The Dissociative Spectrum


Studies of people who use Virtual Reality as their primary form of entertainment show a spectrum of dissociation.

This idea of a spectrum of dissociation emerges as virtual reality becomes increasingly immersive and the dissociative process becomes more complete and easier to observe.

Clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, suggests that the users of virtual reality are in a transition from “…a modernist culture of calculation toward a postmodernist culture of simulation.”

Turkle made these observations in 1996. They predate the advanced three-dimensional worlds that are easily available to the average user in 2015.

She wrote: “Windows have become a powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system…The self is no longer simply playing different roles in different settings at different times. The life practice of windows is that of a decentered self that exists in many worlds, that plays many roles at the same time.” Now real life itself may be, as one of Turkle’s subjects says, “just one more window.”

A couple of studies suggest that virtual reality increases dissociative behavior and reduces one’s sense of presence in objective reality.

This is from the 2013 paper Sanity and Mental health in an Age of Augmented and Virtual Realities, by Gregory P. Garvey: “In virtual worlds like Second Life, ‘residents’ may have multiple avatars having different genders through which they enact very different personalities. Such role-playing fits with the description of Dissociative Identity Disorder in the DSM-V. Users of Second Life have experiences akin to depersonalization, de-realization or even dissociative identity disorder.”

Garvey conducted a survey of 110 users of Second Life based on the Structured Clinical Interview for Depersonalization–De-realization Spectrum.

“Many users have multiple avatars, which enact distinct identities or personalities, and this fits the criteria for dissociative identity disorder. To experience any of these disorders in real life may be considered undesirable, even pathological. But for users of Second Life such dissociative experiences are considered normal, liberating, and even transcendent.” Gregory P. Garvey, Dissociation and Second Life: Pathology or Transcendence?

I think for many healthy people the creative use of the dissociative process is liberating.

But pathological dissociation compromises the brain’s ability to differentiate the real from the imaginary.

To pathologically dissociate is to lose ones place in objective reality.

RG 2015


12 thoughts on “The Dissociative Spectrum

  1. Hi. Very interesting idea. I am very glad I happened upon this post.
    It does seem like there would be some disassociating personality to a degree, and each time they engage in the game it may happen a little more.
    I have heard other really fascinating research regarding use of avatars. One in the Sim games, they found people did not usually pick idealized life outcomes for their avatars, but rather something that ran much closer to who they were in real life.
    And another interesting study found that women whose avatars looked promiscuous, they found the women playing it, over time became more promiscuous as well.
    What these show me is that avatars have a profound affect on their user. I actually have a lot of difficulty playing games, mainly because I feel uncomfortable ‘playing a character.’ Though I am still not exactly sure why.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is interesting — I agree. I’ve met men who were straight identified in reality but gay identified in Second Life. I’ve met women who lived in Second Life as men. I think that SL is potentially another way for people to discover themselves…they can play with ways of being and lose their fear of differences…I think that the avatars become extensions of the self.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for being open too this post. When I first joined SL It felt as if many of the people I met in world had DID. What makes that funny is that I didn’t know that I had it even though I had six very active alternate accounts withing the first six months. Some of our friends called us “the Family”– The fact that my version of dissociation is not secondary to VR makes a huge difference I think. To begin with, I don’t think people in SL have memory barriers between their alternate accounts.

    One thing that changed for me is that the alternates that used VR became more distinct as personalities. So my personal experience is in line with some of the findings in this research.

    Liked by 1 person

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