Derealisation & Freud’s Uncanny experience

In everyday life, the Uncanny tends to be linked with a sense of unreality that is characterised by a shift in the subject’s self-image, a perception of the self as ‘the other’, an alienation from one’s identity and sense of self, as well as from the nature of reality. Freud points out two sources for the uncanny phenomenon: the uncanny that is generated by repressed infantile feelings and the uncanny that emerges from the resurrection of resolved primitive convictions (such as omnipotence of thought, cancelling the gap of repressed desires, magical thinking, or the return of the dead). In any case, the effect is that your perception of the world around you during such moments becomes less familiar. In clinical terms, this aligns with the characteristics and symptoms of Derealisation and Depersonalisation disorders, which are associated with an uncanny feeling that reality is dreamlike, artificial, or Matrix-like, or respectively, that your sense of self is unreal, you are a character in a film, feeling either robotic, like an external observer of your thoughts and emotions, or the object of an external gaze. The intersection between uncanny modes of thought and the conditions of depersonalisation and derealisation can be reflected through aspects like automatism and strangeness, the blurred line between dream or fantasy and reality, as well as feelings of déjà vu.

The split in one’s identity that happens as part of dissociative disorders is based on the idea that the human psyche constitutes a mix of conscious and unconscious processes. This split is experienced through an uncanny detachment between one’s self (the self that possesses meta-awareness) and one’s cognitive processes. Freud’s uncanny experience on the Acropolis is often referred to when it comes to the experience of derealisation.

He analyses his paradoxical emotional response in a letter, noting its oddness:

`So all this really does exist, just as we learnt! By the evidence of my senses, I am now standing on the Acropolis, only I don’t believe it.”

In his letter titled “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”, he also writes:

“I managed to write a short analysis of ‘a feeling of alienation’ which overcame me on the Acropolis in Athens in 1904, something very intimate. When, finally, on the afternoon after our arrival, I stood on the Acropolis and cast my eyes around upon the landscape, a surprising thought suddenly entered my mind: “So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!” To describe the situation more accurately, the person who gave expression to the remark was divided, far more sharply than was usually noticeable, from another person who took cognizance of the remark; and both were astonished, though not by the same thing. The first behaved as though he were obliged, under the impact of an unequivocal observation, to believe in something the reality of which had hitherto seemed doubtful. If I may make a slight exaggeration, it was as if someone, walking beside Loch Ness, suddenly caught sight of the form of the famous Monster stranded upon the shore and found himself driven to the admission: “So it really does exist – the sea-serpent we’ve never believed in!” The second person, on the other hand, was justifiably astonished, because he had been unaware that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis, and the landscape around it had ever been objects of doubt. What he had been expecting was rather some expression of delight or admiration.”

“These de-realisations are remarkable phenomena, which are still little understood. They are spoken of as “sensations”, but they are obviously complicated processes, attached to particular mental contents and bound up with decisions made about those contents. They arise very frequently in certain mental diseases, but they are not unknown among normal people, just as hallucinations occasionally occur in the healthy. Nevertheless they are certainly failures in functioning and, like dreams, which, in spite of their regular occurrence in healthy people, serve us as models of psychological disorder, they are abnormal structures.”

Experiences of hyperreality connected with popular cultural locations (especially those infused with sacred echoes of myth) are not unusual, yet Freud’s perception went beyond this concept and beyond the mixture of familiarity and unfamiliarity, towards something more intimate. Derealisation and depersonalisation are viewed as defence mechanisms, related to the state of “double conscience”, the split self.  Functioning in similar ways to repression, it is also a way for the ego to detach itself from some psychological material. This may seem strange in the context of visiting a pleasant place, yet Freud concluded that in his case the nature of the Acropolis experience was connected to the repressed oedipal wish of surpassing his father – his presence in Athens, in such an overwhelming cultural location being a sign of success. Freud displaced his doubt about finding himself in that location to the reality of the place, hence Athens itself became unreal in his perception. Moreover, he emphasises that this phenomenon is also associated with ambivalent feelings of triumph and guilt and piety in relation to his father. In most uncanny phenomena, there is a mental state of ambivalence, as well as a dimension of desire, albeit previously consciously denied, which suddenly resurfaces.

Derealisation and depersonalisation are forms of dissociation, processes that are more complex than the mechanism of repression (which eliminates the unpleasant or unwanted thoughts or feelings from one’s conscious mind) in the sense that they involve a conscious duality that includes an obsessive meta-awareness and focus on the unpleasant or unwanted thoughts. Always faithful to the psychoanalytical approach, Freud holds the idea that, although it hasn’t been ‘proved’, derealisation is linked to concealed memories and anxiety-inducing experiences which may have been repressed. In his view, his Acropolis experience constitutes proof of this link, due to its culmination in a fabrication of the past and his ‘disturbance of memory’, linked to other desires from his youth. In most depersonalised/derealised individuals, there is a desire to lift that veil of unreality (a characteristic of DPDR) and see the world through a crystal-clear lens. They, like Freud in that instance, dissect their own mind, delving into the unconscious feelings that may have triggered their condition.

If you’d like to explore the rare condition of DPDR, check out my article on Talking Mental Health for further details: