A signal-based model of psychology: part four

In the first three parts of A signal based model of psychology, we discussed micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding and how paying attention to these levels can make human signaling easier to comprehend.

In this post I want to discuss how human signaling is normally managed and, knowing this, how we can better understand how it affects us.

In truth, there are countless possible interpretations for every moment of every day if we choose to notice them. In the material world of doing familiar things in familiar surroundings, we handle the abundance of possible interpretations by simply ignoring most of them. We put our minds on autopilot and do our tasks by accessing rote procedures and memories.

In social situations, though the stakes may be higher psychologically, we do much the same. Rather than wonder about the vast majority of communicative exchanges with others, we generally put our minds in social autopilot mode and interpret what we are hearing and perceiving according to fairly simple rules we have already established.

These rules, or principles of behavior, in my view, are roughly what people mean when they speak of “personality,” their own or someone else’s. For example, an “optimistic personality” could with considerable explanatory power be described as being an “optimistic principle that governs the semiotic network of perception and interpretation.”

This simple rule—to always reduce the multitude of possible social interpretations to an optimistic few—saves time, reduces ambiguity, and presents a nice face to the world. With just this one rule, you can establish yourself as having an optimistic “personality.” Much the same can be said for other types of “personalities.”

I put personality in quotes because I think it is a dangerous word since it tends to lead people into believing that they actually possess some inner actor or agency that defines or “expresses” who they are. Once that mistake is made, people want to develop this agency of personality by adorning it with emotions, behaviors, and expressions. Before long, it becomes a limiting act. It is limiting because in essence all personality is is a few rules or principles that govern social interpretations; a few simple rules that reduces the plethora of possible interpretations to just a few.

Since our culture does this all the time, people having “personalities” seems ordinary and even satisfying. If they are simple enough, we are able to predict how others will behave as they will be able to predict our behavior. This situation is even sort of desirable in formal or professional situations. Large groups must function by following lowest-common-denominator rules, so having more or less standard or uniform “personalities” is in the interest of most if not all large groups.

The ways that large groups build group bonding shows a great deal about basic human signaling. We have to understand each other and, thus, in large groups we have to make it easy to do that by, for example, singing songs, meeting in the same places, wearing uniforms, listening to speeches, and confining ourselves to a few main ideas.

What having a steady “personality” too often does is bring large-group rules into intimate relationships. With friends, we get to wear more kinds of clothes, say more things, and generally relax more than we can in large groups, but the underlying issue of how we interpret each others’ speech and behavior cannot be satisfyingly resolved by resorting to the “personality” rules that govern our semiotic networks in large groups.

When we reduce each other to a set of “personality” rules or behaviors, we destroy our ability to analyze and interpret the rich micro, meso, and macro semiotic networks that are a major component of the human mind. When we do that to others, we often do it to ourselves. When you reduce the richness of your own mind’s networks into a few “personality” rules or principles, you are going to have problems. And when you do it to someone else, you both are going to have problems.

You cannot communicate deeply or richly by using just a few rules. You must have ways to access and analyze your own and your partner’s semiotic networks. Micro, meso, and macro levels of understanding, of course, lie on a continuum and it is not always easy to say whether something is meso or macro. But this slight vagueness doesn’t matter very much as long as you can manipulate individual semiotics, semiotic bundles, and semiotic networks.

Most people have OK abilities for analyzing meso and macro levels, but completely lack the capacity to even perceive, let alone analyze, communicative micro semiotics, micro signals. The reason this is so is communicative micro semiotics happen quickly. They appear quickly and disappear quickly. They last just a few seconds or less. When we fail to understand the importance of these micro units of communication, we reduce our capacity for meaningful analysis so greatly it is as if we had no analysis. Without a capacity for micro analysis, we become confined to meso and macro levels—to having simple “personalities” that follow simple rules based on simple principles.

I do admit that some people like it that way, and God bless them, but I also believe that a great many people are essentially crazy due to their inability to access and analyze micro semiotics with any other person in the world. People like that will feel lonely when with others, frightened, paranoid, scattered, unfocused, angry, deeply unsatisfied. They will feel these ways because micro semiotics will frequently affect them deeply and cause them to reach for explanations that cannot be confirmed (due to no communication in this realm).

