My current take on Internal Family Systems “parts”

I was recently asked how literal/metaphorical I consider the Internal Family Systems model of your mind being divided into “parts” that are kinda like subpersonalities.

The long answer would be my whole sequence on the topic, but that’s pretty long and also my exact conception of parts keeps shifting and getting more refined through the sequence. So one would be excused for still not being entirely clear on this question, even after reading the whole thing.

The short answer would be “it’s more than just metaphorical, but also not quite as literal as you might think from taking IFS books at face value”.

I do think that there are literally neurological subroutines doing their own thing that one has to manage, but I don’t think they’re literally full-blown subminds, they’re more like… clusters of beliefs and emotions and values that get activated at different times, and that can be interfaced with by treating them as if they were actual subminds.

My medium-length answer would be… let’s see.

There’s an influential model in neuroscience called global workspace theory. It says that the brain has a thing called the “global workspace”, which links together a variety of otherwise separate areas, and its contents corresponds to that what you’re currently consciously aware of. It has a limited capacity so you’re only consciously aware of a few things at any given moment.

At the same time, various subregions in your brain are doing their own things, some of them processing information that’s in the global workspace, some of them observing stuff from your senses that you’re currently not consciously aware of. Like you’re focused on a thing, then there’s a sudden sound, and some auditory processing region that has been monitoring the sounds in your environment picks it up and decides that this is important and pushes that sound into your global workspace, displacing whatever else happened to be there and making you consciously aware of that sound.

I tend to interpret IFS “parts” as processes that are connected with the workspace and manipulate it in different ways. But it’s not necessarily that they’re really “independent agents”, it’s more like there’s a combination of innate and learned rules for when to activate them.

So like, take it when an IFS book has a case study about a person with a “confuser” part that tries to distract them when they are thinking about something unpleasant. I wouldn’t interpret that to literally mean that there’s a sentient agent seeking to confuse the person in that person’s brain. I think it’s more something like… there are parts of the brain that are wired to interpret some states as uncomfortable, and other parts of the brain that are wired to avoid states that are interpreted as uncomfortable.

At some point when the person was feeling uncomfortable, something happened in their brain that made them confused instead, and then some learning subsystem in their brain noticed that “this particular pattern of internal behavior relieved the feeling of discomfort”. And then it learned how to repeat whatever internal process caused the feeling of confusion to push the feeling of discomfort out of the global workspace, and to systematically trigger that process when faced with a similar sense of discomfort.

Then when the IFS therapist guided the client to “talk to the confuser part”, they were doing something like… interfacing with that learned pattern and bringing up the learned prediction that causing confusion will lessen the feeling of discomfort.

There’s a thing where, once information that has been previously only stored in a local neural pattern is retrieved and brought to the global workspace, it can then be accessed and potentially modified by every other subsystem that’s currently listening in to the workspace. I don’t fully understand this, but it seems to be something like, if those other systems have information suggesting that there are alternative ways of achieving the purpose that the confuser pattern is trying to accomplish, the rules for triggering the confuser pattern can get rewritten so that it’s no longer activated.

But there’s also a thing where, it looks to me like part of what these stored patterns are, are something like partial “snapshots” of your brain’s state at the time when they were first learned. So when IFS talks about there being “child parts”, then it looks to me like there’s a sense in which that’s literally true.

Suppose that someone first learned the “being confused helps me avoid an uncomfortable feeling” thing when they were six. At that time, their brain saved a “snapshot” of that state of confusion to be re-instated at a later time when getting confused might again help them avoid discomfort. Stored with that snapshot might also be associated other emotional and cognitive patterns that were active at the time when the person was six – so when the person is “talking with” their “confuser part”, there’s a sense in which they really are “talking with a six-year old part” of themselves. (At least, that’s my interpretation.)

And also there’s a thing where, even if the parts aren’t literally sentient subselves, the method still becomes more effective if you treat them as if they were.

If you relate to your six-year old part as if it was literally a six-year old that you’re compassionate towards, when it holds a memory of being lonely and not understood… then that somehow brings in the experience of someone actually caring about you into the memory of not being cared about.

And then if your brain had learned a rule like “I must avoid these kinds of situations, because in them I just get lonely and nobody understands me”, then bringing in that experience of being understood into the memory rewrites the learning and eliminates the need to so compulsively avoid situations that resemble that original experience.

The horror of what must, yet cannot, be true

There’s a type of experience that I feel should have its own word, because nothing that I can think of seems like a fair description.

A first pass would be something like agony, utter horror, a feeling that you can’t stand this, that you are about to fall apart. But those aren’t actually the thing, I think. They are reactions to the thing.

