Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome was first proposed in the 2009 novel Swimming Inside the Sun by David Zweig.

What is Depersonalization

Depersonalization is defined, in part, by the DSM IV [official psychiatric manual] as the feeling of being detached from one’s mental processes or body; as if an observer. People often describe the experience as watching oneself as if in a movie, or a dream; viewing one’s life from a distance; feeling as though time is passing in a strange way where one is not in the moment. This sensation is often combined with extreme anxiety, and sometimes the fear that one is going crazy.

Since at least the time of Camus and Sartre, and arguably much earlier in different forms, writers and thinkers have described this unsettling experience of being outside of your own body, of looking in on your life rather than being able to be in your life, of going through the motions as if an automaton.


There are many theories as to why this phenomenon occurs. The most prominent one points to childhood trauma, or a present terrifying experience where one disassociates with oneself as a sort of defense mechanism. Depression and anxiety additionally are often listed as potential triggers. There is also some evidence that depersonalization occurs more often in highly individualistic cultures, namely the west. A new theory, however, Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome, first posited in the 2009 novel Swimming Inside the Sun, proposes a different explanation:

Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome

Since the beginning of time, humans have always told stories to each other. Tens of thousands of years ago there was the oral storytelling tradition, where stories were passed verbally from one generation to the next; images on cave walls told stories or communicated information from one cave-sweller to the next. Throughout history, through the millennia, there have been various advancements - both technological and cultural - in the sophistication of storytelling. At some point theatre was introduced, perhaps most famously with the ancient Greeks. In the middle ages the printing press was developed, enabling (among myriad other texts) novels. But through this vast expanse of time one thing remained relatively constant: with few exceptions, these forms of fiction offered intermittent and usually brief escapes from people’s daily lives - perhaps a few hours each week at the theatre, or later, a couple hours a day with a novel. The majority of people’s days were spent in direct experiences: hunting, farming, conversing, recreating with others.

In the recent past, however, things have changed. Today, we are living in an "observational reality" rather than this historically dominant "experiential reality." For the first time in history people are spending more hours of their day immersed in “Fiction,” defined here as media, especially observable media - television, movies, the internet, social media, smart phones, incredibly immersive video games, ubiquitous advertising, even the news, rather than living “in the moment," i.e. engaged directly with others or the environment. (That doesn’t mean these forms of “Fiction” are necessarily not “true” but they still are a representation of reality, an observation and retelling or showing of reality - a mediated event - rather than the unfiltered experiential reality itself.) This is a fundamental change in how humans have lived for all of history. And living this highly mediated life, which for many of us means being immersed in Fiction for the majority of our waking hours, inevitably alters the way one perceives oneself and reality itself.

This vast exposure to Fiction on a daily basis trains our minds to be observers, rather than participants, ultimately leading to increased self-consciousness as we view our own lives from afar, as Fiction.

Our minds work differently when we are observing media, even interactive media like the web, than when we are engaged directly with each other or our environment. We know that the mind forms pathways when you think repetitively in certain ways - a depressed person “stuck in a rut” for example. The same holds true for perceptual states. After so much time spent as an observer, synaptic patterns form in the brain, likely rendering the mind unable to easily shift back from this observational state to an experiential state. Our modern mediascape forces upon us an ever-increasing degree of self-awareness, with depersonalization as the dissociative endpoint of this larger phenomenon. As technological platforms continue to evolve, and media becomes even more present in our lives, the effects of Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome will continue to amplify.

Since its introduction in late 2009, Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome has been generating intense interest from an international group of scholars with a range of expertise. David Zweig has been invited to present FDS at many prestigious scholarly meetings (see list below). FDS, and Swimming Inside the Sun, have been added to course curricula at several universities. The theory is referenced in several scholarly books, including the forthcoming Drugs & Media (Continuum). FDS has garnered the support of numerous scholars from a variety of fields, including psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and media theory. Research collaborations with several of these scholars is planned or underway - stay tuned for updates!

Select List of Lectures

*Media Ecology Association Annual convention;

University of Maine, Orono, ME

*Junge Philosophie Conference;

Technische Universitat Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany

*Annual Symposium of the Institute of General Semantics;

Fordham University, New York City

*Theorizing the Web Conference;

University of Maryland, College Park, MD

*Intl. Biennial Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology;

University of North Texas, Denton, TX

*New York Society for General Semantics;

Albert Ellis Institute, New York City

*Annual Symposium of the Institute of General Semantics;

The Princeton Club, New York City

*Wheaton College;

Wheaton, Illinois

  1. *Media Ecology Association Annual convention;

Manhattan College, New York City, June 2012

*EPET - Centre for Ethics and Politics of Emerging Technologies Conference

Maastricht University, The Netherlands, July 2012

*Doctoral Seminar at the Centre for Ethics and Humanism

Free University of Brussels, Belgium, July 2012