The oldish word for that state is neurotic. It is my contention that a great many people are neurotic, anxious, depressed, bipolar, ADHD, and so on because a massive part of life is going on all around them and yet they have no way to access it, analyze it, understand it, or share it with anyone else.

FIML practice, by the way, will start to fix that problem in a matter of days or weeks.


A signal-based model of psychology: part one

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

A signal-based model of psychology: part three

Repost: Signals and subliminal signal associations

Signals sent between people are almost never simple, single entities devoid of ambiguity.

Indeed, even very clear communicative signals, especially in interpersonal communication, are often fraught with subliminal associations. These “extra” associations are a primary cause of interpersonal error and ambiguity, and deriving from that, of individual, personal discomfort or neurosis.

We have mentioned this general problem many times and claimed that FIML practice is probably the only way to successfully remove the bulk of dangerous ambiguity and misunderstanding that inevitably accrues in almost all interpersonal relationships.

A study on visual perception from the University of Arizona—UA Study: Your Brain Sees Things You Don’t—reasonably confirms these statements for visual perception. I would argue that many other brain functions work in similar ways, including listening, speaking, and our overall perceptions of human behavior and what it “means.”

The study found that participants subconsciously perceive “meaning” in visual images flashed quickly before them. It took about 400 milliseconds for this perception of “meaning” to show on an fMRI machine.

I have put the word “meaning” in quotes because this word could also be understood as “contextualize,” “associate with,” “frame,” or even “anticipate.” When we listen to someone with any care, our minds are always roving slightly as we adjust, readjust, and anticipate what the speaker means, meant, and is meaning. Listening is a dynamic process that draws heavily—even completely—on semiotic associations that hover and come into view as our sense of what the speaker is saying unfolds.

The UA study provides pretty good evidence that we do something similar visually and that it happens quickly.

Mary Peterson, an adviser on the study, said of it

This is a window into what the brain is doing all the time. It’s always sifting through a variety of possibilities and finding the best interpretation for what’s out there. And the best interpretation may vary with the situation.

Pay close attention to that word best.

Firstly, I completely agree with Peterson’s statement. And secondly, I see a massive problem in interpersonal communication lurking just beneath that word “best.”

Whose best? During interpersonal communication, if the listener does not have the habit of directly asking the speaker what is meant, then the listener’s brain will decide the issue on its own based on its own autocthonous “best” sense of what the speaker “means.”

How often can anyone be right under those conditions? This is why FIML practice micromanages some aspects of communication by  requiring quick interventions to be sure the deep meaning is being transmitted correctly. If partners do not do FIML, they will be forced to do all of the following—make many wrong assumptions about what is being communicated to them, rely on general rules of listening (the bane of authentic individuality), rely on statistical assumptions about how the speaker “generally” more or less “is.” That is a formula for interpersonal disaster and likely a major factor in the very high incidence mental illness in industrialized societies.

FIML demands some effort and it takes some time, but I prefer it any day of the week over the static role-playing and error-prone guessing that is the only other alternative.

Another way of saying all of the above is this: when we communicate we often send and receive ambiguous messages. Our minds handle ambiguity (often subconsciously) by choosing what they perceive as the “best” interpretation. But this “best” interpretation happens very quickly and is frequently wrong. Nonetheless, this “best” interpretation if accepted, which it often is, will get fed back immediately into the communicative exchange, quickly (or gradually) distorting everything that is happening.

Unemotional visual perceptions, such as those used in the linked study, will not be problematical for the participants. But similar brain functions will be and are problematical in all of their interpersonal relationships. There is simply no way around the fact that we rapidly perceive and mispercieve “best” interpretations, especially since we are accepting them based on subconscious processes.


Edit: Here is a paper (PDF) on the dangers of inferring too much from neuroimaging: Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? I don’t think too much has been inferred from the UA study, but some readers may disagree.

It seems to me that the human brain is characterized by semiotic networks that are held together through a variety of associations between the “nodes,” or individual signs, that comprise them. We use these networks to understand everything and they are remarkable beautiful, even if fraught with danger when employed (as they always are) during acts of communication with people we care about.

Repost: How delusions are formed

Delusions must start somewhere.

A recent study (Emoticons in mind: An event-related potential study) convincingly demonstrates that our responses to emoticons as simple as a colon next to a parenthesis :) are similar to our responses to real human faces.

Clearly, this response has been learned. No infant is born with that response and no one anywhere had it just a few decades ago.

