The limits of general semiotic analyses as applied to human psychology

Much of the work done in human semiotics involves analyses of semiotic codes.

Semiotics and semiotic codes are often treated like language or languages for which a grammar can be found.

One obvious problem with this sort of approach is semiotics indicates a set that is much broader than language. Stated another way, language is a subset of semiotics.

Human semiotics also include music, imagery, gesture, facial expression, emotion, and anything else that can communicate either within one mind or between two or more minds.

It is very helpful to analyze semiotic codes and it is very helpful to try to figure out how cultures, groups, and individuals use them. We can compare the semiotics of heroism in Chinese culture to that of French culture. Or the semiotics of gift-giving in American culture to that of Mexican culture. We can analyze movies, literature, science, and even engineering based on semiotic codes we have abstracted out of them.

We can do something similar for human psychology.

Analyses of this type are, in my view, general in that they involve schema or paradigms or grammars that say general things about how semiotic systems work or how individuals (or semiotic signs themselves) fit into those systems.

This is all good and general analyses of this sort can be indispensable aids to understanding.

General semiotic analyses are limited, however, in their application to human psychology because such analyses cannot effectively grasp the semiotic codes of the individual. Indeed general analyses are liable to conceal individual codes and interpretations more than usefully reveal them.

This is so because all individuals are always complex repositories of many general semiotic codes as well as many individual ones. And these codes are always changing, responding, being conditioned by new circumstances and many kinds of feedback.

Individuals as repositories of many codes, both external and internal, are complex and always changing and there is no general analysis that will ever fully capture that complexity.

For somewhat similar reasons, no individual acting alone can possibly perform a self-analysis that captures the full complexity of the many and always-changing semiotic codes that exist within them.

Self-analysis is far too subject to selection bias, memory, and even delusion to be considered even remotely accurate or objective. The individual is also far too complex for the individual to grasp alone. How can an individual possibly stand outside itself and see itself as it is? Where would the extra brain-space come from?

How can a system of complex semiotic codes use yet another code to successfully analyze itself?

Clearly, no individual human semiotic system can ever fully know itself.

To recap, 1) there is no general semiotic analysis that will ever capture the complexity of individual psychology, and 2) no individual acting alone can ever capture the complexity of the semiotic codes that exist within them.

Concerning point two, we could just as well say that no individual acting alone can ever capture the complexity of their own psychology.

We are thus prevented from finding a complex analysis of human psychology through a general analysis of semiotics and also through an individual’s self-analysis when acting alone.

This suggests, however, that two individuals acting together might be able to glimpse, if not grasp, how their complex semiotic codes are actually functioning when they interact with each other. If two individuals working together can honestly observe and discuss moments of dynamic real-time semiotic interaction between them, they should be able to begin to understand how their immensely complex and always-changing psycho-semiotic codes are actually functioning.

An approach of this type ought to work better for psychological understanding of the individuals involved than any mix of general semiotic analyses applied to them. Indeed, prefabricated, general semiotic analyses will tend to conceal the actual functioning of the idiosyncratic semiotics and semiotic codes used by those individuals.

The FIML method does not apply a general semiotic analysis to human psychology. Rather it uses a method or technique to allow two individuals working together to see and understand how their semiotics and semiotic codes are actually functioning.

Microaggression and FIML

I have been seeing a lot of stuff about microaggression recently.

The term interests me because FIML is all about micro impressions.

When done with a caring partner, FIML is designed to correct mistaken impressions or interpretations that often derive from micro impressions and/or manifest as micro expressions.

Anyone who has done FIML for more than a few months surely must be aware that we create wrong impressions of even our most trusted partners frequently.

A wrong impression often snowballs, leading to a wrong interpretation that after festering can be much harder to correct than the original micro impression.

So between friends, and especially FIML partners, the perception of micro aggression can and should be noticed and dealt with immediately or as soon as possible. It is basic to FIML practice that even a single uncorrected wrong impression can lead to serious divisions between people.

In this sense, I heartily accept the idea of microaggression being a thing. In fact, I believe it is such a thing that it happens all the time, especially if you mean micro mis-impressions and not just microaggression.

But the term microaggression means something different from the above, though the central concepts are related. Wikipedia has this short definition of microaggression:

…the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination.

The main difference is “without conscious choice of the user.” FIML is all about being conscious. Both parties being conscious.

