A signal-based model of psychology: part four

In the first three parts of A signal based model of psychology, we discussed micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding and how paying attention to these levels can make human signaling easier to comprehend.

In this post I want to discuss how human signaling is normally managed and, knowing this, how we can better understand how it affects us.

In truth, there are countless possible interpretations for every moment of every day if we choose to notice them. In the material world of doing familiar things in familiar surroundings, we handle the abundance of possible interpretations by simply ignoring most of them. We put our minds on autopilot and do our tasks by accessing rote procedures and memories.

In social situations, though the stakes may be higher psychologically, we do much the same. Rather than wonder about the vast majority of communicative exchanges with others, we generally put our minds in social autopilot mode and interpret what we are hearing and perceiving according to fairly simple rules we have already established.

These rules, or principles of behavior, in my view, are roughly what people mean when they speak of “personality,” their own or someone else’s. For example, an “optimistic personality” could with considerable explanatory power be described as being an “optimistic principle that governs the semiotic network of perception and interpretation.”

This simple rule—to always reduce the multitude of possible social interpretations to an optimistic few—saves time, reduces ambiguity, and presents a nice face to the world. With just this one rule, you can establish yourself as having an optimistic “personality.” Much the same can be said for other types of “personalities.”

I put personality in quotes because I think it is a dangerous word since it tends to lead people into believing that they actually possess some inner actor or agency that defines or “expresses” who they are. Once that mistake is made, people want to develop this agency of personality by adorning it with emotions, behaviors, and expressions. Before long, it becomes a limiting act. It is limiting because in essence all personality is is a few rules or principles that govern social interpretations; a few simple rules that reduces the plethora of possible interpretations to just a few.

Since our culture does this all the time, people having “personalities” seems ordinary and even satisfying. If they are simple enough, we are able to predict how others will behave as they will be able to predict our behavior. This situation is even sort of desirable in formal or professional situations. Large groups must function by following lowest-common-denominator rules, so having more or less standard or uniform “personalities” is in the interest of most if not all large groups.

The ways that large groups build group bonding shows a great deal about basic human signaling. We have to understand each other and, thus, in large groups we have to make it easy to do that by, for example, singing songs, meeting in the same places, wearing uniforms, listening to speeches, and confining ourselves to a few main ideas.

What having a steady “personality” too often does is bring large-group rules into intimate relationships. With friends, we get to wear more kinds of clothes, say more things, and generally relax more than we can in large groups, but the underlying issue of how we interpret each others’ speech and behavior cannot be satisfyingly resolved by resorting to the “personality” rules that govern our semiotic networks in large groups.

When we reduce each other to a set of “personality” rules or behaviors, we destroy our ability to analyze and interpret the rich micro, meso, and macro semiotic networks that are a major component of the human mind. When we do that to others, we often do it to ourselves. When you reduce the richness of your own mind’s networks into a few “personality” rules or principles, you are going to have problems. And when you do it to someone else, you both are going to have problems.

You cannot communicate deeply or richly by using just a few rules. You must have ways to access and analyze your own and your partner’s semiotic networks. Micro, meso, and macro levels of understanding, of course, lie on a continuum and it is not always easy to say whether something is meso or macro. But this slight vagueness doesn’t matter very much as long as you can manipulate individual semiotics, semiotic bundles, and semiotic networks.

Most people have OK abilities for analyzing meso and macro levels, but completely lack the capacity to even perceive, let alone analyze, communicative micro semiotics, micro signals. The reason this is so is communicative micro semiotics happen quickly. They appear quickly and disappear quickly. They last just a few seconds or less. When we fail to understand the importance of these micro units of communication, we reduce our capacity for meaningful analysis so greatly it is as if we had no analysis. Without a capacity for micro analysis, we become confined to meso and macro levels—to having simple “personalities” that follow simple rules based on simple principles.

I do admit that some people like it that way, and God bless them, but I also believe that a great many people are essentially crazy due to their inability to access and analyze micro semiotics with any other person in the world. People like that will feel lonely when with others, frightened, paranoid, scattered, unfocused, angry, deeply unsatisfied. They will feel these ways because micro semiotics will frequently affect them deeply and cause them to reach for explanations that cannot be confirmed (due to no communication in this realm).