Our tendency to respond to :) as a face arose with its use in email and texting. This response is now a well-established “public” response to a “public” semiotic. In this context, public means “understood and shared by many people.”

A public semiotic is a sign with wide currency. It is a unit of culture and often of language itself. We can see in the case of the emoticon :) that a new sign can arise due to unique circumstances and that that sign can come to have a deep meaning for many people.

The sign :) seems quite beautiful to me because it is very simple, very easily produced, and very telling about how our minds work. If the elements of the sign are reversed (: people no longer respond to it as a face, though of course we could learn to do that if the reversed sign were used that way more frequently.

I remember the first time I saw a derivative sign ;) and wondered briefly what it meant. If you had a similar experience, you may be able to remember how such a simple sign can bloom in your mind and go from something that is unknown to something of considerable significance in just a few seconds.

That is an example of the birth of a sign, the birth of a semiotic in your mind.

When the semiotic is public, we strive to learn what other people mean by it. When it is private—that is, with a meaning known only to us—there will be other, often very significant, implications.

What would a “private sign” be like? A straightforward example might be a code we use in a diary. Such a code would have at least one visual sign whose meaning is known only to us.

Another kind of private visual sign might be a facial expression that we have come to interpret differently from other people. My guess is everyone has a good many of these. That is to say, the “idiolect” of facial expressions we each use to understand other people is at least as various as different idiolects within a spoken language.

Now add tone of voice, posture, accent, word choice, topic choice, and so on to this mix. Each of those areas of communication uses signs that can and always will be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, including private ones.

Now, consider how an individual may get lost in all this. If someone ever smiled at you as they hurt you, you may have learned to be suspicious in your interpretation of human smiles. Or you may employ your own smile in ambiguous ways.

Now consider all the signs of communication and how many possible interpretations there are. Then consider the study linked above which shows how deep our responses can be to something as trivial as the sign :).

One way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of communicative signs become too private and/or do not correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people. The other way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of signs does correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people, but those other people are wrong.

In “public” situations—professional, commercial, business, school, etc.—it is fairly easy to communicate well enough based on established norms. But in interpersonal communication, you can only take “established norms” so far. At some point, you will have to understand your partner and be understood by them in much greater detail than “established norms,” or public semiotics.

Here is a newspaper article on the study linked above:  Happy days: Human brain now registers smiley face emoticon as real facial expression.

Why the Rotherham sex scandal is good evidence for the need for FIML

The Rotherham scandal was a terrible tragedy and a great crime, but it is also a very good example of how bad people are at communicating and thus thinking. It shows on the big screen of scandalous public life how weak the human mind can be and why it needs a technique like FIML to help it discover its many significant errors.

If you have not heard about Rotherham, here is an article on it: Rotherham: politics ‘imported from Pakistan’ fuelled sex abuse cover-up – MP.

There are many other stories on the scandal, but I chose that one because it is was at-hand and because it contains this gem, spoken by Denis MacShane, the former Labour MP for Rotherham, who said he shied away from the issue because he was a “Guardian reading liberal leftie.”

Essentially due to liberal beliefs, which included a PC deference to the Pakistani community, MacShane failed to investigate the rapes of some 1,400 British girls that had been ongoing for years and had been reported to the police many times. A single thought, idea, symbol, semiotic, call it what you like, prevented MacShane and many others from investigating and stopping the crimes.

From what I read, Rotherham is not alone. Similar gangs exist in other parts of Britain, in Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, and elsewhere in Europe. The reason this is happening, it seems, is similar to Rotherham—people are so afraid to appear “racist”  they cannot or will not do anything to prevent the raping of their own children.

That is the power of ideas, of semiotics. You can see this power displayed in virtually any issue in the public sphere. Rather than think clearly and use reason, people fight over simple symbols or ignore issues entirely.

I would submit that what we can clearly see in the public sphere in Rotherham (and everywhere else to different degrees) also exists within the psychologies of all individuals. While as individuals we may not be susceptible to Rotherham-levels of blindness, we are all susceptible to serious blindness on individual levels. This blindness cannot be fully extirpated without doing FIML practice or something very much like it.

MacShane could not see his own blindness until he was confronted by an in-depth report and public outcry. This is a sworn  public official who was blind to a massive crime and was only awakened by overwhelming events.

