Psychology and mental illness

American Buddhist Net

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…

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we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots

Note: This essay describes how and why FIML practice works in terms of brain oscillations and the five skandhas. ABN

American Buddhist Net

This report–Brain oscillations reveal that our senses do not experience the world continuously–supports the core activity of FIML practice, which entails noticing the first instant(s) of the arising of an emotional jangle (that is typically tied to a much more involved “mistaken interpretation” within the brain). By interfering with the first instant(s) of arising, FIML practice forestalls the habitual wave of neurotic interpretation that normally follows. Instead, new information–better data obtained from the FIML partner–is used to replace the cue that led to the initial jangle, thus redefining that cue.

Professor Gregor Thut of the University of Glasgow, where the study was conducted, says of its results: “For perception, this means that despite experiencing the world as a continuum, we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots determined by the cycles of brain rhythms.”

I would further hypothesize that the same holds true for our…

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Signals and subliminal signal associations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay close attention to that word best.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A signal-based model of psychology: part one

Signals are fundamental to everything that exists. There can be no physical realm without signals and certainly no life.

What is a signal? Anything that transmits any effect to anything else is a signal. In this sense, all signals “mean” something, including the smallest signal anyone can think of.

The advantage of basing a model of psychology (not just human psychology) on signals is our fundamental unit of analysis is universal, including everything we can know and think about.

Our bodies do an enormous amount of signalling—both internal and external—without our being conscious of most of it. Many living and non-living systems maintain homeostasis through signalling that is non-conscious (or so we now believe). The laws of physics describe signals that explain, for example, how our solar system came to be the way it is and why it remains in homeostasis.

Signals also explain how non-conscious life-forms—viruses, bacteria, plants, your blood, etc.—have arisen and how they maintain their dynamic homeostasis vis–à–vis the ever changing environment that surrounds them and signals to them constantly.

Consciousness itself almost certainly emerges out of a network of signals. Conscious beings read signals in the environment while frequently signaling each other. Cats and birds use conscious signals extensively. Even life-forms that we believe to be non-conscious, such as worms and plants, send and receive signals constantly to each other, while also signalling internally and with their environment.

Draw the line between conscious and non-conscious signalling wherever you like. Then let’s jump to human psychology.

Humans are different from cats and other animals in that we specialize in signals. Birds are specialists of the air, fish of the water, and humans of signals.

Humans signal each other constantly with signs that can employ any of our senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and so on. Our preeminent signalling system is, of course, language. With language humans are capable of remembering complex groupings of signals. We are also capable of thinking about these signals and transmitting our understanding of them to others.

Right now, as you read, you are receiving a complex signal from me.

Consciousness is arguably our most precious quality. Human consciousness is filled with and based upon signals. For our psychological well-being—the well-being of our consciousness—the signals we send and receive to and from other human beings are of fundamental importance.

To say it another way, humans are profoundly interactive signalling systems and the quality of the signals sent between us and other human systems are of primary importance to our sense of well-being, our psychological health, our conscious sense of who we are and how we are doing.

When our consciousness is filled with or marked by clear, truthful, and ethically sound signals, we feel good. In those moments we do not suffer confusion, neurosis, or pain. When consciousness is filled with or marked by confusion, lies, and ethically unsound signals, we feel bad. In those moments, we suffer, often greatly. (Of course, there are exceptions to these statements. Injury and truth, to name two, can cause us pain and confusion. But the basic distinction made here works well enough, I believe.)

It makes sense, thus, to focus on human signalling if we want to figure out what makes us tick.

The science of human signalling is often called semiotics, which can be roughly defined as the study of signs and their meanings. Semiotics can and does also include non-human signs and signals, but for now let’s limit ourselves to human signalling. There are other sciences that describe human signalling, but semiotics, which emphasizes signs and their interpretation, will serve us well enough that we can temporarily ignore other ways of understanding human meaning—game theory, traditional psychology, anthropology, etc. Semiotics works well because semiotic analyses can be reduced to single signals; they have a distinct and clearly defined basic unit—the signal or the sign.

