The Legion Project: a Model for Distributed Subjectivity in Cyberspace, Based on Dissociative Identity Disorder

Part 1: Dissociative Identity Disorder and Cyberspace


The concept of dissociation

Multiple personalities

Causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder

A new kind of self

Part 2: Implementing the LegionWorld Test Bed

Design decisions

Testing the avatar model



Part 1: Dissociative Identity Disorder and Cyberspace


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):


These biological aspects of dissociation reinforce the notion that it is an entirely natural ability, and serve to lessen emphasis on pathological manifestations..

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. 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. Such parallelisms are striking, and they further ground the experiences of DID patients in a milieu that is not pathological.

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 category called DID in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, of the American Psychiatric Association) 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 F.W. Putnam, "The core feature of MPD is the existence of alter personalities who exchange control over an individualís 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 authorís). 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 23).

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. I find this interpretation to be the most appealing of any I have read.

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. The sense of self maintained by these alter personalities is solid enough that they often appear to each other as being very different, physically, emotionally and psychologically.

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, p 230), and they 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 authorís). 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.

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 the subject stance.

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. 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 information 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 alterís 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 whom 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. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977)

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 Factitious Pathway 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 multipleís repertory might be represented by semi-autonomous agents (Maes, 1994). 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, such as the work of Rodney Brooks, has the promise to provide such breakthroughs. Brooks creates "creatures" with very simpe reasoning units that communicate with each other only at the level of signal passing. Nevertheless, complex behaviors emerge from such units linked in this architecture, without central control or plan. (Brooks, 1991) Given such advances, I am optimistic that cyberspatially dissociated self will become a reality.

Part 2: Implementing the LegionWorld Test Bed

Design decisions

The 3D avatar virtual world, LegionWorld, is meant to test the notion of distributed and fractured subjectivity in the cyberspace domain. I planned to embody these ideas into the actual structure of the virtual world, much as our assumptions about monolithic identity are built into the structure of normal consensual reality.

The first design decsion, which would affect all others, was which VRML platform to use. I chose to use Sony Community Place, as it is VRML2-compliant and comes with a nice freeware server, as well as a VRML development tool. I found this platform easy to build on, and the people at Sony were quite helpful.

For LegionWorld, I wanted to create special composite avatars which, rather than being singular and specific entities, were more like a small "gang" or "swarm" of sub-avatars. Each of these sub-avatars would, in turn, represent one of three states of affect and/or engagement: Angry/defensive, Shy/disengeaged or Excited/engaged. These states were chosen for initial testing, because they are relatively easy to recognize and represent. The sub-avatar most closely representing the userís current state would be at the head of the gang, and the others would recede to a stand-by position in the rear, and become partially transparent (Fig 1). Most importantly, however, they would not disappear, but be always visible as a reminder that many personalities are in constant contention for control. As the affective state of the user changed, the makeup of the composite avatar would likewise change to reflect that state, by swapping different sub-avatars to the head position. Persons using such avatars in LegionWorld would be constantly reminded of the fractured and distributed nature of the subject position, and it was my hope that this would rapidly become a natural and intuitive mode of self-representation.

The subavatars were designed without recourse to standards of human form or common morphology, lacking legs or even arms in one instance. "Angry/defensive" was characterized by its sheer bulk, red color and a visage suggesting unrelenting obstinacy and a predisposition for confrontation. "Shy/disengeged" was colored medium green, long and thin, with a very appealing expression of resigned indifference. "Excited/engaged" was light blue with large eyes, and lacking both arms and legs to connect with the ground plane, appeared to float free. The subavatars are arrayed in a loose isoceles triangle with the dominant sub-avatar at the front.

Although I initially intended for the avatars to change configuration in response to key word parsing of the input stream, I abandoned that scheme due to time and technology constraints. The method of choosing avatars in LegionWorld is manual, with the user pulling down an appropriate avatar from a list. This is an interim solution, until I can get the automated switching to work.

The LegionWorld virtual 3D world was designed to elicit affective states from visitors, so I could test how they the avatars worked in response to the space, as well as to other avatars. It consists of two spaces, connected by a hyperlink "portal". The first space, the Plaza, is a large flat plane with several stuctures, including a jail-like building, a "temple" and a pavillion with a large animated ant. Looped music plays in the background. The second space, the Island, is a large meadow ringed on one side by trees and on another by spiky mountains. It is rather neutral in feeling, in contrast to the wide range of affective evocations possible in the Plaza.

Testing the avatar model

I tested LegionWorld on seven subjects, one of whom was familiar with the project and six who were not. Of those six, LegionWorld was the very first VR experience for three of them, so they had no preconceptions about what to expect. I tested by installing the testers at one computer running LegionWorld, and myself at another in the same room, but not close. All communication was through the browser chat window, as if we were in separate locales. The sessions were logged for later analysis.

I wanted to establish some sort of initial base line by using a tester who was famliar with the ideas behind my project, although not with the details of its implementation. I encountered this first tester in the world and asked questions about the effectiveness of the avatars in conveying the concept of multiple agency, all the while cycling through the range of available avatars. I was gratified when that person replied, "I definitely get the sense that I am speaking to a Ďdifferentí person. Definitely." And also, " terms of of how it gives one a sense of communicating differently, with a different person/space, I think it works well." This was very much in line with the informal testing I had done, and made me feel that my model was valid.

