The power of words and habit formation

How we use and hear words becomes a habit.

A recent study on personal space, reported in Personal Space Is a Fear Response, shows that this fear response can be stimulated by words alone.

When placed in an MRI—and told a person was standing over the machine—[people with normal amygdalae] showed heightened activity in their amygdala; when they were told the person was further away from the machine, the activity returned to normal. This shows, says the study’s leader, Ralph Adolphs, that the belief that someone is too close for comfort is enough to spark the same activity as if they actually are.

You could also say that hearing the words that “someone is too close for comfort is enough to spark the same activity as if they actually are.”

I doubt I need to illustrate this idea as most readers are surely aware that all people have many strong emotional responses to words, gestures, facial expressions, as well as personal space encroachments.

Another recent study, unsurprisingly, shows that forming a habit leaves a lasting mark on specific circuits in the brain. In more detail:

In the basal ganglia, two main types of paths carry opposing messages: One carries a ‘go’ signal which spurs an action, the other a ‘stop’ signal.

Experiments by Duke neurobiology graduate student Justin O’Hare found that the stop and go pathways were both more active in the sugar-habit mice. O’Hare said he didn’t expect to see the stop signal equally ramped up in the habit brains, because it has been traditionally viewed as the factor that helps prevent a behavior.

The team also discovered a change in the timing of activation in the two pathways. In mice that had formed a habit, the go pathway turned on before the stop pathway. In non-habit brains, the stop signal preceded the go.

These changes in the brain circuitry were so long-lasting and obvious that it was possible for the group to predict which mice had formed a habit just by looking at isolated pieces of their brains in a petri dish. (same link as just above)

The study on habits is about mice with sugar habits, but I think it is fair to hypothesize that something similar happens with humans in their use of communication cues.

Humans, in my view, habituate to semiotic stimuli in much the same way that mice habituate to sugar.

The Duke study shows that the stop pathway grew as much as the go pathway in the mice, the main difference being that the go pathway turned on before the stop pathway.

Since human language and its uses is more complex than mice habituated to too much sugar, there must be many more stop and go pathways within the language and communication networks of human beings.

Many of these pathways will be similar among people in the same culture, but many of them won’t. Each human being is a repository of a multitude of idiosyncratic emotional and semantic responses and outputs.

So how do you figure out what your pathways are? And how do you correct ones that aren’t working well? And similarly, how do you figure out your partner’s pathways?

FIML practice helps partners to both identify their idiosyncratic communication habits and correct ones that are not working well. FIML finds and corrects pathways through micro-analysis.

It seems very likely to me that a FIML-style analysis corrects mistaken communication pathways by bringing the stop pathway to the fore. When a particular mistaken response is stopped a few times and under analysis seen to be wrong, the go pathways for that response will tend to be extirpated.

By using words to analyze micro units of miscommunication, FIML partners tap into the power of words to change actual pathways of neurons in their brains, thus reorganizing the deep linguistic basis of habitual psychological responses, no matter how idiosyncratic.

Tone of voice as a transitory manifestation of psycho-physiology

A very important and often ignored dimension of tone of voice is that it frequently is a manifestation of the transitory psycho-physiological state of the speaker.

When this transitoriness of tone of voice with its many complex subjective dimensions is ignored or more commonly misinterpreted by the listener, communication can be seriously disrupted.

In simple language, to listen to someone speak is to be in a state of figuring out what they mean, emotionally and otherwise.

Tone of voice is mostly an emotional marker.

When we listen to someone speak, we determine the fullness of their meaning by guessing and anticipating what their point is; by comparing and remembering what they are saying now to what they said in the past; and by monitoring their tone of voice for cues about their emotional state, either toward us, toward their topic, or toward something else.

Since tone of voice involves emotions—both the speaker’s and the listener’s—it can have very subtle and complex ramifications. And this is especially true because so much tone of voice is nothing more than a transitory manifestation of the speaker’s psycho-physiological state.

This point is super important and is worth pausing to consider even if you are sure you know what I mean.

Spoken language moves quickly through a great many transitory states, including word choice, corrections, varying intentions, feedback from the listener, to say nothing of non-linguistic clues like gesture, facial expression, and so on.

Tone of voice is one of these. If we misunderstand it, big problems can result.

A simple example is this. Early this morning I was sleepily standing near my partner watching her cut some scallions. The moment was very pleasant. As I stood there, the microwave beeped. I ignored it and she said, “You can remove that stuff if you want.”

I said something I can’t recall exactly, to which she replied, “Are you irritated?”

(She said that because we are actively pursuing an investigation of tone of voice.)

I stopped and thought about it. Yes, maybe 15% of my psycho-physiological state—my ready and on communication state, fuzzy as it was—had a deep-seated bad feeling about statements like that one: “You can do whatever…”

After more thought, I realized that the 15% bad feeling was coming from an event that had happened years before. One of the rudest things someone ever said to me was “you can leave now.”

I won’t go into that event, but I can trace some of my my sense of that phrase back to that event. It has nothing to do with my mom or dad or Sigmund Freud. It was just something a rude person said and it made me feel bad and I have not forgotten it.