Why do we focus so much of our inquiry into human psychology on emotion? Emotion is inchoate, often even unfelt, until it is defined or given meaning as a signal or sign.

Emotions are real, but they are massively subject to cultural interpretation, to definitions that have arisen outside of the individual experiencing them. Culture is little more than a system of signs and symbols shared among a group of people. Human cultures have great variety because the signs and signals and the meanings of those signs and signals develop differently in different places and under different conditions. This fact alone should suffice to show that the meanings of human signs often are completely arbitrary.

As long as a bunch of people believe that the sun is a chariot driven by a god, that meaning of the sun will work as a cultural standard, or cultural element with varying interpretations. If most people in a community think the sun is the center of the universe, that will also work until a better idea comes along. If enough people believe that human hearts have to be sacrificed to keep the sun moving across the sky, that will also work well-enough to hold that society together. Wherever you look, you will find great cultural variety, much of it based on arbitrary decisions that have long been forgotten by the people adhering to that system of meaning, that system of signs that are signaled between members of any human society you care to consider.

Thus, in this context, isn’t it clear that focusing our inquiry into human psychology on emotion is going to provide us with many tautological results?

Similar statements can be made about many other elements of our traditional understanding of human psychology, including such elements as personality, neurosis, mental health, what being normal means, what our goals and desires are, and so on. The emotions and/or “psychological states” that these areas of inquiry deal with are vague and almost entirely changeable over time and place.

What is not vague are signals. When we ask what signals are and what their quality is we can get much better answers based on much better data compared to the answers we get when we ask only how someone feels and where those feelings came from.

How do we do that? More precisely, in the context of what we call human psychology, how do we analyze our signalling?

Is it valuable to compare my assessment of my internal signalling with “data” taken from “surveys” of other people who speak my language and live in a society which is sort of maybe the “same” or similar to my own? Yes, you can get something from that data but you will also make many mistakes because it is very crude, or general, data and will never fully apply to any individual or even come close to actually describing anything of significant value to most people. Such data will contain so many mistakes, it should be handled with great caution, if it is used at all. (You most certainly can fool people with that data. But that happens because many people will believe the data is scientific and provides an accurate metric that describes who they are. And that is an example of how a cultural semiotic can and does impose “meaning” on individuals; not hugely different from believing you have to sacrifice human hearts to make the sun go round.)

You can’t really get at the important signalling people do by using general surveys because your data is is coming from a tautological loop based on surveys that are generally put together on the basis of other surveys involving stuff like common words or feelings.

For psychology, for human mental health, the most important signalling people do is interpersonal signalling with significant other people.

When we try to figure ourselves out by remembering (a dubious exercise in so many cases) what our parents did or said or made us feel, we can get some useful information, but it is not that reliable and suffers from the same sort of misinterpretation as personality studies or studies of human emotion do. You can read whatever you want into it and/or be subject to the vagaries of chance interpretations.

The only significant interpersonal signalling 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 (signalling).

A mere observer (much less a surveyor) to this communication will never be able to know or analyze the data with anything approaching the accuracy or validity of the two people involved if those two people have a reliable method for gathering that data. Even if an observer has a video record of the exchange, they will never be able to know or analyze it with the accuracy of the individuals directly involved if those two people have a reliable method for gathering that data.

The day may come when brain scans can provide us with real-time data of that sort, but for now all we have is FIML practice, or something very much like it.

Positive neurosis

On this site, a neurosis is defined simply as a “mistaken interpretation” or an “ongoing mistaken interpretation.” Thus a “positive neurosis” is a mistaken interpretation that feels good as opposed to a “negative neurosis,” which is one that feels bad.

There can also be “neutral neuroses,” ones that have no positive or negative feelings attached to them.

The advantage of defining a neurosis in this way is we have a clear definition that removes the term from the ambiguous, and often mistaken, connotations typically associated with it. The disadvantage is being even slightly wrong about something trivial can be deemed “neurotic.”

