Instead of seeing each person as a single personality, award-winning science journalist Rita Carter argues in “Multiplicity” that we all consist of multiple characters, each one with its own viewpoint, emotions and ambitions. She writes that they may share the same body, and none is any more “authentic” than another. Here's an excerpt:
Chapter OneThe idea of there being two or more selves in a single body sounds crazy. Look carefully, though, and you will see that the evidence for human plurality is all around us and always has been.
We glimpse it wherever people talk to ancestors, get divine wisdom from spirit guides, receive messages from personified gods, consult oracles, get “taken over” by the souls of the dead or tune in to an “inner helper.”
It is on view when we act out a part, take on roles, live up to expectations and reinvent ourselves. More commonly, but less obviously, it shows in day-to-day shifts of feeling and behavior. When someone says “I don’t know what got into me,” or “I just wasn’t myself,” they are implicitly acknowledging the existence of a self other than the one who is speaking.
Most of our greatest philosophers, psychologists and therapists have recognized the essential multiplicity of the human mind. In ancient Greece, Plato saw the psyche as a three-part affair consisting of a charioteer (the rational self) and two horses (one the spirit and one the “appetite”). In the fourth century St. Augustine wrote of his “old pagan self” popping up at night to torment him. Shakespeare’s characters endlessly morph from one identity to another. Serious cases have been made to attach the label of Multiple Personality Disorder to Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and several others.
In the twentieth century, Freud’s enduring id, ego and superego model introduced the idea of a horizontal split between the conscious and unconscious mind, and Jung’s theory of archetypes held that there are separate powerful entities within the unconscious. The influential “object relations” school of psychiatry taught that external “objects” could be internalized and become personalities of a sort, and Transactional Analysis, developed in the 1950s by Eric Berne, was based on the concept of three inner beings: child, adult and parent.
The idea that each of us is made up of often conflicting multiple personalities was stated most clearly, perhaps, by the Italian psychologist Roberto Assagioli, who founded a form of therapy called Psychosynthesis. “We are not unified,” he wrote. “We often feel we are because we do not have many bodies and many limbs, and because one hand doesn’t usually hit the other. But, metaphorically, that is exactly what does happen within us. Several subpersonalities are continually scuffling: impulses, desires, principles, aspirations are engaged in an unceasing struggle.”
Twenty years later American psychologist John “Jack” Watkins and his wife Helen pioneered Ego-State Therapy, which envisages our personalities as a family of selfs and uses hypnotic techniques to bring them out. Around the same time California psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone started to develop a therapeutic system called Voice Dialogue, between inner personalities.
In parallel with this, neuroscientific investigation strongly suggests that there is no essential self to be found in the human brain. The more we learn about the workings of that amazing organ, the more we see that each of us is just a bundle of learned and/or biologically programmed responses that click in as and when the situation demands. As Robert Ornstein, professor of human biology at Stanford University, put it: “The mind contains a changeable conglomeration of ‘small minds’ ... fixed reactions, talents, flexible thinking ... and these different entities are wheeled into consciousness and then usually discarded, returned to their place, after use." Since he wrote that, imaging technology has made it possible to watch this kaleidoscopic brain activity on a computer screen. Brain scans of extreme multiple personalities have even shown the neurons associated with one personality turn off, like an electric light, and another lot turn on, as a person changes in demeanor and behavior and in what he or she can remember. Even in the dry prose of scientific reporting the researchers speak of different selves within a single brain.
Despite all this, personality shifting is still seen as something weird and spooky — a manifestation of spiritual possession rather than a natural physiological phenomenon. Even the language of possession persists. Describing the process of composing, for example, songwriter David Gray says: “You start off by tinkering around with a few sounds and having a really good time. But when you get deeper into it and your demands get greater and more ambitious, something rears its ugly head. You become possessed."
Yet multiplicity has a long history of scientific investigation, albeit much of it entangled with superstition.
Priests, possession and Mesmer’s plural pianistIn the latter part of the eighteenth century cases of possession were generally dealt with by exorcism. One of the most celebrated exorcists of the day was a Catholic priest called Father Johann Gassner, who practiced in Switzerland. His technique involved swinging a metal crucifix in front of his subjects while chanting ritual incantations.
