An Introduction to Dissociative Identity Disorder as a Model for Distributed Subjectivity in Cyberspace

Vernon Reed, ACTLab, U of Texas


The concept of dissociation

Multiple personalities

Causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder

A new kind of self


The very nature of cyberspace is acting as a sort of "universal solvent" to break up our long cherished notions of monolithic self and subjectivity. The ease with which we can take on new identities and new connectivities in the virtual domain implies a self which is multivalent, fluid and de-centered-- a self which often operates in parallel, in different modalities and different capacities. I propose that a model for this new, postmodern, postrationalist, cyberspatial self can be found in the cluster of psychological manifestations currently known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and formerly and more popularly as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).

There is precedence for my proposal to use what is commonly seen as a form of mental illness as a ground for more fully realized being. Deleuze and Guattari put forth the ideal of the happy schizophrenic as a paradigm for dealing with our postmodern condition of existential free-fall (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977). Through a process of "schizo-analysis" they transform the concept of madness to one of primal creativity analogous to artistic creativity. This schizo-analysis is an essentially destructive process designed to break down the sorts of Modernist, totalizing institutions that Deleuze and Guattari see as oppressing and confining our true selves. The result is a nomadic, rootless self, free of family, belief and structure, and dedicated to relentless change.

The schizophrenic lives in a more or less completely self-constituted world, where fragments of personality are imbedded in a matrix of delusional projections. It is a world where inner-driven states are substituted for any kind of consensual reality, and a world where it is almost meaningless to talk about having "personality" at all. The task of Deleuze and Guattari's happy schizophrenic is to harness this condition of non-referentiality to the use of forging a new kind of self, in an essentially linguistic transformation, free of the moral and psychological despotism of Modernism.

Schizophrenia is very different from DID, however, and while much of what I am proposing may seem at first glance similar to Deleuze and Guattari's project, there are in fact vast differences. The challenge for both myself and Deleuze and Guattari, is to take a condition held by most to be maladaptive and pathological, and turn it into a paradigm for better and more effective living. I believe that I have the easier task.

The concept of dissociation

The concept of Multiple Personalities is itself a fluid one, and it has evolved over not just centuries, but millennia, and throughout cultures as varied as nomadic hunter gatherers of the sub-arctic to contemporary industrial societies. At its core, this concept involves the inherent capacity of the human psyche to dissociate, to spread itself out over psychic space and time. Colin Ross defines dissociation quite simply: "Dissociation is the opposite of association...For definitional purposes the psyche may be reduced to a collection of elements in complex relationships with each other. Psychic elements include thoughts, memories, feelings, motor commands, impulses, sensations, and all the other constituents of psychic life. Any two psychic elements may be in a dynamic relationship with each other, which is to be associated, or relatively isolated and separate, which is to be dissociated." (Ross, 1997, p 116).

Dissociation is an important factor in normal psychological functioning, allowing for a degree of mutability and adaptability which would be impossible without it. It is probably best to think of dissociation on a continuum, from ordinary daydreaming, through such phenomena as forgetting where one is going on the freeway, to the particularly florid manifestations of dissociation which are commonly labeled as Multiple Personality. Although the phenomenon is usually thought of as purely psychological in nature, it can actually be either biologically or psychosociologically driven, as given by Ross (Ross, 1997, p 116):

1.Normal biological dissociation-- Forgetting that you got up in the night to go to the bathroom.
2.Normal psychosocial dissociation-- Daydreaming during a boring lecture.
3.Abnormal psychosocial dissociation-- Amnesia for incest.
4.Abnormal biological dissociation-- Amnesia following a concussion.

These biological aspects of dissociation reinforce the notion that it is an entirely natural ability, and serve to lessen emphasis on pathological manifestations. This sort of grounding in the ordinary is necessary, to blunt criticism that I am building some kind of fool's paradise on a foundation of mental illness. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I am claiming that dissociation is not only an adaptive, but a highly desirable strategy for dealing with the complex, multi-dimensional social relationships enabled by cyberspace technologies. It is more "sane", if you will, than strategies which try to preserve a monolithic unit of self and agency in the face of almost exponentially increasing demand for multiplicity.

The earliest known references to dissociative phenomena are to be found in Neolithic cave paintings, in which shamans can be seen transforming into animals and spirits, presumably for purposes of enabling the clan in its survival efforts. In fact, throughout the long march of what we call pre-history, such dissociative abilities had great survival value, by creating a closer connection with the worlds of spirits and animals, with which humans coexisted. Persons adept at such dissociations were given positions of considerable power and respect in "primitive" societies.