If I perceive something in your speech, demeanor, or behavior that makes me think that maybe you are disrespecting me or mad at me or or suspicious of me or something like that, then if you are my FIML partner I am basically required to ask you about it if there is time.

In FIML, the asking is done without prejudgement. I simply ask “what was in your mind when you made that expression or said those words or did that thing.” Your answer must be honest. If you don’t trust your partner to be honest, you can’t do FIML (though you can start trying and see if either or both of you changes).

If your partner answers honestly and you do not perceive an iota of what you thought was in their mind, that part of the event is finished. If when the person spoke or acted they had no nothing about doing what you thought they might be doing, you are done with it. You no longer have any right to further impute your thing onto them.

You can if you want, and this is encouraged, continue to discuss the matter. For example, you might say: “From your response, I can tell that you were not disrespecting me and I am delighted to find that out. That’s a huge relief for me because I have spent much of my life reacting to people who do that as if they were disrespecting me. It’s weird to hear that I am wrong in this case and it makes me wonder if I have been wrong in other cases.”

Then the two of you can discuss that. I know one person who frequently reacts to educated northeast American accents as being “imperious” or “arrogant” when they are not. (Don’t get me started on all the many phrases and attitudes in culture that wrongly limit speech and thus culture itself—“condescending,” “know-it-all,” “argumentative,” “imperious,” etc.)

So, if two friends are having problems between themselves with microaggression, they are prime candidates for FIML practice. Of course, any two friends who are having any problems with micro impressions (all friends all the time) are prime candidates for FIML. (You cannot but have these problems.)

But microaggression as the word is being used today is not something FIML can deal with directly because it is

…the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination.

The important words here are “known social norms,” “without conscious choice” leading to “discrimination.”

I don’t know how to unpack that. From a FIML point of view, my guess is behaviors that could potentially be identified as “microaggression” according to that definition would be in the range of dozens per day per every person in the world. Maybe more.

An example many readers will remember is Michelle Obama reacting to a customer in Target asking her to hand them something they could not reach.

I tell this story – I mean, even as the first lady – during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf.

If even the president’s wife can get something so ordinary so wrong, you can see the scope of the problem. In the same interview, the president himself mentioned being “mistaken for a waiter.”

Both later downplayed their comments because they had to. Microaggression is an inherently super-ambiguous term open to a multitude of interpretations every time it is used.

In FIML, we find that micro-mistakes are real and dangerous. They are not ignored but addressed immediately because they can be so serious. Relevantly, in my experience with FIML a great many micro-impressions that I form are simply dead wrong. Most of them are wrong. I can’t enter that as evidence because the world does not have enough FIML practitioners for me to do a study on it. However, I do suspect that a great many micro-impressions of or impressions of microaggression are wrong.

Many of us laughed or thought it was ridiculous for Michelle Obama to bristle at having a short person ask her for help because we all have been on one side or the other of an exchange like that and thought nothing of it. I have been mistaken for a store employee or construction worker more than once and never thought anything of it, except maybe to feel slightly flattered that someone thought I looked like I knew what I was doing.

Another problem with the notion of politicizing microaggression (because that is what the term is about) is whose microaggression against whom?

I have strabismus, lazy eye. Even though the condition has been surgically corrected, I still cannot maintain a direct friendly gaze for long periods of time. This means that many people are led to misinterpreting my micro expressions (I start to look down) as me being bored, tired, or not friendly when all that is happening is my eye is so tired it starts to blur and needs to look away.

I know this from years of experience and because some people tell me what they are thinking. One in twenty or twenty-five people have strabismus. Add in other eye conditions with similar problems and you will get much higher percentages. Add hearing problems, attention-deficit problems, autism problems, and so on and you can include most people in the world having difficulties with micro-expressions and how they are being interpreted by others.

If someone from a different culture or race or neighborhood interprets my strabismus as microaggression (boredom with them or condescension toward them rather than simple fatigue), they will get it all wrong. And there is little or nothing I can do about it.

I even tell people about strabismus sometimes. I explain what it does. They say they understand, but very few of them really do. Only very close friends or people who have similar eye problems understand well enough that it stops being an issue with them.

Moreover, strabismus and other eye problems can lead to problems with facial recognition. So the person in the store that asked Michelle Obama for help may have also had facial recognition problems. I have that problem, too, and I seriously doubt that I would recognize Michelle Obama if I saw her in Target.

