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


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.


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


Because language is necessarily often ambiguous.


The ambiguities are rarely fixed.


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.

Were Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments wrong?

See this article, Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?, for more.

Since so much of our understanding of human behavior is based on Milgram’s experiment, it behooves us to question the experiment.

If Milgram’s experiment was fudged and if its results were exaggerated, as Perry claims, it provides an excellent example of how a false “scientific” semiotic can gain public attention and become a mainstay of our understanding of human psychology.

Identity versus ego

In this post, I will describe some of the main differences between “identity” and “ego” as we use these terms on this site. One of these days, I will make a glossary of all the terms we use.

  • Identity is the internal signaling system.
  • Ego is fiction that overlays identity.
  • Identity is clear, practical, ethically sound.
  • Ego is theatrical, defensive and offensive, designed to communicate with other egos and to further ulterior motives.
  • We need an ego in social situations only because that is how everyone is.
  • People communicate through the fictions of their social groups because that is all they know.
  • You won’t get far with nothing but an identity in a world full of egos.
  • But you will get closer to the truth about yourself and others.
  • Two identities can create their own group without ego fictions.
  • The fictions of the ego are tautological or self-referential.
  • It is very hard for most people to see the difference between ego and identity as defined above.
  • The reason is ego is the major way they have learned to communicate with others.
  • You show me your ego and I’ll show you mine.
  • Ego is a story, a fiction.
  • Groups of egos will always have self-referential stories or fictions that identify them.
  • Groups of motorcyclists, groups of Christians or Buddhists—all ego groups have stories, signs, and symbols that identify them.
  • These stories, signs, and symbols are always false, never completely true, always serve the purpose of upholding the group and the egos in it.
  • People without egos or ego groups can communicate just fine, though it will always be hard for people with egos to understand them.

The ego is the “deluded self” or the “small self” of Buddhism. I suppose the “identity,” if it is very pure, is the enlightened mind, the Buddha mind, the Tathagata.

FIML practice greatly helps the identity see the difference between identity and ego. It does this by showing the identity how the ego interprets what it hears and frames what it says.

The ego is like a ghost in the mind, or a collection of ghosts, that distorts reality for its own purposes. It is hard to see by yourself where it starts and where it ends. With the help of a caring partner, the line between ego and identity will become much clearer.

We “need” an ego only because it is the main way that people communicate. We do not need or want an ego when we communicate with our FIML partners. If more people did FIML, there would be less need for egos.

Shared subjectivity

  • FIML practice can be described as shared subjectivity.
  • The coinage, or units, of basic FIML sharing are microanalyses of communication ambiguities done in real-time, as they happen.
  • This kind of sharing prevents FIML partners from forming subjective views of each other that are based on mistaken interpretations.
  • Mistaken interpretations between partners always lead to subjective separation, unshared and unsharable subjectivity.
  • Mistaken interpersonal interpretations are the source of most, if not all, neurotic thinking and behavior.
  • It is difficult (I believe impossible) to correct neurotic thinking and behavior through generalized analyses.
  • Generalized here indicates analyses that are based on general theories that are applied to individuals, often by professional therapists.
  • FIML is not a generalized analysis. FIML is a communication technique.
  • It has great therapeutic value because it is a technique that will help partners share their unique subjectivities.
  • By sharing their subjectivities, partners will extirpate or extinguish their neuroses, their mistaken subjective misinterpretations of each other and of other people.
  • Neuroses are painful because they cause us to use our minds badly and wrongly.
  • Neurotic communication is painful because at some level we all know that we are communicating badly and wrongly.
  • We persist in neurotic behavior only because we do not know another way to be.
  • FIML shows us another way to be.
  • By slowly chipping away at neurotic (i.e. mistaken) interpretations the moment they arise, FIML frees us from neurosis itself (i.e. long-standing mistaken interpretations).

Disruption of neurotic response in FIML practice

By analyzing minute emotional reactions in real-time during normal conversation, FIML practice disrupts the consolidation, or more often the reconsolidation, of “neurotic” responses.

