Overcoming the Problem of Other Minds

The Problem of Other Minds is a philosophical challenge that disturbs one of our most basic human assumptions – that other humans have minds in the same way that we do. How can we be certain of this when we can’t get inside another mind (if there even is such a thing) to check. While it seems like other people have similar mental states to us – they express thoughts and exhibit emotions, we cannot be sure that their thought experience or pain experience is the same as ours. Philosophers, while generally agreeing that sound arguments against the Problem of Other Minds exist, cannot agree on which argument is the soundest. So you have to wonder, if the experts can’t agree on how to justify that other people have minds, how can we begin to know what goes on inside them.

Sheltering Philosophical Minds

Mind ShelterLes Trois Ombres, Musee Rodin, Paris

I know what you’re thinking – what does it really matter anyway? Well it matters if you are trying to understand your own mental state as I was last year when I started seeing a therapist. I was trying to evaluate whether my experience of the world was anything like everyone else’s. Given that mental illness runs in my family, I think I’m more in tune with my mental state than others. But I have no real way of knowing if this is true. I wanted to know if I had depressive tendencies of my own, or if other people felt equally challenged by life. Maybe we all feel the same way at different times or maybe we are all having our own completely unique experience ranging somewhere on the spectrum from blissful to oppressive. I thought a good way to get to the bottom of this would be through benchmarking – and who better to rank me on the scale of mental normalcy than a professional who sees lots of different minds every day. After ten months under psychological observation, my therapist has brought our sessions to a close. I’ve been released. My primary and not so profound conclusion from the experience is this: I’m OK – somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I suspected this from the beginning, but I just couldn’t know for sure – I didn’t have other minds to compare mine to.

So I know I’m OK thanks to heavily health insurance subsidized therapy, but what about all of you – how do you know if you’re OK?  I think the answer to this lies in homegrown benchmarking. We should do more informal and free comparisons with friends and family. I feel like although mental illness is less taboo now than it once was, it is still rare for us to delve into realms of the mind in our everyday conversations. Part of the problem is that we don’t have a common language for what we are experiencing. The true meaning of the word depressed has been hijacked: ‘I’m like sooooo depressed’ can usually be translated to ‘I’m a bit disappointed’. So when we are really suffering we don’t know how to let our people know. I’ve learnt to understand that when my friends lightheartedly say, ‘I’m having a total meltdown’ or ‘a wobbly’ they’re not OK and they’re letting me know. While I can’t know what precisely is going on in their minds at that point in time, I can ask questions that will allow them to describe their experience in more detail. Through such conversations, I’ve learnt that many of my friends have very similar mental experiences to mine. Sometimes they are happy, sometimes they are sad, sometimes they are tired, confused, desperate, sometimes elated. And so the Problem of Other Minds becomes less of a problem if we talk more about what’s going on in our minds. Specifically, it’s talking about it, or talking about it more specifically, that’s the challenge. Try asking someone what’s going on in their mind – it may not be too different from your own.

For more serious intelligent insight into the Problem of Other Minds see:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/other-minds/ (Theoretical Synopsis)

http://vibrantbliss.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/the-problem-of-other-minds/ (Further contemplation)

Same Time in Two Weeks Time Then?

So I’m still in therapy. It’s not like work, where you get your progress formally evaluated on a regular basis, so naturally after a few months of schlepping there once a week I was wondering how I was doing and if I was about to be promoted to the next level any time soon.

My therapist let slip some unexpected insight when we were going over the paperwork required by my health insurance. They had wanted to know if I had a ‘pre-existing’ condition. My therapist said very casually that she had explained to them that it was just a case of some anxiety and depression linked to living in a new place. WHAT!? No way lady! Now my roommate, she’s anxious. She rants and raves and goes red in the face and takes Xanax. I’m just a bit highly strung. And depressed people don’t get out of bed. I’m like uber active and positive. I frown on lazy depressed people.

The irony washed over me – even though I had voluntarily sought out her services, my natural internal reaction was to disagree with her ‘diagnosis’. I prefer to see my visits to her as an indulgence rather than linked to any real need.

Luckily for my denial, I didn’t have to stay demoralized for too long. The positive progress report I’d been looking for came a few weeks later when she suggested we cut down our sessions to once every second week. On the downside I was given extra homework. Apparently, we weren’t going very ‘deep’ anymore. She wants me to take notes about my emotions as they occur so that we can analyze them in more depth. The same goes for my dreams. REALLY?! Ap-par-ently, when you sleep your body relaxes and all the things that are really on your mind bubble to the surface. Luckily, I dream a lot (I must have a lot of things pressing on my sub conscious) so material isn’t that hard to come by.

At the next session I picked a dream that I thought she could really sink her teeth into. In my dream I was skydiving, tandem of course, but when the time came to jump I realized that the instructor was strapped to my back and not to my front as I’d expected (apparently this is how its done in real life too). In other words, the onus was on me to lurch us out the plane (eek). Moments before jump time I also learnt that the so-called instructor had only jumped like ten times (double eek). So what do we learn from this dream? Maybe I’ve placed my trust in someone and been disappointed. Maybe I’m afraid of something. Maybe some part of me wants to take a big risk and another part of me wants to play it safe. There are so many good interpretations available. It’s a bit like seeing a fortune teller – all the things they say are a little bit true a lot of them time. My therapist is leaning towards the fear interpretation though. She’s big on fear and thinks it’s at the bottom of a lot of ‘behaviours’. Take procrastination for example. You don’t start something because you’re scared you might fail. Humans don’t like failure. So it’s easier not to start because then you can’t fail.

Double EEK!!

Double EEK!!

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about my other dream. In this dream I’m changing an overflowing nappy – a concept I’m familiar with from my au-pairing days but still not a particularly lovely one. In the dream there is so much poo I just can’t get rid of it quickly enough. It’s a really yucky dream and not one I’d like to break down with my therapist. I really don’t want to use the word poo or any other poo simile in front of her.  I also wasn’t convinced that a meaningful interpretation of this one exists. I probably just needed the toilet, right? Not so according to Google’s dream interpretation threads. One dream guru says that this dream symbolizes letting go of issues: ‘Too often…we feel surrounded by ‘shit’ and ‘crap’ that clogs up the natural flow of life.’ Another, Freudian interpretation, is linked to money – anxiety over it or that it is coming your way. Now that sounds more promising. Maybe all dreams do have meanings, we just have to find the ones we like!

Luckily I have two whole weeks left in which to record some deep emotions and dream some moving dreams before I have to report in again. I’m hoping if I make them really good ones I can be discharged sometime soon.