We love the technology of Virtual Reality for its magical ability to transport us to fantastic worlds, and in so doing, provide transformative experiences. As enthusiasts, we usually highlight these advantages, where VR technology can provide new perspectives on the structure of reality as well as on our selves. There is, however, potentially more to the effects of experiencing virtuality than the development of a positively, reconsidered relationship to reality. The technology may also potentiate the suffering of a disorder that impacts the way we relate to ourselves as well as reality itself.
Some time ago, I got an e-mail from a reader with a question. During the pandemic, his VR use had escalated drastically. He had played VRChat for up to 16 hours a day. Consequently, his dreams were located in virtual worlds, but more alarmingly, he had experienced symptoms of a particular disorder; each morning when he woke up, he could not identify whether he was in a VR or not. This effect did not subside for up to an hour—and by then, he was probably immersed in VR again.
This person experienced symptoms of what is referred to in the DSM as Depersonalization / Derealization Disorder (DPDR) — and is the topic for today’s piece. Let’s dive in.
Depersonalization / Derealization
In their brilliant paper “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct,” philosophers Michael Madary & Thomas Metzinger write about ethical concerns with research and consumer use of VR. The paper warrants a general read, but I particularly found it interesting to stumble over this passage:
“We suspect that heavy use of VR might trigger symptoms associated with Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder (DSM-5 300.14). Overall, the disorder can be characterized as having chronic feelings or sensations of unreality. In the case of depersonalization, individuals experience an unreality of the bodily self, and in the case of derealization, individuals experience the external world as unreal. For instance, those suffering from the disorder report feeling as if they are automata (loss of the sense of agency), and feeling as if they are living in a dream…“
Obviously, this sounds terrifying, or, at best, like a game. The authors pinpoint, however, that although Depersonalization & Derealization involves feelings of unreality, it does not actually involve delusions of unrealness of the world or any belief, necessarily, on behalf of the sufferers that they actually are not in control of their actions. Nevertheless, these symptoms are, by definition, not experienced as playful, and, of course, entails a radically changed relationship to your self and the world.
We have previously at Matrise discussed how VR could provide benefits in the form of a re-considered relationship to our selves and the world. In approaching the effects of psychedelics, one of the greatest hopes for the VR medium is that it can aid in the dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy that pervades traditional metaphysical beliefs. In relation to such changes in consciousness, the subject of Depersonalization & Derealization becomes particularly interesting from a philosophical point of view—as it is conceptually very similar to such so-called ‘enlightened’ states. However; the reaction to the symptoms of Depersonalization and Derealization is the diametric opposite of the freedom that may come with enlightenment experiences. While realizing the emptiness of one’s self and the world for some can be a source of great power, creativity and freedom, Depersonalization/Derealization is, on the contrary, a rather anxious and alienating experience. Of this reason, DPDR has been referred to as ‘the dark side of enlightenment’ or ‘enlightenment’s evil twin.’
It may be obvious why VR can induce feelings of Depersonalization and Derealization. Madary & Metzinger writes how “VR technology manipulates the psychological mechanisms involved in generating experiences of ‘realness,’ mechanisms similar or identical to those that go awry for those suffering from the disorder.” It does not matter that users of VR know cognitively through knowledge that the virtual environment isn’t real. Our bodies nevertheless react spontaneously to the virtual environments and the avatars we embody within them. The transparency through which we interact with VR makes the experience feel non-mediated or immediate; in other words, the information is presented as reality.
Of this reason, Madary & Metzinger write that they are concerned with whether “…long-term immersion could cause damage to the neural mechanisms that create the feeling of reality, of being in immediate contact with the world and one’s own body.” They write how “[h]eavy users of VR may begin to experience the real world and their real bodies as unreal, effectively shifting their sense of reality exclusively to the virtual environment.” This seems to have been the case with the reader who wrote to me regarding these symptoms. An unusual circumstance (COVID-19 lockdown) had heavily escalated his VR use. It seems likely, therefore, to assume that as a majority of his sense impressions over an extended period of time was mediated, he re-adjusted what was “defined” as reality to who he was in relation to the virtual environment.
But what are we to make of this? What does this mean for the technology of VR when it comes to our selves?
