Fractals in the humanities

“A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” (Wikipedia)

Most of us know what math fractals look like and understand that shorelines and trees exhibit fractal patterns that display at different scales.

I think we can also see fractal patterns or sets in the humanities.

For example, the five skandha explanation in Buddhism to be fully understood must be conceived of as a fractal pattern that repeats at different scales. The normal explanation of the five skandhas is as follows:

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness. (Ibid.)

This explanation describes the most basic fractal pattern or the smallest one. “…the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly.”

A simple example of this rapid movement of the five skandhas might be the experience of having something suddenly touch your neck. Your first awareness of this is the form. Your next awareness is the sensation; at this point you react with aversion, attraction, or neutrality. If you are outside, you might react with aversion as you perceive (third skandha) the touch to probably be an insect. Following that, there is often rapid physical activity (fourth skandha) as you involuntarily reach to brush it away. After that has been done, you will determine what actually happened, you will become conscious (fifth skandha) of what happened.

If it was an insect you might shudder or feel relieved. If it was a leaf on a tree branch you might feel a bit foolish. Your consciousness of the event comes after the first four skandhas have arisen or occurred.

A larger fractal version of the above might be the feeling (form, or first skandha) that you are ignorant about something. This form gives rise to an aversive sensation (second skandha), which leads you to perceive (third skandha) that you ignorance is probably something you should correct. This leads to mental activity (fourth skandha) which may require months of your time. At last, when you are satisfied that you are no longer ignorant on that subject, you will experience a new state of consciousness (fifth skandha).

In the above example, your ongoing feeling of ignorance as you study the subject might also be described as the fifth skandha, consciousness. Understanding that the five skandha explanation is a fractal pattern to be used to help you understand yourself will allow you to apply it where it can do the most good. As with so many things in the humanities, you will do better if you see the pattern and use it to aid understanding without letting yourself get trapped in a quasi-logical net that hinders understanding.

FIML practice can be seen as a fractal pattern as well. The smallest, or most basic level, is the basic FIML query which interrupts normal communicative processing to insert rational thought and more accurate information. The FIML query interrupts the mind as soon as the second skandha, sensation, arises. Whenever partners question a sensation, they will immediately change all of the five skandhas associated with it. Rather than follow a semi-conscious sensation down the same associative path as usual, partners gain an entry point to their deep psychology and an awareness of how their communications are affected by it.

A larger fractal pattern of FIML, might be hearing about it (form); feeling interested in it (sensation); perceiving what it is; learning the system (activity); and lastly gaining a new consciousness about how language can be made to work much better than without FIML.

FIML is a tool that helps partners leverage communicative details to gain great insight into how their minds work. Since FIML is not (yet) the rule for how people speak to each other, a non-FIML fractal pattern can be seen in society at large: since most people do not have a way to access the highly important details that FIML can access, they do not expect anyone else to access them. Thus, by default they accept horribly sloppy reasoning and lies from politicians and others who make important statements in public.

The fractal pattern of non-FIML communication in society at large is all but defined by lies, secrets, and hidden motives. At a smaller fractal level, so are the personal lives of most people. The world goes on. It is my guess that brain scans and better computers and computer programs will one day make it easier for people to see that having the ability to perceive and manipulate communicative details greatly enhances communication. And that communication so enhanced greatly enhances our understanding of ourselves and others. And that this sort of understanding will help us see that we do not have to live in a society that is all but characterized by lies, sloppy reasoning, and partisan nonsense.

In the humanities, fractal patterns can be seen at many levels. By changing the details of very significant communicative patterns between ourselves and our partners, we will change both ourselves and our perceptions of others, and this will gradually lead to better concepts of what society is and how it can function.


First posted August 29, 2014

Working memory is key to deep psychological transformation, Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

A great advantage of analyzing the contents of working memory is working memory does not hold much information and thus each item in it is small.

Most items of psychological import will be psychological morphemes—the smallest units of human psychology—or only slightly larger. This has several important advantages for real-time psychological analysis:

  • data points can be easily identified
  • they can easily be agreed upon by both partners
  • when both partners agree on a data point, a reasonably objective standard is established for what just occurred
  • analyzing these data points is almost painless due to their small size
  • though small, items in the working memory are connected to the rest of the brain/mind and thus often implicate or expose much larger internal psychological systems

The kinds of data points we are talking about are things like word choice, tone, expression, and gesture. Generally, it is not difficult for both partners to agree that one of them used a certain word, or made a certain gesture, or displayed a certain expression.

Once the data point is isolated and agreed upon, it can be discussed and analyzed as described here.

Rather than conceive of our minds as having an Id, it is more accurate to describe them as having interconnected systems or networks that resemble the layouts of brain neurons, maps, or language.

When an item appearing in working memory has surprising connections to larger psychological systems, we can analyze it with our partner (or not) to gain some insight into how our working memory—our being in real-time—is actually acting and perceiving.

