Dissociation involves a separation of conscious awareness with current sensations, feelings, memories, and thoughts. It exists on a continuum from normal to dysfunctional.
At one end of the continuum, it is a harmless state that happens to most people, such as “zoning out” while daydreaming.
On the other end, dissociation can be a coping mechanism in response to a traumatic experience.
Definition of Dissociation in Psychology
The American Psychological Association provides a definition of dissociation as a mental disorder:
“…a defense mechanism in which conflicting impulses are kept apart or threatening ideas and feelings are separated from the rest of the psyche.”
This form of dissociation can occur as a result of physical combat, a car accident, or other experiences that produce overwhelming feelings of stress and anxiety.
Psychologists in the United States use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to help diagnose different types of dissociative disorders.
- Daydreaming: When one’s mind wanders from events that are happening in the immediate environment to thoughts immersed in something completely unrelated.
- Driving on Automatic Pilot: While taking a very familiar route to work, a person’s conscious awareness may be completely absorbed in thinking about something in the past or planning that day’s activities (here, we can see that driving is an example of automatic processing).
- While Reading: Some people can become so absorbed in the story while reading that they feel as if they are actually experiencing the scene as they are reading about it.
- Not Hearing One’s Name Called: When engaged in intense mental focus, such as studying for an exam, a person might not be able to hear someone call their name.
- Children’s Fantasy Play: Some children can become so enthralled with fantasy play that they experience dissociation. Everything they imagine seems very real to them.
- Memory Loss: Not being able to remember a specific traumatic event is a form of dissociation that helps protect a person from overwhelming anxiety.
- Out of Body Experience: Having the perception that one is “observing” oneself in action but not experiencing the behaviors directly.
- Extreme Emotional Numbness: Not feeling emotions at a level of intensity that is proportionate to the events occurring. The person feels emotionally numb while others may be feeling intense emotions in response to the same situation.
- Flashbacks: Feeling the emotions and thoughts of a previous moment as if they were happening right now, even though the event happened months or years earlier.
- Losing Track of Time: When a person becomes so absorbed in an activity that their perception of time is distorted, they are experiencing a mild form of dissociation.
- Absorbed in Music: While listening to music, an individual might become so immersed in the melody and lyrics that they feel disconnected from their immediate surroundings.
- Intense Video Gaming: Engaging in video games for extended periods can lead to a state where the gamer feels as if they are part of the virtual world, losing awareness of their physical environment.
- Hyperfocus on a Task: When deeply concentrating on a particular task, such as painting or coding, one might become oblivious to what is happening around them, losing sense of time and space.
- Watching Movies or TV Shows: Becoming so engrossed in a film or show that one feels as though they are part of the story, momentarily forgetting their own reality.
- Running or Exercising: Some people experience a ‘runner’s high’ where they feel detached from their physical sensations and surroundings, often described as being ‘in the zone.’
- Intense Book Reading: Similar to reading, but specifically when deeply engaged in a non-fiction book, one may become so absorbed in the content that they are momentarily oblivious to their surroundings.
- Meditative States: In deep meditation, individuals might experience a sense of detachment from their body and the physical world, feeling as though they are observing their thoughts from outside themselves.
- Emotional Overwhelm: In moments of extreme emotional distress, a person might temporarily ‘shut down,’ feeling detached from the situation and their emotions.
- Intense Creative Flow: Artists or writers may enter a state of ‘flow’ where they are so deeply engaged in their creative process that they lose track of time and their immediate environment.
- Staring into Space: Sometimes, without any specific trigger, an individual might find themselves staring blankly, completely disconnected from the present moment, lost in their thoughts or in no particular thought at all.
Types of Dissociation
There are several types of dissociation, with the least sensitive likely felt by most people from time to time, and the most severe types requiring clinical intervention. Here are some of the most common types:
- Depersonalization: Depersonalization involves feeling detached from oneself, as if you’re hovering outside of yourself and observing your thoughts, emotions, and actions from a distance (Ozdemir et al., 2015). Sometimes, it feels as if those thoughts belong to someone else. The experience of depersonalization may lead a person into feeling like they are not in control of their life, actions, or even their own body.
- Derealization: In this type, individuals experience a sense that their surroundings are not real. If depersonalization is feeling like you’re viewing yourself as something foreign to you, derealization is the feeling that your reality is foreign (De Ruiter, Elzinga & Phaf, 2006). The world around you may appear distorted, dreamlike, or unreal, as if you’ve found yourself in The Land of Oz. This can manifest as difficulty in recognizing familiar places, objects, and people.
- Amnesia: Dissociative amnesia refers to the dissociation of memories, such as the inability to remember events that you personally experienced. It often occurs as a defense mechanism, where people’s minds block out traumatic events from the past (Ozdemir et al., 2015). Dissociative amnesia can be selective, localized, or generalized, and manifests differently in different people.
- Identity confusion: Identity confusion occurs when a person loses their sense of their core identity, and may for example represent difficulty in defining your core values, beliefs, or preferences. People with identity confusion struggle to maintain a consistent sense of self over time (De Ruiter, Elzinga & Phaf, 2006).
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Non-Pathological Dissociation
For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the term “dissociation” is of what was once called multiple personality disorder. This is when a person has distinct personalities that are activated in different situations.
This term is no longer used, and non-pathological dissociation is a far more common experience in a vast majority of the population.
An informal definition of non-pathological dissociation is:
“a change in the state of consciousness that is not induced organically, does not occur as part of a psychiatric disorder, and involves the temporary alteration or separation of what are normally experienced as integrated mental processes” (Butler, 2006, p. 45).
