ALT! Who Goes There? Part Three by Extropia DaSilva


At this point, some mistaken assumptions need to be addressed. It is not the case (though many I speak to seem to think it is) that your mind is either unified or you have MPD. Disassociation, remember, is a spectrum and there are many states existing between the two extremes of being strongly unified and strongly fragmented. Also, the distinguishing feature of MPD is the fact that the personalities do not share a common memory. It has nothing to do with the nature or behaviour of their ‘alters’. Some people seem to think that if you claim to be roleplaying a character whose personality may differ from your RL personality, you must have MPD. This is obviously not the case, because while actors are aware of the existence of both personalities, the complete compartmentalization of memories responsible for MPD leaves its sufferers unaware of the existence of ‘alter’ personalities.

While not everyone experiences a compartmentalization type disorder, we have all experienced a kind of depersonalization. Very young children do not have the ability to think in symbolic terms, and because of this they are unable to imagine things existing in the past or future. From the subjective point-of-view of the infant, the ‘I’ of now is all there is, quite unconnected to the ‘me’s’ of yesterday or tomorrow. You will recall from part two that what enables the infant to tie the ‘me’s’ of the moment into a single, continuous thread is the ability to see itself from the outside. But, because the infant obviously lacks the wealth of memories older children have, the network of self is generally far patchier. Sometimes they fail to recognize their personality as their own. Such personalities are seen by the child as external, autonomous entities. Or, to give them their more common name: Imaginary companions.

You might think that it is only small children who have imaginary companions. However, a study conducted by a team lead by Marjorie Taylor shows this is not the case. In a study of fifty fiction writers, it was found that forty six had invented characters who subsequently resisted their creator’s attempts to control the narrative. They even came to inhabit the writer’s home. The authors who described more frequent and detailed accounts of their creations seeming to ‘break free’ had more success in getting their work published.

Douglas Hoffstadter once asked, “what was the nature of the ‘Holden Caulfield’ symbol in J. D. Salinger’s brain… that structure was all there ever was to Holden Caulfield… but Holden Caulfield seems like so much of a person, with a true core, a true soul, a true personal gemma… You couldn’t ask for a richer representation, a richer mirroring of one person inside another person, than whatever constituted the Holden Caulfield symbol inside Salinger’s brain”.


The way to approach Hoffstadter’s question is to consider the opposing forces of coalescing micros and minors on one hand, and the varying forms and varying strengths of disassociation on the other. Recall that people are natural-born mimics, their brains copy the actions and mirror the emotions of other people. In doing so, ‘micros’ — basic building blocks of personality — cluster together and form ‘minors’. The more they have in common, the more micros and minors cluster together and the stronger the ties in the ‘web’ will be. Conversely, the less they have in common, the more likely disassociation is to weaken the ties and compartmentalize the underlying mental processes. This results in what I shall call the ‘circle of multiplicity’.

Before going on to describe various webs, it is worth mentioning some things they all share in common. Firstly, no web is intrinsically good or bad. They are each useful adaptations to a particular environment. Secondly, it is by no means the case that once one web is built up that is it and it remains in place for life. Instead, if your environment should change and your lifestyle suits another web more than the one currently built up, it is likely that a different and more appropriate state-of-mind will replace the old one.

Now, imagine a person who lives a fairly stable and unchanging life. The sort, perhaps, who has spent decades in the same job, and who’s social activities follow regular patterns. The micros and minors this person acquires will have much in common with those already in place, and as such their ‘mind web’ will be highly integrated, with every bit closely connected to every other bit. This is called a ‘Single Major’. A mind that develops into a single major could justifiably be said to be a single self. What you see is what you get with such people. They have one way of looking at the world. There are no hidden sides to their personality. On the plus side, this can make them very reliable and dependable. On the downside, it also makes them rather inflexible and inadaptable.

In the popular imagination, we are all supposed to have a whole, unified and integrated personality. But in this day and age, a person rarely lives a life stable enough to suit the emergence of a single major. What happens, then, if you lead the kind of life where there are stable periods that follow predictable routines, but occasionally you like to (or have to) break free from those regular patterns and have irregular experiences? The fairly stable aspects of this lifestyle will result in the development of a ‘Major’ — a well-recognized personality. But the irregular experiences leaves the ‘major’ ill-suited to cope (since they do not fit the responses it is equipped with) and so this encourages a partial fragmentation. Micros more suited to the irregular experiences will clump together in their own cluster, only weakly connected to the ‘major’. This is known as a ‘major-minor’. Such minds have the stability needed to sustain longterm goals, but also the flexibility to adapt to change. Of all the various mind webs, this one is the most common.

