Semiotics is the science of signs, significance and meaning. It asks a most basic question: how does information happen? One basic answer goes like this. I’ll say it first theoretically (simplifying a bit) and then give an intuitive example.

  1. You start with expectations of some habit in your environment.
  2. The habit gets broken somehow which indicates to you that something has intervened to change things. What has intervened, you don’t know yet. It could be any of a large number of things.
  3. You intervene, and by trial and error discover an action that restores the habit to its expected state. A link thus gets formed between the break in the habit and your response to it.

Here’s an example: Of all the places your kitchen garbage could be when you wake up in the morning, you have come to expect it to be in your kitchen garbage pail where you left it the night before. Really, it could be anywhere—under your pillow, on your mantle piece. But years of experience have led you to expect it to persist in its habit of staying put in the can where you left it.

One morning the kitchen garbage is all over the floor. You surmise that something has intervened into the normal habit of things to cause this disturbance. What could it be?

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Given that all effects have causes that themselves have causes going back infinitely in time, it could be a vast number of things. A wormhole in the fabric of the universe, a mighty wind, a house mate gone berserk because of a traumatic childhood experience, your cat contracting cat-scratch fever, a raccoon, you sleep walking. Who knows?

Acting on the assumption that housemate did it, you scold him. He denies doing it and leaves in a huff to stay with friends. Next morning, you notice that despite your intervention the garbage is on the floor again. You think about what else might have intervened. Maybe the raccoons. You board up the cat door and voila, the next morning the garbage stays put.

The significance isn’t in the garbage on the floor (it could have signified many things or nothing at all if that was its habit), or your response to it (you’re closing the cat door could be a response to many things), but the relationship between these two and your habituated expectation of garbage staying put. Significance is a relationship. It’s not built into any one of the three interlinked elements.

We’re often confused about this. We think information is in the first habit—the significant fact that garbage stays put. Or the break in this habit—the significant fact that garbage is on the floor instead. Or that information is in our response to it—the eye of the beholder who figures out that the garbage means raccoons. But really there’s no significance unless all three are interacting, any more than a joke is significant if it’s told in a language you don’t speak or has a punch line you expect entirely (no break of habit).

Of course significance isn’t just something that happens between humans and garbage. It happens between humans and humans, other living things and each other, any living things and non-living things. For example, buds are informed by changes in day length that it is time to flower. The trial and error process by which significance happens begins with life’s evolutionary trial and error process. It can be entirely unconscious. It’s millennia of evolution that has filled you with the habits by which you can guess what garbage on the floor means.

In the past two mind readers, I talked about three orders of guidance and last week I promised to draw a parallel to information theory or semiotics. Here it is.

First order guidance is unconditional. (for example, always be flexible). It’s like the first stage of how information happens: No need to consider outside forces, you can always put your garbage in the pail and you’ll always expect the same results.

Second order guidance acknowledges that the best action depends, but doesn’t specify upon what (for example, sometimes you’ve got to be tough; sometimes you’ve got to be flexible. It depends). It’s like the second stage of how information happens: Sometimes the garbage stays in the pail, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends, but you don’t know on what yet.

And third order guidance is like the third stage of how information happens. It’s the trial and error intervention by which you find out which things depend upon which.

I’ve been making a case that mind reading is too complex for first order guidance, and indeed is so complex that we’re best off modeling the whole process (the way for example semiotics does) rather than working from isolated principles.

Last week I speculated about why there’s such a strong attraction to first order guidance. To the reasons I gave I’d like to add two more:

First, people need a way to collapse doubt into certainty, and there’s no better way than argument from isolated principles. If you’ve decided to quit a job, you need a way to transition from deciding to decided. So you say, “yeah, it’s always time to quit when the boss doesn’t respect you.” If you need to go to war, you say, “better dead than red.” It’s the relentless pressure to stop wondering, make decisions, focus and move forward that makes absolute, if inaccurate first order guidance so attractive.

Second, the very complexity of human affairs make it very hard to learn what signifies what, because feedback on our trial and error explorations and interventions is often delayed and ambiguous.

With the garbage example, you fix the cat door and the garbage stays put. That’s instant feedback. But suppose your habitually sweet disposition is interrupted by anger and depression. You used to keep the garbage inside but these days you wake up and the garbage is out and you don’t know why. You look for a source. There are lots of possible causes and these really could go far back, to your childhood, to your genes, who knows?

Say you consider an explanation from your childhood. Identifying a possible cause doesn’t give you something to do about it, and even if it did you couldn’t expect immediate results. It’s not as though you can fix the cat door of your mind so that your childhood memories don’t trespass like ravenous raccoons in the middle of the night to upset your garbage.

When trial and error guesses yield ambiguous results, it becomes very difficult to identify what an unexpected change means. As a result we tend not to embrace interpretations based on results but rather on how the results make us feel about the prospects of getting a solution.

Any of us could generate explanations for personal psychological dispositions all day. Therapists are paid to do so. The quality of the explanations are very hard to assess based on results in the patient, so instead they tend to get assessed on how much of a reaction they cause. I recently heard of an encounter with a therapist in which a patient said he was coming in for 10 sessions and later mentioned that his mother died ten years ago. The therapist said, “the number ten seems to be significant to you.”

Reaction isn’t necessarily evidence of true significance. If an interpretation makes your discouraged about your chances of controlling the garbage, a therapist can say it must be correct because it upsets you so much. If instead it makes you feel encouraged, your therapist can also say it must be correct. But really only some of what fills you with awe is awesome. Only some of what encourages or discourages is really significant.

So here’s some first order advice. When it comes to important human affairs, don’t trust the first explanation that wins your attention. Consider a few considerations. Your complexity deserves that much care.