Some problems with no-harm standards in human psychology

It is my understanding that there is a trend in modern psychology to move toward a standard for mental illness based on harmlessness.

Since it is so difficult to fashion a general standard of normalcy or deviance based on current criteria, psychologists want something that looks more objective, and harmlessness seems to be the best option.

Harmlessness is the core of Buddhist morality, as most readers surely know. Each of the Five Precepts is aimed at “taking it upon oneself” to not do the harmful behaviors of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or getting drunk.

Even Buddhism in just these Five Precepts recognizes the difficulty of gauging “harm.” Drinking in and of itself does not harm anyone. The reason it is the Fifth Precept is it is behavior that often leads to harm—violence, stupidity, heedlessness, or addiction. Some Buddhists interpret the Fifth Precept to mean no use at all of any “intoxicating” drugs or alcohol, while others interpret it to mean “no irresponsible use of alcohol” only.

The Buddha clearly indicated only alcohol in the Pali version of the Fifth Precept, but some today believe he meant more than just booze. When the words are changed to mean “intoxication,” one must wonder how to define that. Or why the Buddha didn’t say “intoxication” if that is what he meant.

What is “sexual misconduct”? Most modern Buddhists would define it simply as sexual behavior that harms someone, not as specific behaviors. The Buddha defined it somewhere, in part, as using the “wrong orifice” for sex acts, but most people today don’t think that way.

In Buddhism these various interpretations of harmlessness don’t cause too much trouble because the Five Precepts are for lay people, so there is leeway. And discussion of moral issues is usually beneficial.

In psychology it can be just as difficult to decide what constitutes “harm”or “harmlessness.” And it can be just as hard to figure out harmlessness as it is to decide what is “normal,” “deviant,” or “mentally ill.”

The well-regarded Hofstede Centre lists a number of variables, or “dimensions,” to help us understand how the cultures we live in affect our judgement of harm and harmlessness, normalcy and deviance, mental health and mental illness.

I think it is hard to disagree that our understanding of these matters is greatly determined by our cultures and that culture can be roughly analyzed based on the Hofstede Centre’s “dimensions.”

“Harmlessness” as a standard for “healthy” psychology  has other problems than just cultural variance, though, because “harmlessness” fails to consider psychological optimization, which arguably is the best sign of mental health. Our wanting to optimize our mental and emotional health accepts striving, a fundamental human quality, as an integral part of who we are.

But again the problem occurs—whose optimization? How do you define optimization? I would define it roughly as “positive extra harmlessness”—being proactive, doing things that help the self and others. But how do we define that?

Most of these questions will never be answered definitively. But as with Buddhism, never-ending discussion within the community is probably a good thing. Individuals can check in and out  of the discussion as they see fit. If you think you are doing your best to optimize your consciousness, your psychology, there is a good chance you are at least pointed in the right direction. If you think you are slacking, maybe you should speak with someone to get a different point of view.

Should psychology seek definitions of mental health that include optimization as well as harmlessness? I believe it should.

The elephant in the room of human communication

 …if a manager at work is grimacing because they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair, a person with increased oxytocin levels may think the manager is negatively reacting to what they are saying instead, which may potentially cause issues in the workplace.

Recent research at Concordia University in Canada has concluded that giving oxytocin to “healthy young adults” may not work. See High oxytocin levels ‘trigger oversensitivity to emotions of others’ for more as well as for the source of the quote above.

I don’t particularly doubt these research findings, but do believe that a much deeper problem—the elephant in the room—is lying right next to them.

And that problem is everyone is frequently faced with puzzles like the one cited above and no one has sufficient “emotional intelligence” or “social reasoning skills” to figure many of them out. All people frequently make mistakes in situations like these.

True, some do better than others and we probably can abstract a bell curve for this via some sort of test.

How do we define “oversensitivity?” Why would emotional sensitivity be a bad thing?

In the example linked above, it is true that most employees will never have an opportunity to ask their bosses why they are looking one way or another. But if they don’t even notice the possibility that their boss is reacting negatively, they are limiting their understanding of the world around them.

Language, facial expressions, and tone of voice in real-world communications are crude tools. There is no way around this fact. There is no “right sensitivity” or “right understanding” of any of these communicative signs that is out there somewhere. There is no stable standard for communication except in highly defined settings and contexts.