When and if the same sort of item appears repeatedly in our working memory, we can be sure that it is connected in many ways to larger mental or psychological systems.

Some items of interest will have just arisen and have no further psychological import if they are queried and analyzed. If they are not queried and analyzed, those same items may plant a seed that will grow from then on.

This is why it is important for partners to do many FIML analyses. Do many analyses of very minor stuff to get used to the practice. (Also, I guarantee some of that “minor stuff” will be very revealing.)

Whether we conceive of working memory as a sketchpad or as a core component of higher cognitive function, most of us are aware that there can be considerable delay between the appearance of a psychological morpheme in working memory and the excitation of the much larger psychological system(s) it is attached to.

Whenever we stay a psychological response of anger, irritation or anything else, we make use of the delay between real-time life and the rumination or behavior that might follow later on.

When we analyze a negative psychological morpheme very soon after it appears in working memory, we always change it and almost always change it to something much better. This happens if only because the weight our full minds can put on something like that is typically much greater than anything our partner intended or was in their mind.

But this also happens very often because we are simply wrong.

Consistent FIML analysis will show this is true. When we clear many mistakenly stimulated psychological morphemes of the same type, we will become convinced (almost painlessly) that our minds have been malfunctioning or misperceiving in that area. Once we are convinced of our mistake, that malfunction will all but disappear as if it had never been.

Working memory is key to deep psychological transformation, Part 2

Part 1

Part 3

In science, working memory is generally thought of as either:

  • …the sketchpad of your mind; it’s the contents of your conscious thoughts.”   (Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory)
  • Or “…a core component of higher cognitive functions like planning or language or intelligence.”   (Christos Constantinidis, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine) [Source for both]

Obviously, both versions are valuable and probably both are roughly true. Some “contents” of working memory are indeed sketchpad-like—a crack in the sidewalk or a passing bird—while others clearly are “core components of higher cognitive functions” and, I would add, long-term memory including all psychological factors.

Our psychology—be it “natured” or nurtured—functions in real-life in real-time because we remember it. It bears on us because it is in our minds, because it colors our minds, shades our thoughts and actions.

Working memory is key to understanding human psychology because it shows us how we really are functioning, thinking, acting, feeling in real-time.

Working memory is also fleeting. If you want to use working memory to understand your real-life psychology, you have to be able to analyze it in real-time. This means you have to capture its contents and examine them as near to their appearance in working memory as possible.

You can do this alone with good effect, but when you do it alone you are prone to self-referential bias and other mistakes. When you do it with another person, they can help you avoid self-referential mistakes as well as other less serious ones.

This is how FIML practice works and why it is done the way it is. FIML analyzes data discovered in the working memory.

So how do you do that? You do that by immediately noticing when something significant about the other person’s speech or behavior enters in your mind or arises in your working memory. Generally, that something will have psychological impact on you, though you might just be curious or notice it for other reasons.

Whether working memory is an independent sketchpad or a component of higher functions, analyzing whatever you feel like analyzing in it is valuable. Sometimes even very little things can have great psychological import.

Analyses of working memory through FIML practice are most productive when they entail what I have called “psychological morphemes.”

Psychological morphemes are the smallest units of human psychology. Metaphorically, they are a word or a letter as compared to a phrase, a paragraph, or even a book. They are the building blocks of larger psychological structures and also may occur as unique isolates.

Whenever a psychological morpheme appears in working memory, it is always interesting. Psychological morphemes almost always signal the onset of a larger psychological interpretation, one either stored in long-term memory or one arising just now.

By working with any and all psychological morphemes as they appear in your and your partner’s working memories and by working with them repeatedly, both partners will come to understand that some of these psychological morphemes have deep roots in their cognitive systems while others do not.

For example, a fleeting expression or tone you observe in your partner may cause you to feel jealous or disrespected. Do FIML immediately and find out what it was.

It’s either true or false or in-between. If you have a good and honest relationship with your partner, most of the time you will find a negative psychological morpheme that appeared in your working memory was false and that it is part of a psychological habit of yours that has deep roots in other cognitive functions.

A great benefit of FIML is repeated analyses of mistaken psychological morphemes leads to their extirpation, sometimes quickly sometimes more gradually. A second benefit of FIML is it makes all communications between partners much clearer and more satisfying. A third advantage is most of these gains lead to better understanding and competency with all people.

Part 3

Working memory is key to deep psychological transformation, Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Working memory is the part of you that organizes and executes action in real-time. All real-time actions—save stupor or deep sleep—require working memory.

Working memory is where your life meets the world, where your existential rubber meets the real-time road.

Working memory is the spear point of the mind as it does life. For this reason, it is the single best key to understanding human psychology. And through this understanding to change it for the better.

Working memory shows you how you really think, feel, or perceive. Properly observed, it does not lie. Working memory happens too quickly to lie.

