Psychology as “signs of something else”

When we see a human behavior as a “sign of something else” we begin magnifying it.

When we live in a culture where people normally do this, we tend to think it is right to do this even to ourselves.

People often feel relieved when their “signs of something else” have been analyzed—either professionally or by self-administered questionnaires—to reveal what that “something else” is.

Once analyzed and categorized, the “something else” itself becomes a sign, or a meta-sign, a diagnosis that explains behavior while directing us to a cure based on whatever that “something else” is.

The DSM reads like a Ptolemaic system of circles and spheres. In it signs are identified, quantified, and classified to indicate what they stand for, what their “something else” is.

Professionals are needed to do this work of course, and though the manual rests on “scientific” tests and other measurements, it changes every few years and very few people are getting better because of it. Moreover there is very little consensus among thoughtful people, including psychologists, about what the classifications of “mental illness” or “personality disorder” actually mean.

This is a sure sign that something is wrong.

I submit that what is wrong is our systems of classification of mental disorder do not describe the actual disorders because these descriptions exist on a different level from the disorders themselves.

It is widely observed than many disorders as currently classified blend into each other, share attributes, are co-morbid. It is also widely known that when disorders are extreme, sufferers can exhibit symptoms of all of them.

This indicates that the human mind is a complex system that becomes disordered by over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing parts of its system.

And this may be why drugs, psychedelics, shock therapy, or shamanic rituals sometimes help. Because they reset the entire system.

If you don’t want to use drugs, can’t get psychedelics, don’t want to undergo shock therapy or shamanic ritual, I suggest you try FIML practice. If you have a good partner, are fairly intelligent, and want to truly optimize your psychology (not just terminate your ambiguous disorder), FIML will probably do this for you. In fact, even if you can get psychedelics, FIML is better.

A disorder is unique to its system and though we can speak of some generalities that may apply to it, these generalities exist at a different level from the disorder itself and cannot provide a cure.

To cure a disorder the disorder must be experienced as it is happening by the sufferer. If too much of the disorder is revealed at once or the sufferer is simply confronted with its classification, more harm than good may result. If small bits of the disorder are revealed over a longish period of time, however, the sufferer will much more easily be able to correct the disorder.

In my view, all people everywhere are deeply disordered and thus all people everywhere would benefit from FIML practice. People who may not benefit from FIML include, among others, those who cannot self-observe, who are severely alcoholic, whose disorder prohibits self-analysis (narcissism, for example) and, sadly, those who cannot find an honest partner.

Personality disorders and signaling

In my opinion, “personality disorders” are more easily understood as signaling problems.

All types of personality disorder involve dysfunctional signaling with other people. Signals are both sent and received in ways that result in suffering.

As currently defined, personality disorders “develop early, are inflexible, and are associated with significant distress or disability.”

Thus, if there are no significant brain injuries or other biological problems, all personality disorders (PD) develop through experience.

This means that during childhood the PD sufferer has received many bad signals resulting in their failing to form a coherent well-functioning internal signaling system.

The way to fix this is work with the signals. And the best way to do this is FIML practice. A professional psychotherapist cannot possibly provide this level of treatment.

This brings me to a second point: is there anyone who would not benefit from improving their signaling?

Why do we view psychotherapy as treatment designed merely to make us look and feel “average”? Why don’t we instead work to optimize our psychologies every day?

The Buddha said we are all crazy. We are. We all need to work on our signaling—our personality disorders—all the time.

The distinctions between one PD and another and those who have PDs and those who don’t are vague. This is because all PD problems (absent significant biological deficits, which may include intelligence) are idiosyncratic varieties of signaling malfunctions.

If signaling is the core problem, it should follow that all acquired PD will be classifiable as some kind of signaling malfunction. And that is precisely what we see.

Narcissism is a too simple signaling system. Borderline is an unstable signaling system. Compulsive, passive aggressive, histrionic, avoidant, and so on all are variations of a poorly formed internal signaling system.

The way to study this is through interpersonal semiotics; that is interpersonal semiotic analysis of real-time, real-world communicative signs and symbols.

All people need to do this to optimize their psychologies (their internal signaling systems). Why would anyone not want to do this? Maybe not wanting to do this is the surest sign of PD there is.

The hardest part about doing FIML is finding a willing and able partner. To me, this shows how pervasive bad signaling is. Most people will do almost anything but examine their own signaling with the help of another person.

Psychology as fundamentally signals

I propose that we largely discard all other paradigms for human psychology and replace them with one based on signals. Humans are semiotic entities who signal constantly internally and externally. No need for personality or self.

Signals are objective, measurable, quantifiable, and analyzable. And they are at the heart of everything we call “psychology.”

The most basic psychological paradigm still current today is personality. This concept should be greatly demoted, relegated to broad-brushing some genetic tendencies or matters involving personas.

Signals cover all psychological territory without exception, including everything we can now say based on personality. Bodies signal, brains signal, organs of perception receive signals, thoughts are signals, language is signals, biology signals, as does everything in physics.

