mental health, Pop Culture and Mental Health

The Matrix, Simulated Reality, and Derealization

By now, I’m sure you have seen the 1999 blockbuster hit, The Matrix. If you somehow haven’t yet watched this film, chances are you’ve heard of it or seen it parodied. In the last twenty years The Matrix has been the origin of thousands of pop culture references, memes, many video games, and the inspiration for other stories, including the film’s two sequels and The Animatrix (which I highly recommend). If you have not seen it, and are not planning to watch it, I would still recommend you go and watch it before reading this. Until then, you have been warned: spoilers ahead.

This is not going to be a review of the movie itself. Enough people have already done that, and I am not (publicly) a film critic. Instead, I am going to use the concepts presented in it to attempt to explain derealization aspect of dissociation I live with. I have written about derealization before but for newcomers or persons unfamiliar with the term, derealization refers to a state of dissociation in which a person feels disconnected from their surroundings, or as if they are living in a dream-like state.

I am diagnosed with Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, often abbreviated as DPDR or DPD. I feel every day as if I’m dreaming and sometimes cannot tell the difference between what I have dreamed and what I have lived. This is very similar to the reality experienced by people enslaved by the machines in The Matrix, and thus this film is a good way to discuss the disorder. If you would like to learn more about dissociative disorders as a whole, check out my post explaining what dissociation is.

I will not be discussing the philosophy of The Matrix, or its sequels. Nor will I be discussing The Animatrix. While these all have merit and would be interesting (particularly the philosophy), I don’t want to overload this post with exposition the way the Wachowskis unfortunately did in the second and third films. Instead, the focus of this post will be about the portion of the first film in which our protagonist suspects that the world isn’t real and going through Morpheus’s confirmation of his suspicions.

What would it be like to feel as if you were dreaming all the time, and then suddenly be confronted with an explanation that verfied your reality? This is Neo’s journey in the film, and it has made me think about how I perceive reality ever since I initially watched it as a teenager. After all – how would I know, really, if I am real?

Enough set up. Let’s begin!

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When we first meet Neo, he is already living in a state of dissociation as a regular guy, Thomas Anderson. He essentially lives two lives. In one life, he’s a respected computer programmer who lives alone and helps his landlady take out her garbage. In the other, he is a highly skilled computer hacker who has committed a multitude of crimes in cyber space, and goes by the hacker alias Neo. He is separated from himself and his identity, but not so much that he doesn’t know what the other part of him is or does. This creates conflict within himself right from the beginning – he feels unfulfilled, empty, bored. The world doesn’t feel right to him, and he can’t explain why.

A parallel is that in derealization states, the world feels foggy, or somehow wrong. It can be incredibly difficult to articulate, but many sufferers compare the feeling to “living in a dream”, or feeling as if “there is a fog between myself and the rest of the world”. This is further illustrated when a friend of Neo’s comes to his door and he asks him, “Do you ever get that feeling where you don’t know if you’re awake or still dreaming?”

His friend answers him simply, “All the time.”

Is the reality we experience real? Is what we experience real? What is real? This is the question that Neo is in pursuit of an answer to. This isn’t a new idea, or a new question. Neo certainly isn’t the first person to struggle with it, and he also won’t be the last. Elon Musk has also been saying that he believes we’re already in a simulation for several years now, and Shane Dawson even made a video about the idea a few years ago, as have many other YouTubers. For most people, this is a fun little theory that has little basis in reality. For persons with derealization, however, this is not simply a fun theory to think about, but instead a question that we have to constantly tell ourselves not to pursue. Logic, reason, and everyone around us tells us that we aren’t losing our minds, but also that our fears that the world is a dream of some sort isn’t based in reality. Those of us with DPDR often fear we’re losing our minds and find it difficult to speak up about our experiences or ask others if they feel the same things.

And Neo, well, he can no longer tell the difference between dreaming and waking realities. In the context of the film’s reality, however, there is no difference, and therein lies the importance of waking up and being freed from the simulated reality of the Matrix itself. In ours, the waking world in which you’re reading this post is the shared reality of all living beings – as far as I know, at least. But what if we did wake up somewhere else to discover everything was a lie?