In FIML, a neurotic response is defined as “an emotional response based on a misinterpretation.” The misinterpretation in question can be incipient (just starting) to long-seated (been a habit for years).

The response is disrupted by FIML practice and, thus, tends not to consolidate or reconsolidate, especially after several instances of learning that it is not valid.

A neurotic response is a response based on memory. The following study on fear memories supports the above explanation of FIML practice.

Memories become labile when recalled. In humans and rodents alike, reactivated fear memories can be attenuated by disrupting reconsolidation with extinction training. Using functional brain imaging, we found that, after a conditioned fear memory was formed, reactivation and reconsolidation left a memory trace in the basolateral amygdala that predicted subsequent fear expression and was tightly coupled to activity in the fear circuit of the brain. In contrast, reactivation followed by disrupted reconsolidation suppressed fear, abolished the memory trace, and attenuated fear-circuit connectivity. Thus, as previously demonstrated in rodents, fear memory suppression resulting from behavioral disruption of reconsolidation is amygdala-dependent also in humans, which supports an evolutionarily conserved memory-update mechanism. (Source: Disruption of Reconsolidation Erases a Fear Memory Trace in the Human Amygdala)

We say that FIML practice also stops incipient consolidation of misinterpretations because FIML is designed to prevent the formation of neurotic responses as they happen.

Semiotics and psychology

A semiotic analysis of a person’s “internal and external signalling” often can be more conducive to understanding than a “psychological” analysis.

From a semiotic point of view, it is not at all necessary that even a very significant adult behavior will have started with a significant trauma or any other sort of strong influence.

The smallest thing can constitute the start of a “semiotic slope” that, once begun, will tend to persist.

For example, your mom may not have understood that as a three-year-old it was normal for you to prefer the company of your father. Her misunderstanding may then have led to her withdrawing from you very slightly, and this snowballed between the two of you. When, years later, you wanted a closer relation with your mom and were not able to get it, it may have seemed to you that the cause was some trauma in her relation with her mother. But the actual start of the whole thing began with nothing more than your mom never having learned the simple fact that toddlers often prefer one parent over the other for a period of time.

What happened was she misunderstood the semiotics of toddler behavior and many things followed from that. There was no trauma, no ideal state not attained due to some seriously bad thing having happened to her.

Another way to put this is most people do not remember very much before the age of five or so. But didn’t a lot of formative things happen back then? Some probably were traumatic, and we do tend to remember those experiences more clearly than others, but much of what started our paths of development also began with very simple, often accidental, interpretations or misinterpretations of what was said or done to us or around us.

In a semiotic analysis, we recognize that a good deal of what we think/feel/believe began with a small thing, a random or accidental interpretation than got us going in some direction that we likely today see as a major component of our “personality.”

Semiotics can be defined as “the science of communicable meaning (including internal communication).”

Once your mom began to interpret, even very slightly, your toddler behavior as “meaning” that you did not love her as much as your father, many things followed for all of you. But there was no trauma, no glaring formative event, no Freudian ghost from her past coming to haunt your life. Rather, she simply made a mistake due to her ignorance of toddler behavior.

Ironically, the fact that many of us still today tend to understand much of human “psychology” as being determined by unconscious Freudianesque forces is a good example of how a “semiotic slope” once begun tends to continue. Freud started us down a “semiotic slope” that still shapes much of our world today.

The persistence of what is simply a wrong interpretation in an individual can be compared to what happens in cultures. Something begins, then it snowballs, then it becomes a tradition or an established idea. The semiotic network that is culture is hard to change once it is established. Something very similar is also true for individuals.

I am not claiming that emotional traumas do not happen and that they do not affect people. I am claiming that what we are is often due to small accidents as much as large traumas. And that people who are “resilient” after having suffered significant traumas may be so because their semiotic development led them to view the “meaning” of their trauma in a more “resilient,” or useful, way.