John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created July 96, revised April 99 (v1.2)
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The great Zen master Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he asked himself, "Am I a man who just dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly who now dreams about being a man?"
You sit almost motionless, relaxed, your eyes focused on a glowing screen - the only source of light in an otherwise dark room. Your fingers tap lightly as your mind converges on the words and images that float before you. At times it seems like there is no difference between your thoughts and those images. At times it seems the distinction between inner and outer worlds almost disappears. At times, time itself evaporates. You are a computer user immersed in cyberspace. All melts into a new reality that transcends the rules of conventional reality. Like a Zen master in meditation, you have become one with with the virtual universe.
OK... This is not the typical, everyday scenario for the computer user. Most of the time we just hack away at the keyboard to get something done, without slipping into transcendent consciousness. But many experienced computer users can recall moments like this. Cyberspace is indeed an extension of the mind, which means it can extend all facets of mental life - including hypnotic reveries and other altered states of awareness. Under the right conditions, cyberspace becomes a dream world, not unlike the world which emerges when we sink into sleep.
This doesn't mean that these virtual experiences should be dismissed as whimsical mental meanderings with no value or purpose. Quite the contrary. Psychology clearly has established the necessity of nocturnal dreams for maintaining emotional health and promoting personal growth. The same may be true of virtual dreaming. Cyberspace is not simply an "information super-highway," It can offer the human psyche much more than facts. Virtual space can flex the boundaries of conscious and unconscious realities. It can tell us something about the meaning of "real."
In this article I'd like to explore the parallels between cyberspace and altered states of consciousness, especially the states of mind that surface in dreams. Some of these ideas may apply to a variety of environments on the internet, especially MOOs, MUDs, and other virtual "worlds." I will focus specifically on the Palace - a graphical chat environment where people use icons (avatars) to represent themselves while socializing with other users in visual scenes, including indoor rooms and outside settings (see Life at the Palace). While some of the dreamlike qualities of Palace can be found in other virtual worlds, several of its dreamy features are quite unique. Most important of all, the Palace, like dreams, is so captivating because it is a highly visual experience. As the old saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words. Visual experiences are psychologically RICH. Images and symbols are the language of the unconscious.
Facets of Dreaming in CyberspacePsychology has mapped out many of the mental components of dreams and other altered states. Psychoanalytic theorists place them under the label of "primary process." Primary process is a style of thinking and experiencing that is quite different than normal waking states of consciousness (called "secondary process"). It defies conventional rules of time, space, and logic. It zooms in on subjective meaning and emotion rather than toeing the line of "objective" or "rational" truth. It's a primordial, magical type of thinking that usually remains unconscious, but can surface to fuel creativity, mysticism, and psychosis. Many of these facets of dream-like primary process can be found at the Palace.
In dreams, the conventional rules of space do not apply. The dreamer can rapidly shift from one scenario to another without having to travel any ground. The only sense of "distance" or "place" that has meaning is PSYCHOLOGICAL distance and place. Also, the restrictions of gravity and everyday physics may disappear. One can float, bounce, fly in patterns that would make Newton's eyes cross.
So too in cyberspace the user can transcend the laws of space and physics. One simply has to click on a button to be transported from one location to another. There is no swinging of feet or turning of wheels to confirm that one has moved. It is a change in the visual/psychological context that indicates transportation. In imaginary virtual worlds. a "goto" command magically shuttles the person from one room or location to another. At the Palace, one also can move from place to place by simply clicking on a doorway, a window or a picture on the wall. You immediately transcend visual space, even "pass through walls" and... POOF! You are there, materializing in the room of your choice, as if you just enjoyed the convenience of an Enterprise transporter. The fact that one can click on objects in rooms to trigger this transportation also lends a symbolic magical power to the object, just as objects in dreams wield symbolic power. They are portals to a new place with new meanings. Whenever I click on the rectangular stone monument standing at the center of the "Slabs," I think of the mystical Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unlike text-only virtual worlds, the highly visual Palace adds the opportunity to violate gravity and physics. Your avatar can float in mid-air, teeter impossibly on the edge of someone's shoulder, hang upside down from the ceiling. Jim Bumgardner, the creator of Palace, wove such gravity-defying features into Palace for both technical and psychological reasons.Simulating real world physics required more programming and system horsepower. Users also disliked the restrictions. "Early attempts by myself to create real world constraints," Bumgardner stated, "such as limiting a person's movement to the floor area of the room, were quickly removed, because they were perceived by myself and the other users as unnecessary obstacles... There is no attempt to mimic real world physics in the Palace. As far as I am concerned, physics basically present obstacles, and I wanted to create a world with few obstacles."
