Compare the following quotes.
 Suppose you are standing in a field on a bright sunny day. Your vision is good, and you know that, and you’ve no thought to distrust your eyes. A friend shouts from behind. You turn. It looks as if a rock is flying at your face. You wish not to be hit. [...] Your visual experience will place a moving rock before the mind in a uniquely vivid way. Its phenomenology will be as if a scene is made manifest to you. [...] Such phenomenology involves a uniquely vivid directedness upon the world. Visual phenomenology makes it for a subject as if a scene is simply presented. Veridical perception, illusion and hallucination seem to place objects and their features directly before the mind. (Sturgeon 2000, 9)
 Everything appears as through a veil [...] Things do not look as before, they are somehow altered, they seem strange, two-dimensional. [...] Everything seems extraordinarily new as if I had not seen it for a long time. (Jaspers 1997, 62)
 Familiar things look strange and foreign. [...] It’s all just there and it’s all strange somehow. I see everything through a fog. Fluorescent lights intensify the horrible sensation and cast a deep veil over everything. I’m sealed in plastic wrap, closed off, almost deaf in the muted silence. It is as if the world were made of cellophane or glass. (Simeon & Abugel 2006, 81)
The first quote is from Scott Sturgeon’s discussion of the phenomenology of visual experience. The second and the third quotes are subjective reports of patients with depersonalization-derealization disorder. In my view, these quotes, although taken from very different contexts, are referring to the same thing. Or, more precisely, the first quote is describing the presence of something, while the second and the third quotes are describing the absence of it. The thing in question is “presentational phenomenology” (Chudnoff 2012; “Scene-Immediacy” in Sturgeon’s own terminology).
My hypothesis is that presentational phenomenology is absent from visual experiences in cases of derealization. This hypothesis provides a plausible explanation of the peculiar subjective reports of derealization. Frequent expressions of derealization reported in the Cambridge Depersonalization Scale (Sierra & Berrios 2000) include the following:
Out of the blue, I feel strange, as if I were not real or as if I were cut off from the world.
What I see looks ‘flat’ or ‘lifeless’, as if I were looking at a picture.
My surroundings feel detached or unreal, as if there were a veil between me and the outside world.
A remarkable feature of the subjective reports of derealization is that they are metaphorical, not literal. As Jaspers points out, it seems as though it is impossible for the patients to express their experience directly. They do not think that the world has really changed; they just feel as if everything looked different to them. (Jaspers 1997: 62).
Another remarkable feature is that the metaphorical expressions of derealization have some recurrent themes. People with derealization often say that they feel as if they were in a “fog”, “dream”, or “bubble”, or as if there were a “veil” or a “glass wall” between them and external objects. Metaphors of this kind seem to express the idea of indirectness or detachment. They also say that they feel as if they were looking at a “picture” or a “movie”, or as if external objects were “flat”. Metaphors of this kind seem to express the idea of representation.
My hypothesis explains why subjective reports of derealization tend to be metaphorical rather than literal. When presentational phenomenology is absent from visual experience, most patients (except philosophers of mind) do not have a suitable concept (such as the concept of “presentational phenomenology”) to refer to what is missing in a direct, non-metaphorical manner; the best thing they can do is to describe it metaphorically.
My hypothesis also explains the recurrent themes of the metaphors, namely indirectness and representation. In general, presentational phenomenology involves a sense of directness (e.g. “place objects and their features directly before the mind” in the first quote above) as well as a sense of presentation (e.g. “as if a scene is simply presented” in the first quote). Thus, it makes sense that patients with depersonalization-derealization disorder would use metaphorical expressions of in-directness and re-presentation in order to signal its absence.
Is the hypothesis that presentational phenomenology is absent from visual experiences in cases of derealization also empirically plausible?
The general consensus in the empirical and clinical literature is that affective or interoceptive abnormalities are at the core of depersonalization and derealization (e.g. Sierra 2009; Sierra & Berrios 1998; Seth, Suzuki, & Critchley 2012). One might think that this is a problem: the empirically and clinically plausible view might seem to be that derealization is an affective or interoceptive abnormality rather than an abnormality in presentational phenomenology. Note, however, that this interpretation presupposes that an abnormality in presentational phenomenology is not also an affective or interoceptive abnormality. A different, better interpretation is also available: that an abnormality in presentational phenomenology in itself constitutes, at least in part, the affective/interoceptive abnormality in question. This interpretation suggests that these are not at all alternative accounts, and that presentational phenomenology is, generally speaking, a kind of affective phenomenology.
Read the full article at https://journals.publishing.umich.edu/ergo/article/id/1156/.
- Chudnoff, Elijah (2012). Presentational Phenomenology. In Sofia Miguens and Gerhard Preyer (Eds.), Consciousness and Subjectivity (51–729). Ontos Verlag.
- Jaspers, Karl (1997). General Psychopathology (Vol. 1). Trans. J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton. Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Seth, Anil K., Keisuke Suzuki, and Hugo D. Critchley (2012). “An Interoceptive Predictive Coding Model of Conscious Presence”. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(395), 1–16.
- Sierra, Mauricio (2009). Depersonalization: A New Look at A Neglected Syndrome. Cambridge University Press.
- Sierra, Mauricio and German E. Berrios (1998). Depersonalization: Neurobiological Perspectives. Biological Psychiatry, 44(9), 898–908.
- Sierra, Mauricio and German E. Berrios (2000). “The Cambridge Depersonalisation Scale: A New Instrument for the Measurement of Depersonalisation”. Psychiatry Research, 93(2), 153–164.
- Simeon, Daphne and Jeffrey Abugel (2006). Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. Oxford University Press.
- Sturgeon, Scott (2000). Matters of Mind: Consciousness, Reason and Nature. Routledge.
About the author
Kengo Miyazono is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hokkaido University. Previously, he was Associate Professor at Hiroshima University and Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. He received his PhD from the University of Tokyo. He specializes in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and philosophy of psychiatry.