Efectul alienant al asimilării unei false identităţi induse de realitatea virtuală

 The alienating effect of assimilating false identities induced by virtual reality

First published: 18 aprilie 2021

Editorial Group: MEDICHUB MEDIA

DOI: 10.26416/Psih.65.2.2021.4988


Self-awareness implies a self-referentiality that accompanies any event carried out in the waking state and is a condition for the regulation of human behaviour. The key elements in the evolution of self-consciousness and subjectivation are the processes of symbolization and identification which allow the gradual shaping of an identity. In the last decade, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, in all social fields there has been a general reorientation from reality to virtual reality, with consequences for the normal process of the identity development. Vulnerable categories, such as children and mentally ill people, are strongly influenced by this shift, with a change in the psychiatric phenomenology.

identification, virtual reality, psychiatric phenomenology


Conştiinţa de sine implică o autoreferenţialitate care însoţeşte orice eveniment desfăşurat în stare de veghe şi este o condiţie pentru reglarea comportamentului uman. Elementele-cheie în evoluţia constiinţei de sine şi a subiectivării sunt procesele de simbolizare şi de identificare, care permit modelarea treptată a unei identităţi. În ultimul deceniu, şi în mod particular în timpul pandemiei de COVID-19, în toate domeniile sociale s-a produs o reorientare generală de la realitate spre realitate virtuală, cu consecinţe asupra procesului normal de dezvoltare a identităţii. Categoriile vulnerabile, precum copiii şi bolnavii cu tulburări mintale, sunt intens influenţate de această schimbare, care implică şi o modificare a fenomenologiei psihiatrice.

Noesis (from Greek noēsis = thought; related to noein = to think) represents in the common language the “cognition especially when occurring through direct knowledge”(1) and in philosophy “the subjective aspect of the act in an intentional experience”(2). In other words, noesis implies not only an accessible and immediate knowledge correlated with the perception and the events that take place, but a subjective and symbolic participation.

In classical psychology, noesis constitutes the mental process used in thinking and perceiving, the function of the intellect(3), but in recent theoretical and applied neurocognitive psychology, the subjective dimension of consciousness is taken into consideration. Self-awareness implies a self-referentiality that accompanies any event carried out in the waking state and is a condition for the regulation of human behaviour (metacognition). In the development of a person, we have in view three dimensions of self-reference or positions towards ourselves and the world that lead to the possibility of acquiring self-aware consciousness: anoetic, noetic and autonoetic consciousness(4).

Before the acquirement of language, the anoetic consciousness is present, which implies a fundamental perceptual-affective flow, which translates into the impression that something is lived in the first person. Gradually, the noetic consciousness, based on knowledge and concepts, develops and will incorporate a growing range of experiences, involving learning and memory. This ensures a reflexive, coherent and structured understanding of the world, continuous in time and space, allowing projection into the future – the autonoetic consciousness. In other words, in the prelinguistic stage of childhood, the world is received without conceptual references, with a predominant affective-bodily involvement. Later in life, everyday experiences take place with the implication of the noetic and autonoetic consciousness, but along with them there will be further involved the anoetic consciousness of phenomena(5,6).

A key element in the evolution of self-consciousness from the anoetic to the noetic and the autonoetic is symbolization. Symbolization permits us, through its involvement in the elaboration of concepts, to have common references at a given time and in a given context and facilitates the understanding of the intentions of others by appealing to a common language. Through symbolization we can, in interactions with others, flexibly and appropriately assign multiple and varied meanings to objects, situations, behaviours and words. Everyday interpersonal relationships are therefore symbolically mediated(7). When we face another person, we resort to perception, thinking and the integration of information in a symbolic way. It is always beyond what is seen, felt or thought, and one will never be able to unfold in a precise and exact narrative what the other is conveying to him.

In the process of human subjectivation, symbolization mediates the gradual shaping of an identity. This will be fashioned in relation with others, by incorporating the models, values and ethical options that are provided.

The psychological process by which an individual assimilates a property or attribute of another, and is partially or totally transformed by the offered model is called identification.

The identification process is facilitated by the daily social interactions, the diverse activities and various life context in which all assumed roles constitute as many natural, temporary and partially consciously traversed identifications.

In the last decade, a general reorientation from reality to virtual reality has been noticed, with consequences for the normal process of identity development. The influence of primary groups (family, friends) and secondary groups (school, religion, government, institutions) has been reduced and the mass media influence has increased extensively and intensively. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has also significantly modified our lives and social interactions by distorting them and supplementary restricting them to virtuality.

The majority of role models are first and foremost accessible through media technologies: internet media, television, video games and other mass communication means(8). Identification is a central concept in the entertainment productions, and the entire virtual environment (film productions, social media, TV shows, video games, social networks) resorts to this process.

Entertainment was defined as a process which “involves exploring relationships through simulations that allow individuals to identify with substitute agents and thus create the subjective experience of relationships” (Vorderer, Steen and Chan, 2006)(9).

According to Jonathan Cohen(10) (expert in mass communication and entertainment psychology), in the entertainment industry, identification resorts to several dimensions:

Emotional empathy – the ability to feel what the characters feel.

Cognitive empathy – adopting the point of view or putting themselves in the place of the characters.

Sharing or internalizing the purpose of the characters.

Character absorption – the imaginary processing of the story as if the subject was one of the characters, in which self-awareness becomes blurred, doubled by the sensation of becoming the character.

There is a “takeover of the character’s identity by proximity between the audience and the narrative” – a short circuit that leads to diminished criticism and ability to argue the narrative that transports the audience in the imaginary context, intensely emotionally coloured.  Consequently, there is a marked influence on the audience’s cognitive interpretation and attitudes(11).

