This article is part of an ongoing series on the legacy of Sigmund Freud on the 75th anniversary of his death.


The psychoanalytic literature about virtual reality circles around a few general questions. Is it good or bad? What are its implications for the analytic situation? What are its implications for the culture? What must a practicing psychoanalyst know about virtual technologies?

Probably the most attention is devoted to the debate about good or bad. Proponents (like Nathan Jurgenson’s piece in The New Inquiry) argue that virtual realities offer opportunities to have experiences that would otherwise be impossible—materially or psychologically. In the virtual world, the timid man can explore being aggressive. The economically disadvantaged woman can travel the globe, an anonymous cartoon in a virtual world. A physically disabled man can be romantically competitive. An infertile couple can conceive. A couple in grief for their dead dog can have it back. Limitations can be accommodated, losses undone, wishes realized.

For doubters and skeptics like Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, the focus is on the substitution of the virtual for the real. They reject the substitution of virtual experience—for example, an experience of affection for a simulated partner—for the experience of a real life. They do not see opportunities, compensations, and liberations. They see inauthenticity, perversion, the avoidance of mourning, a mirage of the infinite imagination made material, and a substitution of autistic aloneness for community. The skeptics are not attracted to this world of play and self-experimentation. They rear back in instinctive distaste.

1. Sigmund Freud in Second Life

Several years ago, I sat down at the computer to explore Second Life, an online virtual community in which individuals from around the world participate in a wide variety of graphically elaborate environments by way of cartoon representations known as avatars. I entered Second Life wanting to know if there was such a thing as a Second Life psychoanalyst. People assumed all manner of roles and enterprises in these communities and, with a population believed to number in excess of one million avatars, I figured that someone somewhere must have hung a shingle.

My own avatar had a generic appearance that identified me as a newcomer, a newbie, but people were quite friendly in helping me find my way around. In real life, those who cared most about me passed by my seat at the computer with expressions of alarm. I was not fully present, they said. Perhaps, as argued by psychiatrist and musician Kourosh Dini, the cyberspace participant should be understood to be situated in a “quantum cloud.” Perhaps that’s where I was.

I located a Second Life psychoanalyst without too much difficulty. He appeared youthful, and was elegantly dressed in European fashions—no avatar I met looked older than thirty. He was articulate and expressed himself like a clinician with experience. He described himself as a Lacanian. I told him about my interest in his experience working in Second Life. He invited me to his office.

We were whisked away, teleported, to a beautiful Mission architecture home set in a mist among cypress trees on what appeared to be the northern coast of California. Once I managed to get inside—being inexperienced, I bumped into every wall and doorpost and had a tendency to find myself suddenly floating in mid-air—we made our way upstairs to an office oddly reminiscent of Freud’s consultation room in Maresfield Gardens. He asked to consult with me as a colleague on some issues he faced as an avatar psychoanalyst and, after lying down on the couch, I agreed.

He said that he hoped to develop a practice providing low-fee psychoanalysis to interested avatars. He charged one hundred Lindens per session, which equaled about four dollars. He was concerned that his license might not allow him to treat avatars in Second Life because it crossed state lines. It seemed to me that there were no lines, but I knew what he meant.

He said that the problem he faced in the treatments was not, as I might have expected, that his patients suddenly disappeared without a trace. His problem was that his avatar patients kept getting real on him. They couldn’t resist dropping their Second Life personas and introducing details, often traumatic details, from their real lives. They were only pretending to pretend. Once they were anonymous, partially present through their avatars, and capable of immediate flight, the pretense could be dropped. They could get real in this unreal world.

After we discussed this seemingly inevitable complication of psychoanalysis in a virtual world, he invited me to use the unoccupied room next door as an office. I thanked him but I said that I was not sure I would know what I was doing as an avatar psychoanalyst. He said that he felt that way sometimes too.

*

The real and the ideal frequently collide in the analytic situation. A psychoanalyst colleague of mine pointed out (in personal conversation) that the experience of “transference love,” for example, does not, according to Freud, differ from real love, except for the fact that it is to be analyzed in the one setting and consummated in the other. Patients sometimes seem endlessly persistent in their quests to make the virtual real.

During my few weeks of visits to Second Life, I met many other avatars in all manner of simulated environments and activities. What struck me was how many of these individuals—all in attractive bodies—given the opportunity to be and do anything they might imagine, chose to spend their time in bars and coffee shops and dance halls, chatting in a manner indistinguishable from what you’d expect to hear in those settings. When I asked people about these choices, I took from their answers that they enjoyed the chance in Second Life to be themselves but get it right, to be themselves only better, to have a sense that they were living their lives by choice and without a sense of failure or shame. Perhaps the illusion of control is more exciting than the specifics of the fantasy.

I had the impression, however, that there was an undertow of unease and restlessness in these coffee-shop chats. Dreamers, after all, must eventually wake.

It appears from a recent review of Second Life on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of that virtual world that what I observed some years ago has become more of a problem with time. Now there are complaints that too many avatars are spending their Lindens on building a new suburbia. They hang out with their avatar friends in family rooms watching simulated TV.

A related clinical example from First Life: Mr. A, a middle aged man in analysis, pretends to like football as he sits with a male escort who is pretending to be gay. Mr. A says that he is reminded of the profiles he reads on online dating sites in which people inevitably claim to want these domestic scenes. “They all write the same thing,” he complains. “It’s not real!”

The other problem in Second Life is the ever-increasing number of female avatars who cannot find male avatars who are interested in developing a relationship. It is too easy for men to cruise around meeting one woman after another. The women seeking a deeper relationship face a familiar dilemma, just like women in real life… except that at least 60% of the women in Second Life are, in fact, men.

