Elena Bezzubova

The Search for Self

Virtual Reality as a Mirror of Depersonalization

The complementarity of VR and DP challenges our view on consciousness and self.

Posted Apr 23, 2017

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Elena Bezzubova
Source: Elena Bezzubova

Virtual reality - the experience of digitally created cyberspace – is arguably a unique nowadays novelty, even considered by some enthusiasts to be a new form of consciousness. However, people with depersonalization have been long familiar with the experiences which are strikingly similar to this cyber-phenomenon.

Virtual reality is a digitally generated imagery (acoustic, visual, tactile, etc) which is nearly indistinguishable from the real reality of the objective world. Digitally built environments not only imitate reality, but are open for almost complete immersion by and active interaction with a user.

Having put on his virtual reality headset, Jack sits on a chair in his room. But his actual psychic situation is very different from this room. Jack is overwhelmed with the full-blown excitement of an interspace voyage: the horror of being attacked by aliens, the ecstasy of supernatural ability and transformation into a higher being. Jack knows that all these perturbations are merely digital constructions, imitating reality but not reality itself. However, this digital illusion of cosmic adventure produces strong feelings and sensations which make the effect of virtual reality powerful enough to overrun the feelings and sensations of the actual reality of sitting in his old chair in his familiar room. This prepotency of digitally generated experiences over objectively grounded experiences constitutes one of the central characteristics of virtual reality – being experienced in effect, but not in fact.

A very similar characteristic shapes the core of the syndrome of depersonalization, only it is known under another name. Virtual reality is characterized by the quality of being experienced in effect, but not in fact. Depersonalization is characterized by the quality of as if experience. When Jill suffers from depersonalization, she feels strange changes in herself and things around her. Sitting in her room she anxiously notices that everything has lost its sense of familiarity and reality. Jill feels a stranger to herself. Her body feels estranged. Her room appears foreign, “as if in a fog.” At the same time, while being overwhelmed with these experiences of unreality, Jill knows that these experiences are merely generated in her head and that objectively she remains herself and her room is as it always has been. However, the power of Jill’s not tangibly grounded feelings and sensations of unreality overrun the formal knowledge of the objective state of affairs. This defines the central quality of depersonalization – its as if quality. Accordingly, depersonalization is not the experience of unreality as it is, but the experience of as if unreality with clear realization that this unreality does not exist, but merely feels as if it does exist.    

Both, the as if quality of depersonalization and the in effect, but not in fact quality of virtual reality designate a split between on the one hand, subjective psychic experiences - feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc, - and on the other hand, clear knowledge that these subjective experiences do not reflect the objective world. In both subjective feelings provide this as if experience and create the effect of presence of what is not present in fact.

However, being based on the similar as if / in effect quality, virtual reality and depersonalization diverge in the directions of this quality.  In virtual reality, the virtual feels as if the real. Jack feels his virtual cosmic adventure as if real-in-effect. To the contrary, in depersonalization the real feels as if unreal or virtual. Jill feels as if she were alien and her room unreal. Virtual reality is an as if reality, whereas depersonalization is an as if unreality or virtuality. In other words, virtual reality and depersonalization are negatively mirroring each other. Accordingly, depersonalization could be named virtual unreality. Another difference is that virtual reality is generated by a computer and virtual unreality (depersonalization) is generated by the psyche.

The relatedness of depersonalization and virtual reality leads to challenging questions. One touches controversies of double or even triple levels of consciousness. The first level is what one knows as an objective world. This level is intact in both depersonalization and virtual reality. Both Jack and Jill know that each of them is sitting in the room. The second level is the level of one’s subjective experiences, not fully defined by that objective world. In virtual reality this level is based on one’s perception of computer-generated imagery: Jack is immersed in his cosmic adventure. In depersonalization this level is based on internal mind-generated imagery: Jill feels as if she and things around were estranged and not real. The third level is the reflection on the first and second levels with the remarkable ability to hold the interplay of these contrast levels in the same continuity of consciousness. Could the provocative dialectics of virtual reality and the virtual unreality of depersonalization help to move us closer to an understanding of even consciousness and mindfulness