Amnesia Between Alter Personalities: A story that doesn’t hold up

A key aspect of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is that there is amnesia between some, or all, alter personalities. It is said that those suffering from DID do not know what other personalities say and/or do. It is believed that each personality is separate and lives a full life  – albeit sharing one body. There are likely as many people identifying as multiple who have personalities who are aware of each other – there is no one-size-fits-all with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

The behavior, thoughts, and actions of each personality is reported to be unknown 100 percent of the time. This sets a scene whereby a person has other identities that act independently and without knowledge of the others. It is often said that when an alter takes executive control of “the body”, there is amnesia between personalities. This period is sometimes reported as time-loss – a hallmark of Dissociative Identity Disorder and the symptom discussed the most in the reading I do.

dissociative identity disorder 1

dissociative identity disorder 1 (Photo credit: hunnnterrr)

This amnesia barrier is what allows one personality, for example a sexy woman who frequents bars and picks up men, to be unknown by a personality believed to be a 5 year-old girl who craves attention and hugs from Mommy and vise-verse.

When the amnesia barrier between alter personality states is tested in a laboratory under strict scientific conditions and the results fail to find an amnesia barrier, what do these results say about a key element, or hallmark, of multiple personalities and dissociative identity disorder? Researchers, psychotherapists and patients all hang their hats and reputations on the existence of an amnesia barrier between personalities. When scientific scrutiny shows that other entities do not take control of one’s thoughts and behaviors without the other personalities knowing, the theory crumbles.

When rudimentary beliefs and unscientific statements made that are repeatedly shown to be inaccurate – it’s time to go back to the drawing board and rethink, and rethink, and rethink. until you get it right. Failing to do so and continuing to feed patients and their families bunk science is criminal.

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A story that doesn’t hold up: Research casts doubt on key aspect of dissociative identity disorder (featuring Dr. Richard J. McNally)

Harvard Science: Science and Engineering at Harvard University, USA

By Peter Reuell

A new study,  — conducted by Harvard’s Richard J. McNally, Rafaele Huntjens of the University of Groningen, and Bruno Verschuere of the University of Amsterdam — casts doubt on the “amnesia barrier” that has long been a hallmark of what is now called dissociative identity disorder (DID) by demonstrating that patients do have knowledge of their other identities. Huntjens was lead author of the study, which was reported in a paper published in PLoS ONE on July 17.

…To understand whether there truly is an “amnesia barrier” between a DID patient’s identities, McNally and colleagues conceived a unique experiment.

..identify words as they flash on a computer screen. If one of a small set of randomly selected “target” words appears, press yes. For all other words, press no. The catch, McNally said, is that while many of the words hold no meaning for the patients, a small subset of the non-target words are taken from two autobiographical questionnaires patients fill out at the start of the test — one while inhabiting one personality, the second in another.

As expected, the lag appeared for words that were relevant to the personality taking the test. All participants showed a nearly identical lag for words that were relevant to their alternate personalities, McNally said, suggesting that the information wasn’t locked away in a separate identity.

Retrieved 08/19/12. Full story: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/08/a-story-that-doesnt-hold-up/

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24 Comments

  1. In my experience from studying psychology I think DID does indeed exist and is a real condition, however it is incredibly rare. While it is not rarely reported, it is rarely genuine. For example, as hypnosis can induce DID there is a risk that DID often is non-existent. There can also be reports of regretted actions where the person claims “it didn’t feel like me” (well guess what. It was you!). There are, however, cases where the patient at least showed “blackout episodes” and could genuienly not remember certain episodes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that two conflicting personalities are at play, but it does suggest a disconnection from conciousness. However, DID has never been my main field so I may be wrong.

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    • Jeanette Bartha

       /  12/24/2012

      Hello iamalivep05. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and observations. You are not alone in your thinking.

