Not all contretemps are the same

Not all contretemps are the same. Some are easier to fix than others.

In FIML practice, a contretemps is defined as a misunderstanding within a conversation that arises from misspeaking, mishearing, or miscogitating.

Most contretemps arise due to the speaker or listener attributing a mental state to the other person. I hear a tone in your voice and thus attribute a mental state to you. It may be the case that I heard correctly. More often it is the case that I heard incorrectly.

Either way, a FIML query and discussion will usually put the matter to rest fairly quickly. The discussion that follows the resolution of the contretemps may use a lot of time but it is almost always pleasant and well-worth the effort because discussions of that sort tend to illuminate much more than just the contretemps in question.

It is a basic assumption of FIML practice that many/most contretemps are features of language and language use itself and not due fundamentally to human “psychology” or “personality.” Of course contretemps run all through what we call “psychology” and influence it a great deal, but many/most verbal (conversational) contretemps are just normal clunky things that are features of language.

They arise due to the ambiguities of words and phrases, the crudeness of our speech apparatuses, the dimness of our brains, poor hearing, and contextual misunderstandings, to name just a few of the reasons.

Once a simple mistake—a misunderstood tone of voice, reference, or context, for example—has been identified, it is usually a fairly simple matter to dismiss the emotions it may have aroused and move ahead with the conversation. These kinds of mistakes are characterized by some sort of mistaken attribution of a mental or emotional state by one of the participants in a conversation aimed at the other participant.

There is another sort of contretemps, however, that is more difficult to identify and fix. This sort of contretemps does not involve attributing a mental or emotional state to the other person. Rather, it is characterized by trying to prevent an emotional state from arising or from trying to prevent the conversation from going in one direction or another for whatever reason.

An example of this sort of contretemps might be something like this. You buy some bread and explain that it is different from the kind you usually buy because they did not have that kind. I look at the bread, and seeing that it is lighter than what we normally get, say this bread is too light, while fully knowing what you have said about why you bought it. No problem so far. You say, “Well…” as you begin to formulate a more complete response. Still no problem.

But then I add, “But I am not complaining!” My “intention” (if you can call such a swift response intentional) is merely to prevent you from thinking I am complaining about your having bought the bread. But my tone may not have come out right. This may be the start of a problem if you think that my tone implies that I think you are being defensive due to how you said “well….”

Was my tone wrong or did you hear it wrongly? Only the partners themselves can determine this, assuming both are well-meaning and reasonably intelligent (and sober).

The deeper FIML problem here is that tone of voice is very hard to catch and it is very hard for you to query me because things are moving very quickly. If you did query me I would honestly say that I did not think you were being defensive. I would honestly say that I just wanted to prevent your feeling defensive and/or to simply clarify that I am not complaining, this being a fairly normal thing for people to say though it can often be ambiguous and lead to a complex contretemps such as the one we are discussing.

When I say that I am not complaining, you hear it as me assuming that you have taken my complaint about the bread (a genuine problem we both recognize, though we are not all that clear on that either) as being a complaint about you or your shopping.

This kind of contretemps can be very hard to get to the bottom of because it involves several layers of miscuing based on a reasonable misattribution of my statement I am not complaining.

The basic problem is one speaker (me) is trying to guide the conversation or preempt it from going in some direction while the listener attributes that effort to an accusation of their planning to do just that, of their intending to do that.

If you pay attention to how you and your partner speak to each other, I can all but guarantee you will have contretemps of this sort. A well-meaning general intention to guide or prevent or indicate something is mistaken as an attribution of a mental or emotional state by the listener.

Kind of involved and messy isn’t it? It happens because languages are difficult to use well and we make many mistakes.

It must be emphasized that FIML partners are not seeking to adhere to some external social standard (which doesn’t really exist, especially in precise matters or with respect to complex interpersonal subjects and extensive discussions) but rather to hone their own standards to the point where there are fewer contretemps and the ones that do occur (as they absolutely will) can be resolved as efficiently as possible.

The sort of contretemps described above can be very difficult to identify and correct because it moves very quickly and is based on underlying assumptions that are not easy to identify on the fly. FIML practice, generally, is difficult not because people are stupid, have bad personalities, or screwed up psychologies, but because it is completely and utterly impossible not to make many mistakes in listening, speaking, and thinking whenever we use language.

If you try to gloss over too many mistake (now and then it’s OK to gloss over some of them) by pretending there is some “standard” you know about and that your partner is just an ass, you will only compound the problem. It is very difficult to be a fully functioning human being for many reasons and one of the biggest lies in language itself and how we normally (mis)use it.

Repost: FIML and illusions, visual and verbal

It’s well known that memory, context, and expectation are fundamental to our perceptions of “reality.” For more info on this see: FIML and memory distortion.

