Science discovers we don’t know how to end conversations well

…When participants guessed at when their partner had wanted to stop talking, they were off by about 64 percent of the total conversation length.

That people fail so completely in judging when a conversation partner wishes to wrap things up “is an astounding and important finding,” says Thalia Wheatley, a social psychologist at Dartmouth College.

People Literally Don’t Know When to Shut Up—or Keep Talking, Science Confirms

I don’t mind saying that for FIML partners, this sort of thing is child’s play. Not only that, the self-reported accounts of when people wanted to end a conversation, are weak data points similar to self-reported food consumption.

In FIML, conversations rarely “end.” Like all topics, they remain open because conversations are themselves important topics of conversation. FIML partners are rarely stuck with wondering if they said too much or didn’t say enough or understood correctly or missed making a significant point because they can easily revisit any conversation and clear up any and all lingering thoughts about anything.

FIML proves to partners that the real meat of their interactions is the interactions themselves at whatever level is important to them; be that micro, meso, or macro levels.

Besides myself, few if any psychologists have studied live, dynamic interactive interpersonal material because like all people psychologists themselves have been trapped at an abstract level of understanding human psychology.

Most past research about conversations has been conducted by linguists or sociologists. Psychologists who have studied conversations, on the other hand, have mostly used the research as a means of addressing other things, such as how people use words to persuade. A few studies have explored what phrases individuals say at the ends of conversations, but the focus has not been on when people choose to say them. “Psychology is just now waking up to the fact that this is a really interesting and fundamental social behavior,” Mastroianni says.

Lemme tell you guys, there is way more material in this area than when or how to stop talking. In fact, there is so much material, in many ways doing studies on isolated aspects of how people talk actually obscures the subject. This can happen because studies are conducted at a level of abstraction that is different from and much more simplistic than the real-world, real-time reality of dynamic interactions themselves.

We see this kind of mistake again and again in psychology: grand theories of the mind, taxonomies of personality disorders, cognitive reframing, and so forth. Experts peering at human psychology from above or through the abstract lens of scientific studies; when actual human psychology itself can best—and really only—be accessed by individual persons themselves working with a willing and similarly self-aware partner during real-world situations.

I am very much in favor of studies like the one above because they do provide general markers that most people can learn from. That said, the people who really must own the subject of psychology are people themselves. You do not need to wait for more studies to do FIML. You can start today and be well on your way in a few weeks. Plus it’s free and you don’t need a therapist.

Here’s an idea for Mastroianni or any other academic in a position to conduct psychological studies. Study FIML. Contact me for help or figure out how to do FIML on your own. Then teach it to, say, 20 couples and assess their progress over a year or more. Use whatever you like as a control group.

Years ago, I remember getting into lucid dreaming and lucid sleep well before these practices were widely known. I thought it was marvelous to be able to become lucid during sleep. I still do think that and also I am delighted that at some point lucidity became so common teenagers were doing it. I hope something similar will happen with FIML.

The basic FIML technique will become much easier when more people do it and understand how fundamental it is to good speaking and actualizing human potential. Once you understand what FIML is, you will see that you can’t really have a really good relationship with your SO without it.

As for ending conversations: from a FIML point of view it’s a little messy and rarely clearly determinable because all real exchanges are happening live and we almost never know exactly where we are, where we are going, or when our talk is over. From a FIML point of view, this is subject matter for active speech. Easy to handle and fun to play with a few times. There are thousands of reason one may want to end a conversation or take it up again. Or start a new one. A large benefit of FIML is far fewer afterthoughts and almost no feeling of being “stuck in some endless conversation that [you do] not want with no way to politely extricate [yourself].”

Notice how being “polite” is used in that phrase. Consider how much profound psychology lies just beneath that word.

The Diamond Sutra and modern thought

Modern thought is characterized by physicalism and atheism.

The forerunner of physicalism was materialism. Basing everything on matter doesn’t make good sense so materialism became physicalism. Physicalism, very simply, means that everything obeys the laws of physics, and thus physicalism has an open-ended definition because the laws we understand today will surely be different in the future.

Criticisms of physicalism claim it is vague since, as of today, we can’t say what the ultimate laws are and we are unlikely to ever be able to for how do you know when you know all there is to know?

I have no problem with physicalism and would be happy to call myself a physicalist. I think physicalism fits well with Buddhism and if you push at it a bit it can easily include many aspects of religion and the “supernatural,” which just means that which has not yet been explained by the laws of physics. See The invented God argument for more on this angle.

Another interesting way to connect modern thought with Buddhism is to look more closely and with different eyes at the Diamond Sutra or any other major wisdom teaching within the Buddhist tradition.

The Diamond Sutra is a long answer to a single question: “…when good men and good women commit themselves to complete, unsurpassed enlightenment, on what should they base themselves, and how should they subdue their minds?”

