William McDougall

Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, President of the Society for Psychical Research between 1920-21 and of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1921. Member of the Scientific American Committee for the investigation of Margery's mediumship. A keen but reserved investigator who took great care not to commit himself as to the genuine occurrence of the supernormal and agencies of an extra-terrene origin.

Alternating Personalities

 - William McDougall -

          I HAVE postponed to the concluding chapters the discussion of cases of multiple personality; because, in view of the obscurity of the facts and the extreme difficulty of offering any satisfactory interpretation of them, it is well to have surveyed all the principal forms of functional disorder. The more extreme cases of this sort are comparatively rare, and their practical importance is therefore not great; but, from the point of view of theoretical understanding of human nature, they are of the very greatest interest. A number of cases have been studied and described in great detail by very trustworthy and competent observers. I shall present very concisely a selection of cases of this class, with two objects in view: first, to point out what further light they may throw on processes of the kinds discussed in the foregoing chapters; secondly, in order that we may have at hand illustrative material for the theoretical discussion of the final chapters. I shall try to bring out in relief the features of each case that seem to me of chief theoretical interest; my descriptions will therefore be frankly biased by my view of what is important in this sense.

The classification of cases of multiple personality can be made only in a provisional manner at the present time, because our knowledge and understanding of such cases are still so imperfect. The most useful broad distinction among cases of two or more personalities manifesting themselves in or through the one bodily organism, is that between alternating and co-active personalities. The cases of alternating personality in turn fall into two subclasses: those with reciprocal amnesia, and those in which one personality seems in some sense to comprise or include the other, or at least the other's memories.

In earlier chapters we have come across cases that may be held to illustrate both these main types, but without dwelling on the phenomena. In Chapter XIII we discussed several forms of somnambulism which might be regarded as mild or simple examples of alternating personality. The fugues especially seem very close to the cases to be described in this chapter. We saw in one such case (Case 12) how the boy Rou had several times wandered away in a typical fugue. We are not told whether in successive fugues he displayed similar tendencies, and whether in later fugues he remembered his experiences during former fugues. If he did so behave and so remember, the case resembled very closely a typical case of alternating personalities with "reciprocal amnesia," such as the following case(1).

(1) This case is well known from the account of it given in James' Principles of Psychology. I have condensed my account from the original description of the Rev. W. S. Plumer, D.D., in Harper's Magazine, May, 1860.

Alternating Personalities with Reciprocal Amnesia

Case 51: Mary Reynolds, the daughter of a prominent Baptist, is said to have been of good normal capacities; "though in no respect brilliant, she seems to have been naturally endowed with an uncommonly well-balanced organisation, physical, mental, and moral." She had, in short, displayed no peculiarities of a striking kind, but remained a somewhat commonplace, unadventurous girl, until, when eighteen years of age, "she became subject to occasional attacks of fits." In the following year she one day took a book to read in a meadow and was found there insensible. On recovering consciousness she was found to be blind and deaf. Hearing returned suddenly and perfectly after some five weeks; sight more gradually but completely. These facts suffice to show that she was an hysterical subject, one liable to dissociative accidents. Three months after this episode, when she seemed to have nearly recovered her usual health, she continued one morning to lie abed in a profound sleep from which she could not be roused. She wakened spontaneously after some hours and then, "as far as all acquired knowledge was concerned, her condition was precisely that of a new-born infant," except that she pronounced a few words. But "she differed from an infant in this, that her faculty of acquiring knowledge was that of a person in the Possession of mature intellect, fully capable of dealing at once with the facts of existence. She therefore rapidly acquired a knowledge of the world." After five weeks in this condition, she woke again in her former state, knowing nothing of her life in the intervening five weeks. After a few weeks she again, after an unusually profound and prolonged sleep, woke in the second state and took up her second life and processes of learning from the point at which the second state had disappeared. She continued for many years to alternate between these two states; in each state she was amnesic for the events of the other state, but had normally good memory for the events of previous periods of the same state; that is to say, there was reciprocal amnesia as between the alternating states.