The shamanistic tradition has survived almost to the present day in the circumpolar regions of Asia and North America, and study of these cultures provides our best view of how shamanism operated over tens of millennia. Some of the arguments made about shamanism are similar to arguments which might be given to my proposed schema, so it is illustrative to examine this incredibly ancient tradition.

Most shamans, as near as can be determined, seemed to be healthy and not suffering from mental disorders. They were integral members of their societies and often went through long periods of training to become adept, all of which argue against any sort of pathological component to their craft. The shamans of the far north rarely, if ever, used hallucinogenic plants, relying instead exclusively on self-hypnosis. They were, in effect, rigorously trained professional dissociators who functioned variously as priests, weather forecasters, doctors and conveyors of the oral tradition.

Colin Ross (Ross, 1997) lists 11 dissociative features of the shamans work, and relates each to DID. These parallelisms are worth mentioning here, as they further ground the experiences of DID patients in a milieu that is not pathological:

Structured, Meaningful Hallucinations-- Shamans deliberately induced special states of being, in which they could communicate with other realms of being, such as the spirit and animal worlds. Like the "hallucinations" of DID patients, however, these events were not indicative of psychosis, but rather clearly dissociative in nature.

Trance States-- Trance states were essential prerequisites for spirit communication, out of body experiences, possession, etc. DID patients frequently enter trance. One of the major diagnostic criteria for DID is ease of hypnotizability.

Hypnotic Anesthesia-- Such activities as walking naked in the arctic winter, holding hot objects, and self-piercing indicate hypnotic anesthesia. DID patients often report anesthesia for the pain of abuse, or self-inflicted pain.

Symbolic Dreams-- Shamans' dreams were often lucid and directed at conveying information about the spirit world or the real world. Likewise, DID patients' dreams often involve conveying information about past abuse, organization of the personality system or other buried information to the waking personality.

Ritual Dismemberment-- Often initiation as a shaman involved ritual dismemberment analogous to death, associated with spiritual fragmentation. DID patients have, by definition, undergone dismemberment of the self as a strategy for survival.

Possession by the Souls of Ancestors-- In trance states, shamans would often deliberately become posed by the souls of dead ancestors, who would impart advice and wisdom. It is fairly common for DID patients to have at least one alter who claims to be a dead ancestor.

Possession by Helping Spirits-- These "familiars" were often invoked by shamans during trance states as helpers and guides. DID patients almost always have helper personalities, some of whom claim to be from other dimensions or to be spirits.

Exhaustion Following Strenuous Trance Work-- Intense trance events often left shamans tired for a period of days. Intense DID treatment sessions have a similar effect.

Stimulating Dissociation through Intoxication-- As mentioned, it was rare for shamans of old to use intoxicants, except, rarely, hallucinogenic mushrooms. DID patients, on the other hand, frequently resort to chemical paths to dissociation, and often manifest substance-abusing alters.

Out-of-Body Experiences-- A common technique for shamans was astral projection, or out-of -body travel, where they would project themselves into the spirit or real world to accomplish tasks. Many DID patients have had out-of-body experiences, often at the time of childhood abuse, as a means of psychic escape.

Transformation of Identity-- During the possession state of trance, the shaman became reciprocally identified with the possessing spirit in a manner analogous to alter switching in DID patients.

As can be seen from this list of correspondences, there is much commonality between the "professionally" achieved and culturally approved dissociative states of the sub-arctic shaman, and the dissociative states of the DID patient.

A present day culture in which dissociative phenomena are active in daily life is described by Suryani and Jensen in their study of trance and possession phenomena in Bali (Suryani and Jensen, 1993). They found that highly dissociative trance states were an accepted part of the culture and no negative feelings attached to persons so dissociating. In fact, there are certain persons who are easy to put into trance states by startling and other techniques, and there is a great deal of good-humored fun made at the expense of these persons, without it becoming at all mean-spirited.

Multiple personalities

The above discussion of DID as related to non-pathological functioning is important, as it will serve to ground our perceptions of this phenomenon while we tread the increasingly exotic terrain covered by the manifestation of DID usually called Multiple Personalities. The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, of the American Psychiatric Association) category of DID was in fact called Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) in the DSM-III, and so quotes from some materials will refer to the syndrome by that name.