The Buddha’s answer is that they should be generous and not base their generosity on anything. That is, no phenomenal thing, nothing material, nothing conditioned. To say it another way, they should be generous but not base their generosity on any transient thing or material calculation.

Doesn’t that sound like the Buddha is indicating a higher level of understanding not unlike the laws of physics? Consider some questions: Where are the laws of physics? What holds them together? Do the inhere in matter, do they spring from matter, or do they “reside” at some other level?

I don’t know what it would mean for them to inhere in matter or spring from matter. Are the laws “out there?” Are they  more fundamental than matter? Higher than matter? We don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but there is nothing wrong with the questions.

The Buddha’s answer to Subhuti also contains this: “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

In Buddhist thought, our senses are sight (form), sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. These, of course, can be expanded to include proprioception, balance, and much more. The important point here is that the Buddha uses the six senses mentioned to categorically exclude all phenomenal input including thought.

It takes time if you are coming from a modern language to see thought as being a sense. But look at how materialism has transformed into physicalism and how we can’t be sure even today which of our thoughts is really good and will be viable in a hundred years and which of them will look outdated in ten years. Psychoanalysis and materialism, to name just two thoughts, have suffered complete falls from grace over very short time-spans.

Consider again the six senses of Buddhism. Sight depends on light, something outside the body system. And so does sound, smell, taste, and touch. We see and perceive via our senses because those things are “out there.” Birds fly because air supports them. Fish swim because the water allows this. The fish are adapted to water and have evolved within it.

But what about thought? Is thought material? An epiphenomenon of matter? Since materialism is a weak philosophy, we should ask instead is thought physical? Does it obey the laws of physics?

One answer is reductionism, which goes down deeply into matter to find what we may already know. But another answer is that thought is “out there.” It exists independent of our bodies and brains. Just as the laws of physics do not inhere in matter, so also does thought not inhere in the body. As a bird’s wings are supported by the air, so our thoughts are supported by a reality that is different than the material world and probably superior to it.

If that is so, our capacity for thought is shaped by the laws of physics as much as our bodies are shaped by matter. Birds crash, make mistakes and die due to their mistakes. So also, we humans make mistakes in our thoughts and crash and die due to those mistakes. To glimpse a higher source for thought and being is not to say that our thoughts cannot be horribly mistaken.

Glimpsing a level of reality, profound physicalism, that is “superior” to the reality apprehended by our senses is not to say that we are enlightened or that we have reached the end of the road. We have, rather, caught sight of a way of understanding our lives that is fuller and probably truer than anything on the current spectrum that lies between materialism and spiritualism.

Is this what the Diamond Sutra is indicating when the Buddha adds generosity to the emptiness of the self? As sentient beings, we are capable of being generous. But we also tend to want to have our actions confirmed by our lower senses, our material senses, thus reducing them in much the same way that materialism can reduce higher sensibilities by binding them to a lower calculus.

Is this why the Buddha makes his point so explicitly? He says, “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

Profound wisdom (prajna) means being generous without basing that consciousness on anything material or any understanding we have (so far) of physicalism. Now, does this mean that generosity is itself an element of the deepest laws of physics? Do we perceive unconditional generosity because it is already “out there?” Is the universe as we know it generous or is it cold, as so many materialists claim?

The Buddhist answer is that the universe is generous. We know it is vast, abundant, and creative. We k now it “obeys” the laws of physics such as we know them. We know birds fly due to there being air. Is the Buddha saying we can grok profound, unconditioned generosity because it is already “out there?” It’s part of what an enlightened being knows?

In this respect, can we say we have made some progress in analyzing whether maths are “out there” or are mere constructs of our minds? The answer would be both, with an emphasis on maths being “out there.” Surely some of them are wrong, and some are not deep enough, but like the laws of physics or the generosity of a Buddha, maths are also very importantly “out there” and that is why we can find them.

Similar things can be said about other uses of the mind that rise above materialism—music, in this respect, is far more than mere “pleasing sounds,” art more than pretty pictures, poetry more than good sounding words.

Another way to look at this is consider what you mean by your “self,” your “personality,” “ego,” “autobiography,” etc. Can your personality, such that it is, handle detailed analysis of active communication as in FIML practice? I am all but certain it can’t. So what good is it if it cannot even analyze its own listening and speaking while they are happening?

In Buddhism, the self, the personality, the ego are fictions. They obscure reality rather than reveal it. If your personality or self is a touchy little thing inside your head that loses control of its emotions every time it hears anything out of the ordinary, how can it be true? Why would you want it? Why do we organize our senses and beings around such bankrupt concepts as self or personality?

The small answer is we don’t know any better and everyone else does it so we can’t be different. The big answer is the Buddha’s answer. The self is a narrow organizing principle that relies on base sensory calculations to maintain itself and as such is subject to the selfish delusions of greed, pride, anger, and ignorance, to name just a few.

