Illusions of Normalcy

This paper considers the psychological notions of derealisation, depersonalization, and to some extent schizophrenia from the viewpoint of the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy. The findings of some modern psychological studies and analyses of these conditions will be explored for possible connections to the Advaita Vedanta view of reality and consciousness.

The British Medical Journal describes “depersonalization” as a “strange, complex, and essentially private experience,” a prominent feature of which is “a feeling of change involving either or both the inner and outer worlds and carrying with it a vague but uncomfortable sense of unfamiliarity” (“Depersonalization Syndromes” 1972). Depersonalization involves

changes in the perception of the entire self, the individual feeling dead, hollow, detached, strange. His actions appear to be automatic or puppet-like. They may be felt as disconnected, so that each normally automatic action has to be thought through in its component parts (“Depersonalization Syndromes” 1972).

“Derealization” refers to a similar feeling of estrangement from reality, whereby the environment appears “like a stage set, two-dimensional or flat, and its colours altered. Things may appear smaller, larger, altered, closer or further away, cloudy or dreamlike” (“Depersonalization Syndromes” 1972). A separate entry in the British Medical Journal quotes this woman who suffers from “a feeling of unreality:”

She felt as if her body had been entirely transformed. From morning to night she had to keep up an argument with herself to prove to her satisfaction that it was “her voice with which she talks, her hands with which she grasps things, and her legs which carry her about.” There was a numbness of all the faculties of sensibility, and she asserted that she never felt cross, tired, or hungry (“The feeling of Unreality” 1913, 1079).

For the purposes of medical diagnosis, it is important to distinguish depersonalization, derealization and the feeling of unreality from more serious mental disorders such as psychotic depersonalization or schizophrenia. The authors of a study published in the Social Psychology Quarterly emphasize the momentary or fleeting nature of the kind of depersonalization experience that is the focus of their study. They defined “transient depersonalization” as a “the fleeting experience of feeling estranged from oneself” (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 115). As they explain,

When in the grip of transient depersonalization, individuals do not recognize themselves, are unsure of who they are. They experience themselves as separated, detached, or disconnected from themselves, as an onlooker for their own behavior. The events in which they participate are felt to be happening to a separate human being (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 115).

For these researchers, the depersonalization phenomenon is made possible by the distinctive human capacity for self-objectification, whereby “the person who is the object of his or her own observation is both subject (“I”) and object (“Me”)” (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 115). It is therefore because we have the ability to view ourselves objectively, that is to say, as from outside ourselves, that it is even possible for us to experience depersonalization. Furthermore, the human creation of the self-concept is attributable to our ability to objectify ourselves in this way, the self-concept being understood as “the totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object” (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 119). For Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner, transient depersonalization is associated with a violation of a person’s system of self-expectations as defined by the person’s self-concept: “Our general premise can then be stated directly: situations or dispositions that disrupt one’s sense of sameness are likely to foster transient depersonalization” (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 115-116). In the discussion section of their study, the researchers conclude that “the self-concept is to an important extent a system of self-expectations, and that violation of these expectations is capable of arousing momentary uncertainty in the individual’s mind about his or her identify” (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 126).

According to Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner, individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to experience depersonalization. For these researchers, “transient depersonalization may be one way that the implications of low self-esteem can be borne; through self-estrangement, the deficient aspects of the self lose some of their damaging impact” (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 118). Depersonalization syndrome, then, may well constitute a natural human defense mechanism against the negative impacts of low self-esteem.

Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner also conclude that people with highly unstable self-concepts also more frequently experience transient depersonalization, and the researchers attribute this finding to the fact that people with shifting and unstable self-concepts are more likely to lose the sense of personal sameness which, according to William James, forms the basis of personal identity (Elliott, Rosenberg and Wagner 1984, 115).

The researchers therefore generally find a basis for depersonalization in instances where the individual is not firmly and confidently rooted in who they are, either because they are unstable and cannot fundamentally decide who they are or want to be, or because they do not like who they are and want to be someone else.

