Monday, July 28, 2014


The dissonant brain is a term I like better than “dissociative identity.”  The latter means that the process that we think of as one person, since it is confined to one body, can split into more than one “personality” each of which is a coherent pattern of behavior.  We all present ourselves differently in different circumstances, using fancy manners in one place and relaxing into a bit of cheerful vulgarity or maybe indignation in the company of people we know and trust.  Identity, I’ve been saying, has five different levels:  1)  the intake of sensorium from the environment; 2)  the unconscious first-sorting that happens to that intake of electrochemical information throughout the body; 3)  the various operations on the whole by the parts of the brain; 4)  the reacting response; and 5)  the shared interpretation with other humans.  Things can go wrong at any of these five levels.

Three “categories” of dissonance -- identities “out of tune” enough for others to notice -- are all seen by society as MAL-function, something to be cured.  Society wants people to be unified identities. The three poly-coherences are: 1)  the kind of splitting that we call schizophrenia; 2) a phenomenon we call popularly “split personality”; and 3) a mind-state that leaves reality to enter a kind of dream or vision -- something close to being hypnotized.  These things are not consciously chosen, but simply appear, possibly in reaction to circumstances.  

They are dramatic enough that media loves to portray them in ways often more drastic than any scientific skeptical investigation would be.  Schizophrenia in its paranoid mode, which means that the person feels under attack, can be dangerous if the person reacts in defense, perhaps violently.  In the modern confused world it is sometimes hard to separate people who are genuinely being stalked and endangered from those who just imagine they are.  The norms of a culture can almost impose paranoid schizophrenia on us, so that recently a Missoula citizen, evidently inflamed by right wing news, sprayed the interior of his garage with gunfire, killing an intruding student.  Since this was a university town, some will accuse explorations by students thinking they are entitled, and others will think of drugs.  It is well known that some drugs will trigger paranoia.  But this man was simply assuming things that weren’t true.  His crap detector was out of order, but that's not insanity.  No one knows what the students was thinking -- if he was.

The second exciting version is the person who manages to construct “alters,” meaning whole identities that are separate from each other, may not know about each other, and may be mixed with periods of amnesia.  Movies like “The Three Faces of Eve” or “Sybil” have vividly shown this phenomena and the conditions of abuse that can cause it.  The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a version that shows identities divided between “good” and “evil.”  Some will suspect that taking on another identity is just a way of evading blame, which would be punishable if it were conscious -- but what if it’s not?

A third category of dissociation asserts that when a person -- esp. a child -- is subjected to terrible abuse, either in terms of pain and deprivation or possibly in terms of transgressive acts, primally forbidden behavior, that child’s mind may go off to a different place, a silvery desert or a dark tangled forest.  In fact, the Plains Indian tribes, who had no drugs or alcohol, would deliberately seek that other world in a vision quest, using dehydration, high altitude, hunger, and repetitious behavior like percussion or chanting.  Too much cold, too much heat, and lack of oxygen will also bring on visions, which might be welcome and even comforting if the person is close to the edge of survival, facing certain death.

“Otherness”, esp. when it comes to an internal state in which a person seems different to others or in a different place even to themselves, often suggests some kind of supernatural connection with a separate mysterious being or world.  “Seeing God in the Third Millenium,” an article by Oliver Sacks in the December 12, 2012, Atlantic Monthly, is a short discussion of the material in his book called “Hallucinations.”  He is a professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine and has made his lifework the attempt to understand brain function.   His work is so dramatic that five movies have been made about it:  two from “Awakenings,” and then “The Music Never Stopped,” “At First Sight,” The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.”  

Oliver Sacks

Here is Sacks giving a TED talk about hallucinations.

He speaks of things seen or heard that come from the unregulated firing of neurons.  He's seen them himself.  Geometric, maybe faces.  In the article Sacks puts more emphasis on visions that are wholistic and emotional, often blissful, easily -- even eagerly -- interpreted as spiritual.  Possibly the Old Testament stories of Jacob’s ladder or Elijah’s chariot were phenomena of this sort, though in "sky" country like the Holy Land, there are spectacular and spooky light shows, like "sun dogs".  These are seized upon by religious institutions for their own purposes, given names, claimed as miracles.

Ehrenreich’s account of a blissful fusion with All Being probably involved autodrugging, molecules made by internal organs and distributed through the fluids of the body.  Simple neurons firing could not have suffused her this way.  Nor did she see faces or staircases.  This was an immersion in emotion, which is a state of the entire body, partly guided by the autonomic nervous system which interfaces brain and hormones, the molecular messengers.  It was particularly embracing for Ehrenreich, who had been taught to be as dispassionate as possible.  This interpretation does not cancel any possibility that something outside what we know, maybe "supernatural," was involved. 

A person is a transaction between what is outside the skin and what is inside the skin.  It is not always clear whether the transaction is being distorted by ideas embedded deeply in the brain’s organizational systems or whether there is some kind of trauma or malfunction of the actual flesh and fluids.  When I did my Clinical Pastoral Education, which is required preparation for the ministry, a punitive supervisor assigned me to the neurology ward, supposedly to force me to give up objective rationality, the opposite of the pressure put on Ehrenreich.  But it was one of those accidental gifts to be close to people with brain tumors and stroke damage.  I vividly recall them. 

One was a man who was dying and yet believed that a “ball of light” came to him in the night and assured him that he was saved.  His brain surgeon, a former Jesuit priest, forbade me to talk to him, lest I try to make him give up his vision.  I visited him anyway -- he called me into his room -- with NO intention of disillusioning him, since he was beaming with happiness.  It was the Jesuit surgeon who was tormented, unable to reconcile science with spirituality.  Why resolve it?  Why not let the two modes peacefully co-exist?  And yet, if you desperately grip some idea that seems to save you and everyone around you tells you with serious faces that you're involved in a fantasy, how can you defend yourself?

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