So, sorry, I don’t have any really good answer to how to understand microaggression or deal with it. On a personal level with friends or FIML partners, micro-impressions are what we want to work with as much as we can. On a societal level, you can hardly do anything about it. A super-smart person might be able to become aware of a good many of the difficulties faced by people in the world, but even that person will miss many of them or misinterpret what they perceive even if they “know” the right thing to do.

At the abstract heart of the problem there is probably a measurement or resolution problem. Simply stated, no person can ever possibly do perfect microanalyses all the time in all situations with all people. Far from it. Thus, it is a sort of “reverse microaggression” to demand or expect that they can or will or should.

I suppose we can and should become more aware of how complex people are and how difficult it is to know even one other person well, or even to know yourself well. But nothing that I can think of will ever relieve us of the difficulty of dealing with the immense number of micro-impressions we all give and receive every minute of every day.

Mindfulness and FIML

Here is one definition of mindfulness from the Buddha himself:

And what, monks, is the faculty of mindfulness? Herein, monks, a noble disciple is mindful and is endowed with the highest prudence in mindfulness; he is one who remembers and recollects even what is done or said long ago. This, monks, is called the faculty of mindfulness.

— S V 197 (Source)

This short film illustrates another definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness can mean many things, but central to the definition is deep and abiding awareness of what is actually going on, what is actually being thought and perceived, what is being said and what is being heard. Buddhists practice basic mindfulness in ways shown in the film, but we can also be mindful of how we communicate, how we listen and how we speak.

How can we be mindful of how we listen and speak? One way is to pay attention to ourselves. But if we only pay attention to ourselves, we will become solipsists or narcissists. We can also pay attention to others, but how do we normally do that?

Most people pay attention to others by using heuristics as Anderson Cooper does in the film linked above. He is very sophisticated, smooth, pleasant, and surely a good listener. But what that really is is an act, a professional mixture of American semiotics and American heuristics, slightly individualized in Cooper.

Cooper is not deeply aware of the people he is interviewing, though he may be moved by what they say. At best, he can only be aware of what he hears and how he interprets that. Similarly, the mindfulness master in the film, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is not a mind-reader. He cannot be any more deeply aware of others than Cooper can, or than others can of him. Yes, some people have more life experience or are smarter than others, but this only increases their deep awareness a little bit, if that. It might even lead them to worse deep awareness.

The only way to be deeply aware of another person—to be deeply mindful of what they are saying or hearing—is to ask them. And the only way to do that deeply is to do FIML.

If you just ask in the usual ways and they just answer, you will experience an exchange like the one in the film. Interesting, but there is no profound subjective data coming from either Cooper or Kabat-Zinn.

If we rely exclusively on cultural heuristics like those in the film to interact with our closest friends, we will succeed in interacting with them solely on that level*. And when we are restricted to that level, as most of us are, we cannot be deeply mindful of any other human being.

We can be mindful of what they are wearing what we think they said or meant or felt, but not them. Only FIML gives us deep access, mindful access, to others. And in the sense that how we communicate with others affects how we communicate with ourselves—how we understand ourselves—we can only become deeply aware of ourselves if we practice FIML with at least one other person. FIML might even be called “dynamic mindfulness.”

______________________

* Adding quantity—many exchanges with another person—does not fix the problem. Your relationship will look and feel more complex, but it still is not one characterized by deep awareness.

Repost: Idiotics and mental illnes

In a previous post (here), we defined idiotics to mean a combination of “idio” and “semiotics.” A person’s idiotics are unique to them and are not the same as the idioitcs of any other person.

Idiotics is a useful term as it allows us to denote the tangled web of meaning and symbology that underlies language and is woven into everything we say or do.

When there is no organic cause for mental illness, we would be right to strongly suspect that the source of the “illness” lies in the individual’s idiotics—the unique web of meaning and sensibility that gives rise to their perceptions, communicative acts, and self-awareness.

Since idiotics underlie language, cognition, and perception and give rise to virtually all acts of communication, a person with disturbed idiotics will also show disturbances in these areas.

Why do we need a separate term—idiotics—to describe mental/emotional problems when existing terms already work well enough?

The reason is the core problem in mental illness without an organic cause is not speech, not communication, not perception, and not cognition. The core problem is a person’s uniquely acquired and uniquely interconnected semiotics, their idiotics when these are  filled with mistakes.