While medical science tends to view depersonalization as an abnormal condition in need of diagnosis and treatment, some philosophers and social scientists, unsatisfied with this approach, question the standard of normalcy against which we evaluate the behavior of those who seem to deviate from it, and raise the possibility that sufferers of depersonalization (understood broadly to include both its mild and severe forms) may actually be experiencing a purer, richer and more immediate version of reality. As Louis A. Sass explains in a very insightful essay in Representations called “Introspection, Schizophrenia, and the Fragmentation of Self,” “over the last ten or fifteen years, the influence of poststructuralism has intensified interest in notions of a decentered existence, which is often treated as a more authentic and vital mode of being than is the integrated self of normalcy, which Nietzche considered to be a fiction, ‘something added and invented and projected behind what there is’” (Sass 1987, 2). The medical classification of schizophrenia as a sheer abnormality is rooted in the Western conception of a person as an integrated and dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action. As such, the mainstream stance vis-à-vis depersonalization embeds specific assumptions which one must overcome in order to appreciate how the condition could reveal new insight into the nature of human consciousness. As Sass explains, the mainstream conception

takes for granted, among other things, that the Cartesian subject-object distinction and the Western conception of discrete and integral selfhood represent objective truth; that their absence in the adult indicates both psychopathology and – what is synonymous – psychological immaturity; and, finally, that attainment of these concepts is the telos of normal development and the appropriate goal for psychotherapy (Sass 1987, 7).

Some radical critics of psychoanalysis (the “antipsychiatrists”) refer to logic and self-control as “illusions” of normalcy, believing the schizophrenic to be “closest to the beating heart of reality, to an intense point identical with the production of the real” (Sass 1987, 8). To the extent that the schizophrenic exhibits a form of consciousness unconditioned by the constraints of social convention, even the traditionalists admit that schizophrenia may present a unique view onto the nature of consciousness. According to Sass, “For both radicals and traditionalist, the schizophrenic could be said to exist in the stage of mythical thought – the moment when, in Cassirer’s worlds, consciousness has not yet raised itself from its stupor” (Sass 1987, 8). For Sass, the schizophrenic is involved in a mode of introspection more intense than can be felt or understood by a normal person, but which has much in common with the “hypertrophied reflexivity characteristic of certain strains of the modernist and postmodernist sensibility” (Sass 1987, 26). As a symptom of this intense introversion, the schizophrenic treats him/herself and his/her experiences as objects of awareness, viewing his/her own body as an “influencing machine” lying elsewhere and not at all under his/her own control. For Sass, this influencing machine is “a crystallization of a phenomenological world in which explicit attention has come to be trained on the kinesthetic sensations and body-image experiences that would usually be transparent and unthematized, that would normally remain latent while the external world occupied the focus of awareness” (Sass 1987, 15). The schizophrenic seems to experience “a too acute awareness of the process of experiencing” (Sass 1987, 25) whereby s/he is “driven to search for the self yet liable to destroy the self in the act of searching” (Sass 1987, 23).

This postmodern critique of the mainstream views of depersonalization and schizophrenia finds an ally in the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy. Advaita Vedanta objects to the assumption commonly held in physicalist consciousness studies that consciousness is something that can be objectified. As Ram-Prasad explains in “Saving the Self? Classical Hindu Theories of Consciousness and Contemporary Physicalism,” “it is not the specificity of each physically determined locus in which consciousness occurs that is striking but the generality of its (consciousness’) nature as reflexive (even in individual loci)” (Ram-Prasad 2001, 386). According to Avaita, there is this thing called consciousness which pervades every thought and experience that we have, and as such it cannot be isolated as a specific object of study, since the very act of studying something already involves a certain auto-reflexivity. As Ram-Prasad explains,

we cannot know what it is that is to be studied because it is not something that can be studied, for all study requires objects, and the self of consciousness is never an object. The ground conditions required for the study of anything do not exist in the case of consciousness itself: for all study is the exercise of consciousness, and consciousness is always just that exercise. It is the seer of the seeing, and therefore – whatever is seen – it is not seen, since it is always and only the seeing (Ram-Prasad 2001, 390).