If the two states had differed only in respect of their memories, it might seem inappropriate to describe the case as one of alternating personalities. But there was another great difference between them: namely, a difference of character and tastes. In the primary state Mary was, as we have seen, a somewhat commonplace person. In the secondary state she was extremely adventurous; she would take long rides alone through the forests, and was in many ways more lively and enterprising. The second state gradually increased in duration relatively to the first; and, towards the later part of a moderately long life, the primary state remained latent or absent. In this late period she sometimes seemed to have dim dream-like memories of her life in the primary state. And once, when in this second state, she dreamed of a sister who had died before the second state appeared; the sister so dreamed of was identified by her relatives from her description(2).

(2) In descriptions of this and other cases of this group, passages of special theoretical interest are printed in italics.

The difference of character displayed by these two alternating personalities is a feature of great interest which is exemplified in many such cases and has been carefully studied in a few of them. In this case the difference is such as to remind us at once of Jung's principle that the unrealised potentialities of the personality remain in "the Unconscious." Or we may suppose that, like the boy Rou, Mary Reynolds had as a young girl indulged in fantasies of adventurous escapades, but had never found opportunity to realise these desires, and had been compelled to repress them. The case differs from the Rou case in the infantile condition of the secondary personality at its first appearance. This interesting feature, together with the very rapid acquisition of knowledge and understanding by the infantile personality is the most striking feature of the next case(3).

(3) My description is taken from the volume Multiple Personality, by Drs. Boris Sidis and S. Goodhart, who studied the case in detail.

Case 52: Thomas Hanna, a young clergyman of good education and of sound health, suffered a heavy fall and was taken home and put to bed in an unconscious condition. After some hours he sat up in bed. Three medical men in attendance attempted to restrain his movements. He resisted vigorously, and was overcome only after a severe struggle. He then lay still. It then appeared that he "was as a newly born infant opening his eyes for the first time upon the world." He recognised nothing, understood nothing, and had little or no power of directed voluntary movement. It would seem that, in the first moments when he struggled so vigorously, he must have had the power of co-ordinated movement. But this seems to have left him with the subsidence of the emotional excitement. "Movement alone attracted his attention. He did not know the cause and meaning of movement, but a moving object fastened his involuntary attention and seemed to fascinate his gaze. He made as yet no discrimination between his own movements and those of other objects, and was as much interested in the movement of his own limbs as in that of external things... From the more or less involuntary chance movements made by his arms and legs, he learned the possibility of controlling his limbs." He understood no language. "Everything was close to his eyes - objects near and far seemed equally distant. He did not have the least conception of the flight of time - seconds, minutes, hours were alike to him. His knowledge and adaptations to environment were so completely obliterated that, like an infant, he most unceremoniously responded to the calls of nature. The sensation of hunger, though present in all its intensity, as we afterwards learned, could not be interpreted by him, and he certainly did not know how to appease it."

But, although, in the first days after the fall, this new personality (whom we will call B in distinction from the normal personality A) had, according to the account given(4), none of the knowledge and facility acquired by A, he learned very rapidly, for "strange to say, his intelligence remained intact. His curiosity for acquiring knowledge was keener than ever, and the use he made of his acquisitions was truly astonishing. His faculty of judgment, his power of reasoning were as sound and vigorous as ever. The content of knowledge seemed to have been lost, but the form of knowledge remained as active as before the accident, and was perhaps even more precise and definite ... the intense activity of the patient's mind and the great power of his reasoning were well illustrated by his ability to make the utmost use of the knowledge he gained." This peculiarity is well illustrated by the following passage: "Shortly after recovering consciousness, with his eyes still closed, having none but internal sensations ... he still had some idea of volume. He wondered how much room there could be, although he could not clearly formulate this idea." B's memory was excellent for all new acquisitions; "a word once heard seemed indelibly impressed upon his mind, and he never forgot it again." Having had no familiarity with the banjo before the accident, he acquired the skill of playing it in but a few hours. This incident is of particular interest, because it seems to answer the question we inevitably ask: Was the rapidity of B's learning due merely to the coming back into use of organisations acquired during his life as A; or did B's learning involve new acquisitions? The same answer is indicated by the fact that the handwriting acquired by B was very different from that of A, subsequently restored. "The ego or self-consciousness came rather late in his present mental development. He was certainly conscious, and the activity of that consciousness was very intense. He was most eagerly taking in and elaborating impressions coming from the external world, impressions that were to him entirely new; still, the consciousness of self was for some time absent." We may fairly substitute here "very imperfect or inadequate" for the word "absent." The education of B went on so rapidly that, six weeks after the fall, he was able to converse intelligently.

