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 analyses of interpersonal communication changes our understanding of micro communication and also both the meso and macro levels of existential semiotics and communicative thought. Microscopes allowed us to see germs in water and also to understand that some of those germs can kill us.

FIML can’t do everything

FIML handles micro-analyses of real-time communication extremely well. In doing this it also reveals to partners how long-standing misinterpretations are affecting their perceptions of self and other(s).

FIML cannot catch everything though. Some misinterpretations begin in a small haze and may never be questioned again.

A concrete example of this type of misinterpretation happened a few days ago. My partner and I were talking about her past. At one point she mentioned that she had taken a prescribed drug for a few weeks to stop the condition we had been discussing.

I casually and almost without noticing it assumed that the drug she had taken was a “psych med” of some sort. After a few days, I noticed that I had formed a vague impression of her during the time she took the drug as being more seriously bothered by her (very minor) condition than she actually was.

So I asked her about it and she replied that it had not been a psych med and that she had never had emotional problems concerning her mild condition. I explained to her how I had come to my conclusion, which was vague but still something I actually had believed.

We discussed the matter for a few minutes and decided that it is a good example of a type of mistake that FIML cannot uncover the moment it arises. FIML works best at uncovering mistakes that are emotionally charged. Her psych med reference was not emotionally charged for me (or her) so my wrong assumption went under my FIML radar.

Mistakes of this type are not always going to be so concrete. If they concern emotions and/or a sense of what something was like for someone, this sort of mistake can be nebulous and dangerously elusive.

For example, if my partner’s story had been told differently and meds had not been part of it, I might easily have mistakenly concluded that she had been unhappy, anxious, or depressed during that period of time. Then that mistake might have gone on to affect how I understand her today. It may have made me think that she is more fragile than she is or that her past is more of a burden to her than it is. None of that would have been true though.

FIML practice can help discover mistakes like this because FIML makes us understand with great clarity how dubious our impressions of others can be, even if we are very close to them. FIML also makes it easier to correct and discuss mistakes of this type as the mechanics of a FIML-type discussion provide many useful tools.

FIML can’t always catch everything though, so partners would do well to search their minds from time to time to see if they can find any false assumptions they may be holding about one other.

FIML and functionalism

FIML (Functional Interpersonal Meta-Linguistics) is a kinda sorta type of functionalism. A general statement on functionalism is:

Functionalism is a theory of the mind in contemporary philosophy, developed largely as an alternative to both the identity theory of mind and behaviorism. Its core idea is that mental states (beliefs, desires, being in pain, etc.) are constituted solely by their functional role – that is, they are causal relations to other mental states, sensory inputs, and behavioral outputs. (Source same as above)

FIML differs from philosophical functionalism once we get beyond the generalities. FIML treats semiotics (a most basic element of communication) as good data (if agreed upon by both partners). It then uses this data to show partners how their communicative awareness is actually functioning. Since data points are necessarily small, their function can be determined with reasonable certainty, a degree of certainty much better than that obtained through the application of an overarching theory to the same data point.

For example, if you (my partner) believe I said something based on anger or a political leaning, you have a theory about why I said what I said. If you do a FIML query and find out from me (a truthful informant) why I said what I said, you will have a small fact to replace your big theory. Very often it turns out that I (or your partner) said what they said not due to your theory but due to something else entirely.

Seeing the difference between your acquired “theoretical” theory of mind and the actual factual state of your partner’s mind—and seeing this many times—will relieve you of many mistakes in how you perceive and interact with your partner.

In time, this relief will extend to others to some extent, though in a world where only a small number of couples are doing FIML we cannot expect others to function interpersonally with the same degree of honest agility as our FIML partner.

I believe the day will come when many people do FIML or something very much like it. That will be a time when humans have even more leisure than today, when robots do most work and through their impressive skills and intelligence have unburdened us from the need for status displays or exercising mindless power over others.

Compare FIML practice to traditional forms of psycho-analysis. Instead of subjecting your inchoate mind’s vague problem(s) to a paid theorist or dispenser of pills, you will in the security of your own domicile be able to observe and analyze how and why your mind reacts and communicates as it does. You and your partner will be free to draw on what you know and understand to observe and investigate your minds as they actually function in real time.

FIML cannot do everything, but it provides great detail in an area of activity—communication—that is crucial to being human, whether you are with others or alone.

The entry on functionalism linked above is interesting and worth reading, but after the first few sentences it veers off into something that FIML is not. FIML is not a complete theory about how minds work. Rather it is a theory about how semiotics function in real time and how understanding that much better (through FIML practice) leads to better communication and a better sense of well-being overall.