The oldish word for that state is neurotic. It is my contention that a great many people are neurotic, anxious, depressed, bipolar, ADHD, and so on because a massive part of life is going on all around them and yet they have no way to access it, analyze it, understand it, or share it with anyone else.

FIML practice, by the way, will start to fix that problem in a matter of days or weeks.


A signal-based model of psychology: part one

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

A signal-based model of psychology: part three

Repost: 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 three

Two major advantages to conceiving of humans as signaling systems with micro, meso, and macro levels are:

  • we can get clearer data on signals than by other approaches, and
  • analyzing micro. meso, and macro levels allows us to see even more clearly how human signaling works and why problems occur

I will discuss each of these points in the first two sections below. In the third section, I will discuss some aspects of micro analysis of communication.

we can get clearer data on signals than by other approaches

Behaviorism is an approach to human psychology that developed out of the need to get better, more objective data on how the human mind works. Rather than work with self-reported subjective data, behaviorists sought to work with observable behavioral data that could be tested scientifically.

The behaviorist school of thought maintains that behaviors as such can be described scientifically without recourse either to internal physiological events or to hypothetical constructs such as thoughts and beliefs. (Behaviorism)

Much good has come from the behaviorist approach, but it is also limited because behavior, especially complex behavior, often has a rich subjective context out of which it arises. As with many other approaches to human psychology, behaviorists see the individual from too far away and too far outside.

If we look to human signals—and behavior is a signal—we can begin to grasp that human thought, feeling, and behavior can be broken down into discrete units or signals. If we analyze human signals “from the outside” or “from too great a distance,” however, we will see them only in outline or simplified form. And we will never be sure of how they seem to the signaler. Behaviorism, in this sense, can be compared to a general linguistic analysis, a general semiotic analysis, or a general psychological analysis based on some theory.

All of these approaches work at meso or macro levels of understanding, but not at micro levels.

analyzing micro. meso, and macro levels allows us to see even more clearly how human signaling works and why problems occur

In Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding, we defined the micro level as being:

…very small units of thought or communication. These can be words, phrases, gestures, etc. and the “psychological morphemes” that accompany them. A psychological morpheme is the smallest unit of an emotional or psychological response.

The meso and macro levels were defined as:

  • Meso levels lie between macro and micro levels. Longer discourse, a sense that people have personalities or egos, and the basic ideas of any culture appear at this level.
  • Macro levels are the larger abstract levels that sort of stand above the other two levels. Macro levels might include religious or scientific beliefs, political ideologies, long-term personal goals or strategies.

Of course all of these levels are part of a continuum, but it is very helpful to group psychological data in these three categories.

When we do so, it becomes apparent, with some thought, that very few humans communicate well on the micro level. And with a bit more thought, it becomes apparent that since we do not communicate well on this micro level, we are forced to use meso and macro levels for communication.

When we are in formal or professional settings or in settings with many people, there is little else we can do than use meso and macro levels for communication. Problems arise, however, when we use these levels to communicate intimately with people that are important to us.

Each human being has a rich inner world of micro understanding, subjective micro understanding. Some of us can communicate some of this micro inner world to others, but even when we do we tend strongly to use meso and macro perspectives and semiotics. But these levels ignore the deeply perceived reality of subjective inner being as it is experienced in real-time. When we ignore micro levels, they become turbulent and cause suffering.

Communicative micro data must be shared and analyzed in real-time for humans to feel deeply and fully connected. When this micro data is not shared and analyzed, humans are forced to substitute the memes and cliches of meso and macro understanding for the rich world of subjective being.

Clearly, no one can share micro data all the time. So when do we share it? We can share it whenever we want to if our partner is willing. And we can—in fact, we should or must—share it whenever we have formed a strong impression or noticed a strong impression or interpretation forming or arising in ourselves.

Sharing in this way, prevents what might be called “turbulence” within the micro-sphere. The more turbulence within the micro-sphere, the more emotional problems there will be. Why does not sharing our impressions and interpretations produce turbulence? Because that multiplies unknowns and variables.

practice over theory, or why theory without practice doesn’t work

A major problem with behaviorism, psychology in general, and even linguistics is these fields are dominated by experts who share theories, but do not provide techniques for actual micro analyses. If you decide to seek help for a psychological problem, you will either pay a doctor to prescribe a pill or pay a therapist to “guide” you based on some theory.