(4) A certain reserve in the acceptance of such accounts is of course always justified; but, as I shall cite only cases studied by experienced physicians of high standing, I think we may in the main accept their descriptions, while remaining open-minded as to their interpretations. I shall therefore not further interrupt my descriptions by inserting such phrases as "according to the account given."

There now appeared a very interesting feature, showing that the personality A was not extinct. B described certain very vivid dreams. Many of the objects and persons he described in the dreams were identified by his friends as those with which he had been familiar as A. But to B they were novel and strange. "He did not recognise them as such, and considered them simply as strange dreams of his present life." Further evidence of the same kind was then obtained. B was put in a hypnoid state (light hypnosis) and part of a Hebrew passage with which A had been familiar was read to him. He completed the entire paragraph but at once forgot what he had correctly recited. B commented upon this: "It frightened me; it seemed as if another being was speaking through me." It was, in short, an instance of "automatic" speech. He had no understanding of or sense of familiarity with the words he recited. Other similar "automatic" speeches and visualisations, coming out of the store of A's memory, were obtained in the hypnoid state of B. Attempts to hypnotise B more deeply were unsuccessful; and, as an alternative, he was taken to New York City, with the hope that contact with different scenes and personalities familiar to A might restore the dormant memories of A. In the early morning after the first night in the city, the patient woke as A, knowing nothing of what had occurred since the moment of his fall some two months previously, and entirely unfamiliar with the persons and places and things with which he had made acquaintance as B. A persisted throughout the day; but the following morning the patient awoke as B. The personalities A and B continued to alternate; the transitions occurring in sleep or in brief sIeep-like conditions that came upon him in spite of his endeavours to remain wide-awake. After a week of this alternating existence, there came a curious condition, described as a struggle between the two personalities, which issued in a restoration to normality. A lay down and passed into a semi-stuporous condition. While still in this condition, his sluggish replies to questions indicated that he commanded the knowledge of both A and B. He gradually became more responsive and then gave a very interesting account of his experience. From this time onward he commanded the memories of both A and B, and was regarded as fully recovered. He said that he had passed through an intense mental struggle; that the two personalities, A and B, "arose simultaneously and confronted each other ... He could not choose one only, because each was of the same nature as the other ... two different individualities claimed his personal self. It was a struggle for life between two individualities formed in a single mind; each one endeavoured to gain ascendency and to suppress, to crush the other." He asserted "that was the first time I really had memory for the primary and secondary states simultaneously ... The primary was more clouded and easier to subdue. I tried alternately to throw away each... I decided to take both lives as mine, because of the fear and anxiety that the struggle would be repeated again and again ... I am sure they are both mine, but they are separate in this sense, that I cannot fit the parts of one into the space of the other. I do not know how to unify them ... I have not learned to fit them in the chronological order. The secondary state has breaks in it that are like sleep, and the primary state has breaks in it also ... The secondary state is a little stronger and brighter, but it is no better maintained. There are more details in it, which I remember vividly."

Dr. Sidis has interpreted the Hanna case in terms of his purely associationist, epiphenomenalist psychology, finding all the patient's statements and other observations recorded compatible with that interpretation. But, if we accept the description, we cannot accept this interpretation. To take only two points: First, according to that too simple psychology, all intelligence or intellectual or mental activity is the play of neural associations by which "ideas" are drawn into consciousness in series and clusters; but B is described as very active intellectually when he had no "ideas," when therefore there could be no associative play of "ideas" or memory images. Secondly, we are told that, in the critical struggle that resulted in the possession of both memory-trains by one personality, there was a third "something," an "I" or self that reviewed both memory-trains and decided that "I" must keep both of them. If each personality was nothing more than a system of associated images, what was this third "something" that pondered and decided? We cannot hope to arrive at satisfactory interpretations of these strange cases, if we resolutely overlook all phenomena that do not fit with a preconceived theory or high-handedly force them all into its framework.