The answer the Buddha gives in the Diamond Sutra to Subhuti’s question is a supreme “physicalist” answer which indicates that just as birds can fly humans can soar.

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first posted SEPTEMBER 25, 2014

Modern psychology is almost entirely the theory and treatment of the “self of the gaps”

The “self of the gaps” is the self that fills in the many gaps of understanding that occur during interpersonal communication.

These gaps can be small or large, but they are always there and there are many of them. Almost all people everywhere build their personalities on their need to fill these gaps.

They have been with you since you became conscious, You were raised on them. You can will yourself through them. Or theorize yourself over them. You can be confused by them or you can use them to confuse and control others. Malignant egos and narcissists thrive on gaps of understanding. Kinder people can be and often are devastated by them.

No one is free of them. Gaps arise frequently and can perdure for decades, whole lifetimes.

Communication gaps are filled with assumptions, illusions, wishful thinking, paranoia, emotionality, habit. When people visit a psychologist, a root cause is always going to be many painful gaps that have been internalized, reified, filled with wrong assumptions, make-believe.

The only way to correct a “self of the gaps” is FIML practice. Only FIML focuses precisely on real-time, real-world communication gaps and fixes them several orders of magnitude better than what they were.

I am in the weird position of knowing something really wonderful while also lacking a large enough public voice to share it widely. I do my best with this blog and hope more than a few people have learned and benefit from FIML, but it would be good if more would understand.

FIML or something similar has never been discovered before because it comes very close to violating a fundamental language instinct; the instinct to recoil at being questioned personally and quickly. Almost all people feel threatened, insulted, attacked when questioned quickly, especially if the question involves something we just said. More precisely: especially if the question involves “personal” contents of the working memory, out of which we just spoke. Doesn’t have to be anything bad in the working memory; it’s just that that information is close to home and almost never shared for itself.

FIML “comes close to violating” this instinct but it most assuredly does not actually do that. Instead, it assuages our tendency to fear being questioned. FIML is never a gotcha question. It is always a question that arises out of an explicit previously made agreement. Any FIML question can be truthfully answered, “I would rather not say.”

By doing FIML, malignant old gaps are gradually filled with truthful data while new gaps are much less likely to form or grow. FIML can be difficult to understand because it entails an entirely new way of looking at human psychology. By focusing on small segments of conversation (psychological morphemes) FIML enables partners to see and understand how their minds are actually working in real time.

This replaces the need to rely on external theories of psychology by just examining what is actually there.

PS: My SO and FIML partner came up with the term “self of the gaps” this morning.

The cat-like nature of interpersonal conversation

Two people converse with each other.

Their thoughts, words, reasons for speaking and listening are like a small herd of cats, maybe 8-15 cats each.

Your cats sort of follow you and my cats sort of follow me. As we converse it’s like we are walking together; down a road or in a field, wherever you like.

Our cats sort of follow us.

Each impetus to speak and each impetus to listen in whatever manner is a cat. Your thought-cats and my thought-cats wander around and intermingle with each other.

Basically, all psychologically meaningful interpersonal conversations are like that: a couple of small cat herds milling around and sort of going in the same general direction sort of together.

The semi-disciplined, semi-aimless nature of interpersonal speech is one of its primary characteristics. Ambiguity, imprecision, misspeaking and mishearing are also primary characteristics of interpersonal speech.

Where your cats are coming from and how they came to be with you is almost always a mystery to me; and same for you about my cats. Even if we try to be specific about a particular cat (a small speech act), it can be hard to explain and hard to understand the explanation; hard for both of us to be sure we both are understanding the same things about just that one cat.

That is a major reason people typically don’t try to understand particular cats. Spend time on one cat, the rest may wander off or we all forget where we were going. Moreover, even if we try hard, we may never get to shared understanding about just that one cat. We might even become exasperated, even angry with each other because the task is so difficult.

That’s a major problem and it distorts everything we think, feel, and believe.

It happens because we can’t control our cats very well, nor do we know all that much about them; even our own cats are typically very mysterious even to us. What is your actual impetus to speak at any moments? And how did you understand what you just heard? How long can you remember either one of those? What is all that stuff in your mind and how can you possibly convey it to someone else?

The difficulty of answering those questions all but forces us to abstract our conversations and our selves. That is what all cultures do. All languages do that. Instead of appreciating how ambiguous and indeterminable our minds and conversations really are, we make up abstract roles for each other and our selves. And thus is born the illusion of human psychology. The illusion that we can know each other and our selves through abstractions while ignoring the realities of our herds of cats, which over time can become very large.

Say what you like, but when we stop conversing with each other, chances are that some of your cats will follow me and some of my cats will follow you. Also very likely is some of both of our cats will have wandered off and some new ones will have joined us.