That event was not in my mind when my partner spoke in the kitchen this morning, but it had long ago colored my reaction to the phrase “you can…” and thus affected my transitory emotional state this morning. That state was fleeting but part of me was in it when I spoke and thus my partner heard a tinge of irritation in my voice.

If we were not FIML partners we would have ignored my tone of voice and moved on. I would have retained a small dose of irritation hormones and associations in my mind and my partner would have retained a small dose of her version of that as the person who heard me speak that way.

Since we do FIML, we were able to avoid all of that while at the same time upgrading our understanding of each other and how we communicate.

This is a good example of how wonderful and excellent it is to find a mistake through FIML practice.

My tone was a mistake. Discovering it helps me offload the bad associations I have with that phrase. Hearing my explanation of my mistake helps my partner dismiss whatever reaction she had to my tone. Furthermore, both of us are more deeply sensitized to how significant transitory emotions can be, how they can affect tone of voice and communication between us.

This example will now serve as a paradigm for future instances of misguided tones of voice between us.

Just as micro mistakes in communication can have long-lasting and outsized ramifications, so micro analyses through FIML practice can provide very large benefits to partners. Rather than muddle along with a stupid misunderstanding, partners improve their lives by figuring out what actually happened and using that to prevent further mistakes in the future.

Repost: Errors in listening, cogitating, and speaking

Interpersonal communication errors can occur for many reasons during the acts of listening, cogitating, and/or speaking.

For example, in a conversation involving two people (A & B), person A may mishear (listening error) what B said; and/or person A may misunderstand or miscogitate what they heard; and/or person A may misspeak.

Errors in any part of that communication process will cause some sort of confusion between A and B. Errors can be of many types. The speaker may mispronounce, misenunciate, use the wrong word, be inadvertently misleading, hit a wrong tone of voice, etc. In turn, the listener may mishear, be inattentive, be overly attentive to one aspect of what the speaker is saying, not know a word or a reference, etc. Next, even if the listener heard correctly, they may misunderstand or miscogitate by making wrong associations, drawing wrong conclusions, etc. Any unconscious error in hearing or cogitating will probably lead the listener to misspeak when it is their turn.

Errors of these sorts if not corrected will compound and cause the conversation to become unsatisfying or confusing.

It is the goal of FIML practice to catch these errors as soon after they arise as possible. FIML partners should strive to be perfect with each other in all three of these communication areas–listening, cogitating, and speaking. The best way to do this is to pay close attention to yourself. If you feel an emotional jangle, be sure to confirm with your partner (by doing a FIML query) that your jangle is justified. If it is not, you have discovered an error. Correct the error and continue.

One very simple and common jangle involves feeling irritated (even very, very slightly) at your partner because they did not understand what you said (probably not so clearly). Take it as a given that our uses of language are frequently less than perfect. You must expect that a good many of the things you say will not be stated as clearly as they could be; many more of them, though clear enough, will contain ambiguities or misleading word choices. If as a speaker you become irritated at your partner for something that is inevitable in your own speech, you are making a huge mistake.

Another common jangle involving cogitation is feeling stupid or inattentive when your partner makes an association that you did not get even though you heard all of their words correctly. This jangle could also involve thinking your partner is stupid or not making sense because you did not get what they said. Either way, it is crucial that both FIML partners know that these kinds of mistakes in cogitation are quite common. Identify them when they occur–as soon as you can–and correct them.

A third common jangle, this time involving hearing, is attributing a wrong emotion or intention to the speaker’s tone of voice. The human  speech apparatus is not that highly developed. To speak, we have had to re-purpose our teeth, lips, and tongues, which other animals use for eating, to make noises that convey sometimes sophisticated meaning to other people. How could things not go wrong with that? We also breathe, vomit, kiss, and do other stuff with that same oral cavity. FIML partners must recognize that we are working with a primitive “wind instrument” when we talk and that this instrument may blow too hard, get clogged with phlegm, or experience many other kinds of mishaps that can distort the sounds of our voices. A person with a high, soft voice can easily be misunderstood as being a light-weight, while a person with a deep voice and large lungs can easily be misheard as being aggressive when they are not. Each one of us should be aware of how our voices might be misunderstood and then apply this level of detail to understanding, at least, our partner’s voice.

Another common listening jangle/error that can occur, even if you clearly understand all of the above, is a speaker’s tone of voice can be seriously misunderstood if we think it refers to us when it is referring to the subject at hand. For example, you say something about the car needs fixing and your partner responds in an irritated tone of voice. If you hear that irritation as referring to you when your partner is just sick of the damn car, you will be making a serious mistake. If you say nothing, you may simmer with wrong bad feelings for some time, which often leads to yet more bad feelings. If you do say something, you may start an argument and/or otherwise greatly compound the original problem. All that actually had happened was your partner expressed a fairly primitive emotion (irritation at the damn car) which you misunderstood to mean irritation at you. Your partner used our crude speech apparatus to grunt irritation at a very common problem and you used your crude ears and listening abilities and crude tendency to think everything applies to you to make a big mistake, one that will only add to the original problem.

