Semiotics and psychology

A semiotic analysis of a person’s “internal and external signalling” often can be more conducive to understanding than a “psychological” analysis.

From a semiotic point of view, it is not at all necessary that even a very significant adult behavior will have started with a significant trauma or any other sort of strong influence.

The smallest thing can constitute the start of a “semiotic slope” that, once begun, will tend to persist.

For example, your mom may not have understood that as a three-year-old it was normal for you to prefer the company of your father. Her misunderstanding may then have led to her withdrawing from you very slightly, and this snowballed between the two of you. When, years later, you wanted a closer relation with your mom and were not able to get it, it may have seemed to you that the cause was some trauma in her relation with her mother. But the actual start of the whole thing began with nothing more than your mom never having learned the simple fact that toddlers often prefer one parent over the other for a period of time.

What happened was she misunderstood the semiotics of toddler behavior and many things followed from that. There was no trauma, no ideal state not attained due to some seriously bad thing having happened to her.

Another way to put this is most people do not remember very much before the age of five or so. But didn’t a lot of formative things happen back then? Some probably were traumatic, and we do tend to remember those experiences more clearly than others, but much of what started our paths of development also began with very simple, often accidental, interpretations or misinterpretations of what was said or done to us or around us.

In a semiotic analysis, we recognize that a good deal of what we think/feel/believe began with a small thing, a random or accidental interpretation that got us going in some direction that we likely today see as a major component of our “personality.”

Semiotics can be defined as “the science of communicable meaning (including internal communication).”

Once your mom began to interpret, even very slightly, your toddler behavior as “meaning” that you did not love her as much as your father, many things followed for all of you. But there was no trauma, no glaring formative event, no Freudian ghost from her past coming to haunt your life. Rather, she simply made a mistake due to her ignorance of toddler behavior.

Ironically, the fact that many of us still today tend to understand much of human “psychology” as being determined by unconscious Freudianesque forces is a good example of how a “semiotic slope” once begun tends to continue. Freud started us down a “semiotic slope” that still shapes much of our world today.

The persistence of what is simply a wrong interpretation in an individual can be compared to what happens in cultures. Something begins, then it snowballs, then it becomes a tradition or an established idea. The semiotic network that is culture is hard to change once it is established. Something very similar is also true for individuals.

I am not claiming that emotional traumas do not happen and that they do not affect people. I am claiming that what we are is often due to small accidents as much as large traumas. And that people who are “resilient” after having suffered significant traumas may be so because their semiotic development led them to view the “meaning” of their trauma in a more “resilient,” or useful, way.

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first posted AUGUST 31, 2013

The Nine Features of Great Philosophy: The Ethical Skeptic

The Ethical Skeptic has become one of my favorite blogs and Twitter accounts. Today he posted a must-read: The Nine features of Great Philosophy. The image below provides a clear summary:

This kind of thinking works across all domains of rational endeavor, including psychology, psycholinguistics, communication, and semiotics. It also fits perfectly with Buddhist thought and practice.

I am happy to also say that FIML practice as explained on this site is well-characterized by these nine features. I tend to think of FIML as practical psychotherapy that can be used by almost anyone. At the same time, I am well-aware that FIML took many years to fully develop and that fundamentally it is a way to think.

FIML is a theory of communication that yields a method for much better communication. You could also say that FIML is a method of communication that also yields a theory of why we now communicate mostly badly; how to fix that and why fixing that leads to a much greater understanding of life.

Since FIML is a method of thinking or communicating, it has no content of its own. FIML does require honesty and the basic human virtues of self-examination, self-correction, willingness to learn and share, and the desire for wholesomeness or integrity. But other than that, FIML has no ideology, credo, belief system, or cultural envelope. It can be used by anyone anywhere to optimize interpersonal communication and individual psychology.

In fact, even non-humans could do FIML if they use a self-conscious communication system to convey subjective meanings that may be ambiguous.

Signal intensity

An important part of FIML practice is understanding signal intensity. That is, how big or strong or important the signal in question is.