Vulnerable people are particularly affected by this reorientation from ordinary reality to virtual reality. Children and young people, looking for opportunities of identification for shaping a self and also patients with mental ilnesses, are included in this category. Several examples can be used in order to illustrate this shift in the process of subjectivation in adolescents and young adults.

Hallyu or K-POP is a Korean pop cultural trend involving music, entertainement and aestethic preferences. Supported and promoted initially to improve the image of people in East Asia and to change the stereotypes of their perception by westerners (UK, USA), it had a strong impact among adolescents around the world.

There are some key elements that characterize the stars who promote this movement and also the followers who are sometimes prone to cross the fine line between being a fan and fanaticism(12):

  • It promotes a lifestyle including clothing, makeup, hairstyle and attitudes.

  • There is a focus on physical appearance requiring aesthetic perfection.

  • It has a strong emotional impact by resorting to the relationship between music and affectivity.

  • It enhances the feeling of belonging to a group, promoting social connection and elevating self-esteem.

This idealized social role model did not last very long and, in time, gradually, the image of perfection presented by the K-POP idols deteriorated and revealed one with marked tendency to mental instability:  “The depression slowly chipped away at me, finally devouring me” (Kim Jong-Hyun, lead singer of the SHINee group). The suicide of some K-pop stars had a great influence over Korean teenagers and led through contagion to an increase in suicidal tendencies in this population(13) .

For the mentally vulnerable, the influence of virtual reality is even greater. Their balance and well-being are based in part on compensating for the inner deficit as a subject with external elements: the daily routine of activities, a supportive family which is constantly and consistently present, the lack of ambiguity of behaviour and intentions of others with gestures that can be easily anticipated and managed.

During the pandemic, the social isolation, the lack of real interactions and contingent identifications, with the predominance of virtual stimuli and reduced offer of normal identification opportunities, constitute serious challenges for the fragile structure of the psychotic. He finds himself partially deprived of the reassuring presence of others (friends, colleagues) and the daily structure that functions as a kind of exoskeleton that gives unity, rhythm and meaning to their lives.

Some other elements contribute to a change in the phenomenological appearance of the psychopathology. Wearing a mask is necessary and protects our physical health, but it comes with some collateral effects. It offers to the individuals with social anxiety a sense of being protected, of not being exposed, but in the same time it has an alienation effect. The facial expression is essential in the interpersonal relationships, especially the microexpressions that convey almost instantly the mood of the interlocutor, in an often unexplained and untranslated (in words) way. For the persons with a risk for psychosis, not having access to this nondeclared source of information enhances the anguish. People are more difficult to read, they no longer have a face, therefore they are less determined as individuals and this lack of evidence on what they are and about their intentions can be intensely distressing for the weakly subjectivated structure of the schizophrenic. For example, many patients with paranoid psychosis declare that the most frightening presence is that of a faceless or disfigured man/woman, an aspect already speculated by the horror film productions.

In the clinical practice, an increase in the number of psychotic decompensations has been noticed, and also a change in the particularities of the hallucinatory-delusional profile.

In this empirical perspective, the case of a young teenager is illustrative: she presented depressed mood, apathy, visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions, social isolation, self-harming behaviours and suicidal ideation. She stated that she often feels a presence next to her, that there is someone else in the room, for example people on the walls, clowns by the bed or a massive, faceless man behind the sofa who might grab and suffocate her. She has only virtual friends and has not yet decided on her sexual orientation. She spends most of her time alone at home, watching TV shows or browsing the internet. When asked about her favourite characters, she chose “Marceline” and “BMO” (from the children TV series “Adventure time”) and added that she hated frightening female characters like Annabelle, Momo and others from contemporary “urban legends” – for example, a woman with a disfigured face who asks you if she is beautiful, and regardless of the answer she would kill you.

Let’s see a short description of her preferred characters(14):

  • BMO (Be Moore) is a living video game console. He pretends to have no emotions and often exhibits ambivalent, bizarre behaviours – “BMO does weird junk when no one is around”. He interacts with his own reflection in the mirror, he pretends to be a “little boy”, develops games in which he dialogues with other inanimate beings around him and is described as having a dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) or at least an excess of imagination.

  • Another character – “Marceline the Vampire Queen” declares: “I’m not mean. I’m a thousand years old, and I just lost track of my moral code”. She is half demon, half woman. She occasionally feeds on blood and needs the colour red to survive. She is in a romantic relationship with Princess Bubblegum, and was the former lover of the magician Ash. She has the demonic power to absorb souls and is intensely emotional.

The question that arises is to what extent the vulnerability/pathology determines the preferences for some types of character or vice versa – the perspective proposed by these ambiguous characters and situations imprints the personal understanding of the world and the clinical picture. Most likely, the two conditions coexist, they occur only in relation, by the integration of both perspectives.

The virtual environment has a great influence, and the benign, quotidian identifications are being replaced by virtual, ambivalent and ethically confusing ones, not recognizing or transgressing the limits of sexual orientation, gender identity or even those of belonging to a species or category of objects.

The offer of virtual surrogates for real relationships and people is handy, vast, but especially in a scopic imaginary-affective plan that does not pose symbolic problems. Rather, it proposes preformed solutions that directly shape the behaviour and cognition and, consequently, close the individual’s mental horizon. The identification with already modeled characters who do not even need to be represented subjectively (as in reading) does not favor the structuring of an identity. The problem of subjectivation no longer needs to be solved, it is bypassed by an easy and pleasant identification, comfortable and apparently modern-sophisticated. But the price is precisely this deficit in the symbolic dimension, the fragile consistency of a subject that will not generalize what is unilaterally learned by accessing media technologies.   


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