As in dreams, the Palace's suspension of the laws of physics and space satisfies conscious and unconscious fantasies of magic, omnipotence, and defiance. But at times members also take great pleasure in conforming to these laws. With "positional avatars" users do such things as sit themselves into chairs and bathe in the spa pool. They enjoy the option to play with the loose virtual boundary between physical law and improbable movement. It's a marvelous balancing act between the real/mundane and the surreal/magical. Like Merlin, they have the power to use or bend, at will, the laws of nature.
You can't create something out of nothing.
Well, that principle doesn't hold true in the world of dreams. People and things appear out of nowhere. They change shape and size with little regard for the physical laws of conservation. And when they have served their purpose, they fizzle out and recede into nothing. This feature of spontaneous generation in dreams may be a derivative of how we generally experience the unconscious. Whenever the unconscious manifests itself - as in creative inspiration or psychotic (including drug-induced) experiences - its symbols and sensations just "pop up" from nowhere, as if springing from the head of Zeus. In fact, classic myths, being vehicles for expressing universal patterns of unconscious thought, are filled with examples of spontaneous generation.
Some virtual worlds are based on a token or monetary system. You have to earn or win these tokens in order to use them to create (buy) new objects, rooms, and avatars. It's a world that adheres to the rational laws of economics, materialism, and physics.
The Palace, on the other hand, allows spontaneous generation. New objects (props) can be created out of nothing. To your hearts content, you can duplicate a can of Pepsi, a bouquet of flowers, or Tom Cruise's face over and over again, filling the entire room, if you so wish. With paint brushes, you can draw whatever you like on the rooms. And with the simple incantation "clean" you can sweep all of it away and start anew. There is no cost, no price to pay, no bartering. It's even better than alchemic magic. Like the ability to transcend space and gravity, it creates a feeling of freedom and omnipotence.
In the unconscious, time is irrelevant. A personal experience dozens of years old may remain as pristine and new as the day it happened. That moment remains frozen in time. In dreams, it may surface in derivative symbols and images that feel as real as real life. The dream may transpose and blend the past, the present, and expectations about the future. Time is not a linear march of static moments, but flexible stuff to be manipulated for the purpose of expressing psychological meaning.
In cyberspace, one's time frame can be suspended, blended with other people's time frames, and, sometimes, even negated.
Despite the fact that Palatians usually complain about lag, it is a fascinating suspension of time. The whole scene freezes before your very eyes. People mostly experience this as a frustrating restriction on their ability to talk and maneuver, not unlike the familiar paralysis nightmares where your legs become sluggish or stuck in mud despite your desperate efforts to run. But in these nightmares your mind may remain active - and in cyberspace lag your mind always remains active. As in a episode from the Twilight Zone, this suspension of the moment may prove to be a unique opportunity. It affords you precious seconds or minutes to decide what you will say or do next. In some situations, that temporal bonus may come in very handy. Don't you sometimes wish you could freeze time in real life?
How we think, feel, and behave is partly determined by the circadian rhythms of our daily routine. How a group thinks, feels, and behaves is determined by the collective summing of these individual states of consciousness. You and your peers, for example, are not exactly the same at 8:30 am when you arrive for work as you are at midnight working overtime. The group moods, attitudes, and topics of discussion shift. In cyberspace, people arrive from different time zones. People's "heads" may be in very different places in their circadian cycle. Cyberspace blends these various individual states of consciousness into a collective group-consciousness that transcends time.
Have you ever intended to go online for just 15 minutes or so, but end up being there for hours? People say "I lost track of the time." They become totally absorbed in what they are doing. They become immersed in the moment - an "eternal" space that lies beyond time. This phenomenon is by no means unique to cyberspace. People become absorbed in all sorts of activities - especially creative ones. The common denominator for all these experiences is that people "lose themselves" in the activity. Individual identity yields to the timeless process of "being" - what some psychologists call "B-Cognition." As in dreams, the waking self-conscious ego (the ego locked into time) is forgotten while new dimensions of self express themselves un-self-consciously in the process of simply doing and being.