From the point of view of Advaita, the object of physicalist consciousness studies is always merely the content of a conscious state, never the conscious entity itself.

Consideration of the differences in their respective understandings of perception is helpful in appreciating the fundamental differences between the Western and Advaitic views of consciousness. In contrast to the passive, Western view of perception, the Advaitic view holds that consciousness “reaches out” to the object of attention, projecting onto it a kind of luminosity which accounts for the data on the basis of which consciousness configures the content of perception. As Purusottama Bilimoria explains in “Perception (pratyaksa) in Advaita Vedanta,” “The Brahman-caitanya in the subjective aspect may be assumed to be the flood of light analogous to that used in a studio to illumine the objects to be photographed. And the antahkarana can be compared to the negative or film in the camera, which transforms as light enters through the lens and accordingly registers the shape, color, and so forth of the object focused upon” (Bilimoria 1980, 37). Avaitic theory therefore attributes an active, creative role to consciousness, whereby consciousness acts as an inner vehicle, creating or reproducing the object of perception within the subject. The subject, then, is not in direct contact with the object of perception. Rather, the subject witnesses a certain version of the object reproduced by consciousness.

From the relatively straight-forward mechanics of perception, we move to the subtleties of appearance. According to Avaita philosophy, appearance lies outside the supposedly exhaustive dichotomy of the real and the unreal, that is to say, appearance is neither real nor unreal. First, appearance cannot be real because it is in principle always capable of being denied or contradicted by some new experience, whereas reality, which Advaita identifies with nondual consciousness, is in principle never sublatable. Second, appearance cannot be unreal because in Advaita philosophy the unreal refers strictly to logical impossibilities such as square circles, married bachelors, etc. Frederic F. Fost in “Playful Illusion: The Making of Worlds in Advaita Vedanta” reiterates Samkara’s classic rope-snake analogy to illustrate how the phenomenal world is neither real nor unreal according to Advaita. In this analogy, a man enters a barn at night and steps on something that he first believes to be a snake, but soon realizes that the perceived snake is actually a rope. As Fost explains,

According to Samkara, the snake in this situation is neither real nor unreal. It cannot be real, for if it were it could not have been sublated by the rope. On the other hand, it cannot be unreal either, for then it could not have been an object of experience in the first place. The snake is thus the result of superimposition, that is, an erroneous attribution of qualities remembered from previous perceptions of snakes now projected onto the rope (Fost 1998, 389).

Since the phenomenal world of appearance is in a sense unreliable or fallible (as the snake-rope analogy makes clear), Advaita rejects the equation of appearance with reality altogether. As Richard Brooks explains in “The Meaning of ‘Real’ in Advaita Vedanta,” “there is only one thing which can, properly speaking, be called ‘real’ (sat), and that is Brahman. All else which we might call ‘real,’ including the human soul, is identical with that one reality. Anything which cannot be so identified with that one reality is ‘false’ (mithya), or in other words is only apparently real – is only an appearance, an illusion” (Brooks 1969, 385).

But to the extent that appearance is not self-contradictory, it cannot be deemed unreal in the Advaitic sense. According to Brooks, “the world cannot be totally unreal in the sense of being fictitious or nonexistent. We do, after all, perceive it. Falsity, then, although it excludes reality (sat), does not entail unreality (asat)” (Brooks 1969, 385). In the final analysis then, reality and appearance jointly include all realizable states of consciousness, and as such, they together exhaust all possible modes of existence.

