ALT! Who Goes There? Part Three by Extropia DaSilva


During a series of discussions about roleplaying and related topics, Gwyn referred to her “model of self that is based on ‘shards’ that we can fit together and present to others. These are not fixed but can be moved; we all go through our teens shuffling them around, and certainly when using drugs and alcohol a few of those shards become more apparent than others (we exhibit different sides of our personality)”. She went on to give the example of one person at two very different social events (at a beach party with friends; at a formal ball) pointing out that “they’re one and the same person — different environments affect our behaviours differently, but these are only social constructs”.

This clearly adheres to the ‘many sides’ theory of self which (you will recall from part one) insists that people can only change on the surface, while deep down there is a solid, unchanging ‘core self’. But, we saw in part two how this assumption ran into difficulty when philosophers tried to find that essential core. It turned out to be illusive. Postmodern theory insist that ‘the self’ just is a social construct, which raises the question of why Gwyn’s hypothetical person should be considered ‘the same’ when behaving appropriately in two very different social settings.

When it comes to testing someone’s personality, the most widely used test is the ‘Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’ or MBTI. It identifies a person as being one of sixteen psychological types. In a review of eleven studies of MBTI tests, it was found that only 24% of respondents were put in the same type when they retook the test. Rita Carter compared MBTI types to star signs, “loose enough to slip into one, then another, and believe both are tailor-made”. Another widely used personality test is commonly known as the ‘Big Five’, because it describes people by where they lie on five dimensions, each one a personality trait: ‘Openness to experience’, ‘conscientiousness’, ‘extroversion’, ‘agreeableness’ and finally ‘neuroticism’. When people repeatedly took the Big Five test while adopting several roles (‘friend’, ‘student’, ‘employee’, ‘lover’, and ‘child’) they were rated differently for every role. In fact, various experiments have shown that people will adopt whatever personality best suits the situation, while at the same time believing they are giving an honest and neutral description of their ‘real’ personality.


So, should we conclude that Gwyn is wrong? Actually, no, not necessarily. The reason why is because there is more than one way in which ‘personality’ can manifest itself in the brain. No human is born with personality and self-identity pre-installed (so to speak) but neither is the mind a ‘blank slate’. Rita Carter compared the newborn mind to a “building site with a unique form that influence and constrain — but do not dictate — what is erected on it”. Here, she is referring to the individual genetic leanings and built-in drives each and every newborn comes equipped with.

One thing that manifests early on (by four months) is a fascination for goal-orientated action. Babies would much rather watch moving spots of light that form a moving figure, than spots of light moving in a random way. The human brain is highly sensitive to complex motion. This was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Gumar Johansson in 1973. He attached small lights to the major joints of a person, then filmed his subject moving around in complete darkness. When other people watch the recording, they are unable to tell there is a person present if the lights are motionless. But when they are moving, not only can people see that it is a person, they can also determine the gender and even if she is happy or sad.

Humans do much more than passively watch complex movement, they also experience it as though they themselves were physically performing the action. In doing so, they tend to imitate the action of others. When someone is asked to move their arm up and down while watching someone else move their arm from side to side, careful measurements show the movement is much more variable than would be the case if they performed the movement without observing the other. This is because the brain has an automatic tendency to imitate the actions of others. This, however, is not the case when observing a mechanical arm moving in a stereotypically robotic way. We come to acquire an understanding that not everything moves of its own accord to obtain a goal. The robot arm is not perceived as an agent performing goal-orientated action, so the mind does not bother to imitate it.

By observing the actions of others and being prolific imitators, infants pick up what Rita Carter calls ‘micros’. These are the building blocks of personality — the individual quirks, habits, responses, mannerisms etc that we pick up from other people, imitate, and incorporate into our own repertoire. Some micros are compatible with others, and they get attached to one another to form ‘minors’, which are personality traits which tend to come out only in certain situations. In turn, compatible minors can coalesce to form ‘majors’- a fully fleshed-out character with thoughts, desires, intentions, emotions and beliefs.

According to Rita Carter, “personalities cohere as a result of experiences connecting up in the brain, forming a ‘web’ that holds our memories”. What is a memory? It is commonly thought of as being a replay of past events, but from the perspective of the brain a memory is a pattern of neural firing that it can easily reproduce. In doing so, it partially reconstitutes the experience of a previous episode in our lives. ‘Memory’, then, is not an event but an experience.

Memories that partially reconstitute a previous experience are called ‘episodic’. Sometimes, the ‘I’ component fades away and we remember only factual bits. You may recall the year in which the Battle of Hastings took place, but not where you were and what you were doing when you first learned this. We call such memories ‘semantic’. Or, the factual bits can be lost, leaving only emotional or ‘I-memories’.

Whatever the memory type, it is encoded in the brain in a web-like way, with some memories more strongly connected than others. Jog one memory, and the effect is felt by all the others, although how strongly it is felt depends on the strength of the ties. However, it is rarely the case that the mind forms a single, densely integrated web. The reason why not is because, yes, we each have only one brain, but that brain has many different processes, and they are not all compatible with each other. Some personalities must remain separate and distinct from each other, because the brain-states that generate them are just too different.


It is useful to think of those optical illusions that appear to flip back and forth between two images, such as two faces in silouette, or a white vase. Such illusions show how the brain has an occasional inability to see things in two ways simultaneously. That is not to say that while you see the two faces you are ignorant of the vase’s existence. You understand that this is, in a way, two images in one. But your brain does not allow you to see both images at the same time, instead one image is present, then the other, in an endless cycle. Similarly, while we can certainly be aware of conflicting thoughts and mixed emotions, we cannot be more than one personality at a time. At the level of behaviour, we have to switch from one to another, because the brain’s inability to see things in two ways at the same time exists at all levels, including areas concerned with thought and emotion.

The separation of various mental processes is known as ‘disassociation’. This is what ensures dissimilar experiences are only loosely connected, if at all. There are all kinds of states associated with the term, so it is best to think of disassociation as a spectrum. Earlier, we saw how the parts of the brain responsible for visual perception are unable to process all the bits gathered by the retina each second. Editing out most of the information coming from ‘out there’ is actually an essential trait. If such editing did not occur, the barrage of information would leave you overwhelmed and unable to cope.

This kind of everyday neglect of background distraction is one kind of disassociation. It happens when you concentrate on one conversation among many at a social gathering, when your RL environment fades into the subconscious background leaving the online world as the primary reality, or when you become absorbed in a good story. Moving over to the opposite extreme of the spectrum, we find what are known as ‘disassociative disorders’. They can be organized into two categories: Chronic Detachment, and Compartmentalization. The former can either mean the feeling of being somehow disconnected from the rest of the world (this is known as ‘derealisation’) or it can mean feeling detached from yourself (‘depersonalization’). For instance, there is a condition known as ‘Cotard’s Syndrome’ — a neurological decoupling of feelings and thoughts. One sufferer believed that all that was left of her was her voice “and, if it goes, I won’t be anything”.

Compartmentalization refers to any state in which memories are completely cut off. One might find it impossible to recall past events- the classic ‘who am I?’ amnesia. Or, one might find themselves subjectively stuck in the past, as happens in ‘flashbacks’ often associated with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Then there are the complete separation of personalities aka multiple personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder. What all these disorders share in common, is that they are brain states completely cut off and separate so that when something triggers them, they are experienced in isolation.

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