Loose Self Boundaries
In dreams one doesn't necessarily have to talk to communicate with the other dream characters. Thoughts, feelings, and intentions can be transmitted without speaking, as if the others can read your mind, and you theirs. As a matter of fact, the other characters ARE your own mind, which is why "they" can read it. Even in the waking state, the unconscious mind assumes an almost telepathic connection to other people, which developmentally dates back to early childhood when the baby assumes that parents can detect her thoughts and automatically anticipate her needs. The boundaries between self and other are loose and overlapping. In psychosis, an extreme version of this occurs when a person believes that his thoughts are being broadcasted to others, or that other's thoughts are being inserted into his mind. While this may be pathological, other examples of loose and overlapping self-boundaries are not. Empathy relies on the ability to extend one's own awareness into the zone of the other's experience. It's a blending of self and other. It's what the baby expects and needs from his parents. It's what everyone needs in order to develop psychologically and maintain a sense of emotional well-being. Our culture's fascination with ESP and science fiction "mind-melds" is partly derived from the (unconscious) recognition that this potentially empathic blending of self and other is a basic human need.
In chat and MOO environments on the internet, one usually has the ability to secretly communicate with others while in the presence of a group of users. At the Palace it's called "whispering." Palatians also can secretly communicate with people in OTHER rooms through what is called, not surprisingly, "ESPing." Whispering and ESPing can feel like a magical telepathic connection to the other, a blending of your mind with the other user. Some people may feel empowered by this special skill (another fulfillment of unconscious wishes for omnipotence). Others may expect the encounter to satisfy that basic human need for empathic support - and may be disappointed, even hurt, if that doesn't happen. Whispering to several people at the same time allows all of them into your mind at once, forcing you to divide your mind up into several separate compartments in order to carry out those distinct conversations. This multiple whispering thus requires your ability to "dissociate" (I'll say more about dissociation later).
The Palace software places the user's typed messages into balloons that pop out of one's head, similar to comic strips. One special type of balloon is the "thought balloon." As in comic strips, dots trail up to the balloon, indicating you are thinking. Essentially, you can "think out loud" - which is reminiscent of the psychotic's thought broadcasting. Thought balloons are a kind of mumbling or "half speak" where a person implicitly is saying, "I'll let you know what I'm thinking, but you don't have to respond if you don't want to, because it's ONLY a thought." It's a relatively safe way of letting down your self-boundaries and allowing people into your head.
When you signed onto Palace, there once was an automated message advising you not to treat Palace simply as a game... that there are REAL PEOPLE at the other end of those avatars. Perhaps some people indeed think of it as a video game, which is why they may act out all sorts of asocial needs on the avatars walking across their screen. But maybe there is more to it than this. Perhaps people tend NOT to think of the other real people behind those avatars because they unconsciously experience all those entities as existing within the boundaries of their own minds. If cyberspace is an extension of one's own intrapsychic world, then those little avatars may be unconsciously experienced as being INSIDE one's head, rather than as external beings with their own needs and feelings. All of us show very little hesitation in acting out all sorts of feelings onto the "people" (what some psychologists describe as "internal representations" of the significant others in our lives) that reside within our fantasy and dreams. In fact, that's the purpose of fantasy and dreams - to give us space to ventilate and (ideally) work through those feelings. When cyberspace is experienced as a blending of our minds with the virtual world, it becomes another arena to act out those feelings. Seducing, fighting, opposing, ignoring, insulting, flattering, exalting, or demeaning those little avatars may all be actions taking place (unconsciously) WITHIN the user's own fantasy world. It's only when the other user says or does something really unexpected that you are nudged, or sometimes jolted, into the realization that there *IS* another real person present - that what you had been experiencing was an unconscious blending of the virtual reality into the boundaries of your own personal reality. It's what psychoanalytic thinkers call "transference."
Identity Shifting (dissociation)
A major attraction of the Palace is the ability to create avatars to represent oneself. At will, users can switch among various icons chosen to reflect their various moods, interests, and personality characteristics. In various ways, this shape-shifting is strikingly similar to dream life. The appearance of people changes from one moment to the next, generating questions about their true motives and identity. Users are thinking and communicating in images rather than language. Often those images are highly symbolic. They are the products of the same mental processes that produce dreams - such as symbolization and the condensation of multiple meanings into one picture. Avatars portray universal human themes and ideas, similar to the dreams expression of archetypes from the collective unconscious (for a more detailed discussion, see The Psychology of Avatars and Graphical Space).