Identity as a vortex or tautology

Our identities are fundamentally made up of semiotic matrices. That is to say, in part, that our identities have meaning; they mean something to us.

Often they mean a great deal to us and from them we derive the semiotics of motivation, intention, life-plans, many of our central interests, and so on.

Identities have strong emotional components, to be sure, but our emotions are ambiguous or diffuse if they are not positioned on a semiotic matrix and focused or defined by that matrix.

Identity is usually tautological in that its components, interests, and associations tend always to lead back to a few central elements. Often these elements have been inculcated in us by training. Some, we learn on our own. These elements are our values and beliefs, and also how these values and beliefs are understood and pursued.

The semiotics of identity must mean something to the person identifying with them. In this sense, they are almost always tautological. I do what I do because that is how I learned how to do it, think it, feel it, perceive it.

Most people are more adept at moving the parts of language around than they are at moving semiotic elements around. When semiotics are unconscious, they act like a vortex pulling perception, emotion, and understanding always toward the center of the identity. I think this is another way to say, in the Buddhist sense, that the self is empty; that it has no “own being.”

We can pursue an understanding of an empty self through Buddhist thought and practice, but we will get better results more quickly if we add a practice that deals directly with the semiotics of our identities.

Since there is no book you can go to to look up how your unique semiotics of identity works, you have to see for yourself how it works. You can do much of this on your own, but eventually you will need a partner because there is no way you will be able to get an objective perspective on yourself acting alone.

FIML practice is the only way I know of to fully see into and through the semiotics of your “identity.” Beneath identity there is a sort of artesian well of pure, undefined consciousness. FIML helps us experience that well while keeping us from rushing back into the tautological matrix of identity or static self-definition.

FIML is able to do this because FIML is process. FIML itself has no definition, only a procedure. It is not a tautology because it has no semiotic boundaries.

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first posted JULY 30, 2013

Consciousness as reality itself

In Buddhism the idea that consciousness is reality and reality is conscious is called “mind only” or Yogachara.

David Ray Griffin, a process theologian, has come to similar conclusions—that reality is fundamentally conscious.

As has Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at UC Irvine.

Hoffman came at this subject from a mathematical angle, but arrived at a similar conclusion to Yogachara Buddhism. Hoffman says:

As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. (The Case Against Reality)

I tend to reach similar conclusions when I think about everything in terms of signals.

The advantage of thinking in terms of signals is we get a good picture of “reality” without needing to say what is real beyond the signal itself.

This kind of thinking is helpful for metaphysics but it is also extremely practical when it comes to human psychology.

Rather than posit personality types and what goes wrong or right with them, we analyze how people send and receive signals instead.

In thinking along these lines, I have come to the conclusion that most psychology as most people understand it uses “arms-length” language, the language of meso and macro signals rather than the much more precise language of the micro signals that actually comprise our shared “realities.”

The difference can be illustrated in this way: Rather than explain your most recent signal (sent or received) in terms of personality, explain it by accessing the micro-signals of short-term memory to find its true antecedents.

If you do this again and again by using a game such as FIML, you will probably come to conclusions similar to the above—that there is no deeper substance to psychological reality than your consciousness of it.  

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first posted 08/05/17

Psycholinguistics: our normal interpersonal communication system inevitably produces significant error

Our normal interpersonal communication system inevitably produces significant error; thus leading to misery, personality disorder, mental illness. In spiritual terms, the normal ways we talk and listen carry toxic seeds of ignorance (and evil) that scatter everywhere. Even the sciences are affected.

Without the FIML corrective, nothing will change.

I have done FIML long enough that I feel deeply sorry for everyone who does not do it.

It’s not super easy to do FIML, to correct the mistakes that cause so much suffering, but it can be done with no more effort than learning to cook well or play the piano passably well. And like those skills, it’s fun to do once you get going with it.

Societies collapse because ignorance, greed, and madness accumulate and rot them out from inside. It happens to all of them. It is happening to us very seriously right now.

Marriages, friendships, and individual lives collapse for similar reasons. Errors build on errors, minds overwhelmed; suffering ensues.

I beg of you. Give it a shot. Learn FIML.

Within a short time you will see what it does, how it does it, and why it is so necessary for a good life.

Error correction

While reading David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, I came across the following sentence:

What is needed is a system that takes for granted that errors will occur, but corrects them once they do—a case of ‘problems are inevitable, but they are soluble’ at the lowest level of information-processing emergence. (p. 141)

This statement comes from the chapter “The Jump to Universality,” in which Deutsch argues that “error correction is essential in processes of potentially unlimited length.”

