, the same is true with almost any group. Buddhists get stuck on pretending to be compassionate or empathic. Christians have to watch what issues forth from the mouth, or whatever that quote is. Both systems of thought demand keeping your lips together, if not always your legs. I wish Buddhism would augment the bad speech thing with a bad listening thing.

Group communication is so dependent on shared semiotics that if you do anything to push at those limits, you will be expelled from the group. How many readers have been to an academic conference? One that is large enough to roughly represent the fullness of whatever the latest consensus is but also small enough that you can view the sycophancy? They often function as nothing more than group-bonding and fealty-display sessions.

One of the causes for the stultifying limitations on conversation or discussion within groups is people simply do not know how to go beyond established limits without appearing challenging, aggressive, or destructive. This happens one-on-one within groups and not just in group sessions. Most all of us have been deeply trained to fear being different, saying something that might be taken wrong, that might reflect badly on us and not be forgotten. The training is so deep the fear permeates even families and small temples.

FIML can fix this if enough people do it, but even without FIML, I hope more people will think about this. The person who is trying to say something different or more or extra should be seen, much more often, as someone who is sharing a gift, not issuing a threat.

My extended family is filled with smart, caring people and I love them all, but dang do they suck at saying almost anything about anything.

Repost: FIML and practical semiotics (with a new intro)

Intro: We use the word semiotics quite frequently on this site. The basic meaning of semiotics is “the study of signs,” communicative signs. Semiotics deals with how signs are made, used, and understood. Signs can be anything that communicates—language, gesture, expression, writing, photos, movies, music, behaviors, gifts, tone of voice, etc. Anything that communicates.

Semiotics is also very much about what signs mean. When you use a sign to communicate (and you always use signs when you communicate) with your partner it will mean one thing to you and very possibly something else to them. FIML practice is designed to make sure that the signs you send to your partner are understood as you mean them, and vice versa.

When we emphasize the importance of the meaning of communicative signs on this site, we are using the word semiotics in a slightly unusual way. We could use the word semantics or some other word that we make up. But we like the word semiotics because it always implies at least two meanings (the sender’s and the receiver’s, or yours and your partner’s) and the sign or signs that transmits those meanings between you.

Analyzing (the Buddha was an “analyst”) the signs you use with your partner and within your own mind is an extremely worthwhile activity. Basic FIML practice is all about analyzing and becoming crystal clear about how signs/semiotics are operating between you and your partner. Done properly, FIML will show you how to vastly improve communication with your partner.

Since humans are profoundly interactive beings, clarifying communication with your partner will also clarify you to yourself. For Buddhists, I believe FIML will show you with great specificity very important aspects of what the Buddha meant by delusion and how to overcome it. For others, FIML will do much the same though you may think of it in different terms—FIML removes mistakes from communication (and from your own mind) by isolating small incidents and analyzing them.

Below is a post from some months ago that illustrates how a FIML-based semiotic analysis works.

FIML and practical semiotics

Though FIML practice may appear to deal mainly with spoken language, it actually works primarily by stopping language, or the heedless use of language, so partners can observe and consider the semiotics that underlie what they are saying to each other.

A simple way to understand what FIML does is to consider the main components of a typical act of communication between two people. In this case, the components are semiotics, language, and emotion. These terms can be expanded if need be to include other factors such as behaviors, partners’ bodies, instincts, sensations, etc. But for now let’s just consider semiotics, language, and emotion.

Semiotics are like cables or snakes or ribbons of meaning that accompany our uses of language. They underlie our words and weave in and out of them. Words and language can also be thought of as a kind of semiotic, but for now, let’s separate them. Semiotics is the meaning while language is one way of expressing that meaning.

Emotions as they arise in communicative acts can be of many types. In FIML practice, partners will find that they most often need to use FIML techniques to deal with sudden emotions that seize control of the mind and thence influence or determine what it says or does.

Basically, in all interpersonal communication, strong emotions can and will get attached to a semiotic. In normal non-FIML communication, this attachment almost always occurs without conscious control and it is usually not discussed by the people communicating, and almost never discussed rationally.

A mix-up (or contretemps, as we have sometimes called it) occurs between two people when they have significantly different semiotics in their minds and when one or both of them have attached an emotion to their semiotic.

