What is a plural person?
September 6, 2020 9:30 AM   Subscribe

People with multiple personalities have been documented in culture and society for a long time. There's a decent overview in a reasonably recent Stuff You Should Know podcast. However, read on.

Multiple Personality Disorder, now renamed Dissociative Identity Disorder, has strong links to PTSD and the human traumatic response, which only became formally known as PTSD in 1980 in the wake of the Vietnam War. Alongside the development of understanding of PTSD, two cultural touchstones, Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve, defined the condition for a generation, forming the story of the heroic therapist assisting a fractured person in the psychological work of integration and construction of a single self.

In the 1980s and 90s, there was a surge of interest in the phenomenon with memoirs and talk-show drama around childhood sexual abuse, multiple personality disorder (MPD), and Satanic ritual abuse, eventually styled the Satanic Panic. Therapists made their name and brand based on their accounts of heroism in the face of the terror of “Satan’s Children,”
that resulted in the linking of MPD/DID to ritual abuse. As the CBC Podcast Uncover: Satanic Panic explores in its final episode, although Satanic conspiracies were debunked by the FBI, there is no doubt of horrific abuses of children -- a few kilometres down the road from a town obsessed with "Believe the Children!" lay a government-led residential school system full of unheard children being systematically institutionally, ritually, religiously, and genocidally abused.

The first wave of therapist and Satanic panic-driven memoirs were joined by a number of more multiple-centred works. Perhaps not so surprisingly, it’s male bodied authors who were able to publish and lead this genre, beginning with First Person Plural, followed by China scholar Robert B. Oxnam’s A Fractured Mind and the currently-infamous Trump supporter and athlete Hershel Walker's Breaking Free.

Although there is a body of belief that MPD, renamed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) was also debunked as being iatrogenic, the actual evidence is the reverse and DID is more common than you likely think, present across multiple cultures, and visible on fMRI.

In culture, additional portrayals include Fight Club, Split, Shattered, Mr. Robot, and The United States of Tara.

The question of legal responsibility for multiples is also deeply entrenched in the cultural discussion.

Beyond the cultural and practical matters, the existence of multiples raises significant philosophical questions about the nature of human experience, with some hoping it might explain things. For multiples, however, these are not thought exercises but every day, closely held issues as even the question of what "one's" favourite ice cream flavour says about you becomes an issue of being in or out of the closet -- so please keep in mind that you may be speaking with a multiple.

Many multiples prefer the use of the term plural (previously), and closely linked experiences include soulbonding
and tulpas, previously.
posted by warriorqueen (30 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Another cultural portrayal: Doom Patrol, based largely on Grant Morrison's run on the comic, and Morrison in turn based the particular character(s) on When Rabbit Howls.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:20 AM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Mod note: made a small update to include some missing words, carry on
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:53 AM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm finding the Stuff You Should Know podcast not so much an overview but a particular point of view which isn't particularly sympathetic and often incorrect.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:56 AM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

posted by Going To Maine at 11:34 AM on September 6, 2020

Without digging into the links very much, I'm surprised there's no mention of Psycho... mainly because I remember this (really fun, if you can still find it) intro psych lecture from MIT by Jeremy Wolfe, who quoted some statistic about how the film caused a huge bump in DID diagnoses. He used it specifically as an example of how culture can influence which disorder a coping mechanism may turn into.

Also, no Primal Fear?... And why is Ed Norton so severely overrepresented in this kind of movie?
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 11:39 AM on September 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Hmmm to the How Stuff Works; it could be. I listened to it when I was putting my garden in this spring and put it on the list for this eventual post because at the time I thought it was a good journey from where most people start to a better overview, but I freely admit I may have missed nuances I'd've caught if I hadn't pressed go on this post, so please discuss!
posted by warriorqueen at 11:48 AM on September 6, 2020

I'm in a few spaces that have a lot of Gen Z folks, and multiples are relatively common, but the term they typically use is "system." I'd be really curious to know how that terminology shift came about. It seems much more accepted by the younger generation, as well. There's a whole Discord bot for plurals, and I'm in quite a few servers that have it enabled.