Error correction is fundamental to FIML practice. In fact, the nuts-and-bolts of FIML practice could be described as being little more than a method for correcting errors “at the lowest level of information-processing” during interpersonal communication. This level is “the lowest” because FIML deals primarily with very short segments of speech/communication. In many posts, we have called these segments “psychological morphemes” or the “smallest speech/communication error” we can reliably identify and agree upon with our partner.

If you try to tackle bigger errors—though this can be done sometimes—you frequently run into the problem of your subject becoming too vague or ill-defined to be rationally discussable.

I haven’t read enough of Deutsch’s book to be sure of what he means by “universality,” but I do think (at this point) that FIML is universal in the sense that it will clear up interpersonal communication errors between any two qualified partners. “Qualified” here means that partners care about each other, want to optimize their relationship, and have enough time to do FIML practice.

We all demand that our computers be error-free, that buildings and bridges be constructed without error, that science work with error-free data as much as possible. But when it comes to communication with the person we care about most, do we even talk about wanting a method of error correction, let alone actually using one?

You can’t correct big errors if you have no method for correcting errors that occur “at the lowest level of information-processing,” to use Deutsch’s phrase. Once you can correct errors at this level, you will find that you and your partner are much better able to tackle bigger questions/errors/complexes. This happens because having the ability to reliably do small error-correcting gives you the capacity to discuss bigger issues without getting lost in a thicket of small mistakes.

Your ability to talk to each other becomes “universal” in the sense that you can tackle any subject together and are not tethered to static ideas and assumptions about what either of you really “means.” As mentioned many times on these pages, FIML does not tell you how to think or what to believe. In this sense, it is a universal system that allows you and your partner to explore existence in any way you choose.

To use Deutsch’s words again, “error correction is essential in processes of potentially unlimited length.” Your relationship with your partner can and should be a “processes of potentially unlimited” growth, and error correction is essential to that process.

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first posted FEBRUARY 10, 2013

Metacognition improves memory retrieval

In this post I am going to argue that strong metacognitive awareness of one’s own intentionality in real-time translates into better and more accurate memory retrieval.

More specifically, I mean that the strong metacognitive awareness of one’s own intentionality that results from FIML practice is a skill that transfers to memory retrieval.

FIML partners spend a good deal of time asking and answering questions about each others’ intentionality in real-time.

The metacognitive skills that develop out of that practice streamline communication between partners, while also streamlining communication within the brains of each partner.

Each partner benefits psychologically as a standalone individual from the practice of FIML because FIML skills can also be applied to individual, subjective brain functions.

One of the psychological benefits of FIML practice is greatly enhanced awareness of the difference between truth and lies during interpersonal communication with the FIML partner.

This awareness beneficially affects memory retrieval.

It does so by increasing the individual’s capacity to better know when memories are reliable and when they are dubious if not outright false.

Advanced FIML practitioners will have less need for egotistical interpretations of their pasts (or anything else), and thus have minds and memories that are more streamlined and efficient.

This happens because FIML practice gradually shifts brain organization away from the heuristics of a static ego to operations that can be described as “metacognitive.”

Metacognitive operations of this caliber are a great improvement on static beliefs in a self or an egocentric narrative.

Additionally, since psychology is based on memory, fine metacognitive awareness of memory retrieval will also improve psychological functioning in other areas.

For example, emotions based on memory (all of them really) will be less likely to negatively influence intentionality if fine metacognitive awareness of memory retrieval is functioning in the individual.

The same can be said of psychological schemas, framing, values, beliefs, instinct and its interpretations, and so on. All aspects of human psychology can enjoy improvements (more truthful, less stupid) through the metacognitive skills that result from FIML practice.

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first posted AUGUST 14, 2016

The psychological value of micro-feedback

Normally, we get very little detailed psychological micro-feedback.

This is especially true of psychological micro-feedback in real-time real-life situations. Psychologically, such situations are the most important for mental and emotional growth.

Real-life psychological micro-feedback (PMF) happens whenever someone reacts to one of our acts of communication.

Most PMF reactions are not detailed because an explanation rarely accompanies them and even if there is an explanation it is almost certainly not going to include the real details of the actual communication act itself.

Rather than provide detailed PMF, almost all humans almost all the time provide only opaque responses based on their own guesswork, or presuppositions.

If there is any detail in the feedback it is almost always of a general nature that completely excludes the actual act of communication itself.

This happens because humans almost always process and use language at the phrasal level and normally never provide PMF in real-time during real-life situations.

Real-time real-life is where human psychology really lives.

By always avoiding real-time real-life PMF and follow-up analysis, humans are forced to rely on general categories and ideas to understand themselves and others. It is not possible to do this and gain a deep understanding of human psychology.

When we ignore detail in any other area of human endeavor—musical and scientific instrumentation, microscopy, art, science, engineering, etc.—we get poor results that are almost always surpassed by results that are based on greater detail.

FIML practice corrects the problem of poor detail in the study of human psychology by emphasizing the use of real-time real-life PMF.