While Father Gassner became famous for his victories over demons, another flamboyant character, an Austrian physician called Franz Anton Mesmer, was struggling toward a natural (rather than supernatural) explanation for the healing powers of person-to-person interaction. At that time there was much interest (as there is today) in mysterious forces and fluids and energies. And (again, as today) it was often difficult to distinguish between superstitious nonsense and the cutting edge of scientific discovery.
Mesmer believed he had discovered animal gravitation (later animal magnetism) — a mysterious life-giving substance or energy that flowed through countless channels in the body and could be influenced by magnets. Illness, according to Mesmer’s theory, was caused by blockages of the flow, and these could be released by crises — acute attacks of whatever the ailment might be. A person with asthma, for example, might be cured in the course of a severe asthma attack, while someone with epilepsy might be cured during a seizure.
Mesmer believed the magnetic flow joined everyone together in an invisible force field, and that physicians could therefore help restore their patients’ health by using the harmonizing influence of their own magnetic flow. One way to bring this about was for the physician to make passes — sweeps of the arm over the patient’s body — to induce a healing crisis and rebalance the patient’s energy.
Animal magnetism was widely regarded as a scientific breakthrough, and Mesmer’s treatment was reputed to have remarkable effects. Wrong though it turned out to be, the theory behind it was at least rational, given the biological knowledge of the time. And it chimed happily with the mood of enlightenment that was sweeping Europe.
Meanwhile, for the same social climatic reasons, Father Gassner and his theatrical exorcisms were coming under critical scrutiny. In 1775 Mesmer was asked to observe Gassner at work and give his opinion to the Munich Academy of Sciences. Mesmer noted the rhythmic swinging of Gassner’s crucifix, and presumably saw some parallel with his own passes. He concluded that Gassner’s often dramatic healing effects on the possessed were brought about by the priest’s powerful animal magnetism and his deployment of the metal crucifix. Although Mesmer observed that he thought Father Gassner was entirely sincere in his beliefs, his report more or less finished off the priest’s career.
Mesmer’s own practice, by contrast, flourished. His theory became increasingly sophisticated, and over the years he invented elaborate paraphernalia to aid healing sessions. One of his techniques, for example, was to seat patients around a vat of dilute sulfuric acid and then get them to hold hands while the healing force — facilitated, somehow, by the acid — passed through them. The setup was similar to a séance — more similar, in fact, than Mesmer knew, because with hindsight it is clear that, as with spiritual mediums, most of his success was due to the power of trance, suggestion and belief.
In Mesmer’s care, Maria-Theresa regained her sight. However, with the cure came a disaster: she completely lost her ability to compose and play music. Not only was this a tragic loss of talent; for her parents it meant a disastrous loss of money, because Maria-Theresa received a generous artistic scholarship from the empress. Much to the girl’s distress, her parents took her away from Mesmer, upon which her blindness promptly returned.
Mesmer’s reputation never fully recovered after this episode, and although he made a number of high-profile comebacks, by the time of his death in 1815 he had been practically forgotten by the outside world.
Mesmerism did not die with its inventor, though. It continued to flourish in different guises, and eventually, stripped of its cosmic fluid, it laid the foundations of modern hypnosis. Although Mesmer himself did not realize it, his passes and trance-inducing healing sessions were a means of accessing and manipulating brain-states that were not usually conscious. By hypnotizing Maria-Theresa he had turned on a personality that could see, but turned off the pianist. In at least one crucial way the two states were different personalities.
The term “hypnosis” comes from the Greek hypnos, meaning sleep. It was coined by a Scottish physician, James Braid, in the 1840s. He chose it because he thought at first that mesmerized subjects were asleep. Later, though, when more familiar with the state, he concluded it came about from extreme narrowing of attention and tried to rename it as “monoideism.” This, as we will see, is a pretty accurate description of what happens, but by the time Braid came up with it, the technique was being used under the name of hypnosis by hundreds of physicians, as well as a growing number of entertainers and quacks. It was too late to change, and to this day we are stuck with the rather misleading notion of hypnosis as a form of slumber.
Excerpted from "Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self" by Rita Carter. Copyright © 2008 Rita Carter. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown & Company. All rights reserved.