Shape-shifting gives the user some conscious control over the psychological process known as "dissociation." By switching avatars, users are expressing various components of their identity in a disconnected or disassociated fashion. It's something like having a controllable "multiple personality." Although having this ability once again satisfies that unconscious need for omnipotence (as one user said, "What could be more powerful than a shape-shifter?"), users are not always fully conscious of exactly what they are expressing about their personality via their avatars. It's the same for the dreamer. Every visual element in the dream may be a representation of some aspect of the dreamer's identity. Each character and object in the dream is a split off or dissociated component of the self - but the dreamer is not fully aware of this. At the Palace, even OTHER people's avatars become a target for projecting and expressing aspects of YOURSELF. As I described earlier, there is at times a tendency to react to other people's avatars not as an extension of their personality, but as an extension of your own thoughts and feelings (representations) about important people in your life.
Dissociation is a common phenomena in cyberspace at large. It is a well-known fact that people use the internet to express and experiment with various aspects of their identity. Some people deliberately create a specific online personality for themselves. They have some conscious control over the same kind of wish fulfillment that fuels dreams. A very lively discussion on the Palace User Group mailing list once focused on whether people have an "online" versus "real life" personality. People argued over whether this meant they were suffering from schizophrenia or a "split personality".... For most people, it's definitely NOT schizophrenia, but it IS a splitting of identity between what one usually presents to others in the physical world and what one likes to create in the cyberworld. One is not necessarily less "real" than the other. All are aspects of one's identity, although some may be hidden or unconscious aspects.
A woman consistently referred to one of her online companions as "she" when she spoke about this companion in cyberspace, and as "he" when she spoke about being with this companion in real life. Both were equally real to her. Carl Jung, a pioneer of dream interpretation, might be pleased to see that many people use cyberspace to experiment, in this somewhat dissociated fashion, the male and female components of their personality - the "anima" and "animus." For example, online gender-switching is a fairly common practice.
It's very possible that, for some cybernauts, the experimenting with alternate personalities eventually UNDOES dissociation because they begin to understand, accept, and integrate those alternate personalities into their conscious sense of self. Likewise, self-integration is the goal of many clinical approaches to exploring the various facets of one's personality that surface in dreams.
The ultimate act of dissociation is to disappear - to eliminate your own manifestation - while still remaining conscious. Lurkers know this feeling well. At the Palace, some users attempt to reduce their avatar to a single pixel and their name to a single character in order to achieve invisibility. It's like a dream in which the dreamer is only consciously, but not "physically," present in the scene. One wishes to observe the action, to take it all in, to perhaps secretly inject some influence - but without owning responsibility for any of it. It's not unlike claiming that your dream is "JUST a dream" - thereby disowning and distancing yourself from it. At the Palace, users have the ability to throw their voice by placing their text balloon in mid-air or next to someone else's avatar ("spoofing"), rather than allowing it to emanate from their own avatar. They can also blot out their name from the supplemental text log of the ongoing conversation, so there is no evidence whatsoever of their having made a comment. It's not invisibility, but it indeed is the same attempt to dissociate and disown from yourself some thought or feeling you can't stop yourself from expressing.
Dreams about Palace
Because we have been exploring the parallels between cyberspace and dreams, it makes sense to focus on dreams ABOUT cyberspace. Here I'd like to describe some dreams that users have had about the Palace. Generally speaking, you know something has activated your unconscious mind when you dream about it. For some people, the Palace may have an even higher potential to stir the unconscious because it mimics many of the qualities of dream life. As a dream-like state of consciousness, it may draw to the surface a variety of unconscious thoughts and feelings. The issues that surface may reflect the personal concerns of the user or archetypic themes that apply to us all. Dreams about Palace may even highlight phenomenological insights into the very meaning of "dream" versus "reality."
This portion of this article is best read in hypertext. The title of each dream is linked to my general comments on the dream. Links within the description of each dream lead to more specific comments about particular elements in the dreams. After reading these comments, use your browser's "back" button to return to your previous place in the article.
Because I did not talk in-depth with these people about their dreams, and in some cases do not know these dreamers very well at all, my comments on their dreams should be taken with a grain of salt. The ultimate expert on any dreamer is the dreamer him or herself.
