The existential beauty (and chemistry) of updating beliefs

A new study shows that updating beliefs about the world requires and stimulates dopamine release in the brain.

Lead author of the study, Matthew Nour, from University College London and Kings College London has this to say about the findings:

“We found that two key brain areas of the dopamine system (the midbrain and striatum) appear to be more active when a person updates their beliefs about the world, and this activity is related to measures of dopamine function in these regions.” (Source)

Healthy people update beliefs when new evidence is presented. The study may also show that abnormal dopamine functionality is implicated in schizophrenia and paranoid ideation by interfering with normal updating.

The study can be found here: Dopaminergic basis for signaling belief updates, but not surprise, and the link to paranoia.

I like this study because participants were measured while changing minor, short-term beliefs.

Small changes in beliefs manifested in short-term memory lies at the heart of FIML practice.

FIML relies heavily on changing inaccuracies in the short-term memory bank because this data can be isolated and objectively agreed upon by both partners and because this data is by definition fairly small and thus easily changed.

A year of FIML practice may entail a thousand or more small updates in perception, belief, and self-knowledge. Each individual update is typically small, but the aggregate of many updates over longer periods of time creates the basis for very large psychological transformations.

And since these transformations are based on more accurate data, they lead to a more realistic view of the world and the self.

Moreover, by regularly making many small updates in their perceptions of each other and themselves, FIML partners are constantly exercising their dopamine “updating system,” thus strengthening their abilities to function well in any environment.

FIML changes can come quickly, but it is long-term practice that brings the best results.

The above study shows that something very real happens when we update our perceptions. I would maintain that making this happen often with meaningful psychological information through FIML practice leads to very significant and beneficial changes in psychological functioning across many domains.

American Pravda: The ADL in American Society

In our modern era, there are surely few organizations that so terrify powerful Americans as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith, a central organ of the organized Jewish community.

Mel Gibson had long been one of the most popular stars in Hollywood and his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ became among the most profitable in world history, yet the ADL and its allies destroyed his career, and he eventually donated millions of dollars to Jewish groups in desperate hopes of regaining some of his public standing. When the ADL criticized a cartoon that had appeared in one of his newspapers, media titan Rupert Murdoch provided his personal apology to that organization, and the editors of The Economist quickly retracted a different cartoon once it came under ADL fire. Billionaire Tom Perkins, a famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist, was forced to issue a heartfelt apology after coming under ADL criticism for his choice of words in a Wall Street Journal column. These were all proud, powerful individuals, and they must have deeply resented being forced to seek such abject public forgiveness, but they did so nonetheless. The total list of ADL supplicants over the years is a very long one. (Source)

Ron Unz’s American Pravda series is essential reading. His choice of subjects is fascinating, his tone measured and personable, and his arguments devastating. Buddhist readers in particular will benefit from Ron’s work because he clearly shows that public “reality” has many faces and that the most prominent one is often false.

Notes on communication problems

A good rule of thumb is more efficient communication is almost always better than less efficient.

A few basic communication problems that FIML partners (and others) will surely encounter.