Thanks for the reading, excited to dig into it.
posted by brook horse at 11:53 AM on September 6, 2020

Yesterday's post covers a lot of the history of terminology (e.g. System). How Things Work is superficial and jokey, very much from a medical disease point of view, insists there be a "host personality", talks about a "Freudian subconscious" (Freud spoke of an "unconscious" and didn't use the term subconscious as far as I know).
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:02 PM on September 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Oh, that's great, I had missed that post. Thank you! Glancing over it looks like it also goes over the traumagenic vs endogenic debate, which I'm tangentially aware of but feel I don't know much about, so double thank you.
posted by brook horse at 12:07 PM on September 6, 2020

Great post, thank you!

Also worth mentioning that current MeFi favorite podcast You're Wrong About has an episode on Multiple Personality Disorder, as well as a five week deep dive into Michelle Remembers, the book that arguably started the Satanic Panic.
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:36 PM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

warriorqueen, thank you so much for this post. I saw yesterday's previously and was very interested in learning more, but saw your comment or two about whether that talk was the best framing for understanding plural self-expression - so I am extremely grateful that you put together this post.

This looks like an excellent collection of links, and I'm really looking forward to digging into them.

Thank you for doing this work, and for sharing with us.
posted by kristi at 12:50 PM on September 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

From the "it might explain things" link:
We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

Moreover, as we’ve seen earlier, there is something dissociative processes look like in the brain of a patient with DID. So, if some form of universal-level DID happens, the alters of universal consciousness must also have an extrinsic appearance. We posit that this appearance is life itself: metabolizing organisms are simply what universal-level dissociative processes look like.. So, imma need to sit down and ponder this.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:38 PM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I deliberately avoided both terminology and origin arguments, although there's a clear tilt in my post because I put it together this morning as a 101. Discussions about multiplicity historically go very badly here on MetaFilter, at least from my perspective, so this is my leap of faith, but I did feel like I had to start at "no, it wasn't all made up during the 80s."

And Obscure Reference, sorry you found it that way and I think people would be well advised to keep your comments in mind. For me, the tone of that podcast matched with the experience I've had with people's comments so at the point I picked it (because I have been thinking about a post like this for a year and of course it's never gotten good enough), I think I felt like it would be a good entry for some people here - but now I wish I had re-listened to it.

Brook Horse, I think there would be some debate about the origin of system but I remember it coming up on Dark Personalities around 1999 as an alternative to a few other things - alters being the big one, which is probably the word that still makes my stomach churn the most although I try to be fairly agnostic in my views. Some people object to it as mechanistic.

For us, we do use the word system, but in our minds it's aligned with ecosystem, have never had a host, are origin-agnostic (as in, which came first, the people or the trauma, who knows), and prefer the radical term "people" for each other.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:11 PM on September 6, 2020 [16 favorites]

This reminds me of the ever-popular question of whether AIs can be conscious. If consciousness, as seems likely, is an emergent quality that comes from the operations of our brains as a whole, why shouldn't the same mechanisms give rise to different consciousnesses at different times, or perhaps even simultaneously?

I have noticed that when commuting regularly I often have no memory of any events during my drive. Someone was driving my car; was it me? In a legal sense, certainly, but I can't say I have any personal continuity with whoever it was. And I can't be the only person who who has “found themselves” behaving “uncharacteristically”. Maybe we're all potentially multiple, but our alters are repressed or embryonic and only marginally expressed; wouldn't our lives, if so, be richer if we could acknowledge and perhaps develop our shared experience?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:41 PM on September 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thanks, warriorqueen, I thought the earlier plural post was interesting, but MF was sorely lacking this kind of 101-and-beyond kind of thing for context.

Most of us take consciousness way too much for granted. Douglas Hofstadter's "I Am a Strange Loop" is a fascinating collection of musings about the nature of consciousness and how tenuous the idea of "one body, one consciousness" is, even theoretically. I also wonder about, for instance, the Hensel twins. Obviously they have two different personalities and such, but they can also type on a keyboard with each only controlling one hand. There's a taboo aspect to even raising questions about shared consciousness that I hope are beginning to fall away.
posted by rikschell at 7:33 PM on September 6, 2020

Hofstadter's I Am A Strange Loop has dedication page that reads:

To my sister Laura,
  who can understand,
and to our sister Molly,
  who cannot.

I was put off by it when I first cracked the book until I got to the preface where he explains that Molly never developed the ability to use language of any sort, and medical experts were never able to explain why. He says, "she moved through the world with ease, even with charm and grace, but she used no words at all."