If the phenomenological world is neither real nor unreal, how do we arrive at ultimate reality in Advaita? According to Advaitic metaphysics, Brahman or pure awareness is deduced from human experience rather than logical argument. As N. K. Devaraja explains in “Contemporary Relevance of Advaita Vedanta,” “Brahman is not so much the ontological prius or the first principle of the universe.” Rather, Brahman is “the informing spirit of all experience, the light of awareness that constitutes the very core of the phenomenon called experience” (Devaraja 1970, 133). An appreciation of the meaning of ultimate reality in Advaita Vedanta is therefore not reached through a process of logical reasoning, but rather through consideration of the very essence of experience as such. Brahman is not an explanation of how things came to be, but rather is the illuminating quality of our ability to explain things in the first place. Brahman is not reducible to forms or substances, but rather is the inner reflexivity that allows us to detect and infer the existence of such forms and substances in the first place. Brahman is the unifying principle common to all varieties of phenomena and appearances; like the canvas on which a painting is made, it is the unchanging backdrop necessary for variety to manifest itself. As Cyril G. Williams eloquently puts it in “Selflessness in the Pattern of Salvation,” “All that is, really so, is Brahman, and there is nothing which is not Brahman. Emancipation is the result of gnosis of the nature of reality which is found to be One without a second, namely without individuated form or substance” (Williams 1971, 155).

To conclude, depersonalization, like consciousness itself, is still largely a mystery to the modern scientific establishment. While the physicalists continue to search through relative obscurity for the precise location or chemical in the brain that may be responsible for the depersonalization “illness,” others instead are uncovering beneath the madness of severe depersonalization what appears to be the core impulse behind the postmodern sensibility. From the preceding analysis of depersonalization and Advaita, intriguing points of contact between them emerge. For instance, does the mainstream categorization of the schizophrenic’s mental detachment from the body as pure madness not suggest that psychological fitness is potentially wrongly being measured in relation to the Western conception of a person as an integrated center of awareness? Does the ability to feel detached from our bodies not suggest that the body is not what is ultimately real, as the Advaitic would claim? Is the fact that depersonalization is traceable to the subject-object dichotomy and the illusory self-concept that it fosters not suggest that the pertinence of the dichotomy is itself questionable, as Advaita theory claims? Finally, is the schizophrenic’s intense introspection not in some way revelatory of reflexive nature of pure consciousness in Advaita?


Bilimoria, P. (1980). Perception (pratyakṣa) in advaita vedānta. Philosophy East and West, 30(1), pp. 35-44.

Brooks, R. (1969). The meaning of ‘real’ in advaita vedānta. Philosophy East and West, 19(4), pp. 385-398.

Depersonalization syndromes.(1972). The British Medical Journal, 4(5837), p. 378.

Devaraja, N. K. (1970). Contemporary relevance of advaita vedānta. Philosophy East and West, 20(2), pp. 129-136.

Elliott, G. C., Rosenberg, M., & Wagner, M. (1984). Transient depersonalization in youth. Social Psychology Quarterly, 47(2), pp. 115-129.

The feeling of unreality.(1913). The British Medical Journal, 1(2733), pp. 1079-1080.

Fost, F. F. (1998). Playful illusion: The making of worlds in advaita vedānta. Philosophy East and West, 48(3), pp. 387-405.

Ram-Prasad, C. (2001). Saving the self? classical hindu theories of consciousness and contemporary physicalism. Philosophy East and West, 51(3, Eighth East-West Philosophers’ Conference), pp. 378-392.

Sass, L. A. (1987). Introspection, schizophrenia, and the fragmentation of self. Representations, (19), pp. 1-34.

Williams, C. G. (1971). Selflessness in the pattern of salvation. Religious Studies, 7(2), pp. 153-167.


One thought on “Illusions of Normalcy”

  1. Advaita designates phenomenal reality with extreme objectivity and in a “depersonalised” sense as “neither real nor unreal” with extreme sense of care and protection from ordinary and careless observers. While the western conception of reality tends to view it as normal and abnormal from the observer’s viewpoint as the subject of psychology being the individual consciousness. Within the domains of psychology, which itself falls within the realms of phenomenal reality (since the basis of study is subject-object duality), it is not wholly untrue to suggest such qualifications for an experience such as schizoprenia.The general direction of modern psychology itself does tend to look upon all aspects of experience as some kind of abnormality (“Consciousness is a disease” ).

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