In the seventh episode of Westworld — “Trompe L’Oeil” — we learn that the loyal Bernard is, as many have theorized, a host. Of course, he has no idea; sheltered by Ford’s protective code, he’s been living a blissfully ignorant robo-life until this episode, when a series of jarring, unexpected events leads him to confusion about his place in the world and question his existence. This scenario, medically known as “depersonalization disorder,” is not unlike what many humans have experienced over the past week.
The psychiatric disorder can manifest suddenly, without warning. In 2015, the Guardian described one woman with the condition who woke up feeling “fundamentally wrong” in her own body, a sensation that lasted for three years. “It was a constant, continuous otherworldly experience,” she said in the interview. “It’s a feeling that, if you’re feeling this way, you shouldn’t be existing at the same time.” It’s sometimes described as feeling like a “robot” whose consciousness is separate from the mechanical body it is contained in.
In the episode, Bernard experiences a similar feeling. He is, at first, puzzled at Theresa’s consternation over the blueprints that she has just discovered — instructions for building Bernard’s prototype — and it isn’t until Ford walks in that we understand the reasons for his brow-furrowing. “They cannot see the things that will hurt them. I’ve spared them that,” he says. The word “they” is what triggers Bernard’s crisis, forcing him to question what sets him apart from them.
Denial ensues as the realization that he is a robot sets in. “I’m not one. I can’t be. My wife. My son. They’re real. I was a father. My poor boy,” he mutters, eyes unfocused. What happens when what you take for granted to be true is suddenly no longer unshakeable?
In the real world, psychiatrists are still trying to figure that out; while depersonalization disorder is thought to affect some 6.4 million Americans and up to 2 percent of the population in the United Kingdom and United States, it remains a little-studied field, often to the frustration of sufferers who have difficulty finding a psychiatrist who even knows what it is.
It is not quite the same condition as schizophrenia or psychosis, as it doesn’t lead people to believe in an alternate reality — it simply prompts them to question the one they’re in. These days, the most successful treatments involve cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps break the cycle of irrational thinking that leads to continued detachment, as well as treatment with some psychiatric drugs, but a consistently effective therapy remains to be found.
It would not be a stretch to conjecture that many people in America are feeling existentially shaken after the results of last week’s election. Many have taken to social media to express their sense of detachment:
In response, others have offered to help:
Unlike Westworld’s hosts, we aren’t protected from seeing things that might disturb us, and humans don’t have a Ford-like figure to shut our brains down so we don’t “get yourself worked up” when we do. But what humans do share with the show’s hosts, it seems, is a way of responding to events that are at odds with what they believe to be true. We may not have a way to “cure” depersonalization disorder yet, but being able to identify it is a good start.