Dream 1: Empowerment and Individuality
"My dreams on the Palace have puzzled me. I am not confined but free-floating. I have not floated since I was a child. I am always in the cloud room , though I never hang out there. I am the problem solver in my Palace-dreams, everyone coming to me like I'm a Guru or something. And I go back and forth from wearing my props to being me (my head only). To tell you the truth I think these dreams are connected to my awareness of my improved self-esteem. This is trippy stuff so let me go hog wild here. I think I am floating because that is what the Palace format dictates, but more importantly I am not afraid to enjoy my belief in myself. I need no shelters to protect me, no walls to confine me, I am not afraid I'll do something stupid. I believe I am always in the cloud room because when making a 'new' room you start with the cloud room until you change the background. I feel my dream cloud room represents the 'new' me feeling I have since I started associating with the Palace. And I am there because others enjoy me. They need my help and I know I can sooth their fears. It's funny the problems they bring to me and how open they are for my solutions. They always think I am smart and right, so I totally assume this must have to do with my new found esteem. One interesting point here, I only have my Palace dreams when in reality I am solving some political situation on the Palace."
Dream 2: Belonging and Being Understood
"I dreamed about the palace last night. I went to the PUG meeting and it lasted until midnight. I went to bed almost immediately after the end. I felt a little frustrated because they are things I wanted to say and couldn't, for many reasons, the main is because I speak Spanish and have a hard time to express myself the right way and fast... The only time I spoke, I felt people misunderstood what I meant. I must say also that I like the palace because it gives me a few seconds to put my words in order and I can read what I want to say. And I can read what others say, instead of hear it. It help me very much with my learning of English... So I went to bed frustrated last night..."
"I dreamed I was somehow in real life, facing a person I saw in the meeting of last night. But I didn't talk. Like in the palace, even if that person was in front of me, I was writing to her, telling her exactly what I wanted to say last night but much more fluidly, like in Spanish (but it was in English). And it appeared in balloons, like in the palace. You know, when I go to the palace, I have the feeling that I speak: it's a mix of speech and writing. And I feel that my English is much better than it is in real life (hehe).... That was the same feeling in my dream, but more confused though..."
"Just a quick note. I speak Spanish, like I already told you. When I go too much on the palace, I'm confused when I go back to speaking Spanish. But I never tell one word of English, orally. It takes me sometimes half an hour to get my first thought in Spanish again."
Dream 3: The Ideal Haven
"I'm a VERY active Palace dreamer, perhaps even more so since becoming a wizard (I even find myself wishing I could `gag/`pin/`mute some people in real life :-). My most frequent dream is of a "real" Palace, where avatars are actually the "solid/real" version of the ones I see online (Finchy looks cute as a little talking bird, PH actually even smells like a horse and I myself feel funny as a bunch of floating silver spheres). Everything I can do at the Palace I can do in this world, including the ability to wish myself into a different room, esp, paging, etc... yet I actually have to mentally "type" these commands for them to work. This Palace is located on some sort of artificial island (more like an oil rig, but huge) full of glass towers following Gaudi's architecture. These towers are connected by walkways of bright red "plastic?" and full of light (phosforescence might be more appropriate). I simply walk/float thru these settings talking with other wizards and friends from the Palace. Mostly thru "pages". I always seem to be worried about this "big circuit" I have to build for which the parts are not available, other times I'm showing my wife around this city (she has never been online and is quite "atechnical"). She always looks like in real life, but I speak with her via esp. Something interesting is that, while the sea under this city seems to be quite turbulent (think of a hurricane in the Caribbean, down to the color of the sea) the weather in this city is always fair, be it sun or midnight, I get the "subliminal" feeling that there's some sort of "dome" that protects this city so I have nothing to worry. I can only remember one time in which there was rain in my dream, and that's because It struck me as resembling some "Blade Runner" scenes. I dream of the Palace quite vividly as you can see, at least twice a month (for a whole week once, while I was actually creating one for a client). But it always is the same city, even though it sometimes seems to be both at sea and on a green forest at the same time."
Dreams 4 & 5: Fate and the Nature of Reality
"I can't remember when or where the dream started. I never seem to be conscious of the opening credits ...is that unusual? Anyhow, here goes..."