But significant psychological micro-analyses cannot be done in this way. A professional analyst can only help you with meso and macro contradictions, not micro turbulence.

Micro analyses must be shared by equal partners—who care about each other, not paid theorists—in real-time during real-life events. Real moments of communicative understanding or misunderstanding can only be grasped by the parties involved during those moments. Analyses after the fact do help, but relying solely on analyses of that type will never remove subjective micro turbulence. Furthermore, analyses of that type will strengthen tendencies to engage in meso and macro theorizing in place of doing micro analyses.

Most of us are so used to having subjective micro turbulence we think there is nothing we can do about it. Instead of working with micro communication levels, we fill our time with meso activities or pump ourselves up with “positive” meso or macro thoughts about things that will never be completely satisfying as long as there is micro turbulence.

One way to do micro analysis today is FIML practice. Links about this practice can be found at the top of the page. Honestly, I do not know of another way to go about it.

A signal-based model of psychology: part one

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

Repost: Consciousness, Big Data, and FIML

Modern neuroscience does not see humans as having a discrete consciousness located in a specific part of the brain. Rather, as Michael S. Gazzaniga says:

The view in neuroscience today is that consciousness does not constitute a single, generalized process. It involves a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes, the products of which are integrated by the interpreter module. (Source)

Computer and Big Data-driven sociology sees something similar. According to Alex Pentland:

While it may be useful to reason about the averages, social phenomena are really made up of millions of small transactions between individuals. There are patterns in those individual transactions that are not just averages, they’re the things that are responsible for the flash crash and the Arab spring. You need to get down into these new patterns, these micro-patterns, because they don’t just average out to the classical way of understanding society. We’re entering a new era of social physics, where it’s the details of all the particles—the you and me—that actually determine the outcome.  (Source)

Buddhists may recognize in these insights close similarities to core teachings of the Buddha—that we do not have a self; that all things arise out of complex conditions that are impermanent and changeable; that the lion’s share of “reality” for any individual lies in being attentive to the moment.

Notice how similar Pentland’s insights are to Gazzaniga’s—the whole, or the common generalities (of society), can be far better understood if we can account for the details that comprise them. Is an individual mind a fractal of society? Do these complex systems—societies and minds—both use similar organizational processes?

I am not completely sure how to answer those questions, but I am certain that most people are using similar sorts of “average” or general semiotics to communicate and think about both minds and societies. If we stick with general averages, we won’t see very much. Class, self, markets, personalities don’t give us information as sophisticated as the detailed analyses proposed by Gazzaniga and Pentland.

Well then, how can individuals cognize Gazzaniga’s “multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes” in their minds? And how can they understand how “the products” of those processes are actually “integrated” into a functional “interpreter module”?

And if individuals can cognize the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter,” how will they understand traditional psychological analyses of the self, personality, identity, biography, behavior?

I would maintain that our understanding of what it is to be a human will change deeply if we can learn to observe with reliable clarity the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter.” That is, we will arrive at a completely new understanding of being that will replace the “self” that truly does not exist in the ways most societies (and people) understand it.

FIML practice shows partners how to observe with great clarity the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter.” Once these process are observed in detail and for a long enough period of time, partners will realize that it is no longer necessary to understand themselves in the “average” terms of self, personality, identity, biography, behavior, and so on.

Partners will come to understand that these terms denote only a more detailed version of a naive, static view of what a person is. Most psychology is largely a more detailed version of a naive, static view of what a person is.

We see this in Gazzaniga and Pentland’s findings that are derived from complex analyses of what is actually happening in the brain or in the multitude of real transactions that actually comprise a society. We can also see very similar insights in the Buddha’s teachings.

It is my contention that FIML practice will show partners the same things—that their actual minds and actual interactions are much more complex (and interesting) than the general semiotic averages we normally use to understand them.

From a Buddhist point of view, when we “liberate” ourselves from “attachment” to “delusive” semiotic generalities and averages and are truly “mindful” of the “thusness” of the ways our minds actually work, we will free ourselves from “suffering,” from the “ignorance” that characterizes the First Noble Truth.