As you and your partner continue doing FIML practice, you will get better and better at finding and correcting these kinds of errors the moment they arise. It’s not always easy, but it is always very satisfying if you discuss the matter long enough for both of you to achieve a real resolution.

Basic signaling and what it explains

Basic signaling can be described or explained as follows:

  • A signal is information sent from one place and received at another.
  • A signal can be big or small.
  • A signal can be true or false.*

These are the most basic features of all signals. More complex signals contain these three basic features and also exhibit other features, such as:

  • having complexity or context
  • being conscious or not
  • being consciously designed to have an effect

From the three features of basic signaling, we can say a lot about human signaling.

The first feature of basic signaling simply defines what a signal is. I can signal to myself or I can signal to you. A simple example is I check my hair in the mirror (signal to self) and then present myself to you (signal to you). Insofar as my hair signal to you has a conscious element of how my hair looks or doesn’t look (sloppy, messy), the hair signal I sent to myself via the mirror is now being sent to you via my imagination.

This hair signal can also illustrate the second feature of basic signaling—how big or small the signal is. My hair signal may be important to me while I am looking in the mirror (big signal) or not very important (small signal). In like manner, my hair signal may be big or small in your mind.

This hair signal can also illustrate the third feature of basic signaling—its truth or falsity. If I have dyed my hair, in some sense I am sending a false signal. If I have not dyed my hair but you think I have, then you are receiving a false signal.

One could also say that dyed hair is not a truly “false” signal because it is common for people to dye their hair. Similar arguments can be made for combing or cutting hair or anything we do with our hair. The truth or falsity of many human signals is open to interpretation in this manner.

Normally, we use the three basic features of complex signals described in the second bullet list above to decide which interpretation to use. Changing the context and complexity upon which our interpretation is based will tend to change our interpretation of the signal.

Notice how many signals achieve their effects primarily by being big. Big signs, bright lights, loud music, heavy make-up, loud sexual signals, perfume, odor, big muscles, fake boobs, expensive cars, big houses and yachts, etc. all work in part by being big signals. Bigness or smallness is point two in the list above.

Bigness alone can explain why people lie, slant, or falsely accuse. As long as a signal is big, some people will be attracted to it and come under its spell. If someone accuses you falsely of something and spreads their accusation around, you may be faced with a big problem. If the lie is big enough and artful enough, you now are forced to defend yourself. If you do not even know what is being said about you, you can’t even do that.

Another version of the effectiveness of a big false accusation is one made to your face. As soon as it is uttered, the scene and context will shift dramatically. You are normally required to immediately defend yourself, derailing whatever rational exchange of ideas preceded the accusation.

We can see how this works in interpersonal communication and we can also see how it works on a larger scale. When nations go to war, they invariably lie about each other. Politicians lie, cultures lie, groups lie, religions lie, sports fans lie, and so on.

Lies or false accusation work because they send big signals that require a defense and, since they are lies, can be hard to defend against.

To me, this is a depressing side of human communication. Lies and false accusations very often win against the truth.

Simply stated, false accusations are aggressive lies, but we also know them in milder form as spin, slanting the facts, one-sidedness, tailoring the message, and so on.

Note: I got the idea of the importance of false accusations from a book I am reading on alcoholism: Vessels of Rage, Engines of Power: The Secret History of Alcoholism.

The author of this book, James Graham, makes the claim repeatedly that alcoholics very often engage in false accusations. In discussing this book with my partner, we came to conclude that Graham is right about this—false accusations do seem to be common among the alcoholics we both know.

Since I like to break things down into basic principles, my partner and I came up with the principles outlined above.

A false accusation sends a big signal into a social group while at the same time protecting the alcoholic from criticism. It allows them to say, “You see it is not me or my drinking that is the problem here, she is the one who is crazy!” Or, “Can you believe what he did to me?” Of course, he didn’t do anything but to a drunk, the accusation feels good and often works with others because it is big.

On a larger scale, false accusations in public today often take form as PC dictates. That’s “racist,” “sexist,” “micro-aggressive,” “privileged,” “homophobic,” etc. Just knowing that we might be accused of one of these attitudes has been enough to keep most people from saying anything that could even be tangentially interpreted in that way.

Note two: FIML practice entirely removes false accusations and any basis for them between partners. No FIML partner should ever say, “You did too mean that!” Or “I know why you did that!”

Partners who have established a habit of frequently checking their interpretations of each other should experience very few occasions to feel that their interpretation of something their partner signaled is better than their partner’s interpretation.


*A false signal that is not conscious might be a non-poisonous snake or insect that has evolved to look like a poisonous one.

The importance of seeing the small in the large and the large in the small

When the subject is human behavior and we see the small in the large and the large in the small, we will be much better able to appreciate the spectrum of thought, feeling, and behavior that underlies whatever is in question.

For example, the self-centeredness of individuals scales from the individual (small) to society (large) and everything in between. Two friends can be self-centered together as can larger groups and entire societies comprising millions of people.