  • Whenever a new subject is raised in informal conversation, there is a great likelihood that the listener will experience some sort of mix-up concerning the context of the subject; the intent or attitude of the speaker; their reasons for raising the subject, etc. There is no way we can expect a partner to fully appreciate all aspects of a new subject we have just raised or why we have raised it. Similarly, when we are listeners, we cannot expect to fully understand what our partner is saying (or wants to say) when they are just beginning to raise a new topic.
  • This same sort of problem occurs whenever we raise a new aspect of an old subject. If we are speakers, we should be aware that our partner will probably not quite understand where the new aspect differs from the old. And as listeners, we will have this problem from the other side of the equation.
  • It is very common for speakers, especially when informally introducing a new subject, to be vague, unclear, even seriously misleading. In free-flowing conversations between friends, new subjects will be spoken about as soon as they arise in someone’s mind. This tends to generate imprecise speech and contribute to the points raised just above.
  • Similarly, the hearer of a new topic may understand the message very differently from the way it was intended.
  • It is much better to sort out these basic problems as they arise than to fall into the trap of arguing, accusing, or mocking each other, to cite some of the worst outcomes of these fundamentally innocent kinds of mix-ups.
  • “Suffering” in silence is not a good way to fix these problems either because the “sufferer” is actually experiencing nothing more than a common speech mix-up and not some ongoing “bad trait” possessed by their partner.
  • I am certain that FIML practitioners will be amazed and delighted to see (through practice) how often mistakes like this occur. What a relief to see how and why we may attribute a wrong intention to our partner and how and why to stop that process from going forward.
  • If a subject of conversation suggests another subject to one partner who then changes to that new subject, the other partner may not understand that they have to almost completely decouple from the old subject if they are to understand what their partner is now saying. Speakers will do well to make this explicit before going too far into the new subject.
  • Another common problem partners may have is slipping into a bipolar mode when none is called for. This means that if one partner says A, the other partner may want to pause and consider what is meant before jumping at saying not-A. It is easy to slip into talking in a bipolar (A vs. not-A) mode when a cooperative or exploratory mode is more suited to the subject.
  • Sometimes bipolar is good and necessary, but partners should not ever use it as a default mode. It is just one way of talking and should only be used when two choices have been clearly outlined.
  • Sometimes our questions (or statements) can lead to confusion in our partner because they may misunderstand our intentions for asking. For example, if I ask my partner if she is going to make salad now, I may just be wondering why she is cleaning the lettuce. But she may very well hear me saying that I want her to make some salad now. This sort of mix-up can be kind of sweet because it is often based on each partner being very considerate of the other. If she asks me, do you want me to make salad now? And I reply, no I do not. I may be replying that way because I want to save her the trouble of making it now. And then she will begin to wonder if I am just being considerate, and so on. This sort of thing can go on a long time. It’s best if partners learn to identify the ways these sorts of exchanges occur between them and how to step back and be very clear with one another.
  • This sort of mix-up also clearly shows that communication problems can and do occur even when partners are very considerate and kind to each other.
  • Just being nice doesn’t work in all situations. The key is to find out where the misunderstanding or mix-up is and fix it. If the only tool in your chest is to be nice, your partner (and you) is eventually going to find it impossible to know what you mean or feel. Is he just being nice again? Does he really not want the salad?
  • It is important for listeners to check with speakers about what they mean. And it is important for speakers to be able to clarify what they mean. Then it is important that the listener be able to understand and accept what the speaker is saying. And both partners must be honest about this at all times.
  • FIML partners will see how significant these matters are as they advance in their practice. An incident that may in the past have caused a big mix-up will be handled quickly and easily with FIML techniques.
  • Generally, it is very important that the listener not have the power to decide what the speaker means or meant. A speaker can be misinterpreted in many ways (even more than the ones discussed in this post) and it is tragic for anyone to assume full understanding of another’s speech without asking.
  • Indeed, this tragedy is so common and so serious, without FIML techniques between committed partners, mistakes are likely to occur even after asking the speaker.
  • This can happen because when a speaker is questioned, it is quite normal for most people to bristle or freeze or misunderstand why they are being questioned, thus forcing them all too often to say something inappropriate, misleading, stupid, even aggressive.
  • Once a mix-up gets going and its origin is lost to memory (often this takes just a few seconds), it is all but impossible to turn back and fix the problem. This is why we need to use FIML techniques as much as we can with out partner.
  • FIML helps partners see these problems (and many more) and deal with them before they can grow into bigger problems.
  • FIML also helps partners avoid resorting to public semiotics as a main way of preserving harmony in their relationship. Public semiotics in a private relationship can become very boring and unsatisfying if they are the only way partners know how to deal with mix-ups.
  • Some examples of public semiotics in this context might be employing stock behaviors, religious or otherwise; adopting roles that are designed to hide feelings; relying too much on unsatisfying habits; being extra committed to some cause as a substitute for genuine intimacy with your partner, and so on.
  • A mix-up denied is a mix-up multiplied.
  • Before quitting this post, I want to mention one more speech act that can feel weird to the speaker and may be insufficiently appreciated generally. It is saying something more or less definite about a subject that you know you don’t fully comprehend. For example, I have an alcoholic friend and whenever I say anything about that person or alcoholism I feel a terrible mix of shame, guilt, sadness, meanness, weak hope, utter befuddlement. Friends or relatives of alcoholics will probably know what I mean by this. It happens because we don’t well-understand alcoholism and don’t know how to cure it in many cases. And yet we have to say something sometimes; sometimes we have to make decisions about alcoholics. Some other examples might be speaking with certainty about something we are not certain of; speaking too highly about something or not speaking highly enough about it.
  • I hope FIML partners (and others) will take note of the many ways they can and will misunderstand each other. And I hope they will use FIML (or some other similar technique) to correct these misunderstandings as soon as they happen.