      I have a question. Many say that DID is rare, but the rate of diagnosis rises continually. What do you think about a condition that is supposed to be rare, yet continues to be on the rise in the US as well as in other continents? Just wondering. It’s a question I pose to people who believe they have multiple personalities, but they refuse to answer it in a rational manner. Thx

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      • Well for one thing the number of cases is going to rise in conjuction with population growth. I think, however, the main reason why it would increase so much is because of popular culture, which makes the public aware of an incredibly rare yet fascinating disorder. I think the vast majority of cases would not develop the disorder (or claim to have it) if they were unaware of it.

        I guess it could also be that hypnosis and other therapeutical methods have not always been used to detect DID, and so like I said in my previous post the susceptible patients will “develop” DID despite not having it. In effect DID becomes induced, or the therapist is exhibiting a confirmation bias. Alternatively it could be that psychiatrists are just better at detecting DID now than they were before, so the increase is just a reflection of detection increase and not disorder increase!

        Personally, though, I think it has largely to do with popular culture’s depiction of the disorder, but overall all the things I said influence it. That’s just my opinion, though.

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        • Jeanette Bartha

           /  12/26/2012

          I like how you express yourself, iamaliveo05. It is always educational for people who come here to read opinions other than mine.

          I find many people believing they suffer from DID/MPD to use the “fact” that the diagnostic process is better than it was as a reason for the rise in cases. The other argument I read is that many, many people (mostly women) have it and are simply undiagnosed.

          I lean to the pop-culture/culture-bound explanation. Then again, people who support Dissociative Identity Disorder vehemently disagree with me. I am unaware of any other country reporting the phenomenon of multiple personalities before the United States started finding int – I am excluding cultures who find spirit possession and the like that mimics multiple personalities.

          Thanks for the chat.

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          • Thanks for your compliments. It is always fun to have intellectual debates.
            I did read quite a lot about DID/MPD during my first years of psychology (2008/09). I might look it up and see if I can remember anything and then post it here. Great blog, Jeanette!

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  12/27/2012

            Thank you for joining us, iamalivep05. I always enjoy new people who bring different points of view to the table. Best.

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  12/27/2012

            Hello, iamalivep05 – I just read some articles on your blog that I find very interesting. Do you think that MPD/DID could be verified using the amnesia tests and neuroimaging you wrote about? DID is said to show evidence of personalities switching during MRIs according to proponents. Opponents debunk it. What is your opinion?

            Your area of interest are enlightening and refreshing. I added your blog to my links. Hope others will visit you. Best.

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          • Hi Jeanette. Thank you for kind words and for adding my blog to your links!
            About your question, I think neuroimaging could be used to assess DID and I would not be surprised if it has been done already. After a quick Google Scholar search I saw some articles, like this one: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3233754/
            However, it sounded like phrenology to me (I heavily criticed a similar study in my MSc), but I did read the whole thing.

            There might be some problems in using neurlogical methods (besides phrenology), for example you would have to control a personality switch while in an fMRI, which would be tricky. It is also possible that alternating personalities would not actually involve different brain areas, and if they did it might just reflect a difference in memory retrieval.

            That being said, I suppose you could use the neurological methods I descriped to look for DID deception. This deception may not be intentional, for example the patient may have convinced him or herself that multiple personalities exist and so they are exercising indirect deception. Of course this is speculation on my part, but in theory I imagine you could assess whether DID is genuine in a patient using neurological methods (and also pupil dialation).

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          • Sorry about all the typos.

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  12/28/2012

            Switching personalities would be impossible to control IMHO. I think that using the concept of deception is an extremely important exercise to do. I am often accused of saying that those claiming to have alter selves/personalities are lying – although I don’t think people are lying and have not made that statement.

            The other comment I usually get is that I was misdiagnosed with MPD/DID. I do not think I was misdiagnosed. I was taught how to be multiple and did my best – unwittingly to please my doctor and/or to live up to the expectations placed upon me. Add to the total control my doctor had over my life and it is easy to see how I was swept into his sickness. Wanting to rid myself from depression I was willing to follow his DID theories believing he is the doctor and he knows better than I did at the time.