If we investigate only a person’s experience and extrapolate from that “causes” of their mental illness, we will very often be led astray because we will be attempting to cure a fairly concrete malady by addressing the ambiguities of memory and the falsity of self-assessment through the use of a subjective appraisal based on a general theory. It doesn’t matter that vague statistics can and have been compiled on what kinds of experiences lead to what sorts of mental disturbances, because there are as many exceptions and deviations from these data as there are comformances to them. At best, data of this sort describes correlations. But correlations of what? No one can really say.

If we use a concept like idiotics, we can begin to work with good data that can be called objective by many standards. The gold standard for working with data of this sort is FIML practice and the gold standard of psychological objectivity between two people is the degree to which they can agree on what has just been said or communicated. If both partners agree on what was just said, their standard of objectivity is quite high, probably as good as can be achieved without very sophisticated brain scanning equipment, which does not yet even exist.

When a patient works with a professional analyst, this high degree of objectivity cannot be attained. This is so because the analyst, at best, can only rely on an extrinsic standard of objectivity and this standard is fully subject to the faulty idiotics of the analyst herself. If an analyst tries to avoid this problem by sticking strictly to “objective” extrinsic standards, she will fail to address the subjective, intrinsic idiotics of the patient she is trying to help. She can only communicate with her patient on a useful level by engaging the patient’s idiotics with her own. But there rarely is enough time for this and it is unlikely that patient and analyst will be compatible for this sort of practice.

So what’s an analyst to do? If the patient has a friend they can do FIML with or if such a friend can be found for them, teach them how to do FIML. Check on them often enough to be sure they are doing it correctly. In some cases, advanced instruction can be given in areas of particular interest to the FIML partners if the analyst feels competent to do so.

What about patients who have no friends and for whom no friends can be found? Or patients who are not capable of doing FIML? Patients of this type can and should be treated by the other best practices of the day.

What we can and cannot access

  • There is external speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is external speaking/listening that we cannot access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we cannot access

It is generally accepted that humans can comprehend things more than they can speak about them. That is, we can work with or get more information from listening than we can actively speak about. We have much greater access to what we receive (hear, read) than what we can output (speak, write).

For example, even though I am not a professional historian, I will be able to listen to a lecture about the Civil War and understand all or most of what I am hearing, but after the lecture I will only be able to output or speak about some parts of it. Another example is second language learners who are virtually always able to comprehend more than they can say. Another example is we can watch someone do something as they explain it, say cook a complex recipe, and understand what they are doing and saying but not be able to do it or explain it ourselves.

These are examples of external speech that we can access through hearing but cannot access as well through speaking. I can understand what you are saying but am not able to explain it to someone else.

An example of external speech that we cannot access through hearing is a very difficult lecture or book on a subject we know nothing about, say higher math or chemistry. Another example might be explaining to an old person how to use a computer if they have never used one before. Even as they try to grasp it, you can see they don’t really understand it well at all.

A more interesting example of external speech that we cannot access well might be the speech of someone who is willing to speak more openly about subjective states than we are. We can hear what they are saying but may not fully comprehend it because we don’t have a model for it. What they are saying may sound weird or inappropriate or even threatening when the truth is they are simply more used to hearing about subjective states and thus more able to speak about them.

These last points are crucial. We can only listen to and deeply comprehend things we have already heard about before. We don’t need to have all the details but we do need to have some sort of general concept of what the person is saying. In this same vein, we can only speak deeply about things we have already heard about, whether through external speech or internal speech. We can listen to others, or read their work (external speech), and from that learn how to communicate their ideas to others. Or we can listen to ourselves, to our internal speech, and from that learn how to communicate our ideas to others.

If a person has no experience—neither external nor internal—with listening to speech about subjective states, they will not be able to speak about their own subjective states and may hardly realize they even have subjective states. If they hear a little external speech about subjective states and do a little internal speaking about them, they will only be able to grasp subjective states to roughly that degree.

In an earlier post (Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding), I discussed how most people in the world do not have access to micro levels of understanding of themselves or others. This lack of access to both listening and speaking about micro semiotics forces almost everyone everywhere to confine their speaking and listening to meso and macro levels.

We get our meso and macro levels from TV, media, religion, education, general psychology, etc. But no matter how erudite you are in those media and styles of understanding, you will almost certainly still be highly deficient in micro semiotics. That is, you will not have wide access to or understanding of your own subjectivity because you cannot access micro levels and speak about them. To say nothing of understanding the subjectivity of others.

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.

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

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

A signal-based model of psychology: part 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.