In this post I want to give a few examples of how this happens and then discuss how these examples are relevant to FIML practice.

Yesterday I took a walk with my partner. It was a sunny day and at one point the reflection of a leafless tree in the windshield of a car parked about thirty yards ahead of us caught my eye. Most of the car was in shade, so the reflection stood out prominently though I could not quite figure out what I was seeing at first. As I stared at the windshield, I saw the crude image of a human face. It flickered in my mind and changed several times as we advanced toward the car. Was I seeing a person sitting in the passenger seat, I wondered. Or was it something else? What I saw in the reflection was more of a proto-face than a real human face. My brain made several attempts to interpret the reflection as we drew closer to the car. At last, I saw that what I was looking at was a bright reflection of tree branches high above the car. The scene fooled me because the car was in the shade and the tree branches were in the sun quite high above the street.

This incident illustrates how our minds try to make sense out of what we are seeing even before we have sufficient information to do so reliably. Why did I see a person and not a cat or something else? The answer is probably that a person would be the most significant to me of the likely interpretations of what was there. In a kind of self-centered all-too-human way, I interpreted the reflection as an image that would have the most bearing on my life. In the case of that reflection, I was able to ascertain what the image really was. I remember being quite curious about it. It was kind of a delightful optical illusion which was fun to ponder once I understood it.

Another incident that happened yesterday also occured while I was walking with my partner. This time it was dark. On the street ahead of us she saw what she told me looked like a pillar that had fallen in the road. That would have been a real anomaly, so she kept looking at the object. Eventually she realized that it was a car parked in shadows in such a way that its outline had not been clear. Why she saw it as a collapsed pillar, I don’t know, but as I had done earlier in the day, she was quite curious about what she was seeing as we approached the scene. When she figured it out, she described what had happened and we discussed how it relates to FIML.

What she noticed is that since the anomaly was visual, it was fairly easy to figure out. She also noticed that her curiosity would have made her walk toward the pillar/car to see what it was even if it had meant going out of our way. Most of us, I think, would do the same. Visual illusions like that are not threatening and usually are fun to figure out.

If an illusion arises in what we think we have heard someone say, however, most of us will normally not pursue the matter. What kinds of illusions arise when we speak with others? Any interpretation that is wrong is an illusion. Any interpretation on the personal-public spectrum of possible interpretations that is not what our interlocutor meant is an illusion. Any interpretation founded on our own private neuroses or on public misconceptions instead of what the other person really meant is an illusion.

An example might be someone seems too familiar when they greet you, so you interpret their behavior as being disrespectful, flirtatious, or nutty when the person is just feeling good because of something that had recently happened. In real life, you usually can’t figure those sorts of illusions out unless they occur with your FIML partner. In real life, that sort of thing occurs many times per day and is compounded by as many people as we deal with. Just being “positive” and “a friend to all” doesn’t solve the problem either because maybe that person actually was being disrespectful or flirtatious or nutty or all of them at once. You will be deluded, to some extent, no matter what you conclude because you have no way of knowing what really happened, what was really in their mind. That is the vague and irresolute reality in which we all live. We deal with that poor level of mutual understanding by emphasizing professional standards, good manners, shared beliefs, and so on. This works well enough in the public sphere but will lead to sorrow in your private life.

A third incident occurred later that evening. As we were getting ready for bed, my partner noticed a car outside stopped near our driveway with its motor running. It was getting late, so she wondered about it. Was someone coming over? Were they turning around? The car was pretty rundown and noisy so it looked maybe a little suspicious. My partner kept watching. After a few minutes, our neighbor’s daughter got out of the car and waved goodbye to the driver. All questions answered. This is another example of how we can usually have our curiosity about visual events satisfied while it is much more difficult to do the same with verbal events.

If you can understand this and notice stuff like this in your own life, you will probably be able to see what the value of FIML is and how and why it works so well.

Repost: Why we use the term semiotics

The reason we use the term semiotics on this site is when FIML partners do a FIML query, the data in their minds at the moment(s) in question is best described as raw semiotics. That is, it is the raw material that makes up the composite of consciousness at the moment(s) in question. This material, or data, can be sharply focused, vague, irrelevant to the subject at hand, emotional, associative, organized, disorganized, and so on. When partners get good at observing this data accurately and describing it to each other, they will find that much of it, if not all of it, is connected to a psycho-semiotic network that underlies awareness and gives rise to it. Understanding this network is extremely valuable and will provide partners with great insights into how and why they feel, think, and behave as they do. It is very difficult (and I think impossible) to understand this network through solitary pursuits only. The reason for this is a solitary mind will fool itself. In contrast, two minds working together will be able to observe this network with much greater accuracy. Language, semiotics, and emotion are fundamentally interpersonal operations, so it is reasonable to expect that deep comprehension of these operations will be best achieved through interpersonal activity.

