Portrait of an Avatar to illustrate a post about virtual reality and dissociative disorders

Virtual Reality and 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 see.

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

When Turkle made these observations in 1996 immersive virtual reality was not available to average users

Turkle 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?

For healthy people the controlled use of the dissociative process is liberating; and virtual reality gives us new ways to express ourselves and learn.

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

To dissociate pathologically is to lose ones place in time.

Photo of a male avatar walking in the rain against the backdrop of a black and white snapshot of public housing
in the projects


(c) Rob Goldstein 2015-2017
First posted 2/28/2015




14 thoughts on “Virtual Reality and The Dissociative Spectrum

    1. When I first started to use Second Life I didn’t know I had DID. I had a demanding full time job and noticed I was ‘losing time’. I discovered that ‘characters’I had created when I thought I wanted to be a writer in the 1980’s had made avatars and lives in VR. I didn’t know what to think. It’s quite a story and I should tell it at some point. VR introduced me to myself and that changed my life. But I was lucky. I knew how to get access to the resources I needed to get help. What happened could easily have been the end of me.


  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.

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  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.

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