In Praise of MPD

This month’s New Scientist carries an opinion piece by Rita Carter, author of the imminent Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality. She’s not the first to argue that multiple personalities may be adaptive (the whole backbone of the eighties’ MPD fad was that they served to protect the primary persona from the stress of extreme abuse), nor is she the first to point out that MPD is just one end of a scale that goes all the way down to jes’ plain folks adopting different faces for different social contexts (what Carter calls “normal multiplicity”). She does, however, suggest that “normal multiplicity could prove useful in helping people function in an increasingly complex world”; which raises the possibility that what we now think of as “pathological” multiplicity might prove useful in a hypercomplex world.

Cue the Gang of Four.

This is one of the themes introduced in Blindsight that I’m going to town on with Dumbspeech (okay, okay: State of Grace): that humanity is, in effect, splitting into a whole suite of specialized cognitive subspecies as a means of dealing with information overload. (You can see the rudiments of this in the high proportion of Aspies hanging out in Silicon Valley, perhaps.) But I’ve never encountered this Carter person before. Judging by her brief essay, I can’t tell whether she’s actually on to something or whether she’s just putting neurogloss lipstick on the trivially obvious fact that it makes sense to behave differently in different situations (rather like making the Atkins Diet sound all high-tech and futuristic by describing it as “hacking the body”).

Anyone here read her books? Are they any good?

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday March 14 2008at 09:03 am , filed under biology, blindsight, neuro . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

12 Responses to “In Praise of MPD”

  1. Interesting stuff especially in regard to your work. Have you ever read the work of the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe? Some of his philosophy resonates with your ideas, I think.

  2. You have probably already read Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, but I mention it just in case you haven’t; a great book about useful MPD.

    You might also like Ian Hacking’s Rewriting the Soul. (Ignore the stupid Amazon customer one-star review.)

  3. Another thing that caught my attention – isn’t this “humanity is, in effect, splitting into a whole suite of specialized cognitive subspecies as a means of dealing with information overload” very similar to Grant Morrison’s “super-sanity” explanation of the Joker in Arkham Asylum? I’m not that big a fan of Morrison’s work, but these ideas keep me reading him.

  4. “Hacking your body” sounds more like something a death cult member would do. A christian monk, for example.

    Sorry for the off topic comment, but I can’t resist.

  5. a wise man once said, ‘In my fathers house are many mansions.’

    I think it is very true that we can have a different ‘I’ in different circumstances. The extent to which those ‘I’s are independent of each other probably varies widely from person to person. Certainly I know I ‘compartmentalize’ experiences in my life: some events only one other person alive knows took place.

    Only once though can I be truly positive ‘I’ wasn’t doing what ‘I’ was doing.

    I had been badgered incessantly by many co-workers about my relationship with a male co-worker over several weeks. One day a female co-worker said something and suddenly I realized I was in the process of bringing my hand up to slap her face Very Hard. At the last possible instant ‘I’ intervened and the slap was but a glancing swat; it went red and she let out a yelp but it was NOT what it could have been.

    I did not initiate the slap, and only barely stopped it.

    I got a solid round of applause from a witness I didn’t know was watching a few minutes later.

    I never once saw anyone harass the guy in question…but we are still friends all these 18 years later.

  6. John Henning said…

    …Have you ever read the work of the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe?…

    And Peter Turney said…

    You have probably already read Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi…You might also like Ian Hacking’s Rewriting the Soul.

    And I haven’t read any of this stuff. But I will, now that you’ve mentioned it. Thank you.

    And then John Henning came back in with…

    Grant Morrison’s “super-sanity” explanation of the Joker in Arkham Asylum?

    WHAT!? I’ve never heard of this either, but will endeavour to check into it because it does sound kind of cool. I’ve always liked the implication that Batman is actually responsible for the existence of the Joker, that each character feeds off and needs the other (I get the sense this’ll show up pretty explicitly in the upcoming Dark Knight movie)— but the phrase “super-sanity” brings more to mind a creepy line in Scott Bakker’s Neuropath, in which the protagonist describes his serial-killer nemesis — who performs various horrible bits of brain surgery on his victims in an ongoing demonstration that we are nothing but machines — as “perhaps the only truly sane human being on the planet”.

    Man, I wish I’d written that.

    Teresa said…

    I did not initiate the slap, and only barely stopped it.

    That’s a really interesting illustration of one of the roles people have conjured up for consciousness: that consciousness acts as a kind of last-chance quality-control agent to veto bad decisions made by the subconscious mind. Doesn’t wash, though, because if the conscious awareness of decisions actually occurs after the decision has been made — which is what the evidence strongly suggests — then the veto would also have happened before the conscious mind became aware of it. So we’re still left with after-the-fact memo rather than causal agent.

  7. but the phrase “super-sanity” brings more to mind a creepy line in Scott Bakker’s Neuropath, in which the protagonist describes his serial-killer nemesis — who performs various horrible bits of brain surgery on his victims in an ongoing demonstration that we are nothing but machines — as “perhaps the only truly sane human being on the planet”.