Is nihilism the only escape from the death grip of culture?

If you read modern philosophy, it sometimes seems that culture is an iron cage and nothing can fix it or help us escape.

I do agree that cultures basically all suck after a certain point.

We need them to learn language, ideas, and many kinds of training. But beyond that they typically only stifle individual development while forcing irrational conformity to norms that are self-policed by the members of the culture itself. That’s one of the worst things about it.

But should that make us nihilists?

I don’t think so because culture only looks depressing when viewed on its own terms, as a big thing (many people) that holds together many smaller things (individual people).

Individuals can escape through FIML practice or something very similar. And this is so because FIML allows individuals to communicate with much greater accuracy than that allowed by culture itself.

That is all it takes for two people to get out or get beyond the nihilistic death grip of culture. You really have to do something to make FIML work, but it is not that hard and it is much better than the usual alternatives.

Explanations made to the self versus explanations made to others

We can make a basic division between how we explain ourselves to ourselves and how we explain ourselves to others.

Explanations we give to ourselves are typically secret and known only to us. They can be quite crude and selfish at times.

In contrast, explanations of ourselves that we give to other people are generally “nicer.” We plead our case for being a “good person” by explaining at length whatever led up to whatever thing we did that needs explaining.

Of course, we have different explanations for different other people and even different classes of other people, but for now let’s just consider the two kinds of explanations—ones given to the self and ones given to others.

These two types are a good way to explain what is meant by honesty in a FIML discussion.

Simply stated, in a FIML discussion the explanation that I give to my partner of my words or deeds should be exactly the same as the explanation I give to myself. There should be zero difference between these two types of explanation.

A refinement of the above is that if there is a difference for some reason that I do not want to go into, I must tell my partner that the difference exists though I need not say exactly what it is.

For example, I may appear upset in a way that affects my tone of voice. My partner notices and asks about it. I know (my explanation to myself) that I am mildly upset because I just remembered a disturbing event from the distant past. If I do not want to talk about that event, I can excuse myself by truthfully telling my partner that, yes, I am slightly upset but it is due to an event from a long time ago and I do not want to talk about that now.

My partner will probably understand and drop the subject. By saying what I did I was completely honest with my partner, importantly confirming her sense that I was upset. At the same time I preserved my privacy in an area where I wanted it preserved.

Exceptions to the honesty rule like the one just described should be rare for most partners. If one or both partners have large exceptions that come up often, it would be best for them to gradually begin chipping away at these topics to reduce their size and influence.

For most FIML discussions for most people, perfect honesty—perfect accord between the explanation for the self and the partner—should be doable most of the time. Remember that the basic FIML discussion deals mainly with very small things that are generally not hard to be honest about.

When FIML partners keep their private and public explanations in perfect accord, they develop a sense of trust and contentment that cannot be achieved in any other way. They will not need to spend so much time “reading” each other (and thereby making frequent serious mistakes). Instead, they will know how to communicate on much more refined levels.

Note: I wonder if some aspect of a definition of morality might be that the two explanations described above are always in perfect accord and that when they are not, we have transgressed an important moral line.

As with almost everything individual or social, the two explanations scale up and down between individuals, small groups, and large ones. Some cultures have explicit rules for explanations given within the culture and explanations given to outsiders. In the case of gangs or criminal societies, these difference can be very large and very harmful to others.

A very simple example of what FIML does

This is a simple, concrete example that is best understood as a material analogy for what happens in a FIML discussion or query.

I wanted some fresh local yogurt and we also needed some cheese. The place that sells the yogurt I like has only a few kinds of very expensive cheese.

My partner and I discussed the merits of going to the yogurt store and paying extra for cheese versus driving to a different store that has a better cheese selection but does not have the fresh yogurt.

Since the yogurt store was on the way to the cheese store, we stopped in but found that they were out of yogurt and also had no cheese.

Oh well. We went to the cheese store and got the cheese and a couple of other items we needed.

In the car we noticed that our having stopped to look for the yogurt in the yogurt store made it possible for us to dismiss that option completely from out minds. Had we not stopped, we might have wondered if we had missed a chance to get the fresh yogurt and probably would have wondered about it.

Our ability to dismiss the yogurt option and not have it be a small shadow in our minds was gained only because we had actually stopped at the yogurt store. If we had not stopped and gone only to the cheese store, we would not have known that the yogurt store didn’t even have any yogurt.

Like I said this is a very simple example.

Now, consider that instead of yogurt or cheese we are working with emotions and human perceptions. A FIML query works in a way that is analogous to stopping at the yogurt store.

Yes, it cost us some energy to stop at the store, but it saved us the energy of thinking that the yogurt was a possibility.