Similarly, when we see self in other and other in self, we are more likely to grasp the spectrums of thought, feeling, and behavior that underlie the actions of all individuals.

For example, alcoholics often make false accusations against others as their conditions worsen. They take the seed of unreasonable defensiveness that resides in all of us and expand it into malicious attacks against “adversaries” that do not even exist.

In FIML practice, partners will discover many kinds of small mistakes in themselves. Usually, it is easy to see how these small mistakes, if left uncorrected, can lead to much more serious misunderstandings and bad (because it is based on a mistake) behavior.

For example, the alcoholic who falsely attacks a friend is almost certainly magnifying some little misunderstanding into something huge, something  worrisome or insulting that demands revenge.

Nations can behave like children and all good people have at least the seeds of a malicious drunk in them.

FIML discussions can be greatly enhanced by seeing almost everything as part of spectrums that underlie all people and societies.

Rapid extirpation of complex contretemps

The process described below is a common event that happens often between humans. FIML practitioners will benefit from identifying and understanding this process as understanding it leads to harmonious resolutions while not understanding it often leads to fighting and bad feelings.

In this context, a contretemps is defined as a misunderstanding between two or more parties during an act of communication.

Contretemps are resolved or extirpated through FIML practice or something similar.

Complex contretemps are contretemps that have more than one or two terms and that require several exchanges of information to be resolved

Complex contretemps often proceed rapidly as clarifying information and explanations quickly go back and forth between participants.

This kind of resolution or extirpation of complex contretemps is a process that should be recognized or identified by FIML practitioners (and others). Recognizing it as it happens greatly facilitates a harmonious resolution.

This process might also be called a “ricocheting extirpation process” in the sense that meaning and information ricochet rapidly between partners.

The rapidity happens because partners are both trying to make their points and may fear losing hold of what they mean or meant. This process causes stress, sometimes considerable stress, and generally induces stress tones in speakers.

If it is identified and understood while it is happening, it will resolve more quickly. If it is not identified and understood, the stress voices, stress hormones, and confusion of meaning typically will cause fighting or bad feelings.

I usually give examples of what I mean, but in this case see if you can identify some complex contretemps on your own. They are characterized by the rapid exchange of information and explanations, by stress tones, and stress hormones. They usually are not pleasant. However, if they are identified and resolved quickly, partners should experience feelings of clarity and elevated thinking.

I see them as being like physical exercise. They make you work, but the result is good for you. These kinds of contretemps are common and completely unavoidable. They should be understood as a feature of language and as an inevitable part of interpersonal communication.

After a complex contretemps has been resolved or extirpated to the complete satisfaction of both partners, it is all but inevitable that stress feelings will remain for some time. I believe this is due to emotions having a significant chemical basis that requires time to dissipate. The mind may be clear, but the stress hormones are still in the system.

How can I be sure?

If it’s about what your partner says, thinks, feels, or intends, you can’t unless you ask and your partner is honest.

The following link contains four videos made by actors who were

asked to convey one specific intention through their speech and actions: to be sincere, or to tell ‘white lies’, or to be teasing, or to be sarcastic. (How can I tell if she’s lying?) (emphasis added)

Well-worth viewing, the videos are instructive because they show how difficult it is to grab a single intention from a short segment of speech, or to portray one.

If a single intention is difficult, how can you grab complex intentions from real conversations with real people who are really interacting with you?

You really can’t. Of course, sometimes you will be right, but much of the time you won’t. And if you are wrong just once, your mistake may lead to other mistakes, compounding into something much bigger.

Every day someone is murdered somewhere due to someone else mistaking their intentions. And, I am just as sure, every day many thousands of couples slide toward incompatibility due to accumulating mistakes in their communications.

FIML practice is designed to deal with problems of misspeaking, mishearing, miscogitating, and miscommunicating between consenting partners. FIML practice is based on the recognition that such problems are common, ubiquitous, and inevitable.

A problem with intention—sarcasm, irony, ill-will, etc.—in communication is there is no way to define it or establish any standard for it. With words, we can all agree on rough standards for pronunciation, but when you put a bunch of words together and mix in tone of voice and intention, there arises only an ambiguous standard, at best.

The videos linked above show how difficult it is to isolate even simple intentionality. The communication systems of both listeners and speakers are simply too complex to effectively standardize the majority of normal human communication. If this is understood the value of and reason for doing FIML practice should be clear.

The importance of analyzing tone of voice

Tone of voice is difficult to define clearly or control. It can also be very seriously misunderstood.

Nonetheless an algorithm designed by researchers has succeeded in predicting the outcomes of marital counseling with 79% accuracy, which is better than what human counselors predicted.

The study shows that tone of voice is measurable with decent accuracy and thus is an objective aspect of language to a point. I qualify that statement because tone of voice can also be misunderstood and misunderstandings can become habits and/or become serious hindrances to understanding if they are not properly analyzed.

