Our Screens Are Making Us Dissociate
If being online makes you feel detached from your sense of self, you’re not alone
In her bestselling memoir Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener describes life inside the tech industry and the toll it took on her, and the world.
“My impulse, over the past few years, had been to remove myself from my own life, to watch from the periphery and try to see the vectors, the scaffolding, the systems at play,” she writes of her time in startup land. “Psychologists might refer to this as dissociation; I considered it the sociological approach.”
She’s not the only one thinking about dissociation — a rupture in your relationship to your thoughts, behaviors, emotions, actions, and even your identity or sense of self. In recent years, dissociation has transcended its academic origins and become a catchall term for our modern malaise — a single word for the good moments, the bad, and the times you can’t tell the difference. Whether you’re having an out-of-body experience or simply spacing out in a boring meeting, dissociation describes a diverse range of experiences with a variety of triggers. But Wiener’s book suggests a technological component to our collective dissociation — as though the platforms on which we discuss dissociation could be driving the feeling itself.
Dissociation exists on a broad spectrum. It’s the feeling you get when you zone out during a conversation, or when you can see yourself from above, as if your life is a movie. It can be a serious psychiatric illness, especially when it’s the result of past trauma. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association’s bible, includes dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, and depersonalization/derealization, a sense of unreality about yourself or your environment. But psychiatrists also recognize many forms of “normal dissociation,” which include such banal experiences as fantasizing, daydreaming, and highway hypnosis.
“People do it all the time,” Mary-Anne Kate, a trauma researcher in the psychology department at the University of New England in Australia, says of dissociation. Pop culture is taking notice. The dead-eyed penguin from Madagascar is one of dozens of dissociation memes circulating online. When Phoebe Waller-Bridge breaks the fourth wall in her hit series Fleabag to address the audience when her world gets too tough to handle, she’s dissociating. Even the New Yorker is in on the joke: “Meditation or dissociation? A quiz,” one cartoon goes.
There are many explanations for our dissociative moment: Anxiety and depression, which often coexist with dissociative tendencies, are on the rise. And the #MeToo movement has familiarized the masses with the long tail of trauma. But our relationship to technology may have something to do with it.
We spend huge chunks of our lives acting independently of our bodies. Aside from the occasional hand cramp or urgent need to pee, most of us can schuff off our sense of self and our surroundings to answer another email or interact with another tweet. Our avatars often seem more powerful than our offline selves, boasting thousands of followers instead of a few real friends. And every platform, especially image-conscious ones like Instagram, encourages a constant cosplay of the self — to project someone cooler, hotter, and happier than we really are. It’s perhaps not surprising that we’re losing track of who we are when we power down our screens.
Despite its growing ubiquity in pop culture, dissociation remains poorly understood, even by psychiatrists. Its relationship to internet usage is under-explored, too. But in 2004 John Suler, a clinical psychologist and author of Psychology of the Digital Age, proposed an “online disinhibition effect” to explain why people behave so much worse on the internet than in real life. Suler outlined six features of his theory, including invisibility, minimization of authority, and dissociative anonymity, that work together to create a psychological distance between one’s offline reality and their online personas.
If you’re anonymous, the thinking goes, you’re more likely to say mean things. Academics and writers grappling with Suler’s ideas have largely focused on this point. But also crucial to behaving badly online is dissociation, Suler told me via email. People don’t act out online only because others don’t know who they really are; rather, they do so because they “think of what they say and do as ‘not actually me,’” he writes. “It’s like some invisible, unidentifiable person out there in cyberspace who is doing those things, so I am not entirely responsible for it.” While online disinhibition doesn’t happen to everyone every time they log on, Suler’s paper suggests the internet’s very structure — its avatars and usernames, inherent lag in communication, and fundamental anarchy — present users with endless opportunities to get lost in this digital world.
“Dissociative disorders are real, dissociation is common, and these issues are treatable.”
Dissociation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though it’s typically portrayed as a frightful experience. No one really wants to be (or be around) Dr. Jekyll or the guy from Fight Club, but many people actually actively seek out dissociative experiences as a way to let loose or reflect on past trauma. Indigenous healers from Mexico to Nepal to North Africa enter into dissociative trances for ritualistic purposes — an experience many Americans are willing to pay for, as evidenced by the rise of ayahuasca retreats. Many stressed-out millennials are also using ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, to “leave their body at the door,” according to The Cut. While the party drug can cause a terrible “k-hole” — an uncomfortably intense dissociative episode — it can also make “you feel like you’re giving your brain a bath in a pool of warm macaroni.” For people stressed about work, politics, and the fate of the planet, macaroni brain can be a pleasant, potentially restorative, retreat.
Virtual reality may offer a more legal portal into a dissociative state. In 2010, Canadian researchers measured dissociation, sense of presence, and immersion in 30 participants before and after using a virtual reality headset. The authors reported a mild increase in symptoms of depersonalization and derealization after VR use — on the level of “spending several hours working at a computer and temporarily feeling more detached from objective reality than usual.” (A more recent study using Oculus Rift headsets to induce out-of-body experiences found similar results.) While The Atlantic dubbed this phenomenon an “existential hangover,” the authors of the 2010 paper argued that small doses of VR dissociation, coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy, could potentially be a treatment for anxiety. Other research suggests that, for many gamers, the ability to dissociate from the real world and immerse themselves in the game is correlated with how much they enjoy the gaming experience.
But, as Wiener wrote, there are bigger “systems at play.” Digital dissociation exists within an attention economy that makes every second of life seem optimizable, so it’s no surprise people notice — and obsess over — the moments they find themselves staring off into space. And out-of-body experiences are a feature, not a bug of web 2.0. Many powerful futurists are pursuing immortality, and their strategies include the most literal form of dissociation imaginable: Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil are investors in Alcor, a company that freezes human corpses (or their disembodied brains) so they can someday be restored to life, assuming the right technology arises. Our fantasies can be lovely, and our depersonalization/derealization lonely, but both exist in a larger matrix of power.
Kate, the Australian psychologist, says it’s good we’re talking openly about this misunderstood phenomenon. “Dissociative disorders are real, dissociation is common, and these issues are treatable,” she says. And more “normal dissociation,” like daydreaming, should be embraced. But making the changes necessary to live a more integrated life requires “self-knowledge.” For many of us, that starts with acknowledging the body behind the screen.