FIML practice was designed to work with small signals and works best when close attention is paid to small signals. These “small signals” can be ones you send to your partner, ones your partner sends to you, or the ways in which either one of you interprets any signal at all.

Small signals are of great importance because they can be signs or aspects of larger or habitual ways of interpreting signals. Small signals can also generate mistaken interpretations that have the potential to snowball.

An example of a habitual way of interpreting signals might be a person who grew up in a less wealthy environment than his or her partner. The less wealthy partner may tend to interpret spending or not spending money differently than the other partner. This could manifest as stinginess, being too generous, or as mild anxiety about money in general. Of course, both partners will be different in the ways they interpret signals dealing with money. Their semiotics about money will be different.

FIML partners would do well to deal with these differences by paying close attention to small signals of that type the moment they come up. This is where partners will come to see how this entire class (money) of signals is affecting them in the moments of the lives they are actually living. It’s good to also have long general discussions about money, but be sure to pay close attention to the appearances of small signals.

From this example, please extrapolate to the signaling areas that matter to you and your partner. These may include anything that causes mistakes in communication or anything that causes either partner to feel anxiety or discomfort.

A good way to gain access to this perspective is to also pay close attention to how often you and your partner miscommunicate about trivial material things. Notice how often—and it happens a lot—you misunderstand each other about even the simplest of concrete, material matters. For example, what kind of lettuce to buy, where you left the keys, is the oven off, etc.

All people everywhere make many communicative mistakes in matters as small as those. If we do that in the material realm, where mistakes are easy to see and correct, consider how much more often and how much more serious are signaling mistakes in the emotional, interpersonal realm.

When you do a FIML discussion with your partner, be sure to frequently include an analysis of how big or small the signals in question are—how intense they are. Remember that FIML practice strongly encourages discussing even the very smallest of signals. FIML does that because small signals are easier to isolate and analyze; clearly seeing a small signal often is sufficient to understanding a big habit. Small signals can snowball, so they should not be ignored.

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first poster OCTOBER 1, 2012

Psychological disorders shift throughout life, defying easy categorization

It has long been known that the more severe a mental disorder is, the greater the variety of symptoms it will manifest.  A news study based on longitudinal data shows that virtually all psychological disorders shift throughout life, rarely maintaining the same diagnosis.

“Better than any particular diagnosis, three parameters described each person’s mental health over their life: (a) age of onset, (b) duration of symptom history, and (c) number of different kinds of comorbid disorder symptoms. People with younger onset of symptoms, more years with symptoms, and more different kinds of symptoms tended to be the same people. These people also had more indicators of poor brain health at age 3, steeper child-to-adult cognitive decline, and older brain-age on structural MRI at midlife,” Caspi explained.

“This finding cautions against over-reliance on etiological theories, research hypotheses, and clinical protocols that are specific to one diagnosis. Studying disorders one at a time does not accurately represent most patients’ lived experience of shifting across disorder families.”

“Studying one disorder may mislead about specificity and hide transdiagnostic discoveries from view. There is a need for measurement instruments that capture shared liability to shifting disorders across the life course in order to make discoveries more efficiently. There is also a need to develop transdiagnostic treatments that can prevent many different conditions,” Caspi said. (New psychology study finds people typically experience shifting mental disorders over their lifespan)

IMO, if we base our understanding of human psychology—including disordered psychology—on signals, the problem of wavering diagnoses becomes clearer.

A complex signal system once disordered cannot be expected to a maintain homeostasis of “disorderedness.”

The agony of speaking

My SO and I are doing some painting. Mostly it’s fun, but as we discuss colors and color combinations, it has become glaringly obvious that it can be extremely difficult to talk about what we want but easy to convey our ideas by showing an example of what we want.

I wanted to do something in brown. Words flew all over the room but got us no closer to mutual understanding, let alone agreement. We looked at color charts on the computer but couldn’t agree on what we meant by saturation, muted, lighter, or darker.

My SO, who is much better with color than I am, thought the meanings of those terms were obvious. “You’re overthinking this! You must know what lighter and darker mean!”

“Not when I consider luminescence or saturation, I don’t. I really don’t.”

