by John Suler, Ph.D.

To Part VIII

Cyberspace as an Alternative to Dreaming

Human beings have an inherent need to alter their consciousness - to experience reality from different perspectives. We pursue this need through a wide variety of activities - meditation, drugs, athletics, sex, art. Some are more productive than others. Dreams are a necessary, built-in mechanism for achieving this altered experience of self, other, and world on a daily (nightly) basis. It allows the expression of the usually unconscious, primary process styles of thinking that provide a different perspective on reality.

Cyberspace may be a new and important addition to this list. Critics often complain that computers and the internet have, for some people, become an addiction that serves as a substitute for life. While this indeed may be true for some people, we should also consider the possibility that cyberspace may be a highly adaptive SUPPLEMENT to "real" life. It may be a viable alternative for altering consciousness by providing new, imaginative ways to interact with others and experience the world. As evident in the dreams described above, such programs as the Palace in particular stimulate a rich variety of basic psychological issues - probably because they are intensely social environments fused into a dreamlike state of consciousness. Sometimes users get so stirred up that the cyberworld intrudes into the "real" world. One person told me:

"The problem is...I think the Palace is a "heightened" state of consciousness, and just like when one is under the influence of hallucinogens (the voice of distant experience) things take on a hyper-real intensity, these Palace experiences carry over into the non-cyberlife with undue seriousness and intensity."

People may be attracted to such virtual environments because - like dreams - they satisfy this need for an alternative view of reality by encouraging the unconscious, primary process styles of thinking. Like dreams, they also encourage the acting out of unconscious fantasies and impulses, which may explain some of the sexuality, aggression, and imaginative role playing we see on the internet. Stretching the analogies even further, we can think of addiction to cyberspace as an addiction to an altered state of consciousness, abstinence from computering to withdrawal or REM (dream) deprivation, and a fervid diving back into cyberspace as a cyberspace "rebound," not unlike REM rebound (which is the mind's attempt to make up for lost hours of REM dreaming).

What makes the Palace somewhat different than dreams is that the person has more control over the altered state of consciousness. You can hover in mid-air, walk through walls, or change appearance... at will. It's this control that satisfies that need for omnipotence. The experience is not unlike "lucid" dreaming, which is a dream in which the person KNOWS she is dreaming and is able to direct the outcome. Supposedly, more "primitive" people in ancient times were able to develop and refine this ability. Contemporary dream workers are attempting to revive those skills. Pointing and clicking in cyberspace dream worlds may be the computer geek's similar attempt to return to those more primitive times. It's an attempt to create and direct a recurring, lucid dream.

Although it has a big impact on the user, this control over the cyberdream is limited. As indicated in the dreams described earlier, the virtual world can stir up all sorts of personal anxieties. People may feel something is missing, that there's turbulence below the surface, that this scenario is not completely under their thumb. After all, we have control over the program, but not over the people who occupy it with us. Virtual worlds are not games where we control all the pieces. They are real worlds complete with all the interpersonal triumphs and struggles that stir us up in the physical world. But unlike life in the physical world, you can easily hit the "off" button if things get too uncomfortable in cyberspace. It's the virtual equivalent of the mind's switching off an anxiety dream or a nightmare by waking you up.

Once your mind leaves the dream, you realize it was JUST a dream.... Or was it? If it was a nightmare that woke you up, it must have "got" to you. If it was a satisfying dream, it was satisfying for a reason. Dreams speak to deeper needs within us. Cyberdreams may speak to those deeper needs as well. Life online isn't an artificial illusion disconnected from the "real" world. It's an alternative view of the individual's subjective reality. The man and the butterfly belong to each other.

To Part I


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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