Feedback loops make you you

Who are you? How do you know? How do you know other people are not you? Answering this tells us a lot about how we come to understand who and what we are, and it relies on understanding who and what other people are.

Everything we come to understand about this world comes from what our senses tell us, both our exteroceptive senses (the ones that tell us about the world outside our skin-bag body) and our interoceptive senses (the ones that keep tabs on what’s going on inside us). It is by combining all this, balancing and comparing the multiplicity of signals and drawing conclusions that you develop a mental picture of the world in which you exist, what you are, and how you relate to that world.

A significant part of this process involves what we come to understand of other people, and thus develop expectations about what we feel we should expect of ourselves.

This can go awry. A good example is your singing voice. To you, it may be spot on, lovely. To others it may seem comically off key. It is hard to tell really just how your voice sounds, even your speaking voice. It is common for people to declare (as a friend did to me only this morning) that people do not like how their voice sounds when they hear a recording of it. Learning how to adjust your singing voice to match what you want other’s to hear takes practice and a lot of feedback, preferably from a singing coach, not your pet labrador.

This kind of calibration is little talked about as a social process but it is fundamental to how we develop our sense of who we are and where we stand in society. Feedback from others tells us a lot about when we overstep a mark, intrude into personal space, say something offensive, but also when we have touched someone with our words, given hope, signalled a desire for friendship or love, reminded someone we care, or that we want to say something, or seek a response from them.

But what if your social signalling is read by others as off key? Your social tune is not tuneful? What if your social song doesn’t seem to others to be a song at all? The feedback you receive will not be as expected, and absent some sort of insight into why, you will likely be at a loss to understand what to adjust or when or how much.

From this scenario has arisen a plethora of ‘therapies’ to teach some people how to ‘do social stuff.’ Some are dreadfully, even harmfully, mechanistic and simplistic. Others attempt more subtlety and try to teach ‘social skills.’ The problem with that approach is that social interaction is an extraordinarily complex thing that changes constantly in real time, making the business (and it is a very profitable business) of learning rules not really of much use. Those who sell such services will of course assure you otherwise. But then they would.

The story is far more interesting however, because the social parts are only the outer edge of what really matters, and that is your sense of your Self.

The signals you receive from other people when you try ‘being human’ tell you an awful lot about how good you are at it. We rely on this feedback, and change our responses based on it, creating loops of feedback. Those loops are the machinery that makes the Munster Model of Autistic Living work.

Now, let’s say you try A Social Thing with a few people and the feedback you get is not as expected – they pull faces and ignore you rather than include you in a chat, for example. What do you do next? is one obvious question to ask, but a more important ones are Am I wrong? Is there something wrong with me? Can I trust my own sense of my Self?

Can you trust your own sense of yourself.

Apparently not.

I say apparently because your signals were just in a different language, or to go back to the musical metaphor, you were playing Japanese gagaku and everyone else only understands country music. You seem to be making inappropriate, random and discordant noises. But you are not.

So who is ‘at fault’ here? Actually, the fairest answer is Nobody. This is not a problem within a person or persons but a difference of format. Certainly you can try to learn country music but your teachers will likely keep referencing things that make no sense to you – again a problem of language, not of people. Sort of like those ‘social skills’ therapists.

So how does this make you feel, given that you actually only know and understand gagaku and they only know and understand country? Given that each of your friends probably only knows of one person who makes those strange discordant sounds and hundreds of people who make great country music, and you only know one person – yourself – who gets cast out and misunderstood, you probably feel pretty down.

It is likely that you will come to doubt your musical capability, lose trust in your musical sense, believe, in short, that everyone else is probably right and you are just rubbish at this.

This is how the actions of others shape your reactions, and those reactions are your representation of how you understand yourself to be. If you feel ashamed – or ebullient – you will act ashamed or ebullient. Your senses, your actions, your emotions and your sense of Self are all intertwined and caught up in constant ongoing feedback loops.

So, who are you? Really.

It is only through coming to understand yourself, your actual capabilities, and gaining meaningful and appropriate feedback that a person can truly come to know themself. Our sense of our Self is tangled up in our sensations, imaginings, feelings and more but just as each of these is linked to and interacting with each other, so that sense of Self is tangled up in the spirals of interaction that flow from, around, into and through us from other humans.

Changing other people is no effective solution because it is a task of unimaginable proportions, and changing yourself has proven to be only partly effective and often actually quite damaging. Both have to fail, ultimately, because they are addressing the wrong things.

It is understanding modes of communication that really matters. When others learn that there are other types of communication – or music – and is taught about them, how they work and how to respond meaningfully to them, there ceases to be any need to change anyone. This is, in a sense, like developing bilingual skills. Dressing in a kimono won’t teach you Japanese nor how to interpret gagaku.

Once you open the door of communication, you reveal a whole world. Not just gagaku and a kimono but centuries of history and culture and a wealth of creativity and ideas.

So, can we stop trying to change people and instead honour their dignity, and seek ways to communicate rather than to exclude them or mutate them into something they can never be? You can come to understand and appreciate gagaku. I can come to understand and appreciate country music. Maybe not perfectly, but well enough.

Right now we don’t have enough. Right now, enough would be more than enough.


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