Is a red-brown lighter or darker than a blue-brown? More or less saturated? I honestly was lost in the terminology and was driving my poor SO crazy.

After several days of this, at some point I noticed my wallet lying on the table. “This is what I mean,” I said. “I want a color like this.” The wallet was a well-worn, dark, leathery brown.

She immediately knew what I was talking about now. “What you want is a really dark brown… that’s almost a black.”

Excited, we went back to the color chart (which has 3,500 color variations) and looked into a different classification of browns. Low and behold, the darkest one available—Tarpley Brown—is exactly what I wanted.

So,  I had something in my mind’s eye but failed repeatedly to convey it to my SO through the use of language. She tried to figure out what I meant but kept searching for a more woody sort of brown while becoming increasingly confused by my groping attempts at description.

From this, we can see how difficult it is to understand other people or even ourselves. Many important aspects of being human simply do not have clear examples in the world around us and are much more difficult to put into words than a color.

Military thought experiment Part 4: Did China already do it?

In Military thought experiment Part 1, I described how a force of 10,000 military operatives could conquer a nation of 100 million within a few generations and without most people even noticing.

Key factors in the success of that operation were ruthlessness, deceit, long-term planning, plausible deniability, and the use of “subtle weapons” such as poison. physical maiming, propaganda, educational misdirection, medical malpractice, and character assassination.

Plausible deniability for each and every attack (including the overall attack) is of paramount importance for the success of such an operation. Each individual attack must be deniable or excusable as a mistake if discovered, and best of all never be discovered. Of course, no one but the inner circle must know of the ultimate plan: to conquer a nation of 100 million with just 10,000 operatives.

Has China’s Communist Party already done a similar attack against the rest of the world? Is Covid-19 but the first open onslaught?

Strong similarities with the plot described in Part 1 are plausible deniability, ruthlessness, and use of a “subtle” biological weapon, Covid-19.

Other similarities are the prominent uses propaganda, IP theft, strict control of operatives stationed in USA, educational misdirection, and character assassination.

An attack of the magnitude of Covid-19 would not have been done without well-formed plans for a variety potential followup attacks.

As evidence mounts that Covid-19 may cause long-lasting debilitation even in mild cases, the acutely critical nature of our present predicament should be obvious and alarming.

From a military standpoint, notice the value of plausible deniability, ruthlessness, and “subtle” or asymmetric weaponry:

  • The plausible deniability of the covid attack has left us paralyzed. Squabbling over school openings, masks, and who is to blame for missteps are keeping us from facing reality. I hope our president and military leaders are not being fooled as much as the public. I can understand why informing the public of how serious the situation is might do more harm than good.
  • The ruthlessness of the attack comprises the lion’s share of its effectiveness because most people cannot imagine such a thing.
  • The use of a “subtle” weapon like covid has stretched the umbrella of plausible deniability for over a half-year and counting.

Some questions and concerns for military planners:

Clearly economic pressure from us is not going to win the day, though it will contribute. China has itself deliberately ruined Hong Kong, while cementing deals with Russia and Iran with an eye, probably, to moving their financial capital from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Their deals with Russia show the foolishness of our entangling ourselves in the “collusion delusion” for three years rather than forming a valuable alliance with Russia, as wise heads had advised.

How will we protect ourselves against a second or third bioweapon attack? Vaccines take a long time to develop. If China has already vaccinated its people against their followup bioweapons, what will we do? How long will we wait before reacting? How long will we be fooled by yet another creeping plague of plausible deniability?

Notice that few Westerners even noticed that China was engaged in clandestine military operations to destroy them. Even worse, the West educated, financed, and provided technology, even military technology, to the CCP, often for free.

This shows that secrecy and ruthlessness when played in concert with guile and long-term divide-and-conquer strategies are extremely effective means to weaken and overpower even very powerful adversaries.

By promoting Western allies though bribes and favoritism, over several decades China undermined the West while laying the groundwork for a full-scale bioweapon attack. When the time was right for the attack—when they knew they had lost the trade war—they were already in position to launch the largest military assault the world has ever seen.