If instead of yogurt, I am wondering if my partner disapproves of something I said, I can ask her (stopping at the yogurt store) or refrain from asking her (not stopping).

If I ask her, it costs us both some energy, but saves me some worry and possible defensive behavior which will likely snowball and cost us even more energy.

Please put in your own emotions or concerns into this example. Isn’t it better to ask about them than not ask?

When we have many small things in our minds that we never ask anyone (including our partner), we begin living in a fantasy world or a world that is simplified to conform to simple standards made up by other people.

FIML clears up problems by catching them when they start. The FIML technique is designed to facilitate quick interventions so snowballing never gets started.

It’s not hard to do FIML if you understand what its purpose is. The hard part about doing FIML is it goes against a great deal of normal human training. Rather than ask, most of us will skip going to the yogurt store.

When we do that hundreds of times with someone, small divisions get larger and larger. When they get really big it is very hard to analyze them and we become their victims.

Repost: What is FIML and what does it do?

FIML is fundamentally a communication technique with wide-ranging implications for many other aspects of being human.

FIML removes mistakes from communications between partners. FIML reduces or eliminates neurotic feelings. FIML encourages honesty, integrity, responsibility, and many other virtues. It greatly improves communication. It transforms beliefs in a static self, a personality, an ego, or a set autobiography to a more realistic understanding of the dynamic nature of being, speaking, listening, remembering, functioning. FIML skills are useful when dealing with people other than the FIML partner. FIML greatly reduces the need to rely on external standards (public semiotics) for self-definition and/or communication. FIML elevates consciousness in the sense that FIML practice is done consciously and improvements are made in partners’ consciousnesses. FIML works directly with partners’ experiences and thus is a deeply experiential practice that generates experiential understanding.

FIML greatly supports Buddhist practice and though FIML is not specifically a traditional Buddhist teaching, it does not contradict any core Buddhist teaching. For many people, FIML may be a very good tool to use with the Dharma. This is so because FIML allows each partner to identify kleshas (mistaken interpretations) the moment they arise and to correct them with input from their partner. FIML also helps partners experience the reality of no-self, impermanence, emptiness, and dependent origination. When these truths are experienced together with a partner, both partners are able to deeply confirm the validity of their insights as both share in this confirmation. Both partners will notice kleshas being eliminated and both will be able to confirm this to each other, through explicit statements to each other and also through observations of each other.

FIML practice also helps partners understand and experience how the First and Second Noble Truths actually operate in their lives. When one partner discovers a klesha through a FIML query, they will see very clearly how their mistaken interpretation, if not corrected, could be the source of suffering. When they correct their mistake, they will see how eliminating a klesha is liberating and how it produces a bit of “enlightenment” (Third and Fourth Noble Truths).

FIML practice encourages honesty between partners and many other virtues. FIML partners will directly experience the importance of being honest with their partner and treating them with the utmost respect and integrity. This strengthens partners’ understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on morality (sila).

FIML’s emphasis on fully understanding the roles of language and semiotics supports the Buddha’s teachings on Right Speech (for language) and wisdom (for semiotics). In the Prajna Sutras, “dharmas of the mind” (laksana) very closely correspond to the modern English word semiotics as that word is used in FIML practice. By focusing on this word and concept and experiencing with a partner how semiotics affect everything we think and do, partners will gain great insight into the kind of consciousness described in the Diamond Sutra–a consciousness without the “marks” or “characteristics” (laksana, semiotics) of a self, a human being, a sentient being, or a being that takes rebirth.

FIML accomplishes most of what it does by being a technique that is called up quickly, the moment it is needed. FIML queries almost always lead to long and interesting discussions, but the basic technique must be done quickly. The moment either partner feels a klesha arising, they should stop and query their partner about what is/was in their mind. After hearing your partner’s honest answer, compare it to what you had thought. The better data from your partner should eliminate that particular klesha after a small number of its appearances. Remember, your partner’s data is better because you asked them quickly enough for them to be able to recall with great accuracy what really was in their mind during the moments you were asking them about. If you wait too long or get into long stories or theories, or become emotional, you will miss the chance to catch that klesha. When you do catch a klesha, feel good about it. That means there is one less hindrance in your mind.

Non-Buddhists will experience the same results from FIML practice as Buddhists, though their understanding of these results will be framed differently. We have discussed FIML from a non-Buddhist point of view in many other posts. Interested readers are encouraged to browse some of those posts for more on that angle.

An example of a mistake in meso understanding

My partner and I discovered a significant meso mistake this morning.

(See: Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding for more on this.)

The mistake was not “psychological” so much as it was simply a mistake—significant over time but having little or no emotional valence of its own.