            To actually illustrate how easy it is to feign alter selves just by believing you have alter selves. As you said, the deception is not intentional because the individual is convinced they have multiple selves. Unfortunately, when I discuss the fact that I do not believe multiple personalities exist – my statement is interpreted as meaning I think others are lying.

            Lying and deception, in my view, means an intent. I do not think most people who claim to be multiple are intentionally lying or trying to be deceitful. If there was a way to show how deception is indirectly an aspect of DID therapy, that knowledge could make some impact on people.

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          • I agree with you. Just because deception is involved that is not to say that you are lying. It is perpectly possible to deceive implicitly. Sometimes this can be extreme, such as with for example pseudocyesis (hysterical pregnancy) where a woman firmly believes she is pregnant when she is not. While this is not the same as DID at all, it follows a similar principle whereby the person strongly believes a condition to be real.

            I’m sorry to hear you were convinced of having DID. I imagine this must have been very tough especially considering you had much hospitilisation for a quesitonable disorder. I can certainly see how why you argue that DID may not exist and that it is rather an induced condition.

            It is very often hard to discuss such issues with people because they get defensive or they misunderstand. Like you said, people think you are implying lies in patients when you are not.

            I’m afraid the book I was going to look up about DID is not here, but I had some other books I read during my degree about it.

            Here were a couple of quotes from Gleitman (1999, p796):
            “Acute and post-traumatic stress disorders show that people can distance themselves psychologically, or dissociate, from ongoing events. In many cases, people find some means of thinking about the traumatic events that avoids integrating these events with other beliefs and other knowledge. In addition, people often find some alternative perspective for viewing the traumatic events, different from the perspective they ordinarily adopt. They view these events as somehow not real or somehow not truly involving them.”

            In other words, people distance themselves from some regretable or traumatic experience in the past, effectively convincing themselves that it was not truly them, it was someone else…another personality. Of course, that means that deep inside they KNOW it was themselves, so this is not to conclude that two personalities exist. While it may still be a disorder, it sounds more like self-induced detachment.

            Another quote (p797 – I abbreviated “DID”):
            “Until twenty years ago, DID was considered very rare, with fewer than two hundred cases reported before 1975. Now cases number in the thousands; the large majority are females (Kluft, 1987). The rash of reported cases began with the publication of ‘Sybil’, a popular book about one case of DID, subsequently made into a television movie (Schreiber, 1973). The disorder has always been controversial, with critics arguing that the flood of diagnoses reflects a fad among therapists who inadvertently lead their suggestible and therefore fad-prone patients – many of whom know the many books and movies on the subject – to develop signs and symptoms of DID (Spanos, 1994). Even the diagnosies of ‘Sybil’ herself has been called into question by an expert therapist who examined her (Borch-Jaconsen, 1997).”

            I think that sums up quite nicely what a huge impact media has on this disorder.

            I also find that DID reminds me a lot of functional retrograde amnesia (psychologically caused memory loss), which you can read very briefly about in my amnesia essay. DID seems to be closely tied to amnesia as the personalities have inter-personality amnesia. The book “Memory Disorders for Clinicians” by Baddeley et al. (2004) mentions a few cases which appear to show that implicit, but not explicit, memory is carried across personalities. They also discuss some neurological evidence that suggest that personality disorders and amnesia may be a result of the frontal/executive lobe actively inhibiting autobiographical memory as a consequence of psychological stress. Severe stress and depression may cause a detachment from self-identity.

            Hope this helps. Sorry about the length, this is more of a post than a comment.