As an individual, how do you propose to awaken yourself to idiosyncratic blindness within yourself? Idiosyncratic blindness is much the same as the shared blindness of the whole group of Rotherham officials who chose to look the other way. The only difference is it is unlikely the public or an official report will wake you up.

It is very difficult to see where we are wrong, often profoundly wrong, in both the public and private spheres. If you have a better way to monitor, analyze, and change wrong ideas, beliefs, and semiotics in your own mind than FIML practice, please let me know what it is. Errors in thinking and believing must be confronted as they manifest in semiotic output and perception. This is so because they slip away otherwise and are very hard to see when they are analyzed as generalities. You have to see examples within yourself of how they are actually functioning in real life. If MacShane and the many others who ignored the scandal had had experience with FIML practice, they would have acted much sooner, right away, as in hindsight anyone can see they should have.

Meaning and existential networks

The FIML approach to human psychology considers humans as existential networks of signals, some internal and some external.

A core concept in FIML is that cognition relies on semiotic networks. Semiotics are meaningful or communicable signals.

The purpose of FIML practice is the optimization of interpersonal communication. An important part of this process involves removing what we usually call “misinterpretations.” Some synonyms, depending on context, for misinterpretation are neurosis, emotional suffering, emotional confusion, disordered thinking, wrong views, and so on. The main point is that the sufferer of a misinterpretation is making some sort of mistake in how they perceive, cognize, or react to the world around them.

Misinterpretations are fundamentally rooted in meaning. A misinterpretation is not fundamentally emotional, but meaningful. From the mistaken meaning flows emotions, perceptions, reactions, psychological confusion.

A friend sent me a fascinating Wikipedia entry on ideasthesia. Ideasthesia

is defined as a phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). The name comes from the Greek idea and aisthesis, meaning “sensing concepts” or “sensing ideas” and is introduced by Danko Nikolić. The main reason for introducing the notion of ideaesthesia was the empirical evidence indicating that the related term synesthesia (i.e. union of senses) suggests incorrect explanation of a set of phenomena traditionally covered by this heading. “Syn”+”aesthesis” denoting “co-perceiving”, implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia, in fact are induced by the semantic representations i.e., the meaning, of the stimulus rather than by its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia.

Note this line from the section above—“However, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia, in fact are induced by the semantic representations i.e., the meaning, of the stimulus rather than by its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia.”

If ideasthesia happens with simple perceptions, imagine how often it happens in our existential networks of cognition, semiotic perception, semiotic response and interpretation.

By correcting the core meanings of core misinterpretations, FIML practice corrects maladapted  existential networks, thus relieving suffering while optimizing communication.

Do we have an inner child or an inner dog?

Inner child is a widely recognized term that implies the presence in adults of unresolved problems or underdeveloped traits rooted in childhood.

Inner child further implies that full development of the adult requires “reparenting” or “retraining” the inner child as a way of resolving juvenile problems and advancing to full adulthood.

My FIML partner has been studying dog training and last night told me how much she thought effective dog training resembled FIML practice.

In a nutshell, FIML practice trains your inner dog, not your inner child.

For example, to stop bad behavior in a dog—say, barking at cars going by—its human trainer has to know how to intervene as quickly and as calmly as possible the moment that behavior arises. Quick intervention ensures that the dog knows what the trainer wants them to do. If you wait too long (as little as a few seconds), the dog won’t know what you want them to do. They will have forgotten the precise source of their behavior and thus any corrections they try to make will not address the root problem, which is they have interpreted a signal in the world (cars going by) as something they must react to.

When the trainer is calm and friendly as well as quick to intervene, they will prevent the dog from reacting to their (the trainer’s) excessive emotion, be it anger, panic, or an unskilled flustered state of mind.

The same sort of thing happens in FIML practice. When one FIML partner queries the other, the first thing they are doing is stopping their (own) inner dog before it starts behaving badly. They are intervening as soon as they feel their inner dog stir and start to rise from the floor (but before it starts barking).

The second thing they are doing is calmly asking their FIML partner a question about a very specific and precisely identified moment. They are gathering good data on that moment from their partner and will compare it to what their inner dog thought it saw or heard.

A FIML partner is in essence asking, should I be reacting right now as my inner dog is telling me or has my inner dog misinterpreted a signal coming from you?

The dog for much of its life has barked at cars going by, while the person for much of their life has reacted with sadness or anger to their interpretation of certain signs or signals (semiotics) coming from other people.

