When The Self Is Lost

Gracie Lofthouse investigates depersonalization disorder, which is “characterized by a pervasive and disturbing sense of unreality in both the experience of self (called ‘depersonalization’) and one’s surroundings (known as ‘derealization’)”:

Dr. Elena Bezzubova, a Russian psychoanalyst who treats people with depersonalization in California, calls it a painful absence of feeling. “A mother comes to me and says, ‘My son is in prison, I received a letter from him. I do not care, but it bothers me. Please prescribe me something to cry.’”

It might be the implications of the numbing, as opposed to the actual numbing itself, that cause the most distress. Have you ever played that game when you repeat a word over and over again until it loses all meaning? It’s called semantic satiation. Like words, can a sense of self be broken down into arbitrary, socially-constructed components?

That question may be why the phenomenon has attracted a lot of interest from philosophers.

In a sense, the experience presupposes certain notions of how the self is meant to feel. We think of a self as an essential thing—a soul or an ego that everyone has and is aware of—but scientists and philosophers have been telling us for a while now that the self isn’t quite as it seems. Psychologist Dr. Bruce Hood writes in The Self Illusion that there is no center in the brain where the self is generated. “What we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our benefit,” he writes. Brains make sense of data that would otherwise be overwhelming. “Experiences are fragmented episodes unless they are woven together in a meaningful narrative,” he writes, with the self being the story that “pulls it all together.” InThe Ego Trick, Julian Baggini writes that people are, as the 18th century philosopher David Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature, “bundles of different perceptions.” “The unity [of self that] we experience, which allows us legitimately to talk of ‘I,’ is a result of the Ego Trick—the remarkable way in which a complicated bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it,” Baggini writes.