Embodiment dysphoria

Dysphoria is a medicalized term for chronic unhappiness or dissatisfaction (the opposite of euphoria). It literally means ‘hard to bear’. Nominally, the goal behind medical classification is well-being. In the case of psychological and behavioral patterns, it may remove a stigma of disapproval by exonerating those defined as ill from responsibility for their condition. (For example, it is socially more correct to think of alcoholism and drug addiction as disease than as moral failure.) In the name of compassion and political correctness, medical classification may go further to remove the stigma of abnormality or inferiority. (Think of ‘disabled’ vs. ‘handicapped’.) Thus, ‘Gender Dysphoria’ was relabeled from ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ to remove the implications of “disorder.” Ironically, however, this disarms the diagnostic category and raises potentially awkward questions.

Dysphoria literally means dis-ease. If it is not a disease or disorder, what is the cause of the suffering? In the case of gender dysphoria, was the person simply dealt the wrong sex genes though a natural error that technology can fix? Is it the attitude of the patient toward their gender, or the unaccepting attitude of society, implicating the anxieties of “normals” in regard to their own sexual identities? (Some other societies have multiple gender categories, for example.) Is it an overly-charged political question, a distraction in an already divided society? Is it a social asset in an overpopulated world, since it may help reduce the birth rate? Is there a fundamental right to choose one’s gender, even one’s biological sex? Such questions can lead deep into philosophy and ethics: what it means to be a self, to have a gender, indeed to have or be a body.

There are other dysphorias, such as “Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria,” a condition where the individual is deemed hypersensitive to rejection or disapproval. “Body Identity Dysphoria” is a rare condition in which sufferers loathe having a properly functioning body at all. (They may reject a certain limb or sense modality and may seek to ruin or be rid of it.) This brings us closer to a nearly ubiquitous human condition that could (in all seriousness) be called Embodiment Dysphoria. This is the chronic discomfort of feeling trapped in a physical body—a biological organism—and the unhappiness that can entail.

Human beings have always shown signs of rejecting or resenting the physical body, in which they may feel ill at ease and imprisoned, or from which they may feel otherwise alienated. Certainly, the body is the main source of pains and of pleasures alike. We do not like being burdened with its limitations, subject to its vulnerabilities, and tied to its mortal end. Even pleasure, when biologically driven, can seem to impose upon an ideal of freedom. We may dismiss the body as our true identity, and may fail to care for it with due respect. Traditionally—in religion and now through technology—humans seek a life apart from the body and its concerns. All of culture, in the anthropological sense, can be seen to express the quest to transcend or deny our animal origins, to separate from nature and live apart from it in some humanly-defined realm. In terms of nature’s plan, that may be crazy or sick. But since this condition is “normal,” it will never be found in any version of the DSM.

The natural cure for Embodiment Dysphoria is the relief that comes with death. However, built into rejection of the body is typically a belief that personal experience can and should be dissociated from it. If consciousness can continue after the death of the body, then death may not offer an end to suffering after all. From a naturalist point of view, pain is an embodied experience, a signal that something is amiss with the body. Suffering may be emotional or psychological, but is grounded in the body and its relations in the world. Yet, it is an ancient belief that consciousness does not depend on the brain and its body. That may be no more than wishful thinking, based on the very rejection of suffering that characterizes Embodiment Dysphoria. If, as modern science believes, pain and pleasure (and indeed all experience) are bodily functions, then neither heaven nor hell, nor anything else, are possible experiences for a disembodied spirit. Religion promises the continuation of consciousness, disembodied after death. Curiously, it also promises the resurrection of the body necessary for consciousness.

While medicine hopes to prolong the life of the body, and religion hopes to upstage it, computer science proposes to transcend it altogether. A high-tech cure for Embodiment Dysphoria would be to upload one’s mind to cyberspace. While ‘mind’ is an ambiguous term, the presumption is that a conscious subject could somehow be severed from its natural body and brain and “live” in a virtual environment, with a virtual body that cannot suffer and has no imperfections. Were it feasible, that too would solve the population problem! A disembodied existence would not take up real space or use real resources other than computational power and memory. However, for several reasons it is not feasible.

First, virtual reality as we know it presumes a real embodied subject to experience it. The notion of a simulated subject is quite a different matter. While a digital representative of the real person (an “avatar”) might appear in the VR, there is no more reason to suppose that this element of the simulation could be conscious than there is to imagine that a character in a novel can be conscious. (It is the author and the reader who are conscious.) Such a digital character—though real-seeming to the human spectator—is not a subject at all, but merely an artifact created to entertain real embodied subjects. That does not prove that artificial subjects are impossible, but it cautions us about the power of language and metaphor to confuse fundamentally different things.

Secondly, the notion of digital disembodiment presumes that the mind and personality belonging to a natural brain and body can somehow be exhaustively decoded, extracted or copied from its natural source, and contained in a digital file that can then be uploaded to a super-computer as a functioning subject in a simulated world. While there are current projects to map “the” brain at the micro-level, there is no guarantee that the structure inferred corresponds to a real brain’s structure closely enough to replicate its “program” in digital form. Much less can we assume that the interrelation between parts and their functioning can be replicated in such a way that the consciousness of the person is replicated.

Thirdly, even a fictive world must have its own consistent structure and rules. Whatever world might be designed for the disembodied subject, it would essentially be modeled on the world we know—in which bodies have limits and functions determined by the laws of nature, and in which organisms are programmed by natural selection to have preferences and to care about outcomes of interactions. Embodiment is a relation to the world in which things crucially matter to the subject; simulated embodiment would involve a similar relation to a simulated world. To be consistent, a virtual world would have to operate roughly like the real one, imposing limits parallel to those of the real world and having power over the disembodied subject in a parallel way. Otherwise it would be disconcerting or incomprehensible to an artificial mind modeled on a natural one that has been groomed in our world through natural selection.

The nature of our real consciousness is more like creating a movie than like watching one, which is an entirely passive experience. Furthermore, unlike what is presented in films, in your real field of vision parts of your own body appear in your personal “movie.” You also experience other external senses besides vision, as well as feelings occurring within the body. Above all, the experience is interactive. Maybe it would be possible to edit out physical pain from a simulated life, at the cost of adjusting the virtual world accordingly. For example, if your virtual body could not be damaged through its interactions, this would obviate the need for pain as a report of damage. But it would also require a different biology. By and large, however, your disembodied consciousness probably could not live in a world so fundamentally different from the real one that it would seem chaotic or senseless. And then there is the possibility that an unending consciousness might find it wished it could die.

Like it or not we are stuck with bodies until they cease functioning. We may abhor an end to our experience. But clinging to consciousness puts the cart before the horse. For, consciousness depends on the body and is designed to serve it, rather than the other way around. If we wish to prolong a desirable consciousness, we must prolong the health of the body, on which the quality as well as the quantity of experience depends. That goes against the grain in a society that values quantity over quality and pharmaceutical prescriptions over pro-active self-care. We have long rejected our natural lot, but an unnatural lot could be worse.