According to Putnam, "The core feature of MPD is the existence of alter personalities who exchange control over an individual's behavior. it is important to state from the outset that whatever an alter personality is, it is not a separate person." (Putnam, 1986, p 103, italics the author's). Putnam goes on to quote the definition of an alter personality given by Braun and Kluft as "an entity with a firm, persistent, and well-founded sense of self and a characteristic and consistent pattern of behavior and feelings in response to given stimuli. It must have a range of functions, a range of emotional responses, and a significant life history (of its own existence)." (Kluft 1984, p

Stephen Braude has constructed an interesting interpretation of multiple alters in terms of what he calls apperceptive centers (Braude 1991). First he postulates that mental and behavioral states are indexical if a person believes such states to be his/her own. This is a purely epistemological property of such a state. In contrast, if a person experiences a state as his/her own, then that state can be said to be autobiographical, a phenomenological property of that state. Apperceptive centers are defined as "an individual most of whose autobiographical states are indexical" (Braude, 1991, p 78), and he proposes that distinct alters tend to be distinct apperceptive centers. He distinguishes multiples from other strong forms of dissociation by claiming that multiples tend to have more than one apperceptive center at one time, whereas other forms of dissociation, and non-dissociated states, do not.

The sense of self maintained by alter personalities is solid enough that they often appear to each other as being very different, physically, emotionally and psychologically. They often claim vociferously to be independent persons, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. For instance, one alter might insist that another's clothes are not just in bad taste, but are of the wrong size, or even appropriate for the wrong sex. Sometimes alters even see other alters as being differently located physically, as sitting in a different chair or being in a different room. In really extreme cases, one alter might wish to kill another, adamantly denying any connection whatsoever with that alter.

In addition to such well formed alter personalities, it is typical to find a number of personality fragments-- smaller units of personality of limited scope and ability. Typically a personality fragment will be limited to one affect, such as anger or joy, or one functionality, such as driving a car or absorbing pain. This sort of fracturing can yield fragments so specific that it is ultimately useless to consider them as personalities.

Alter personalities can be thought of as units of functionality which enable the DID patient to function in the external world, or cope with the complex demands of the inner world such people inhabit. External duties include holding a job, managing relationships with other people, taking care of bodily needs, etc. Internal duties include such activities as managing which alter is "out" (in control of the physical body) at any time, holding and managing traumatic memories, and settling internal squabbles between alters. A complicated set of personalities often arises to accomplish these tasks, frequently numbering a few tens or scores of distinct alters.

Although alter personalities tend to be distinct entities which resist stereotyping, there are nevertheless patterns of types which appear to be common across DID patients. Putnam has generalized a set of such types (Putnam 1986), varying along lines of functionality and affect. It is worth summarizing them here, as they give us some insight into the organization of multiple personalities.

The Host Personality-- Usually defined as the alter who has executive control of the body most of the time. This personality is typically depressed, compulsively good, conscience-stricken, and feels overwhelmed by circumstances. Quite often, the host personality is completely unaware of the existence of other alters until presented with them during therapy. Hosts may not be single alters, but are sometimes elaborate facades put up by a group of cooperating alters.

Child Personalities-- These seem to be found in virtually every DID patient. They are frozen in time and do not age. Such personalities often serve the function of holding traumatic memories of childhood abuse; they are frequently counterbalanced by other child alters who embody pure childhood innocence.

Persecutor Personalities-- These personalities will try to sabotage the patient's life and even inflict bodily harm. They are sometimes responsible for "suicide" attempts which are really cases of "internal homicide", where a persecutor personality attempts to kill the host.

Suicidal Personalities-- As distinct from above, these are personalities driven to kill themselves, as opposed to other alters. They may be unaware of the existence of the host, or other alters.

Protector and Helper Personalities-- These personalities serve as a counterbalance to the destructive and suicidal alters. They come in a number of forms, depending on what the multiple requires protection from. In female multiples, they are often male alters of great physical strength.

The Internal Self-Helper-- Relatively emotionless personalities, who provide information bout the internal workings of the personality system. Very useful allies for therapy.

Memory Trace Personality-- A passive personality who usually has a more or less complete memory of the DID patient's life. Most alters have access to only a severely limited range of memories.

Cross-Gender Personalities-- It is very common for multiples to have alters of opposite sex. In females, male alters tend to serve in such masculine roles as physical protection and operation of machinery. In male DID patients, female personalities are older "good-mother" figures who provide counsel, and tend to be active in the patient's internal dynamics more than manifesting outwardly.

Promiscuous Personalities-- These alters exist to express forbidden impulses, often sexual in nature.

Administrators and Obsessive-Compulsive Personalities-- These personalities frequently emerge in the workplace, where they may be quite competent professionally, although seen by fellow workers as distant and authoritarian. They may also function to manage the internal organization of the DID patient's fragmented personality.

Substance Abusers-- Drug abuse in DID patients is frequently limited to one alter, and this alter may be the only one to suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Autistic and Handicapped Personalities-- Autistic personalities are often sent "out" during periods when no other alter is interested in executive control, or especially during situations of confinement or control.

