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6

Thinking of office cubicles in the brain may help us imagine how dissociation might work & even be a great metaphor when we start suggesting that sometimes there is a jerky boss in our heads who comes out & barks at employees then cloisters himself away & a whole host of employees sitting in their cubicles with the various personalities that resemble aspects of ourselves that manifest under various circumstances. But this model doesn't really explain what dissociation is. Another way of viewing dissociation is simply as a psychological construct.  Dissociation isn't a specific thing, like love or stress are not specific things. A construct is something that exists in the mind but can't be localized to only one physical object. Dissociation is not the office walls or the computers in the cubicles or even the office flirt; it's the totality of everything & how information flows & is gated in the office of your brain. Dissociation is a concept. This means it can't be nailed down to any specific psychocultural behavior or affect or any neurological underpinnings.

This is important because we describe many different behaviors and activities as dissociative.  Shamanic spirit journeys are dissociative & supposedly involve leaving the corporeal body to commune with spirits on the astral plane (cue the Modern Lovers) or something.

Possession trance is dissociative but involves invading spirits displacing or pushing aside the self & memory of the experience (check out Maya Deren's classic Divine Horsemen).

Zoning out while playing video games may be dissociative if the house is falling down around you & you fail to notice. I used to joke that if Law & Order was on TV across the room, I could dissociate my wife talking to me & the kids fighting in between--I would not even notice them, transfixed as I was on the story-line of the show.

Dissociative Identity Disorder like that portrayed in Sybil or Three Faces of Eve or Fight Club or name-your-DID-movie portray people whose psyche is carved up; some of their "alters" know what other alters are up to, some don't. Intuitively, it would seem these states could not possibly harness the exact same neural hardware, but they do involve similar states of focused awareness, albeit for different reasons.

These are a few of the forms of dissociation that first caught my attention. Many people find the term "dissociation" confusing, &, I agree, it's one of those jargony terms that we could do without. But what other term would apply to all of these states? The obvious response to that, probably, is a question--why do we need one term to describe them all? On the one hand, these states are all historically particular--they are culturally relative & arise due to relatively unique ecological circumstances, as critics of ethological approaches like mine point out.

Spirit journeys, possession trance, DID, & extreme zoning do, however, share some psychological qualities; they partition aspects of awareness to filter, reduce, or moderate stress. So, rather than switch terms every time I discuss the cognitive mechanisms that filter, reduce, or moderate stress, I use the blanket term dissociation, which I picked up from reading Erica Bourguignon & she picked up from smarter people than me before her.

There are only two decent alternatives to the term dissociation that I can think of, both of which I do use, as I'll discuss in depth later, one of which is more straight forward, while the other is way more jargony. The term "trance" seems the obvious alternative, but I argue that it connotes an appearance & is best reserved for dissociative states that are visible to others. The other term, "deafferentation," is one of those cool words you invoke at parties to look like a bookish tool & really should be avoided but has such precise & flexible meaning with regard to neural systems that I feel it shouldn't be avoided under the circumstances.

The best way to understand a concept is to invoke an example. One type of cultural dissociation reputed to enable individuals to transcend the self that is particularly interesting to me is possession trance, & one purported form of possession trance takes place around speaking in tongues.  I say "purported" because speaking in tongues is not universally agreed upon as taking place in a trance state or dissociation, &, based on my observations, sometimes tongues are dissociative & sometimes they're not.  But it usually is, I believe, and its characteristic form--what I call the "excited Holy Ghost" type--almost certainly does.

If dissociation is necessary to limit the costs of self-awareness, as I suggested in Part 2, it is because these costs cause problems, are stressful, & therefore dissociation can be construed as an aspect of our allostatic stress response system.  Allostasis is homeostasis or equilibrium but through change. The concept of homeostasis got marred in misunderstanding, as some static state our body always strives to return to. We immediately recognize, however, when we think about the changes we must go through as we grow, age, become pregnant, modify our bodies through diet & exercise, among other normal habits, that there is no way our bodies could maintain one state throughout our lives. So homeostasis was reconceptualized as allostasis, which essentially means changing stability. The set-points at which things like stress response are triggered change as our bodies change. In theory, as I practice meditation & become more Zen (ha!), the threshold at which I lose my temper goes up, but there is a trigger, & once I've yelled at my kids & see they're sufficiently remorseful (again, ha!), my blood pressure drops back below the threshold & stops boiling. Yes, I am mixing metaphors, but I think it conveys the principle of allostasis.

Allostasis is a concept that is generally applied to stress physiology, but we could think of our behaviors that purposefully moderate dissociation as a "behavioral allostatic system." In other words, we have cultural practices that, whether we are conscious of it or not, moderate the threshold of our tempers & stress response. For my doctoral dissertation research, I suggested that speaking in tongues was a "behavioral homeostat." In stress physiology jargon, homeostats are the individual mechanisms of homeostasis, such as the hormones cortisol & epinephrine that increases blood pressure or the glucose that is released to increase energy. In this case, speaking in tongues is a behavioral homeostat because it is a mechanism that hypothetically moderates stress response. It plays a role in moderating awareness of stressors. While people are speaking in tongues, they are focused on God. In fact, according to practitioners, God has pushed them aside in their minds & is speaking through them. There literally is no room to think about anything else. If you're thinking about your bills, God won't come in. So, your worries are dissociated or partitioned from awareness at the moment you are speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues itself is not the dissociation but what happens instead of the worry or the worldly thought or whatever; it is a mechanism or part of the system though not a direct mechanism.