By doing this, FIML greatly improves communication while also upgrading the general psychology of participating partners.

One of the hardest aspects of doing FIML practice is overcoming the ubiquitous human habit of fundamentally never wanting real-time real-life PMF that is open to conscious analysis and correction.

This habit can be overcome by partners’ making an explicit prior agreement to do it.

FIML is like tuning a guitar, calibrating a scale, using a good compass, caring for a fine instrument.

We expect and demand very fine detail in almost all areas of our lives, save what we say and how we hear what others say.

I do not believe anyone can achieve a deep understanding of human psychology without having a way to perceive and analyze PMF in real-time real-life. To date, I know of no other way to do this but FIML.

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first posted MAY 13, 2016

Humans are fractals of their societies

The microcosm of the individual human is made of the same stuff as the macrocosm of the society to which it belongs. The two are a fractal set displaying similar patterns.

This makes sense since both individuals and their societies use the same networks of semiotics to communicate.

In many ways, societies are less complex than individuals. In the sense that a society is an assemblage of many individuals, society is more complex. But in the sense that a society is held together by a network of communicable ideas, or semiotics, society is frequently less complex than many of the individuals living within it.

For example, most societies have very simple “biographies” (their always slanted histories), while many individuals have nuanced biographies that encompass change, growth, and contradiction.

A recent study of people’s attitudes towards atrocities points to this truth by showing that “…the way people’s memories are shaped by selective discussions of atrocities depends on group-membership status.” (Source)

In-groups forget bad things they have done—or “morally disengage” from them—while clearly remembering bad things that out-groups have done. This is a major element of all group stories.

I bet you cannot name a single society that has anything even approaching a fully nuanced view of itself on almost any matter, let alone its history. Individuals often “morally disengage” from their past acts, but it is not common for them to do so to the same extent as the societies they live in.

It hardly matters, though, if the social story is about atrocities or trivia. I have actually witnessed fairly heated arguments over who first invented pasta, the Chinese or the Italians. And another one on who first invented dumplings, Poles, Jews, or Chinese. The origin of beer is another subject that can get people going.

It makes sense that societies’ stories about themselves be as simple as they are false because they serve as lowest-common-denominator social bonds. Indeed, it probably even helps that these stories be knowingly false as the bond will then require an even deeper level of commitment.

Of course, some of the energy for falsification and simplification comes from one group’s story needing to counter another group’s story. Yes, we did that to you, but you did this to us first.

In that, societies further resemble individuals because that’s what we do as individuals, too. Only individuals who are very well disposed toward each other and who try hard ever overcome the need for false stories between them.

FIML practice provides individuals with a means to observe the smallest fractal details of their individual stories and correct them where they are wrong. FIML partners would do well to take what they have learned as individuals and apply it to the stories told by the society in which they live. You will surely find a macrocosm of yourself in the absurdities of whichever group you “identify” with.

Maybe people in the future will be better able to see how ridiculous our stories are and better able to deal with the complexities that lie beyond them. For now, maybe we can at least start getting a fuller, truer view of what is happening in and around us.

I doubt we can do this on a societal level any time soon because the LCD stories will always reassert, but as individuals with a good partner I believe we can. This is probably a main reason that monastic and reclusive traditions have been practiced all over the world. Groups are ignorant, violent, and crazy. Individuals simply have a better chance at going beyond their simple patterns by acting on their own.

The fractal of the individual is generated by society but it is prone to being trapped by it as well.

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Edit 6/13: When good people do bad things. We all know that people in groups can behave badly. This article is about a study that uses a plausible fMRI method to measure some of the basic processes underlying immoral behavior. In my view, the situation is not much different when the group is a large culture, rather than a small number of participants in a laboratory experiment. Cultures not only permit bad behavior toward out-groups, but they also numb us to what our in-group is doing.

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first posted JUNE 10, 2014

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
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first posted NOVEMBER 14, 2018

FIML can’t do everything

FIML handles micro-analyses of real-time communication extremely well. In doing this it also reveals to partners how long-standing misinterpretations are affecting their perceptions of self and other(s).

FIML cannot catch everything though. Some misinterpretations begin in a small haze and may never be questioned again.

A concrete example of this type of misinterpretation happened a few days ago. My partner and I were talking about her past. At one point she mentioned that she had taken a prescribed drug for a few weeks to stop the condition we had been discussing.

I casually and almost without noticing it assumed that the drug she had taken was a “psych med” of some sort. After a few days, I noticed that I had formed a vague impression of her during the time she took the drug as being more seriously bothered by her (very minor) condition than she actually was.

So I asked her about it and she replied that it had not been a psych med and that she had never had emotional problems concerning her mild condition. I explained to her how I had come to my conclusion, which was vague but still something I actually had believed.