The Dark Side of Enlightenment
Delving into this from our particular philosophical standpoint requires some basic metaphysical introduction to so-called mysticism. Here, we could say that Depersonalization and Derealization denote two sides of the same coin: Depersonalization concerns the subjective- or self pole of our experience, whereas Derealization is more concerned with the worldly aspect—that which is other in relation to the self. As Matrise readers will know, there are strong parallels here to states such as, for instance, described in Buddhism which provide an anti-essentialist, anti-substantialist metaphysics; and Hinduism which similarly purport that the world is illusory. According to these philosophies, the world is really “empty”, and there is no self. Within these disciplines, attaining knowledge, or rather, the experience of this reality is regarded as the utmost aim. How then, are we to interpret Depersonalization and Derealization, which instantiate these abstract conceptions into a lived experience—but which, unfortunately, does not generate a feeling of unity or togetherness, but rather a feeling of alienation?
Enlightenment, attainment, or whatever one prefers calling it, refers to the realization that there is no self; no single unit called “you” that is ordering your body around through verbal instructions. Realizing this can be an immense relief, and I would argue, is moreover a sane perspective, as what we define as our selves seem to be rather arbitrary. What we define as our selves appear to be more like an invisible, intangible, verbally speaking boss inside our head than it is our actual organism. Even identifying only with one’s organism may be called into question, as you through your organism are rendering a particular instance of the entire external world, to which you are inextricably connected and depend upon. Now, depersonalization and derealization refer to the cases where one is having a feeling of the deconstruction of the thingness of the self as described above, but instead of being the end of alienation (who is there to be alienated?), it becomes the ultimate alienation; alienation also from the one who was alienated. There is nowhere to hide.
But what is the difference?
The topic of depersonalization and derealization fascinated me heavily a few years ago when I had experienced these symptoms myself—although not from VR use. For months, I had no sense of self whatsoever (except sheer terror), and reality was like an ever re-occurring surprise of terrifying aliveness. While researching this, I found various theories that attempted to account for the relation between depersonalization/derealization and so-called enlightened states. For the mystics in the various world religions, the state is often referred to as The Dark Night of The Soul: the feeling of total abandonment and total alienation. Although it concerns dark matters, the state is also presented as a point from which it is possible to start over, in personal terms.
Regarding what exactly is the difference between the two states, the theories I found agreed that both states may have the same insight into the impermanence of the self and the world. However, as for depersonalization and derealization, in the words of Alan Watts, “there is still here evaluation.” In short, although your sense of self is almost completely obliterated, there is still some last, squealing creature, that is only capable of panicking. Essentially, while your person may be gone, you still identify with the new commentator that looks at your destroyed self in terror and anguish.
Mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young interprets the difference similarly: “If they’re freaking out because of the emptiness, then there is something that’s not empty.” To help, he suggests attempting to realize the emptiness of the freakout, and concentrate on developing positive feelings, images and self-talk; treating this nothing as the ideal point from which to develop a new self. Personally, I got better, and after months of this terrifying nakedness before the void, eventually was able to have someone to talk to, that is, I developed self-talk and an internal narrative again. Now I feel perfectly un-enlightened, and I go about without too much suffering. As for our DPDR reader who stimulated the creation of this piece, I’ve quite simply lost his contact information. If you read this, I hope you are well, and please send us an update we can include in this article if you’re comfortable!
To conclude, a few words should be said from a more detached perspective. This piece has mainly been philosophical, theoretical and conceptual with some anecdotal data. Regarding Depersonalization & Derealization in general, it should be made clear that little knowledge about it really exists—whether in relation to meditation, psychedelics, or VR. And as you can probably gather, this piece is not meant, in any way, to provide (medical) advice for sufferers. The author is merely a VR enthusiast with a zest for philosophy, not a psychologist or anyone versed in the medical literature. The focus of this piece has been to investigate philosophically into the similarities of the great positive potential of VR, and this more unfortunate potential pitfall. In short, this is a topic we know little about but which is nevertheless very interesting and which will become more and more relevant as VR pervades our society more in the future. It is possible that all powerful tools for changing the self, such as meditation, psychedelics, and now also increasingly VR, may be able to cause harm or suffering, just like the warming flames from a cosy hearth also have the potential to burn you.
To be clear, I do not think that this is something to really fear with VR, any more than it is something to fear in meditation. We should, however, be attentive to how prolonged use of VR, as with any other activity we engage in, affect us. These effects are telling of the potential of VR to change our self and our relation to reality, for better or for worse, and until we know more we should exercise caution as we investigate the great potential of immersive technologies.
The top illustration is a drawing by one of my favorite artists:
Miles Johnston, depiction of his own experiences of depersonalization.