The existential beauty (and chemistry) of updating beliefs

A new study shows that updating beliefs about the world requires and stimulates dopamine release in the brain.

Lead author of the study, Matthew Nour, from University College London and Kings College London has this to say about the findings:

“We found that two key brain areas of the dopamine system (the midbrain and striatum) appear to be more active when a person updates their beliefs about the world, and this activity is related to measures of dopamine function in these regions.” (Source)

Healthy people update beliefs when new evidence is presented. The study may also show that abnormal dopamine functionality is implicated in schizophrenia and paranoid ideation by interfering with normal updating.

The study can be found here: Dopaminergic basis for signaling belief updates, but not surprise, and the link to paranoia.

I like this study because participants were measured while changing minor, short-term beliefs.

Small changes in beliefs manifested in short-term memory lies at the heart of FIML practice.

FIML relies heavily on changing inaccuracies in the short-term memory bank because this data can be isolated and objectively agreed upon by both partners and because this data is by definition fairly small and thus easily changed.

A year of FIML practice may entail a thousand or more small updates in perception, belief, and self-knowledge. Each individual update is typically small, but the aggregate of many updates over longer periods of time creates the basis for very large psychological transformations.

And since these transformations are based on more accurate data, they lead to a more realistic view of the world and the self.

Moreover, by regularly making many small updates in their perceptions of each other and themselves, FIML partners are constantly exercising their dopamine “updating system,” thus strengthening their abilities to function well in any environment.

FIML changes can come quickly, but it is long-term practice that brings the best results.

The above study shows that something very real happens when we update our perceptions. I would maintain that making this happen often with meaningful psychological information through FIML practice leads to very significant and beneficial changes in psychological functioning across many domains.

Imaginary communication

Normal socially-defined communication—business, school, professional, etc.—operates within known limits and terminologies. Skill is largely defined as understanding how to use the system without exceeding its limits, how to play the game.

Many other forms of communication must be imagined. That is, I have to imagine what you mean and you have to imagine what I mean. This is so because the rules of  communication are not well-defined.

In many cases of this type I will imagine that you are normal to the extent that I am able to imagine what normal is. And I will imagine that you imagine me to be normal. As I imagine you I will probably assume that your sense of what is normal is more or less the same as mine. This is probably what the central part of the bell curve of imagined communication looks like. People in this group are capable of imagining and cleaving to normal communication standards. If you reciprocate, we will probably get along fine.

If my imagination is better than normal, I will be able to imagine more than the normal person or given to imagining more. If this is the case, I will tend to want to find a way to communicate more than the norm to you. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating. If you don’t, I might appear eccentric to you or distracted.

If my imagination is worse than normal, I will have trouble imagining or understanding normal communication. I won’t have a good sense of the cartoons we are required to make of each other and will probably appear awkward or scatterbrained to most people. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating and find comfort in each other.

Normal communication, even when imagined, is based on something like cartoons. I see myself as a cartoon acting in relation to the cartoon I imagine for you. If my cartoon fits you well enough that you like it and if your cartoon of me fits well enough that I like it, we have a good chance of becoming friends.

A great deal of normal imagined communication is cartoon-like, and being normal, will take the bulk of its cartoons from mass media—movies, TV, radio, and, to a lesser extent today, books and other art forms.

People still read and learn from books and art, but normal communication has come to rely heavily on the powerful cartoons of mass media.

The big problem with our systems of imagined communication is they are highly idiosyncratic, messy, and ambiguous. We have to spend a lot of time fixing problems and explaining what we really mean.

It’s good to have idiosyncratic communication, but we have to find ways to understand each other on those terms.


First posted May 25, 2014

American Pravda: The ADL in American Society

In our modern era, there are surely few organizations that so terrify powerful Americans as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith, a central organ of the organized Jewish community.

Mel Gibson had long been one of the most popular stars in Hollywood and his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ became among the most profitable in world history, yet the ADL and its allies destroyed his career, and he eventually donated millions of dollars to Jewish groups in desperate hopes of regaining some of his public standing. When the ADL criticized a cartoon that had appeared in one of his newspapers, media titan Rupert Murdoch provided his personal apology to that organization, and the editors of The Economist quickly retracted a different cartoon once it came under ADL fire. Billionaire Tom Perkins, a famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist, was forced to issue a heartfelt apology after coming under ADL criticism for his choice of words in a Wall Street Journal column. These were all proud, powerful individuals, and they must have deeply resented being forced to seek such abject public forgiveness, but they did so nonetheless. The total list of ADL supplicants over the years is a very long one. (Source)

Ron Unz’s American Pravda series is essential reading. His choice of subjects is fascinating, his tone measured and personable, and his arguments devastating. Buddhist readers in particular will benefit from Ron’s work because he clearly shows that public “reality” has many faces and that the most prominent one is often false.

Study identifies effective ketamine doses for treatment-resistant depression

A study led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators identifies two subanesthetic dosage levels of the anesthetic drug ketamine that appear to provide significant symptom relief to patients with treatment-resistant depression. In the October 2018 issue of Molecular Psychiatry they describe finding that single intravenous doses of 0.5 mg/kg and 1.0 mg/kg were more effective than an active placebo in reducing depression symptoms over a three-day period. Two lower dosage levels that were tested did not provide significant symptom relief, although some improvement was noted with the lowest 0.1 mg/kg dose. (Source)

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.


First posted 1/9/14

Notes on communication problems

A good rule of thumb is more efficient communication is almost always better than less efficient.

A few basic communication problems that FIML partners (and others) will surely encounter.