We discussed the matter for a few minutes and decided that it is a good example of a type of mistake that FIML cannot uncover the moment it arises. FIML works best at uncovering mistakes that are emotionally charged. Her psych med reference was not emotionally charged for me (or her) so my wrong assumption went under my FIML radar.

Mistakes of this type are not always going to be so concrete. If they concern emotions and/or a sense of what something was like for someone, this sort of mistake can be nebulous and dangerously elusive.

For example, if my partner’s story had been told differently and meds had not been part of it, I might easily have mistakenly concluded that she had been unhappy, anxious, or depressed during that period of time. Then that mistake might have gone on to affect how I understand her today. It may have made me think that she is more fragile than she is or that her past is more of a burden to her than it is. None of that would have been true.

FIML practice can help discover mistakes like this because FIML makes us understand with great clarity how dubious our impressions of others can be, even if we are very close to them. FIML also makes it easier to correct and discuss mistakes of this type as the mechanics of a FIML-type discussion provide many useful tools.

FIML can’t always catch everything though, so partners would do well to search their minds from time to time to see if they can find any false assumptions they may be holding about one another.

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first posted FEBRUARY 21, 2015

Meaningfulness or emotional valence of semiotic cues

A new study on post traumatic stress disorder shows that PTSD sufferers actually perceive meaning or emotional valence within fractions of a second.

This study bolsters the FIML claim that “psychological morphemes” (the smallest psychological unit) arise at discrete moments and that they affect whatever is perceived or thought about afterward.

The study has profound implications for all people (and I am sure animals, too) because all of us to some degree have experienced many small and some large traumas. These traumas induce a wide variety idiosyncratic “meaning and emotional valence” that affects how we perceive events happening around us, how we react to them, and how we think about them.

The study in question—Soldiers with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder See a World Full of Threat: Magnetoencephalography Reveals Enhanced Tuning to Combat-Related Cues—is especially interesting because it compares combat veterans without PTSD to combat veterans with PTSD.

It is thus based on a clearly defined pool of people with “similar” extreme experiences and finds that:

…attentional biases in PTSD are [suggestively] linked to deficits in very rapid regulatory activation observed in healthy control subjects. Thus, sufferers with PTSD may literally see a world more populated by traumatic cues, contributing to a positive feedback loop that perpetuates the effects of trauma.

Of course all people are “traumatized” to some degree. And thus all people see “a world populated by traumatic cues, contributing to a positive feedback loop that perpetuates the effects of trauma.”

If we expand the word trauma to include “conditioned responses,” “learned responses,”  “idiosyncratic responses,” or simply “training” or “experience” and then consider the aggregate all of those responses in any particular individual, we will have a fairly good picture of what an idiosyncratic individual (all of us are that) looks like, and how an idiosyncratic individual actually functions and responds to the world.

FIML theory claims that idiosyncratic responses happen very quickly (less than a second) and that these responses can be observed, analyzed, and extirpated (if they are detrimental) by doing FIML practice. Observing and analyzing idiosyncratic responses whether they are detrimental or not serves to optimize communication between partners by greatly enhancing partners’ ranges of emotion and understanding.

In an article about the linked study (whose main author is Rebecca Todd), Alva Noë says:

…Todd’s work shows that soldiers with PTSD “process” cues associated with their combat experience differently even than other combat veterans. But what seems to be driving the process that Todd and team uncovered is the meaningfulness or emotional valence of the cues themselves. Whether they are presented in very rapid serial display or in some other way, what matters is that those who have been badly traumatized think and feel. And surely we can modify how we think and feel through conversation?

Indeed, what makes this work so significant is the way it shows that we can only really make sense of the neural phenomena by setting them in the context of the perceptual-cognitive situation of the animal and, vice-versa, that the full-import of what perceivers say and do depends on what is going on in their heads. (Source)

I fully agree with the general sense of Noë’s words, but want to ask what is your technique for “modifying how we think and feel through conversation?” And does your technique comport well with your claim, which I also agree with, that “we can only really make sense of the neural phenomena by setting them in the context of the perceptual-cognitive situation of the animal”?

I would contend that you cannot make very good “sense of neural phenomena” by just talking about them in general ways or analyzing them based on general formulas. Some progress can be made, but it is slow and not so reliable because general ways of talking always fail to capture the idiosyncrasy of the “neural phenomenon” as it is actually functioning in real-time during a real “perceptual-cognitive situation of the animal.”

The FIML technique can capture “neural phenomena” in real-time and it can capture them during real “perceptual-cognitive situations.” It is precisely this that allows FIML practice to quickly extirpate unwholesome responses, both small and large, if desired.

Since all of us are complex individuals with a multitude of interconnected sensibilities, perceptions, and responses, FIML practice does not seek to “just” remove a single post traumatic response but rather to extirpate all unwholesome responses.