I tend to be against taking drugs for emotional “problems,” so I am not advocating supplementing your diet with oxytocin. My concern is how do you deal with communicative ambiguity? I guarantee that ambiguity is common is virtually all communicative acts.

If the ambiguity, such as the one cited above, occurs in an employment situation, should you be judged “emotionally sensitive” and in-touch with your “innate social reasoning skills” if you don’t notice it? Are you supposed to comprehend on the fly that your manager is sitting in an uncomfortable chair? How would you know that?

How could you possibly know for sure what your manager is thinking or feeling? It’s less likely but not inconceivable that your manager  is a nut who intends to attack you after work or fire you next week. There is no standard by which you can judge and be certain of what they feel or are thinking.

In intimate personal relations you can achieve certainty, or close to it, by practicing FIML with your partner.

If you and your partner do not do FIML or something like it, you will be more or less forced to cleave to some sort of “normal standard” for communication. But a “normal standard” for all communicative acts is not just elusive, it doesn’t exist.

This is the even bigger elephant in the room of psychological studies; indeed of all cultures everywhere. No standard for intimate communication exists outside of the one(s) you make for yourselves. If you leave too much to vague notions like “emotional sensitivity” or “emotional intelligence” without having the tools to actually comprehend communicative acts, you will consign yourself to many pointless misunderstandings, any one of which has the potential to snowball and disrupt your relationship.

A New Physics Theory of Life


The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Be sure to read the whole article, which describes this tremendous idea in more detail and is a must-read, imo. The original paper can be found here: Statistical physics of self-replication.

I suppose being conscious/aware is also a good way to dissipate energy.

False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant

In this article, we accomplish two things. First, we show that despite empirical psychologists’ nominal endorsement of a low rate of false-positive findings (≤.05), flexibility in data collection, analysis, and reporting dramatically increases actual false-positive rates. In many cases, a researcher is more likely to falsely find evidence that an effect exists than to correctly find evidence that it does not. We present computer simulations and a pair of actual experiments that demonstrate how unacceptably easy it is to accumulate (and report) statistically significant evidence for a false hypothesis. Second, we suggest a simple, low-cost, and straightforwardly effective disclosure-based solution to this problem. The solution involves six concrete requirements for authors and four guidelines for reviewers, all of which impose a minimal burden on the publication process.


Biology and religious belief

An Auburn University researcher teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to study how brain networks shape an individual’s religious belief, finding that brain interactions were different between religious and non-religious subjects. (Source)

The study can be found here: Brain Networks Shaping Religious Belief.

This study is based on fMRI imagery and thus is essentially speculative since fMRIs provide little more than shadows of blood flow in the brain. That said, it is interesting.

Competence versus performance

An important distinction is made in academic linguistics between competence and performance. This short entry in Wikipedia gives some idea of why—Competence versus performance.

FIML practice, unlike most academic linguistics, is centered on performance, not competence.

Through practice FIML partners will come to understand how their communicative performances affect them both. By extension, they will also learn how their performances in both speaking and listening affect other people.

FIML deals primarily with communication mistakes and their emotional impacts on both speakers and listeners.

FIML partners will quickly discover that they make many mistakes in speaking and listening and that when these mistakes are not corrected, many of them can have serious consequences affecting the well-being of both of them.

In a nutshell, FIML removes performance errors made between partners in real-time. By having a reliable method for removing misunderstandings as they occur, FIML partners will also find that they are able to pursue many more subjects with greater depth and intensity than they had been able to do before.

Many of the errors removed by FIML practice will more be of a “psychological” or emotional nature than a linguistic one. That said, it is important for partners to focus a good deal of their energy on specific linguistic mistakes because when both partners agree on exactly what was said, they will have excellent data that can be profitably analyzed.

Interesting paper on consciousness

From the intro:

This main aim of this paper is to introduce a new theory of conscious states that incorporates principles of physics, neurobiology and psychoanalysis. The theory is intended to assist our understanding of the makeup of the human mind, addressing such questions as: ‘how does the normal waking consciousness of healthy adult humans relate to other states of consciousness?’, ‘how does the human brain maintain its normal state of waking consciousness?’, and ‘what happens to the human brain’s functionality when non-ordinary states such as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep/dreaming, early psychosis and the psychedelic state occur?’.

The abstract can be found here: The entropic brain: A theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. The paper itself can be accessed through a link on the right side of that page.