"What I first remember was being in a warehouse district in a large city, no one else around (solo journey or "quest"). I felt as tho I were looking for something or someone. I was walking along and felt like I was close to what I was looking for when all of a sudden the background image, buildings etc, came undone in the center and peeled itself back in 4 directions. As it did this, I was aware of a person's face behind and above me. It looked like a human face but it was smiling as tho it were enjoying a practical joke (on me). All of a sudden a new background took the place of the old one. It was a construction site. It was a new building going up. (reconstructing the self?) I climbed onto one of the bulldozers and began knocking down remnants of the old building which was still partially standing. (the old "self"?) I was almost done leveling the site when the setting once again peeled itself away... same face in the background ."
"It was at this point I sort of realized that I was stuck in some kind of computer "program" and that things were being manipulated and that I was not in control. I remember trying to get away from who or what was controlling things. I was fleeing through some city streets. Every time I thought I was "safe" the background would change again. I then found myself in a bar full of people. I talked to several people and had a drink. I must have picked up a woman at the bar because the next thing I remember was being in an apartment setting...in bed with this woman. We were just starting to get intimate when all of a sudden one wall of the apartment disappeared and the bar I had just left was now in my apartment. People came wandering over to talk to me. My "friend" disappeared. As I started to talk to the bar patrons, expressing my anger at having my privacy violated, they would "morf" into other people. I remember feeling frustrated that each individual would not remain long enough to listen to my complaint."
" It was at this point that the entire scene peeled itself away again revealing the face which was looking much more sinister. I woke up then, feeling a little shaken but thought it would make a good movie script so I wrote it down."
"The `point and click' dream was fairly short and simple. I dreamed that I was in one of the palace rooms (Harry's Bar I think). I was using my mind to click on objects to move them around. ( I think that this was simply a dream about being at the palace or it may have been a desire to be able to control the things in my life as easily as things are controlled in the Palace????)"
Cyberspace as an Alternative to DreamingHuman beings have an inherent need to alter their consciousness - to experience reality from different perspectives. We pursue this need through a wide variety of activities - meditation, drugs, athletics, sex, art. Some are more productive than others. Dreams are a necessary, built-in mechanism for achieving this altered experience of self, other, and world on a daily (nightly) basis. It allows the expression of the usually unconscious, primary process styles of thinking that provide a different perspective on reality.
Cyberspace may be a new and important addition to this list. Critics often complain that computers and the internet have, for some people, become an addiction that serves as a substitute for life. While this indeed may be true for some people, we should also consider the possibility that cyberspace may be a highly adaptive SUPPLEMENT to "real" life. It may be a viable alternative for altering consciousness by providing new, imaginative ways to interact with others and experience the world. As evident in the dreams described above, such programs as the Palace in particular stimulate a rich variety of basic psychological issues - probably because they are intensely social environments fused into a dreamlike state of consciousness. Sometimes users get so stirred up that the cyberworld intrudes into the "real" world. One person told me:
"The problem is...I think the Palace is a "heightened" state of consciousness, and just like when one is under the influence of hallucinogens (the voice of distant experience) things take on a hyper-real intensity, these Palace experiences carry over into the non-cyberlife with undue seriousness and intensity."People may be attracted to such virtual environments because - like dreams - they satisfy this need for an alternative view of reality by encouraging the unconscious, primary process styles of thinking. Like dreams, they also encourage the acting out of unconscious fantasies and impulses, which may explain some of the sexuality, aggression, and imaginative role playing we see on the internet. Stretching the analogies even further, we can think of addiction to cyberspace as an addiction to an altered state of consciousness, abstinence from computering to withdrawal or REM (dream) deprivation, and a fervid diving back into cyberspace as a cyberspace "rebound," not unlike REM rebound (which is the mind's attempt to make up for lost hours of REM dreaming).
What makes the Palace somewhat different than dreams is that the person has more control over the altered state of consciousness. You can hover in mid-air, walk through walls, or change appearance... at will. It's this control that satisfies that need for omnipotence. The experience is not unlike "lucid" dreaming, which is a dream in which the person KNOWS she is dreaming and is able to direct the outcome. Supposedly, more "primitive" people in ancient times were able to develop and refine this ability. Contemporary dream workers are attempting to revive those skills. Pointing and clicking in cyberspace dream worlds may be the computer geek's similar attempt to return to those more primitive times. It's an attempt to create and direct a recurring, lucid dream.