The mistake concerned how we understand our evening walks. I had mistakenly thought that my partner preferred a brisk pace with few if any pauses. Consequently, I had for a number of years been walking faster and pausing less often to look around than I would have liked.

For me, that mistake in my thinking took a bit of fun out of our walks.

Recently, the weather has been very hot where we live and I found myself insisting on walking slower and stopping more because I was becoming uncomfortable. After several days of feeling apologetic about this and actually speaking about it apologetically, my partner insisted back that it did not bother her at all to walk more slowly and to pause more often.

In fact, she said that it never had bothered her to go at a slower pace in warm weather and that she always had enjoyed stopping to look at things as we rambled along.

This was news to me, so we talked about it for a while. I came to understand that I had formed a wrong idea, a wrong meso-thought/belief, about my partner.

It had slipped into my mind over the years. I am sure it started somewhere as a micro-mistake that I did not catch (maybe due to pride) and had then persisted for a long time.

This is an example of a kind of mistake that FIML practice may not discover. Fortunately, this mistake had little or no psychological valence. I was delighted to find that I had been wrong and am looking froward to our walks more than ever.

At the same time, I am aware that my partner and I probably have at least four or five other meso mistakes of roughly the same amplitude as our walking mistake. They may be similarly “benign” but some of them may also have significant psychological valence.

Though both of us are experienced FIML practitioners and though we do FIML queries regularly, we can’t be sure what our other meso-mistakes are, assuming there are some. All we can do is continue to look closely at our impressions and beliefs about one another and do our best to confirm them or correct them as needed.

Once discovered, the walking mistake—and any other meso mistake no matter how emotional—will be analyzable and amenable to elimination through FIML practice. It just has to be seen for what it is first.

Repost: Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meaningfulness or emotional valence of semiotic cues

A new study on post traumatic stress disorder shows that PTSD sufferers actually perceive meaning or emotional valence within fractions of a second.

This study bolsters the FIML claim that “psychological morphemes” (the smallest psychological unit) arise at discrete moments and that they affect whatever is perceived or thought about afterward.

The study has profound implications for all people (and I am sure animals, too) because all of us to some degree have experienced many small and some large traumas. These traumas induce a wide variety idiosyncratic “meaning and emotional valence” that affects how we perceive events happening around us, how we react to them, and how we think about them.

The study in question—Soldiers with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder See a World Full of Threat: Magnetoencephalography Reveals Enhanced Tuning to Combat-Related Cues—is especially interesting because it compares combat veterans without PTSD to combat veterans with PTSD.

It is thus based on a clearly defined pool of people with “similar” extreme experiences and finds that:

…attentional biases in PTSD are [suggestively] linked to deficits in very rapid regulatory activation observed in healthy control subjects. Thus, sufferers with PTSD may literally see a world more populated by traumatic cues, contributing to a positive feedback loop that perpetuates the effects of trauma.

Of course all people are “traumatized” to some degree. And thus all people see “a world populated by traumatic cues, contributing to a positive feedback loop that perpetuates the effects of trauma.”

If we expand the word trauma to include “conditioned responses,” “learned responses,”  “idiosyncratic responses,” or simply “training” or “experience” and then consider the aggregate all of those responses in any particular individual, we will have a fairly good picture of what an idiosyncratic individual (all of us are that) looks like, and how an idiosyncratic individual actually functions and responds to the world.

FIML theory claims that idiosyncratic responses happen very quickly (less than a second) and that these responses can be observed, analyzed, and extirpated (if they are detrimental) by doing FIML practice. Observing and analyzing idiosyncratic responses whether they are detrimental or not serves to optimize communication between partners by greatly enhancing partners’ ranges of emotion and understanding.

In an article about the linked study (whose main author is Rebecca Todd), Alva Noë says:

…Todd’s work shows that soldiers with PTSD “process” cues associated with their combat experience differently even than other combat veterans. But what seems to be driving the process that Todd and team uncovered is the meaningfulness or emotional valence of the cues themselves. Whether they are presented in very rapid serial display or in some other way, what matters is that those who have been badly traumatized think and feel. And surely we can modify how we think and feel through conversation?

Indeed, what makes this work so significant is the way it shows that we can only really make sense of the neural phenomena by setting them in the context of the perceptual-cognitive situation of the animal and, vice-versa, that the full-import of what perceivers say and do depends on what is going on in their heads. (Source)

I fully agree with the general sense of Noë’s words, but want to ask what is your technique for “modifying how we think and feel through conversation?” And does your technique comport well with your claim, which I also agree with, that “we can only really make sense of the neural phenomena by setting them in the context of the perceptual-cognitive situation of the animal”?

