When Things Feel Unreal, Is That a Delusion or an Insight?

When Things Feel Unreal, Is That a Delusion or an Insight? thumbnail

Have you ever felt the fear that nothing is real? Stevens Institute of Technology, where my students are, has experienced feelings of unreality from childhood. For her senior thesis, she made a film about the syndrome, in which she interviewed me and others. “It feels like there’s a glass wall between me and everything else in the world,” Camille says in her film, which she calls Depersonalized; Derealized; Deconstructed

Derealization and depersonalization refer to feelings that the external world and your own self, respectively, are unreal. Lumping the terms together, psychiatrists define depersonalization/derealization disorder as “persistent or recurrent … experiences of unreality, detachment, or being an outside observer with respect to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, or actions,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I’ll refer both syndromes to derealization for simplicity.

Some people experience sudden derealization, while others experience it during stressful situations, such as when they are taking a test or applying for a job. When the syndrome causes “distress or impairment social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning,” psychiatrists recommend psychotherapy and medication such as antidepressants. In some cases derealization may be caused by schizophrenia or hallucinogens like LSD. Extreme cases, often associated with brain damage may manifest as Cotarddelusion , also known as walking corpse syndrome, which is the belief that you are dead. Capgrasdelusion , The conviction that others around you have been replaced.

I’m glad Camille brought attention to the disorder. Derealization raises profound philosophical issues. Both ancient and modern Sages have suggested that is an illusion .. This is our everyday reality in which we live. Plato compared our perceptions of the world to shadows on a cave wall. Adi Shankara, a eighth-century Hindu philosopher, asserted that the ultimate reality is an undifferentiated, eternal field of consciousness. The Buddhist doctrine of anatta says our individual selves are illusory.

Modern philosophers like Nick Bostrom believe that the cosmos is a simulation. This means that it was created by an alien equivalent to a bored teenage hacker. Solipsism is a philosophical position that says you are the only conscious being ; and everyone else seems aware. In a recent column, some quantum mechanics interpretations undermine the status quo of objective reality. These metaphysical conjectures could have been inspired by derealization.

Many people experience derealization, Camille suggests. You suppress the feeling if it disturbs you. You try to get rid of it, but you don’t tell anyone. Camille says, “You’re afraid people won’t know it’s there,” and I can understand these reactions. Derealization can be frightening, disturbing, and even terrifying.

My most serious, sustained bout of derealization occurred after a drug trip in 1981, which left me convinced that existence is a fever dream of an insane god. For months, the world felt fragile, wobbly, and flimsy like a screen that projected images. I was afraid that everything would disappear at any moment, leaving me with no idea what. These feelings have been lost in my body over the years, but they still haunt me intellectually.

Pondering derealization leaves me conflicted. I have moral misgivings about claims that reality isn’t, well, real. These assertions, regardless of whether they are Platonism, my insane-god Theology, or the simulation hypothesis, can easily become escapists and nihilistic. If the world is a virtual reality, why should we be concerned about poverty, oppression and environmental destruction? Any philosophy that undermines our responsibility to care about each other is unacceptable to me.

I have come to appreciate derealization as an antidote to habituation. Our brains are built to do many tasks with little conscious effort. We become accustomed to certain things and take them as a given. We become like zombies or automatons, carrying out chores and interacting with other people–even those we supposedly love–without being fully aware of what we are doing.

Derealization feels like a slap in the face. It cuts through the monotony and wakes you up. It reminds you of the weirdness of the world, of other people, of yourself. By weirdness I mean infinite improbability and inexplicability. Weirdness encompasses all the bipolar properties of our existence, its beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, good and evil.

Seeing the oddities doesn’t mean we don’t have a moral responsibility to other people. Far from it. Derealization makes the world seem more real by separating me from it. It allows me to see the world more clearly and gives me a deeper connection with it. What was once a curse is now a blessing.

That’s what I tell myself anyway. Camille and others, as well as Camille, experience derealization in different ways. She describes the syndrome as “your brain’s way of taking a rest.” It believes you can’t handle certain situations, and so it shuts everything off.” She learned that letting emotions flow rather than fighting her feelings helped her get through episodes. No matter what derealization means to you, no matter how you deal with it, it’s better if we can discuss it openly like Camille and other brave, honest filmmakers.

This is an opinion and analysis piece. The views expressed by the author/authors are not necessarily those Scientific American.


    John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science, The End of War and Mind-Body Problems, availa

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