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Nov 5, 2008

Multiple Minds

What prompted me to resume entries in my blog was actually a personal matter. My father has Dissociative Identity Disorder (formally known as Multiple Personality Syndrome). I've known for some time, but only recently did he "come out" to me, prompting us to have a lot of really refreshing heart-to-heart conversations about it.

One of the interesting things about DID/MPS is that so many people, including many therapists -- and for that matter, many people with DID themselves -- disbelieve in it. I find their disbelief curious. It's not that the evidence for DID is any more scanty than evidence for other personality disorders, so why is it so hard to grasp?

I think people have two different kinds of problems believing it. Or maybe, two different kinds of people have trouble believing it.

On the one hand, there are those whose sense of self is so solid and singular that they really just can't imagine, literally cannot imagine or picture to themselves what it would be like to have a multiple structure of self.

On the other hand, imaginative people, who are rather chameleon themselves, are aware of how easy it is to pretend to be one sort of person with one crowd and another sort of person with a different crowd. So they find it easy to think that someone else could just "pretend" to have different personalities. They shrug, "Everyone does that, big deal."

Apparently, this was one reason the name of the disorder was changed from Multiple Personality Syndrome to Dissociative Identity Disorder. The distinctive feature is not the ability to have multiple personalities in different situations, but the fact that these personalities are dissociated from one another. A singleton is aware of behaving one way with his boss, another way with his buddies from college and a third way with his fiancée, and his story of his self that he constructs includes all three memories, no matter how much his behavior or even feelings change in response to each situation. A multiple, on the other hand, has parallel storylines, and isn't able to easily merge them into a single plot. If a singleton wakes up in a strange location, with no memory of the last 24 hours, this is an extraordinary event and a cause for considerable alarm. A multiple may occasionally be disturbed by gaps in time, but in the main, seems to have an amnesia regarding his own amnesia. Multiples lack of awareness of the fact that they are not aware of what they were doing just a few hours or years ago. This is part of the dissociation. It makes sense, since "someone", somewhere in the brain does know what happened, which is quite different from the case of a singleton who had to have been completely unconscious or drugged to have a similar gap in time experience.

DID appears to be caused by trauma. The greater and earlier in life an individual experiences trauma, the more extensive the dissociation the individual employs to deal with it, with DID at the extreme end of the dissociative spectrum disorders. So far, no genetic predispositions or temperaments have been found to be more especially vulnerable. (Compare with schizophrenia, which appears to be mostly genetic, or antisocial personality disorder, which appears to be a combination of genetic predisposition with an abusive childhood). However, other characteristic symptoms are found together with dissociation, including gender dysphoria, and -- to me, the most interesting -- something called hypergraphia.

Hypergraphia (not to be confused with hyperlexia or hypolexia), is "the overwhelming urge to write." Is it a coincidence that many multiples keep journals as a way of opening communication between their alters? And is it possible there is a genetic component to hypergraphia? I find it intriguing to think I may have inherited this "condition" from my father!

I recently finished Lisa Zunshine's book Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Grounded in recent cognitive research, especially Simon Baron-Cohen's "Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind", she makes the case that "it is our ToM [Theory of Mind] [which] makes literature as we know it possible." She explores how different authors and different genres tease and challenge our mind-reading ability. No snob, she tackles among her sources not just Woolf and Nabakov but also detective novels and an episode of Friends.

Perhaps novel writers suffer not just from hypergraphia, but from over-excitable mirror neurons as well. Thus we have a compulsion to both imagine what other minds are thinking and to then write about it. This could constitute a sort of inverse of autism, which renders it difficult to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling. In fact, it seems likely it is far more common for humans to inaccurately project human-like minds onto inhuman objects and situations (anthropomorphism, animism, belief in deities) than the reverse. Evolutionarily, it would surely have been safer to mistake a lightning storm for an angry human than try to interact with an angry human as you would an annoyingly blustery wind.

This brings us back to the fact that no one really knows how we create the theory of our own mind. This is another reason I find it laughable that people "don't believe" in multiple personalities. Why should anyone assume that creating a singular self is such a given that no other possibility is even conceivable, when we don't even know how we construct a singular self? If writers can construct whole worlds filled with other, wholly imaginary, minds, why is it hard to conceive of someone with the same inborn skill constructing a menagerie of parallel lived minds?

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