One of the researchers had this to say of the study:

Psychological practitioners and researchers have long known that the way that partners talk about and discuss problems has important implications for the health of their relationships. However, the lack of efficient and reliable tools for measuring the important elements in those conversations has been a major impediment in their widespread clinical use. These findings represent a major step forward in making objective measurement of behavior practical and feasible for couple therapists. (Source)

Note the line: “…the lack of efficient and reliable tools for measuring the important elements in those conversations has been a major impediment in their widespread clinical use…”

This is good news for clinics, but what do you do at home years before you need to seek counseling for a rocky marriage?

What you can do is analyze at home using FIML techniques or something similar.

When FIML partners focus on analyzing tone of voice long before they are experiencing problems in their relationship, I am confident most of them will not develop problems, and surely most will never develop problems related to tone of voice.

Tone of voice is accessible to rational analysis and understanding if partners make FIML-type agreements to do so. Besides avoiding marital discord, FIML analyses provide many other other kinds of insights into the idiosyncratic specifics of partners’ unique relationships and circumstances.

The study can be found here: Still Together?: The Role of Acoustic Features in Predicting Marital Outcome.

An article about the study can be found here: Words can deceive, but tone of voice cannot.

Simplicity and complexity in the public and private spheres

I will contend in this post that human communication tends to be simple unless agreements to be complex have been previously made and rules for greater complexity have been previously established.

Human communication can be understood in fractal terms. Conditions that characterize the small world of a single person can be understood as a fractal of the conditions that characterize the world of many people (communities, cultures, nations, etc.).

This can be easily seen in the ways public figures present simple stories about themselves to communicate with many people. And it also can be see in the ways individual people present simple stories about themselves to communicate with whatever social group they may be part of.

A successful public figure is almost always someone who presents a simple picture of themselves while associating themselves with simple views—liberal, conservative, party boy, sensitive babe, intellectual, etc.

For not famous individuals, the story is much the same—simple concepts are the norm. In most social settings, most people want to know others and be known themselves in simple terms, such as nice guy, good personality, reliable, good-looking, etc.

I don’t think there is much we can do with present technology to make the public communications of public figures more complex. The race for president or events in Paris will be displayed and spoken about in simple terms no matter what. Mainstream essays or talk shows that examine the candidates or the terrorists with more complexity will only add a bit of dressing to the already simple narratives, changing nothing for the vast majority of people.

Good science is based on previously establish rules and agreements to be complex and therefore good science does not shy away from complexity. One joins the scientific community and is expected to endure a long apprenticeship learning the rules of science before one is allowed to speak as a scientist. In the ideal, this is very good. In practice, not so much due to human failings and human tendencies to reduce complexity to simple expediency by cheating, lying, being biased, being paid for holding a view, etc. The same can be said about any field.

On an individual level, how do we introduce more complexity to our understandings of ourselves and others? If I expect you to see me in the simple terms of what my personality is or what my simple biography is and if you expect me to see you in similarly simple terms, how can we change that to add complexity and greater enjoyment?

In most cases, you can’t because it is too unsettling for most people to even contemplate doing that. In some cases, though, it can be done by making prior agreements to be more complex and by establishing rules for how to delve into and handle that complexity.

I do not believe it is possible to communicate with satisfying complexity with others unless you first establish clear rules and agreements with them.

If you want, you can make up your own rules and agreements. Or you can use the FIML rules and agreements, which can be found at the top of this page and which are discussed in the majority of posts on this site.

I strongly urge readers to do FIML or something like it. It will gradually free you from a veritable prison of delusive simplicity in both the ways you interact with others and with yourself.

Semiosis, symbiosis, and optimization

In this post, I want to avoid words like psychology, personality, instinct, normal, abnormal, etc. to describe human beings. I want to throw out all of those usual ways of thinking about people and replace them with just three terms–semiosis, symbiosis, and optimization.

In this context, semiosis means all symbols, meaning, language, philosophy, belief, value, etc. An easy way to grasp semiosis is to equate it with the way an individual’s culture, or subculture, works within their mind. Symbiosis denotes relations to other people. An easy way to grasp symbiosis is to equate it with an individual’s social group(s)–their marriage partner, family, friends, clubs, religious groups, job, etc.

All humans are a combination of some sort of semiosis and symbiosis as defined above. What we want to aim for in our lives is optimization of our semioses and symbioses. The only way I know how to do this is with FIML practice because only FIML practice gives partners the tools to grasp and manipulate–to understand and improve–their semioses.

The main area where this optimization occurs in FIML practice is in the symbiosis of partners’ semioses. Semioses are shared. Partners share in a symbiotic relationship the semioses they both carry around in their heads. FIML partners must become conscious of this level of human interaction because it happens whether you are conscious of it or not. If partners are not conscious of it and/or can’t deal with it, they will not be able to optimize their relationship (or their own lives). Rather, they will be forced to cling to public semiotics, private neuroses, or most commonly both.

If partners are optimizing the symbiosis of their shared semioses, their core behaviors will spring from dynamic principles rather than static codes, vows, or agreements. FIML is nearly contentless in that it does not tell partners what to think but rather how to observe and analyze their shared semioses.

