It could be either one. This is a great question and one that puzzles a lot of people. That’s because dissociating takes many forms, so it depends on the degree and kind of dissociation.
The most garden variety kind of dissociation is when a part of you is watching what you’re doing, as if from a distance, but you’re pretty disconnected from your body sensations and your emotions. This can have a terrific protective/survival function during times of extreme duress, danger or physical pain, because you can think and act and save yourself unhampered by feelings or sensations that could paralyze you if you experienced them fully.
This phenomenon is largely biochemical - the result of being flooded with a mix of stress related neurohormones (both the alarm kind and the sedation kind) that I explain in that chapter on the biochemistry of trauma. But don’t forget that to a certain extent, this partial disconnect is also what happens during peak performance states in combat, athletics or other kinds of performing, when we lose track of the ‘self’ per se and just become one with the activity. And, depending on the biochemical mix, there can be some partial memory loss or compressed memory with this, or there might be a very crisp and clear, slow motion memory of the whole thing. It varies.
But there are forms of dissociation, especially during times of extreme threat to life and limb, where a person drops into a classic, mammalian, survival-based, freeze state, and all memory of the event is gone, because they were barely “there” at the time. It’s thought that this is also because of mega-doses of neurohormones flooding the system, particularly in the opioid department. The more times you freeze, the more likely you are to do so again (although you can train yourself out of doing so).
There are other forms of extreme dissociated states - fugue states, sleep-walking, sleep-eating and various profound identity disorders (including what used to be called multiple personality) - that occur more rarely, where people are in a deep trance and are not tracking what they’re doing at the time that they’re doing it. They don’t remember because they were never aware in the first place. This too is the result of the biochemistry of trauma and a neurophysiology that has been conditioned and super-sensitized by traumatic events, usually repeated many times in childhood. (But keep in mind that not all people who were traumatized as kids experience this - part of this depends on the neuronal system you were born with or inherited.)
So I hope this more or less answers your question. There’s just quite a range of dissociative experiences, and many forms it can take.
Dissociation, the “Trauma Trance”, Awareness & Memory Loss
BR, your book, "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" [Ed. note: Either this was someone else’s book, or he’s referring to Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal] was amazing. It helped me to understand my illness and how to begin a recovery process.
I do not understand something that I hope you can answer. When a person is dissociating or in a state of dissociation, do they actually know what they are doing but can't remember it afterwards or is it case of a person does not know what they are doing when they dissociate and that's why they can't remember?
Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award