Many years ago, I read a book entitled Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession and Multiple Personalities. It is one of those books that has always stuck in my mind because it facilitated some deep thinking on the nature of what we call ‘self’. It highlighted how malleable we are as human beings and underlined the enormous inherent potential we carry within us. I was again reminded of the human potential by the movie Split. No, I do not think there the final transformation which occurs in that movie is a human possibility, but there is enough factual data within that movie which should cause pause for reflection and contemplation.
Consider some of what is observable in people with dissociative personality disorder. A person who has dissociative personality disorder has multiple identities who typically have become so fragmented that in effect there is a discontinuity between one identity and the next. To understand this more fully consider that you the reader also consist of multiple identities which get played out as roles. For example, you may be a very different person at work than you are as a parent. Even in a work role or parent role, we can be very different in each role. If people did not know better they would swear black and blue that it is not the same person.
In our minds though there is a continuity between one role or identity and the next. We recognize our self in each role and when we transition between identities. In dissociative identity disorder, it is not unusual for one identity to not recognize another, even though they both inhabit the same body. The fragmentation of identity is so great that each role functions independently of others at a conscious level. In many instances people with this disorder do not recognize that there has been a switch in identity and instead experience a type of black out. Later, and much to their surprise they might learn of all manner of behaviour they engaged in, but have no conscious recollection of them.
Sybill is one famous movie that highlights the phenomena of dissociative personality disorder. There are other movies which also portray the plight of dissociative identity disorder sufferers, but perhaps Sybill is the most famous of all. At any rate, it is useful to think of the disorder as occurring along a continuum. At one end of the continuum, we have the full-blown disorder of dissociative identity disorder. At the other end, we would have someone who is so rigid in their personality structure that they almost come across as catatonic – at least in the sense they seem to have only a very narrow range of responses to very different situations. Most people are in the middle of this continuum and therefore have a bit more flexibility. Though if we look in earnest and are honest with ourselves we often find we also respond very rigidly to situations. But that is another story better left for another time.
While some people may be aware that each identity can think, and behave very differently from the next, what is much less known is that there are physical changes which for all intents and purposes should be impossible. Consider that in several documented cases, an identity with diabetes who then switches to another identity, no longer has diabetes. I have diabetes myself and it would be like switching to a different state that no longer has diabetes at the drop of a hat. That is remarkable…
Of course, we do not have that sort of control, and neither does a person who has the disorder. Typically, switches in identity are involuntary and beyond the control of the person afflicted with the disorder.
One identity can be colour blind, the next not. There can be changes in EEG and fMRI between identities. Different identities have different reactions to allergies. Some are not allergic at all, other identities are allergic to some things, while others are allergic to different things. One identity can be left handed, another right. Burns on arms can vanish between identities. These are things that normally should be impossible. Yet we have documented cases on record noting these remarkable changes. For example, Dr Bennet Braun, noted a case where all a patient’s sub personalities were allergic to orange juice except for one. If the man switched to the non-allergic identity the rash from the allergy would instantly start to fade. Braun outlines several different documented cases. A psychologist Robert Philips reports that even tumours can appear and disappear with different identities.
At the outset, I mention a book which goes into some cases of possession. Again, what we see is some rather remarkable physiological changes which under normal circumstances should be impossible. We should be careful to recognize that there may well be limits. For example, there has never been a case of a one arm person suddenly having the other arm appear. But at the same time, we should become aware of the limitations that normal conventions would have us believe.
Much of the literature on physiology and dissociative identity disorder is consistent with things like the placebo effect. The placebo effect has been downplayed yet there are literally thousands upon thousands of well documented cases of miraculous cures occurring. As we study the placebo effect we are beginning to understand that in many commonly used medicines of today, the placebo effect is just as likely to facilitate a cure as the active ingredient. Take morphine for example, approximately 35% of people it works on is due to the active ingredient – morphine. Another 35% works because of the placebo effect. Overall then we have a 70% success rate but half of that is due to a placebo effect.
This does not mean we should start to do away with medicine or medicines. If we cut our finger off, it is not going to miraculously leap back on and heal itself. But we should be starting to pay attention to the inherent healing potential of our minds. In a fashion, we have to open ourselves up to differing possibilities and do some extensive research and experimentation to unlock some of the mysteries within.
In my own work as a therapist/teacher I have observed that sometimes illness, pain, misery which has not been amenable to change via traditional medical approaches heal when some underlying psychological issue is dealt with. Our minds can greatly affect us, and in turn our physiology can greatly affect our minds. The work of the mind is often tangled and it is frequently messy, yet if we can unravel ourselves and steer ourselves in a different direction much can be accomplished.
On a final note, I am aware that several people are proponents of the power of belief. The above might suggest that we only must consciously believe in something and some miraculous healing will occur. While this notion is popular among the new age and pseudo spiritual communities it is an erroneous one scientifically. For example, Bruce Lipton who is often quoted as someone who is a proponent for the power of thoughts, does not actually say that. What he does say is we can consciously think that we will heal until the cows come home and the most likely scenario is absolutely nothing will change. But he also states that it is the unconscious that needs to change to facilitate healing. In other words, there is a different process at hand which does not involve conscious thought in the placebo effect and/or phenomena like dissociative identity disorder. This process is akin to having our unconscious ‘believe’ or learn new rules for operating in the world. The key here is the word process and that’s a good way to think about what is going on.