In its adaptive form, dissociation is a transient division of consciousness, as if the mind were a mother cell capable of undergoing a transient, mitotic phase of consciousness. This dissociation results in two daughter cells that are capable of parallel processing. One is governed by the conscious ego, the other by automatic or autonomous programs. Adaptive forms are rare, mild or transient divisions that offer panoramic memory, clarity of the senses and mind and serve as a coping mechanism for stress, allowing one to function.

Paradoxically, the most typical forms of dissociation are triggered by association, the more intense the absorptive focus on the target the greater the corresponding decrease in peripheral awareness by means of dissociation. Take daydreaming while driving: consciousness has to separate into parallel processors with one part running on automatic programs and driving the car while the other becomes involved in imagination. Same thing with reading a book, watching a movie, or gazing a bit too intensely at a hot girl. At the more extreme end we have flow states, peak experiences and mystical experiences. All of these experiences are common and transient examples of dissociation due to association.

The function of dissociation does not require association, however, as one may experience when dissociative capacities are triggered during transient traumatic experiences or high stress circumstances. Active awareness need not pull itself away but may merely push itself back into Witness consciousness as autopilot programs pick up the slack.

While in mild states the dissociated daughter cell is automatic, in more extreme states autonomous, and in the most severe states an alternate personalities or “alter” develops. Chronic, enduring, or severe division brings on “brain fog” and distortions for the conscious ego, amnesia and flashbacks, and serves instead to produce of exacerbate stress or dysfunction. The more extreme, chronic, or enduring the stressful experience that triggered the dissociation, the more compartmentalized the dissociated aspect of consciousness.

Typically there is a distinction made between an individual dissociating from their sense of reality and an individual dissociating from their sense of self. Essentially anything sensed as exterior to the skin that is dissociated is a case of derealization (DR) or distancing from sensory reality; anything at the level of the skin or “deeper” (cognition, emotion, behavior, memory and/or identity, in other words) is considered depersonalization (DP) or distancing from one’s sense of self. Ultimately DP/DR seem to be convenient though arbitrary categories of dissociation, as they not only frequently operate in tandem but also go solo, and in either case often partially opposed to completely.

A side effect of maladaptive dissociation in DR/DP is what is conversion, a psychological function that acts as a means of discharging chronically dissociated emotions in an alternate manifestation. As the pressure of compartmentalized emotions (such as anxiety) increases, conversion offers a release valve by “converting” those emotions into consciously experienced physical symptoms such as numbing, blindness, seizures or paralysis.