Now, as an example, let’s say you experience a mix-up with your partner. Something didn’t go right; one of you misspoke or did something bothersome; then you had an argument or at least difficult emotions arose. So what should you do? At times like these, many people will separate for a while to cool down and then gloss over whatever it was when they get back together later on. At that point they will rely on some sort of static notion of their relationship and on that basis try to recapture good feelings. This technique works to a point, but it is not the best because it does nothing to optimize the relationship. It just covers up the problem. When you avoid a problem, you underscore your inability to deal with it while allowing it to grow.

A much better way for partners to deal with a problem like the one above is recognize that it is definitely going to affect your shared semiosis. Once you both accept this fact, you will probably find it easier to stick with the issue. Rather than separating for a while, face the issue and start a FIML discussion by analyzing what has happened and why. Even if it takes you an hour or more to reach a resolution, it will be well worth it because you will be optimizing your relationship. By doing a FIML discussion, you will avoid hiding from a problem while profoundly increasing your mutual understanding.

This is how mutual transformation often works in the real world. If you do small things like this enough, both you and your partner will become convinced that you can really live and interact on a higher level than what you probably had thought possible before.

Study supports FIML practice

This study—Neural Correlates of People’s Hypercorrection of Their False Beliefs—supports the contention that FIML practice can produce deep, wide-ranging, and enduring changes within the brain/mind of practitioners.

The basic finding of the study is:

Despite the intuition that strongly held beliefs are particularly difficult to change, the data on error correction indicate that general information errors that people commit with a high degree of belief are especially easy to correct. (Emphasis added.)

According to the study, this happens due to:

…enhanced attention and encoding that results from a metacognitive mismatch between the person’s confidence in their responses and the true answer.

This is exactly what happens when a FIML query shows the questioner that his/her assumptions about what their partner’s thoughts or intentions were were wrong.

Initially, FIML partners may experience some embarrassment or disbelief at being wrong. But since FIML queries are generally based on negative impressions, after some practice being shown to be wrong will typically produce feelings of relief and even delight.

A FIML query will generally arise out of a state of “enhanced attention” and usually further increase it by being spoken about. Incidentally, this is probably the most difficult aspect of FIML practice—controlling the emotions that accompany enhanced attention, especially when that attention concerns our own emotional reactions.

With continued practice of FIML, however, even strongly held erroneous interpersonal beliefs will be fairly easily corrected whenever they are discovered during a FIML discussion. Correcting core false beliefs (mistaken interpretations) has a wide-ranging, beneficial effect on all aspects of a person’s life.

Since the hypercorrection effect discussed in the linked study only occurs during moments of enhanced attention, the FIML technique of focusing quickly on good data agreed upon by both partners can be seen as a way of inducing states of enhanced attention that will lead to deep changes in both partners. This technique (using good data) also turns the discussion from one about feelings to one about “information,” which the study finds makes errors “especially easy to correct.”

Furthermore, since FIML practice tends to deal with very small incidents, the enhanced attention FIML induces works like a laser that quickly and painlessly excises erroneous thoughts and feelings while they are still small and have not been allowed to grow into full-blown emotional reactions.

Semiotics and stress

A common explanation of human stress includes physical stress (heat, cold, etc.), hierarchical stress (low status, competition, etc.), and lack of social support (horizontal communication, belonging).

Supposedly, humans and other primates tend to stress themselves because we are smart enough to have a lot of free time (time not spent gathering food). As the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky puts it:

“If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don’t mess with you much. What that means is you’ve got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop. So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They’re just like us: They’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.” (Source)

Sapolsky makes good points but I want to add something to what he says.

Humans are “semiotic primates.” That is, we live as much or more in a semiotic environment as a natural one.

This means that we stress ourselves not just by our place in a natural hierarchy, but also by how we understand where we are, what we are hearing and saying, and what others are hearing and saying when around us.

Since most humans have no way of fully adjusting their interpersonal communication, the semiotic environments they live in are ambiguous, frequently mistaken, sometimes dangerous. Our intimate semiotic environments are typically unsatisfying or stressful because the communication upon which they are based and which defines them is rarely, if ever, optimal.

When interpersonal stress is relieved through one of the three ways mentioned in the first paragraph above, people may exercise more, work harder to climb the hierarchy, or seek out more horizontal support from a club or temple.

Exercise is good, climbing the hierarchy is OK if that’s what you want, and adding social support never hurts. None of these methods will optimize interpersonal communication, however. They are substitute semiotics of a different kind.

The reason this is so is the core stress-inducing problem most people have is poor intimate interpersonal communication with their primary interlocutor.

It’s not bad to think of yourself as having a psychology and a psychological history, but this line of thought rarely, if ever, leads to optimal communication with your primary interlocutor. When we psychologize ourselves, we tend to generalize ourselves and others. We see ourselves as defined by theories (extrinsic semiotics) rather than by the the dynamic reality of our moment-by-moment interactions with the person(s) we care about most.

FIML optimizes communication between primary interlocutors and in so doing relieves some of the most deleterious human stressors by removing them as they arise. If your intimate interpersonal communication is good, you won’t care very much about where you are on the hierarchy.

