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Solipsis - exploring the phenomenology of psychosis in art and science.

Originally submitted as an artefact for a KCL Experience Award as part of the A Beautiful Mind: Art, Science, and Mental Health module.

Materials: Acrylic on canvas (A1)

Post-production: Photoshop

Solipsism, to be solipsistic, is the concept that the self is all that can be known to exist. Clara Humpston (2018), building upon work from Louis Sass, Barnaby Nelson, and Josef Parnas (2001; 2009; 2014), suggests that the experience of psychosis is fundamentally that of a disturbance to a sense of self – a disruption to the bedrock of ‘I’. The disruption produces a meld of subject/object awareness, shifting focus of an individual to their moment to moment inner experience in a chaotic, unanchored manner – unable to differentiate fact from fiction. The experiencer becomes solipsistic in their being, but not out of choice.

The artefact “Solipsis” is simultaneously a depiction of fusion between subject and object awareness, and also an exploration of my personal experience that accompanied being drowned by my own inner world. Using techniques of art psychotherapy, content inspired out of the work of contemporary phenomenologists, and from my own reflective practice in therapy, the painting is an external representation of internal dynamics. It has been a process of making the invisible and intangible something that is visible and understandable.

The painting depicts two solar or star-like objects in a dance, with one consuming the other to become an assimilated state. The inspiration for the visual dynamics came from observations of black holes or stars swallowing another small, less stable entity. Analogously, the internal dynamics of psychosis as suggested by Sass, Parnas, Nelson, and Humpston is that of a consumption of the boundary between internal and external worlds – the internal world becoming so engorged that it draws in and annihilates the external. Without differentiation of subject and object, moment to moment experiences can be that of pure clarity or utter chaos outside of our apparent volitional control.

This artefact is a work of interdisciplinarity through its use of scientific literature, art psychotherapy, and personal experience. In this piece, much like it’s subject, prominent thought in phenomenological psychiatry is merged with artistic representation. Through this coalition the conceptual experience of psychosis is visually depicted, as well as using the opportunity to reflect upon personal experience in psychotherapy.

Ultimately the process of exploring the self, introspection, research into mental health, and indeed the scientific process requires some degree of solipsism. To progress and generate new ideas we must, even if fleetingly, fuse our internal and external world in moments of clear, and sometimes chaotic reflection to move laterally between trails of thought. This can be a tumultuous process, even if we’re just going by reflections from researchers in their PhD training, and in the best cases leads to new understanding about the boundaries of the self and our potential as human beings – both for clarity and chaos.

I hope this piece to not just be a conceptual fusion of subject/object when our experience of self can be compromised, but also a disintegration of the boundary between those with psychosis and those without – recognising that there is a common humanity in us all. I hope this is a process of developing compassion for those who cannot escape it themselves alone – for whom the experience becomes a black hole without any ground of being to fall back on.


Humpston, C. S. (2017). The paradoxical self: Awareness, solipsism and first-rank symptoms in schizophrenia. Philosophical Psychology, 1-22.

Nelson, B., Fornito, A., Harrison, B. J., Yücel, M., Sass, L. A., Yung, A. R., ... & McGorry, P. D. (2009). A disturbed sense of self in the psychosis prodrome: linking phenomenology and neurobiology. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 33(6), 807-817.

Nelson, B., Parnas, J., & Sass, L. A. (2014). Disturbance of minimal self (ipseity) in schizophrenia: clarification and current status.

Parnas, J., & Sass, L. A. (2001). Self, solipsism, and schizophrenic delusions. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 8(2), 101-120.

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