No matter how you look at psychology, you will find signals. Using signals to describe psychology is almost always clearer, more succinct, and more precise.

Another basic paradigm for describing/explaining psychology is matter; psychology comes from the brain and the brain is matter. But then you get mind-matter problems, problems with top-down behaviors, loss of spirituality as an actual probability, and many problems with scale or behavior. Besides all matter signals!

So much simpler to describe how biological signals lead to thought and behavior. Or how top-down psychological signals affect biology.

Instead of “personality disorders” being vaguely defined and understood as ghostlike ephemera that seem to inhabit sufferers, we can define them as signal malfunctions that have arisen due to previous signal malfunctions, either biological, experiential, or semiotic.

A signal-based paradigm of human psychology would view individual psychology as a complex of signals, a semiology unique to each individual.

Narcissism has been discussed in this way. A signal-based analysis of other disorders can similarly make our understanding clearer and more efficient.

Borderline personality disorder, for example, can be viewed as a poorly integrated internal signaling system, a poorly functioning individual semiology. Due to the centrality of signals to all aspects of human psychology, we can expect borderline people to search frantically among others for the cohesion they lack in themselves.

If we understand psychology as a complex of signals, it becomes easier to categorize problems and discover treatments. It also becomes obvious that we can and should optimize this system even in healthy individuals by clearing up confused signals while removing bad ones.

Speech comprehension and context

A new study on speech comprehension shows that humans respond to the “contextual semantic content of each word in a relatively time-locked fashion.”

These findings demonstrate that, when successfully comprehending natural speech, the human brain responds to the contextual semantic content of each word in a relatively time-locked fashion. (Source)

This process is roughly illustrated here:

While I do not doubt these findings for simple speech in simple contexts, I do wonder what the results would be for speech in psychologically complex contexts, whether that speech is simple or not.

I wonder this because I am certain that in almost all psychologically complex contexts (those rich with subjectivity, emotion, idiosyncratic memory or association, etc.) the “contextual semantic content of each word” will necessarily be different, often very different for each speaker.

Psychologically rich interpersonal speech is almost always fraught with contextual differences that can be very large. Sometimes participants know these differences exist and sometimes they don’t. It is very common for speakers to make major mistakes in this area, the most important area of speech for human psychological well-being.

It seems possible that EEG with increased sensitivity might one day be able to detect “context diversion” between speakers, but even if complex emotional information is also included, people will still have to talk about what is diverging from what.

My comments are not meant to detract from the very interesting findings posted above. I make them because these findings illustrate how inherently problematic real-time mutual comprehension of the “contextual semantic content” of all spoken words actually is.

FIML practice is the only way I know of today to find profound real-time mutual comprehension of complex interpersonal speech.

Real-time, real-world analysis of interpersonal communication

A tool that can reliably augment real-time, real-world interpersonal communication will profoundly change our understanding of human psychology for the better.

Such a tool will provide us with data that makes intent, content, and psychological aspect manifest in real-time.

An AI-assisted EEG device could be an advance toward realizing that goal. Dan Nemrodov, of the University of Toronto, has succeeded in “digitally reconstruct[ing] images seen by test subjects based on electroencephalography (EEG) data.”

“When we see something, our brain creates a mental percept, which is essentially a mental impression of that thing. We were able to capture this percept using EEG to get a direct illustration of what’s happening in the brain during this process,” says Nemrodov. (Do you see what I see? Researchers harness brain waves to reconstruct images of what we perceive)

As an advocate of FIML practice, I am well-aware that most difficult part of FIML is being able to understand what it is and then to do it. It’s hard to understand because most people do not think about communication analytically in real-time. It’s hard to do because most people become angry when called to do that.

I, for one, know that it’s actually fun to do FIML. Indeed, it is delightful!

My hope is that Nemrodov’s tool will advance to the point where it can augment FIML practice enough to help more people see the value of actively and frequently doing real-time, real-world communication observation and analysis.

Consciousness, Big Data, and FIML

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First published 09/01/12

Basic FIML practice

Mastering basic FIML practice is similar to mastering musical scales or the basic skills of any sport.

Basic FIML is a kind of mental training that allows you to identify, understand, and react to real-time communication problems quickly and efficiently.

FIML analyses put both partners on the same page. Over time, partners develop a wealth of experience that improves communication while also illuminating individual and interpersonal psychology.

It is a fact that it is difficult for people to talk about how they talk when their talking has become heated for any reason.

FIML is designed to make it much easier to do that. Once mastered, the basic FIML technique results in a kind of metacognition that makes interpersonal analyses of all kinds easier and more efficient. Instead of fighting you can have fun with communication missteps.

After basic FIML has been done successfully a few hundred times, the basic technique does not need to be used as often because the metacognition that has developed between partners can handle many more situations than before.

FIML optimizes communication between partners thereby also optimizing psychological well-being. Though basic FIML can be done less often as skills improve, just as in sports or music it is always best to practice the basics frequently.