I would contend that you cannot make very good “sense of neural phenomena” by just talking about them in general ways or analyzing them based on general formulas. Some progress can be made, but it is slow and not so reliable because general ways of talking always fail to capture the idiosyncrasy of the “neural phenomenon” as it is actually functioning in real-time during a real “perceptual-cognitive situation of the animal.”

The FIML technique can capture “neural phenomena” in real-time and it can capture them during real “perceptual-cognitive situations.” It is precisely this that allows FIML practice to quickly extirpate unwholesome responses, both small and large, if desired.

Since all of us are complex individuals with a multitude of interconnected sensibilities, perceptions, and responses, FIML practice does not seek to “just” remove a single post traumatic response but rather to extirpate all unwholesome responses.

Since our complex responses and perceptions can be observed most clearly as they manifest in semiotics, the FIML “conversational” technique focuses on the signs and symbols of communication, the semiotics that comprise psychological morphemes.

FIML practice is not suited for everyone and a good partner must be found for it to work. But I would expect that combat veterans with PTSD who are able to do FIML and who do it regularly with a good partner will experience a gradual reduction in PTSD symptoms leading to eventual extirpation.

The same can be said for the rest of us with our myriad and various traumas and experiences. FIML done with a good partner will find and extirpate what you don’t want knocking around in your head anymore.

Micro, meso, and macro FIML

Micro FIML practice is basic to all FIML practice.

(A description of micro FIML can be found here: How to do FIML.)

Basic or micro FIML provides a very sturdy foundation for many other kinds of interpersonal discussions. This is so because basic FIML makes partners confident that they can say what they think without fearing that their partner will significantly misunderstand them.

Why is that? The reason is if your partner interprets what you have said in a strong—and especially a negative—way, they will ask you about it. Once they have asked you, you can clarify what you meant, change it, expand on it, explain it, or do anything else you want with it as long as you are being honest.

Basic FIML covers all new clouds that appear on the horizon. If your partner speaks or communicates in a way that causes a small cloud to appear on your horizon and you have time, bring it up immediately using the basic FIML technique linked above. If you don’t have time to bring it up immediately, do it later when you do have time if the cloud is still there. Even if the cloud is gone, it can still be interesting to bring it up later because you can discuss the incident and learn more about yourselves from that. Very small incidents are often the most interesting because data points are clear and strong emotions are not likely to be aroused.

No FIML partner should ever carry around a shadow of misgiving or negativity about their partner without saying something about it. This is where meso and macro levels of FIML come into play.

Meso and macro FIML come into play when you discover that even though you have been doing basic FIML perfectly and dealt with every cloud that appeared on your horizon, still there is a shadow or haze developing in your mind.

You can’t remember when it started or how it started, but you know it is there.

If you have been doing basic FIML and are reasonably skilled in it, you should be able to bring up the matter of a gathering haze in your mind and clear it with your partner. Maybe you partner is spending too much time away from you or too close to you. Maybe you are starting to feel weird about something they keep saying. No single incident of their saying whatever it is has bothered you enough to mention it, but they keep saying it and that is getting to you. Once you notice anything like that, just bring it up and discuss it at a meso level while relying on basic micro FIML practice to steer you toward a good resolution that works for both of you.

Another example of a meso discussion might be something like: you are a bit tired, your partner says something and you respond in what seems a pleasant way to you and they respond to that in a way that seems sharp or restrictive to you. Since you are tired, you don’t do basic FIML at the right moment but instead respond sharply to what you had perceived as their sharpness.

If your partner questions you on that and/or if you notice it yourself, just do a meso FIML discussion that brings in all of the factors you are aware of. Your habit of doing basic FIML will make it much easier to have conversations on meso or macro levels than if you had never done basic FIML at all.

A macro level FIML discussion might entail a growing shift in your understanding of any macro subject—science, religion, philosophy, politics, etc.

As with meso discussions, macro discussions will be much easier and more enjoyable if partners know how to do basic FIML.

Basic FIML solves most communication problems by helping partners be honest with each other in ways that are helpful and productive without being phony. Basic FIML also helps partners sail past the many minor snags that can occur in conversations, such as quibbling over word choices, minor details, tone of voice, gestures, and so on.

This happens because basic FIML will already have provided many examples of small snags and how to overcome them. It does take some practice to get to this point, but it is not much harder than learning to sew or make pizza. Requires some work and there are better and worse results, but once you get going the benefits should be clear enough to keep you going.

In my view, FIML will not work for partners only if a misinterpretation is not addressed, not honestly addressed, or not substantially addressed from the micro level on up. If you always jump in at meso and macro levels, you will almost certainly cause more problems than you will solve.


See also: Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding.

Metacognition and real-time communication

Metacognition means “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes,” or “cognition about cognition,” or “being able to think about how you think.”

To me, metacognition is a premier human ability. How can it not be a good thing to be aware of how you are aware and how you think and respond to what is around you?