  • Whenever a new subject is raised in informal conversation, there is a great likelihood that the listener will experience some sort of mix-up concerning the context of the subject; the intent or attitude of the speaker; their reasons for raising the subject, etc. There is no way we can expect a partner to fully appreciate all aspects of a new subject we have just raised or why we have raised it. Similarly, when we are listeners, we cannot expect to fully understand what our partner is saying (or wants to say) when they are just beginning to raise a new topic.
  • This same sort of problem occurs whenever we raise a new aspect of an old subject. If we are speakers, we should be aware that our partner will probably not quite understand where the new aspect differs from the old. And as listeners, we will have this problem from the other side of the equation.
  • It is very common for speakers, especially when informally introducing a new subject, to be vague, unclear, even seriously misleading. In free-flowing conversations between friends, new subjects will be spoken about as soon as they arise in someone’s mind. This tends to generate imprecise speech and contribute to the points raised just above.
  • Similarly, the hearer of a new topic may understand the message very differently from the way it was intended.
  • It is much better to sort out these basic problems as they arise than to fall into the trap of arguing, accusing, or mocking each other, to cite some of the worst outcomes of these fundamentally innocent kinds of mix-ups.
  • “Suffering” in silence is not a good way to fix these problems either because the “sufferer” is actually experiencing nothing more than a common speech mix-up and not some ongoing “bad trait” possessed by their partner.
  • I am certain that FIML practitioners will be amazed and delighted to see (through practice) how often mistakes like this occur. What a relief to see how and why we may attribute a wrong intention to our partner and how and why to stop that process from going forward.
  • If a subject of conversation suggests another subject to one partner who then changes to that new subject, the other partner may not understand that they have to almost completely decouple from the old subject if they are to understand what their partner is now saying. Speakers will do well to make this explicit before going too far into the new subject.
  • Another common problem partners may have is slipping into a bipolar mode when none is called for. This means that if one partner says A, the other partner may want to pause and consider what is meant before jumping at saying not-A. It is easy to slip into talking in a bipolar (A vs. not-A) mode when a cooperative or exploratory mode is more suited to the subject.
  • Sometimes bipolar is good and necessary, but partners should not ever use it as a default mode. It is just one way of talking and should only be used when two choices have been clearly outlined.
  • Sometimes our questions (or statements) can lead to confusion in our partner because they may misunderstand our intentions for asking. For example, if I ask my partner if she is going to make salad now, I may just be wondering why she is cleaning the lettuce. But she may very well hear me saying that I want her to make some salad now. This sort of mix-up can be kind of sweet because it is often based on each partner being very considerate of the other. If she asks me, do you want me to make salad now? And I reply, no I do not. I may be replying that way because I want to save her the trouble of making it now. And then she will begin to wonder if I am just being considerate, and so on. This sort of thing can go on a long time. It’s best if partners learn to identify the ways these sorts of exchanges occur between them and how to step back and be very clear with one another.
  • This sort of mix-up also clearly shows that communication problems can and do occur even when partners are very considerate and kind to each other.
  • Just being nice doesn’t work in all situations. The key is to find out where the misunderstanding or mix-up is and fix it. If the only tool in your chest is to be nice, your partner (and you) is eventually going to find it impossible to know what you mean or feel. Is he just being nice again? Does he really not want the salad?
  • It is important for listeners to check with speakers about what they mean. And it is important for speakers to be able to clarify what they mean. Then it is important that the listener be able to understand and accept what the speaker is saying. And both partners must be honest about this at all times.
  • FIML partners will see how significant these matters are as they advance in their practice. An incident that may in the past have caused a big mix-up will be handled quickly and easily with FIML techniques.
  • Generally, it is very important that the listener not have the power to decide what the speaker means or meant. A speaker can be misinterpreted in many ways (even more than the ones discussed in this post) and it is tragic for anyone to assume full understanding of another’s speech without asking.
  • Indeed, this tragedy is so common and so serious, without FIML techniques between committed partners, mistakes are likely to occur even after asking the speaker.
  • This can happen because when a speaker is questioned, it is quite normal for most people to bristle or freeze or misunderstand why they are being questioned, thus forcing them all too often to say something inappropriate, misleading, stupid, even aggressive.
  • Once a mix-up gets going and its origin is lost to memory (often this takes just a few seconds), it is all but impossible to turn back and fix the problem. This is why we need to use FIML techniques as much as we can with out partner.
  • FIML helps partners see these problems (and many more) and deal with them before they can grow into bigger problems.
  • FIML also helps partners avoid resorting to public semiotics as a main way of preserving harmony in their relationship. Public semiotics in a private relationship can become very boring and unsatisfying if they are the only way partners know how to deal with mix-ups.
  • Some examples of public semiotics in this context might be employing stock behaviors, religious or otherwise; adopting roles that are designed to hide feelings; relying too much on unsatisfying habits; being extra committed to some cause as a substitute for genuine intimacy with your partner, and so on.
  • A mix-up denied is a mix-up multiplied.
  • Before quitting this post, I want to mention one more speech act that can feel weird to the speaker and may be insufficiently appreciated generally. It is saying something more or less definite about a subject that you know you don’t fully comprehend. For example, I have an alcoholic friend and whenever I say anything about that person or alcoholism I feel a terrible mix of shame, guilt, sadness, meanness, weak hope, utter befuddlement. Friends or relatives of alcoholics will probably know what I mean by this. It happens because we don’t well-understand alcoholism and don’t know how to cure it in many cases. And yet we have to say something sometimes; sometimes we have to make decisions about alcoholics. Some other examples might be speaking with certainty about something we are not certain of; speaking too highly about something or not speaking highly enough about it.
  • I hope FIML partners (and others) will take note of the many ways they can and will misunderstand each other. And I hope they will use FIML (or some other similar technique) to correct these misunderstandings as soon as they happen.


First posted June 2, 2012