It was his childhood wrestling with what that meant that got him started down the path that lead to his work on understanding consciousness. It has been a while since I've read any of his books, but I concur with rikschell's general assessment. Our poor understanding of what it means to be plural is part and parcel with our poor understanding of consciousness in general. The hows and whys of both are likely all part of the same tangle.
posted by bcd at 9:10 PM on September 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thank-you so much for this warriorqueen. One of the most interesting things I've learnt- the prevalence of DID is about the same as Bulimia. It makes sense, as both can be triggered by traumatic events.

After reading the other post yesterday I looked into other writings about DID. I think I'm starting to understand. The idea of trauma interfering with how someone's sense of self consolidates rather than breaking it up was a real A-HA moment. You Did Not Shatter. It also fits well with my feeling that I didn't really exist before my mid-late teens.

It strikes me that using plurals to better understand single's sense of self is as aggravating as using trans people to understand cis people's gender so I'm going to stop here.
posted by Braeburn at 1:32 AM on September 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

as a neuro-divergent person it’s important to me to learn about how other neuro-divergent brains work! thank you.
posted by one-half-ole at 1:42 AM on September 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have nothing very insightful to add but wanted to say thanks for posting this and I'll be delving into the material for a while.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:39 AM on September 7, 2020

I read First Person Plural many years ago and recently wondered if the science and social knowledge had developed further. I'm so glad it has.

I like the idea that most people have a perception of a single consciousness, but sometimes the usual process of forming that consciousness goes differently, and that perception becomes plural instead. Why would consciousness formation be any more robust or uniform than any other aspect of how our bodies develop? Variations are to be expected and should be supported by any community that wants to call itself civilised.

That usual perception of singleness doesn't really get at the reality of consciousness anyway (like the driving example above), so learning more about common variations might help us learn more about the most frequently experienced type. And most importantly learning more about DID should lead to accommodations and more flexibility and support for people with this specific type of neuro-diversity. (Not that we shouldn't work on preventing childhood trauma, obviously, but we can work on being more inclusive too.)

Thanks so much for making this post, warriorqueen - it's much appreciated.
posted by harriet vane at 4:02 AM on September 7, 2020

And now I'm worried that my use of the word "perception" implies that I think plural people are making it up or something. My intention was to say that I perceive my consciousness as a single entity, and I trust and believe people when they say their perception of their own consciousness is different from mine. I used the word because I suspect that none of us are actually able to do more than say how it feels to us - we barely know what consciousness is, so perception is all we have until we learn more.
posted by harriet vane at 4:45 AM on September 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

This may be a stupid or insensitive argument, I am no expert and welcome corrections or links to better information.

I have clearly experienced a singular consciousness / identity, a fractured consciousness, different identities coexisting in "my" mind, different identities that can only manifest one at a time sometimes aware of the others sometimes not, complete lack of identity, and many permutations and combinations.

Mostly with the help of drugs.

But if tiny amounts of chemicals that naturally occur in our bodies, or in the bodies of plants, fungi and animals (single tree of life, we all made of the same stuff), then I have absolutely no doubt that this can happen without consuming drugs, that it may be a question of degree, that maybe this is how the mind works in some fundamental layer, and a singular identity is just a filter on top.

I like trying to imagine how it feels to be an octopus. Only 1/3 of their central nervous system is in the "brain", the other 2/3 are in the arms. The arms seem to receive instructions from the "brain", but each one of the arms can independently execute relative complex actions, learn and remember, even when there is no communication with the "brain". Does an octopus feel like it has absolute control and the arm brains are like our subconscious? Is an octopus' mind like a committee with different voices and minds? There are so many options I can't even start to imagine.

Copied from wikipedia:

Octopuses also have an excellent sense of touch. The octopus's suction cups are equipped with chemoreceptors so the octopus can taste what it touches. Octopus arms do not become tangled or stuck to each other because the sensors recognise octopus skin and prevent self-attachment.[55]

The arms contain tension sensors so the octopus knows whether its arms are stretched out, but this is not sufficient for the brain to determine the position of the octopus's body or arms. As a result, the octopus does not possess stereognosis; that is, it does not form a mental image of the overall shape of the object it is handling. It can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate the information into a larger picture. The neurological autonomy of the arms means the octopus has great difficulty learning about the detailed effects of its motions. It has a poor proprioceptive sense, and it knows what exact motions were made only by observing the arms visually.[56]

posted by Dr. Curare at 10:29 AM on September 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

I am a behavioral ecologist, and so I deeply understand the desire to understand what the world is like from the perspective of a nonhuman animal. That said, I don't know that the best place to indulge that desire is this post about understanding what the world is like from the perspective of people within multiple systems.