The thing is more like a sense of utter horrifying impossibility. I suspect it’s the kind of an experience H. P. Lovecraft had in mind when talking about mind-breaking sights and things that man was not meant to know.

Suppose you feel an immense need to throw up and know that you are in fact going to throw up, and at the same time you absolutely cannot throw up, because you are in a bus full of people or something. Or to take a stronger example, someone you deeply care about must be alive because you deeply love them, and at the same time you also know for certain that they are dead.

There’s a sense of… you have two facts, and your mind feels like both of them must be true. But they also cannot both be true. It’s like they’re physical objects, magnetic so that they repel each other, and both cannot be in the same place at the same time because physical objects don’t work that way.

Except that, now they are. Some irresistible force has pushed them together and that is tearing the entire universe apart, reshaping the laws of nature to force them to accommodate this fact.

The thing that I’m trying to find a good word for, is that sense of impossibility that accompanies the world being torn apart.

Likely we don’t have a good word for this, because we ordinarily cannot see it. The mind recoils from it, and we only remember the sense of agony that surrounded it. It’s only in some unusual states of consciousness such as deep meditation, that two facts can get pressed against each other in such a way that the conscious mind is forced to stay present and witness the moment of impossibility.

I suspect that the two facts feel like mutually repelling objects because in a sense they are. That the mind is built to treat unpleasant feelings and ideas as something literally repulsive, an independent patch of the world that pushes against that which the mind accepts as true. My hand touches something hot and I quickly pull it away, the painfulness of the object repelling any desire to approach. Then the same mechanism for avoiding physical pain got recruited for avoiding emotional and social pain, and unpleasant beliefs and experiences.

But sometimes you need to grab the hot object anyway, do the unpleasant thing. And sometimes the facts come with overwhelming force, and you have to admit something that you kept struggling against.

I imagine facts and dislikes as kind of like large serpents or sea monsters, circling each other deep in the unconscious mind. Sometimes the facts take over a certain territory, forcing the disliked ideas to withdraw and adopt a more cramped space. They might twist themselves into elaborate tightly-bound knots, trying to find a way to exist in the narrow space that’s left between the facts, construct increasingly contrived rationalizations that let a person avoid facing what’s true.

And sometimes the dislikes push back. A fact encroached too quickly on territory that was too painful, triggered an internal wave of nausea that strengthened the aversion. The serpent-monsters of pain come out in numbers, force the sense of truth away, mark a region as one that must never be believed in again. A fanatic is confronted by the impossibility of their belief and rather than truly facing it, sinks even deeper into delusion, willing to proclaim any insane belief as true.

But even though facing the facts feels like an impossibility and like the end of the world, it’s actually not. Upon seeing the horror, the mind adjusts, reshapes the structure of its beliefs to accommodate for both things being true. Afterwards there is only a memory of having faced something horrible, and in its wake, two objects that have melted seamlessly together.

[Invisible Networks] Goblin Marketplace

Written for crtlcreep’s Invisible Networks 2022 challenge: “invent a social network each day”, today’s prompt: “Goblin Marketplace”.

“The Goblin Marketplace is that way. Assuming that you have ears on your head, you can’t miss it.”

The expression is not metaphorical: even if you were deaf, you would hear the sounds of the Marketplace. That is, assuming that nobody had cut your ears off. In that case, your ears would continue to hear it, but they wouldn’t communicate the sound to your brain.

Too bad you’re not a goblin.

The screaming tends to carry the loudest. Obviously, the Goblin Marketplace sells goblins. To help prove that the goods are authentic, there are campfires scattered around the marketplace, cut-off goblin heads roasting on top of them. They’re the ones who are screaming, for hours and hours at a time.

Next to the campfire, you’ll find a market stall. It’s staffed by the same goblin’s cut-off hands, or maybe just one of them, depending on whether the other one has sold itself yet. Most goblins are left-handed, so the right hand will go first, leaving the most important one to carry out the business.

If you are proficient in goblin tapping language, you can communicate with the hands directly, the two of you spelling out words by tapping patterns on each other’s palms. If not, you can bring your own translator, or employ one of the many hanging around the marketplace.

What’s usually for sale are the goblin’s feet, hands, and possibly the head, if it’s a place where heads are sold and it’s old enough that it wouldn’t regenerate a new body anymore. Or if you are willing to pay a lot of money. Otherwise, another goblin would pick up the head at the end of the day and go stick it to a spawning pool, letting it grow new body parts for sale.