This form of dissociation is quite common and experienced while engaged in a wide range of activities such as writing a manuscript or engrossed in a recreational activity.
In fact, this phenomenon can be quite productive, as it “reduces the potential for distraction, increases the allocation of necessary cognitive resources, and allows for full engagement with the attentional object” (p. 48).
2. The Fantasy-Prone Personality Type
Believe it or not, but people spend almost as much time daydreaming as they do thinking about what is happening around them (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).
Daydreaming, or mind-wandering as it is called in the research literature, is a form of dissociation that is part of everyday life.
Like many other aspects of personality, there are individual differences in mind-wandering. Wilson and Barber (1983) were the first to coin the term “fantasy prone personality.”
This personality construct is defined as:
“a personality trait characterized by the tendency to engage in fantasy and imaginary activity more often and with greater vividness than the average person” (Duarte et al., 2021, p. 1).
The fantasy prone personality is assessed using the Creative Experiences Questionnaire (Merckelbach et al., 2001), which consists of 25 questions about typical daily experiences
Sample questions include:
- “I spend more than half the day (daytime) fantasizing or daydreaming” and
- “When I think of something cold, I actually get cold.”
Fantasy thinking has been linked to problem-solving, relieving boredom, creative endeavors, and emotional regulation (Duarte et al., 2021).
3. High-Level Meditators and Altered State Of Consciousness
Dissociation occurs during fantasy or cognitive absorption in a task. But recent research examining the brain waves of meditators has revealed a different form of dissociation that, according to Daniel Goleman, “is unlike science has ever seen before.”
In the above video, Goleman describes the research of colleague and neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin.
The research involved flying “Olympic level” meditators from Nepal and India to Davidson’s research lab.
While these meditators were participating in the research protocol, their brain waves were being measured in real-time. The results revealed that their brains exhibited a very specific type of brain wave called a gamma wave.
Although everyone may exhibit a gamma wave for a split-second, for example while solving a particularly vexing problem, the high-level meditators experienced it as a prolonged state of consciousness.
As Goleman states, “their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time, as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing.” When asked to verbally describe this altered state of consciousness, “there’s really no vocabulary that captures what that might be.”
4. Dissociation and Cognitive Functions
More severe symptoms of dissociation are usually associated with traumatic events. These experiences may disrupt normal cognitive processes related to attention and memory.
Özdemir et al. (2015) examined dissociation and cognitive functioning in 60 healthy research participants. Several measures of memory, verbal skills, attention, and dissociation were administered.
The results showed:
“…that greater levels of dissociation were significantly associated with worse performance in the verbal memory, delayed recall, general memory, and long-term memory indicators…but not attention” (p. 38).
The researchers explain the results as being consistent with other research which “suggest that dissociative experiences can block…cognitive integration of experiences and the inability to build connections between information processes are manifested as memory lapses” (p. 38).
Going to the movies is a great way to escape reality, reduce stress, and experience an alternate reality. If these experiences were extreme enough, it could approach a degree of dissociation that borders pathology. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen and the movie experience is typically joyful, and harmless.
Even so, most movie directors strive to create an experience with so much impact that it seems like an alternate reality. Although they may not use the term, the ultimate goal is for the audience to have a dissociative experience.
As technology advances and the cinematic experience evolves, this may happen sooner rather than later. Since the very earliest days of cinema, technology has progressed to affect as many sensory modalities in the audience as possible.
Dolby Cinema uses EEG to study which scenes create the most feelings, and lasers are used in theatres themselves to enhance the audience experience. Not to be left behind, live theatre is also embracing technology to create immersive experiences for the audience on a scale like never seen before.
Dissociation is a separation of consciousness from memory, sensations and other cognitive processes. It exists on a continuum of experience that ranges from mild instances of daydreaming, to pathological out-of-body experiences.
Nearly every person spends almost as much time in a dissociative experience as they do in reality. Driving to a well-known destination, daydreaming, and being fully immersed in a cognitively demanding task are examples of non-pathological dissociation.
At the other end of the continuum, it may result in extreme distortions of reality that involve visual impairment or flashbacks.
People that are fantasy prone are more likely to experience dissociation, while Olympic level meditators may have a kind of dissociative experience that currently defies verbal description.
Butler, L. D. (2006). Normative dissociation. Psychiatric Clinics, 29(1), 45-62.
De Ruiter, M. B., Elzinga, B. M. & Phaf, R. H. (2006). Dissociation: Cognitive capacity or dysfunction? Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 7, 115–134
Duarte, B. A., Joseph, A. L. C., Falcone, G., & Jerram, M. (2021). From daydreaming to dissociation: An exploratory study on the role of thought suppression and dissociation in fantasy prone individuals. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932–932. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1192439
Merckelbach, H., Horselenberg, R., & Muris, P. (2001). The Creative Experiences Questionnaire (CEQ): A brief self-report measure of fantasy proneness. Personality and Individual Differences, 31(6), 987–995.
Wilson, S. C., & Barber, T. X. (1983). The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis and parapsychological phenomena. In A. A. Sheikh (Ed.), Imagery: Current theory, research and application (pp. 340–387). Wiley.
Ozdemir, O., Guzel Ozdemir, P., Boysan, M., & Yilmaz, E. (2015). The relationships between dissociation, attention, and memory dysfunction. Noro Psikiyatri Arsivi, 52(1), 36–41. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5352997/