A year ago, I discovered that the sensation I had been trying to describe as "freezing" or being unable to move properly was actually dissociation, and that I was spending a lot of time in that state as a function of chronic stress and trauma. I'm rather curious about the relationship between dissociation and multiple systems from an experiential perspective. When you aren't fronting, is the subjective experience rather like being in a dissociated state for a singlet, or are you as active and engaged with, say, sensory input or conversations among yourselves as when you're in full control of the body?
posted by sciatrix at 11:09 AM on September 7, 2020 [6 favorites]

Fair enough about this not being the place to talk about animals.

Are you asking me about my dissociative experiences, or was it a separare subject?

In case it was a question, it also took me years to figure out that what I called "seeing" was dissociation, and when I discovered psychedelics and other drugs, it all starting making sense. At least I could do it on demand and not when "the light got too heavy".

I could talk about my experiences, from the trauma and the spontaneous dissociation to self medication, but with the caveat that I do not think I have DID or anything like that, I don't want to self diagnose, and there are people better qualified to talk about the subject.
posted by Dr. Curare at 3:40 PM on September 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Separate subject, sorry! I was asking openly. But thank you for responding anyway!
posted by sciatrix at 3:48 PM on September 7, 2020

sciatrix, I can take your question from my perspective with the caveat that it's of course just one perspective. :) There are different layers.

I definitely believe individuals within a multiple system can dissociate like a singlet. And I think that a singlet dissociating probably does feel like a person in a system feels when others are fronting. But there are other nuances that a singlet probably would miss.

However... I've actually been at the extreme end of multiple time loss. Growing up, and this for me is one of the things that has defined me as a multiple and a person, I actually had no continuous experience of time.

When other people said things like "time flies when you're having fun" I thought they meant what I did, which was that I didn't remember it. And by 'it' I mean entire classes or days...periods of time most days of my life.

Like, if I were a singlet I think other people would have noticed and helped me structure this, like "why didn't you meet me at the movies?" or "why did you sit on the couch without moving for 2 hours?" but for since other people in my body were interacting with others or moving or doing things, we didn't have that. Developmentally I just don't think I developed a truly solid theory of time (or, frankly, cause and effect) until I was over 30.

An example I've tried to use in the past is that in piano competitions I would take a deep breath, place my hands on the keys, and music would come out. But there was the one time no music came out - disaster. I would have called that "freezing up" under stress.

But...here's the problem. I had no idea at that time that other people remembered their piano teachers, could identify them on the street, practiced, and could rely on their musical knowledge. (I mean, clearly someone in my system did all that, but it wasn't me.) So is that freezing up, or not actually knowing how to play the piano? Depends on your point of view.

I do remember that one example and it felt like waiting for a bus and realizing in horror that I had to drive the bus and then driving the bus through the wall.

(The longest period of time I ever lost was Easter 1998-Feb 2000, where my system left the job I'd worked to be promoted into, killed a significant relationship, ruined a gaming role I cared a lot about, and threw out my 80s pop music collection. That was spectacular and it convinced me something was wrong.)

So with your question I actually had that kind of gut moment I had when I realized that language sucks, like really really sucks because for the first few decades of my life, I would cheerfully have agreed that freezing up is the same and it was in no way the same. So now I want to say it probably is the same but I am reluctant to be really wrong again.

From my much-better-at-time experience now, I think it is a similar if not the same feeling. Like when I'm not fronting. Sometimes that feels like the classic "I drove somewhere but my mind was elsewhere" example. Sometimes I sort of feel like I want to interact in the situation but I'm a few seconds behind and someone else is fronting/speaking/doing/etc. Sometimes it's sort of like someone's whispering my responses to me. Rarely these days, I might lose the time.

Sometimes, collectively, we do freeze when there's like a rush to the front (usually something suddenly interesting) or a rush away from the front (like breaking a leg) where things do seem to slow down and it's like reacting in molasses. So maybe that is like it too?