The prices will depend on a number of factors, such as the goblin’s age, the part that you want to buy, and who the other owners are. Goblins will eventually die of old age, and any body parts will have the same age as the head they’ve been grown from. So a very old goblin’s parts might go for cheaper, since they won’t last for very long. On the other hand, an old goblin might have had the time to generate and sell quite a few body parts. They would then all be connected to each other, letting you send messages to anyone else who owned such parts.

Tap a message on a goblin’s hand, and your friend who owns another hand from the same goblin can have that hand tap the message to them. Or if one of you is lucky enough to own a head, you can send or receive messages by ordinary speech. A more common arrangement is to have one ear and one hand: you can tell the ear what you want to have sent, and receive responses from the hand. (It is unfortunate that just a tongue isn’t enough to talk: you do need a full head for that.)

Feet can also tap messages, though they tend to be slower. If for some reason you wanted to only send messages and didn’t need to receive them, you could buy a piece of a limb or the torso and tap messages on that, though usually such body parts are just sold for their meat. A goblin’s penis can express messages in a slow kind of Morse code.

There are many ways of using goblins. Often friends or family members who want to stay in touch with each other will arrange to buy parts of the same goblin. There are also goblins devoted to some topic, such as literature or gardening, who will let you stay in touch with other people who share that interest. Rich people may keep goblin heads in their homes, and hand out that goblin’s parts to anyone who wants to stay in contact with them.

At this point you might wonder, if all of the goblin’s parts are sold off for other people’s use, who gets the money?

In some places, it’s the goblin nobility. They don’t sell themselves, and instead just get rich selling off slaves or convicted criminals. The nobles tend to be rich and powerful, and can closely control their realms by spreading out their parts to all of their underlings and fellow nobles, thus maintaining lines of constant communication.

If you want a more ethical purchase, you can find a marketplace where the goblins own themselves. At such places, the heads are never sold. Instead, a goblin will just sell some of their parts every now and then, regrowing a body and going back to a normal life afterwards. Of course, this means that their parts will form a smaller network, though some of them elect to spend more time selling themselves in exchange for getting more money.

Such marketplaces will be more expensive, but at least you can rest assured knowing that the body part you are using as your communication device took on that role voluntarily.

[Invisible Networks] Psyche-Sort

Written for crtlcreep’s Invisible Networks 2022 challenge: “invent a social network each day”, today’s prompt: “Psyche-Sort”.

Starting from day #2 since I forgot to participate yesterday. 

Content note: Cycles of abuse, both personal and institutionalized. A world locked into AI-mediated dystopia.

“Tune your ear to the frequency of despair, and cross-reference by the longitude and latitude of a heart in agony.” (Amazing Spider-Man #544)

There are tendrils of pain running across society, fault lines on which our social infrastructure is built. You can imagine them as huge beating arteries full of thick flowing trauma, their contents seeping everywhere around them.

When you have lived your whole life in pain, it won’t occur to you that it would be possible to end the pain. You just enact and pass on the behaviors you’ve learned for dealing with it. And then you weaponize them, so as to prevent anyone else from hurting you more than you can hurt them.

Yet you cannot entirely eradicate the need for connection and companionship. You can suppress it, you can make it into something people are terrified of, you can turn it into a twisted mockery of itself. But people still long to band together, for mutual protection if nothing else.

So you require people whose needs have been twisted in a way that is compatible with yours. Maybe you believe that everyone is just out to hurt everyone else, and need your friends to treat you like trash so you can treat them like that in return. Maybe you are horrified at the thought of not being dependent on someone, so you need someone to tell you how you will always need them. Maybe you are utterly consumed by self-doubt, so need to follow a strong authoritarian leader. Maybe you feel unsafe by people around you exhibiting agency, so you need to become the strong authoritarian leader.

Either way, you need to be surrounded by people who tell you what you want to hear, treat you the way you want to be treated, and let you treat themselves the way you want to treat them.

Nobody intentionally created Psyche-Sort. It’s just an agglomeration of machine learning systems, each learning what kinds of people to connect with each other. Developed to match people on their revealed rather than stated preferences – the economists claiming that this is a far more reliable way of discovering what people really want, not to mention more profitable – it found abusive and dysfunctional relationships and organizations to be more durable than healthy ones, thus ranking higher on its optimization criteria.

As people got systematically connected to people and institutions predicted to create increasingly intense spirals of misery, waves of trauma spread out like an infectious disease, mutating into new forms as more and more people turned into carriers and brought the pain to new environments. Each such occasion gave the algorithms more variety to choose from in matching people – finding people whose psyches were amazingly compatible in the sense of creating exquisitely dysfunctional circumstances.

You can rest assured that no matter who you are or what your desires, the machines will connect you with a social group that’s just the right for you. One where you’ll be staying together and hurting each other forever.