In my article Time Out of Mind, (Toronto, Ellen L. K. (2009). Time Out of Mind: Dissociation in the Virtual World. Psychoanalytic Psychology. 26 (2) 117-133. ), I talk about the ways in which internet fantasy becomes so “real” that it becomes separate from the person’s real-life experience. It becomes difficult then for the individual to make life decisions or particpate in ongoing emotional relationships.
Ogden (1990) would portray such an adaptation as an impairment in symbolic thinking, a concretization of fantasy such that it loses the “as if” quality. He might describe it as a dissociation of fantasy and reality, a state in which one no longer informs the other. The individual has the potential to become lost in fantasy in a way that destroys its possibility for modifying and enlarging reality. The mind loses its capacity to move freely among affective and intellectual elements. In Ogden’s view those individuals that are particularly susceptible to this kind of impairment have suffered early trauma such that they have failed to give personal meaning to experiences that have been too terrible to feel.
A Seductive Alternative
When the world of fantasy becomes a seductive alternative that breaks with ongoing experience, it disrupts the biographical narrative that is vital to the development of agency and the functioning of the relational self. It embodies a loss of what Aron (2000) calls self-reflexivity or the reflexive function of the mind. In Aron’s terminology self-reflexivity involves the capability of moving back and forth between observation and experience while being able to function both intellectually and emotionally. It is an essential self-function that allows the integration of mind and body, thought and affect, observation and experience and, in my opinion, is an aspect of mental operation that is particularly vulnerable to excessive internet involvement.
A Reduction in Awareness
As Fonagy and Target (1995) point out, in the presence of unbearable trauma, the psychic contents split, cordoning off the intolerable affect or memory. The person is able to go on even while suffering a reduction in awareness of surroundings, thus becoming numb or detached. He or she is no longer able to construct a continuous biographical narrative, one that moves comfortably and freely within the mind and has the ability to access feeling, fantasy and memory, as it relates to the interpersonal world of the present.
Under such circumstances one’s ability to act from a cohesive sense of agency is not destroyed but “repackaged” in unlinked states of mind (Bromberg,1994.) Impairment in symbolic thinking occurs so that reality and fantasy are experienced as parallel but disconnected phenomena. Relationships are possible but highly regulated and lacking in spontaneity. Adaptations may take place that require a modification of self-structure in the form of guilt, shame and low self-esteem so that the individual takes on responsibility for wrongs committed by others. Intimate needs remain alive but sequestered, carefully insulated and ready for danger, so that trauma can never again arrive unanticipated.
Aron, Lewis (2000). Self-Reflexivity and the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17, 667-689.
Bromberg, Philip (1994). “Speak! That I May See You.” Some Reflections on Dissociation, Reality and Psychoanalytic Listening. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 4(4): 517-547.
Fonagy, Peter and Mary Target (1995). Dissociation and Trauma. Current Opinion in Psychiatry: Volume 8 (3) pp. 161-166.
Ogden, Thomas (1990). The Matrix of the Mind: Object Relations and the Psychoanalytic Dialogue. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.