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  12/30/2012

            Hello iamalivep05,

            During the time I was convinced I had multiple personalities several things were the most difficult for me to cope with:

            1) Dr. Stratford*, my new psychiatrist at the hospital, did not disclose that he was/is considered an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of multiple personality disorder now dissociative identity disorder – MPD/DID
            2) Dr. Stratford did not disclose that >95% of his patients were diagnosed with MPD/DID
            3) my presenting problem of depression was ignored
            4) the psychopharmocologist consulted offered an opinion and drug intervention – also ignored

            Psychotherapy to treat MPD/DID is traumatic. The level of continuous stress is high and does not abate. Treatment does not (in my case) offer a patient an end or resolution

            I need to be clear of my position on the diagnosis and treatment of Dissociative Identity Disorder – Multiple Personality Disorder and now Parts Therapy & Internal Family Systems. I do Not believe the condition of multiple personalities exists and leave no room for the possibility that it May exist as you seem to.

            * Dr. Stratford is a pseudonym. I sued him for medical malpractice & negligence and am bound by the Court of Common Pleas of the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA Not to disclose his identity or the name of the hospital.

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  12/30/2012

            “It is very often hard to discuss such issues with people because they get defensive or they misunderstand. Like you said, people think you are implying lies in patients when you are not.”

            Hard to discuss issues is an understatement as you may know from reading my blog. Some comments made to me were so vial and threatening I had to report the person to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States as well as to my local police department.

            Why I am not permitted to have an opinion is beyond me, but that’s how it is.

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  12/30/2012

            Me again. I love long replies, what I do is split up my responses to I can keep conversations straight in my mind.

            You gave me a good idea – I’m going to open up the “Reading List” post to anyone who wants to add something they found interesting or useful in their educational endeavors.

            Thanks for the quotes, I’ll add them to the reading list post.

            Best.

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          • By the way, my blog is still new but when I’ve updated it I will also include a link to your blog 🙂

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  12/28/2012

            Your blog is interesting. Eager to read more. thanks for the link – eventually…

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          • Im sorry to hear that you’ve gone through such hardships. Judging by what you said about your psychiatrist he seems incredibly biased. It reminds me of a study I read where they told some psychologists at a hospital that during the week they may or may not receive a patient who is faking symptoms of depression (or something). They were told to note down any patients they suspected of faking. I don’t remember the exact result, but I think the psychologists/psychiatrists, identified 40 possible fakers…when in total there were none! I will try to look this up later.

            I think your case illustrates just how dangerous psychiatry can be if done incorrectly. I also find it amazing that you had to involve the FBI at some point just because of your views. It’s sad that people jump to conclusions and cannot discuss an issue calmly and constructively like we are doing now.

            While I have indeed argued that DID MAY be genuine, I should point out that my viewpoint comes from an entirely theoretical perspective. I only know what I have read. Besides yourself I have never interacted with or met anyone diagnoses with DID. Well, I did have a family member with symptoms of “split personality” after seeing a psychiatrist, whatever that means.

            I might write a post in my blog about this issue if that’s alright. I find these conversations very interesting. I also have a friend who is clinical psychologists and I’m gonna ask what he thinks as he has a clinical education while I have a research education.

            Regardless of whether DID is a genuine condition or not, I must say that it is “largely not genuine” based on what you have said earlier (and I have subsequently read) about cases suddenly skyrocketing following media involvement. This suggest a suggestible and susceptible public.

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          • Jeanette Bartha

             /  01/03/2013

            Hi iamalivep05. As always, I look forward to your posts.

            I would love to see you write an article on this subject especially because you come from an “outside” point of view – meaning you were not in DID therapy, and have no involvement in it other than your own curiosity. Go for it.

            The more people educated, the more likely people are to make good decisions about their mental health care.

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  2. Jessica

     /  08/22/2012

    i have to see if i can find an article i read while researching a paper in class. It was about a man who in a car accident suffred damage to the corpus callosum that lets the two sides of our brain talk and he manfiested symptons during recovery similar to amnesia happening in did. difference was since it wasnt a psychiatric issue it was ignored and as the swelling went down and his brain “rewired itself” the manifestations corrected themselves. i posited in the reseach reivew i did on it that maybe some of the childhood manifestations were actually brain damage from abuse responding similarly and the therapy acted like a self fulfilling prophecy to continue something that would have corrected itself.

