How signals form in the brain

Researchers at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour have discovered that:

“…nerve cells collect evidence for the alternative choices as minute voltage changes across their surface. These changes build up over time until they reach a hair-trigger point, at which the nerve cell produces a large electrical impulse. This impulse signals that a decision has been reached.” (Source)

Lead author of the study behind these conclusions, Dr. Lukas Groschner, says:

“We have discovered a simple physical basis for a cognitive process.

“Our work suggests that there is an important analogue component to cognition. People sometimes compare the brain to a digital machine operating with sequences of impulses and silences. But much of what looks like silence is actually taken up by analogue computation.” (Ibid)

The study, which can be found here, worked with a small number of nerve cells important for decision-making in fruit flies. One can imagine that similar processes occur in human brains.

If decisions are based on electrical charges that “build up over time” as analog computations, many aspects of thought become clearer. Indecision, abrupt decision, and mistakes as well as rational analysis all show signs of a mounting and wavering of voltage prior to decisive action. Frequently, the deciding “voltage” is an emotional burst or a bias.

It seems clear to me that decisions are built up over time (experience, training, rumination, unconscious accumulations) before they are made, often seemingly spontaneously.

As humans, we are particularly susceptible to a bias toward familiar or authoritative human semiotics. This is why propaganda works so well or why Google can swing an election without consumers of its products being aware they have been manipulated.

That humans copy and follow other humans is the basis of sociology and psychology. Culture is much like a Google algorithm that all but forces us to “decide” between limited options that have been “built up” over time by social inertia or manipulated by people who control social semiotics or the algorithms that select the ones we see.

General analyses of signaling systems illuminate fundamentals of psychology

Individual psychology is a locus or node within a larger social system.

More precisely, individual psychologies are particular signaling systems within larger social signaling systems.

It is valuable to see this because general analyses of signaling systems—even those having nothing to do with human psychology—can shed light on human signaling systems, including both individual psychology and many aspects of sociology.

When human psychology is viewed as a signaling system, we can readily see that narcissism is bound to occur because narcissism is fundamentally a simplistic signal system.  (See Narcissism redefined (yet again) for more.)

When human sociology is viewed as a signaling system, we can similarly see that parasitism is bound to occur because the exploitation of one system by another is a fairly simple matter.  (See Social parasitism in ants and humans for more.)

In like manner, we can see that social hierarchies importantly have evolved because they are simple and decently efficient signal (communication) systems.

We can also see why hierarchical system often are overthrown and why they often do not arise in systems where they are not needed.  For example, no hierarchy is needed for a language system once the basics have been established.  A parasitic or authoritarian group might impose a hierarchy on a language system, but that’s a different animal.

When individual psychology is viewed as a signaling system, we can see that a great deal of what we consider “disordered” or “ill” within that system is fundamentally a problem of the signal system itself and not the “personality” we have mistakenly abstracted out of that system.

Indeed, most of what we think of as personality is nothing more than an individual signal system attempting to conform to its understanding of the larger social system within which it exists.  When science is applied to “personality” erroneously conceived, we arrive at the many psychometric tautologies on personality traits we now have.  Psychometrics have limited value for describing societies, but are frequently misleading, even damaging, when applied to individuals.  In this, they resemble BMI data which originally was used as a marker for the health of whole populations, not individuals, and which can be misleading when applied to individuals.

When we view individuals as signaling systems rather than personalities, we can immediately see that these systems can and should be optimized for better communication.  Indeed, this is the real job of psychology—optimizing individual signaling systems. Not just treating “personality” disorders.

Social parasitism in ants and humans

Parasitic ants parasitize other ants using aggression and deception. (Source)

Ant parasitism is an evolved social behavior, a “game” that has arisen within large social communities. We have a great deal of evidence that human communities can also be parasitic or harbor parasitic human subgroups.

It makes sense that social parasitism as a “game” of signal exchanging would evolve in large social groups. Social signal system have an inherent capacity to diverge; and from there to fight, compete, exploit.

There are many large examples of human social parasitism, the Manchurian elite of the Qing Dynasty being one. Social parasitism can also be seen among humans in small groups of gaslighters, gangs, or cults.