This system is allostatic in that, I believe, practicing it leads to an increase in daily dissociation. By engaging in ritual dissociation, you train your body to raise the threshold of stress response. The set-point for freaking out on your kids (or whatever) is raised because you're more chill, more zazen. It's no different than exercising so you have more energy--you change the set-points for when you're exhausted & gasping for air & pooping out & having a heartache on your front lawn while mowing the grass.

Okay, so this is a nice theory & all (actually a hypothesis, but that's not the expression), but what about the data? To test this, in 2008-09 I compared the overall rates of speaking in tongues among participants in a couple Apostolic Pentecostal churches in New York to biomarkers of stress response using saliva samples collected across a day of worship and a day of non-worship.  I asked them how many times they'd spoken in tongues in their lifetime to get at that idea of practicing something to change the allostatic set-points. Then I divided the folks in my study into high-tongue speakers (21+ lifetime experiences--most had so many they were off the chart) & low-tongue speakers (0-20--most had never experienced tongues).

If we compare them using just the better understood stress hormone cortisol (I also analyzed alpha-amylase, about which we understand less, but you can read my analyses here and here), we found that high-tongue speakers had significantly higher cortisol across the worship day (suggesting they were more active during worship) & significantly lower cortisol during parts of the non-worship day (interpreted as being potentially less reactive to daily stressors).  This is consistent with studies of long-term meditators, whose cortisol levels indicate less daily stress reactivity (i.e., they are generally more chill).

So, based on one study of one religious group, culturally-mediated dissociation seems to influence stress. This needs to be followed up & replicated, which I'm in the process of doing (over a longer course of study this time), but religion is not the only behavioral allostatic system. What about all those religion haters out there who shout about their equal claims to relaxation? Okay, well, maybe they're making my point, but there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, gamers, & just plain non-religious-non-intellectual-about-the-whole-thing people out there doing yoga & aerobicizing & whatever to relax. Are they getting the same benefits from dissociation?

5

Dissociation and Human Consciousness

There is little agreement on what consciousness is or how to define it, but most reduce in some way to being aware of inner & external states. This reduces to two essential capacities that are related, self-awareness & theory of mind.  Self-awareness is the ability to distinguish the self from others & be reflexive, while theory of mind is the use of self-awareness to be able to infer the probable mental state of another based on personal experience or knowledge of a similar situation. Therefore, theory of mind presupposes self-awareness. However, no one is either fully self-awareness nor necessarily highly attuned to the minds of those around them. This is not just because they are ignorant but precisely because of the burden of these awarenesses. In fact, research on deception-detection suggests that people may not be particularly good at mindreading (Barnacz et al. 2009), but, I would argue, the fact that we demonstrate empathetic efforts goes a long way in social situations.  Signaling our willingness to cooperate, not our accuracy, may be what is truly important.

Evidence for this has come, for the past 40 years, from mirror self-recognition studies. Evolutionary pstchologist Gordon Gallup, Jr.¹ (1969) conducted the first experimental test of self-recognition by placing a painted dot out of the line of sight except by a mirror on various anesthetized, mirror-habituated primates.  Upon waking, only chimps, bonobos, and orangutans, among the non-human primates, have been able to pass what has been termed the "mirror test," which is the recognition that the image in the mirror is oneself & that one has some schputz in one's hair. Lower primates respond in a consistent agonistic way, engaging in approach/withdraw behavior with what appears to be a conspecific, then calling it a draw & giving up in seeming boredom. Gallup infers self-awareness from this test, pointing out that, barring blind people, individuals who lack or have impaired self-recognition, such as newborns, & people on the autism & schizophrenia spectrums, have corresponding degrees of self-awareness.

Interestingly, gorillas don't fit this pattern &, with the exception of three unique exceptions, fail to respond to the mirror image.  This is important because gorillas are phylogenetically intermediate between orangutans & chimps & genetically more closely related to both the Pan (which includes chimps & bonobos) & Homo genuses than to Pongo (orangs). The exceptions are three developmentally enriched gorillas raised in captivity.  Dan Povinelli, an anthropologist² in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, & John Cant, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico,  suggest this is because (1) self-recognition is not necessarily coupled with self-awareness but is probably a prerequisite, (2) self-recognition & self-awareness are neurologically expensive traits & will not be maintained if the benefits don't outweigh the costs, (3) self-recognition is the result of enhanced proprioceptive awareness that evolved in large-bodied, arboreal primates to safely navigate in 3-dimensional space (think of the meticulous quadrumous locomotion of orangutans high in a forest canopy); & (4) the selection pressures that favor proprioceptive awareness in other large-bodied non-human primates are relaxed in gorillas, which locomote mostly on the ground & have no natural predators (1995). However, the neural hardware still exists & can be developmentally activated in gorillas raised in enriched environments (like Koko).

