Free energy principle & interpersonal psychology

To be very brief, Karl Friston’s “free energy principle” says that the brain is an “inference machine” or “prediction machine” that uses Bayesian probability reasoning and is motivated to act by an inference seeming not true or “surprising” to it.

More can be found here and here.

The free energy principle is a straightforward way to explain what FIML practice does, how it does it, and why it works differently than any other form of psychotherapy and in many significant ways why it works better.

A psychological “complex,” “neurosis,” “personality disorder,” or “persistent thought,” call it what you will, affects human behavior by being or having become a nexus of thoughts, ideas, perceptions, feelings, interconnected neurons and chemistry.

The same is true for any personality trait or skill, including very positive ones.

In Friston’s free energy terms, the psychological elements described above are surrounded by Markov blankets.

That means they are isolated or protected systems with their own variables. These protected systems (protected by Markov blankets) are hard to change because they have their own sets of rules and habitual inputs and outputs.

And that makes them stubborn candidates for most forms of psychotherapy, especially psychotherapy that requires a therapist. One reason for this is time & expense. A second reason is it is difficult for the patient to change without therapeutically experiencing for themself the complex or trait in real-world situations.

The key here is therapeutic experience in the real-world of the unwanted trait or complex that requires change.

The third reason most psychotherapies are ineffective is very subtle incisiveness in real-time is needed to penetrate psychological Markov blankets.

What FIML does is penetrate the Markov blanket enshrouding a complex with a series of small pricks. Each prick in the blanket is small, but each prick also allows some of the valence (gas) inside the blanket to escape.

FIML slowly punctures the Markov blanket with many small pricks, eventually causing it to collapse.

Once it has collapsed, the energies that were trapped inside it can be used for other things. In this way FIML optimizes even non-neurotic psychology by removing pockets of inefficiency held within psychological Markov blankets.

By using only small pricks to penetrate Markov blankets, FIML allows people to gradually and painlessly see what needs to be changed, why, and how to do it. Since FIML works in real-time real-world situations, even very small insights can bring about large changes.

Working memory is the fulcrum of psychology

It is the hinge between inner speech and outer speech. Psychology doesn’t happen without working memory.

Yet working memory is elusive. You hear something and speak to it but did your interlocutor mean that or even say it at all?

Let’s define outer speech as speech spoken to another person. Inner speech spoken aloud is still inner speech.

Inner speech informs outer speech and often becomes it. Same thing goes for outer speech. It can be taken in and reshape inner speech in very deep ways.

During the dynamic of two people talking to each other, our working memories are tasked with listening and responding as best we can. TBH, we usually don’t do that very well.

Many mistakes happen during active speech exchanges. I don’t think I need to prove that.

If what is being exchanged has psychological import, to that degree mistakes can be serious or not.

What is weird to me is our entire sense of who we are is built on the insecure fulcrum of our working memories as we speak and listen.

This happened between your mother and father and between them and you and everyone else you have ever spoken with. It’s all very messy, uncertain, filled with potentially extremely grave errors.

This is part of the deep foundation of our psychologies but it is not often mentioned or taken into account nearly enough.

We go for theories about ourselves because they are established outer speech that we can take in and adapt to. To me, that is weak. A very weak way to understand yourself.

Inner speech as subversive marker of psychology. True speech passes quickly

Inner speech—what we say to ourselves when alone—provides a reasonably good outline of our conscious psychology, an outline of how we understand ourselves.

Inner speech may also include semi-conscious information and subject matter.

When engaged in personal art and poetry inner speech frequently draws on unconscious material, though it is difficult to know where to draw lines between that and psychology. Art is all but defined by its capacity to evoke many interpretations.

Inner speech wanders and can become subversive, even if beautiful, by confirming misunderstanding.

When we are consciously mindful of our inner speech and deliberately pay extra attention to it (a valuable practice), our speaking will change because whenever we strive or focus on anything our relationship to it changes.