An interesting benefit of FIML is you don’t have to wonder if your partner is thinking something weird about you because they will ask long before it gets weird.

FIML might also be called Dynamic Semiotic Analysis or Functional Semiotic Analysis, but I decided on FIML some time ago and believe it is a good enough name. FIML is not exactly doing meta-linguistics, but it is close enough and most people are more familiar with that term than semiotics.

A note to psychologists: You guys do great work with the truly distressed and those who cannot find a FIML partner. I am not against you. FIML is a practice designed to optimize communication and self-understanding. If you have clients that are doing more or less alright but still feel they are missing something, teach them FIML. Depending on their and your skills, you should be able to teach couples how to do it in approximately four to eight sessions.

Repost: “Creative intimacy” – the importance of pairs

Read an interesting piece this morning that focuses on the importance of pairs, or partners in creative work. An excerpt:

…given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges, we’re likely set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group. The pair is also inherently fluid and flexible. Two people can make their own society. When even one more person is added, roles and power positions harden. This may be good for stability but problematic for creativity. Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for moving.

Pairs also naturally engage each of the two people involved. In a larger group, an individual may lie low, phone it in. But nobody can hide in a pair. (Source)

Please read the whole piece and not just that short section.

I agree with the above and would add that groups all but force us to employ lowest-common-denominator semiotics in communication.

Moreover, it is very important to understand that the meso-level of communication (words and semiotics) between two people is not now and probably never will be describable in terms of neurons or the physical matter of the brain. The more we know about the brain, the better. But even if we have perfect knowledge, we may never be able to use it to predict the trees of association that will form in your mind after being prompted by virtually any semiotic, word, or concept. It is very unlikely that thought will ever be entirely reducible to neurons or chemistry.

What do you imagine or associate with the simple composite of a sheep plus an apple? Then what do you imagine or associate with whatever that is?

It is very unlikely that any micro-science of neurons will provide us with an answer to that, though you could easily just tell me what your associations are.

Thus, at the macro-level of society or more than a few people, it is difficult or impossible to arouse the depths of your mind, your being, your creativity, your unique existential reality.

At the micro-level of physics, it is unlikely we will ever be able to describe those processes or phenomena, let alone improve on simply speaking honestly to each other.

At the meso-level of communication with a trusted partner we can achieve detailed and fulfilling psychological traction. We can discover aspects of thought and feeling that we cannot find in any other way. An individual alone cannot check their work. A group cannot handle significant detail. Only partners (maybe more than two) can find robust clarity and depth in the meso-reality of interpersonal semiotics, that level at which we most deeply recognize ourselves.

FIML practice is designed to be done by two people. It works by providing partners with a means to unlock the profundity and complexity of the meso-level of semiotic exchange between them. In the linked essay, Shenk puts it well why we need partners. FIML gives ordinary people the means to become extraordinary by showing them how to investigate the meso-level of semiotic exchange between them.

Repost: Our techno-future and the importance of the humanities

As AI and robots continue to develop, humans will have less to do.

Many of the human things that seem so important to us today will no longer be important. For example, how will humans be able to maintain their conceit at having status within some cult/culture when a robot will be able to do whatever they are doing better?

Just yesterday Microsoft announced what appears to be a major breakthrough in the technology for translating speech. A computer can now use a simulation of your voice to translate one language into another. The demonstration is English being translated into Chinese. (See this: Microsoft Research shows a promising new breakthrough in speech translation technology. If you want to hear the demonstration, go to the end of the video.)

As a translator, I can appreciate what this technology does. It’s close to the last nail in the coffin of my profession. By the way, this does not bother me at all. Machine translations, as they are called, are already pretty darn good for most written translations. Now Microsoft is giving us pretty darn good real-time interpretations of spoken language. It won’t be long before machines will be able to do all forms of translation faster and better than humans.

The day before yesterday I read an article—UBS fires trader, replaces him with computer algorithm. The replaced trader used to make $2 million per year. The algorithm cost UBS $100,000 to create. The writing is on the wall for other kinds of traders.

Even a great deal of science and technological development—if not all of it—will be done better by machines than humans. Machines can design experiements and conduct them with little or no human input, and one hopes, zero human cheating.

The writing is on the wall for all of us. Most everyone sees it to some degree, but, seriously folks, the writing is getting very big—it’s all over for bio-human conceits. We will almost have no purpose any more, except to be.

In past centuries, we “conquered” nature and stopped needing to fear it or be in awe of it. We surrounded ourselves with technologies that protected us and made us comfortable. But those technologies have grown so much, we will soon be in as much awe of them as we once were of nature. They will dwarf us as much or more than nature did our ancestors a million years ago.