If you can observe your working memory as it performs—in a flash—a significant psychological act, you will have an accurate handle on the deep memories that comprise your psycho-spiritual makeup.

Working memory is quick. It’s “contents” or “the items it entertains” come and go quickly. Its “contents” can be perceptions, memories, judgement, sensations, words, emotions, almost anything.

Working memory is obviously linked long-term memory though how it is linked is not clear to science.

Phone numbers, remembered or not, typically come up in this context. But the connection between working and long-term memory is much more than just that.

Long-term memories—your psychology or life experiences—deeply color working memory. And this coloring changes in different contexts.

When we access long-term “psychological” (aren’t they all?) memories, they are huge; they are large systems of associations and neurons. This is why overemphasizing long-term memories and that aspect of psychology does not provide full insight into the workings of the mind.

For that we need the spear-point—working memory—to show us precisely where the contact points really are, precisely how we engage with the real world.

I bet most readers have no idea how to analyze their working-memories, how to accurately access them for psychological insight.

Part 2

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics

Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML) is the use of language to understand interpersonal communication.

More precisely, it is the use of language to completely understand real-world, real-time interpersonal communication events.

FIML disables psychological presupposition and framing whether emotional, psychological, intellectual, or other. This happens because FIML only uses data agreed upon by both partners.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is sometimes described as a “brain orgasm.” It is a feeling of profound clarity and may be accompanied by tingling sensations, pleasant light-headedness, or a sense that the blood and nerves are flushed with a clean feeling.

ASMR is often associated with tactile or sensory perceptions, but a successful FIML event can also produce ASMR sensations.

The pleasure of a successful FIML event comes from a state of psychological disarray resolving into everything being in the right place, all the pieces coming together as they should.

Once experienced during FIML practice, ASMR acts as an additional reward to having resolved a state of confusing communication into something wonderful. It is a pleasure to figure something out with FIML and also it is an even greater pleasure to have that accompanied by an ASMR brain orgasm.

Give it a shot. Two people who care about each other. It’s not that hard to do and will change your life.

Thoughts hidden by subjective phrases

After years of clearing up my mind, I noticed that my inner voice sometimes uses short phrases to bring negative trains of thought to an end. It was a habit I was aware of but had never given any thought to.

The phrases are not pretty; e.g. “I hate them all,” “fuck them,” “who cares about assholes like that,” etc.

My guess is this kind of inner speech is not uncommon. I was using it to end various lines of thought that had wandered into painful territory.

Having a clearer mind today or at least believing I did, I decided that when phrases or words like that came up again, I would not let them shut off my thoughts as I had been doing. Rather I would let the thoughts continue, explore what was there.

What I found is a bunch of old memories and emotions that were fairly easy to clean up. They were not so much repressed as not having been visited for many years. The nasty phrases were like labels in an old, unused filing cabinet.

About half the material was out of date and easy to toss. Another one-quarter was pertinent but was stuff I had dealt with in other ways and was thus redundant.

Only about a quarter of the material lying behind those nasty phrases deserved more thought.

In some of the most interesting cases, I realized that I was letting someone off too easy by hiding their behavior inside a neutral memory. They actually had been horrible but I had been too young to understand (narcissists, for example). Analyzing that stuff over again in a more mature mind was a bit of a chore, but the results have been good, even refreshing.

The process is ongoing. It does resemble cleaning an attic or an old filing cabinet. The stuff I found behind those nasty phrases was not all the stuff from my past. It was just stuff where I was blaming someone or feeling angry about something or had been harmed by someone. The bad stuff I’ve done is elsewhere in my mind.

I am struck by several things concerning those phrases and what lay behind them. One is a lot of that material dates back to childhood and early adulthood. It was not so much unconscious as not having been visited for a long time. Though most of it does not have strong emotional valence, some of it is very revealing because it brings together memories that had been disconnected, leading me to understand dramas or aspects of experience I had not understood before even though I had lived them. I also notice that it was just a few words that closed off those “files.” The power of words to command silence in the mind.

I had been dismissing all that material with just a few words whenever I didn’t feel like going there, which was every time. After not going there for many years, it was refreshing to poke around and rearrange those parts of my mind. I am quite sure I freed up some memory space and removed some snags in my thinking by dealing with that stuff. I also see new patterns within my general sense of my past, patterns with better explanatory power, both truer and more concise.

I see our minds as having a structure sort of similar to language or a forest. Trees of ideas, memories, and feelings grow and change. It’s good to remove some of them sometimes, put the space to better use. Buddhist practice is very helpful in endeavors like this. Rather than get all worked up with Freudian passions and delusions, we can simply observe, dismiss, refile, erase, upgrade, or reimagine as needed based on our capacities and understanding of what’s best.

Our bhavanga or “storehouse consciousness” contains memories, pictures, ideas, words., explanations They flow along with us, in many ways are us. When the mind is clear, a lot of that material can be rearranged for the better. There aren’t many rules for that. Just do your best.

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