Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Solipsism and Human Connections

Nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow feeling with all the emotions in our own breast - Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Happiness is only real when shared - “Alexander Supertramp” (Christopher McCandless), Into the Wild

The essential, vital role that sharing emotions plays in our lives is all the more striking when one considers the fundamental solipsism of our existence. Two observations illustrate this profound isolation. It was Adam Smith who suggested that a man gives more thought to a cut on his finger than to 100,000 Chinese who have died in an earthquake. Sadly, I observe this in myself all the time. Ask yourselves, how often since July (when was the accident again?) have you thought of the more than 200 people who died on that flight from Brazil to Paris. Recently, I did, but it was the first time in months. Not only did they suffer, but their families have been mourning the unbearable loss ever since. I’ve spent considerably more time cursing the Red Sox’ dismal post-season performance. How many other deaths, how much other immense pain, we easily put out of our minds. Or if you are suffering yourself – from a professional disappointment, a failed romance – how easily everybody else’s suffering, indeed everybody else, disappears beside your own woes.
And I don’t think it can be otherwise. Perhaps meditating monks can let go of their egos, but not many of the rest of us can. I’ve heard that when you become a parent, for the first time in your life you are able extend your ego outside yourself, to that other little, dependent being. Still, the compass is never very wide.
It gets worse. Even our self-centered minds can’t focus for long. You’ve almost certainly seen those optical illusions that “flip” back and forth, for example, from the profile of Freud to the body of a naked young woman. The images flip automatically, whether we intend it or not, roughly every three seconds. This is because of a metronome in our brain circuitry, which shifts our attention at those intervals. Follow your train of thoughts carefully. Don’t they usually jump to and fro, from what’s immediately in front of you to the upcoming lunch to yesterday’s news, and back again? We live in small temporal bubbles, each lasting just a few seconds. We all have ADD. I suppose that THIS form of solipsism is easier to overcome, at least temporarily, than self-centeredness. Short-circuiting it seems to depend on the presence of some stimulating, constantly changing external source that captures our attention. When we are reading a fascinating book, listening to a good friend talk about her heartbreak, or watching a gripping movie, we are generally able to concentrate for much longer than three seconds (even here, though, I suspect the mind wanders quite often). This is because the external source itself presents a changing kaleidoscope of strong impressions, never letting us get bored.
Nature seems to have made us this way, and I suppose yammering about it is about as useful as complaining about the coldness of space. Nonetheless, I find myself occasionally saddened by this basic condition of our lives (only occasionally – thank God for my wandering mind!).
Given our deeply self-centered concerns and vagabond minds, it must seem amazing that we are ever able to form such powerful bonds to other people. Perhaps part of it is that we are, in fact, grateful to be asked to step outside our selves and to share - for more than a few seconds - their joys and sorrows and interests, we're actually happy to step outside our little bubbles.
I think awareness of this solipsism needn’t only depress us; it might also make those connections to others seem all the more precious.


  1. Hi David,

    I dont have too much to elaborate on, but I thought you might be interested to listen to this radio podcast from "This is definitely not the opera" (Which I think you would like).

    The above title being, "Distracted by Distractions".

    This word, solipsism, is something new to me, but I was aware of it before--or at least the concept. I think a lot of these ideas can be seen in psychology and biology too--for instance the ideas of conscious living versus just reacting to everything in your everyday life. Activities like yoga and mental health therapy teach us to not let our feelings and our thoughts just run wild--because they can be deceiving. The pursuit of chasing after a real thought or feeling versus just a quick impulsive one can be neverending. I think that is why it is very good to review and reflect upon one's actions. The more we conciously act, the better decisions we can make.

    In a very dichotomous and quick explanation, I think some of these ideas can be placed into a 1)"human" logical thinking and 2) animal instinct.

    I think we still have animal insticts and patterns of thought that represented our primitive ancestors' way of life. To think quickly in order to fight, eat, protect, understand, and to speak are all still engrained within us. I have heard that a majority of human communication is through body language. I think there is a lot of proof in our everyday behavior that still indicates we are wired to survive. I dont think that this is good or bad. But consider, what if there was a massive world order shut down and those people with the quickest-split second minds (as impulsive and egocentric as that can be) may be more adapted to those edgy situations. Our instincts and thoughts I think have something to tell us about our past--and they may provide insight into a lot of our modern faults (war, hatred, racism, etc.)

    Another tangent I was

  2. Thanks for your comments, Nick (and thanks for even reading this thing - you gotta love family!).
    I think you're absolutely right that a lot of human action and thought reflects the deep, deep layers of our evolution. I, for one, find the distinction animal/human not particularly useful (there are differences, of course, but I think they are much less than we would like to believe).
    And yes, human language is embedded in, piggy-backs on, gestures and body language (just ask somebody to try to speak without hand gestures!).
    There is some research on the amazing mind control that Buddhist monks, in particular, can exert (control of their own minds, that is). Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman got some of them to undergo fMRI scans and they were off the charts. Goleman thinks that this holds some lessons for us mortals: namely, even if we haven't devoted our lives to meditation, we can still learn various techniques of "mindfulness," which I think means monitoring and then channeling our own thoughts.