When speech pays attention to itself, it brings recursion, one of its core features, to bear on itself. In doing that it raises self-awareness to higher macro-levels or causes self-awareness to view itself from different perspectives.

Consciousness seems to require consciousness of something; in this case it is consciousness of consciousness, a very simple thing actually.

Does water know it’s wet? I don’t know. Does consciousness know it is conscious? Of course it does. We must admit here, though, that what we are conscious of is often wrong.

Being wrong is a big problem with inner speech. I might be talking rather passionately to myself about something that never happened the way I have come to see it. We all know this, though it’s hard to know what to do about it.

That’s probably a big piece of what the Buddha meant by delusion, or even wrong speech. Mumbling away in my own head about something I am completely wrong about!

Oh well.

With an honest partner at least I can get an honest answer about whatever they are thinking right now and compare that to whatever I thought I saw in them. And from that I can tell whether what I thought I saw in them was right or wrong.

That is very good information, some of the best. Let a few seconds pass and their memory will already be eroding, their information not-so-slowly consumed by inner speech.

Friends will typically provide all the inner speech you want, but we would be back at square one if we took that in place much better information from as close as possible to the actual moment that just occurred.

If you think about it, you will probably agree that we can really only gain an objective insight into our psychology in the moment with an honest partner. And in those instances, we will mostly only gain insights into small bits of it.

Fortunately, with time and an accumulation of many small bits of information like that, we will see much better outlines of our psychologies than either our own inner speech can provide us or that can be provided by any theory that comes from outside.

Speech behaviorism, a practical approach

The following are some basic rules for a practical behaviorist approach to speech.

Use real speech in Real-World, Real-Time (RWRT) situations.

Keep it simple by using only two people. Make it deep by using the same two people for years. No third person is needed or wanted.

Use only good data that both speaker and listener can agree on. For RWRT speech, this means only speech that is/just was in the working memory of both partners.

That is, both partners must agree on what was said and heard. If the listener heard “boo” and the speaker agrees they said “boo”, that is good data.

Partners must reach that agreement while keeping intact the contents of their working memories when the word “boo” was said/heard in RWRT. (This takes a little practice but is not that hard to do.)

Both speaker and listener can now analyze that data by discovering (through speech) what was in their working memories when they heard or spoke “boo”.

These simple rules bypass predetermined thoughts about what we believe we are saying or said, believe we are hearing or heard.

In so doing, these simple rules lead us gradually but very significantly away from surface speech (see: Time pressure encourages socially acceptable speech) to much deeper and more accurate communication between partners.

And this deepens partners’ sense of who or what they are across all domains.

That such simple rules can deeply change how we speak and hear and how we think about ourselves and others and how we understand the entire enterprise of human psychology, shows that—you might say—God exists, or the Buddha Mind exists, or profound other realms are available to human beings, that a deep sense of karma is real, that what we say matters, that not doing our best to speak the truth is what the Buddha meant by “frivolous speech” and he did so for a good reason because enlightenment itself lies thataway.

I think it’s delightfully paradoxical that simple behaviorist rules can lead us to having religious experiences.

Can we restate or add to Cogito ergo sum by saying: Recte loquendo Deum esse demonstramus? (By speaking properly we demonstrate that God exists)

Time pressure encourages socially acceptable speech

An interesting study shows that:

Prosociality increases when decisions are made under time pressure.

and that:

These results of socially desirable behavior under time pressure do not reflect people’s deep-down good selves but, rather, their desire to present themselves favorably to other people. (Rushing to Appear Virtuous: Time Pressure Increases Socially Desirable Responding)

Lead author, John Protzko says of the results:

“The method of ‘answer quickly and without thinking’, a long staple in psychological research, may be doing many things, but one thing it does is make people lie to you and tell you what they think you want to hear. This may mean we have to revisit the interpretation of a lot of research findings that use the ‘answer quickly’ technique. (Under Time Pressure, People Tell Us What We Want to Hear)

The cutoff for “time pressure” was 11 seconds; that is, a yes or no answer was required within 11 seconds to be considered pressured.

