In a long chapter about self and identity, the chapter I read this year, psychologist William James naturally has to explore cases of people who forget their identities or who have multiple personalities. He starts with a blend of the two: instances of people who wake up one day having forgotten their past and exhibiting instead a different personality with different characteristics, preferences, and mannerisms. I found out that the old movie trope of the character who switches back and forth between personalities (Powell and Loy’s hilarious I Love You Again is my favorite of these) has a basis in fact. One woman he studied grew up melancholy and then one day became a different, giddy person. The two personalities exchanged places a few times over the next few years, but eventually the second settled in, although curiously, it gradually became less manic.
James moves from there into what I believe we would now call multiple-personality disorder. In the cases he examined in his practice and research, the most commonly manifested personality wasn’t aware of the others, which seemed to emanate in a nested order: number 2 aware of number 1 and herself but not of number 3, number 3 aware of herself and the first two but not of number 4, and so on. Most curious to me was the tendency for each personality to have a separate name, but James had no theory for it.
The wildest part of the chapter dealt with what James calls “mediumships” and “possessions.” In these cases, the second personality often claims to be dead. Some cases of mediumships involve automatic writing; James includes a long testimonial by a member of the U. S. Congress who dealt with constant urges to write and found that what came out of his hand had nothing to do with his own thoughts. That congressman had me thinking already about The X-Files, when on the next page James really shocked me by saying he had seen evidence of mediumships or possessions by actual dead people, manifesting with accurate information that the host could not have possibly known. Then James himself seems to channel not a departed spirit but the future television personality of Fox Mulder when he says that only “soi-disant ‘scientists’ refuse to explore” these explanations (Mulder would call them “extreme possibilities”) because of “a priori ‘scientific’ prejudice.”
I love William James, and not least for his willingness to set aside such prejudices and at least to acknowledge “extreme possibilities” of spiritual realities. He even goes so far as to speculate briefly on whether God could give a separate afterlife to each personality housed in one earthly body. His very speculative answer is an affirmative one, based on his theory that each human personality is grounded on a separate stream of thought with its set of linked memories. The eternity of the self, he argues, must include a stream of thought and memories if we are to receive our proper enjoyment of it. Wow! Why wasn’t that in my college psychology book?