Since our complex responses and perceptions can be observed most clearly as they manifest in semiotics, the FIML “conversational” technique focuses on the signs and symbols of communication, the semiotics that comprise psychological morphemes.

FIML practice is not suited for everyone and a good partner must be found for it to work. But I would expect that combat veterans with PTSD who are able to do FIML and who do it regularly with a good partner will experience a gradual reduction in PTSD symptoms leading to eventual extirpation.

The same can be said for the rest of us with our myriad and various traumas and experiences. FIML done with a good partner will find and extirpate what you don’t want knocking around in your head anymore.

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first posted JULY 9, 2015

Is consciousness continuous or discrete?

Is consciousness a continuous flow of awareness without intervals or is it something that emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits?

The Buddhist answer has always been the latter.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation of perception and consciousness says that there are four discrete steps that are the basis of consciousness.

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. (The five skandhas and modern science)

The first four skandhas are normally unconscious. Buddhist mindfulness and meditation training are importantly designed to help us become conscious of each of the five skandhas as they actually function in real-time.

A study from 2014—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—supports the five skandha explanation. From that study:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described. (emphasis added)

A few days ago, a new model of how consciousness arises was proposed. This model is being called a “two-stage” model, but it is based on research and conclusions derived from that research that support the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness.

The study abstract:

We experience the world as a seamless stream of percepts. However, intriguing illusions and recent experiments suggest that the world is not continuously translated into conscious perception. Instead, perception seems to operate in a discrete manner, just like movies appear continuous although they consist of discrete images. To explain how the temporal resolution of human vision can be fast compared to sluggish conscious perception, we propose a novel conceptual framework in which features of objects, such as their color, are quasi-continuously and unconsciously analyzed with high temporal resolution. Like other features, temporal features, such as duration, are coded as quantitative labels. When unconscious processing is “completed,” all features are simultaneously rendered conscious at discrete moments in time, sometimes even hundreds of milliseconds after stimuli were presented. (Time Slices: What Is the Duration of a Percept?) (emphasis added)

I, of course, completely support science going where the evidence leads and am not trying to shoehorn these findings into a Buddhist package. Nonetheless, that does sound a lot like a slimmed-down version of the five skandhas. Considering these and other recent findings in a Buddhist light may help science resolve more clearly what is actually happening in the brain/mind.

As for form-sensation-perception-activity-consciousness, you might suddenly think of your mother, or the history of China, or the spider that just climbed onto your shoulder.

In Buddhist terms, initially, each of those items is a form which leads to a sensation which leads to perception which leads to activity which leads to consciousness.

Obviously, the form of a spider on your shoulder differs from the form of the history of China. Yet both forms can be understood to produce positive, negative, or neutral sensations, after which we begin to perceive the form and then react to it with activity (either mental or physical or both) before becoming fully conscious of it.

In the case of the spider, the first four skandhas may happen so quickly, we will have reacted (activity) to it (the spider) before being conscious of what we are doing. The skandha of activity is deeply physical in this case, though once consciousness of the event arises our sense of what the first four skandhas were and are will change.

If we slapped the spider and think we killed it, our eyes will monitor it for movement. If it moves and we are sensitive in that way, we might shudder again and relive the minor panic that just occurred.

If we are sorry that we reacted without thinking and notice the spider is moving, we might feel relief that it is alive or sadness that it has been wounded.

In all cases, our consciousness of the original event, will constellate around the spider through monitoring it, our own reactions, and whatever else arises. Maybe our sudden movements brought someone else into the room.

The constellation of skandhas and angles of awareness can become very complex, but the skandhas will still operate in unique and/or feedback loops that can often be analyzed.

The word skandha means “aggregate” or “heap” indicating that the linear first-fifth explanation of how they operate is greatly simplified.

The above explanation of the spider can also be applied to the form skandhas of the history of China or your mother when they suddenly arise in your mind, or anything else.

We can also perceive the skandhas when our minds bring in new information from memory or wander. As we read, for example, it is normal for other forms to enter our minds from our memories. Some of these forms will enhance our reading and some of them will cause our minds to wander.

Either way, our consciousness is always slightly jumpy because it emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits, be they called skandhas or something else.

Edit 11/23/20: The above explanation of consciousness is a good way to understand how and why FIML practice works so well. Ideally, the intention to make a FIML query will begin to arise at the sensation skandha or soon thereafter. A FIML query is based on wondering if the consciousness that has arisen from the form is correct or not.

This also shows why FIML does not presuppose theories on personality, mental illness, or psychotherapy. In this sense, FIML has no content; it is “just” a method, a way to rationally engage and analyze our minds as they function in real-time in the real-world. How you analyze the data you acquire is up to you and your partner.

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See also: How the brain produces consciousness in ‘time slices’

first posted APRIL 16, 2016