Notice how closely that description fits with Buddhist thinking—when we become attached to or cling to a wrong view, we cause suffering.

When either partner notices a mix-up, they should initiate a FIML query or discussion. The main point of the discussion is to find out how partners’ semiotics are diverging, if they are. The internal sign that this may be happening is a sudden feeling, usually a negative feeling, based on what your partner has said (or what you think or feel they meant).

Mix-ups occur very often. I would say it is normal to experience a few mix-ups per hour of conversation even with a very close friend or partner. The reason this happens is we depend a great deal on semiotics when we speak to each other. With close friends, our semiotics become more intimate, personal, and emotional. That’s the whole fun of having close friends, but that is also where the danger lies. If friends or partners don’t do FIML, their small mix-ups will compound and lead to big mix-ups.

FIML is designed to catch mix-ups right as they happen. The reason for this is if you wait even a few seconds too long, you won’t be able to remember accurately where the mix-up started, what provoked it. And your partner won’t be able to remember accurately what they were thinking when you first felt the emotional jangle that signaled the appearance of a mix-up. If either partner can’t accurately remember what was in their mind at the onset of the mix-up, you can’t fix it at that time. You have to agree to be quicker or more observant next time and move on for now.

If you keep trying to get to the root of a mix-up whose origin has been forgotten, you will get lost in generalities (general semiotics) and not only not fix the problem but probably make it worse. Just remember that something happened and that it will probably happen again. See if you can catch it next time. It will almost certainly happen again because a mix-up almost always is based on one or both partners having a strong emotional attachment to a semiotic and then associating that semiotic with triggers or cues.

For example, I have a habitual strong emotional attachment to the semiotic that other people do not care about me or what I am saying. If I get that wrong in a conversation—that is, if that semiotic wrongly lights up inside of me—I am going to make mistakes about what the other person is saying or not saying and why. True, sometimes people really don’t care. But if I have that reaction with my partner while she is caring, I have made a huge mistake. I will feel bad about myself and her and I will be completely wrong. I will have taken something good (her caring) and turned it into it’s opposite. That mistake will then cause me to make others. I might speak sharply or start sulking or go do something else, leaving my partner feeling abandoned. How sad that is, but how very, very common.

FIML is designed to prevent that kind of bullshit. From this small example, I hope you can see how serious even a little mistake can be.

FIML allows partners to engage in an entirely different way of speaking to each other. It teaches us how to think differently. Not all mix-ups are serious. Many of them are neutral, some are funny, and virtually all of them are interesting. As you get better at identifying when you and your partner are starting to veer off into mixed-up semiotics, you will find that the range of subjects you can comfortably talk about increase greatly. How you talk to each other will become a normal subject and, with time, you will really feel that you and your partner can depend on each other for good clear speech that arises out of your own unique individualities.

The primacy of internal speech

FIML practice will show partners again and again how poorly they speak and listen.

Rather than see this as bad news, why not see it as good news? It is a very important truth about how people are, how we communicate, and how intransigent our inner states can be.

A good example of what I mean can be found in how difficult it can be to transmit the idea of FIML, and the skills necessary for its successful practice, to other people.

Just the idea that we often listen and speak ambiguously and that this leads to huge problems can be hard to get across even to close friends. When you add the need to teach them a few new skills to accomplish FIML breakthroughs/resolutions, it’s a wonder anyone has gotten the idea at all.

One exception is a friend who was very quick to understand what we were telling her. She took up the practice immediately with her boyfriend and has done well with it ever since, or so she tells me. I suspect the reason she learned so quickly is she had already seen a good deal of the problem and may have even guessed some of the ways we have developed to fix it. She is the exception that proves the rule.

Others have had far more difficulty. One friend declared, “I totally get it, dude. But no way I can get [my SO] to do it with me. She would never do something like that.” I very much doubt that he got it at all, though I am pretty sure he was right about his SO—she is well set in her ways and very unlikely to listen to the likes of me about something so intimate and revolutionary.

Other friends say things like, “We already communicate so well.” No, you don’t. Or, “We trust each other completely, so there is no need for FIML.” Trust is an important part of FIML, but it won’t fix bad communication all by itself. Not a chance.

Some theories of language say that language is fundamentally an internal thing, a way firstly to think and only secondly to communicate. Judging by the friends I have discussed FIML with, this seems to be true. Language for all but one of them is fundamentally an internal process that can be touched by communication but rarely changed much unless there is extensive training.