Films are already dreamlike in nature. They are disjointed and things occur within them that we accept as reality whether they make sense or not, knowing that when we wake up again in our warm beds that we will be in control once more. There are several points and recurring motifs in The Matrix that reinforce this point. For example, when Neo is interrogated by the agents and held down so he can be “bugged”, he then wakes up in his own bed with no memory of how he got home, and does not believe that the bug was real until it was removed from his stomach. This and the eventuality of Neo and waking up from the Matrix itself could be seen as dreams within dreams – self simulated reality within a larger reality. Neo’s inability to tell programs from the Matrix’s simulated reality as well as his disjointed life (waking up in one place, going to sleep in another) reinforces the dreamlike feeling of the narrative as well.

This is also an aspect of chronic derealization. Every time a transition happens, it can feel like an entirely new day waking up in a new place, even if a person has been awake for quite some time. There is a difference between waking and sleeping, but it can be very difficult to define for derealization sufferers. After all, what if the world felt the same when you were dreaming as it did when you were awake? Surely you would be eager to wake up from the dream. This is also the case with Neo. As Morpheus puts it when he and Neo finally meet, “You have the look of a man who is waiting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth.”

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He goes on to persuade Thomas to take the red pill, to show him “how deep the rabbit hole goes”. Neo, like Alice, is falling through a strange world that feels like a reality he simply stumbled into. Alice woke from her dream, and Morpheus is giving Neo the key to the door to wake from his own.

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” 

These are the last words that Neo hears from Morpheus before waking up in a pod covered in plugs and discovering he has essentially been asleep his entire life. In the world of The Matrix triology, the reality that Neo comes to learn is that he was correct – the matrix is the dream. Nothing he knows is real, and he must rebuild his world all over again. The rest of the film takes a turn on this idea and focuses on Morpheus teaching Neo how to embrace the power he has when in a computer program or otherwise simulated state. In many ways, we could compare this to lucid dreaming. We could also interpret this as an allegory for derealization recovery, or at least embracing the feeling of derealization.

Morpheus says this while explaining the the Matrix to Neo, “How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. This is similar to the brain-in-a-jar theory which states that we are all simply brains, consciousnesses, that are just being poked with different electrical signals. It is how the machines operate and create the lifelike dreamworld of the Matrix. Real and unreal are not simple in the world of the Matrix, just as it is not simple for sufferers of chronic derealization. The question of how we define real isn’t just one that’s relevant to the film. It’s relevant to everyone who does and does not dissociate.

The Matrix as a program relies on the concept that the human mind can be tricked into believing a false reality is the truth – that humans are not curious enough to question if their reality exists at all. This is not the case, both in the film and in real life. We know that global doubt is advantageous in the world of the film, and therefore we can begin to see that accepting the dreamlike state as a part of Neo’s reality is empowering. He learns martial arts, becomes his alter ego, and gradually begins to learn how to feel the difference between the feelings of being plugged in and unplugged. By questioning his reality, he has unlocked a new one in which he has a definitive purpose. Even if it is still a dream as some theories claim, Neo at least has the illusion that what he’s experiencing is worth fighting for. If he had never asked the question, he would never have found anything resembling an answer.

When the famous French philosopher Descartes began to question if he was real, or if anything was real for that matter, he came to the conclusion that the question could not exist if he did not exist to ask it. This led to him writing what would become one of the most famous quotes in philosophy as a whole: Cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.

Are we all dreaming, all the time? Is this a Matrix-esque hyper real simulation? The truth is, we don’t have a way of knowing for sure. I’m certainly not the person to ask, as I live with chronic derealization. Reality as we know it is perceived differently by everyone, and for those of us who are dreaming this question is far more pertinent than it may be to those who wake up each morning and feel a true difference in their consciousness. We have only our own electrical signals and the question itself, the question everyone asks themselves at some point, the question of what in reality is real. If we ask the question, this itself means that we exist enough to ask it.

Everything else is left to individual interpretation.

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