Personalities with Special Talents or Skills-- Alters displaying great skill in work-related, artistic or athletic fields are common, and often tend to be more like fragments than complete alter personalities.

Anesthetic or Analgesic Personalities-- These alters seem to be formed during initial episodes of abuse, and deny feelings of pain. They are activated when the body is injured by self or others.

Imitators and Impostors-- Some multiples have alters who imitate the functions of other alters. In some instances, the impostor will handle situations the personality they are mimicking cannot.

Demons and Spirits-- These alters sometimes manifest, especially in persons from rural areas or with fundamentalist religious beliefs. Spirit alters are similar to Internal Self-Helpers and demon alters are similar to Persecutors.

The Original Personality-- Many multiples have a "core" personality from which the others are derived. Typically this alter is not active, and is described by others in the system of alters as having been "put to sleep" to protect it from trauma.

As can be seen from the above list, alter personalities tend to assume some sort of functional role, either in the external life of the multiple, or in the complex internal dynamics of the system of alters. Such diversification according to functionality will be very useful in developing a model of distributed agency in the cyberspace domain.

Causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder

The fact remains, and it must be addressed, that DID is presented as a pathological state, not as a condition of elaborated opportunities for interaction with the world. To understand the pathological nature of DID, it is necessary to consider its causes.

Colin Ross elaborates four pathways to DID (Ross 1997). These are:

1.Childhood Abuse Pathway
2.Childhood Neglect Pathway
3.Factitious Pathway
4.Iatrogenic Pathway

The Childhood Abuse Pathway is by far the most common pathway to DID, a sad commentary on the ability of our species to terrorize its young. Ross has an interesting gloss on this pathway to DID, "It seems to me that the fundamental problem in DID is the problem of attachment to the perpetrator." (Ross, 1997, p 65, italics the author's). The abused child is put in a classic double bind by conflicting biological and psychological imperatives. On the one hand, the child must attach to its parents in order to thrive, or even to physically survive. On the other hand, the parent to whom she (by far, most DID patients are women) must attach is abusing the child, typically sexually, as well as physically. The child is powerless to predict, stop, or avoid the abuse and so falls back on the only avenue of escape available, extreme dissociation.

Dissociation is a skill all children are adept at. It manifests as deep role-playing behavior in play, as total immersion in entertainment, and as "imaginary playmates." These dissociative abilities are drawn upon by the abused child to help keep the attachment systems up and running, so the biological organism does not die. These attachment systems are personified as separate identities, who idealize the abuser and are amnesiac for most or all the abuse. An additional drive for creating alter personalities is the need to create stable internal persons who will always be available for comfort and attachment. This strategy is typically effective to the extent that it allows the child to survive, but becomes maladaptive when the abuse is no longer a factor.

Seen in this light, the cause of DID is not the abuse per se, but rather the bind that such abuse puts the abused child in. I have been thinking about DID as a model for cyberspace subjectivity for some time, and the heavy involvement of child abuse in the etiology of DID has always left a bad taste in my mouth, like I was basing my model on something inherently evil. I feel better proposing this model, as I can frame DID as a creative response to a horrible condition, rather than a direct result of that condition. A subtle, but meaningful distinction.

The Childhood Neglect Pathway typically results in DID less severe in nature and more responsive to treatment than that caused by sexual and physical abuse. In this pathway, the abuse suffered by the child is extreme neglect, often to the point of being locked in a closet or room for prolonged periods, resulting in the loss of a secure attachment figure. Children thus abused use their dissociative abilities to retreat into an internal world, and they populate this world with internal figures with which to form attachments.

Factitious Pathway DID is the result of elaborate faking on the part of the patient.

Iatrogenic Pathway DID likewise results from factors other than (at least primarily) childhood abuse. Poor therapy techniques are at the root of this pathway, creating DID where there was none, or exacerbating mild cases into much worse ones.

It is worthwhile to note that the factitious and iatrogenic pathways to DID do not necessarily involve child abuse, or indeed any abuse at all. This leaves open the possibility of a form of intense dissociation on the order of DID, but not identical with it, based on a postulated "corrosive" effect of information technologies on subjectivity.

A new kind of self

From the foregoing, we can see that dissociation can be an adaptive response to trauma, one that enables an individual to maintain some sort of integrity in situations where basic survival systems might break down without such intervention. I believe that the enabling technologies lumped under the heading of "cyberspace" have so altered our relationships with the world that it amounts to severe trauma, and that a dissociative strategy will serve to cope with this information trauma and allow us to thrive and even flourish.

