Serial Experiments Lain (or SEL or short) is a thought-provoking anime from the 90s that has remained in my top 10 or 12 favorite anime series for many years now. I’ve already written a couple of posts about it, but I will probably always have more to say about a complex anime like this. But today’s post isn’t just about Serial Experiments Lain. It’s also going to focus a lot on mental health information and my own experiences with being neurologically atypical. In particular, this post is about dissociation. We’ll begin with an overview of dissociation and then delve into my personal experiences with it. After that, we will discuss what dissociation has to do with Serial Experiments Lain. Let’s begin.
What is Dissociation?
As a word, dissociation simply means a disconnection between one thing and another, or the state of being in said separation. There are several slightly different definitions from online dictionaries, and the word also has relevance to chemistry. But what we’re interested in is the psychological meaning. In psychology, dissociation refers to unusual and varying experiences where one feels disconnected from reality. You can feel emotionally detached, or physically out of touch. you can feel like you aren’t a real person, or like you are watching yourself from afar. You can feel disconnected from people and from the world so that neither one seem real anymore. Though it depends on the level of dissociation and the individual’s personality, dissociative experiences are often upsetting. They may also create problems interpersonally or practically.
At its core, dissociation is a defense mechanism, and it can be invaluable in extremely toxic, high-stress situations. For example, I am by nature an emotional and reactive person. During the worst of the emotional abuse from my mother, she would try to elicit reactions out of me that would lead to more trouble for me. Then she could shame me and/or have an excuse to react explosively in turn. Eventually, dissociation kicked in. When I was alone with her, I felt detached from my normal emotions. I didn’t have to worry about a bad reaction because I didn’t feel anything anymore. But although dissociation starts as a way for the mind to protect itself, it sometimes persists when you are no longer in danger. If dissociation becomes frequent, you may have a psychological disorder.
Dissociation plays a role in many different psych disorders, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). There are also a number of conditions directly related to prominent dissociative experiences, including Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), Dissociative Amnesia, Depersonalization Disorder, Derealization Disorder, and Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DDNOS). I’m not sure that it would be useful for our purposes to learn about each one of those, but let’s at least go over depersonalization and derealization, as well as learning a bit about the concept of identity dissociation in DID.
Depersonalization is a type of dissociation where one feels disconnected from themselves. For example, you might feel like you are floating along and have lost touch with your physical body. You might feel like you are not a real person, or that your existence is a fabrication. If this is chronic and distressing enough, you probably have Depersonalization Disorder. Derealization is a type of dissociation where one feels disconnected from the world and people around them. Imagine, for instance, being convinced that everyone around you is an actor or an alien of some kind. Or one might think the world is a giant stage, movie, or simulation rather than a real, living world. It sounds bizarre, but it’s much more common than you might think. Again, if this type of experience becomes chronic and causes problems for you, then it’s probably a case of Derealization Disorder.
Now let’s look at the idea of dissociation from one’s identity. This is when your disconnection with reality is severe enough to make you lose your sense of a complete identity. On the light end of things, you may consciously separate parts of yourself into partitions because you need to “be a different person” to handle the stress. This much can happen to virtually anyone, at any age. However, Dissociative Identity Disorder is a little bit different. That is when someone, as a small child, experiences extreme trauma that forces them to literally split into a separate identity in a way they cannot control.
A person with DID may have two or more “identities,” which are called alters and which split apart to protect the child. Switching from one identity to the other is not a conscious choice, and alters may not always share memories between them. You might not remember what you were doing when your body was being controlled by another part of you. As you can imagine, this is a messy disorder to deal with, and it’s highly stigmatized on top of that. In my experience, you do not need to have DID to feel like you are sometimes a different person, or to organize parts of yourself into mental categories. That may be a sign of DDNOS. But DID is just an entirely different ballgame. Still, it’s important to understand both.
Personal Experiences: Visual Issues and Zoning Out
I have experienced dissociation in some form or other for as long as I remember, but it was mild when I was young. In my college years, it became more intense, frequent and upsetting. My dissociation has mostly been depersonalization and derealization, although I also had some level of identity confusion related to dissociation for a time. In addition, there have been some strange experiences where I have trouble with false memories, or telling dreams from reality. I was once diagnosed with DDNOS, but after college, things calmed down. I’m no longer in treatment for frequent dissociation.
I want to say some things about those experiences, but first, there’s another facet of dissociation I’d like to share. In my opinion, dissociation can be made worse by other complications such as sensory processing issues or development disorders. It can even be influenced by your personality, if you are already a very introspective person. So before I talk about depersonalization and derealization, I’ll tell you about how I am zoned out all the time and have sensory issues that makes things more complicated.
I’m always zoned out and physically out of touch with the world. I am in my own head all the time and don’t know what’s going on around me. Even though I still have a pretty good instinct for detecting danger, I can never pinpoint why I know to be careful; something is just “off.” It’s not a question of having bad senses. All my basic senses are good except for my eyesight, for which I wear corrective lenses. But even with perfect sight, my visual processing is weird. The reason I’m mentioning my senses, and in particular my vision, is that they impact my level of dissociation. When you’re not processing visual input in a normal way, it’s harder to feel connected to reality. With that in mind, I want to talk more about my visual abnormalities.
