Mindfulness and error recognition

Mindfulness practices improve our ability to recognize error.

A recent study shows this by monitoring brain activity with an EEG.

The EEG can measure brain activity at the millisecond level, so we got precise measures of neural activity right after mistakes compared to correct responses. A certain neural signal occurs about half a second after an error called the error positivity, which is linked to conscious error recognition. We found that the strength of this signal is increased in the meditators relative to controls,” said Jeff Lin, co-author of the study linked just below. [emphasis mine](link to quote: How meditation can help you make fewer mistakes)

The study is here: On Variation in Mindfulness Training: A Multimodal Study of Brief Open Monitoring Meditation on Error Monitoring.

Few Buddhists will be surprised at the general findings of this study.

Error recognition is what first got me to read about this study.

The findings became even more interesting to me when I saw the statement about the one-half-second error positivity response in the quote above.

Error recognition or the recognition that one might be making an error is key to successful FIML practice.

The second key is to act on our recognition quickly, within a few seconds if possible.

I have always figured it takes about a half second more or less to feel a slight disturbance that tells us we might be forming a wrong impression about what someone is saying or doing. That we might be making an error.

It is this disturbance that tells us it is time to do a FIML query. Virtually every time I do a proper FIML query I find I am either flat out wrong or wrong enough to want to revise my original impression.

In the past, have called the slight disturbance mentioned above a “jangle,” a term I don’t really like because it makes the response sound stronger than what it is. From now on, I may refer to it as the “error positivity response,” though maybe that’s not precisely the same and it is jargony.

In Buddhism, the response is probably the second of the five skandhassensation.

Buddhist practice will definitely make you more aware of the second skadha or “error positivity response.”

By being aware of this response in conversation with a trusted partner, FIML practice helps us take our mindfulness to a new level by providing  us with the opportunity to ask our partner about their intentions. That is, the check our mental work for error.

If this is done quickly enough to preserve clear memories of 1) your “error positivity response” and 2) your partner’s memory of what was in their working memory at that moment THEN you both have one of the few psychological facts you can both be sure of.

Facts of this sort are not just psychologically of great significance, they are also of philosophical significance because they really are one of the very few fact-types you can truly know about your own idiosyncratic existence; your own very weird being.

I believe this is why the Buddha emphasized the importance of the moment.

FIML practices explodes the moment or expands it to include more reliable information (your partner’s input). And this allows both of you to do a really good analysis of what just happened, what that moment entailed.

And doing that many times, will help both of you see how you really are. It will help you break fee from erroneous psychological frames or theoretical misinterpretations of any type.

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)

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

Deception (or truth elision) in communication

To communicate, we often must ignore the truth or falsity of a statement, our own or someone else’s.

I believe it is an instinct to do this; that it is part of our instinct to communicate at all. Communication requires cooperation, an agreement to be agreeable enough to get the message through.

We might call ignoring truth or falsity in communication “truth elision” or “psychological elision.” Elision means to omit something. Psychological elision would mean omitting or not mentioning psychological truths.

We do a lot of truth elision to save time. In professional or group settings it is hard to communicate any other way because there is not enough time to be perfectly truthful and most people will not care. They just want to socialize and/or get the job done, not search for truth.

Most communication is like that. Most messages are not even superficially analyzed. Semiotics glide through our minds without any thought to their deep origins or interpretations. Truth and falsity are frequently elided.

Like all instincts, our instinct to cooperate by ignoring the truth or falsity of many statements can be misused to consciously deceive.

Indeed, we frequently deceive even ourselves by accepting our own statements as true when analysis would show they are not. One way we succeed in doing this to ourselves is by simply avoiding the analysis—analysis elision.

This is where a simple instinct starts to go bad. A basic need to cooperate on the signs and symbols of communication gets twisted into tricking people, deceiving them, even deceiving ourselves.

The way to see this most clearly and to stop doing it with at least one other person is FIML practice. One of my main goals for this website is to show how and why communication goes bad and how and why it harms us. At the same time, I present a practical way to fix the problem described—FIML.

first posted 12/05/18

_________________

Note 10/10/19: I think the above sheds light on false confessions and pretty much all self-abnegating lying on the spectrum trending down from a false confession with legal consequences.

Abusers work these ill-defined and difficult to grasp areas to dominate, entrap, and manipulate others. Narcissists and other “strong” or “clever” dark personality types use our fundamental willingness to cooperate against us.

Gas lighting greatly relies on people’s willingness to ignore truths and accept falsities about themselves. If there is more than one gas lighter at work, victims may even accept blame for things they know with certainty are not true.

As with so much in this world, immoral people put time and energy into fooling those who have not put time or energy into the dark arts.

Buddhists all know about wise compassion. We also need wise understanding of the world and wise cautiousness about the full scope of human motivations.

Our tendencies to go along with falsity can be seen in every part of life, from small corners of our own lives to the great expanses of entire societies.

Morality

Morality is a quality of consciousness.

It is the basis of enlightenment and the nexus of ultimate and relative realities.

The Buddha spoke of enlightenment only by saying what it is not.

Even when we consider moral acts with great care, we can never be entirely certain of our judgement because there is always more that we do not and cannot understand or know.

We can be cautiously certain only that we have tried or are trying to act morally.

Do we act as if in a role? Or do we act as if in a mind stream, a stream of karma?

God’s Will implies we have a role to play. What does a karmic mind stream imply? Are we attracted to the Tathāgata or not?

I think it’s best to consider all points of view.