In the ‘major-minor’ example, we considered a person whose life occasionally breaks free from routine. But what about the sort of person whose life is equally invested between two very different experiences? Someone, perhaps, whose working life requires an entirely different set of responses and personalities to their domestic life? The equal time invested in both circumstances will result in a ‘Double Major’ —two well-developed, but often entirely opposing, personalities. Because one set only comes out in the particular situation it is called for, a work colleague who has never spent time with a ‘double-major’ outside of work might be hard-pressed to recognize their colleague when in ‘domestic’ mode.

Finally, there are people for whom change and chaos, not stability and routine, are the norm. No habitual set of responses has a chance of developing into a major, because their life changes too often for any such stable structure to form. This encourages the formation of a ‘multiple minor’. If the ‘single major’ can be compared to a landscape that is smooth and continuous made by the best lawn mowing service, multiple minor should be thought of as an archipelago of many small islands. Multiple minors offer a diversity and flexibility that can bless a person with amazing powers of creativity, but only if they can learn to control when the ‘right’ minor will come out. The downside is that they often abandon one task in favour of a different one, and for reasons that are not clear even to themselves.

So, why call these various states the circle of multiplicity? Recall that single major is like one single landmass. Now imagine parts of that landmass have become semi-detached, and the landscape that develops on that semi-detached part is something like the rest of the mainland, but nevertheless different in character. This is the character-scape of the major-minor. Now think of parts of the landscape breaking free, so that there is more than one island, each one distinct from the other. Finally, imagine each island drifting away from its neighbours, until the distance between them is so large you could inhabit any one and not see the others. Each personality believes it is the only one inhabiting that brain. It seems, in other words, to be a single landmass. Hence we appear to be back where we started, hence ‘circle of multiplicity’.

So, now it should become clear why Gwyn is not necessarily wrong. For sure, some states of mind (such as Single Major) can justifiably be called ‘one and the same person’ and the most common form (Major-Minor) should be thought of as a well-defined character which also has certain kinds of personality traits that tend not to be apparent unless appropriate circumstances require them to be active. Her example of a person at a very sociable, relaxing event and later a highly formal occasion are good examples of the sort of things that bring out our minors. However, there are also characterscapes which arguably do not sit well with Gwyn’s definitions.


Remember my point about the spectrum of disassociation having states lying between ‘everyday’ forms like daydreaming and extreme forms like MPD? The same is true with the ‘characterscapes’. Instead of islands so remote they are unaware of each other’s existence, imagine several islands with very different characteristics that are all in sight of one another. Therefore, they are aware of the existence of others, can communicate with those ‘others’ and come to think of themselves as part of a community.

This is a visual metaphore of a state-of-mind called ‘co-consciousness’. As the name suggests, people with such a mindscape have a strong sense of being many personalities. Each personality has a vivid sense of identity, sometimes one so strong that each prefers to dress differently, has different interests and habits, even insists on having their own name. Unlike MPD, co-consciousness is not a total compartmentalization of selves. It is more like a co-habitation. The following transcript gives some insight into this extraordinary state of mind:

“First thing we have to do each week is check the stock lists on the computer, and that is really painstaking, detailed stuff. Personally, I would be hopeless at it, but Immy is great at it… People who know us well can always tell which of us has done a particular display… because we have very different styles… we can get locked into a tussle, with me arranging them one way, then P sneaking back and rearranging them… we came to this arrangement: I do it for a couple of weeks, then P does it”.

Of course, in reality ‘I’, ‘P’ and ‘Immy’ all share the same body and the same brain. But they are the products of different brain processes. It used to be the case that we could not tell if this was just an act. Maybe this person only pretends to ‘be’ Immy and P for whatever reason? While this seems like an obvious conclusion, experiments using fMRI and other brain-imaging techniques suggests something else is going on.

There was, for instance, a woman who could switch from one personality to another. During the switch (as Rita Carter explained) “the part of the brain that processes memories temporarily closed down, as though it was shutting off one ‘bag’ of memories while switching on another”. There was also a study that involved women who had two distinct personalities. One claimed to have experienced a childhood trauma. The other denied any such trauma happened. While the latter personality was active, each woman listened to an actor reading from a transcript that they themselves had recorded while in the former state. Measurement of brain activity showed no activity in the parts of the brain that normally respond to a personal anecdote. This strongly suggests that the women reacted to the story as though it was something somebody else had experienced. On the other hand, listening to the actor’s recording while in the alter state did cause a lot of activity in areas thought to be associated with the sense of self and personal identity.

In yet another study of personality-switchers, it was found that their brainwave coherence (which is a measure of which neurons have synchronized their firing) was completely different for each personality, which strongly suggests these people really do think and feel differently in each state. Crucially, when actors are asked to mimic personality-switching (or when real personality-switchers are asked to act out the condition) no such change in brainwave coherence is apparent. Studies like these, when taken together, make it very hard to believe it is all just an act.

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