Most conversational speech comes well within 11 seconds after a person has been addressed. While being addressed is not the same as being questioned, it does usually imply a response is needed fully as much as a direct question.

If this extrapolation is true, the experiment may also show one important reason people fairly often say what they don’t really mean and/or would rephrase on further reflection.

Beyond that, it may also show why many people are uncomfortable in group settings or with speaking at all. Pressure—time or otherwise—forces us into a shallow “agreeable” mode that regurgitates whatever we think others want to hear or that seems most socially acceptable to us.

I know I have done that many times. And when I buck that tendency, I know I sometimes hit it out of the park and sometimes cause myself embarrassment.

Either way, no matter the result, quick speech is fraught with danger, even among close friends. And this is probably a major reason we legitimately cling to personas, egos, or roles as means to standardize our responses across a wide variety of conditions.

From a Buddhist point o view, a great deal of delusion starts right there.

FIML and functionalism

FIML (Functional Interpersonal Meta-Linguistics) is a kinda sorta type of functionalism. A general statement on functionalism is:

Functionalism is a theory of the mind in contemporary philosophy, developed largely as an alternative to both the identity theory of mind and behaviorism. Its core idea is that mental states (beliefs, desires, being in pain, etc.) are constituted solely by their functional role – that is, they are causal relations to other mental states, sensory inputs, and behavioral outputs. (Source same as above)

FIML differs from philosophical functionalism once we get beyond the generalities. FIML treats semiotics (a most basic element of communication) as good data (if agreed upon by both partners). It then uses this data to show partners how their communicative awareness is actually functioning. Since data points are necessarily small, their function can be determined with reasonable certainty, a degree of certainty much better than that obtained through the application of an overarching theory to the same data point.

For example, if you (my partner) believe I said something based on anger or a political leaning, you have a theory about why I said what I said. If you do a FIML query and find out from me (a truthful informant) why I said what I said, you will have a small fact to replace your big theory. Very often it turns out that I (or your partner) said what they said not due to your theory but due to something else entirely.

Seeing the difference between your acquired “theoretical” theory of mind and the actual factual state of your partner’s mind—and seeing this many times—will relieve you of many mistakes in how you perceive and interact with your partner.

In time, this relief will extend to others to some extent, though in a world where only a small number of couples are doing FIML we cannot expect others to function interpersonally with the same degree of honest agility as our FIML partner.

I believe the day will come when many people do FIML or something very much like it. That will be a time when humans have even more leisure than today, when robots do most work and through their impressive skills and intelligence have unburdened us from the need for status displays or exercising mindless power over others.

Compare FIML practice to traditional forms of psycho-analysis. Instead of subjecting your inchoate mind’s vague problem(s) to a paid theorist or dispenser of pills, you will in the security of your own domicile be able to observe and analyze how and why your mind reacts and communicates as it does. You and your partner will be free to draw on what you know and understand to observe and investigate your minds as they actually function in real time.

FIML cannot do everything, but it provides great detail in an area of activity—communication—that is crucial to being human, whether you are with others or alone.

The entry on functionalism linked above is interesting and worth reading, but after the first few sentences it veers off into something that FIML is not. FIML is not a complete theory about how minds work. Rather it is a theory about how semiotics function in real time and how understanding that much better (through FIML practice) leads to better communication and a better sense of well-being overall.

An interesting benefit of FIML is you don’t have to wonder if your partner is thinking something weird about you because they will ask long before it gets weird.

FIML might also be called Dynamic Semiotic Analysis or Functional Semiotic Analysis, but I decided on FIML some time ago and believe it is a good enough name. FIML is not exactly doing meta-linguistics, but it is close enough and most people are more familiar with that term than semiotics.

A note to psychologists: You guys do great work. I am not against you. FIML is a practice designed to optimize communication and self-understanding. If you have clients that are doing more or less alright but still feel they are missing something, teach them FIML. Depending on their and your skills, you should be able to teach couples how to do it in approximately four to eight sessions.

first posted 02/18/15