Disruption of neurotic response in FIML practice

By analyzing minute emotional reactions in real-time during normal conversation, FIML practice disrupts the consolidation, or more often the reconsolidation, of “neurotic” responses.

In FIML, a neurotic response is defined as “an emotional response based on a misinterpretation.” The misinterpretation in question can be incipient (just starting) to long-seated (been a habit for years).

The response is disrupted by FIML practice and, thus, tends not to consolidate or reconsolidate, especially after several instances of learning that it is not valid.

A neurotic response is a response based on memory. The following study on fear memories supports the above explanation of FIML practice.

Memories become labile when recalled. In humans and rodents alike, reactivated fear memories can be attenuated by disrupting reconsolidation with extinction training. Using functional brain imaging, we found that, after a conditioned fear memory was formed, reactivation and reconsolidation left a memory trace in the basolateral amygdala that predicted subsequent fear expression and was tightly coupled to activity in the fear circuit of the brain. In contrast, reactivation followed by disrupted reconsolidation suppressed fear, abolished the memory trace, and attenuated fear-circuit connectivity. Thus, as previously demonstrated in rodents, fear memory suppression resulting from behavioral disruption of reconsolidation is amygdala-dependent also in humans, which supports an evolutionarily conserved memory-update mechanism. (Source: Disruption of Reconsolidation Erases a Fear Memory Trace in the Human Amygdala)

FIML practice works by partners consciously and cooperatively disrupting reconsolidation (and initial consolidation) of neurotic memory (and associated behaviors). FIML both extirpates habitual neurotic responses and also prevents the formation of new neurotic responses through conscious disruption of memory consolidation.

FIML probably works as well as it does because humans have “an evolutionarily conserved memory-update mechanism” that favors more truth. Obvious examples of this update mechanism can be seen in many simple mistakes. For instance, if you think the capital of New York State is New York City and someone shows that it is Albany, you will likely correct your mistake immediately with little or no fuss.

Since FIML focuses on small mistakes made between partners, corrections are rarely more difficult than the above example though they may be accompanied by a greater sense of relief. For example, if you thought that maybe your partner was mad at you but then find (through a FIML query) that they are not, your sense of relief may be considerable.

Repost: Stress voice

This post provides a concrete example of what FIML practice does and why it is needed. Stress voice is an involuntary intrusion of instinct into speech. In some contexts, this is a very good thing. In many other contexts, it can be a very bad thing because it alerts us to dangers that do not exist while generating the illusion that they do. ABN


Humans are semiotic animals that respond to human signals as primary percepta.

Some obvious examples are sex in advertising, pictures of hamburgers, people enjoying a natural view from a balcony in a hotel brochure. Each of these relies on an “instinct”—sex, hunger, an animal’s response to nature—while at the same time signaling a complex human contribution to the basic signal.

Another type of human signal that arouses instinct is tone of voice. A good example of this is the “stress” or “alarm” voice that is used by most if not all mammals and birds.

The basic instinctive stress or alarm voice is a shriek. If words are used, the shrieking tone will be accompanied by rapidly spoken words—“stop! stop! stop!” or “Watch out! it’s falling” or “get down! get down!” etc.

In basic situations involving real danger, the alarm voice is very important. We definitely want to have both the voice and the sudden energized response it draws from us.

In many situations, though, the stress voice can cause problems when it arises due to simple miscommunication. For example, I say or do something different from what you asked or implied and it causes you—virtually involuntarily—to use an alarmed tone that involves a bit of a shriek and rapid words.

For example, you asked me to cut some mushrooms for a broth we are making. What you meant is you want the mushrooms to go into the clear broth after it has been made but I toss them into the pot with the chicken bones and vegetable scraps that will be strained and thrown away.

When you first see what I have done, you experience slight confusion, even cognitive dissonance, and say in an alarmed voice, “What are you doing with the mushrooms?”

In turn, I respond directly to your stress voice and to the now evident miscommunication with my own confusion and stress voice, “I thought you wanted them in the broth!”

If we are friends, this minor contretemps will probably be easily overcome and we may even laugh about it. If we have had many unresolved contretemps of this type, however, one or both of us may escalate the problem by being accusatory or even abusive.

Even though the mushroom contretemps is very simple and insignificant, it can still be dangerous even between good friends because this type of contretemps can quickly get blown out of proportion due to the primal, instinctive quality of the stress voice.

Similar problem situations might be miscommunicated directions while driving or working, messed up meeting times, or getting the wrong thing from the store.

These problems are generally easy to resolve, though they may still generate discord or stress both because a confusing miscommunication happened and also because the stress or alarm voice just is that way; it causes stress or alarm in and of itself.

If you can see and deal with concrete situations such as the ones described above, imagine how similar situations may arise in less concrete forms and how they can be even more dangerous and lead to even more serious problems.

Miscommunicated emotional, sexual, psychological, or intellectual signals can also give rise to primal stress or alarm tones and, in turn, generate further stress and alarm. Contretemps like these can be much harder to pinpoint, analyze, and understand than simpler ones involving concrete communication about mushrooms or directions.

