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Living on Autopilot: Internet Use and Depersonalization-derealization Syndrome
Courtesy of Boris D. Ogñenovich

Living on Autopilot: Internet Use and Depersonalization-derealization Syndrome

“You know how you sometimes feel like you’re on autopilot?”

“Sure. If I’m really sleep-deprived anyway.”

“I feel like that a lot.”

Recently, my 28-year-old friend, whom I will call Tom, was describing to me how in his day-to-day life, he sometimes felt like an observer inhabiting someone else’s body. He said he thought that drug-use in his youth may have had some influence as well, but he insisted that he’d seen reports that increasing numbers of Millennials were experiencing similar symptoms, and drugs have been around since before the 1990s.

Tom’s symptoms seem to describe a real clinical condition — or rather two clinical conditions, which are often grouped together, given the frequent pairing of their symptoms. First, there is the feeling of dissociation from one’s body, as if you were “on auto-pilot” and observing someone else. This is known as “depersonalization.” Occasionally, the person may not only feel as if their body isn’t them, but that reality isn’t real. Life feels like a kind of simulation. This is known as “derealization.”

From the Mayo Clinic:

Symptoms of depersonalization include:

  • Feelings that you’re an outside observer of your thoughts, feelings, your body or parts of your body — for example, as if you were floating in air above yourself
  • Feeling like a robot or that you’re not in control of your speech or movements
  • The sense that your body, legs or arms appear distorted, enlarged or shrunken, or that your head is wrapped in cotton
  • Emotional or physical numbness of your senses or responses to the world around you
  • A sense that your memories lack emotion, and that they may or may not be your own memories

Symptoms of derealization include:

  • Feelings of being alienated from or unfamiliar with your surroundings — for example, like you’re living in a movie or a dream
  • Feeling emotionally disconnected from people you care about, as if you were separated by a glass wall
  • Surroundings that appear distorted, blurry, colorless, two-dimensional or artificial, or a heightened awareness and clarity of your surroundings
  • Distortions in perception of time, such as recent events feeling like distant past
  • Distortions of distance and the size and shape of objects

Historically, the causes of these symptoms were rare and highly individualistic. But if my friend’s claims are true, then there is reason to believe there might be something more systemic at work.

Dr. Elena Bezzubova of Psychology Today thinks that the alternative lives we live online might have something to do with such feelings:

The first morning wakeful move, with eyes still closed, is not the touch of a partner, not even a dog, but a digital pet—smartphone, iPad, laptop or VR-device. A click on the iPhone’s alarm, like a symbolic “good morning, world!”, becomes a greeting from the cyber-world and to the cyber world, the awakening of the cyber-self with her virtual pals and pets: friends from digital networks and VR-chats, admirers from online dating, co-gamers and virtual reality explorers. The old material world of a car that badly needs repairs, the sudden smell of rain and a provocative look of someone cool in the elevator, is also there. Such simultaneous habitation in two worlds—real and cyber—blurs reality and virtuality, confusing real self and virtual self. Dissociation between the factual “I” in the bathroom’s mirror and the virtually-constructed “I” in Instagram can cause the disturbing sense of blurred identity or unreality. “Feeling of self gets elusive.” “ I cannot feel myself.” “I feel unreal.” Ambiguity between the real self that performs in the real world and the virtual self that acts in the cyber world can lead to feeling unreal. Such digitally related experiences of unreality stand intrinsically close to depersonalization and, I think, might be outlined as digital depersonalization.

As it happens, Tom is an avid Facebook user and video-game player.

Heraclitus once said that “day by day, what we do is who we become.” As people spend more and more time online, it makes sense to imagine that our sense of “self” could shift from the real world into the virtual world. If we were to feel like the real “I” existed primarily online — on Facebook, or Twitter, or Fortnite, or PornHub, or wherever else — then we could imagine that the actual real-world — the one in which you drink physical coffee, interact with flesh-and-blood humans, and so forth — might take on the feeling of a kind of dream. The real world would be an interruption between the events of one’s “more real” digital existence.

Since memory is strongly affected by attention, I would imagine that the more one dwells in and identifies with an alternative, digital existence, the less one would remember the events of the real world. Its experience would take on an increasingly discontinuous, dream-like feeling in which things just “happen.” Life would begin to feel unreal, and one’s decisions — being made while one’s identity and thoughts and cares were elsewhere — might also feel like someone else’s.

There is much to say on this topic, but a lot more that could be said, but which we lack the requisite research and data to speak from. There really doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of literature on this subject — the relationship between internet usage (especially social media usage) and depersonalization-derealization syndrome. Given the incredible speed with which the internet has essentially taken over global civilization and its peoples, one might have expected a greater scientific interest in possible negative side-effects of such a historically unprecedented phenomenon.

Philosophically, the connection between a regular, interactive, online existence and an increase in depersonalization or derealization is strongly intuitive. But philosophy can be great at playing captain hindsight, and it is easy to be wrong in making predictions from logic alone (true premises and valid logic can always leave out important variables that you didn’t think to account for).

This case series from 2016 opens by saying that the disorder is “underdiagnosed and underresearched,” but does give an interesting demographic description of the average DDS patient, as distinct from a more common case of depression:

DDS patients were younger, had a significant preponderance of male sex, longer disease duration and an earlier age of onset, a higher education but were more often unemployed. They tended to show more severe functional impairment. They had higher rates of previous or current mental health care utilization. Nearly all DDS patients endorsed the wish for a symptom specific counseling and 70.7 % were interested in the internet-based treatment of their problems. DDS patients had lower levels of self-rated traumatic childhood experiences and current psychosocial stressors. However, they reported a family history of anxiety disorders more often.

All of this seems to support a link between online/social media usage and depersonalization-derealization syndrome, this demographic description being a near perfect picture of many of the more active internet users (unemployed/underemployed young men, with a desire to solve their problems through the internet to boot).

But while we wait on the data, my bet would be that it’s safer for your own mental health to get off of Facebook, Twitter, video games, and pornography. I even swapped from a smart-phone to a “dumb-phone,” a Kyocera DuraXV LTE (a tough flip-phone). You’ll be more productive, probably feel happier, less outraged, and will probably get more sleep. But if there is a link between a persistent digital existence and a depressive sense of depersonalized unreality, then the temporary pleasures of these past-times isn’t even worth it. You’d be better off talking with friends and family, or playing with your pet, or reading a book, or simply observing nature.

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