Psychology and mental illness

The essay The Myth of Mental Illness by Paul Lutus hits hard. I agree with Lutus that there is a great deal of deceit and self-deceit in psychology and a grotesque paucity of physical evidence, but it’s not just psychologists who are to blame—many school teachers are involved in the support or even initiation of dubious psychiatric diagnoses while general practitioners are responsible for the majority of psychiatric prescriptions.

I still believe there is a valuable role to be played by psychologists, if only because they have spent more time with troubled individuals than most of us. That said, readers can make up their own minds about Lutus’s essay, which I recommend.

What I want to do in this post is point out the ways that FIML practice does not have the sorts of problems Lutus describes. FIML is not (yet) supported by large studies because not enough people have done it and we don’t have the money to conduct the studies. Nonetheless, FIML practice is based on real data agreed upon by both partners and in this respect is evidence-based, though the kind of evidence used in FIML practice is not the same kind that is used in large studies of many people. (Please see A Theory of FIML for a rough idea of how FIML can be understood from a scientific point of view, and how it could be falsified.)

In my view, FIML is a growing tip of science. It is an idea coupled with a practice or technique. It works with real data that is objective in that both partners must agree on it. It is based primarily on words just spoken, thus limiting distracting generalizations and ambiguity. It allows for and relies upon comprehensive mutual understanding of what partners are actually saying. Normally, both FIML partners will experience a sense of relief after a FIML session because both have achieved a fuller, shared understanding of whatever was in question. Normally, both partners will also be capable of describing the event in question in ways that are essentially the same. Ultimately, partners will realize that many of their FIML discussions have been arising from on-going mistaken interpretations that they had always believed were true. Partners will also come to understand that simply using language to communicate—indeed, to communicate in any way at all—will lead eventually to serious misunderstandings and emotional suffering if their communication is never analyzed in a way similar to FIML practice. And all of the above will help partners understand how neuroses (mistaken interpretations) are formed and how they perdure. And this will gradually free them from neurosis and, it is hoped, most of what we now call “mental illness.”

Today, FIML is mostly an idea. That’s how science progresses. New ideas are explored, improved upon, or discarded. Though FIML has worked very well for me and my partner, I will happily discard the idea of it working for others if it can be shown to be ineffective.

On this site, we have frequently tied FIML practice to Buddhist practice because: 1) several core Buddhist ideas and practices greatly support FIML practice; 2) Buddhism is fundamentally a truth-seeking enterprise, somewhat like modern science but with greater emphasis on the experiences of the individual; and 3) we believe that in many ways FIML practice leads to the same liberative ends as Buddhist practice–freedom from delusion, unnecessary ambiguity, false ideas, emotional suffering.

Ambiguity and context

An MIT study on linguistic ambiguity concludes that the human capacity for disambiguation allows us to use simple linguistic forms to say a lot. Our ability to disambiguate depends on our mutual understandings of the contexts in which words are used. (Link: The advantage of ambiguity)

I have no argument with these conclusions, but do want to add that our dependence on mutually understood contexts very often confines us to conventional semiotic interpretations. This is fine in many social settings–academic, religious, professional, etc. But with close friends or loved ones, it is a formula for interpersonal disaster.

As mentioned in other posts, the fundamental ambiguity of so much of our interpersonal speech requires us to form interpretations of what others are saying to us based on lousy data. We have to guess what they mean through context, facial expression, tone of voice, word choice, etc. And this means we are very likely to form false impressions even of those who are closest to us. Our false impressions will invariably lie somewhere on the spectrum that spans conventional semiotics to private neurosis. If you are guessing about what your interlocutor means you are almost certainly going to be wrong.

Being a little wrong can be fine for a while but it rarely stops there. The vast majority of us keep adding to our mistakes, eventually creating deeply erroneous impressions of each other.

Non-FIML sociology and Buddhism

Non-FIML sociology cannot but be based on and imbued with vagueness and uncertainty. Individuals make their ways in this foggy social environment according to their upbringing, experiences, and the different ways they have learned to negotiate ambiguity. Each non-FIML individual cannot but conform to or accept a position somewhere on the spectrum of private neurosis-public semiotics.

This is so because non-FIML individuals cannot attain interpersonal certainty; they can only attain a semblance of interpersonal certainty that is necessarily made up of many erroneous interpretations of the world around them, their loved ones, and themselves. Their understanding of themselves and of others will necessarily be made up of either private interpretations (that are sure to be largely false and thus neurotic) or public/cultural interpretations that are similarly just as false and/or too narrow or generalized (science, mainstream psychology, professional societies, religious or ethnic allegiances, etc.) to be fully satisfying to the profound needs of the individual. This is not to say that many individuals living in conditions like that are not happy, but rather that their sense of who they are and what they are doing is false, utilitarian, exploitative, slavish, or otherwise limited in one way or another. Individuals in conditions like that cannot but offend their deep-seated needs for interpersonal honesty/certainty by compromising their individual understanding of what the world around them means by accepting either prepackaged public explanations (public semiotics) or making up their own (private neurosis).