Note 07/25: Why we can be reasonably certain China manufactured Covid-19 and released it deliberately

Continue reading “Military thought experiment Part 4: Did China already do it?”

Plants filter out green light to protect photosynthesis from “noise”

Plants are able to make photosynthesis more efficient by filtering out spectra of solar light that change most rapidly in their environments.

Protecting themselves from such “noisy” input allows them to obtain “quiet” outputs of energy.

This provides “…a unified theoretical basis for the experimentally observed wavelength dependence of light absorption in green plants, purple bacteria, and green sulfur bacteria.”

That quote is from the study: Quieting a noisy antenna reproduces photosynthetic light harvesting spectra.

Nathaniel Gabor, one of the authors of the paper, said of it: “Our model is the first hypothesis-driven explanation for why plants are green, and we give a roadmap to test the model through more detailed experiments.” (emphasis added)

This general principle—turning noisy inputs into quiet outputs—can probably be applied to many other systems, including human psychology. In this respect, many human behaviors could be viewed attempts to achieve quiet, steady, or consistent outputs by reducing noise.

FIML is a super efficient noise reducer.

 

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 (and/or interpreted many signals badly) 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.

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Scientists reckon “active civilizations” exist in the Milky Way

A new cosmic-scale estimate on the evolution of intelligent life figures that “there should be at least  a few dozen active civilizations” in the Milky Way.

Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Nottingham, Christopher Conselice who led the research, explains: “There should be at least a few dozen active civilizations in our Galaxy under the assumption that it takes 5 billion years for intelligent life to form on other planets, as on Earth.” Conselice also explains that, “The idea is looking at evolution, but on a cosmic scale. We call this calculation the Astrobiological Copernican Limit.” (Research sheds new light on intelligent life existing across the galaxy)

Buddhist cosmology has long claimed that the universe is teeming with sentient life.

Two other basic ways to figure the probability of intelligent “communicating civilizations” existing in the universe are:

  • from a strictly materialist point of view or
  • from the view that we are living in a “mental universe.”

From a materialist point of view, conscious life is a sort of ordinary phenomenon that could arise on many planets under a wide variety of conditions; therefore it must have arisen many times in the cosmos, including within the Milky Way.

From the “mental universe” point of view, thought itself is a fundamental part of the cosmos underlying everything in the universe; thus the evolution of many intelligent “communicating civilizations” besides our own would be expected.

 

Indeterminacy of translation and FIML

I betray my poor education by admitting that I had never heard of W. V. Quine’s “indeterminacy of translation” until last week*. My ignorance is especially egregious as I have worked as a professional translator for many years.

Maybe I had heard about it but had forgotten. I am being self-reflective because FIML practice is deeply, fundamentally concerned with the “indeterminacy” of translating one person’s thoughts into another person’s head.

Quine’s thesis is not just about translating from one language to another, though there is that. It is much more about the fundamental impossibility of determining what anything means well enough to “translate” it into another context, a next sentence, into another person’s mind, or even “translating” your own speech from the past into the context of your mind today.

If I had known about Quine, I probably never would have thought of FIML because his ideas and the slews of papers written on “indeterminacy of translation” surely would have made me believe that the subject had been worked through.

As it was, I have plodded along in a delightful state of ignorance and, due to that, maybe added something practical to the subject.

In the first place, I wholeheartedly believe that speech is filled with indeterminacy, which I have generally called ambiguity or uncertainty. In the second place, I have confined my FIML-related investigations mainly to interpersonal speech between partners who care about each other. I see no solution to the more general problem of indeterminacy within groups, subcultures, or linguistic communities. Until brain scans get much better, large groups will be forced to resort to hierarchical “determinacy” to exist or function at all.

For individuals, though, there is much we can do. FIML practice does not remove all “indeterminacy.” Rather, it removes much more than most people are aware is possible, even remotely aware is possible. My guess is FIML communication provides a level of detail and resolution that is an order of magnitude or two better than non-FIML.

That is a huge improvement. It is life-changing on many levels and extremely satisfying.

