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Time Out of Mind: Dissociation in the Virtual World

The following article, published ten years ago, discusses the ways in which interaction with virtual reality represents a sequestered part of the self.  It becomes a fantasy world wherein the rules that govern both individual identity and personal relationships are altered. In the therapy setting, it is an aspect that is inaccessible to self-reflection and accompanying change.

The article states as follows:

While greatly facilitating ease of interaction across time and geographic boundaries, the virtual world presents an unreal environment comprised of instant connection and gratification. Online encounters are employed as seemingly fulfilling alternatives to “live person” relationships. Our culture has enthusiastically embraced this surrogate reality in the form of online journals, chat rooms and gaming as well as internet pornography and sexual solicitation. It has become a significant part of modern society and will undoubtedly continue to do so as new generations find ever-innovative ways to integrate it into daily life.

Preoccupation with the Virtual World

Yet we are already aware that excessive preoccupation with the virtual world may prove disruptive both to productive functioning and the development of satisfying relationships. Phrases such as “internet addiction” have already entered the lexicon and refer to behaviors that are similar to addictions to drugs and alcohol, resulting in academic, social and occupational impairment. Whether we, as psychoanalytic clinicians, are technophiles or troglodytes it is almost certain that excessive preoccupation with virtual reality will enter our consulting rooms along with our patients. As such we must regard it as a significant aspect of mental functioning and then focus the powerful tools at our disposal in our attempt to understand it for ourselves and our patients.

An individual’s over-involvement with the internet can, however, prove difficult to engage in the clinical setting.  It may become sequestered, outside of time, intensely private, couched in shame and under-reported. It thus remains a personal space, the repository of dissociated thoughts and emotions, unlinked to the self-reflexive ebb and flow of feelings that foster awareness and change (Aron, 2000)

Summary of Article

In addressing this new and puzzling phenomenon I will first briefly summarize the data on internet abuse. I will then examine the concept of dissociation and apply it as a way of understanding those forays into the virtual world as time out of mind—experiences that are disconnected from thoughts and feelings that would assimilate them into an ongoing biographical narrative. Finally, I will present two clinical vignettes that illustrate the variety of forms that internet abuse may take. I will make the case that each of these illustrations, one involving a young boy and another, a woman in her mid-thirties, represents a manifestation of dissociative defenses. Though their use of the internet is outwardly very different, it is similar in its function as a split-off and alien interpersonal world that provides protection for a fragile self-state. I will discuss the need to invite the dissociated material into the therapeutic dyad so that it may become a conscious and integrated aspect of the self. I will examine the therapeutic process as one involving both verbal interpretation and relational grounding in the person of the therapist.


Aron, Lewis (2000). Self-Reflexivity and the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17, 667-689.

Toronto, Ellen L. K. (2009).  Time Out of Mind: Dissociation in the Virtual World. Psychoanalytic Psychology.  26 (2) 117-133.


Time Out of Mind: Dissociation in the Virtual World

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). Time Out of Mind: Dissociation in the Virtual World. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2019
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