Skip to content


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.


Rebecca Seligman is a medical and psychological anthropologist at Northwestern University. Seligman received her PhD from Emory in 2004. Her current research looks into both the mental and physical health of Mexican Americans, specifically between diabetes and depression.  Her work on dissociative experience and cultural neuroscience, with Laurence Kirmayer, was published in 2008. Kirmayer is a MD of transcultural psychiatrist and currently a professor of psychiatry at McGill University.

All dissociation falls into one of three classifications: a neurological reaction brought on by stress or trauma; social performance or ritual; and fluctuations in everyday consciousness, which generally go unnoticed.  It is often thought that even though these three forms of dissociation are caused by three different things, the psychophysiological mechanisms that induce these altered states are the same. Unfortunately, we don't know enough about the underlying functions of dissociation to draw any conclusions. Through our desire to learn more about dissociation, two different approaches or paradigms have been developed.

The first is a psychiatric paradigm which is derived from clinical research on stress and trauma induced dissociation. Psychiatric dissociation is referred to as "adaptive" and it postulates that dissociation is a biological function and a natural mechanism of our subconscious triggered by emotional feedback. Fugue states, amnesia and identity disturbances are examples of neurological issues psychologists focus on when referring to dissociation. Many researchers in the psychiatric paradigm believe stress and trauma reactions were evolutionary precursors to dissociation. Dissociation allowed our early ancestors to enter a trance state to reduce anxiety and stress during traumatic events, similar to trance states experienced by many animals before death. The trauma survivors go into what's referred to as "dissociatiave coping" which minimizes or even eliminates memories of traumatic experiences that could be triggered by almost anything and cause extreme emotional reactions. When we don’t completely dissociate post-traumatic stress disorder can frequently develop.

 The second discipline is the anthropological paradigm which was built on research of social dissociation which is generally confined to religious and spiritual practices or healing ceremonies.  This social idea is known as "discursive" (as opposed to this blog which some might call "distyping"). From the anthropological aspect discursive dissociation is a social behavior that requires people to become immersed in cultural practices designed to distance them from preconceived thoughts and notions.  Social dissociation cultures frequently use spirit possession as a way to show status or power, and advance socially. Standards, customs, and rituals vary so drastically from culture to culture that few anthropologists attempt to define dissociation as a whole, but rather attempt to understand it within the constraints of a specific cultural group.

The two paradigms seem to share few similarities on the surface, which has created what Seligman and Kirmayer refer to as a "false dichotomy". The problem with this is that many people feel compelled to side with one of the two disciplines. Due to this many people either feel dissociation is adaptive and all dissociative symptoms are due to neurological mechanisms responding to emotional stimuli, OR dissociation is purely a social byproduct and it allows people to communicate feelings, establish communal hierarchy and follow cultural expectations. But like most things in the world, the process of dissociation is not black and white. Seligman and Kirmayer suggest that significant progress in each respective fields could be achieved if the two sides worked together. Many aspects of both the psychiatric and anthropological definitions are not mutually exclusive, in fact Seligman and Kirmayer say we need an integrative view of dissociation if we want to fully understand the meaning and mechanics.

The psychiatric-adaptive discipline is the most widely held view point and is considered the dominant paradigm, encompassing all stress and trauma related dissociation. Most of this dissociation is normal and we’ve probably all experienced it, maybe without even realizing it. But a small amount of this is considered pathological dissociation which covers fugue states and amnesia like mentioned before, but also includes PTSD and many other stress and trauma related disorders. These can affect everyday perception, cognition and attention, as well as disorganize and compartmentalize memories. Depersonalization and derealization are also serious problems of dissociative coping. The prior causes you to feel like you’re only watching your life but someone else is controling it (which sounds absolutely horrifying), and the latter makes you question if you, your friends, the world and everything else around you even exists.  These ailments are predominant in Euro-American countries where trance states and social dissociation are rare, yet people are always told to “talk about your feelings”.  In the Eastern world (and many still developing areas across the globe) dissociation, meditation, and social performances are common. In these areas stress and trauma related disorders are rarely reported or observed dissociative researchers. A great example of this was a study done by Wikan in 1990. The Balinese have been taught to avoid extreme emotion, and use dissociation as a coping method for stress almost daily. They maintain a smooth demeanor and show little emotion to not disturb spirits and upset the Gods. The Balinese believe that if emotion is displayed at the death of a loved one the spirit will be harmed in passing and may never find its final resting place.  During these times they partake in religious and performance dissociation practices, and have been recorded with lower levels of stress during this time as well.

According to Seligman borrowing ideas and knowledge from the opposite paradigm could have significant benefits, and should always be looked into. Take the Balinese in the story above for example; a social dissociative culture that developed stress reducing methods has had many psychiatric practitioners observe and research their culture and habits in the same fashion an anthropologist normally would. Similarly, many anthropologists could benefit from psychiatric work when modeling based on hypnosis to compare to the cognitive functioning of a research group. Developing future understandings of cognitive mechanisms and evolutional background will create an atmosphere in which social and psychological ideas will be more interchangeable, but the two paradigms working together may be the only way that happens and we truly understand dissociation.