Derealization (DR) is sensory distortion — when familiar people, places and things in the world of the senses are experienced as being distorted, distant, foreign or unreal.
The experience of finding a close friend or family member unfamiliar or seeing them as an imposter, for instance, may be a dissociation between your sensory perception of that person and the emotions typically associated with him or her. You can see them clearly and you know who they are (or at least should be), but it doesn’t feel as if its really them, or they may not even feel real at all. The same would appear to be true with familiar places and objects that are suddenly foreign to a person.
The sensory field itself can also be dissociated from consciousness in whole or in part, giving rise to witness consciousness, pareidolia, negative hallucinations and positive hallucinations.
Witness consciousness involves the sense that you are a passive witness, watching reality from a distance. As sensory distortion increases, the mind struggles to make sense out of this perceptual chaos and pull the signal from the noise. Depending on the amount of noise, there are various degrees of projection that come into play in our perceptions.
The mildest is known as pareidolia, which could be defined as perceiving something that is there as something other than what it actually is. In the struggle to interpret vague, ambiguous sensory data, the unconscious imposes its own structure. We see faces and figures in clouds and stains and ink blots on cards. In such cases we usually know that the cloud is not really a puppy, of course, but in other cases we indeed mistake pareidolia for actuality.
We are sure we hear voices in the static, in the hum of the fan, in the record played backward. We see someone walking towards us from some distance away, convinced is a friend of ours — only to discover upon closer proximity that it is in actuality a stranger.
Mildly more vivid, perhaps, were also the “face-phasing” instances I’ve written of previously. The majority of instances of this face-phasing are relatively mild illusions that always seemed to occur with girls, and in all cases save for one they were women I was sexually and romantically attracted to. In that one case I was speaking in front of my class during my senior year of high school, in the midst of an anxiety attack, I looked at a girl I had gone to school with for years and her face seemed strangely different somehow. In the other cases the face of a girl I am currently interested in momentarily morphs into the face of a girl I was interested in at some prior point. Be it anxiety or sexual desire, it would appear that a common feature for this face-morphing is intense emotion.
Aside from pareidolia, other illusions occur during DR such as a change in the color intensity of objects, a sudden change in lighting. On various occasions my field of vision has gotten suddenly brighter, clearer, colors more brilliant and on others everything has had this dim, intense kind of overcast to it. This happens to me quite often, as a matter of fact.
I have yet to hear anything akin to an episode I had on two occasions in which my field of vision abruptly and temporarily took on photonegative qualities. The first occasion was on December 25, 2002, upon reconnection with my physical body proceeding a rather intense out of body experience. It was the only occasion in which I returned to my body after an OBE to find my eyes to be already open. The other occasion was shortly after breaking up with my girlfriend in 2005 (I think) when one of my roommates at the time, Nick — also my current roommate — took me for a drive in his new car. We were at some parking lot when I seemed to slip away for a moment, only to realize my vision was in photonegative.
In DR, it is said that objects may even appear to change in size or shape, though Steinberg notes that this typically only occurs in severe derealization, typically signs of a dissociative disorder. In other face-phasing cases, women I have been interested in have suddenly appeared incredibly ugly, as if all their faults (always the face) are suddenly highlighted and magnified in such a way that it inspires the most overwhelming sense of revulsion in me towards them.
As the distortion of DR intensifies, the mind keeps up the struggle to procure some semblance of coherence from the breakdown despite having a decreasing amount of hints keeping it hinged to and guided by objective data. Illusions give way to either total or selective hallucinatory phenomena on the sensory field. These can come in either the form of negative or positive hallucinations.
Negative hallucinations occur during hypnosis and its parallel, once known as hysterical blindness and now part of what is known as conversion disorder, is thought by many to be a dissociative disorder. In essence, conversion appears to selectively dissociate sensory data without filling the gap with compensatory material. You can look directly at something, for instance, and not see it.
In September of 2002 I had an experience that, in the half hour that it lasted, had me convinced I was going blind. I think I remember seeing a bright flash while in the kitchen at work, then a purplish blob like an afterimage. And then a blob slowly began growing in my peripheral vision, growing up and over, closing in on my focal point. As it grew it revealed triangular cells in its blurry form which began shimmering in rainbow colors. Eventually, after half an hour of terror, it stopped.
Though I had no idea what they were at the time, after a few more episodes I did some Internet research. In the end, it seemed clear to me that I was seeing “scintillating scotoma,” a common component of a migraine aura. It seemed equally clear to me that this must be what is known as an Acephalgic migraine, basically a rendition of the migraine auras my mother saw, only of considerably shorter duration and strangely void of the excruciating headache she experienced throughout the ordeal.
My mother’s migraine auras would play over the excruciating headache like a recording, a program that played the same way each and every time she had the experience. My own, on the other hand, have changed.
On one occasion I even managed to will them away through relaxing meditation and distraction. The meditation suggested, in the very least, that fear of the experience exacerbated the experience and relaxation broke the self-reinforcing feedback loop.