In FIML practice, if partners can mutually understand a few concrete contretemps and how and why they generate stress and confusion and use these forms as basic paradigms for more complex contretemps, they will go a long way toward removing stress and confusion that is entirely blameless, unconscious, unmotivated, and unintended by either of them.

Not all contretemps are the same

Edit 10/07/15: The post below describes a fairly simple problem that is nonetheless difficult to describe. This difficulty illustrates how fundamental linguistic imprecision is to human “psychology,” emotion, communication, and thought.


Not all contretemps are the same. Some are easier to fix than others.

In FIML practice, a contretemps is defined as a misunderstanding within a conversation that arises from misspeaking, mishearing, or miscogitating.

Most contretemps arise due to the speaker or listener attributing a mental state to the other person. I hear a tone in your voice and thus attribute a mental state to you. It may be the case that I heard correctly. More often it is the case that I heard incorrectly.

Either way, a FIML query and discussion will usually put the matter to rest fairly quickly. The discussion that follows the resolution of the contretemps may use a lot of time but it is almost always pleasant and well-worth the effort because discussions of that sort tend to illuminate much more than just the contretemps in question.

It is a basic assumption of FIML practice that many/most contretemps are features of language and language use itself and not due fundamentally to human “psychology” or “personality.” Of course contretemps run all through what we call “psychology” and influence it a great deal, but many/most verbal (conversational) contretemps are just normal clunky things that are features of language.

They arise due to the ambiguities of words and phrases, the crudeness of our speech apparatuses, the dimness of our brains, poor hearing, and contextual misunderstandings, to name just a few of the reasons.

Once a simple mistake—a misunderstood tone of voice, reference, or context, for example—has been identified, it is usually a fairly simple matter to dismiss the emotions it may have aroused and move ahead with the conversation. These kinds of mistakes are characterized by some sort of mistaken attribution of a mental or emotional state by one of the participants in a conversation aimed at the other participant.

There is another sort of contretemps, however, that is more difficult to identify and fix. This sort of contretemps does not involve attributing a mental or emotional state to the other person. Rather, it is characterized by trying to prevent an emotional state from arising or from trying to prevent the conversation from going in one direction or another for whatever reason.

An example of this sort of contretemps might be something like this. You buy some bread and explain that it is different from the kind you usually buy because they did not have that kind. I look at the bread, and seeing that it is lighter than what we normally get, say this bread is too light, while fully knowing what you have said about why you bought it. No problem so far. You say, “Well…” as you begin to formulate a more complete response. Still no problem.

But then I add, “But I am not complaining!” My “intention” (if you can call such a swift response intentional) is merely to prevent you from thinking I am complaining about your having bought the bread. But my tone may not have come out right. This may be the start of a problem if you think that my tone implies that I think you are being defensive due to how you said “well….”

Was my tone wrong or did you hear it wrongly? Only the partners themselves can determine this, assuming both are well-meaning and reasonably intelligent (and sober).

The deeper FIML problem here is that tone of voice is very hard to catch and it is very hard for you to query me because things are moving very quickly. If you did query me I would honestly say that I did not think you were being defensive. I would honestly say that I just wanted to prevent your feeling defensive and/or to simply clarify that I am not complaining, this being a fairly normal thing for people to say though it can often be ambiguous and lead to a complex contretemps such as the one we are discussing.

When I say that I am not complaining, you hear it as me assuming that you have taken my complaint about the bread (a genuine problem we both recognize, though we are not all that clear on that either) as being a complaint about you or your shopping.

This kind of contretemps can be very hard to get to the bottom of because it involves several layers of miscuing based on a reasonable misattribution of my statement I am not complaining.

The basic problem is one speaker (me) is trying to guide the conversation or prevent it from going in some direction while the listener understands that effort to be an implied accusation of their planning to do just that, of their intending to do that.

If you pay attention to how you and your partner speak to each other, I can all but guarantee you will have contretemps of this sort. A well-meaning general intention to guide or prevent or indicate something is mistaken as an attribution of a mental or emotional state by the listener.

Kind of involved and messy isn’t it? It happens because languages are difficult to use well and we make many mistakes.

It must be emphasized that FIML partners are not seeking to adhere to some external social standard (which doesn’t really exist, especially in precise matters or with respect to complex interpersonal subjects and extensive discussions) but rather to hone their own standards to the point where there are fewer contretemps and the ones that do occur (as they absolutely will) can be resolved as efficiently as possible.

The sort of contretemps described above can be very difficult to identify and correct because it moves very quickly and is based on underlying assumptions that are not easy to identify on the fly. FIML practice, generally, is difficult not because people are stupid, have bad personalities, or screwed up psychologies, but because it is completely and utterly impossible not to make many mistakes in listening, speaking, and thinking whenever we use language.

If you try to gloss over too many mistake (now and then it’s OK to gloss over some of them) by pretending there is some “standard” you know about and that your partner is just an ass, you will only compound the problem. It is very difficult to be a fully functioning human being for many reasons and one of the biggest lies in language itself and how we normally (mis)use it.