Most individuals in the world are, thus, contorted in some way. Some are deeply unhappy because they can sense something is wrong but have no way to grapple with it. Others decide to make their way in the world as it is, fully accepting, even enjoying, their perceived “need” to deceive themselves and others, to manipulate others, to take advantage of them, etc.

I think the above roughly describes a big part of what is meant by delusion and suffering in Buddhism. Delusion and suffering constitute the first two of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth says unenlightened life is characterized by suffering or dissatisfaction. The second explains the first by saying, briefly, that people suffer because they become attached to delusions. Delusions can be egocentric, sociocentric, or both. They can be a private neuroses or the very public madness of a whole society, or both. However you look at it, individual human beings will suffer and experience discontent under these conditions because their core sense of what is true is almost constantly being violated.

In the Buddha’s day, you fixed this problem by becoming a monk. You can still do that today, or you can practice Buddhism as a lay person. My feeling is that if you only practice Buddhism and do not do FIML practice, you will make a lot of progress but remain unsatisfied. Societies today are so large and complex, it is nearly impossible not to be influenced constantly by them. If you can join a monastery or build a cabin in the woods, lucky for you. Most of us, though, will continue to live among unenlightened people and will continue to have deep needs for highly satisfying interpersonal communication with our loved ones and close friends. FIML practice fits in right there. Since so many monasteries today are burdened with the weight of their own semiotics, FIML practice probably would be a very good practice even for monks, if it can be arranged.

In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, there is a story about heaven and hell. In hell people sit at a dinner table to eat but are forced to use chopsticks that are so long they cannot put any food in their mouths, and so they go hungry and feel miserable. In heaven, conditions are exactly the same, but people there use their long chopsticks to feed each other, so everyone if well-fed and very happy.

FIML practice is like heaven. By doing it we feed each other and grow more satisfied as we come to understand what the real conditions of this world are.

Incidentally, I am of the opinion, and many share this opinion, that Buddhists can and should work with the basics of the tradition to make it speak to them. I am fully convinced that FIML practice will open a very large door for almost anyone who tries it. Non-Buddhists can do FIML, but so can Buddhists. I do not see any contradictions between FIML and Buddhist practices. And I do see many advantages to augmenting Buddhist practice with FIML.

Public semiotics

This link is a good example of how public semiotics is maintained in the USA. Whatever you may think of Napolitano or the linked video segment, his popular show was almost certainly cancelled for his views, which are not mainstream.

I post this not so much for political reasons or to support Napolitano, but rather to illustrate how mass semiotics are manipulated by the corporations that control our news media. This is one aspect of the modern version of the First and Second Noble Truths. Delusion in Buddhism absolutely does not just mean being psychotic or “delusional” in the modern sense of the word, but also being ignorant or fooled by false information, manipulated into believing things that are not true. Modern Buddhists must have a sophisticated sense of where their news comes from and what the bases for their social/cultural beliefs are.

Metaphors, words associations, and paralinguistics

If we consider spoken language as a complex linear system, we will be able to use it as a pretty good standard for understanding individual psychology as well as interpersonal communication.

All words have words associated with them. Though we all share many of the same word-associations (coffee/beverage; booze/drunk; etc.), we also all have an abundance of word associations that belong only to us. I suppose this is fairly obvious, though I am not so sure it is well enough appreciated.

For example, we all know that coffee is a beverage and that booze can make people drunk, but beyond that each one of us has many other associations connected with these words, unique associations that have been gathered through years of experience. You may have pleasant associations with coffee and unpleasant ones with booze, or it could be the other way around. You may visualize the Caribbean when you think of either of these words, or Alaska. As the associations become richer and get further from the word that generated them, the psycholinguistic network they create will become increasingly complex.

If we could put diagrams of these associative networks on paper–including all of the images and feelings that go with them–I am sure that each person would be uniquely identifiable from just a few of them, in much the same way that we can be identified from our fingerprints. No two of us are alike in how we use and understand language.

The ways in which words, phrases, word-associations, gestures, tones of voice, expressions, dramatic poses, and so on strike each one of us are unique. This point is more than touched upon by an Emory University study, Metaphorically feeling: Comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex, that demonstrates that “texture-selective somatosensory cortex in the parietal operculum is activated when processing sentences containing textural metaphors.”

