A Brief History of Multiplicity of Selves

Jordan Gruber, JD, MA & James Fadiman, PhD

The transformation of identity has been seen in almost all recorded cultures. A “modern” interest in cases of pathological multiple selves goes back to the 16th Century. (van der Hart, Lierens, and Goodwin, 1996, 1) However, it was at the centuries-old Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital in Paris in the 1880’s, under the leadership of Jean-Martin Charcot—Europe’s most famous neurologist—that the modern scientific study of cases of non-singular identity first took place, focusing on older “hysterical” women. (Ellenberger, 1970, 89)

Charcot’s disciple, Pierre Janet — who coined the terms “dissociation” and “subconscious” — took the work even further. Janet felt that what we now think of as the adult ego is maintained by the mind’s associative mechanisms. Usually, there is enough ego strength or energy to bind our selves together into a well-functioning “association. However, those who find the stress of life to be too great experience a separation between their selves, a “disassociation.” Janet’s work with patients suffering from amnesia, fugues, and “successive existences” deepened his belief that many of their symptoms were caused by parts of the personality that were split off in trauma, and that could then think and act independently.[1]

“In each of us there is another whom we do not know.”

Carl C. Jung

At the same time in England, the Founder of the British Society for Psychical Research, Frederic W. H. Myers, wrote “Does my consciousness testify that I am a single entity? This only means that a … sufficient number of my nervous centers are acting in unison; I am being governed by a good working majority. Give me a blow on the head which silences some leading centres, & the rest will split up into ‘parliamentary groups’ & brawl in delir­ium or madness.” (Myers, 1885, 637)

Myers, in turn, both influenced and was influenced by William James, the co-founder of pragmatism. Also known as “the Father of American psychology,” James felt that “the mind seems to embrace a confederation of psychic entities,” (Richardson, 2006, 335) He also wrote that “We are by this time familiar with the notion that a man’s consciousness need not be a fully integrated thing,” and that “of late years…we have seen many cases of alternating personality.” (Taylor, 1982, 73)

James personally studied with Charcot, and credited both Alfred Binet (of IQ test fame, who also studied with Charcot) and Pierre Janet as having influenced his thinking. He was aided in understanding, discussing, and popularizing non-singular identity by his two students and close friends, Boris Sidis and Morton Prince. In 1904, Sidis (with Goodheart) wrote Multiple Personality, and in 1906 Prince wrote The Dissociation of Personality (and in 1926 the essay, “The Problem of Personality: How Many Selves Have We?”). Discussions of multiplicity culminated in 1906, when Harvard University brought Pierre Janet over from Paris to deliver fifteen academic lectures. (Kluft and Fine, 1993, 358)

“We do not grow absolutely chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension and not in another, unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present and future mingle and pull us backward, forward or fix us in the present. We are made of layers, cells, constellations.”

Anaïs Nin

To understand how multiplicity all but vanished from the study of consciousness, we turn to the pivotal figure of Sigmund Freud, who, like William James, Pierre Janet, and Alfred Binet, studied with Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris. (Fadiman and Gruber, 2020, 191) Freud — who even named his own firstborn son Jean-Martin Freud in honor of Charcot — was initially quite open to selves. In Freud’s first publication in 1895, Studies in Hysteria co-authored with Joseph Breuer, with regard to their work in the domain of clinical dysfunctional multiplicity, he specifically says “In these views we conclude we concur with Binet and the two Janets.” (Dell and O’Neil, 2009, 307) The “two Janets” are Pierre Janet[2] and his philosopher uncle Paul.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the only real disagreement was between two groups, one composed of scientists and philosophers who felt that every human being had selves (e.g., Myers, James) and another set of clinicians focused on mental illness, who felt that different selves appeared only in their patient populations (e.g., Charcot, Janet).

But in 1897, Freud famously “rejected the seduction hypothesis.” Essentially, rather than acknowledge the physical trauma and sexual abuse that was actually occurring in upper levels of Vienna society, Freud produced a far more “socially acceptable theory” that denied the actuality of — yet endeavored to explain — the psychodynamics of such trauma and abuse. (Manning and Manning, 2016, 174)

Given Freud’s rising influence at the turn of the 19th century and thereafter, when he repudiated the seduction theory, he and his followers essentially put an end to any further study or discussion of dissociation, hypnosis, and multiple personality. With the rise of the new diagnosis of schizophrenia, the study of dissociation — along with its various clinical, experimental, and theoretical components — “fell into disrepute” after 1910. (Ross, 1989, 103)

What happened next? The idea of selves — healthy or unhealthy — mainly went underground. There were, however, a few exceptions. One was the work of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother for whom the existence of non-singular identity was central. Similarly, the Armenian-Greek mystic and spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff — and his subsequent students and practice groups — had an explicit focus on recognizing one’s multiplicity.

Similarly, a small number of psychotherapeutic and other healing systems arose that were oriented towards treating those with dysfunctional lives caused by incohesive and conflicting selves. In the first half of the 20th Century, Psychosynthesis was founded by Roberto Assagioli, and after 1950 came the development of Hal and Sidra Stone’s Voice Dialogue, and Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems. All three are examples of therapeutic systems with well-articulated views, positions, and techniques for working with multiple selves. Other types of psychological growth strategies and techniques, like Gestalt, developed by Fritz and Laura Perls, and Transactional Theory, developed by Eric Berne, were based on an understanding of non-singular identity.

These various systems all recognized parts or selves, and many of their practitioners have developed great expertise in helping people work with them. However, none of them have managed to inaugurate a larger cultural revival and discussion as to the possibility and importance of adopting a healthy selves worldview as being more observationally correct and pragmatically useful.

Why has there been such a failure to re-open the conversation and return us to where Charcot, Janet, Myers, James, and their colleagues had taken us over 100 years ago? In part, the psychological systems and techniques mentioned above generally originate from therapeutic interventions aimed at healing trauma and dysfunction, as well as from the minds of therapists who have spent large parts of their professional lives helping dysfunctionally incohesive people. Returning to and embracing a more accurate root description of human psychology, one that embraces healthy selves as normal, it has simply not been their focus.

[1] Janet’s treatment of his patients was remarkably similar to how progressive therapists, starting in the 1970’s, began to treat cases of DSM-diagnosed multiple personality disorder. By the time of his death, it had been said, “Janet had decried virtually everything known about dissociation today.” (Duncan, 1994, 6)

[2] Freud and Janet would later enter into a bitter decades-long intellectual property dispute over certain elements of psychoanalysis.

A Brief History of Multiplicity of Selves

Jordan Gruber, JD, MA & James Fadiman, PhD

Reviving the Healthy Multiplicity Self Paradigm

Jordan Gruber, JD, MA & James Fadiman, PhD