Personality as persona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissociation in FIML practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My personality problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muddled intentions, specific intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misconstrued intentionality surely leads to many fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full abstract says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some ineteresting links on semiotics and thought-control

This study illustrates how jeering or ridicule can control the thoughts and behaviors of third-party observers: Jeer Pressure: The Behavioral Effects of Observing Ridicule of Others. The study is modest, but I find the conclusions quite credible. It should also be said that sometimes ridicule can inspire others to fight back or press forward with their ideas more vigorously, though people of this stripe tend always to be in the minority, almost by definition. If they ever do get in the majority then, of course, the jeering will be directed at others, not them.

The concept of salience is relevant to understanding how semiotics work and how large groups of people, as well as individuals, can be manipulated by it. Reframing, which may be a more familiar term, is always a deliberate attempt to change the salience of a semiotic or a semiotic network; sometimes the change is good and sometimes it is used to hide the truth or further the nefarious goals of those doing the reframing.

This article, The Ukrainian Pendulum, says more in-depth about the crisis in Ukraine than most news stories. I don’t know enough about Ukraine to argue whether the author is right or wrong. I do know, however, that any position other than the mainstream US position is liable to be jeered at if it is expressed publicly.

It is always difficult to decide what is right in any matter. But big-issue matters can be the hardest to figure out. The concepts of cui bono (who benefits?) and follow-the-money often serve us well when trying to see more deeply into major political or social events. Another way to analyze big issues is to ask who is manipulating the semiotics of them? Why are they doing that? Who is doing the talking and who owns the media that is reporting on that talking?

We can also ask who is jeering at what? If you feel afraid of even considering some idea or opinion because you might be jeered at, it is best to see that as a red flag. Who or what is making you feel that way?

FIML partners will surely notice that many areas of their subjective semiotic networks have been conditioned by others’ jeering, framing, or reframing the salience of important parts of them. Salience can be perceived as personally-generated or conditioned by others, depending on the topic and the analysis. For most people, the salience of their semiotic networks are defined by others in much the same way that others define the words we use. The difference between words and semiotics is semiotics can be simpler than words when stitched together into a network and thus it is easier to control the thoughts of others through the manipulation of semiotics. That this is often done by turning words themselves into salient semiotics should not confuse the issue.

Fundamentalist, conspiracy theorist, scientific, pseudo-science, libtard, right-wing, left-wing and many other simple words are frequently used to determine the salience of whole networks of ideas. When used like this, words can very effectively frame or reframe the semiotics of important discussions, while obscuring  truths that are deeper and far more important to the people being manipulated.

An excellent lesson in social and political semiotics

In this short video Stephen Walt describes some of the most basic problems with US foreign policy in the Middle East and what to do about them. Whether you agree with his statements or not (I do), he describes a situation where honest public discussion has become impossible because one side has repeatedly sought to control the semiotics of that discussion.

Walt advocates the use of reason and facts, calmness and refraining from name-calling as the best methods for achieving an open discussion. He also wants people who continue to use dishonest techniques to be called out on what they are doing.

He describes a good basic formula for establishing a rational discussion in virtually any situation.

In this light, FIML partners would do well to review the semiotics of their relationships and how they approach discussions with each other.

Memory is not reliable but changes to fit present circumstances

“Our memory is not like a video camera,” Bridge said. “Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit your current world. It’s built to be current.” (Source)

The unreliability of human memory is not a new topic, but this study fairly convincingly shows how our memories conform to what we are doing and/or how we have been using them.

One can plausibly extrapolate from this that humans change how they remember and understand themselves and others based on the data of now. A moment of frustration, for example, may cause us to see someone near us in a different light, through no fault of theirs.

If our frustration is with how we are being (mis)understood or with our difficulty in expressing our thoughts, the implications for how we understand the person we are speaking with may be even more serious.

Experienced FIML partners will surely have realized that even minor misunderstandings can lead to large acts of “reframing” events in an emotional way that can be seriously distorted.

Edit: Beyond innocent misunderstandings (which, unfortunately, can have tragic consequences), this area of shifting memories is where a good deal of interpersonal abuse occurs. In the worst cases, one (or both) partners abuse normal human malleability to lie. In less bad cases, one (or both) partners is easily excited by their own distortions and quickly comes to believe them, effectively lying to themselves as well as their partner.

In other cases, individuals or entire groups of people may decide to tell a significant lie (slanted history, for example) and then hurl their lie passionately at others. This frequently causes the person being lied to to react with shame or concern based on the liars’ emotional display and not on the facts of the matter. A person being subjected to such verbal abuse will often conclude that if the other person is so passionate, they must have a serious point that should be considered. Doing this with a deliberate liar allows emotions to unbalance or reframe facts in a way that serves their purpose.