Every summer, blood-red ants of the species Formica sanguinea go on a mission to capture slaves. They infiltrate the nest of another ant species, like the peaceful F. fusca, assassinate the queen, and kidnap the pupae to raise as the next generation of slaves. Once the slaves hatch in their new nest, they appear none the wiser to their abduction, dutifully gathering food and defending the colony as if it were their own. (How blood-red ants became slave snatchers)

Games as semiotic focus

Define a game as “a set of rules that focuses and directs thought, feeling, intention.”

Most human games are overwhelmingly involved with human semiotics. Human feeling, thought, and intention overwhelmingly operate within and are defined by human semiotics.

Humans are semiotic animals who live within semiologies as much or more than their natural environments. Few of us can even comprehend our natural environments save through a semiotic system.

A semiology is a signal system, a system of signals. Humans need and want their signal systems to be organized; from this arises culture and psychology.

From this arises the many games of human semiotic organization. Humans crave meaning—a synonym for semiotic organization and focus—and thus play games (as defined above) with their intentions, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, instincts, perceptions, desires, and so on. Without meaning, focus, purposive semiotic organization, life is dismal and many humans destroy themselves and others for this alone.

Human semiotic organization can be beneficially reorganized in two basic ways:

  • Through general thought, which mainly changes how we focus and what we focus on. This region of organization includes all culture and science, including mainstream psychology and its treatments.
  • Through analysis of the most basic elements of semiotic organization, individual semiotics and semiologies. To do this at the individual level, two individuals are needed because you cannot successfully analyze your own semiotics by yourself. This is so because a great number of human semiotics are fundamental to both psychology and communication. They do not exist independently.

The goal of reorganizing individual semiologies is to optimize them. As individual semiologies optimize, individual psychologies inevitably optimize apace. Much is possible at this level that is not possible at the general level of psychological theory.

Reorganization at this level is done through individual semiotics, the actual signals of individual communication and psychology alike. To play this game—the game of semio-psychological reorganization and optimization—you have to have rules. Here they are.

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.

Narcissism redefined (yet again)

A new study on narcissism, which selfishly lies behind a paywall, claims to have answered “three key, inter-related problems that have plagued narcissism scholarship for more than a century.”

These three problems are described in the abstract (which is publicly available) as:

…(a) What are the key features of narcissism? (b) How are they organized and related to each other? and (c) Why are they organized that way, that is, what accounts for their relationships? (The Narcissism Spectrum Model: A Synthetic View of Narcissistic Personality)

The study seems to have been well-summarized in 3 Core Facets of Narcissism, from Malignant to Adaptive:

This new way of understanding the narcissistic personality places self-centeredness front and center, providing a useful way to characterize narcissism’s two underlying dimensions. When you’re dealing with the most narcissistic of all individuals, the grandiosity you see isn’t masking any deep-seated insecurity. The narcissistically vulnerable, who becomes enraged when deprived of status and attention, conversely, is driven by feelings of insecurity, and insecurity alone.

My problem with the study is it is based on ephemeral “personality” traits rather than signals, which are much easier to quantify, analyze, and observe.

A semiotic or signal-based interpretation of narcissism allows us to base analysis on its most prominent feature—simplicity.

The simplest definition of narcissism is “narrow or reduced interpretation(s) of psychological signs.”

This is a functional definition that provides insight into a wide range of human psychological reactions. (Narcissism, a semiotic interpretation)

This definition explains why a wide range of humans display narcissistic traits, including small children, old people, alcoholics, those with brain injuries, dementia, and in many ways all of us to some degree at one time or another.

Narcissism forms and persists because it is a simple semiology that works. Drunks use it, angry people use it, advertising uses it, cultures all use it, even religions use it.

If we understand that narcissism is characterized by a “narrow or reduced interpretation(s) of psychological signs,” we can expect to find relief from it by widening and augmenting the sufferer’s use of psychological signs.

As for the three problems described in the study, these can be answered in this way:

Q: What are the key features of narcissism?

A: Simple semiology, me first

Q: How are they organized and related to each other?

A: Zero-sum, one-way street, malice, impression management

Q: Why are they organized that way, that is, what accounts for their relationships?

A: The narcissistic system (me first) works better than any other the person knows of. It is organized to be efficient and easy to use. See Zero-sum, one-way street, malice, impression management for more on this.