The study of language and communication often involves children because they are learning how to do these things. I think it might be a good idea for someone to study language use in alcoholics rather than children.

Severe alcoholics experience declines in reasoning, communication, and self-understanding that are fairly consistently similar across the entire group. Thinking tends to become simpler, more self-centered and reasoning tends to be reduced in its aims and means. Advanced alcoholics, even recovered ones, tend to exhibit reductions in the quantity, quality, and useability of their core semiotics.

That is, their concepts of themselves and others are reduced from what they were before they became addicted to alcohol. They employ simpler semiotics to achieve a reduced understanding of people, events, dramas, and so on.

This simplicity can resemble the simplicty of small children who are first learning language. The difference is the alcoholic is going the other way—they are forgetting language, semiotics, and nuanced communication rather than learning.

Studies of the elderly or demented might also help us better understand how complex and richly communicative language develops out of or along with the primacy of internal speech.

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 in a full FIML resolution can be very great because the semiotic systms of both partners minds will also 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.

Denial and self-deception

Robin Hanson has an interesting post—Dark Pain, Dark Joy—about pains and joys “…we don’t let others know, and are often are in denial to ourselves.”

“Why do we hide and deny pain?” he asks. “Some pain makes us look bad. We’d look weak to complain of pains that many folks put up with without complaining.”

Hanson also describes “dark joys”—secret pleasures that would embarrass us if others knew about them.

I am glad to see Hanson expanding our sense of what the “unconscious” may hold and/or what we feel we must repress within our conscious minds. It is important to do this for, as he says, “consciousness…is a matter of degree, and repressed pain [or secret pleasures] can infect our mood and feelings in many indirect ways.”

In FIML practice, partners will discover a great many subconscious and semi-conscious misinterpretations of themselves and others that “deeply infect [their] moods and feelings in many indirect ways.” I would add that they also infect and affect us in many direct ways that can, and often do, have massive consequences.

Most of us are in denial about our misinterpretations of ourselves and others. Our denial is a complex form of self-deception that may be conscious or unconscious. Entire cultures are built upon a foundation of interpersonal misinterpretations. The central misinterpretation is that we understand each other better than we do.

We use very crude and ambiguous signs and symbols (language, gesture, tone, etc.) to communicate meanings that are frequently fraught with ambiguity. Then we pretend that we have been understood and that we understand how we are being responded to.

In a science lab when speaking about an experiment, the technical parts of exchanged messages may get sent and received without too many problems, but once at home, those same scientists will not be capable of communicating with their spouses with anything near the same clarity.

The “repressed pain” that stems from ambiguity and misinterpretation experienced during communications with significant friends and spouses is the herd of elephants in the room of human civilization from ancient times to today.

To compensate for our terribly poor understanding of each other (much of it deriving from inevitable and completely unavoidable ambiguities in communication), we are forced to adopt stock roles, to have unfounded beliefs about our “selves” and others, to make unsatisfying vows, to adhere to public semiotic standards that cannot possibly reflect or embody our authentic beings.

To correct this problem, we have to learn how to communicate with far more detail and far more accuracy than is normally possible in any culture in existence today. If you could communicate with minimal ambiguity (orders of magnitude better than now) and with great clarity with the people you love, would you not want to do that?

The “dark pains and pleasures” described by Hanson are a significant part of being human. But the corrosive and very harmful dark pain that comes from the bad communication of semiotic babies (us) is even worse.

Most people misunderstand everything

Why?

Because language is necessarily often ambiguous.

So?

The ambiguities are rarely fixed.

So?

Unfixed ambiguities lead to errors in interpretation. The errors accumulate and snowball. All people have been raised in environments like that and continue to live in them.

This causes pain because our minds are capable of communicating unambiguously, but we don’t know how.

We are semiotic animals, beings that live in semiotic jungles.

Our pain and error-ridden communication makes us mean, simple, greedy, stupid, violent, selfish, crazy.

Communication errors, misinterpretations, cause ghosts to form in the mind. We need to imagine a role for ourselves and others, but since we experience so many errors, our imaginings are fundamentally wrong. They are like ghosts in our minds.

We are as ghosts speaking and listening to each other.