When you query your FIML partner about a sign that you have been reacting to for much of your life and discover that the sign you received was not the sign they sent, you will be like the dog who comes to understand that there is no reason to bark at cars going by, no reason to rise from the floor at all.

People are semiotic animals more than dogs, so we react very strongly to social semiotics. But we are just like dogs in that most of our reactions to semiotics can be changed without much effort as long as we arrest those reactions quickly and replace them with a more reasonable response.

My partner remarked last night especially on how easily a great deal of bad dog behavior can be corrected if the intervention of the trainer is quick and the dog is shown a more appropriate response. Oftentimes, just a few good interventions will correct the bad behavior.

What are some classic mistakes bad dog trainers make? They try to comfort or calm the barking dog by holding it and telling it everything is OK. That is, they treat it like a child. But all that actually does is reward the dog for the behavior they want to stop.

So if you reward yourself (your inner child) by indulging in childish feelings of abandonment when you misinterpret or over-interpret a sign of rejection, you are actually rewarding yourself for being wrong, for having an erroneous (or neurotic) interpretation of communicative signs.

It is better to treat your rapid and unthinking “limbic” responsivity like a dog than like a child. And rather than reparent your inner child, it is better to use good dog training techniques to retrain the actual semiotic responses that are the real roots of unwanted behaviors.

Psychiatry still has big problems and so does our model of the human mind

This interview with Robert Whitaker— Psychiatry Now Admits It’s Been Wrong in Big Ways – But Can It Change?—is well worth reading. Whitaker has been an influential critic of psychiatry’s misuse of antipsychotic drugs as well as its models for diagnosis and treatment.

In addition to all of the problems Whitaker describes in the linked article—failed diagnostics, failed theories, failed “disease models,” failed treatments, making matters worse for the mentally ill, and drugging children and minors without their consent—I would further submit that our generally accepted model of the human mind itself is as deeply flawed.

Rather than starting with the idea that humans have or develop personalities that do or don’t adapt well to some ambiguous social standard, we would do better to start with the idea that humans are fundamentally interactive beings, beings that communicate.

If our interactions are good, we will be well enough. If our communications with even one other person are deeply satisfying and as truthful as we are able, we will be even better than well enough.

People go crazy because their relations to no one are satisfying. In a very real sense, poor communication and shallow interaction condemn most humans to a sort of solitary confinement, where the inner network of semiotic reality cannot interface satisfactorily with the network of any other person’s semiotic reality.

For individuals who are fortunate enough to have a suitable partner, FIML practice will likely fix this problem while also fixing most emotional dissatisfaction. It accomplishes this by providing a means for people to fully engage their inner semiotic networks with each other.

The dead end of the traditional mental health model of a “personality-being-well-adapted-to-a-group-or-culture” is, sadly, best illustrated by the profession of psychiatry itself. I believe Whitaker is right in saying that

… it is going to be so hard for psychiatry to reform. Diagnosis and the prescribing of drugs constitute the main function of psychiatrists today in our society. From a guild perspective, the profession needs to maintain the public’s belief in the value of that function. So I don’t believe it will be possible for psychiatry to change unless it identifies a new function that would be marketable, so to speak. Psychiatry needs to identify a change that would be consistent with its interests as a guild.

If even psychiatry as a group needs to “identify a change… consistent with its interests as a guild,” it is clear that groups cannot be taken as a standard for wellness.

If even a group of doctors of the mind cannot get it right, how can any other group be expected to?

And if groups cannot, neither can cultures. And if none of that is right, neither is the notion of a “personality” that “adapts” to those vague standards.

This is an important point: groups can be and are just as crazy as individuals. In fact, many groups are crazier than individuals. The idea that people have “personalities” that must “adapt” in a way that is “satisfying” to an extremely dubious group standard is bankrupt and cannot be fixed. Of course individuals can adapt to laws and clearly stated mores and taboos, but adaptations based on such emotionally unsatisfying generalities will never produce wellness.

The individual can only be well when the individual can communicate their authentic semiotic reality with another, and in turn, receive similar communication from that other.

Semiotics is the right word to use here because its definition includes communicative signs and the meanings of those signs as they are variously interpreted by the individuals using them. Furthermore, the term semiotics implies, or necessarily extends to, networks of communicative signs and their inevitably differing individual interpretations.