A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 3 “Psyche”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The third episode is a little harder to figured out based on its title, as it’s called “Psyche,” and “psyche” has a long and varied history. In mythology, Psyche was the mortal princess who fell in love with and, eventually, married the god Cupid; in religion and classical philosophy, psyche came to mean the human soul, and in the modern, literate world, it retains that meaning as the human spirit; in Freudian analysis, psyche refers to the totality of the human mind: the id, ego and superego. No doubt one sees the trouble here. “Lain” is just as comfortable borrowing from Freudian analysis as it is from classical religion.

Every meaning of psyche is distinctly human: a human princess who achieves godhood, the soul or mind of an individual. If previous episodes introduced the blurring of the real world with the Wired, then “Psyche” is the episode that starts to blur human identity online and offline. One doesn’t even have to venture into the Wired to ask what is human. Alice asks why her friends are not more shaken up after watching someone shoot himself in the head the previous day.

The character whose humanity is most blurred in Lain’s. This is the first episode that asks who is Lain–the question is asked verbatim (and repeatedly) by a disembodied voice during one of Lain’s visions. Earlier, in the opening scene, the narration that usually covers the ubiquitous shot of a crosswalk is gone. Instead, a cryptic voice waits until we see the chaos exiting Cyberia after the shooting to ask if we have heard of “Lain of the Wired.”

Within the confines of the show’s narrative, psyche refers to a computer processor. However, a droning voice informs us that: “If you look at the Psyche as a mere processor, you lose sight of the whole.” This sounds like gestalt theory, the understanding that a whole is greater or separate from its parts and is perceived like a structured process.

Intriguingly, the second half of the episode opens with a series of disembodied voices communicating about a variety of seemingly unrelated topics–including some that predict events that will occur later in the series. The only visual is of the ubiquitous telephone poles.

This is, in a way, a gestalt way to view the Wired, as a flow of communication that is composed of smaller conversations but is greater than any individual conversations. And, if the references to past and future events in the series is taken into account, it is perhaps a way to view the series as a single process rather than unique episodes. It’s as if the entirety of “Lain” is happening at the same time. This is the psyche, the soul or spirit, of both the Wired and the series at once.

On the smaller scale, when Lain applies the Psyche processor to her Navi, she is installing a spirit or soul, an animating element, to her machine (recalling Darren Aronofsky’s indie debut, the metaphysical thriller “Pi”). Notably, the Psyche does not replace the main processor; Psyche augments the main processor, interpreting the data that flows through it. The soul is not simply the brain. It is an elevated consciousness or meta-self.

Toward the end of the episode, Lain gets an impromptu programming lesson from some younger kids in Cyberia. One boy asks if she is Lain, and reveals that he saw her in the Wired. He says, “Most people take on a personality in the Wired that’s different than what they have in the real world, but yours are total opposites.” He doesn’t say that people are different than who they are but than “what they have.” An identity in the Wired is already understood to be an augmentation of an identity in the real world, if only in passing. The knowledge is there. It’s simply waiting for the proper interpretation.

Perhaps it is important to remember a final meaning of the word “psyche.” The word also meant “butterfly,” which is how the Greeks imagined the soul to appear. No doubt the symbolism of the creature that begins as one thing and transforms into another would not be lost on the authors of “Lain.”


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