Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 6, 2013


“Solipsism is often introduced in the context of relating it to pathological psychological conditions.[citation needed] Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud stated that other minds are not known, but only inferred to exist, he stated “consciousness makes each of us aware only of his own states of mind, that other people, too, possess a consciousness is an inference which we draw by analogy from their observable utterances and actions, in order to make this behavior of theirs intelligible to us. (It would no doubt be psychologically more correct to put it in this way: that without any special reflection we attribute to everyone else our own constitution and therefore our consciousness as well, and that this identification is a sine qua non of understanding).”[4]


The only mind we can be certain of is our own. From there, we assess our relationships and infer meaning into other people’s perception of their experience. So, it stands to reason, that the better we understand our own brain, the deeper we can connect with others. Lolo, a sixty-two year old male, and Annette, a forty-one year old female have been married for twenty years, and yet, their understanding of one another is shallow. By that I mean the continual frustrations with their communication style plagues their marriage on a daily basis. Lolo is obsessive and gets tremendous enjoyment out of finding bargains through coupons, credit card points or airline miles. Annette, however, feels that those details detract from her enjoyment of life. For Annette, pleasure means not getting mired in details, whereas for Lolo, those details give him enormous pleasure. Their drama plays out as Lolo asks Annette to follow-up on new credit card applications making Annette fume at Lolo, pushing her towards contemptuous feelings, which she is only occasionally fully aware. Lolo, in kind, is “frustrated” with Annette, because these “simple details” never seem to get done. The problem goes back to this notion of Solipsism. Lolo knows how his mind works and so he assumes Annette is a twin, and likewise. Couples therapy helps them see that their vantage point, perfectly valid, is not shared. For twenty years, this incongruity was never articulated, but rather, felt as an “irritant” on good days, and “despise” on bad days. To understand that each brain is unique, and hence different,  is the art of relationships, and the art of psychotherapy. The brain fires in different ways, making one tempted to see the science in this drama, but the state of the art, is just that, an art.


7 Responses to “Solipsism”

  1. Jon said

    Shirah, you close your posting with the last lines, “the science in this drama, but the state of the art, is just that, an art.” Let us sillily consider closing out this triumvirate of “science, art, humor.” The last can be fulfilled with the one-liner, “Is there a solipsist in the room, or is it just me?”

  2. Shelly said

    Somehow I get Lolo and I get Annette and I understand how lonely they can feel in their marriage. I’m not sure how marriage counseling would help other than to assist each to “see” the other. Psychotherapy could help each partner cope with their “separate but equal” lives, but I am not sure that that will help their marriage in the long run.

    • Oh, Shelly, I am not sure I share your pessimism. I think that people can learn how other people experience and give meaning to their lives, and thereby be more understanding and compassionate, and thereby make their marriage less lonely. Thanks.

  3. Ashana M said

    Understanding one’s own mind is usually most helpful when other people’s minds are very similar to one’s own–so if you are towards the center of normal distribution. If you exist somewhere in the outer quartiles, self-reflection is not much use. You need another way in–as Lolo did. Listening is often rather effective.

    The other question is why Lolo seems to have such poor perspective-taking skills. For most people, this ability is effortless and acquired naturally–much like language is. Most non-autistic twelve-year-olds have surpassed him by miles. He is functioning at the level of a toddler. What happened? Or is he an outlier, and hasn’t discovered the benefits of listening as a way in to other people’s minds?

    • Ashana, you propose that Lolo has a developmental arrest, which is a plausible theory, but as such, he can get back on the developmental train with a little assistance. He is motivated by wanting to keep his marriage going, so although he may be immature, as you suggest, there is hope in that. Thanks.

      • Ashana M said

        No, I’m not suggesting a developmental arrest–he seems to function well in other areas. It’s just a lack of a particular skill that’s extremely important–essentially what he’s lacking is cognitive empathy–that’s usually acquired without a great deal of conscious effort. It’s a little like coming across an otherwise intelligent adult who still uses telegraphic speech. You have to wonder how that happened.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: