Identity alteration

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Identity alteration can be defined as the experience of one's sense of self becoming temporarily changed to feel as if it encompasses different concepts than that which it did previously. For example, if one usually feels that they are exclusively their body or "ego", this may change to feel as if their sense of identity now includes the external environment or an object they are interacting with. Alternatively, they could feel as if their sense of self no longer identifies with anything at all which is an experience commonly referred to as depersonalisation.

There are a total of 5 distinct levels of identity which a person can experience during this state. These various specific alterations have been arranged into a formalized descriptive leveling system below:

1. Total absence of attributed identity

Main article: Depersonalization

The lowest level of identity can be described as the complete absence of it. In the medical literature, this is referred to as depersonalization (or depersonalisation). It is defined as an anomaly of self-awareness that can occur as a result of prolonged stress or while under the influence of hallucinogenic substances, particularly dissociatives or cannabis. It consists of a feeling of watching oneself act as they normally would while having no control over a situation due to an absence of a feeling of agency.[1]

During this state, one may feel like they are on autopilot and that the world has become vague, dream-like, less real, or lacking in significance. Individuals who experience depersonalization feel divorced from their own personal physicality and identity by sensing their body sensations, feelings, emotions and behaviors as not belonging to them.[2] Often a person who has experienced depersonalization claims that things seem unreal or hazy during this state. This is because during depersonalisation, one lacks a feeling of identity which results in being incapable of feeling present during a situation.

It is perfectly normal for many people to slip into this state temporarily, often without even realizing it. For example, many people often note that they enter a detached state of autopilot during stressful situations or when performing monotonous routine tasks such as driving. Though degrees of temporary depersonalization can happen to anyone, chronic depersonalization is more related to individuals who have experienced severe trauma or prolonged stress or anxiety.

2. Self-contained separate identity

The second level of identity can be described as feeling as if one is a consciousness located within the body or brain which is approaching and interacting with a distinctly separate external environment. This sensation is usually accompanied with a sense of free will or agency which results in one feeling as if their decision-making processes are arising from an internal source which is not necessarily controlled by cause and effect in the same manner as external systems.

It is by far the most common form of identity and usually assumed by most people to be the only possible state of being.

3. Identifying with specific "external" systems

The third of these differing levels can be referred to as a state of “identifying with specific "external" systems.” It can be defined as the experience of a loss of perceived boundaries between a person’s identity and the specific physical systems or concepts within the perceivable external environment which are currently comprising their central point of cognitive focus.

There are an endless number of ways in which this level manifests itself, but common examples of the experience often include:

  • Becoming unified and identifying with a specific object one is interacting with
  • Becoming unified and identifying with another person or multiple people (particularly common if engaging in sexual or romantic activities)
  • Becoming unified and identifying with the entirety of one's own physical body
  • Becoming unified and identifying with large crowds of people (particularly common at raves and music festivals)
  • Becoming unified and identifying with the external environment, but not the people within it

This creates a sensation which is often described by people as the experience of becoming inextricably "connected to", "one with", "the same as", or "unified" with whatever the perceived external system happens to be. It most commonly occurs during intense states of focus, meditation or under the influence of hallucinogens such as psychedelics.

4. Identifying with all perceivable "external" systems

The fourth of these differing levels of interconnectedness can be referred to as "identifying with all perceivable "external" systems." It is defined as the experience of a loss of perceived boundaries between a person’s identity and the entirety of their sensory input including the currently perceivable external environment. The experience as a whole is generally described by people as “becoming one with their surroundings.”

This is felt to be the result of a person’s central sense of self becoming attributed to not just the internal narrative of the ego, but in equal measure to the body itself and everything around it with which it is physically connected to through the senses. Once this sensation is in place, it creates the undeniable perspective that one is the external environment experiencing itself through the specific point within it that this body’s physical sensory perception happens to currently reside in.

It is at this level that a key component of the unity experience becomes an extremely noticeable factor. Once a person's sense of self has become attributed to the entirety of their surroundings, this new perspective completely changes how it feels to physically interact with what was previously felt to be an external environment. For example, when one is not in this state it feels as though they are a central agent organizing the separate world around themselves while physically interacting with an object. However, whilst undergoing a state of unity with the currently perceivable environment, interacting with an external object consistently feels as if the system as a whole is autonomously organizing itself and that one is no longer a central agent operating the process of interaction. Instead the process suddenly feels as if it has become completely decentralized and mutual across itself as the environment begins to autonomously, mechanically and harmoniously respond to itself to perform the predetermined function of the particular interaction.

This state most commonly occurs during intense states of focus, meditation or under the influence of hallucinogens such as psychedelics.

