PSYCHOLOGY OF CYBERSPACE:
CYBERSPACE AS DREAM WORLD

by John Suler, Ph.D.

To Part III

Loose Self Boundaries

In dreams one doesn't necessarily have to talk to communicate with the other dream characters. Thoughts, feelings, and intentions can be transmitted without speaking, as if the others can read your mind, and you theirs. As a matter of fact, the other characters ARE your own mind, which is why "they" can read it. Even in the waking state, the unconscious mind assumes an almost telepathic connection to other people, which developmentally dates back to early childhood when the baby assumes that parents can detect her thoughts and automatically anticipate her needs. The boundaries between self and other are loose and overlapping. In psychosis, an extreme version of this occurs when a person believes that his thoughts are being broadcasted to others, or that other's thoughts are being inserted into his mind. While this may be pathological, other examples of loose and overlapping self-boundaries are not. Empathy relies on the ability to extend one's own awareness into the zone of the other's experience. It's a blending of self and other. It's what the baby expects and needs from his parents. It's what everyone needs in order to develop psychologically and maintain a sense of emotional well-being. Our culture's fascination with ESP and science fiction "mind-melds" is partly derived from the (unconscious) recognition that this potentially empathic blending of self and other is a basic human need.

In chat and MOO environments on the internet, one usually has the ability to secretly communicate with others while in the presence of a group of users. At the Palace it's called "whispering." Palatians also can secretly communicate with people in OTHER rooms through what is called, not surprisingly, "ESPing." Whispering and ESPing can feel like a magical telepathic connection to the other, a blending of your mind with the other user. Some people may feel empowered by this special skill (another fulfillment of unconscious wishes for omnipotence). Others may expect the encounter to satisfy that basic human need for empathic support - and may be disappointed, even hurt, if that doesn't happen. Whispering to several people at the same time allows all of them into your mind at once, forcing you to divide your mind up into several separate compartments in order to carry out those distinct conversations. This multiple whispering thus requires your ability to "dissociate" (I'll say more about dissociation later).

The Palace software places the user's typed messages into balloons that pop out of one's head, similar to comic strips. One special type of balloon is the "thought balloon." As in comic strips, dots trail up to the balloon, indicating you are thinking. Essentially, you can "think out loud" - which is reminiscent of the psychotic's thought broadcasting. Thought balloons are a kind of mumbling or "half speak" where a person implicitly is saying, "I'll let you know what I'm thinking, but you don't have to respond if you don't want to, because it's ONLY a thought." It's a relatively safe way of letting down your self-boundaries and allowing people into your head.

When you signed onto Palace, there once was an automated message advising you not to treat Palace simply as a game... that there are REAL PEOPLE at the other end of those avatars. Perhaps some people indeed think of it as a video game, which is why they may act out all sorts of asocial needs on the avatars walking across their screen. But maybe there is more to it than this. Perhaps people tend NOT to think of the other real people behind those avatars because they unconsciously experience all those entities as existing within the boundaries of their own minds. If cyberspace is an extension of one's own intrapsychic world, then those little avatars may be unconsciously experienced as being INSIDE one's head, rather than as external beings with their own needs and feelings. All of us show very little hesitation in acting out all sorts of feelings onto the "people" (what some psychologists describe as "internal representations" of the significant others in our lives) that reside ithin our fantasy and dreams. In fact, that's the purpose of fantasy and dreams - to give us space to ventilate and (ideally) work through those feelings. When cyberspace is experienced as a blending of our minds with the virtual world, it becomes another arena to act out those feelings. Seducing, fighting, opposing, ignoring, insulting, flattering, exalting, or demeaning those little avatars may all be actions taking place (unconsciously) WITHIN the user's own fantasy world. It's only when the other user says or does something really unexpected that you are nudged, or sometimes jolted, into the realization that there *IS* another real person present - that what you had been experiencing was an unconscious blending of the virtual reality into the boundaries of your own personal reality. It's what psychoanalytic thinkers call "transference."

