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Depersonalized Zoombies in the pandemic and beyond
Alex Colville, Horse and Train, 1954.
With only a few short interludes for some family visiting within Canada, I’ve spent most of the past two years and-a-bit in one small room in my house, looking into a computer screen. I’m there right now. Here is where I write, talk to friends and colleagues over Zoom, watch the occasional film and listen to a lot of music. Not coincidentally, I also started to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in the mistaken belief that Proust had spent most of his adult life sequestered in his bedroom because of asthma (1). If Proust could write an immortal classic from such an impoverished setting, I thought, then perhaps I could do some good things from my little room at the top of the stairs.
I’ve been lucky to have been able to weather the endless strictures of the pandemic from home without serious mental breakdown, in no small measure because of the company of an endlessly fascinating, supportive, and funny (2) wife with whom I’ve only grown closer through all of this. But there have been moments. More than once, I’ve been struck by a feeling of unreality. It’s hard to put into words precisely but I’ve experienced it almost as if I’m somehow floating behind myself, viewing the world through a gauzy sheet. I’ve even had the occasional body distortion which, to me, seems a little different. Recently, for example, I experienced an odd sensation of “tallness,” as if I had miraculously grown a few inches overnight. Having some experiences with psychedelics during that early period of my life when I didn’t have a clue what I was doing (3), I’m not completely unfamiliar with this kind of sensory (metaphysical?) distortion. I’ve even experienced it on odd occasions as a more mature adult—especially if I’m very tired, disoriented by jet-lag or culture shock or suffering some kind of stressful life event. In these more recent times, though, it felt different. I wasn’t alarmed by it so much as amused. I was even able to enjoy it a little, playing with the experience in the same way that one might be fascinated by an experience of lucid dreaming, which has also happened to me once or twice. But of course such experiences are only fun if you are confident that they are transitory. For some of us, they aren’t.
Intrigued by these weird psychological experiences, I did what any scientist would do: I turned to the scientific literature. There, I was lucky enough to discover a remarkable little paper that has only recently come out, authored by an impressive team of international researchers led by Anna Ciaunica, whose work I’m just getting to know, and including Vittorio Gallese, one of the co-discoverers of mirror neurons (4) and with whom I’m proud to say I have a nodding acquaintance through some panels that we’ve been on together. In this article, the authors describe a study of something called depersonalization, which sounded an awful lot like my own pandemic-lockdown experiences. There’s actually a thing called Depersonalization Disorder, which has probably been around forever and has been described by clinicians in case reports dating back over 100 years. The description of the disorder sounds very much to me like what I have occasionally experienced. One of my favourite quotes is from Joe Perkins, a sufferer of Depersonalization Disorder who wrote a book about his experiences:
I look in the mirror and it does not feel like myself I’m looking at. It’s like I’m floating, not actually experiencing the world, and slowly fading away into nothing. It’s like I’m on autopilot in somebody else’s body.
That’s a bit more dramatic than my own experiences, but it is at least in the same orbit as what I’ve been describing to those I’m brave enough to self-disclose to (5). My own experience of a transitory state is not uncommon. A good many of you will recognize the symptoms that I’m talking about, and scientific studies have shown that depersonalization is not all that rare an experience. But only very few of you will have the prolonged, dense experience of depersonalization that Perkins describes (6).
But now here’s the fascinating bit. The point of the paper by Ciaunica, which I’m admittedly a little gaga about, is that when they measured the incidence of signs of depersonalization among people experiencing COVID lockdowns, they found a remarkable increase. Not only this, but there was a relationship between the extent to which their participants engaged in online activities like gaming or online meetings and signs of depersonalization. Though I didn’t document it very carefully, my unreflective spidey-sense suggests to me that the same kind of thing was true for me. My most frequent feelings of depersonalization came at times when I was Zooming quite a lot. For example, when I was teaching courses I sometimes found myself online in meetings for four or five hours a day. Horrible stuff!
So even though we are now in the SIXTH wave of COVID where I live, and even though most people now seem to be so alarmingly blasé about the risk of catching COVID that many fewer of us remain bunkered in rooms in front of screens, cautionary tales about ZOOMbyism are still worth heeding for those of us who may now remain forever trapped in at best hybrid states of work (7).
But there’s another even more important reason for my interest in this study, and it connects with an enduring preoccupation of mine with the impact of space-shifting technology on the human mind. We are only beginning to understand why depersonalization might be related to intense use of teleconferencing (and perhaps gaming), but the early leads suggest that it might come about because when we engage in remote contact with others, we miss out on so many elements of flesh-and-blood interactions that we become more like brains in jars than fully embodied human beings. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But the mechanism, at least as we understand it, is quite a subtle thing. The way that perception normally works is by means of comparisons between prediction and reality. Put simply, if I’m looking into your eyes and then I make an eye movement to the right or left, I expect to confront an earlobe. It’s that constant calibration of my own actions with the sensory consequences of those actions that helps to build a full-throated understanding of the world. When our field of potential actions is so constrained by sitting still and staring at a screen, not seeing much movement or gesture and not having the affordances of touch, what is normally outside our level of awareness falls right into awareness. Here’s a curious example of this. Try tickling yourself. You already know that you can’t do it! The reason is because you are fully able to predict the sensations that will follow from your own movements. So here’s the thing: when we don’t have enough multisensory contact with the outside world because we are cloistered away in a little cube of space, we become more aware of the movements of our own bodies but outside the context of a rich panoramic sensory experience. The lack of close contact with other beings seems to be especially important to the development of this effect (8). And as that awareness of one’s own body heightens, a separation between the self and the rest of the world increases. Hence the veil of depersonalization.