For one thing, I have pareidolia. For another, I seem to have great difficulty taking note of any concrete physical details. For example, I could be friends with someone for a few months and then not be able to accurately recall what color their hair or eyes are. I can’t navigate well because I can’t store short-term memories of the way things look. Challenges where I must find specific hidden object in pictures are extremely frustrating because either 1) my vision goes into hyper-focus and I can only look at one little section carefully at a time; or 2) my pareidolia interferes and I see lots of things that aren’t what I’m supposed to be looking for. In addition, I am easily overwhelmed by visual input, resulting in over-stimulation and stress.
Those were all examples of abnormal visual processing that make it hard for me to stay “in touch,” but it there’s more to it than visuals. I have another issue that might contribute to my dissociation. To put it nicely, you could say I am highly introspective and contemplative. To put it more honestly, you could say I am one of the worst over-thinkers in the world. I cannot shut off the internal monologue in my head. I’m just always thinking. It’s also because I like being alone and I have more time on my hands than most people. Delving into how and why I feel or think a certain way is extremely interesting to me. These issues might also be tied to my ADHD; to make up for being scatter-brained and having a million thoughts per minute, I have to overcompensate, capture my thoughts, and analyze them with great scrutiny. As you can see, my “introspective personality makes it harder to stay in touch with the world.
Personal Experience: Depersonalization and Derealization
Now I’ll address my experiences that are more commonly considered dissociation. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it though, since I’ve already rambled a lot and I want to get to the anime-related portion of this rant. So we’ll start with derealization. I recall a time in college when I was getting on a bus and having a dissociative episode. I felt like the people around me were not real, thinking beings. They were actors in a play or NPCs in a simulation with specific roles. The world itself felt like a ridiculous puppet show with no point. It was extremely uncomfortable riding home in this state, feeling disconnected from my usual stable sense of reality.
Depersonalization is also something I’ve struggled with. Because it’s such a generalized thing for me, thinking of a specific example was difficult. I already mentioned I feel disconnected from my body more often than not. This increases when I am under stress; I feel like a mech pilot controlling a stiff robotic body that won’t move fast enough. Other times I just feel slow and far away in a way that is hard to describe. Occasionally, I wondered if I was not real, and my life was a lie. Maybe I was some ghost or spirit that just got confused and thought it was a person. It’s not an unnatural thought to have when you feel so strange and so far away from yourself.
That’s basically derealization and depersonalization in my own words. I’ve also experienced some identity confusion related to dissociation, but it doesn’t bother me anymore (at least not to where I have to compartmentalize my character traits). There are also less common experiences I’ve had that I think are forms of dissociation, since they involve a failure to connect to reality. In the past, I have sometimes developed false memories based on dreams, intrusive thoughts, or even shows I have watched. These false memories have only ever fooled me temporarily, but are still alarming to me. I soon realize they don’t match with the reality I observe. Some details can be checked against my journals or the memories of my family or friends to verify their truth. Anyway, there are all sorts of dissociative experiences, and I’ve had more than my fair share.
Relevance to Serial Experiments Lain: The Dissociation of Lain
SEL is usually classified into an anime genre called dementia, as well as being considered sci-fi, psychological, and Avant Garde. In anime terms, dementia has nothing to do with brain impairment disorders affecting the elderly. Rather, dementia-genre anime are those series which are so weird they make the viewer start to feel “insane,” too. Dementia anime series are crazy like drug trips, and it may be impossible to completely make sense of them. SEL is considered dementia-genre because of its depictions of mental symptoms, especially paranoia and dissociation. There’s no doubt that SEL is full of content that can be linked to dissociative experiences.
The very first episode clearly establishes what kind of person Lain is and how she views reality. We’ll spend a few paragraphs talking about that. Lain walks quietly to the train stop, and mumbles complaints about the noisiness of the people once the train is moving. When she arrives at school, she randomly stops to stare at her shadow, which looks unnatural, with marbled, smoky colors slowly moving within it. Then Lain glances up at the other school kids on their way into the building. She squints as if trying to see them better, but instead of becoming clearer, the figures only grow distorted. Lain continues into class like nothing happened.
In the classroom, you can tell from Lain’s talk with the other girls that she’s a serious space cadet. She doesn’t care about social happenings or even check her email. She didn’t remember the teacher saying that Chisa killed herself, suggesting she doesn’t pay attention. Once class starts, Lain is unable to focus on the words on the board. They become blurred and then turn into shimmering sparkles. The girl puts down her pen and looks at her hand. A lightly glowing vapor begins to escape from her fingertips. It rises into the air and circles around like a little cloud of smoke. Lain simply watches the bizarre visuals, looking only remotely surprised and not alarmed. What can we gather from these scenes?