Identity Shifting (Dissociation)

A major attraction of the Palace is the ability to create avatars to represent oneself. At will, users can switch among various icons chosen to reflect their various moods, interests, and personality characteristics. In various ways, this shape-shifting is strikingly similar to dream life. The appearance of people changes from one moment to the next, generating questions about their true motives and identity. Users are thinking and communicating in images rather than language. Often those images are highly symbolic. They are the products of the same mental processes that produce dreams - such as symbolization and the condensation of multiple meanings into one picture. Avatars portray universal human themes and ideas, similar to the dreams expression of archetypes from the collective unconscious

Shape-shifting gives the user some conscious control over the psychological process known as "dissociation." By switching avatars, users are expressing various omponents of their identity in a disconnected or disassociated fashion. It's something like having a controllable "multiple personality." Although having this ability once again satisfies that unconscious need for omnipotence (as one user said, "What could be more powerful than a shape-shifter?"), users are not always fully conscious of exactly what they are expressing about their personality via their avatars. It's the same for the dreamer. Every visual element in the dream may be a representation of some aspect of the dreamer's identity. Each character and object in the dream is a split off or dissociated component of the self - but the dreamer is not fully aware of this. At the Palace, even OTHER people's avatars become a target for projecting and expressing aspects of YOURSELF. As I described earlier, there is at times a tendency to react to other people's avatars not as an extension of their personality, but as an extension of your own thoughts and feelings (representations) about important people in your life.

Dissociation is a common phenomena in cyberspace at large. It is a well-known fact that people use the internet to express and experiment with various aspects of their identity. Some people deliberately create a specific online personality for themselves. They have some conscious control over the same kind of wish fulfillment that fuels dreams. A very lively discussion on the Palace User Group mailing list once focused on whether people have an "online" versus "real life" personality. People argued over whether this meant they were suffering from schizophrenia or a "split personality".... For most people, it's definitely NOT schizophrenia, but it IS a splitting of identity between what one usually presents to others in the physical world and what one likes to create in the cyberworld. One is not necessarily less "real" than the other. All are aspects of one's identity, although some may be hidden or unconscious aspects.

A woman consistently referred to one of her online companions as "she" when she spoke about this companion in cyberspace, and as "he" when she spoke about being with this companion in real life. Both were equally real to her. Carl Jung, a pioneer of dream interpretation, might be pleased to see that many people use cyberspace to experiment, in this somewhat dissociated fashion, the male and female components of their personality - the "anima" and "animus." For example, online gender-switching is a fairly common practice.

It's very possible that, for some cybernauts, the experimenting with alternate personalities eventually UNDOES dissociation because they begin to understand, accept, and integrate those alternate personalities into their conscious sense of self. Likewise, self-integration is the goal of many clinical approaches to exploring the various facets of one's personality that surface in dreams.

The ultimate act of dissociation is to disappear - to eliminate your own manifestation - while still remaining conscious. Lurkers know this feeling well. At the Palace, some users attempt to reduce their avatar to a single pixel and their name to a single character in order to achieve invisibility. It's like a dream in which the dreamer is only consciously, but not "physically," present in the scene. One wishes to observe the action, to take it all in, to perhaps secretly inject some influence - but without owning responsibility for any of it. It's not unlike claiming that your dream is "JUST a dream" - thereby disowning and distancing yourself from it. At the Palace, users have the ability to throw their voice by placing their text balloon in mid-air or next to someone else's avatar ("spoofing"), rather than allowing it to emanate from their own avatar. They can also blot out their name from the supplemental text log of the ongoing conversation, so there is no evidence whatsoever of their having made a comment. It's not invisibility, but it indeed is the same attempt to dissociate and disown from yourself some thought or feeling you can't stopyourself from expressing.

Dreams About Palace

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

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