In the type of alternating personalities illustrated by the cases of Mary Reynolds and Thomas Hanna, the two personalities are mutually exclusive, there is reciprocal amnesia. Janet has proposed to call them "reciprocal somnambulisms." But that is not a satisfactory designation; for we cannot properly speak of the normal life of Hanna as a somnambulism. Nor is it clear that the life of Mary Reynolds before the appearance of the secondary state can properly be called a somnambulism, even though there is evidence that she was an hysterical subject. Janet's designation may seem to fit some of the less extreme cases of this type; but it does not do to take account only of the less extreme cases. When we set out to study the abnormal, we ought not to shrink from its more extreme instances. Accepting the principle that the abnormal throws light upon the normal by bringing out in relief, or exaggerated form, features of our mental life and structure that are not easily to be discerned in normal persons, we must regard the more extreme instances of the abnormal as the most instructive.

Alternating Personalities One of Which Is Inclusive

We may distinguish a second group of cases of alternating personality of the kind which Janet designates as "dominating somnambulisms." In these cases one personality knows nothing of the other (or others) and does not share its memories; while the other includes (so far at least as memory and knowledge are concerned) the former. Janet has described a relatively simple and classical instance of this type.

Case 53: Léonie, in the state which was regarded as normal, was a dull-witted, melancholy, timid creature. When Léonie was hypnotised, there appeared a secondary personality who called herself Léontine; she knew Léonie and commanded all Léonie's memories; but she denied that she was the same person. She was gay, noisy, and active, and inclined to despise Léonie. When Janet deepened the hypnosis, there was manifested a third personality who called herself Leonore, and who knew and commanded all the memories of Léonie and Léontine. She seemed to be a serious and capable person who looked upon both Léonie and Léontine as limited, inferior beings. Léonie had no direct knowledge of Léontine and of Léonore, and did not share or command their memories. Léontine was similarly ignorant of Leonore(5).

(5) Described in L'Automatisme Psychologique.

It may be suspected that, in this and similar cases, the more inclusive personality was in reality alert and active sometimes, during the dominance of the less inclusive. If so, such cases belong to the class of coconscious personalities; and, if this is true of all of them, the subclass of alternating personalities represented by the Léonie case must be transferred to this other class. But the more usual view of cases of this subclass is that the more restricted phase is essentially the normal personality shorn of certain memories and other functions, and that the more inclusive personality is the same personality restored to wholeness by the restoration of these functions that have remained latent during the less inclusive phase. It will be seen that this view is in harmony with Janet's general theory of the hysterical condition as one in which certain functions are merely dropped out of, or fail to be included in, the synthesis of all functions which is the normal personality. Yet, even if we take this view, we must remember that Janet himself has shown good reason to believe that the functions "dropped out" from the hysterical personality do not always remain latent, but rather sometimes are exercised in a manner which reveals mental activity detached from the main stream of mental life. I mention now a well-known or classical case which seems to conform exactly to Janet's conception.

Case 54: Felida X began to show hysterical symptoms in her thirteenth year. She was then described as intelligent, quiet, and melancholy, with many hysterical symptoms, such as various pains and anaesthesias. Frequently she fell into profound sleep and awoke after a few minutes lively and gay, and seemingly in perfect health. In this state she had all the memories of the hysterical phase; whereas in the latter phase she knew nothing of the lively, healthy periods. The lively phase would be terminated after some hours by sleep, from which she would waken in the hysterical phase. The duration of the healthy phases increased as years passed, until the hysterical phases became rare and brief.

Another case of this type studied for many years by Prof. Janet, and characterised by him as an artificial Felida, is the following one:

Case 55: Marcelline had suffered severe hysterical disabilities from her thirteenth to her twentieth year. On hypnotisation by Janet, the disabilities disappeared; and, on being awakened, the patient continued in the improved or normal condition; but soon relapsed, awaking from sleep in the hysterical condition. This alternation continued for many years; the transition to the hysterical condition occurring in sleep; the normal condition being restored each time by suggestion in hypnosis. As in the Felida case, the hysterical phase did not remember the events of the normal phases; in the normal phases the events of the hysterical phases were remembered.


The article above was taken from William McDougall's An Outline of Abnormal Psychology (1926, Methuen & Co. Ltd).

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