First of all, we now know Lain is rather antisocial and withdrawn, so she’s likely a very thoughtful person. It seems that she mostly lives in her own head. I think these personality traits make people like me more prone to dissociate or zone out, but that’s just an opinion. Anyway, what about the strange visuals Lain was seeing? Is she crazy? On drugs? The in-universe explanation is that the world of the Wired is constantly overlapping with our world as more and more people blur the boundaries. Lain is a being who has always existed in the world of the Wired, but now has a human self in our world, too. It seems that Lain is the only one who can see the overlapping of the worlds, even though she doesn’t understand it, nor remember what she is.
Another explanation is that Lain has a wild imagination bordering on schizophrenic levels. I also used to zone out in school and imagine weird stuff, though perhaps not as vividly as Lain sees it. I also have distracting pareidolia sometimes. But it almost doesn’t matter whether Lain’s visions come from an intense imagination or the overlap of the Wired dimension. In either case, the point is that Lain is somewhat disconnected from reality. Her adventures within the Wired begin because she wants to feel connected, in particular to her friend Arisu. I would argue that Lain is not only thoughtful and quiet, but also frequently dissociating.
Relevance to Serial Experiments Lain: Types of Dissociation
I have a couple of specific examples of things that remind me of dissociation in SEL, starting with the two sides of Lain’s identity. Just like with the previous example, there are in-universe explanations for things that have nothing to do with real psychology. It’s just that this supernatural sci-fi lore is often reminiscent of dissociation. Lain is a being similar to a god in the world of the Wired. Her human self is simply one part of the whole. There is another part of Lain within the Wired who acts like a completely different person from the human Lain. She’s talkative, assertive, bossy, clever, and enjoys spying on people using her powers. Lain hates this other part of her identity. It’s possible that there are more of these “copies” as well, some in the wired, and some in the real world.
Lain having multiple selves makes me think about identity dissociation. It certainly isn’t anything like DID, since these personalities do not share a body. But it’s still an example of someone– the goddess Lain– dissociating from their complete identity and compartmentalizing their personalities. It reminds me of when I was confused about my identity and I sometimes felt there were sides of me that were not truly “me.” They could feel hard to control, and sometimes they made me extremely angry. These were not alters, but simply compartmentalized parts of my one personality that I decided to label. I strongly relate to the scene where Lain gets furious at her other self and physically attacks it. Meanwhile, that other self just laughs at the chaos it has created. A lot of us can probably relate to hating some part of ourselves, even if we do not experience dissociation related to it.
As someone who has been through symptoms of mental dissociation as well as some drug-induced dissociation, I can definitely say that Serial Experiments Lain looks and feels highly dissociative in nature. Identity and its instability is a major theme, leading to a feeling of consistent identity dissociation and depersonalization throughout the anime. Reality and perceptions of it are also important themes which, in addition to the trippy visuals and eerie soundtrack, make SEL full of derealization. Of the types of dissociation, derealization is probably the most pervasive in SEL. As Lain’s concept of reality continually crumbles, reality itself merges with the alternate world known as The Wired. The oddly pretty but weird visuals really drive home the idea that reality is shaky. So do the distress and horror that Lain feels as the anime progresses.
Besides the consistent, all-encompassing feeling of derealization, SEL also contains strong elements of depersonalization. Lain wanted to be emotionally connected to others, to feel real, and to have certainty of being human. But the farther she explored, the more despaired at reaching any of those goals. As a result, she becomes completely depersonalized. She believes she is nothing more than a program. At least for a time, she also believes her body is no longer necessary. This is certainly reminiscent of some experiences of depersonalization.
In the lore of SEL, some of what Lain feels is actually true. Her human self was meant to act like a program to combine reality with The Wired. She also can survive without a body by simply transferring her consciousness to The Wired. But it isn’t as simple as Lain thinks, because she truly does have her own identity and a choice in what to do. She also has a very real and physical human body with human emotions and pain. Until Arisu showed Lain her heartbeat, the poor girl had been completely dissociated from her body. This again shows us how SEL is an anime that heavily involves concepts of dissociation.
Closing Thoughts: Everyone is Connected
Another recurring theme in SEL is that everyone is connected. The Wired world is similar to the internet in its ability to connect people from across the whole world. But that’s not the only meaning of the connection theme. People need connection to others in order to be healthy. Sometimes, the loose connections we get on the internet (or the Wired) are not as good as those in-person, but it depends. For Lain she needed that moment with Arisu up close and personal, or she would have been lost. It was thanks to Arisu that Lain realized she was real again, as well as starting to respect the importance of a human body.
Dissociation can make connection even harder. You can feel disconnected from yourself, the world, and others. That’s why it’s important to remember and reinforce your connections. There is no easy way to stop chronic dissociation, so I’m not saying “all you have to do is have a good friend and you’ll get better.” That’s just not true. But friends can help to some degree. So can connection to a therapist. All I’m saying is that connections are important, including trying to reconnect with yourself and your own concept of identity. Remember, whether we like it or not, people are connected in some way or other. You might as well try to start using those connections in a way that benefits your health.