And yet, even this disadvantage has some advantages. If you wrongly believe the capital of NY State is Buffalo, your mistake is easily correctable, though it could lead to more serious problems, depending on when and how you figure it out.

Examples of positive neuroses are as numerous as negative ones. If you believe people are happier to see you than they really are, that your unethical “oversight” is less important than it really is, or that your motives are purer than they are, you will be in the grip of a positive neurosis.

Yes, sometime positive mistakes can snowball well and lead to a beneficial recreation of reality, just as negative mistakes may inspire us to try harder. But generally, from most points of view, we are better off dealing with the truth than with illusions. Narcissists and cults frequently base their self- and world-views on positive neuroses.

The deep point in this is that most people have no way of determining what within them is neurotic—positive, negative, or neutral.

And we do not have a sure way of determining that about other people either.

How can you know for sure how happy your friends are to see you or how serious your ethical lapse was? We do provide each other with many signs and signals about these matters, but it is always going to be hard-to-impossible to determine how to interpret those signs. Maybe the person(s) sending you signals are lying to you; maybe they want your money or want to hurt you for a perceived offense.

How can you find out? Basically, you can’t. All of us (except for FIML practitioners) live in a ghostly, amorphous world that forces us to rely on publicly shared semiotics to determine who we are and what others think of us.

A case in point might be the Texas judge who as a prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence from a murder trial, leading to an innocent man spending twenty-five years in jail (see For the First Time Ever, a Prosecutor Will Go to Jail for Wrongfully Convicting an Innocent Man). The guilty party (the judge) in this case got ten days in jail, community service, a small fine, and a loss of his license to practice law.

What is remarkable, in addition to the disparity of sentencing, is that this is the first time in US history that a prosecutor has been legally punished for withholding important evidence from the defense even though this practice is fairly common.

Doesn’t that speak volumes about culture/society in the USA? A prosecutor, a supposed upholder of the law, can live with himself for twenty-five years knowing that he sent an innocent man to jail. And surely there are many others in his social and professional circles who do or abet similar deeds.

You can see the same sorts of behavior in all other human pursuits in the USA (and the world)—academia, medicine, politics, banking, business, religion, etc. People do these things not only because they can but also, in many cases, because they “must,” or almost must if they want to stay on their career ladders.

Furthermore, I would maintain that this also happens because too many people know how to exploit the ambiguity that results from virtually none of us knowing how to tell truth/reality from neurosis.

If you were a Texan and you met that judge at your club or wherever, you would be required to smile, be polite, and mutually “affirm” each others’ moral and social worth. To do otherwise might get you kicked out of the club or dropped from that circle of “friends.”

This is a nasty world, but what can a poor boy do?

The core problem is we have no way of knowing what constitutes a neurosis or how to tell if someone is free of neuroses. In other words, we have no way of knowing who other people really are. And because of that, we also have no way of knowing who we are.

I doubt there is a single person anywhere in the world who is not skewered, indeed gored, on this dilemma—I can’t know them and I can’t know myself without knowing them, so quietly, desperately I writhe.

Only the sociopaths enjoy this.

There are two ways out of this problem—1) accurate lie-detectors and 2) FIML practice. FIML works only with small numbers of people (for now), but it does work. It provides partners with a degree of certainty about each other that cannot be achieved in any other way. Without certainty anywhere in your life/social relations, you cannot but harbor many neuroses and you cannot but spend your time dealing with other people who have the same problem.

Repost: Signal quality

Schizophrenia is characterized in part by difficulty in telling the difference between internal and external signals. My guess is that virtually all “normal” people are characterized by their difficulty in telling truthful signals from bullshit.

Normal interpersonal relations are conducted with signals that have low resolution. By that I mean, signal references are rarely unambiguous. In fact, they are very often not even truthful. An ambiguous signal will frequently be interpreted wrongly and lead to problems as serious as those that result from untruthful signals.

The same is true in the public sphere.

Because low signal quality in the social/interpersonal realm is so common, we typically do not identify it as a problem. Furthermore, because we don’t know what to do about it even when we do notice it, we largely ignore it. But that does not mean it isn’t a huge problem.