Cars will drive themselves, machines will translate, good science will be conducted by robots, banks will be run by machines, and eventually our brains will be emulated on computers.

All that will remain then is what we now call the humanities—bio-people will still (I’m pretty sure) want to be with other bio-people, share food with them, talk with them, love them. And they will need to communicate better. The machines, by obliterating the conceits of human status and culture that rule the world now, will show us our need to communicate better.

We will use brain scans to assist us, maybe even some form of technological telepathy. But we will still need deeper and better rules for understanding each other. It is my belief that FIML, or something very much like it, will be the foundation for communication in the future.

Notes

  • Humans are semiotic novices and so we tend to be awkward, confused, overwhelmed, misguided in our uses of semiotics.
  • We often reify semiotics and/or fixate on them as if they were the real thing rather than the thing itself.
  • The Zen story that it is the moon that is indicated by the finger pointing at it and not the finger is a good way of making the above point.
  • When semiotics are reified or taken to be the thing instead of the thing, then poses, styles, stories, mental fixations, needs for status and status symbols, many “personality” traits, and many other symbols become more important than they should.
  • When this happens people get “stars in their eyes” and sometimes even glow with an imaginary inner “light” that is their fixation on the reified semiotic or some aspect of their reified “self.”
  • To a large extent, human societies are ruled by people who fixate on reified semiotics—money, power, false histories, false reasons for wars, the importance of their “noble lies,” their public images, their selves, their society’s aggrandizement, etc.
  • Since humans are novice semiotic beings, it all but follows that we would be led by hearty novices, many of whom are  blinded by the semiotic “lights” burning in their own minds rather than the actual societies they “lead.”
  • Most humans live in a semiotic environment that we treat in much the same way we treated the natural environment within which we evolved. We struggle and strive for reified semiotics rather than actual food and shelter in the natural world.
  • In FIML practice, a central point is how semiotics function in real-time.
  • It is also important to understand what they are and how they are connected to larger semiotic networks, but it is of central importance to see how they are actually functioning.
  • This is why FIML is more a practice than a theory. Once you see how your psychological morphemes are functioning in real-time, you can devise your own theories about yourself if you like.
  • A simple way to state the theory of FIML is “suffering is caused by constant failure to understand rel-time semiotics and if people have a method (such as FIML) to understand them, they will reduce their suffering.”
  • A more positive way to say that is FIML optimizes communication between partners and, by extension, improves communication with non-partners, thus greatly improving psychological health.
  • “Personality” is largely a small set of rules used to interpret self, others, the world, communication. These rules are used to reduce ambiguity and to provide a sort of fictional stability.
  • Since humans classify a great deal of existential information as stories, we tend to make stories about ourselves and others, or accept stories like that, as if they were real. Once again we see a reification of a semiotic (narrative).
  • In truth, we don’t know much about the past or present and even less about the future. In truth our lives and the lives of others are hugely ambiguous, ill-defined, unknowable.
  • That’s how it is. At least you can gain a much better level of certainty with your FIML partner, though even FIML analyses have limits. They work well on a human scale and we have nothing better, but even they are not perfect; nothing ever will be.
  • Much better is much better than no change at all.
  • FIML practice leads to less dependency on external social definitions (semiotics) and more rootedness in the experiences of your own life.
  • To be clear, semiotics are good. We learn from them and use them to think and communicate. Semiotics raise us out of ignorance into knowing and out of isolation into communication.
  • But once they have raised us, they frequently trap us. For example, you learn some things about history and politics and then decide you are a liberal or a conservative. Then what happens?
  • Most people get trapped in their semiotic “choice.” They can’t absorb counter-information or new information. They become trapped in the semiotic network of their political suasion.
  • Personal stories, personalities, our stories about others, the world, history, and so on are formed in much the same way. At first the semiotics raise us out of ignorance but eventually they trap is in another sort of ignorance.
  • Humans behave within their semiotic environments often worse than wild animals. We fight, destroy, cheat, lie, harm, and kill both with semiotics and because of semiotics.

Repost: Signals and subliminal signal associations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay close attention to that word best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

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

A signal-based model of psychology: part three

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

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

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

we can get clearer data on signals than by other approaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The meso and macro levels were defined as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A signal-based model of psychology: part one

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

Repost: Consciousness, Big Data, and FIML

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeterminacy of translation and FIML

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semiotic codes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When two wrongs make a right

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

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

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

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

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

What FIML is

FIML practice is mainly an act of the intellect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________

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