Humans have evolved over the eons as communicating creatures of a certain bandwidth, as dictated by our hard-wired sensory and nervous systems, mediated through the software of language. Until very recently, we have been interacting with our physical and social worlds through channels which were essentially serial and hierarchical, a mode whose final realization resulted in the totalizing intrusions of the Modernist project.

Our evolution has reached a new phase now, one dominated by cultural and technological forces much more fluid and mutagenic than any previously known. We have created an electronic skin, a bioapparatus, that shapes our reality and determines the flow of information through our synapses. The crucial and defining feature of this new bioapparatus is that it operates in parallel mode, presenting us with fundamental incompatibilities with our existing processing structures.

This incompatibility, as I see it, is the source of the informational trauma being inflicted by cyberspace technologies, and the way to deal with this trauma is to enable ourselves for parallel processing. DID provides a paradigm for just such multivalent operation.

As given by Braude above, the defining characteristic of DID is the presence of more than one apperceptive center (alter) at one time (Braude, 1991). This is all well and good, but most interpretations of DID treat these alters as essentially functionally distinct units. Indeed, therein lies the pathology of DID: alters do not know what other alters are up to. Such a completely fragmented world view would model the parallel input streams of our postmodern information realm, but it would be unable to interpret or synthesize any of it.

Braude counters this commonly held view about the distinctness of alters thus: "Nevertheless, certain features of experience seem to presuppose a type of psychological unity that can only be explained adequately in terms of a single underlying subject, even in cases of MPD." (Braude, 1991, p 166, italics mine), and "We have seen, not only that an alter's characteristic functions inevitably overlap with those of other alters, but also that they cannot literally be isolated from a common pool of dispositions attributable to the multiple as a whole. In that case, however, we need not deny either the reality and functional distinctness of the alters or the reality and functional complexity of the underlying subject to who the entire repertoire of abilities belongs." (Braude, 1991, p188)

A practical interpretation of this model of DID can be found in those clinical cases where treatment has stopped short of the usual goal of complete integration. In these cases, what is left is a group of alters who are now cognizant of each other and capable of cooperation to preserve the viability of the aggregate (The Troops for Truddi Chase, 1990). Such multiples walk a fine line between unity and multiplicity, and this is the very arena where I place the evolutionary advantage that Deleuze and Guattari attempted to find in schizophrenia.

This, then is the model of DID that I am proposing to deal with the psychic shock of living in cyberspace. It may even be thought of as an elaborate ruse, a pretending to be multiple, and that is fine as long as the depth of the pretense is sufficient to enable the required level of dissociation, as is certainly the case in DID.

The new, cyberspatial self will employ those same enabling technologies, which the linear self found so threatening, to extend into the parallel domain. In particular, we can conceive that the various alters in a DID multiple's repertory might be represented by semi-autonomous agents. These agents are able to parse multiple input streams for relevance to the "core" personality, and perform some form of buffered parallel-to-serial conversion on any data stream selected. This conversion will be necessary, because of the limitations imposed by our biological apparatus. Possibly advances in genetics will enable us to address these limitations, as well, at some future time.

Our dissociated, cyberspatial self is modeled thus: There is a core personality, a body in space and psyche in information space. This body is extended, through the bioapparatus of cyberspace technologies, into a realm of enhanced sensory and communication modalities and this enhanced information load, in turn, places greater processing and integrating strain on the psyche. Parts of the psyche are now off-loaded, however, onto agents capable of acting in behalf of the core personality, and capable of coordination with each other. Like the alters of a DID personality, these agents will come and go, as required by circumstances of the information environment.

These dispersed agents will be interacting with agents dispersed from other core personalities, and so much of the success of this model will depend on the ability to faithfully encode into them the desires and capabilities relevant to core needs. This, of course, requires faith that we will be able to solve the problems inherent in creating such "smart" agents. I believe that current research in "bottom-up" evolution of intelligence has the promise to provide such breakthroughs, however, so I am optimistic that our cyberspatially dissociated self will become a reality.


Braude, S.E. (1991), First Person Plural, Routledge, London

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1977), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Viking, New York

Kluft, R. P. (1984), An Introduction to Multiple Personality Disorder, Psychiatric Annals, 14:51-55

Putnam, F. W. (1986), Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder, The Guilford Press, New York

Ross, C. A. (1997), Dissociative Identity Disorder, John Wiley and Sons, New York

Suryani, L. K., and Jensen, G.D. (1993), Trance and Possession in Bali: a Window on Western Multiple Personality, Possession Disorder and Suicide, Oxford University Press, Oxford

The Troops for Truddi Chase (1990),When Rabbit Howls, Jove Books