That sounds arcane, in part because I’ve tried to explain something complicated in a stumbling, cumbersome way with as little jargon as possible in the hope that you won’t be compelled to stop reading. But it really matters. Because what COVID may have taught us about technology and alterations of the self, such as depersonalization, may well be something that will apply to more and more of our lives as we spend more time in weird, space-and-time distorted virtualities. A Zoom meeting on a screen is one thing, but what about the weird shifts involved in navigating something like a metaverse (9)? What I’d really love to know is whether, as the use of tele-technologies has increased, there has also been an increase in depersonalization, perhaps even one that preceded the pandemic and could be expected to continue after we are completely untethered from the relative bio-safety of the homestead. And what if those of us who had jobs requiring us to maintain lots of contact with other people all the way through the pandemic have now become slightly more metaphysically integrated? I’d love to know the answers to questions like these, but finding them would be very hard sledding as we might say here in Canada. Though studies of depersonalization have been around for a long time now, the methods and definitions have changed so much over time that it’s hard to make those kinds of longitudinal comparisons (10).
I don’t want to sound like a neo-Luddite or, as one unfriendly reviewer of one of my books once said, as if I’m on a “grandfatherly rant against cellphones” but I do believe that this stuff is deep, important, and worth thinking about. Modern technology has enabled untold miracles of human accomplishment, but if it is misused or handled naively, it makes us less than we could otherwise be.
What I’m Reading
As usual, I have a couple of books on the go. For “fun” fiction, I’m reading one of Alistair Macleod’s collections of short stories entitled As Birds Bring Forth The Sun and Other Stories. I say “fun” rather than fun because if you know his writing you know that he was an exquisite lyricist who wrote brutally sad stories, mostly I think about life in Cape Breton Island on Canada’s east coast. This book is no exception to that statement and lives up to the declarations of one critic who said that Macleod’s stories will “make you weep.” Yes, indeed. If you want to read some beautiful words that will also help you shed a few pounds of tears, go there.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading William Davies’ book Nervous States. I’m still reading, but in the second half of the book I’ve found it much less of a slog, perhaps because my slow-witted mind has finally caught on to what it is that he’s talking about. My early objection to the book was that he seemed to be arguing that the abandonment of Enlightenment ideals that divorced reason from passion/body was a mistake, which to me as a neuroscientist invested in modern ideas about embodiment (see my discussion of depersonalization just above) seemed wrong. But I think I get his argument. It’s less about the eternal undying truth of the relationship between mind and body (and really it would be best to just abandon that distinction I think) and more about how our modern ability to capitalize on feelings and emotions in every realm from economics to the tactics of war has transformed us. That’s a message that I find much more interesting, nuanced and worrisome. I haven’t quite finished the book yet. He promises to discuss solutions. It wasn’t until reading many rejections of my own in-progress book that I realized that an author of a book like this has to not only describe problems with the world but also describe how to fix them. Seems unfair, in a way. But I soldier on.
What I’m eating
I’m well on the road to recovery now, so have begun to assume the mantle of responsibility for the mechanics of our kitchen, but you wouldn’t know it from what we’ve been eating. I’ve been busy unearthing the enormous repertoire of anonymous containers of leftovers in our freezer. Every meal is a surprise. Will this be a lovely vodka sauce that I am thawing for our spinach ravioli or is it a chunk of tasty chili or Bolognese (pro-tip: vodka sauce doesn’t freeze well but is still delicious if a little on the runny side). I hereby promise that for next week I will either have something worthwhile to say about our diet or I’ll keep my mouth shut and just talk about what we’ve been watching on television (so many good things to feast on in these windy, cold, nights of early spring) or what music I’ve been listening to.
(1) The tiniest bit of research shows that this “confined to quarters because of asthma” story is not completely true. Much of Proust’s writing took place while he was actively in the world and attending one impressive intellectual soirée after another. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that immortal classics like this are unapproachable. The Remembrance books are more than a light snack, but also engaging and at times marvelously funny.
(2) Look at the post before this one and find the picture of the “tapeworm.”
(3) As I’ve now mentioned so many times. It’s probably time to stop reminiscing about my misspent youth. It honestly wasn’t that exciting.
(4) If you don’t know what these are, where have you been? Ask Professor Google to get you started.
(5) Well I guess that now includes basically anyone who looks. And why not? If it was good enough for dear Oliver Sacks it’s good enough for me.
(6) Estimates of the incidence of serious cases of this run at around 1-2%. About the same as schizophrenia.
(7) I still grumble about this quite a lot, though now there are at least some nice guidelines for making Zoom life more tractable: take breaks, substitute phone calls or another form of messaging for zoom meetings when practical (eg for one on one conversations), don’t default to a one hour or even a 30 minute meeting. Sometimes even 10 or 15 minutes is enough. Perhaps most important of all is to feel free to turn off your camera. There’s some good research showing that on-camera mandates veer into contentious gender and racial equity issues. There aren’t many who still insist on these tyrannic mandates, but I no longer attend meetings hosted by those who do.
(8) Makes me wonder if that’s why so many people like to have cats and dogs in their Zoom sessions with them. Perhaps it “keeps things real” in more than one sense of that phrase.
(9) Full disclosure: I don’t really believe that the metaverse is going to be a thing for reasons you can glean from what I’ve written here and elsewhere. At least not in the form that’s currently bandied about.
(10) It’s somewhat of a character failing of psychologists that we all like to invent our own measuring instruments in the belief that we can do a better job than anyone else. In that way, I don’t think we are much different to many other kinds of scientists. When I studied neuroanatomy as a grad student, I used to pull hairs out at the prospect of having to memorize such structures as Nucleus X of Brodal and Pompeiano or the Lateral Longitudinal Striae of Lancisi.