Although it has a big impact on the user, this control over the cyberdream is limited. As indicated in the dreams described earlier, the virtual world can stir up all sorts of personal anxieties. People may feel something is missing, that there's turbulence below the surface, that this scenario is not completely under their thumb. After all, we have control over the program, but not over the people who occupy it with us. Virtual worlds are not games where we control all the pieces. They are real worlds complete with all the interpersonal triumphs and struggles that stir us up in the physical world. But unlike life in the physical world, you can easily hit the "off" button if things get too uncomfortable in cyberspace. It's the virtual equivalent of the mind's switching off an anxiety dream or a nightmare by waking you up.
Once your mind leaves the dream, you realize it was JUST a dream.... Or was it? If it was a nightmare that woke you up, it must have "got" to you. If it was a satisfying dream, it was satisfying for a reason. Dreams speak to deeper needs within us. Cyberdreams may speak to those deeper needs as well. Life online isn't an artificial illusion disconnected from the "real" world. It's an alternative view of the individual's subjective reality. The man and the butterfly belong to each other.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
The basic psychological features of cyberspace
Cyberspace as a psychological space
Networks as "mind" and "self"
Presence in cyberspace
The two paths of virtual reality
The psychology of avatars and graphical space
back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page
Comments on Dreams 4 & 5 (Destiny and the Nature of Reality)
Comments on Dream 1
(Empowerment and Individuality):
At various points in this article I've referred to how the Palace can satisfy conscious and unconscious needs for power, admiration, and omniscience. Dream 1 clearly illustrates this. This feeling of power comes from several sources: the ability to control the environment much more easily than our real-world; the mastery of technical and social knowledge about Palace that one can share with newbies; and the ability to creatively explore and express one's online identity (for example, through the use of avatars). This last point is especially important. Like dreams, the Palace is a zone where people can identify components of their personality that are not fully expressed in real life. I've heard several people say that they are more "themselves" online than they are offline. Like Chuang Tzu, are we more real in the "real" world, or in the dreamworld of cyberspace?
Switching Between Real and Imaginary Self
A number of people have described their dreams as containing this switching back and forth between an image of the real self and one's avatars, almost as if the distinction between the "real" and "imaginary" self becomes unclear, or even arbitrary.
The Cloud Room
In eastern philosophy as well as western psychological studies of creativity, mystics and artists talk about a state of formlessness that is the source of the creative process - a kind of "fertile void" from which forms emerge. In myth it often is symbolized as "sky" or "heaven." This element of the dream seems to be referring to this archetypic source of creativity - and the potential of Palace to stimulate it.
Comments on Dream 2
(Belonging and Being Understood)
Everyone wants to belong and feel understood. Because they are new and open to almost everyone with a modem, online groups can be very attractive to people who want to satisfy those needs. The only problem at the Palace is that the membership is in a constant state of flux and communicating through text balloons is not as fluid or efficient as talking. Feeling like you belong and are understood can be a very tenuous, frustrating affair. On the other hand, communicating through typing does allow extra time to think and plan out exactly what you want to say, which helps some people express themselves BETTER. It's a curious mixed bag. For this foreign speaking user, these issues are accentuated in the dream.
The PUG group and monthly meetings had just started at the time this person had this dream. The creation of the Palace User Group was a clear sign of the overall need among Palatians to have a more centralized and cohesive group in which to communicate and feel a sense of belonging.
Mixing Speech and Writing
Several people have described to me dreams in which they are not just talking to other people, but also communicating through the Palace text balloons. In some dreams, it is a frustrating experience. In others, the typed text feels almost like a telepathic mind-meld. The switching, substitution, or confusion of typing versus speaking words in a dream reflects that basic human dilemma about not being understood or recognized for who you are, while longing for that completely empathic merging with another person.
Confusing Online and Offline Identity
Here again we see the theme of switching (and sometimes confusing) online and offline identities. In this dream it is expressed concretely in terms of the language being spoken. Some people may need a transition or decompression period in order to "adjust their heads" while moving from real to virtual world, and back again.
Comments on Dream 3
One striking feature of this dream is the experience of Palace as an ideal haven. The dreamer hangs out with friends, freely employs the special powers that Palace offers, and is protected from the turbulent influences of the "outside" (and maybe even "internal") world. This dream portrays the basic human wish for a utopia.