_________________

First posted June 2, 2012

Radical new plan to upend the World Wide Web: Tim Berners-Lee

Last week, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, asked me to come and see a project he has been working on almost as long as the web itself. It’s a crisp autumn day in Boston, where Berners-Lee works out of an office above a boxing gym. After politely offering me a cup of coffee, he leads us into a sparse conference room. At one end of a long table is a battered laptop covered with stickers. Here, on this computer, he is working on a plan to radically alter how all of us live and work on the web. (Source)

I am looking forward to this. Communications and data should be in the hands of citizens and not controlled by government or private corporations. Hate speech laws should be abolished worldwide and China and others should be dissuaded from using the Internet for totalitarian control. It’s obvious where malign forces will take us if we don’t find another way to store data and share information. ABN

A theory of FIML

FIML is both a practice and a theory. The practice  is roughly described here and in other posts on this website.

The theory states (also roughly) that successful practice of FIML will:

  • Greatly improve communication between participating partners
  • Greatly reduce or eliminate mistaken interpretations (neuroses) between partners
  • Give partners insights into the dynamic structures of their personalities
  • Lead to much greater appreciation of the dynamic linguistic/communicative nature of the personality

These results are achieved because:

  • FIML practice is based on real data agreed upon by both partners
  • FIML practice stops neurotic responses before they get out of control
  • FIML practice allows both partners to understand each other’s neuroses while eliminating them
  • FIML practice establishes a shared objective standard between partners
  • This standard can be checked, confirmed, changed, or upgraded as often as is needed

FIML practice will also:

  • Show partners how their personalities function while alone and together
  • Lead to a much greater appreciation of how mistaken interpretations that occur at discreet times can and often do lead to (or reveal) ongoing mistaken interpretations (neuroses)

FIML practice eliminates neuroses because it shows individuals, through real data, that their (neurotic) interpretation(s) of their partner are mistaken. This reduction of neurosis between partners probably will be generalizable to other situations and people, thus resulting a less neurotic individual overall.

Neurosis is defined here to mean a mistaken interpretation or an ongoing mistaken interpretation.

The theory of FIML can be falsified or shown to be wrong by having a reasonably large number of suitable people learn FIML practice, do it and fail to gain the aforementioned results.

FIML practice will not be suitable for everyone. It requires that partners have a strong interest in each other; a strong sense of caring for each other; an interest in language and communication; the ability to see themselves objectively; the ability to view their use of language objectively; fairly good self-control; enough time to do the practice regularly.

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This was first posted 12/15/2011

The Diamond Sutra and moral idealism

Most Buddhists know that a bodhisattva is someone who helps others through their understanding of “enlightened practice” or “enlightening practices.” The Buddha is called a bodhisattva when referring to the time before he became a Buddha.

A bodhisattva uses wisdom to do compassionate work or “generous” work, to use the terminology of the Diamond Sutra. Strictly speaking, “generosity” in the Diamond Sutra means sharing the Dharma with others, but in practice this concept can, of course, take many forms. For example, maybe just being nice to someone will help them more than an extensive Dharma talk.

It is possible when studying the Diamond Sutra to experience a kind of spiritual ecstasy or meditative ecstasy as one contemplates the fulsome purity of mind that attends the selfless generosity discussed in the sutra. At such times, you know without doubt that this is a higher state of mind, a better way to be; it feels like a genuine glimpse of Buddhahood, of the enlightened state of a Buddha.