What this means is that when people hear a tactile metaphor (soft as silk), the brain responds, at least in part, as if the person is feeling silk. I would contend that this and similar sorts of extended responses within the brain (and body) are a huge part of virtually all interpersonal communication. In this context, what FIML does is allow partners to access these deep associations and sort them out rationally without becoming lost in different associative versions of the “same” linguistic event.

FIML does not have to always depend on language, but it helps to bring it back to the actual words spoken as much as possible because the other sorts of associations and emotions that are generated during speech events are simply too complex to sort out without a stable reference point most of the time. Actual short bits of speech provide partners with the best data that both can readily agree upon. The many associations that are connected to that short segment of speech are often a big part of the material of a FIML discussion.

How to view FIML

This article provides a good way of understanding what FIML can do for you: Anyone can learn to be more inventive, cognitive researcher says.

The researcher, Anthony McCaffrey, says of his theory: “I detected a pattern suggesting that something everyone else had overlooked often became the basis of an inventive solution.”

This is exactly what FIML does. Normally, we all overlook the indisputable fact that we simply do not understand one another a good deal of the time. We get impressions, we get the general idea, we trust, we love. But we don’t have good, clear understanding of the small units of communication, out of which our impressions of others are built. With most people in professional or formal settings, this does not matter greatly (or maybe it does but it is hard to fix in those contexts), but with close friends, and especially loved ones, not having a clear idea of what they are saying can and often does have very serious consequences.

What FIML practice does is show us how to notice what we are overlooking in our communications with our partners. Since both partners are equal participants and both are active in the practice, it doesn’t take very long to get good results.

Mistakes and communication

A fascinating aspect of FIML practice is it provides experiential evidence that a good deal of what we say and hear is mistaken. We frequently make mistakes when we speak and when we listen. A major part of FIML practice involves catching these mistakes as they happen and correcting them.

We have spell-checkers for writing and when they kick in most of us calmly–even gratefully–attend to the red lines under misspelled words. In speech, though, very few of us have the habit of even noticing when a mistake has been made, let alone correcting it. In fact, if one is pointed out to us, we might even deny it or try to justify it. Once we say something, we generally have a strong tendency to want to stand by our words as if we meant them even if we did not mean them, or only sort of meant them, in the moments just before we spoke.

What kinds of mistakes will you find through FIML practice? Pretty much any way you can think of to describe or categorize speech will constitute a way that mistakes can be made. A mistake might involve word-choice, tone of voice, pronunciation, a dramatic stance that doesn’t suit you or is misunderstood by your partner, not hearing, missing the main point, becoming distracted, using or hearing a word that carries an idiosyncratic emotional charge, speaking or listening from a point of view that is not well understood by your partner, and so on. Mistakes can and will occur in as many ways as you can think of to describe language and how it is used.

How often do mistakes occur? Often. In an hour of normal speaking you will surely encounter a few, if not more. Many of them are not serious and are of little or no consequence. That said, even small mistakes can have huge ramifications. If I misunderstand your respectful silence as indifference, my misunderstanding could start a division between us that is truly tragic because my mistake (however slightly I notice it) is 180 degrees off. If I see you behave that way again, I will be more likely to make that same mistake again and to feel it more strongly. It is tragic because I am interpreting what is in your mind good behavior as something that reflects negatively on me.

A speech act or an act of listening can lock our minds into a position that is dead wrong if we are not careful.

FIML practice prevents this from happening while at the same time providing a great deal of very interesting subject matter for partners to ponder and discuss. Speech can lock our minds into mistaken impressions, but it can also free us from limitations if we use it to do FIML.

In other posts we have called neuroses “mistaken interpretations” and generally used that definition in a context that supports the meaning of an ongoing mistaken interpretation. A neurosis is a mistake in thinking or feeling that manifests in listening or speaking and that almost certainly originated through speaking or listening. I would contend that many neuroses begin with nothing more than an innocent mistake. Once the mistake is made, it snowballs (especially in the mind of a child) until it becomes an established way of listening and speaking.

Whether that contention is right or wrong, only time will tell. For this post today, all I want to say is that FIML partners can and should expect to notice a good many small mistakes occurring almost whenever they speak together.

Generally, mistakes most frequently occur when we start a new subject or add a new factor to an old subject; when we want to say something slightly different from the norm; or when we want to add a slight nuance or qualification to something that was said. One reason this happens is a slight change in a familiar subject may not be noticed by the listener, leading them to misunderstand what is being said and react in ways that do not seem fitting. A second reason this happens is a new subject often causes both partners to call up different frames of reference, leading to confusion.