Here is one hint that the dreamer is not fully comfortable with this utopian environment or the identity he assumes in it.
Here we see typing as a metaphor for thinking. For some people, typing their communications and commands at the Palace may actually feel like a direct extension of their thoughts.
This world is somehow "artificial." Is it a superficial representation of the real world? Is there something missing in this world?
To me, this red walkways reminded me of blood vessels, almost as if this city is a metaphor for the human body, or even the human mind.
The Big Circuit
Here is another hint that something is not quite right about this environment. Although this city in some ways is a utopia, there is an underlying feeling of anxiety. Something is missing or incomplete, either in the utopia itself or perhaps in the dreamer.
Showing the Wife Around
This seems to indicate the necessity of helping one's significant others become familiar with this new world (especially if that world also is metaphor for one's own internal psychological world). Or perhaps the absence of the significant other is what's MISSING in this new world. Notice how the dream contains either the worry about the circuit, OR the presence of the dreamer's wife.
We might substitute the word "unconscious" here.
The Turbulence Below
This might represent either the turbulence in the "outside" world, the potential problems for the user within the world of Palace, or turbulence in one's own unconscious. In any case, in this ideal world, the dreamer mostly feels shielded from these troubles.
This is a movie about anti-social androids fighting for their freedom. It's not a utopian world, but one in which technology has gone awry.
In the dreamlife of this user, the Palace has stirred up a fascinating variety of archetypic issues: the quest for the transformation of the self, the role of the uncontrollable forces that shape one's life (fate, destiny, the unconscious, "God"), and the puzzling dilemma of what is real versus what is illusion.
Opening Credits - Right off the bat this person thinks of the dream as a "movie within the mind" - which makes him, paradoxically, both the observer of and participant in the dream. It's an example of dissociation, not unlike the Palace environment itself, where your avatar is "in" the Palace room while you observe the whole scene on your computer monitor. Because he doesn't see the opening credits, he initially is unaware that he is about to enter a world that is "just" a movie/dream. (back)
Warehouse district - This symbol may represent aspects of his past or his "old" self - things stored away that he may need to retrieve. Or perhaps it represents extra baggage that needs to be set aside and stored away? As he points out himself, this dream adventure may be a journey to find something or someone missing in his life (in his Palace life?). Note the similarity to the incomplete "circuit" in Dream 3. (back)
Human Face in the Background - Possibly a representation of the forces that are shaping his life but beyond his control. Is this "programmer" the person's concept of God, or Fate, or a symbol of some unconscious part of himself? Whomever or whatever this entity is, he experiences it as interrupting his search and preventing him from finding what he needs, even as teasing him. But at the same time it tears away the "false" reality he is living in, thus revealing another scenario for him to create a new self (the construction site). (back)
The setting peels away again - Interrupted again! This time while creating the NEW self while taking down the old. He's being prevented from retrieving something from the past AND from creating a new self, as if he is caught between a rock and a hard place. The old "programs" (realities?) in his life aren't working. They have to be interrupted and peeled away to reveal some new, hopefully better program. The dreamer now shifts to a higher level of conscious awareness of his situation since he realizes he indeed is stuck in a "program" (back)
The bar full of people - is reminiscent of "Harry's Bar" at the Palace, which this person refers to explicitly in Dream 5. (back)
The apartment and bar blend - Interrupted yet again! This time the reality of the bar (the Palace) merges with the reality of his home life (the apartment). Perhaps he experiences the cyberworld as intruding upon his "real" world. However, because the whole scenario is still one big dream, one fantasy/program/dreamworld again is intruding into or supplanting another - which is the major theme of this dream. (back)
Morfing people - People, in their changing avatars at the Palace (and perhaps in real life as well) are not always whom they seem to be. It's frustrating to try to express oneself and establish one's identity when others themselves seem to be in a state of flux or are constantly changing their outer persona. (back)
The scene peels away again - The final "reality" of the dreamer's situation is still yet to be determined. There are always more layers of reality (and the unconscious) to peel away. The entity controlling this whole program is seen as "sinister," yet the dreamer realizes there is much to learn from this drama. After all, it would make a good movie! (back)
The point and click dream - The dreamer seems right on target in his analysis of this dream. Now his anxieties from the first dream are overcome. He is in control of the program. Wouldn't it be so satisfying if we could just point and click our way through life?! (back)