In more detail:

The term “metacognition” is most often associated with John Flavell, (1979). According to Flavell (1979, 1987), metacognition consists of both metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences or regulation. Metacognitive knowledge refers to acquired knowledge about cognitive processes, knowledge that can be used to control cognitive processes. Flavell further divides metacognitive knowledge into three categories: knowledge of person variables, task variables and strategy variables. (Source)

Most people do metacognition and are aware of doing it. We do it when we plan, make decisions, decide how to get from one place to another, how to relate to one person differently from another, and so on.

Where we don’t do metacognition is in real-time communication in real life, where it matters most. This is not because we are not able to do it. It is because very few of us have the right technique, Flavell’s “acquired knowledge,” that allows us to do it.

If we have the right technique, we will be able to gain a great deal of knowledge about real-time cognitive process while also learning how to control them.

FIML practice is a metacognitive practice based on, to quote the above source, “acquired knowledge about cognitive processes… that can be used to control cognitive processes.”

In the case of FIML, the “acquired knowledge” is the FIML technique which allows us to gain conscious “control over cognitive processes” of real-time interpersonal communication.

FIML is different from other analytical communication techniques in that FIML provides a method to gain control over very short or small units of communication in real-time. This is important as it is these very short real-time units that are most often ignored or not dealt with in most analyses of human communication.

If you know how to catch small mistakes, they become sources of insight and humor. If you don’t know how to catch them, they often snowball into destructive misunderstandings.

FIML is fairly easy to do if you understand the importance of correcting the minor misinterpretations that inevitably arise between people when they speak and communicate. By using the FIML metacognitive method, partners gain control over the most elusive kinds of interpersonal error which all too often lead to serious interpersonal discord.

FIML can and does do more than catch small mistakes, but first things first. If you cannot correct small errors in real-time communication, you are not doing anything even resembling thorough metacognitive communication.

Creation of meaning and human behavior

Humans create meaning because they have to.

Virtually all humans need meaning and a sense that their minds are organized or unified by meaning. The macro-meanings of religion, science, and politics are obvious examples of the sorts of “organized” or “unified” meaning people want and need.

Gangs are another type of organized meaning that unify the minds of their members.

An exceptionally cruel example of the importance of meaning can be seen in the recent story of a young man who was killed for wearing red shoes—gang colors—in the wrong neighborhood (Teen shot after refusing to give up shoes).

This story illustrates how small a bit of meaning can be and yet still elicit violent reactions.

Most people don’t do stuff like that but most people can be and often are as petty if not as violent. In so-called “polite” society a poorly expressed opinion or a deviant political stance can lead to ostracism.

People go nuts over tiny misunderstandings because practically anything can threaten their sense of meaningful unity or organization. In this vein, notice how many people are attracted to institutions that define them. Define their beliefs, values, thoughts, vocabularies, semiotics, even their hairdos and clothes.

In FIML practice, partners also often deal with small bits of meaning. But rather than fight over them or accept them as definitions of anything, partners analyze them and work to understand how those bits of meaning are functioning, what they are doing. A FIML analysis is a process that works toward shared understanding rather than a static—even a programmed—response that is often instinctual, if not violent.

If you take meaning for granted—your uniform, candidate, religion, ethnicity—you will be owned and used by it or by the people who created it, often before you were born. In contrast, if you analyze meaning you will own it and be able to use it freely and as you choose.

While riding in the car, I spoke with my partner about the ideas expressed above. She thought for a moment and said, “You know how if a parasite kills its host quickly it is a sign that it is a recently evolved parasite?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, isn’t what you’re saying similar? Those hunks of cultural meaning have been around for centuries. They are like successful parasites that condition the behaviors of millions of people at a time.”

“Nice,” I said.

“FIML is recent and it may not survive because it is hard to pass on to others. It’s not a parasite, though. It frees us from the parasitism of convention. It doesn’t allow us to get locked in.”

Stress voice

Humans are semiotic animals that respond to human signals as primary percepta.

Some obvious examples are sex in advertising, pictures of hamburgers, people enjoying a natural view from a balcony in a hotel brochure. Each of these relies on an “instinct”—sex, hunger, an animal’s response to nature—while at the same time signaling a complex human contribution to the basic signal.

Another type of human signal that arouses instinct is tone of voice. A good example of this is the “stress” or “alarm” voice that is used by most if not all mammals and birds.

The basic instinctive stress or alarm voice is a shriek. If words are used, the shrieking tone will be accompanied by rapidly spoken words—“stop! stop! stop!” or “Watch out! it’s falling” or “get down! get down!” etc.

In basic situations involving real danger, the alarm voice is very important. We definitely want to have both the voice and the sudden energized response it draws from us.