Repost: Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world

Cognition materializes in an interpersonal space. The emergence of complex behaviors requires the coordination of actions among individuals according to a shared set of rules. Despite the central role of other individuals in shaping one’s mind, most cognitive studies focus on processes that occur within a single individual. We call for a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference. We argue that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment. Brain-to-brain coupling constrains and shapes the actions of each individual in a social network, leading to complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation. (Source)

Very much agree with this statement, which is the intro to a short scholarly opinion piece on interpersonal cognition.

The very basis of FIML practice is the interaction of two people. The FIML technique is designed to allow two people to become deeply aware of the (normally) elusive, idiosyncratic, and highly complex signalling mechanisms that are always functioning whenever they interact.

As partners become richly aware of this dynamic system, they will find they are able to change it for the better by removing mistakes and ambiguity. Mistakes and ambiguity are prominent—indeed, characterize—virtually all normal interpersonal communication. By largely removing these factors from their interpersonal communication, partners will experience significant improvements in communication, general awareness, and feelings of well-being.

The linked essay asks the following question: How to further develop principled methods to explore information transfer across two (or more) brains?

One answer is do FIML practice. Rather than study themselves from outside, FIML partners will study themselves as they are in all of their own unique complexity as uniquely “coupled brains.” In the terms of the linked paper, FIML practice is “brain-to-brain coupling” that leads to “complex joint behaviors” that cannot possibly “emerge in isolation.”

FIML practice provides a general “shared set of rules” that allows “complex behaviors” to “emerge” between two (or more) people. These “complex behaviors”, in turn, give partners the opportunity to control and transform how they “shape” their minds.

Neurosis as a semiotic phobia

Human beings are semiotic entities. We largely live in and react emotionally to semiotics. Virtually everything we think, feel, and believe is built on a foundation of signs and symbols—semiotics.

A recent German study elegantly shows that people with arachnophobia see spiders more quickly than people who do not fear spiders.

The study can be found here: You See What You Fear: Spiders Gain Preferential Access to Conscious Perception in Spider-Phobic Patients. An article about the study is here: Phobias alter perception, German researchers say.

The authors of the study say that there probably is “an evolutionary advantage to preferentially process threatening stimuli, but these effects seem to have become dysfunctional in phobic patients.”

I would argue that “these effects” have also migrated into human semiotics and are similarly dysfunctional. That is, humans perceive some signs and symbols as more threatening than they are. For some of us these signs and symbols can seem so threatening we become “phobic” or neurotic about them.

For example, insecure people may become hypersensitive to signs of rejection. People who have been abused or tortured may perceive signs that seem ordinary to others as serious threats. If the person who tortures you also smiles, you will probably see human smiles as being dangerous when to others they indicate kindness.

Once a semiotic becomes associated with strong emotions, and this can happen in many ways, we will tend to see that semiotic as an emotionally charged sign from then on.

FIML practice is designed to interrupt our emotionally-charged responses to semiotics the moment those responses occur. By doing this repeatedly with the same sign, FIML practice can extirpates the neurotic response to that sign.


Edit: Extirpating semiotic “phobias” or neuroses should be easier to do in most cases than extirpating phobias based on visual perceptions of things, such as the spiders discussed in the linked study. This is likely due to the more direct connection between emotional or limbic responses and the visual cortex. Complex semiotics are signs and symbols built on top of other signs and symbols, and thus their “architecture” is more fragile than direct visual perception and probably simpler to change in most cases. Human facial expressions probably fall somewhere between complex signs and direct visual perception. A good deal of what we call “psychology” are networks of complex semiotics. When a network becomes “neurotic” it is probably true that it contains erroneous interpretations of some or all of its semiotics. That said, a complex neurosis than involves many semiotic networks may be more difficult to extirpate than a straightforward phobia like arachnophobia.

Fabula and semiotics

Fabula are “the raw material of a story or narrative.”

I want to borrow this term to denote the raw material of a purposive conversation. For example, if I say to my partner that I want to have a salad for dinner, the notion or idea of that salad is a fabula that we can now discuss.

Our discussion of this as yet non-existent salad, this salad fabula, will include particular items, acts, and visualizations. For example, I may want sliced tomatoes in the salad, my partner may mention some olives in the refrigerator. We may both visualize our salad bowl and kitchen while we decide who does what.