The suggestion that self-awareness is expensive is largely inferential, based on the relative rarity of it across species & a cost-benefit analysis.  The benefits of self-awareness seem to be, in no particular order, the ability to groom oneself (except for hygiene-related behaviors, basically a social function), scenario-building or imagining potentialities in the abstract (Alexander 1989), being able to take pride in one's accomplishments and strive to better oneself (again, a social function), positive misperception of self (or self-deceptive enhance, which I'll get to more later), self-control (social, social, social), & theory of mind (which is rather important, so it's not exactly a straight-up cost-benefit tally).  However, I can think of about twice as many costs, including the capacity to self-isolate (damn self-awareness and my sense of missing out on things), paralysis of analysis (there are just too many conflicting choices and demands on my attention!), forecast inaccuracy (my wife says I'm not social enough, so I think she'll be pleased if I hang out with friends & watch football ALL WEEKEND LONG), self-aggrandizement/low self-esteem (the overweening self-critic never did anyone any good), resentment (toxic), egotism (ugh), envy (deadly sin, anyone?), & guilt/shame (the flipside of analysis paralysis).

I think all of these benefits are important, but the facilitation of theory of mind may have been the most significant driver of elaborated self-awareness. For the time being, we will just leave that as a speculation because the point I am making is that, though being socially oriented & aware seems to have driven the elaboration of self-awareness, it came with significant costs that are also psychological & social in nature. To manage these costs, I propose a third basic but underappreciated aspect of consciousness is what appears to be its functional limitation, which is the action of dissociation.

Transcendental Medication-AAA 2011 (shortened)

Dissociation is the partitioning of awareness (Lynn 2005).  Partitions can be restrictive, semi-restrictive, or permeable, permanent, semi-permanent, or temporary. The DSM (Diagnositic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "gold standard" of mental disease & disorder in the United States, now near to being in its 5th edition) conceives of it as comprising absorption, depersonalization, & compartmentalization. I describe it using the office cubicles model of psyche.

These partitions are infinitely flexible psychologically, developmentally, & socioculturally. They are also both biological & conceptual in nature, as I will attempt to explain, but first let me give you a sense of their diversity. Rebecca Seligman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, who I had the pleasure to arrange to meet in 2010 by inviting her to be on a discussion panel I once organized, refers to a "dissociative family of experiences," which I find nicely encompasses what she & her postdoc adviser, psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer, have referred to as the "psychiatric-adaptive" and "anthropological-discursive" perspectives on dissociation (2008).

In the next part, I'll talk more about the concept of dissociation & how I've operationalized the concept in several studies that I have conducted or that are currently underway.


 

¹You'll soon note I talk about Gordon Gallup a fair amount due to the fact that I studied in his evolutionary psychology lab in graduate school. Though my discipline was anthropology, specifically biocultural anthropology, & my adviser was Dr. Lawrence Schell, I chose to take on the extra work of participating in Gordon's lab because it was the only way I could get the cognitive evolutionary training I was interested in at University at Albany. I ended up there after several false steps elsewhere & due to practical considerations. I was first admitted to the Evolutionary Anthropology program at Rutgers for grad school, where I was to work with Lee Cronk, Bob Trivers, & Helen Fisher, but they did not give me funding. I was commuting from Brooklyn to New Brunswick, NJ & couldn't handle it, so I dropped out. After a year in the Hunter College evening master's program in Anthropology, I took a year off when my triplet sons were born before being offered a teaching assistantship at University at Albany. I'd applied there as the only state school with an Anthropology program commutable from Poughkeepsie, NY, where we'd be moving to get help from family in raising 3 infants. I stumbled onto Gordon's lab by happenstance, after I'd been admitted to the Anthropology program, when John Beatty (see preface) suggested I look outside of the Anthropology Dept for what I'd lost in dropping out of Rutgers. I was elated to find the guy who had done the seminal mirror self-recognition studies there. I shot him an email & told him of my interests, & he invited me to join his lab without question.

²Dan actually prefers to just be considered a writer. While his degrees are in Anthropology, he works in a biology department & largely does laboratory research with chimpanzees. I met him several years ago when he came to the University of Alabama to give a lecture & asked him what he considers himself, & he simply said he considers himself a writer. He said that, while he certainly an invested researcher, his mind is equally pulled toward the community theater he acts in. He said that he had dismantled his primate lab because researchers have not learned anything new in a decade about primate cognition & that, with the immanent extinction of chimps & other great apes in the wild, more urgency should be shown to conservation than lab research at this time. Combining his thespian skills with his primatological research, Povinelli dispense with the typical Powerpoint lecture, brought audience members down to the stage, & had them help him act out the chimp experiments he'd conducted. It was one of the 2-3 best lectures I've ever seen, & it was a shame that it was one of our poorest attending. Incidentally, Dan is also an alum of Gordon Gallup. Though he is typically at odds with Gordon over the interpretation of mirror self-recognition, Gordon helped him set up his primate facility, & they maintain mutual admiration & communication.