FIML will get you to see how common these (and other kinds) of mistakes are and it will help you correct them. As you do this, both partners will gain great insight into how they speak, listen, and perceive each other. Once you get going, it is a lot of fun. I cannot think of any other way to accomplish what FIML does without doing it.

From a Buddhist point of view, FIML can be thought of as a sort of dynamic mindfulness done between two people and using language. It is a very intimate and beautiful way to be deeply aware of your partner and yourself. Those who have practiced traditional Buddhist mindfulness for a year or more will probably find FIML fairly easy to do. I hope that Buddhists will also notice that doing active FIML/mindfulness practice with a partner provides a way of checking each other–someone else will have something to say about what you thought you heard or said. It takes you out of yourself and provides wholesome feedback about the mind you are being mindful about.

Why FIML practice works so well

Done properly, FIML takes the worst parts of communication and treats them as the most interesting. And they are interesting. I guarantee you will see yourself and your partner very differently after a few months of FIML practice. Vague impressions and uncertain emotions, many of which you may not even be aware of, will give way to an increasing fineness of detail and definition in your communications with each other. And this will have a major impact on how you view yourself, and how you talk to yourself. The same will be true for your partner.

Another way of looking at FIML is to understand that you and your partner are creating your own micro-culture. What is in your culture and how it works is up to you. I don’t think it will work well or last long if you do not have an ethical basis for it, but beyond that, the rest is up to you. As a side note, FIML cannot possibly work if one partner is dishonest. There is no point in doing it if you plan to lie. Please see How to do FIML for a complete explanation of what is meant by honesty and what its limits within FIML practice are.

As partners progress in FIML practice, they will notice that each FIML query becomes a sort of example that expands within the mind. Once you notice a mistaken impression in one area and have dealt with it, you will probably notice that that same mistake is being repeated in other areas. This will strengthen your initial insights and make it easier to correct other occurrences of that mistake. Once you succeed in this a few times, you will experience significant feelings of relief and an increase in mental and emotional energy because your mind is no longer working against itself in that area.

And all of this will make FIML practice easier and more fluid in any other areas that come up. Just knowing that you have done FIML successfully and that both partners are willing and able to benefit from further FIML discussions is a huge relief. Not much is going to bother either one of you because you both know that you have the tools to deal with whatever presents itself.

Remember that FIML is not about judging. FIML is not about consciously or unconsciously importing structures or judgments from the large culture around you into the micro-culture you are co-forming with your partner. An example of what I mean could be tone of voice. If your partner’s tone of voice bothers you, start a FIML query, but do not expect or look for them to apologize for it. Rather, look for them to explain it while you explain to them what you think you heard. If you heard derision, say, where none was intended, the mistake is probably all yours, though your partner may want to reflect on that tone of voice anyway. Both of you can decide how to deal with that tone of voice in the future. Do you want it removed from your micro-culture? Do you want to keep it but understand it differently? The choice is entirely up to the two of you.

Notice how important it is in this example that both partners be completely honest about what they meant and what they heard. If one partner lies and says there was no derision in their voice when there was, your FIML practice sucks. This is so very important because partners not only can but must co-form their own micro-culture. Another way of saying that is we do not want to import anything thoughtlessly from the larger culture. We want our micro-culture to be clean, clear, and honest. We want it to be something that both partners agree on without reservation or hidden motives. If one of you is lying, none of this is possible. A lie is essentially a hidden standard, a standard one partner imports in secret without telling the other.

Naturally, mistakes happen and people have their failings. If you are lying, reread How to do FIML and and stop it. Read also On the Importance of Honesty and the Decision to Believe. It is not that hard to be honest in FIML practice. But it is absolutely necessary.

To continue our example, another important point can be made about tone of voice in this context. Basically, who can say what is “derision” in someone’s tone or not? A flat sounding, no-nonsense, here-is-the-info tone of voice can easily be misinterpreted as derision when it is not. If you import the false notion that any flat, no-nonsense tone is derisive, right there you are placing a huge limit on you and your partner’s capacity for full and open communication. Not having any strong, no-nonsense tone in your micro-culture more or less condemns you both to not being able to get your own facts and make your own decisions for yourselves. It may very well cause or perpetuate a passive attitude toward your existence and your place in the world. Decide for yourselves what your tones mean and how to deal with them. Of course, we have to keep the standards of the larger culture in mind, but not so much that we surrender our wise autonomy to them.

FIML practice works because it integrates and focuses linguistics, psychology, sociology, and interpersonal communication all at the same time. We use our speech to find sound data points that can be calmly and reasonably discussed. This exposes our psychology while providing us with sensible feedback from our partners. This helps partners co-form their own culture without having to conform unnecessarily to the culture of someone else. And all of this frees our interpersonal communication from blockage, misunderstanding, fear, and so on.