When fiction is better than reality: Cypher's Complex

Ever felt like reality was dull as compared to a fictional world? You might have experienced Cypher’s Complex

Did you ever feel empty after finishing a good book? Like (your) reality was dull and boring as compared to the fictional world you were immersed in? Yearning to stay in longer, and at the same time knowing well that it had to come to an end? You might have experienced what we can call Cypher’s Complex.

In the movie The Matrix, Cypher is a “redpill”, i.e., an individual that has been awaken from the matrix (a virtual world). However, he becomes disappointed and unhappy with the true nature of reality, and actively seeks to return to the illusory world of the matrix. Interestingly, he also explicitly desires to forget everything about the true reality, as if keeping the awareness of living in an illusion could prevent him from fully enjoying it.

"You know... I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth; the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy, and delicious. After nine years... you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."

From a scientific perspective, the latter part can find some echo in the down-regulatory effect of fictional reappraisal. In a few studies, we showed that believing that a stimulus is “fictional” (not real) dampens our emotional state. Tucciarelli et al. (2023) also showed that the simple knowledge that a set of images of faces contains AI-generated images decreased the perceived trustworthiness of all the faces. These results suggest that being aware that the causes of our experience (the events and stimuli) are fictional can be a barrier to enjoyment and engagement. And yet, the desire to supplant reality with a fictional world can be found in real life.

Cypher’s Complex is common in mild forms. Examples can be found in the feelings of emptiness, disconnection and dullness (itself a transient and mild form of depersonalization/derealization) that follows the return from an engaging fictional world (be it in a novel, a movie or a video-game). For instance, many reported feeling blue after watching the Avatar (2009) movie, to the extent where it has been coined the “post-Avatar depression syndrome”. Most of the time, the negative affects passes, and the dissonance gets resolved either through closure (acceptance of the fictional or impermanent nature of the alternative reality), or a compromise that allows the fictional world to take a delimited space in one’s reality. For example, people might engage in activities (e.g., role playing games) or create content (writing a book or doing fan art) to integrate the fictional world into their reality.

However, Cypher’s Complex can also give rise to more severe issues with conscious or unconscious attempts at forgetting or ignoring reality (delusions, denial, …), which can lead to dire outcomes.

Interested in doing research related to effects of reality and fiction? We are looking for research assistants and PhD students at the Reality Bending Lab (check-out the join us tab)!

Dominique Makowski
Dominique Makowski
Lecturer in Psychology

Trained as neuropsychologist and CBT psychotherapist, I am currently working as a lecturer at the University of Sussex, on the neuroscience of reality perception.