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When the Window Cracks – Transparency and the Loss of Self in Depersonalisation and Meditation

CEU Budapest
Wednesday, March 4, 2020, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Recent years have seen a resurgence of philosophical and scientific interest in the foundations of self-consciousness, with particular focus on its altered, disrupted forms. Specifically, the study of changes in sense of self – such as the phenomenon of selfless experiences or self-detachment – has attracted significant attention from philosophers and scientists alike. Here I contrast the phenomenon of self-detachment and selfless experiences in depersonalisation and Buddhist-derived meditative practices with focus on the property of “transparency” of subjective conscious experiences. 

Depersonalisation (DP) is a profound disruption in the quality of subjective experiences which triggers alienating feelings of being a detached and disembodied observer of one’s self, body and the world (‘derealisation’). I argue that while meditative practice may enhance the underlying transparency of basic, embodied pre-reflective forms of self-consciousness, depersonalisation enhances the use of mentalistic hyper-reflective forms of self-consciousness. 

I then present recent empirical findings from my lab exploring the relationship between the experience of DP and sensorimotor processing of self and other. Specifically, in Study 1 we used the Visual Remapping of Touch (VRT) paradigm to examine whether the tendency to experience DP is linked to disrupted integration of visual and tactile self-related information. Next we examined how disruptions of bodily self-consciousness in DP affects the experience of others in basic facets of social interaction, such as spontaneous facial mimicry. Specifically, in Study 2, we evaluated automatic mimicry in DP by using facial electromyography (EMG), which monitors electrical changes in muscle activity over the cheek and brow region. 

These findings aim at providing a better understanding of how atypical multisensory integration processes may give rise to estranged, “zombie-like” and selfless states in DP but not meditation. I will conclude by defending the idea that the sense of self is a fundamental albeit “transparent” feature of self-conscious states that can be enhanced or disrupted but not “lost”.