I for one have no doubt that those states are higher and realer than the mundane states of mind we so often are consigned to. But it is important to understand that the Diamond Sutra is not only about being generous. It is also about being wise.

In all Buddhist traditions at all times, the highest virtue is always wisdom.

A well-known analogy is often used to explain this. If you want to save someone who is drowning you must know how to swim. If you can’t swim and you jump in the water, you will not only not help but probably lose your own life as well.

Generosity must be tempered with wisdom. The Diamond Sutra is not about moral idealism or the belief that “individual rights and responsibilities are universal, regardless of outcome.”

Buddhist teachings are all about good outcomes. The point of Buddhist practice is to become enlightened. When we glimpse the bliss of pure selfless generosity, we are glimpsing Buddhahood. But at that point we are still merely bodhisattvas, at best. In this world, absolutely pure, selfless behavior can get you robbed and killed. So you need some smarts, a sense of what really can be done to get real outcomes. Even terrible reprobates can be helped and can change, but don’t be foolish about your chances for success or the methods you use.

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This is a revised version of a post first posted on October 21, 2014

Meaning and identity

  • Meaning can be defined as two or more signalling systems connecting. Connecting means “sending and receiving, receiving and sending.”
  • To visualize this, think of Newton’s every action produces an opposite and equal reaction; thus sending (action) produces receiving (reaction), which in turn sends a message back. For example, a photon hits a hydrogen atom; the photon “sends” while the atom “receives”; by receiving, it also sends a message back and out; it affects the photon and more.
  • Space is the foundation of the plethora of signalling systems. Time is the foundation of their activity and extent.
  • Meaning is the most basic word in language.
  • When you look at it “psychologically,” it’s not what the sign is but what the meaning is. Thus, meaning is a deep basis of semiotics.
  • In this context, it makes sense to say that time and space are the sine qua non of signalling systems. This “defines” time and space in terms of signalling systems.
  • Identity depends on meaning as defined above.
  • Our identities are (somewhat) complex nexuses of meaning/signaling that “embody” our comprehension of the semiotics of our cultures and experiences. They lie at the center of how we understand ourselves. Identity signalling occurs internally as well as externally.
  • In non-FIML social intercourse it is normal for people to assert/display the props/symbols of their identities, as they understand them.
  • People who do FIML also need identities, but they do not need the social props that help non-FIML people define each other.
  • You really do not want to be defined by props and symbols. It’s a static role that leads away from authentic being.
  • People do not truly belong to a culture. Rather they maintain the illusion that they belong to a culture. This is clear when we think and analyze identity in terms semiotics, which here means “the science of communicable meaning.”
  • Having a weak or confused identity can be a very good thing as this may prompt you to learn how identities are made and maintained.
  • No Buddhist should want an identity defined by props and symbols.
  • Buddhism is about authentic being, the “thusness” of being, the experiential existential being that you really are, the one that occurs before there are definitions, props, and symbols.
  • This being can be hard to see because humans are semiotic entities; that is, we are entities that seek, create, and communicate meaning. This causes us to look within semiotics for the definition of our authentic being, a place where it can never be found. You have to look outside of semiotics.
  • But you can’t look outside semiotics unless you know how to look inside. You have to fully understand how the “language” of your semiotics works to be able to step outside of it.
  • Your semiotics is your unique take on the semiotics of your culture(s) and experiences.
  • You cannot fully explore your semiotics, your identity, your nexus of individual meaning alone because there is no way you can check your work. You cannot see yourself.
  • Each of us is a social, interactive, communicative being. You can only fully explore your unique semiotics/identity with a partner who wants to do the same.
  • Two people working together are able to stop the flow of conversation to analyze the semiotics of how they are hearing and speaking. One person working alone is only guessing.
  • Find a partner and do FIML. You will learn a lot from it.
  • Do not expect FIML to give you new symbols or props or tell you how to be. FIML is only a procedure. It is empty, almost devoid of its own content. It is a process that will help you see and recreate your identity.
  • Do not expect your FIML teacher to be an example for you. Do not expect your teacher to be impressive or to project signs and symbols at you. Do not expect to follow your teacher.
  • Just learn how to do FIML from them.

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first posted August 22, 2013