FIML does not fix everything—and philosophical or “artistic” differences between partners are still possible—but it does fix a great deal. By clearing up interpersonal micro-indeterminacy again and again, FIML practice frees partners from the inevitable macro-problems that micro-ambiguity inevitably causes.

Moreover, this freedom, in turn, frees partners from a great deal of subconscious adhesion to the hierarchical “determinacy” of whichever culture they are part of. Rather than trapping themselves in a state of helpless acceptance of predefined hierarchical “meaning,” FIML partners have the capacity to sort through existential semiotics and make of them what they will with far less “indeterminacy,” or ambiguity, than had been possible without FIML practice.

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*that would not be over five years ago now

A signal-based model of psychology: part two

If we consider humans to be complex signaling systems or networks, then it is readily apparent that each human network signals within itself and also is connected by signals to other networks.

In A signal-based model of psychology: part one, we said:

the only significant interpersonal signaling data we can really know with significant certainty are data noticed, remembered, and agreed upon by two (or more in some cases) people engaged in significant interpersonal communication (signaling).

More recently, in Indeterminacy of translation and FIML, we discussed W. V. Quine’s thesis, which describes;

the fundamental impossibility of determining what anything means well enough to “translate” it into another context, a next sentence, into another person’s mind, or even “translating” your own speech from the past into the context of your mind today.

When we analyze a person based on vague ideas like “personality,” “psychology,” or “cognition,” we are principally assigning ambiguous referents to amorphous categories. We have more words but not much more understanding.

Cognition is a huge grab-bag of a word that means almost anything, as do the terms psychology and personality.

If we replace these terms with the concept of signaling networks, we gain specificity. For example, rather than analyzing the “cognitive-behavior” of a person we can more easily and profitably analyze their signaling.

The advantage of examining signaling rather than “cognitive-behavior” is signals are quite specific. They can usually be defined pretty well, they can be contextualized, and their communicative intent can be determined with reasonable specificity.

To be most effective, signaling analysis works best if we abandon the idea that we can accurately analyze the signals of someone else, especially if we do not analyze our own signals at the same time.

Moreover, a signaling analysis will work best if we do it with:

  • someone that we care about and that cares about us
  • someone with whom we can be completely honest and who will be completely honest with us
  • someone who is willing to spend the time to do the analyzing

Sad to say, it can be difficult to find two people who fit together in those ways, but that is how it is. Much of this problem is due to social expectations, which presently greatly reduce opportunities for clear, honest communication. And much of this is due to how we normally conceive of a person, as a bundle of vague things that cannot be pinned down.

The ideal signaling analysis will be done between close friends with the above qualifications. A signaling analysis will not work well, if at at all, if it is done between a professional and a patient. A professional psychologist would do the best for their patient by teaching them how to do signaling analysis with a friend. If they don’t have a friend, maybe one can be found; if not, a different approach should be used.

But you don’t have to have “problems” to do a signaling analysis. Everyone will benefit from it.

Signaling analysis works because partners learn to work with good data that has been generated between them during real-life situations. Having this data allows partners to do micro, meso, and macro levels of analysis on it. And these different levels help them see the specifics of a particular signal exchange, the immediate context of the exchange, and the larger social or historical context from which the exchange has derived some or much of its meaning.

For example, if clear data on a tone of voice has been agreed upon, both partners can then explain the micro antecedents and context of that data, the meso context of those antecedents, and if necessary the macro context that gave rise to either or both of those. The same outline applies to all micro data, be it tone, gesture, word choice, body language, reference, etc.

With practice, a new way of understanding communication will arise in partners’ minds. Rather than having a vague “cognition” about some poorly-defined “emotion” or “personality trait,” partners will find that they can benefit much more by simply analyzing what actually happened based upon data they both agree on.

It is very important for partners to do many analyses of specific micro-data, a single word or phrase, a single tone of voice, a single gesture, etc.. The reason for this is we can’t accurately remember much more than that. When we try to do more, we are pushed immediately out of specific micro data into vague meso or macro generalities that constitute nothing more than general categories with general references to other general categories. Rather than analyzing something that has actually occurred, we instead argue about general emotions, vague traits, unsubstantiated assumptions about “personalities,” and so on.
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