At this point I began testing volunteers who had no experience with my concepts, to see if they would be able to derive those concepts from their experiences in LegionWorld. As before, I met the subjects in the world, but this time I did not ask about whether my model evoked my ideas. Instead, I presented the testers with various aspects of the model, such as the different avatars, the objects in the world and the two different spaces, and I asked them how these things affected them. While the responses varied from tester to tester, there was a large amout of consistency

The first issue I wanted to address was whether the architecture of my avatar model did, in fact, convey the idea of multiple personalities contending for executive control. I wanted to do that without asking leading questions. If the tester did not bring up that subject voluntarily, I asked something about his/her reaction to encountering these avatars which were basically small gangs, with some members seemingly fading away. Most of the testers seemed to get the core idea of multiple representation, which was very heartening. Here are some typical responses on that subject: "...kind of like alternate personas not in use, and I know Iím representing as one of them, which seems strange...", "...are you a clump or what? Do you have three parts/identities?", "Puts off the image that there are actually other people there.", "...but why do you have a group with you? Who are they, your alternate avatars?...So in a way you have multiple personalities in this world? One person controls all three cyberbeings?" "You always have a gang with you." This was exactly what I had hoped that my model would elicit from people, so I was quite pleased with these reactions.

The next phase of testing was to see if the different avatar models were successful in conveying the desired states of affect/engagement. To accomplish this, I faced off in the world with each tester, and asked them to respond to my presence as I switched from one avatar to another. If they had no response, I would try to elicit one by asking questions like "How does this make you feel?", or "How would you feel embodied by this avatar?". I started this test phase each time with the Excited/engaged avatar, and then proceeded to Shy/disengaged and finally Angry/defensive. Here are the results:

The Excited/engaged composite avatar reliably evoked the desired responses. The testers, for the most part, read this avatar as being expansive, friendly, silly, and likeable. Here are some typical reactions: "...I like the blue self, not the red or green." " = the likeable guy caught up in the bad crowd.", "The little blue guy is very likeable. Kind of like an alien duck.", "Looks friendly. The six protruding things around the neck make it seem clowny. The big circular eyes and the small mouth are carricatured.", "You look wide open and friendly. Big eyes, classic cartoon features.", "...neutral, like I am talking to a magui."

The comments above were typical and bolstered my hypothesis that this avatar would convey such a state of affect/engagement. One tester responded very differently to this avatar, however: "...least humanoid, most alarming...but I think Iíd feel the most freedom with him...the pupil-less eyes are very effective--soulless!...but perhaps easier to inhabit." I found this response very intriguing. It seemed to indicate that humanoid form was more desirable than I was giving credit for, and that big open eyes were not a universal sign of benign intent.

Next, I tested the Shy/disengaged avatar the same way. Again, the responses and comments from the testers were generally favorable to my hypothesis about this avatarís evocative potential. It was perceived generally as standoffish, remote, cool, even strange and spooky. Here are some typical responses: "[it makes me feel] stoned:) tired and it maks me feel sort of ingnored, like s/he is looking right through me.", "Itís a little spooky, especially the expression it has. I like it not being connected to the ground.", "In this one you look like the strange guy in high school behind the bleachers."(!), "...non threatening, sullen, anorexic...the eyes look vacuous, general feeling of emptiness.", "I donít think Iíd be sidling up next to this guy for a late night conversation...Just seems very non-friendly."

These reactions to the Shy/disengaged avatar were a bit more extreme than I had anticipated, but they were absolutely in character with what I had planned, so this was again quite encouraging.

I was confident that the final avatar, Angry/defensive would be correctly percieived, and the testers proved my confidence well-founded. With one exception, all of them read that avatar essentially the same; as being gruff, aggressive, confrontational. Testers reacted like this: "...reminds me of a bull.", "This one looks very mythical.", "Yeah, well I think I should be snarly or something...although itís pleasantly absurd to just be and be repped by a fanged bull!", "...angry. I wouldnít go up to this avatar and start talking...Looks rude and ruthless.", "...looks like the av wants to start a brawl or a flame war.", "You look scary."

Such comments made it clear that this avatar evoked the desired affective/engagement states for most people. However, there was one notable exception who gave the following response: "I actually like this one lots. Seems friendly to me in the same way that a :( face is...the way that a big tough guy is still very lovable / huggable." I liked this response, because I had not intended the avatar to be relentlessly menacing, and it was good that someone saw a kind heart behind that gruff facade.


These test results were very encouraging. They indicated to me that the reasoning and design criteria that informed the avatar model were valid, and could serve as the basis for further work in this direction. Even more exciting, I felt like LegionWorld, even in its current embryonic state, was capable of supporting valid research into the nature of embodiment and agency in the cyberspace domain. The efficacy of the composite avatars in evoking their discrete affect/engagement states is gratifying. The way in which these composite avatars convey the notion of multiple, parallel idenities is even more gratifying. The effect seems to be quite real, reproducible and intuitive.

I believe I have made a small, but significant, step toward enabling humans to survive, and even flourish, in an age characterized by massive information truama.


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

Brooks, R. (1991), Intelligence without reason. In Proceedings of the 12th International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Morgan Kaufman

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

Maes, P. (1994), Modeling Adaptive Autonomous Agents. In Artificial Life IV, MIT Press, Cambridge MA

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