|Instances of Change: The Possibility of Multiple Selves (Part 2)||| Print ||
|Written by Dave Combden|
|Wednesday, 15 June 2011 00:00|
In Part 1 of "Instances of Change," Dave wrote what sparked his research into the possibility of multiple selves, sudden insight, and self-actualization. In Part 2, Dave addresses two other ways in which the brain can change itself.
2. Abnormal Psychology/Effects of Trauma
This form may be the most recognizable personality change, when one suffers from dissociative identity disorder (or DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) and suddenly 'changes' into a different person. Being a fairly rare condition, it is unlikely that anyone reading this article has witnessed one of these changes, but it is one of the most written and speculated about of the many pathologies listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders IV-TR.
What many people don't realize is that DID is one of five dissociative disorders recognized by the American Psychological Association. The others include dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalization disorder, and derealization. They all share common elements but are different enough to warrant exclusive diagnoses. There are also five core symptoms that these disorders share in varying intensities and combinations, but only individuals suffering from DID generally exhibit all core symptoms at extreme levels, which is probably why it's the most well known.
Sybil Isabel Dorsett is the name that comes to many people's minds when they think of Multiple Personality Disorder (which I will now refer to as DID). Sybil's case was famous, not only for the sheer magnitude of individuals living inside of her (she had 16 other selves) but also due to the book and resulting movie that they made about her case and her treatment. Sybil was the first person with DID who was successfully treated with psychoanalysis. Her therapist created an amalgam of all 16 selves into a 17th self, a new Sybil.
Through countless instances of abuse, neglect. and mistreatment as a child, Sybil sought treatment in her early 30s for her 'nervousness.' It is now widely accepted that trauma and abuse early in childhood can be key factors in the development of DID, although one doesn't necessarily follow the other. There are people who were abused as children who don't go on to develop DID, just as there are people diagnosed with a dissociative disorder who show no evidence of abuse or trauma. That being said, there is a high correlation between abuse/trauma and dissociation. There is a lot of overlap between mental disorders, and, as anyone who has read psychological case studies will probably know, diagnoses are rarely as cut-and-dry as they seem. Distorted perceptions of oneself show up in diagnoses including schizophrenia, depression, autism, bipolar, and body dysmorphic disorder, as well as DID.
Susanne Antonetta, a woman diagnosed with bipolar (which used to be called manic depression), writes about how she grew up believing that she had multiple selves. She explicitly mentions a number of personalities she had developed whilst growing up in her book A Mind Apart. She sometimes referred to herself in the third person when she was younger.
Even Bob Dylan refers to himself as having 'multiple selves' and has recently been the subject of a psychiatric article in the journal Psychoanalytic Perspectives. In it, author Hilary Grill examines the many personas of Dylan and how they have served him as an artist. This topic was also addressed in the film I'm Not There, in which multiple actors and actresses played the award-winning artist.
Just how one becomes a multiple (take note that this designation is quite distinct from the concept of multiple personalities as a diagnosis; whereas a clinical diagnosis typically involves unknown 'others' taking over during times of stress, Dylan's condition merely recalls a state of being where he is conscious of the goings-on), no one knows, and the causes Grill puts forth are purely speculative. But the field of neurology may have some answers.
3. Physiological Effects/Neuroplasticity
This exciting new field of research has already changed the way we view personality, behaviour, and the limits of our power to control our own minds and bodies. Work done with stroke patients who, even 10 years ago, doctors said would never heal has altered our viewpoint on the power of the brain and its capacities. This type of neurological research has opened up our minds (no pun intended) to possibilities that we'd never before imagined. People labelled as 'retarded' discovering how to overcome it, aging brains being rejuvenated, IQs raised, and self-healing techniques uncovered -- all of these discoveries point to a very malleable and powerful brain in each one of our heads. This type of research is essentially paving the way for a user's guide to the brain, and I think is the key to my assertion that we are in control of this power.