The elephant in the room of human communication

 …if a manager at work is grimacing because they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair, a person with increased oxytocin levels may think the manager is negatively reacting to what they are saying instead, which may potentially cause issues in the workplace.

Recent research at Concordia University in Canada has concluded that giving oxytocin to “healthy young adults” may not work. See High oxytocin levels ‘trigger oversensitivity to emotions of others’ for more as well as for the source of the quote above.

I don’t particularly doubt these research findings, but do believe that a much deeper problem—the elephant in the room—is lying right next to them.

And that problem is everyone is frequently faced with puzzles like the one cited above and no one has sufficient “emotional intelligence” or “social reasoning skills” to figure many of them out. All people frequently make mistakes in situations like these.

True, some do better than others and we probably can abstract a specious bell curve for this via some sort of test. But all we will find is that the “norm” is “normal” and “normal” must be the rule, even though this is a tautology.

How do we define “oversensitivity?” Why would emotional sensitivity be a bad thing?

In the example above, it is true that most employees will never have an opportunity to ask their bosses why they are looking one way or another. But if they don’t even notice the possibility that their boss is reacting negatively, they are limiting their understanding of the world around them.

Language, facial expressions, and tone of voice in real-world communications are crude tools. There is no way around this fact. There is no “right sensitivity” or “right understanding” of any of these communicative signs that is out there somewhere. There is no stable standard for communication except in highly defined settings and contexts.

I tend to be against taking drugs for emotional “problems,” so I am not advocating supplementing your diet with oxytocin. My concern is how do you deal with communicative ambiguity? I guarantee that ambiguity is common is virtually all communicative acts.

If the ambiguity, such as the one cited above, occurs in an employment situation, should you be judged “emotionally sensitive” and in-touch with your “innate social reasoning skills” if you don’t notice it? Are you supposed to comprehend on the fly that your manager is sitting in an uncomfortable chair? How would you know that?

How could you possibly know for sure what your manager is thinking or feeling? It’s less likely but not inconceivable that your manager  is a nut who intends to attack you after work or fire you next week. There is no standard by which you can judge and be certain of what they feel or are thinking.

In intimate personal relations you can achieve certainty, or close to it, by practicing FIML with your partner.

If you and your partner do not do FIML or something like it, you will be more or less forced to cleave to some sort of “normal standard” for communication. But a “normal standard” for all communicative acts is not just elusive, it doesn’t exist.

This is the even bigger elephant in the room of psychological studies; indeed of all cultures everywhere. No standard for intimate communication exists outside of the one(s) you make for yourselves. If you leave too much to vague notions like “emotional sensitivity” or “emotional intelligence” without having the tools to actually comprehend communicative acts, you will consign yourself to many pointless misunderstandings, any one of which has the potential to snowball and disrupt your relationship.

False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant

Abstract
In this article, we accomplish two things. First, we show that despite empirical psychologists’ nominal endorsement of a low rate of false-positive findings (≤.05), flexibility in data collection, analysis, and reporting dramatically increases actual false-positive rates. In many cases, a researcher is more likely to falsely find evidence that an effect exists than to correctly find evidence that it does not. We present computer simulations and a pair of actual experiments that demonstrate how unacceptably easy it is to accumulate (and report) statistically significant evidence for a false hypothesis. Second, we suggest a simple, low-cost, and straightforwardly effective disclosure-based solution to this problem. The solution involves six concrete requirements for authors and four guidelines for reviewers, all of which impose a minimal burden on the publication process.

Source

Competence versus performance

An important distinction is made in academic linguistics between competence and performance. This short entry in Wikipedia gives some idea of why—Competence versus performance.

FIML practice, unlike most academic linguistics, is centered on performance, not competence.

Through practice FIML partners will come to understand how their communicative performances affect them both. By extension, they will also learn how their performances in both speaking and listening affect other people.

FIML deals primarily with communication mistakes and their emotional impacts on both speakers and listeners.

FIML partners will quickly discover that they make many mistakes in speaking and listening and that when these mistakes are not corrected, many of them can have serious consequences affecting the well-being of both of them.

In a nutshell, FIML removes performance errors made between partners in real-time. By having a reliable method for removing misunderstandings as they occur, FIML partners will also find that they are able to pursue many more subjects with greater depth and intensity than they had been able to do before.

Many of the errors removed by FIML practice will more be of a “psychological” or emotional nature than a linguistic one. That said, it is important for partners to focus a good deal of their energy on specific linguistic mistakes because when both partners agree on exactly what was said, they will have excellent data that can be profitably analyzed.

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.

________________________

*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.

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.