In many situations, though, the stress voice can cause problems when it arises due to simple miscommunication. For example, I say or do something different from what you asked or implied and it causes you—virtually involuntarily—to use an alarmed tone that involves a bit of a shriek and rapid words.

For example, you asked me to cut some mushrooms for a broth we are making. What you meant is you want the mushrooms to go into the clear broth after it has been made but I toss them into the pot with the chicken bones and vegetable scraps that will be strained and thrown away.

When you first see what I have done, you experience slight confusion, even cognitive dissonance, and say in an alarmed voice, “What are you doing with the mushrooms?”

In turn, I respond directly to your stress voice and to the now evident miscommunication with my own confusion and stress voice, “I thought you wanted them in the broth!”

If we are friends, this minor contretemps will probably be easily overcome and we may even laugh about it. If we have had many unresolved contretemps of this type, however, one or both of us may escalate the problem by being accusatory or even abusive.

Even though the mushroom contretemps is very simple and insignificant, it can still be dangerous even between good friends because this type of contretemps can quickly get blown out of proportion due to the primal, instinctive quality of the stress voice.

Similar problem situations might be miscommunicated directions while driving or working, messed up meeting times, or getting the wrong thing from the store.

These problems are generally easy to resolve, though they may still generate discord or stress both because a confusing miscommunication happened and also because the stress or alarm voice just is that way; it causes stress or alarm in and of itself.

If you can see and deal with concrete situations such as the ones described above, imagine how similar situations may arise in less concrete forms and how they can be even more dangerous and lead to even more serious problems.

Miscommunicated emotional, sexual, psychological, or intellectual signals can also give rise to primal stress or alarm tones and, in turn, generate further stress and alarm. Contretemps like these can be much harder to pinpoint, analyze, and understand than simpler ones involving concrete communication about mushrooms or directions.

In FIML practice, if partners can mutually understand a few concrete contretemps and how and why they generate stress and confusion and use these forms as basic paradigms for more complex contretemps, they will go a long way toward removing stress and confusion that is entirely blameless, unconscious, unmotivated, and unintended by either of them.

The ambiguous commons and human culture

In a post some months ago, I introduced the idea of an “ambiguous commons,” a region of shared public meaning that is both central to any and all cultures and inherently vague.

I think it is fair to say that virtually all human communication takes place in and around an “ambiguous commons,” a common area of meaning that can be variously interpreted and is liable to always be ambiguous. (Source same as above)

All cultural meaning arises through the communicative interactions of the members of that culture.

The ambiguous commons is defined  by (and provides definition to) a dynamic push-and-push-back of the members of the community. This is a never-ending dynamic, even a struggle, that members of the community engage in as long as they live.

There is rarely, if ever, any clear resolution of meaning because common meaning is constantly changing due to the dynamic forces of many communicants.

I am speaking less about big ideas (though it is much the same for them) as the smaller ideas of individuals who interact with other individuals. Your sense of my responsibilities may be different from mine, thus causing a push-and-push-back to occur between us should we require a definition of responsibility in any given situation.

The same can be said for any other cultural value, sign, or concept. My notion of justice will be different from yours in some situations, as will your sense of fairness be different from mine.

Since it is frequently difficult for people to resolve differing interpretations of the ambiguous commons, emotions or status claims often come into play. The emotions that arise in commons disputes can be remarkably childish or primitive, and the same can be said of status jockeying.

Strongly asserted primitive emotions, not clarity of thought or reason, frequently will win the game of defining whatever the issue is. (This also shows that for people, human communicative semiotics are primary percepta and that humans tend to react to them through the “natural” “instincts” of fear, violence, warmth, aggression, congregation, etc.)

For example, if person A says that person B is arrogant, person B is somewhat obligated to respond. B might accept the accusation and apologize or B might push back, either defensively or aggressively. If B declines to do anything, it is a sign that B has left the commons and no longer shares or wants to share that aspect of the commons with person A.

In the abstract, both A and B may use the word “responsibility” in similar ways and appear to mean the same thing. When the rubber meets the road, however, and A disapproves of B’s sense of responsibility in a particular situation, a squabble over their shared common meaning often will ensue.

Either party may attempt to enlist others to their side and so on.

When people do FIML practice, since their capacity for apprehending shared meaning is much better than those who do not, disputes in and around the ambiguous commons will be much less common. Differences will still arise, but they will be much easier to settle since emotional pushing-and-pushing-back is no longer needed to arrive at shared definitions and interpretations.

FIML is not fundamentally about speaking in (fake) nice tones and having (limited) good manners or manifesting (stock) respect. FIML is about removing ambiguity from the meanings shared by partners. FIML partners have still been raised in cultures that function through ambiguous commons, but between themselves there is much less ambiguity and much less need to assert a position by emotional force.