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.