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    • Some interesting points, Jessica.

      The neuropsychiatric aspect of MPD/DID (biological findings) contradict what is believed to occur spontaneously in multiples on a purely psychiatric level. That is why MPD/DID cannot be substantiated & holds no reasoning – the phenomenon does not exist on a biological level, therefore, does not exist on a psychiatric level.

      It’s pure BS sold to vulnerable women who knew no better than to buy it to explain their ills just like I did.

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  3. avalon111

     /  08/22/2012

    Well it kinda messes up the entire MPD/DID universe.

    The idea promoted by DID/MPD/Recovered memory advocates is that;

    * the most painful and destructive memories, invariably involving pain and abuse are instantly forgotten to protect the ‘survivor’. A subsidery view promoted by many MPD/DID advocates is that only satanic ritual abuse can produce the right combination of pain and helplessness for memories of such to be instantly forgotten.

    There’s an obvious problem with this, as a ‘special’ ability (granted it seems mostly to American middle-class white girls) this seems to be either a particularly stupid adaptation (if you believe in evolution) or a particularly daft ‘gift’ from God (if you don’t believe in evolution and prefer the Bible/Intelligent Design route). Either way it lumbers said white middle-class female with no means to avoid their alleged abuse, as each time it happens they forget about it!

    At this point the MPD/DID enthusiasts and Recovered memory advocates split in a fashion. The RM’s say ‘that’s it – said ‘survivor’ forgets about the pain and goes on through life, when later, invariably middle-aged they ‘recover’ the memories either independently or after being in therapy, or with the assistance of a book, such as ‘The Courage to Heal’ or ‘Michelle Remembers’.

    The MPD/DID community goes a bit further. The forgotten memories are subsequently compartmentalised into a new personality – perhaps one for every incident to be instantly forgotten. The personality can be of another adult, a child, a rock, a lobster.

    The new personalities don’t manifest themselves immediately (childhood MPD/DID is rather rare, an annoying facet in the continuum that still can’t be explained by its enthusiasts). Instead the personalities manifest later in life, invariably whilst the ‘survivor’ is being treated in therapy.

    Key to the MPD/DID scenario is that the personalities don’t communciate with one another, and especially not the host personality. That would defeat the idea of being able to forget the most painful memories and have them compartmentalised into other personalities. It isn’t clear why a better facility – just forget forever – isn’t employed, as recovering the memories decades after the alleged events took place seems a tad pointless as a survival trait. Ho hum, lets move on.

    Recovering the memories in an effort to ‘integrate’ personalities could conceivably be used as an excuse, though seeing as the MPD/DID is supposed to protect the host from the trauma of the memories, this too seems pointless – why not destroy the multiple personalities and their memories for good. If the argument is that the memories are useful, why didn’t the ‘survivor’ keep them in the first place – such as what happens to say child survivors of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Ho hum, move on.

    So, alters who chat with one another, chat in near real-time with the host, and swap stores and memories seems to render the entire MPD/DID hypothesis redundant.

    Yet it is this facet – ‘cartoon DID’ that is most often displayed on the likes of YouTube and in many ‘survivors’ and their therapists accounts.

    Why is that?

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    • None of it makes sense nonetheless, the premises you outline are ingrained in the lives of way too many women.

      This tragedy of psychotherapy at its worst continues and is alive, strong, and living underground.

      I don’t for a moment think that all alters are unaware of each other. That is what theorists and therapists and books want people to believe and accept. It’s not true. All alters know each other. I vehemently reject the notion that “time loss” (another cornerstone of the MPD/DID movement) is actually occurring. Just doesn’t happen. Period.

      Sadly, the “cartoon” MPD/DID is what people are really live. Cartoonists are spot on – as they usually are.

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