The blurs have also changed. The most recent instance of the blurs occurred early morning on Friday, June 15th of 2013, while I was at the tail end of third shift at my fast food job. All the visual contained was a serpentine blur that began just around my point of focus and then grew larger over the course of half an hour. More interesting than its placement was that the serpentine blur was rounded — it was eating its own tail, a symbol I know too well to be the orobouros.
My mother never found what caused her migraines, but she mentioned to me that she did not even prefer to talk about them, as when she does she often has one of the migraines shortly thereafter. All of this seemed to suggest it was psychosomatic.
Rather than a migraine of any type, this instead sounds much like what has been called hysterical blindness, and which now falls beneath the broader heading of conversion — specifically, converting dissociated emotions into hysterical blindness through the spread of the serpentine scintillating scotoma.
The most disturbing episode of the blurs was one that I “awoke” in the midst of, and when it was at such a peak that it entirely encompassed my field of vision. It occurred in November of 2002. The blur field was pure visual distortion, but I felt tactile things vaguely if I concentrated enough, though never exactly getting my bearings. Were these mere projections?
In any case, it left me considering the possibility that the blurs might act as a form of negative hallucination that provides a canvas for positive hallucinations — a subject I’ll ramble about when I write on depersonalization.
There is also the apparent selectivity of these psychological blurs and blinders to consider, however. In the kitchen at work in 2003, right before I was about to move out of my parent’s house for the last time, the blurs struck again. It began as a negative hallucination that blotted out the bottom half of a guy’s face (who’s lack of teeth I was trying to avoid looking at) and then devolved into the typical experience of the blurs.
The meaningful selectivity of the blurs in this instance and how they can evidently act as a negative hallucination makes me wonder if it also plays a role in other “perceptual anomalies” I’ve had — those that would certainly constitute positive hallucinations.
Positive Hallucinations, if you have yet to guess, are when you see something that is not there at all — something that may or may not be acting as a screen or masque concealing or replacing something that is indeed truly there.
In the laundry room in the back of the house my parents used to have a chest freezer. My parents slaughtered chicken occasionally and bought some stuff in bulk, so this was where you went when gazing at the contents of the fridge and freezer in the kitchen didn’t inspire the ol’ reach-and-grab.
One evening in maybe seventh grade or so I go in the back, lift the cabinet freezer door. As my eyes scan the contents, I suddenly see something that struck me as disgusting. Within a sealed freezer bag sprinkled with frost I swear I saw a full rabbit, dead, stripped if hair, its eyes closed and its ears swung back.
We have eaten rabbits before and it always bothered me, as most if them were pets and my mother once had around a hundred of them. I had always assumed that as with the chickens, they decapitated the rabbit.
It was not until some time later that something reminded me and I casually brought it up with my mother, who was disgusted by what she clearly took to be an absurd story, and even seemed to feel insulted about it. I cannot say for confidence that it was there, but I know I saw it clear as day just the same.
There are also two instances in which the face-phasing of pareidolia was juiced up to the level of a selective positive hallucination. Both involved mirrors and both were interesting in their own right.
There are quite a few things, for instance, which still plague me about the experience I had as my parents drove me home from the hypnosis session that eve of April 27, 1995. Looking into the rearview mirror from the back seat of the van I saw, in place of my father’s face the face of a Gray alien with wrap-around, almond shaped eyes. The skin or exoskeleton was not gray, however, nor were the eyes black. Both were of an iridescent, phosphorescent purple-blue color.
I’m forced to consider the realistic appearance of the alien reflection, the unearthly color, the way it would apparently need to fall into perfect synchrony with the movements of the true reflection it obscured. How consistent it was over the course of the ride home, how I did reality checks and everything else seemed to be normal, but as soon as I look in the rearview mirror on the dash, well, its all over. For there I see the reflection of a neon blue-purple alien in place of my father. Beside him in the passenger is my mother and they are talking. I have a funny feeling she would have noticed an abrupt shapeshifting in her husband of so many years. There is clearly no denying it was a hallucination.
Nor that the other event was a hallucination as well if not merely a vivid childhood dream. With that said, it did not seem like a memory of a dream but of a real instance. It was vivid and sensory rich, taking place from the viewpoint of a fixed first person position, and it began as abruptly as it ended.
I was in the bathroom at the old house looking into the mirror, perplexed because something I couldn’t put my finger on seemed off about my reflection. Soon enough it became clear that the issue was my eyes: they were growing larger and increasingly slanted.
My mouth hung open in amazement and in effort to confirm it was not merely my reflection but my actual face, I reached up my hand, watching its reflection move in perfect correspondence on its way up to my large, slanted, unblinking alien eye. Then I let two finger touch and slide across the skin on my eye.
If not a sensory-rich dream, this experience appears to represent DR/DP correspondence so complete that I watched myself with alien-shaped eyes in the mirror as I felt the slick, rubbery surface.