Who better than the psychoanalyst to appreciate the liberations and confinements of private, virtual worlds? The pathos of simulations that inevitably evoke what they cannot be?

2. Meet My Girlfriend, She’s a Pillow

Moe is a Japanese cultural phenomenon in which adult men become devoted to their life-size body-pillow girlfriends. These men are clear regarding the primacy of experience. They do not believe their dolls are real, though they bring them out socially and have some manner of sex with them. They are not delusional (or at least not completely delusional). They argue that the dolls are not real, but that their affection for them is, and so their relationship enjoys a type of purity, they say, denied to more conventional, socially-condoned and -marketed romance.

Any experience that contains an element of pretend necessarily involves both a degree of immersion and a degree of avoidance. Such play is gratifying and, as Freud noted, serious. Freud allowed that some amount of flight from reality could be useful, as in the child’s play and the adult’s daydream, a respite. But he warned of a broad bypath into psychopathology in the event that the fantasy became “over-luxuriant.”

There is also the possibility, for good or for ill, of the “meta-illusion,” the illusion of no illusion. When an ironic actor winks at the audience and playfully mocks the story being told, we momentarily enjoy the Olympian illusion of being above the fray. Similarly, but more perilously, the psychoanalyst who mocks the restraints of the analytic situation to a patient involves him or her in an exciting illusion of standing outside the frame—an illusion of no illusion that risks being taken for reality.

Illusions can become so layered, one upon the next, that it can become easy to lose our way home. While some authors have argued for the advantages or equivalencies of virtual substitutions, there is a pathological variant when one’s convictions about reality become murky. When does fantasy cross the line? Should cyberspace be understood as “blurred reality” (said with an inflection of concern) or “liminal reality” (said with an inflection of excitement)? What about the men with pillow girlfriends?

3. The Pain of Being Catfished

In the 2010 documentary film Catfish, a young photographer in New York City is contacted online by an admirer of his work. The admirer, who turns out to be a young girl, paints pictures of his photographs. They talk online. He gets to know her family, including an attractive sister with whom he develops a romantic attachment. The romantic couple talks by phone. The photographer is excited, aroused, and in love. But there are holes in her story, and he is sophisticated enough to be suspicious of online romance.

The film’s title has become a verb—to be “catfished.” It means to be deceived by an anonymous online correspondent. A couple of years ago, there was a breaking news story that a prominent football player, Manti Te’o, a candidate for the Heisman trophy who had garnered sympathy (and possibly Heisman votes) with stories of a cancer-ridden girlfriend, had been catfished. The girl did not exist. It turned out that he had only known her online.

People were angry. They demanded to know if the football player was in on the ruse. It was a situation reminiscent of the questions raised about the supposedly hysterical women who performed their suggestive gyrations at Salpetriere hospital. Jean-Martin Charcot, the famous nineteenth century neurologist, created a sensation at the Salpetriere asylum in Paris with his use of hypnosis to theatrically demonstrate hysterical symptoms in women. While some excited spectators, including a young Sigmund Freud, believed Charcot had gained access to a new chamber of the mind, others suspected that the women were simply suggestible naïfs or self-serving performers.

Did they know? Were they faking? Or was it something more ambiguous? A way of endowing the hypnotist with power in order to be free to perform sexual acts without consequence or responsibility? A way of engaging in a union with an imagined, and omnipotent, other?

Back in the film, the young photographer travels with his friend to the family’s home in Michigan. They discover a woman living with her kind but limited husband, a young daughter, and a severely handicapped son. It becomes clear that the woman has invented all of the identities that the young man had encountered, including his love interest.

For a while, the two attempt to interact. The deceptions are known but unacknowledged. Finally, he gently confronts her. She admits the ruse without remorse, but also without self-pity. After a moment, he asks her to speak in the voice of his imagined lover one last time, and she complies. In that moment, in their longing, searching looks, you can see them recapture, however fleetingly, the virtual reality of their love.


Further Reading:

About The Author

Phillip Freeman
Psychiatrist and Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst, Boston Psychoanalytic Institute

Dr. Freeman has held faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and Boston University Medical School, where he was Director of Medical Student Education and Vice Chair in the Department of Psychiatry. His recent publications focus on themes of reality and illusion in the analytic setting, virtual reality technologies, and the arts. His book, Adaptations: Disquisitions on Psychoanalysis 1997-2006, is a collection of satirical essays about the institutions and practitioners of psychoanalysis. He frequently discusses and consults on productions of films and plays in Boston and New York. His private practice is in Newton, Massachusetts.

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  • Tom J

    Second Life has more potential than it normally exhibits.

    I thought as the author does here why have a refrigerator and a house with a couch when it is not necessary to eat or to sit as a virtual avatar?

    I did SL for a awhile and enjoyed meeting “people” from all over and talking about this and that.

  • Gillian I. Russell, Ph.D.

    It is fascinating how this subject elicits such polarised responses–and such highly emotional ones. In fact, your description of Sherry Turkle’s position joins them. She specifically says that she does see the potential “opportunities, compensations, and liberations” of virtual experience, as detailed in her book, “Life on the Screen.” What she adds in a cautionary note in “Alone Together” is that she had not anticipated the impact on intimate relationships of a technology that is “always on, always on you.” This is quite a different attitude to the extreme rearing back in distaste that you describe. The point about developing technology is that it is in its infancy. Far more research has to be done about its effects on relationships and the self, both the gains and losses. We have a long way to go.