Before the salad is made it is a fabula. The particular elements that go into getting the salad made while they are still only in our minds are semiotic elements.

In this sense, semiotics can be defined as the units or parts of a conversational fabula. We use these semiotics to discuss how to make what kind of salad.

We do the same thing with virtually all other conversational subjects. That is, we declare or grope toward determining what our fabula is and use semiotics to further clarify our vision of it. While doing this, ideally, we will remain open to real-time alterations and misunderstandings about both the fabula and the semiotics.

In these terms, most reasonable (and many unreasonable) conversations can be understood as two (or more) people negotiating* the “meanings” of their imperfectly shared fabula and semiotics. The fabula is a sort of context that defines the semiotics used in the discussion of it.

When the conversation is about salads, much of the process of going from a salad fabula to a real salad is straightforward and unproblematical.

When a conversation is about matters that are more ambiguous, subjective, emotional, or existential, there may be more problems because the fabula often will not be as clear as a salad to both parties. Or if it is, it may lead parties to quickly cleave to cliches or obvious explanations, thus limiting fresh responses or creative insights.

FIML practice can fix these problems by getting partners to clarify their fabula while also allowing them to alter it, or even change it entirely, as their discussion progresses.

The same is true at a different level for the semiotics they employ in their discussion—with FIML practice these semiotics often can be adjusted and clarified as soon as diverging understanding is noticed in either person’s mind.

Even if diverging understandings persist for some time, experienced FIML partners will be better prepared notice them when the opportunity arises.

A more complex example of this is an ongoing discussion my partner and I have had for several years. The basic discussion involves a strong reaction I sometimes have to cosmetic surgery. I admit that my reaction can be irrational and I can’t quite explain it. My partner frequently makes the point that I do like cosmetic surgery as long as I don’t notice it and/or like the results. We have gone back and forth on this quite a few times without ever getting a really good resolution, until a few days ago. The core problem had been that I do dislike the idea of cosmetic surgery, period. And also, I do recognize that it can be necessary and that if I like the results, I may be able to accept it even when it is not necessary.

We had never been involved in a simple dichotomy—like versus don’t like—but we both had been speaking as if we were. This was mostly my fault as I sometimes expressed revulsion at some forms of cosmetic surgery, but it was also not true that I actually liked the surgery if I liked the results or didn’t notice it.


*I mean the word negotiating not so much as making a deal but more as negotiating a narrow foot bride across a stream or negotiating a turn in an automobile. Negotiation in this sense is an effort between two or more people to make many small adjustments to arrive at a mutually satisfying result, the “meaning” of which is understood in roughly the same way by all parties.

Mitta Sutta: A Friend

“Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”

translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu


Repost: Why Smart People Are Stupid

This short article by Jonah Lehrer shows yet another reason that FIML works so well.

From the article: “The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.” (Emphasis added.)

Be sure to read the whole article as that is just a piece of the argument. I chose it because it is relevant to the introspective aspects of Buddhist, and other, practices.

For the record, I am very fond of introspection. But introspection, as we have said many times on this site, without a way to check our work has a strong tendency to lead us astray.

FIML practice helps us correct our very numerous mistakes in assessing the thoughts and stories of other people. At the same time, FIML practice disabuses our own minds of the many errors we hold about ourselves based on our mistaken stories about others.

We have claimed many times that FIML practitioners will be amazed at how often they are wrong about the thoughts and intentions of their partners. The linked article well supports this assertion.

The psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, as quoted in the article says: “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”

I believe him. This is how our minds (don’t) work.

FIML will probably not correct your general tendencies toward bias and misplaced confidence, but it will vastly reduce the number of mistakes you make about your partner (and thus yourself). This may not seem like all that much, but it is actually a huge benefit because when you have clarity with your partner, you gain a kind of emotional and psychological security that is deeply satisfying.

Humans are social beings, interactive social beings. When you gain verifiable clarity with your FIML partner you upgrade this fundamental aspect of your being far beyond what is possible by any other means I know of. FIML practice greatly reduces our need to rely on mistaken interpretations of our own making as well as the mistaken interpretations of the cultures to which we belong.

For Buddhists, this helps us to avoid the mistakes inherent in pure introspection as well as the mistakes inherent in accepting the generalities of the Buddhist tradition as it has come down to us today.