5. Identifying with all known "external" systems

The fifth of these differing levels of identity can be referred to as "identifying with all known "external" systems." It is defined as the experience of a loss of perceived boundaries between a person's sense of self, the perceivable external environment, and all which they know to currently exist outside of this through their internally stored model of reality. This feels as if one's sense of self has become attributed to not just the external environment but all of humanity, nature, and the universe as it presently stands in its complete entirety. The experience of this is commonly interpreted by people as “becoming one with the universe.”

When experienced, this effect creates the sudden perspective that one is not a separate agent approaching an external reality, but is instead the entire universe as a whole experiencing itself, exploring itself, and performing actions upon itself through the specific point in space and time which this particular body and conscious perception happens to currently reside within. At this point, a number of commonly reported conclusions of a religious and metaphysical nature often begin to manifest themselves as profound realizations. These are described and listed below:

  • A perspective which feels personally responsible for the self-designing, planning, and implementation of every single specific detail and plot element of one's personal life, the history of humanity, and the universe as a whole. This naturally includes personal responsibility for humanity's sufferings and its flaws, but also includes its acts of love and achievements.
  • The sudden and total acceptance of death as a fundamental component of one's life. This is because death is no longer felt to be the destruction of oneself but simply the end of this specific point of conscious awareness, the vast majority of which has always existed and will continue to exist and live on through everything else in which it resides.
  • The realization that one's preconceived notions behind the definition of their concept of “god” or “god-hood” can now be felt as identical to the nature of existence and to that of one's self.

Many people who undergo this experience consistently interpret it as the removal of a deeply embedded illusion with its destruction often described as some sort of profound “awakening” or “enlightenment.”

This state most commonly occurs during intense states of focus, meditation or under the influence of hallucinogens such as psychedelics.

Similar concepts

Similar accounts of the experience of unity and the apparent illusory nature of the self can be found across a surprisingly large variety of independent religious, philosophical, and psychological sources. These have been collected and listed as a set of documented examples below:

  • Egolessness is a documented emotional state within psychology where one feels no ego (or self) and no distinct sense of self apart from the world around oneself. This is often described as feelings of oneness and being inextricably woven to the fabric of one’s surroundings or environment.
  • Monism is a philosophical position which argues that there is only one thing which all things are not separate from and it works together as a unified system of behaviour.
  • Oceanic feeling is a state within psychology which is described as a sensation of an indissoluble bond of being connected with the external world in its integral form.
  • Nondualism is a philosophy found within many religions which states that there is no difference between the concept of the external environment and the self.
  • Alan Watts is a philosopher who spoke extensively about the illusory nature of the self. His lectures can be found for free on the Pirate Bay and in parts within many videos across YouTube. His book “The Book on the Taboo of Knowing Who You Are” is dedicated to a formal explanation of the philosophies and logic behind this perspective and can be found within the form of a free PDF.
  • Interconnectedness is a philosophical concept which defines itself as part of the terminology of a world view which sees a oneness in all things. This is based upon the idea that all things are of a single underlying substance or reality and that there is no true separation deeper than appearances.
  • Samadhi is a Buddhist concept described as a state of mind in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object.
  • Overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during space flight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface.


One's self-concept is made up of self-schemas, and their past, present, and future selves.

Identity can be defined as an essential or at least near universal component of human perception that gives one the experience of a sensation which leads them to feel as if they are a separate system that is differentiated from that which is around them. This is commonly referred to as one's identity, ego or sense of self. In linguistic conversation, it is referred to through the use of pronouns such as "I", "me", "mine" and "myself" as a tool for contrasting one's self from other people or any other system which is not felt to be them.

However, it is important to note that one's identity is not a static, unmoving or objective concept and it can be experienced in many different ways. There is no component of the human brain or body which can be singled out as the part of them which is inherently where they as an individual are located. The self is thus likely a learned and constructed concept that arises through a combination of experience, language and social interactions with other people. This notion is in stark contrast to the common cultural conception that human beings each contain a separate physical identity that is a real and separate system from that which resides around it.

Within traditional religions, the intrinsic nature of human identity differs depending on its specific doctrine. For example, Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and Islam use an inherently dualist approach which claims that the self is a soul which resides within the body and is inherently separate from its external environment.[3] In contrast, eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism take an approach known as nondualism which generally speaking, assumes that the separate self is illusory and that there is no difference between one's identity or soul and the "external" universe which it resides in.[4]

See also

External links


  1. American Psychiatric Association (2004). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR (Text Revision). American Psychiatric Association. ISBN 0-89042-024-6.
  3. The Oxford Handbook of the Abrahamic Religions (Dualism) |
  4. Hindu and Buddhist Nonduality: Conflict in the New Church Mind? |