The physical biology of the brain and its relationship to behaviour and personality was never so dramatically exhibited than when Phineas Gage fell victim to an unfortunate construction accident. Gage was the foreman for a railroad construction crew in the mid 1800s. He was using a steel rod to force a charge of blasting powder into a hole drilled in solid rock. When the charge accidentally went off, it sent the steel rod through his cheek and out through the top of his head, passing through his brain and largely destroying his frontal cortex. He survived the accident, but people close to him remarked on the sudden and dramatic personality change evident from that day on. Prior to the accident Gage was known as a conscientious, hardworking, and industrious man, whereas after the accident he became childish, irresponsible, whimsical, and very thoughtless toward others. In more recent years, it has been found that the frontal cortex is extremely important in thinking ahead and planning for the future. In this way, the physical structure of the brain and any alteration to it will undoubtedly dramatically influence outward behaviour.
In the book The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge presents case studies of people exhibiting the phenomenon of neuroplasticity by performing seemingly miraculous feats. For example, one case study is of Cheryl, whose vestibular apparatus didn't work. The vestibular apparatus is considered the 'sixth sense,' the sense of balance. Individuals for whom it doesn't work are called 'wobblers.' They literally cannot stand without holding onto something; they can't balance themselves. When Cheryl was fitted with special helmet with a tongue device attached to it, she could feel, with her tongue, when she moved her head around. She could feel how her body reacted to this and could correct herself without falling over. What this demonstrated is the brains ability to replace one sense with another. In this case, Cheryl's sense of touch (the device in her mouth) replaced her vestibular apparatus as the main sense of balance. At first, when the device and helmet were removed, there was a residual effect, and she could keep her balance for a few minutes afterwards. Over time, the residual effect started to increase exponentially. Now she doesn't wear the device at all, and no longer considers herself a wobbler.
The essence of neuroplasticity, is the ability of the brain to literally re-wire itself. In Doidge's book, he outlines example after example of how this is done through training and self-discipline. These examples are mostly from rehabilitation literature, as the field is burgeoning there. He uses an analogy to outline how plastic the brain is. Imagine you're at the top of a freshly snow-covered hilltop. You've got a sled, and you're ready to toboggan down the hill. The options are endless; you can go in any direction you want. So, you pick a direction and ride down the hill, creating a path behind you in the snow. Now, you're back on top of the hill, and you've got the same choice. You can go in the same direction you went down before and follow the path that's already there, or you can pick another side and make another path. Now picture doing this 1000 times, either picking new directions every time or picking the same path every time. Picture how different the hill would look in either scenario with an equal number of pathways surrounding the hill from multiple trips heading in different directions or just one very well grooved path.
And this is basically how the brain works. It's malleable and can be moulded in many different ways, but there's a paradox there. Due to its plasticity, the brain can also be moulded into something quite rigid if it's not exercised and used to its full potential. The more one makes the same choices over and over and over again, the more difficult it is to get out of the habit of doing that one thing. The brain operates on a 'use-it-or-lose-it' principle, much like any muscle in the human body. If one doesn't use certain neural connections, they'll atrophy and die. That's the fundamental idea between this new wave of 'Brain Games,' which are structured to enhance neural functioning by selective training of specific mental capacities (memory, flexibility, problem solving, attention, and speed).
What happened to me when I stopped playing guitar for a month was that I wasn't accessing those strong emotional memories that are tied with the songs I had written. When I sang, I didn't recognize my voice because, as a muscle itself, the larynx needs a constant workout to keep in shape. Naturally, it sounded unfit. I didn't identify with the words because my brain had temporarily lost the connections whence the lyrics came.
I've been studying personality change now for two years, reading everything I can on the subject and surprised at where references pop up. Essentially, neuroplasticity is the key . . . to all of this. From losing one's voice (or not recognizing it), to replacing the vestibular apparatus with the sense of touch, to the sociological underpinnings of Bob Dylan's self-representations, to Susanne Antonetta's manic to depressive mood shifts, to Sybil Dorsett's 16 alters, to transcendence of motivations and drives.
As for people's experiences of epiphanies, these are still a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they are a vision from a higher power, but maybe they're the culmination of a series of subtle psychological shifts happening in the brain, the end result of many differing neuroplastic toboggan trails. This thought fills me with awe and reminds me of what we just may be capable of.
Tags: abnormal psychology, bob dylan, culture, neuroplasicity, norman doidge, possibility, psychology, trauma