    I’m mentioning this in the sense of interesting correlations and resonating ideas, not as “someone’s already been there.” I’m not one who believes that the first one there is always the best, but that description of Neuropath reminds me a lot of a description of Dark Matter (published in 1991)by Garfield Reeves-Stevens. Maybe you’ve read it.

    From Amazon’s description: http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Matter-Garfield-Reeves-Stevens/dp/0553292587
    From Publishers Weekly
    While it is difficult to categorize this wide-ranging novel in relation to the author’s previous Nightcaps , few readers will be able to put it down. It opens as a gruesomely explicit tale of contemporary horror, with a serial killer cleaving the skull and dissecting the brain of a young girl while she is still alive. This event occurs in Stockholm, where a brillant young quantum physicist has just received a Nobel Prize and, against the wishes of his beautiful assistant and lover, signed a contract with a mysterious American group to pursue his research in Los Angeles. Four years later, in 1995 Los Angeles, a similar murder brings black police detective Kate Duvall onto the scene, and the story becomes a standard thriller, containing the stock elements of police corruption and shadowy government agents, and focusing on the detective’s growing involvement. The action scenes are leavened with complex discussions of quantum physics and the nature of reality, building toward a science fiction-like ending. The bad guys introduce some jolting deus ex machina turns, and there is one too many “final” encounter between the opposing forces, but this novel could nonetheless catapult Reeves-Stevens to the top ranks of thriller/horror writers.

    Also, you summed up both Arkham Asylum and Moore’s The Killing Joke pretty well with your idea about Batman/Joker.

    Doesn’t wash, though, because if the conscious awareness of decisions actually occurs after the decision has been made — which is what the evidence strongly suggests — then the veto would also have happened before the conscious mind became aware of it. So we’re still left with after-the-fact memo rather than causal agent.

    Timothy Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Tennis is a very interesting non-technical look at the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. His basic premise is that performance is better learned without conscious instruction, and that consciousness or awareness of oneself is almost always detrimental to actual sports performance. Not a technical book, but very insightful.

  8. Finally found a link to the exchange in Arkham Asylum:
    http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/Joker.html

    Batman speaks with the Joker’s psychiatrist:

    Batman:
    Well, you’ll pardon me for saying so, but your techniques don’t seem to have had much effect on the Joker.

    Dr. Adams (Joker’s therapist):
    The Joker’s a special case. Some of us feel he may be beyond treatment. In fact, we’re not even sure if he can be properly as insane.
    His latest claim is tht he’s possessed by Baron Ghede, the Voodoo loa.
    We’re beginning to think it may be a neurological disorder, similar to Tourette’s syndrome. It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of human perception. More suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century.

    Batman:
    Tell that to his victims.

    Dr. Adams:
    Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with the chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the Lord of Misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd.

    Here’s what Grant Morrison said about it:
    “The idea of Joker’s “super-sanity” haunted me for years and eventually developed into my theories of multiple personality complexes as the next stage in human consciousness development.”

  9. I’m halfway through the book, I’m not diagnosed MPD/DID, simply because it does NOT exist in France. (Strange, but true.) So far, I’m only depersonalized with the occasional spell of derealization.
    I can say (from my ‘sane’ side), that the whole idea about multiplicity isn’t new, so far I haven’t discovered anything I didn’t know now. If you’re new to this material, it’s an interesting guide.

    I’m curious how I’ll be doing on the practical part of the book. I know it’s strongly advised against, when having a disorder. But since my disorder doesn’t exist, what the heck…
    I’ll keep updates on my blog. Once I’m done with the book, I’ll return (I hope) and add some of my thoughts on that part.

  10. I look forward to that.

  11. It’s been nearly two months…
    I did finish only the theoretical part, the practical part consists of mostly simplistic psychometric tests, which should help -by using situation sketches- in discovering the other personalities.

    Sadly lots has happened, amongst a 16 day stay at the local mental hospital. Somehow along the way I did get the DID (dissociative identity disorder) diagnose, along with some others… Kind of scary, but that seems to come with the territory of ‘high’ intelligence and a bad (abused) life.

    In my opinion it’s great that someone really took an effort in publishing about multiplicity, without the sensational MPD stories. Like I wrote before, if one is new to the subject it’s interesting. References seem dodgy at times though.

    Personally I wonder who Rita Carter really is…

  12. Mapping the Mind is one of her other books, which is Popular Science, written in a style to browse and leave on the coffee table as an interesting discussion starter. (I found that on the inside cover and am still puzzled who leaved this on their coffee table to discus it.)

    The contents are like wikipedia, and add nothing substantial if you’re keen on researching/crawling yourself.

    In my opinion the target audience is in the adolescent range, or it’s just to simple written at times, whilst throwing in enough scientific terms to make it look interesting to the unknowing eye.

    I won’t buy any of her other books as they seem a waste of money to me.