[Paleopsych] The Times: Matthew Syed: A case of mistaken identity crisis

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Wed Jun 15 19:46:44 UTC 2005

Matthew Syed: A case of mistaken identity crisis
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    People afflicted with multiple personalities reveal that the idea of
    the self is a fiction

    THE MOST sinister form of abuse is that meted out to a child by a
    parent. The young have a biological predisposition to "belong" -- a
    duckling, for example, will instinctively snuggle up to a human leg if
    that is the first thing it sees -- so it is particularly traumatic
    when this need for tenderness is met with systematic physical or
    sexual violence.

    Pamela, the subject of a haunting documentary on Channel 4 tonight,
    developed a novel, if somewhat disquieting, mechanism to cope with her
    sadistic upbringing: she created new selves. When the pain, squalor
    and ignominy became too much to endure, Pamela, as it were, "left it
    all behind": while she was abused, she dissociated and departed to
    another place -- leaving a new person in her place.

    Rémy Aquarone, an analytical psychotherapist, has dealt with these
    disturbing cases of what is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder
    (DID). "Dissociation is a primitive defence mechanism," he said. "When
    something is unbearable to consciousness and cannot be cognitively
    processed, it is split off: quite literally dissociated."

    In many cases the various "alters" have their own memories and
    personality traits. When a switch is about to occur the patient often
    undergoes a temporary look of vacancy before the background alter
    "emerges". One psychoanalyst I spoke to had worked with a patient who
    had a successful job in the City during the week and then travelled to
    the South Coast at the weekend to work as a prostitute.

    One of the most fascinating aspects of witnessing such people is our
    own knee-jerk scepticism. I watched a tape of the documentary and
    found it difficult to suppress a growing sense of incredulity, as if I
    expected Pamela eventually to wink at the camera and say: "Gotcha!"
    This response is not confined to lay people. Doctors repudiated the
    condition when it was first diagnosed and it remains hotly contested
    today, regarded by many as a phenomenon that has been induced under
    hypnotic suggestion by over-zealous clinicians.

    But why this reluctance? The problem here is not a lack of evidence --
    which is overwhelming -- but a failure of intellectual courage. For
    DID strikes at the heart of the most basic myth in our intellectual
    vocabulary: the self.

    Since we first learnt to use language we have regarded the
    first-person pronoun as referring to something that existed in
    childhood, exists today, will continue to exist in the future and --
    for those of a religious persuasion -- will survive bodily death. We
    fondly think of this self as the subject of our experiences, the
    instigator of our actions and the custodian of our morality. We are
    lulled into this idea by the seeming unity of our consciousness: our
    various thoughts and perceptions all knitted into a seamless whole.

    This cherished conception is, however, a cruel fiction. It has taken
    extreme cases, such as DID, to ram the truth home. Take brain
    dissection. In these operations, the corpus callosum -- a large strand
    of neurons which facilitates communications between the hemispheres --
    is cut to stop the spread of epileptic seizures from one half of the
    brain to the other. Under certain laboratory conditions, two "centres
    of consciousness" seem to appear in patients who have had this

    For example, suppose that we flash the word CANNOT on a screen in
    front of a brain-bisected patient in such a way that the letters CAN
    hit one side of the retina, the letters NOT the other and we ensure
    that the information hitting each retina stays in one lobe and is not
    fed to the other. If such a patient is asked what word is being shown,
    the mouth will say CAN while the hand controlled by the hemisphere
    that does not control the mouth will write NOT. So much for the
    "unity" of consciousness.

    What about the notion of the self as instigator of action? We naïvely
    suppose that we consciously decide to move, and then move. When
    Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment on voluntary action in 1985 he
    found that the brain activity began about half a second before the
    person was aware of deciding to act. The conscious decision came far
    too late to be the cause of the action, as though consciousness is a
    mere afterthought. Many reacted to this with astonishment. Why? Did
    they really suppose the body was animated by some ghostly mini me
    lurking behind the brain?

    A more plausible theory is that which is emerging from both biology
    and artificial intelligence. As Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, puts
    it: "Complex systems can in fact function in what seems to be a
    thoroughly `purposeful and integrated' way simply by having lots of
    subsystems doing their own thing without any central supervision." The
    self, then, is not what it seems to be. There is no soul, no spirit,
    no supervisor. There is just a brain, a dull grey collection of
    neurons and neural pathways -- going about its business. The illusion
    of self is merely a by-product of the brain's organisational

    Seen in this light, DID is neither a philosophical absurdity nor a
    medical fantasy but a vivid demonstration of the infinite adaptability
    of the human mind in the quest for survival. Those who tune in tonight
    will feel an overwhelming sense of compassion for the pathetic figure
    of Pamela. But, for those who take the intellectual plunge, the most
    acute pity will be directed inwardly. Accepting the death of "self" is
    both strange and traumatic, bringing with it a profound a sense of
    bereavement. Except that there is nothing there to bereave.

    Being Pamela, Channel 4, 9pm

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