I think I'm coming here to a I don't know, probably?
posted by warriorqueen at 7:46 PM on September 7, 2020 [18 favorites]

James McAvoy for the win.
posted by Billiken at 9:11 AM on September 8, 2020

With consideration of Plurals supplying the heat, Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind could be boiled down to an assertion that almost everyone in classical antiquity was a Plural or Multiple, and most of us moderns are not.

And in light of the fact that many of Freud's female patients at least were suffering from what psychiatrists today might call conversion disorder or somatiform disorder, which are highly correlated with Dissociative Identity Disorder or multiple personality, and Freud's day to day practice was aimed at treating these as problems and resolving them, we could argue that Freud's ultimate therapeutic goal (which I have often found very difficult to understand in general terms) was to take multiples and turn them into integrated, single personalities. Which helps (me, at least) make sense of statements like 'where id and superego were, there shall ego be', if I'm recalling that correctly.
posted by jamjam at 12:44 AM on September 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

That makes some sense wrt Freud; it also makes sense that if his early caseload was skewed toward what would be considered DID today, then he would have tried to adapt that narrative framework to problems faced by non-plurals, with foreseeably problematic results. I don't know if it would stand up to close analysis, but I'm enjoying the symmetry of the idea that the well-documented failures of Freudian psychology might have arisen in part from trying to apply a plural framework to non-plural selves -- just as more recent failures have arisen in part from applying a non-plural narrative to plural selves.

But I think we have to be careful trying to map plural identity onto the various models of the human mind, including Freud's, that have involved some sort of plural-ish self. There have always been lots of pluralistic ways of understanding the self (in the West, Plato's Phaedrus allegory comes to mind). But in contemporary society, the narrative of the unitary self has become so omnipresent that people whose internal experiences are fundamentally incompatible with it have needed a distinct identity. That doesn't mean that a non-plural (like me) can understand plural experiences by thinking about what I experience as different parts of my own self -- in fact, I'd suggest that it argues the opposite, since an experience of plurality that is incompatible with singularity is necessarily distinct from an experience of self that can be framed in both singular and pluralistic ways.

There's an underlying problem with language here -- typically our only baseline for understanding the inner experiences of others is by looking for analogies in our own inner experience, which is fine and dandy between people of similar neurotypes but breaks down rather badly otherwise.

(While mindful of the great differences between pluralness and other forms of neurodivergence, there's an obvious parallel with how expectations of preternatural levels of attentional control, unrelenting positivity, and fluent interaction with random strangers have become so omnipresent that people who are unable to access these states are considered disabled... turning back to the language problem and the topic at hand, if "plural" became the new fill-in-the blank to "we're all a little ________", that wouldn't actually help anyone to understand anything).
posted by Not A Thing at 7:49 AM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

"The idea of trauma interfering with how someone's sense of self consolidates rather than breaking it up was a real A-HA moment. You Did Not Shatter. It also fits well with my feeling that I didn't really exist before my mid-late teens."

I don't understand what this means, but I would like to?

I couldn't find any sources for the article saying a sense of self 'consolidates' by 9 years old, so I'm not sure if that's true, and if it is true, well, I couldn't find any sources that explained what a 'consolidating self' means.

I guess because I don't know what that is, I don't know what "feeling that I didn't really exist" means either.

I have ADHD, and a pretty poor self memory, so, while there is heaps of my life and childhood that I don't remember, I do remember pieces, as far back as when I was 4 years old.

E.g. at 4, I remember deciding to give myself a mohawk, hacking with scissors and screwing it up, and putting the scissors down because it hadn't worked, a while later I wandered into the kitchen to get a biscuit, where adult family members proceeded to freak out, which seemed very illogical, for all these "It was just hair? And didn't they know that cutting hair doesn't hurt like cutting skin? AND that it grows back? And that lots of people have short hair, they're usually boys?"
But, I was very used to adults being illogical and getting upset about things that didn't seem like they were that important, and eventually I was given juice and a biscuit while they tidied it.

So like, I didn't understand the nuances of the really silly stuffy adults worried about, but I remember being an *I*m and deciding to try something, reasoning it through, and having it succeed or fail, and what I thought of others...
So, I definitely existed at age 4, but I feel like there is some other definition going on here, I just don't know what it is.
posted by Elysum at 7:51 AM on September 12, 2020

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