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—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.” (Study: The Ground Side of an Object: Perceived as Shapeless yet Processed for Semantics)
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.