FIML practice can fix this problem for participating partners. In the future, brain scans may help fix it in the public sphere.

Repost: A theory of FIML

Note: I don’t care for the term “personality” if it is taken too seriously. Used as a rough indicator of how people see themselves, it works well-enough in this essay, I hope. ABN


FIML is both a practice and a theory. The practice  is roughly described here and in other posts on this website.

The theory states (also roughly) that successful practice of FIML will:

  • Greatly improve communication between participating partners
  • Greatly reduce or eliminate mistaken interpretations (neuroses) between partners
  • Give partners insights into the dynamic structures of their personalities
  • Lead to much greater appreciation of the dynamic linguistic/communicative nature of the personality

These results are achieved because:

  • FIML practice is based on real data agreed upon by both partners
  • FIML practice stops neurotic responses before they get out of control
  • FIML practice allows both partners to understand each other’s neuroses while eliminating them
  • FIML practice establishes a shared objective standard between partners
  • This standard can be checked, confirmed, changed, or upgraded as often as is needed

FIML practice will also:

  • Show partners how their personalities function while alone and together
  • Lead to a much greater appreciation of how mistaken interpretations that occur at discreet times can and often do lead to (or reveal) ongoing mistaken interpretations (neuroses)

FIML practice eliminates neuroses because it shows individuals, through real data, that their (neurotic) interpretation(s) of their partner are mistaken. This reduction of neurosis between partners probably will be generalizable to other situations and people, thus resulting a less neurotic individual overall.

Neurosis is defined here to mean a mistaken interpretation or an ongoing mistaken interpretation.

The theory of FIML can be falsified or shown to be wrong by having a reasonably large number of suitable people learn FIML practice, do it and fail to gain the aforementioned results.

FIML practice will not be suitable for everyone. It requires that partners have a strong interest in each other; a strong sense of caring for each other; an interest in language and communication; the ability to see themselves objectively; the ability to view their use of language objectively; fairly good self-control; enough time to do the practice regularly.


One topic my partner and I go back and forth on is conversation.

We both wonder—though I do more than her—why so much conversation among adults is so limited.

My extended family, for example, is so limited in what we can say to each other that we resemble people at the beach who never do anything more than sit in the sun and occasionally toss beach balls to each other. If you push even just a little on any topic, you will be met with silence. If you try to move deeper into almost anything, people perceive the effort as threatening, or so it seems. And it has been like this for decades. My extended family is highly restrictive with respect to speaking and listening and nothing seems to ever change that. They are “nice” people but they do nothing to help each other think, reason, or explore the world of the mind. I wish I could say that I have been a saint with them all my life, but I haven’t. I do realize that for years I contributed to the problem by breaking too many “rules” and appearing threatening (I assume) to them.

And if you look beyond my family, the same is true with almost any group. Buddhists get stuck on pretending to be compassionate or empathic. Christians have to watch what issues forth from the mouth, or whatever that quote is. Both systems of thought demand keeping your lips together, if not always your legs. I wish Buddhism would augment the bad speech thing with a bad listening thing.

Group communication is so dependent on shared semiotics that if you do anything to push at those limits, you will be expelled from the group. How many readers have been to an academic conference? One that is large enough to roughly represent the fullness of whatever the latest consensus is but also small enough that you can view the sycophancy? They often function as nothing more than group-bonding and fealty-display sessions.

One of the causes for the stultifying limitations on conversation or discussion within groups is people simply do not know how to go beyond established limits without appearing challenging, aggressive, or destructive. This happens one-on-one within groups and not just in group sessions. Most all of us have been deeply trained to fear being different, saying something that might be taken wrong, that might reflect badly on us and not be forgotten. The training is so deep the fear permeates even families and small temples.

FIML can fix this if enough people do it, but even without FIML, I hope more people will think about this. The person who is trying to say something different or more or extra should be seen, much more often, as someone who is sharing a gift, not issuing a threat.

My extended family is filled with smart, caring people and I love them all, but dang do they suck at saying almost anything about anything.