I’m not going to pretend I fully understood Serial Experiments Lain on my first viewing, but some of its ideas resonated with me– namely, that reality and the self are one in the same; an idea that the show explores thoroughly.
The first insight that SEL offers is that there is little difference between reality and “the Wired”– the show’s more immersive version of the internet. Not only does this appear true because the closer you get to a perfect simulation of reality it may as well be reality (some theories already posit that reality is a simulation), but, in a more metaphysical sense, reality is just the coalescence of the sensations and perceptions of experience. Thus, what we think of as “reality” is just a particular kind of expected experience, and if experience defies this by way of simulation or hallucination, it is said to not be reality. This message is not only inherent in the mind of Lain and others, but in the viewer, as the show’s entire atmosphere seems to encourage the dissolution of the barrier between reality and internet through its use of dream-like sound and visuals. Normally the sentiment that “reality is just created by signals in the brain” comes off as a truism, but Lain pulls it off by making it a major theme of the show.
Of course, related to reality is the self; the vehicle that we perceive to be the constant humming “I” that moves through reality. Lain’s dysphoria when she comes to realize that different versions of herself that she has no memory of have been ruining others’ lives illustrates how the idea of a constant self is tricky. After all, who you are is different depending on who you ask, because “you” are just an idea in someone else’s mind; a memory. The show even goes as far as to say that if something is not remembered it doesn’t exist, which I think pays credence to the idea that the only true existence is the present moment, and if something isn’t remembered then it doesn’t exist, because there is no past or future. Tying in with this idea is that information and memory aren’t stored, but exist like a stream that passes through all things, and can only exist as long as it is shared an in motion; an idea that is all too relevant in the sharing culture of today, despite it having been 20 years.
That the self changes depending on who you ask is a disturbing thought and raises the question: “Who is my true self”? As someone who has been interested in meditation and self-inquiry in the past I wasn’t surprised when Lain’s answer to the question was “God”. However, the person who plays the role of God changes throughout the show, with Lain believing it is her at times and her creator believing it to be him. When Lain points out that her very existence implied that he needed help and thus can’t be God, he devolves into a horrific monster. I believe this may symbolize the sort of mental contamination one can inflict on themselves if they become carried away with the idea that they are God the one and only. This means then that God is everything; it is experience right now. Lain is God because she is experience, and everyone else is as well. This is hard to swallow and only one interpretation of the word God (that has a much more religiously charged meaning these days). However, it makes sense if you go through the process of trying to figure out what or where you are? Are you your body? Your thoughts? The steady “hum” that persists regardless of what changes around you? If you’re honest, you’ll find that none of these could be you. In fact, the only thing that could possibly be you is the whole of everything you are experiencing right now. Of course, this is all just my interpretation.
I understand this might seem like the ramblings of an insane person, but keep in mind that my reading of the show is heavily based on my study and practice of meditation and non-dualism, so your mileage may vary. I can tell that Serial Experiments Lain is a show that can probably be understood in many ways and mined endlessly for meaning. That said, I’m sure I could get a much better understanding from another viewing and other perspectives, so let me know what you think of the series in the comments.